Countries hot and cold

In Russia, people would always tell me how because I’m from a hot country, my personality doesn’t suit being in a cold country like theirs.  The theory goes that people from warm places are ‘warm’ people, open and friendly, while people from cold places have (you’ll never guess) ‘cold’, reserved personalities.  I personally think this is all rot.  Especially given that in the last twenty-four hours, I’ve had ‘warm’ experiences with people from locations as diverse as Finland, Canada, Italy and Argentina.

Yesterday I went to meet a lady who I swapped details with at the climate conference in Istanbul the other week.  She had what sounded like a promising idea, so she sent me some of her project management plan and materials to have a look over.  I thought it was great, and when we realised that we were both in Athens, we decided to meet up.

As it turns out, the lady is the wife of the Finnish Ambassador, and so the meeting took place at their massive house in the suburbs.  It was crazy (and also really nice)!  I played with the two girls for a while as the lady made lunch, then we discussed the project for a few hours, and it does sound like an interesting venture.  She wants someone like me to handle the Australian part, which is something I’m very open to: but of course, que sera sera.

After we’d finished our extended brain-storm/meeting, we and the two girls went and jumped in the pool.  The youngest daughter had to leave for tennis lessons shortly afterward though, and she was distraught.  She was crying that she ‘didn’t realise how fun Laura would be’, and didn’t want to leave.  Haha in the end, I agreed to go to an adventure park with them all on Tuesday (thankfully, their shout—not sure my budget of 10 euro a day after accommodation will stretch that far haha!)

It wasn’t much longer before it was time for me to rush off, too.  I needed to get back to near my hostel by 6pm, to pick up some business cards I’d had made.  You meet so many people travelling, and I was finding I was writing my details down a couple of times a day.  15 euro well-spent!  I didn’t realise quite how well-spent until later, however.

A few hours later, I was back in the hostel room with the pants-less Italian (who has since developed both a name and a personality, so we’re kind of almost friends-ish now), when four new guys checked in to take our empty beds.  These guys were all from Argentina, and so incredibly good-looking that the next day I went down to tell the front desk girl that I loved all of the hostel’s staff for putting them in my room (when the girl saw them later, she was rendered almost speechless as well).  Again, no objectification here.

Anyway, one of the guys was just spectacular—one of the most beautiful men I’ve ever seen in my life.  Sadly though, I was in the linguistic minority last night, so didn’t talk to any of them, just listened to the Spanish and Italian flying around.  I can pick up the gist sometimes thanks to having had studied French for so long, but mainly I just read my book.  I was super-tired, anyhow.

This morning I woke up (no, shit.), and two of the other Argentinians told me that they were from Buenos Aires and checking out today.  I still hadn’t had the chance to speak with  Zoolander, but had to give up the opportunity as I was teaching an English lesson on Skype.  Then, in what was a clear flash of genius, I wrote down when I’d be in Buenos Aires on the back of a business card and gave it to him.  Classiest girl in the world.  (A few minutes later was a proud one for me, when the guy waved bye, said he’d see me in BA, and winked—and I didn’t giggle.  Because that would have been a somewhat awkward thing to explain to my student haha!)

Back to my fairly vague point for today: it seems to me that I’m Australian but more than a little Russified (so am lacking in temperature identity?!), then both Finnish and Latino people are equally warm.  I can’t understand where this ‘warm’ and ‘hot’ countries/people thing came from.  Just another of the many cultural traditions in Russia which serve to put people in the the ‘Other’ box I suppose.

Breaking Rules

Ok, so I have blog guilt.  Firstly because I haven’t been writing very much (all of my energy has been focused on the novel, which after a few weeks is ~25,000 words and growing quickly), and secondly because as of today there have been more than 50,000 visitors and my last post mainly objectified Argentine men.  Oops!  Way to write enthralling, meaningful content, right?

The day following my last post I was forced to reconsider this whole ‘hot’/’cold’ country dichotomy, after I became involved in a rather heated argument with a Greek man.  Normally I like to argue coolly and rationally, but in this case I was fed up with the heat and decided to see how being a complete dick would go.  Needless to say, Not Well.  He threw shoes, while I caused all of his customers to leave the shop.  Super-productive, right?  Anyway, while I still don’t buy into the dichotomy, I whole-heartedly agree that the unreasonable heat does have an effect.

A couple of nights ago I decided to go for a walk, figuring I desperately need the exercise and more to the point need to do things which don’t involve spending money.  As you can probably imagine, it ended in disaster.

