The ‘Berra

I realised on Friday that I’m actually a terrible traveller—I arrived back in Aus four months ago, and hadn’t actually left Sydney (/the Central Coast) since. That’s now changed, after spending the long weekend in Canberra: the place I lived before Russia and the city I generally refer to as ‘the place souls go to die’.

Canberra is the capital of Australia, and is basically a flat hell-hole full of politicians, lawyers and hospitality staff. It’s flat, it’s freezing in winter and melt-worthy in summer, it’s expensive to fly from and kind of a pain to get to—and there’s no ocean. Ergo, I completely hated living there, and it’s full of miserable memories.

Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some seriously awesome people there.  For starters, my old house-mate Sanela, who I had coffee with on Saturday morning.  She was originally from Bosnia, fled with her family to Germany during the civil war, and later on immigrated to Aus.  She’s recently been back to Bosnia, and from the sounds of things, it’s suffering from a lot of the same problems I noted in Russia.  One thing that drove her crazy—as it did me—was the apathy: how in Russia, people would list the terrible conditions of their lives, then simply shrug and say “it’s Russia / эта Россия” and not do anything to change their situation.  Sanela said that she found sort of a similar thing—that a lot of people she grew up with in Bosnia, which admittedly has a high unemployment rate, weren’t willing to work or to try, but had a strong sense of entitlement nonetheless.  ‘But anyway,’ they justified it, ‘what’s the point?’—after all, things aren’t going to change.  Oh hai there, self-fulfilling prophecy.

Naturally, I was staying with the JFord, who you’ll recall from the vlogs we did when she came to visit me in Russia (here here here here).  Now I should probably mention that Jess and I are completely, completely different people.  She’s tea, I’m coffee;  she’s designer sunglasses, I’m international flights; she’s always at the gym, while I prefer throwing myself off things; I’m impulsive, she makes packed lunches.  Actually, she’s pretty much what all women’s magazines have always tried to convince me to be (until I overcame the need to read them and immediately became 300% happier).  These are my texts to her from the coach to CBR, explaining to her why exactly Brendan Fraser’s character in The Mummy may in fact be the ideal man:

2014-01-24 23.25.28
…..isn’t it?

Anyway, given all of the above, you can imagine that something which pushes my boundaries will certainly push hers.  This was definitely the case on Saturday afternoon, when I had a driving date with my friend Angie, who has an insanely beautiful car.  She asked whether Jess was coming, and I was surprised to hear her say ‘yes’.  I gave her multiple opportunities to back out, but no, she came along.  So that afternoon, we jumped into the car (an old Ford Fairlane), and off we went.

I have a long-standing love of old American muscle cars, despite the fact I was brought up surrounded by people who preferred and restored the classic British makes instead.  I’m presuming it stems from my love of car movies—honestly, if life gets complicated, watching a car movie will make everything seem much simpler.

Angie took us to a pub back over the NSW border, which can only really be described as a bikie bar.  It was full of a multitude of leather-bound, moustachioed types—and more importantly, an unexpected number of vintage cars.  As we later found out, there had been a car show on, and we tracked down where everybody was staying to go and have a look.

The three of us were sitting down having a catch-up, when a short creased-faced man swaggered up to us, spilling half of his beer down his front.  I don’t even know where to start with that conversation.  There was the pro-Australia, mildly xenophobic rant, before he asked Angie where she was from: to which she replied New Zealand.  “Oh, god,” he replied, reeling back.  Reconsidering, he said that “at least it’s not Tasmania”.  Which is, coincidentally, where Jess and I are from.  There was the part where he was telling us how he used to be the barber when he was in prison last time; there was the part where he banged on about Jess’ hair being silly (and this is a girl who I caught straightening her hair before we went for a hike a couple of months ago); or there was the part when he told us he only had 8 kids, but was trying for a full footy team.  He then said he’d take Jess and I for breeding material, at which point Angie had to interject with “why, what’s wrong with me?”  Things wouldn’t be volunteering for..!

