Reflective notes from across the pond – we need to talk about gun control.

In light of the events in Oregon yesterday, I feel compelled to share something I wrote after my recent trip to America – as usual comments are more than welcome.

As many of you will know, I’m a notoriously bad/unlucky traveller. For once, my unnecessarily long return journey back to London from Atlanta was entirely my fault – a combination of poor planning and spontaneity resulting in an 18 hour bus ride, followed by a 9 hour wait at JFK before my 6 hour flight home. Apart from a brief break to celebrate Ryan Mason’s 82nd minute winner for Spurs against Sunderland (waking up a bus full of very unimpressed travellers in New Jersey), the journey back was a wonderful chance to reflect on just over seven weeks in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Amongst the roadtrips, the sightseeing, the parties and making new friends, one incident which really stood out above all others was a seemingly innocuous drive to Folly Beach just 20 minutes outside of Charleston, South Carolina. At the time we were staying with friends at the College of Charleston, one of the most beautiful and fun places that we visited. Whilst our friend/tour guide/host Grace was at class (for at class, read sailing – apparently in America you get college credit for having fun) she recommended that we head to the beach. News was trickling through that morning of a shooting that happened in Virginia, something that I had to say, apart from being briefly dismayed, I didn’t pay that much attention to; after all, it happens all the time in America. We hopped in the car, and managed to head in completely the opposite direction, something that we had managed to do with unerring consistency throughout the trip. Our new route happened to take us through the centre of town, and coincidentally past the  Emanuel AME Church– something that we had planned to do later on in our visit. Always happy to make the most of our geographical ineptitude, we parked up (slightly illegally) and took turns to go and visit the memorials outside the church building, whilst making sure we weren’t on the receiving end of an unwanted visit from a traffic warden.

I have to confess that I spent probably less than 2 minutes briefly reading a couple of messages that had been left there by family and friends of those who had lost their loved ones in a senseless, seemingly random, act of violence, before I couldn’t take it anymore. I was angry. Angry at the idea that as human beings we willfully do this to one another, angry that this was such an avoidable problem, and angry that the frequency of mass gun murders in America had made me desensitised to the gravity of the issue.

I could spend my time writing about the facts and figures surrounding gun murder in America, and trying, as many others already have, to show the need for gun control however I feel as though for the most part it would simply be an exercise of ‘preaching to the converted’. Indeed one of the overwhelmingly apparent trends of conversations I had with people in America about gun control was that those who were ‘pro guns’ were incredibly averse to any suggestion that their ‘second amendment right’ should be tampered with – especially when I suggested that their precious second amendment to the constitution means that the ‘certain unalienable right to life’ of their fellow Americans, enshrined in their declaration of independence, is often extinguished.

Instead I feel as though it would be far more useful to urge people to think about the routine nature of the debate surrounding gun control. In his address in the aftermath of the shooting yesterday in Oregon, before going on to make some of the most basic, yet salient, arguments for gun control laws, Obama hit the nail on the head – “Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine, the conversation in the aftermath of it … We have become numb to this.” And that’s one of the biggest problems. Mass shootings are so routine that as human beings we are numb to the pain that we should feel when we hear about ‘yet another’ shooting.

So in response to yesterday’s events, maybe it’s time to finally look at the issue from the perspective of a human being. In Oregon, after the 994th mass shooting in the United States since November 2012, 10 families were torn apart. This morning, those families will be waking up from what must seem like a nightmare, only to have to realise that it wasn’t just a dream. Life will never be the same for them. Surely something must be done to stop this nightmare being replicated in the lives of others?

Maybe the pain caused to the families of those victims in the 994 mass shootings isn’t enough to motivate you to think about the need for change. It isn’t just mass shootings that cause gun deaths. “Firearms are the cause of death for more than 33,000 people in America every year, according to the CDC; a number that includes both accidental discharge, murder and suicides, which are on the increase, especially in states with lax gun-control laws, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.” (Guardian 2015) As a human being, surely we can only feel that any death as the result of a firearm is one too many. Something has to change.

Having spent seven great weeks in one the most fascinating and wonderful countries in the world, this is the unpleasant aftertaste that almost makes me feel guilty for enjoying it as much as I did. Over the course of my time there, it seemed increasingly evident to me that whatever you believe about gun control, you cannot believe that the current situation is acceptable, but yet it is routine. In the words of former Attorney General Eric Holder “Is the answer to our gun violence epidemic to do nothing?  Again?  Come on America!”

From someone who longs to love America, and can’t wait to return, I completely echo his sentiments.

Come on America. You’re better than this.

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Anniversaries, the looming start of the football season and knock, knock who’s there?

