San José

I ended up in Costa Rica after meeting a Costa Rican guy on a course I attended in Fribourg Switzerland last year. The conversation pretty much went “you should come to Costa Rica”; “okay, that seems like a good idea”; and here we are.

Anyway, the guy in question is called Guillermo, and he lives in San José. The Dutchie and I had floated the idea of leaving a bunch of our stuff with him prior to heading down the Carribbean coast, and so we planned to catch up with him in San José in the evening. As it turns out, it was a holiday in San José and he had the day off work, so I wanted to head down earlier; also as it turns out, Anouk lost her phone, so there was no point in her sticking around in La Fortuna to make her WhatsApp date.  As such, we had our clothes laundered (sorely, *sorely* needed), then caught the bus out of La Fortuna for San José at 12:45.

I’m ahead of myself, though: I haven’t actually spoken about La Fortuna as a town.  I liked it, it had a good feeling to it, and lots of cute little nooks and things to explore. It was definitely a bit of a tourist town, but not in the same was as Tamarindo was: for one, where Tamarindo was an American enclave, La Fortuna was more European (many Dutchies and Germans); for two, La Fortuna was less trashy, and generally had way more chill.

In the morning before catching our coach (no apologies for the non-chromonological order of this post), we went for breakfast at a reggae bar called something along the lines of ‘Lava Lounge’, which fundraised to take care of stray local dogs.  We had some delicious huevos rancheros–and the waiter, Max, was hilarious.  At no apparent prompt, he tapped me on one shoulder while walking off in the other direction, and I started giggling hysterically.  It was so ridiculously unexpected.

Leapfrogging ahead in time once more, our bus to San José took quite a while–some 4.5-5 hours–though glady I managed to get some sleep for around an hour of that.  Upon arrival, we found a really nice hostel: Van Gogh hostel, near Terminal Mepe.  It was clean, spacious, quiet, and the owner was a lovely guy.  We’re going back there this upcoming Sunday.

Our next movement was to try and find somewhere to buy the Dutchie a new phone, because she is a legit addict.  The hostel owner suggested we catch an Uber to Walmart, which we did.  We then failed at finding anything at all we were looking for: Anouk found a phone she liked, but neither that store nor any other had the actual item for sale.  Then we couldn’t find an appropriate daypack for the Dutchie either, and we couldn’t find a needle and thread for me (as my pack has lost a strap).  Also, our blood sugar was getting pretty low, so things were getting somewhat silly.

At this point Guillermo came to our rescue, picking us up, and taking us to an Irish pub for dinner. We then went to a cool little bar, Casa, where I had some delicious sangria.  Anouk was also in heaven, as both the Irish pub (the Craic) and Casa had huge beer lists.  There really seems to be a cool craft beer/indie-type bar scene going on in San José.

Today, the phone/pack mission continued.  We headed to a nearby mall, failing to find a new phone for Anouk or a needle for me.  We did get some thread, though, so that was halfway there.  We also stopped by a bookstore, so that I could get some more books with which to practice my Spanish reading comprehension :).  The Dutchie, meanwhile, found herself a travel neck-pillow, which folds up to be a soft toy elephant.

I asked lots of people in the mall, and eventually someone suggested that we go to the central market in town to get a needle.  We were starting to run a little short of time, so caught a taxi, and not only found a needle almost immediately, but had time to continue the phone mission!  A lady who assisted with my Costa Rican phone number recharge gave us a place to head towards, and we started ducking into each and every phone store on the way, finding the phone the Dutchei wanted, and comparing prices.  And finally, success!!

San José I think has a bit of a bad rep.  It’s not really tauted as a travel destination, but our feeling is that you have to dig below the surface a little.   Yes, it’s gritty–my ‘danger danger!’ signals were going off in the areas around the bus stop, for example–but there’s a lot of life around, and a lot to discover.

