Saturday, 29 October 2011

Episode 16 and a half : "Мир тесен" ("it's a small world") - or Rob drunk calls a British journalist in Moscow

"So what is it that you wanted from me?" he asked earnestly after my inane and slurry introduction.
"Oh nothing really," I replied "we've just had a few beers..."

I did not intend to write anything until I was within the walls of the Kremlin, but tonight, dear reader, I am compelled to share. On a celebratory binge with some good friends in "Kafe Kirvach", the conversation moved to the notion that the world is often far smaller than it seems. Little did we know how truly and completely we were going to illustrate this idiom.

Sasha began telling an anecdote about how, even in a city the size of Moscow two people can end up living in the buildings next to each other, as was the case for one of his friends, a British journalist. I took another sip of beer and then added my own story to the mix. I spoke of how the best friend of my dentist in sleepy little Devon presented a documentary about Karelia that I watched to prepare for my year abroad. I mentioned also that he was British journalist living in Moscow and that I had gotten to know him through e-mail while looking for an apartment in Moscow. Sasha's eyes lit up as the crushing irony hit. These people were somehow one and the same.

With this stunning and almost uncanny revelation the entire table burst out laughing to the point of tears and we were nigh unapproachable for over ten minutes. The staff looked askew at us, wondering how so many people could act so tipsy after so few beers. Never in my life has something so bizarrely coincidental occurred. It was, for those long minutes, as if all the stars were in alignment. As if god had suddenly found a sense of humour.

Naturally we did the sensible thing and drunk called said journalist in Moscow to tell him what had happened, blatantly interrupting whatever he was up to at the time. Suddenly the phone was thrust at me and in my own special awkward way, I spoke to "Mr Brown"( who found my politeness hilarious in hindsight) and tried not to let the beer get to me...somewhat unsuccessfully as the opening quotation will have you realise.

Anyway, tomorrow Moscow, tonight goodnight!

Friday, 28 October 2011

Episode 16: Kanikuli!!

What have I gotten myself into this time?? The red city is calling me. The night train wheezes at the station. Silence descends over Petrozavodsk.

It's the uni holidays! Like having half-term all over again! Oxford doesn't allow the luxury of the reading week so I have decided to go all out and hit up a couple of Russian towns in an action-packed week of suspense and drama! Leaving this Sunday from the station, my friends and I will be plunging southwards from the northern darkness on a train bound for Moscow where we intend to be proper, noisy tourists. Our list of things to try and accomplish includes having tea with a Lenin impersonator and seeing the man himself, not being able to afford anything in GUM, trying to find a curry (so desperate to eat curry!!) and potentially seeing what all the master-and-margarita fuss is about with these "Patriarch's Ponds..."

Coming to a Russian town near YOU (maybe not)
After spending a few days in the capital we will once again overnight-train-it to Veliki Novgorod. Although near unheard of in the West, this is apparently a gem of ancient Russia and famous for some lovely, old architecture and monuments. All we hope to find is respite from the supposedly manic pace of life that will be Moscow. Somewhere where we can chill out, have some kvass and regain some energy before returning to the 'Gosuniversitet' for our last weeks of study.

So it's certainly not goodbye from "fromrussiawithrob" but i'll be relying on internet cafes and hostels for updates from now. Maybe it'll mean more tweets and photos and less text but hey, expect a proper write-up when I get back! Poka!

thanks for following and do keep doing so! x

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Episode 15: Rob gets patted down by a burly, Russian security guard (twice)

said the security guard, reaching into my satchel and grasping my asthma inhaler. The smile of satisfaction at actually having done something soon left his face when I explained it was for my mild lung condition and not some fancy, foreign drug-taking paraphernalia or home-made, tear-gas canister. He then asked me to stand like a scarecrow and thoroughly patted me down for "sharp objects" that I might have been carrying. In all honesty I was a little bit miffed. Especially considering we were going to a low division football match between two relatively unknown teams. Especially considering it was bloody freezing, and especially considering how madly intimidating the huge police presence was.

