A few months ago, I was walking to Naz’s flat on Vasiliy Ostrov, when I turned to her and asked with my typical eloquence, “what the ** is that ticking noise?!”. She pointed to some loud-speakers mounted on a nearby building, and said that the noise was coming from there. I hadn’t noticed the noise before, or the loud-speakers for that matter, and I asked what it was all about. Apparently it’s a remnant of the Cold War – the loud-speakers would keep ticking as long as everything was okay. I haven’t been able to fact-check, as weirdly, typing ‘st petersburg ticking noise’ into google doesn’t come up with much. Naz said that the speakers are still mounted everywhere, as if they stopped the older generations would likely freak out thinking that attack was imminent.
[Update 26/01: it’s actually to commemorate its being 70 years since the Siege of Leningrad / the Blockade, and has nothing to do with the Cold War. The metronome noise was broadcast between radio programmes to reassure people that it was still there and working. See here.]
In the intervening time, I hadn’t noticed any further loud-speakers, until I was walking through the unusually quiet city a couple of days ago. It was the first time I’d walked through the city when it was almost empty of traffic. For the first time I noticed that I was almost never out of earshot of a ticking loud-speaker, and now I see them everywhere. When the city’s quiet like that, pretty much the only time you don’t hear the ticking is when you’re standing directly under the speaker. The noise itself is distinctly reminiscent of building works being carried out – maybe someone bashing on a pole with a hammer – and I guess I used to write it off as that.
It seems to be the thing to do at the moment for Australians to post a screen-shot of the current temperature on their facebooks. It’s been in the high 40’s there, meaning it’s more than 70 degrees colder here. Mind-boggling! That’s right, temperatures have once again swooped downward, and it was apparently due to be -26 today. I don’t usually check the forecast any more, and put on all my winter gear irrespective, but I did feel it was significantly colder. At -10 I need my winter, rather than my autumn coat; at -15 I feel the cold in the area just above my knees, and at around -18 to -20 the inside of my nostrils freezes. Perhaps I should copyright the ‘Laura Skillen temperature gauge’??
On Wednesday night as I was walking on the dark, tree-lined paths from work to the metro, things were starting to freeze up again after the recent thaws. The ground was lined with snow, and parts of it had frozen to minute crystals that glittered in the night like stars. It felt for all the world like I was walking through a fresh universe – in a non-literal sense of course. It was simply stunning!
Just in time for it to snow again, they’ve finally cleared the driveway to the apartment. The work-crews have a lot to do though: just before New Years’ and after the warmer temperatures, there was a massive thaw followed by a snap-freeze. The city was literally and liberally covered with sheet ice. It was absolutely horrible. It normally takes me about 15 minutes to walk to the metro, but on this particular occasion it took more like 40. I first noticed how icy it was when I got stuck in a driveway, shaped a little like a bowl. I slid down into it and couldn’t get out of it again – I had to wait until a man reached down from less precarious ground to pull me out. After that I became more aware, and had a look around – the whole way up the street, around every 10-15 metres, there was someone who’d fallen over on the ice. I went for a massive spill myself – think, a cartoon character slipping on a banana peel – and showed up at work in the worst possible mood (and refused to leave the apartment for the next couple of days until it was possible to walk on the footpaths again).
Of course, I often arrive at work in a terrible mood, as every time I walk in I’m frustrated anew by the lack of resources, of space, of courtesy, and of organisation. It’s not unusual for us to have neither printer nor photocopier, smart-boards not working (and you can’t write on the boards unless they’re working), and the things we need for lessons just entirely absent. Then of course, you’ll have people asking you a million irrelevant questions and approaching you with admin tasks while you’re trying to weave your way to the one working computer to print the things you’ve prepared at home. Last night I stayed up til 1 or 2 putting some worksheets and poems together for today’s life-clubs, and was immensely frustrated when I got to work and realised that all of the things I’d been told to use had just vanished. Rant, rant, rant.
On the organisational upside, I’ve recently discovered a fabulous program for the obsessively organised – evernote. I’ve already started using it for just everything, including notes for the latest course I’ve decided to do: a Grad Dip in Geography and Environment, through LSE again. I was thinking about what I was going to do post-Russia, and reflecting on what I’d enjoyed most about my job at the law firm: it was indubitably the environmental project work I did, and I’d like to try and get work in that area. Unlike human rights law, it’s unsaturated, and a growth area. So yay for that!
On Tuesday I went to pick up a new native speaker (read: victim) from the airport. I offered to do it, telling the Director of Studies for that school that it’d probably be nice for her to be met by a native speaker who she’s already familiar with, and who isn’t her supervisor. That was all fine, and we caught a taxi to her would-be apartment, where we met with supervisors from her school and a real-estate agent. I then played guard-dog in the apartment while they just ‘popped upstairs’ to sign the lease. Over an hour later, I was getting kind of over it, but didn’t have the option to leave, as the apartment wasn’t locked. In Russia, no-one respects your time.
After the new staffy’s eventual return, I introduced her to lunch at chainaya lozhka then took her to a store to pick up some essentials. I don’t think the local staff realise how difficult it would be to live here without speaking Russian, and for that reason I’m glad I went to the shop to help. Things like differentiating shampoo and conditioner, not to mention what things in the supermarket actually are, are very difficult if you don’t speak the language.
Happily, I am getting much better at Russian, so maybe it’s ok that we’re now starting the Upper Intermediate (B2) course at uni after all. I was trying to figure out yesterday whether I’m thinking in Russian or not, and I really have no idea. I know what people are saying to me when they talk, but I don’t know how exactly: am I thinking in Russian, or just really fast at processing into English? I just know what they mean. I once tried to explain to Naz that I try to feel what people are saying, rather than listening to the words, and it works for me. It brought me back to thinking about the ticking loud-speakers, and how it’s not really the sound people are listening to, it’s the safety the sound represents. I guess that’s what language is after all: it’s not the sounds, it’s the meaning.