“In pursuit of the uneatable?”

“The English country gentleman galloping after a fox – the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible.”
Oscar Wilde
I saw something unexpected today. Perhaps “heard” or “experienced” would be more accurate, because I didn’t see very much at all. I saw (heard/experienced) a fox hunt. I’m not going to be drawn into the fox-hunting debate, either on the pro or anti side. “Hunting with dogs” is still perfectly legal in Eire, and I’m aware that there is at least one local “hunt”. I’ve also learned that I don’t always understand everything that is happening in my locality. Instead, I’m going to report what I saw, and leave it at that.
My house is a little over a mile from the town. When the mood takes me, as it did today, I walk down to the town. It’s a pleasant walk, and today all I planned to buy was a couple of cartons of milk (whole and semi-skimmed) and the papers. That hardly represents a serious load, especially carried in a rucksac.
For part of it’s route, the road runs parallel to the River Allow. On the way down, I noticed some unusual things. Cars parked at the side of the road in places where there are not usually cars, and a couple of small groups of men, all looking observant and some talking on mobile phones. I wondered what was going on.
Further along, the river comes closer and there is a steep wooded bank between the river and the road, as it passes through a small wood. As I entered the wood, I became aware of sounds coming from the wood. The sounds were: dogs barking and yelping, men shouting and cracking sounds (which I think were trees being struck with sticks). I crossed the road to look down onto the river. In the distance I heard the sound of a “call” (I’m not sure what the correct name for a the bugle or trumpet they use is). As I looked down at the river bank I could see a couple of hounds running around and sniffing the ground. While I watched, a man climbed up a track leading from the river bank. He said that they were trying to prevent the fox (I assumed they were hunting a fox) from crossing the road.
I continued to the town, and completed my errand. I wasn’t at all surprised that there was nothing for me to see on the way home. When I was nearly home, I saw a car driving towards me, so I stepped up onto the verge. To my surprise he pulled into a field entrance a little in front of me, got out of the car and started talking on his mobile phone. As I reached him, he finished with the phone,
  • “Did you get your fox?” I asked.
  • “Oh, we won’t be catching any of those fellows today” he replied with a grin.
In the distance, I could here the sound of the dogs barking.
All I saw throughout the whole episode were two dogs and some men. No fox, no horses, nothing else.

Reflections on Siberia

It’s now (25th October 2011) two weeks since I left Novosibirsk, and a week since I returned to Ireland. This seems an appropriate time to reflect on my trip and what I achieved.

Why did I go to Russia? I went with the objective of improving my Russian, and I have certainly achieved that. I wanted to experience living in a foreign country, and I have done that too. I wonder if I also had a desire to satisfy my “wander-lust”. If so, then the effect has been very temporary, because I’m considering another trip.

Why did I go to Siberia, and Novosibirsk in particular? Novosibirsk is the third largest city in the Russian Federation, and I had already visited Moscow and St Petersburg. It is the “capital” of a region which is larger than Europe. From a practical point of view, even after taking account of travelling expenses, studying in Novosibirsk was cheaper than Moscow or St Petersburg. Then of course there was the romance of visiting in Siberia! Novosibirsk is north of India on the map, mid-way between Moscow and Vladivostock (on the coast facing Japan). This is a long way from home, closer to China than Europe.

I need to emphasise that this was an “immersion course”. For four weeks I heard very little English. That was a strange experience in itself. A typical school day started with breakfast at 08:00. Breakfast could be all sorts of things: porridge (kasha), black bread and black tea were common, as was yoghurt, but on occasions I also had smoked eel and even spaghetti Bolognese! At many meals my landlady and I had fun trying to find words for the different things on the table. Sometimes we had guests for breakfast as well.

After breakfast I would walk to school. It was about a mile and a half. Travelling by metro was impractical, and although there were buses, trolleybuses and trams which went where I wanted to go, I enjoyed the walk. Once I had established my bearings I tried to vary my journey to and from the school and as a result saw a little more of the city.

The school is in rented rooms in a modern office block. Lessons started at 10:00. I usually arrived in time to make a cup of tea before we started. My lessons were always “one to one”. I had expected to be taught in a group, but got individual attention from one of three teachers. Each day would usually start with conversation about what I had done the day before. Then we would move on to new material, with reading, listening, and comprehension exercises. Understanding grammar is essential to learning Russian beyond a very basic level. For someone like me, who has never been taught formal grammar, this comes as something of a shock. One of the books I refer to is “English Grammar for Students of Russian”.