So far today has been one of those very few ‘perfect’ days, and seeing as Spurs aren’t playing till tomorrow nothing can seemingly ruin the day! I’ve just got off the phone with one set of wonderful grandparents who are today celebrating 56 years of wonderful married life together (if you listen to Grandma), or 56 years of constant torment (if you listen to Grandad). My other grandparents have also celebrated just their 56th wedding anniversary last week and it’s been wonderful to catch up with them as well – they have just enjoyed a trip back to Cambridge and are enjoying life as much as ever! It’s been lovely to hear from four of the most important role models in my life, and be able to just quickly thank them for all that they have done for me over the years, and to know that they are still thinking about me and praying for me from the other side of the world. Congratulations to you both!

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The pitch a couple of weeks ago – thankfully there isn’t as much snow left!

Here in Russia, the sun is shining and the weather is great, the temperature is just below freezing but I’ve become pretty accustomed to the cold. I’ve just been told by my team captain that tomorrow we are getting ready for the start of the outdoor football season by cleaning the first team pitch. There’s still a bit of snow and ice kicking about and the ground is currently a little too hard to play on but it’s very exciting none the less!

I’ve also just submitted my ‘essay proposal’ form – a whole two days before the deadline! One of the requirements from Bristol whilst I am on my year abroad is to write a 3,500 word essay in Russian. The title that I’ve gone for is ‘В какой степени политические, социальные и экономические последствия Олимпийских игр в России положительных?’ For those of you who don’t study Russian/are too lazy to use Google translate (works like a dream) this translates as something like “To what extent was the political, social and economic impact of the Olympic Games in Russia positive?” If my title’s approved, one of the most interesting aspects of the essay will be looking at the different portrayals of the games in the Western World and in Russia – comments from you all would be much appreciated!

Another question has come up which I thought would be quite interesting to write about – ‘what is Russian humor like?’ Admittedly most of the time, the answer to this question is ‘non-existant’, however thinking more carefully about it I feel as though this would be doing a disservice to most Russian people. During training the other day, I was talking about Russian humor with some of the boys who told me that during the Communist Era humor used to be used to help people get through the day. This mainly came in the form of ‘anecdotes’ one or two liners that had a witty punchline undermining the establishment I think most of us would find quite funny – below are two passably amusing jokes that were popular during the Communist Era (and probably will be in Uncle Jon’s household for the next 6 months):

A Russian, a Frenchman and an Englishman were arguing about Adam’s nationality. The Englishman said “Of course Adam was English – he gave his only apple to Eve like a real gentleman. The Frenchman said, “Don’t be ridiculous Adam was French! Look how passionately he made love to Eve!” Whilst the two of them were arguing the Russian quietly said, “Adam has to be Russian. Who else, possessed nothing but an apple, walked around naked, still believed he was in a paradise?”

Two men were in a Gulag together sharing a cell. One asked the other, “what did you do to end up in here, was it a political crime?” The other replied. “Of course it was political. I’m a plumber and they summoned me to the District Party committee to fix the sewage pipes. I looked and said, ‘Hey, the entire system requires replacement.’ So, they gave me seven years.”

I’ll leave you with the beautiful view from my front door this morning – hope your Saturday is going as well as mine!

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Russian Cuisine

So after asking you for your questions, I surprisingly got some very sensible and interesting questions from a lot of you (and also very unhelpful and disparaging comments from others of you – thank you Mr Woolcott). Whilst I was on my 13 hour train journey to St Petersburg I decided to answer one of the first questions I got, which, as the title suggests, was “what’s the food like in Russia?”

Great question – Russian cuisine and eating habits are very different to ours in general. As part of my accommodation agreement with my host mother, I also get breakfast and dinner (evening meal) from her. Breakfast invariably consists of a large plate (yes not bowl, plate) of porridge, a yogurt and occasionally some toast with cheese. Каша (kasha) is very similar to English porridge – usually made with milk and the Russians are very insistent that its very good for you! On the rare occasions that I haven’t had it for breakfast, it’s been replaced with an omelette, as my host mother calls it (in reality it’s very oily scrambled eggs – but not bad at all). 
 
Dinner is taken very seriously – Russians nearly always eat three courses. The first is invariably a soup. As I’m not too keen on seafood, I haven’t yet had the fishy soup which I feel is the most popular in Yaroslavl, but other than that there are three main other types of soup – borscht, solyanka and rassolnik. All of these are equally tasty, and as you’d expect very filling – the Russians love soup mainly because its another way to counteract the cold! Luda usually puts meat in all three and serves them in huge bowls with about half a loaf of bread – and invariably adds a very large amount of mayonnaise. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about Russian cuisine, it’s that if it doesn’t have mayonnaise in it or the option to add mayonnaise then it’s not considered good food. After this I’m usually full, and often have to try and delay the main course for a couple of hours – my protestations that I’m full are usually met with puppy dog eyes and the tame question ‘do you not like my food?’ from Luda which usually ends up with me eating my main course straight away and having to roll to my bedroom afterwards….
 
