Source: http://www.towleroad.com/2011/12/fireworks.html

Guest post: By way of introduction…

It is 10.30pm.  The sun is still shining.  Hello from glorious Saint Petersburg.  I am grateful to have been invited to contribute to this awesome blog by Laura.

We begin in a not-so-glamorous setting.  This is Zvezdnaya, a suburb of sprawling concrete flat complexes on the outer limits of the city.  Let’s be honest, it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing of places.  These flats were constructed in the 50s and 60s, and set for demolishment some 20 years ago.

As of my arrival to this compact three-room flat (not including kitchen and modest bathroom) the population has drastically increased.  There are three generations of my family currently in residence.  The youngest (my cousin’s little boy) is under a year.  The oldest, my grandfather, is 84.  Things could be worse: in the past, this flat would have been shared between four families.

In the block of flats across the way some enthusiastic partiers have just released spirals of illegal fireworks into the air.  The after-effect is a cacophony of car alarms and the tired squeals of the teething baby with whom I am sharing a room.

Welcome to my holiday.

I last visited Russia several years ago yet I am still struck by the everyday absurdities and difficulties of Russian life.  I know they are many and notorious, some of which are documented in this blog.  Sometimes I am even baffled by the anecdotes of tourists returning from Russia.  After all, my own ‘Russianness’ is a cocktail of ties to Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus (I was born in the no-man’s land of the USSR).  Nothing, not even my parents’ distilled recollections of life pre-Australia could prepare me for experiences such as navigating a pram through the subterranean network of the Saint Petersburg metro.

To those who have never experienced the wonder of Saint Petersburg metro travel, imagine a series of steep escalators in dim light descending 80+ metres into the bowels of the earth.  It is hot.  The fragrance of mingling body odours never quite dissipates.

The escalators are easy in comparison to the ramps.  I asked once if there was a lift and was met with an incredulous stare.  To ascend to the surface world one must position the wheels of the pram on a pair of stilt-like steel beams, and heave the not-so-cheerful kid up the steep incline whilst dodging other commuters.  Sometimes passers-by actually meet your sweaty, stress-stricken gaze, before continuing on their way.  It is Russia, after all, and the residual effects of phenomena such as people being hauled off to gulags have instilled a kind of indifference in the general populace.  Others swear at you.  Imagine—bringing a baby on the metro!

On this trip a young guy helps us out.  He packs away his iPad and grabs the front of the pram so quickly we might have been alarmed if we weren’t so tired.  So again, things could be worse.  Our destination is the supermarket: a revolutionary spectacle in modern Russia.  There you can actually buy baby food AND fruit AND meat in one place.  In the old days, my aunt tells me, it was a case of trudging through the city, waiting in circuitous lines on the off-chance that a shop actually had stock, and then using food coupons issued by the state to purchase your stuff.  Forgot your coupons?

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10.30pm.  Ok, so maybe I won’t get much sleep tonight.  I suspect the fireworks celebrated a wedding, and before long they will erupt again.  I can deal with no sleep.  But for the love of all that is holy please don’t make me take the baby on the metro tomorrow.

—Dash M.

http://pics.imcdb.org/12767/archerlubyanka.jpg

Moscow Eve

Tomorrow morning I fly back to Russia, nearly two years to the day since I left.  I’m going for 5.5 weeks, and it should be…interesting.  Naturally I haven’t started to pack yet, but my room is getting extremely clean, so that’s good!

I have very, very mixed feelings about going back.  I guess the only thing that’s changed since my wrap-up love/hate post about Russia is time and perspective—and an annexation or so ;).  Everybody keeps telling me how I must be so excited, and looking forward to going back—but that’s not how I feel at all.  On the one hand, it’ll be great to hear and speak Russian again, to see my former students, friends and colleagues.  It’ll be interesting to see Russia in the summertime (which I’m pretty sure is some kind of oxymoronic impossibility), and to see what’s changed in the intervening two years.  Plus, let’s be honest, Red Square is kick-ass.

On the other hand, eugh.  I’m not looking forward to the stress of it all—the language barrier, given how much I’ve forgotten (cases?  What cases?!).  But far more than that, just the everyday nightmare of people being angry, yelling at each other, using each other, being cruel to one another.  I can never decide whether the dominant emotion in Russia is anger, hatred, despair, or apathy.  Obviously I didn’t have a great time last time, thanks in large part to the asshole company I was working for.  But gosh.  Going back to a country where I’m told to be quiet, because men are talking; where I’m told by strangers that I need to go and ‘fix’ myself to be prettier; where I’m ‘old and stupid‘ because I’m about to turn 30 and aren’t married with kids.  And the godawful food, of course.  So yeah, looking forward to it?  A difficult point to argue.

