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So far I’ve spent my time back in Russia drinking coffee, hanging out with hot men, and having jobs thrown at me.  And yes, I am having a much, much better time than last time!  I don’t know whether the weather has made everything more pleasant, whether people are being nicer thanks to the sunshine and political developments, or whether it’s because I’m not working for ‘that’ company.  Either way, things so far have been great, and I can definitely imagine myself playing between Brussels and Russia in future.

I have however spent a disproportionate amount of my time thus far working.  Pretty much every day since my arrival—on which I spent nearly 15 hours in a café working—has involved going to a different branch of the wildly overpriced Coffeeshop Company, sitting down, abusing the wi-fi, and working my butt off.  My efforts have mainly been directed at some copy-editing work I’ve got going on, and on sorting through and responding to the huge number of submissions we’ve received for the Terry Pratchett/Alzheimer’s anthology.  Thankfully, submissions are now closed, so the actual reading-responding part should settle down shortly.

Anyway, despite my constant work-i-ness, I have had a couple of quintessentially Russian experiences.  Including a toilet bus, but I’m going to avoid talking about that particularly awkward and public experience.  I’ve been staying with Naz and Mikita in Primorskaya, kind of near one of the schools I used to work at.  (Side note—I definitely would have commented about how badly it was managed at some point, and it’s since closed down.  Quel surprise!)  So far that’s been pretty groovy, though actually, it’s rare that any of us are there at the same time.  On the upside, this means that there’s no-one around to watch me talk to the degus for protracted periods of time.  Yes, degus.  No, I’m not making up words.  They’re a Chilean rodent (in Russia, naturally) sort of between a mouse and a possum.  Or a quoll.  I don’t know, but they’re adorable, and there’s nine of them here for me to bribe with contraband flower petals and talk to in an uncontrollably high pitch.

I’ve also popped by Naz’s work a couple of times—once I was roped in as a guest Australian teacher, and once I somehow ended up doing some of her marking—very smooth.  And, as mentioned, I’ve had a few job offers (four attempted poachings so far!).  This is the time of year at which a lot of native speakers leave anyway, but it’s particularly bad at the moment.  I heard a while back that the Americans especially were leaving with the exchange rate, as they couldn’t afford to pay off their student loans.  But I mean this is a city (and/or country) which struggles to recruit and retain native speakers anyway.

On the topic of English, I’ve noticed that there seems to be a lot more of it around than there was two years ago.  There’s definitely more in terms of signage etc than in Moscow, but also spoken English is more noticeable, especially in the service industries.  I don’t know whether it’s because more people who were studying it at school have now graduated or what, but it would definitely be easier for a tourist now.  And, if anything, English seems to be more popular now—one guy came and sat with me in a café the other day, and man did he want to speak English.  He knew about five words, so it was a bit of a challenge for him, but there you have it.

On the topic of English people, I was grabbing some lunch the other day when I overheard some Northerners trying to figure out their map.  I asked if they needed any help, and as it turns out, they were only in St Petersburg for one day and wanted to know what to see.  One day.  And by this time it was nearing 5pm, and all they’d done is go on a bus and see the Hermitage.  Hm :/.  But that’s beside the point.  More interesting was when they asked what people were celebrating.  As it turns out, it was the city day, celebrating the foundation of St Petersburg.  I hadn’t seen the celebrations though, so thought they were talking about the Victory Day signs that were still about the place.  The lady knew about the Siege of Leningrad, but as it turns out, that’s pretty much it.  When I mentioned the 70 year anniversary (of the end of the Second World War), they asked “but why are they celebrating that?  Why aren’t they celebrating their own history?!”.  Ffs.  I told them that actually, there were 27 million Soviet casualties during WW2.  I explained that WW2 is taught as a Russian victory here (I’m staying well out of that one), and they were just shocked at the notion.  Because as I’ve mentioned before, that’s America’s war—right?!?

Speaking of thing which are and aren’t wars—sanctions.  (Yeah, loosest segue ever, sue me.)  When I was the guest Australian in Naz’s class, I was asked about whether people really eat kangaroo.  I said that yes, and that Russia is—was—one of the biggest export markets for it, if not the biggest.  Everybody’s face pretty much showed an accepting chagrin, if there can be such a thing.  Lack of kangaroo imports is hardly the biggest deal!

Apparently one of the first things to disappear was blue cheese.  Other things which disappeared really quickly were Ikea goods (apparently there are just heaps of bare shelves), electrical homeware such as stoves and fridges, and electronics.  People just started going to the stores and buying all of this stuff which they couldn’t afford, and perhaps didn’t really need.  They were anticipating price hikes—which have since happened, and it’s surely nothing to do with massive demand.  But why?  Just, why??!

