The last few weeks have been full of ups and downs, all of which must combine to make the year abroad what it is. This blog would be no more than a beautifully-filtered Instagram feed if I didn’t give you all the details – good and bad.
Last time I left you, I was contemplating the busyness of my coming week, which would involve the Kungur ice caves, theatre trips, the university’s centenary celebration with friends and a trip to the Gulag museum. I did take a lovely trip to Kungur, with my hairdresser Lyudmila, her daughter Alina and her friend. It was about an hour and a half in the car, and gave me an opportunity to see the surrounding countryside in the late throes of Autumn. Permsky Krai (the district in which Perm is located) has beautiful nature, with the ubiquitious Russian birches and pines framing every road. Near Kungur, there were also “mountains” or at least pretty high hills, some of which housed the ice caves. We went on a tour through them, with temperatures ranging from -5 to +5 depending on the cave in question. Everything glittered with icy stalagtites and stalagmites, and there were pools of clear azure water, so transparent that you could barely tell it was there.
After our tour, we headed into Kungur and looked round a church and a couple of museums. It’s an old merchant town and there were beautiful views out over the countryside from the high banks of the river. I remember feeling very cold that day, and also worried because it wasn’t too cold – about 1C, but I think that there was a cold wind because we were fairly high up.
The rest of that week began smoothly enough – I went to class as normal and met up with Alla to have a catch-up and a quick Russian lesson. I also began attempting group exercise classes at the gym. Actually, upon consideration of these I should probably revise my use of the adjective “smooth”. One class – a “Step” group – was a catastrophe, involving me and a number of in-the-know Russian women executing what seemed to me to be extremely complicated choreography based around a step. The studio had mirrors all around it so I was able to observe how perfectly in sync everyone – except me – was at all times. I sweated a lot, but feel that was all I achieved. Refusing to be daunted, I tried a yoga class the next day. To my chagrin, a number of women from the embarrassing Step class were also present. Understanding yoga instructions in Russian really stretched my linguistic capacity, but at least I know what “downward-facing dog” is now, should I ever need it (stop laughing you at the back)! Unfortunately, at the end of the class I was told that the trainers which I’d been happily walking to and from the gym in, and wearing to work out, were too dirty and that I would have to buy a clean pair. For some reason, after two disastrous exercise classes, hormonal dysfunction, tiredness, low blood-sugar, whatever, this turned out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back and I had a mini breakdown on my way back to the flat. My mum had to put up with a teary FaceTime while I threw dishes around heating up a home-made beef stroganoff. The next day, things rapidly deteriorated further and by the evening I was in bed with a stomach bug and feeling very sorry for myself, after consuming a dodgy dill-covered pizza from the university cafeteria. The times when I’ve been ill at uni haven’t exactly been walks in the park but this was a new level of crap. Irina had gone to work and my temperature was rocketing up and down, making me feel cold in the boiling apartment. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more alone. Luckily, I had brought the contents of a medium-sized pharmacy with me from England so I was able to ward the worst symptoms off pretty quickly, although I was entirely knocked out for a few days. The worst thing about all this was that I missed both my theatre trip with my Dutch friend – Ijs Brand – and, more importantly, the university’s centenary which was a one-off event and by all accounts utterly spectacular, featuring an 100 kg. cake, fireworks, and well-known musical acts. Cry. Ah well, onwards and upwards, I thought to myself, resolving to avoid all university food from this point on.
Although I was feeling better by the end of the week, I decided not to chance a whole day in the cold at the Gulag museum. I did, however, make it to a special performance of the ultimate Pushkin-Tchaikovsky Russian classic Evgeny Onegin at the opera theatre for the centenary, where I had been promised a seat next to my Oxford tutor. The first act begun, and I found myself seated instead next to a lot of Russian students, one of which told me I was in her seat. Consulting Irina in the interval revealed that I had indeed been in completely the wrong place, and I later managed to position myself in the correct seat, next to my tutor Catriona. It was really nice to see a familiar face and have a chat about Perm and things generally. The opera was great too. I really love the heroine Tatiana. She falls in love with Onegin as a young girl, but he rejects her. Ultimately, she marries somebody else and, when she encounters Onegin later in life and he falls in love with her and realises his mistake, she rejects him on the principle of fidelity to her husband even though she still loves him. Listen to the love-letter she writes to Onegin here (warning: it is very dramatic).
Later in the week, I had my first literature lesson: one-on-one looking at poetry written by Russian women in the so-called Silver Age (the early 20th century as a legacy to the Golden Age of Pushkin, but far less traditional!). I also met Dmitri, another of Alla’s students, who wants English lessons. He and his wife, Yulia, are dividing their time between Moscow and Perm. They were very sociable and invited me out for dinner with them, which was very enjoyable. We discussed politics, which I was a bit reluctant to do, but it was heartening to see that we were able to move past some obvious differences between our two countries’ political lines. The couple had been to France on holiday and met people there who said that the USA had won World War Two. This, understandably, shocked them. If you look at the casualty figures, there can be absolutely no debate as to who won the Second World War for the Allies. The USSR lost over 30 million people, and it was Hitler’s invasion of Russia in 1941 that proved to be his undoing.
