Life in random bursts.

Firstly, spring here is freaking miraculous.  In seemingly the space of the week, it went from bare and barren to astonishingly green and verdant.  Incredible: I can’t even imagine how summer is!

Secondly, I passed my Russian exam (yay!) and have been packing to leave today.  I can’t believe I’m only in Russia for three more days… it’s almost incomprehensible.  Leaving the moon, what?!  I have a lot to write about and am as always too over-run (or, as I like to think, too amazingly good at procrastinating) to write.  Moreover, a few days ago I discovered that someone has been creeping on me on facebook (and I do have super-high privacy settings—they managed to get around them).  I have no problem with broadcasting my brain to the world (more than 50,000 words on this blog so far!).  I get emails about every fortnight from someone who’s self-confessedly been stalking me via the blog, and they have questions I haven’t answered yet—and that’s also fine.  But it’s different  having someone dishonestly watching what you’re doing.  It’s made me reconsider whether I really want to continue keeping a blog about my travels.  We’ll see.

Anyway, back to sunshine-mode: I haven’t had a ‘random in Russia’ post for a while now, so before I get into the ‘oh my god I’m leaving’ posts, I figured I’d do something a little lighter.  (Good start, Laura!)  So, here are a few of the random moments I’ve relished over the last few weeks:

  • Last Thursday night after babysitting, I met Lana and we went to dinner.  She’s now writing for the St Petersburg Times, and so we went to review a vegetarian restaurant in the centre.  It was a veritable feast: we ordered everything on the menu!  It was vegetarian, and dead cheap too.  (It’s at about 11 Kazanskaya Ulitsa, anyone in St P).  They had freshly-squeezed orange juice: I felt like my brain would explode.  It was so good!  Haha but the random moment wasn’t the restaurant nor the food: it’s when some random guy walked past us and I said to Lana, “well that’s a good looking guy”.  Objectification, much?  Saying exactly what I think is a side-effect of living here I think: I expect that people don’t speak English.  As it turns out, this guy did.  Hilarious!  And sadly, this is not even the first time it’s happened.  Good one, Laura.
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  • Prior to ‘Victory Day’, on May 9, there were a lot of preparations underway in the city.  One morning when on the bus to uni, I was looking out the window and was rather surprised to see a cannon driving past.  It was an actual cannon from WW2 hooked onto the back of an army truck, with three scared-looking guys draped across it as it drove down Nevsky Prospekt.  I made accidentally eye-contact with one of the guys in question, and he pulled the ‘meh, it’s Russia’ shrug which is so often encountered here.
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  • In Australia, cigarette packets have grisly images and slogans about cancer causing death, cancer, birth defects.  Here:
    Smoking may cause impotence.
    Smoking may cause impotence.

