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French and Russian undergraduate student, trying my hand at the real world.

Sunday, 23 September 2012



When the communal toilet is quite evidently locked, they will always try and break down the door.

I'm not a violent person but the next one to do it will get a right hook. Not kidding.

Alcohol in Russia

Given that I live in the centre of two cities when in the Green and Pleasant land, alcoholics are not really a shocking sight. I shall expand on this further and say that the occasional person drinking beer in the street is not shocking. It’s usually Special Brew and they’ll be sat in the same place or in the same area walking on a daily basis. Fine. A little tragic of course, but it happens, it’s society.  I’m not going to go on about the ills of alcohol here, I’m just going to write about cultural differences as I have experienced them.

What I didn’t expect to see, even having lived in Russia for a month before coming to Piter, was the amount of people drinking beer in the street while going about their daily business. The people who walk around drinking beer during the day are generally accepted to be alcoholics in England. This is not the same in Russia.
People drink beer as if it were coca cola or red bull in Petersburg. They drink it while walking to the shops, they drink it as part of their lunch (a little more acceptable), they drink it while walking around monuments. I saw people in the Peterhof on a day trip drinking beer. If it had been England, it probably would have been orange squash, or pepsi as a treat.

This is because beer has such a low alcohol content, compared to vodka or konjak for example, that until 2010, it was considered a foodstuff. In Russian legislature, until the law changed under Medvedev, any product containing less than 10% alcohol by volume was considered to be a food. Even now, this new legal recognition of beer as being alcoholic largely only impacts the level of tax paid on it – it has nothing to do with the licensing in actual practise. I couldn’t tell you if that is what was meant to happen or not, but anyway, theory and practise are often two very different things.

This brings me to my next point that beer is actually the most popular alcoholic beverage in Russia – despite most people’s preconceptions that it is vodka. Beer here is exceptionally cheap – about £1 a pint. OK, I say that, it is cheap by London prices. I’m sure any students in Liverpool or similar reading this will think that £1 a pint is not that cheap compared to their Tuesday night hangout, but that’s not the point! In Kazan, there was any number of beer shacks every 50 yards up the main street, emblazoned with beer brands. I could recite a list to you right now just based on what I picked up when walking to the Institute every day. I’m not talking about Kronenbourg either – the Russian beer industry is absolutely thriving.

Russia definitely does have a different perception of alcohol from the UK. I saw a group of Russian men ordering a bottle of vodka “for the table” in the Turkish restaurant that was one of our more frequent haunts in Kazan. In England, this would have been a bottle of water; in France, a bottle of wine. There is a comparatively relaxed attitude to what is considered small amounts of alcohol. In the summer, a popular drink is a beer-like beverage made from fermented bread called kvas, which is really popular amongst adults and children alike. This is considered a soft drink, even though it is mildly alcoholic - I think it may be something like 2%. While this isn't a lot, admittedly, it exists nevertheless. Oh and it tastes rather odd, but you have to try it once, right?

I have also been told an interesting point about the culture of money and oligarchs. In England, it is the “done” thing to do to boast about how much money one has saved when buying something. In Russia, it is all about how much one has spent.

 For example:
In England – “I only paid half price for this!”
 In Russia – “I paid double the price for this”
This is reflected in the sale of vodka and the trend for oligarchs and suchlike to buy French vodka such as the “Grey Goose” brand. This is not because it is regarded as the best vodka, but it is supposed to be the most expensive.

Can we therefore consider French vodka to be the new purple?

Mushrooms, magic mushrooms and autumnal mushrooms

My food today has been porridge, mushroom soup and bread and fish. I was actually excited about eating all of these – am I past the point of no return?! I think I’ve been here for too long…
Mushroom soup is the thing I want to talk about today. Or rather, mushrooms.

 Russians LOVE mushrooms.

One of the first things we learnt in our first year of university was about the seasons and “In autumn, I like to go into the forest to collect and marinate mushrooms”. I’m not even kidding. Our teacher thought this was completely normal which I think we should have taken with a pinch of salt. (She was great by the way, driest sense of humour ever, no nonsense – but incredibly nice!)

It is true though – when you come to Russia in autumn, there are mushrooms everywhere in the shops and in restaurant. In our local jacket potato restaurant, mushrooms are being marketed as “the taste of the season”. There is even to be a Mushroom Festival to be held in the park over the road in a couple of weeks’ time. You’ll have to drag me away from it, quite frankly.

Mushrooms are not like you come across in England – they’re not white, for starters, more a chestnut colour. They have an amazing meaty texture to them, rather like cepes/porcini and they are absolutely full of flavour. I would become a vegetarian if it gave me the excuse of eating more mushrooms, they’re so good. The Russian seasonal pastime of mushroom collecting is just as fundamentally a part of autumn as collecting conkers is in the UK.

