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.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The most mundane blog entry of all time.

Last week came the day which I have been fearing ever since my arrival in Russia. I have gone to great lengths to put this atrocious day off for the last two months and thought I may be able to avoid it forever. But, alas, suddenly I found it was upon me. Yesterday I was forced to use a squatting toilet. This is one of the moments when one thinks to oneself 'How did I get here? Is this really where I want to be in life?' Surely there are few things more shameful than squatting down savagely and relieving oneself into what is essentially a hole in the ground in a cubicle with no door. And to pay 10 Roubles for the pleasure no less.

I am aware that many of my friends and acquaintances in England see Russia as some kind of primitive wasteland full of gangsters who regularly engage in kidnapping/torture/organ selling/attempting to take over the world in Bond villain style. My mother was more concerned with whether I would be able to find a cash point in Krasnodar. Personally, I am inclined to roll my eyes at these views and thus far all of my organs are intact as far as I know, although I can't vouch for the rest of the population of Russia. I am also aware that most of my friends and acquaintances know that I am by no means an optimist. However, even I was crushed by the realisation that the toilets in the University, an establishment intertwined with development and improvement, were squatting toilets. Furthermore, Krasnodar airport also favours this unorthodox mode of commode. This is why I have been risking a urinary tract infection for the last 2 months in a bid to avoid these toilets at all costs. I am not naive, I know that Russia is no Utopia. But I did assume that I would be living in some kind of civilisation with 20th century toilet facilities. Maybe when Putin commented that Russia is 100 years behind the West, this is what he meant? I should emphasise that these toilets are significantly more sophisticated than just a hole in the ground. But that doesn't make it any easier to navigate ten kilos of luggage into the cubicle.

I suppose I should have expected something like this. I did have a similar albeit milder shock, or more accurately confusion, in St Petersburg. It is difficult for me to describe what I experienced there, so after some research I have discovered it is officially referred to as the "Reverse Bowl" or "Shelf Style." I am sure some of you are already familiar with this. The rest of you can use your powers of deduction. All I will say on this matter is that is particularly unpleasant when one shares such a toilet with 8 other people, one of whom lives on a diet of nuts, berries and red meat. Fortunately Tajik Sasha has left now, so at least we don't have any more of these pesky residue incidents.

They say you should do something which scares you every day. Mission accomplished - for a few days, at least. And according to Wikipedia squatting is beneficial and favoured in Japan. And we all know how civilised the Japanese are. Or at least they know it.

Monday, 16 May 2011

День Победы / Victory Day

The 9th of May is the anniversary of when the Soviet Union won World War II. Yes, that is correct, the Soviet Union won World War II. I don't know why nobody ever told us this at school. I was warned before I came to Russia not to tell Russians that the Allies won World War II, as it would cause great distress. But the Russians call it the Great Patriotic War and this war started in 1941, so perhaps we won this Second World War and they won this other, completely unrelated Patriotic War? This is clearly the only logical explanation.

Anyway, Victory Day is a day of celebration for all Russians and citizens of post-Soviet states. Parades and marches take place all across the Russian Federation and veterans are congratulated and thanked for their contribution. There is a much more distinct atmosphere of patriotism amongst young Russians in particular than in any European country I have visited, perhaps due to an initiative introduced by Putin in 2005 which encouraged youths to celebrate military victories as a means of restoring patriotism as the spiritual backbone of Russia. The celebrations in Krasnodar were perhaps slightly less elaborate than in Moscow, but the overwhelming sentiment of gratitude, remembrance and patriotic pride were in no way diminished by this. 

Photos courtesy of Paparazzo Sam, who has not quite given his permission for their use as of yet, but will surely be moved by my tribute to his photographic skills.

Various political parties marched down the main street after the main military parade - it was slightly surprising to see such an overwhelmingly large pro-Stalin Communist gathering, although it should be noted that not a single member of this group looked under 50 years of age.

The Happiest Babushka of All Time - we met her later in the day on the street. After Marina presented her with a flower, she proceeded to tell us that she was a nice Babka unlike all the other grumpy ones, that she knew that youths were nice and then sang us a song about victory day whilst cackling hysterically at regular intervals.

Lika's sister giving a flower to a veteran, as is custom. Lika's mum arrived with giant bunch of flowers in hand for us to present to them.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

"Russian смог is like English smog over the Russian language"

Today’s instalment is a kind of tribute to our former teacher, the one of a kind Irina Alexandrovna. No, she didn’t perish due to my astounding inability to improve my Russian skills. We just have different classes now. 

To mark this occasion we all decided that we would buy a cake and present it to Irina during the last part of our class, unaware that it is forbidden to take cake into the university building. The guards informed us of this as we tried to enter with cake in hand.