More visible are things such as the price of imported foods and drinks.  A bottle of cider is far more expensive than a bottle of vodka (~300 rubles versus about 200 for a ‘normal’ bottle), and fruits and vegetables are crazy.  Naz has told me that tomatoes are more expensive than meat, and in making dinner the other night, two small zucchinis cost me just under 200 rubles (so around AUD$5/US$4).  Yup, living like a rich lady, obviously.

Happily however, books are still cheap.  As such, I’ve been gathering a little collection for myself, mainly focused on improving my (now awful) Russian.  I went to my favourite place, Dom Knigi (Дом Книги / house of books) and picked up some graded readers (and a book about pirates haha), then a couple of days ago trekked to the State Uni’s bookstore.  Now, this bookstore isn’t exactly in-your-face.  I only know about it because I had to go and pick up a textbook or two for my course when I was studying here.  Basically, you go to one of the uni buildings, pass through the turnstiles, and it’s in this little nook down some stairs to your right.

Man I love that book store though.  I was there for quite some time, picking up some useful grammar and revision books, and some focused on politics and global issues, for fairly obvious reasons.  Anyway I finally headed to the counter with my stash, and there was a tall bearded guy standing there.  He saw me buying ‘Russian for foreigners’ books, and so spoke to me in English.  He commented about the hecticness of learning Russian, and I replied that I was just revising and hoping to improve my level.  Then he started saying something else, at which point I rudely interrupted and said “I’m sorry, but don’t I know you?  Your face, I’m sure…”.  The guy and I stared at each other for about ten seconds as I tried to place him, then he goes “aren’t you Laura?”.  Yup.  He’s now grown a beard, but it was a guy from Eclectic Translations, who I’m sure I’ve mentioned before.  Wtf?  A city of nearly 5 million (legal) residents, and it took me three days to run into someone I know—and in an obscure place, no less.  Either way, he mentioned that they’re always on the lookout for freelance translators, and said to come to their Tuesday drinks.  So that’s happening!

What else?  Well, I had a traumatic frisbee experience on Saturday.  Yes, that’s right—traumatic.  Basically after my most excellent CouchSurfing-based adventure the other night, I thought I’d give it another go.  I could see an ‘ultimate frisbee’ event happening, so thought I’d check it out.  Ultimate frisbee is like a cross between frisbee and rugby, and we used to play it on the beach all the time when I worked in the UK.  It’s a damn good time, is what I’m saying.  Anyway the event ad read “If you’re looking for some exercise, fun lively chat or making new best friends – look no further.  We are friendly bunch and welcome everyone, no matter if you’ve never touched a frisbee before.”  AND IT WAS ALL LIES.

Now, I realise that I’m truly and catastrophically awful at conventional sports.  Throwing, catching, teamwork—things I am just not capable of.  Unless we’re talking ‘throwing myself at somebody’, ‘catching a cold’ (yeah, that could have gone other places), and teamwork in the sense of the workplace and/or baking.  But none of these latter even mildly relate to frisbee.

As it turns out, these people weren’t playing ‘ultimate frisbee’, they were just playing ‘frisbee to the ultimate’—it was a total dick-measuring contest in which there were myself, one other girl (briefly, before she was relegated to watching and taking photos), and four burly Russian guys.  And they were fucking serious about their frisbee.  They were all standing a long way away from each other—we were in a star shape, and the guys furthest from me were around 40 metres away.  There’s no way I can throw anything that far, and certainly not accurately.  So sometimes it stopped short of them, sometimes it careered off in random directions, and one time I threw it behind me (I did mention the ‘bad-at-throwing’, right?!).  Or there was the time when I fell over my own feet, tumbling to the ground, or didn’t catch the frisbee properly so it smashed into my face.  And that’s neglecting all of the times I just straight-up dropped it.  Yeah.  But whereas I guess normally people would laugh it off with me (because it’s a social, non-competitive game… right?), or give me some tips (as per the couple of times I played rugby with the guys from school), these guys looked at me with complete derision.  Honestly, it was awful.  I ended up so ashamed of myself that I just left—I lasted about 40-45 minutes then just couldn’t take it anymore.  “Friendly bunch” my ass!