All the same, I’ve got a pretty fun weekend lined up: tomorrow night I’m going out with Jack, who I studied with in Prague; Saturday night I’m catching up with Hoos, who I worked with for the most epic class in St Petersburg; and then I’m spending Sunday with Artur, who was kind enough to show me around Moscow last time I was there.  From there I don’t know whether I’ll catch the overnight train straight up to Piter, where I’ll be staying with Naz and Mikita (expect a follow-up video with Naz), or go via Nizhniy Novgorod on the ‘mighty Volga’.  Either way, once I arrive I’ll be catching up with people, working on my Russian, and attending a conference at the end of June before flying back to Brussels on the 28th to start a quick summer school on post-Soviet conflict.  Haha.  I guess I can’t be accused of going off-theme.

Be prepared for imminent and inevitable mis-adventuring.

Heating Up

The girl is back in ze motherland!  Whoa.  Pictured in the horrible featured image: Domoedovo Airport, Moscow.  And also some dirt on the bus window.  Photography skills: 10/10.

Of course, I didn’t arrive completely without adventure.  It all started in Brussels airport, where I arrived in plenty of time (shockingly), only to find that my bag was 27kg.  Oops.  I’m sure it was nothing at all to do with the 9 bottles of Belgian beer in my bag..!  So, being unwilling to spend 35 euro in fines, I settled down to repack my bag.  And by ‘repack’ I mean ‘throw out beer’.

I asked a staff member whether there was a bin nearby where I could throw out said beer, and she was absolutely shocked.  “You can’t throw out beer,” she exclaimed.  She then assisted me in repacking things from my suitcase into an assortment of bags I could take into carry-on, and we left out some beer then reweighed my bag.  It was just under 23kg—so she gave me back the beers I was going to throw out, turned the scale off, and let my again-overweight luggage go straight on through.  Result!

I spent most of the flight asleep thanks to a somewhat hectic few weeks, then landed, passed through immigration (after a bit of questioning about what my ‘business’ is here in Russia), and—I was back!  I pretty much went straight to Му-Му (moo-moo) for snacks, then jumped on the bus to the metro.  All along the road were little old ladies selling berries picked straight from the forest by an array of lanky-looking men.  It was super warm, also—my first-ever hot weather in Russia!

My other first re-impression was the smell.  I’d forgotten about the Russia smell.  I mean, it’s normal for countries to smell different—the UK is really distinctive, as is Australia.  And apparently Russia.  It’s a weird musty smell, mixed with undertones of excrement and a coppery tang.  It’s strongest in the metro, but you can also smell it in the streets and on the roads.  It’s not really offensive, just different.

Then there’s the metro: it’s so good to be in a country with such excellent public transport again.  And navigating the metro is a breeze (having pre-downloaded Yandex.Metro was probably not a terrible idea).  In saying that, it would probably be very difficult for someone who can’t read Cyrillic, as the signs aren’t in English.  Actually I’ve been really surprised by how much English there is in Moscow—it’s far more than there was in St Petersburg when I lived there.  Lots more people seem to speak it, more signs are in English (though these are still rare), and apparently there’s a solid ex-pat community who actually hang out and speak it.  I went to a freaking comedy club with stand-up in English, for goodness’ sake!  (But more on that in a sec.)  All the same, even finding the hostel where I’m staying might be tricky, because nothing can be easy in Russia ;).  In fact, a lady at the hostel said that she thinks foreigners who come to Russia are ‘almost heroic’, because of its sheer difficulty.  Haha I’m really selling it here, right?!

A few hours after getting in I met up with Jack, who I did my CELTA course (fancy English teaching diploma) with in Prague.  We went out for an “epic pizza of epicness” (I wrote this in my notes for this post, but I think it was just the hunger talking) and some delicious lemonade (I’m such a child—and no, I’m not going to stop with the interjections).  We then popped next door, to the comedy bar.  Where a Russian guy speaking English with an American accent ripped on Australians for our inability to speak the English language.  Apparently he lived there for six years, and was stoked to arrive in an English-speaking country: only to realise that we maul the language so badly, he couldn’t make heads or tails of it.  He was pretty entertaining.

I was only out for a few hours—Jack left at about 11pm and I stayed on for another hour or so chatting to a couple of his friends.  The usual Russian bar stereotypes held (as pointed out by Jack)—there were many more women than men.  And actually there were mainly women in the sitting/drinking areas, and more guys on the dance-floor.  The exception being three incredibly thug-ish looking guys who were sitting in a booth and clearly planning on world take-over or robbing a bank—it was definitely one or the other.

