Thursday, 11 August 2011

Genteel Genderification*

A feeling of  something-not-quite-right-ness has been following me for a while. This time it could not be put down the jars of pickle and honey covered in dust and with a sell-by-date long expired in the shops. Nor an odd word here or there. Something that has changed in my behaviour. My friend pointed it out quite beautifully , 'You have become a girly girl. When you got here we found lots of interesting topics to talk about. Then something happened.'  I haven't stopped reading classics or  discussing philosophy or racing men in the swimming pool. However, I have started to talk about boys, as 'boys', as they would be sung about in a pop song, especially the song 'Boyz Boyz Boyz'. This is through the awful influence of the some of the so-called glamour girls  that perambulate down streets of dear St Pete.

I suddenly realised that I had been indecentally exposing myself on the streets of St Pete when one friend told me.'I would feel  naked without make-up if I had your complexion. I feel naked for you.'. I was forced to attend Russian make-up workshops where intricate layers of mystic creams are spread on, each with it's own softening, glistening, perfecting, eye-widening or clarifying function.  All with the intention to bewitch, enchant, ensnare. The precious Russian husband. After the eye-liner, shadow, lip-stick, foundation and  magic creams my face was perfectly Russian. 'My goodness, you look like a prostitute!' said the friend concerned with my bareness. 'I'm afraid to walk through the streets with you now. Please wash it off before you walk home.' Like the men trying to be Marilyn Monroe-esque in 'Some Like It Hot', my attempts at the Russian brand of femininity are clearly doomed to failure.

Men strut  around  with the prize-bull awareness that they are men in a city with a surplus of  beautiful, glamourous women seeking a husband. A foreign colleague said , 'I looked at myself and realised I had two options, I could either join a gym or go to Russia.'  Some Russian women get excited about foreign men - there's too few Russians and 40% of those are alcoholics  -in a way that Russian men just wouldn't bother getting excited about foreign women. 'Our women know how to dress perfectly and look after the family. You'll never see a Russian girl with laddered tights'.

 It is common for foreign girls to get an inferiority complex and for men to walk away with relaxed indifference. A common chat up line/friendly conversation starter is , 'Are you really English? Are there actually other  beautiful girls in England? I thought they were all ugly.' On the contrary, English men are apparently unfailingly cultured and handsome.

When Russians  are accompanying (it's easy to get the feeling that  you are being accompanied)  a woman they act  the man with perfect courtesy; holding doors, carrying bags, paying entry. When you are a stranger they sometimes simply shoulder past you on the street. I've been nearly catapulted by puffer-coated, high-speed men clearing their path along icy streets,  

Jeans and trainers are (thank goodness) are  rarer than in Europe. I barely touched a pair of jeans until May. Constantly wearing dresses must  have a feminising influence on the brain.  They require more attention to posture and comportment than trousers or jeans. In jeans you can  tear around and perch your derriere down however and wherever you wish.

While in Russia, I had a noticeable lack of  male friends and flocks of  lovely female friends. To counter this perceived lack and provide some humour, my farewell to Russia was a moustache party, male Salvador-Dali-esque dress obligatory, 'That way we'll all be men and counter the gender imbalance!'  The twist in the tale occured when some-how, due to various holidays, forgotten invites, random encounters of cruise boat musicians, friends of  friends, and an unpredictable French roommate , the party had far too many  real men.  'You'd better not leave,' I said to some remaining women as the XY content of the party dangerously dwindled. 'Or I'll be left alone with all these men!'

*This entry contains many generalisations for the sake of simplicity, the fun of gross cultural comparison and humour. Of course, the situation between men and women and such in Russian is far more complex than can be discussed here.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Visa'd - Debushka, You are not flying

Russia was quite adamant about not letting me leave. In a more aggressive, inhibitive way than the statements of  beautiful friends and acquaintances 'You have to stay.' Here, the phrase was pronounced in a very different tone.

