Category Archives: living abroad

Essential Check

I study Czech, Russian and Polish at university, and most people’s response to that is, “Why, though?”

The honest answer, that I don’t know – it just seemed interesting, never seems to satisfy anyone. And, reader, if you know anything about me, you know that I live to please: an unsatisfactory conversation is a weight on my very soul. I’ve started brainstorming better answers:

  • “I love beer.”
  • “I really like chess and I thought it’d be related.”
  • “My grandfather/uncle/childhood friend/goldfish was a Slav.”
  • “I love vodka.”
  • “I want to work as a spy. Wait, I shouldn’t have said that. I mean, I want to work in banking.”
  • “War and Peace changed my life. No, I’ve not read it. I mean the TV show.”
  • “I’m just super into pickles.”
  • “I’m an aspiring nesting doll.”
  • “Solidarity, innit.”
  • “Why do you think?”

This last one is particularly interesting – the ideas people come up with are always way better than anything I can dream up. One suggestion sticks out – someone asked if I’d chosen Czech, Russian and Polish because of the potential for puns.

It’s true: of all the ~6,500 languages spoken on Earth, the three I’ve devoted my education to are amongst the most pun-rich. Puns, of course, rarely translate into foreign languages, which is one of the hardest facts I’ve ever had to come to terms with.

For our own education and enjoyment, though, I’ve decided to translate all the homophones of “Czech” I could think of into Czech. Enjoy this meaningless list of vocab.

  • Czech (adj.)

český

  • Czech (noun; language)

čeština

  • Czech (noun; Czech person)

Čech / Češka

  • Cheque (noun)

šek

  • Check (noun; situation in chess)

šach

  • Check (noun; inspection)

zkouška

  • Check (noun; control)

kontrola

  • Check (noun; a mark, usually a tick)

křížek

  • Check (noun; a lengthwise separation of the rings in wood)
I didn’t manage to find a translation for this; that might be for the best.
  • Check (verb; to inspect)

prověřit

  • Check (verb; to mark with a checkmark)

zaškrtnout

  • Check (verb; to control or limit)

kontrolovat

  • Check (verb; to compare)

kontrolovat

 

Isn’t learning fun?

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This is an unrelated picture of a bear I saw in the zoo in Brno last year.
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Nonessential Czech

They say there’s no such thing as irrelevant language study, but even I’m struggling to imagine how you’re gonna fit this one into your regular Czech needs.

etareta.jpeg

Because I have low impulse control and not enough hobbies, I recently acquired a used camera from the 1940s. I have absolutely no idea if it actually works, partially because I don’t understand cameras at all, and partially because it was only ever sold in Czechoslovakia and so all the instructions I can find are in antiquated, jargon-heavy Czech.

Luckily antiquated, jargon-heavy Czech is what gets me out of bed in the morning. Let’s explore the mysteries of my camera together.

This is a diagram of the camera I bought. I thought I’d go through and translate the different elements, although, if I’m honest with myself, I don’t think I’ll understand the English translations much better than the Czech.

You might think this is a giant waste of time, and I might be inclined to agree – but, hey, at least it keeps me occupied and off the streets. If I weren’t doing this I’d probably be committing acts of vandalism or stealing sweets from the corner shop, so.

etareta navod.jpg

1. Navíjecí točítko k posunu filmu (po snímku) o políčko dále.

Coiling spinner for moving the film along a frame after taking a picture.

Coiling spinner is one of those pieces of vocab I’ll remember for the rest of my life and never, ever use.

2. Odjišťovací knoflík blokovacího mechanismu navíjecího točítka.

Release switch for the locking mechanism of the coiling spinner.

Wow, it turns out coiling spinner just keeps coming up! Totally worth the ten minutes I spent googling navíjecí.

3. Optický hledáček.

Optical viewfinder.

This question might just betray my ignorance, but what other kind of viewfinder could there be? Auditory viewfinders still haven’t entered mass production.

4. Počítadlo provedených snímků.

Used film display.

Display might be a melodramatic description of a little spinny thing that tells you how many more shots you’ve got left.

5. Točítko k převinutí filmu zpět do kazety.

Spinner to rewind film back into the cassette.

Two spinners seems like a lot.