Apart from that, my Russian language skills are extremely rusty, but I’m sure if I work on it heaps while I’m in Piter, I’ll get back up to scratch.  And hopefully ditch the Australian accent I’ve apparently gained.  (Because that’s a common accent for Russian speakers, right?!)

Posts re Saturday and Sunday-Monday will be up soon.

Ирония Судьбы Revisited

Arguably the most famous Russian film is Ironiya Sud’by, “The Irony of Fate”.  It’s tradition to watch it every New Year’s Eve—those who’ve been reading for a few years may recall that I watched it on NYE when I was living here.  It’s a very, very Russian story.  Basically, it’s set during Communist times, when everybody lived in the same type of flat, with the same type of furniture, on look-alike streets.  So this chap Zhenya Lukashin gets drunk at the banya with his buddies one night in Moscow, passes out, winds up on a plane thanks to some would-be helpful friends, and the next thing you know, he’s in Leningrad (St P).  He eventually wakes up in a state of confusion, and drunkenly catches a taxi, giving his home address.  That address also happens to exist in Leningrad, and the block of flats looks exactly the same, so wonders on in to ‘his’ home, where disasters abound.  It’s just the most Russian.

Anyway, one of my friends did something vaguely akin to this on Saturday night.  We had planned to go out, but instead he found himself inebriated and booking a train to St Petersburg.  By the time he realised (ie when I texted him asking when and where to meet him), it was too late—he was already well on his way.  But don’t you worry, I still arranged myself a thoroughly random Moscow night out.

I’m getting ahead of myself though, so quick recap—Saturday morning I took the free walking tour, as it had been a couple of years since I’d been to Moscow, and I wanted to reorient myself.  I then went for some food and a browse through a bookstore on Tverskaya, but wasn’t actually feeling very well, so went back to the hostel for some drugs and naps.  It was shortly after waking up that I discovered out that my friend Hoos had pulled a Zhenya.

Anyway, Hoos offered to get his friends to take me out, but they were… remarkably unresponsive (as it turned out, the guy in question’s phone battery ran out).  So I went for Japanese at Dve Palochki (I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again—Japanese food in Russia is so good!!!) and considered my options.

Naturally, my first step was to turn to Reddit.  I posted to the Moscow sub, asking what I should do with my evening.  However, the sub didn’t seem that active, and I’d heard that Couchsurfing (CS) was pretty big in Moscow, so I decided to check it out.  I’d never actually used Couchsurfing before other than to advertise a room (when I was living in St P) and to give other people references.  Nonetheless I eventually figured my way around (phone in one hand, chop-sticks in the other), and saw some guy had posted on the Moscow group asking if anyone was keen for a night out.  Perfect!

This guy, who we’re going to call Jensen (partly because I didn’t ask permission to use his name, and partly because he looks remarkably like the actor Jensen Ackles—side note, I realised on the train to St P that I actually spent all weekend with incredibly good-looking and intelligent men), was a Finnish guy in town for work.  I sent him a message via CS with my Russian number, and heard from him pretty quickly.  Then—to adventures!

Jensen told me he’d meet me at the exit to Kitay Gorod metro station, which was near where I was staying.  He arrived and said that he was near a ‘coffee house’ and a church.  Now, for those who don’t know, these are probably the two most common things in Russia.  Also, as it turns out, there are about a zillion exits to K-G.  So I checked all of them.  Eventually I found him by the statue of Cyril and Methodius, the monks who decided the Cyrillic alphabet was a good idea (I agree), and he was a thoroughly normal human being—see?  Internet strangers aren’t so scary :p.

Anyway, this just so happened to have been the start of the walking tour, and so we went for a stroll, me recounting some of the tour highlights as we went.  We walked up to and through Red Square, stopping by the front of the history museum (my favourite night-time Moscow sight to date), and seeing some kind of amazing fairy-tale show projected onto Moscow Manege.  From there we walked for a few more blocks, finding ourselves on Arbat Street.  And we hadn’t found a bar yet (apparently we’re blind).

We went walking up Arbat, and eventually found an Irish pub.  So yes, an Australian and a Finn went to an Irish pub in Russia.  Why not?  We ordered cocktails, and were eyed off (one eye only) by half a moose head.  We wondered where the other half was.

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Next we went in search of another bar, but are apparently just awful at finding them.  So we checked out my Reddit thread, as by this time, a few Muscovites had written suggestions for bars and clubs.  We looked at the various locations and settled on one, enticingly called ‘Hidden Bar’.  We’d done enough walking, so jumped in a taxi with an extremely friendly Georgian man.  I was in the back seat, and I remember at one point he was telling Jensen how there are ‘so many beautiful women’ in Moscow, but you have to be very, very rich ‘to get a good one’.