While waiting for the frisbee guys that afternoon, I’d been taking a nap on the grass.  I’d walked from Naz’s workplace, via an open-air Viking festival at Peter and Paul’s Fortress, to the Field of Mars—and I was sleepy to boot.  The grass was too much to resist.  Anyhoo, as I was lying there I overheard a cacophony coming from the road.  I propped myself up, only to see an escort of flag-flying cars and a big Zenit tour bus full of shirtless guys.  Yup, Zenit—the SPB football team—was in town, and they wanted people to know about it.  The city, in turn, went a little bit nuts.

Post-frisbee I was waiting to catch a bus down to Mayakovskaya to meet Naz, when a car pulled up at the lights.  They started beeping, and I glanced up.  It was one of the freaking escort cars and they were staring at me.  I was extremely fucking confused.  I mean really.  The whole street was full of Russian women for goodness’ sake—but there was no doubt about it.  Haha differences between me and the other women on the street: (a) I don’t look Slavic, (b) I look healthier, (c) they’re crazy beautiful, (d) I was wearing hiking shorts and a t-shirt, whereas they were all in heels and looking like they’d stepped out of a catalogue.  So yeah, maybe these guys were tripping.  Or maybe they saw the dirt on me from where I’d fallen over, and assumed I spent a lot of time on my knees.  (Yes, yes I definitely snickered as I wrote that.)

2015-05-30 19.32.05Finally, because this is getting a bit out of control and I need to get to work.  Probably the two most ridiculous things I’ve seen so far happened in close proximity the other night: firstly, I saw a window painted with dolphins and an internet explorer logo (wtf and why?!), and secondly, there were a couple pushing their baby in a pram.  Oh, wait—that’s not what they were doing at all.  Their infant was in a remote control metal Jaguar-looking car, and the dad was driving him down the street.  Because Russia.

Magical Realism

“Guys, is it very important that you understand what the fuck has been happening here the last sixty years,” said our tour guide.  I was on the free walking tour in Medellin, and our guide Pablo was about to explain Colombia’s history in a nut-shell.  Not, might I add, an easy thing to do.  When I told my students in Russia that I was going to Colombia, they were worried about me: it’s clearly a place under the duress of massive stigma and a culture of misunderstanding.

I am in love with Latino writing, and more specifically their use of magical realism.  The first book in the style I ever read was Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate, and it was so vivid that I feel like I can still taste the chilli, smell the chocolate, and see the sister running off with her lover on horse-back.  Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one of the most famous writers in the field, and it was only actually last week that I learned he was Colombian.  He’s from a small coastal town, which has a completely different culture to that in Medellin: but nonetheless, I can understand how magical realism started in Colombia.  It’s in every minute of every day.

Medellin became rich thanks to a railroad, built on the back of 250 years of gold mining.  As in Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, it was the arrival of the train that changed everything.  Suddenly, a previously inaccessible world was opened up, with drastic social and economic consequences.  Subsistence became industry, and with the ‘discovery’ of coffee by the West in the mid-1800s, export brought money into the country.  The train was almost literally an engine of progress, and it would later be another locomotive—in the form of Medellin’s metro system—that helped to keep peoples’ heads above water during drug cartel domination.  It’s a matter of great pride for the city, and as Pablo pointed out, the metro itself is spotlessly clean.  It almost feels unused.  The announcements over the loud-speaker are also atypical, my favourite being “Smiling is good for the soul.  There is always a reason to smile.  And it is part of the metro culture.”  Medellin’s is the only metro system in the country, and really is a symbol of hope.

Pablo later told us about the deaths of 22,000 civilian deaths in 1985.  “The left took justice and raped it, then the right took justice and raped it, then one week later nature took it and slapped it in the face.”  Most of the deaths were due to an earthquake, which followed clashes between guerrillas and government forces in Bolivar Square (Bogota) by barely a week.  Listening to him describe it, I was reminded of ‘Bloody Sunday’, a day in Russia’s history where ~1000 civilians were killed or injured by the Tsar’s forces in Palace Square, St Petersburg.  It struck me, not for the first time, that human history is one of violence, while all of the great love stories are lies.  Happily, however, Colombians don’t think like that: instead, they forget.  Hence, you have these strange contradictions between a country which is still in civil war and an incredibly happy populace; one wasted and helpless man being searched by police in the square while his companion unconcernedly and involvedly blows bubbles in the air next to him.

But what of the drugs?  Colombians must love cocaine, right?  We all know that it comes from here, and a lot of tourists come here for that reason: surely they bring money into the country.  In Pablo’s words, “the only thing we owe drugs is pain, blood, suffering and stigma.”  As a man named Pablo from Medellin, he’s inevitably searched whenever he travels, but it’s not just that.  There’s the fact that for every 1 gram of coke produced, 4 square metres of rainforest is destroyed.  Moreover, it’s coke that has fuelled the violence in this country.  What was once a conflict between Left and Right (and don’t forget, this is against the backdrop of the Cold War, and nearby Cuba had just switched to Communism) became all-out guerrilla war-fare when drug cartels played one side against the other in order to protect their crops.  That in turn brought money, which only served to escalate the conflict further.  Hundreds of thousands have died in the war which has been ongoing since 1964, most of them civilians.

