A mountain do-over

Last time I was in Switzerland, I ended up leaving a ski slope on a stretcher and an ambulance, before being given the all-clear (but still not being able to walk for a few days).  This time I avoided both stretchers and ambulances (result!), but not mountains.  Funnily enough, given it’s a country known for its mountains.

I was off to Zurich to visit Sebastian, who I’d met 18 months previously in Colombia.  We’ve stayed in contact since, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t weird as hell to actually see him again in real life.  Anyhoo, after an event the preceding night and a grand total of 2.5 hours’ sleep, I got up at a thoroughly ungodly hour and caught the train from Brussels.  On said train, I naturally met a few ‘characters’.  One kid just kept coming and standing in the aisle and staring at me, for really really long periods of time.  Then he got tired of standing up, so sat sideways on the chairs next to mine so that he could continue to stare at me unblinkingly.  Wtf?  This went on for about half an hour, with the average stare being a few minutes long.  Pretty weird kid.  Then at one point I had a cute older Swiss lady sitting next to me, who just straight-up wouldn’t believe I don’t speak German.  Man, she just did not give up!  Though my personal highlight from the train trip (other than being able to see myself moving over countries via Google Maps) was the guard, who in German would wish everyone a ‘good day and bye’, but in English would tell us all to have a ‘nice and funny day’.  How cute is that?!

Coming into Zurich, I realised that it was the first blue sky I’d seen since arriving in Belgium (the clichés are true!), and it was freaking fantastic.  After I disembarked the train I went for a walk up to the uni, which had a view over the city, then sat and read my book in the sunshine.  No jumper required!  Absolutely glorious.

Later that day, after he’d finished work, I met up with Seb, and we went for a stroll through the city.  It really is a very pretty little place—from above, it looks more like a model city than a real one.  It reminded me in a lot of ways of Hobart, but with snowier mountains and more vivid colours.

The initial plan for the Saturday was to go for a hike, but the weather wasn’t particularly amenable to this idea.  Instead we headed out to Technorama, a science museum.  Now, I love science museums.  I remember going to SciTech in Perth Australia when I was 5 years old, and it’s there that the obsession began.  Technorama was a bit different to the science museums I’m used to—its exhibits were clearly arranged and described, and useful for actually teaching.  It was different to say, Questacon in Canberra, or Camera Obscura in Edinburgh: it was focused on learning about science, more than being about the magic of it all (and then figuring things out for yourself).  Haha it begs for the application of national/Germanic stereotypes, to be honest :p.  After a few hours we were pretty much over it, so decided to head home.  Oh god, the traffic.  We ended up in a traffic jam for what felt like (and I’m pretty sure actually was) a couple of hours.  I was dying of exhaustion, but the threat of being continuously poked put any notion of a nap to rest!  Finally, finally we got home, whereupon S cooked some most epic Vietnamese soup.  Nom nom nom.  (Nom nom ‘nam??)

Sunday.  Oh, Sunday.  I woke up feeling the worst I’ve felt in actual years.  What a freaking disaster, and what horrible timing!  I was thereby rendered the world’s most useless house guest, but what can you do.  We headed off to Basel, to theoretically catch the 4am start of Fasnacht.  We had lunch at Seb’s friends’ house (well, eventually—someone forgot to turn the oven on :D), before later on heading to the nearby town of Liestal.  For some at-the-time unknown reason, people were carrying big torches and bonfires through the city, with the fires gradually increasing in size until the flames were reaching a good fifteen metres into the air.  Google has told me it’s a Fasnacht tradition called Chienbäse, and apparently nobody has any idea why the hell it happens.  (Official website; photos on Flickr.)

zurich (2 of 3)

That night I was supposed to be staying in Basel and going out, while Seb headed back to Zurich to go be a good working boy.  However I was still barely holding it together, and therefore being the most boring and quiet person in the entire world.  Eugh.  Thus despite the loveliness of everybody and their willingness to speak English for me (haha as far as German goes, I can pick out proper nouns and inbetweeny conjunctiony/prepositiony type words—this does not for understanding make!), I went back to Zurich too.

After a lazy start on Monday, and despite the desperate mizzle outside, I decided I’d go for a bit of a hike.  The target was the Uetliberg, a hill out the back of Seb’s place.  And so I did, traipsing up the slippery snow in the rain, umbrella firmly in hand, and variously singing and conducting my way through the forest.  (Hey, who can not conduct to Bach’s Fugue in G Minor?)  Soon enough I reached the train station at the top, took a few photos, and headed back down to town.