We made it to Hidden Bar, which was one of the least hidden bars I’ve ever encountered.  Other than the random address, that is.  I mean, there were seriously big signs and arrows all saying ‘Hidden Bar’ and pointing straight at it!  So we went on in, had another cocktail, and I completely failed at communicating in any way thanks to the music volume.  I tried though.  I tried my little heart out.

Finally we headed just down the street to Cuba Libre, which had extraordinarily loud music inside, but had an outdoors section where we could actually sit and chat.  Ha maybe it sounds a bit weird, but it was so nice to have a normal conversation with a normal guy around my age.  Most of the people at school are in their early twenties, which is fine of course, but it does make a difference.  Actually, this is something Jensen mentioned—he was saying how he’d often dated older women, and how one time when he was 22, he was turned down by one.  Apparently he was quite offended, as there was obviously nothing wrong with him—but now, looking back, he can see how much he’s grown, and how different he is now to the person he was then.  I’m trying to be delicate in my phrasing here, so I guess it’s kind of like your face—as you get older you lose the fat from your face and it becomes more defined.  The same kind of happens to your character.  (Is that PC?  Did I achieve tact?  If so, it’ll be a first.)

Anyway, it was 3:30 and starting to get light (featured image), so we called it a night.  He disappeared into a taxi, and I (after taking a photo of a map on his phone) wandered off into the night.  I stopped and asked directions a couple of times, but wasn’t actually that far from my hostel, so was back by 4am.  With the, worst, blisters.  Haha my shoes are full of blood, it’s pretty impressive.  But that’s fine—and what’s more, when I got back, I discovered that I had the room to myself!  I exclaimed as much to the lady on the desk, and she said that she was going to check a guy into my room, but then she saw I had it all to myself, so figured she’d leave me like that.  Best logic ever??  But yes, that was my internet-led night.  I’m calling it a win.

Быстрее

I’m writing this post from my seat in the Moscow->St Petersburg 22:42 train, which will see me there at around 6:30 tomorrow morning.  I am, incidentally or otherwise, sweating like…  something like really sweaty—and not just because it’s about a billion degrees in here, but because (again) I’ve just done a lot of running to make the train on time.  This follows Friday’s exploits, which involved running through the airport.  Man, how is punctuality so hard?!  But yes, I got to my carriage at 22:41, with about 30 seconds to spare.  I need to stop doing this to myself…

Anyway, I’m going to tell you about the train.  Last time I travelled to Moscow (from Piter), I booked a ‘kupe’ ticket, where you get a little cabin which is shared with three others.  This is fairly standard for overnight trains across Europe at least (though I did catch one from Bucharest in Romania to Athens, and that was seated the whole way.  It wasn’t pleasant.).  You also occasionally get 2-berths, but that’s very rare.

Nowadays, I buy ‘plats-kart’ tickets in Russia, which is where you sleep in a carriage with over 40 other people.  Haha it’s not as awful as it sounds, honestly.  But right now I’m writing from berth 41—and I’m lucky in that there’s no-one in 42 above me.  The carriages are arranged in semi-partitioned sections, with two sets of bunk beds laterally, facing another set of bunk beds arranged longitudinally.  P1160970It’s pretty chilled, it’s wayyyy cheaper (I paid just over 2000rubles, so around AU$55 or 40-45EUR for the 713.8km journey), and it’s just more festive.  Even sleeping, it’s festive.  I’m here with people from all walks of life, from all over Russia, and it’s typically very unlikely that anybody speaks English.  The kupe cabins seem to be more business people, and then there are the fancy cabins for people with fancy amounts of money.  Eugh, my amounts of money are so un-fancy, I’m preoccupied with the fact I accidentally just left a 500ruble deposit at my hostel.  That’s like AUD$12!  I… need a job.  But yes, I also don’t really look like the other people on the train—for one, I look a damn sight healthier, which is concerning.  Plus taller.  Also, I’m mistaken for German or Scando, not Russian.  In fact apparently I stand out enough that the train lady came up to me and asked if I actually wanted to be in a kupe cabin instead.

The last two days have been really wonderful.  After Saturday night, I awoke at a fairly reasonable time (and, naturally, well after ‘check-out time’) and considered my options.  Should I go to St Petersburg that night (where I would spend way less money), or wait until Monday night?  Obviously I opted for the latter.

