“You know, when you introduced yourself as a disaster zone, I didn’t quite realise!” said my current room-mate.  “I know,” I replied: “I’m a human train wreck”.  This conversation followed my stepping on a bee:  unfortunately, I’m somewhat allergic, and my leg (or more accurately, my foot) has been transformed into a log.  My shoe won’t even go on!  Happily though, the hostel manager’s theory that Cretan bees are less poisonous than ‘normal’ European bees (which was not at all a useful frame of reference for me!) seems to be true: last time I was stung on the foot, my leg swelled and turned blue to my knee, so this is a significant improvement!

Following on from the other day where I was handed the glass of garlic and lemon to fend off my cold (completely didn’t work), my bee sting encouraged those surrounding me to offer me a whole host of further traditional remedies.  I was recommended pressing an onion against the swelling; someone else advised making a tobacco poultice and applying that; and one aroma-therapist put pure lavender oil on it.  People also tried to convince me to call the homeopathic doctor.  I just wanted the drugs!

Anyway, my bee sting, sunburn, sleep deprivation and hiking-related injuries just didn’t seem like quite enough, so I figured I’d add travel sickness to round it out, and went on a driving adventure with some of the hostel’s older denizens.  Five adults in a small car on windy roads was not great, and to be honest a couple of the guys were not quite my type of people, but it was otherwise interesting.  I had one good conversation with the aroma-therapist which was nice.

We went to a nearby monastery, then to a small beach-front fortress, thence to the weirdest freaking bar in the whole world:

360 view:

Of course there's a pterodactyl.
Of course there’s a pterodactyl.
Where to put money if there was no-one attending the bar. I'm not sure why it's also some kind of fire warning thing!
Where to put money if there was no-one attending the bar. I’m not sure why it’s also some kind of fire warning thing!
The bar's overlord.
The bar’s overlord.
Jetsam chic?
Jetsam chic?
Because this isn't creepy at all.
Because this isn’t creepy at all.
This bar is certainly doing its best to 'fight normalism'.
This bar is certainly doing its best to ‘fight normalism’.
I said that the bar would be a great place to set a horror movie, and the next thing you know, we find a chainsaw.
I said that the bar would be a great place to set a horror movie, and the next thing you know, we find a chainsaw.

The road to the bar was more than a little terrifying.  About halfway down, it turned to rock and gravel, was narrow, prone to boulders, and bordered by a cliff.  When we were going back up again, the aroma-therapist asked whether we’d all fastened our seatbelts, and I said that “no, because if the car goes over the edge I want to be able to get out of the door before I go with it!”  “Har, har,” she said.  “You think I’m joking,” I replied: “I’m not.”  (I wasn’t!)

We did survive the crazy road in the end, and after a late lunch we drove up to a look-out.  It was fine and everything, very Greek: but I find that after the beauty of Peterhof in Spring, I’m completely unaffected by Greece’s natural beauty.  Last time I was here it was in the early Spring, and everything was green and fresh, with a ridiculous number of wild-flowers everywhere you looked.  Now that it’s summer, everything is dry and rocky.  Nothing like Russia at all!  Then again, where is?


My hostel in Plakias, Crete: YH Plakias

Hammock Time

I’ve just come from drinking the latest ‘medicine’ advised by a stranger.  I told the manager of the hostel I’m at that I think I’m getting a cold, and the next thing you know, he walks into the kitchen, cuts up two cloves of garlic, and serves them to me in a glass with half a lemon’s juice and some water.  I do get fed rather a lot of unusual things..!

The hostel itself is a very strange one, in a small sea-side town called Plakias.  I got here a couple of days ago, after catching the overnight ferry from Athens to Crete on the second.  I spent my second day in Athens at the National Museum—last time I was in Athens, I only got through half of it before it closed for the day, so I was more than happy to finish the tour.  The ferry here was absolutely dreadful, though very cheap, so I guess I can’t really begrudge the discomfort and lack of sleep.

Needless to say, my first half-day after arriving was spent chilling in a hammock, before being fed a gigantic salad by a guy from Portland-Oregon.  (I heard him say where he was from several times, and every time he said ‘PortlandOregon’ like it’s one word).  We had an interesting conversation, as he’s a traveller himself, and has been on the go for nine months already.  He’s not quite finished his first loop around the world, and is about to start his second.  After Russia, of course, it was nice to talk to any man about anything.  I’ve since spoken with a few Westerners, as they’re all very interested to hear about Russia: it’s a big question mark to a lot of people.