Oh, and we saw a red mushroom with white spots growing in the Peterhof. Turns out it was actually a magic mushroom. (This is the part where I make my 'incredulous-but-nothing-shocks-me-any-more' face). Oh and I should credit my much beloved room mate for this picture - my camera had died by this point and her photos are on my computer. Cheeky cheeky.

I saw something amazing today – a family making crowns of autumn leaves in the park. All you need is a needle and thread and a huge stack of golden sycamore leaves and you can create the most amazing mane-like headpiece. I hope one day in 20 years’ time I will be able to do that with my kids/friends’ kids. It was a magical piece of childhood that I felt privileged to witness. I really wish I'd been able to get a photo, but being the amazingly clever person I am, I didn't have my camera on me. Doh.

Today I made friends with a Kyrgyz man I could not understand and successfully gave a man directions (in Russian) to the Griboedeva Canal – which I actually knew the location of.


Oh and today, I got myself one of these badboys. It was lemon, lime and mint flavour, which sounds disgusting but is so refreshing. It’s like drinking a non-alcoholic mojito. (picture to be added when I get around to it, before you all freak out)

Russian Weather

Hello chaps,
As a stereotypical brit abroad, I am writing today about the weather. On coming to Petersburg with no really knowledge of what to expect, weather wise, I felt completely unprepared. I had this notion that as soon as August 31st struck, everyone would be donning their shapochkas and bear fur boots and polishing off their snow ploughs in anticipation of the first snows of September 1st.

I could not have been more wrong.

My mother is going to be dead annoyed when she comes out to visit in the near future and finds she is unable to wear her specially purchased thermals. It is actually quite hot.

I know, I know. I have been eaten alive by mosquitoes, as I mentioned in an earlier post, which shows that the temperature has not yet dipped low enough to polish them off. People have been walking around in only jumpers. *Only* jumpers. Needless to say, I am hugely disappointed by the lack of shapochkas on the street right now - Piter, you’re just not trying hard enough. My friends and I have decided though that we will commemorate the first day of snow by having hot chocolate in the Singer café on Nevsky Prospekt. The Singer café is on the second floor of Dom Knigi – the House of Books – which is the most amazing bookshop in Petersburg. It overlooks the Kazan cathedral and their hot chocolate is apparently incredible. I guess we can compare it to taking tea at Harrods!

One of my favourite things though is the rain in Russia. In Kazan, it absolutely bucketed down on a couple of occasions and the city took on a new Tolstoyan ambience. The pine trees by my babushka’s house made the whole street smell fresh and the light dispersed through the clouds over the top of ulitsa Lenina hill, making the statue of Tukai look particularly dominant. Perhaps this is where my taste in pretentious Russian literature comes out most specifically, but I find the rain in Russia most poetic.

I’m finding these days that Russian comes more quickly to me than French, which is hardly surprising and rather reassuring given that I’m here. I’ve been working on my first French blog for my schools project and I’ve been having real difficulty staying in the correct language. Yes, I know this is completely pretentious and you all hate me now, but it is unfortunately the case. The word for “main course” came almost instantaneously to me in Russian, as the blog is about food in Russia and France, but I had to google translate the French as I simply could not think of it. It’s going to be interesting swapping languages in January!

It is strange though how the brain works in those who speak more than one foreign language. It is as if one has an internal dictionary from which words are taken when they are needed – which can mean that the occasional “ninja” word from the wrong language can escape from your mouth when you least expect it. Put simply: I made a complete prune of myself the other day when “s’il vous plait” somehow found its way out of my mouth without warning, at which point the security man looked at me blankly and responded “chevo?!” (whattt?!). Not cool.

Also the bus that stops outside my room in the hostel sounds like it sneezes as it stops. I’ve also found it rather difficult to contain my sniggering in a particularly intense grammar class at how completely ridiculous emergency sirens sound around here. They sound like toy cars.I cannot possibly hope to replicate this one on a blog – I guess my only advice is to come here and hear them for yourselves!

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Russian manners

Hello chaps,
It occurs to me that a lot of English people think that Russia is a nation of rude people who never apologise and who glare at you sternly as soon as they lay eyes on you. The latter two parts of the sentence are correct. The incorrect part is the word “rude”.

Russia is a nation of sincerity, with no false sentiments and no ceremony. People do not give away compliments lightly, nor do they deal in fake apologies. I have immense respect for this – it means that when a Russian says something is excellent, they mean it. When a Russian apologises, it is more profoundly meant than in England. If a Russian person bumps into you, they will often not apologise – not because they don’t care but because it is accepted as a part of life and I guess they assume you will get over it and your day will continue as it otherwise would. If they were to bump into you to the extent that you fell over and injured yourself, they would apologise.