On Sunday morning, I went to the “Gold and the Incas” (or sthg) exhibit at the National Gallery.  Jess has asked me to replace the phrase ‘it made me so angry’ with ‘I had my usual emotional response’, so, I had my usual emotional response.  It was packed (rows 5-6 deep around each exhibit), and worse than that, packed full of people saying your typically Australian intolerant things (“why’s it so expensive?  it’s probably those other bloody countries trying to rip off us Aussies”).  It wasn’t particularly informative nor well laid-out.  I ended up going through the exhibit backwards, to try to avoid some of the glut.  I think if I’d never been out of the country before, I’d have gotten more value out of it.  As it was, the two things that sparked my interest were the fact that there was one Peruvian group who created abstract artwork, the Huanca; and the fact that at least three museums in Lima and Cuzco must be just about empty of exhibits right now.  (The only one I recall the name of was the Museo Oro/gold museum in Lima.)

Foolishly, I then went for a wander through the rest of the gallery, in what was already a bad mood.  I forgot how much art galleries infuriate me.  I think I got up to a Jackson Pollock, went “oh fuck off,” and left the gallery to go and lie in the grass instead.  Art is not my medium!

On that note, I have an auditory date with a rather dashing Frenchman by the name of Chopin, so adieu.


Guest post: By way of introduction…

It is 10.30pm.  The sun is still shining.  Hello from glorious Saint Petersburg.  I am grateful to have been invited to contribute to this awesome blog by Laura.

We begin in a not-so-glamorous setting.  This is Zvezdnaya, a suburb of sprawling concrete flat complexes on the outer limits of the city.  Let’s be honest, it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing of places.  These flats were constructed in the 50s and 60s, and set for demolishment some 20 years ago.

As of my arrival to this compact three-room flat (not including kitchen and modest bathroom) the population has drastically increased.  There are three generations of my family currently in residence.  The youngest (my cousin’s little boy) is under a year.  The oldest, my grandfather, is 84.  Things could be worse: in the past, this flat would have been shared between four families.

In the block of flats across the way some enthusiastic partiers have just released spirals of illegal fireworks into the air.  The after-effect is a cacophony of car alarms and the tired squeals of the teething baby with whom I am sharing a room.

Welcome to my holiday.

I last visited Russia several years ago yet I am still struck by the everyday absurdities and difficulties of Russian life.  I know they are many and notorious, some of which are documented in this blog.  Sometimes I am even baffled by the anecdotes of tourists returning from Russia.  After all, my own ‘Russianness’ is a cocktail of ties to Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus (I was born in the no-man’s land of the USSR).  Nothing, not even my parents’ distilled recollections of life pre-Australia could prepare me for experiences such as navigating a pram through the subterranean network of the Saint Petersburg metro.

To those who have never experienced the wonder of Saint Petersburg metro travel, imagine a series of steep escalators in dim light descending 80+ metres into the bowels of the earth.  It is hot.  The fragrance of mingling body odours never quite dissipates.

The escalators are easy in comparison to the ramps.  I asked once if there was a lift and was met with an incredulous stare.  To ascend to the surface world one must position the wheels of the pram on a pair of stilt-like steel beams, and heave the not-so-cheerful kid up the steep incline whilst dodging other commuters.  Sometimes passers-by actually meet your sweaty, stress-stricken gaze, before continuing on their way.  It is Russia, after all, and the residual effects of phenomena such as people being hauled off to gulags have instilled a kind of indifference in the general populace.  Others swear at you.  Imagine—bringing a baby on the metro!

On this trip a young guy helps us out.  He packs away his iPad and grabs the front of the pram so quickly we might have been alarmed if we weren’t so tired.  So again, things could be worse.  Our destination is the supermarket: a revolutionary spectacle in modern Russia.  There you can actually buy baby food AND fruit AND meat in one place.  In the old days, my aunt tells me, it was a case of trudging through the city, waiting in circuitous lines on the off-chance that a shop actually had stock, and then using food coupons issued by the state to purchase your stuff.  Forgot your coupons?


10.30pm.  Ok, so maybe I won’t get much sleep tonight.  I suspect the fireworks celebrated a wedding, and before long they will erupt again.  I can deal with no sleep.  But for the love of all that is holy please don’t make me take the baby on the metro tomorrow.