I am, unsurprisingly I guess, suffering a bit of reverse culture-shock after leaving Russia.  It’s put me in a bit of a funk, but I’m sure I’ll reacclimatise to a non-Russian way of life soon enough.  It feels like when you spin around in a circle twenty times, then try to walk in a straight line: you know your intention, and how the straight line is supposed to look, but everything in you is rebelling against your efforts.  I’m further confused by the fact that I’ve come to a fairly remote town on an island in Greece, and there are people speaking Russian everywhere.  For my first two days, in Athens, I had as many conversations in Russian as I did in English.  The labels on things in stores—eg, shampoo—are as likely to be in Russian as they are in English: it came as quite a surprise.

As I mentioned above, the hostel I’m in is very strange.  I’ve spent a lot of time in hostels—perhaps nearly a year of the past ten—and this has to be one of the most peculiar.  It’s full of people who’ve been coming back year after year (which I just can’t understand), and the age range and backgrounds of the people are more than diverse.  There’s a whole cadre of older men who look like they came here in the 70s and never got around to leaving.  It’s very hippyesque (an impression not assisted by the relaxed attitude in town and plenitude of clothing-negotiable beaches).  It kind of weirds me out, and I can’t figure out why.  I do like that nobody here steals things though: today I left my laptop on a table in the common area and went on a jaunt into town, with no concerns that the computer would be gone when I returned.  Gleugh, one of the old guys is the worst type of hippy however: the other night he was making up climate science, and I was absolutely grinding my teeth in frustration!  There’s nothing wrong with having new ideas, of course, but please get some empirical evidence (or evidence of any kind, for that matter) before using them in aid of important causes such as the environment.  People like that do more harm than good.

Yesterday I turned to the mountain behind the hostel and told it I was coming for it, and set off.  Naturally, I decided to leave at midday.  Practical timing: after all, if you’ve not been in 30 degree heat for a couple of years in a row, what better thing to do than go and walk up a mountain in the hottest part of the day?  I really, really struggled with the heat.  Nevertheless, I persevered, though not in a necessarily linear fashion.  A big section was walking up a road through a gorge, but walking on roads is boring, so instead I descended into the gorge and started hiking up that instead.  The river was dry with the summer, so it mainly involved scrambling over rocks and climbing up the odd waterfall.  I really have to stop climbing stuff!  Since I broke my right arm and wrist last year, it sometimes loses its grip with no warning.  Not precisely ideal when free-climbing.

After a few hours (of a hike that purportedly takes 4-5 hours return), I reached a small taverna, which was my sign to turn off toward the mountain.  It was another 45 minutes or so walking along a track before I reached a rusty wire fence.  I consulted the map I’d photographed with my phone, and I was sure I was in the right spot, but the big signs in Greek didn’t exactly comfort:


Naturally, I climbed over the fence and carried on.  As it turned out, there was no track to speak of, and I was to spend the next few hours walking through shin-deep prickles.  I wasn’t very impressed with the whole situation, between the prickly pain and the incredibly unstable footing.  I had to climb over a lot of fences (though to be fair, on one occasion it was easier to dig under it instead, and on another occasion I was flung over the fence when it sprung back at the worst possible moment); I saw a gigantic freaking snake (at least 2 metres, and I want to say 3: it was really the biggest snake I’ve seen in a long time), an eagle, and a myriad of goats.  Goats are everywhere here, and they wear bells.  It actually sounds incredible, with all of the different tones echoing from the rock faces: just like wind-chimes, but with the noises coming from all around you.

Eventually the prickles ended, and I was faced with a few hundred metres of rocks at around an ~45 degree angle.  It turned out being easier to just stay on all fours and pretend I was climbing a ladder, especially as by this point I was utterly exhausted, I’d run out of water, and was pretty much running on stubbornness alone!  I honestly have no idea why I go hiking so much: I utterly hate walking uphill.

Finally I made it to the top (6 hours in), but was too tired for even a little victory dance before starting back down again.  At which point I took a convenient-looking road which took me to approximately the middle of nowhere.  I then had another hour and a half of walking through prickles and jumping fences.  I was very shitty.  I yelled at a rooster for crowing at the wrong time of day, and basically just grumped to myself the entire way.  It was the opposite of a good time!  On the upside, I heard the trickle of water and found a leaking irrigation pipe with what seemed to be fresh water: I must have drunk nearly two litres on the spot!

