Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Episode 3 (part 1): Rob gets an AIDS test (for his VISA...)

So I was sat in the heat of my local NHS GUM clinic next to two crying girls and opposite a row of judgemental pensioners when the staff finally called me into the treatment room. Sitting down with the cheery, duty nurse I explained that I was directed to the GUM clinic for a blood-test, by online advice, as I need to provide an HIV certificate for my Russian VISA application. At first she looked at me blankly. Then, having taken in the somewhat unusual request she did what all staff do in such a situation and deflected me as fast as possible to the nearest superior...

“You’ll have to go and see the health advisor” she said.

“And they’d be able to help me?” I asked.

“Well, you see, we provide a confidential service here. We can’t get you the certification you need. By all means you can have the test, and it is free, but it’s an anonymous service - you get the result by text.”

(“There go my hopes of getting this done for free” I thought)

“Just so you haven’t come fully in vain...” she said, handing me a big, purple bag of condoms.
Clutching my consolation prize we marched back into the sticky waiting room.  The little, duty nurse bobbed along in front of me pointing me in the direction of a second waiting area in a shadier corner of the clinic.

“Wait here and the health advisor will see you shortly, sorry we couldn’t help at first!” she politely said.

HIV is a significant problem in modern Russia and students may need to provide a second test on arrival
So there I waited for another 20 minutes in the company of a man whose hands fiddled nervously with a leaflet on alcoholism. His thumbs constantly folded and refolded the corners of the paper sending me into a kind of optic trance. Eventually the health advisor appeared from her office.

“Robert” she said and five men in the waiting room stood up.

Having sorted out that it was me she was after. I found myself once again explaining the situation.
“I’m applying for a student VISA for Russia and I need to provide an HIV certificate that is valid for 3 months from the point of my application.”
Like the duty nurse before her, she explained accurately and helpfully how fruitless my trip to the GUM clinic was and that I’d need to organise the test, in order to get the required certificate through my GP.

“There will be a charge of course” she said, putting the cherry on the cake.
“Oh really, even for students?”
“I think so, it would be the same if you went private. Sorry to have wasted your time!” she said.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said “I’ve got a big, purple bag of condoms...”

Rob’s adventure to get an AIDS test (for his VISA) continues next week!

Monday, 18 July 2011

Episode 2: Rob gets a haircut

For the last four years, as anyone who has ever met me will tell you, I have proudly worn my hair long. I've sat it out through gender misconceptions in rural China, confused waiters in British restaurants and the nightmare of split ends and tangled knots. Yet the straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak, is my year abroad.

Exhibit A - long haired lout
I feel that a more practical haircut is in order! At least while i'll be in Petrozavodsk for the first half of my year abroad (i'm doing a course at the state university) it will be nice to not worry so much about how long my mop takes to dry, whether it looks greasy or the sort of impression it makes in a Russian cultural zone. These are the kind of considerations that are not normally addressed when planning a year abroad, but to an extent are as important as getting formal documents in order for a VISA. Practical concerns like these are certainly an issue when picking a country with a more extreme climate than the UK and also when you're going anywhere away from a big city. The next big challenge, in a similar vein, will be getting my wardrobe sorted, but that's for another episode.

Exhibit B - short-haired and Russia-ready?
Anyway, over last weekend I bravely ventured to the local salon (Kaboodles in Torquay if you really want to know) and the results are here for your perusal! As always comments welcome, and, as always, be nice!!

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Episode 1: Rob gets nostalgic

The planning of a year in a foreign country is a pretty big task and naturally it spurned a reappraisal of my reasons for getting here in the first place...

I remember falling asleep in the back of a car in a Moscow traffic jam, knocked-out by the muggy contrast of icy February cold and blazing Mercedes heating systems. I remember staring open-eyed in terror at a Kalashnikov-armed guard in St Basil’s cathedral when I got too close to one of the display cabinets. I remember sledging down snow-banks without brakes (they’d frozen overnight). I remember the smell of old churches in Suzdal mingling, really weirdly, with my first taste of smoked salmon…
(1) AK 47 - (sadly) a 20th century Russian icon

I was about 6 or 7 years old when Russia began its first invasion of my life. I went with my family to visit my cousins who were living in Moscow for my Uncle’s work at, I think, a large cigarette company. Despite my age I remember many episodes from the trip in vivid detail, things that would inform the choices i'd make in later life.

At secondary school back home in Devon I had to pick my language options for first and second year. Without the slightest hesitation I picked Russian over French - those "onion domes" and snowdrifts constantly reappearing in the back of my mind. I took it through to GCSE and again ended up in Russia for the Year 10 trip with the history department. This time my imagination was captured by the European-styled imperialism of St Petersburg. I stood outside in the cold reliving the chaotic and beautiful film scenes of Eisenstein pictures, imagining those rehearsed hordes clambering on the gates of the Winter Palace...

(2) The Winter Palace
With an interest in the country stretching beyond its language, it was an obvious candidate for A-level. The chance to study it in parallel with English literature (my other academic passion) at university was the final step to where I am now. Again constantly playing in my mind, and to the annoyance of a few university friends, I seem to name-drop Russia in almost every conversation. (“six degrees of Russian separation” they call it) Well now’s my chance to meet the country once again.

While obviously heading abroad to pursue a study of the country, literature and language for my degree, this trip is, in a way, a personal journey for me. A journey back to some of my earliest memories and some of the foundations of my personality and world-view. It’s time to see whether Russia feels the same to me as it did in 1997 and it’s time to see how she reacts to an older version of me. How will she keep me? What will she teach me? And most exciting of all where will she take me?


PHOTO CREDITS: (1) "AK 47" taken from (2) "Winter Palace" taken from

First Post and Introduction


I'm Rob, I'm a third-year English and Modern Languages student at Oxford and i'm about to embark on one of the biggest changes of scenery in my life! Second year has ended and the uni is sending me off to Russia for a year in the hope that i'll come back ready to pass my finals!

This blog is as much for me as it is for you, being a record of every stage of my trip, starting with the planning through to the write-up in a year's time. Expect news updates, photos, perhaps the odd video, anecdotes and general musings on one of the world's most interesting and important countries as it inflicts itself on me and I inflict myself on it.

Thanks for reading this far though I warn you now, it's only going to get stranger...