6. Zámek víka komory s uvolňovacím knoflíkem.

Lock to the lid of the chamber with a release catch.

Interestingly, the word zámek can mean both lock and castle; so it’s reasonable to imagine that this camera could contain either a lock or a fortified building with a moat and that.

7. Spouštěcí páčka závěrky.

Startup shutter lever.

Alternative translations: “startup closing financial statement lever” and the rather intriguing “startup diaphragm lever.” Isn’t language magical.

8. Páčka k natahování závěrky.

Lever to wind the shutter.

Again, I’m assuming from the context that zavěrka means shutter in this case, and not closing financial statement or diaphragm, neither of which are traditionally used in camera manufacture or, indeed, wound.

9. Zaostřovací kroužek se stupnicí vzdáleností v metrech.

Focusing ring with degrees of distance in metres.

Here’s an example of where I’m let down by my photographic ignorance. I’m sure there’s a proper way to say that without sounding so stilted – I just have no idea what that might be.

10. Časovací kroužek.

Timing ring.

What’s the most important part of comedy timing

#realjokes

11. Stupnice clon a stupnice času.

Aperture and time scales.

12. Clonová páčka k nastavení žádané clony.

Aperture lever for setting up the desired aperture.

I wish I could think of something funny to say about this but I’m too embarrassed about not knowing what aperture is. I reckon it has to do with some kind of opening, but I hesitate to speculate further.


Whether or not that was a giant waste of time, whether or not we’ve learnt anything today, at least we all had fun reading about coiling spinners.

Jára Cimrman: The Master

city vintage filters czech republic

One of the nicest things about studying for a degree as niche as ‘Russian and Slavonic Studies with Czech and Polish’ is you acquire a lot of very esoteric information, and I’m more than happy to spread this unusual info around. I consider it a responsibility, as well as a privilege, to disseminate some of the weirder stuff I’ve learned in the course of my degree.

(I finally bothered to look up what esoteric means. It’s a bangin’ piece of vocab and, ironically, quite widely applicable.)
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Some top-shelf domes in Suzdal.

To the delight (or chagrin) of my friends, I’ve been known to hold court for hours on such varied subjects as “The Made-Up Animals of Jaroslav Hašek,” “Doctors-turned-authors in Russian Literature,” and “My Struggles with the Letter Ř.”

My peers are dazzled by my description of what different coloured onion domes mean in Eastern Orthodoxy; disgusted by my recounting the shortage of toilet paper in communist Czechoslovakia; disturbed by my passionate run-down of the grisliest deaths of Slavic literary heroes.

I wanted to use this platform to introduce you to a Czech national hero, a man whose impact on Central Europe and, indeed, on the world generally, is literally unbelievable, but who is largely unknown outside of Czechia’s borders.

(I’m not misusing ‘literally’; I genuinely don’t think you’ll believe what he got done in his lifetime.)

I’m talking, of course, about the inimitable Jára Cimrman: the greatest man you’ve never heard of.

Who is Cimrman? It’d take all day to list his accomplishments, but luckily for you, I’ve got fuck all to better to do than clumsily translate his cs.wikipedia page.

Cimrman, like many Czech historical heroes, has dubious claim to Czech nationality by today’s standards; he was born in Vienna at some point between 1853 and 1859 to a Czech tailor and Austrian actress. Cimrman considered himself culturally and nationally Czech, although he lived during a period when Czech national identity was repressed by law – the Czech lands formed part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

It’s somewhat shocking that Cimrman never received meaningful recognition during his own lifetime, given the extent and scope of his various successes. He is now considered one of the eminent playwrights, poets, musicians, teachers, travelers, philosophers, inventors, sportsmen and criminals of his age.

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I nicked that last sentence word for word from this website

I don’t have the time or the typing skills to provide you with a comprehensive biography of this man, but here’s an abridged list of his greatest achievements.

Jára Cimrman

  • proposed the Panama Canal to the US government;
  • composed a libretto for an opera (also named the Panama Canal);
  • reformed the school system in Galicia;
  • constructed the first rigid airship (in cooperation with Count Zeplin);
  • investigated the lives of cannibalistic tribes in the Arctic;
  • once, when fleeing said tribes, missed the North Pole by a mere seven metres, making him the first human to nearly reach the top of the world;
  • created the world’s first puppet show in Paraguay;
  • and established the Viennese School of Criminology, Music and Ballet.