When I got there, I went to the supermarket.  Haha I’ve just realised that I talk about supermarkets enough to justify them becoming a tag on my blog.  Yup, that’s happened.  Anyway, while I haven’t yet written about it, supermarkets here in Belgium make absolutely no sense.  I simply cannot get my head around Francophonic organisational logic (or lack thereof).  And I’m blaming Francophones, because apparently keeping pine-nuts in the fridge makes perfect sense to both French Belgians and actual French people.  Not German Switzerland, though.  Everything was so organised and easy to find!  It made me really outrageously happy.  Though I’ve discovered one can’t buy icing sugar in Belgium, nor self-raising flour in Switzerland.  Obviously, baking is becoming an international activity.

Anyhoo, after my inspirationally logical supermarket adventure, it was time to bake cookies while studying, before making dinner.  Procrastination skills: 10/10.  Of course, at about this time Seb informed me that the photos I’d taken from the ‘top’ of Uetliberg weren’t actually from the top at all—somehow I didn’t notice the fact that I hadn’t actually finished walking up the hill.  What the hell?!  Fail, Laura.  Fail.

Tuesday was travelling-back-to-Belgium day, but I had Unfinished Business.  Namely that goddamn ‘mountain’.  Was I going to let another Swiss mountain beat me?  I thought not!  So, being a little short on time, I caught the train up to the not-top, and made it to the actual top:

zurich (3 of 3)

Result!  Of course, it turned out that the preceding day’s rain had turned everything to sheet ice, so my plan to walk back down the hill would have quickly resulted in broken bones.  As such, I caught the train back down (:() then quickly threw everything into my bag before heading to Zurich HB.  I was to catch the train back to Basel, from whence I was flying to Brussels.  However, while on the train I looked at the airport bus timetable S had printed out for me, only to be wildly confused.  I mean firstly, I had no idea that the airport was technically in France, so that was a bit of a surprise.  Secondly, the timetable said that the stops were “EuroAirport Cargo, EuroAirport Abflug CH, AuroAirport Verwaltung, EuroAirport Ankunft CH”—which the hell was I getting off at?!  Obviously not ‘cargo’, but as to the rest?

Scratching my head, I tried to rouse my poor sleep-deprived brain.  Then suddenly I remembered seeing a sign in a store which had lollies ‘Ab’ 1CHF, which in the context obviously meant ‘from’.  Then I recalled seeing ‘flug’ both in Dusseldorf airport the other month and in the train station in Zurich, where it clearly meant ‘flight’ or something close enough.  Boom!  Abflug=departures!!  Hmm I probably could have just asked somebody, but let’s not get too crazy.

Soon enough I was in the airport then back in Brussels (and might I note that I have now crossed several European state borders, and never had my passport checked?!), where I escorted some poor lost Frenchman into the city to his hotel, then thankfully home to bed.

In other news, I’ve written another guest review for The Piece of Shit Book Club.  And in other other news, I’ve just found out that my book Pickles and Ponies is a finalist in the Wishing Shelf Book Awards.  How crazy!  (So basically I’m saying you should all buy it, and thereby fund my adventuring career ;)).

 

Opinion Piece

When I was at dinner with Lana the other night, she said I would make a terrible journalist.  I agreed, because I just can’t take being told what to do.  She said that was true, but moreover, I’m incapable of writing without bias.  I completely disagreed, but have nonetheless decided to take a leaf out of what is apparently my book, and write a highly opinionated post about Russia.  Or is that two posts?  I’ve put hating-Russia on the left, and loving-Russia on the right: I’ve been so perpetually in two minds about the place, that it only seems fair to write two opposing pieces.

The blog will continue, though from here on in, ‘Russia’ posts can be found under the ‘Russia’ category tab, while the front page will now be posts from what I’m calling ‘the long way around’ (who goes to Australia via Europe and Latin America?!).  

And now.  Enjoy!  My last post about Russia, written from within Russia.  (Hopefully not forever?):

Haters gonna..

I’m writing the ‘hating’ post first, mainly because I’m mid-cleaning, and I’m going to take out the resulting rage on some grout!

I started writing these posts by doing dot points of the things that I love, and the things that I hate.  The first thing that came up on my list for ‘hatred’ was the spitting.  And, for that matter, public excretion in general.  As men walk down the street, they spit everywhere: and not just those of lower socio-economic status.  You’ll see men in business suits having a good old time of it.  Why?!  It’s so disgusting!  Of course, there’s also public urination: Karie had a man on the metro whip it out and go for it in the train, April saw another guy—positively refined by comparison—open the metro door between stations and pee on the tracks.  I came home a couple of nights ago and someone had actually pissed on my front door.  Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy?!?  Hoos once came home and found that someone had shit on his door-step.  The streets smell permanently of bodily fluids, and I hate wearing shoes other than boots, because I shudder to think of what—or who—I’m actually getting on my feet.  Disgusting!