And what of religion?  Surely Colombians are devout Catholics?  Not quite: “in Colombia, religion is used as soap.  Get your hands dirty, then go and get some soap.”  We saw this with our own eyes, with one church surrounded by wasted sex workers, and another with back-alleys full of porn.

Happily, however, things are changing for Colombia.  More and more areas are becoming safe, tourists are starting to come, and people no longer have to be afraid of assassination while in their own homes.  Part of this is thanks to education: in Medellin, libraries have been built in the middle of slums.  Our ever-eloquent tour guide explained that they are the “needle of the slums”, and that they’re serving to lance away many of the problems faced.  Today’s featured image is from the ‘city of light’: a massive stand of tall lights by a library in the centre of the city, which only 15 years ago was too dangerous to go into.

When I was reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, I found it very difficult to keep track of who was who.  Everybody was either Jose or Aureliano, and it covers six generations.  After a while, the individuality of each of the characters was blurred, and what became important was the cycles of history, and moreover the cumulative events that occurred.  Rather than dwelling on individual tragedies, instead it became this build-up of progressively fantastical events, until the minor happinesses and obsessions of each character all join together to create this vibrant tapestry which is beyond life itself: and that’s how Colombia feels to me.  Pablo said that “I think we Colombians forget on purpose,” and it seems almost as if this creates the blurring featured in Marquez’ book.  Rather than remember the massacres and warfare, assassinations and fear, Colombia’s history instead becomes a montage of minor World Cup victories, of winning stages of the Tour de France, of saving itself, and a metro that represents it all.  It’s ultimate magical realism, wherein the good things are divine moments, and the rest is subsumed by comparison.

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You can book Pablo’s unmissable tour here.

El diálogo es superior al asalto.

Pictured: the worst possible business card to give to a vegetarian.

Today’s blog post is named for a poster I saw at a bus stop yesterday: it had a man and a woman, and the slogan that ‘dialogue is better than assault’.  I’m not even sure what else to say about that.

After a day of what was essentially just sleeping on Tuesday, yesterday I ventured into the big wide Colombian world.  Laura had drawn me a map of how to get to the mall where I could exchange my euros, so that was mission number one.  It reminded me weirdly of this computer game we used to play in primary school, EcoQuest.  In that, you were plonked in a Latin American village, and your first challenge was to change money.  (Actually it’s terrifying how often my life reminds me of computer games I’ve played—my favourite series ever, Sierra’s Quest for Glory, depicts locations from all over the world: and by now, I’ve been to rather a lot of them).  So, off I went.  And I was terrified.  Almost to the point of passing out—I’m not quite sure why.  I suppose being in new surroundings are always stressful, and it’s particularly the case where you’re like this blonde giant on the street.  It takes a while to get used to everyone staring at you, and to not feeling threatened by it.  Haha I’m nowhere near as brave as people think I am!

I made it to the money exchange bureau, and after convincing the lady that I am not in fact American, and did not have US dollars, mission one was complete!  I wandered outside, intending on making my way to the bus stop for the town centre, and got distracted by a bus going in the other direction.  It appeared to have the name of a place around half an hour away, which Laura had suggested I visit, so on an impulse I jumped on.

Soon enough I was in Zipaquira, the ‘salt capital of Colombia’.  I’m not sure how old the place is, though I’m guessing around 400-500 years.  As I would later learn, this whole region used to be part of an incredibly salty sea.  It later dried up, and thanks to tectonic forces there were giant salt blobs created all over the place.  The salt blob (possibly not the technical term) at Zipaquira is 1km square, and 2km deep: so really, quite a bit of salt.  It was first used by the indigenous Muiscas people, and they became rich in its trade.  Later, the Spaniards arrived and mining got properly underway.  Part of this mine was turned into a cathedral—the Catedral de Sal.  I went to check it out, and as it was quite early and there weren’t yet any other English speakers there for a tour, went in by myself.  I learned a lot less, but it was way cooler: by walking slowly, I could avoid the lights automatically switching on, and with the music of chanting monks echoing through the vast caverns, it was super-atmospheric.