The first part was fine, as I strolled through Kifisia past the ancient Olympic stadium having a rather lovely time.  I made a few turns before finding myself at the bottom of the Akropolis’ hill.  I recall thinking how I’d never realised how high up it was before: was I so unfit that such a short elevation felt like it was killing me?!  It took me an unreasonably long time to realise that I wasn’t in fact anywhere near the Akropolis, and was instead climbing Mount Lycabettus in the centre of Athens.  (To be honest, calling it a ‘mountain’ is probably a stretch—it’s only 277 metres tall.  But I felt, every, centimetre!)

I reached the top, which I really hadn’t meant to do (no camera though, so no photos!), marked where the Akropolis actually was, and started descending after only a few minutes.  Unfortunately however, the path going down the hill—oops, ‘mountain’—was a little windy, and by the time I reached the bottom I’d completely lost my bearings.  I continued fairly randomly, again happy that I could read the Greek street signs (they weren’t in English in this area), before eventually figuring out that I’d walked off the map I’d brought with me and had no idea where I was.

Not particularly deterred, I chose a direction which felt good and continued for a few more kilometres before stopping to ask a guy in a parking station where on earth I was.  As it turned out, I was only just off my map, and was in fact very close to a metro.

I’d been walking for a few hours and was getting a bit over it, so opted for the metro, quickly bought my ‘single-trip’ ticket, and waited for the train.  All was fine and good until I had to switch to line 2, on which Akropoli lies.  It looked like it had already closed for the night, so I walked up to one of the guards blocking the entrance and asked whether it was still open—at which point he asked in broken English to see my ticket.  I fetched it from my pocket, also grabbing my student card from my wallet.

He then told me that actually, ‘single trips’ are only single trips on buses, and that the tickets aren’t valid for the metro (despite the fact that they’re one of the two ticket types available on every machine in the metro).  He then beckoned over a female officer who spoke better English.

The lady had a look at my ticket, said again about the ‘single trip’ tickets being invalid, then had a look at my student card.  It was my ISIC card (as opposed to my Russian uni card), as places invariably accept the international student ID rather than that of local institutions.

Not this lady, however.  She told me that my ID wasn’t sufficient, and that I would have to pay a penalty.  Of 42 euros!!  I just about fainted—this is definitely not a sum of money I can afford!  I asked her whether showing my Russian ID to someone would help, and she gave me the option of visiting the transport office during the week to appeal.

Once I was back at the hostel, I had a quick google, as the conditions of the penalty document were all Greek to me (it had to be said).  Apparently, after the first ten days penalties multiply by a factor of 10—hello, 420 euros!—and then after that it’s deducted from your Greek tax return.  I noticed however that she’d only written my name and my ISIC number, which is fairly meaningless and has nothing to do with my passport.  So I decided to google whether I should pay my Athens metro fine, out of curiosity.  Almost every site said ‘no’ (something with which the reception staff here agreed).

It made me start thinking about rules.  If this was Australia, I’d definitely pay the fine: partly I suppose because I would have knowingly been doing the wrong thing and I’d been caught doing it, and partly because I could actually be followed up to pay.  But here?  It sounds like there’s no consequence to my not paying (and I’ve since encountered a couple more people at the hostel who have had the same thing happen—actually, I think the English-language labelling on the ticket machines is incorrect and doesn’t reflect the law).  That, of course, made me think about Russia.  If I hadn’t lived in the Land of No Consequence, would I even consider not paying a fine?

I mentioned this to the girl on reception that day, and she said that’s why a lot of people come to countries like Greece: it’s much more relaxed.  She posited that people get sick of the rules of their home countries, and want to escape them.  It made me really think about Australia, how everything is so safe and regulated, how rules rule supreme (and considering I used to write policy, I was part of this robot culture).  Will I ever be able to go back to that, or have I changed too much?  Even before Russia I was fairly rule-flexible (at any rate, I did precisely as I liked).  Now though, I think this characteristic has been dramatically compounded.  I’d never really thought about rules and differing levels of obedience to them being such a huge part of culture before.

I am, of course, returning to a ‘rule-y’ country tomorrow, when I head off to Finland to work at a summer camp.  Mind you, the camp is Russian-run and is for Russian teens, so I don’t think it will be ‘real’ Finland!  It will be my first time in Scandinavia, other than the few hours I spent in Helsinki airport last month.  I’ve never really put it on my ‘must-see’ places: I think I haven’t seen it as enough of a challenge, more of a boring place with serious people and good living standards.  Their films don’t help with this impression.