My only response to this is to say “fair enough”. It has made me reconsider whether in England we are a nation that lives off overzealous false apologies, because that is what our culture has come to expect. If you bump into someone on the train in England, the British stereotypical thing to do is to apologise about sixteen different times and flap around making sure the person is not injured or their day has otherwise been ruined by your actions. What is even worse and even more British, is to apologise when someone bumps into you! It’s like saying “Sorry old chap for going about my daily business and occupying the same train carriage as you, how outrageously thoughtless of me, how could I have done such a thing?!”.  If you don’t, people think you’re a rude, soulless blight on society. I really don’t think such an attitude is necessary – the Russian way seems far less stressful, there is a kind of mutual acceptance that neither party will kick up a fuss, provided no lasting harm has been done.

The other thing that took me by surprise about Russian people is how little they smile in the street, or rather, how much they glare at strangers.

I have heard two reasons why they do this. Firstly, that if you smile too much in Russia, there is the assumption that you are actually quite stupid and easily amused. Secondly, it was not so long ago that people were informing on their neighbours to the authorities, so there is a lack of trust between Russians in everyday encounters. Certainly, I think it is quite hard to get a Russian to properly trust you, harder at least than an English person, but when that trust is established, it runs intimately and should therefore be valued more.

My personal opinion is that these reasons in part are to blame for this cultural rift, but it is more because of the sincerity point I covered in my previous comment about apologies. We must also not exclude general snobbery from the equation, Russian people are exceptionally proud of their motherland – but English people are arguably just as bad.

It is definitely a shock for English people to be so scowled at when they arrive here.


Hello chaps,
We’ve been woken up by another brass band and some Russian women chanting religious stuff in the corridor.
Russian people are immensely interesting characters. In the West I think we are somewhat aware of the ‘Babushka’ stereotype – an old woman who may or may not have children and grandchildren (as babushka is the Russian for Grandmother). She wears a headscarf, is widowed, has a strong love of cats and going to church and spends her weekends tending to her cucumbers at her dacha. While this is a complete stereotype, a lot of the elderly Russian ladies I’ve come across fit these criteria.

I will only fleetingly mention a love of Stalin amongst babushkas, as this is less common, but there is the tale of the babushka in Murmansk who tends to the statue of Stalin every day, sweeping away the leaves and muttering “Moy Stalin, moy Stalin”. We must not consider babushkas to be in favour of state repression but the belief exists that under Stalin and communism, everyone had a job and a car and a place to live of some description. To their generation this was a better quality of life than what they perceive was brought by the end of Communism when the labour and manufacturing market underwent significant upheaval and there was less state involvement in private domestic affairs. People were no longer guaranteed a job, so for some, the standard of living was pushed even further below the generally accepted poverty line.

I want to talk now about my experiences with babushkas, because they are such a fundamental part of Russian society and the Western perception of Russia. We have all seen a matryoshka in our lifetimes, which is the most typical visual image of the Russian babushka accessible to the West. Visually it is rather an accurate portrait. For those less familiar, perhaps the image of an old fashioned washer-women in eastern and Germanic fairy tales is a good alternative to this – Disney actually does a rather good interpretation.
Before coming to Kazan, we were told that our host families (whom my Russian class colloquially refer to as babushkas as many of them were), would give us unusual things for breakfast and try to feed us up by forcing second and third and fourth portions of food onto our plates. We were warned that they would fuss over us, be concerned about the state of our clothing, ensure we got back at a sensible hour and worry if we didn’t. From accounts by friends, all of this was the case.

My roommate’s babushka would swirl corn oil into her breakfast, lick the spoon and stir it in saying “Zdoroviya!” (healthy!). At one point she was given pasta mixed with oil for breakfast. Another friend sent a text message to his babushka asking if it would be OK for him to stay out later. She responded with two simple words. “Nyet. Zhdayu”. (No. I am waiting (for you)). Another friend’s babushka had more pictures of vegetables in her kitchen than of her actual family and many of the pictures were of her posing with large basketsful of marrows. Mine was not technically a babushka as she must have been fifty at the oldest, but even she had a collection of cat figurines in her living room. When I left, I bought her two more to add to it.

Perhaps they may have some slightly odd ideas about health and safety, which is to be expected when one goes to a foreign country and experiences the culture. Their tastes are definitely different. One thing is for sure: you can never fool a babushka. These are women who have lived through repression and survived. I read somewhere that if they see you inadequately dressed for the cold weather, they will publically reprimand you. This happens even if you don’t know them. They are on the whole immensely strong characters, outspoken and highly suspicious, but caring and hardworking. The babushka who does our laundry gave us a lecture about not waiting for her before paying for our laundry – yet she did a fantastic job of it, she folded everything up and it was immaculately clean with no shrinkage. This is all despite her eyeing us suspiciously throughout the whole time we were in her shop. 

When I grow up, I want to be a babushka.

