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

Friday, 28 December 2012

Full Circle

Hello chaps,

Again, thanks for reading my blog and especially for your comments, I do enjoy reading them. I’m feeling very reflective today as it marks the start of the final week of my time out here. I’ve had a whale of a time, but it’s certainly been the most challenging four months of my life so far.

Peter, I want to thank you for your hospitality, you have been most forthcoming. I shall miss you most terribly, but I think it is time for me to move on and start the next chapter of my life.

So as anyone in Russia reading this will agree, (I can’t speak for anyone in England), it is COLD. I know I’m being a wimpy Southerner when I say this, but I have never been so cold in the entirety of my life. I’ve had a great time falling over in front of people and damaging pieces of masonry as I try to catch myself. There are 3 inches of ice on pretty much all the pavements at the moment, it is incredibly dangerous – especially for me as I am possibly the clumsiest person to walk (or indeed, fall over) on this earth. No word of a lie.

This blog is entitled ‘full circle’ due to what I got up to last Wednesday. Allow me to elaborate. Those of you who know me will know that I am the most prudish, most British person ever when it comes to public modesty. I’m the kind of girl who will go into a shop changing room just to try on a new jacket. Indeed, this blog is probably the most I will reveal about me in any public space.

Well, until last Wednesday perhaps. Ladies and gentlemen, I went to a traditional Russian “banya” or bath house. I know. Those crazy places that we read about in England where we are led to believe that some crazy babushka forces vodka down you while chasing you out wearing nothing but your birthday suit into the snow, beating you with a birch twig, shouting “It’s for your health, you weak-willed devushka, it’s for your health!”

It wasn’t quite that crazy, I assure you. In fact, it was incredible. I spent the rest of the day in a relaxed haze, having spent 2 hours repeatedly heating myself to the point of melting and then immediately cooling myself to the point of freezing. I became Russian for a good 2 hours, forgetting my British prudishness. There was no snow involved, nor were there babushki or vodka – it was a clean, elegant spa. People go there to be social, to relax and to blow away the cobwebs.

I guess I should now describe it, as naturally I have no pictures – the steam would have broken my camera. (Yeah, that’s my excuse).

Step 1: Shower in open but divided cubicles. I’ll point out here that bani are gender segregated.
Step 2: Spend 10 minutes in Turkish bath and try not to explode.
Step 3: When heat of Turkish bath gets too much, plunge into ice cold pool and try not to squeal.
Repeat steps 2 and 3 until you notice the traditional Russian banya and realise you only have 30 minutes left.
Step 4: Shower again in tepid water.
Step 5: Enter banya, (it’s an entirely birch panelled room with a raised section on which there are wooden benches). They are very hot, but it’s a dry heat unlike in the Turkish bath. The smell of birch is so strong you can taste it when it gets too hot to so much as breathe through your mouth (Such frivolity!)
Step 6: Lay out towel and recruit slave/roommate to smack you repeatedly over the back with a birch twig (leaves and all).
Step 7: Douse self in freezing cold water.
Step 8: (optional) Shower with soap so that you smell of flowers instead of birch.
After my two hour session, I emerged looking like a tomato and almost passed out in the shower at the end – but it was one of the best experiences out here.

My banya experience answered a few of my questions about Russians and led me to question my own culture and I came to the conclusion that the English are a people of overthinkers. Russian people frankly don’t give a toss if other people can see their wobbly bits. I’ll point out, they have none – they look after their figures very well over here and I think we English could take a leaf out of their book on this one. English people remain tainted by the Victorian prudishness that was our national code 200 years ago. While the Russians were revolting against the tsar and wearing furs, we were revolting at the sight of other women’s ankles and learning how to spell the word ‘fur’.  And so it continues. We stare aghast at the old woman in the swimming pool changing rooms who stopped caring about how she looked at least 20 years ago, unable to conceive that she might so dare to expose even her knees in such a public space.

Can we possibly get over this as a culture, as Britons? I think it is desirable, but frankly impossible. English people are among the most prudish in the world, after those of Islamic faith and Americans – but even Americans on the whole are far more outspoken than English people. Some may go so far as to say obnoxious but I will reserve judgement on this one, this is not the time or the place.

I can safely say I have gone full circle and completely got over myself, quite frankly. I will no longer be the girl who tries on a coat in a changing room – I’m going to do it on the shop floor, like a sane person.  Come to think of it, I did precisely that yesterday and indulged in a brand new Russian fur coat. I am in love. I figured my English coat and hat just were not cutting it, as my legs froze to the point they were painful as I crossed the Anichkov bridge. It’s Christmas next week, right?!

