back again

January 17, 2012 Leave a comment

I’m currently sitting on an incredibly slow train to Moscow from Saint Petersburg. I’ve just wrapped up another couple of weeks in Russia.

Initially I had planned to head down south to the border near Chechnya to go skiing with a few Russian friends of mine although the place we were planning on staying apparently had a fairly major problem with its sewage system causing all matters faecal to overrun the house. We thought, given the heating was also broken, perhaps we’d better postpone heading down to a region next door to a warzone to stay in a place with frozen poo all over the place…

And that’s why I returned to Saint Petersburg.

The last week has been interesting. I arrived in Moscow on the 30th but planned to head to Saint Petersburg the following day on the train.

The weather was warmer than normal in Moscow, hovering around -3 degree centigrade with about 10cms of snow on the ground. You wouldn’t have really known that though just by looking around at what people were wearing. Most middle-aged women have dusted off out their Shuba – their long winter coat designed for a subzero temperatures usually made from some kind of exotic endangered animal.

I caught the train into the centre of Moscow from the airport to track down my place to stay. I managed to negotiate my way around the metro to the correct stop before asking a group of babushka’s for directions to my hostel. As I had barely spoken a word of Russian since I lived here, my skills were fairly crappy but I communicated adequately. I wandered around with my bag on my back for a few hours but couldn’t find the place I was after. As cliché-Russian as it might sound absolutely everyone I asked for help was drunk. The only people I asked that weren’t drunk was a group of people in a supermarket who were significantly more interested in first determining I wasn’t an American and then that kangaroos actually lived in Australia.

The place I was looking for turned out to be right next door to the supermarket but I didn’t find this out from the workers, I found that out from some drunk bloke on the street.

At 2am I wandered into the hostel.

I managed to get a few hours sleep before getting up to catch my train to Saint Petersburg.

I’ve got quite used to Russian trains now, all it basically takes is having a fairly high tolerance for the smell of stale tobacco and body odour from people rugged up like it’s -75 outside. I got to Saint Petersburg and met up with my friends.

The following days mainly involved my Russian language skills getting a very good workout, lots of drinking and quality conversation. I saw in the New Year at a friend’s restaurant with about ten others. New Years in Russia is usually a family affair, much like Christmas is for us back at home. We ate a whole range of Russian food, drank vodka and listened to Medvedev’s presidential speech at midnight despite several of my friends’ involvement in the recent political protests.

At around about 3am we staggered out of the restaurant and headed downtown. After a few kebabs and a few hours walking, someone came up with the idea to head out to my friend’s country house via a Chasnik’ – a random person you flag down on the street who agrees to take you wherever you want for a predetermined price.

And with that we arrived at my friend’s house in the middle of nowhere about one hour’s drive outside of Saint Petersburg. There the New Year’s festivities continued for three days.

We eventually made our way back into town a couple of days later. As we had initially planned to travel down south to ski, we were still quite keen on some kind of adventure. I threw around the idea of Murmansk, a city in the far north in the arctic circle about 1,300kms away. We decided, after much discussion that, while Murmansk would be an adventure, the amount of snow on the roads, the limited hours of daylight and the time it would take to get there, weren’t really worth it in the end.

Instead we went to a town about 150kms away called Veliki Novgorod (The Great New City). The city itself, despite its name, wasn’t new at al, it was about 1,000 years old.

We wandered around Novgorod for a while before deciding it was significantly too cold and snowy to bother, so we settled for soup and tea in a tiny café nearby the city’s old Kremlin.

My remaining few days in Saint Petersburg involved traditional alcohol festivities, eating bear and catching up with friends I had made when I lived there last year. For the recording: I did initially object to eating bear but then gave in.

New Years

The last year

Given another year has passed by I thought now would be a good time for a bit of reflection. I haven’t updated my blog in ages, not because I haven’t wanted to or I’ve been too lazy, but because my life has been fairly standard coming and going from work and living in London.

Back in early 2010 I made the decision to leave for Russia.

Initially I had only planned to stay in Russia six months but my decision to stay there much longer was not a particularly difficult one to make. In the middle of last year I packed my stuff up again and headed to London where I hoped to find work despite the grim jobs market. London was like coming back to Australia but without the friends and family and with subtle differences like red phone boxes and double-decker buses.

Australians are also everywhere in England, most coming over between their school and university studies to take advantage of the two-year working visa arrangement. This means being Australian isn’t really a novelty or much of an advantage as many people just assume you’re in England to work in a pub like everyone else.

Without a doubt 2011 was a year chocker-block full of new challenges, many of which at the time seemed completely shit but in hindsight were crazy but very rewarding.

Having an opportunity to live in a different place like Russia which is challenging and where people hold different opinions, values and come from often less privileged walks of life, is something that everyone – particularly young Australians – should do. I wrote about my experience in Russia throughout last year in this post.

I’ve written about Russia’s emerging educated middle-class, young people that are internet-savvy and switched on to the pros and cons of their own life within their country. Over the last few months we’ve seen a ‘political uprising’ or a ‘Russian spring’ as some members of the western press have labelled it. But many of the young, educated Russians I’ve talked to remain significantly more restrained about the current and future political situation in their country.

And from what I’ve experienced the broader Russian population remains remarkably complacent towards politics and life in their country. What will be will be seems to be the attitude providing things don’t go backwards.