And that’s not all! Cimrman is also credited with

  • serving as assistant to Pierre and Marie Curie;
  • inventing yoghurt;
  • corresponding with George Bernard Shaw over a number of years;
  • creating the philosophy of Externism;
  • advising Mendeleev, the father of the periodic table;
  • and developing a primitive version of the internet – since the computer had not been invented yet, he was forced to use a network of telephones.
(I told you you literally wouldn’t believe this man’s achievements.)

It’s said that when Graham Bell invented the telephone, he found three missed calls from J. Cimrman.

No surprise then, that when Česká televize launched a public poll in 2004 to determine the nation’s favourite Czech, Cimrman received by far the most votes.

Yet, in a scandal similar to that surrounding the infamous ‘Boaty McBoatface’ poll, ČT refused to award Cimrman the prize. And why? Because, they claimed, the poll was intended to seriously honour Czech national heroes, and, they added, Cimrman didn’t qualify anyway, for the simple reason that he was made-up.

That’s right, as you might have begun to suspect at some point during that litany of achievement, Jára Cimrman never actually existed. He was invented by a theatre group in the 20th Century, but since then he’s captured the nation’s heart. Real he may not be; but hero he certainly is.

 

Essential Czech: Hello etc

Picture the scene: you’re in the Czech Republic.

round analog clock
I’m including pictures to help your imagination

You’re on holiday, visiting your sister/daughter/niece/friend/partner-in-crime, the esteemed blogger Ro Daniels. Blogging isn’t paying the bills so she’s gone down the mines. You’re all on your own.

You want a pint/coffee/postcard/doughnut. You head to the appropriate establishment, and on entering you’re met with the cheery smile and (you assume) friendly greeting of the staff. This stops you in your tracks – you want to reply, but you’re tongue-tied and you don’t know how!

Never fear. The subject of this Tuesday’s class is G R E E T I N G S. After reading this blog, you’ll be able to appropriately salute people from all walks of life. Hold tight!

Hello

Here are some phrases to deploy on meeting someone.

Dobrý den

This is what I’d describe as the standard greeting. It literally means, “Good day.”

As a bonus, it’s a cognate with a bunch of other Slavic greetings, like Dzień dobry in Polish and Добрый день (dobry dyien’) in Russian.

Dobré ráno

Good morning.

I usually use this sarcastically, because I so rarely consider mornings at all good. (Not an ideal situation, given I’m meant to be bushy-tailed and ready to start pouring coffee at 6am.)

Incidentally, to my ear, all spoken Czech sounds passive-aggressive, so my early-morning sarcasm just helps me fit in.

Dobrý večer

Good evening.

Hello and Goodbye

Czech is nothing if not efficient: here are some words that can mean both hello and goodbye.

Ahoj

Yeah, like what pirates say!!! Which is especially brilliant since the Czech Republic is landlocked. I don’t think river pirates exist.

Čau

This is pronounced exactly like the Italian “Ciao.” Pretty sure that can’t be a coincidence, but I’m not an etymologist and my Googling fingers are tired.

Nazdar

“Hallo!” or, “Cheerio!” People give me slightly weird looks when I say this, but I don’t care because it’s just such a cool word.

Ta-ra

I’m off.

Na shledanou

Tricky for foreigners to pronounce. I tend to stick to the rather informal Čau, even when it’s not strictly appropriate, but I’m so scruffy and disarming that I reckon I pull it off.

Dobrou noc

Nighty night!

For brevity, you can just throw out an offhand “Dobrou!”

 


 

Now get out there and start greeting people.

Essential Czech

When I lived outside the UK last year, I was a student on her semester abroad. I was an Erasmus participant, and, as such, contributed to the Russian/Czech economy mostly by spending tonnes of money on beer and Ubers for when I overslept and needed to get to class in a hurry.

Everything is different now. I live in Prague, not as a student, but as a worker. I’m no longer a mere observer of Czech culture, but rather an active participant – and, as such, I contribute to the Czech economy mostly by buying litres of beer and paying for taxis when I wake up hungover and need to get to work.