Edit: In response to the comment about Murmansk: It was a story I heard a long time ago, I'm pretty sure the statue no longer exists


Hello chaps,
I have developed a strange affinity with Kazan since arriving in Piter, more so than previously. I maybe wouldn’t call it nostalgic patriotism – I don’t think I have any desperate urge to return despite my having a good time there. It’s just whenever any mention of Kazan comes up, and that is surprisingly often, my little ears prick up and I will excitedly comment “Ooh, I’ve been there”!

Great one, Fliss. Really great.

It’s the equivalent of someone in England saying “oh, you know, I went to Manchester last week”. Kazan is the 3rd city in Russia. The 3rd. Not the 23rd - it’s not really that insignificant. It is more the fact that in England a comparatively small proportion of people actually know of it, except maybe those who follow football and who know the team ‘Rubin Kazan’. Piter and Moscow are much better known. Even Leningrad, which technically no longer exists, is better known to English people than Kazan.
That is the thing. When I say I’ve studied in Russia before now, people always assume it was Moscow or St Petersburg. I have been reduced to describing it as “on the Volga River, where Lenin went to university and where Tolstoy was born”.

 I guess now I should elaborate on this a little further.

Kazan is on the Volga River, 400 miles east of Moscow. If you draw a straight line up from the middle of Kazakhstan on a map, you will end up in Kazan eventually. Russia is divided up into individual republics and oblasts, based upon the tribes of people that originally inhabited that area. This is why it is called the Russian Federation – Putin is the current president of the federation of republics. Most of the oblasts/republics have their own separate president.

Kazan is the capital city of the republic of Tatarstan. Its first language is technically Tatar, which has a different alphabet from Russian and shares few of the same words. It looks more like Azerbaijani. Everyone there speaks Russian though, there was no problem for us speaking Russian out there. Tatars are the direct descendants of Ivan the Terrible and the Mongolians, as Kazan was invaded in 1552 by Ivan the Terrible.
Kazan, I would argue, is the religious capital of Russia. It is one of the most important sites of the foundation of Russian orthodoxy due to the tale of the young girl who had the vision of an angel, on the hills of Kazan before it was established as a city, who told her to go forth and build a city. (Forgive me, my knowledge on this is a bit rusty!!) The Virgin of Kazan is one of the most famous Russian icon paintings – it is instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with Russian icons. Both Moscow and Piter have a Kazan cathedral, each with a massive picture of the Virgin of Kazan.

This is just a glimpse of the Kazan cathedral in Moscow.

This is the Kazan cathedral in Petersburg.

Tatars are traditionally a muslim people due to their eastern origins and Kazan has the policy of maintaining a 50:50 proportion of religion and race. Every time a church is built in Kazan, a mosque is built to balance things out and vice-versa – there are some truly amazing religious buildings in the city as a result of this! The newest mosque is the Kul-Sharif mosque, which was built in 2005 as part of the 1000 year anniversary of the foundation of Kazan. It was named after the imam who died defending the city against the hordes of Ivan the Terrible, but many of the citizens there are somewhat opposed to its architecture as they perceive it as being too Arabic and not Tatar enough. Many of the other Tatar mosques I saw were more simple and plain in their design. 
The Kul-Sharif mosque

There is the saying ‘scratch a Russian and you will find a Tatar’, which in part shows the impact that this lesser-known group of people have had on shaping the Russian identity as we see it today. All the Tatar people I’ve come across are, quite rightly, immensely proud of their cultural heritage.

Oh and a point of interest: Kazan is the Tatar word for cooking pot, as the hills on which the city is built look like an upturned casserole. So now you know some Tatar ;)

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Russian cheese.

Hello chaps,

Russian cheese is rubbish. They sell brie by the tin here. Edam is £6 a wedge.

I'm all tvoroged out.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

The one where people keep telling me how bad my Russian is

Hello chaps,

Those of you who speak a foreign language: How rude are people about your language skills?

There have been so many incidences of this over the last two weeks. I'm starting to get a bit miffed.

A girl we were talking to said to her friend "They claim to be learning Russian but they don't understand a word I'm saying". ACTUALLY, LOVE, I understood everything you were saying - I'm just slower than you at coming up with a response. Which is funny, really, considering your language has a completely different grammar system, ridiculous vocabulary that is difficult to retrieve at a moment's notice. That and I've only been learning it for two years and I've been in your country for only two weeks out of the last year.

I'm not asking for hero worship here, but it must be considered that a much smaller proportion of English people speak foreign languages than those of other nationalities - where English is not the first language.

English people are notoriously lazy at language learning - everyone speaks English anyway, right?

The one about the pineapple and the drugs squad

Hello chaps,
So this is one that will be funny in a few days but at the moment hits a relatively sore spot. This is everything that CAN go wrong, other than arrest and deportation, on a year abroad.
So last night, being Friday, meant that two of my friends went out for a drink. As they were getting ready, the State Police Narcotics Department started searching the room adjacent to theirs and showed their badges to them.

