A year in Russia
After a long absence, I’m back. I’ve been a busy bee and have lots to tell you about, but as I got further and further behind, the task of updating the blog became more and more daunting so apologies!
Eventually, I will tell you about: Halloween celebrations and the English Club at RGF; my trip to Kiev in November and to Moscow in December; the danger-filled and exhausting journey home at the end of the semester; returning to Voronezh for another 5 months; living with a babushka; the weather; International Women’s Day; Pascal and Kit have a flat; Ariane and I fail at navigating the bus system, and much more. Oh! And when I went to Kazan. But first, lets start with last night. Chronological order, schmonological order.
A little known fact to preface this story- I am dating a chap called Sebastian who is here from Colombia to study the entirety of his degree. Clearly he knows people here and last night he invited me to his course-mate’s birthday party. From a language perspective, this was an ideal opportunity; other than me and Sebastian, no one there spoke any English bar a couple of phrases so for once my Russian was the most effective method of communication- УРА! On the scale of one to petrified however, I was Mrs. Norris after her encounter with the Basilisk*.
Getting the gist of things
I don’t know why I had been so worried, everyone was lovely- interested and interesting. There was yummy food and some very strong home-made wine. Conversation flowed and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself understanding the majority of the conversation, not all the words necessarily, but the key words and the idea behind what was being said. This semester my understanding of what is being said to me has really improved, at least in part because I’m actually able to relax when spoken to now. Before, when someone spoke to me, there was no space in my brain to concentrate for key words as I was too busy thinking ‘oh no someone’s talking to me, what are they saying? Concentrate Jenny! You need key words! Breathe!’ and then I would realise they had finished speaking and it was my turn only I had no idea what they had just asked me. Living with a family this semester has really helped as my landlady sits and chats to me while I eat so I’m getting a lot more practice and its become much less of a worry for me. Also I’ve become a lot more confident in asking for explanations of words I don’t understand or for them to repeat themselves slower for me so I’m no longer feeling blind panic that I have to understand NOW.
After sitting and mostly listening for an hour or two, I found I had relaxed enough not to be too tongue-tied and started contributing more to the conversation myself. Even though my grammar isn’t perfect and my word choice might not quite be right, people understand what I’m saying and I’m able to get across what I mean even as conversation ranged from the Ukraine to Islamic extremism in the UK.
Did you know that the legal age to buy vodka in Russia is 21? I laughed when I heard this, but it’s apparently very true.
Mortal Combat and the sex-box (lol)
As the night wore on, the X-box moved from playing some kind of music game to Mortal Combat. Much more my cup of tea. Unbeknownst to Sebastian and I, X-box is pronounced IX-box not EX-box in Russian, which actually with a tiny bit of thought and logic is very obvious but nonetheless, when we said EX-box, the Russians heard sex-box and cue raucous laughter. Keep this in mind when you come across these situations. The guys offered me a controller and I went about picking the most vile looking character I could find. I figure in fights just looking intimidating is half of the battle. It just so happened that the guy I was playing against is training to be a dentist so my choice of Baraka (see picture) also enabled me to make dentistry based jokes. Upon seeing my character choice, he then chose a near-naked lady character which led to all those walking into our deathmatch getting confused as to who was who, but you’ve got to keep them guessing and challenge those gender roles.
Two rounds in and I started thinking, ‘wow I’m so good at this game, maybe I should turn pro’ at which point I turned and saw my opponent LETTING ME WIN not pressing ANY BUTTONS. You know when you don’t know you know a word. Well it transpires that I know the word for button and, not wanting my glory to be meaningless when I won, I started yelling ‘PRESS THE КНОПКИ’ which to him would have been like BLAHBLAHBLAH BUTTONS but he got the message and swiftly annihilated me. My dreams lay in tatters on the floor. Mortal Combat turned out to be a very good bonding experience. With very defined gender roles in Russia and the 2 Russian girls (girlfriends of attendees) making themselves scarce, I don’t think the guys had ever seen a girl get quite so into a game, particularly not one like Mortal Combat so it was quite entertaining for all involved. They particularly enjoyed when I turned against the character Kung Lao when I lost playing as him, and the game enabled me to make easily understood jokes in rapid succession and for them to make jokes to me too. I tell you, bring an X-box to Russia and you’ll make friends with ease.
Things of note
It was only upon arrival at Artem’s house (more a дача really) that Sebastian cared to mention that the toilet was a little shed outside with a deeeeeep hole in it and no lights. At this point, I said to myself, “just don’t drink anything for the next 5 hours and you’ll be fine”. This plan turned out not to be as sound as I thought. In fact by putting it off so long in the hope of avoiding the loo altogether, by the time I cracked it was really very dark outside and thus ten times worse. The men had been peeing around the other side of the house in the garden, and upon noticing my reticence to use the shack, they jokingly suggested that I do the same. Equality and all that.
Following on from this theme (equality not urination), as a member of the Gender Equality group at home and what Caitlyn Moran would classify as a ‘Strident Feminist’ or what Dima would call an ‘ужасная девушка’ (more on this another time), there were aspects of last night that were really very novel to me. I had read somewhere that these things happen, so I wasn’t shocked and took it in my stride, but for those of you coming on your year abroad in the future be aware that this is nothing personal. When a male attendee arrived, greeted people and introduced himself to those he didn’t know, he would blank the women. Sebastian would make a point of then saying ‘and this is Jenny’ but as a woman, I was almost non-existent at these points. Then in conversation, for example Sebastian, Sasha and I were having an in-depth conversation about politics, but even when replying to a statement I had made, Sasha would only look at and direct his comments to Sebastian. I know this wasn’t anything personal, in fact the whole group made me feel extremely welcome, but it was interesting to witness.
Plus when I had been stood for maybe 10 minutes having come back into the house from the toilet escapade, the men where very concerned about me standing for so long and that I should sit. They were most shocked about my lack of urgency in sitting and asked ‘Do women often stand in England, like what do they do in clubs and bars?’. My response of ‘well we have these things we use- legs’ completely passed them by, in fact I’m certain I saw tumbleweed, and within the next breath I was being told how English people don’t get Russian sarcasm because it’s very unique and dry…
*Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets reference- Mrs. Norris being the caretaker’s cat that gets petrified by a gargantuan snake.