It’s a whole new world, let me tell you.

Now that I’m living here on a more long-term basis (read: until I run out of money or Brexit forces me to flee back to the UK), my friends and family are faced with the prospect of visiting me in Czechia.

Prague has a lot to offer international tourists: incredible architecture, cheap beer, leafy parks, low-cost alcohol, fascinating museums and galleries, inexpensive pints, ancient churches and monasteries, and the highest pub:person ratio in Central Europe.

Unfortunately, as I’m no longer a student with no obligations, but a serious English teacher-cum-grumpy waitress with bills to pay, I can’t show visitors around the city with the same freedom before.

Whilst central Prague can easily be navigated without a single word of Czech, in suburbs and other towns, English is more rarely spoken. As such, I’m gonna start posting a couple of words of Czech a week here, so if you’re related to me, get out your notebooks. I will be unsympathetic to your cries that you don’t speak the language as I abandon you in Hlavní Nádraží.

I was going to start off with the alphabet, since it’s full of weird letters, but I thought this first lesson should be somewhat more fundamental.

Commit this to your memory:

Dám si jednou pivo.

I’ll have a beer.

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Dám si velké pivo.

I’ll have a big beer.

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Dám si mockrát pivo.

I’ll have many beers.

 

Stay tuned for other essential Czech phrases, like, “Where’s the toilet?” and “We demand independence from the Austro-Hungarian oppressors.”

Another Cautionary Tale

This story takes place in Blinders, a bar in St Petersburg that I wrote an incredibly soppy blog about yesterday.

The month was April; the canals had just thawed and I had swapped my thick winter jacket for my very slightly thinner spring fleece. I was, predictably, in the pub, tasting the newest pint they had on draught. It was called Raskolnikov, and it was the second best beer I’d ever tasted.

“Oof,” I said.

I was keen to make conversation with Lyosha, the barman, and to practise my Russian, so I wasn’t content to leave it at that. “That’s really nice.” I realised I could stretch my Russian a little further, so I added, “That’s very tasty.”

“Yeah,” he said. He and I were the only people in the bar. I fiddled with my receipt and started folding a crane. Lyosha rearranged some glasses.

“It really is very… nice,” I said, failing to think of a third synonym. I decided to draw on this native Russian’s experience: “Lyosha,” I said, “what do you call it when something is, really, just very, very tasty?”

“Oh,” he said, “we can say it’s ахуенно [akh-oo-yen-a]. If it’s really good.”

“Cool!” I said. “Well, this beer is ахуенно!”

Lyosha laughed heartily; I was thrilled: making Russians laugh was a personal goal of mine, and not one that I achieved that often – with the exception of at my expense, when my accent crossed the line from bad to egregious. Another customer came in; they spoke in Russian too quickly for me to understand, but soon after a friend joined me and we got to talking.

“How’s the beer?” he asked.

“Ахуенно!”

I kept describing my pint as such, and my enthusiasm was met by smiles every time. This is a great word, I thought to myself. People love it.

I went to university in high spirits the next day: yesterday had been so unexpectedly full of smiles and people asking how much I liked my beer that my spirits were soaring. My teacher, seeing my uncharacteristically bright expression, asked me how my evening was. I was keen to use this fabulous word, to replicate the great reception it’d received the night before.

I replied cheerily, “Well, it was simply ахуенно!”

My teacher’s face dropped. “…Rosie,” she said, “where did you hear that word?”

“In a bar,” I replied, bemused. This wasn’t the response I was used to.

“Rosie, please, don’t talk that way,” she said.

Later, in Blinders, I told Lyosha what had happened, tone full of confusion and wide-eyed with innocence. He burst out laughing, called his friend over and had me repeat the story.

“You told me it meant good!!” I said, watching both men wipe tears from their eyes.

“It does,” he said, “but it’s not the kind of thing you say to your teacher.”

[After careful etymological study, my friends and I have concluded that the closest English translation to ахуенно is the rather charming cuntastic. Remembering saying that to my seventy year old Russian teacher will stay with me to my death bed.]

From that moment until the day I left Russia in June, Lyosha introduced me to friends, and, indeed, strangers, as the girl who said ахуенно to her teacher. The story was met with singular hilarity and disbelief.