For the first time I’ve seen people from the Yabloko party – the main opposition party to United Russia, Putin’s party – out on the streets asking for signatures in support fair elections. Irrespective of the outcome of the recent protests, they have demonstrated a newly found political voice of some well-educated young people that are no longer satisfied with a government of ‘crooks and thieves’ and who want to be afforded the same political and democratic freedoms as their western counterparts.

For some reason this train has stopped in the middle of nowhere for about an hour, probably because the driver is ahead of schedule and needs to wait until it’s the right time according to the timetable to keep moving to the next station. Surely the earlier the train arrives at the next station the better but apparently not.

I’ll be updating this blog throughout 2012 so don’t forget to subscribe on the right hand side of the page.

Matt

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london and the russia video

September 10, 2011 2 comments

Over the last few months I’ve been collating bits and pieces of footage I shot on my camera and phone into this short video. Because my computer can’t support editing software, I made it on an internet-based editing platform so transitions between pictures and sound syncing is somewhat dodgy. It goes for about 15 minutes, make sure you have the volume up.

The blog

I’m back. It’s already been two months since I packed up my life again in Russia, travelled a bit through Europe, and then caught the train to London. With my friend Adam from uni, we left Russia, headed to Helsinki, Amsterdam, Paris and then finally London. As you probably gathered from my last post, I was pretty sad to leave Russia and all my friends behind but I was equally excited to get things underway in a new place that speaks the same language and has essentially the same customs. Although the cultural differences of Russia remained an interesting novelty throughout my time there, the thought of getting back to a relatable normality was good.

Arriving in London I met up with my friend Mo, who has been living here for the past six months during an exchange programme from his university in Munich. As Mo was heading back to Germany, I took over his room in the south-west of London, about ten miles from the centre of the city. I lived there with two Polish people, a Japanese girl and a British girl until late August. Our house was pretty big but my room wasn’t much larger than the bed that was in it…

London

I decided to move to London not because I was after the amazing cultural experience, but because the work opportunities Europe and the UK offered far surpassed any available in Australia. The couple of weeks I spent in Europe before moving to London had really taken its toll on my bank balance, even though I managed to save up quite a bit of money in Russia. I made it my mission to find a job, of whatever variety, basically as soon as I got off the train from Paris.

Although the thought of jumping back in to hospitality was really unappealing, I needed cash quick if I was going to survive in a place that was several times more expensive than Saint Petersburg. I applied for pub after pub with an awful little CV which surprisingly didn’t yield many results. At the same time during business hours I was calling PR agencies across London to introduce myself and express my willingness to help out.

After pursuing a couple leads at a few different places, I managed to secure something at a large global agency in the city where I’m working today.

Living in London’s quite good. A couple of quite notable international events have taken place during my stay including the News of World scandal and the London Riots which didn’t get anywhere near me thankfully. The stark contrast between pretty much everything here in London compared to Saint Petersburg is glaringly obvious. Aside from the cost of everything, people live differently, have different opinions, the city’s very multicultural, and of course everyone speaks English. It is – almost – like Australia, except without the familiarity and with funny red busses; words like ‘lorry’ and different accents.

I plan on making the most of the UK’s proximity to Europe while I’m here in London. When you can buy flights for less than it costs to use the Tube for a week, going abroad every month or two will be more practical than when I was in Russia. I’m hoping to make it down to Oktoberfest to meet up with a few German friends in a couple of weeks so I’ll write a blog on that if it does eventuate.

I’ve been pretty slack on writing blogs, mainly because I’ve been taken up with getting acquainted with this place, meeting new people and trying to find a job – but I’ll try and update it as things happen, probably with smaller, more frequent posts.

In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter and subscribe to my blog on the right —>

Matt

leaving russia

June 11, 2011 2 comments

A line at my local supermarket at 12am

I’m pleased to report that Russia isn’t a country rife with organised crime, there aren’t bears running down every street and people generally prefer beer to vodka. There are so many aspects of this country, its people and the way they live that the rest of the world just doesn’t quite get. Similarly, there remains an underlying misunderstanding in Russia towards its orientation to the world, particularly the west.

Yesterday I left Saint Petersburg where I’ve lived since August last year. I thought it was a good time to write something down to summarise how I’ve felt about my time in Russia and to share my opinions about the place.

Don't do that

When I arrived last year I didn’t have a crystal clear path to follow, I didn’t have anywhere to live and I wasn’t that sure where I was studying. I felt generally okay about that though as I visited Russia a few years ago and found it straight forward enough. I was fortunate to find Elena and Marina on a Couch Surfing forum and they agreed to have me stay with them in their home until December.

Shortly after my arrival in Saint Petersburg the long Russian winter set in. I took advantage of the cold and went skiing most weekends at nearby resorts around Saint Petersburg. I also went to Austria with some Russian friends and travelled through Germany on my own.

I returned to Russia after that much needed break to continue my work at a local English School in Saint Petersburg and my Russian Language studies. By that point I had already spent Christmas and New Years in Russia and had moved into a new flat with some other students in the centre of town.

The 25th of December isn’t normally a particularly special day in Russia as they celebrate the orthodox Christmas on the 11th of January. Christmas 2010 marked the second Christmas I hadn’t been at home for. Despite that, and obviously missing the sunshine, family, friends and warm weather I normally associate with Christmas time, I had a good day with friends and celebrated with a roast dinner and plenty of top quality, cheap Russian alcohol.