You can call me ‘Snow Queen’.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012


Hello chaps,

Those of you with whom I keep in touch via facebook will probably already have seen my recent pictures. I've taken upwards of 200 this week! I'm posting this as a bit of a teaser before I share with you some of my highlights. I'm short on time today, but you can expect them on Thursday.

I've been all over the place, including to the Lomonosovskaya Imperial Pottery factory, which we arrived too late to see anything of, but the outside world looked like something from The Day After Tomorrow, so we cashed in.

10 Things I will miss about St Petersburg

Hello chaps,
Apologies for the brief technicheskiy pererive, I’ve had nothing to report of late. My life has consisted of visiting the culinary landmarks of St Petersburg and spending quality time with my friends. I have a made a point however of visiting a new place every time though, so my stomach has certainly had the time of its life in recent weeks. I’ve walked places and I’ve read things. I feel like I’m on holiday, but it’s so much better than that. The only downside I’ve found to my various recent cultural excursions (Peter Paul Fortress and Alexander Nevsky Monastery) is that the current time is out of tourist season, so *everything* is under refurbishment. Nevertheless, I’m living the highlife.
I also experimented with a period of vegetarianism which lasted for 3 weeks – until my turning point this week when I started fantasising about fried chicken and resolving to devour my first ever Karls Junior burger. I swear to god, the UK is missing a trick by not having Karls Junior. I think I’m going to have to go back just so I can take a photo and share with you the deliciousness of their Chilli burger and fries. Absolument incroyable. My vegetarian phase came as the result of having many friends who are vegetarian out here and frankly, being bored of eating meat every day. Russian cuisine is very meat based. I decided to challenge myself – but I knew it was never going to be a permanent lifestyle choice. This is not the time or place to discuss the pros and cons of it, but boy, did I enjoy my chilli burger.
It hit me though that I will have to leave this place in four weeks, which got me thinking. I love Peter dearly, despite our relationship actually being more of a love/hate kind of thing. I love its canals, its bridges and its gardens. It has so many statues and places to visit, I barely feel as though I have scratched the surface of this place. My mother has always told me off for listing things in conversation as it is immensely boring, so just to spite her, I am going to do just that.
Ten Things I will miss about St Petersburg – in no particular order
1)      Lavash (flatbread), shashlik, potato and mushroom fry, mors, hachapuri and Georgian cuisine. Oh my goodness, the food. I’ve eaten like a king for the last few months for not very much money. I will replicate this all at home and when I am in France. I don’t care what you say about French food – save it. You will not come between me and my hachapuri.

2)      Russian Kitsch. They can really do it well over here. Deliberately mismatched crockery in cafes, armchairs, cosy interiors and natty little table decorations in cafes. I’m sorry London, but your attempts are hopelessly feeble. C –

3)      Architecture. Oh Peter, your twisting, gleaming spires and crumbling fasciae just make my heart weep! I could never get tired of the sight of this place. Whenever the terrible weather has started to erode my sanity a little too much, I just have to look up. I’m not talking about religion; I’m talking about the roofs, the windows and the doors. I should write poetry.

4)      Russian language. I will miss speaking Russian on a daily basis. To people who understand anyway. I will continue to speak it. To myself. In public. I will do it to the extent that people look over their shoulders at me and cross the street ‘to avoid that mad woman who is talking to herself even though there is no one else there’. That will be me.

5)      The music shops in Sennaya Ploshad that play their music into the square and fill the whole place with just an amazing ambience.

6)      Nevsky Prospekt. The place is a beehive of activity and you can feel the history beneath your very feet. Newton’s lesser known 23rd Law of motion says that ‘it is impossible to hate St Petersburg when you are stood on Nevsky Prospekt’. Just sayin’.

7)      Anichkov most. My favourite bridge in the whole of the city. I stand there sometimes and consider my life with a Dostoyevskian grin on my face, a Gogolian absurdity in my head and a Tolstoian feeling of pure humanity in my heart. It is seeing the cast iron horses being reined in by men struggling to contain their strength, suspended in time above the Fontanka River that you realise that you are but a tiny part of a much larger machine and actually, the world will not end if you do not get that internship. A bridge of hope and optimism? I think so.

8)     The Neva. The carotid artery of the entire city. I love to walk along the embankment and freeze my face off. No really, I do.

    The people. Oh my goodness, the people. It is in this city that you will make friends with Irina the Cleaner, who has a soulful, philosophical voice and who, on hearing that your name means ‘happiness’, will say “Then you must always bring happiness – to yourself and to others”. It is in this city that you will talk to a shop assistant in the honey shop and explain that you haven’t the foggiest about what you are looking for and they will go out of their way to help you and will wish “good health and much happiness to your family in England”.