Soon after that, because I’m a complete newb, my camera’s battery ran out, so I don’t have any photos of the town itself.  Unfortunately!  I was really sleepy anyway—I’m going to use jetlag as an excuse, but in reality I need an almost embarrassing amount of sleep every day—so I headed back to the house for a short nap.  Haha four hours later..!

Poor Laura—the entire family in fact—work far too hard.  She gets up at 4-5:30 for work every day, and gets home at around 20:30.  It’s crazy!  Then, when she got home last night, her father had lots of questions for me about Australia and our culture, so she acted as translator: I don’t even know how her brain didn’t melt!  It was very cute though, her father said that I could come and be Laura’s sister, learn Spanish, teach English and marry a ‘nice Colombian boy’.  Haha I told him that they’re all too short :p

Opinion Piece

When I was at dinner with Lana the other night, she said I would make a terrible journalist.  I agreed, because I just can’t take being told what to do.  She said that was true, but moreover, I’m incapable of writing without bias.  I completely disagreed, but have nonetheless decided to take a leaf out of what is apparently my book, and write a highly opinionated post about Russia.  Or is that two posts?  I’ve put hating-Russia on the left, and loving-Russia on the right: I’ve been so perpetually in two minds about the place, that it only seems fair to write two opposing pieces.

The blog will continue, though from here on in, ‘Russia’ posts can be found under the ‘Russia’ category tab, while the front page will now be posts from what I’m calling ‘the long way around’ (who goes to Australia via Europe and Latin America?!).  

And now.  Enjoy!  My last post about Russia, written from within Russia.  (Hopefully not forever?):

Haters gonna..

I’m writing the ‘hating’ post first, mainly because I’m mid-cleaning, and I’m going to take out the resulting rage on some grout!

I started writing these posts by doing dot points of the things that I love, and the things that I hate.  The first thing that came up on my list for ‘hatred’ was the spitting.  And, for that matter, public excretion in general.  As men walk down the street, they spit everywhere: and not just those of lower socio-economic status.  You’ll see men in business suits having a good old time of it.  Why?!  It’s so disgusting!  Of course, there’s also public urination: Karie had a man on the metro whip it out and go for it in the train, April saw another guy—positively refined by comparison—open the metro door between stations and pee on the tracks.  I came home a couple of nights ago and someone had actually pissed on my front door.  Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy?!?  Hoos once came home and found that someone had shit on his door-step.  The streets smell permanently of bodily fluids, and I hate wearing shoes other than boots, because I shudder to think of what—or who—I’m actually getting on my feet.  Disgusting!

On the topic of streets, I won’t miss the drunkards stumbling over the pavement or being obnoxious in parks, or the sheer number of men walking down the street with beer-bottle in hand.  I’ve seen on multiple occasions men leaving the supermarket with their wife with child in one hand, beer in the other, and cracking it open to take a swig the moment they’ve left the store.  I mean, I’ve been fined for drinking in public before ($120 in Tasmania, what!!), but there’s something a little different between having a drink with your friend in a semi-private enclosed space at night-time before heading out, and treating alcohol as an essential accessory.  They’re like male Paris Hiltons, but switching the chihuahua for beer.

Still on streets, the thing I hated most about winter wasn’t its length (though it was definitely too long), the temperature, the darkness or snow: it was the ice.  St Petersburg doesn’t really have drains as such, and everything would be covered with this ice which was down-right terrifying to walk on.  The hour or so I spent walking to and from metros every day was something I dreaded: on weekends I refused to leave the house, because I just couldn’t face it.  There has to be a better way of dealing with the problem than leaving it (or making it worse by sweeping the streets).

Next has to be work.  I think I’ve been fairly and consistently clear in my hatred for the company I worked for: I said to their faces that working for them was the worst mistake I’ve ever made.  If I could do it all again and not work for EF, then I would in a heart-beat: I feel like my time in Russia would be 1000% improved.  My usual bench-mark is if I don’t like something and Russians don’t like it, then it’s just not okay: and Russians flee the company too.
Part of that is the management philosophy in Russia in general: something Nastya’s had a solid rant or two about herself.  The philosophy tends to be that people are at work to be used: they gave up any right to respect when they signed the employment contract.  There’s no such thing as policy, as procedure.  In fact, that’s probably a given: most things here are riddled with corruption and constant attempts to clamber over those around you, and workplaces are no exception.
That clambering, of course, is not found merely in the workplace.  Russia has made me less trusting and more suspicious.  On that rare occasion that someone is actually nice, I immediately want to know what they want from me.  I’ve not noticed kindness for kindness’ sake: it’s manipulation.  That’s it.  Exceptions have been few (VERY few) and far between.  There’s no customer service, people don’t help each other if they can avoid it, and I am so sick of being fucked around and lied to.  Sometimes people hide behind bureaucracy—just fill in these triplicate forms, take them to the other side of town, bring them back, go to another place to get some stamps, take money to this bank and to this one—but really, everyone would be better off if people just acted like reasonable human beings.

