Category Archives: advice

How to Stay Healthy When You Don’t Have Regular Access to Fresh Vegetables

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My First Three Months in Russia: a Culinary Journey

I just got home from the second leg of my year abroad, an invigorating semester-long stint in St Petersburg. Whilst I can honestly say the past four months have been the best of my life, winter in Russia wasn’t without its challenges – for example, the problem of not being able to go outside without feeling like your skin was being peeled off. I also spent a decent amount of time weighing up whether my eyeballs would ice over before the bus finally turned up.

Russia’s not exactly considered a culinary capital – and for good reason. In a place where the ground is frozen solid four months out of the year, access to fresh food is patchy at best and laughable at worst. There were times, in deepest March, when I would Google pictures of salad Niçoise to remind myself that green, leafy stuff did still exist. I still remember the first time I walked into a Dixies, the ubiquitous discount supermarket, and wondered why someone had left so many festering snakes where the courgettes should have been.

Consequently, not wishing to succumb to rickets like so many of my peers, I had to develop a few new habits. Every day is a learning day, as my French teacher used to say, and in Russia I had 125 days to learn how to photosynthesise for nutrition like an aspidistra.

Vitamin supplements

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This might seem obvious. If your diet isn’t providing you with enough of those oh-so-crucial letters, shop-bought alternatives can give your immune system a boost.

The one problem with this logical, well-thought-out scheme is that it didn’t occur to me until the 11th of June, exactly four days before I was due to return to Europe, land of plentiful vegetables. At that point it seemed like putting myself through a potentially harrowing experience – trying to negotiate a handover of Vitamin C at an аптека – would be needlessly degrading.

All in all, I have only two regrets about my stay in Petersburg: not getting my hands on industrially-produced wellbeing sooner, and cheerfully repeating swear words I’d heard in bars to my scandalised teachers.

 

Avoid Instagram

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Your friends are your enemies. Their over-edited pictures of a Thai raw salad will poison you with jealousy.

Lie in the sun

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Photo by Marek Levak on Pexels.com

I wasn’t in Russia long enough for this to pay off, but I’m pretty sure photosynthesis is 80% persistence. What I’m saying is that I reckon if you lie in the grass long enough you’ll start converting sunlight into food. I’m not a scientist, though, so proceed with caution.

Столовая, столовая, столовая

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Those runes are the Russian word for dining room. Cities and towns across Russia are full of these – the format is pretty much the same as school canteens, with dinner ladies, sneeze guards, and certain disappointment if you arrive after the lunch rush. The main difference between a столовая and the refectory at my secondary school is that the former requires slightly more apologetic pointing and a lot more unrecognisable dishes.

It’s not fine dining, sure, but there aren’t many other places you can go fill your tummy for under 200 roubles (~£2). What’s more, whilst you may not always love what you’re eating, a столовая is bound to have, as well as the obligatory buckwheat and cutlet, some vegetable dishes on offer – most commonly, vinaigrette, Greek salad, and a bunch of different kinds of coleslaw.

Plus, if you happen to be able to find, as I did, a vegetarian столовая, your vegetable intake is bound to increase tenfold. I lost a lot of weight when I first came to Petersburg (mostly through shivering and mistrusting meat products) but when I found Samadeva, the so-called philosophical cafe on Kazanskaya, I gained it all back and then some. When it’s -25° out, you really can’t beat a plate of beans, spinach and mash.

Tinned peas are your friend

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Tinned peas never look this good.

Up to now, you thought tin peas were what children were given as a punishment. These days you see them as the heroes they are.

The most dismal meal I ever made was half a tin of peas, boiled in their own juice, with one potato thrown in for bulk. I had no other food in and, looking outside, I knew I would perish before I reached the nearest supermarket, so I made do, hunkering over my ersatz soup and wishing I’d chosen a degree that would’ve meant me spending summers in France.

Redefine your conception of fruit

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Last resort, OK, but if you really, really concentrate and try very hard, you can just about trick yourself into believing that green tea counts as one of your five-a-day.

If you’re dedicated enough, you can convince yourself that beer counts too.

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How to cope with the grossest season of them all

When you start learning a language, the first two years of oral lessons are spent responding to surprisingly formulaic questions about your opinion – they’re always to do with some inoffensive, general topic that everyone relates to somehow. At school it was usually about uniform or homework; in first year we graduated to the lofty heights of “Do you prefer living in the countryside or the city?

The idea is that this helps you start forming full sentences and expressing yourself in your target language. The content of your reply is irrelevant; it’s about responding using new language structures or vocab, and, of course, understanding the question in the first place.

The reason I bring this up is that a decade of language tuition has exposed me to dangerously high levels of this kind of opinion question. As a result, I’ve spent more time than the average person seriously considering whether, for example, I prefer walking or going on the bus, or if I believe homework should be outlawed.

So far no one outside of the classroom has bothered to ask me about my thoughts on E-readers, but you can be sure that I’ll be prepared when they do; my Spanish A-Level speaking exam means I’ve memorised an entire speil weighing up the environmental benefits vs the smell of real paper.

Basically I’m trying to justify why I’m so opinionated about so much pointless bullshit. It’s not [just] that I’m an arsehole, it’s for my degree.

What’s your favourite time of year,” asked my Russian teacher at the start of my first year oral, “and why?

I didn’t even hesitate. “Winter!” I said. I mispronounced the word, but she got what I meant.