New Years was a surreal experience. I found it difficult to believe that New Years this year marked the sixth one in a row I hadn’t been in Australia for. I was invited by Kolya, a Russian friend of mine, to join him at a traditional Russian New Years party he was hosting at his house in the countryside. New Years Eve in Russia is the main annual celebration with family and friends, much like Christmas lunch back home in Australia. We feasted on all sorts of Russian delights before having our own fireworks show and partying into the evening.

Over the last six months I’ve hitch-hiked to Tallinn with Elliott, caught the train to Riga after being denied access to Belarus at the border and travelled to some of the towns surrounding Saint Petersburg. Unfortunately, due to the bureaucracy surrounding my visa, leaving Russia regularly to travel abroad became an extremely time consuming and expensive process so as a consequence I didn’t travel as much as I would have liked.

The experience

Anyone who’s visited or lived for an extended period of time in a foreign country understands what it’s like to be confronted on a daily basis with a whole series of unfamiliar challenges. While my time in Russia was generally quite smooth sailing, initially there were plenty of problems with language barriers which often caused me to look like a complete idiot. From the simplest tasks of ordering food to organising accommodation and my university studies, language was often a problem. Russia isn’t really set up for people who don’t understand the system and who want to come to Russia to study without a prior association with a home university. Unlike in Australia where universities have highly refined processes of welcoming international students and making them feel part of the local community, my Russian university didn’t even have a fully-functioning website… Naturally this made me feel pretty nervous and my general apprehension about my whole decision to move to Russia didn’t change when I first went in to visit my course administrator and no one seemed to have much of an idea what was going on.

Tulips in garden near my house

As I’ve written in previous blogs, bureaucratic inefficiency and corruption is entrenched in many areas of Russian society. From the simplest tasks of posting a letter or buying something from the supermarket, the bureaucracy comes to bite you in the arse to remind where you are. When you do eventually make it to the cashier in a shop or a post office you’re greeted by an uninspired public servant who’s paid well below what they should be and has absolutely zero job satisfaction. Quite often ten people are employed to do one person’s job and in some places people are even employed in jobs that don’t even exist in many other countries. To provide some context: Saint Petersburg has an extensive and very efficient subway network operating below the city. A typical metro station employs around 10 to 15 people. Three to five to distribute tickets to people, another couple to man the gates at the metro entrance and two or three  to sit at the bottom of the escalators making sure people don’t fall down as they descend deep into the subway to the train platforms (often these people are asleep). There are well in excess of 30 metro stations dotted throughout the city in total employing I’d estimate around 500 people not to mention an army of cleaners and escalator repair men making sure everything runs smoothly. Comparing this to Melbourne’s public transport network where the large majority of stations are unmanned with no one monitoring escalators or selling tickets, you begin to comprehend just how different not only public transport, but everything else is in Russia. Of course, there are definite advantages in employing so many people just to work in a subway: they’re clean, generally safe and trains arrive every 30 seconds or so compared to every 20 minutes or more as you’d expect in Melbourne.

St Isaac's from across the Neva

I’ve often asked myself as I walk past these people on my daily commute to uni if it’s such a bad thing that so many people are employed to do absolutely nothing. On the one hand you’re giving people a job and something to do with their days but on the other hand you create unnecessary hassle and inefficiency by give people shit work when they could be doing something potentially more productive. There’s a similar issue with the police in Russia. Many people who have visited me from abroad while I’ve lived in Saint Petersburg have mentioned the unusually high number of police that lurk about bothering people for documents or issuing road infringements. At most metro stations packs of police patrol the exits and when walking down the street it’s not uncommon to pass two or three police cars within 100 metres. Again there are two sides to the coin when it comes to having so many police. One the one hand you’re employing people who potentially wouldn’t get a different job and you have a heightened sense of public safety but on the other many of these positive aspects are cancelled out when the police themselves become the ‘criminals’. The unfortunate result of having such a huge police force is that because their salaries are so low the police themselves often become the perpetrators of crime and turn to corruption and bribery in order to earn a decent living. There have been well documented cases – including one on this blog – where people have been openly bothered by police who claim they have broken some kind of obscure law. Often the only way to rectify the problem is to pay the police officer money to avoid further trouble.

My room

This kind of corruption unfortunately isn’t isolated to police bothering people in the street, it’s a similar situation if you want to get a driving license. It’s known by virtually every Russian that in order to obtain a driving license in Russia a bribe is necessary given the state driving test is so unrealistically difficult that nearly everyone who sits it fails. In education, the taxation system and many other areas of public and private life in Russia corruption is entrenched. Russia maintains a flat-rate tax bracket of 13% meaning everyone from the super-rich to the poor pay the same percentage of tax on their declared income. In addition to the obvious problem that billionaires pay the same percentage of tax as those that earn a few thousand a year, another problem is that most people don’t declare their full income. It’s very common for businesses to pay their employees their taxable income into their bank accounts and then an additional, non-taxable cash-in-hand salary on top of their taxable income.

But for all this so called ‘corruption’, which evokes horror for even the most liberal capitalist, many things still work perfectly fine at least on the surface. Russians are by no means oblivious to these issues. They’re more aware than any stupid foreigner or outside observer as they live with it, and always have lived with it, every single day. There is a general feeling amongst the majority that things should change and that under the Soviet Union corruption didn’t exist or at least wasn’t as public. But for me the more interesting part of the corruption issue isn’t that it exists or that it’s a huge problem, it’s that Russian society hasn’t completely caved in on itself as a result of it. Whilst the Russian government is actively trying to encourage foreign investment, at the same time the corruption problem is continuing to grow. There’s debate within some sectors of Russian society as to whether the leaders really want to change the corruption situation as they say, or if the problem’s so entrenched that nothing can or will change without massive reforms.

