Today is my last full day in Perm: tomorrow I will fly through something like four different time-zones, but for now I am procrastinting from packing. Before I get on to my final thoughts, I’ll catch you up on the hightlights from the last few weeks.
After a few, wallowing days of wanting nothing more than to go home after my mum and sister left, I decided to shake myself out of the slump by taking myself off on a weekend minibreak to Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth largest city. By Russian standards, Yekaterinburg is really close to Perm, ie. six hours’ on the train! I had an entertaining encounter with the ticket office at the train station, which was particularly drawn out when they had to attempt to enter my British passport details into the system in order to let me buy a ticket. I was really worried that I’d somehow confused the train times, or accidentally asked for the wrong tickets, because Russian numbers are weirdly difficult (as anyone who studies this frustrating and wonderful language will know) and was going to end up arriving in Yekaterinburg at 3 in the morning, but luckily this was not the case. The tickets were some of the prettiest I have ever seen, so it was all worth the tricky conversation practice… if I’d succumbed to the ease of buying online, they wouldn’t have been nearly so beautiful:
Anyway, there were more fun and games to be had upon my arrival at the station at the weekend to actually catch the train. The screens telling you which platforms the trains were leaving from were only at the front of the station, which I blithely walked past, hoping to get inside the station quickly and not waste time dithering outside. When I emerged in the platform area, I discovered that there were no screens… and no platform numbers… As it was, I briefly ended up on a train going to Moscow, ie. in the opposite direction, and was then told to cross the tracks in front of said train to get to the right one. This involved me crossing, with a suitcase, in the snow, at a part of the track that definitely was not designed as a pedestrian crossing. By this time, most of the station workers were rooting for me and were all nodding and grinning by the time I found the Yekaterinburg train, which incidentally was a Trans-Siberian line. Because of the immense distance that such trains travel, there are no seats, only beds, in the carriages, even if you aren’t travelling overnight. I’d booked what we would probably call a third-class ticket and was in an open-plan carriage full of sleeping berths. I’d slightly drawn the short straw in that I ended up with a top bunk, which was so close to the luggage rack above that it was impossible to sit up. Having said that, the train was really cosy: there were samovars in every carriage, so that you could bring mugs and tea-bags or instant coffee and have an endless, free supply of hot drinks over the course of your journey, and the restaurant car – although over-priced – served pretty delicious Russian food (I enjoyed borscht and chicken cutlets). It was great to see the snowy scenery go by too:
Upon eventual arrival in Yekaterinburg, I realised that the Russian winter had really begun to kick in. It was only about -10C (I have now experienced far worse), but for the first time experiencing such temperatures in about six years, it felt pretty extreme. I found my hostel (shout out to a very clean and friendly DoBeDo), and then headed out to find some dinner. It was evening, and therefore dark, so I went for a quick walk along the main street (obviously called Lenin Street) to find the river and get a feel for the city before heading back to get settled for the night.
The next morning, I had plans to follow the “Red Line”. This is a line painted onto the pavements/roads etc. as a tourist walking route taking in all the city’s major attractions. Fortified by a flat white (sidenote: it’s really hard to order a flat white here, as they use the English term, but with a very strong Russian accent, and don’t understand if you say it how an English person would… this was also an issue when I was trying to arrange to see Bridget Jones…), I set off to the city’s main square, named after the 1905 revolution, to start the walking tour. I quickly realised that, although a fantastic idea in theory, the premise of the Red Line works less well in winter, when the streets are blanketed in snow. Cue me, desperately scraping snow off the pavement with my feet (RIP my shoes) in various parts of the city and receiving many strange looks from passers-by. The weather was absolutely beautiful: a clear blue sky and bright white fresh snow. I took in loads of sights – a Beatles mural, a museum dedicated to Vladimir Vysotsky, Yekaterinburg’s “Arbat” region (actually called Vaynera), which draws on the idea of the area in Moscow – but the most interesting for me was the Church/Cathedral on the Blood, which was completed in 2003 on the exact spot where the last of the Romanovs – the Russian royal family – were shot in 1918.
After my walking tour, which took up the morning, I headed over to the brand new Yeltsin Centre, which houses a museum all about the nineties in Russia and the tenure of the country’s first President, Boris Yeltsin. I’m trying to look into this period more to see if it’s feasible to write one of the long essays I need to write for my degree around it, so it was very interesting for me. I was particularly struck by how disliked the last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, is – his name was barely mentioned except when the museum was discussing how much better Yeltsin was. At the very end of the exhibits, visitors can see how Putin was chosen by Yeltsin as his successor.
For reasons unknown to me, I waited at the tram stop near the museum, after I’d looked round, with an increasingly disgruntled babushka for about twenty minutes, and saw not one sign of a tram. I ended up walking back to the hostel. Overall, I really enjoyed Yekaterinburg and found it to be beautiful and elegant.
The train ride home was smoother than my arrival in that I was able to find the correct platform with relative ease. However, I did manage to drop my iPad – containing all my reading material – down the side of my bunk when I was making up my bed, and it ended up getting stuck in the heating system. The conductor was half-amused, half-exasperated by me as she helped me get it out. I was observed thoughout this debacle by a school-trip of eight-year old girls, who all looked the same and were heading to Moscow. They were very intrigued by my obvious foreign-ness. Upon arrival back in Perm, I was once again struck by the sudden arrival of winter over the course of this weekend. The town council must have made an executive decision to turn the area in front of the station into an ice-rink, because that was what it resembled by this point. One woman fell over, and I helped her up, thanking my stars that somehow it hadn’t been me, although very aware that it probably would be sooner rather than later… When I got home, I realised I’d forgotten to write a literature essay for my class the next day, and felt very grateful to Oxford while hurrying to write it for giving me so much to do at university that bashing out a 3000 word essay in 45 minutes (even if the quality is not particularly high) feels second-nature.
