The romantic life

Last night, I was at dinner with the two girls I’ve been sharing a room with for the past week in Istanbul, when one of them suddenly said, “Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about love.”  The other two of us waited to see where the sentence was going, but apparently that was it.  The other girl said that Istanbul is a very romantic city, that there’s something in the air here, and I’m inclined to agree.

Last time I was in Istanbul (March 2012), I absolutely hated it.  The city itself doesn’t call to me, the food’s bad, and the constant hassling from men was intolerable.  This time though, with friends, it’s much less offensive.  Granted, I’m spending 90% of the time in our hostel/hotel room, studying and working on projects (much-needed time!), but even our sojourns into the outside world have been quite nice.  It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Turkish men are generally very good-looking.

After the hecticness that was last Saturday night, I and the girls from my hostel room at that time turned up fairly late to the conference.  We weren’t sure if it was going ahead for the final day (and the organisers were more than lax in communicating with us), and plus, we had to navigate around the tear-gas which surrounded the conference centre.  At one point, I heard tear gas fired at least sixteen times in the same place, and you can see in this photo I took on my phone the remnants of the smoke:


I wasn’t paying much attention to the conference that morning, and barely anyone turned up.  Some had been out all night in strangers’ houses, having been let in to escape the omnipresent tear gas; the rest of us were too excited by what was happening around us.  Others  were still trapped in different parts of the city.  Anyway, I headed to the social media centre to let people know I was alive, and saw a message from one of the girls in my room that they were going to leave the conference early and move from Taksim to the city, as the centre’s security guards had told them that they were worried about the conference centre being stormed and gassed by the police.  I decided to join them, and so before midday we were back in our hostel in Taksim (where I became friends with the girl who worked there, in the end!), packing our things to head to the city.  I’ve been here since, and will remain a few more days before returning to Athens, where the food is better!

At first in our room there were four of us—myself, a Colombian girl, an Argentinian and a Greek.  I’m surrounded by warm country people again!  The Colombian left after the first two days, and it’s just been the three of us since.  They’ve been a good influence on me already, even in such a short time—they’re both called Marina, but I’ve renamed one of them Sensei since she’s told me that every time I say something angry thanks to ‘Russian Syndrome’, I have to say something nice afterward.  Other Marina just now threatened me to make sure I said nice things in this blog post haha!

Before I forget to mention it, the conference itself was very mixed.  I made some good contacts and got a piece of paper to bolster my environmental accreditations, but it was all a bit blah.  The first day wasn’t very useful for those of us who’ve given presentations or delivered training before.   The second day started well, with Al Gore giving his presentation, but to be honest the presentation is very strong on proving climate change and almost entirely lacking in solutions (and completely lacking in ‘next steps’, or things that the individual consumer or business can do to minimise their impact).  Also, at the end of the day he became true to his ‘Al God’ persona, and went full evangelical climate minister: there were fake tears, there was whispering followed by shouting—he completely lost me, and a lot of the rest of the audience.  The third day, as I’ve said, most people were absent.  The organisers, meanwhile, were the only people with the complete list of attendees: and not only did they not acknowledge the fact that our building was surrounded by riot police and tear gas, but they didn’t even check that people were okay.  We didn’t even know if everyone was safe.

As I said, I’ve been mainly staying in the hostel/hotel room (it’s kind of a hostel, next to kind of a hotel, and we’ve moved rooms three times so it’s all a little muddled!), catching up on studies and work.  I’ve been using edX, the free online university program recently launched by Harvard/Berkeley/MIT etc, to do a course on ‘Global Human Health and Climate Change’, and it’s been absolutely fantastic.  I can’t recommend the programme enough—and more courses are being added every semester.

I’ve also finally paid my uni fees to London, given that the Australian dollar is absolutely tanking.  It’s lost ten cents on the green-back in the last few weeks, and due to lose another twenty by November.  Needless to say, my budget is screwed!  So that’s all official, and I’m committed.  Creeeeepy.  My eventual probably-plan is to upgrade the graduate diploma in geography & environment into a Masters of Public Policy (Climate Change).  Meanwhile, my dear friend Reda is trying to convince me to apply for that Masters at Cambridge, of all places!  I’m not so sure..!

I have also, finally, started writing.  I promised my Nan years ago that I’d write a book, and so I’ve started in on that.  I’m determined to finish it for her, and I have enough spare time in the next few months to make some serious headway.  I’ve also been teaching English via Skype to a guy in Moscow, at the request of my friend Alex.  He recently opened a language school in St Petersburg, and asked me to do it as a favour.  It’s a lot of work for little money, but it’s only for the four weeks until I go to Finland, and it’s money I’d not have had otherwise.  More to the point, he’s a decent guy, and it would be good if schools like his would succeed, while those run by much less nice people would fail.  Because apparently I’m vindictive like that!

