Thursday, 29 September 2011

Episode 11: Birthdays, bands and beer bottles...

I recently read that a computer program designed to solve the Shakespeare-Monkeys-Typewriters conundrum (link: has just proved it to be possible. Well I could do with a team of type-writer monkeys about now as things are happening quicker than a boy can keep a blog!

Did I just say boy? Oh gosh! Should I be saying man now? What is a man? An ape? God's image? A sentient fleshpod on a spinning ball of elements suspended in an endless sea of meaninglessness? A 21 year-old English boy in Northern Russia? No idea! But philosophy aside: I TURNED 21 OVER THE WEEKEND!! And I did it in style too! By this I mean in a Russian nightclub, eating pizza* with the Finnish 'Guns n Roses'. Let me set the scene a little...

*nightclubs often serve food here though the service is slooooooooooooowwwwww

This weekend was the Carelian Faces international music festival! This yearly event is a ray of political sunshine in Nothern Russia promoting peace and international friendship through the combination of cheap beer and folk rock. Highlights included self-styled Rasta Man 'Papa Zai' and his reggae politics. He regularly stopped his "Selecta" to announce things like:  "Crowd-a people...all we need is to burn tha' germs in society and get ridda corruption" - always to raptuous applause. There was a brilliant female-fronted Russian punk/rock group who sang in an obscure Finnish dialect, as well as 'Caroline' (the aforementioned Finnish Guns n Roses) who broke hearts and guitars on the main stage in their tight leather, bandanas, guyliner and heels.

After we had all fallen in love with their inimitable swagger we followed their camp-as-you-like tour van to the afterparty at a Russian nightclub on the otherside of town. It was quite a trek and as we wondered the city streets we discussed Gogol (as is the custom) and picked up a trail of other drunken festival goers who had stopped at wayside kiosks to get refreshments. This is an interesting and excellent Russian pecularity as at any time of day, seemingly seven days a week, you can find these kiosks open. Each one has its own pecularity. Most are diddy off-liscences others are fruit and veg shops, so whether you have a mad craving for another brew or are going cold turkey from an abscence of cashew nuts all you have to do is leave your flat and head towards the glowing neon of the nearest 'Zodiac' kiosk - absolutely ace! It does feel a little odd speaking into the little window to the cashier though...As if the poor person inside is doomed to a life of being perpetually awoken by drunken foreigners tapping the glass window and demanding liquid gratification in dreadful Russian. Passing money through a little window and receiving chocolate and beer in return though is a wonderful experience but I still miss Oxford kebab-van banter quite badly...

Eventually we found ourselves in a club underneath what looked like a swanky office building. The entrance hall was bizarre and massive. According to the custom in most Russian, buildings bars and clubs, we had to first locate the cloakroom and trade-in our jackets for a piece of plastic with a number on it. Failure to comply usually results in looks of disgust and your being dragged away by bouncers. It'll be the same situation with boots when the snow comes...

Valya - the first girl to ever buy me flowers...
The next morning, being my birthday-proper, I awoke to my first present: not having a hangover. I stared at my fresh-faced reflection in the mirror with genuine surprise. My experiences of Russian beer so far have been akin to batheing in salt and I've often woken up after just one or two drinks to a swimming headache and chapped, dried-out skin. I assume it is the cheapness of the beer, the addition of many chemicals and the fact you never know how strong draught is.

Anyway haha! Not today fools! I was plucky and bounded into the kitchen, narrowly missing Luis the cat's tail, only to be greeted by Valya, my landlady, who gave me an extra friendly "Dobroye OOtroH!" before wishing me a happy birthday with a multi-layered gateaux, flowers, a mug of Karelia and a bottle of political "stop-using-my-shampoo" shampoo.

My birthday cake :)
I happily ate my porridge as quick as possible and taking a mug of tea and some cake back to my room began to open cards from home and display them all over my room. Then I got hurridly showered and dressed and bounded into town for my combined birthday meal with Ben and the rest of our group of English students. We'd picked the local Karelian-themed restaurant which proved to be an incredible experience in itself. After pulling open the heavy, wooden doors we stepped into the main body of the restaurant. It was laid out like the inside of a traditional Karelian home, wood-pannelled, very warm and full of cultural bits and bobs. Fake windows were a novel way of framing pictures of the countryside and kept up the illusion of being in a Karelian village decades ago.

The food was somehow even better. We tried everything from yak pie to home-grown, vegetable platters and sampled some genuine Russian Kvass - a kind of summer beer, very bready and fresh. If you're ever in Petrozavodsk, and have quite a bit of money on you, then seriosuly consider finding this place it's called: Kareliskaya Gornitsa and is opposite the Hotel Severnaya.