The main courses have been quite varied – often I have a piece of meat with spaghetti which is ‘Russified’ with the addition of lots of salads and sauces which Luda has made herself – most involve peppers and taste somewhat similar to sweet chilli. Occasionally we eat pelmeni, a very popular dish over here – pasta shells stuffed with meat (unsure as to what it is) and served with, yes you’ve guessed it, a very healthy amount of mayonnaise. Luda also makes a nice dish which she calls potatoes with mushrooms – and unsurprisingly consists of boiled potatoes, some fried mushrooms and unlimited amounts of mayonnaise. 
 
On the whole, the food here is great – I feel as though I have been really lucky to get Luda as a host mother because her cooking is excellent, and after a month or so everything that’s put in front of me now seems completely normal. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get over the extraordinary amount of mayonnaise that they use though! 
 
Please keep your questions coming, and I’ll try to keep answering them in the coming weeks!

 

Just touched down in Yaroslavl….. nearly a month ago.

Having been here for just over three weeks, it seems like a pretty poor effort to only just be posting my first impressions about my time here (and it is), however I hope you’ll forgive the lateness. The excuses are in some cases valid (a lack of internet followed by a mild brain trauma), and in some cases completely invalid (those of you who know me know that on the whole I’m pretty lazy, and I’ve also developed a surprising addiction to chess – watch this space!). Anyway, here are a few words on my journey and first impressions of Yaroslavl:

After a relatively straight forward flight (by my standards) from Gatwick to Moscow, I was left standing outside Domodedevo airport in Moscow looking for a car with a number plate ending in ‘76’ – apparently meaning that the car was from Yaroslavl and the right one to take me to my final destination. For the first half an hour, there was nothing – and then a landrover appeared with the desired number plate. Grateful that my taxi had finally arrived, I dragged my two cases over towards the car, only to see a man hurriedly get out, grab a suitcase and run into the airport before the car drove off. Turns out that there are more than 2 cars with a Yaroslavl number plate…

After another hour or so the right minibus arrived and we set off on the 4 hour journey to Yaroslavl. After the first hour I asked the lady sitting next to me how long she thought it would be before we arrived in Yaroslavl, and after receiving a lecture about the awful Moscow traffic, she assured me that it would be no longer than 3 or 4 hours. Content with her answer, I somehow managed to fall asleep, and finally awoke 4 hours later. Having looked at the time, I naively thought that we might be close, and asked her if we’d be there in a few minutes. She told me not to be so stupid, repeated her lecture about the traffic, and told me once again that we would be there in 4 hours.

Pulling up to a seemingly deserted, slightly derelict, apartment block and subsequently being kicked out of the taxi at half 11 with only the instructions ‘find flat 25’ from the driver, was quite perturbing. The taxi then left, and I was faced with five doors to choose from, all with limited lighting and very little indication about what was inside. Just as I was starting to play ‘eeny meeny miny moe’ I heard a voice call my name from the darkness, and my new host Ludmilla appeared to take me up to my home for the next four and a half months. In the light of day the next morning I not only worked out that adjacent to my room is a sort of balcony, and subsequently that I know live next door to, not one, but two beautiful orthodox churches, a nice change from St Petersburg.

Speaking of St Petersburg, there is a really different feel to life here in Yaroslavl. Having been told by many people that Yaroslavl is a ‘genuine’ Russian town, it’s been really interesting to notice not only the change in pace of life here, but also that on the whole people seem a lot nicer and more willing to help. I think that one of the reasons for the latter, is that foreigners are quite a rarity here. When out and about in St Petersburg, you could occasionally hear English, however here it is almost completely non existent. The language school that I go to in Yaroslavl is located in a normal Russian primary and middle school (the age range is roughly 5-15), and when we pass through the hallways everyone seems to scream ‘hello’ in a very thick Russian accent and try to shake your hand. Whilst mildly flattering at first, being a celebrity has quickly worn off, I now feel well placed to sympathise with all those constantly hounded by the paparazzi.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have found a wonderful group of Russian friends, and have also enjoyed a 5 star stay at one of Yaroslavl’s finest medical institutions – blog posts will be forthcoming on both over the next couple of days. Other than that I was thinking it would be quite nice to give you guys (all four of you that read the blog) a chance to ask me questions, either about Yaroslavl or Russia in general. I can’t promise that they will be answered, but I feel as though it would be a good way of prompting me to talk about things that I’ve overlooked! You can either pop them in the comments section or email them to me at jm0555@my.bristol.ac.uk and I’ll hopefully get around to doing a post about them in the next couple of weeks.

 

ice fishing

Liden and Denz come up trumps and Russia, unsurprisingly, is starting to get colder.