We also saw reflected what the Tico from our ex-Tamarindo bus had been talking about, with many immigrants and a lot of economic disparity.  This is something our hostel guy expounded upon at breakfast time, too.  He’s an interesting guy who has travelled a lot and lived in quite a few places, and he sees the same trends occurring in Costa Rica as in the seemingly rest of the world at the moment.  He said that there were huge issues with refugees and irrendentism, pointing at Nicaragua taking land from Colombia, for example, and making a play at Guanacaste in the north of Costa Rica (where Liberia is located).  There’s a wall that has gone up between Costa Rica and Nicaragua to assist with issues, and he said that there are similarly hot borders across Central and South America, narcotrafficking, money laundering (he said this was 90% of Panama’s national income, for example), and deeply antagonistic relationships.  Coutnries such as Costa Rica and Colombia are pointed at as debauched capitalist societies, against the interests of countries such as Nicaragua (which, as you can tell, came up a lot).  There’s a lot of xenophobic scape-goating taking place in Costa Rica and Nicaragua alike, and these sentiments are mobilised by politicians and media for instrumental purposes.  The Costa Rican middle class has its taxes raised to pay for the poor, while the rich get richer. Diatribes in the region take an economic left/right slant rather than the more conservative/liberal slant you see in left/right arguments in Europe, for example: but the issues are the same.  Our poor hostelier couldn’t see any future that wasn’t bleak, that didn’t result in war in the next 15 years, in the region or more generally: with lack of education, inequality, corruption, exploitation, and mobilised xenophobia, he sees it as a powder keg.

The Dutchie and I are now on a bus to Puerto Viejo, on the south-eastern coastline of Costa Rica.  We’ve ditched a lot of our stuff at our San José hostel, partly beacuse there’s been a rise in dangerous drug trafficking-type people in the area, and partly because why would be schlepp it around?!  We actually only managed to get one seated ticket for this bus, so we’re together in the baggage/disabled area, which I honestly don’t mind.  We have WAY more room than in the seats,a can get up and stretch etc, and I can whip out my keyboard and type out our adventures of the past few days.  3.25 hours down; one or two to go.

It was not air conditioned.

No Dill

(13-Jul-15)

Well here I am, back in vertical Germany, and finally starting to catch up on my Russia posts.  Needless to say, they’re completely out of order—but what are you going to do about it?!

Staying with Naz reminded me of all the little details about life in Russia.  She and her Belorussian bf live in an old Soviet apartment, in the Primorskiy District—partly developed, but still quite old.  There’s this ubiquitous grime covering everything, as though you’re seeing the world through a faint coffee stain.  There are the little old ladies selling flowers, the stalls with baked goods at the start of the day, the fruits and vegetables being hawked, and people wearing loudspeakers which broadcast ads at you, while their wearers bear indifferent faces.

After walking past the crying sounds of a harmonica one day, we got on the marshrutka (bus) to head into town—only to be greeted with a mouth full of gold teeth.  Not that the driver was smiling.  I think his teeth were just uncomfortable, meaning his mouth had to be propped open.  He then took us on quite the adventure—I’ve never been on a bus which did a u-turn in the middle of the street before!

It’s always quite interesting to have Naz’s South African perspective to be honest.  She describes Russia, even the cities (themselves a world away from the rest of the country), as being like the undeveloped parts of South Africa, or akin to the more dilapidated and uncared-for cities.  We started talking about different countries’ equivalents of bogans, about the trashy clothes, the bad hair, the grab and run attitude that you can’t go a day without seeing in Russia.  Incidentally, at this point I think I have to establish some kind of bogan scale, because nobody ever knows what the hell I’m talking about.  Basically, ‘bogan’ is Australian for a non-violent, opinionated person of typically low education or socio-economic status.  But I’m an idiot and didn’t make this graph 3d in order to incorporate opinions:

On a very much related note, someone peed in the lift to Naz’s flat.  The only way into the building, and someone decided it would serve better as a urinal.  And not even once, but multiple times in the week!  Eventually someone cracked and wrote “НЕ ПИСАЙТЕ В ЛИФТЕ!”, “don’t piss in the lift!”.  The next day, someone had rubbed out the не/don’t.  Next step in the battle was someone rewriting in the не, and also adding the same text in bright red on the other wall of the lift.  Who the fuck has a piss-battle over a lift?!

