21 November 2011

It's now well over a month since my last entry in this blog. Hope everyone's withdrawal symptoms haven't been too severe. The reason for this hiatus is mainly that as my time spent here has marched on, so too has my acclimatisation to the quirks of Russian life, and I have had less to write about. Don't get me wrong, there has been plenty going on - we went to the Musical Theatre to see a superb production of Tchaikovsky's Evgenii Onegin, explored the nature on the edge of town and the "Devil's Chair" (left), went to a dubstep night in a converted warehouse, Luke CJ and I were given a tour of a dacha and Lucy's hozyaika Zoya invited everyone for a dinner party to celebrate her new teeth. But up until a few weeks ago, I was beginning to feel a bit weary of Petrozavodsk. This is a small city, the smallest I have lived and probably ever will live in, and I was getting claustrophobic. Thankfully, after eight weeks, the university kindly gave us a reading week (we were the only students afforded such a break - most of the Russian students have classes without any interval from September right up to the New Year). Tom, Kate, Lucy and I took the opportunity for an epic trip around European Russia.

Our trip began at 7 o'clock on Friday evening. It felt strange embarking on a journey with night setting in, used as I am to trips beginning in the early morning, but to get anywhere in Russia from somewhere as isolated as Petrozavodsk without risking flight (Russia's national carrier Aeroflot is a world-leader in terms of the number of accidents in its operational history,) an overnight train is required; the overnight train from Petrozavodsk to Moscow lasted 14 hours. Partly due to our excitement and partly to our not really being used to sleeping on a small bed in a (albeit quite slowly) moving vehicle, none of us slept very well on the train, but did have a nice conversation with our neighbour, an elderly lady who proceeded to show us what appeared to be her entire photograph collection, a large proportion of which were of her cats. There were some of her daughters too, but the cats definitely took centre stage.


According to the Lonely Planet, Moscow is the rudest city in the world. We found this to be not entirely inaccurate on arriving in the Moscow suburb where our host, Yura, lived in, and tried asking for directions to his street. The first person we asked didn't even break her stride before telling us that she didn't know and advising us to ask in the shopping-centre we found ourselves outside of. The people we asked in there were equally unhelpful, giving us one-shouldered shrugs, accompanied by expressions that seemed to imply more "why are you asking me?" than "I don't know". Luckily, Yura himself did not comply to this stereotype of Muscovites, and came to meet us, walking us back through the row upon row of apartment blocks (much like the ones in Petrozavodsk, except bigger, and more of them) to his flat. It was actually quite a nice flat, on the ground floor of a fine example of 21-storey Soviet architectural achievement, with one bedroom, a bathroom and a kitchen. There were two beds in the main room, occupied by Yura and his flatmate Gadge respectively. And then, on a bench in the kitchen, resided our third host Andrei. So, with the four of us on the bedroom floor, it was a tad cosy.

Nonetheless, they were very friendly and accommodating hosts (all hailing from the Caucasion republic of Dagestan). Andrei even gave us a lift back into town on that first day, though the lack of seatbelts in his car and his... let's just say very Russian style of driving was not thoroughly enjoyed by all. He dropped us on Moscow's famous Arbat pedestrian shopping street, where we visited Pushkin's Moscow abode and saw some Russian Hare Krishna's:


Existing as we were on very little sleep, we didn't get up to much that evening, other than, at Yura's recomendation, taking the lift up to the 21st floor of his building for an impressive view of the suburbs that more than reminded us we were within the limits of Europe's largest city. We got up early-ish the next morning to tick off the important Moscow pilgrimige to the tomb of one Vladimir Ilych Lenin. This turned out to be one of the strangest experiences of my life. After queuing for around half an hour, handing in our cameras along with any electronic device capable of rendering so much as a pixel of photographic representation and going through a metal-detector security check to ensure we had no means of causing any sort of harm to the 87-years-dead revolutionary leader, we were finally allowed to enter the hallowed mausoleum. On entering, Lucy and I were immediately reprimanded by a guard for having our hands in our pockets. He said nothing, but clicked his fingers and made a gesture of pulling his hands out of his pockets. I tried to apologise, but he immediately put his finger to his lips and issued a sharp "shhhh". We continued into the main chamber, where a guard was in place to ensure there was no further hand-pocket action or chattering going on, as well as to hurry visitors through at a high speed. Thus there was only enough time for me to make two marked observations about the appearance of the man whose likeness looms over the streets of every Russian city - he was tiny and made of wax. Once outside the Mausoleum, we passed the graves a number of other Soviet leaders and dignitaries, including Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Stalin (who, up until 1961, lay in the Mausoleum beside his predecessor), before exiting back onto Red Square, where the surrealism of it all was magnified by a procession of elderly citizens waving Soviet flags parading behind a woman bearing what can only be described as an icon of Lenin. All this right in front of GUM, Moscow's premier department store, whose tenants these days are mainly large Western chains. I'd have taken a photo, but my camera was still locked away in Lenin's cloakroom.

