Sunday, 19 June 2011

Personal Space

For a few months I worked at an English school in Krasnodar, primarily as a kind of British show pony to be awed and studied like a laboratory rat. The main task of this job was reading out stories which would be translated into Russian on the spot by indifferent Russian teenagers. Usually I would write these stories myself but when I first started, I was presented with a few stories which had been prepared by my predecessor. One of them began “an Englishman’s home is his castle” and continued to explain how the English live in constant fear of making eye contact with the general public, lest they find themselves in a situation which involves making conversation with a stranger.

The Russian students chuckled and raised their eyebrows in confusion. Why? I thought to myself. It is an integral part of the English psyche to go to such lengths to avoid unwanted interaction with other human beings on a daily basis.

I was not quite aware of the cavernous gap between our cultures at that time. Above all else in life the British man values privacy. Upon arrival in Krasnodar, I found it outrageous that I was expected to share a room with two other girls like some kind of battery farmed chicken. I became used to seeing the head cocked to one side, raised eyebrow reaction when I explained to some Russian friends shortly afterwards that I was finding it difficult to find personal space. I slowly realised that for the Russians, this was not some kind of violation of our human rights, but a completely normal way to live. Many of our friends who live with their families in Krasnodar share a bedroom with their parents and/or siblings, which also doubles up as a living room. Fold out sofa beds are a norm and a necessity. I have even been informed of the situation of one girl who shares a flat with another student, whereby they only have one bed and therefore take turns sleeping in it, with one girl sleeping in the bed and the other on an armchair.

When I became exasperated at this communal situation, I thought a good idea would be to sit outside on a bench for some alone time with my thoughts. Little did I know that not only can you barely step outside the building in the university vicinity without seeing somebody you know and having to make small talk, but on the occasion that you do manage to evade familiar faces, unfamiliar faces will sit down next to you as if you are old friends and start making conversation. How dare they? Can’t they see that you do not want to be disturbed? This goes against all of the unwritten British laws that a person who does not make eye contact must not be disturbed. Us English are folk of body language and unspoken signals. If you are in the mood for chatting, you give the signal of eye contact and perhaps a smile. On the occasion that you remain face down and staring at the floor, this is as good as writing ‘Do not disturb’ on your forehead. Of course, even in England there are exceptions, usually in the form of humouring old people. But we acknowledge that making small talk with old people is part of our contribution to society, like some kind of social tax which we are obliged to pay every once in a while.

This problem could easily be solved by explaining the cultural differences, you say. Well, therein lies the problem of appearing to be a stereotypical western self-interested capitalist pig. Of course I actually am a stereotypical western self-interested capitalist pig, but no good will come of this fact being broadcast and acknowledged. Keeping this fact a secret comes with the heaviest burden of all: sharing. In order to not conform to your cultural stereotype, you must be willing to share all of your worldly possessions, and above all alcohol, cigarettes and food. One particular acquaintance of mine has a fool-proof tactic of guilting foreigners into sharing with him; he laments about how the western world does not understand the communal living culture of Russia. Thus, when he drinks your beer or starts eating your pizza without asking, you feel that you cannot complain. The fact that you ordered this amount of pizza or purchased this amount of beer purely due to the fact that you had calculated the precise amount of pizza and beer which you intended to consume cannot be explained. It’s not about the money, you see. It’s about planning how much you intend to consume and planning accordingly. Despite the fact that cigarettes cost about 40p in Russia, he never has any. One non-Russian of mine was left feeling slightly infuriated when this friend asked him for yet another cigarette. He grudgingly took his packet from his pocket and handed it over. The response was “Oh, it’s your last cigarette? A Russian man never smokes another man’s last cigarette.” I saw the look of frenzy in his eyes which questioned the logic of smoking the first 19 cigarettes and then revelling in one’s own moral integrity at leaving the last one for the owner of the pack.

I had never seen my home as a castle before, mostly because in England exists an unspoken mutual understanding that, on the whole, people do not want to speak to you, and therefore it is not necessary to have some kind of human interaction blocking mechanism in place. Although perhaps this system only works because neither party wants to communicate with the other. In England it is not really necessary to build a concrete fortress, as we consider a distance of one square metre from every human being to be an impenetrable bubble of personal space, which no one may enter without invitation. There also exists a kind of taboo involving taking other people’s things without asking. This is called “stealing.” But then I suppose it’s our own fault for thinking that something we haven’t taken the time to nail down and sit a guard in front of won’t be stolen.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Гелен в Геленджике/Helen in Gelendzhik.