 This was bizarre enough until I woke up this morning to a text message, from another friend, saying “Watch out, there are two Russian men in the corridor looking for (the two friends who went out last night)”.

 Tricky, I thought, and passed on the message to the two friends. I then received a message from them saying, “OMG THEY’VE FOUND US”. Concerned, my roommate and I went out into the corridor to find our friends in fits of laughter at this whole situation – which was actually rather dangerous. These two guys had walked them home after buying them lots of vodka and had returned to the hotel with a pineapple (of all things), strawberries and champagne with the intention of giving them breakfast and possibly to see them again. Dodgy stuff – two random blokes found out where they lived and had made it past our (admittedly rather lax) security. The receptionist hadn’t questioned their motives when they asked for the room number and one of the guests here attempted to point out their room, without them having been consulted. Really dodgy.

So we recovered somewhat from this and proceeded with our plans to go the Peterhof palace.
 A great idea in theory.

All was fine until the very bumpy mashrutka (mini-bus) we were on took a detour through a forest, when suddenly my friend (one of the girls had gone out the night before) turned very pale, proceeded to stick her head out of the window and threw up. This involved leaning over the lap of the poor sap sat next to her! As I was sat on the other side, and luckily we were both at the front of the bus, I somehow, in awfully bad Russian, told the driver to stop as she was ill – he was reluctant at first but I persuaded him. To add insult to injury, the poor girl, a full-time glasses wearer, lost her glasses out of the window when she threw up. I told the driver to let me off so that I could see if I could find the glasses on the roadside. A needle in a haystack, I could not find them anywhere and the driver started hooting at me to get back on the bus as he wanted to move off.

When we arrived, we decided to grab a bite of lunch as we were all feeling a bit wobbly at this point. We found a small café and on entering, everyone in the place stared pointedly at us. By the door, a completely inebriated gentleman was slumped, face down, on the table. Bear in mind that this was 12.30 pm on a Saturday!

As we ate lunch, our attention was drawn to the man at the next table, having a casual conversation with his companion. Complete with a live, real handgun that he fiddled with as if it were a mobile phone. We soon left.

We then arrived at the Peterhof, having decided to stick to the grounds as we could visit the palace itself on a rainy day. On attempting to buy tickets at 2.30, we were met with the sign saying “Ticket Office: Closed 14.00 – 17.30”. We were then faced with a 3 hour wait that was filled with some disappointing hot chocolate, but a rather more pleasant stroll around the St Basil’s Cathedral-esque church not far from the palace.

At 16.45, we noticed that people were already starting to queue to buy tickets, so we figured it would make good sense to join them while they were still short. This led to further waiting around in the cold.
We finally entered the grounds and were hoping to see the 140-odd fountains that the Peterhof boasts – only to discover that they had been switched off for the winter the day before. We were instead met with empty pools that had black sludge on the bottom – the actual fountains themselves appeared rather tacky without water coming out of them.

Today marks the 200 year anniversary of the 1812 war, so we were met by a military parade and the 1812 overture coming from loudspeakers. Which was then followed by military style horn music. Which was then followed by dubstep. Naturally.

Oh, and then we briefly got followed by a group of overly-macho Russian guys, but that may have just been me being overly careful – unsurprising given my previous Russia track record!
The journey back was, thankfully, uneventful – except for the fact the same bus conductor and the same bus took us home.
Things I learned from this:
1)      Never accept pineapples from random men
2)      Always remember to take your glasses off when vomiting out of a moving vehicle
3)      Check the times before attempting to enter anywhere in Russia
4)      Pretend to be French as English carries in the street and attracts attention
5)      If a Russian has a gun in his lap, it is more than likely to be real.

Oh and despite the faff it takes to get there, the Peterhof itself is gorgeous – I’ve been telling people I saw all the way to Finland, which probably isn’t true but it makes for a more interesting anecdote than “yah, so I totally saw a power station and some tower blocks”.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

So this thought keeps hitting me, at the most inopportune times. Today it was whilst descending on the escalator at Sennaya Ploshad metro station - not convenient.

I'm in Russia.

For four months.

I only just speak enough Russian to get by.

All I can think about right now is how much I want to go to Wales.

Hello chaps,
Somehow it is now Thursday of the second week and I’ve been hella busy. I can’t really remember what I’ve actually done, as the week has absolutely whisked past without a second glance.  Those damned komari still have not left me alone. I’m no longer jetlagged and my food has largely been soup and bread this week. I’ve been feeling the effects of the stolovaya having no plov for 3 days. Serious, serious withdrawal going on there.