At the check-in desk there was no problem. Everything was clear and the stewardess only smiled at my slightly delapidated visa. The fact was that when I was given some flimsy green sheets of paper I had no idea that they were actually needed for leaving the former USSR.  I whimsically carried them around in my handbag in case of being stopped by the police. Who knows, one day I may have been mistaken for a young man from a minority group? My handbag underwent multiple and marvellous adventures through various different climates and met a variety of art utensils, squares of chocolate, cosmetics and fiddling fingers. As a result, it looked a bit like a used tissue. Although, I assure you, I never in fact resorted to using it as such.
After check-in, I was extremely relieved that my bulky baggage passed right through so that I wouldn't have to wear several soviet dresses, a kinky bulgarian dress with heavy metal buttons, jeans and hefty snow-proof redneck hunting boots while declaring, 'For all I know it could be very cold in England'. It wasn't Stansted and no-one cared about the weight restrictions.  I nonchalantly handed over my Visa to the little hut-like office. The woman inside frowned , 'Step aside, Debushka.'  I'm not impressed or amused. I'm the rule book without annotations or illustrations or comical scribbles. Her entire face was as smart and pursed as the navy blue uniform. Alas, as I stood reading outside the office another girl asked me to step in. 'I'm already being seen to, thanks.' How friendly and young and annotated she sounded! Alas, it was too late.

An official looking man, the epitomy of officious and average, stepped in and they spent a long time discussing my Visa.I risked popping my head in. 'I know it's a bit messy but look; here's all the photocopies,' I attempted to say in Russian with a sweet smile. No-one listened. The man went away for a long time while I stood too exhausted to panic.

'This way, Debushka,' he said when he returned, motioning towards the check-in desk. 'You need a new visa.'

'Will it take long?' I asked, looking at my watch. 'I fly in 40 minutes.'

'Debushka, You are not flying.'

'I don't understand.'

'You are not flying.'

He took me to the flight desk and handed in my ticket. 'This young lady isn't flying.' Brutally, They struck me off the list. I objected. 'I have to fly today. I start work today.'

'It's simply impossible.'

Then, realising the gravity of the situation,  I tried to explain about something that had happened to my bag in Dacha (expat party place, especially for young irresponsable foreigners) and how my poor visa was returned defaced. A girl stepped in and translated for me. It was still quite clear that I wouldn't be flying. The customs official explained that the serial number wasn't clearly legible. There were two girls behind the desk who kindly but firmly said, 'I'm afraid that there's nothing we can do for you Madam' . I calmly persisted in standing there and requested the number of the consulate. The calmness was assisted by the three hours sleep I'd succeeded in attaining over forty-eight hours of farewell parties and missed bridges. After a couple of tries I got through to a consulate, 'You need an emergency visa.' The check-in girls quickly became interested and made an effort to help me;  Russian coldness  melted into Russian warmth.
'The flight's twenty minutes delayed. You might still get on.' They ran off behind scenes and came back, 'That visa's not possible for multi-entry visas (meaning I had several bits of green paper rather than just one).'

I phoned again , 'Well, you need to speak to the head of customs.'

It was clear I wouldn't get this plane.  'Will my flight be refunded?' '

I'm sorry we don't do refunds.' At first I was devastated, only wanting to get back to England, be in England, work in England and leave the sort of place that required visas to let you leave it. I dreaded dragging my bag back on the marshrutka and saying 'Here I am again', to all the people I had melodramatically Dasvydanyed.  Then I began imagining all the minimally funded adventures I could have if I stayed. Camping at a concealed lake with an abandoned banya, drinking tea in Cafes, travelling around Russia, teaching privately for a few weeks, finding a camp in Russia to work at. It was all impractical of course.
Here, they brought me a lady  from British Airways with a smooth Moscow accent (defined by excellent, slightly Americanised English); slim, perfect and Moscovite. From a past era of  glamourous airports. She said she would try to deal with the problem and perhaps my ticket would be refunded.
We took my bag to the British airways office in a corridor by the airport.

The lady phoned a friend some-where official and handed her to me 'It may be possible to get this sort of visa.' No, that wasn't possible. 'I'm going to have a meeting with customs.' 'And if that works will I get a free ticket?' 'I'm afraid they refused.' She went away to speak to somebody in customs. I waited for a while in the office chatting  to her colleaugue who spoke no English who made me a cup of emergency tea.
She returned briskly, 'Customs have agreed to let you leave the country at 3 o clock exactly. But you have to hand in your whole visa.'