Anyhoo.  One of the few inconveniences associated with living in Russia is the fact that the water gets turned off in summer.  Usually just the hot water, though it could go either way.  And we’re not talking about an especially balmy country here—there are no palm fronds in sight.  Of course, the most inconvenient part is the fact that you’re not told when the water will be turned off, nor how long it will be turned off for.  Usually it’s a few weeks to just over a month, but it could really be any time.  And we don’t understand why—it’s not like other far-northern countries do this, though the Russian explanation seems to be something to do with checking the pipes.  How and what and why?!  Either way, it led to our  spending a couple of hours each day heating pots of water on the (ineffective) stove, then sploshing around in the bath scooping water over ourselves.

On one occasion Naz and I decided to go in search of a hairdresser, because washing your hair takes a fair bit of water, and doing it with freezing cold water isn’t that much fun.  After rather a number of hairdressers, we eventually found one that would wash our hair for under 1000 rubles (total rip-off), and who would let us go into the street with wet hair (though they thought we were crazy).  They were lovely, though Naz’s hairdresser was apparently pretty fond of booze, and smelled it.  Professionalism ftw!

I’m going to skip talking about dill and my hatred of it for the nth time, because it can really be summarised with (a) I hate dill (b) I always request ‘no dill’ (c) food always arrives with goddamn dill.  DILL IS DISGUSTING.

As mentioned in my post ‘Вернуться‘, I bumped into one of the managers of the brilliant Eclectic Translations in a book-store in Piter.  Eclectic is the company that did the English subtitles for Leviathan, the Yolki films, and a bazillion more—they’re brilliant.  Anyway I went to ‘Trannie’ (Translator) Tuesdays at their in-house bar a couple of times while in St Petersburg and had a fairly brilliant time drinking far too much wine.  The first time I went, I got rather unplannedly tipsy, and pretty much announced as much when walking in the door at Naz’s apartment.  She’d been expecting me, so had had water heating up on the stove for my bath.  I therefore found myself, post-vodka, sitting in an old rusty Soviet bath, washing myself in an inch or so of water, and happy as Larry.  Really all I needed was a rubber duck to complete the scene.  Naz then proceeded to take the piss out of everything, to my hysterical reaction.  My favourite line was “Fuck Zurich; I’ve never been to Switzerland, but I don’t think I like it.  Zurich poo-rich”.  Yup; much maturity was had.

I did learn one thing of particular interest, in relation to Russian border security.  One of Naz’s friends was due to come in on a cruise ship, and generally customers on a cruise apparently don’t need visas, as they are under the ‘captain’s cloak’ (ie the captain’s authority).  Not for Russia, though.  Recently the country decided to withdraw that privilege, in a fairly unprecedented (from what I gather) fashion.  So now there was a big ship full of people stuck in port.  However, in Russia there’s always a way, always a rule to be broken, always a way around.  In this case, passengers were told that as long as they booked a particular tour with a particular company (at an exorbitant price, no less), they could enter St Petersburg.  You couldn’t pay directly, though—you had to pay in euro, to a bank account in Norway.  Not sketchy.  Not sketchy at all.  (Russia never is.)

A Poem for Tony

There are a few things which make me angry. Pretty high on that list are sexism, racism, climate change deniers, stupidity, and people who are bad at their jobs. As you can imagine, therefore, I’m not a big fan of the current Australian Government. In fact, the last federal election sent me into an unparalleled fb friend cull, and I still can’t talk about it without getting a rage headache. Not just rage at the politicians you understand, but at those morons who were uneducated, greedy or simply short-sighted enough to vote for them. (Deep breaths Laura, deep breaths).

