Saturday, July 21, 2012

From Russia with love...

I've been back in England for nearly a month now, and have only just settled back into the routine of life here. For the past three weeks I've been waking up at 7 under the impression I've managed a lie-in until 10, I've been nervously checking my bag to ensure I have my papers on me before leaving the house, and I've been outraged by the price of food, drink and transport in England. However, now I've finally become a real English person again, it's probably time to cast a summarising eye back over the year.

Just as with France, my time in Russia has proved that there is nothing as valuable for language-learning than spending time abroad. From a position of having low confidence in speaking day-to-day Russian, 18 weeks of classes conducted solely in the language have left me happily declining nouns and conjugating verbs with little thought or recourse to a grammar book. And who knew that by the time I left I'd be able to explain the expenses and hacking scandals in Russian to our media teacher (and be understood, no less).

Lifestyle-wise...well, Russia took my camera, laptop, bankcard and phone, at varying points along the journey, so you'll understand that it wasn't necessarily the smoothest of rides. You'll also understand, then, how amazing the experience was, if despite all this, I say it was still the best four months I've ever spent. I've met brilliant people, seen astounding sights, and been introduced to – and fallen in love with – a totally unique culture and way of life.

Overall, I've been lucky. I spent the first semester living in the Mediterranean, in a house with a pool, and the second living in the historic heart of one of the most culturally interesting cities in the world.

However, your time really is what you choose to make of it. To get the most out of a year studying abroad, you have to work hard, be realistic in your expectations (I'm looking at you, French administrative system) and be prepared for anything. As much as anything, just be mentally prepared that it's not necessarily going to be THE BEST TIME EVER.

But oddly, the minute you DO start to prepare yourself for all eventualities, and greet the odd bump in the road with a shrug of the shoulders, then it does start to become one of the best experiences you can have. I'd fully recommend it to anyone, especially if they're fore-armed with the advice I've been trying to give here for the past few months. So bite the bullet and do it. It's been an intellectual improvement for me, but it's also made me more employable, more self-confident, more independent, and, well...really just a happier person.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Tourism in the Eastern Bloc – Part 3: out and about in St Petersburg

St Petersburg isn't, despite my previous post, entirely composed of museums. The city and surrounding regions are awash with churches, monuments and, after the thaw, beautiful parks.

Indeed St Petersburg boasts more churches and cathedrals than a tourist can possibly hope to visit, even in four months. Some, for example Kazan Cathedral, the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of our Saviour and Nikolsky Cathedral (the Sailor's Church) are working Russian Orthodox cathedrals. It is always interesting to enter in order to watch a service, and to see the beautiful icons inside – but be aware that utmost respect is expected, both in attire and behaviour. 

Trinity Cathedral

Dostoevsky's grave
The golden-starred bright blue cupolas of Trinity Cathedral, currently being restored, are an iconic sight of the city, but two of St Petersburg's most famous landmarks are St Isaac's Cathedral and the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood. Russian students can enter the former free, and the interior of the cathedral is stunning – however, it is worth paying the 100 roubles to climb to the top of the colonnade. The 262 steps should be avoided by anybody with a heart condition, but the views across the city from the top are breathtaking. The Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood is truly a symbol of Russia, second only in fame to St Basils in Moscow, on which it was modelled. After years of Soviet mistreatment, the church has been elaborately and carefully restored. Prepare in advance to fight your corner with your student card here – otherwise you will be charged around upwards of £5 per person. Finally, the Aleksandr Nevsky Monastery is a must for Russian students. Not only is its Tikhvin Cemetery the resting place of great composers such as Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin and Tchaikovsky, but it is also the final home of Fyodor Dostoevsky. While the monastery itself is a holy and revered place for Russians, for many it is this grave that is a place of pilgrimage.

Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood
Walking tours of the city enable tourists to take in all these sights, as do boat trips around the canals in summer. You perhaps wouldn't associate Russia with outdoor activities in the sun, but as our conversation teacher became so fond of reiterating, the weather in St Petersburg is very changeable. In February, for example, we took a casual stroll on the Gulf of Finland, which remains frozen solid until mid-March. By late April, however, the same water was thawed and ready for boat-loads of tourists taking hydrofoils to Peterhof.

