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!