Monday, 23 September 2013

С Днем Рождения Воронеж!

Saturday 21st marked the two week-iversary of our arrival here in Voronezh and what better way to celebrate than a day of parades, street entertainment and fireworks! Before you think our new comrades rolled out the red carpet just for us, let me explain - День Города marks the anniversary of the founding of the town and, as far as I can tell, every fairly large city rolls out the bunting every year for a day of general merriment.

Determined to take every opportunity to take part, Isobel and I braved the winds to attend the opening ceremony in Lenin Square. When we arrived, a choir on the main stage were serenading the crowd. Soon enough they were replaced by two enthusiastic announcers who introduced the regional big cheeses like the governor of Voronezh and the head of the Church amongst others. They each made stirring speeches greeted with shouts of  'урах!' (some kind of intimidating sounding hurrah?!) from those who had gathered to watch. Isobel and I joined in to the best of our ability (i.e. enthusiastically and out of time whilst the Russians tutted at us). 

Following the speeches came a seemingly never ending parade. The first cohort, mainly made up of school age children, were representing the different regions of this city with gusto in their costumes.

We 'урах'-ed for central region to show our allegiance to the University - ВГУ represent!

The second section of the parade were small groups representing the different nationalities of the city, all in traditional costume.

The final section was representing the products and institutions of Voronezh - personal highlights include the Milk lorry complete with cows, the chocolate man and confectionery factory workers, the giant cola polar bear and the Voronezh Anti-Narcotics campaign (complete with needle and vein balloon!).

Isobel and I decided enough was enough when a giant sausage inflatable was being paraded past- tea break it was.

After a well deserved warm up, me and some of the other girls from uni were up and off to explore. The main street, проспект революции, had been pedestrianised a filled with stands (mostly candy floss and nick nacks) and stages with all kinds of entertainment. Just outside the cafe, they had turned one half of the street in to numerous different sports pitches where teens were playing football, basketball, volleyball and even ping-pong.

On the way to the parade in the morning, I'd also had to dodge skiers on wheels racing down my street!

On the sports stage, what I can only describe as an all round crazy man was challenging members of the public to competitions. These included the classic 'normal man whacking nails in to a plank of wood with a hammer vs crazy man whacking them in with his palm' and my personal favourite 'children trying to burst balloons with their breath vs crazy man doing the same with a hot water bottle'.

On the second largest stage of the day, there were several performances by very cute little ones in garish costumes and also some gypsy dance demonstrations. In a country that in the British media is very quick to brand intolerant, I was surprised how many different nationalities had been embraced in the celebrations: both in the parades and entertainment. Traditional folk dancers shared the street with Native American pipe players - it was refreshing to see.

Samantha and I are big fans of the arts so we set up camp by the State Art Academy, whose performances were the highlight of the day for me. From the accordionist to the opera singers and the string quartet, every performance outdid the last.

Scattered amongst the performances were ridiculous competitions run by their sponsor Софтком Банк, a bank which we'd never seen or heard of. After managed to avoid being pulled in to the limbo contest, the second time of asking me to join in they were not taking no for an answer. So I was pulled over the barrier to take part in a contest where I had to name musical instruments :| Taking pity on the short foreign one, they let me participate in English. Whether it be the fact I was the butt of all their jokes, or that fact they couldn't understand a word I said, I somehow won the competition and ended up with my very own Софтком Банк golf umbrella, which my host mum complimented me on enthusiastically on my return home.

After dinner and a lay down, it was up and off again to round of the day with a fireworks display down on the river bank. Though it was cold and drizzling, it was most definitely worth seeing the day's festivities through til the end.

As the entertainment on the river bank came to a close after the 15 minute display, we decided going for a beer was almost mandatory: big mistake! Everywhere was rammed and after we'd managed to nab a table (outside!) it took us nearly an hour and half to order and get our drinks! We were then regaled with Russian love stories and tales of the Napoleonic war from the standard drunk Russian man thinking he was educating the newcomers. An amusing end to the day and a good story to tell.

What shall week 3 bring...guess you'll see next week!

Monday, 16 September 2013

'Life is either a great adventure or nothing.' : week one!

