I have had a very hectic few days and haven’t had a chance to itemise it all on here, so this will have to be a highlights post! Three days a week (I think this is changing to four next week), I have Russian classes which last three hours each. Lyudmila took me into the university on Monday and introduced me to her colleagues: there are two young Katyas, an administrator called Galina and my teacher, Tatiana. On my first day, I was immediately told to take a language test. Of course, I promptly embarrassed myself by taking out my pen in order to write with it and then discovering, too late, that the ink cartridge had died from cabin pressure on the plane over and had exploded all over my hands. Lyudmila offered me tissues as if I was a small child (I mean, fair enough…) and my attempts at explaining the situation seemed to fall on deaf ears. Despite this open display of idiocy, I scored well on the test. I really like Tatiana, who is kind and smiley and has a sense of humour. She also teaches well, going over complicated bits of grammar in a lot of detail and making sure everybody understands. At least, these are my impressions from my first lesson this morning. I am in a class with four boys: one from Holland, one from China, one from Palestine and one from Azerbaijan. Russian is our common language so socialising with them is good for practising. So far, the atmosphere in the classroom is friendly and I don’t feel like I’m behind anyone.
I was taken out of class this morning to be part of a video that the university newspaper was making. I had to read out colloquial Perm expressions, so essentially just make a fool of myself on camera… they didn’t realise that we spoke Russian so they’d transliterated the expressions into our alphabet, which actually made them a lot harder to read and I probably sound like I can’t, but onwards and upwards.
The university itself has its own campus with lots of green spaces (it adjoins the city’s botanical gardens) and separate faculties. I was given a tour of the entire territory by one of the Katyas, which was exhausting and I honestly don’t remember a bit of it so I still don’t know where the toilets are! However, I have memorised the locations of various cafes and canteens, which is of course the most important thing to know!
To get to the university, I have to navigate public transport. There are a few options for this – tram, trolleybus, taxi – all of them taking about 45 minutes. So far, my preferred method is the tram because the idea of a tiny carriage rolling about a huge city on pre-laid tracks, a bit like a train at a theme-park, makes me childishly happy. Public transport is remarkably cheap here: every ticket costs 20 roubles, no matter where you’re going or what route or form of transport you’re taking (that’s about 20p!). Then again, everything seems to be pretty cheap: I saw an advert for a £4 gel manicure earlier and I have yet to spend more than £5 for a hearty full meal. Travelling has been quite smooth so far. Alla advised me to download an app which has offline maps and I have good mobile internet anyway so have been able to find my way around quite well. However, yesterday morning I got on a tram which was going in the wrong direction and ended up in the middle of a seemingly deserted factory. Miraculously, I managed not to panic and merely walked back to the tram stop, with the aid of a redoubtable babushka who was keen to inform me exactly when to cross the road. Unfortunately, I thought that I could use the ticket I’d already bought again when I eventually boarded the correct tram, but was quickly disillusioned of this assumption when the ticket lady demanded to know why I was showing her a ticket when I needed to pay for a new one. I sweated a lot and fumbled for my purse. Several seated babushki shook their heads at my ineptitude. All inside spaces are somewhat overheated which means that layering and regular adjustment are essential! I’m trying to perfect my “resting bitch face” while walking around as Russians don’t tend to smile for no reason, and I want to blend in. That’s not to say that the people here are standoffish or rude: they just feel that smiles are more meaningful when they actually have a reason for them that isn’t merely satisfying a societal norm.
I’ve been able to spend some time with Irina going out to get groceries, and she’s been very helpful at pointing out the bargains. I’m getting the hang of cooking in the small kitchen here too, and am planning to do a proper weekly shop tomorrow when I have a day off from the university. I also need to go to the local gym and get a flexible membership so I can start exercising, as Russian food is heavily carb-based! I am doing a lot of walking though, which I’m enjoying. Today, I met up with Alla and Anton (and Timofei the baby) after my lessons, and we went for a walk along the river which was very beautiful. The weather was decent, with a bit of sunshine, and we also went to a great coffee place.
I haven’t been able to work out why, but today all the museums in the city were giving out free entry. I tend to absolutely hate galleries and museums because I’m an uncultured swine, but Alla seemed to think I should go and I was deposited outside a gallery without further ado. I actually enjoyed wandering around, although nearly walked into a (probably) priceless work of art and had to be manhandled out of the way by one of the museum attendants, who, in Russia, seem to invariably be grumpy old women. I got my headphones out to listen to some music while I was there, and put my bag down for a second on an attendant’s empty chair. Immediately, I was told that it was impossible to put my bag there. Ridiculous. But amusing. I also went to a historical museum, but liked this less because it was more crowded and less user-friendly (you had to walk all the way round the museum to get to an entrance which was underground and which took you straight into a cloakroom so that you had to climb your way back up to get to the actual exhibits).
Speaking of my hatred of museums and the like, I managed to become part of a tour group of visitors from England yesterday. It was quite enjoyable and I met an old Perse Girl who used to live where my sister now lives and who also did Russian at university. However, some of the English people were irritatingly provocative with their questions about politics and government, or patronising about Russian customs and the things people were telling them. We went round all of the city’s places of worship, including a synagogue, a mosque, an orthodox cathedral, a catholic church and a church of the Old Believers (who were a section of orthodox christians who disagreed, among other things, with a new rule about making the sign of the cross and were cast out of society, but who seem to be doing ok now). Our tour guide was a bit dodgy though: she only translated parts of what the Russian priests etc. were saying so I felt a bit sorry for the tourists with us who didn’t speak Russian. She also nearly left one of our group behind in a gift shop, despite my telling her three times that we needed to wait. We then progressed to the town hall (or something similar) where we were fed and addressed by some kind of councillor. I learnt several interesting things about Perm: for example, the radio was invented here and they make KitKats here. We were all given decorative plates with pictures of Perm as gifts, and I was laughed at when – having not read the box – I suggested to Irina that we use it here at home to eat off. All in all, it was an interesting experience but incredibly tiring, which I always find tour groups to be because you can’t manage your own schedule. I also spoke too much English, although was reasurred to see that I could understand everything that wasn’t being translated.
The crowning glory of yesterday though was seeing a performance of La Traviata at the opera and ballet theatre here. Lyudmila bought me a ticket as a surprise and it turned out to be in the second row. The interior of the theatre is very beautiful and the standard of performing was high in a modern production by a renowned American director who had the entire cast acting as puppets to represent the superficiality of society. The intervals were great because there was a well-stocked bar which also sold cake, blini and sandwiches: perfect for me because I’d basically had to skip dinner as I’d underestimated the time needed to reach the theatre. I hadn’t seen the opera before and loved the music. I was also able to read the Russian subtitles on the screen above the stage, which made me happy. The soprano in the lead role of Violetta was particularly talented and she received a standing ovation afterwards. I was able to meet up with Irina who was selling programs at the theatre, and we travelled home together.
I think I’ve more or less covered everything now! Generally, things here are made so wonderful by the people, and I’m still finding each new thing very exciting and interesting. Tomorrow, I have a day off, which is sorely needed as I’m still behind on sleep and time to myself. Do skorogo!