Category Archives: living abroad

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!

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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

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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

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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

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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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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.

 

Walking home from the theatre, …

Last week’s grammar classes were spent puzzling over the intricacies of the gerund (the ‘ing’ form of the verb). As a homework intended to both stretch our linguistic ability and get the creative juices flowing, we were asked to write a story about walking home from the theatre using as many gerunds as possible.

I wouldn’t normally share my homework with you, but I must say I wrote an absolute banger and it’d be a travesty to commit it to my language folder unread. I live to serve the public.

Enjoy!

By the way, our teachers here are obsessed with us going to the theatre. It’s really weird. Like, they’ll ask what we did at the weekend, and then when we’re done pretending we did anything other than sitting at home in our pants, they’ll be like, “And did anyone go to the theatre?”

We’ve got holidays coming up this month and they asked us about our plans: “Anyone doing anything fun? Going to the theatre, maybe?”

It’s like really confusing, pointless peer pressure.
Anyway, here’s my gerund practice.

Walking home from the theatre, I decided to take a detour along the canal. I crossed the street opposite Kazan Cathedral, looking both ways to see if any cars were coming, and, noticing it had started raining, I put my hood up and walked quickly.

Reaching the banks of the canal, I saw that there were ducks under the bridge. On the pavement stood a girl and her grandmother, throwing the ducks bread. Not wishing to stand in the rain, I hurried on and the pair feeding the ducks ran out of bread and went to the bus stop.

Having skipped tea because I was running late to the theatre, I was very hungry. Outside my house was a kiosk serving pancakes. Needing something to eat, I went to the window and asked for a pancake with cheese and tomatoes. The woman cooking the pancakes took my money and started making my dinner. I watched, stomach rumbling.

Holding the pancake, I went inside. Sitting at the table, I unwrapped the food and began to eat. That’s when I noticed: the woman, not hearing my order, had given me chicken and mushrooms. Being allergic to mushrooms, I immediately vomited and had to go to bed.

-FIN-

Tоска

When you first start learning a language, it seems like for every English word there is an exactly analagous word in your target language – table corresponds with la mesa in Spanish; tea with le thé in French and so on.

For the majority of concrete nouns, this works pretty well – after all, how many different ways can a culture interpret a lemon or a moustache?

However, once you begin learning more complex, abstract words, especially those relating to the soul or to the human condition, things get more complicated. You find that you can’t translate some concepts in a straightforward manner; even more interesting is when you find words in your target language for which there is no satisfactory English equivalent.

One of my favourites of these words is the Russian emotion тоска (toska). Toska is translated variously as misery, melancholia, or, my personal favourite, as existential agony. Readers of Russian literature will certainly recognise this phenomenon as one of Russian authors’ favourite themes; my literature teacher went as far as to say that Russian stories with happy endings aren’t really Russian at all.

Vladimir Nabokov, author of such masterpieces as Lolita and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, had this to say about toska:

“No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”

The thing, in my opinion, which makes this word more interesting, is the way that, despite the fact that we have no exact equivalent, we recognise it intuitively. It’s moments like these that I wonder what other untranslatable but somehow perfectly understandable words exist.

A Palace for Every Season

The Hermitage: doubtlessly the cherry on the top of the sundae that is St Petersburg, cultural and canal capital of Russia. The Winter Palace, as it is also known, attracts millions of visitors a year, and is one of the world’s largest museums; it’s said that it would take a person twenty years to get round the whole thing.

Sure, it’s pretty good.

The Summer Palace is located in the Summer Gardens, a stone’s throw from the morbidly-named but surprisingly jolly Church on Spilled Blood.  Legend says that Great Peter, father of Petersburg, built the palace with his bare hands, once again teaching us that he was as rugged as they come. The architecture is Dutch, the furnishings are French, but you couldn’t find anything more emblematically Russian.

It’s alright.

I’ve been in Petersburg since February, and although Spring has technically started, clearly no one’s told the weather. It’s still snowing and every time the temperature reaches the dizzy heights of 0°C, I celebrate by prancing around the city without a hat and wearing only one pair of trousers.