We spent the rest of that afternoon with Kate's friend Dasha from Yekaterinburg in Gorky Park. While in Russia, it is impossible not to notice the Russian penchant for taking any opportunity to take very tastefully-posed-for photographs, often involving any nearby foliage. We spent quite a lot of time in the park trying to make such pictures ourselves, with varying degrees of success..

After exploring the park, we had a look round a wing of the famous Tretyakov art gallery, before bidding farewell to Dasha, who had to catch her plane back to Yekaterinburg, and heading to Kitai Gorod to try to find a Chinese restaurant. You see, Kitai Gorod translates literally to China town, unfortunately we neglected to read the bit in the guidebook about this actually having nothing to do with it being a centre for the Chinese community, and therefore not a good place for locating Chinese food. We found a decent pizza though, and afterwards retired for a few bevvys in a bar named Bilingua (despite there being nothing bilingual about it.)

The next day we embarked on a lengthy metro ride to VDNKh station, in order to see the famous Worker and Kolkhoz Woman statue (left), commissioned for the 1937 World Fair in Paris and still known today for its presence in the opening credits of almost every Soviet-era Russian film as the logo of Mosfilm. What we didn't realize is that ВДНХ stands for Выставка Достижений Народного Хозяйства, Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy, which included so much of interest that we were there for well over an hour before even making our way to that statue. The highlight was probably the epic monument to the Soviet space programme, a gigantic plinth supporting a rocket on its way into orbit, and at its base relief statues of Russia's space heroes, fronted of course by Yuri Gagarin. Oh, and Lenin was there. Obviously.


After a few hours exploring the abundance of Soviet monuments and a ride on the quite rickety-looking ferris wheel, we got back on the metro to the centre to meet up with Yura and his girlfriend Marina (both right) on the Arbat, where there was a Halloween party going on (hence why, in this photo Yura is dressed as a monk and Marina as a... well she claimed it was a mummy, I wasn't too impressed). But it was raining, so hardly anyone turned up, and we all ended up in a Dagestani restaurant. Before we ate, Yura decided we should have a shot of vodka. So he ordered three - just for the lads - which Lucy and Kate weren't totally impressed with. But the food was amazing.


Ivan's Bell in the Moscow Kremlin
Tuesday was our last day in Moscow, and we used it to explore its heart, the Kremlin. We wanted to see the legendary Armoury, it's inventory including ten of the Fabergé Eggs, but we missed all of the days eerily-titled "seances", so had to be content with exploring the walkways and numerous churches. Then in the evening it was back on the train for our next destination: Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan.

The thirteen-hour overnight train from Moscow to Kazan was by far the most interesting railway journey I've ever had. The four of us had bunks along the side of the train, facing two coupes, one of which, sometime in the first couple of hours of the journey, became a meeting-point for middle aged women getting pissed. They took a liking to us, particularly one named Lilya, who, at one station insisted that we get off the train to see the people on the platform selling the local decorative glassware - "watch out for the squirrel!" she kept saying (I didn't see a squirrel) - and later chastised me for not making my bed properly and insisted on tucking both me and Tom in for the night. We also met a nice girl called Masha, studying in Moscow but from a town somewhere between Kazan and Yekaterinburg, whose journey home was set to last over twice the amount of time we were on the train.
On the Train

We arrived in Kazan and sought out our hostel. This involved a bumpy ride on a very crowded trolleybus where the four of us were falling about all over the place, largely to the inconvenience of the conductress, who luckily had a sense of humour about it all. Our stop (which we missed), was just outside Kazan State University, whose alumni includes Leo Tolstoy and one - Vladimir Illych Lenin (who scored top off his class in all of his exams despite being expelled soon after matriculation.) On arriving at the hostel we were worried that we may have been conned, as there was no sign - just a pretty standard block of Russian flats, and when I tried to phone, there was no answer. It turned out that this was because the 200 roubles I thought I had put on my phone had actually vanished into thin air, my balance a measly -2 roubles, and about ten minutes after phoning him from another phone, a jovial Tatar arrived to let us in. I mention this because he later turned out to be not only jovial, but also a very helpful bloke - a few days later, just before leaving Kazan, I realized that I couldn't find my train tickets, and became a bit panicked. Luckily he offered to come to the station to help us talk to the officials and even gave me and Tom a free lift. On arriving at the station I discovered that my tickets were actually in Kate's bag. Luckily she wasn't in the room to hear the curses I threw in her direction.