    Priorities, priorities.
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  • A month or so ago in my adult class, we were talking about the topic of ‘living standards’.  I threw it to the crowd, and asked what the main reasons for higher or lower living costs are.  First answer?  “Corruption.  How much corruption there is”.  Oh, Russia.
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  • It was my final ‘life club’ on Friday.  Life Clubs are meant to be realistic English-language situations.  In this case, my set topic was ~music.  We made music with water-glasses and everything!  I actually successfully made a glass ‘sing’ for the first time in my life.  So my 7-year-old student arguably taught me more than I taught them on that particular occasion… Anyway, at the end of the lesson I gave them all instruments to make up a song.  We then played along to songs on youtube, and they begged me to put on ‘Gangnam Style’.  I think that seeing a class full of young kids dancing to Gangnam Style while holding a cacophonous assortment of maracas, drums and tambourines is one of the most hilarious things I’ve ever seen!  Mannn did they get into it.  Of course, there was the somewhat unpleasant side effect of having said song stuck in my head for the next two days..
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  • I spotted a Dr Seuss character (and her be-rat-tailed friend) at the Festival of Lights the other week:
    festivaloflights (1 of 3)
  • Last Tuesday night as I was trying to get some sleep before exams in the morning, someone in the apartment block started doing house renovations.  At 11pm.  They were ripping out cupboards and walls.  Thankyou!  At around midnight, my flatmate Michael then burst into the apartment all aflutter because there was a man with a knife in the courtyard, who was being pinned to the ground by police.  Michael had had to physically step over this guy to get to our apartment.  I didn’t even respond from my room—it happens every day.  It’s Russia.  And I was focusing on trying to sleep haha!
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  • On the topic of knives and deaths and so on and so forth, one of my students told me that a body was recently found in one of St Petersburg’s most famous theatres.  Her husband words there, and filled her in on the details.  Apparently this guy had killed himself in the attic.  He left a note, dated during the winter: so he’d been there for months and months.  I was very confused: how could this guy have been missing for months and no-one noticed?  You’d think you’d at least check their place of employment…  Great police work.
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  • Finally, on the topic of theatres, we’re up to Saturday night.  As my last Saturday night in Russia, I decided to arrange a party.  It’s something I do around every month anyway.  Haha I think mainly because I’m lazy, and want people to come to me, rather than having to go out!  Also, lack of money is a thing.  Anyway, the weather was a bit rubbish, and so around an hour before the party was due to start, heaps of people told me they weren’t going to make it.  I then decided to cancel it, as I’d go out with Lana instead: but I hadn’t managed to tell everyone about the cancellation, so I had a very strange selection of people arrive.  The first two to come were Les (who only speaks English), and Nastichka (of Siberia), who only speaks Russian.  So for about an hour, perhaps longer, I was literally the only person in the room who could speak to each of them.  So, so, so awkward.  Eventually, more people came, until everybody bar Les could speak Russian and only a couple of people could speak English: so we switched.  Poor Les.  He eventually left.  Apparently I’m an arsehole…
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    Anyway, at around half midnight, two girls from my uni class (one German, one Italian) arrived, and so I left with them and headed out to find where Lana’s party had gotten to.  We wound up at a bar near Chernyshevskaya and I spoke with Lana and Hoos for a little before playing jenga with the German girl.  As all adults do.
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    The Italian girl with her Russian possibly-boyfriend made it to the bar, and they said they were headed to a house-party.  I said I’d come too.  Hoos asked me, “what are you doing?  Where are you going?” and I said “I have no idea—that’s kind of the point.”  Safety first!
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    Me, the two other girls, the Russian guy and his Russian/Israeli friend all piled into an illegal taxi and headed to goodness-knows-where, where we joined two other guys for the rest of the night.  The four guys all work at a theatre in St P (not the same one as the suicide guy) and were all fairly entertaining.  Actually, they all played the guitar and sang particularly well, so we were serenaded with Russian music.  Which is depressing as fuck.  Russian music is just not happy.  Haha either way, it was a fun night.  Of the seven of us, we were all from different countries, so went by our country names (as is pretty usual actually: I’m used to responding to ‘Australia’).  At around 5:30 I think, I had a little nap, and the others woke me up to go home about an hour later.  Apparently we were only 1km from Sennaya Ploschad’.  I finally got home after 8am… and promptly spent the next two days doing absolutely nothing while trying to catch up on sleep.

Anyway, it’s time to go baby-sitting.  Expect a Russia pros/cons entry in the next few days.  It probably won’t be any less drivelly than this one!  (Forewarned is forearmed, right?  And who doesn’t want four arms?!)

The Bigger the Better

One of my adult students said the other day that she wants to raise her kids to be like me.  To not be connected to any particular country, but to live across them all.  I told her good luck, therefore, in moving to Australia (which she’s currently attempting to do), as it’s one of a handful of countries which have barely any visa restrictions.  Whereas my Russian friends have to apply for visas even to visit a Schengen country (and register when they get there!), I can just walk on in, no visa required.  It’s freaking amazing.  For me.  But awful for my Russians.

After my student said that, I told my opinion to the class: that a lot of the time, for maybe even most people, I think travelling is more important than education.  Education is, of course, incredibly important, and I won’t deny having a pile of qualifications including two degrees, but I feel I’ve learned a lot more useful skills through my constant travelling than I have through memorising the answers to fairly arbitrary exams.

In the course of travelling for the past nearly-ten years, I have lived in many cities in three countries, I have made friends all over the world, and I have worked in a range of industries.  I’ve been a waitress, hotel receptionist, sailing instructor, ‘beach attendant’ (what a job title, right?), coach, English teacher, project manager, charity fundraiser, website designer, content writer, policy writer, travel agent, bar girl, babysitter, and a seeming million other things.  I’ve lived on tropical islands, in cities old and new, in towns, in mountains, and by the coast.  I’ve become independent, adaptable, stubborn (hey, I didn’t say all of it was good!), and perhaps most importantly completely know both myself and my capabilities.  I’ve experienced several different cultures, and have friends from more.  Moreover, I have no regrets.