You don’t like summer?” she asked.

No!” I replied. Had my language skills been better, I would’ve gone into a whole thing about how I hate bright lights and hot weather and how I’m most comfortable bundled up in acres of woolly jumper, but I’d only been doing Russian for a semester so I was constrained to stumble through, “I do not like summer at all.”

Summer is bullshit. It’s a struggle every single year.

It’s weird, considering how much I moan about it, that I always seem to forget how it grim it is over winter. Every May I’m surprised again by how gross room temperature feels, how much it unnerves me when the air doesn’t hurt your face a little.

In my twenty-one summer-hating years, I’ve developed a few strategies to get through this, the worst period of the year. I know it’s a little late, but hopefully this will help make the remaining terrible months at least somewhat bearable.

Drink hot drinks

If you think this sounds like bullshit, you’d be right – but it’s true. Drinking a hot drink when you’re already overheating helps encourage your body to cool itself down. Somewhat counter-intuitively, a tall glass of ice water is one of the worst things you could pick to cool you down on a hot day.*

*The number one worst thing is boiling oil. That crosses the line into too hot.

Get your hands on sunglasses

The bigger the better. I’m a firm believer that with sunglasses, acreage is the most important thing. Take a look at these bad boys:

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When I’m wearing these the sun doesn’t even come close to touching me.

Think like a bat

If the daytime is too hot, do the logical thing and avoid the sun at all costs. Become a night watchman, set your alarm for 6pm, reject sunlight. This strategy does mean you’ll lose most of your friends and have to spend a decent chunk of your salary on vitamin D supplements, but at least you’ll retain your ghostly, white pallour.

Incidentally, in St Petersburg, where I’m based at the time of writing, this isn’t such a ludicrous idea. I mean, it’s still pretty stupid, but at least we have White Nights here, which is when the sun never really sets and you get insane scenes like the one below. This picture was taken at midnight.

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Ignore the fireworks

Be creative

If you’re anything like me, your two favourite hobbies are eating and complaining.

The trouble with being in physical discomfort for a quarter of the year is that people start tuning out your grievances – there’s only so many times you can flop down next to your mate and moan, “It’s too hot,” before they’ll stop hearing you. As far as I see it, there’s only one way to avoid this – and that’s to graft. Get yourself to a desk, a pad of paper and a biro and brainstorm new, improved ways to express the idea that it’s warm and you’re angry about it.

With this specific kind of complaining, there’s a delicate balance to be struck: you need to convey the deterioration of your body without being so graphic and making people think about your sweaty pits in too much detail.

One of my current favourites is to say that my organs are sweating. It’s pretty grim; it tells the listener how fed up I am; and you don’t imagine anything too offensively awful when I roll up and skrike, “Maaaaaaaaaate, my brain is sweating.”

Beauty Regime

“Rosie,” they say in awe, “your skin is so grainy. Your hair defies all known laws of physics. Did you know irons exist?”

I’m used to the public’s veneration by now; I nod modestly and try and change the subject, but my admirers are unstoppable.

“You look like an extra in a film about rickets,” they say, “Have you put eyeshadow under your eyes or have you not slept for twenty years?”

I smile a Mona Lisa smile, sip my Horlicks.

“Tell us your secret,” they beg. “Tell us how we, too, can look like a background actor in Peaky Blinders.”

Up to now, I’ve always brushed off requests to share my beauty regime, but the time has come to tell all. In this, a bland-blog exclusive, you can find out how to achieve my sought-after look.

Cucumber

Throw it out. You’re in Russia now; the only vitamins you’re allowed are from the piles of dill added to every dish. Don’t worry, though – this monochrome diet will give you the wide eyes and pallor of a Victorian urchin. Very chic.

Shave ur head

More specifically, have a friend of a friend do it for you.

Sick of my fringe getting in my eyes, I let my most stylish friend drag me to a part of the city I’d never visited before. We ducked into his mate’s barbers: “Do exactly what you want,” I said to her, more proud of the fact that I’d formed the imperative correctly than actually wanting a haircut.

“Exactly what I want,” she said thoughtfully, and whipped out the scissors. A couple of minutes later, she said, “I’m going to use the машинки, are you ready?”

I’ve got used to having no clue what people are saying to me. “Yep, ready,” I said. Turns out машинки are hair clippers.

 

 

Sounds stupid but I really didn’t expect my ears to look like that.

In other news, it turns out having a cool haircut doesn’t make your selfie game any stronger – I don’t know why I didn’t take the fucking toothbrush out of my mouth.

Stay humble

Sure, you look incredible, but keep in mind the envy you’re bound to be inspiring in everyone who sees you. Drop in the odd self-deprecating comment (or, if you’re feeling extra, full-length blog) to keep yourself grounded.

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Humility’s a virtue

 

Cats

Here’s a secret: when you’re having a bad hair/face/overall appearance day, use cats to distract people. They’ll look at your adorable furry friend and your bedhead will be overlooked.

Case in point:

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Bet you didn’t even notice I’m in that.

Mate with massive camera

It turns out a talented photographer can make anyone look cool as fuck, even me.

 

Side note – on the day we took those pictures, I was hungover as shit and wearing yesterday’s clothes.

“Shouldn’t we wait til I’m having a good face day?” I asked.

“This is your look,” he replied. “Now go stand by that wall and look miserable.”

Go figure.