I’ve met a few people who live in Scandinavia of course.  I spent another day with the Finnish ambassador’s family on Tuesday, when we went to an adventure park.  There was also a French guy sharing my room for a few days who now lives in Sweden.  He was lovely actually.  As I told him, he was the ‘least creepy French guy I’ve ever met’!

Flor, an Argentine (why on earth isn’t ‘Argentinian’ a word?!) girl who was in Istanbul with us for the conference also came through Athens, though we didn’t hang out much.  Haha I think I get a lot of my talking out of the way via my skype teaching, the last lesson of which I taught today.  Also, two nights ago I skyped with Siberian Nastya.  It was my first time speaking Russian since I’ve left, and it was freaking awesome: it took me more than a day to come down from the excitement!  Plus, she’s going to visit me in Finland, so super-yay 🙂

I actually asked Nastya once how she can possibly be so patient with me.  She doesn’t speak English of course, and my Russian is pretty hack sometimes.  When we first met I barely understood a thing she said, and trying to convey ideas was agonising at times.  She told me that she’s patient because I’m interesting and she wants to understand me, which I think is so unbearably sweet of her.  This is why she gets to be one of my favourite people in all of Russia!

Anyway, time to go and throw some words at my book.  At this rate I should be done in a few months—mad!


I’ve been working at the camp in Finland for less than two hours, and I’ve already made a girl cry.  New record?  I discussed it with Michael (who I worked with in St P), and we’re putting it down to Russian mentality.  This girl has “always” been in group four, but I put her into group three.  We gave her a second test and she couldn’t do it, so ran away crying.  She feels like she’s been demoted, like we’re saying she’s not very good, and can’t understand that groups, like levels of English, can shift.  We ranked the students and she didn’t fall in the top 25%, so her group was allotted accordingly.  I made every possible reassurance about her changing group if she did well, but we’re not going to move her up  just because she cries at us.

Finland itself—or ‘fake Russia’, where I’ve found myself—is lovely.  I flew in from Athens (on a plane with wi-fi !) and spent a few exorbitantly expensive hours in Helsinki before catching the train (again with wireless) north.  It’s gorgeous: I’m in a national park, and there’s a forest outside my window.  Note use of ‘my’ window—I’ve got a room to myself!  Get excited!  It’s teeny-tiny (at my request), and reminds me of the ship I used to live on.  It even has a little desk in the room, so I have somewhere to work.  Happiness is!  Incidentally, the picture for this post is of the building I’m staying in.  Not bad, right?

I say ‘fake Russia’, and it’s because it really is.  I’ve awkwardly re-entered a world where doors are opened and bags are carried for me.  It’s also a world where it’s normal to eat at 11pm, go to bed late, and obsess over things like saunas: to the point where saunas are scheduled at 4pm for all of the kids here on camp.

After breakfast (which was an hour before lunch, so we quite literally ate them both at the one sitting), Michael and I discussed Russia at quite some length.  We talked about the mindset at companies like EF, and get this: you’ll recall I did a video with Michael a few months ago.  Somehow (I have no idea how), the fact that he’d done the video with me got back to head office, and he got a phone call with a shocked voice saying they couldn’t believe he’d compared Russia to Afghanistan.  It then later came up at his performance review, where he got a ‘0’ for team-work purely because of the video.  So being critical of certain aspects of Russian society means that you fail at team-building as an English teacher.  It’s like being spied on all the time: most people play this game of being constantly careful, hiding things and trusting few.  I on the other hand said exactly whatever I liked to the point where people were shocked and didn’t know quite how to deal with it—as when I told my manager that working for EF was the worst mistake I’d ever made in my life.  And yet they wanted me to stay?!  Right.

On the topic of languages and the teaching thereof, the kids here have been told I don’t speak nor understand Russian, even though my boss knows that I do (otherwise he probably wouldn’t have briefed me in Russian).  I’m not even meant to speak in Russian to the other staff, in case the kids find out that I can understand I guess.  Do you have any idea how hard it is to pretend not to speak a language?  I automatically respond to questions and laugh at jokes.  I’d make a terrible spy.

I’m going to finish on a more general comment about Finland: I think I’ve found my genetic home.  I look so much like Scandinavians, it’s ridiculous.  More than that though, this place is so natural to me that I feel like I’ve lived here in another life.  It’s like I’ve walked into a jigsaw puzzle and fitted in perfectly—just another missing piece of sky.  It’s very peculiar.