A bank holiday weekend in honour of Russia Day conveniently coincided with the birthday of a friend, who was brave enough to invite me to her home in a seaside resort town a few hours from Krasnodar. Incidentally, there seems to be some kind of Russian pride related event every week. Of course the traditional way to celebrate is with Russian flag themed shots. 
These are the legs of my friends. Obviously I can't show their faces because they want their identities to remain anonymous.
This picture is deceptively overcast. It was actually sunny and mild. And I did actually get intensely sunburnt.
I was slightly surprised to see a congratulatory birthday message painted on a wall in Russia. In English. And it wasn't my birthday. So I spent my weekend enjoying Russian hospitality, which basically involves stuffing me with blini and soup and then hosing down my throat with vodka and cognac. There were a few times when I suddenly became aware that everyone else had one plate in front of them and I had 3 plates and a bowl of soup. There were also many times where I failed to hide my empty glass craftily enough, resulting in the umpteenth top up.

Гелен в Тамани.

Okroshka - although a British friend of ours had described this soup as "an ordeal," I still decided to try it. It was perfect in every way...except for the fact that it was fizzy. I have to say, one thing I never thought my tastebuds would experience in life is fizzy soup. The reason for this is that the soup is made from Kvas, which is a kind of non alcoholic beer soft drink. But it is actually a little bit alcoholic. But by Russian standards it is not alcoholic. So, our teacher took us on a trip to Taman, a southern Russian town immortalised by Lermontov in his book "Hero of our time." We ate fizzy soup, visited a kind of reconstructed Cossack village and swam in the sea of Azov.
"Тамань — самый скверный городишко из всех приморских городов России." - М.Ю. Лермонтов (Taman - the nastiest little seaside town in all of Russia)
Cossack house.

Cossack husband and wife.

Cossack oven/bed. Slightly contradictory to the strict Russian rules which dictate that you shall never sit on stone. It is bad for your ovaries, you know.

Nice cossack garms, Sam.

Tasting of Kuban wine. Slightly contradictory also was the fact that our teacher presented us with ten glasses of wine in about 30 minutes after 4 months of having told us not to drink alcohol and praising our abstinence from alcohol...

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

We buy hair!

We buy hair! Highest prices! No shorter than 30cm. The longer the hair, the more we pay!

Cold Showers

I have recently been acquainting myself with the pleasure of cold showers. This is nothing to do with all the sexy Russian ladies, although I did have the unexpected experience this week of being in a bar where some Russian girls stripped to their underwear in order to obtain a free bottle of champagne. Anyway, every Summer the Russians switch off the hot water for 2 weeks. I acknowledged that this would be something of an inconvenience, but with my new toileting-success-inspired lust for life I felt quite optimistic about this situation. Brain freeze ensued. Apparently this is some kind of pagan ritual to welcome the Summer. Or to prepare the ground for the heat or something. 

In other shower related news, I managed to get locked in the shower the other day. Normally I wouldn't be too worried about shower suffocation, but the lack of speed with which Russians undertake any given action or task did make me slightly aware that I may need to make the air last for a few days. It is common for a trip to the post office to buy an envelope to take at least an hour, what with the lack of a defined queuing system, which entails people coming in, announcing that they are next and then leaving again. Also problematic is the legal right of Babushkas to push in front of you at all times.

This is only one of the ways in which the Russians are polar opposites of the Germans. Another is the Russian tendency of fearing that everything will be stolen if it is not fastened to something sturdy with somebody guarding it. Everything in the University is nailed down - except for photocopiers and benches, which seem to roam the corridors at regular intervals. As is the way in Russia to pay people to do jobs which essentially entail doing nothing at all, there is a lady whose sole purpose in life is to wheel the photocopier around the university and watch you making copies whilst taking your money. I recall being puzzled by a newspaper vending machine in Munich which in no way required you to pay before being able to extract the newspaper from it's drawer. My dad said that they just knew people would pay. The Russians would never trust their citizens like this.

My embarrassment at being locked in the shower was unfortunately outshone by the arrival of an American who got so drunk on his first night in Russia that he couldn't work out how to open his door from the inside and proceeded to kick a hole in it. This man is what we call a real ambassador of American intellect.

There are various strange things that I've seen the Russians doing recently. They've been painting everything - even the trees. I accepted that the logical reason for this was that the white paint keeps the parasites from eating the trees, but then i noticed that also painted white are the bottom sections of lampposts and pavements...

Krasnodar is home to an abundance of stray dogs and cats who laze around in the grass, on chairs and just generally look very contented whilst wandering the world. They're also suspiciously well groomed, like those well dressed beggars who you don't quite believe need your money. This may be due to the fact that Russian girls like to feed them and brush them. The dogs, I mean, not the beggars.

Having said this, I have also come across quite a few stray people, such as this man having a snooze next to the road.