On the topic of streets, I won’t miss the drunkards stumbling over the pavement or being obnoxious in parks, or the sheer number of men walking down the street with beer-bottle in hand.  I’ve seen on multiple occasions men leaving the supermarket with their wife with child in one hand, beer in the other, and cracking it open to take a swig the moment they’ve left the store.  I mean, I’ve been fined for drinking in public before ($120 in Tasmania, what!!), but there’s something a little different between having a drink with your friend in a semi-private enclosed space at night-time before heading out, and treating alcohol as an essential accessory.  They’re like male Paris Hiltons, but switching the chihuahua for beer.

Still on streets, the thing I hated most about winter wasn’t its length (though it was definitely too long), the temperature, the darkness or snow: it was the ice.  St Petersburg doesn’t really have drains as such, and everything would be covered with this ice which was down-right terrifying to walk on.  The hour or so I spent walking to and from metros every day was something I dreaded: on weekends I refused to leave the house, because I just couldn’t face it.  There has to be a better way of dealing with the problem than leaving it (or making it worse by sweeping the streets).

Next has to be work.  I think I’ve been fairly and consistently clear in my hatred for the company I worked for: I said to their faces that working for them was the worst mistake I’ve ever made.  If I could do it all again and not work for EF, then I would in a heart-beat: I feel like my time in Russia would be 1000% improved.  My usual bench-mark is if I don’t like something and Russians don’t like it, then it’s just not okay: and Russians flee the company too.
Part of that is the management philosophy in Russia in general: something Nastya’s had a solid rant or two about herself.  The philosophy tends to be that people are at work to be used: they gave up any right to respect when they signed the employment contract.  There’s no such thing as policy, as procedure.  In fact, that’s probably a given: most things here are riddled with corruption and constant attempts to clamber over those around you, and workplaces are no exception.
That clambering, of course, is not found merely in the workplace.  Russia has made me less trusting and more suspicious.  On that rare occasion that someone is actually nice, I immediately want to know what they want from me.  I’ve not noticed kindness for kindness’ sake: it’s manipulation.  That’s it.  Exceptions have been few (VERY few) and far between.  There’s no customer service, people don’t help each other if they can avoid it, and I am so sick of being fucked around and lied to.  Sometimes people hide behind bureaucracy—just fill in these triplicate forms, take them to the other side of town, bring them back, go to another place to get some stamps, take money to this bank and to this one—but really, everyone would be better off if people just acted like reasonable human beings.

Of course, bureaucracy and paperwork isn’t the only impracticality.  As Jess mentioned in a vlog, 5000 rubles notes are ridiculous: they’re dispensed at ATMs, and nobody accepts them.  On the other end of the scale, there are 1-kopeck coins (1/500,000 the value of the 5000 ruble note), which you can use for exactly nothing.  They cost around 70 kopecks to produce, and you need around 3600 of them to buy one loaf of bread.  Hyper-inflation set in in Russia over ten years ago: you’d think that would be enough time to eliminate the most worthless of coins.  Kopecks in general are a joke.

Then there’s having to confirm and reconfirm things.  Don’t bother sending emails, nobody will get back to you.  Don’t bother booking online, as Russians don’t do it (too high a risk of fraud), so you won’t be completely believed if you say you bought a ticket.  And yet I still try haha: it actually works fairly well for intercity trains.  I’ve confirmed my bus to Finland tonight twice already and have been told to confirm it again today.  Nastya rang the hostel she’ll be staying at tomorrow for a month, only to find out that management has changed in the few weeks since she’s made the booking, and therefore she has no booking.

Need to go shopping?  Need to pick up some rice, eggs, milk and maybe some biscuits?  Go to at least three different stores!  I’ve largely memorised which products are available at which stores, and so a weekly shop will take me to 5-6 different supermarkets.  Of course, it doesn’t help that stocks are completely random, and change in the smaller stores from week to week.  Food is, of course, Russian staples, with little international cuisine.  Feel like you’ll die without a fix of, say, some Mexican?  Or even some pizza?  Well, I hope you like it with DILL.  Dill is the national flavour, and it is is gross.  On the rare occasions I eat out, I specifically ask for no dill—to which I invariably get a puzzled expression.  ‘Why would this crazy Australian girl not want dill?  It’s delicious!’  YUCK.

Food in general is bad in Russia though.  It’s not just the flavours (though they’re not a happy time, either)—it’s the quality.  I remember when we first arrived, Karie raved about how much she loved the food (and I looked at her dubiously).  When I saw her to say goodbye a few weeks ago, she said that she’d finally noticed how bad the food is.  The quality of fruit and vegetables for example is very poor: even if you buy frozen goods, sometimes they’re mouldy, or have been improperly stored and therefore frozen and defrosted multiple times.  They are, not, good.

