Saturday, August 05, 2006

They tell me that I'll want to come back, but I beg to differ. Even those who travelled to London and returned just last week tell me that Russia is better than Britain; the food is better, everything is cheaper, and the people are more open. But that's because they are Russians themselves and nothing is as good as it is back in your home land. I tell my disappointed-looking students that I'm not coming back and they all ask the same thing: Why? Knowing that the truth would only hurt them, I say simply, 'I'm not Russian, Russia is not my home', looking at them sadly, and that seems to do the trick.

Obviously, I am distancing myself so as to make the parting easier, of course, I love Russia deep down in my, uh, soul. I will never forget the kindness of my host family, nor the sensitive and caring nature of the ladies. I will always think of Russia now when I see snow, or smell sewage (oops, I forgot I'm meant to be mentioning the good points), and remember it with nostalgia induced fondness.

Russia, you have been good to me, and I will always remember you!

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Living in Siberia for 7 months is like listening to a long dance track: it starts off and you think,'ooh this is ok', and then by the middle you're into it, tapping your feet and bobbing your head around, but by the last minute and a half it's got a bit tedious and you just want to skip to the next song.

They do say that all good things must come to an end, and indeed, even bad things are doomed to the same fate. So this is the end of my Siberian adventure and let me tell you, dear friends, it's not been easy. No, it's been a tumultuous journey from innocence to maturity; from naivety to enlightenment. I shall not forget Russia and all the lessons it has taught me. Nor will I forget the cheap music it has provided me with! For as in all good adventures, the protagonist (that's me) has emerged from the crusty shell of routine and mundaneness into the fully blossomed flower of worldly-wise-ness. I could tell you a thing or two but you probably wouldn't believe me. There'll be stories to tell round the fireplace now. I can look back at my 20's and think 'well old gal, you did it you know'.

I fear that when I return to England I'll adopt an uncle Albert style habit of starting each sentence with 'when I was in Russia...', to which all my companions will groan and instantly fall asleep. As if they didn't already do that every time I spoke.

The most important thing though is that I have finally read The Lord of the Rings and listened to The White Album, acquainted myself with the life's works of David Bowie and read and related to Gogol – all of which could not have happened had I not come here to Russia, especially in the last two months of having no students cos they've all buggered off on holiday. I have also been lucky enough to be introduced to the delights of Russian pop music, something that will long remain with me, like the lingering taste of shashlik bought from a dirty looking barman at a summer tent. What else?.... well there was the skiing in the forest, the dachas and banya, the vodka – ah yes the vodka, who could forget the diaphanous venom, and the Baltika number 7. Of course, Russia is not all about drinking and tacky plastic pop, there's much more to the motherland than that. What? Well, there's the obsession with money and image, proving that even here, 3000 km from Moscow, they're still only human. There's the denial of above mentioned obsession with money and image, which is more entertaining than the nationalism, and of course there's the vast Russian soul. But shhhh, we shan't talk about that here for I cannot do it justice through my plain words, it has to be experienced first hand to grasp the full extent of it's magnetism and deepness. But once you get drawn in there's no release, it's like a trap... Luckily I have wriggled free, and am back to my senses after my pro-Noel Edmonds speech earlier in the week!

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

I have been wandering around the town bidding adieu to all the familiar sights and statues; Lenin, the man who discovered oil in Tyumen, the war heroes.... the churches, the old wooden houses, the babooshkas begging on the streets, the summer tents, the fountains.... there are so many sights that have become familiar to me over the past 7 months. The one defining sight however will be the first time I walked the short distance from my flat to work. This journey I have taken at least twice a day every day and could do it with my eyes shut (not advisable to do anything in Russia with your eyes shut – especially when it involves crossing a road) and it sums up the whole of the Russian experience – for my journey in the morning may be delightful, with early morning (which in Tyumen means near noon) sun blinding the citizens of this fair city and no need of coat or umbrella... By lunch time (2 hours later) the journey now involves cleverly mastering the obstacles of muddy puddles and pedestrian-soaking cars.... But, back to my original point, the first time I took that short but hazardous journey was back in January when there was nothing to be seen but snow, and I felt the reality (as well as the freezing air) hit me of just what I was doing and where I was,,, thankfully the snow and cold-induced haziness made it seem dream-like and so I convinced myself that that's just what it was – all in an effort to keep the madness at bay. It seemed to work, just about. In fact the dramatic weather conditions were nothing in comparison to the temperament of my new colleagues, which were much harder to anticipate, and which couldn't be repelled by an umbrella or fur coat. No, you must understand, that when working in a Russian province with an office full of ladies, one must have full control of what I believe is referred to in certain circles as 'emotional intelligence'. This means saying the right thing at exactly the right time, not telling the truth very often and being able to decipher whether the colleague is actually saying what they mean or meaning exactly the opposite of what they are saying. It's a tough business. I must say my grasp on the emotional intelligence has been slowly waning and my patience is running out, so much so that I am myself now jibbering and ranting like a crazed Russian, getting defensive and nationalistic about my country. I am also enjoying amateur philosophy in a way that the pre-Russian me would have scorned at, and even found myself warming to Noel Edmonds and his drivel about positive thinking in the interview with him on the Guardian website.
I think it's definitely time for me to leave this place and return to normality!
This weekend was the celebration of the town's 420th Birthday. I attended a firework display on Friday night to contribute to the celebrations, however, nobody had told me that to reap the reward of seeing the superb fireworks I would have to endure a exhibition of children doing keep fit-style dancing to tunes such as 'It's a Sin' and 'Born in the USA'. It was delightful really it was.