Peterhof and Tsarskoe Selo, the two most famous summer residences of the Russian Tsars, are hugely popular excursions amongst tourists. While the palace and museums at Peterhof often charge expensive admission fees, the grounds alone – classically symmetrical gardens with a spectacular array of golden fountains – are worth the trip. The parks at Tsarskoe Selo are similarly impressive, but here it is worth paying the (cheaper) admission to the Catherine Palace to see the sumptuous interiors, not least the recently restored Amber Room. 

Of course, not everybody is staying in St Petersburg for four months, with the opportunity for day-trips out of the city. However fountain-lined parks are never far away in this city, and so an afternoon visit to the Summer Garden fulfils desires to see sculptures and pavilions designed by Peter the Great. For more rambling, less elegant beauty, the botanical gardens are the ideal location for a relaxed moment and a chance, for once, to be away from the imposing gold structures found on every street corner! And if you can afford the time for a not particularly Russian activity, the zoo is also a fun visit – although alongside polar bears and lions, you should expect to marvel at such wonders as the lynx that is definitely a domestic cat, the hens, two magpies, and a pigeon, all of whom have their own cages.

Naturally my last couple of posts have barely touched upon everything there is to see and do in St Petersburg, and of course everyone has different tastes and expectations. For a few of us, trips to the Mariinsky Theatre to see the operas Evgenii Onegin and The Marriage of Figaro were unmissable nights out, whilst anyone who has studied Russian poetry at university would be considered a charlatan if they didn't make a brief pilgrimage to the statue of the Bronze Horseman. The souvenir market tucked behind the Church on the Spilled Blood is not to be skipped, especially if your trip is a one-off, as it's the best place to find hats, matryoshkas (Russian dolls) and bits and pieces of artwork.

Twice in our last week in the city, we walked to the river at one in the morning, to see the bridges go up. By mid-June we had entered the famous White Nights of St Petersburg – a period where, being so close to the Arctic Circle, the nights do not actually get dark. Inevitably this led to near insomnia, and a fine excuse to be walking the city streets at 2am. I have never felt so in love with a place than St Petersburg at this time of year – and night – and watching the huge floodlit bridges go up and ships ranging from tiny tourist boats to huge trade vessels make their way upriver was a genuinely magical experience.

We've all had great experiences living in St Petersburg, and as a close-knit group of friends have discussed and reminisced over each and every one. But at that moment, as the boats sailed by in the 2am sunset (or was it sunrise?) we all watched silently. I'm pretty sure we were all thinking the same thing: even after four months we'd be sad to go home finally – and if nothing else, we're never going to forget the unique sights offered to us by St Petersburg and Russia.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Tourism in the Eastern Bloc – Part 2: palaces and museums

It has been some time since my last post due to the rather unfortunate interruption suffered every May and June by indignant students: exams.

The Benedict School rigorously tutored us in key language skills, with lessons in grammar, speaking, lexicon, phonetics and translation – as well as the added cultural topics of cinema and СМИ (Сре́дства Ма́ссовой Информа́ции Media). Taught in groups of 6 – 8 students, we each had fifteen hours of tuition a week, and one glorious day off (everyone prayed for a Monday or Friday). Such intense teaching caused a natural and speedy progression in language for many of the students, as well as serving vastly to improve our confidence.

As with educational establishments the world over, that progression was tested with a few end-of-term exams. Cunningly billed as unimportant 'tests', they somewhat crept up on us, and the majority of the pupils suddenly found themselves spending every waking minute on the very handy Memrise – a vocabulary-learning website which allows users to create and learn vocab lists, as well as those of other users, for numerous different languages. This website now comes highly recommended by all students and teachers of the Benedict School, and as we start to head home to different universities, it's likely to go viral amongst final-year languages students in the UK.

