Sep 18, 2011

Making myself at home...

I’ve just finished a Russian TV dinner - Borshch (the classic Russian soup, in which beetroot features strongly), kutleti (a bit like burgers) and rice in front of the European Volleyball championship semis. Russia just lost to Serbia after blowing about 6 match points. Serbians seem to be quite good at coming from behind… I managed to get tickets to the Olympic men’s volleyball bronze medal match, so I’m cultivating an interest. One of my favourite things about it is that every team has to have a token ‘small guy’ who wears a different colored vest to the others…

I don’t usually eat in front of the TV, but Grandma Tamara is away at the Dacha harvesting more cucumbers and marrows, so I’m by myself. I don’t mind being alone, but I miss coming home every day and being presented with more food than I could possibly eat. Tamara was born in the 1930s in the Ural mountains (central Russia), so she has lived through a lot. I asked her about the war this week, and although she was very young at the time she clearly remembers it vividly. She told me about her father going away to the front and coming back with blind in one eye. He was one of the lucky ones though. One brother didn’t come back at all, and the other lost both his legs. She told me about how hungry they were, and how she couldn’t understand why there was no bread, and how, even though they lived deep in the interior, they still had to shelter from occasional air raids. Although the USSR ultimately won the “Great Patriotic War”, as they call it here (it can’t be WWII, because WWI doesn’t really feature in Russian history books… maybe because it went so badly for them), they lost 23 million citizens. In every Russian city an “eternal flame” burns in memory of them. Petrozavodsk’s memorial is flanked by red flowers (blood) and overlooked by an enormous statue of Lenin. I walk past it them both on the way to university - humbling reminders of how much Russians have suffered.

On a lighter note, I tried out the university tourism club this week, expecting them to organise a few relaxed walks in the forest or trips to St Petersburg. However, I was wrong. Tourism in Russia is not for the faint hearted - indeed, their trips are so extreme that those who survived were all awarded certificates in the meeting! From what I understood (which was not a lot…) they go on multi-day rafting, mountain biking and cross country skiing trips. From their photos, it looked pretty intense. However, more impressive than this was their trip to Kamchatka. For those of you who don’t share my obsession with remote places, Kamchatka is a peninsula in the Russian far East, sort of north of Japan. As well as being one of the world’s most beautiful places, it is also one of the most remote, only accessible by sea and air. Last year the tourism club not only went there, they climbed an very high active volcano. I was well impressed.

I’m settling in to the choir - we have concerts on Monday and Wednesday next week which should be fun. We’ve been singing an excerpt from Handel’s Messiah, and it’s been entertaining trying to teach them to pronounce words properly (Ze Keengdom of zis vorld etc). Still, I should’t criticise - we sang in Russian yesterday and I was hopeless! Encouragingly, I can now understand about 50% of what the conductor says, so I am less likely to come in before everyone else and make a fool of myself, like I did on Wednesday!

I also had my first (and hopefully only) experience of a Russian medical centre this week - in order to renew our visas we had to have a HIV test, regardless of the fact that we had to have one in the UK in order to get our visa in the first place. Still, as long as we make it difficult for Russians to get to Britain they’ll keep making it hard for us.

I’ve been here two weeks now and it’s been so much better than I could have expected. Though Russians are often cold and impolite in public places - if you don’t fight your way through a door you’ll never get through, and you only get a “thank you” once in a blue moon - their friendliness and warmth in other contexts has been amazing. I’ve made friends at choir, at church (where I even met a Bolivian missionary) and at the Christian centre. I might be able to have a birthday party next Saturday after all!

Posing in front of another Revolutionary's statue.

A revolutionary in his own way! He toppled Lord Farquad and he got his swamp back!
After the war Petrozavodsk's main factory, which used to make weapons, was converted to make tractors like this one!

Can you see a rainbow?

It really rained - gave me the chance to teach my Russian friend about the phrase "raining cats and dogs."
And the main street (Lenin street - no prizes for originality) became a river.

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