Yesterday though, as Wednesday is my day off, I went to the hermitage, which is blissfully free for students. They say it would take seven years to see the whole thing properly and I can certainly see why. The whole gallery spans nine buildings on three, or maybe four, floors. We were there for an hour and only made it around eight rooms. I spent more time looking at the actual rooms than their exhibits – it is completely stunning. I used to be a complete British Museum aficionado but now I don’t think I’ll be able to set foot in it again until the ‘Hermitage-effect’ has worn off. See earlier comments about Sushi.

We’ve had some pretty intense classes this week – largely orally conducted but with some pretty heavy grammar in the mix for good measure. I think my Russian is improving. Learning a language is different from any other kind of learning that I’ve come across. Sitting down and learning lists of vocabulary is just not worth the time commitment – with this method, you’ll never remember everything on the list. The best way to learn is in context – by reading books, watching the television and listening to the news. Actually, watching television is definitely my favourite way of learning when armed (and very dangerous) with a dictionary. This is not for reasons of laziness, but it improves your ear for native-paced dialogue and introduces you to the culture. It is commonly said that there is no substitute for actually going to a country and learning the language there. I have picked up a number of words just by sheer osmosis without having to sit down and learn Chekhov by rote – much more fun.

This week I’ve also been applying for a couple of internships for next summer. As soon as I arrived in Piter last week, my first thought was ‘I can’t wait to properly live here – when I grow up!’. It’s definitely a dream of mine to live and work for a couple of years in The Venice of The North.

Yeahh, that post was really boring. Sorry guyz.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Hello chaps,
This is my room mate's blog. She's totes amaze.

Russkie Anekdoti

Hello chaps,
I thought I’d just tell you about some of the more amusing things that have happened this week. Russia is a country full of cultural surprises, which I personally find very amusing. I’ll also tell you about some of the more stupid things I’ve been up to so that you can feel comforted that there is someone out there who is a little more dopey than you!

Firstly, I think I’ll tell you about Russian television, as it is an experience in itself. I’ve been watching a lot of TV as it’s a great way to learn the language - my roommate, her boyfriend and his roommateand I often sit in our room armed with dictionaries of an evening.  Our favourite channel is called Perets (pepper) and is, I guess, like E4 in the UK as it has programmes that resemble Balls of Steel, Jackass and Rudetube. The programmes we’ve been watching largely consist of videos of cats, fires, dogs and shocked Russian men who inadvertently stumble across a nude woman in the street. Yes, you did just read that correctly. My friend and former housemate Nikki would be immensely proud of my trashy TV watching efforts.

 Oh, and I’ve also discovered the Russian equivalent to Jeremy Kyle on Rossiya 1 – it’s called “Pust Govoryat” (Let’s talk) and the presenter looks a bit like Jonathan Ross/Lawrence Llewelyn Bowen. Perfect for keeping up with the topical issues affecting Russian society. Honestly. I think I have quite a filtered view of Russian people from my teachers, as they are all fantastically articulate and educated people with degrees of at least a Bachelor’s level. I want to know about the other people in Russia who have different qualities of life.  Perhaps I am not given an authentic view of this stratum of society as television is a form of augmented reality at the best of time, but it is as good an impression as I can access at this point in time.
Also on Rossiya 1, before Pust Govoryat, is “Davai Pozhenitsya” (Let’s get married). It is a spectacular amalgamation of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, Blind Date and Loose Women – my hozeyka in Kazan last year introduced me to it, she is a dedicated bolelschnitsa (fan) of it!

In the real world, there have been a few amusing things that have happened this week. We all thought Russian showers were meant to be a cold, pathetic dribble – until I stumbled upon an angry Russian woman in the bathroom with whom I had a complaining session in Russian about how poor the shower was. Angry Russian women, as my friend, who is half Russian will tell you, are forces to be reckoned with. The shower has since been fixed.

It is a well established truth that the tap water in Russia is undrinkable – at best it is a yellow colour that smells of old pipe infrastructure. Being unaccustomed to this, my roommate and I thought it would be an absolutely genius idea to fill a standard water bottle with hot water, so that by the time came to drink it, it would be both cool and clean. GENIUS. The problem came, however, when on contact with the hot water, the bottle contracted, the label melted off and the whole room stank of molten plastic. I think this deserves about fifty idiot points.

Beer in Russia has such a low alcohol content (comparative to vodka) that it is drunk in the street as if it were coke. Indeed, the builders fixing the pavement by the Winter Palace were drinking it as they worked while I took my walk around town today. One such esteemed member of the civil construction team decided that, upon finishing his chilled light alcoholic beverage, it would be a great idea to throw away the bottle. In Russia, this should be read as a glass bottle. On a pavement. Full of pedestrians. Not quite sure what to make of this.

Finally, today I spied a shop boasting its wares of “WIFI . CAFÉ. MUSEUM. CATS”. A sterling effort.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Eda (Food)

Hello chaps,
This is about my attempts to ward off starvation, I figured it deserved a post of its own.