Hopefully the only time I'll be behind bars in Russia
I don't know how much of a problem football hooliganism is in Russia. I can only assume it is considerable. I do know that, in this instance, there were more police than players on the pitch. They looked dead bored. They walked up and down kicking their heels, hands touching their batons in agitation. I wasn't sure if they were hoping something would kick-off (excuse the pun) or whether they just wanted to get off duty as fast as possible and into the bar. Needless to say this was a lot different from seeing Torquay United play at Plainmoor, which can be intimidating for a lot of other reasons.

The game itself was quite enjoyable. Smolensk dominated the first half and scored the only goal of the match. FC Karelia, despite losing half of their home audience at half-time, played a much stronger second half. More football-minded friends informed me that the level of football was nowhere near the level of the equivilent English league. "Fair play" I shivered, content simply with the novelty of watching a match in Northern Russia.

The game was free although I did treat myself to an FC Karelia football scarf for 250 roubles which makes a nice souvenir. They were being sold by a freezing cold, but very cheerful girl in a kind of tent outside the stadium. Why she couldn't have been inside one of the stadiums buildings I have no idea. The walk to this merch stand wasn't far but obviously meant another pat down session with Russian security. This time, my guard of choice took a particular disliking to my selection of pens and fumbled each one before deciding they weren't a threatening weapon and chose to pat me down again looking for "sharp things". I sighed and succumbed to the search, trying to make myself feel like a suave secret agent instead of an uncomfortable, twice-molested foreigner...

more asap!

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Episode 14: Early mornings and English language assistants

I can barely believe that I am half-way through my time here in Petrozavodsk. It seems like only yesterday that I was scared to death by the mushroom-bearing hitch-hiker of Karelia ( ) on the bus on the way here...such fond memories. Still, life certainly hasn't let up and as usual I'm busy busy busy!

English teaching has a new (very red and cold) face
Anyway, I've recently taken aboard the morose and vile habit of rising at 7am. I know right! What kind of student am I! Twice a week I get up early, like a normal person, shovel down spoonfuls of porridge and sip a cup of scorching black tea only to hurl myself into the black, cold morning. This isn't entirely without reason. I have in fact been volunteering as an English-language assistant in a couple of lessons at the university. My early morning walk to the Political Sciences Faculty has been somewhat physically and mentally demanding. The cruel, northern wind is funneled down Alexander Nevsky Avenue into my face, taking with it fallen leaves and dust from the road. At this time all of Karelia is still bathed in semi-blackness. I have to admit, waking up to streetlights and car headlights in October is a sensation unknown to me and highly disorientating- Grandma you were right! Although during the day the weather is mild, these early mornings and late evenings show the extremities are beginning. This morning, being only 2 degrees celcius, the falling drizzle soon turned to a kind of sleet/hail that drizzled down the back of my jacket and played along my spine...shudder. I arrive to the university lobby with red cheeks and hilariously red ears.

Yet the city is surprisingly full of life at this time. Petrozavodskers get up and head into work, walk the children to school and smoke at trolleybus stops. Shops seem to open a lot later though, many at ten or eleven, but the Kiosks as always radiate light and I have to fight the urge to buy a snickers everytime I come within paces of one. In this respect, they are the oasis mirage of the early morning as the only thing keeping me from freezing is the fact I keep moving. Stopping to wait for a road-crossing is when the cold really sets in, obviosuly I've cracked the long-johns out already.

