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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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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

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