Anyway, here is a collection of my favourite quotes from Irina Alexandrovna:

Explaining to us the seriousness of using the verb “смочь.” “Russian смог (smog) is like English smog over the Russian language...It is the biggest mistake in the Russian language...It's even in the dictionary...Lermontov didn't use it…but Tolstoy my dears, he was already making this mistake.” 
After reading out my dialogue which my Russian friends had written for me and which I clearly had not familiarised myself with in advance, I found this perilous verb escaping my lips, and in slow motion horror I lifted my eyes from the page to see a look of shock and disillusionment on her face. Following this, Irina announced that she had informed us of this fatal error, which not only affected the Russian language, but also society, culture and politics, and now we were free to “make the right decision.”

Producing a picture of her beloved Lermontov as we begin to butcher his work; “Мой дорогие, он смотрит нас. Очень красивый человек. Умный человек.”  (“My darlings, he is watching us – what a beautiful man, a CLEVER man.”)

Describing the year 2000: “It is a magical number my dears, because the “0”s are like windows, do you see, my dears…and then I saw the sun turning all the colours of the rainbow.”
Sam: “It’s a metaphor?”
Irina: “No, my dear, I saw it with my own eyes.”

“My dears, do you love to embrace the trees? It’s good for your health.”

“Do you love catching butterflies?”

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Кубанский казачий хор/Kuban Cossack Choir

This is a traditional Russian Cossack Choir who we saw performing songs based on the lyrics from famous Russian poetry by Puschkin and Lermontov. I thought it sounded rubbish but it was actually excellent. Good call, Irina Alexandrovna.

Skillful dancing with traditional Cossack cloths.

The men did some kind of piratesque, manly sword dance.

Here we can see a large Balalaika.

Молодец!/Well done!

So, I have now been in Krasnodar for over a month. At the time of such colossal milestones as this, one should take the time to review one’s progress. So what have I learned?

  1. In France it is illegal to be homeless unless you have a dog.
  2. In every country except England it is acceptable to date children. (We discovered this whilst relating the story of Mike’s botched attempt to find a Russian lady friend, which so far has only resulted in him going on a date with a 16 year old girl who asked which floor the driver occupies on a double decker bus. The reaction from a variety of nationalities consulted was shrugging and giving us that “Oh-the-British-are-so-repressed-and-live-by-unnecessary-rules-which-are-detrimental-to-their-general-well-being” sigh.)
  3. Pizza-Sushi-Pasta restaurants are normal.
  4. Давай! (The most important word in the Russian language. When in doubt, say davai.) Irina also favours calling us молодцы each time we answer a question, read something out of the book, ask a question, breathe or just generally exist. This translates as something like "Good boy/good girl" in the sense of acknowledging a job well done. A bit similar to the praise I receive at home when I do the washing up. Annually.

I have also learned that sometimes nodding and saying yes when people speak to you in words which you don’t understand results in telling accidental lies. One tendency that I have is to say yes and nod profusely whilst somebody talks to me in order to appear engaged. This has never failed me. Until now. Consequently, my Russian friends are under the impression that I saw Radiohead live in concert and subsequently think I am awesomely cool as when I answered said query regarding this matter I shrugged nonchalantly and said “da” as though it were the most standard, uninteresting occurrence on the planet. It is entirely possible that I have become a pathological liar without even realising. It remains to be seen how this will pan out.

In recent weeks we have obtained a new neighbour by the name of Sascha. He is a middle aged, bald Tajik whose hobbies include staring at Helena’s breasts and pissing on the toilet seat. Catriona has also accused him of doing other unpleasant things on the toilet – but not to his face, obviously. In typical English passive aggressive style, Mike and Sam tackled our problem by putting up an anonymous sign in the bathroom. A few days later I was accosted by the Kommandantka (unstable Babushka who seems consistently drunk) on my way out of the building and asked who had written the sign. I used my expert knowledge of the phrase "I don't understand" and my confused foreigner look to weasel my way out of any awareness of the existence of this sign. 

Here you can see our sign in all its glory, complete with friendly smiley face so as to not cause friction. It technically translates as "It is forbidden masturbate in the toilet. It is forbidden piss in the region of the toilet." But it seems to have done the trick. UPDATE: The toilet has been soiled once again.

To further support my previous description of the Kommandantka, I left my room on Monday to brush my teeth, leaving the door open with Helena and Catriona still sleeping inside. On my return I found the Kommandantka standing in the middle of the room screaming maniacally and incomprehensibly and my roommates looking sleepy, confused and generally disturbed.