All this early morning adventuring and psycological battering is worth it though. Students are immensely responsive in classes. I have never considered myself the "teaching type" if such a thing exists and my only past experience in this realm is from teaching primary school children cricket on a grammar school sports program. My contribution to lessons can be anything from simply reading out a text in my own way - today I murdered Shakespeare's sonnets - to trying to explain tricky aspects of English grammar (something also difficult for me). Being told that Russian students love English accents is flattering! My ego is swelling to gigantic proportions, soon I will erect a statue and write an epic about myself...kinda like this blog actually...oh.

the well
I even got up early this weekend! Before you all perish from shock, early means 9am on Sunday and again with good reason. As I enjoyed so much my amble to the Devil's Chair of last week, I took Kate and Tom and headed off into the wilderness in a different direction. We followed a wooden boardwalk north of Sortavalskaya and ended up at a little well and stream. The signs told of a clean water spring and local people kept turning up with big, plastic containers to fill up with water. There was a little a fire left burning which gave off the gorgeous aroma of pine. It was very peaceful. I recently watched a documentary on tv talking of Karelia as a mystic land of rivers, forests and magic - for the first time, other than perhaps last weekend, I felt that I was experiencing this side of the picture.

The bog
We tore ourselves away from the warm, little fire and headed off past some makeshift wooden tables and benches. We ended up on a kind of trail which we followed until we entered a kind of semi-marshland. We picked our way around it sticking close to half-submerged trees and using their roots as bridges. Growing up near Dartmoor certainly has its benefits sometimes! We ended up on the other side and were in a large gap cut into the forest. Electric pylons stretched on for miles either way, the sheer enormity of Russian entirely self-evident in this engineering achievement alone. We sat and ate half our picnic (including a really odd tasting smoked cheese ("сыр колбасный??") before feeling chilly and returning to fire and the well.

Again, another amazing weekend in Northern Russia. This town may be small but it is the gift the keeps on giving! More soon!

the pylon field - nice spot for a picnic?

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Episode 13: If you go down to the woods out for the devil

So there we were, a teapot of Englishmen (yes, that is the collective name) waiting in the cold of the university trolleybus stop. The elusive number "4" marshrutka ( a kind of mini-van taxi with a set route) was to take us to the start of our woodland ramble in a village on the city limits. They are supposed to come once every 5-10 minutes, but the wait was agony in the shrill breeze and not a single number 4 was showing up. So, like the bloody foreigners we are, we did the natural thing and broke out into a flash mob, dancing to the Russian pop-music that was blaring out of the neighbouring kiosk. Judging by the odd looks we got, the locals didn't really get our sense of humour and our Russian friends are far too cool to have joined in so did an admirable job of ignoring our flailing limbs and swinging hips until we finally got aboard.

Onega and distant Petrozavodsk  from "the Devil's Chair" side

Ode to a Lada
Today was absolutely lovely! As I pondered in my last update, we are certainly in a Russian "Golden Autumn" as despite frequent outbursts (surely 'downbursts'?) of drizzle, almost on a daily basis, the sun never fails to find a way of piercing the clouds and making Karelia look so pretty. On the knowledge that this would be another good weekend weather-wise, we decided to head out on a woodland ramble to "the Devil's Chair" a local, Petrozavodsk beauty spot on the opposite shore of Lake Onega...

Finally on the number 4 marshrutka we experienced a properly bumpy ride which was made all the more comical and hair-raising ride because the tallest one of us was forced to double over and squat by the half open door for the first five minutes of journey due to a lack of seats and a capitalist driver. We soon ended up on a country road approaching a pretty old church near some wooden buildings. This part of town is a kind of mini village which seems to be populated half by permanent residents and half by dachas (Russian holiday homes) of various sizes and builds. Crusty men  prodded smokey barbecues in their front yards, dogs barked excitedly over picket fences, children rode bicycles through muddy puddles and women chopped firewood as we walked down the mud tracks towards the woods. We picked up the trail to "the Devil's Chair" just as the sun came out. The smell of the wood stoves and cooking meat hung in the air and everything felt like the end of a long and beautiful summer. The whole dacha ideology began to make more sense.

A pier in the village and a couple of dachas
We found "the Devil's Chair" without a hitch. It's a kind of cliff with a stunning view of the lake and you can make out the entire urban, sprawl of Petrozavodsk on the opposite bank. The so
 called "chair" is a kind of natural "throne" eroded into this cliff face although it certainly doesn't look comfortable and I'd recommend beezlebub a decent chiropractor after an extended sit in that...