In the words of Helen Keller, 'Life is either a great adventure or nothing'. Never is this statement truer than when you move to a new place: either you run with it or you crumble.The last week has been full of new experiences; ones that we've all had to embrace. It's hard to know how to document all of these things without boring you all to tears, but I'll do my best! As its all so new, I'm going to do an account of each day - don't get used to it though! It will only be highlights from here on in!


Day 1. Sunday 08/09/13

On the platform of the station, we were greeted by Alexandra, a representative of the university. She introduced each of us to our land ladies and, once we had decided on a time to meet for a tour, they took us our separate ways to what is now home for the next 3 months. My landlady is called Galina, she has a very kind face and is really sweet, though its often hard to understand her. When we arrived at the flat (a two minute walk from the central square), she showed me to my room (pictured) and left me to unpack.

She soon called me in for breakfast which was enough to feed a small army - porridge with jam, bread, butter, cheese, a chocolate bar, tea!! It was soon evident that if you leave something untouched it is assumed you don't like it - in the end my 'I'm full' sign language attempts registered, and it was taken away!

After a shower and quick change, Galina took me to the meeting point, from which Alexandra took us to sort out the basics: registration photographs, buying toiletries and sim cards. On the way she pointed out useful places like the English department and also the visa office, both of which we would visit the next day. After our walk round, we went to the local shopping centre to meet Catherine and Isobel and the students that they were living with.

Going home to a nap was the most welcome thing ever!! Dinner soon arrived, in much the same quantities as breakfast - Galina is obviously trying to provide me with an extra layer of insulation for when winter comes. I was also really happy to find that we had WiFi in the house which meant I could speak to my family and later on to Richard and tell them about my day and my journey.

I won't lie, I did have a bit of a wobbly/teary moment speaking to Rich when I was telling him how little I could understand or say. It was nice to have a pep talk to remind me that:
1. It was my first day.
2. I was knackered from the journey.
AND 3. I am here to learn - perfection won't come straight away!

After a long and tiring few days, I'd survived day one.

Day 2. 09/09/13

After yesterdays wobbly moment, I took everything I understood (i.e. a hell of a lot more than yesterday) at breakfast as a mini-triumph! I managed to walk to the visa office for registration from memory - obviously I'd absorbed more in my tired state yesterday than I thought I had.

After meeting Katya from the university (who we'd conversed with by e-mail from England), we handed in our documents and, as we had some time to kill whilst we waited for our migration cards, she showed us the Russian department (pictured) where we'd have our classes.

After collecting our migration cards, we had some free time on our hands before we had to meet the dean of the English department, Luba. Luba was so lovely, welcoming us to Voronezh and making sure we were all doing ok. We were all crammed in to her little office whilst she talking about the opportunities we'd have to help out the English department with teaching and a proof reading project, which I'm quite excited about.

Over dinner, Galina told me about all the activities on offer here in Voronezh like the circus, the ballet theatre and the puppet theatre - she said that the visiting students never get bored as there is lots to do! We have all vowed to do as much as we can. The evening was spent writing an article for the wonderful Scriptoeris magazine (which you should all be reading at *shameless plug :P*).

Day 3. 10/09/13

Over breakfast, Galina put cartoons on for me. This is probably because she thinks I have the mental capacity of a five year old - judging by the fact I enjoyed them, this is probably true!

When we got to uni, we were ushered in to the staff room (which was full of unsmiling women drinking tea) where the director of studies explained about the department. As he wanted to hear how well we spoke, we went around the room telling him things about ourselves, which I did very hesitantly, stuttering like a fool! This was also followed by a torturous 100 question grammar exam, most of which I guessed! I figured that from this point the only way is up.

After our mini assessments, freedom was ours and we decided that it would be a good idea to try a famed 'business lunch' (the cheap fixed menu lunch option). Why we though this was a good idea is beyond me: the portions were huge and we then spent a good few hours avoiding going home to the prospect of yet MORE FOOD! Lesson well and truly learnt!