Other than that I didn't see any other celebrations, possible due to the rain, which yesterday evening reached torrential heights. I went instead to a Dacha, having been invited there by my student, ate barbecued meat and drank beer and managed to escape having a banya. I tried to explain that it's not the done thing for British people to remove their clothes on a first meeting, I know I'm in Russia and 'when in ...' etc, but I've had enough of doing the Russian thing. So instead they interrogated me with, what in normal circumstances I would consider, freakish interest, but of course these aren't normal circumstances and I am now used to people being interested in little old me just because I'm from a far off country. I began to get afraid when they asked 'is there any record of your being here in Russia' – I don't know, maybe it's the being taken 40 minutes drive from the city to a wooden house and the isolation, but the paranoia button in my brain started to flash, that's when I insisted that we not have a banya in which I would be trapped in a small room in plus 100 conditions with Russians who I hardly know, with not even clothes to protect me. Of course, I was as usual letting my imagination get carried away and I quickly resolved the situation by telling them that yes I do have a contract and if I went missing suddenly someone would miss me.... wouldn't they? It was very pleasant and the Russians again have shone with hospitality and interest making me feel unworthy of such attention and esteem. You can't fault the Russians for their hospitable nature and their effort.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

This week I have been watching The Idiot – the Russian TV adaptation of the book, and although the subtitles seem to have been assembled in a hurry, or by a Russian who doesn't know his English too well, often with big chunks of dialogue missing, it's a delight to watch and has made reading the book seem like a less daunting challenge. If only there was a way around the long confusing names.
However, the actor playing Prince Myshkin is the first good-looking Russian man I've seen, which is a bonus.
Other than that I went to the art gallery, saw some 'art' and some sculptures, that was after getting past the Frank Butcher in a Hawaiian shirt lookalike who I assumed was the 'manager'. They clearly don't get many foreigners going in to the art gallery as after the initial excitement and commotion of tying to communicate with the locals we ended up just saying 'take our roubles dammit and let us in, we don't care which Siberian artist we get to view', they seemed quite pleased that we were there, not least because they get more roubles from us for being foreign. Frank Butcher walked away with a grin on his face and we got to see some sculptures made of bone, the same kind that I've seen in the local department store souvenir section. There were some brass sculptures, one of which was of Pushkin, and the rest of whom were of other less well known people.... there were oil paintings of miserable looking men in snow, and lots of traditional Russian artefacts like wooden sculptures and dolls.
And.... more students have cancelled lessons, the heat wave has unsurprisingly changed dramatically into a cold front, with temperatures down to 10 degrees, and I've been invited to a dacha on Saturday. It's all go here, I can tell you.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Well, friends, only two weeks are left of this adventure of mine, and I must share with you all of my impressions and thoughts, if you will be so kind as to let me indulge in a moment of self reflection and narcissistic meandering.

I arrived here in January a mere pup, bounding around eagerly, eyes wide, keen to experience the different culture in which I found myself, excited and nervous and very cold. Everything was new and different and nothing escaped my attention... And now? Now, I am the face of sobriety and wisdom, no longer an innocent puppy lost in the world without a clue, but a grown up.

