burg life

February 28, 2011 3 comments

The Saint Petersburbs

The weather over the last few weeks has been pretty hectic. Footpaths represent something similar to an ice skating rink yet girls still manage to walk around in high heels 10 cms off the ground…

Amongst other internationally renowned stereotypes of the Russian psyche, of dancing bears and vodka, little is known about the large number of ‘old wives tales’ many Russians subscribe to in order to explain anomalies in the weather and its affect on people.

A favourite wives tale of many Saint Petersburgers is that the city’s close proximity to the sea causes the air – particularly on very cold days – to be more humid. This results in your body feeling significantly cooler than the actual temperature.

I’ve only ever been lead to believe that any significant humidity only really occurs in hot, tropical climates, not in temperatures below -20 degrees Celsius. Challenging this idea always creates a fiery debate if brought up.

Often as well the barometric pressure fluctuates apparently. According to several people, this fluctuation causes dramatic changes in person’s mood.

There’s also a well-respected belief that smearing hot mustard on your nipples will prevent you from getting a cold. Another popular way to prevent cold and flu is to rub hot animal fat on your back when you feel the symptoms coming. I wonder if that means there are lots of Russians walking around with mustard smudged on their nipples and hot fat streaming down their back.

The last few weeks have been a bit quiet to be honest. The weather’s been so unbelievably cold that I’ve tried to limit the time I’ve spent outside. When it’s below -30, walking around too quickly becomes hazardous due to the potential of icicles forming in your lungs or huge icicles falling from rooves above hitting you on the head. Each year about 20 people die across Russia from huge icicles breaking away from houses.

The hairs in your nose freeze and your fingertips go numb no matter how good your gloves are.

My house (on the right)

I teach English a few nights a week at one of the language schools here to students of all ages. Most Russians begin learning English at school but often only end up knowing a few words by the time they graduate. As a consequence, those that can afford to learn English attend special schools all over the city.

Many Russians recognise the benefits of knowing some English but find it difficult to practice given the lack of native English speakers in Saint Petersburg.

Whenever I go anywhere, people rather speak English to me than Russian despite sometimes my understanding of Russian being greater than their understanding of English.

Most Russians are dumbfounded as to why I moved from sunny Australia to Saint Petersburg to study their language. I usually explain that Russia is a pretty exotic place, where little is known by the average Australian. For me, that’s partly what makes Russian an exciting and useful language, but also because few Russians speak English compared to most other European countries.

I’m currently in the process of putting together a short video of my time here so hopefully in the next week or so that’ll be ready.

Next weekend I’m off to Tallinn, Estonia with a few friends. We’re going to attempt to get there using the cheapest possible methods of transport ever, so no doubt I’ll have a plethora of stories to tell after all that.

Apologies for not writing a blog for a few weeks, there hasn’t been a huge amount going on apart from studying, working and socialising.

 

Watch out for Elton John

the ambassador will see you now

February 6, 2011 3 comments

After what was a tumultuous journey home from Germany I have since got back in to the swing of things here in Russia.

On the first of February I attended an Australia Day dinner at a posh hotel hosted by the Australian Embassy here in Saint Petersburg. The main problem with this was that I didn’t have any good clothes to wear. The day before the dinner I called up the Consulate to ask about the dress code for the night. They told me that the dinner wasn’t the next day, as I’d thought, but instead it was that night at 6:30pm. That gave me about two hours to find a suit, get home and head off to a dinner with the ambassador???

Aus Day

I eventually found some clothes to wear in record time and was only about 10 minutes late to the do. I arrived, slightly sweaty under the pits, and got my named ticked off by the reception girls. Then I walked up some impressive stairs, past a random honour guard of Russian army personnel, to a brass band playing Waltzing Matilda and other Aussie folk songs. I then lined up to meet the Australian Ambassador and the Consular before entering the function hall.

Inside there was free booze, seafood and other things for the guests to have. The room was huge, had a large chandelier hanging from the ceiling and gold leaf on the walls. There were about 150 people there, all wearing suits and all considerably older than me. It was then that I asked myself what on earth I was doing there.

I looked around the room and saw no one I knew so I ended up meeting this Belgian businessman named Roman and had a chat to him for a while about chocolate and the French. Then I saw Tim, an Australian civil engineer working for a large Russian mining company, knocking back beers in the corner. I went and joined him and worked out we were two of about 10 Australians in the room, the rest being foreign diplomats or Russian businessmen.

Next the Ambassador and Consular, Sebastian – who speaks really good Russian – jumped on stage and started speaking about Australia’s incredible relationship with Russia. The Australian National Anthem played, of which I was only one who appeared to actually know the words, followed by the Russian Anthem.

While the event itself was nothing like the normal Aus Day celebrations at home – that usually involve getting pissed with your friends around a barbie -it was interesting to be involved in the whole thing.