We rounded off the birthdays with cheesecake and milkshakes ala clockwork orange in Begemot which I needn't praise anymore for fear of becoming an online advertising agent.

So now that i'm able to drink in the USA and, according to one of our teachers "marry without my parents consent", I feel its time to get back into routine and head off for another week of Russian uni, folk dancing and trying to run a semi-indulgent travel blog (with hopeless spelling mistakes)...cheers for reading!

Monday, 26 September 2011

Follow my adventures on twitter! (and a few thanks)

Long-term or one-time readers alike might like to follow me on twitter!/frmrssiawithrob

I pledge:
- more musings on this wonderful country
- extra anecdotes that don't make the episodes
- reposts of cool stuff I find
- the chance to ask me questions

thanks for your support so far! I'm so happy with the comments and the viewing stats! Never thought anyone could be this interested - makes me so happy and makes me keep writing. Once again spasiba!

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Episode 10: Rob does Russian things (with mixed results)

I'm under swift instructions to "sort out my apostrophes" so if you spot one misplaced or missed out then would you be a dear and put it in the comment section, ta. 

So now that I have somewhat settled into life in this little town i've built up sufficient swagger and bravado to leave my room and take on some extra-curricular Russian activities (not just drinking).
Where I live! In the sunshine!

Ok so drinking! In the last episode I praised Petrozavodsk's bar culture and here I praise it again. Good places to get a drink here include the "PTZ Pivnoi Klub" (impossible name nice bar), "Neu Brandenberg" (the German-themed place: great staff, so so cheap and a really nice vibe in the daytime) and obviously "Kafe Begemot". What I have yet to incorporate into my post-university attempts to meet and speak to Russians is clubbing and tbh I don't think it'll be very good... I mean Oxford isn't exactly club Mecca but something tells me this place isn't either. On the other hand it's my birthday soon so maybe we'll find out, eh? Anyway through drinking we have made some good (I think they're good) friends. There is Evgenii the bodyguard, Juri who likes punk rock and several other people who are just as lovely and animated. It's amazing how the odd drink improves one's ability and confidence to speak! Just not sure if several drinks starts to ruin it all again...

Next we have the couchsurfing meeting! Ha ha! Excellent! I first heard of couchsurfing in first year through a good friend from Canada (by way of Hong Kong and New York obvs) and so I decided to pop along with some classmates to the meetup of the Petrozavodsk contingent. We thought that it was supposed to be at "Bar Corsica" but outside in the cold we were met by Roman (a friendly coachsurfer) who told us it was in his flat in a neighbouring building. A stray dog audibly growled as we crossed the street and headed into the communal yard. Roman tapped in his security code and opened the heavy doors to usher us up the thin staircase past countless closed doors into his warm and cosy apartment.

After tripping over the shoes of the other assembled coachsurfers we were greeted by a huge table of refreshments in his siting room. As we nervously shuffled in, the room of Russians ominously bore down on the Englishmen in the corner. The mood was far from icy but something definitely needed to happen. Thank god for Sheffield Tom turning up with a bag of beer to prompt a swift loosening up! We did our best to endear ourselves in stuttery Russian to the couchsurfers who did their best to laugh at our attempts at humour as we explained our couchsurfing understandings and gave a few anecdotes of our experiences. Later, after a prolonged and chilly walk around the town, we ended up in another flat (we were kicked out of the first one for being too merry post-meeting) and I made a ton of good friends in the early hours, debating British accents, nice socks and how amazing this Soviet style apartment was. At this party we were invited too...

...Karelian folk dancing! Now i'm getting truly Russified! We turned up to the ministry of culture in Lenin Square on Monday not knowing what to expect. Immediately we were lead into a polka. The angry girl partnered with me, frustratedly shouted "Stoi!!" ("stop!") every five seconds because I couldn't get the ryhthym down for the galloping. Round and round we polka'd as the demon accordion player garbled on and on. Soon we began to get the hang of it and collapsed for a tea break. Next we danced something that seemed faux Irish which we managed quite well, but then came THE CIRCLE OF DOOM...

Demon accordion player - get your polka on!
We entered into a kind of rituatlistic part of the routine (bear in mind this is written by an Englishman with no concept of folk dancing or its vocabulary) where we first had to bow to a girl, then fake a chase after her (all lecherously) then do some kind of improv dance routine for her while she clapped and stamped. Oh dear. The Russians ahead of us in the circle successfully cossack danced their way through the routine and I'd like to say we valliantly tried, but I fell flat on my arse...

h the emabarrassment! But nevermind dear reader! - I got an applause anyway and I have just enough pride in my still to go again this Thursday! What a weird hobby i've started!