For that reason, I still basically think Russia’s gripped in winter’s icy fist, and I’ve been doggedly visiting the appropriate palace accordingly. Every week for the last couple of months, I’ve stuck my nose outside, sniffed the air, and once I’m confident that, yeah, it’s still pretty much winter here, skipped off to the Winter Palace to soak up some culture.

I can hardly wait for the snow to melt: I don’t know where the Spring Palace is, or even what’s inside it, but the buildup has been so intense that I’m pretty sure it must be the best thing ever.

Sadly, on questioning my Russian friends about this magical place, I’ve been met with nothing but bemusement. “The Spring Palace?” They say. “Don’t you mean the Summer or Winter Palace?”

It’s a sad fact of the Russian climate that the Spring and indeed Autumn Palaces are so neglected.

For now, I sit by the window, watching the snow stubbornly falling, and dream about a new seasonal palace.

Places I’ve Fallen

The snow is officially beginning to melt here in St Petersburg, and I thought I’d send it off by sharing this map of all the places I’ve fallen since I moved here in February. It’s not that I’m horrifically clumsy; it’s just really slippy here.

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As you can see, Smolny Cathedral is an absolute death trap.

The Copper Rider

I moved to St Petersburg a few months ago, and I’ve been trying my best to see as many of the достопримечательности (I’m not kidding – that’s the Russian for “sights”) as I can. This is no mean feat, since Petersburg is the cultural capital of Russia and pretty much saturated with statues, museums, galleries, parks, cathedrals, churches, cemeteries, plaques and other such Instagram-worthy stuff.

Unfortunately, although I’ve been studying Russian for two and a half years now, my grasp of the language is still, if I do say so myself, only slightly better than dreadful. At the main sights, of course, information is translated into English; but since I’m meant to be immersing myself, I try to divert my attention to the Russian original.

So what do I do when, as often happens, my patchy Russian fails? How do I fill in the blanks?

Simple. I make shit up.

It started off as a way to cope with the fact that I don’t understand 70% of what I read, but since then it’s become something of a hobby of mine. Maybe I’m a product of this “fake news” age, but I do find fiction much more attractive than fact.

Let’s take, for example, one of Petersburg’s most famous sights: the gigantic statue of Great Peter, also known as the Copper Rider.

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Made from over fifty thousand melted kopecks, this imposing figure stands on the banks of the Neva, a stone’s throw from the Winter Palace.

Great Peter, here depicted sitting on his faithful steed Loshad, is the very same Peter who gave his name to the ‘berg, who put the Petro in Petrograd. But what, I hear you ask, made Pete so great?

Well, for one thing, he drove all the snakes out of the city, just like St Patrick did in Ireland. I’m not 100% on this, but I’m pretty sure Peter did it first, which makes Patrick something of a follower on. This particular achievement is immortalised in copper; if you look closely, you can see a snake being trampled under the hooves of the mount.

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You can tell I didn’t take this because I’ve never seen Russia without snow. Also, it’s in focus.

When Peter founded Petersburg, the place was awash with snakes. You couldn’t move for them. It was like that film, Snakes on a Plane, except instead of being on a plane, the snakes were everywhere. You’d reach to wipe the sweat off your brow and come away with a fistful of snakes. You’d have to shake out your jumpers before you put them on and twenty or thirty snakes would come pouring out.

Like, it was really stupid how many snakes there were.

I know what you’re thinking – why did Peter decide to build his capital in an actual nest of snakes? Why’d he not pick somewhere overrun with a nicer thing, like puppies or artisan bakeries? I’ll tell you why. That bastard was tenacious. He wasn’t gonna let a little thing like a million snakes stop him from breaking a window into Europe.

What makes Peter’s Pied Pipering of the serpents so spectacular, though, is the way he got rid of them. In a display of diplomacy that boggles the mind, Peter actually entered into talks with the head snake (the so-called King Cobra). Instead of forcibly exiling the snakes, he reached an historic compromise, according to which the snakes would leave the city in return for a hefty monthly donation of mice.

The snake trampled under the horse’s feet, therefore, is somewhat misleading: a more realistic statue would show a snake and Peter sitting at a desk, hours deep into exhausting peace negotiations. Whatever, though. Artistic license always seems to take preference over hard, cold facts.