Alright, so it’s nearly two months since I left Russia.  It’s probably just about time to finish writing about it!  This time, I’m writing not from Vertical Germany, but from sunny Italia, where I’m not allowing myself to do anything fun until I get a solid amount of work done on the new anthology.  We’re just over two months from release date (ohmygod ohmygod panic attack), and there’s rather a lot of editing to be done.

Since leaving Russia, I’ve been a very busy girl—first it was summer school, then a model UN at the EU External Action Service (turns out I make a great Juncker), then being very sick.  Following this was a trip to Amsterdam, my 30th, and party prep and recovery taking nearly a week (I was a mermaid of the variety that drinks like a fish—I had a Disney theme ;)).  Then editing, then the book club went viral and I had to build a shiny new website in double-time, then I quit the book club in a torrent of flames, and then suddenly I was here.  Of course, I’ve had quite a few adventures, both in Brussels and now here in Italy, so it’s about time I kicked into the back-log… and stopped procrastinating via opening paragraphs.  Also, this post will touch on my one hour in Latvia down the bottom 🙂

After working far too hard in St Petersburg, I decided I needed a holiday from my holiday, and booked trains for another long weekend back in Moscow.  On the way there, I elected to take the day train, and was seated opposite a man who smelled distinctly of beer.  This only increased as the trip went on, given the amount he was consuming with his friends.  I was quite tired and aiming for a nap—but, as it turns out, my seat had the powerpoint for the 40-person carriage.  So after a number of times being shoved out of the way so that people could plug things in, and people getting a bit feisty with each other over whose turn it was, I decided to apply some organisation.  I arranged a queue, and guarded people’s stuff while it was there.  Yup.  The carriage named me “наша девушка на розетке”/nasha devushka na rozetke/Our Girl of the Powerpoint.  Glamour, right??

The train paused at one point at a work site, presumably so that goods could be loaded and unloaded.  Looking out the window, I saw that everyone was brown—and I don’t mean tanned (though that, too).  Everybody working on the site, ie doing manual labour, was from the Caucasus.  There were no ‘white Russians’.  It made me ponder something Arthur said when I was in Moscow a few weeks prior, that in Russia everything is equal—it doesn’t matter what your race is or what your gender is, you will still have the same work opportunities.  I absolutely maintain that this is complete and utter bullshit, but hey.  Whatever sees him through the day.  Being at this random site some few hours outside Moscow really hammered it home: you get used to seeing black Russians in lower-level and manual labour roles, but here it was just somehow stark.

Again on this topic, at Gostiniy Dvor station in St Petersburg, there are these big security archways.  They’re off to one side, and I’d always figured they were broken, like a lot of the stuff in that metro station seems to be.  I’d always just cruised through the station, gone to buy my zhetony if necessary, then walked through the barriers without really thinking about it.  Until one time on this trip, when a Chinese-looking dude walked into the station just ahead of me.  A cloud of guards descended upon him, yelling at him to take off his bag, turn out his pockets, and walk through the security barrier.  They then took him off to some room for goodness-knows-what.  I mean this was just some random, harmless-looking dude, and there’s no way they didn’t do that because of what he looked like.

I think I’ve mentioned it before, but I once invited a Korean girl to a party I had in Piter, and despite her having been living there for over a year at that point, she said it was the first time Russians had actually spoken to her.  Or again, I kissed a distinctly non-Russian guy in Moscow, and the looks of disgust and abhorrence on people’s faces.  One guy mimed spitting on the floor, while others shuddered and turned away.  It made me want to passive-aggressive the shit out of them, to be honest.  We weren’t doing anything horrible.

I spent this trip to Moscow hanging with some people I’d met the previous time, eating far too much Japanese at Две Палочки (as always), watching comedy, and SEEING JURASSIC WORLD 3D!!!  TWICE!!!!  YEAHHHHHH!!!!  Man I love dinosaurs.  After the first time watching it, I didn’t think I’d ever be able to speak in lower case letters, ever, ever again.  I went the first time with Arthur and his Kiwi friend Lisa (who will reappear in this blog later on… hello, foreshadowing!), then that night at the bar, was so excited about it that I ended up going with someone else from there the following day.  I must say, I felt a little queasy the first time I saw raptors (those familiar with my other work will know why), but then it was just 5000 kinds of awesome.  And THERE’S GOING TO BE TWO MORE FILMS.  Yes!!!