Our kitchen

Russians live with these issues and often participate actively or passively in the problem. In my mind the very fact that things are slowly improving despite increasing corruption is a result of the long-term and very well-known enduring Russian character.

Much of Russian history has been littered with pretty shit tragedy. As I was explaining to a friend of mine just the other day, despite the fact that the Russian people have suffered devastating blow after devastating blow there remains an unspoken humility, understanding and connectivity amongst its population. Russians are tough people and to the untrained eye it could seem like they’re nasty. However I found that beneath their hardened exterior they were very generous, real and honest people. Often if you go to the shops to buy something the cashier won’t greet you with a contrived ‘Hi, how are you going?’ but rather a disinterested look and if you’re really lucky a ‘Hello’. That sort of thing didn’t bother me that much though.

It’s important to maintain context though. Within my lifetime Russia has transformed from a closed state where there was no international or even domestic travel and no McDonalds or big-name brands into a completely different place. Depending on who you talk to the change has been either for better or for worse. The Russian people – more than anyone – are aware of this too and sometimes reflect fondly on days gone by when things were more stable, there were fewer people living on the streets and there was less visible corruption. In the west we’re often given negative images of Russia as a place ruled by an iron fist and the filthy rich. That isn’t the case. While a lot of Russians very much want to get out there and experience the rest of the world and what it’s like to live somewhere else, Russians still very strongly identify themselves with their country, its history and its culture. Russia has a long tradition of producing some of the world’s finest scientific, mathematical and literary figures and while there may be some problems with some things now, I don’t doubt eventually – after some setbacks – Russia will come out on top.

My experience in Russia has been phenomenal. Mainly due to the people I’ve met along the way I’ve been embraced by Saint Petersburg and many of its fine residents. The generosity of my Russian friends has been unbelievable showing a completely fresh Australian a Russian perspective and treating me as one of the own (even though my language abilities weren’t that great). No doubt the friendships I’ve made in Russia, not just with Russians but with other international students as well, will stay with me for many years.

For me personally Russia was a challenge I was ready for. After four years of university I needed to do something completely different by myself while justifying the experience as an educational opportunity to learn a new language and experience a totally different place. I hope to continue my association with Russia and the Russian Language and travel back there regularly.

Outside my house

Next week I’ll be in London where I’m looking to find work for the next few years. Given my proximity to Western Europe and the ease with which I can get a working visa in the UK I thought I’d take the opportunity to find some further experience in PR there.

I do intend to update my blog periodically in the UK and as I travel through Europe for the next few weeks with my great mate from uni Adam so don’t forget to SUBSCRIBE. Adam also has a blog which is almost as a cool as mine so check that out.

I’ve put some more pictures up on the extras page and finally updated the where’s matt section.

Matt

Lucy’s perspective

comrade

May 12, 2011 2 comments

Lada or Ferrari?

Much has happened since my last blog. The snow has melted entirely, Bin Laden’s been shot in the face, the fairy-tale wedding of our lifetime went off without a hitch, Skype’s been sold to Microsoft so they can bugger it up and I’ve eaten a total of zero roast dinners. In Russia things are generally winding down now from university to work and everything else as I look to new things and the future. Pete from Germany came to stay last month and Lucy and Adam, friends from back home, will arrive in the coming weeks. I’ve got a classy new French housemate and I’ve had some Couch Surfers come and stay for a couple of days.

I thought it was about time I wrote something just so everyone didn’t think I’d died. I’ve been teaching a lot of English of late and probably haven’t learnt as much Russian as I should have. I’ve also been trying to exercise to eliminate the kilograms of fat I’ve mysteriously accrued during the long winter. But the clouds, snow and the ridiculous selection of dead animals people wear to keep warm have been put away and now the sun’s out making Russia seem friendlier again. In fact, in just a few weeks the sun will be out all night and all day, 24 hours of sunlight.

There are obvious benefits of having 24 hour sunlight. You can stay up all night without needing a torch to see… There are also some drawbacks like having sleeping issues because the sun’s too bright at 2am. The temperature’s also improved, now hovering around 15 degrees most days.

The other day Russia celebrated Victory Day, a day where the nation remembers the 22 million Russians that sacrificed their lives during World War II to prevent a Nazi invasion. The day usually includes a military march where Russia showcases their military elite from ground forces to heavy weaponry followed by a veterans parade. I’ll post some video of the Victory Day procession in Moscow down the bottom of this page. I had planned to go with some friends here to watch the procession but unfortunately Sasha, who’s ironically a German, told us all to meet an hour after the procession had passed by. As a result I didn’t get to see to the big parade but instead watched the fireworks later in the day light up the Neva from my bedroom window.

In a few weeks I’m planning a trip to Kiev again on the train. Hopefully this time I’ll make it as I plan to get a Belarusian transit visa.

I’m not overly looking forward to the prospect of leaving Russia. Some days I very much was to leave, but often I don’t.