The week back in Perm began as normal, with the usual lessons and trips to the gym, where I was judged for doing step-ups on a bench to the point where a trainer picked up a mat from the floor and put it on the bench so I was stepping onto that instead. This literally made no logical sense, as the mats had probably spent more time in contact with the floor than my new, specifically-for-indoors-because-the-Russians-are-unbelievably-hygiene-conscious trainers, but if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. By mid-week, temperatures had dropped considerably, to about -25C. It’s taken me this long to realise that actually it feels even colder than the given temperature due to very cold winds, so I’ve probably dealt with about -30C while I’ve been here. I spent a large part of last week hibernating because that really is too cold for me to do much, even with all the layers in the world. Russian women still somehow manage to look quite glamorous, despite this. I, on the other hand, have been going around looking like a multi-coloured, furry-in-places, snowman… When snow falls in the evenings, the light goes a really pretty pinkish colour, which my camera unfortunately couldn’t do justice to, so here’s a snowy selfie instead.
The following weekend, Katya invited me to her dacha, which is a house in the country that nearly every Russian has, and which they use as a weekend/holiday home. We drove for about two hours out into the countryside until we arrived at a little village called Ilinsk, where Katya spent the first years of her life. We went round a couple of museums there, which talked about the connection between the village and the Stroganoff family, and the importance of hunting and the surrounding woods. Katya’s babushka still lives there, and she had cooked us a MASSIVE lunch, which was sorely needed after trudging around in the cold:
We then headed to the dacha itself, which was so cute and cosy, like a little chalet/log cabin. We sat and talked, and then Katya suggested I have a nap while we were waiting for the banya (the sauna) to heat up, because the fresh air coupled with a very filling lunch had made us both sleepy. When I woke up again, the banya was up to temperature (about 100C). The banya involves a ritual of showering, going into the sauna for about five minutes or as long as you can bear it, wearing a special banya hat (in which, no need to ask, I looked fab…), coming out again, showering, putting on a towel which is designed to be worn a bit like a boob-tube dress, and sitting in the living room, drinking tea, before repeating the whole process again. I really enjoyed it, and felt so relaxed and content after the banya, which was really good for my skin too! So kind of Katya to invite me, I really enjoyed getting to know her family, who were staying there too.
The next day, Alisa (my hairdresser’s daughter) and I had booked to go to a sort of soft-play/adventure centre, which had loads of huge trampolines, a sponge pit to jump into, climbing walls, and a mini high-wires course around the walls. We had an amazing time, so much fun, like big kids! Definitely one of my new favourite ways of exercising…
We went for sushi afterwards, which continued/began a tradition of us trying out various different kinds of sushi throughout the city! Russia does Japanese food so so well, second only to Edamame in Oxford, which is still my all-time, go-to favourite. I tried doing some Christmas shopping throughout the week too, with some success, including a fun trip to the central market, which is a permanent market speciailising in all sorts of things (clothes, food, shoes, toys) where you can get authentic Russian goods cheaper than in the shops. I’m going to have to stay pretty quiet here about what I bought though… There was another day of free museum and gallery entry in the city during the week, which I tried to take advantage of with a view to getting more useful information for my essays, but everywhere was very cold and crowded so I only managed short visits. The attendants failed to understand that I was only interested in material relevant to the 90’s and so kept trying to push me in the direction of the exhibits on medieval Russia etc. and were confused when I kept popping back to try and get past them seconds later.
On Thursday, I went to see “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”, which was great although I only understood about 40% of it (magical vocabulary that doesn’t really exist in either English or Russian will do that to a girl), so I’m quite looking forward to seeing it again when I’m home this weekend in English! On Saturday, my friends from class and I went to see a stage adaptation of “The Master and Margarita” in a tiny theatre, described as mystical, which is one of the favourites in the city. The performance was good, particularly the acting, but it does seem difficult to adapt “The Master and Margarita” for the stage, you inevitably have to leave some of the best bits out and nothing ever comes out quite as good as the novel. It was still a good experience though – we chowed down on pelmeni and vodka beforehand at a traditional Russian restaurant. The next day I squeezed in more sushi with Alisa and her mother, Lyudmila.
This week at university has been great, but also quite emotional because I’ve known I’ll be saying goodbye to everyone! I had my last literature lesson on Monday, and my last language classes yesterday. Everyone was really kind, and as Winnie the Pooh would say:
I’ve even got a Perm University t-shirt to wear at home! I’m very much hoping to visit again next year, when I’ll be in St Petersburg, considering that I now understand the Russian trains. I said goodbye to Anya, Polina and Yulia at a WestFest event at the university on Wednesday and Alisa and Lyudmila will be driving me to the airport tomorrow so I’ll be able to say goodbye to them there and have some company which will be lovely! Today is for packing, but tonight I’ll be going out for dinner with Alla and Anton and spending the evening with them as a thank you! Perm has been amazing: I’ve learned so much and met wonderful people. I feel so grateful for everyone that helped me along the way: both here and at home. I could not have better people in my life. Thank you. Although I’ll be spending a month or so at home over the holidays, I’ll be setting off for St Petersburg in early January so you can expect to hear from me again then. Do vstrechi!