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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

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

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

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