'That's fine. I don't want it'. I just want to leave your cruel  country with visa OCD, and never come back. 'It won't cause problems if I did perhaps  want to come back some-time?' Of course I want to come back really, now forewarned with the knowledge that those ugly green bits of paper should be kept in a plastic cover, with a pocket, in a Emma-proof safe. However, I can't decide whether fate wanted to give me a second chance to stay longer by making escape a challenge or whether it just wanted to take all of my multi-entry visa so coming back any-time soon would require effort , planning and paperwork.

'Not at all.'


'We will go to the office and ask about them now .'

They printed some  tickets and handed them over easily.

As everything kept yo-yo-ing from 'maybe' to 'no' to 'yes' and back again  so frequently I could see the red yo-yo before my eyes I decided not to be entirely relieved yet or phone any-one. I went to the workers cantene, to the disguised within a Soviet building (we are not so far from Moskovskiy Prospect) t above the airport and enjoyed a thoroughly Russian meal; buckwheat and fish, an the indispensable soup and a Greenfields Tea sachet. A  sort of Last Supper.

Now, having a little bit of time on my hands before I was accompanied to customs I thought I should buy my saviour(BA lady) a little present, such as chocolate. I heard this sort of thing is actually expected and is equivalent to a bribe. I should've had some Whisky in my pockets for the customs official. However, I would be too afraid too offer a bribe for fear of offence and ridicule. In any case, it seems to be a male domain. At least, I've never heard a woman telling anecdotes about bribery. The lady told me to keep the chocolate for my friends back home. She handed me over to customs. This time the unsympathetic customs man smiled a little and told me to have a good journey. Ice melting.

 Oh well. I waited for the plane and started chatting with some English tourists who had flown over for the white nights and found the city beautiful but not intimate..'So I was actually supposed to fly this morning and it seemed like the perfect thing as I got a job right near Gatwick airport so I decided to just fly straight to work.  Wait a second, this does go to Gatwick doesn't it?'

'No, this is for Heathrow.'

'Oh -'

With three hours sleep out of forty-eight; a ridiculously snotty cold; a dress that is too warm for the szauneric airport; an expired sim and two phones that just about work between them; the wrong airport; a suitcase full of impractical things; airportial price inflation the adventure continues       ...............

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Unnofficial Taxi Drivers or Stanning without Seatbelts

Public transport in St Petersburg is a bemusing and difficult thing for non-Russians to accept. There really is no legal public transport after midnight. No metro, no night buses, no night trams, no Marshrutkas. It is supplemented by unmarked, completely unregistered taxis driven by immigrants which dissolve magically from the flow of traffic when you wave your arm towards the road. It's called car-catching. Post metro closure, they flip into the bus bays like dominoes 1,2,3 if you so much as hesitate near the edge of a main drag. If the price is unsatisfactory, the door slams and up pulls the next taxi.  This can happen several times until some driver offers a low enough price - one girl I know travels every-where for 150 roubles.

Theres a lot of risk involved in a young woman jumping into a car with a stranger yet many women use this service casually and  habitually. It says something about the strange Russian attitude towards trust.

For a long time,  all of seven months,  I have remained very English and mostly tried to dissuade friends from going any-where near the taxi, insisting that we walk through the snow and cold. The other day I became relaxed enough into the Russian way of things (de-Europeanised enough) to catch a car on my own. In the middle of the day and in the middle of the town, admittedly.

 The catching was rather difficult as I was quite shy and hesitant about the catching, holding my arm out rather pathetically in a space that was probably only for buses. I moved along and a ' ' pulled up. 'Marinsky, 100 rubles, possible?' 'To the Marinsky, 150.'150rubles  is the standard price for any-where in the centre, although taxi drivers will often try to charge foreigners a lot more. I only had a hundred in change. 'Well, if a hundred is all you have, jump in.'


'No, English.'

We started along the road and after a couple of polite questions,  then the Stan story began. This is customary, at least it happens in most taxis I get. Reminiscing about the home-land with other strangers adrift in this great city.