—Dash M.

Gay Russia

Now that I’m no longer in Russia, or working for or with Russians, I can finally talk about something as ‘outrageous’ as attitudes toward homosexuality in Russia.  I just want to make it clear that I’m not breaking Russian law right now!

“He signs with a girl’s name,” squealed one of my students.  “He must be gayyy!”

“Okay,” I replied.  “I don’t care.”

Homosexuality/homophobia is a big issue in Russia at the moment.  I think by now most people have heard how Russia feels about it: there was the law-suit against Madonna; the fact that the gays aren’t welcome to ‘practice homosexuality’ at the Olympics; the arrests last week; and the ‘gay propaganda’ laws that now apply to the country.  Russia does not like gays.  It’s a pretty clear message.

My stand-point is of course, as usual, an entirely liberal one.  I really couldn’t care less what genitals you have, or what you like to do with them—as long as it’s between consenting adults, I just don’t care.  It doesn’t affect me at all.  Or, looking at it a different way, having spent a lot, and I mean a lot of time in hostels (by now more than a year of my adult life), I’ve seen it all.  Boy on girl, boy on boy, girl on girl: and they’re all equally icky.  I shared a room with a gay man in Manchester for a month or so (and tried not to think too much about his promiscuity, and how the sheets were never changed).  I’ve got gay friends.  One of my friends used to head the Gay and Lesbian Committee at USyd, and I went to a party with Zak.  After we’d arrived, he looked around and pointed out that we were the only straight ones there: and I didn’t care.  People are more than their sexual preference, and more than their gender.

Are there situations that make me uncomfortable?  Yes.  The lead singer of one of my favourite punk bands, Against Me!, was the manliest dude going: until, that is, he declared herself transgender, and she now lives as a woman.  It’s confusing on a couple of levels: there’s the fact that this incredibly masculine punk voice is coming out of someone who looks female, and there’s the fact that the transition isn’t complete.  Liberal though I am, I still find it confusing when I don’t know if someone’s a man or a woman, and that’s the case with my eyes and the newly-Laura Jane Grace.

This singer, Laura, was married with a daughter when she came out to the world as transgender.  I’m not sure, if I were married to a man who became a woman, that I’d be able to deal with it.  But I read an interview with her wife, and she says that sexuality’s more fluid than we think, that it’s the person she loves, not what they’ve got.  I also once read an interview with Anna Paquin, one of the stars of True Blood, who identifies as bisexual.  She said this thing, that it’s not important to her whether someone’s a man or a woman; it’s the soul that she falls in love with.  I think that’s a really beautiful idea. While I’m not attracted to women, I’d love to be able to love each gender equally.  Haha ultimate egalitarianism?

I should mention before I go on that I’ve never heard a Russian discriminate between gay, transgender, cross-dressing etc.  I’ve witnessed a male student dressed as a woman (for a play) who was accused of being ‘gay’.  There doesn’t seem to be any distinction between the categories, or at least, I haven’t encountered one.  It’s not like gay men dress as women, or gay women dress as men: it’s not some kind of signifier.  That’s just cross-dressing, and who cares?  Scottish men are super-manly but wear kilts.  And if you look into Russia’s history, men’s costumes used to look more like dresses than anything else.  Does that mean that all Russians a few hundred years ago were gay?  Of course not.

Then there’s transgender, where for whatever reason you feel like you’ve been born as the wrong gender.  It’s not the same as being transsexual, which is getting a sex change.  It’s living as the sex that you identify with, rather than the one that your genitals declare you should be.  At this point, the singer I mentioned is transgender, and may in the future become transsexual.

Then we finally get to homosexuality, being gay.  You may be transgender (though this is the exception rather than the rule), but either way you’re attracted to your own sex.  Maybe not exclusively, after all, bisexuality’s a thing as I mentioned.  And there’s something that confuses me: why on earth is it ok for two women to have sex, but not two men?  It weirds me out.  One of my friends once told me that he doesn’t understand why his guy friends are into watching girl-on-girl porn, because as he put it, “it’s the only situation where I’m completely unwanted”.   *Eye-roll* male fantasy.