Day 4. 11/09/13

Phonetics class was a cheerful start to the day. The crazy teacher, Anatoli, explained (in Russian!) how phonetics and different sound types formed the basis of spoken language. He soon had us repeating words and sounds in chorus- both funny and useful. We were then split down in to separate groups (ones that we will now have all of our classes in) for speaking practice. It was pretty terrifying having questions fired at us but we found ourselves answering in vaguely passable, if broken Russian. Highlights of the lesson included: 1. Isobel, in blind panic, saying that she wanted to be a housewife as her profession, then having nothing to say when Irina asked her why because it was all a lie! 2. Jenny making things difficult for herself by trying to explain to principles of supply chain management!

As we were going out in the evening, I spent a lot of time deliberating what to wear - no one wants to stick out like a sore thumb for being to under or over dressed! It was really nice of Sveta (Catherine's house mate) to invite us round for pre-drinks. It was fab to be around Russians (even if they did speak amazing English!) as we found ourselves exchanging phrases in conversation, and even playing drinking games in both languages! Bar Duck was an interesting sort of place! On our way in, all of us were given wristbands. All of us had green apart from Catherine and Sveta who were both wearing engagement rings and had red bands! What is this?? Green for 'go on lads'?! As it was free champagne for girls, it was heaving! People were dancing on the tables and smoking and at one point I even got pulled in to a bar-wide conga line! The night ended with my first vodka shot since being in Russia - ICK! Only day 4 and already partying with the Russians :)

Day 5. 12/09/13

After a late night, waking up was a seriously unwelcome event!

First lesson of the day was verb class, with the strangest member of staff I have come across since we arrived. He has his own very special brand of humour but all his jokes and ridiculous questions are aimed to get you speaking. We concluded that though he was strange, we liked him a lot - though I'm not sure I'll be using the verb for 'to drive cattle' any time soon! The grammar class that followed was less horrific than anticipated, and we left with a stack of homework to help us pass the time over the weekend.

Lunch today took the form of a traditional Russian buffet - I wasn't amazingly hungry but after stupidly following the counter process I still ended up with 5 plates of food! It was tasty but with the amount I'm being fed at home, completely unnecessary! Catherine also got chatted up by an amazingly persistent Russian, who continued to try his luck even after she flashed her engagement ring - to witness, it was comedy gold.

On the way home, we popped in the central library and were served by a woman on the counter who had a full set of gold teeth #onlyinRussia.

Day 6. 13/09/13

Though no one had chosen to do the film option at uni, we decided, as it was on our timetable for the morning, to go and check it out! After sitting for a while, it was evident that the teacher had not turned up (probably because no one had elected her option!). Peach juice at a cafe it was then!! The girls were faced with a 30 minute wait when they gave the waitress their food order, so decided to pass. Mysteriously a table of Russian men who arrived and ordered after us had been served a full table of food and their drinks before ours were bought to us - favouritism much ;)

Culture class was awesome yet, like a lot of our classes, bizarre! After getting us to write down our interests and what we'd like to learn about (so that she can start planning trips out!), she started to explain some of the history of the area. She tried to tell us a story about some bones that had been found in the river nearby, which she decided to illustrate with a mini show complete with ribbon river and dinosaur figures - crazy woman!!

On the way home, we decided to cross and take a closer look at a very tall, soviet looking monument that we'd walked past for days! It turned out that we had found ourselves in the memorial park, which will be a good starting point for my dissertation on historical memory of WWII in Russia.

In the evening we met up with some of the american students also studying at ВГУ (воронежскии государствении университет,don't you know ;) ). It was interesting to get a different perspective on life as a foreigner here in Voronezh and also to hear about their university (Baylor in Texas). £1.80 a pint makes beer drinking til 2am a cheap night out!

Days 7 and 8. THE WEEKEND!

After a busy week, the weekend ended up as a lazy wash out - very little was done or achieved and therefore nothing was noteworthy enough to warrant wasting words on it.. apart from the beer of course ;)

ALL IN ALL...after a couple of little wobbles, I am having a great time! People are friendly, classes are informative and fun! Week one: a great adventure with much more still to come!

Sunday, 15 September 2013

'The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step..'

So I am writing my first post from the Motherland.

Before I get in to telling you all about my first week's experiences, I guess you'll want to know how I ended up here in the first place! Sorry about the lack of pictures (usually I am quite snap happy!) - I guess I was just in travel mode, not blogger mode!!