Matt

Victory Day

a week of generally unfortunate events

April 7, 2011 3 comments

I’ve really managed to superbly bugger a few things up over the past couple of weeks. First it was the unfortunate loss of my glasses on-board the train to Kiev, then this week while boogieing on the dance floor I somehow managed to lose the big cheese, my wallet. I was unfortunately under the influence of alcohol at the time so naturally most of my Russian skills – which are fairly limited at the best of times – went out the window. I also basically forgot how to appropriately communicate in English.

I realised I’d somehow lost my wallet within about five minutes. I searched around the place before asking a number of the workers if they’d seen it floating around. Just when I really needed my Russian skills to shine in order to hopefully solve the problem I forgot the word for wallet. I was therefore forced to ask several very stylish looking people if they’d seen my “tiny purse”.

Asking people if they’d seen my tiny purse unfortunately didn’t yield too many results and mostly just caused lots of people to laugh at me for being a silly foreigner. Thankfully my wallet didn’t have a lot of useful stuff in it anyway, only my drivers license which was due to expire soon, my old Australian student card and a couple hundred roubles (about $5). The only thing I was potentially worried about were my credit cards which were linked directly to my Russian bank account here.

As I plan to head to the UK after this place I was worried that someone would access my account and ruin my chances of having the £1600 I needed in order to get a working visa there. Paranoid as normal, I hailed down a car (colloquially known as a gypsy cab) and hurried home using borrowed money. How could things possibly deteriorate further?

Like is normally the case back in Melbourne, the taxi driver insisted on speaking about a whole range of topics on the way home. I soon found out he wasn’t a resident of Russia but rather a citizen of the unfortunate country of Belarus, the place that created significant issues for me only the week earlier. Being under the influence at the time I decided I’d tell him about my problem with Belarus and that I thought the transit visa process was a complete waste of time. Thankfully I got home before the conversation got very awkward. I spent several hours on the phone to my Russian bank communicating that I needed to cancel my cards. Thankfully at that point my Russian was sufficient enough to get across what I wanted.

Another consular visit

the residence

A few weeks back I went along to an informal gathering at the US Consul-General’s residence here in Saint Petersburg. Together with another British guy, an American girl and the Australian Consul we chatted for several hours about the state of world diplomacy and other equally elitist topics. I thought I’d make the most of the opportunity to ask about Wikileaks which I don’t think was particularly appreciated. I asked how the Wikileaks leaks had impacted her work with regards to the way she now communicates to her colleagues and with her department back in Washington DC. To that question I was simply given a “no comment”, something that was almost as interesting to me as a real answer.

more

After drinking some wine that the Aus Consul provided we had a tour of her residence where several US Presidents, the last being George W Bush, and foreign heads of state had entertained guests. I’ll put some of the pictures from the night on the extras page. It was pretty surreal and also amusing being invited there given I’d have no chance to go to such a place back at home in Australia.

Lining up

Every now and again brilliant people send me things from home in the post. This week I received a care package from my parents. Like at home, the post office usually drops a small post-it sized note in your letter box to notify you that a parcel had arrived. With my little note in my hand I headed down to the post office, ready for the several-hour wait I’d inevitably have to endure in the line.

Lining up for service seems to be an accepted part of Russian life. At the bank, the supermarket, the post office and at the train station it can sometimes take hours to progress from the back of the line to the front. And when you eventually make it to the front you’re often greeted by an uninspired public servant being payed to do a repetitive job that often takes longer than it should given the mountains of bureaucratic red tape that seems to get in the way of efficiency.

My trip to the post office was as I anticipated. I headed off down the street to find that my nearest post office was closed from 2pm to 3pm for a late lunch break. This meant that customers waiting to simply buy a stamp, post a letter or pick up a parcel were forced to wait in the cold until the post office opened. Russians of course have very much adapted to this way of doing things. Shortly after I arrived at the door and started lining up an old babushka (a Russian grandma) pushed in front of me and then insisted she was first in line. Not really caring either way, I let her push in while I took up the second position in the line outside the door on the street. After half an hour the doors opened and we all rushed inside. Unfortunately the line we’d made outside the door didn’t seem to apply as soon as we stepped into the post office. As a result I was thrust to the back of the line again. Then I had another issue.

At post offices here there is a window for each type of service you need. If you need to buy a stamp you first need to visit the lady in the stamp shop, if you then need to buy an envelope or box for your goods you’ll need to go to another window and line up for boxes and envelopes. Then, if you happen to have to pick up a parcel at the same time as posting something, you’ll have to line up in another line for a different window. Thankfully I eventually found the window I needed and lined for an hour to hand in my slip. The lady at the window then told me I had to fill in all of my details on the back of the form including my address, my passport details, my visa number and my date of birth. After almost two hours standing in line after line and talking to disinterested and dismissive post office workers, I collected my parcel. Having lived here for the past seven months, I’ve got used to the way things are done here and instead of rebelling I’ve just accepted it as the way it is. While often they’re frustrating and annoying, they’re also strangely endearing as well.

Commonwealth and Valued Allies (CAVA)

CAVA at Max's

Every Sunday three other friends and I get together for what has become an institution and exclusive club amongst the Saint Petersburg expat community. CAVA, or Commonwealth and Valued Allies, takes place most Sundays at one of our houses. Usually it’s a gathering including food from our homelands; soft, fresh bread and often titbits from all corners of the globe. Essentially the dinners are an excuse to get together and chat about stuff. The permanent members include Fran, Max and Hattie, all Brits studying here, and Elliott, a young American bloke who featured in my last blog who also studies here. Occasionally we also welcome other nations into the circle including Russia, France and Germany.