Anyway, when we ventured out of the hostel to explore Kazan, our first impressions were of wealth. Tatarstan is rich in oil resources, and because of the Russian government's fears of Islamic insurgency, the republic has been afforded a large degree of autonomy over what it does with it. Thus Kazan is fastly becoming a vibrant metropolis to rival any in the region. As we walked from the hostel to the Kazan Kremlin, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we passed a large new housing development, full of tastefully-designed self-standing houses, as well as what looked like a communal bathhouse and even a football pitch - which after Petrozavodsk and Moscow with their homogeny of high-rises was something of a shock. As we neared the Kremlin, the buildings we passed became yet more opulent; some were built in a distinctly Gothic style, yet looked absolutely brand new. The building for the Tatarstan Department of Trade (below) was even more impressive.


The Kremlin itself was beautiful, as well as displaying the cultural diversity of the city, with the minarets of the recently-built Qolsharif Mosque (left)facing the onion-domes of the ancient Annunciation Cathedral, and its centrepiece the towering Suyembike tower. The story goes that Suyembike, beautiful daughter of Tatar royalty, was due to be married to the rampaging Ivan the Terrible, as a consolidation of his power after conquering the city. Suyembike did not want to marry the Tsar, and so asked him as a wedding gift to build the tallest building that she had ever seen. On its completion, she went to the top of the tower and threw herself off. Not true in the slightest (the tower was probably constructed a century later by Peter the Great) and not really a very nice story either, but interesting. Outside the citadel, facing the Kremlin's impressive gatehouse, is a giant statue of the Tatar poet Musa Cäli, breaking free from the chains of Nazi imprisonment in which he died. Apparently he bears a striking resemblance to me taking my coat off.


We spent the rest of the day wondering around Kazan's old town and discovered that not only was it, on the whole, quite a pretty town, but that the people of Kazan were pretty friendly, and we were in good spirits when we retired to the hostel. When we got there, we met two more English people - both of them Spurs fans, there for the Uefa Cup match between Tottenham and Rubin Kazan the following day. I had known about the match before going to Kazan, but could not work out how to get a ticket, and I was not really feeling up to attending in the home end. So it was quite exciting the following morning to hear that these two lads knew someone who had spare tickets in the Spurs end! Tom and I ended up taking their offer, and together with Duncan, a Scottish student on the same study programme as us but in Tver, who had turned up at the hostel and stumbled across a ticket in a similar way, set off for the stadium in the evening, leaving the girls to locate the weekly Kazan Couchsurfing meeting where we planned to rendez-vous. On our way we passed the Tottenham team bus - "where's 'Arry?" I shouted. Having been on the road for a week and blissfully away from a computer, I didn't know that Harry Redknapp was in hospital having a heart operation. Bit of a faux-pas.

We found our tickets in a swanky sports bar opposite the stadium called The Joker. We also found most of the Spurs fans; for those that don't follow football, this fixture was not a particularly important one. Despite Redknapp's absence, his philosophy of not risking first-team players in European fixtures was still enacted, and although the likes of Roman Pavlyuchenko, Jermaine Defoe and a returning-from-injury William Gallas did play, most of the team were unrecognisable, even to a Tottenham fan such as myself. That this would be the case was well-known to spurs fans when tickets went on sale, and with the difficulty of travel to one of European football's eastern-most clubs, and of procuring a visa to Russia, most decided it wasn't worth it. This was the reason that Tom, Duncan and I were able to find tickets for a mere 300 roubles (£6) each, but also why the fans present were, by and large... a little bit... off... The two guys who were staying at our hostel apparently both went to EVERY game, no matter where or who Spurs were playing. One of them, Mark, was actually one of the more sound ones we met, but the other... well, we were told by one of the other fans in the bar that he got kicks out of stealing the under-seat life-jackets on flights. As for the two blokes that Tom and I bought our tickets from, I won't repeat any of the horrific things they said, but it made me a bit ashamed to share a football club with. Although it must be said, of all the guys we talked to, none were actually from London, mainly residing in the home counties, so at least I can reserve a little pride in my city. (And, in case anyone is thinking it, no, Barnet is not in the home counties, **** off.)

Anyway, finishing our drinks in The Joker, as I said a swanky bar, swanky enough to have walls made entirely of glass, we had a superb view of the Rubin fans entering the stadium - a grand parade carrying flares. Russia is has been renowned in recent years for the level of violence at football matches, so when we left for the stadium we kept a low profile, stayed away from the more visibly English supporters and spoke only in Russian - which led the ushers on the door to send us at first into the home end. The stadium itself was small, but impressive - the away enclosure faced the Kremlin, beautifully illuminated at night, giving an awesome view to gawp at when the action on the pitch got boring. Tottenham lost 1-0, but it was still a great experience - the atmosphere generated by the home fans was incredible, and the visiting supporters came up with some brilliant chants - at one point the hardcore at the top of the enclosure took their tops off and started singing "Tottenham in Russia - and it's not even cold."