When I was 18 and starting this journey, I justified it by saying that I didn’t ever want to get to 50 and say “I wish I’d…”.  I did my foundation degree in half-time by studying a lot in my spare time, and my actual degree (and following diplomas) by correspondence, so that I could do them all while travelling.  I didn’t have to give up education to travel, whereas if I’d chosen physically going to university, I would have had to give up this ridiculous life of travel that I lead.  I want to see the world, I want to put myself into situations where I have to use all of me to get myself through and out of them.  I want to get into cars with strangers, and sail across oceans, and be all the me’s I ever could have possibly been!  It’s only through lucky chance that I was born when and where I was, and I want to know who I’d be if I’d be born British.  Or Russian.  Or Latino, or anything else at all.  I want to be all of those people, to experience life as fully as I can.  I don’t want to be some small person who’s more robot than alive, who’s gone straight from school to uni, straight from uni to a career, from single to married to children, without knowing who else I could have been.  I want to be the biggest person I can possibly be :).

A lot of people say to me that they wish they could swap lives with me, and live like I do.  I always say that there’s nothing stopping them (except for the swapping part – that’s not happening!).  You’ve got to leap before you can land, after all.  And the pond’s big enough for all of us :).  (From a strictly non-environmental standpoint, of course.  Sigh.)

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.

http://www.akbaser.com/StormClearing.htm

Blue Skies

…because there’s never a bad time for a Joss Whedon reference.

Well, I’ve managed to escape Russia!  It reminds me of a post I saw on facebook a while back:
not emigration evacuation - Copy

I nearly didn’t manage my ‘escape’ however—due to a traffic jam on the road to Finland, I didn’t actually get to the border before my visa expired.  The thing is, in Russia, your visa is both an entry visa and an exit visa: if it’s not valid, then you’re not allowed to leave.  I’ve since read countless horror stories of people being imprisoned, or at the very least trapped for several months while they try to sort out a legal exit visa.  Anyway, so we got to the border, and I handed over my passport etc to the immigration lady.  She threw her hands up at the sight of a foreigner’s passport—clearly not something she wanted to deal with at one in the morning—and then realised that my visa had expired.  She made a few phone calls, and then a huuuuuuuuuuuge guy arrived.  He asked me about my ongoing travel plans, and I told him how it was just because of the traffic jam that I hadn’t left on time.  (To be fair, I’d completely seen this eventuality coming—I wasn’t sure that 3 hours was definitely enough to get to the border, but I decided to be a useless human being and just wing it).  He then went off with my passport and made some more phone-calls, while the lady from the marshrutka was freaking out, asking why I hadn’t told her that my visa was about to expire.  I hadn’t told her, because I’d been told that if it was close to the expiration time, marshrutkas won’t let you on—they don’t want to be held up at the border, or have to deal with someone who was going to have to return to Russia.

Eventually, the big official re-emerged (at this point, my marshrutka had been waiting for around 10-15 minutes and was holding up the queue) and said that there would be a fine.  I said that was no problems, and so off we went.  We had to go into the heart of the immigration building, where many documents were signed and many things were stamped.  I was sent off with another guard to a cashier, where it took about another twenty minutes to process my fine.  I felt like such an asshole—the poor other passengers in my marshrutka were all having to wait for me, simply because I’d decided not to do things properly.

I went back to the big guy and signed some more things (he didn’t actually tell me I can’t go back to Russia, though theoretically I can be banned for 5 years for overstaying my visa), and then I was free.  And the thing is, when I got back to the marshrutka I was so apologetic (as apologetic as I can be in Russian, I haven’t actually needed to know many variations of apologies to date), but the other passengers were totally fine.  They were just curious about what had happened inside, and how much I’d had to pay (1000 rubles).  I guess Russians of all people are used to people being taken away, to bureaucracy, and to paying fines.

We got to Helsinki’s airport at around 2:30am local time, where it was a real struggle to stay awake for my flight a few hours later.  This was my first time out of Russia since i’d first entered it, and I was more than baffled by people being nice and helpful.  The lady checking in my bag, rather than charging me for the extra 3kg, didn’t say anything other than “just try not to  pack a little less next time, okay?”.  When my carry-on was randomly selected on this freaking magical conveyer belt to be searched, the guy made small-talk while doing it.  Everything also seemed a little too convenient: why are the bathrooms so clean and well-stocked, and why is there the soundtrack of birds chirping?  It was all rather plastic and surreal.