Felix with his magnum

Last Sunday Felix, a French bloke studying here came over with a large magnum of French Champaign his aunty had given him. I’ll put some of the remaining picture

take off your underwear

March 26, 2011 1 comment

Sitting next to a grotesquely fat man on the way home from a relatively unsuccessful trip to a destination we hadn’t intended to visit was kind of the icing on the cake for me. Usually it’s a crying child or someone annoying but this time all I had to contend with was a minefield of fat oozing over the hand rest onto my thigh.

Plotting our next move on the train

I’m on the way back from Riga in the bus with Russians Nick, Misha, the fat man and many others, a long way away from our planned, unromantic weekend getaway to Kiev in the Ukraine. We left on the overnight train on Friday afternoon but soon after setting off the train hostess informed us of a potentially dreadful issue. If you look at this map you’ll see that the most direct way to Kiev is via Belarus, a stupid country with stupid visa rules for foreigners that is located somewhere not worth knowing roughly south-west of Russia. The problem was that the train had planned to go through Belarus in order to get to  Kiev. For Nick and Misha this was fine as their Russian passports allow them to visit Belarus visa free without any issues. But for me it was a different story.

Apparently, even if I didn’t exit the train when in Belarus, I was still required to hold a transit visa, something I’d heard of for the first time while sitting on the train on my way to Belarus. Despite buying the tickets with my Aus passport and discussing my plans with many people of varying nationalities, no one thought to mention the round-about route the train takes on its way to Kiev.

I was in a downright pickle. The train hostess hadn’t ever had this issue before with a foreigner as apparently the journey between Saint Petersburg and Kiev isn’t one travelled that much by Aussies. Using my fantastic phone I did some quick research on the chances of being allowed to pass through Belarus without a transit visa.

There were varying reports of what may happen to me if I attempted this. Some said I’d be fine, others told stories of being imprisoned for a several days, of malnourishment and of sexual misconduct. Fortunately I had several hours to choose my fate and make up my mind before we reached the Belarusian border so I occupied my time with other things. Many hours later after I had discussed my dilemma with a variety of people on the train a policeman jumped on board to check passengers’ documents. He came over to our section of the train and asked to see our IDs. We handed them over and thought it would be a good opportunity to ask him about my visa issue. He suggested that I wouldn’t have a problem passing through Belarus mainly because I was Australian and I held a Russian student visa. Hearing conflicting reports from a number of people on the likelihood of being either allowed to pass or being locked up didn’t really fill me with a lot of confidence. As the policeman was looking through our documents he noticed Misha sipping on a small open bottle of whisky that he brought along on the journey to keep himself entertained.

As is often the case in Russia, the policeman took issue with to Misha’s open bottle of whiskey and decided to issue him a fine for having hard liquor open on board a train. This law came as news to all of us as generally Russian trains are notorious worldwide for being places of traditional Russian alcoholic festivities – something I made the most out of two years earlier when I did the Trans Siberian across Russia. Nevertheless, the policeman insisted Misha had indeed broken quite a serious law and deserved to be punished for his indiscretion. The cop motioned to Misha to follow him to the end of the train where he was then asked to pay his fine on the spot. Refusing to pay the fine would result in him being ejected from the train at the next stop. Recognising the policeman was in fact asking directly for a bribe to avoid going through the proper procedure to issue fines Misha bravely refused to conform and returned back to his seat to tell us of his unfortunate news.

bloke snoozing in the station in the middle of nowhere

As he was explaining to us what had happened and that he was going to get kicked off the train, the man opposite looked over and enquired further about our predicament. The train hostess who had been helpful in advising me on Belarusian transit visas also came over to ask what had happened. Misha told them the story before the man announced that he had a contact who worked for the police who may have been able to help. Sure enough, after the man made a phone call the policeman didn’t follow through with his threat and Misha was allowed to stay on the train. Shortly after I made the decision to get off the train at the last station before the Belarus border as I wasn’t keen on the idea of risking it and potentially being detained in a dodgy Belarusian jail. We got off at the station which was pretty much in the middle of absolutely nowhere and reassessed our options. None of us were particularly keen on returning to Saint Petersburg having just sat on a train for eight hours. The station where the train had dropped us was a complete crap hole. As is often the case with rural Russian towns it really felt like we’d stepped back in time 50 years. The train station was very soviet-looking. There were several middle-aged ladies quietly brushing the already clean floors just to keep themselves from falling asleep and there were more surly-looking police walking around watching people than actual passengers waiting for a train. And this was at about 2am on a Friday morning.

The lady at the small kiosk selling cigarettes, chocolates and beer was asleep resting on her hands waiting for that one customer who could almost justify her staying there all night. A few other dishevelled looking guys were sleeping on the chairs in the waiting room perhaps waiting for a train but more likely just utilising the station as shelter from the cold. After thinking for a while we decided what to do. If there was a train we’d head to a nearby European country instead. Sure enough at about 3am there was a train passing by on its way to Riga, Latvia. We decided to head there as I didn’t need a visa and Misha and Nick’s existing European visas were still valid. Eventually the overheated train arrived in Riga at about 10am on Friday morning, some 24 hours after we’d left Saint Petersburg. We were completely buggered but satisfied that we didn’t just turn back or give up. Annoyingly, somewhere on the journey I lost my glasses and unfortunately they were my only pair.

little moscow

We stayed at a very cool and cheap hostel owned by a young Australian guy during our stay. In many ways Riga was quite similar to Tallinn although less compact. Like Estonia, nearly everyone spoke English and Russian in addition to Latvian. On the first day Nick was keen to try to find the black market which is located in the nearby dodgy district called Little Moscow. We walked around for several hours but we couldn’t find the market where apparently they sell old soviet stuff and other semi-illegal things.