The police kept us in the stadium for quite a while after the match, but eventually we were let out and caught up with Lucy and Kate, who had managed to find the Couchsurfing meeting, albeit after a couple of hours riding trolleybuses around town. At the meeting, Lucy had been talking to a local named Vlad. When we were about to leave and saying our goodbyes, I asked Vlad if he knew any good fast-food places to get dinner, and he not only told us, but led us there and wouldn't even let us pay for our own meals, buying us each a local speciality pie, called a Elesh', stuffed with potato and chicken and extremely tasty. He told us about his work, as the manager of a design company, and offered to take us to see his office. We followed, and left his office an hour or so later, each with a handful of gifts including a book about Kazan, a pack of postcards (each showing the city at a different time of day he invited us to choose - I took dusk), a colourful school textbook for kids and a book of his friend's poetry and short stories. All in all a lovely bloke. Eventually we said our goodbyes and went home, and talked about travel and the amazing generosity of strangers.

We spent most of the next day, our final day in Kazan, exploring the vast central market. Tom bought a multitude of hats (gifts for his family apparently) and I found an Soviet-era, beautifully illustrated children's book about the author's trip from Moscow to the South Pole. After my brief ticket-altercation, we set off in the evening for our final destination, Nizhny-Novgorod. The train journey was largely uneventful, though we did talk to a nice guy from Kazakhstan, and avoided the glare of a man pumped-up on steroids who seemed to have made it his duty to sit by the door to the toilet and look menacing.



Nizhny, another ancient town built around a Kremlin (above), did not make quite the same impression as Kazan, but was worthwhile nonetheless, not least because of our charming hosts, Marci and Krystina from Slovakia, whom I conversed with in Czech, and who took us to while away the evening in a jazz club. When we left the club, we realized that the temperature had taken a dive - the thermometer reading -8. In the morning it was time to start our 22 hour journey back to Petrozavodsk, and it was -13. We arrived back in Petrozavodsk 22 hours later without much bother, and that was it. Our Russian adventure was over, and when I got back into the flat and said "privet" to Alexei, like any other journey, it felt as if I'd never left.

===

It's now a few weeks since we returned. Sorry for the delay. There will be another entry soon though. Tomorrow, I'm setting off on another journey. A much anticipated trip to Petersburg. I hope it is nearly as good as the last one.

Kate advises me to finish on a joke. Afraid this one is only for Russianists:

В медицинском институте - лекция. Профессор вызывает к доске студентку,
показывает на стоящий рядом скелет и говорит:
- Назовите и покажите части тела, когда скелет был человеком.
Студентка начинает:
- Здесь был мозг, здесь - глаза, нос, рот, сердце, печень, почки,
селезенка...
До деликатного места доходит и говорит:
- А здесь был пенис.
Профессор (старенький такой) сидит, задумавшись.
- Профессор, здесь был пенис, - повторяет студентка.
- Не был, а бывал, это женский скелет!

07 October 2011

Mad Dances and Englishmen

I realize that my blog has been somewhat lacking in pictures recently. This is mainly because I keep forgetting about the existence of my camera, and in fact up until yesterday I had only taken three pictures. This has though been rectified as I took it out with me last night to catalogue some of the Karelian folk dances we have been trying our feet at. Embarrassment ensues... (especially for the unfortunate Tom Murray - sorry Tom!)

The snuff and domestic violence dance

This is perhaps the strangest Karelian folk dance we have yet witnessed. It's also the only one we managed to do perfectly first time, because it's quite easy. It begins with a deceptively complex handshaking ritual, before the couples promenade around in a circle for a bit, then the man holds out his hands and the woman mimes taking a pinch of snuff (at least we presume it is snuff) from an invisible box in the man's hand. They both snuff themselves up, then there is an energetic polka around the circle again. Both mime sneezing (each nostril in turn) before all the dancers hold hands in a ring and dance around a bit more. Then comes the domestic violence scene, in which they mime slapping each other, before everyone crosses their arms in an angry pose and the men and women march around in respective concentric circles. Then each couple stands back to back and cries, before giving each other a cheeky elbowing, which leads to another polka around the circle. Now facing each other again, they blow kisses to each other, before one final twirling lap.



The limping dance

To be honest I'm pretty clueless about this dance, but it basically involves linking arms with one's partner and spinning around on the spot while kicking one's leg backwards as if one has a limp. We were largely unsuccessful, not so much because of the difficulty of the dance, but because none of us could keep a straight face.