Fake Russia

It has been a crazy couple of weeks here at camp.  And not the ‘fun’ type of crazy: more like the ‘fml’ kind of crazy.  It’s also been very, very busy.  My teaching hours are far in excess of what I was told, and it’s six days a week once more.  I have afternoons free, though these are usually spent in a coma, trying to recover before the next day of lessons!  I have been getting some work done of course: the internet’s really bad, so I haven’t been procrastinating anywhere near as much as usual.  As such I’ve gotten a fair bit of uni reading done, and am at around 32,000 words into my book.  Ура.

Now, the kids: I have two groups, one of mainly kids in their mid-teens, and one of kids around 12 years old.  The younger group are alright: their English is generally poor, but they try very hard and are pleasant to be around.  The older group on the other hand is chock-full of super-‘Russian’ kids.  There are a few reasonable ones in there, but oh my god the racism.  Plus sexism and homophobia of course.  I have kids talking about how they want black slaves, preferably women who are only allowed to wear underwear all day.  Or then there’s the kids saying how ‘great’ it is when ‘skinheads’ kill Jews.  What, the, fuck.  But it’s not just that: they misbehave awfully in class, are selfish and cruel to each other.  Yesterday they pissed me off so much that I said ‘enough’ and made them write essays.  I hate making people write essays, but I needed to get some kind of discipline going again.  Egads.

Cultural differences are astonishing.  I need to point out that the way these kids behave isn’t some kind of genetic thing, or predisposition, or anything like that: Russians aren’t naturally fuck-wits.  When they come across something from outside their universe—ie me, in this situation—they do try and adjust to it.  They don’t want to upset me with my Western ideals.  Thus one kid, who has some VERY strong views, asked if I was in Greenpeace before he started ripping trees out of the ground.  They do try to anticipate what my morals and values might be, and do their best to not offend me.  They just don’t know this way of life.

They do get used to my Western independence pretty quickly.  This morning we all went out on the lake, and while I can’t row because of my back, they accepted that I don’t need a hand out, I’m perfectly happy to jump into the water or climb trees or leap between rocks or go hiking through the forest.  But the contrast between myself and the Russian girls was just insane.  I definitely confuse them as much as they confuse me.

I’ve actually run out of time as I have to go teach, but I’ll post this while I have enough internet to do so.  I have a lot more to say on this sexism issue, and also on Russians jumping into bed.  Confusingly.

С днём рождения

It’s my birthday today 🙂  I got up early of course, so that I could try to wrangle with Skype once more (I’ve since given up and am going to try Voxox from now on).  I also checked my emails, and this was one of the first birthday messages I received:

Happy Birthday!!!:) I wish u luck, happiness and to stay yourself, because you, Laura, good person, who can destroy all barricades on your lifeway, who can support your friend in difficult situation and who can stay a real man, inspite all problems)

Fantastic Renglish 🙂  I’m sure he won’t mind me sharing it!  I’ve always wanted to stay a ‘real man’ hahahaha.

With my first group of kids this morning, we wandered into the forest.  It’s weird, because on the one hand I’m studying ecology at the moment, so am constantly in ‘study’ mode and categorising the things around me.  On the other hand, I LOVE trees!  In the end, my kids had to wait for me on the way back to class, because I was the one holding everybody up!

At lunchtime, I tried to set up some kind of phone calling, but again failed.  As such I was late to lunch, and was the last one there until Sasha and Misha walked in.  Sasha then insisted that I stayed until they finished their meals.  We were interrupted by one of my students, who said that there was a ‘big problem’ and to ‘come straight away’.  I told her I didn’t believe her, and she spluttered and walked off.  I was suspecting some birthday mischief, and I was right to: a few minutes later, Michael came in and said I had to come.  I specifically said to him a few days ago that I hate the ‘happy birthday’ song (I can’t even bring myself to sing it), and asked him to please not arrange for people to sing it.  So I walked toward the main зал and two girls started to play the tune on piano and violin.  All of the staff and students were in the room.  And they sang the song in Russian, so that it didn’t count haha.  They gave me a big bunch of ferns and wild-flowers they’d picked, and then just about killed in me in a mass group hug.  Note the expression of terror:


Then there was delicious slice 🙂

My afternoon class was fairly chilled too.  We have an early dinner here at camp (16:30), so I waited until after before going swimming in the lake for about an hour.  It was so relaxing—all I could hear was the sounds of me and fishies swimming, and I was surrounded by clouds and water and forest.  Very nice 🙂  Then an epic stretching session on an abandoned jetty before back to the hostel for an actually hot shower.  Whoa!