At this point I got a phone call from my Russian bank—connected with both the FSB and apparently also used by the mafia for money laundering—saying that I need a new bank-card.  Despite the fact that yesterday I was told specifically that I absolutely did not need one.  Who needs access to their money, right?!

Next has to be the armour.  I’m not talking about role-playing here, but rather about the emotional armour you have to put on every day to survive here.  I’ve talked about it at quite some length previously (here here here).  Here is chaos.  Nothing makes any sense, people aren’t nice, and anything could happen at any moment.  It’s actually incredibly stressful.  Armour is requisite, and it is heavy.  It involves being pessimistic, having no hope, and being prepared to accept everything that will be heaped upon you.  One of my students once emailed me that Russia is too ‘dark and cloudy’ for someone like me, and that I should escape while I could.  I would feel robbed of my life were this armour permanent.

Then we have the -isms.  (Not ‘-asms’, which I am significantly more partial to!).  I’ve spoken about sexism before at quite some length (eg here): I hate being treated as a second-class citizen because I’m a woman.  It just doesn’t make any sense to me!  I can’t comprehend how anybody could see me as anything other than a person like any other.  Of course, it’s not just women who are an underclass in Russia: it’s people from other places, specifically the Caucasus and Central Asia.  Russians are super racist as a general rule.  (I’ve talked about it a bit here.)  I don’t feel like I suffer from much racism myself—but then again, I’m a young white woman.  Actually, I’ve noticed some positive racism toward Westerners in some ways: people tend to trust us more, because we’re not Russian.  It’s expected that we’ll do what we say we will, and that we can be trusted more.  Weird.  Especially given that a lot of people who come to Russia from the West are down-right creepy.

I can’t not mention the men.  It’s not just that they’re not groomed or dressed like Western men.  Actually, everything about them is different.  As I’ve said time and time again, there are massive cultural differences in every respect.  I hate that talking to a man seemingly gives them the right to my body: it doesn’t.  Saying hello doesn’t mean that you can grope me.  Also, a lot of men sit on the metro and glare at me, and I have genuinely no idea why.  I posted on my facebook once that sometimes, I’m not sure if Russian guys are hitting on me or are angry with me: and that still stands.  How are short, glaring men attractive?  I’m probably not going to say hi.

Lastly (though I’m sure the longer I leave it, the more things I’ll think of) is the apathy.  I can’t fix Russia: I can understand it, and I can understand the reasons for the way life is here, but I have absolutely no power to help or to change it.  But Russians could.  But they don’t.  Instead, they will mention the political/cultural/social/ecological/economic problems and just shrug and say “well, it’s Russia”.  As if Russia deserves to be robbed by its government, to have substandard education, to have widening social and financial inequalities, to be treated as a joke by the rest of the world.  Things here are ludicrously bad.  I understand what the country’s been through and I recognise that things are changing, but it’s just a broken, broken, place.  And the people who live here don’t try to make things better—sometimes I can’t tell whether it’s powerlessness or just the all-abiding apathy—they just shrug.  And join the fight to clamber over everybody else in their wish to get rich or to escape.  It doesn’t have to be like this, and I wish that I could show everybody here what life could be like.  If only.

<3 Love <3

I like to be positive, and so I kind of hope that people read this part of the post, rather than the ‘hating’ part.  Or at least read this second 🙂  But, as I said, I’ve been very divided about Russia the whole time I’ve been here, so it seems only fair to write two parts to this post.

The thing I love most about Russia is, of course, the people I care about: my friends, students, and my adorable landlords (really—I want miniature versions of them to put in my pocket!).  Russians aren’t quite like anybody else, it’s true: they’re un-ironic, emotionally available and affectionate, and I do love that about them.  The people I know are, of course, now expected to come and visit me in a country sometime 🙂
The people I particularly appreciate are those such as Nastichka (Siberia) and Lizard, who don’t speak English, but have been good friends to me despite my incredibly retarded Russian.  Lizard laughs at everything I say, but in a way that’s non-offensive, and Nastichka knows me well enough that she’ll field questions directed at me and answer them for me, if I need it.  Nastya (both Nastyas, actually) are coming over this afternoon to say bye, and it’s going to be bad.  Saying bye to Liza on Wednesday is the only time I’ve come close to crying so far, it was awful.
There are few people who I trust in Russia, but the two Nastyas and Lana are of course included, and I don’t know what I would have done without them.  And, as I’ve said before, but for my amazing students, I would have left months ago.