Although we didn’t make it to the black market I was kept constantly entertained by Nick and Misha’s frequent bickering on a whole range of topics. Firstly, Nick took issue with Misha’s moral stance against bribing the policeman the night before as it would have been easier to just pay him off so he’d leave us alone. This evolved into a more broad discussion on corruption at all levels of Russian society and its impact on people. Instead of providing my foreign, mainly ignorant perspective, I let them debate the topic while I listened. About two hours later the debate was still continuing with Misha as the progressive advocate for transparency and Nick as the defendant for the way things are done, and have always been done, in Russia.

stalin building, little moscow

That night we decided to visit a bar located 25 floors above the city. We had an overpriced drink and headed downstairs to play some blackjack at the casino in the lobby. I sat down at a table before the dealer said something strange to me. “Excuse me sir, would you mind taking off your underwear and putting it in the closet”, she said. Initially I assumed I had heard wrong or that she was speaking either Latvian or Russian. I said “excuse me” back to her in Russian.

She then repeated what she said to me initially in English, in Russian. This time she made it clear that she simply wanted me to put my coat in the cloakroom and that my underwear could remain on…

Just a short time after we started playing, the next round of bickering began, but this time the topic was statistics. Misha’s argument this time was that gambling in a casino is a totally pointless exercise given statistically the player will always lose to the casino. On the other hand, Nick contended that life is all about inconsistencies and anomalies and that he didn’t want to live his life constantly weighing up the statistical probability of everything he did. We left the casino, all of us just about breaking even, but with several free drinks in our bellies. Misha and Nick developed an intelligent system on roulette to maximise our chances of winning while also attaining free drinks at the same time. We stuck with that rule for a while until we had drunk too much and decided to go all in with our chips.

bickering away

Sunday was our last day so we arose slowly from our beds. We headed outside for breakfast but not before I asked a provocative question about transport within Saint Petersburg. Of course, this once again triggered a heated debate between Misha and Nick surrounding the viability of bikes and  more efficient, environmentally friendly forms of transport, and whether they were suitable for Saint Petersburg. Misha supported alternative forms of transport to ease the congestion whereas Nick suggested bikes and trams were not the correct solution considering Saint Petersburg’s weather and existing transport infrastructure. The debate went on for several hours again before I demanded a ceasefire and peace was restored.

One of the great things for me about going to another country for a few days is the opportunity to watch movies in English. I jumped at the chance to watch The King’s Speech in English with both Russian and Latvian subtitles.

While I’m no movie reviewer, it was a good film considering the overall story is generally pretty average. That night we caught the bus – which I now find myself sitting on with the fat man – back to Saint Petersburg. Apparently if we’re not waiting at the border for too long we’re supposed to arrive back in Saint Petersburg by 7am, some eight hours from now. Let’s hope the fat man doesn’t get too hungry between now and then… It’s also worth noting that initially we were heading to Kiev with Max, a British guy studying Russian here, but he couldn’t get his visa to exit Russia in time so we left him behind.  If you haven’t already you can subscribe to my blog by providing your email address in the column on the right.

Matt

Typical Russian Tourist

a journey to the end of the earth

March 14, 2011 4 comments

Displeased with our progress so far

If Russia’s border with Estonia was the end of the earth, I was there on Friday. A few weeks earlier Elliott, an American friend of mine studying Russian here, asked me to join him on an adventure to Estonia. As I mentioned in my last blog, we planned to get there using the cheapest possible form of transport – hitchhiking.

We set off on Friday afternoon towards the Saint Petersburg suburbs in search of a position to begin our voyage. After catching the subway to the very last stop, then a mini-bus to the last stop, we arrived in what we thought looked like a good position to hail down a ride to Estonia.

Our planned destination was Tallinn, the capital of Estonia  some 600 kilometres away. The mini bus dropped us off essentially on a freeway. After walking through snow trying to find a suitable place for cars to pull over, we began ‘hitching’.

Normally within the city limits people hitchhike all over the place to avoid paying for more expensive, certified taxis. Unlike back at home, the idea of getting in a car with a complete stranger isn’t thought of as a bad idea in Russia. With that in mind, we assumed people would be more than happy to pick up a couple of young, approachable looking guys so we could join them on their trip.

It didn’t really take very long for a few people to pull over. Although several people were happy to pick us up, most were only driving a few kilometres into town, or wanted us to pay them to take us which kind of defeated the purpose. One person suggested trying a petrol station on the other side of town, so we caught a bus to that location. Unfortunately, the bus only dropped us off within a few kilometres of the petrol station we needed so we were forced to walk.

Elliott’s video diary

Another guy by the name of Alexander pulled over as we walking to the petrol station and offered to take us to the petrol station. On the way he fired up his two-way radio transmitter and stuck a large aerial to the top of his car. He then attempted to contact truck drivers who were going to Tallinn with the hope they could take us at least part of the way. Despite his best efforts, he couldn’t get a decent signal to maintain a conversation longer than only a few words. He dropped us off at the petrol station anyway and wished as a successful journey.