When I bought my coat, I received a voucher for a free photoshoot, and thought that it might be fun to redeem it. I had my hair and make-up done and felt like a celebrity, although many of my poses ended up looking (and feeling) extremely awkward, for example:
It was actually a really enjoyable experience, and my make-up artist and photographer were friendly. I had made plans to meet up with the girls (whose names are Anya, Polina and Yulia, can’t remember if I’ve mentioned that or not), and we ended up in a cafe designed to look exactly like Central Perk in Friends. It was lovely to see them again. I attempted to explain Brexit, and our government’s policies against students, which I think I made a creditable effort at! Everyone here is dismayed at the cost of tuition fees, which are over five times what they pay.
In fact, in terms of saying stupid things by accident, I am experiencing fewer incidents. Although, I did manage to make a fool of myself by asking our teacher when our class was going to finish. Certain forms of the Russian word to finish actually mean to finish in other ways – if you know what I mean (if you don’t, please don’t ask me) – and I managed to scandalise the teacher and embarrass myself. I now take a deep breath and count to ten to give myself time to find the right prefix every time I use the damn word. Oh Russian, why must you make all the simple things so complicated?
Last Friday, my mum and sister came to visit, which was fantastic! It was so good to see them and I really enjoyed showing them all the parts of the city that I know. On Saturday, we met up with Alla and had a traditional Ukrainian meal at a restaurant, before going for a walk by the river and having a look at the art gallery.
The next day, I took them to church. It was the priest’s birthday, and we popped into the celebration after mass. The nuns had prepared an amazing spread, with every dish designed to look like an animal. The priest came in and had a look round the room, before focussing on us, taking one look and asking where we were from, immediately able to tell that we were not Russian. There’s something about our faces, I think! It was nice to talk to members of the congregation, which I hadn’t been bold enough to do before, and I feel like they will hopefully remember me, when I go again tomorrow. We headed to a restaurant that had been recommended to me in the evening to eat before the opera, which I’d got us tickets for (I have never been more fancy in my life than I am here). The people in there were rude, and the menu was a bit sparse so we attempted to go elsewhere. Many restaurants were full, and when we found one with space, it took a long time to bring the food, meaning we had to leave before most of it arrived in order to be on time to the performance. I have discovered/always kind of knew that I really can’t pronounce my letter ‘r’s like a Russian would, so saying “tri” (three) every time I needed a table for three or three tickets on the tram became an uphill struggle. Mum is threatening to get me elocution lessons for Christmas.
We made our way to our seats in the nick of time, and were scolded by Irina for not putting our coats in the cloakroom. The performance was a short opera followed by a short ballet, both by Shostakovich and set in Soviet times. It was difficult for me to understand what was happening due to a lack of Russian subtitles (everything is harder to comprehend when sung with maximum vibratto), so I can only imagine what it must have seemed like to Mum and Laura! They have professed to enjoy it though! After this, we headed home and enjoyed tea and cake with Irina and her two best friends, Marina and Tanya. I had my work cut out for me, translating between the two linguistically-opposed factions! It was a very fun evening though, and we drank a lot of Irina’s home-brewed cherry liqueur! The samovar also came out for tea, which I found highly exciting as I had never seen a genuine one before!
Dmitri had offered us a driver and a car to visit the countryside while Mum and Laura were here. He said it would be good for us to get out of the “gloomy” city and see the nature surrounding. I decided it would be great to see a village called the Khoklovka, about an hour’s drive away and designed to look as it would have done hundreds of years ago. Although it was much colder out of the city, it was a great experience and the views of the River Kama from the village were outstanding.
I took Laura and Mum to the university the following day, and sat them down in the cafeteria to amuse themselves while I had my lessons. In classic fashion, they got us embroiled in appearing in a geology lesson to talk to the students in English (they need to learn the language to read the geology papers). This was a fun experience and the students were really brave to talk to us in English with no prior warning! It also means I’ve met a few more people which is always uplifting. After lessons, we went into town and saw the famous statue of a bear which stands in the centre of town. This is irrevocably linked to Perm, the emblem of which is a bear. You are meant to polish its nose for good luck.
We ended up at Dmitri’s for tea/wine/cake in the evening. He invited friends who had recently got back from seeing a football match in England in honour of Roman Abramovich’s birthday! Mum discussed politics with him, and they have resolved to continue the debate should he ever visit England! It was really sad to see Mum and Laura off and I have felt exhausted and lonely for the last few days, probably as a result of all the excitement of their visit dissolving! That said, I allowed myself to wallow in bed with TV and historical romance novels for a couple of days, but have got myself up and about again today to teach English, do some work and walk myself to a cafe where I had a gorgeous raspberry bavarois. I promise you that Perm (and probably Russia generally) can definitely rival Paris (and France) with its cakes. The thing with experiencing and overcoming all these new things – obstacles, experiences, feelings – means that you discover reserves of something inside you that you never knew you had: some kind of strength and grit to get through the hard days and really enjoy the good days. Although I am beginning to really miss home and the people there (shout-out to J whom I regularly miss so much that it hurts), I have got this far! And I can keep going for the last few weeks! Writing it here should remind me. Before I get too introspective and irritating, I should mention that I am lucky to have the wonderful support network that I do: all your messages and support mean so much to me, really get me smiling, and make me continue to put my best foot forward! My language is definitely getting better too, so it is all worth it! Thank you for sticking with me, sorry for the mammoth post and for not writing in far too long, and I hope to hear from you all if you’ve read this far!