When I finally reached the taverna I’d passed earlier that day, I staggered in and had an epic meal.  I had the best Greek salad I’ve ever tasted in my life, followed by a plate of some kind of bean-y thing.  And it only cost 6 euro, it was ridiculous!!  Food here is so cheap, and so good!!  Everything about Greece is less expensive than Russia as well, which is an amazingly pleasant surprise.  And again, it’s so good.  Today I found an organic store just by the hostel, where I bought a huge punnet of the most divine strawberries.  They complemented my hammock-day perfectly J

Anyway, back to the hike: it was nearly dark by this point, and I was all out of energy, so started walking back down the road and trying to hitch.  I saw my first car after about 15 minutes, and they not only didn’t stop, but sped up.  I hate those people: I don’t mind if people don’t pick me up (though it’s rare that they don’t), I figure they have their reasons; but people who actually speed up, it’s like, “hey, we COULD pick you up, but we’re really, really not going to.  Let me show you how much we’re not going to.”  Happily, another car came by about five minutes later, and at first they drove past, but then pulled over.  The lady was obviously a local (hitch-hiking’s very common in Greece, and it’s normal for Greeks to stop), with her three young kids in the back.  She explained that at first she’d thought I was a man, which is why she didn’t stop.  She wasn’t going to my town, but to the next one along the coast, and said that walking from there would still be shorter.  Sure enough, it only took me another half an hour’s walking from the town, and it had nice views, to boot J

I think I’ll spend a few more days here: it’s a fairly ideal place to try to start detoxing from Russia.  I do want to go to Heraklion before I leave the island though, and need to be in Istanbul for a conference starting June 14.  It’s quite funny actually: it’s a ‘Climate Reality’ (Al Gore’s thing) conference, and on my application I was sooooo facetious.  I responded to questions with answers that included Captain Planet.  But let’s face it, Captain Planet is awesome.


My hostel in Plakias, Crete: YH Plakias


Well, I’m in a fever-governed land of psychedelic goats right now, so it seems the appropriate time to write a blog post about medicine in Russia.

A few months ago, I was sick, completely lost my voice, and went to work to teach anyway.  In the middle of last year I broke my arm on Saturday afternoon and was at work Monday morning.  So, if I call in sick to work, I’m sick enough that I expect people to just believe me.

I realised by midday Thursday that this particular sickness was settling in, so emailed work to ask what I do if I need to call in sick.  My centre director called and said that I had to get to a doctor for a medical certificate straight away, and I basically straight-up ignored her: there was no way I was going to be able to leave the house in the condition I was in.  She said that maybe I should call a doctor to me then, but I have no idea how that works, and was far too ill to be motivated.  (On the topic of calling things to oneself, ambulances are free in Russia, so it’s normal for people to call an ambulance for just about anything, from actual life-or-death situations to a common cold.)

After a lot of emails in which I described rather graphically how ill I was, the HR manager called me yesterday afternoon and said that she believed I was ill, and gave me the details of a medical centre if I got any worse.  Hurrah.  Of course, the likelihood of my seeing a doctor here (barring actual problems) is pretty low.  Partly because of the price, and partly because of the quality.

I have no idea what the doctor costs for a normal Russian, but if you’re Western then they basically gouge you, as they assume you can afford it.  I’ve said before that the medical profession is one of the worst-paid in Russia, so not only will you be overcharged if possible, but doctors over-prescribe diagnostic tests and things as they make commissions from referring patients.  As my friend Lana put it, “10 thousand rubles?  I figured I’d just get better.”  (Also, Lana brought me a care package on Thursday = legend).

As far as quality, well.  Lana told me a couple of weeks ago how a non-Russian couple at her workplace are pregnant, and are staying in Russia to have the baby.  I started laughing uncontrollably, as it’s one of the worst ideas i’ve ever heard.  Maternal and infant mortality death rates are of course higher here than in the west, and moreover the experience is… complicated.  One of the Russian families I know in Australia emigrated specifically to have children, as it’s so dangerous here (this was ~15 years ago though, so things have improved somewhat).   It’s not just the danger that made me laugh at this couple though, but the sheer difficulty they’ll face: not only will they be gouged, they’ll have to deal with Russia’s constant contrariness, and they don’t speak Russian.  Worst.  Idea.  Ever.

