So far I’ve spent my time back in Russia drinking coffee, hanging out with hot men, and having jobs thrown at me. And yes, I am having a much, much better time than last time! I don’t know whether the weather has made everything more pleasant, whether people are being nicer thanks to the sunshine and political developments, or whether it’s because I’m not working for ‘that’ company. Either way, things so far have been great, and I can definitely imagine myself playing between Brussels and Russia in future.
I have however spent a disproportionate amount of my time thus far working. Pretty much every day since my arrival—on which I spent nearly 15 hours in a café working—has involved going to a different branch of the wildly overpriced Coffeeshop Company, sitting down, abusing the wi-fi, and working my butt off. My efforts have mainly been directed at some copy-editing work I’ve got going on, and on sorting through and responding to the huge number of submissions we’ve received for the Terry Pratchett/Alzheimer’s anthology. Thankfully, submissions are now closed, so the actual reading-responding part should settle down shortly.
Anyway, despite my constant work-i-ness, I have had a couple of quintessentially Russian experiences. Including a toilet bus, but I’m going to avoid talking about that particularly awkward and public experience. I’ve been staying with Naz and Mikita in Primorskaya, kind of near one of the schools I used to work at. (Side note—I definitely would have commented about how badly it was managed at some point, and it’s since closed down. Quel surprise!) So far that’s been pretty groovy, though actually, it’s rare that any of us are there at the same time. On the upside, this means that there’s no-one around to watch me talk to the degus for protracted periods of time. Yes, degus. No, I’m not making up words. They’re a Chilean rodent (in Russia, naturally) sort of between a mouse and a possum. Or a quoll. I don’t know, but they’re adorable, and there’s nine of them here for me to bribe with contraband flower petals and talk to in an uncontrollably high pitch.
I’ve also popped by Naz’s work a couple of times—once I was roped in as a guest Australian teacher, and once I somehow ended up doing some of her marking—very smooth. And, as mentioned, I’ve had a few job offers (four attempted poachings so far!). This is the time of year at which a lot of native speakers leave anyway, but it’s particularly bad at the moment. I heard a while back that the Americans especially were leaving with the exchange rate, as they couldn’t afford to pay off their student loans. But I mean this is a city (and/or country) which struggles to recruit and retain native speakers anyway.
On the topic of English, I’ve noticed that there seems to be a lot more of it around than there was two years ago. There’s definitely more in terms of signage etc than in Moscow, but also spoken English is more noticeable, especially in the service industries. I don’t know whether it’s because more people who were studying it at school have now graduated or what, but it would definitely be easier for a tourist now. And, if anything, English seems to be more popular now—one guy came and sat with me in a café the other day, and man did he want to speak English. He knew about five words, so it was a bit of a challenge for him, but there you have it.
On the topic of English people, I was grabbing some lunch the other day when I overheard some Northerners trying to figure out their map. I asked if they needed any help, and as it turns out, they were only in St Petersburg for one day and wanted to know what to see. One day. And by this time it was nearing 5pm, and all they’d done is go on a bus and see the Hermitage. Hm :/. But that’s beside the point. More interesting was when they asked what people were celebrating. As it turns out, it was the city day, celebrating the foundation of St Petersburg. I hadn’t seen the celebrations though, so thought they were talking about the Victory Day signs that were still about the place. The lady knew about the Siege of Leningrad, but as it turns out, that’s pretty much it. When I mentioned the 70 year anniversary (of the end of the Second World War), they asked “but why are they celebrating that? Why aren’t they celebrating their own history?!”. Ffs. I told them that actually, there were 27 million Soviet casualties during WW2. I explained that WW2 is taught as a Russian victory here (I’m staying well out of that one), and they were just shocked at the notion. Because as I’ve mentioned before, that’s America’s war—right?!?
Speaking of thing which are and aren’t wars—sanctions. (Yeah, loosest segue ever, sue me.) When I was the guest Australian in Naz’s class, I was asked about whether people really eat kangaroo. I said that yes, and that Russia is—was—one of the biggest export markets for it, if not the biggest. Everybody’s face pretty much showed an accepting chagrin, if there can be such a thing. Lack of kangaroo imports is hardly the biggest deal!
Apparently one of the first things to disappear was blue cheese. Other things which disappeared really quickly were Ikea goods (apparently there are just heaps of bare shelves), electrical homeware such as stoves and fridges, and electronics. People just started going to the stores and buying all of this stuff which they couldn’t afford, and perhaps didn’t really need. They were anticipating price hikes—which have since happened, and it’s surely nothing to do with massive demand. But why? Just, why??!
More visible are things such as the price of imported foods and drinks. A bottle of cider is far more expensive than a bottle of vodka (~300 rubles versus about 200 for a ‘normal’ bottle), and fruits and vegetables are crazy. Naz has told me that tomatoes are more expensive than meat, and in making dinner the other night, two small zucchinis cost me just under 200 rubles (so around AUD$5/US$4). Yup, living like a rich lady, obviously.