Anyway this was a nice distraction, now back to Russian Jeremy Kyle... thanks again for keeping up x

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Episode 9 (part two): This isn't Paris, this isn't London, it's not Berlin, it's not Hong Kong...

continued impressions of life in a small(ish), Russian town...

The giant orange paw prints painted on the pavement led the way to Cafe Begemot. A cafe named after a giant, ficticious, black cat with a Browning automatic? I'm there!
We edged slowly down the narrow granite and marble staircase towards to front door.

Begemot spots me from a roof...
"Is it open? It doens't look open..."
A man pushed the door open at us giving us a start.
"Yup it's open"
We went in tentatively. Oh wow.

Red velvet curtains led the way through the first room. Bookcases lined the walls, and expensive, black-leather sofas framed polished-wood coffee tables. More curtains tastefully tied back with gold cords, led into the second room - a giant basement, red bricked like the Kremlin with musical instruments in chipped, bronze frames in the walls. A jazz band played cooly on a stage. They wore sunglasses.

If there is one thing Petrozavodsk does well, it's bars. Tasteful interior design, attentive staff and high-class atmospheres somehow come paired with unbelievably cheap pints (over £1.50 you're paying too much). This is still taking some getting used to!

If there's one thing Petrozavodsk doesn't do well its pavements. Giant potholes line the roads and side walks. They fill up with water during the many many downpours and cars regularly kick up this muddy slush, showering pedestrians waiting at the city's very few road crossing. This is hardly the fault of the town and I imgagine it has something to do with the extremities of climate: water getting into cracks, freezing and expanding.

Public transport is great, but it is also a kind of experience in it's own right. At rush hour trolleybuses fill up and steam up. Yes there is always the smelly guy in the corner of the bus in the UK, but could someone please open a window? Ok it's not that bad. The price of public transport and the frequency of services is absoultely amazing and it's hardly a country's fault for it's citizens' ignorance of deodrant. The "one price any distance" system is a blessing for students providing you don't try and pay with a big note and if you can put up with the bumpy ride, the lead feet of just about every driver gets you to where you want to go in no time.

All the cool kids just say " I took the trolley yesterday"

I don't like to complain much - after all I chose to study here and love it but if there is one more thing that stands out as a slight annoyance about life here then it is the degree of scorn that accompanys most monetary transactions. Russians seemingly hate giving change, and even big supermarket cashiers are prepared to start a duel over the slightest overpayment. It must be a weakness of the currency system, but when bankomats (cash machines) only give out 500 and 1000 notes I have no idea how the locals get by...

People here are mostly very friendly. Foreigners are greeted with more warmth than suspicion. I suppose curiosity translates awkwardly a lot of the time and we feel stared at simply for being here. After dark things are a little edgy. Drinking in the street is common place here and big groups of Russian men cluster under lamps on street corners, half empty litre bottles of beer swinging menacingly in their hands. Stick in a group guys.

and now for something completely different...cheers for reading.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Episode 9 (part one): This isn't Paris, this isn't London, it's not Berlin, it's not Hong Kong...

Yes Andrei, Russia is a big country. We know.

The obligatory giant Lenin monument
So, we'd just finished our last "Stranovedeniyeh" (Country studies?) lesson of the week and our teacher Andrei had spent the last hour explaining to us several times that Russia was gigantic. He brought a slide show with a map on it and everything. Cheers Andrei, you're a pal. Sarky attitude aside, he is truly a mine of wonderful facts about Russia and so with Captain Obvious catered for, he announced his plan to take us, weather permitting, on a morning tour of Petrozavodsk - the city that I am studying in until December. So I'll take this opportunity, after having assembled some photographs and impressions from our ramble, to elaborate on where I am and give my impressions ( in two parts) of this gem of Northern Russia.

Derzhavin - poet, governor, obsession
What can I say? Petrozavodsk is the capital of many things (mostly pot holes and modified LADAs). First and foremost it is the capital of the Republic of Karelia, one of the many constitutent Okrugs and Oblasts of the Russian Federation. This part of Northern Russia has its modern origins in the expansions of Peter the Great and, like it's bigger sister St Petersburg, Petrozavodsk was built and named after the progressive Tsar. Literally meaning "Peter's Factory", the town industry produced munitions for Peter's growning navy and the settlement was founded in 1703, with famous poet Gavrila Derzhavin presiding as first governor.