Walking along the freeway

By this point we were already three hours into the trip and hadn’t gone any further than 20kms out of Saint Petersburg. We gave ourselves twenty minutes before we called it a day and caught the bus back to where we started. Disgusted at potentially having to do that, we starting pestering basically every person that walked in and out of the petrol station providing they ‘looked’ like they were going to Estonia.

Annoyingly, almost everyone flatly refused to take us as most were only going a few kilometres down the road or already had a full car. Finally, just when we’d pretty much had enough of standing out in the cold asking strangers for a lift, one guy by the name of Dima responded to us optimistically.

After thinking for a few minutes, potentially weighing up the possibility we were going to murder him during the journey, he said he could use the company on his long drive back to his town that, conveniently for us, was located relatively close to the Estonian border. I sat in the front while Elliott slept in the back. We successfully ran the gauntlet that is Russian highways in Dima’s work’s small truck and eventually arrived in the Russian border-town of Kingsepp.

After our lift with Dima: more pleased

From there, we caught a bus to the near-by town of Ivangorod where we hoped we could walk across the border into Estonia. At that point I was pretty thirsty so when we got to Ivangorod we looked for a place where we could buy a bottle of water. We found a small shop but for some strange reason they would not sell me water, only beer, gin or vodka. As I attempted to explain to the lady that I didn’t feel like an alcoholic beverage at that point, she grunted and unwillingly opened the non-alcoholic beverage fridge.

We headed for the border on foot but came across a small building with an ‘information’ sign on the top of it. Elliott insisted we go in so we could ‘interview’ someone on everything Ivangorod had on offer. The people inside were very happy to see us and interested to hear what on earth we were doing in that part of the world. About thirty minutes later, just before sundown, we walked out of the building with pamphlets, CDs, calendars and pens in hand and Elliott’s interview he taped on his camera.

Shortly before crossing the border I was approached by an elderly Russian man who asked if I could take a bottle of wine from Russia into Estonia on his behalf as he already met the maximum amount for bringing alcohol into Europe. I agreed and had a bit of chat to him. Like many people over here, his knowledge of Australia was limited to what he’d heard or seen on TV. Almost everyone over the age of 35 I meet always mentions the movie Crocodile Dundee, often raving about it as a cinematic masterpiece.

We crossed the border and headed for the outskirts of town to hopefully flag down our next victim. Unfortunately, as Elliott had spent so long interviewing the bloke at the tourist information centre, it was already getting quite dark, making hitchhiking difficult. After standing in the cold for another hour or so, we decided we’d split up while Elliott tried the side of the road and I targeted a near-by petrol station. While everyone in Estonia seemed more interested in taking us than those in Russia, most people again weren’t going in the direction of Tallinn. After about two hours of trying to get a car and failing, Elliott and I rendezvoused and made an executive decision. The lady at the petrol station assisted us to call a taxi so we could take the remainder of the journey on the bus.

At about 11pm, some 12 hours after we left Saint Petersburg, we arrived in Tallinn on a comfortable bus that only ended up costing us nine euros… Some would ask why we didn’t just take the bus to begin with, but we just told ourselves it was the experience that was the most valuable thing.

Tallinn

Although we had arranged a CouchSurfer for the night we arrived, as we got in so late we figured it wouldn’t have been fair to call on them. We checked ourselves in to a hostel before heading out to explore Tallinn by night.

The following morning we woke up with killer headaches with only a few minutes to spare before we had to check-out with the intention of going to the CouchSufer’s place that night. After a refreshing cuppa, we opted to stay another night at the hostel as it was extremely cheap, convenient, the people were good quality, and it meant we didn’t have to fulfil certain obligations that are expected when staying with CouchSurfers.

That night we again hit town, this time keen to explore some of the more local hangouts.

On Sunday we walked around the medieval town centre looking in several small shops, coffee shops, antique dealers, churches and other places before I had to catch the bus back to Saint Petersburg and Elliott headed to Riga.

The bus was extremely comfortable, had WIFI and a coffee machine passengers could use whenever they wanted. It took about six hours to drive back, not including the hour or so we were stopped at the border. Almost every time I go through the border into Russia, the Russian border officer asks me 20 questions – what I’m doing in Russia etc, despite my visa clearly identifying I’m a student. Perhaps an Australian coming in to Russia via Estonia is a bit of a novelty. 

Tallinn was sensational. Small, ancient, picturesque and surprisingly highly developed. Due to the composition of Estonia’s population – nearly 50% Estonian and 50% Russian – nearly everyone is tri or bilingual. Although we were only there for a few days, there was a general sense of tension between those who spoke Russian and those who spoke Estonian, probably for good reason given Estonia was formerly a part of the USSR and that as as result, everyone was forced to learn and speak Russian.

Back in Saint Petersburg, the big thaw has begun. We’re now almost two weeks in to spring and already it’s +4 degrees. Although the warmer weather makes heading outside more pleasant, the streets have basically turned into slush due to the melting snow and ice.

As I said last time, I’m working on a more substantial, edited video of my time here so I’ll hopefully have that finished and up relatively soon. As those of you who have edited video before know, cutting and compiling video can often take a very long time, especially when all I have to use is my slow Eee PC. If you haven’t already, subscribe to my blog on the right, it doesn’t take a sec.

Matt

Thanks to Elliott for the pics