Exams finally being over, the end of term has hit us rather unexpectedly. It seems hardly two minutes ago that we were landing in the dark and the snow, and yet now the White Nights have arrived in St Petersburg, and we're lucky to see half an hour of darkness at night. As I wrote in February, Russia is not the most accessible or cheap country to travel to, and so our last few days have been filled with fitting in as many of the myriad sights of the city as possible, once more accompanied by our trusty Lonely Planet guides.

A key thing to remember: if you are a student, USE YOUR STUDENT CARD. English cards will often result in a reduced entry fee to the majority of sights, but if you produce a Russian student card, there may well be no entry fee at all, so it's always worth waving it at entrance desks just in case. We've had instances of ticket-officers telling us that our cards aren't valid as student cards, but we've found that with a bit of an argument, they usually look grumpy and back down, so be prepared to fight your corner!

On every street of St Petersburg we have become accustomed to seeing palaces and onion-domed churches, so I will attempt to describe as many of the things we've seen as I can.

Starting with museums. Depending on your interest, there is a museum for everyone in this city. In the first week, for example, we visited the Kunstkamera, a museum containing exhibitions on native peoples from around the world...and also a large scientific collection of mutated foetuses of all varieties. Intriguing, but not for the faint-hearted. We also discovered the Vodka Museum, where the one room of information isn't the most interesting, but a shot of vodka chosen from a list of at least 200, with a plate of 'vodka snacks', goes down delightfully, especially among students!

However, for those looking for the more standard educationally informative museums, there is no shortage. Any flat that once housed a famous poet, novelist, or composer has, more often than not, been transformed into a mini-museum, pleasing the many culture-lovers making a pilgrimage to the city that was home to greats such as Pushkin and Dostoevsky. Museums across St Petersburg are dedicated to them, and also to such people as Akhmatova, Blok, Nabokov and Rimsky-Korsakov. For the more general literary experience, the Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkin House) is the place to visit. While not over-endowed with pages of useful information (or indeed any English information), it houses exhibits from many of Russia's greatest Golden and Silver Age writers such as Tolstoy and Chekhov, including many hand-written manuscripts. Fascinating for anyone studying literature at university, or indeed with a general interest.

Burial site of Nicholas II and family
For those more interested in history than literature, again there's no better place than St Petersburg to find a museum to suit, as the city has a rich and fascinating history. Alongside our studies, we've hardly scratched the surface of the historical museums; however, a trip to the Peter and Paul Fortress is a must. There you can walk around the prison interior, seeing the bare cells and isolation chambers of inmates including some famous political dissidents such as Gorky, Trotsky and Lenin's older brother, Alexander. Another 'must-see' feature of the fortress is the cathedral, in which all Tsars from Peter the Great onwards are buried. Interestingly and most controversially, Nicholas II, his wife, and three of his daughters are also interred here, but tourists cannot get close to the graves. A plaque commemorates all the Romanov children killed in 1917, but the Russian authorities maintain that it is Maria, and not Anastasia, whose body has not been properly laid to rest, along with that of her brother Alexei.

A key moment of Soviet history, the Siege of Leningrad, is commemorated in various monuments and museums across St Petersburg. The Museum of the Defence and Blockade of Leningrad houses uniform and weaponry of Russian and German soldiers alike, alongside photos and propaganda posters of the period – and, perhaps most interestingly, donations from survivors of the siege. A trip to the Monument to the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad is also a poignant moment for anyone living in a city whose survival is arguably due to those who clung onto life during the siege. Whilst the bronze statues are impressive monuments, the main and most moving feature of Victory Square is a 48-metre high obelisk dedicated to all those who lost their lives in the war. A starkly Soviet monument, it is a severe and haunting memorial to one of the most important periods of St Petersburg's history.

From history to art, our trip to the Russian Museum was very much appreciated as a condensed history of Russian art. The museum contains art exclusive to the country, ranging from old Slavonic church icons to contemporary art. As we discovered, you don't need to be an art expert to enjoy the museum, nor indeed to find pieces of personal interest in there – as long as you have a map or guide book to navigate the floors. Another museum free to students, the money you save can be well spent on the huge range of copies of Soviet propaganda posters, which are a stylish addition to any student's collection!

