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!

Numbers, Poetry, Hurling, Ice-Hockey and Rain (and Cucumbers)

(Wednesday 5th October 2011, written and posted same day)
I took a different route to work this morning. On the way I passed the “Academy of Water Transport”, which is an impressive building and I assume has something to do with moving people and stuff around the inland waterways (after all, you can’t get much further from the sea than Novosibirsk) and the offices of “Sibir Telecom” which have this interesting sculpture at the front. Notice the blue “phone box”. It isn’t a GPO original, but it is a close copy. Isn’t it strange, how that design has acquired “icon” status.
A substantial bit of yesterdays homework was sorting “things” into groups and then writing the sentence “I have many …things…” for each of the “Things”. The sorting was fine, but the sentences are harder than you might think, because for technical reasons the form of the word “things” (which is in the “genitive case”) changes. I did alright, but believe me, it isn’t easy.
Another part of the homework from yesterday was to write a “Recipe for happyness”. For a while this had me stumped, and then I decided that I know a “Recipe for Paradise”, which for technical reasons fitted the bill. This “recipe” is a poem by someone called Omar Khayam (translated from Persian by Edward Fitzgerald in the 19th Century). Here’s the poem:
A loaf of bread, a flask of wine,
A book of verse, and thou,
Beside me singing in the wilderness,
And wilderness is paradise (e)now.
To my amazement, I almost got away with it. “Beside me” got a bit mangled and “Wilderness is Paradise” needed adjusting, but I did pretty well (in the English, Fitzgerald tacks an extra “e”, in front of “now”, to adjust the rhythmn). And that led us on to a question and answer about poetry.
Another part of the lesson today was conversation. Diana (my teacher) asked me about what sports I was interested in. I said that I wasn’t a “Sportsman” but that I watched some sport. I explained that Ireland has some special sports which are restricted to Ireland. Specifically “Hurling” and “Gaelic Football”. For anyone who doesn’t know, Hurling as a very fast field game played with sticks and a hard leather ball. To someone who doesn’t know it (like me), it is a little like hockey, but only a very little! Then I have to explain to Diana what Hurling is like. I don’t really understand Hurling, but we finish up with a Scotsman, explaining an Irish game, to a Russian, in Russian in Siberia! There was lots of arm-waving and a few diagrams (for the goal posts). I don’t know if Diana is any the wiser.
After lunch, I set out on a expedition. I have been commissioned to buy a “Novosibirsk” Ice-Hockey jersey. Up until today, I had no luck but I finally succeeded. The expedition was to a part of town which I hadn’t visited before. It took me a one trolley-bus ride and a bus ride to get there. The stadium was a little non-descript, but it is an indoor sport. There was a banner advertising “wrestling”, but I’m not sure what sort of wrestling. It took me a little while to find the merchandise shop. It wasn’t marked at all well. And then the negotiations started. There were two men in the shop. Both were helpful, but neither spoke any English. My Russian has improved, but this was entirely new territory, and I don’t even know anything about ice-hockey (By the way, if a Russian refers to “Hockey”, they mean Ice-Hockey). They didn’t accept plastic, but they did direct me to a cash-machine. I wasn’t that hopeful, because I haven’t had very good luck with cash-machines, but I went and tried. We were in luck! I short while later, I left. Now the proud owner of a rather attractive Hockey Jersey (Front and Back). The journey home was a little bit of an adventure. I spotted a trolley-bus which said it was going to a suitable place. Then it took a turning I didn’t expect! After frantic map-reading, I decided I was going in the right direction. A little later, the bus turned onto a road that I knew and eventually I got off very close to the school. I actually had an easier journey coming home, than I did on the way out.
Once I was back at the school, I got stuck into the homework. I hope I’ve understood it properly, and if I have, then I’ve done all I needed to.
At 5:30 today we had a presentation on the work of a film-maker called Alexander Petrov. He’s an animator, and I’m afraid I hadn’t heard of him before, even though he has won an Oscar. I don’t even understand how he does what he does. The pictures are drawn somehow, but have a distinctive “grainy” appearance, like chalk, charcoal or pastels on a rough surface. We were told that it takes Petrova 2 years to make 20 minutes of film, so it’s in the same area as “Wallace and Gromit”. I will find out more about his work. The films we saw were:
  • “The Cow”
  • “Rusalka” (which doesn’t translate, but I think is a bit like an mermaid in a river)
  • “The Old Man and the Sea” (based on Ernest Hemmingway’s story)
  • “First Love”
I think the weather has finally turned. On the way home, it started to rain. It was only a few spots to begin with but then it started to rain pretty hard. A proper “April shower”, except it is October. Even though it was raining a bit, I popped into a local shop to buy a bottle of beer. One has to have priorities. By the time I got out of the shop, it was raining a lot harder (by the way, the Russians use “verbs of motion” to describe weather). When I got to the courtyard of the group of blocks where I live, I was greeted by loads of red and white plastic tape. I hope it is there because someone is planning to re-tarmac the car-parking and access road, because if not, I’ve just crossed a crime-scene!
supper this evening was pork cutlet (minced, battered and fried), fried potatoes, and a fried egg, accompanied by cucumber. I wish you could experience how good the cucumbers and tomatoes are here. The cucumbers are short, 3 to 4 inches long. The kind that you might see as pickled gherkins in a chip shop. Only these are fresh. I can’t get over how good they taste. My Landlady served them sliced thinly, lengthways. They’re almost sweet, like melon! Either on their own, or with just a little salt, they are delicious.
The internet has stopped working (again), so I don’t know when this will reach the internet. I have an exam on Friday (you didn’t think I got off scot-free, did you?) and then I fly out of Novosibirsk a little after 07:00 local time on Saturday. That means there will be a taxi for me at 5:00 and I’m getting up at 04:00. Nice! Even if this gets posted, you may not hear too much more from me this trip.
Addendum 1: Try eating blini (pancakes) with melted butter. Zap the butter in the microwave.
Addendum 2: Just been taken on a trip to the shops at 22:45. It was a place called “Lenta”. It’s enormous – 35 checkout lanes, and open 24 hours. The stock is stored on racking above the shelves. Aldi/Lidl meets Wickes. Sells everything from car tyres to groceries.
Addendum 3: And a tour of Novosibirsk by night. This really is a 24 hour city, and not just for the clubbers.