Yes, I am the idiot in the white shirt.

The shouty dance

This one is a very nice dance, with some intricate arm-linking and promenading and such.




About halfway through there is a bit where the circle splits into two columns that stand opposite each other and shout something in Karelian. I write too much, check out the video!

video


The freestyle dance

I already wrote about this one in an earlier entry. Basically, all the couples stand in a circle, and in turn, the man chases the girl around, before doing some impressive move to win her affection and dance arm in arm. (Unfortunately there are no photos of this dance from yesterday, but here's one of me embarrassing myself last time)


As we Englishmen have decided we cannot compete with our Russian hosts in their freestyle abilities, we have decided to do the British thing and take the piss in an endearing way. For example, Tom's go-to move is Monty Python's ministry of silly walks, while Rob and I tend to jump around hysterically. This week Lucy and I had to go last, and worrying that we might let the side down, hatched a last-minute plan to eschew the genre by going for a combined move, in which she jumped on my back and I took her piggy-back around the circle a couple of times, which luckily elicited a laugh. Us English lads are currently considering a future combo-move involving all three of us. Mine and Tom's original idea was a haka, but we worry our hosts may get the wrong idea, particularly if it looks anything like this:



I'll keep you all posted.

===

STOP PRESS!!

There was in fact a picture of Thursday's freestyle. Here it is:

03 October 2011

In London this week it has been 29 degrees and cloud-free. I was hoping this was just an evil joke being played on me by the BBC website (much like their bizarre choice to take up half of my monitor-space showing me adverts for courses at Sheffield Hallam), but checking Facebook and seeing all my friends' "barbecue in the park" statuses, I can only assume that this is a joke being played on me by everyone, and I don't want to hear any more about it.

That isn't to say that the weather here has been atrocious. In fact, as I type it is quite clear outside, and I have the window open - mainly because Alexei has deemed it now cold enough to turn on the central heating, which in Russia seems to have only one setting- absolutely boiling. It is however, already dusk at 7:30. This is in stark contrast to our arrival in Petrozavodsk, driving into the Karelian sunset at half past ten, but with the equinox now a week ago the days are shortening at a depressing rate.

Indeed, this only goes to remind us that we have now been in Petrozavodsk for a whole month. A month that has flown by at an alarming speed, entirely due to the fact that I have been doing so much. As described in my last post, I go Karelian folk dancing twice a week, but there is a whole lot more besides. Last week a few of us went to a screening of Fritz Lang's classic Metropolis in the old cinema on Prospekt Lenina, with a live soundtrack performed by a group of Norwegian transvestites. Breathtaking. Of course, as a self-respecting German student, I have seen the film before, but it's definitely one that is given much more life by the cinematic setting, and the music was brilliant. *

Anyway. The weekend was also eventful, as most of us went to Das Kapital Club on Karl Marx street, (to get there from my house - on Oktabriarsky Prospekt, I also have to go along Leningradskaya, Engels, and of course the famous Lenina) to attend a music festival entitled Carelian Faces, the lineup consisting of bands from Russia and Finland. There was one Karelian folk band, Sattuma, and I have since befriended the violinist, Eila, who will hopefully be teaching me some Karelian violin licks. There was a Finnish folk band who were interesting mainly for their inclusion of a huge kantele (and this is a good oportunity to say that I have been told the link I gave in the last entry is probably not a kantele, but the related gusli) and a very folky drumkit, its components including an upside-down bucket and a horseshoe suspended on string. There was a reggae singer, Zambian born and Finnish raised, who had some good tunes, but was let down by the fact that he was constantly telling the DJ to cut the record so he could rant about the "shit-stem" and, through his words "burn Bush, Putin, Blair" and a number of other, mainly retired, world leaders. And it was all rounded off by a group of Finnish hard-rockers, who were the main reason I couldn't hear much in the following few days.

One of the best things about Petrozavodsk is the number of surprisingly high quality bars around. In the first couple of weeks we were here our main haunt moved around; first it was Kivach, named after a famous Karelian waterfall, a spacious cafe opposite the university, recommended by our translation teacher Sasha, who, when not teaching, seems to spend every waking hour there. Then it was the German-style Kneipe Neubrandenburg, which although named after the North-Eastern towned twinned with Petrozavodsk, is quite Bavarian in character. But since discovering Begemot (lit: hippo, but from the same root as the English word behemoth), with its comfy chairs, shisha pipes, tasteful decor, cheap beer, frequent live jazz, and in-built sushi restaurant, I for one feel quite settled as a regular. It was to here that we retired on Wednesday night after seeing a concert of the Petrozavodsk Philharmonia (Alexei used to play flute in the same orchestra) along with the conductor, Marius Stravinsky (I believe a not-too-distant relation of the Rites of Spring composer), who is Eton-educated and whose parents live in Clapham.