Following my trip to Moscow, I ended up working for a lovely tiny school just south of the centre for a couple of weeks.  It was called English Effect, and was the first company I’ve worked for in Russia where everybody was nice.  And normal.  It was completely stress-free (:o!!!).  I also continued editing, and of course, attending Translator Tuesdays at Eclectic.  On one occasion, I went to coffee with a Russian girl who goes to Eclectic’s drinks.  She was talking about her travels through Europe, and how shocked she was by the children in France.  She couldn’t believe how happy and free they were, compared to what she described as ‘grumpy Russian children’.  Another classic line was when she told someone off because she described their ideas as “so Stalinist, so bourgeoisie”.  I’m not totally convinced this is a consistent insult, but in what other country would you hear that?  Hysterical.

Overall, I definitely saw some changes in Russia over the course of this trip.  I mentioned in a previous post that people seemed way happier than last time.  But in addition to this, they were even dressed differently—Stalinist-bourgeoisie girl explained it via the ‘hipster movement’.  I’m not really sure what this is meant to mean, given people dress neither like the ‘hipsters’ in the hit Russian film Стиляги/Stilyagi/Hipsters (watch it, it’s brilliant), nor like the modern Australian version.  But whatever it is, it includes a lot less fur coat + high heels + a bucket of makeup.  And the 80s-ness of fashion seems to have cut down a bit, too, at least in the (admittedly major) cities I went to.

Next, there has also been a massive improvement in food.  I’m far from a foodie, but this time it didn’t actually taste like crap.  THIS IS HUGE.  And not only that, but there are increasingly vegetarian options!  It’s like people might actually want vegetables.  Of course, there’s still freaking dill on everything, but I guess you can’t have everything.  One place that embodied this change in culture, cuisine, and arguably sophistication was a place called “Pitas Street Food” by Ploshad’ Vosstaniya in St Petersburg.  It had plentiful vegetarian food, everything tasted good, and it had freaking cider.  Cider!  In Russia!  And on tap :o!!!  Plus it had powerpoints at each table, an instagram printing booth, and park benches for people to sit at which lent it a somewhat art deco feel.  The crowd was very diverse, and overall it felt like a place that could easily be in Melbourne.  I couldn’t believe we were still in Russia, it was crazy!

I do of course have plans to return again, though my visa has now expired :(.  At this point I’m guessing I’ll spend next summer either in Russia (likely Moscow) or Ukraine, so we’ll see what happens.  Someone asked why I don’t look at doing my PhD in Russia rather than in Europe, and I pretty much laughed—living in Russia again is completely off the cards, in part because of ongoing intolerance, and largely because of man-woman relations there.  *Shudder*.  But it’s definitely a place I’ll continue to return to, be fascinated by, study, and write about.

Here are a couple of random photos:

My final two days in St Petersburg were spent at an EU-Russia conference, then I had to fly back on Sunday before starting summer school (on Post-Soviet conflicts… theme, anyone?!) the next day.  Well, technically that night, but I skipped it.  Such a rebel.

As it turned out, my professor was on the same flights as me, so the poor guy had to put up with me all day.  It was super handy actually, as we had a 4-hour stopover in Riga (the capital of Latvia).  He was staying in the airport to do some work, but I figured I could spend an hour in the centre and not miss my flight, so I gave him a gigantic stack of books to carry around for me and headed off.  He said my pile of books made him feel ‘intellectual’, which I found pretty hysterical, given he’s an academic.

After negotiating with a somewhat grumpy bus driver, I arrived in Riga itself.  I looked around for the nearest promising location, and spotted a gigantic building towering over the city.  I started walking toward it, given I had no idea where I was or what I was doing, and as it turned out it was a science faculty of a university.  And it was ginormous.  As such they let tourists up onto the top floor, for panoramic views of the city: win!  What’s more, from there I could see something which looked suspiciously like scenic, UNESCO-listed old buildings, so I now had my mission.

Leaving the tower I walked into the Old Centre.  It was very sweet—actually it reminded me somewhat of a cross between parts of Prague and Helsinki.  I went moseying through, stopping for some lunch (strawberry icecream—I understand nutrition!) and to browse at some of the stalls.  I also checked out some old castles and things (albeit very quickly).  Then it was back onto a bus, the finding of which was probably not so much due to my bad-ass travelling skills as to some kind of miracle, and to the airport.  With souvenirs.  It was really a power hour!

Back at the airport I tracked down my professor quite quickly, whereupon he bought me a coffee and I distracted him from work by chittering on about dinosaurs for a really protracted period of time.  Poor guy.  Poor, poor guy.

After that it was just a hop, skip and a jump, and I was back in Brussels, to my flatmates and my garden-which-was-now-a-jungle.

Ирония Судьбы Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Heating Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moscow Eve

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

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

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

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

Be prepared for imminent and inevitable mis-adventuring.