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.


I’m writing this post from my seat in the Moscow->St Petersburg 22:42 train, which will see me there at around 6:30 tomorrow morning.  I am, incidentally or otherwise, sweating like…  something like really sweaty—and not just because it’s about a billion degrees in here, but because (again) I’ve just done a lot of running to make the train on time.  This follows Friday’s exploits, which involved running through the airport.  Man, how is punctuality so hard?!  But yes, I got to my carriage at 22:41, with about 30 seconds to spare.  I need to stop doing this to myself…

Anyway, I’m going to tell you about the train.  Last time I travelled to Moscow (from Piter), I booked a ‘kupe’ ticket, where you get a little cabin which is shared with three others.  This is fairly standard for overnight trains across Europe at least (though I did catch one from Bucharest in Romania to Athens, and that was seated the whole way.  It wasn’t pleasant.).  You also occasionally get 2-berths, but that’s very rare.

Nowadays, I buy ‘plats-kart’ tickets in Russia, which is where you sleep in a carriage with over 40 other people.  Haha it’s not as awful as it sounds, honestly.  But right now I’m writing from berth 41—and I’m lucky in that there’s no-one in 42 above me.  The carriages are arranged in semi-partitioned sections, with two sets of bunk beds laterally, facing another set of bunk beds arranged longitudinally.  P1160970It’s pretty chilled, it’s wayyyy cheaper (I paid just over 2000rubles, so around AU$55 or 40-45EUR for the 713.8km journey), and it’s just more festive.  Even sleeping, it’s festive.  I’m here with people from all walks of life, from all over Russia, and it’s typically very unlikely that anybody speaks English.  The kupe cabins seem to be more business people, and then there are the fancy cabins for people with fancy amounts of money.  Eugh, my amounts of money are so un-fancy, I’m preoccupied with the fact I accidentally just left a 500ruble deposit at my hostel.  That’s like AUD$12!  I… need a job.  But yes, I also don’t really look like the other people on the train—for one, I look a damn sight healthier, which is concerning.  Plus taller.  Also, I’m mistaken for German or Scando, not Russian.  In fact apparently I stand out enough that the train lady came up to me and asked if I actually wanted to be in a kupe cabin instead.

The last two days have been really wonderful.  After Saturday night, I awoke at a fairly reasonable time (and, naturally, well after ‘check-out time’) and considered my options.  Should I go to St Petersburg that night (where I would spend way less money), or wait until Monday night?  Obviously I opted for the latter.

I’d been in touch with Artur, who I met last time I was in Moscow.  We’d decided to meet at Kolomonskoe metro, and go for a walk in the big park there.  Russians are so good at parks!  Well, in some respects.  In the ‘for’ column is the sheer size and prettiness; in the ‘against’ column is the fact that girls still wear stilettos—for as Artur said, no obstacle is too great for a Russian woman in heels.  Paths, cobblestones, mud—they’ll take it all.

After an immediate picnic on the grass because I was about to eat somebody, zombie-style, we went walking through the park for 4-5 hours.  It was full of apple trees in bloom, a pond that we kept accidentally returning to, ice-cream stands as always, and beds of beautiful tulips.  At one end was a tsar’s palace (there seem to be a lot of those), which the sign described as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ (again, there are a lot of those).  Actually, the sign was really cool: it was in Russian, English, and Braille, and below the writing was a drawing of the palace which was done in raised ridges, so that blind people could sort of ‘see’ the Wonder.

Afterward we went to Шоколадница, Shokoladnitsa, which as the name suggests, is a magical place of chocolatey goodness.  We had dinner and ‘real’ hot chocolates, which was actually just melted chocolate in a mug (win!), and talked for another 3-4 hours.  Haha never put language teachers in the same room together, right?!

Today I had a nice little sleep-in again, and was again in my own room.  How good is that?!  Then I decided it might be a good idea to check out Lenin’s tomb.  Which turned out to be a bit of a fail, as it’s closed on Monday.  But that’s okay, I’m not really that into seeing embalmed dudes anyway.  Instead I went for a bit of a walk.  I trailed through Red Square and the Aleksandrovskij Gardens then headed up to Arbat Street.

Arbat was busy at night, but during the day it’s something else.  It was full of street performers, cafés with their tables outside in the sunshine, artists displaying their wares, and of course, people everywhere.  Entering the street I saw someone wearing a Cheburashka costume, and my goodness, I love Cheburashka.  I actually have a little toy sitting on the blind in my room, and several more back in Australia.  Not to mention a book.  And all of the original series on my laptop.  Anyhow, clearly I was getting a photo with life-size Cheburashka no matter what it took.

Also there were a pirate (presumably Cap’n Jack?), and the two mascots from the Winter Olympics.  I didn’t care about them at all, but who am I to exclude anyone?  So I ended up having the pirate hat popped on my head (after the pirate’s surprise at my huge noggin), sandwiched between Cheburashka and whatever-they’re-called.  Then photo time!


Afterward they said “5”.  To which my response was “five hundred?”  The pirate, being true to form, said yes.  I told him I’d give him two.  Which I did.  Then he asked nicely so I gave him another hundred.  Haha he was having a laugh.

Next I walked across to Tverskaya Street, which is a super-fancy street, and probably the most well-known in Moscow.  It is money, and it leads straight to Red Square.  I wanted to return to a bookstore I’d checked out on Saturday—specifically, the politics section.  There are some ‘interesting’ titles on Ukraine.  I particularly enjoyed the chapter headings about the USA being full of Nazis, and “Germany’s plans” for Ukraine.  Needless to say, I bought one of the more dramatic titles for posterity.

After around five hours of walking about in the sun I was quite tired, so went back to the hostel for a rest and to do some writing.  [Side note: a very smelly but very nice man from the Caucausus just helped me lift my suitcase up out of the way.  I’m so touched whenever anyone helps me lift stuff, it’s definitely the way to my heart—and if the lifter happens to be good-looking?  Well, I don’t not think ‘take me now’.)  Then I went to get some more excellent Japanese food at Ваби-Саби Vabi-Sabi, though I must say it’s nowhere near as good as Две Палочки Dve Palochki (‘Two Sticks’), before heading out.  Yes, heading out, before catching my overnight train.  Because if there’s one thing I am, it’s sensible. /s

I was actually only going just around the corner from my hostel, where Jack (from Friday) was running the ‘Moscow Pub Quiz’.  He runs it every two weeks, with different people hosting, and apparently it’s become quite a thing.  After a few awkward minutes post-arrival, Jack told me to sit down at the bar (I was clearly looking at least as awkward as I felt), where the girl next to me said hello.  She recognised me from Friday night, and invited me onto their trivia team.  Then another of the girls from Friday came over for a chat as well.  Haha I felt like I knew people!

I won’t know the result of the trivia until I next have internet (in St Petersburg), as I had to leave before all of the answers had been given and checked.  So I’m going to try and get some sleep now, and will be very intensely thinking “go team Black Flamingo” in my dreams.  And because I can’t help myself, further side-note: I learned tonight that apparently flamingos are white, and they only turn pink because of all the crab they eat.  What?!  Mind, blown.

PS, I realise I haven’t posted about Saturday yet, but will do and back-date within the next day or so.

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 ;)).