'I'm from Tajakistan where there are beautiful mountains. I've been to Germany, Budapest, Romania, Lithuania. We speak Russian very well. The Soviet Union was very strong. There was a strong war and 3 millions of our men went to fight the Americans in Cuba. Strong, strong' Here he mimes shooting a rifle. He loves English language music and the radio is playing American golden oldies; 'Killing me softly' and country. 'I can't understand the songs but I love them. It's very fine music. I feel it here.' He taps his chest. In his soul.'My son speaks English perfectly. He's a lawyer. I only learnt German at school.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Mermaid in a Pickle Jar - Russian short story

This story was written in collaboration with several couchsurfers and a colleague.  It explores that old Russian stereotypes - ; pickles and vodka frame the story. These subjects were chosen by Russians without my influence. I only added the mermaid.

Человек должен выпивать 3 литра воды в день! Это норма согласно теории. Потомy что человек состоит на 90 % из воды, а может быть и нет. А может быть, это вовсе и не человек, а огурец.

"Ну, и неважно какой - всё равно", - сказал Миша. Ведь он же будет огурец есть, и таким образом огурец может стать человеком.

Миша подумал об этом, и банка стала открываться.

Там, в банке, он увидел рycалку и влюбился в неё. У русалки были прекрасные зелёные волосы, а на носу нелепые очки. Миша подумал, что с такими очками она уж точно учёная дева, академию закончила. Он и не подозревал, что за этими очками скрываются жгучие очи морской красавицы.

Как она тyда попала, в банку?

Возможно, потому что американский президент охотился на русалок. Он сказал, что русалки опасны для цивилизации.

Русалка тоже влюбилась. И именно поэтому она решила навсегда исчезнуть с глаз людей . Так что мы их больше никогда не увидим, разве что после пятой стопки.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

The Drunken Pianos

As I walked towards Nevskiy with a vegan, teetotal Russian friend (almost a freak of nature in this harsh borsch-some shampanskoyed tsardom but that's another article)we encountered a crowd of inebriated men hanging around.  They jumped out on my friend with a plastic beer bottle, in  a gawkish, harmless way. On Nevskiy another man wandered by disposessedly and the vegan said, 'There are lots of strange people here.'

I whispered confidentially, with beautiful British sarcasm and worldly wisdom , 'You know, that's because they're pianos and people act like that when they're pianos'.

You may be surprised to learn that I hadn't intended to say exactly this. There should have been something more to do with beer and the resulting consequences of consuming it and less to do with musical instruments, as lovely as they are. You see , пьяный (Piyaniy) and пианино (Pianino) sound more or less the same to me; all in all, the drunken P softens up a little and the a is slurred to ya and then a -no is added on but these -n's and -kas and -shkas suffixedly suffuse themselves all over Russian.  In short, what's a vowel or too between an Englishwoman and the Russian language? Negligible.

Of course, these subtle differences only seem subtle when you're a foreigner and not very au fait with the language. To native speakers they are as humiliatingly obvious as the difference between sheep and ship - which so many learners of English cannot distinguish so that students often travel to France on a sheep or remark that there are lots of ships in Wales - or artery and armory if I change about the same amount of letters as needed to switch 'Piyanaya to Pianina.

I composed a song which only makes sense in Russian because a drunk piano is in no way such a flowing  exquisitely attired creature as a пьяное пианино (Piyanaya Pianino.)

пьяное пианино
что ты делаеш, что ты думаеш?

композитор - он оффисиант
ты закаcашь шостоковичый виски
после шампанское чайковскый

ты играeш кандинский

пьяное пианино
бесстыдное да чудесное

Plastered Piano
What are doing, what are you thinking?

The composer is a waiter
You order  your Shostakovich with Whisky
Then Tchaikovskian Champagne

You play Kandinsky

Plastered Piano
Unbeatable, yes wonderful

Friday, 29 April 2011

Paperia - Illustrations for a fairy tale

In some measured inspired by the amount of wasted, squandered and scorned  scraps of paper involved in EFL teaching; especially to young learners this fairy-tale is about a world made of paper.