I’d been in touch with Artur, who I met last time I was in Moscow.  We’d decided to meet at Kolomonskoe metro, and go for a walk in the big park there.  Russians are so good at parks!  Well, in some respects.  In the ‘for’ column is the sheer size and prettiness; in the ‘against’ column is the fact that girls still wear stilettos—for as Artur said, no obstacle is too great for a Russian woman in heels.  Paths, cobblestones, mud—they’ll take it all.

After an immediate picnic on the grass because I was about to eat somebody, zombie-style, we went walking through the park for 4-5 hours.  It was full of apple trees in bloom, a pond that we kept accidentally returning to, ice-cream stands as always, and beds of beautiful tulips.  At one end was a tsar’s palace (there seem to be a lot of those), which the sign described as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ (again, there are a lot of those).  Actually, the sign was really cool: it was in Russian, English, and Braille, and below the writing was a drawing of the palace which was done in raised ridges, so that blind people could sort of ‘see’ the Wonder.

Afterward we went to Шоколадница, Shokoladnitsa, which as the name suggests, is a magical place of chocolatey goodness.  We had dinner and ‘real’ hot chocolates, which was actually just melted chocolate in a mug (win!), and talked for another 3-4 hours.  Haha never put language teachers in the same room together, right?!

Today I had a nice little sleep-in again, and was again in my own room.  How good is that?!  Then I decided it might be a good idea to check out Lenin’s tomb.  Which turned out to be a bit of a fail, as it’s closed on Monday.  But that’s okay, I’m not really that into seeing embalmed dudes anyway.  Instead I went for a bit of a walk.  I trailed through Red Square and the Aleksandrovskij Gardens then headed up to Arbat Street.

Arbat was busy at night, but during the day it’s something else.  It was full of street performers, cafés with their tables outside in the sunshine, artists displaying their wares, and of course, people everywhere.  Entering the street I saw someone wearing a Cheburashka costume, and my goodness, I love Cheburashka.  I actually have a little toy sitting on the blind in my room, and several more back in Australia.  Not to mention a book.  And all of the original series on my laptop.  Anyhow, clearly I was getting a photo with life-size Cheburashka no matter what it took.

Also there were a pirate (presumably Cap’n Jack?), and the two mascots from the Winter Olympics.  I didn’t care about them at all, but who am I to exclude anyone?  So I ended up having the pirate hat popped on my head (after the pirate’s surprise at my huge noggin), sandwiched between Cheburashka and whatever-they’re-called.  Then photo time!

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Afterward they said “5”.  To which my response was “five hundred?”  The pirate, being true to form, said yes.  I told him I’d give him two.  Which I did.  Then he asked nicely so I gave him another hundred.  Haha he was having a laugh.

Next I walked across to Tverskaya Street, which is a super-fancy street, and probably the most well-known in Moscow.  It is money, and it leads straight to Red Square.  I wanted to return to a bookstore I’d checked out on Saturday—specifically, the politics section.  There are some ‘interesting’ titles on Ukraine.  I particularly enjoyed the chapter headings about the USA being full of Nazis, and “Germany’s plans” for Ukraine.  Needless to say, I bought one of the more dramatic titles for posterity.

After around five hours of walking about in the sun I was quite tired, so went back to the hostel for a rest and to do some writing.  [Side note: a very smelly but very nice man from the Caucausus just helped me lift my suitcase up out of the way.  I’m so touched whenever anyone helps me lift stuff, it’s definitely the way to my heart—and if the lifter happens to be good-looking?  Well, I don’t not think ‘take me now’.)  Then I went to get some more excellent Japanese food at Ваби-Саби Vabi-Sabi, though I must say it’s nowhere near as good as Две Палочки Dve Palochki (‘Two Sticks’), before heading out.  Yes, heading out, before catching my overnight train.  Because if there’s one thing I am, it’s sensible. /s

I was actually only going just around the corner from my hostel, where Jack (from Friday) was running the ‘Moscow Pub Quiz’.  He runs it every two weeks, with different people hosting, and apparently it’s become quite a thing.  After a few awkward minutes post-arrival, Jack told me to sit down at the bar (I was clearly looking at least as awkward as I felt), where the girl next to me said hello.  She recognised me from Friday night, and invited me onto their trivia team.  Then another of the girls from Friday came over for a chat as well.  Haha I felt like I knew people!

I won’t know the result of the trivia until I next have internet (in St Petersburg), as I had to leave before all of the answers had been given and checked.  So I’m going to try and get some sleep now, and will be very intensely thinking “go team Black Flamingo” in my dreams.  And because I can’t help myself, further side-note: I learned tonight that apparently flamingos are white, and they only turn pink because of all the crab they eat.  What?!  Mind, blown.

PS, I realise I haven’t posted about Saturday yet, but will do and back-date within the next day or so.