Today it is regarded as a calm and small town. Dreadful 60's towerblocks paint a gloomy skyline, but their oppression is counterbalanced by the pomp of 18th century architecture which lines the many sprawling squares of the compact town centre. The town is littered with monuments (a particular fascination of the Russian social character). They come in all shapes and sizes, here and are usually chiselled out of Karelian granite. Statues of engineers, warriors, Bolsheviks and poets can be found, literally round every corner boosting chances for cheeky photos. Fans of Jude Law flick "Enemy at the Gates" can pine over the several plaques dedicated to Stalingrad sharpshooter Vasiliy Zaitsev. Chunks of expensive rock aside, there are many green spaces and trees line the wide streets giving the town a breezy feeling and a reputation for being calm (even though the speed of traffic and uncomfortable road crossings suggest otherwise).  The town is served by an easy-to-understand transport system that requires nothing but initial bravery to use. In fact I cared so much I wrote about it here:
Lakeside Embankment in the sun

The lakeside embankment is by far the most beautiful part of the town. The gorgeous Lake Onega -easily the size of an English county- is quite simply epic. It's temperament changes daily, and mists from the far side often rise and drift over the water. Comparisons to lakes from pokemon were, naturally, swiftly drawn...

Further round the banks of Onega are small patches of pebble and shingle beach. Here any noise from the town mysteriously vanishes and in rare moments of sunshine these places are incredibly pleasant.

This was really a superficial post in the sense that it was about what Petrozavodsk looks like and is considered to be like. Soon i'll write you something about what it feels like, which, in my opinion, is much much more interesting and really what my kind of travel writing is about, so...part two soon!

Park with industrial monuments and an unexploded bomb for WW2...

Kirov Square with one of the many theatres in the town

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Episode 8: The cat, the classroom and the caviar...

'Cos nothing says good morning like a spoonful of fish eggs! Or that's what I thought when I awoke last Sunday to a giant bowl of porridge and a jar of caviar. Certainly not going to go hungry in this country as they are overfeeding me like an ageing house-pet! No matter how carefully I word my responses to "But you have eaten nothing!" I always seem to be a subject of concern to my lovely hostess Valya.

One of our teachers at the uni described Russian attitudes to students as being a little backwards and I think I know what he means. I don't exactly feel patronised, but the level of care and grandmothering that people of my age face in Russia is something from a gone-by era in the UK. We're told to wrap up warm, to eat plenty of food and to look both ways when crossing the road. I know students are dopey but we're also fiercly, hormonally-proud creatures...

Anyway much to my joy, when my hostess returned from a late-summer trip to her dacha, she brought with her a cat!!! Anyone regularly reading fromrussiawithrob not only deserves to be bought a drink, but also will know that one of my main questions when heading to Rus would be whether Russians are the cat lovers I thought they were. Well I was right! And I now occupy a diddy flat with Valya, an old man who I barely understand and Lapsya/Lapsa I little-bitty-kitty, ginger in colour and Persian (I think). 

Alright, sillyness out of my system it's time to blog properly! I'm attending classes at Petrozavodsk State University and I have a few first impressions and comparisons with English univeristy to share. Firstly, boy does everyone look young! Before you say it, yes I don't exactly look my age all the time. In fact, if I shave, I have trouble buying Die Hard on DVD, but my point here is that Russian university resembles a large sixth form college. A bell rings inbetween lessons. Students are taught in classrooms. There is an assembly hall, one cafeteria and no discernable bar!! It's a little strange, but twice I've called it school entirely be accident. Many of the students start here at 17.

Instead of freshers' week there is an upcoming "Day of the First Years", which involves some kind of choral sing-along and festivities. Everything in comparison to our first-week-of-uni debauchery seems madly innocent here. I'm certainly not reevaluating my philiosophy, i'd still pick freshers flu, losing my voice and regretful kisses over feeling nannyed any day, but it begs the question as to which system produces the better young people? Do we grow up too fast in the UK? or does Russian university serisouly lack some rock n roll?

Thursday, 8 September 2011

REPOST: The Last Shadow Puppets - The Age of the Understatement

Candidate for best music video filmed in Russia?
The only music video filmed in Russia?

Well, its has ballerinas, tanks and 60's hairdos what more do you want?