I have seen great kindness and also great ignorance while I've been here; I've been humbled by the generosity of my host family – without whom my stay here would have been completely different, and I've been angered by the narrow-minded and judgemental nature of some Russian folks, who I gave up trying to enlighten many months ago. I've seen the great wealth of the rich compared with the modest lifestyles of the poor... In short, this is a land of contrasts. There are some things that no matter how long you spend trying to work out you will just never understand. Russia, for me, is one of those things.

I owe it a great debt though, for it's people have given me hours of interesting and thoughtful conversation; it's weather has made a huge impression on me and I hope I will never forget these wonderful sights I have seen of snow frost mud rain and sun; and finally the food has made me realise just how much I appreciate Britain and its celebrity endorsed supermarket chains. Thank you Siberia for helping me to realise that Britain isn't that bad after all.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

I've said it before and I'll say it again, cos I have a tendency to repeat myself, especially after a glass or two of the old Russian Champagne (which is all one can purchase in the way of wine at the moment) but I have so much more fun communicating with people who don't speak English. There's a lot to be said for body language, facial expressions and mimes! And in the process of speaking with someone who only understands 10% of what you are saying it doesn't matter if you say the wrong thing because they don't understand anyway – in a nutshell, it's very hard to offend someone, unless you use some vulgar body language which could be interpreted as an insult. So the past two days have been very pleasant for me, communicating first of all with my landlady and her boyfriend about, among other topical issues of the day, Top Gear: using the most minimal amount of English. Haha how we laughed and threw merit towards the fantastic programming of the BBC for their universally understood themes. Then, today I have spent the day with my landlady's mother who speaks even less English (well, none, to be precise) her granddaughter (who hasn't even begun to speak) and the dog (who tries to speak I'm sure). We understood each other perfectly, and when there was doubt, we just smiled and nodded, or growled in the case of the sabbotchka (that's the puppy)! Perfect way to communicate with anybody to be sure.

This is a picture of the beach, as you can see it is a wonder of nature, you have a lake a beach and a forest all for the price of one!

There you have a picture of a Siberian summer, unexpectedly blue and picturesque is it not? I'm sure you'll agree that it's not what one would imagine.

News: no rain for almost a week, which must be a record....uh, what else? More students have cancelled so I have even more time for sightseeing and excursions!! Haha, if only there were sights to see and if an excursion didn't cost so much or involve risky journeys with psychotic taxi drivers...

Monday, July 17, 2006

....he loved to drive fast. Indeed, which Russian does not thrill to the sensation of speed? And the Russian soul, which longs to roister and whirl about, to throw caution to the wind and say: “To hell with it all!” - how can the Russian soul not thrill to that sensation when it can hear in it something rapturous, something wondrous? It is as though some unknown force has gathered you up on to its wing, and you are flying, and everything flies with you: the versts [pre-Revolutionary measure of distance] fly past, the traders perched high on the coachman's seats of their kibitkas [vehicle with two wheels] fly towards you, the forest with its dark rows of firs and pines, with the knocking of axes and cawing of crows, flies by on both sides, the road itself flies away into the unknown, fading distance, and there is something terrifying in this flashing by of objects, so swift that they fade from sight before they can be distinguished – and only the sky above, and the wispy clouds, and the moon glinting through them, appear motionless. Ah, troika [vehicle with wheels pulled by three horses], bird troika, who dreamed you up? Surely you could only have come into being among a spirited race, in that land which has no truck with half measures, but which has spread in a vast, smooth plain over half the earth, so far that you would go cross-eyed before you could count all the verst-poles. Nor in this conveyance some cunning piece of work, held together with iron nuts and bolts – no, it has been hastily hewn to life with a rude axe and chisel and assembled by a nimble-fingered Yaroslavl peasant.....the very road quakes beneath them, and a terrified passer-by cries out as he stops in his tracks – and it's off and away! Off and away! Off and away!... Very soon, all that can be seen in the distance is the dust raised as something cleaves the air.

Replace 'troika' with Volga and you have my experience yesterday in a taxi. I went to the beach and happily I lived to tell the tale. Although there were times when I thought my last sight as an alive person would be of an oncoming Lada going at 80 mph while our taxi was overtaking very riskily the other Soviet-era Eastern European produced machine that passes for a car in these parts.

Gogol stands the test of time thanks to the wonders of his language and also the unchanging nature of the Russian people. Unfortunately he didn't write about the Russian beach experience so I can't copy his words to illustrate to you the picture I witnessed yesterday. I shall have to do it myself instead. But, another time, friends, for time is scarce.... I will report to you soon.