Now, as we’ve seen before, when I get angry I like to write angry poems (to Greyhound coaches; to my travel agent). So, here is, as requested, a hopefully cathartic and highly sarcastic explosion at our dear prime minister, Tony Abbott. In verse.


Dearest PM Tony, it’s little old me,
Wanting to say please DO take down ABC.
Impartiality has no place in journalism,
When it compromises values like good Aussie patriotism.Cos I’m just like you, our feelings the same:
To think other nations equal, it’s a crying shame.
You’re doing a great job, don’t listen to journos
Screw those balanced bastards, let’s of them dispose.

And the UN! How dare they suggest
That our actions toward asylum seekers aren’t simply the best?
Protocol on Refugees? Treaties galore?
I didn’t sign ’em, so I say ‘what for?’

And as to these upstarts, the ICJ
Us spying?  Rigging prices?  They’re being led astray.
So don’t worry, dear Tony, I say screw the law
Ignore our commitments with gusto and guffaw.

Then there’s those bloody boat people, how dare they intrude?
And how dare they say their return is so rude?
There’s opportunities where they came from, I can’t believe they’re so lazy
Instead on a cruise–surely they’re crazy!

At least we’re doing a great job, clearing the way,
Immigration’ll nab ’em, once we clear all the cays.
And I’m so glad we’re destroying the Great Barrier Reef
I hate fish, and coral, and tourists, believe!

Then there’s ‘global warming’, what a complete joke
And cancel the carbon tax–what total hoke.
And there’s news that we’ve added to our temperature scale
What reporting is this–another ABC fail?

And speaking of getting hot under the collar,
There’s another thing about which I’ll holler:
Those impudent Canberrans I’ll have to disparage–
They tried to legislate to allow gay marriage!

Thank goodness you were there, Tony, my hero
You destroyed that legislation, set them right back to zero.
Because this ‘love’ between other people is surely our business
How dare they claim rights, it’s all a great menace!

And speaking of things to do with people and beds
What a stroke of genius, giving $200 to newly-weds
And taking it away from disabled and old
Straight marriage is more important: way to be bold!

Then there’s your foreign policy, about which I can’t say
Because all I’m good for is a roll in the hay:
Don’t you worry sir, we’ll get to that bit
Cos, after all, it’s one of your hits.

While Indonesia threatens with missiles and planes,
It’s nothing to me if it goes down the drain.
And as to our vaunted relationship with China?
What do I know?–I’ve got a vagina.

And we all know what that’s good for, don’t we old chap?
It all comes down to what sits in my lap.
You’re the guy who sold his daughters on national TV-
“I’m the one with hot daughters, so vote for me!

But of course you’re right, despite what I thought
It must have been that I was wrongfully taught
Though I’ve got two degrees and have written a book,
I should be despatched to the kitchen and immediately cook.

I know, cos you’ve told me, men have these ‘aptitudes’,
(I can’t believe I’d listened to Y gen attitudes!)
If I did aught but housework, it’d be nothing bar tragic:
I’m good at these things, because vagina magic.

Keep stripping that money from higher education
We don’t need any more qualifications in our great nation.
Cancel the program, cancel the class;
Those ‘professionals’ at unis just sit on their ass.

Then there’s the NBN, the national broadband network
I have a great secret, don’t think I’m a jerk:
This whole internet thing is ‘evil’, it’s plain to see
The train’s full of people staring at phones on their knee.

It’s brought no benefits, it’s not useful for work
We don’t need it for community or to go to the kirk.
And while I guess I admitted in Russia it’s faster,
It’s fine staying slow, ignore these past ‘masters’.

And how could I forget–I love big oil,
Promise you’ll subsidise, and the Greenies you’ll foil.
It’s clear fossil fuels are the way of the future–
And those big mining co’s could sure use a booster.