On a lighter note, coming home from dinner last night, we stopped at a pudding shop to pick up some dessert.  The three of us were crowded around a menu, with one of the others reading out the items.  She got to profiteroles, read out ‘cream-filled balls’, looked at me, and started giggling.  The other Marina joined in, while I tried to control myself for the conservative crowd around us.  But then she just kept saying ‘cream-filled balls’, and finally simply ballsballsballsballsballs, and I gave in.  The three of us were standing there laughing uncontrollably for probably three minutes, while a Turkish waiter looked on like we were crazy people.  We finally stopped, and he looked at me and said, “yes, pistachios are funny, aren’t they!?”.  What could I do but nod?

Anyway, it’s dinner-time here in Turkey, so we’re off on the quest to find some cheap vegetarian food once more.  Пока пока :))

PS—the ‘featured image’ today is the view from where I’m writing 🙂


My hostel, Taksim Istanbul: Green House Hostel.  The hostel in Sultanahmet, Istanbul: Yakamoz Guesthouse.

Cheese and random noises.

Nastya and I went on an adventure to Выборг (Vyborg), a couple of hours north of Petersburg.  In keeping with my expectations of Russia, things got random. I am not, and have never been, a morning person: so when we got on the train, I blew up my neck pillow, put on my eye mask, and tried to go to sleep.  Then a salesman came out.  It’s pretty normal to encounter a range of salespeople on local trains in Russia, selling everything from magazines to potato peelers.  Not this guy, though: this guy was selling balloons.  Awesome balloons.  Balloons “which you can blow up 50 times and then let them go and they make a funny sound”.  They can even travel up to the third floor of a building when you let them go!  (So evidently, they were nothing like every other kind of balloon..)  Later that day we saw a couple walking around with one of these vaunted balloons, and they also look pretty much like an giant inflatable… well, you’ll get it: LauraMaySkillen (15 of 20) After arriving in Vyborg, we headed straight to a pub for the essentials: coffee and food.  When ordering my omelette, Nastya started giggling at me and I wondered why: she tried to cover by saying how it’s great that i’m so unusually conversational in Russian, but then later she confessed it’s because I say ‘cheese’ funnily.  I can normally say the letter ‘ы’, but when it’s between ‘с’ and ‘р’ I just completely fail!  I spent the half an hour after she told me muttering cheese to myself haha.  And I had the time to spare: we got a little lost and wandered around the town for quite a while.

"We will give to good hands RATS"
“We will give to good hands RATS”
And he became my friend, and I called him Stumpy.
And he was my friend, and I called him Stumpy.

We were finally presented with the sight below: LauraMaySkillen (3 of 20)

It’s at the hostel’s address and had a sign saying ‘hostel’, but strangely, was not actually the hostel.  The ‘hostel’ sign was to indicate that the hostel was not at that door, but at the next one.  Of course!  So intuitive!  Wanders then resumed.

Vyborg was much more European than the other parts of Russia I've seen: unsurprising, considering it used to be Finland.  It's very much falling apart, however.
Vyborg was much more European than the other parts of Russia I’ve seen: unsurprising, considering it used to be Finland. It’s very much falling apart, however.
Just a pot-hole.  Nothing serious.
A heaps good road.
Not just eyelashes for the lights, but drawn-on eyebrows.
Not just eyelashes for the lights, but drawn-on eyebrows.
There are always people posing around you in Russia.  This lady's in front of a statue of Peter the First.

There are always people posing around you in Russia. This lady’s in front of a statue of Peter the First.

We next climbed up to check out Peter from a little closer, turned around, and were confronted by this guy in Russian-flag-themed ushanka and saluting Peter:


We then proceeded to Monrepo Park, which was rather nice.

LauraMaySkillen (9 of 20)

Nastya tries to climb onto the bridge.

Nastya tries to climb onto the bridge railing.

We spotted a rather lonesome soul in the woods.
We spotted a rather lonesome soul in the woods.
Such a pretty rock!
Such a pretty rock!

We saw a guy running helter-skelter through the park with a baby in a pram.  It was incredible.

We also saw three girls heading into the park, presumably to go for a bit of a hike, in super-appropriate clothing and footwear:

LauraMaySkillen (13 of 20)

On the way back into Выборг there was a rather picturesque bridge covered in padlocks.  It’s a Russian tradition to use these ‘love locks’ (thanks for that, wikipedia!) to symbolise everlasting love, and the peoples’ names are usually written on them.  All towns have a dedicated bridge to be used for the locks, but you can find at least one or two on most bridges.

LauraMaySkillen (14 of 20)
Haha I can’t help but wonder what kind of door the huge lock in the foreground was designed to be used on!

Dinner was in the appropriately-named Сова cafe, as the whole place was filled with owl statues and decorations.  The lamp fittings, the carpets, everything was owl-themed.  When we paid the bill I left a crane I’d made from a serviette, and the waitress instantly crushed it.  Maybe owls don’t tolerate avian competition.