Of course, bureaucracy and paperwork isn’t the only impracticality.  As Jess mentioned in a vlog, 5000 rubles notes are ridiculous: they’re dispensed at ATMs, and nobody accepts them.  On the other end of the scale, there are 1-kopeck coins (1/500,000 the value of the 5000 ruble note), which you can use for exactly nothing.  They cost around 70 kopecks to produce, and you need around 3600 of them to buy one loaf of bread.  Hyper-inflation set in in Russia over ten years ago: you’d think that would be enough time to eliminate the most worthless of coins.  Kopecks in general are a joke.

Then there’s having to confirm and reconfirm things.  Don’t bother sending emails, nobody will get back to you.  Don’t bother booking online, as Russians don’t do it (too high a risk of fraud), so you won’t be completely believed if you say you bought a ticket.  And yet I still try haha: it actually works fairly well for intercity trains.  I’ve confirmed my bus to Finland tonight twice already and have been told to confirm it again today.  Nastya rang the hostel she’ll be staying at tomorrow for a month, only to find out that management has changed in the few weeks since she’s made the booking, and therefore she has no booking.

Need to go shopping?  Need to pick up some rice, eggs, milk and maybe some biscuits?  Go to at least three different stores!  I’ve largely memorised which products are available at which stores, and so a weekly shop will take me to 5-6 different supermarkets.  Of course, it doesn’t help that stocks are completely random, and change in the smaller stores from week to week.  Food is, of course, Russian staples, with little international cuisine.  Feel like you’ll die without a fix of, say, some Mexican?  Or even some pizza?  Well, I hope you like it with DILL.  Dill is the national flavour, and it is is gross.  On the rare occasions I eat out, I specifically ask for no dill—to which I invariably get a puzzled expression.  ‘Why would this crazy Australian girl not want dill?  It’s delicious!’  YUCK.

Food in general is bad in Russia though.  It’s not just the flavours (though they’re not a happy time, either)—it’s the quality.  I remember when we first arrived, Karie raved about how much she loved the food (and I looked at her dubiously).  When I saw her to say goodbye a few weeks ago, she said that she’d finally noticed how bad the food is.  The quality of fruit and vegetables for example is very poor: even if you buy frozen goods, sometimes they’re mouldy, or have been improperly stored and therefore frozen and defrosted multiple times.  They are, not, good.

At this point I got a phone call from my Russian bank—connected with both the FSB and apparently also used by the mafia for money laundering—saying that I need a new bank-card.  Despite the fact that yesterday I was told specifically that I absolutely did not need one.  Who needs access to their money, right?!

Next has to be the armour.  I’m not talking about role-playing here, but rather about the emotional armour you have to put on every day to survive here.  I’ve talked about it at quite some length previously (here here here).  Here is chaos.  Nothing makes any sense, people aren’t nice, and anything could happen at any moment.  It’s actually incredibly stressful.  Armour is requisite, and it is heavy.  It involves being pessimistic, having no hope, and being prepared to accept everything that will be heaped upon you.  One of my students once emailed me that Russia is too ‘dark and cloudy’ for someone like me, and that I should escape while I could.  I would feel robbed of my life were this armour permanent.

Then we have the -isms.  (Not ‘-asms’, which I am significantly more partial to!).  I’ve spoken about sexism before at quite some length (eg here): I hate being treated as a second-class citizen because I’m a woman.  It just doesn’t make any sense to me!  I can’t comprehend how anybody could see me as anything other than a person like any other.  Of course, it’s not just women who are an underclass in Russia: it’s people from other places, specifically the Caucasus and Central Asia.  Russians are super racist as a general rule.  (I’ve talked about it a bit here.)  I don’t feel like I suffer from much racism myself—but then again, I’m a young white woman.  Actually, I’ve noticed some positive racism toward Westerners in some ways: people tend to trust us more, because we’re not Russian.  It’s expected that we’ll do what we say we will, and that we can be trusted more.  Weird.  Especially given that a lot of people who come to Russia from the West are down-right creepy.