And that's all for museums...but, wait, aren't we forgetting something? Ah yes, the Hermitage. World-famous, the Hermitage occupies the Winter Palace and the Large and Small Hermitages, and houses the art collections of various Tsars – most prominently that built up by Catherine the Great, which, it has to be said, mainly belongs to other countries (not that it seemed to bother her). The museum is extraordinary in every sense of the word – the palace itself is stunning, and the world-renowned art and sculpture displayed there is, in my opinion, beyond compare. There is not room to exhibit a large proportion of the collection, and it is said that if you examine each exhibit it could take nine years to see everything in there. So far, nobody appears to have been brave enough to try, and four months has certainly not proved long enough. My advice would be to pick the bits you want to see first and work out where they are on a map of the museum – it's a clinical approach but saves a lot of time and leg-work, and ensures you will visit everything you want to. My personal recommendation is the Rembrandt room. Once more, it's free to students – and if you plan to take visitors, you can book in advance (give it three days) here.

Of course, the last four months hasn't all been museums – amongst other things, we appear to have visited more churches than I ever thought could possibly exist in one city. And of course as students we have had plenty of fun and games, largely involving ending up on Dumskaya, the road dedicated solely to clubs and bars. Many require more than one trip there in order to remember it. Or Metro, the club where Russians do unspeakable 'dancing' to win free pints. But I don't want to taint the image of the city as one of the world's best centres of culture, so I think those places are best left for my readers to discover on their own (at their peril). Take your student card and stick to the Hermitage.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Tourism in the Eastern Bloc – Part 1

I've written a lot about the many practical aspects of living abroad, however Russia is a country so alien to many people that I thought I'd write a bit about travel and tourism here, starting with a trip to Moscow that was like something out of a Michael Palin documentary.

Some friends and I recently spent a superb, if slightly unusual, five days in the capital. I've never been somewhere it's so completely normal to see tanks driving up and down the streets and riot police everywhere. And water cannons. More on those later.

We decided to take the overnight eight-hour train to get from St Petersburg to Moscow, and bravely chose to travel 3rd class (platskart) for the full 'Russian experience'. Each train has the extremely expensive first class, the second class with (very tiny) four-bunk compartments, and then third class, which is one long, open-plan (if you can call it anything so sophisticated) carriage of bunks. Booking only a week in advance, we got return tickets for around £30 – the sooner you do it, the cheaper it is. Tickets are available here; however to ensure that travelling companions end up in relatively close proximity, and the same carriage, it's not a bad idea to drop by Moskovskii Vokzal, the station for Moscow trains, in person (complete, of course, with passport) to book in person.

So, third-class tickets purchased, and hostel booked (courtesy of the ever-reliable Hostel World
), the five of us set out for Moscow. We'd been settled on the train for about 10 minutes (remember, it's an eight hour journey) before a few other passengers sussed that we were English and therefore the most exciting people they'd ever met, especially when they discovered we could speak Russian. Travelling with these people revealed a side of Russia less often documented in the West – hospitable, friendly and attentive, they insisted on sharing their food and drink with us, and talked to us into the early hours, despite the fact that after our departure in Moscow they had another thirty-six hours of travel to Volgograd.

Tradition dictated that we joined all the toasts, sharing our vodka and beer and their odd but pleasant (and strong) nut liqueur. We did however decline the offer of alcohol decanted into a water bottle, which the slightly drunk owner described simply as 'Russian cocktail'. Everything was toasted: international relations, beautiful English girls, train journeys, safe journeys, journeys to new cities, and the most obvious one - to fishing. Apparently they think fishing is a major national sport in England. Luckily the constant toasts were soaked up by an equally constant stream of food, as traditionally you toast, drink a shot, and then eat something. While many people would imagine boiled eggs to be antisocial in a confined environment, apparently in Russia it simply isn't done to travel without them, so we made the appropriate, 'Mmm, delicious' comments and accepted. 