Lessons would finish at 1:00 pm and I would go and get lunch, usually with two of the other students. We usually dined in a local “Stolovaya” (dining room). The staff there got used to the strange foreigners who didn’t understand what things were called, and didn’t really know what went with what.

Most afternoons there was some kind of cultural excursion. This could be to a museum or an art gallery. Almost always the trip would involve a trip by public transport. That meant the adventure of dealing with Russian currency and buying tickets. By the end of my trip I was reasonably comfortable using all means of transport on my own, and even checking with strangers that I was about to get on the right bus. Most of the excursions were led by one of the teachers, but sometimes we were accompanied by a student from Novosibirsk University.

The school also allowed the students to use their facilities to complete homework and preparation for the following day.

One or two evenings each week, the school would put on a presentation and a film. The presentations were usually about some aspect of Russian life or culture. The films were selected for having simple plots and representing some aspect of Russian culture. At the school I saw: a comedy, an alcoholic redeemed, a Soviet noble worker, some beautiful animations and a modern fantasy about wishes coming true. At home, I saw: “2001, a space odyssey” (in English with Russian subtitles) and “Pirates of the Caribbean” (dubbed into Russian, with English subtitles).

After school, it was back home to finish any homework and preparation. My evening reward for completing my task was a bottle of beer bought from a local supermarket. My evening meal was usually at about 10:00 pm when after my landlady got in from work. Supper was even more varied than breakfast: boiled dumplings (“pelmyeni” or “vareniki”) and macaroni happened more than once, but there was lots of variety.

While I was in Siberia I visited a couple of churches. I stood at the back of one service, for a few minutes. Liturgical Russian is different from the everyday language, so I didn’t understand what was happening. There are no seats, the congregation stand, facing towards the front. The churches I was in were beautiful, in the Orthodox style. It seems that every surface is decorated, with icons and stylised pictures of saints looking down at the congregation.

Would I recommend going to Novosibirsk? The honest answer is: “it depends”. If you are learning Russian, then I recommend Novosibirsk. If you are going as a tourist, you may find that you run out of things to see quite quickly.

Novosibirsk, is a modern industrial city. Very few people speak or understand any English at all. Public transport is excellent, but you need to be prepared to walk, and sometimes the pavements are a bit uneven.

I have been told that in most Russian cities living space is in short supply. If you are living with a family, as I was, then you may find that you have been given someone’s bedroom.

I enjoyed my trip. There were times (especially when travelling) when I was confused, and even a little apprehensive. I am sure people found me strange, and a little odd. I have become used to being asked if I am German! I was shown great kindness, and made to feel welcome.


Teeth, a computer and an afternoon nap

(Monday 10th October 2011, written same day)
The day didn’t start all that well. A crown came off one of my teeth. There was nothing to be done but go to the dentist. Fortunately the dentist “fitted me in” and the crown was soon reattached. She suggested that I consider having two crowns replaced by a bridge, to replace a missing tooth and give the two teeth affected more support. I’ll think about that when I get back to Ireland.
After the dentist, I phoned Andy (who I’d met in the pub last night). The eMail on his computer had stopped talking to the server. He has two eMail accounts. One of these is Hotmail, which is I have always found a little awkard. I managed to re-establish contact by installing an update to something required for Hotmail and re-entering the credentials for the two accounts. Everything worked fine.
I wandered home to Ashford and went back to bed. The travel, the time difference and the lack of sleep are still taking their toll.
At 16:00 I was awakened by a phone call from Andy, to tell me that his eMail was no longer working. I gave him some suggestions, but I will have to go and look at that again. Something odd has happened there, because I do not think anything he says he has been doing should have made any difference to his email.
Spent a little time in the early evening reviewing what I had learned in Russia.

Church, Oyster, visiting, recovering

(Sunday 9th October 2011, written Monday 10th October)
Went to church this morning. The first hymn had the same number as my flight number into London the previous day. Coincidence can be strange.
After the service, I had lunch in a cafe in Feltham. Then I took the train to visit friends in Brentford. Something minor went wrong a the barrier at Feltham Station. Fortunately there were staff there. They checked my Oyster card and said that the machine had taken money from my card, but the barrier had not let me through. None of us understood what had happened, but it didn’t matter because they let me through anyway.
It is nice to visit friends. I spent the afternoon in Brentford and then was given a lift back to Ashford.
In the evening I went to “The Shoes”. Once again it was good to meet people who I hadn’t seen for a while.