And there is much more besides: house-parties, English-teaching, drawing classes... in short, I am having a great time in Petrozavodsk, but as possibly the coldest winter I will experience draws closer, I am well aware that the month I have already lived here is likely to have been the easiest.

 ---------

* It is also interesting to see that film in Russia, because of a particular quirk of Slavonic etymology. You see, the word "Slav", from which the derivatives Slavic, Slavonic etc. come, is itself derived from the root "slovo", which exists in some form in all Slavonic languages, and means "the word". The general Slavonic term for German is some form of the word "Nemec". This is derived from the Proto-Slavic njem', meaning deaf and dumb. So the Germans are defined in Slavonic languages as those who do not understand the word (i.e., back in the dark ages the Germans were the ones who did not understand the Proto-Slavonic language). The modern Russian word nemoi, meaning "dumb" comes from the same root, and is also the word used to describe a silent film. Thus in seeing Metropolis we were in fact watching a nemoi nemecky film (немой немецкий фильм), which if you have not fallen asleep already will no doubt be making you chuckle something silly.

20 September 2011

As anyone who knows their Gogol from their Gorbachev will know, Russia has for many centuries been home to the world's most bloated civil service, a body that wields an enormous amount of power in this country. To keep all of its countless peons in work, the Russian state has developed a layer of bureaucracy so thick that it could make an NHS manager feint.

Thankfully, I have yet to feel the full wrath of the Russian bureaucrats, (though if you're in any doubt as to the existence of this kafkaesque labyrinth, I suggest you read the blog of my friend Polly, who found herself spending two days chasing a stamp to avoid being deported- the Russians seem to have a fetish for stamps,) but in order to arrive here in Russia and extend my stay for the intended 16 weeks, I have had to fill in pile upon pile of forms and be tested for HIV twice. (The HIV test requirement exists only for students.) The second time involved taking a Marshrutka out to a slightly-dodgy looking clinic on Thursday morning. Having got the all-clear on Friday and handed in our passports and photos we thought we had fulfilled all our visa obligations, until we were told on Friday evening that the photos needed to be in black and white. I was told that my protest of "I gave you three photos and a wad of roubles, if you want black and white ones then use a photocopier you cheeky ****s" probably wouldn't do much good.

As Alexei says whenever I mention my frustration at Russian bureaucracy: yest' dve Rossii: Rossiya gosudarstvo i Rossii strana - "There are two Russias: Russia the state and Russia the country", one to be loathed and one to be loved. In order to get closer to the latter, I have endeavored to learn as much as I can about Russian - and in particular Karelian - folk music and culture. While I am here I plan to learn a new instrument, possibly the kantele. Here is an example of the Karelian kantele in action.

This desire took me and a few others from our group, upon the invitation of Lidia, whom we had met at an extremely enjoyable Petrozavodsk Couchsurfing meeting over the weekend, to attend a session of Karelian folk dancing yesterday. It was similar to a ceilidh - which I am not entirely unfamiliar with thanks to the Woodcraft Folk, and while it was fun, we were often quite clueless as to what the fast-talking instructor was asking of us; (at one point Lucy and I stood together to begin a dance and he looked over and saw us, before indicating to a more experienced boy and girl who came over to partner us respectively. Neither of us could understand what he was saying, but Lucy's guess was probably not too wide of the mark: "two retards don't make a right.") Luckily our hosts were a good-natured bunch and seemed to understand that everyone has to start somewhere.

The most interesting dance came towards the end; we stood in a circle in pairs and, in turn, each couple made their way into the centre. The girl would run around the circle while the boy chased her, gesturing emphatically, until at one point they would stop and the lad would do some sort of elaborate prepared dance move, supposedly to win her affection, which would invariably end in the girl accepting him and them doing a polka around the circle a couple of times before returning to their place and the next couple carrying on in the same fashion. Some of the guys' moves were in fact, pretty impressive. Us English blokes all managed to make complete tits of ourselves, luckily still earning raucous applause from everyone involved.

There's another session on Thursday, so I'm off to work on my routine. Spokoini nochi.

12 September 2011

There have been two noticeable differences in day-to-day life here in Petrozavodsk since I last wrote in this blog. One is that the weather, which was formerly cloudless glory, has become drab and overcast. Friday showed the most contrast, with Thursday's brilliant sunshine replaced by torrential rain, and even though Saturday was marginally better, the fact that over breakfast Aleksei commented that "pogoda sevodniya ochen' horoshaya" (the weather today is very good), merely because despite the sky's uniform greyness, it wasn't raining, doesn't bode well. The forecasts don't look good either, with heavy rain and thunderstorms promised for the foreseeable future.