We’ve been eating out for the most part at Stolovayas (short for stolovaya komnata – dining room) which are frequented by the locals and you can get a good Russian meal for about £1-2, if not a little less. Our kitchen facilities here are limited – we’ve only got hot water and bowls, so we’re living for part of the time off instant soup/noodles/porridge (very Russian).  

The restaurants are not really worth going to as Russian service is much slower than the slowest English service I’ve ever encountered and the food is not really worth it – I’ve had consistently better Russian food at a stolovaya than at a restaurant here. I guess they’re OK if you fancy something like spag bol which stolovayas tend not to serve, but the best borsch and plov comes from the nearest stolovaya. Plus there is a good proportion of stolovayas which are open 24 hours a day. Bonus.  

Stolovayas are self-service canteens which are completely no-frills, with basic tables, basic cutlery and basic décor. However, rather like the English coffee shop, I can only imagine they are a complete mine of gossip, especially if one is a regular. There was one in the centre of Kazan called Dom Blini (house of pancakes) at which I was pretty much a regular – I started recognising the staff and they started recognising me and I always ordered the same thing – blini s kuritsey (chicken filled pancakes).

The Russians don’t really have the same relationship with curry as the British – presumably as a result of our colonialist history and the old Spice route, but I don’t know enough about that to really make a judgement. Instead, the Russians as a nation absolutely LOVE sushi. They have sushi restaurants where we might have a curry house in England – if not more of them. This was the case in Kazan last summer and it’s also the case here in Piter.  I’ve had the best sushi of my life in Russia to the extent that I largely refuse to eat it in England, bar the occasional Yo Sushi! Blue Monday, as it’s just not as good. (Yes, I am aware of how pretentious this is and I can imagine anyone who’s been to Japan that may read this will be laughing with incredulity right now).

So while Russian people don’t do curry, there are some things they do well including:

PLOV – Like Pilaf in Middle-Eastern cuisine, this is a rice based dish with (usually) meat and spices. It’s a little more oily than its English counterparts, but everything in Russia is.

SOUP – this goes under a number of guises, so I’ll list each one separately. There is a Russian proverb that is essentially ‘If you eat your soup every day then you won’t get constipated’. Nice.

UKHA (or yxa in Cyrillic) – This is fish soup. It is a little bit like chowder but much less creamy. It’s really delicious – when I’ve had it, it’s had great big chunks of salmon and white fish (I presume haddock but I couldn’t say for sure), chunks of potato and carrot and as with much Russian cooking, a good helping of dill (or zelyoniy, which also means ‘green’). Finnish ukha has cream and salmon roe in it, so it is more like chowder.

MUSHROOM SOUP – the best in the world. They use Russian forest mushrooms, which are different from English, I would maybe liken them to cepes but again, I don’t know enough about mushrooms to really make a judgement. Again, there is plenty of dill on top. 

SOLYANKA – I literally have no idea what they put in this, but it’s some kind of stock based soup with vegetables. I made the mistake of telling my vegetarian friend that it had no meat in it – then she found a chunk of sausage in it. Awkward.

BORSH – Arguably the most infamous of all Russian cuisine. This is a beetroot soup with vegetables and sour cream (nicer than it sounds) and is usually a fantastic shade of pink. I’ve had it served in a rye bread bowl before and it occasionally is served with chunks of beef. One to try, definitely. It’s a staple of Eastern European cooking, in Poland they call it Barszcz (someone please correct my spelling on that one if it needs it).

PIROZHKI – Or ‘pastries’. Russians fill these with all manner of sweet and savoury things – my favourite is their version of a samosa filled with minced meat and onion and spices.

PEL’MENI – these are ravioli style dumplings that originate from Siberia which are either served on their own or in a stock soup. They usually have meat filling and have a strong onion flavour, but they are really rather nice. Best served with a dollop of Smetana (sour cream) and dill. My Russian hozeyka (hostess) in Kazan made me these when I arrived there for the first time last year and I’ve never forgotten it – for a good reason, I should point out!

BLINI – Russian for ‘pancakes’. Russians eat these with both sweet and savoury fillings – my favourites are mushrooms and chicken. These are again served with dill and Smetana – a flavour staple.

My ideal Russian meal would be mushroom soup, a chicken blin and a Russian samosa. Yummy.

Here endeth the first week of lessons

Hello chaps,
So I can’t post this at the time of writing due to my not having yet bought a dongle, but I’m writing this at 9.30 on a Saturday morning. Early, you say. YES IT IS. Why? I WAS AWOKEN BY A BRASS BAND OUTSIDE MY WINDOW that has been there for half an hour.

 Our hostel is on the ulitsa Sadovaya and overlooks a monument to (I think?!) the Octoberists – I’ll have to check this one.