The thing I’ll miss second-most is the Russian language.  Of course.  I love it.  How I feel about it doesn’t make much sense, but since when did passion have to be logical?  I dream half in English and half in Russian, and find it bizarre—like they’re somehow lacking—if people don’t speak any Russian—like part of their soul just isn’t there.  (Oh god, I really have become Russian).  I will continue to study the language, independently like before: I’ve looked into courses in Sydney, and there aren’t any of a high enough level.  Russian just isn’t a priority language in Australia.
The other thing associated with the language that I’ll miss is the sense of victory every time I accomplish something.  At first, when I arrived, it was being able to order a coffee, or try to book a taxi.  Last week it was my Russian exam, and yesterday I managed to sort out a whole bunch of account- and transfer-related things at the bank all in Russian.  It feels so good to be able to do things!  I can’t say I’ve ever felt like a gladiator given the thumbs-up after ordering a coffee in Australia.  Everybody should experience that.

Next is Nevskiy Prospekt.  In my first few weeks after arriving, walking down Nevskiy, I felt like I’d finally found home.  Now, walking down it at 11pm when it’s still light, I feel incredibly privileged to be in this beautiful, nonsensical place.  Nevskiy and Piter have so much history to them, and when I walk past the doll-house palaces on the main road, I can’t help but be reminded.

The other day I was in Dom Knigi (when am I not—I spend a ridiculous amount of time there.  Happily, the low price of books is one of the good things about Russia!) and saw a travel guide to Australia. Bemused, I picked it up and had a flick-through: and was filled with dread.  The sight of the bare eucalypt forests reminded me that I don’t want to live in Australia—not now, and certainly not in the long run.  Conversely, the forests in Russia are just amazing.  They are so beautiful: they’re what forests should be.  They make me feel like magic could happen.  Russia is an inordinately beautiful place.

I have to give a shout-out to a few random things: firstly, there’s being able to wear boots every day (yes!) without being accused of wearing ‘fuck-me’ boots; then there’s the sweet little kittens in the courtyard!  I’m not a cat person by any stretch of the imagination, but I’ve made friends with these ones.  They’re always leaping about the place!  Gosh, I know I’ve been living in Piter—it comes with a cat obsession.  Lucky I’m escaping before it becomes full-blown!

Public transport here is fantastic.  I’ve gone on and on about the SPb metro before—there should be one like it everywhere.  But it’s not just that: the buses, marshrutki and so on are equally useful.  Man though, that metro!

As far as food, there’s little to nothing I’ve liked, except for Russian champagne (they call it champagne, so I can too), чудо everything (hello, flavoured, chocolate-coated cheese!), and drinkable yoghurt.  I can’t believe I didn’t like drinkable yoghurt when I first tried it in Prague last year.  It’s so good!

Similarly great has been going to uni, which I loved; all-day night and all-day day; the fact that everybody’s an artist and there are paintings everywhere.  I also love the lack of rules.  Haha of course, in an ideal world, I wouldn’t have any rules, but other people would!  Russia is chaos, but I do like being able to do whatever I like, with no repercussions and with complete indifference demonstrated by those around me.

Next has to be the randomness.  It’s bad in a lot of ways, but it’s astonishing, mind-bending, to get up every day and know that absolutely anything could happen.  I never know what I’ll see, or what adventures I’ll have.  Granted, a lot of the adventures are bad, but it’s all so incredibly interesting (high praise, from me!).  It makes me laugh.

I know I’ve done a lot of Russian-man-bashing, but I do have to mention some positives.  Finally.  Way to be balanced, Laura!  Anyway, I find them actually very romantic, in a traditional sense.  They’re relationship-focused, they buy flowers, and they’re chivalrous in a lot of respects.  Even if sometimes that’s ridiculous (when in Vyborg with Nastya, I opened the door and waved her through; then a couple came up and as I was already holding the door I waved them through too.  The woman went, but then the man wasn’t going to let a woman hold the door for him—god forbid he should be emasculated—so we had to do this awkward shuffle whereby I ducked under his arm as he grabbed the door from around me, so that I could pass through as he held it.  Face-palm).

Lastly, I have to mention the empathy and passion I have gained for Russia.  Two years ago I knew nothing at all about it: vodka, bad guys, and ‘something to do with the Cold War’.  Now I’m halfway through the language, I’ve lived here, I’ve made Russian friends, I’ve devoured the history, and I feel like I’ve gained an understanding.  I would hate to think of a world without Russia (unless, of course, it got its own little world.  Maybe a moon or something.  Which would be accessible.  That seems reasonable.. :p).  I’m overwhelmed when reading about the history or politics, and struggle not to cry when feeling the tragedy of the place.  It’s a place which makes no sense, but it’s easy to see how it got this way.  I finally understand why Russian emigrants miss their homeland: things can be very bad here, but it’s a place worthy of passion.

I tell my students to write conclusions to their written pieces, and I feel I can hardly do less.  Do I love or hate Russia more?  I’m not sure, but it’s become part of me, like the other places I’ve lived.  I suppose I won’t know really how I feel about it until—if and when—I come back.  That will be the test: if I return, it’s because I can’t live without it.