As I said in my New Years’ post, a guy I know here woke up in hospital one morning after a big night at the staff party.  The way he described it was reminiscent of the prison in Shantaram: there were around 30 guys in this 6-bed room, one toilet to share between all of them (it apparently involved wading through faeces to get there), nurses who were rude to the point of cruelty, filth, and did I forget the bars on the windows?  When he awoke, he wasn’t sure if  he was in prison, an asylum, or a hospital, though he thought it must be one of the first two.  Not a place I want to be..

Ok, that’s about as much coherence as I’m capable of today, so I’m back to bed.  Woot.

Land of… opportunity?

When I was little and got sick, my nan would make me stay in bed until I’d managed to finish two litres of flat lemonade.  Ever since, whenever I’ve been sick as an adult, I’ve done the same thing—something an ex of mine sneeringly described as my ‘medicine’.  Of course, now that I’m in Russia (and since I don’t have any lemonade in the house), I’m turning to Russian ‘medicine’ to avert my oncoming cold—namely, vodka.  I’ve been told you should have vodka for a cold, for digestion problems, anything really.  One of my colleagues told me to rub it on my skin when I had some weird weather allergy, and an old Russian teacher said that we should apply it to our skin when we are suffering from any sort of illness.  Every time I bring up the fact that vodka’s used to cure all manner of illnesses with a Russian, they blush and then insist that it’s because it’s true.  So bottoms up!

Of course, trying Russian medicine is far from the only way in which I’ve Russified.  I’ve certainly been living like a Russian these past few months, more and more culturally speaking, and definitely financially.  After rent, my income has been 9,000 rubles a month (~AU$290), out of which I spend about 2,000 rubles on public transport and the remaining $200ish on everything else, from food to uni materials to clothes.  Actually, I haven’t been buying any clothes haha—food here costs the same as in Australia (and in fact I spent ~$8 on a small head of cauliflower the other day) and that’s used all of my money.  Of course, 27k a month is still more than the declared Russian average income of 18k-odd a month according to the last census (though with all of the black-market and cash-in-hand work, it’s presumably significantly higher).

What a difference a week has made for me however.  Now that I have the baby-sitting job doubling my monthly income, I’m able to look further than just trying to get enough food and sleep, and have already earned enough in two shifts to cover what would have been a short-fall in food money by April (my contract with EF ends at the end of May).  I’m even going to be able to afford my uni textbooks!  It’s meant that I’m able to explore other things, and I’ve actually been out twice—once for Lana’s birthday on Saturday night (though I didn’t spend anything except dancing-related energy haha) and I could afford to take a bottle of wine ($7) to an office party last night.  It felt like luxury!

I’m going to quickly take you through my day yesterday, as it was a fairly typical day for me in Russia—so non-typical of ‘normal’ places I suppose.  I usually go to sleep at around 2am, after I’ve had time to wind down from work, then get up for uni at 7am.  Classes start at 9am, then I’m home by about ten past 1 in the afternoon.  Then it’s lesson prep and marking, a 1520 minute nap, then off to work.  Yesterday I was baby-sitting, so spent two hours cooking, painting, and playing games with the kids.  I then went straight to the offices of a translation company, taking along my friend Justin from uni.

I spent a hilarious couple of hours networking at the office actually.  I met the manager, who a friend Anton (manager of a different translations company) had put me in touch with.  He’s half-Kiwi, so we were talking about Kiwiland before he introduced me to the operations manager, who’d actually lived there for a few years.  Soon enough we were talking about snowboarding, as that’s what took me to NZ.  From there, we ended up chatting about extreme sports in general—one of my favourite topics!—and he offered to put me in touch with a Russian girl who manages an extreme sports corporate retreat company, as they are always on the lookout for English speakers who have experience in a range of adventure sports.  Boom!  After that I ended up having a discussion about Russian film-makers with Anton, then about the Russian film industry as a whole with a Russian chap.  Tarantino (not a fan!) also popped in there somehow.