Today we woke up at 9am to a rather young sounding band (trumpets and all) outside the window playing what we can only assume to be Russian patriotic songs. We didn’t recognise any of them, being foreigners, but they eventually played the national anthem. On looking out of the window we saw a group of soldiers and children carrying red carnations (assuming these to be a communist symbol but my AS Level history is a bit rusty these days) and 3 people stood by the monument with a flag. Can anyone enlighten me about this? Will I regularly be woken up by the Russian national anthem? I’m not complaining, it made my cheap wine-induced hangover more musical, that’s for sure. Hangover or not, it was one of the most surreal experiences of my entire life so far – including the time I was accosted by French radio presenters on the Champs-Elysees and asked to discuss in French the reason why I was wearing a raincoat and sunglasses like a shameless Brit.

So, to this week. What did I do? Lessons started for me on Thursday, where we had 3 hours of Russian language classes. We got told about the structure of our course – or rather the way we’ll be examined at the end. We will have exams that are conducted in the Russian way, where you pick a card (like in a magic trick) that has the exam question on the underside and you have to talk for at least ten minutes about it. In Russian. Not scary at all. Definitely not…

 Friday was the same, lesson-wise.  The lessons are really worth our while here. We’re learning so much vocabulary on a daily basis, which I’m trying to keep a good grip on. We have a phonetics classes too, in the first of which they actually taught us how to pronounce the Russian soft sign – I’d previously just been imitating my Russian teachers, so it’s good to consolidate what I’ve spent two years sort of half-knowing and actually being able to use it for myself.

I’ve been eaten alive by mosquitoes. St Petersburg is rife with them; they are called komari in Russian. St Petersburg is built on a swamp; it’s a series of canals and little rivers, the largest of which is the Neva, which leads to the Gulf of Finland and Vyborg. I’ve had Arnie-style arms for the week as I’m quite allergic to them, which has been an amusement. I also got bitten on my eyelid, so I had a rather spectacular black eye as a consequence. Romy (my room mate) and I have been dancing around the room like ninjas in pursuit of the little blighters which has been keeping us fit, if not bite free.

 On Tuesday we went to Nevsky Prospekt, the Winter Palace/Hermitage,the Medniy Vsadnik, the Neva, which I’m told was freezing cold. Wednesday we visited the railway museum on Sadovaya, which had loads of interesting revolution era artefacts and an old Trans-Mongolian rail carriage that you could go inside. In the bathroom section of the compartment, the showerhead was attached to the sink so you could shower where you were stood at the sink. Your move, First Great Western.

But you don’t care about that right? You want to know what food I’m eating and whether I’ve got hypothermia yet. The answers to that are soup and not yet. It was face meltingly cold yesterday mind – it felt like November in London even though it was the beginning of September. I think I’m going to need a hat… 

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Dobriy den, tovarishi!

Hello chaps,
So I'm still alive. Surviving off borsch, plov and instant pasta at the moment. Yesterday went around St Petersburg - saw the Bronze Horseman and Nevsky Prospekt which was a nice. I love St Petersburg, it's so much more laid back than Moscow and it's very pretty in a Russian kinda way (lots of churches). I'm staying in a hostel with a basic kitchen and one shower for all the women on the floor, but it's clean and very warm - not bad for £10 a night!
Went to a 'Stolovaya' (cheap self service canteen with great Russian food) for lunch yesterday - managed to get a starter, a main and a drink for around £2.50. It was pretty delicious actually and filled me up for the rest of the day.
Getting here was fine for me, was up at the relatively social hour of 5.45 and the flight was uneventful. Some of my coursemates didn't get so lucky though as they lost their luggage and only received it today - 2 days after arriving!
My life at the moment consists of passport photos and giving money to admin services. I'm looking forward to establishing a good routine.

Is it weird that I can't wait for it to get cold so that I can wear a HUGE shapochka without feeling like an idiot? (Russian hat)My main concern at the moment is learning how to fit in, rather than standing out as a lost tourist. I think I'm very lucky to have spent a month in Russia before now as the culture shock is less than it would otherwise be.

I've also been eaten alive by Komari (mosquitoes) - St Petersburg is rife with them. I've been bitten on my eyelid so I look like I have a black eye. Not a good look.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

The time is now!

Hello chaps,

Well, that time is getting closer! I am starting the first leg of my journey this afternoon, when I will be leaving for London for a day or two to take it easy before departing on Monday morning.

I've spent the last few days packing and shopping like a crazy lady! I managed to bag myself an awesome new winter jacket which will see me through the harsher aspects of St Petersburg weather and some sturdy ankle boots which will keep my feet nice and warm during all my walking and exploring. If I was organised I would put pictures up, but I'm currently sat inamongst a pile of clothes, procrastinating packing my hand luggage! Actually, THESE are the boots I've treated myself to - best pair I've ever owned, actually.

I'm thinking of posting a full packing list for those of you pre-year abroaders reading this but I'll have to do it later.

See you on the other side...