But back to the fish, and the forests, and trees:
Declassifying World Heritage areas makes you the bees’ knees.
We need no trees in our future, after all, we’re Aussies,
And we know that air’s just as plentiful as mozzies.

I know there’s those reports about Australian living standards–
Second to Norway?  We’ll surely them hand it.
And clearly this sits not on liberties, nor education;
No need for such things to be super-nation.

It sits not on our economy (it matters not you’ve no plan)
Nor on our environment–I think you’re the man!
And obviously we’re intrinsically better than all other places
Take that, rest of the world, up in yo faces.

Because as we all know, it’s not circular logic;
(Which I don’t understand, for reasons gynaecologic)
Australia’s the best, we don’t need to try
So fuck everything, for this job you’re the guy.

Tony: “it dismays Australians when the national broadcaster appears to take everyone’s side but its own and I think it is a problem.”Tony: “[asylum seekers are] people who are attempting to break Australian law” (more links: 1, 2, 3, etc) 

(ICJ =International Court of Justice in the Hague)
Charges by East Timor. Asylum seekers allegedly mistreated; towed to Indonesia, in defiance of international law.Tony: “Jesus knew that there was a place for everything and it’s not necessarily everyone’s place to come to Australia.”

 

Tony: “The climate change argument is absolute crap, however the politics are tough for us because 80 per cent of people believe climate change is a real and present danger.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tony: “I think it would be folly to expect that women will ever dominate or even approach equal representation in a large number of areas simply because their aptitudes, abilities and interests are different for physiological reasons”; “The problem with the Australian practice of abortion is that an objectively grave matter has been reduced to a question of the mother’s convenience.”; “What the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing is that if they get it done commercially it’s going to go up in price and their own power bills when they switch the iron on are going to go up, every year…”

kirk = church in older dialects

 

Tony: “Why isn’t the fact that 100,000 women choose to end their pregnancies regarded as a national tragedy approaching the scale, say, of Aboriginal life expectancy being 20 years less than that of the general community?”

 

 

 

 

 

Ladies and gentlemen, my prime minister:

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.

Добрая Девушка

It’s a fine line between ‘remembering forever’ and ‘scarred for life’, but that’s the line I tried to walk when I criticised my student’s essay last week.  Like I said, I was very upset after I read it, and knew that he would have known the effect it would have on me.  As such, it was something that needed to be addressed.

After the lesson’s warmer, I asked the students to brainstorm things that would offend a Westerner such as myself.  This was actually on-topic, as we’ve been doing some work on conflict resolution styles over the past couple of weeks.  Also, as my students are obviously learning English, they need to know how to approach the people they’ll talk to in that language.

Once they’d had some time to think, each student wrote a few things on the board, and we discussed them as a class.  We talked about which things were always offensive (eg emotional/sexual/physical abuse), which were usually inappropriate (eg racism, religious intolerance) and which were okay depending on your audience (eg swearing).  I then asked the student who wrote the essay from my ‘intolerance‘ post to stand in front of the class.

I reminded the class that the student was to have written an essay about why he should do his homework, and that he would now read what he wrote to the class.  I asked the class to identify any things which were offensive, based on our list on the board.  (I grouped homophobia together with sexism, partly because that way I’m not breaching St P’s anti-gay laws, and mostly because it’s essentially the same issue—discrimination based on what genitals you have, vs what you like to do with them).

The student then out-right refused to read the essay.  The others all wanted to hear what he’d written, as they knew it must be bad for me to lead into it like that.  I could see the kid felt ashamed, and honestly, my heart ached for him.  I let him squirm for a couple of minutes, then asked him to identify which things on the board he’d demonstrated in his essay.  He identified ‘racism’, ‘tactlessness’ and then ‘sexism’ pretty quickly, and I let him sit down.  I then said the effect that reading the essay had on me.  I’m not aiming for cultural imperialism, but it’s important for my students to be able to identify which issues they have to tread lightly around, and actually as a result of that my students are becoming more and more liberal.  They’re reflecting more and more on whether saying a particular thing is racist, homophobic, etc, and it’s interesting to see them considering their own reactions and assumptions.