1   The arts and culture scene. The Hermitage and the Russian Museum are so much better than any of their English counterparts. I can see the British Museum hiding behind its hands with shame. I spent a lot of time there this summer, but now I wonder if I can go back.

Reverse Culture Shock

Hello chaps,
As some of you will know, I recently returned to England for a short stint in order to blow away a few cobwebs. I’m not sure exactly how to word this one, so forgive my muddled syntax for a moment – it’s like that most of the time anyway, let’s face it! This is going to turn out to be another cultural observation, but I hope that both groups of readers (Russian and English) enjoy learning about the other.

I must say, I had a hearty dose of what is termed “reverse culture shock”, which was a huge surprise. On arriving at the airport in St Petersburg, there were stacks of Brits returning to England, who clearly hadn’t spent as much time as I had in Russia. I do not mean this as an affectation; they were probably just on business for a week or a short holiday – rather than living out here for 3 months. Why do I know this? They smiled at me. Readers, despite being English, I have forgotten how to smile as falsely as a British person! The realisation struck me square between the eyes when they looked all shocked and offended when I didn’t smile back. I’ve talked previously about the cultural differences between Russians and Brits when it comes to smiling, but I’ve definitely gone native on that one.

Frankly, I’ve become rather disillusioned about English people. We have a lot more fakery than the Russians in terms of sentiments. The English smile when meeting someone new for the first time is more often than not completely stage-managed and fake – yet as a culture we come to expect it, so it will hang around for a long time yet. I feel a little saddened by this, but I must accept that English people will not develop the stony expressions of Russians – we’re too British for that. I know also how much it takes for a Russian to adopt the fake smiles of the West, as I discussed with the Russian aunt of my half-Russian flatmate a few months ago.

It also occurs to me that English people are much more easily offended than Russians. I think that a lot of the time, we look for things to get offended about. This is especially the case about things that don’t affect us directly. Furthermore, we have a national fear of offending people, based on this outlook. For example, on the flight returning to St Petersburg, a lady had placed her cabin bag about six inches away from her in the aisle. A fellow Russian woman stepped between the lady and her bag – and neither of them blinked an eyelid, and each carried on with their own business. English people would have found this incredibly rude. Let’s now replay that scenario - but with English people. Had they been English, the lady would still have placed her bag there – but the other woman would not have stepped in the tiny 6 inch gap. The British woman would instead have stood there, passive-aggressively huffing and puffing, attempting to send telepathic messages to the owner of the bag and eyeballing her to ask her (without actually asking her) to move it out of the way. Let us also consider the fact that this would probably have worked – we are very attuned as a culture to other people’s passive-aggressive hints, given that we do them so much ourselves. This can also be interpreted as the fact that Russian people cannot take a passive-aggressive hint – it is just not something they do as a culture.

English people hate making requests or being assertive, as English people see this as very rude and most un-British. A second example: At the baggage carousel at St Petersburg airport. I have already identified my suitcase coming down the carousel, but a man gets there first and tries to get hold of it, thinking it’s his. I pipe up: “Izvinitye, pazhalusta, eta moy chimadan!” (Sorry, please, that is my suitcase). He replies: “Oy – pahozhye” (oh, mine’s the same). If that was England, it would have played out differently. The man grabs the wrong suitcase, the woman sees and either a) eyeballs him and says nothing, hoping he’ll feel her hate vibes and return the suitcase to the carousel, or b) pipes up with “Excuse me sir, I think that’s MY suitcase” and everyone else thinks “What a rude woman, making a fuss like that, I’d better steer clear”. There is the third alternative of course, of no one thinking anything, but is decidedly more awkward, as it will be said with an undeniable element of embarrassment. We must also acknowledge the internal soul-searching of the British woman when deciding whether or not to say anything. She will have considered all of these factors and weighed them all up. It takes a lot for (the majority) of British people to make a fuss about anything. We just don’t do it.

I would like to reiterate my previous point about that fact that Russian women know how to get things done. I present you the example of the woman who was adamant she was going to buy duty free whiskey, whether the plane was coming into land at that very second or not. We were starting the descent, the captain had switched on the seatbelt signs – yet the woman asked the cabin crew staff no fewer than five times to make her transaction – which they only consented to on the fifth occasion, presumably just so she’d stop nagging.
To sum up - you never really appreciate nipping down to Tesco’s until you haven’t been able to for 3 months.