And then I was finally back in Greece.  From hell to Helsinki to Hellas.  I was feeling pretty awesome from pulling the transport-based all-nighter, but nonetheless caught the bus into the city so that I could read the street signs and reacquaint myself with the Greek alphabet.  It’s quite similar to Russian in some ways, similar to English in others, and then I know a few of the other symbols from studying pure math.  Making sure you know the alphabet of the city you’re in is so useful, whenever you can manage it: even in a city like Athens, where a lot of the street signs are in at least two languages.

I really need to find a male blogger counterpart to me, so that the universe can be balanced out: I talk a lot about the different men I find in different countries, but I almost never talk about other women!  In the Greek case, I forgot how in-your-face they are here.  There always seem to be groups of men standing around doing nothing, especially outside cafes, at all times of day and night.  I’d almost forgotten (the attempt was made!) how they make a clicking sound (as if beckoning a horse) when you walk past.  And they’re so voluble—as I was walking past one guy, he goes, quote, “oh my god!  Wow!  Ay ay ay!” and then starts getting up and waving his hands around.  Maybe it’s a pastime, or maybe he has a thing for girls who’ve slept in their clothes and are covered in that weird grease you get from flying in airplanes.  In another example, I went to a film just before (first English-language movie experience in a year!  Yay!  I went to see Fast and the Furious 6—I have an outrageous love for the franchise—and it was super-cool.  Except for killing off my favourite character, of course.  But all of the Greek audience were so into it: clapping and cheering and whistling.  It was great!  I’ve not experienced anything like it since one of the times I went to see FF5 back in Sydney, where the audience went similarly nuts.)—anyway, I was walking back to the hostel from the metro, and a taxi pulled over.  I waved to him that no, I didn’t need a lift.  So then he starts crawling along in the car, hitting on me.  It was really uncool, especially given that there were quite a few homeless people trying to sleep nearby—and here’s this guy waking them all up!  Living on the streets is surely unreasonable enough without having to put up with those kind of shenanigans.

Speaking of living on the streets, there are noticeably more people doing that since I was last here in March last year.  While at the metro station earlier, a lady came up to me asking for change, and we had quite a conversation about it.  I do spend a lot of time when I’m travelling talking to people, beggars included.  This lady said that yes, there are definitely a lot more people on the street now.  She was very frustrated with her situation: I shan’t tell you her whole life story, but basically she used to be well-off, but has lost everything in the economic crisis.  She feels humiliated by having to ask strangers for money (incidentally, I actually didn’t yet have any change, but she didn’t hold it against me), but she still maintains that “life is sweet” and that “at least I am strong.”  It’s weird, actually.  Here, the beggars act like they are ordinary people who will be fine again in the future, whereas in Russia beggars are those who have given up hope.  Or are working for the mafia, of course.  We talked at some length about the Greek economy in the end, but then my train arrived and I was off, wishing her good luck.  I may not have been able to give her money, but I could at least give her dignity.

This is getting a little long and I should really get to bed soon, so briefly, it’s great to see people being warm, and even chatting to strangers on the street; I heard a piano accordion (which I love) on the metro and its music wasn’t depressing like that played in Russia; and ohmygod REAL FOOD.  I went to a taverna recommended by my hostel, and asked the guy (who’s already remembered my name) to bring me whatever he recommended.  I can’t believe how good real food tastes.  The tomato was just absolute bliss.  Fresh food, I love you.

I was just speaking with two Indian girls who’ve been here a few hours and have already experienced Athens’ seedy underbelly.  They’re long time couch-surfers, and turned up at their organised couch earlier this evening.  It was a run-down house which apparently had an air of abandonment; the guy and the random girls ‘on assignment’ who were awaiting them were high as kites; the place was filled with porn, and apparently the guy wanted to make some ‘new videos’ for the ‘gay market’.  And this is how the girls ended up at the hostel haha.

Finally, to finish for today, thanks to everyone who sent me emails and messages following my final Russia post the other day, it was amazing 🙂

__________________________

My hostel in Plakias, Crete: YH Plakias

Suomi

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.