The canal just outside my house last night

This week I went back to teaching. I now have a fresh group of students all with the same questions about me and my country. The number of times I’ve been asked what language we speak in Australia and if kangaroos really do hop down the street just goes to show how little the rest of the world knows about down under. And most of these questions aren’t only asked by Russians. The weather’s also been pretty warm for this time of year which makes watching people walking on icy footpaths with 5cm high heels on hilarious. I’ll try and get some video of some of the dramatic tumbles for next time for your enjoyment.

I found my camera, it was stashed in my backpack in a hidden pocket, so I’ll add the rest of the Germany pictures on the extras page.

Hopefully everyone’s managed to stay dry from the crazy weather back at home.

Matt

the smelly sauna bus

January 28, 2011 2 comments

If it wasn’t for my small win at the casino in Helsinki only a short time earlier, my day today would have really sucked.

Last night I flew from Berlin to Munich to catch my flight back to Helsinki the following morning after staying with Nikolai and Cynthia for a few days. I arrived at the airport this morning with plenty of time up my sleeve and proceeded to the check-in counter. There the lady happily informed me that, as I had not boarded my outbound flight from Helsinki to Munich, the system had automatically cancelled my return flight to Helsinki.

You see, several months earlier, when I originally booked my return tickets to Munich, I realised I had by accident booked my outbound flight from Helsinki for the wrong day. I was told by Lufthansa at that time that, as the flight was a discount fare flight, altering the dates of the booking was impossible. I accepted this and booked another very cheap flight from Helsinki to Munich instead. I assumed my return flight back to Helsinki would still be valid as is the case with other respectable and non-respectable airlines. I was disgustingly mistaken.

So essentially I didn’t bother getting pissed off at the person at the check-in desk for fear that a TV crew would come through the doors and film me being an irate customer. Instead, I booked another flight (at a significant cost) back to Helsinki.

I reckon that it’s a load of shit that a generally respectable airline like Lufthansa has no discretion to even listen or try to empathise with their customers given there was no indication that a return fare is automatically cancelled if the passenger does not board their outbound flight…

When I eventually arrived back in Helsinki I then found out the next bus/train back to Saint Petersburg was in 10 hours, at 11pm. Tits. What was I going to do for ten hours in Helsinki?

Then I saw the casino across the road. What a superb solution to turn my shitty day around. After only a little while of mindless gambling I won back the cost of the airfare.

But today was just an isolated incident.

Please Matt, tell us some more

I stayed with Peter at his place for a few days and was extremely well looked after by him and his mum. Pete lived with his grandpa, mother and brother in a town called Weiden in Northern Bavaria, about 40km from the German border with the Czech Republic. His house was a typical Bavarian house, double storey with an attic and a cellar, kitchen downstairs and an entrance area for coats and shoes.

This one's for you Waynus: me in front of a German Aldi

We did a lot of things in the few days I stayed from driving to the Czech Republic in his Smart Car to buying fake merchandise, a toy helicopter from the ‘asian market’ and buying more useless things from the one Euro shop in town. On the 24th I planned to head to Berlin to catch up with Nikolia, also a friend of Pete’s, and Cynthia; an old friend from Melbourne and Hong Kong.

With Pete’s German expertise, I managed to find a ride share with a lady and her big dog to take me from Weiden to Berlin. The only thing was, she didn’t know a word of English and the extent of my German was piss-poor. So, as you can imagine, the four hour car journey was a pretty quiet only broken up by me attempting to communicate using a kind of pseudo version of charades and her trying to comprehend my stupid movements while trying to drive along the autobahn at dangerously high speeds.

I think the dog had an easier time understanding what I was saying…

Pete's Smart Car that took us to the Czech Republic

I got to Berlin and headed to Nikolai’s house. He lived in a student dormitory with a number of other students but he had a small room to himself. He managed to steal the communal couch from the student common room and bring it in to his room for me to use as a bed. That night we went out, didn’t get home until very early the following morning and consequently spent most of the next day lounging around his place with a sore head.

Did you know the kebab was invented in Berlin? No, neither did I. But it was, and the next day after the hangover day, Nikolai took me to the world’s best kebab shop – located in a secret place. It was a good Kebab, but unlike other kebabs I’ve had.

We then checked out some of Berlin’s famous urban culture from hidden bits of the city to street art before meeting up with Cynthia for dinner that night. After dinner we went out with some of Nikolai’s friends to a popular student spot in what was East Berlin. While the Berlin Wall’s long gone, there is still a pretty distinct difference between former East and West Berlin, which is part of what gives the city its vibe.

In some ways Berlin was extremely different from the rest of Germany but in other ways it reminded me of Melbourne. While most of Germany is neat, tidy, efficient and stereotypically ‘German’, Berlin was more like an untamed and unpredictable gentle beast, unexpected, slightly spontaneous yet comfortable.

Last night I left Berlin and headed to Couchsurfer Alex’s in anticipation of the shitty morning that awaited me.