PHOTO CREDIT: Taken under creative commons from traaf's photostream on flickr:

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

EPISODE 7: Rob arrives in Russia

Episode 7: Rob arrives in Russia...
( A long post this one - a lot has happened and I’ve been without internet)

Great-Dane’s cheekbones! I actually pulled it off! Arriving at Pulkovo airport to a warm and muggy St Petersburg, I shuffled nervously with the other RLUS (our course operator) students towards the minibus that would be taking us 7 hours north to Petrozavodsk. It was a battered white Mercedes that had seen better days but nontheless gave off an aura of reliability despite its shabby coating.
Lake Onega, Petrozavodsk
The driver, “Alexei” I think, had a crafty grin that somehow made him seem reliable – not sure what that says about Russia. We also met a chap who would be our guide, teacher and one of the few English speakers available to help us. He has the cool of the eternal student and, after extinguishing a cigarette, helped us heap our luggage onto the dusty bus seats.
Suddenly we were motorwaying out of Petersburg and trying to form new friendships with each other while attempting to withstand a dreadful bisecting by our overenthusiastic seatbelts. We bonded quickly by watching in amazement as our bus, the slowest thing on the road, was overtaken on the outside and inside by all manner of LADA, modified BMW and converted army truck. The Russian motorway was long and a little frightening, seeming vastly unregulated even so close to a major city.
 Having small-talked for an hour or so we all retreated to our ipod islands and even got a few hours sleep. The effects of our complimentary BA full-English breakfast had worn off by about 2-and-a-half-hours into the journey and Sasha negotiated a stop at a Russian service station in a small town.  Here we bought crisps (“Chipsy” in Russian) and water and huddled outside the small shop while our driver vanished into the “Cafe”, it looked more like a strip club, for twenty minutes or so.
A man, drunken in gait, with an unleashed, black dog approached us from behind. I heard him mutter the words “ Eh, lads..?” among a string of other unknowable, Slavonic syllables, and I gaped at him not knowing how to answer. It turned out he was asking for a cigarette and having said a nervous “Nyet” in reply, I watched him nod and walk past. He apologised profusely for having caused us any kind of disturbance, which I found very sweet, and he disappeared behind the petrol pumps

The next few hours of journey I barely remember. The afternoon was slowly dying and my eyelids became heavy with lack of sleep. We seemed to be entering a large forest and the motorway was stretching on for miles. I drifted off counting the headlights approaching us down the vast, straight Russian roads. They bobbed and dipped hypnotically like lighted boats on a choppy river.

I was woken up by the slowing down of the bus at a second service station this time resembling a bombed tractor factory. It was nearly, fully dark by this point and road signs indicated that the road ahead was going to get even worse:  so far it had been bumpy at best. Having stretched my legs, I felt refreshed enough to stay awake for a while. We still had about 2 hours to drive by this point and as we left the station I marvelled at the denseness of the forests that cover this part of North-European Russia.

The roads here are lined with innumerable birch (the national tree) and they flicker past your eyes like old black and white picture frames if you press your face up to the glass. The forest is ghostly and cold. It seeps in through the windows. Before long I had covered myself with my coat and was pushing myself for more sleep just to help the tens of kilometres go by faster.

I was awoken with a start by the bus slowing down. We were about an hour from Petrozavodsk and one of our party desperately needed to urinate. The driver reluctantly pulled over at the side of the road and the desperate traveller, thanking him, leapt into the night drizzle to dash for the bushes.
Suddenly he came back.

“Er, there’s a guy out here..."

Sure enough, a man in full camo-gear, carrying a stinking white bucket of mushrooms boarded the bus behind him and waddled over to speak to our driver. We suddenly all looked very serious. The look on the face of our guide was at first one of slight panic, but between him and the driver, the three men negotiated a kind of deal. The stranger was simply hitchhiking his way back to town after a weekend’s forest scrounging, and our guide regained his natural cool which relieved us all.

At first no-one could sleep, the mushroom hunter proved highly talkative and stood ominously at the back of the bus trying to start a conversation about football. If it wasn’t for the lurid smell of the mushrooms and the fact the man may have been armed, it would have been completely unproblematic, but coming from a country where all forms of hitchhiking are treated with suspicion this was, at the time, a pretty frightening experience.

We arrived very late in the town, but our host families were ready to greet us. I arrived at the apartment of my hostess, to a table full of Russian cold meats and cheese and was even more relieved to be poured a mug of fantastic Russian tea...

more soon!

Friday, 2 September 2011

Episode 6: Rob actually goes to Russia...

Oh wow.

This boy's been banging on about this for long enough and it's time he put his roubles where his mouth is...

Just cancelled my Orange pay monthly plan, so have potentially lost the best phone number I ever had.
Just finished picking clothes and packing them into my case, so I have back ache.
Just loaded my birthday Kindle with books, so i'll be able to chip away fruitlessly at my epic reading list.

Just realised I'm actually going to Russia tomorrow...

oh boy.

A couple of sad goodbyes are all that stands between me and a country that I don't stop talking about. So it's goodbye Fender American Special Telecaster, goodbye friends hither and thither, goodbye family and 'do svidaniya doctor jones!' - next time you'll hear from me I'll be in Rus!