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.


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