As Lao Tzu once said 'The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step'. Mine began with a step in to Heathrow T5. Richard (my boyfriend, for those of you that don't know) offered to take me to the airport, which I suppose was a blessing and a curse. Though there were lots of tears, from both sides (though he wouldn't want me to tell you that!), and though it was horrible watching him wait until the last second to walk away, I felt less sick going through security knowing that the worst was over! Shame that I was sad and weighed down by baggage - if I were more cheery, Tiffany's would have been the first stop in duty free.

At gate B44, I was surrounded by steely, solitary looking Russians. I guess Russia isn't anyone's first stop on the tourist track. Having never flown British Airways before (thank you to Mother for sacrificing her air miles!), I was pleasantly surprised to find a complimentary pillow and blanket on my seat and my very own mini TV screen! After reading through some basics in my Lonely Planet phrase book, I soon decided that the Hang Over Part 3 was much more worthy of my attention. Soon food was brought round, and after an interesting take on an English Breakfast (a piece of steak?? really??? you are BRITISH airways - sort it out!), Moscow was only a glass of orange juice and a nap away.

After circling through a storm to land, I can think of only one word appropriate to describe Domodedovo airport - PUDDLE! Passport control seemed to be quite orderly, or at least more so than the scrum that greets you in St Petersburg. Security spent what seemed like hours scrutinising my visa and my passport - I was half wondering whether my passport chip held some kind of criminal conviction of which I was not aware. Nevertheless, I was waved through without a word.

With everything being so seamless thus far, I was half expecting my case not to turn up on the carousel but sure enough there it was. I had made it on to Russian soil without losing any baggage or limbs : Grace 1 Russia NIL.

My lovely comrades from Bath had very kindly waited for me and, after battling my way through a mob of taxi drivers competing for my attention, there they all were (-1 who had forgotten her passport - silly Charlotte!) sat in a huddle in Arrivals. Catherine and Isobel went off to check in for their onward connection whilst the rest of us braced ourselves for an overnight sleeper to our destination.

After a short ride on the Airport Express, we had soon arrived at Paveletski Station. Rather than wander around Moscow for the afternoon, we set up camp in the seating area and waited it out until our train was boarding. Pascal made his way down to 3rd in carriage 15 whilst we negotiated our way on to carriage 2 in 2nd. Kiara, Maria and Tyla struggled massively to get their luggage in to their compartment, causing a tailback in the corridor which had all the old ladies tutting! We weren't sure what all the fuss was about, until we reached our own compartment and could barely get the two of us in!

The compartment was compact but nice. It had a little table with a free newspaper and our packed lunches on it (a sandwich that was 3 days out of date and a box of treats), two beds which acted as the top bunks and two rows of seats on the bottom half. I was fully prepared for sleeping on the seats (as we'd booked the bottom bunk) but the train host soon came round and showed that they folded out in the beds.

Sam and I were lucky that no random Russians turned up to occupy the top bunks, whilst Kiara, Tyla and Maria had an interesting Russian guy occupying their only free bed! After we'd got settled in, eaten our snacks that we bought at the produkti, and pulled out our beds, Kiara decided she would rather join us for a sleep over than wake up face to face with some random Russian. As we hadn't seen each other all summer, we had loads to catch up on! Just as we decided it was time for bed, the train stopped unexpectedly, just on the tracks without a station to be seen! Peering out of the window, we could hear voices shouting outside the train! Just as we began to fear train jacking (or fearing vampire apocalypse if you're Sam), we realised that if the Russians weren't out in the corridors making a fuss then it was probably normal.

Considering it was a moving vehicle, I thought I slept pretty well - the 7am wake up alarm certainly wasn't a welcome one! With the very little we had to work with, we tried to make ourselves look as presentable as we could to meet our land ladies. Though I had complained about the weight of my hand luggage, I was glad to have slept in pjs and to have clean clothes to wear.

Just before we pulled in to the station, the train host came to check on us and realised that Kiara had slept in our compartment, queue one angry, screeching Russian! Whoops!

Looking tired and no doubt dishevelled, we hauled our cases out of our compartment and down on to the platform, where a group of old ladies had been awaiting our arrival. After a solid 24 hours of travelling, we had finally made it.

Добро пожаловать! Welcome to Voronezh!