Head in Siberia, heart in Ireland, feet in London and suitcase in Moscow

(Saturday 8th October 2011, written Sunday 9th October)
Today started very early and finished very late. There was a bit of excitement in between, but “what does not kill me, makes me stronger”. By the end of the day I had experienced, survived and recovered from two of the hazards of air transport:
  • I nearly missed a connecting flight, and
  • I lost my luggage for a while.
I got up pretty early, at 04:00 am in the morning. The taxi was due to collect me at 05:00. My Landlady saw me to the taxi and we said our goodbyes. I would be pleased to meet her again. I had the same taxi-driver that collected me from the airport at the beginning of my trip. That seemed appropriate, a sort-of “closing of the circle”. I believe the school had arranged it like that. What was interesting to me was that this time I was able to engage in a simple conversation with him on the way to the airport. That was a satisfactory demonstration to me of the progress I had made.
The driver to took me to the airport and made sure that I was delivered to correct terminal. I hadn’t noticed, but Novosibirsk Tolemechevo Airport has two terminals: an International Terminal and a Domestic Terminal. I was going to the Domestic Terminal because I was flying to Moscow.
Check-in went without incident. They accepted my case without comment and checked it through to London and issued me with boarding cards for both the flights: Novosibirsk to Moscow and Moscow to London. More of that later.
The flight to Moscow was pleasant and uneventful. A little while before we landed I noticed that we were going to be about half and hour later than was indicated on my ticket. That gave me a little concern, but there was nothing to be done about it.
Once we had landed, and been disembarked by bus, I set off to find the departure gate. That had to be a priority. The departure area of Domededovo was a throng of people. When I had found my way to the correct departure area, the lady checking the boarding cards, said “time!” and for a short while I was afraid that I was not going to be allowed to board. Instead I was directed through “Business Class” and processed in double-quick time. I made it onto the aircraft and was in my seat barely 10 minutes before departure time. That is really far to tight and I was sweating from running and worry. I barely had time to send texts to England and Ireland, saying that I had made the flight, before the doors closed and I switched off my phone.
I’m still not sure exactly what happened with the flight connection. The connection was as specified by the carrier, but to me seemed far too tight. I’m not sure if the inbound flight was delayed. Maybe I missed an announcement. I would gladly have spent a few hours in Moscow and bought a few souvenirs.
The flight to London was uneventful. I like Transaero’s cabin service. I also like the 737-800 aircraft they are using on that route. I don’t know if Boeing have changed the fuselage in some way, but the plane seemed much more spacious than the aircraft (also a 737) I had just got off. One slightly strange thing, is that all their aircraft seem to be registered in Ireland.
Once in London (on schedule at 11:30), I found that my bag not made the flight! Baggage handling for Transaero in London is managed by BMI. The BMI staff were helpful, and located my bag quickly. It was in Moscow. So were the bags of two fellows from Middlesborough and two Russian ladies. I was actually able to help the Russians and the desk staff communicate sufficiently well to get their bags located as well. I filled in a claim form and was told that they expected go get my bag from Moscow at 16:00, and that they would deliver it to me, but given a number to call if the bag had not been delivered by 19:00.
I caught the bus to Ashford and was at Dave’s house, drinking tea at about 13:15, exactly the time I had estimated in one of my eMails to Dave.
By 19:00, my bag had still not arrived, and understandably I was getting a little twitchy. I phoned the number I had been given. Nobody answered. I tried a couple of times, and then gave up. Tomorrow would have to do. Dave said he needed to go out to get something from a shop. A few minutes later, there was a knocking at the door. I assumed that Dave had forgotten his keys. Wrong! It was a courier with my case! He had bumped into Dave in the street, and got directions for the difficult last few yards. A quick check and a signature later, and I had my bag back. It was a few hours late, but undamaged and I hadn’t had to lug it home on the bus!
I stayed up watching the TV with Dave, and eventually went to bed at 22:00. Apart from naps on the planes, I had been on the go for 24 hours!