April's Fool's Day came around last week and our teacher Irina Alexandrovna informed us of the favourite Russian joke, whereby you tell someone that their back is white. It is not white. Hilarity ensues. Probably. Having said that, I actually found this joke hilarious. But I find many things hilarious in class. I laughed so much that Irina deemed me a Haha-tushka. I was pleasantly surprised by the April Fool's joke from the Russian version of Facebook, whereby it was renamed "in the union" and all headings were accordingly renamed in Soviet style - friends became "Comrades" and so on. молодцы, comrades, молодцы.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

"Мои дорогие...вы любите ловить бабочки?"

In between asking us what our favourite words are every five minutes and whether we like to catch butterflies, Irina Alexandrovna also teaches us songs. Here are some examples for your viewing pleasure:

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

“In Russian, chocolate is abstract”

Or at least it is according to our teacher Irina Alexandrovna. I pondered this notion at length during the remaining minutes of the class. Perhaps this is the reason that Russian girls are so skinny? Because they are eating some kind of mysterious, abstract chocolate rather than the literal, concrete kind of chocolate consumed by their western counterparts…

The online dictionary defines abstract as follows: Thought of apart from concrete realities, specific objects, or actual instances: an abstract idea.

I have discovered that a number of things fit this description in Russia, such as takeaway coffee and smiles, or indeed any decent coffee or any form of facial expression.

Well, this is not entirely true. Although on a daily basis it is normal to see every second girl carrying some form of flower yet still looking miserable, (a fact pointed out to me by an indignant Mike, just before he lost faith in flower shops altogether) sometimes Russians do smile. And not in that cheesy American soulless robot-waiter kind of way, but as an actual expression of emotion. I feel that this is preferable. Notable smiles include creepy smile of internet café customer, possibly friendly grin of dormitory guard and hysterical laughter of crazy dormitory lady when we can’t speak Russian or after having asked us if we all love Sam because he is so tall that he has to duck under the door.

Other abstract concepts in my daily life here include privacy, personal space and toilets that have been built since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

At the risk of sounding positive, I must admit I had a rather enjoyable Saturday night with some Russian friends at one of their flats and even dared to defy the 11pm curfew by staying over. We all sat in the living room with two giant bowls of Pelmeni as the centre piece, drank some beer, I was introduced to the Russian cocktail masterpiece that is the Highway (Cognac and Pepsi with lemon juice). I think we even created a communal joke, whereby every time I receive a phone call from Germany they shout “Angela Merkel позвонит!” At first they were slightly concerned when my phone rang at 3.30am, assuming that I hadn’t informed the other Bristol students of my whereabouts and that they were in mass panic mode and in the process of destroying Russo British relations by accusing the guards of eating me. However, when they discovered that it was just Angela Merkel checking up on me, all was well once again.

A recurring theme of my experiences so far which I wasn’t prepared for is all the singing. We sing with Irina Alexandrovna during lessons, but I didn’t expect the Russians to whip out the guitar and have a Saturday night sing along. It was a pleasant surprise though. Unlike the surprise of how much excrement was ingrained into the carpet at the Dog Show the next day, which I attended with a mild hangover. I did unintentionally manage to take a photo of one dog in the act, but I am undecided as to whether it fits with the sophisticated tone of my blog.

Another surprise which I have yet to decide whether is pleasant or unpleasant is today’s evacuation of the University due to some kind of terrorist bomb threat (or possibly a terrorist bomb threat drill designed to practise the evacuation procedure). Positive results include going home early. Negative results include the fact that we live 3 seconds walk from the university anyway. So if the university were to explode, we would probably also explode.

Anyway, I have been promised that next weekend I will take part in the most important experience of all: the ‘Russian National Hangover.’

выставка собак - South Russia Dog Show

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Week One

Thursday – Had my last full English breakfast and set off to Moscow. We were met by Fatima, a representative from the University, at the airport, and experienced our first taste of Russian hospitality when she waited outside in
-17 conditions with our bags for an hour and sent us to get dinner. Then we all waited outside for four hours for our train to arrive.

Friday – 28 hour train journey. Sampled some Russian beer. Had some banter with a bald possibly neo-nazi Russian man on the train, which somehow culminated in him laughing maniacally whilst saying “Heil Hitler” and “Ja mein Führer.” Couldn’t quite work out whether he was a neo-Nazi or he just thought I was German and was displaying some kind of русский юмор with which I am not yet acquainted. I was then invited into his carriage to drink some vodka, which, if I knew how to politely decline in Russian, I would have politely declined. As it was, I just shouted «НЕТ!» and ran off in the manner of a startled deer. Worried looks from our carer ensued. It is however notable that worried looks from Fatima ensued after almost every activity we engaged in.