Either way, Russia has been an experience.  An impossible, ridiculous, near-inconceivable car-crash of an experience, but an interesting and eye-opening one nonetheless.  Thank-you to everybody who has been here to experience it with me.

Mosc♥w

I knew it was going to be a good trip within five minutes of getting off the train, when a policeman walked up to us to ask whether we’d mind calling a taxi for the girl passed out on the pavement.  A mere few minutes later, Rach, who’d met me at the station, asked if I was hungry and handed me chocolate, saying that she knows i’m addicted.  Super-Russian experience + friends + chocolate = YES!!

Moscow panorama

I know I’m a bit tardy in writing this post as I got back last nearly a week ago.  My only excuse is that I’ve been frantically studying, trying to catch up on work before returning to uni this week.  I had my first grammar class back today and spent a lot of the time staring at the page thinking “derrrr……………??” and that’s about it.  Hilariously, the grammar teacher applauded when I showed up – I think she enjoys my joie de vivre, because it’s certainly not my grammatical abilities!  Apparently we started studying for upper intermediate exams today, grammatically speaking at least, and I am just nowhere near ready for that.  No.  Where.  Near.

Back on track!  So, after staying up most of the night catching up, Rach and I got up on Saturday with no real plan.  Except, of course, that I had to go to Red Square (I’ll include the photos as a gallery down the bottom today – if you’re on my facebook, there’s nothing new). I had this moment, entering the square, of “wow, I’m really in Russia” – and then another moment of “why does St Basil’s look exactly the same as the Church of Spilled Blood in St P?”  (I later found out that the latter was based in part on the former).

It’s weird actually, but even though I was in the Russian capital, I felt less like I was in Russia than I do when I’m in St Petersburg (which is purportedly not ‘real’ Russia itself).  And, contrary to what people say, Moscow was friendly.  There were people smiling on the street.  Smiling!  On the street!!  What craziness is that?!  Moscow felt to me more like I was in a ‘real’ city, not in Russia at all.  Of course, signs and the language were still in Russian, but I could have been in London.  If London were full of Stalinist buildings and statues, and also Russians.  Omg and there were supermarkets with things in them – we even found green Thai curry paste!  And there were varieties of fruits and vegies!!  (I was super-excited as it’s getting harder and harder to be vegetarian in Piter – there are really only onions and potatoes left in most places).

We lined up to go into St Basil’s, but unlike me Rach doesn’t have a student pass, so she went to the Гум (more on this in a second – and it’s pronounced ‘Goom’) while I explored inside.  And got lost, multiple times.  Entering the building, the lady told me I didn’t have the proper ticket to take photos, but I elected to take the Russian approach and take absolutely no notice whatsoever.  I don’t have any software atm to fix the lighting for some of the interior shots, so I’ll upload a couple in a few months when I have Lightroom again (unless someone wants to sponsor me :D).

After accidentally spending over an hour wandering around in the church, I met up with Rach and things just got better.  The Гум is ‘the’ exclusive mall on Red Square, so it’s full to the brim of high-class designer shops, and at the time I was there, a completely ludicrous amount of decorations.  Nothing succeeds like excess, in the Гум.

We met up with Rach’s housemate Sarah and made our way to a Georgian restaurant, where we met the amazing Artur.  He has a seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of Moscow and was more than happy to tell us about all of it.  He’s also the most fluent-in-English Russian I’ve ever met, it’s astonishing.  I didn’t have to grade my language at all!

The rest of day 1 was spent wandering through the darkening city, with frequent stops for me to take blurry photos haha :).

On day 2, Rach and I went to Sokolniki Park, a big park in the city.  We then proceeded to go cross-country skiing.  It was my first time on skis in nearly ten years, and it was interesting to say the least!  I spent the first half hour automatically going into my snowboarding stance, then having to tell myself to keep my knees in line.  It was absolutely fantastic though: we saw a lady with birds eating out of her hand, a la Snow White; a HUGE freaking squirrel (seriously, it was like a football); horsies (yes I ran/skiied after them to say hello), and we went for epic lost-style adventures.  Poor Rach though, I kept changing my mind about which way I wanted to go, so she kept having to go through the somewhat painstaking kerfuffle of turning around on XC skis.  In the end, she would stand in a neutral position (one ski pointed in each direction) until I made up my mind.

While leaving the park we checked out all the weirdness taking place.  Lots of people were ice-skating of course (some unintentionally), there were kids in ski biscuits, a ferris wheel, a giant inflatable slide like you’d see in a water park, and there was a dance-floor with music.  In fact, there were multiple places in the park which were flooded with music, it was great.  At this particular place there were a lot of mainly older couples, ballroom dancing.  I loved it.