While we’d been having dinner, Nastya turned to me and said in a very serious and slightly condescending voice (imagine: to a misbehaving and slightly senile person) “Laura.  You’re just making random noises.”  Haha and it’s totally true!  Since, I’ve noticed that half the time I don’t bother using words in either Russian or English: I just make grossed-out sounds or say ‘meh’.  Winning at conversing!

Back at the hostel, we encountered a super-creepy dude in the kitchen so hid in our room instead.  Also in that room were dresses looking like this:

LauraMaySkillen (17 of 20)

Role-playing is massively popular in Russia, and while Nastya was off brushing her teeth I subjected the poor owner of the dresses to a million questions.  She was in Выборг putting together some kind of catalogue using them… how peculiar.

The next day was verrrry lazy after our epic walks of the previous day, and like all good days in the life of adults, it started with milk and chocolate-chip cookies.  Nom nom nom!  While eating them we watched this weird comedy show, where the host wore this amazing combination:

Mmm, taste the glamour!

We meandered for another good five hours.  It’s always interesting talking to Nastya, as while she’s obviously Russian, she’s also lived in the Netherlands and the US, so has a very unique insight into Russia.

My brain’s a little fried as I write this on the 5th, as yesterday I went gulyaying with Liza and Nastya and was speaking almost entirely Russian for 8 hours (hence the length of this blog post: I have zero interest in studying for my Russian exam right now!)  Lizard’s English isn’t very good, so.  Happily, I’ve had some strange break-throughs in my Russian lately.  Three weeks ago I felt like I’d never get anywhere—and in fact felt so bad about it that I counter-intuitively didn’t go to class that week.  But while walking through Vyborg I saw a sign and couldn’t figure out why they’d written the exact same thing twice: I had to make a conscious effort to recognise that “Kamennogorsk” and “Каменногорск” were actually written in different alphabets.  Likewise, I glanced at Nastya’s phone when we were on the marshrutka back to Piter, saw “рг” and knew it was Thursday (четверг).  So at least my studies of a fairly useless language are going well..?

Finally, Nastya put me onto these two stories: naturally, each took place here in ze motherland. 1. A man gets stuck in a garbage chute after trying to run away from his girlfriend 2. A hair-dresser feeds a would-be burglar viagra and keeps him as a sex slave.  Enjoy 🙂


Our hostel in Vyborg: Vyborg Hostel

With love and vodka.

Okay, I’m making Jess entertain herself for a bit, so that I don’t fall too far behind on the blog.  Haha does that fall into ‘addiction’ territory?

Anyway, Jess arrived on Thursday afternoon, and on Friday morning she and I, plus my landlord, were standing in the post office, waiting to register her.  I was a little surprised to see a sign advertising that the post office was also a telegraph station.  Did I accidentally wake up in the past?!  It was fantastic.  My favourite part though, was when a man arrived to pick up (is that even the appropriate verb?!) his telegram.  How did he know he was getting a telegram at that time?  Did he get a text message about it?!?!  Hilarious.

Anyway, registering Jess took around three hours.  Afterward, my landlord remarked how fast it had been!  Being here involves standing in a lot of lines, filling in a lot of forms, and providing a loooooooot of paperwork.  I told Jess that I’d learned to just accept that things here take as long as they take, and she commented that her overbearing impression was that I wasn’t just accepting how things are in Russia, but that I am just spiritually and emotionally dejected!  That may be a little true, I’m not sure.  I know that when I went to the airport to pick her up, I was a little trepidatious—not of seeing her or anything like that, but in relation to the international airport itself.

Normally I love airports.  I find them this weird balance of entirely impersonal, and at the same time deeply emotional: they’re a place of goodbyes and returns.  But going to the international terminal in Piter reminded me that in just two months, I’ll be flying out of Russia, and I don’t even know how to process that!  I always feel like I’m just barely hanging on here, and in a way, the idea of going somewhere unknown again—even if things there are easier, or at least make some sense!—is a little scary.  I’m used to the armour now, and having to sort of re-form again just seems like an exhausting prospect.

After we’d managed to register JFord, we went to the zoological museum (everyone’s first stop in St Petersburg, right?).  It was SO COOL.  I’m not generally into stuffed animals, but this place had thousands upon thousands of them, including an entire stuffed woolly mammoth and the skeleton of a blue whale.  It was great!  We then went for a wander into town before I went to work.

Saturday was then spent at the Hermitage—where I’m outraged the lady wouldn’t accept my student ID, and charged me full price instead.  Like really, I’m overly outraged about it!—before having a bunch of people over to mine last night for some drinks.  Pretty cool thus far 🙂

Now, I seem to have discovered the magic of video.  Here’s me asking Jess some not-entirely-pertinent questions about how she likes Russia so far  (Jess, Nastya and I then recorded a fairly hilarious series of interviews at 3am after drinking, but you’re just going to have to use your imagination on that one haha!).  Enjoy!