I was just about to leave without actually talking to the manager about anything other than NZ when he suddenly asked me “what are you doing right now?”  I replied “right now-now, or right now in life in general?”.  Haha the next thing you know he says “come and get into my car”, and we were off to a voice-over recording studio.  Apparently their female native speakers is moving to Money (oh sorry, did I write ‘money’?  I meant ‘Moscow’) and they’re desperately looking for further voices.  So there I was, in a sound-proof room, reading voice-mail messages and a fairy-tale into a microphone like you see singers using.  Crazy!  It was actually a lot trickier than it sounds—I haven’t thought so much about manipulating my voice before.  Fun though 🙂

After I went, the manager (BBC accent) swapped places with me, and I listened as he recorded some pieces.  The sound technician, a Russian, said afterward that even though he doesn’t speak any English, he could hear the difference between our accents.  I’m hardly surprised—in 2011, only 83 Australians immigrated to the whole of Russia, and that was a high number.  There are many more Brits and Americans, so if you hear any accent it’s those ones.  In this company’s ‘voices’ catalogue, voices were divided into British or American accents.  Now they’ve started a whole new section for Australians, just for me!  So, if any of my Russian readers start hearing Australian accents around St P any time soon, you’ll know who it is—I’m taking over!

So, over the past week I’ve gained a job which involves playing hide-and-seek and going to Italy for the summer; been put in touch with a lady who might be able to hook me up with some extreme sports project work; and  had my voice put on file in a recording studio, so may start being the voice of Australia in Russia (see what I did there…).  I feel like doors here are finally opening 🙂

Russian Rebirth

I swear I am now out-Russianing (and certainly out-rushing) the standard Russian.  Or should that be ‘Russian Standard’, which is incidentally not only a vodka but a bank?  Every time I see the logo on the bank I think cynical things about how the Russian economy got into its current state.

Anyway, this weekend I have been getting up to hi-jinx with fellow Aussie Lana, including going to watch ice-hockey last night and then jumping into the frozen Neva River today.

The hockey yesterday was freaking epic.  It was St Petersburg SKA vs Moscow Dynamo,  and was so worth it.  Lana greeted me on the metro platform with a beer in hand (and we spent the first half an hour after arriving at the stadium trying to find a way to open it).

We begin the mission to find some way to open Lana's beer.
We begin the mission to find some way to open Lana’s beer.

Outside the stadium was super-Russian:

Outside the ice hockey stadium.

Inside the stadium was also super-Russian.  We had to abandon things we’d bought at the supermarket at the door.  We then bought some chips at the kiosk, but were told to ditch them before entering the game hall itself.  A security guard told me that my bag was too big to be allowed in, but I did the standard thing I do when a Russian person tells me to do something I don’t want to – pretend not to speak the language ;).  It works every time!

This is from our seats – such a great view!:

From our seats - awesome!

The game was freaking amazing.  Before it even started we were introduced to the SKA players via huge TV screens while the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack blared.  Each player had things exploding behind them on an epic scale.  There was a big horse mascot, stripper-esque cheerleaders, national anthems, just everything.  Every time SKA scored a goal, the theme from Star Wars would play.  Music excerpts played during the game were pretty much all AC/DC, the White Stripes, and Queen.  Like I said, epic.  In the end SKA lost 2-3, but I still fangirled it up, and we’re determined to see as many more games as possible:

Me representative for St Petersburg.

Our back-up plan if we couldn’t get tickets was to go and watch crazy people jump into the Neva River.  My Russian conversation teacher was telling us about this just last week: at this time of year, people go and get baptised by jumping into the river.  She told us that things like that are why Russians have such a hardy constitution.

I love Russian ‘medicine’.

While getting ready to go to the hockey, I realised that I was probably going to have to get into a river in the middle of winter, so took my bikini with me.  Post-game, Lana and Nastya S came to mine for dinner which was lovely.  At around 1am I got a call from Lana and figured she must have forgotten something – instead she asked if I was still keen to jump in, because her flatmate’s boyfriend wanted to do it.  Naturally I said yes!

So today we met at 2ish and made our way to the ‘baptismal point’.  There’s also a 12m pool cut into the ice all winter just by the Peter and Paul Fortress – winter swimming is apparently regular practice for some 50,000 Russians, who are called ‘walruses’.  Looking at photos last night, I could see how they got their name:


Anyway, we arrived, and, well, you can see the rest.  Sorry for the lack of sound for the first part, I didn’t give Lana very good instructions on how to use my camera.  I’ve added subtitles for what I can remember:

So there you have it – I’ve been reborn as a Russian.  What a weekend!