Well it actually turns out that Liden and Denz are currently miles ahead of United Airlines. I’ve just got home from a meeting with the school where they completely apologised for the situation and give me adequate compensation! Great result. Not holding out as much hope for United Airlines – having been in touch with some of the other passengers, 2 were given travel certificates for $250 each, and two were given nothing. Their self imposed deadline of getting back to me is tomorrow, so hopefully I will having something more to tell you all then.

In other news, Russia is starting to get colder – it was -12 yesterday, but the persistent wind chill and snow make everything seem freezing. The more it snows, however, the more beautiful it gets. St Petersburg is built on a swamp and has a series of rivers and canals running through it, which by now are pretty much all frozen over, something that I’m really not very used to! I’ll leave you with a suitably snowy and cold (red faced) picture of me in front of one of the most beautiful cathedrals in St Petersburg, the Church of the Spilled Blood. I hope it’s slightly warmer wherever you are!

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Back in Russia – minus a few of my possessions.

Well it turns out Liden and Denz have gone all United Airlines on me (without the persistent rudeness). Having arrived in Russia on Friday evening I was picked up from the airport by Sasha, and also bumped into another friend Charlie – despite the usual bleak, wet Russian weather a great start. We took a marshrutka to the metro and arrived home via a relatively painless journey but it was at home where the problems began. The flat was spotless – everything completely clean and tidy; the bath still sticks out of the wall but I’ve grown to love it and will be quite sad to see the back of it. However everything that I’d left in my room (under the explicit instruction of the school) was gone. My beloved laptop (which was dead), my even more beloved football and my universally despised clothes (Anna was slightly too happy at the prospect of them potentially being lost) are no more. Or they might be…. Having spoken to Liden and Denz this morning they told me that they had no idea where my things are – yet they seemingly knew my laptop was broken. You don’t need to have watched the first couple of episodes of Sherlock to figure out that something doesn’t quite match up….. Hopefully everything will get sorted tomorrow. 

 

Apart from this reasonably frustrating situation, being back in Russia is great. The weather is still just about bearable (it’s -7 today), and the city looks beautiful in the snow – photos will hopefully follow soon. Also, whilst in America I was very kindly given a pair of very cool spy sunglasses which have the ability to record audio and video (thank you very much Mr Claunch!), so if I manage to get a micro SD card, hopefully I’ll be able to show you all my walk to school, and some of the wonderful buildings and rivers here in St Petersburg. I’ve also got a lovely new flatmate who is Swedish – picking up from where Robin left off – except she’s slightly more tidy…!

 

Hopefully I’ll have some good news about my things tomorrow, otherwise I’m going to presume that someone in Russia has had a very good Christmas and is currently wearing a Zenit shirt, kicking around a really nice football and trying to figure out why my laptop screen isn’t completely attached to the keyboard….

A reply from United Airlines

After harassing United Airlines on Twitter for today, as well as filling out the customer care form, I felt like I was getting nowhere and did some stalking on the internet. I came across a website for other people as annoyed at United as I was(http://www.untied.com/) and sent my complaint email to a couple of senior customer care United employees using their email addresses that I found on this website. Today I got the following response:

 

Dear Mr. Murray:

 

Thank you for contacting United Airlines.

 

Scott OLeary forwarded your email to me and asked that I contact you on his behalf. 

I realize my apology cannot erase what happened, but I hope it helps to know we take your concerns very seriously. 

At United Airlines, we believe all customers and co-workers are to be treated with dignity and respect. This philosophy is deeply woven into everything we do. 

The behavior you described would not be acceptable under any circumstances.

 

When you fly with United, you expect us to take good care of you and to provide timely, efficient and professional service.  Your comments that our staff in Newark was not helpful and was very rude and unprofessional concerns me.  I have shared your feedback with our operations manager for their follow up with the employees involved.  This will be helpful in evaluating our service to ensure we respond more effectively to you in the future. 
  
We may not be able to undo the circumstances you experienced; however, I would like to offer you an electronic travel certificate as an expression of our concern. I will need some additional information to process your travel certificate, so please provide me with your flight number, address, phone number and MileagePlus number if available. Once I receive your information please allow 3-5 days for processing and delivery via a separate e-mail.

 

You mentioned that there were other passengers that were disserviced, so if you can provide me with their information I will be happy to assist them as well. 

Please be assured your comments will be forwarded to division senior management for internal review and necessary corrective action. 

We appreciate your business and look forward to welcoming you on board a future United Airlines flight.  

 

 

 

Regards,

 

Lisa Venters

Corporate Customer Care

 

 

I have replied and I’m waiting to see if this ‘electronic travel certificate’ amounts to anything worthwhile. If so, ‘don’t fly United’ will become ‘don’t fly United unless they pay for you to do so…..’ I’ll keep you updated.