Cathedral of Christ the Saviour
Amazingly enough we arrived safely, at four in the morning, and having jumped on the first metro we found our hostel (in reality a room in someone's apartment, but a decent place nonetheless). Our location was perfect, just off Tverskaya – the central street of Moscow which leads straight to Red Square. On arrival we took the opportunity for a quick nap, and then, trusty Lonely Planet guide in hand, headed for the Kremlin and Red Square. Which were closed. And got more closed over the next few days. In fact the barriers around the buildings moved further and further away until the entire front road was shut off, as our visit coincided with not only the inauguration of Vladimir Putin, but also Victory Day...and large anti-Putin protests. However on our first day we managed at least to walk around the side and back of Red Square and got excellent views of St Basil's, probably the building most synonymous in most people’s minds with Russia. We also visited the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, which has been rebuilt and refurbished since Stalin knocked it down and turned it into a swimming pool. Actually it was so hot that a swimming pool might have been preferable. But joking aside, it is a hugely impressive and utterly beautiful building, inside and out. Be warned though, it is a working Orthodox church, so don't try to enter in shorts or a short skirt, because you will be brusquely refused entry.  

St Basil's

The following day we were lucky enough to have continued gorgeous weather so we went out to the Novodevichy cemetery and convent - the cemetery is Russia's equivalent of Père Lachaise, and so were able to visit the graves of Chekhov, Gogol, Bulgakov, Prokofiev and Shostakovich, amongst others. We also saw Tchaikovsky, but then closer inspection it proved not to be him at all, just someone with the same surname who clearly spotted an opportunity to have a fancy grave. Then we went into the convent, where we found half the police and press of Russia congregating around a small chapel. Thinking someone famous might have died, further investigation revealed that in fact no such thing had happened – in fact, Mr Putin himself was in said church. Which was pretty bloody exciting. It was probably just as well for him that he was there because there were about 50,000 protesters outside his new house in the Kremlin getting a bit worked up… 

A lucky metro mishap lead to us spending the rest of the afternoon in Gorky Park, which is an absolutely gorgeous area along the river. We basked in our new-found fame having nearly sort of almost met the President-elect, and the friend who had caused us to jump off the metro two stops early pretended that finding the stunning park had been the endgame all along.

On the day of the inauguration itself there were even more barriers everywhere due to the previous day's protests, and that's when we met the riot police, the tanks and the water cannons. Intimidating is certainly the word for it, and the centre of the city was even more closed than ever. We wandered up to see the Lubyanka (the FSB headquarters), which is a pretty scary building. It's said that during its days as the KGB headquarters, people feared it so much that they would cross the road to avoid walking past it. Even on a sunny day it casts a chilling shadow. 

The Lubyanka

Our final day was spent trying to find a famous but quaint flea market in a park, complete with antiques and local artwork, but apparently this has now been replaced by a gaudy and particularly unsafe-looking funfair. We blamed this on the fact that our Lonely Planet guide was four years out of date, but it didn't go unnoticed that it was the idea of the same group member who got us lost on the metro...

Instead we headed to Fallen Monument Park, formerly Park of the Fallen Heroes, where they now keep many of the statues of Lenin, Stalin and Brezhnev that were moved after the collapse of communism. It's an eerie place to say the least. It's very quiet and serene there, but with an odd sense of awkwardness. Particularly odd are the flowers that some still leave by statues of Stalin, a sign that traces of his cult of personality still linger here today.

To lighten the mood we headed to the CSKA Moscow vs Kuban Krasnodar match. We'd attempted this the previous day and had been perplexed by how empty the metro was – and on arrival at the stadium we discovered that the date had been changed. The internet had lied about the date, it would seem, but it was the third strike for our ill-fated friend who was no longer allowed to be in charge of maps/directions/tickets/decisions. On the way into the game the police were out in force, and we went through six or seven bag and body searches. Relatively normal. It was a good game, and on leaving everyone was behaving quite well, if being the normal exuberant football crowd; however, as with many European venues, there's no alcohol allowed in Luzhniki Stadium (Russia's Wembley equivalent), which made life calmer. Nonetheless, the crowd was met by a line of riot police, who then formed two ranks the length of the walk from the stadium to the metro. We walked in lines about eight across through silent, glaring men in full body armour, and by the time we'd got about halfway to the metro everyone had fallen completely silent. The experience was intimidating, compounded by them then physically moving us onto the escalator. But in many ways, this is Russia...this is how they get things done, and it may not be the 'Western' approach, but it's certainly effective!