Saturday – In the morning our pre-approved Russian friends arrived to accompany us on such errands as buying a Russian SIM card (a task for which one requires a Russian passport) and having pictures taken for each of the numerous ID Cards you need just to enter a building – all university buildings and the obshchezhitie (dormitory) are guarded by grumpy looking men wearing military style camouflage outfits accessorised with a general expression of dejection and misery. Having said that, some of them are able to find pleasure in their job through such activities as laughing at my general existence and, mistaking my silent terror for silent inability to speak a single word of Russian, practising their English on me: particularly in depth conversations consisted of “My name is,” “I love you” and “No smoking,” followed by uproarious laughter. Although to be fair, that’s about all I know how to say in Russian. Maybe this qualifies me to be a doorman in England? I can also do a good grimace when I need to.

Having no internet, we went on a mission to find an internet café (to go on Facebook, obviously). Our presence caused a bit of a stir, with one man excitedly waving an American dollar at us and two men intently watching us use Facebook and taking a particular interest in marrying Catriona on English soil…

When we informed our Russian friends about our excursion, they looked worried and gave us some stern advice, which I understood as “the internet café is a den of iniquity.” On a similar note, we were also warned that we shouldn’t associate with Africans as they would steal our things and get us expelled. We were later informed that the reason for locking the kitchen at night was because the Africans steal food. And sometimes a cat helps them. Don't get me wrong, our Russian friends have treated us probably more hospitably than anyone has ever treated me in my life. But sometimes they give us strange advice. 

On Saturday evening one of our Russian friends returned to chaperone us to the kinoteatr in her «жигули», some kind of retro soviet automobile contraption which I assume has a similar reputation to the Trabant, except that unlike the beloved Trabi, it is actually a reliable car. All in all, a pleasant experience.
We watched ‘The Fighter’ по русски. It took me about two thirds of the film to work out that Christian Bale was smoking crack, even though Mike had actually informed me the previous day that the film was about Christian Bale smoking a lot of crack. So that was good.

Monday – We had been issued with timetables of our daily lives until June and scheduled for Monday was a language test, visa registration and a «ректорский приём.» Unsure of what this entailed, we deduced that it was probably some kind of introductory assembly for new students. We were instructed earlier in the day not to eat before we went and so we crossed our fingers that other students would also be in attendance and we would not be eating dinner alone with the rector. It turned out that the five of us had dinner alone with the rector. Plus two other members of faculty, one of whom was the infamous Anna Nikolaevna, who has been honoured and burdened with the task of monitoring our every move with the intention of making sure we don’t embarrass ourselves or get ourselves killed, a task with which only the bravest warriors are trusted. Despite the initial intense awkwardness due to the language barrier and my personal hatred and fear of all things formal, we enjoyed a feast of borsch, blini, salads, and various other treats. And smetana of course (That’s sour cream to you Westerners). And they even let us take the massive quantity of leftovers home with us. Well, they forced us to take them home with us. But we liked it.

Thursday – After having taught us for two days, our teacher had a nervous breakdown and had to take leave, resulting in a lie in and a trip to the museum for us. Catriona took this opportunity for extra sleep as an opportunity to study her gargantuan list of vocabulary. This is a common sight in our room. Vocab is Catriona’s drug of choice. After a fix a look of elation spreads across her face, like she's been sedated. Sometimes she falls asleep clutching the list, which I have been informed currently consists of 475 words. I liken this sight to a heroin addict passing out with a needle in their arm. This comparison instils in me the view that excessive learning is dangerous, and therefore eases the guilt I experience every time I observe Catriona whilst I am engaging in other equally important activities such as Facebook or Skype.

On Thursday night we spent some time bonding with the other foreign students on our floor. This resulted in a run in with the охраника. Perhaps here I should explain that the Russian dormitory is not like the English dormitory. In the Russian dormitory, the student must return home by 11pm. He may not drink alcohol in the dormitory. He may not have guests who are not students of the University. He may not smoke in the dormitory, even on the balcony. If the student breaks any of these rules, he must write the oбъясне́ние (explanation). Then he has his пропуск taken away (one of the many IDs - this one allows you into the dormitory) and has to collect it at a later date. I have deduced that for foreign students the main punishment is embarrassment and a stern finger wagging from their home institution. So we had a run in with the guards on patrol. More accurately, I managed to evade the guards by way of an impeccably timed toilet trip while 3 other students had their ID cards confiscated and the guards searched for the mystery 'Blondinka' who they had seen through the window during their patrol and who had caused chaos by drinking one beer and then vanishing into the night.

So, after a sternly warm welcome we have begun to adjust to our surroundings, become acquainted with some friendly Russians and I have become slightly less terrified of daily life. Poka!