The other change is that the university has become much busier, with many students I suspect, only starting classes this week. Just before the start and after the end of lessons, the corridors are packed, and getting from place to place is a case of walking quickly, often against the flowing tide, dodging past the bustling crowd, and, because after all, this is Russia, not making eye contact, and most importantly, not smiling at anyone. Basically, exactly like changing lines on the Tube - I'm feeling right at home.

But at least the individual members of the hordes that alight daily at Bank, Victoria or Kings Cross to barge their expressionless way from platform to platform might spare a smile, or in the least an acknowledging glance, if they were to pass another human being, say, on an otherwise deserted street, in a park, or in the stairwell of their block of flats. Not so in Russia. The trick of fitting in and avoiding the spiteful glares that are often bestowed upon foreigners in public places is to keep one's expression neutral and one's eyes blinkered in the direction one is walking.

That isn't to say that the people behind these icey countenances aren't actually nice. On Friday evening, a group of us took up the invitation of Polina to come and see the university choir rehearsal; we didn't realize that she actually meant we should come to see what it is like to sing in the university choir rehearsal, and personally having never sung in a choir in my life (I was after all brought up a good Jewish boy), spent most of the time deciding as to whether I was a tenor or a bass, and having opted for the latter, was totally stumped when asked by the bloke sitting next to me if I was a first or second bass... But our fellow singers were lovely, and on realizing our non-Russianness, were extremely eager to shake hands with us, ask us where we were from, exchange numbers and demonstrate their English, however limited.

In the bar (Bierstrasse, one of two German-themed Kneipen we've found so far in Petrozavodsk) that we retired to after the rehearsal, one of the choir-members Dasha explained to me the Russian reasoning behind the facade that hides their often quite agreeable nature. "I think it is better," she said "To go about all day frowning, and then go home and smile at your family, than it is to go about all day smiling, and then get home and frown." Smiling in the street, it seems, is considered ingenuine, and is associated with the West. And as anyone who is well-versed on their nineteenth-century Russian literature will well be aware, the West and ingenuity have long been associated in Russia. But the extreme example given of Stepford-wife Americans didn't seem entirely fair to me, and the idea that the atmosphere on Russia's streets and the feelings in Russian hearts are not related does not seem entirely genuine either.

It has been suggested that this atmosphere is influenced by politics, a topic that was also broached in Bierstrasse, albeit tentatively, and I was encouraged to find that most of my drinking companions were far less than impressed with the current state of things at Russia's highest table. Politics had also been mentioned in our classes last week, our translation teacher Sasha explaining the etymology of the Russian word duma (parliament) as coming from the same root as the verb dumat' (to think) "because that's where they pretend to do their thinking", and our culture teacher, (of whose name I'm not quite sure, but has been nicknamed by several of us as The Mexican because of his dark complexion and bushy mustache) told us that, in case we had any doubts, the next president of the Federation would be Vlad-I-mir Vlad-i-mir-o-vich PU-tin. It was difficult to tell from the expression in his voice his personal views on the matter.

The day after our drinking and eating Russian bar food (i.e., deep-fried, battered break sticks, very tastey) in Bierstrasse was Saturday, and being assured by Aleksei of the ochen' horoshaya-ness of the weather, Tom, CJ and I took a walk around the lake, ending up at the impressive theatre and its adjoining square, where I showed the others the "Secret of the Third Collumn", that Polina had showed me and some others earlier in the week. I'll leave that for a later blog entry, (I don't want to spoil it in case any of our friends in St. Petersburg chose to come up for a weekend,) but I will leave you all with a photo taken on that walk, of the beautiful Lake Onega. Til next time, do svidania.

07 September 2011

All in a day's Russia

Here's a joke for you: how many language students does it take to understand an old Russian lady who's accosted them in the street and asked them to change a lightbulb? Answer: two, and only after they have followed her all the way into her flat and seen her pointing at the ceiling. The answer to the more cliched "how many x does it take..." question? Also two, one to climb up and unscrew the thing and one to stand holding the extremely rickety Soviet-era stepladder so our beloved hero (in case you've forgotten already folks, that's me,) doesn't stack it onto the floor.

"Rickety" is the word I would most associate with Russia so far. A list of the more rickety things I have seen would include the speedometer in the bus that we arrived here in (the dial just randomly crept its way around with no regard as to the speed we were travelling), the bridge I need to cross in order to use one of my possible routes to the university (basically three plywood boards nailed together and placed over the brook) and the many marshrutki (minibuses) here in Petrozavodsk, (we had been warned not to use them before we came, and were warned again by our new Russian friend Polina, who told us that not only do most of the drivers not have licenses, but when she was going home in one last year, her journey was cut short when a wheel fell off).