Anyway, this is a cautionary tale to anyone who, like me, is stupid enough not to attach context to the words you learn in bars.

Have an ахуенный day, dear readers!

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

-or:-

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

bunch of white oval medication tablets and white medication capsules
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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

close up of smart phone
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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

Lie in the sun

biology botanical canna lily close up
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

food meal eat fat
Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

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

full frame shot of green peas
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

abundance agriculture bananas batch
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

Earth Shattering Stuff I’ve Learnt This Year

Year abroad is all about growth. It’s about expanding your horizons and stepping out of your comfort zone. With that in mind, here’s a list of just some of the most mind-blowing stuff I’ve learnt this year.

  1. Parmesan isn’t vegetarian;
  2. The evidence for menstrual synchrony is shaky at best;
  3. Tom Cruise is older than my dad;
  4. What flea markets are;
  5. Why flea markets are called that;
  6. Calling people “love” isn’t appreciated outside of the North of England; and
  7. Sour cream improves literally everything it’s added to.

There you go. Every day is a learning day!

Essential Russian

Before coming to Petersburg for my semester abroad, I spent many hours hunched over dusty travel guides and dictionaries, feverishly trying to memorise as many essential phrases as possible.

I knew that my two years of university of Russian, whilst enabling me to decline irregular nouns and whip out past passive participles at a moment’s notice, had not prepared me for basic day-to-day conversations. Sure, I could tell you that noun’s gender with a 87% rate of accuracy, but could I book you a table at a moderately-priced restaurant?

Could I fuck.

To give you an idea of my ignorance – and this is not an exaggeration – I had no idea how to ask to pay for something by card. The first time I was asked whether I wished to pay by cash or with plastic, I just stood there, gawping, mumbling about not understanding, until the cashier physically took my roubles from my nervous hands.

As most students on their year abroad will testify, no matter how much preparation you put in, you’re gonna feel lost those first few weeks in a foreign country. This has been especially true for Russia, where the culture shock has been even more striking than the language barrier.

That said, there are things you can do to ease your transition – amongst the most helpful of these is getting some simple phrases under your belt.

I’ve decided to compile a list of the most important words and phrases I’ve learnt since coming here; learn these, and your time this strange, lovely country will be that bit smoother…

  • Карточкой or Наличными

This is pretty straightforward: you finish your meal and wanna pay with plastic, say the first word; if you have cash then it’s the second. This is one of those ridiculously simple bits of vocab that you’ll use every day – one of those things that is so basic that you’ll be shocked you got through two years of intensive university-level Russian without soaking them up somehow.

  • Я напилась / я напился.

Classic. Of all the Russian stereotypes that abound in the West, one of the most accurate ones is the drinking culture. Russians love a tipple. Like, it’s 4pm on a Wednesday and we’re four shots of vodka down – might as well go to the pub and turn this into a night.

For those moments when you’ve really had enough and someone’s still trying to top you up, use the verb напиться to express having drunk one’s full.

Fair warning – this might not prevent your glass being refilled, but, hey, at least you gave it a go.

  • Данетничего

This isn’t technically a word – it’s actually three words (yes, no, nothing) stuck together. It’s a great one for those whose Russian isn’t perfect; there aren’t many situations when you can’t use it, and it has the added bonus of making you sound like you know what’s going on.

It might sound nonsensical to say yesnonothing, but it means something similar to “whatever,” “yeah, sure.”

It’s one I use when I’m coming home a little tipsy and my host family ask me how my evening was, or when I mishear something someone says in a bar but can’t be arsed to ask what they said. Use liberally, is my advice.

  • … … …

Silence. This is certainly the most important “phrase” I’ve learnt since coming to Petersburg – it turns out that English speakers are oftentimes far wordier than Russians; where my classmates from home and I want to explain something verbally, Russians will often prefer silence.

The classic example is on the bus. In Britain, you board, tell the driver where you’re heading, and pay; and when you get off, you say thank you.

In Petersburg, all bus fares cost the same, so locals simply board, wordlessly hand their money to the conductor, and then get off without so much as a “Спасибо.” I got this wrong a bunch of times and it caused a fair bit of confusion.