I’ve had a few gay students of course, and one transgender student.  Not that we’ve talked about it of course, and not (hello, Russia’s anti-propaganda law) that I have ever brought up homosexuality in class—but it’s completely obvious to anyone with a mote of common sense.  I’ve even had one student who publicly announced that he didn’t care what orientation someone was, as long as they were a decent person.  This kid was a little anarchist, and amazing.  I wrote in his school report that he should consider leaving Russia.  There’s no future for him there.

I’d like to mention briefly the gay gag law that’s been passed in Russia.  Of course, I was already operating under St P’s “anti-gay propaganda” law, which forbade me from talking about or ‘encouraging’ homosexuality to children.  Because, to the law-makers’ minds, people choose to be gay, and if we talk about being gay then kids might choose to be attracted to their own gender.  It’s utterly ludicrous.  Why on earth would anyone choose to be gay, especially in Russia, where they will be persecuted?  Who in the world would choose to be in a sexual minority, making finding love that much harder?  Who would choose to be disdained in a lot of the world?  It’s like choosing to be one of the Untouchables in India’s caste system, or choosing to be red-headed during witch trials that saw redheads killed for casting freaking spells.  Nobody would choose that.

I also have to mention this idea of ‘manliness’ that comes up.  People generally tolerate man-on-man less than girl-on-girl, as I mentioned, and Russia is no exception.  Gay men aren’t seen as ‘real’ men.  Well, I have to say that I didn’t meet what I would call ‘real’ men in Russia.  We all have different opinions of course, but to me a real man is independent, creative, open-minded, and secure in himself and in his sexuality.  A ‘real’ man isn’t scared of or disgusted by gay men.  A ‘real’ man uses logic and reason rather than insults to promote his ideas.  A ‘real’ man isn’t so scared and cowardly that he won’t consider opinions other than his own.  A ‘real’ man respects those around him, and treats people based on how they treat him.  A ‘real’ man is prepared to be good and brave.  A ‘real’ man doesn’t insult and degrade others for who they are and how they live their life.

I made up a little ditty years and years ago, and it encapsulates my views fairly succinctly: “people can do and be what they may, but don’t fuck with me, and don’t fuck with my day.”  Other people being in love most certainly doesn’t fit into either of those categories.

Russia and ‘gay milk’: ABC News
Russia on ‘gay tattoos’: Huffington Post
Russia on ‘no gays at the Olympics’: Buzzfeed; Christian Post; ABC News and hereAtlantic Wire; Bloomberg; the Global Post; and finally (and shockingly) the America Blog.

An open letter from Stephen Fry

NYC Russian Vodka Boycott

Fake Russia

It has been a crazy couple of weeks here at camp.  And not the ‘fun’ type of crazy: more like the ‘fml’ kind of crazy.  It’s also been very, very busy.  My teaching hours are far in excess of what I was told, and it’s six days a week once more.  I have afternoons free, though these are usually spent in a coma, trying to recover before the next day of lessons!  I have been getting some work done of course: the internet’s really bad, so I haven’t been procrastinating anywhere near as much as usual.  As such I’ve gotten a fair bit of uni reading done, and am at around 32,000 words into my book.  Ура.

Now, the kids: I have two groups, one of mainly kids in their mid-teens, and one of kids around 12 years old.  The younger group are alright: their English is generally poor, but they try very hard and are pleasant to be around.  The older group on the other hand is chock-full of super-‘Russian’ kids.  There are a few reasonable ones in there, but oh my god the racism.  Plus sexism and homophobia of course.  I have kids talking about how they want black slaves, preferably women who are only allowed to wear underwear all day.  Or then there’s the kids saying how ‘great’ it is when ‘skinheads’ kill Jews.  What, the, fuck.  But it’s not just that: they misbehave awfully in class, are selfish and cruel to each other.  Yesterday they pissed me off so much that I said ‘enough’ and made them write essays.  I hate making people write essays, but I needed to get some kind of discipline going again.  Egads.