The kid looked miserable for the rest of class, and then afterward came up to me to apologise.  He said that he’d had “the devil in him” that day, and that he was upset over things that had happened at school.  He said that he couldn’t believe he had written something like that, that he was very deeply ashamed of himself, and that it wouldn’t happened again.  He was fine the next lesson, so I think I managed ‘the line’ fairly well.

Actually, my decimation of this poor kid was fairly useful on another front.  One recent exercise my groups have been doing is to re-word a letter to make it more forceful.  A lot of them have inserted swearing or personal insults, with only a rare few being colder/more formal/logical, or alternately more emotive and manipulative.  After one kid read his letter out, I stopped the class and said that simply swearing at or degrading someone wouldn’t win arguments with a Westerner—actually, it would make them sound like uneducated children.  I asked them whether that’s how they’d argue in Russian (bear in mind these are teenagers) and they said yes.  I asked whether yelling insults at each other felt good, and they said “yes, if we win.”  To me, this isn’t solving a conflict, it’s just a ‘might makes right’ situation.  As such, I’m now trying to work with them to find better, non-degrading, methods of resolving conflict and disputes, with a focus on logic and on respecting other peoples’ needs and feelings.  (You know, when I was doing ‘Personal Development’ class in high school, I never would have thought it would turn out to be one of the most useful courses I did!)  I’ve even got one student reading Plato’s Euthyphro: while in it, Euthyphro comes off looking stupid thanks to Socrates’ arguments, it is very logical.  I figure the possibility to make someone else look stupid is the hook for this particular student, while the text itself will hopefully lead him to develop his analytical abilities a little more.

Phew.  Longest paragraph in the world!  Speaking of things getting out of control, I accidentally wrote a mini-blog post on the fb page earlier this week.  I decided to include it here as well, as all of the articles are really interesting.  I’ll write a post about the Russian economy etc soon (it’s just a matter of trying to find the time to write!), but this should keep you going in the meantime:

I watched this brilliant video about US wealth inequality, and remembered how a man in a Bulgarian restaurant had a mini-rant at me about how things are ‘crazy’ in America, how wealth is unfairly distributed to doctors and lawyers.After watching the video, I decided to look into Russia’s wealth inequality. Here’s a brilliant quote from Credit-Suisse’s 2012 Global Wealth Report:

“Excluding small Caribbean nations with resident billionaires, wealth inequality in Russia is the highest in the world. Worldwide there is one billionaire for every USD 194 billion in household wealth; Russia has one billionaire for every USD 15 billion. Worldwide, billionaires collectively account for less than 2% of total household wealth; in Russia today, around 100 billionaires own 30% of all personal assets.”

A pension in Russia is ~AU$250 a month, and the average monthly salary is ~AU$670. For the record, living costs here are about the same as they are in Australia.

Here are a couple of really interesting articles which are absolutely worth reading: Russia’s wealth gap wounds Putin; Wealth and Poverty in modern Russia

I find it interesting that, as a former purportedly communist country, Russia is so plagued with inequalities.  There’s the economic situation as typefied in some of the articles I’ve linked above, and then the social situation and mores such as racism, as demonstrated by my student.  It brings me back to George Orwell—it seems that some are still more equal than others.  I wonder how long it will stay that way?

I’d like to finish on an adorable note: late Monday night, as I was still stressing over whether I’d been too harsh with my student that day, another student sent me a message out-of-the-blue on vkontakte:

Student: “Laura, you are truly the greatest teacher, I have ever now!”
Me: “Nawwwwwww thanks name!!  That’s very sweet of you 🙂 :)”
Student: “It is true!!!”

It’s hard to have any self-doubt when they’re so adorable!  <3

Lastly, here’s a video I rather enjoyed (all in Russian, but you’ll get it even if you don’t speak it)