I can’t not mention the men.  It’s not just that they’re not groomed or dressed like Western men.  Actually, everything about them is different.  As I’ve said time and time again, there are massive cultural differences in every respect.  I hate that talking to a man seemingly gives them the right to my body: it doesn’t.  Saying hello doesn’t mean that you can grope me.  Also, a lot of men sit on the metro and glare at me, and I have genuinely no idea why.  I posted on my facebook once that sometimes, I’m not sure if Russian guys are hitting on me or are angry with me: and that still stands.  How are short, glaring men attractive?  I’m probably not going to say hi.

Lastly (though I’m sure the longer I leave it, the more things I’ll think of) is the apathy.  I can’t fix Russia: I can understand it, and I can understand the reasons for the way life is here, but I have absolutely no power to help or to change it.  But Russians could.  But they don’t.  Instead, they will mention the political/cultural/social/ecological/economic problems and just shrug and say “well, it’s Russia”.  As if Russia deserves to be robbed by its government, to have substandard education, to have widening social and financial inequalities, to be treated as a joke by the rest of the world.  Things here are ludicrously bad.  I understand what the country’s been through and I recognise that things are changing, but it’s just a broken, broken, place.  And the people who live here don’t try to make things better—sometimes I can’t tell whether it’s powerlessness or just the all-abiding apathy—they just shrug.  And join the fight to clamber over everybody else in their wish to get rich or to escape.  It doesn’t have to be like this, and I wish that I could show everybody here what life could be like.  If only.

<3 Love <3

I like to be positive, and so I kind of hope that people read this part of the post, rather than the ‘hating’ part.  Or at least read this second 🙂  But, as I said, I’ve been very divided about Russia the whole time I’ve been here, so it seems only fair to write two parts to this post.

The thing I love most about Russia is, of course, the people I care about: my friends, students, and my adorable landlords (really—I want miniature versions of them to put in my pocket!).  Russians aren’t quite like anybody else, it’s true: they’re un-ironic, emotionally available and affectionate, and I do love that about them.  The people I know are, of course, now expected to come and visit me in a country sometime 🙂
The people I particularly appreciate are those such as Nastichka (Siberia) and Lizard, who don’t speak English, but have been good friends to me despite my incredibly retarded Russian.  Lizard laughs at everything I say, but in a way that’s non-offensive, and Nastichka knows me well enough that she’ll field questions directed at me and answer them for me, if I need it.  Nastya (both Nastyas, actually) are coming over this afternoon to say bye, and it’s going to be bad.  Saying bye to Liza on Wednesday is the only time I’ve come close to crying so far, it was awful.
There are few people who I trust in Russia, but the two Nastyas and Lana are of course included, and I don’t know what I would have done without them.  And, as I’ve said before, but for my amazing students, I would have left months ago.

The thing I’ll miss second-most is the Russian language.  Of course.  I love it.  How I feel about it doesn’t make much sense, but since when did passion have to be logical?  I dream half in English and half in Russian, and find it bizarre—like they’re somehow lacking—if people don’t speak any Russian—like part of their soul just isn’t there.  (Oh god, I really have become Russian).  I will continue to study the language, independently like before: I’ve looked into courses in Sydney, and there aren’t any of a high enough level.  Russian just isn’t a priority language in Australia.
The other thing associated with the language that I’ll miss is the sense of victory every time I accomplish something.  At first, when I arrived, it was being able to order a coffee, or try to book a taxi.  Last week it was my Russian exam, and yesterday I managed to sort out a whole bunch of account- and transfer-related things at the bank all in Russian.  It feels so good to be able to do things!  I can’t say I’ve ever felt like a gladiator given the thumbs-up after ordering a coffee in Australia.  Everybody should experience that.

Next is Nevskiy Prospekt.  In my first few weeks after arriving, walking down Nevskiy, I felt like I’d finally found home.  Now, walking down it at 11pm when it’s still light, I feel incredibly privileged to be in this beautiful, nonsensical place.  Nevskiy and Piter have so much history to them, and when I walk past the doll-house palaces on the main road, I can’t help but be reminded.

The other day I was in Dom Knigi (when am I not—I spend a ridiculous amount of time there.  Happily, the low price of books is one of the good things about Russia!) and saw a travel guide to Australia. Bemused, I picked it up and had a flick-through: and was filled with dread.  The sight of the bare eucalypt forests reminded me that I don’t want to live in Australia—not now, and certainly not in the long run.  Conversely, the forests in Russia are just amazing.  They are so beautiful: they’re what forests should be.  They make me feel like magic could happen.  Russia is an inordinately beautiful place.

I have to give a shout-out to a few random things: firstly, there’s being able to wear boots every day (yes!) without being accused of wearing ‘fuck-me’ boots; then there’s the sweet little kittens in the courtyard!  I’m not a cat person by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve made friends with these ones.  They’re always leaping about the place!  Gosh, I know I’ve been living in Piter—it comes with a cat obsession.  Lucky I’m escaping before it becomes full-blown!