Legend has it that two fishermen saw the devil here  one night when out in the woods. Either that or they had drunk slightly too much "Karelian Balsam" (a local Jaegermeister-style herb spirit) and run into a bear. On this topic we successfully created a self-styled "Jaeger-bomb" out of a liberal share of it mixed with the Russian energy drink ominously called "BURN." Of course, we have ceremonially dubbed the new drink the "Karelia-bomb" although we doubt it'll catch on in the UK without a severe relaxing of import/export laws. Shame.

To be honest, i'm not sure if "Lonely Planet" know about this place. This is a lovely and beautiful part of Russia. Certainly if you ever get the chance to visit Petro this is well worth your time. Pack warm clothes, some ok-ish boots (the trail is muddy), but other than that all you need is a camera, some great friends, some emergency Pushkin and a picnic to get close to the beautiful Karelian soil! A quality Saturday all round! More soon x

The woodland trail
Onega from atop the Devil's Chair
The beauty of Northern Russia

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Episode 12: Lost voices, Ladas and Leaves

Have you seen my voice?? I've lost it. It's a little posh, about 21 years old, speaks English and a little bit of dodgy Russian? It often uses stupid old-fashioned words like "gosh" and "boy oh boy"? When it's on the telephone it sounds a bit like Daniel Radcliffe? No? Oh i'm sure it'll turn up somewhere...

Anyway, this update finds me a little under the weather. But what weather to be under eh! The sun is shining off the puddles of motor oil, rainbows play accross the waves on Lake Onega and people walk around the big market on Kirov Square, smiling, drinking beer and haggling for jars of honey. Is this what you call "Золотая Осень" ?

It has actually been quite lovely here. The leaves have all fled their trees and they are scattered all over the streets, avenues and trolleybus tracks. Sunset comes early but brings with it a healthy light that rejoices in all the colours of autumn - the reds, the browns, the greens, the yellows. It might be getting colder but it is also getting prettier. I heard there is a place called "The Devil's Chair" that is worth a visit this time of year - is this the case?

Lots of new photographs. I now take my camera about with me all the time and snap away at things that catch my eye. Apart from the weather and parks of Petrozavodsk one more Russian icon has caught the attention of my lens: The LADA KLASSIKA. Don't ask me why (love does not respond to such a low question!) but I am head over heels for this little box of Soviet love. I stumbled past the dealership near my apartment the other day and saw a brand new one - all shiny and ready to roll - and nearly went straight to the "bankomat" to take out money. But alas! I fear it'll never be! They only come in left-hand drive : (

Tom poses with a crashed Lada - is this a weird monument or a real accident?
On this topic I have been struck by the number of car crashes in this town, which seems to me (by British standards at least) to be abnormally high. It must be to do with the condition of the roads and the fact that cars are seemingly allowed to turn into a new road when pedestrians are crossing. Does it get even worse in winter with the snow?

A recent conversation at a party revealed to me that it is a lot quicker to get a driving liscence in Russia than in the UK. I assume this means that it is easier to? A bizarre and humourous advert on TV for a local driving school states, without any sense of irony, that it is as easy as "1-2-3!" This seems to be somewhat flippant - in the UK this would be considered an act of parody. To my knowledge, neighbouring Scandinavian countries have incredibly high requirements for prospective drivers with respect to the shifting climates and it's demands on roads, cars and drivers. I imagine it ought to be the case here or am I being too judgemental? Recently I saw an advert on TV for an upcoming tv-investigation show in which a journalist will investigate why the mortality rate on Russian roads is so high. I also believe that a couple of first-year university students were run down in Moscow - my heart goes out to their families if this is the case.
Wow that got a lot more serious than I first intended! How about I leave you (no pun intended) with some more pictures of Autumn? I've also included some from the weekend where I went out Lada hunting and ended up at the abondoned, tractor you do...