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….

Ice Hockey

When booking tickets to watch a sport that you have no idea about, it’s always good to watch the best teams. So Max and I did a little research and having established that our local team CKA were really quite good and made the playoffs last year, our next challenge was to pick an opposing team that would give them a good game. Having spent a good half an hour researching the KHL (the Kontinental Hockey League), we came to the conclusion that it would be great to see one of the Moscow teams, either CSKA (not to be confused with CKA – they get quite angry if you do that)  or Dinamo Moscow. Having looked at the fixture list we saw that the CSKA game was a while of and decided to settle for the Dinamo game. Wednesday 18th September, clash of the titans, last years winners, against title hopefuls this year, St Petersburg against…. Dinamo Minsk?! Apparently our half an hour of research had proven to be completely redundant as in our excitement, we apparently confused DMS and DMK, one letter proving to be the difference between Minsk and Moscow, 440 miles, and most crucially between a reasonably competent hockey team and one of the league’s whipping boys. Having had our excitement slightly checked, we hopped on the metro (actually a really poor choice of word – you don’t simply just hop on the metro, it takes about 3 mins to go down the escalators because it’s so deep!)  and headed to the Ice Palace. Here are just a few things I learnt about Ice Hockey in St Petersburg last Wedensday;

– To make your team seem more manly, imposing and terrifying its very important to spend what must have been the whole pre season filming a Viking battle seen where your key players are seen in chain mail and helmets vanquishing Barbarians. Oh and make sure the film lasts for at least twenty minutes and key scenes are replayed and various, seemingly odd points throughout the game.

– Don’t sing the Russian National anthem, or if you do make it seem very half-hearted and sort of look down at the floor when you do. Or conversely stare blankly ahead and hold your scarf above your head.

– Do however enthusiastically clap in time whenever pop music is played throughout the course of the three periods…..which is apparently every two minutes.

– Ice hockey itself doesn’t seem like a very exciting game without fights. There’s not much that can be said for a sport when it’s most exciting features are substitutions…

– Subsitutions in Ice Hockey are very impressive – the frequency and speed with which players interchange is absolutely breathtaking. I probably spent as much time watching the two benches as players skated in and out at manic speeds as I did watching the gameplay (which was just as well as our seats were right behind the opposition bench and most of the time they were obstructing our view of the game).

– It is perfectly normal in Russia to wear your wedding gear to an Ice Hockey game and as a result be rewarded with 20 seconds on kiss cam. Personally, I was surprised that only two such couples were at the game – I was expecting a lot more!

– Arsene Wenger and Neil Lennon would be very impressed with the Dinamo Minsk coach. Having conceded their fourth goal, he decided that instead of speaking to his players he would just throw water bottles around. Which had similar results to this…. http://www.whoateallthepies.tv/scottish_football/70793/snapshot-neil-lennon-one-ups-arsene-wenger-in-the-water-bottle-destruction-stakes.html

– Dinamo Minsk are absolutely atrocious, and CKA are really quite good. Or being perfectly honest, on the basis of the game that we saw, CKA could be quite average, but Dinamo Minsk are undeniably awful at Ice Hockey.

– Minsk were so pathetic that A) they didn’t even go down with a fight, and B) the CKA players felt too sorry for them to beat them up which was most disappointing.

– There can’t be much to do in Minsk on a Wednesday evening, as 20 naive people decided to trek the 489 miles from Minsk to St Petersburg to watch their team get absolutely stuffed. I genuinely think watching the same episode of ‘Loose Women’ on repeat would have been more enjoyable for them.

– Finally, whilst I am sure it is clear that I wasn’t completely enamored with the sport, Ice Hockey as a spectacle in Russia is superb. Mexican Waves, kiss cam, the Ultras, short films about Viking invasions staring hockey players, cheerleaders everywhere you look and Taylor Swift playing every five minutes is a very, very difficult combination to beat, and as a result, tomorrow I plan on buying tickets to the Dinamo MOSCOW game.

Pants and Socks.

It’s now been over a week in to my Russian hiatus and I have a confession to make; I am loving every second of it. The unfounded sense of doom and dread that started to loom over me towards the end of summer has completely evaporated, and I feel like I need to apologize to everybody who tried to reassure that it would be absolutely brilliant whilst I blindly told them to shut up (Sam, Esther and Anna especially – I will only say this once, you were right). There are many reasons for my current state of optimism but I’ll try and pick out a few just to give you a bit more insight into what’s going on over here. 

One of the main reasons is that for the first time since school I am actively enjoying studying Russian (and also probably actively studying it for the first time). The way that Liden and Denz work seems remarkably simple yet thoroughly effective. I have 4 hours of lessons back to back each day with a ten minute break every hour all in Russian, roughly split in to a couple of hours of grammar and a couple of hours of writing and speaking. Occasionally we do some sort of listening exercise which I thought we would do more often; however even after only being here a week I have seen my comprehension of Russian drastically improve. Although you hear from everyone that there is nothing like being totally immersed in a different language, you can’t really understand what this means until you experience it. One of the massive advantages about studying Russian as well is that English is rarely heard/used and having to use Russian all the time, albeit rather challenging, is brilliant for my language skills!

Another reason for my optimism is the city of St Petersburg. Steeped in history, there are so many brilliant things to see and do here, and I haven’t even started! I’m sure there will be many more blog posts to follow focusing on some of the brilliant sights here like the Hermitage and the Winter Palace, but until I do them myself I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait to hear about them. One of the best things that I have come across in St Petersburg so far is how cheap the price of tickets are for culture and sport – we’ve already booked tickets to go to see SKA play (Ice hockey), and also plan to go and see Zenit, a ballet and a concert or two – all at about a third of the price that they would be in London. The variety of things on offer means that there is no shortage of things to do!

Finally, as previously alluded to it can be rather tiring/difficult having to do everything in Russian (especially things like organising a Russian sim card…!), so having a great house to go back to every evening is brilliant. Indeed the entirety of my Saturday was spent with the boys trying to find seemingly one of the rarest things in Russia – a SCART lead. Having exhausted all possibilities and realising that Sony are despicable ,and that apparently if you don’t have the original PS3 to Scart lead then you can’t really get one, we decided to take the hit and by a reasonably cheap HD ready TV. Whilst many people may (potentially correctly) point out that having FIFA will be detrimental to my Russian learning, it is just great to have when we need to switch off for a bit. 

And that leads me on to the title of this post. As many of you will have correctly assumed I have indeed ran out of pants and socks (sorry Mum) but that bears little relevance to the title, which in fact came from an anecdote from Max. Apparently when he used to play football at school he had a coach who would praise great goals and pieces of skill with the words ‘pants and socks’. When everyone stared blankly at him and he felt the need to express this odd terminology he said to the boys ‘it’s simple really, you keep your pants in socks in the top drawer‘. Apparently he also used to describe goals as ‘picture frame’ (on top of the top drawer) but Russia isn’t quite as good as Danny Rose vs Arsenal…..yet.