The train back to St Petersburg wasn't until 2am that night, so no Russian parties, just sleep. But the following day was another experience to add to the list. So hot that we could barely breathe when we woke up, we stood in between two carriages to get some air. We were moving at snail's pace from about 8am until our arrival at 11.30, but this gave us chance to see a whole other side of Russia outside the two main cities. The countryside rolled slowly past in the sunlight, revealing run-down factory towns of tower-blocks, rural villages and dachas ranging from the tiny to the luxurious.

So we got home to St Petersburg, bemoaning the lack of a proper walk around Red Square and complaining that the Kremlin was closed. But on reflection, in five short days we saw a whole spectrum of Russian landscape, and the architecture and sights of the capital city. We supported CSKA Moscow, we met real Russian people, and we experienced a whole new form of policing. We even had a 'same place same time' moment with Putin himself. It really was the quintessential Russian experience. Beat that, Palin.

Monday, April 16, 2012

No place like home

The last couple of weeks have been an interesting experience to say the least, as I managed to completely forget that it was Easter...twice. Easter in Russia is the week after ours, and here it is a strictly religious celebration, so there is by no means the commercial song and dance that we see in England. Out and about on Easter Sunday, there is no real evidence that it is different from any other day. 

The upshot of this is that on several occasions I managed to forget both English and Russian Easters, and, worse, completely forgot to watch the travesty that was the 2012 Boat Race. Luckily, however, I remain completely in tune with British horse racing fixtures and thus coerced an entire corridor of English students into watching the Grand National with me.

I have never been away from home on Grand National day, and most years have spent the day reading up on the horses with my dad, phoning my sisters to discuss odds and waiting for my mum to accidentally pick the outsider based on nice colours and name. Consequently I felt for the first time slightly homesick, and was really grateful to be surrounded by a group of good friends from my hotel. It's possibly the first time that I've considered all the benefits of the accommodation system here.

You can choose one of two different kinds of accommodation through the school. Firstly, Gostinitsa “Na Sadovoi” (literally Hotel on Sadovaya). The hotel is connected to the Benedict School, providing rooms for students at the school during their 4-month stay. Not everyone wants to live here, but of the 60 students on the course this semester, around 15 of us are living here. The rooms are twins, and furnished basically – although each has its own sink, fridge and TV (all the mod cons here). The showers and toilets are shared between an entire corridor, but, like the bedrooms, are cleaned every day. Essentially it's like living in halls, except someone also changes your sheets and towels every week and hoovers your carpet daily. Meanwhile, just down the road, there is an exceptionally cheap laundrette where a delightful lady washes and folds all your clothes, and essentially becomes your second mother. The hotel's kitchen is perhaps the biggest source of frustration as it's on a completely different floor and is perpetually locked – plus it is VERY basic (there are hobs...but no oven), which tends to breed an unhealthy over-reliance on the too-convenient 24-hour pizza place next door to the hotel. Plus if you know you go to bed at 10.30, or you have an issue with personal space, the twin rooms are probably not for you. But for 15000ru (£300) a month, Gostinitsa “Na Sadovoi” is a great place to be – it's a great base for socialising and the perfect place to settle into the city quickly and make loads of course friends. On top of that, the location is amazing, as it's a ten minute walk (at most) from the school and within easy walking distance of the most historic areas and famous monuments of the city.