“Tulskaya ulitsa!” I announced to the conductor as I boarded the trolleybus for the first time. She, phone pressed to her ear, eyed me in confusion. I repeated myself, and then, in an attempt to clarify, continued in my broken Russian: “I want to go to Tulskaya ulitsa.”

“…Alright,” she said, taking my money, and looking at me and my friend as though we’d just cheerfully announced our attention to set loose a hive of bees in the bus.

It took us a few trips to realise why we were getting so many funny looks. It turns out that it’s not only unnecessary to tell the conductor where you’re going – it’s outright weird. We spent our first few weeks in Petersburg convinced bus conductors in general were constantly bemused.

That said, a combination of our dreadful accents and abysmal street smarts meant that conductors recognised us as foreign; and whilst most just let us get on with it, a few went out of their way to help us out, going as far as to tell us when we were approaching our stop, and even wishing us a pleasant day. This was a far cry from the image of the aloof, unapproachable Russian I’d developed from Western stereotypes.


Learn these few simple phrases, and you too will make the most of your semester abroad in Russia!*

 

*provided you also speak decent Russian

The Church of Crying over Spilt Blood

(This is part of an ongoing series where I chat shit about landmarks in Petersburg.)

13th of March 1881. Alexander II, Russian tsar and moustache model, seemingly unaware that summer was still months away, was taking a stroll in the Summer Gardens. It was a beautiful Russian spring day, which meant that a mere few inches of snow had fallen and the tsar was snuggled up in only one furry jacket.

Alexander’s entourage, as usual, were pressuring him to be less autocratic. “Be less autocratic,” they were saying.

Whatever, he thought, ignoring them imperiously.

“The people are sick of constant censorship,” they moaned. “They want basic civil liberties.”

Alex was sick of the chat. “What are they gonna do, assassinate me and unintentionally precipitate a period of conservative politics, spearheaded by my orphaned son? Wait until my grandson is engaged in war on the world stage, seize the nation’s railways and storm the Winter Palace?” he scoffed. Shaking his head at the preposterousness of the suggestion, he got into his carriage and gestured for his driver to move on.

Just as the vehicle began to move away, his trusted advisor shouted through the window – “Be careful, tsar – the people’s will is more powerful than you might think.”

What a weird way to phrase that, thought Alex to himself, settling back into the plush seat.

The streets through which the carriage clippity-clopped were lined with people waving their handkerchiefs and yelling about right to assemble and political representation. Maybe I should look into this “constitution” idea, thought Alex idly.

Just as he was beginning to convince himself that a little political representation could go a long way, the carriage abruptly stopped. Sticking his head out of the window, hoping he still looked regal, the tsar saw that a man holding a white package was standing in front of the horses.

Shit, he thought, as the man exploded.

Alex was rushed to the Winter Palace, missing both legs and half of his tummy. As he died he reached out to his son, soon-to-be Tsar Alexander III, and whispered, “…Build me the biggest… goddamn church you can…”

Alex Jr took his father’s words to heart, and, on the very spot Alexander got exploded, he constructed the architectural marvel that is known today as the Church of Crying over Spilt Blood. No expense was spared. There’s gold leaf, mosaics, enamel domes, marble floors, icons on icons on icons. There’s even a stall outside selling corn on the cob, although I’m not sure that was constructed at the same time as the church itself.

Alex Jr is said to have painted the twinkle in Jesus’ eyes with his own hands – although this is disputed: the tsar was notoriously afraid of ladders.

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Blurry ceiling ft. Jesus

Under the Soviets, famously not keen on religion or shit tonnes of gold that could be feeding the people being used to decorate big fancy churches, the cathedral fell into disrepair. It was briefly used to store posters, including the iconic There is No God cosmonaut one, but its doors were closed forever after the harassed janitor misplaced the keys.

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Say what you like about the USSR, they didn’t mince words.

The church was painstakingly repaired following the fall of the Soviet Union. The restoration is said to have taken over a year in man hours; it was one gentleman’s job to paint the straps on the saints’ sandals, and he worked full time, Monday to Friday. That’s how many goddamn saints there are in the place.

These days, over forty tourists visit the church a year, paying homage to the assassinated tsar, and admiring the lengths his son went to to make people feel bad about it.