Rach had to work that afternoon, and would be making as much in an hour as I do in around 10, so lunch was on her.  We had the ubiquitous sushi, and as I said to her, it was so nice to have a proper meal.  There have literally been days where I’ve dreamt of having a proper meal!  Best <3

I didn’t achieve much while Rach was at work, but that night we had green curry.  Man.  It was awesome.

On day 3 we got up fiendishly early (anything before 11am is fiendishly early in my books) and met Artur.  He, Rach, Sarah, myself, and one of Sarah’s ex-colleagues Elliot, went off on a road-trip to Sergeev Posad, a really old monastery and I think the most important one in Russia?  That seems like a big claim though.  It was yet another lovely chilly day in the snow.  On the way home that evening, we dropped Elliot off at the metro, and Artur was kind enough to give us a city tour of Moscow by car.  He did it in Russian so I only got around 50-60% of it, but it was enough :).  Not only that, he then drove us all back to where Sarah and Rach live, in the middle of freaking nowhere, an hour from the city.  They work for a school for millionaires’ kids, and it’s in a really random location.  It was such a great day!

For my final day in Moscow, I mooched around in the morning and did some study, then headed into town with the girls.  Sarah and I went to Gorky Park after managing to store my bag in a fairly random train station.  She assured me she’d been to the aforementioned park loads of times, so I was happy to yet again have a guide – well, until I realised she had exactly zero sense of direction and had no idea where we were haha!  We got there eventually though, and went for a wander.  There was, somewhat hilariously, a little Burton snowboard freestyle park.  It was so cute!  But what gives, a Burton park in the middle of a park in the middle of a city of 30 million?  I can’t decide if it was out of place, or exactly the right thing.

Sarah and I headed to the metro, at which point she went home and I met up with Rach.  We were meant to have dinner, but failed to find anywhere both reasonable and fiscally viable, so pretty much just drank a glass of wine.  At this point Artur joined us – I’m a complete retard and had left my hoodie in his car – and Rach went home exhausted.  A & I went for a bit of a wander through the darkened city, thence to Leningradskiy station to catch my train home 🙁

I love Piter, but my experience in Moscow was enough to make me think I could work there next year.  Either way, I’m really looking forward to the next few months, now that I’ll be working part-time: there’s so many things I can do (and nothing I can buy haha)!  I’m going to the Piter-Moscow ice hockey game Saturday week with my friend Lana, to see Swan Lake at the Mariinsky Theatre on February 10, I’m back at uni as I’ve said, and I’m planning on visiting 1-2 museums etc a week for the remainder of my time in St P.  It’s going to be amazing 🙂

Photos as promised:

Source: http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lkfsluvovm1qbwnb9o1_500.jpg

Letters home

Good morning guys!!!  Happy Monday!!!

I’m procrastinating my socks off—something, might I add, I’ve done remarkably well all weekend—I have 2 assignments and 2 lesson plans to do, so obviously sleeping has becoming an amazingly good time.  Tanya asked for a proper email last week, so congratulations, this has become my new form of procrastination!

I’ve been having a lot of very peculiar adventures, and a rather alarming number of them are based around supermarkets.  Where we are in Prague (by ‘we’ I mean both my CELTA school and me and my 3 flatmates), nobody really speaks English.  People over about 30yo speak some Russian on account of how it was required by the Soviets, and quite a few of the people in my class speak a bit of it – we’re having Russian night from this week so that we can all practice!.  However, people below that age usually speak just Czech, or maybe a touch of English.

Needless to say, in supermarkets everything’s in Czech.  And Czech people eat very differently to Australians (funnily enough), not to mention organising supermarkets differently!  Basically everything is bread, cured meat, and cheese.  On Friday about 8 of us went out to dinner, and I kid you not, my meal came with an entire block (wheel?) of Brie on top of it.  On the other hand, for starters I shared “devil toast” with one of the others on my course—from recollection, it was toast with tomato sauce, soy sauce, chilli, ham and cheese plus a few other random things—and that was bizarrely incredible.

ANYWAY my housemates and I have divided up cooking so that the others can get schoolwork done.  Last Monday was my first night doing it, and in a meal that usually consists of onion, capsicum, chorizo, tomato and butter beans, I had to swap the chorizo for a similar salami and butter beans for kidney beans.  So I was doing pretty well.  My housemates performed similarly well over the following days.  Today I was having a think about what I could do for dinner tonight and I figured it’s -15 outside, cured meat is easily available as is root vegetables—so I’ll do bangers and mash, that’ll be easy and I won’t have to do any weird food replacements.   WRONG.  It all started to go wrong in the supermarket, when I was trying to figure out how on earth to make gravy sans gravy powder (you can tell I don’t normally eat Brit food/food w gravy!).  In fact, I didn’t even know if there was gravy powder but peculiarly labelled, or in a different place, or if they even have gravy on stuff in the Czech Republic.  I was in the spices kind of aisle for nearly half an hour, trying to figure out whether I was looking at stock powders or not, when finally in desperation I accosted a Czech person saying “omg pleeeeeeeeeeeeease tell me you speak English!!!”.  It turns out she did, and so after a lot of miming and explaining we managed to come up with the closest thing possible.