Now I’m on the world’s hottest bus somewhere between Helsinki and the Russian border. For some odd reason every single thing with a heater in Russia is always turned up to maximum so that you sweat, but I’ll write all about that in another blog. Someone’s just taken their shoes off and an odour kind of similar to that of a rotting cow carcass has spread throughout the cabin.

Getting out of Russia for a while was a refreshing breath of air. While I maintain a kind of love/hate relationship with Saint Petersburg and Russia, I was in need of a brief interlude before getting back in to it all for another five months.

If you’ve made it to the end of this, bloody well done to you, posts won’t normally be this big.

You can subscribe to my blog using your email address and follow me on Twitter on the right of this page. Unfortunately, as I left my camera at Couchsurfer Alex’s in Munich, I can’t upload many pictures just yet apart from the ones in this blog.

Nikolai and Misha singing their favourite Russian tune earlier this month in Austria

Categories: Uncategorized

noises in the night

January 19, 2011 1 comment

For the last few week’s I’ve been travelling around the place visiting things.

Now I’m in Nuremburg, a town that was almost completely destroyed in WWII, the home to a large castle on a hill and Hitler’s former propaganda machine. Nuremburg’s like any mid-sized Bavarian town, neat and quant but filled to the brim with Germany’s best beer and girls that wear traditional costume while serving beer…

Nuremburg

I’m staying in a hostel here with two other Aussie’s, a Britt, a Korean and two German’s. In general the hostel’s good apart from paying to use the internet and the ongoing sex noises permeating through the walls from the sex shop offering two euro peep shows adjoining our room.

The days previous

After skiing for a week with some Russian friends in Zell am See – a tiny town about 100 kilometres from Salzburg – I headed to Munich to stay with a couch surfer for a few days. I met Alex, a Romanian-born German studying media at university after waiting for him in the cold for a few hours. I surfed on Alex’s couch for four days, explored the city and caught up with Stephanie, a German friend I met travelling earlier last year.

While in Munich I also visited heaven for a short time, stopping by at BMW World, a place where BMW tells the world their stuff is the best. I’m not sure what was more impressive, the cars inside or the building that housed the cars. While I’m not normally a big contemporary architecture fan, this building was nuts.

Inside Heaven

I also bought the world’s best phone from some bloke in the Munich train station for a bargain. I’ll stick the pictures of the last few weeks on my extras page.

Tomorrow I’m off to Weiden to stay with Pete, a German Mercedes car salesman I also met travelling earlier last year. I’m not too sure what I’ll end up doing there, but hopefully I’ll do something other than look at hundreds of historical monuments and drink shittonnes of beer every single night.

Also, if you have Twitter, don’t forget to follow me.

Categories: Uncategorized

in the beginning

January 7, 2011 1 comment

I’m sitting in a café listening to Kylie Minogue on the radio in the airport in Riga, Latvia. I have absolutely no idea about this country apart from its geographical location on a map. What I do know is that by the looks of things they speak English, Russian and I’m assuming Latvian…

But this blog isn’t supposed to be about Latvia or generally mundane travel stories, but more a brief insight into my life overseas and the complexities of the lifestyle I now lead. Yes, it has taken far too long for me to sit down and finally write something but better late than never. So, this is my blog where I’ll post pictures, videos, tell you about weird things in my life and keep you up to date on my general welfare.

 NYE 2011 – 12:01am

The Context

In around January 2009 I decided I’d embark on an adventure to Russia to study the Russian Language during the second half of 2010. Having completed a pretty stressful final year of university, I was in need of a dramatic change and was looking for a new challenge. I agreed with those who said moving to Russia at the beginning of a harsh winter to learn an impossible language was moronic, but I decided to give it a shot anyway.

I set up a life in Russia in late August and found somewhere to live with a lovely mother, daughter combination of Marina and Elena. They lived in a nice apartment on an island near the centre of Saint Petersburg. I found a job at an English school as a teacher to help pay the bills, managed to sort out my studies for the following semester, and met some inspiringly interesting Russians and fellow international students. I decided in late November that it was time to move on from Elena and Marina so I moved in with a few friends from uni into the very centre of town.

I’m now on holidays until the January 27 but normally I live there, work at nights teaching classes and private students, and spend a lot of time with my Russian and international friends. I attempt to squeeze in Russian homework here and there as well when the occasion calls for it.

Now I find myself here, in another airport lounge having slept on a surprisingly comfortable set of airport chairs in Helsinki the night before. I’m awaiting my connecting flight to Munich where I’ll meet up with some Russian friends and then drive to Austria to ski for the next week. I’ll then hitchhike north through Germany visiting friends I made on my travels through Europe last August. I’ll then return to life in Saint Petersburg early February to continue with my Russian studies.

So stay tuned, I’ll post updates on my Facebook and Twitter so feel free to add your comments or questions. It’s always nice to hear from people wherever you may be or whatever you may be up to.

Categories: Uncategorized