Russia is a daunting place to move to for the first time, so I've found the atmosphere at the hotel perfect to help me settle in. People who have lived here before, however, might want a bit more of a challenge, in which case a homestay is often the preferred option. In this case between one and four students will be assigned to the home of a Russian host in St Petersburg. This is the ideal situation for people who are looking to speak more Russian outside school – especially those who have already spent a semester in the country. It is about 2000ru more expensive than the hotel, but that includes breakfast, and you can also pay for dinners with your host. The homestays are dotted around the city, and can sometimes be quite far from the school, but are mainly easy to reach. Be warned, however: while 99% of students are placed with people who become a second family for their stay here, 1% have some...interesting...experiences with their hosts. One in particular springs to mind – a friend who moved into the hotel after several run-ins with cockroaches, on the floor, in the kitchen, in her bed. Nevertheless, she is now settling in with a new, and seemingly much better-suited, family. I would also caution against assuming that a homestay is a fast-pass to speaking Russian – you will most likely be staying with several other English students in the flat, and quite often friends have reported back that the host speaks English with them for ease.

There are pros and cons to either option, and either way you will have to put in the effort to speak Russian outside school; however mostly people's opinions of both are positive. Some students with contacts have found private flats for themselves and friends, however if you're looking to find accommodation simply and easily, the Benedict School organises both the hotel and homestay for you.

A quick note on organising everything through the school – coming to Russia for the first time is daunting enough as it is, without having the stress of organising all the admin as well, so having the school sorting everything out is extremely useful. One thing to mention would be the group flights – many of us took the the group flight (and are therefore booked on the home-bound group flight as well), which was a great way to meet people initially and removed all the stress of arriving, getting through customs and finding your accommodation alone. However, it does set you back around £100 more than your average BA return flight, essentially for the bus ride to the hotel (a taxi costs around £30, and the public bus is about £5). Considerably cheaper journeys here include getting a flight to Tallinn or Riga, and taking a coach from there to St Petersburg...although of course that does involve an epic coach journey.

Travel arrangements aside, it seems that in the majority of cases, you can't really go wrong with accommodation out here – and those who have found difficulties have been quickly and easily relocated. Within a week or so, you can be pretty assured that you'll feel completely settled and will have made loads of friends. Within a month or two you'll be close enough to them that they're your second family and loud arguments about British horse-racing are totally acceptable. Now I know I'm completely at home.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Helen's week(s) from hell

Having just had to cancel my debit card and order a new one, I'm hoping that my run of bad luck is finally over – and if it's not too much to ask, I wouldn't mind some good luck as well now.
Two weeks into term, I sat down to write the first and only important document I needed to compose since moving to Russia, and my computer suffered some sort of internal technological implosion. I'm not a technologically competent person at the best of times, but even I knew that the message “Windows Explorer has stopped working” followed by an immediate shutdown is not a good sign. Various computer-wizards (friends, former boyfriends, brothers-in-law) weighed in on the discussion and also concluded that I needed professional help. The answer, seemingly, is to find a Компьютерный Мир – literally Computer World. The lovely man I saw, presumably pitying my poor knowledge of anything technical (including Russian vocab), agreed to try to fix my laptop overnight for the grand total of 300ru – about £6. Before I left England it cost about £30 just to clean my laptop, so I think that's a pretty good deal. As it was, whatever had killed my laptop has killed it so conclusively that my Russian computer hero couldn't fix it – but he didn't charge me for his time, so it was worth trying. I was eventually able to get a friend's boyfriend to bring a new one out for me a couple of weeks later; however, looking at laptops over here there's a completely “normal” range of brands for completely normal (and occasionally slightly cheaper) prices. I state this as though it's surprising, as if Russian people don't use laptops – but sometimes there is a tendency to panic and jump to the conclusion that outside England nothing works, when really there's actually no need.