Most of the meats, meanwhile, are in the deli, but the line was epic so I grabbed a packet of sausages – easy right?

I get home from the supermarket and open the sausages and actually don’t know if they’re already cooked or not.  I find my housemate Katherine and we’re trying to figure out whether what I have is in fact sausages, if they’ve already been pre-cooked, and oh—what’s this?  Are they individually wrapped in plastic??

We end up running a “controlled experiment”, boiling a couple, frying a couple, and decide that the weird plastic wrapping isn’t something that’s going to melt off.  Soooooo Katherine says that “I’ll help you finish peeling the sausages and then go and do my assignment”, and so we do.  Peel the sausages.  Wtf right?

Incredibly long story slightly-shorter-than-it-could-have-been, I’m presently eating mashed potato (that bit worked haha, phew!) with kind-of-sausages in watery-stock.  It’s pretty exotic.  I have a lot more empathy for immigrants to Australia—while I usually find going to foreign-language supermarkets really fun, when the language is different enough from your own (or even from Russian) that you can’t figure out what something is, it takes a loooooooooooong time to go shopping, is incredibly stressful, and you end up w funky food.

Haha okay so the above story is half what my assignment should be, so clearly I’m doing well.  So here’s another epic story for you:

For the 5ish days until Sunday last week, I was in Selva Val Gardena in Italy snowboarding.  Omg it was incredible.  500km of runs (I explored only a fraction, it was crazy!), partying w my friends, and I went to my debut game of ice hockey (at which I had my first mulled wine—incidentally, the first phrase I’ve learnt in Czech is “give me mulled wine please”.  Clearly a very useful phrase!).

I’m basically the worst snowboarder ever, because rather than being all “gangsta”, I talk about it like it’s some kind of far-gone hippy meditation-based cult, and furthermore go around the mountain being a little do-gooder (helping people with their stuff when they fall over, helping little kids in ski school get up again—habit!!).  This one day, I’d gone up the mountain still somewhat inebriated from the previous night (I didn’t notice the fact until that night, when I couldn’t remember getting ready in the morning or how I got up the hill!!) and so chilled out in one of the restaurants, eating epic Italian pasta and watching the snow.  Once I decided I’d recovered sufficiently, I went outside to discover a BIG F-OFF DOG outside.  (I googled “big f-off dog” and came up with this image—the dog in the pic could have been this one’s twin http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lkfsluvovm1qbwnb9o1_500.jpg).  It was so big that I decided not to go and pat it, because it looked like it would devour me whole.

I was milling around the same restaurant a few hours later as it was in the middle of a traverse, when I noticed that a little girl (~11yo) was by the dog, trying to get her glove out of its mouth.  I watched for a sec and then asked if she was okay.  She said no, so I ditched my board and went over to help.

So I grab the big f-off dog (seriously, only way to describe it) by the collar and get it to let go of the glove.  Then what does it do but twist its head around and the next thing you know, my entire forearm is in its mouth.  So my hand was just out one side of its mouth and just past my elbow was out the other side (massive, massive dog).  I’m a bit like…. ooooh shit (partially because I was concerned for my arm, partially because I was concerned for my snowboarding jacket) and then the dog jumps up on me, and the wretched thing is farrrr taller and heavier than I am.  So I’m trying to stay balanced with this huge dog against me and my arm up in the air in its mouth, and somehow wrestle myself free.  Then what does the dog do but run after the little girl and knocks her to the ground, so she’s fully under it.

After the experience I’d just had I was feeling somewhat ambivalent about going near the dog again, it was really scary.  Then I realised that I probably wasn’t going to let a little girl get mauled, so I went and grabbed the dog again, asking bystanders for some help (everybody could see what was going on and was giving us a 15-20 metre berth, despite our being in the middle of where they’d have to go) to absolutely no avail.  The little girl manages to walk away while I’ve got the dog, then I don’t even know how, I managed to get it off me and to stay still while I walked back to my board and got the hell out of there.  I can’t help but wonder where the girl’s parents were, not to mention the dog’s owner!!

So that was my scary dog story, and now I realise that I’ve probably taken up 15 minutes of your morning on two long-winded stories (so nothing unusual there then haha!), so I will get back to my assignment (which, to be fair, I could have finished by now) and update you on some other stuff some other time!!!

🙂 L