Cultural differences are astonishing.  I need to point out that the way these kids behave isn’t some kind of genetic thing, or predisposition, or anything like that: Russians aren’t naturally fuck-wits.  When they come across something from outside their universe—ie me, in this situation—they do try and adjust to it.  They don’t want to upset me with my Western ideals.  Thus one kid, who has some VERY strong views, asked if I was in Greenpeace before he started ripping trees out of the ground.  They do try to anticipate what my morals and values might be, and do their best to not offend me.  They just don’t know this way of life.

They do get used to my Western independence pretty quickly.  This morning we all went out on the lake, and while I can’t row because of my back, they accepted that I don’t need a hand out, I’m perfectly happy to jump into the water or climb trees or leap between rocks or go hiking through the forest.  But the contrast between myself and the Russian girls was just insane.  I definitely confuse them as much as they confuse me.

I’ve actually run out of time as I have to go teach, but I’ll post this while I have enough internet to do so.  I have a lot more to say on this sexism issue, and also on Russians jumping into bed.  Confusingly.


I’ve been working at the camp in Finland for less than two hours, and I’ve already made a girl cry.  New record?  I discussed it with Michael (who I worked with in St P), and we’re putting it down to Russian mentality.  This girl has “always” been in group four, but I put her into group three.  We gave her a second test and she couldn’t do it, so ran away crying.  She feels like she’s been demoted, like we’re saying she’s not very good, and can’t understand that groups, like levels of English, can shift.  We ranked the students and she didn’t fall in the top 25%, so her group was allotted accordingly.  I made every possible reassurance about her changing group if she did well, but we’re not going to move her up  just because she cries at us.

Finland itself—or ‘fake Russia’, where I’ve found myself—is lovely.  I flew in from Athens (on a plane with wi-fi !) and spent a few exorbitantly expensive hours in Helsinki before catching the train (again with wireless) north.  It’s gorgeous: I’m in a national park, and there’s a forest outside my window.  Note use of ‘my’ window—I’ve got a room to myself!  Get excited!  It’s teeny-tiny (at my request), and reminds me of the ship I used to live on.  It even has a little desk in the room, so I have somewhere to work.  Happiness is!  Incidentally, the picture for this post is of the building I’m staying in.  Not bad, right?

I say ‘fake Russia’, and it’s because it really is.  I’ve awkwardly re-entered a world where doors are opened and bags are carried for me.  It’s also a world where it’s normal to eat at 11pm, go to bed late, and obsess over things like saunas: to the point where saunas are scheduled at 4pm for all of the kids here on camp.

After breakfast (which was an hour before lunch, so we quite literally ate them both at the one sitting), Michael and I discussed Russia at quite some length.  We talked about the mindset at companies like EF, and get this: you’ll recall I did a video with Michael a few months ago.  Somehow (I have no idea how), the fact that he’d done the video with me got back to head office, and he got a phone call with a shocked voice saying they couldn’t believe he’d compared Russia to Afghanistan.  It then later came up at his performance review, where he got a ‘0’ for team-work purely because of the video.  So being critical of certain aspects of Russian society means that you fail at team-building as an English teacher.  It’s like being spied on all the time: most people play this game of being constantly careful, hiding things and trusting few.  I on the other hand said exactly whatever I liked to the point where people were shocked and didn’t know quite how to deal with it—as when I told my manager that working for EF was the worst mistake I’d ever made in my life.  And yet they wanted me to stay?!  Right.

On the topic of languages and the teaching thereof, the kids here have been told I don’t speak nor understand Russian, even though my boss knows that I do (otherwise he probably wouldn’t have briefed me in Russian).  I’m not even meant to speak in Russian to the other staff, in case the kids find out that I can understand I guess.  Do you have any idea how hard it is to pretend not to speak a language?  I automatically respond to questions and laugh at jokes.  I’d make a terrible spy.

I’m going to finish on a more general comment about Finland: I think I’ve found my genetic home.  I look so much like Scandinavians, it’s ridiculous.  More than that though, this place is so natural to me that I feel like I’ve lived here in another life.  It’s like I’ve walked into a jigsaw puzzle and fitted in perfectly—just another missing piece of sky.  It’s very peculiar.