Happily however, books are still cheap. As such, I’ve been gathering a little collection for myself, mainly focused on improving my (now awful) Russian. I went to my favourite place, Dom Knigi (Дом Книги / house of books) and picked up some graded readers (and a book about pirates haha), then a couple of days ago trekked to the State Uni’s bookstore. Now, this bookstore isn’t exactly in-your-face. I only know about it because I had to go and pick up a textbook or two for my course when I was studying here. Basically, you go to one of the uni buildings, pass through the turnstiles, and it’s in this little nook down some stairs to your right.
Man I love that book store though. I was there for quite some time, picking up some useful grammar and revision books, and some focused on politics and global issues, for fairly obvious reasons. Anyway I finally headed to the counter with my stash, and there was a tall bearded guy standing there. He saw me buying ‘Russian for foreigners’ books, and so spoke to me in English. He commented about the hecticness of learning Russian, and I replied that I was just revising and hoping to improve my level. Then he started saying something else, at which point I rudely interrupted and said “I’m sorry, but don’t I know you? Your face, I’m sure…”. The guy and I stared at each other for about ten seconds as I tried to place him, then he goes “aren’t you Laura?”. Yup. He’s now grown a beard, but it was a guy from Eclectic Translations, who I’m sure I’ve mentioned before. Wtf? A city of nearly 5 million (legal) residents, and it took me three days to run into someone I know—and in an obscure place, no less. Either way, he mentioned that they’re always on the lookout for freelance translators, and said to come to their Tuesday drinks. So that’s happening!
What else? Well, I had a traumatic frisbee experience on Saturday. Yes, that’s right—traumatic. Basically after my most excellent CouchSurfing-based adventure the other night, I thought I’d give it another go. I could see an ‘ultimate frisbee’ event happening, so thought I’d check it out. Ultimate frisbee is like a cross between frisbee and rugby, and we used to play it on the beach all the time when I worked in the UK. It’s a damn good time, is what I’m saying. Anyway the event ad read “If you’re looking for some exercise, fun lively chat or making new best friends – look no further. We are friendly bunch and welcome everyone, no matter if you’ve never touched a frisbee before.” AND IT WAS ALL LIES.
Now, I realise that I’m truly and catastrophically awful at conventional sports. Throwing, catching, teamwork—things I am just not capable of. Unless we’re talking ‘throwing myself at somebody’, ‘catching a cold’ (yeah, that could have gone other places), and teamwork in the sense of the workplace and/or baking. But none of these latter even mildly relate to frisbee.
As it turns out, these people weren’t playing ‘ultimate frisbee’, they were just playing ‘frisbee to the ultimate’—it was a total dick-measuring contest in which there were myself, one other girl (briefly, before she was relegated to watching and taking photos), and four burly Russian guys. And they were fucking serious about their frisbee. They were all standing a long way away from each other—we were in a star shape, and the guys furthest from me were around 40 metres away. There’s no way I can throw anything that far, and certainly not accurately. So sometimes it stopped short of them, sometimes it careered off in random directions, and one time I threw it behind me (I did mention the ‘bad-at-throwing’, right?!). Or there was the time when I fell over my own feet, tumbling to the ground, or didn’t catch the frisbee properly so it smashed into my face. And that’s neglecting all of the times I just straight-up dropped it. Yeah. But whereas I guess normally people would laugh it off with me (because it’s a social, non-competitive game… right?), or give me some tips (as per the couple of times I played rugby with the guys from school), these guys looked at me with complete derision. Honestly, it was awful. I ended up so ashamed of myself that I just left—I lasted about 40-45 minutes then just couldn’t take it anymore. “Friendly bunch” my ass!
While waiting for the frisbee guys that afternoon, I’d been taking a nap on the grass. I’d walked from Naz’s workplace, via an open-air Viking festival at Peter and Paul’s Fortress, to the Field of Mars—and I was sleepy to boot. The grass was too much to resist. Anyhoo, as I was lying there I overheard a cacophony coming from the road. I propped myself up, only to see an escort of flag-flying cars and a big Zenit tour bus full of shirtless guys. Yup, Zenit—the SPB football team—was in town, and they wanted people to know about it. The city, in turn, went a little bit nuts.
Post-frisbee I was waiting to catch a bus down to Mayakovskaya to meet Naz, when a car pulled up at the lights. They started beeping, and I glanced up. It was one of the freaking escort cars and they were staring at me. I was extremely fucking confused. I mean really. The whole street was full of Russian women for goodness’ sake—but there was no doubt about it. Haha differences between me and the other women on the street: (a) I don’t look Slavic, (b) I look healthier, (c) they’re crazy beautiful, (d) I was wearing hiking shorts and a t-shirt, whereas they were all in heels and looking like they’d stepped out of a catalogue. So yeah, maybe these guys were tripping. Or maybe they saw the dirt on me from where I’d fallen over, and assumed I spent a lot of time on my knees. (Yes, yes I definitely snickered as I wrote that.)
Finally, because this is getting a bit out of control and I need to get to work. Probably the two most ridiculous things I’ve seen so far happened in close proximity the other night: firstly, I saw a window painted with dolphins and an internet explorer logo (wtf and why?!), and secondly, there were a couple pushing their baby in a pram. Oh, wait—that’s not what they were doing at all. Their infant was in a remote control metal Jaguar-looking car, and the dad was driving him down the street. Because Russia.