Unexpectedly though, the other theme so far has been... utterly glorious weather! More on that in a second, but fist, let me explain where exactly I am. The town is called Petrozavodsk. I tried many, many times to explain to my parents how it is pronounced, and they couldn't seem to get it, but it's really quite simple: Pye-tra-za-VODSK, with the stress on that last syllable, the o in which is pronounced something like the "oar" in "board". The town is the capital and largest city of the Republic of Karelia, which is part of the historic region of Karelia, which is now split between Russia and Finland.

Petrozavodsk sits on the bank of lake Onega, the second largest lake in Europe. The shore of the lake is really beautiful, and we've been taking the opportunity afforded by aforementioned glorious weather to explore it, complete with its collection of wooden carvings and statues, some of a quite racy nature (I haven't taken any photos yet, so I'll leave that one to the imagination.) The only thing that bespoils this beauty are the slightly disconcerting red-eyed Russian pigeons that regard us in much the same way as their human compatriots, and the white stringy substance that blows our way in the wind, often tangling itself in someone's hair, which i am reliably informed by Tom, who has worked on construction sites, is most likely asbestos.

I had travelled in a number of former communist countries before I came to Russia, and most of them have all but dismantled the relics of that era. The road that leads from the university to the lake is still called Prospekt Lenina, and there is a building on this road that still flies the red flag proudly, though I have no idea what this building's purpose is. I and one of my new English friends Lucy were exploring this road yesterday, and found that most of its shops were underground, including a couple of labyrinthine underground clothes markets. We found a nice place to relax afterwards, a teashop with a minuscule but cosy cafe attached called Chaikoff (we were enticed by the description on the board outside: neobychnii chai magazin - "unusual tea shop"). The Russians absolutely love tea. I'd dare to suggest, even more than the English do. I have gotten into the habit of drinking a milkless cup with every meal.

It was shortly after we left Chaikoff that we were commandeered by an old lady in the street, and though we were oblivious of it at the time, were asked to change a lightbulb.

05 September 2011

Like all of the fifteen English students (nine of us from Sheffield) on my course in Petrozavodsk, I am living in home-stay accommodation. Typically this involves living in a flat with a hozyanka (hostess/ landlady), a class of people so universally middle-aged/old women that students in such situations often simply refer to their hozyanka as "my babushka" (old woman/ grandmother, stress on the first syllable, contrary to the Kate Bush tune). My home-stay is quite atypical in that as opposed to a hozyanka, I have a male hozyain (host/ landlord.) His name is Alexei, and as he speaks only a few words of English, all the things I have learnt about him and his life have been through our conversations in Russian, and I am thus very proud of the things I have discovered.


Things I have learnt about Alexei:

  • He is not from Petrozavodsk, but from "a town in the south". Considering the northern location of Petrozavodsk, I have yet to ascertain whether by this he means the south of Russia, or just somewhere less north than here.
  • He is a retired musician, and originally moved to Petrozavodsk to study at the conservatory, which I pass every day on my way to university, (and always hear someone practicing a different instrument as I do.) He used to play flute in the Petrozavodsk TV and Radio Symphony Orchestra, and also played synthesizer in an 80's pop group. He still plays his synthesizer for fun, and on Sunday gave a brilliant instrumental rendition of The Beatles' Something.
  • He loves The Beatles, but his favourite genre of music to listen to is smooth jazz. He was very impressed when I told him that my first CD was a Dave Brubeck. However, he listens to all different types of music, I even caught him listening to some Russian hip-hop this morning.
  • He has a daughter who teaches European, American and Australian literature at the university. I haven't met her yet.
  • Considering his age, he is very with-it technology-wise, he has broadband and wi-fi, knows the difference between Windows and Linux and even has a profile on Facebook (which is not even very usual for younger Russians, who have their own mammoth social network site called V Kontaktye.)
  • He grows onions on his balcony, and also makes his own wine. He says he prefers wine to any other drink.
  • He loves chocolate, and says he couldn't live without it, (this is one of the phrases he has been able to (almost-)correctly construct in English.) About 1/3 of his fridge is taken up with chocolate bars, all of them at least 70% cocoa.
  • He drinks a glass of kefir (a fermented milk drink similar to yoghurt) every evening, which he says is a good aid to sleep and digestion.
  • He is a very, very kind and friendly bloke, and is helping me no end with my Russian by his patience and good listening. He says his years spent as a musician gave him good listening skills and that he recognizes the same quality in me, and thus expects me to excel on my course, which was very nice to hear.
I hope to learn much more about him before our time together is over.