Which is just as well, because the same day that I was told my computer was, to all intents and purposes, dead, I also discovered that my camera was gone from my bag. The question of whether it was lost or stolen is a difficult one and as the insurance claim is ongoing I won't go into it – but as it wasn't in the last location I had it, someone had 'found' it. And not handed it in. Bitter feelings about this aside, you have to react to things like this pretty quickly if you want to put in an insurance claim. I needed to get a police crime number to be able to make a claim, and in order to do this in Russia a crime needs to be reported within eight hours of it being committed. Luckily the language school has some very helpful Russian reps who could accompany me to the station. Do NOT go to the police in this country on your own unless you know exactly what you're doing and you have a fluent level of Russian. They were pretty suspicious of me even with a Russian speaker who dealt with the whole discussion for me, and even then the officer wasn't convinced he should help us out. In the end it was mainly the fact that I needed the statement for the claim rather than a desire to get the whole police force searching St Petersburg for my camera that led him to give us the relevant forms. At that point I then had to give three signed copies of the same statement, information about my purpose in Russia and details of my addresses and phone numbers in Russia and England, as well as providing my original passport and registration card. Here you really have to be prepared with every bit of information you might be asked for. I might add that the same is reasonably true of the insurance company, who needed scans and emails of all proof of ownership for the camera. So I strongly advise anyone who doesn't want a rainforest-worth of paperwork to keep a close eye on their possessions at all times.

So there we go, over one fortnight my laptop, camera and debit card all abandoned me. Ironically when trying to explain this to my parents, I also discovered that my English phone can no longer take calls unless on loudspeaker, and sometimes not even then. Now might be an appropriate time to say, “In Russia, technology breaks you...” but I found that actually, there's no point worrying about it – like anywhere else, these problems are all solvable, and in St Petersburg there's no point caving in to stress about these things when there's so much else to enjoy. Luckily I can now document it all with my new camera (see right and below)...Just don't expect me to phone you about it anytime soon.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Registration and assimilation

So I've now been in Russia for three weeks (I haven't yet blogged due to a series of unfortunate events which I'll relate in my next post) and I feel relatively settled here. As I said in my last post, this country is completely different to anywhere I've ever lived before, so it's been an interesting experience – but surprisingly easy.

The natural starting point in the discussion of settling in is probably registration, which is actually probably the scariest thing I've yet encountered here – simply because our reps at the Benedict School, the RLUS language school in St Petersburg, have to make sure that we have fun here, but also that it's safe, legal fun. We've been given all the obvious warnings about places and people to avoid – certain canals, for example, are not sensible places to walk alone at 3am. Behaviour is also a big issue in general, as being loud and British does tend to draw attention, some of it unwanted. Even a conversation in English in the supermarket can cause people to turn and stare open-mouthed, so being drunk and obnoxious late at night is evidently not a good idea.

That being said, these are problems that you encounter in any country – in fact in London there are numerous places I wouldn't walk at night, and while being British isn't so much of an issue, there will always be groups of people who can find a problem with you. However there are also legal issues that don't crop up in other countries that you need to be aware of. Police can at any point request to see your documents, which means that you need them on your person at all times, mainly because it's illegal not to, but also so that if you need help, you can get it. You aren't obliged to carry originals, so it's better to leave your passport at home when possible, because losing it and getting a replacement is a nightmare. Otherwise, you should carry a photocopy of your passport, visa, registration card and migration card. You will fill in both halves of the migration card on the plane, and the arrival one is taken from you at Customs – do NOT forget to take the departure half with you from the airport. The registration card is even more important, but that will be filled in either by the Benedict School or by the hotel in which some students live (see accommodation blog, to be written soon...) 

Of course, all these documents should match up with names, passport numbers etc, and should be enough to satisfy the authorities.

Just in case this ISN'T the case, it's a good idea to obtain a Russian phone as soon as possible and save all the numbers of reps and emergency contacts in it. This is simple compared to everything else – the language school gave us all a free Beeline SIM card which fits most unlocked European phones. Topped up in the street, these SIMs are ludicrously cheap compared to British rates, with one text message costing around 0.02p, and international calls costing about £2 for 10 minutes rather than the £1.20/min of some British companies. Internet is equally easy to sort out – as soon as you purchase a dongle from Beeline or MTS you have unlimited internet for around £9 a month.

Once you've registered, connected to the Russian-speaking world, and re-connected with the English-speaking world, you can start to learn the language and explore the city. It does feel very, very different from England, but it isn't actually that hard to settle in. The administration side of things is sorted out pretty quickly and after that life gets much easier. Oh, unless your laptop dies in the third week of term. More on that, and other aspects of Helen's Week From Hell, next time...