Public transport here is fantastic.  I’ve gone on and on about the SPb metro before—there should be one like it everywhere.  But it’s not just that: the buses, marshrutki and so on are equally useful.  Man though, that metro!

As far as food, there’s little to nothing I’ve liked, except for Russian champagne (they call it champagne, so I can too), чудо everything (hello, flavoured, chocolate-coated cheese!), and drinkable yoghurt.  I can’t believe I didn’t like drinkable yoghurt when I first tried it in Prague last year.  It’s so good!

Similarly great has been going to uni, which I loved; all-day night and all-day day; the fact that everybody’s an artist and there are paintings everywhere.  I also love the lack of rules.  Haha of course, in an ideal world, I wouldn’t have any rules, but other people would!  Russia is chaos, but I do like being able to do whatever I like, with no repercussions and with complete indifference demonstrated by those around me.

Next has to be the randomness.  It’s bad in a lot of ways, but it’s astonishing, mind-bending, to get up every day and know that absolutely anything could happen.  I never know what I’ll see, or what adventures I’ll have.  Granted, a lot of the adventures are bad, but it’s all so incredibly interesting (high praise, from me!).  It makes me laugh.

I know I’ve done a lot of Russian-man-bashing, but I do have to mention some positives.  Finally.  Way to be balanced, Laura!  Anyway, I find them actually very romantic, in a traditional sense.  They’re relationship-focused, they buy flowers, and they’re chivalrous in a lot of respects.  Even if sometimes that’s ridiculous (when in Vyborg with Nastya, I opened the door and waved her through; then a couple came up and as I was already holding the door I waved them through too.  The woman went, but then the man wasn’t going to let a woman hold the door for him—god forbid he should be emasculated—so we had to do this awkward shuffle whereby I ducked under his arm as he grabbed the door from around me, so that I could pass through as he held it.  Face-palm).

Lastly, I have to mention the empathy and passion I have gained for Russia.  Two years ago I knew nothing at all about it: vodka, bad guys, and ‘something to do with the Cold War’.  Now I’m halfway through the language, I’ve lived here, I’ve made Russian friends, I’ve devoured the history, and I feel like I’ve gained an understanding.  I would hate to think of a world without Russia (unless, of course, it got its own little world.  Maybe a moon or something.  Which would be accessible.  That seems reasonable.. :p).  I’m overwhelmed when reading about the history or politics, and struggle not to cry when feeling the tragedy of the place.  It’s a place which makes no sense, but it’s easy to see how it got this way.  I finally understand why Russian emigrants miss their homeland: things can be very bad here, but it’s a place worthy of passion.

I tell my students to write conclusions to their written pieces, and I feel I can hardly do less.  Do I love or hate Russia more?  I’m not sure, but it’s become part of me, like the other places I’ve lived.  I suppose I won’t know really how I feel about it until—if and when—I come back.  That will be the test: if I return, it’s because I can’t live without it.

Either way, Russia has been an experience.  An impossible, ridiculous, near-inconceivable car-crash of an experience, but an interesting and eye-opening one nonetheless.  Thank-you to everybody who has been here to experience it with me.

Les and the Soviet Apartment

In a fantastic demonstration of my punctuality, I’ve finally been back to Les’ flat to take some photos.  I may have promised to do it on ‘the weekend’ last October

As it turns out, the space was too small for me to be able to manage photos very easily, so instead, we did a video.  I then coerced Les into doing an ‘expat interview’ with me—it’s quite long (around half an hour), but I think it’s interesting 🙂  Before I forget though, I want to include another quote, from the same book as yesterday’s post.  This particular quote was written in 1907: freaking insane.

“When the end will come, and how it will come, cannot be foretold. But it needs no prophetic power to see what that end will be. The days of autocracy in Russia are numbered. A century may be all too short for the gigantic task of habilitating a Russian people—making the heterogeneous homogeneous, and converting an undeveloped peasantry into a capable citizenship. The problem is unique, and one for which history affords no parallel. In no other modern nation have the life forces been so abnormal in their adjustment.”

Ok, so here we go.  Firstly, the tour of Les’ Soviet-style flat:

Some super-healthy Soviet-style cigarettes we found (note that these are still available for sale!):

5-2013-04-13 Les' Soviet Flat

The chat with Les:

And, lastly, here’s a link to that crazy artist’s website, and an illustration of my version of posing (courtesy of Naz).  Mature.  So mature.

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