Thursday, 15 December 2011

Things I Miss About the UK

I am packing and it's making me sad, partly because packing is shit, but also because I like it here and I wish I could stay. So I'm distracting things by thinking of 10 things I miss about the UK.

1. David. Being long distance sucks. The bear hug icon on skype just isn't the same. It'll be great to see him again, and see him regularly, and most of all, to not have to stay up till 1am whenever we want to talk.

2. Oxford CS group. And other friends, but mainly CSers.

3. My bike. It's free and keeps me thin and is fast.

4. Pubs. Pubs soothe the English soul. That's why we have dates in them.

5. Rowing. When I get out on the river, all the stresses just fade away, and I feel a million miles from everyday life, even when all I've done is cycle across Oxford at 5am in all the clothes I possess. It's good for me and I don't feel quite right without it.

6. Ale. When it's hot, lager is fine. When it's cold, I don't want to drink something cold, I want a nice warming pint of ale. Also, and ale has flavour. Plus it'll be fun to carry on with the counties challenge (I'm planning West Sussex for New Year, and Cambridge on Jan 2nd).

7. Lib Demming. I've done quite a bit of thinking and blogging and post-commenting here, but I'm looking forward to getting back to real politics, which in Lib Dem terms, means leaflets!

8. Being able to control my own heating. At the moment I need to decide to go to sleep about half an hour in advance, so I can open the window and let cold air in, then shut it and have enough time to get to sleep before it gets suffocating.

9. Getting exercise. Not to be confused with my bike - I also like to run, but people don't really do that here so I felt weird when I tried. Plus in Oxford it's easy to do it in the countryside, so it feels a bit weird doing it in a crowded city. And I like to climb, and I'm really looking forward to hitting the wall again - possibly on Monday after I get back on Saturday!

10. Knowing where to buy stuff. There's something very comforting about knowing where I need to go if I need to buy something or get something done, like getting shoes re-heeled or a key cut or buying stationary. It takes a while in every new country, and it does make life a lot easier.

I should probably also say that I miss my family, but as a foreign office brat, not seeing them for a few months at a time is pretty normal, so while I do miss them, I talk to them often enough, so it's not really hitting the top 10 and anyway it feels like a cop-out.

I do actually feel better now, and more to the point I've successfully procrastinated for at least 20 minutes. Win!

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Moscow Diary: Daylight Saving Time

For some reason best known to themselves, in 2011 the Russians abolished Daylight Saving Time, so we didn't change the clocks. As a result, it currently gets light at about 9:30.

There is currently a debate in the UK about whether to pilot moving to 'double summertime' or Central European Time - so we would still change the clocks, but we would be on GMT+1 in winter, and GMT+2 in summer. There are a number of arguments in favour - some claim it will save electricity, while others suggest that it could lead to a reduction in the number of children killed crossing the roads. The counter-arguments are basically that it's really depressing getting up in the winter in the dark, and that midday should be in the middle of the day. No-one really knows, hence the idea of a pilot.

While I have to admit the stop-kids-dying argument is fairly compelling, I've always come down fairly firmly on the 'keep GMT' side of the argument, but I love a good experiment, so I was quite excited to see what it would be like here. I was concerned, though, that my prior biases would lead to my being grumpy about it to prove myself right, so I decided not to leave off commenting as long as possible in a vague hope that more time would help me make an informed opinion.

Anyway, it's now almost the shortest day, and all I can say is: for the love of all that is sacred, DON'T DO IT! The working day here is 10-6, but even so I'm late to work most days. I set my alarm dutifully for 8 every day, but when I wake up it's just pitch black - like the middle of the night pitch black. Getting up to move is harder than I can do justice to. We're just not made for it! What's more, my colleagues, who don't have my prior prejudices, feel the same.

In the UK, we'd be dealing with the same kinds of hours, and most of us don't get to wander into work at 10:30. And it's SO, SO much worse than normal winter.

Seriously, don't do it.

Moscow Diary: Shampansky

One of my absolute favourite things about Russia is the Soviet Champagne. In Russian it's written with a 'sh' at the beginning, so I call it shampansky to make sure we don't get confused!

I was once told that 'shampansky' dates from the war, with the French allowing the Russians to call their sparkling wine 'champagne' as a thank-you for rescuing them from the Nazis. The story never did ring true - do trademarks work like that? And anyway, we all know that the French Resistance liberated France on its own. And as it turned out, the truth was more prosaic.

Sparkling wine has been produced in Russia since Tsarist times, but true 'Soviet' Shampansky dates from the Stalin era, when an aristocratic chemist called Anton Frolov-Bagreev (yes, I know the link is in Russian, but that's what Google Translate is for) developed a mass production technique. Frolov-Bagreev had an interesting personal history - a Tsarist winemaker who was exiled to Siberia for his participation in the 1905 revolution, he was reprieved in 1906 when his expertise was realised to be essential. Come the Revolution, this history, combined with his continued value as an expert wine maker, was enough to override his aristocratic background. In 1934 came his final triumph - the development of a technique to make sparkling wine in vats rather than in bottles, dramatically reducing costs and making a "people's champagne" or "sovietsky shampansky".

And since then, they haven't looked back. Come the fall of communism, private companies bought the 'sovietsky shampansky' label, and have been marketing it that way ever since. It's available in every supermarket, starting at a bargainous 92 Rubles, or less than £2. The 92 ruble stuff is pretty undrinkable... unless you add some kind of fruit juice... but for 150 rubles you can get something enjoyable. Which makes it totally feasible to bring shampansky to any kind of social gathering - even if that gathering consists of a night train.

There's something marvellously decadent about being able to invite someone over for an afternoon of champagne whenever you want to. A lifestyle that is definitely beyond me in the UK, but which, thanks to dodgy Russian trademarking, is totally within my reach here. Sadly, though, shampansky's days are numbered. According to the wine-connoisseur's section of the internet, Russia has agreed to stop using the shampansky branding, in exchange for their trademarks being recognised by other wine regions.

I suppose there is a case to be made that Russia becoming a constructive member of the international trademark community is a Good Thing. But I like being able to order soviet champagne in bars, and drink bubbly as often as I like. So... bah, humbug!

Also, I love that this only happened when a shampansky owner bought vineyards in Champagne. Which I'm sure is a coincidence. Not.


Monday, 12 December 2011

The Lib Dems are the real Eurosceptics.

Ever since the UK's disastrous bungling of the EU negotiations, I've been reading about the 'Eurosceptics' and getting steadily more annoyed. Because our framing of the debate between 'eurosceptics' and 'europhiles' plays into the hands of the anti-Europeans.

You see, 'Europhiles' implies some kind of starry-eyed love affair, far removed from daily reality, a borderline obsession, and an uncritical view. It has an unctuous, slippery feel to it, and implies being somehow craven to some outer force.

'Euroscepticism', on the other hand, implies intelligent criticism. A willingness to interrogate the facts, and draw sensible, considered conclusions - and accept the positives of Europe when appropriate. To use a phrase that has become popular in Lib Dem circles when discussing the coalition, it implies being a 'critical friend'.

But that's not what the Tory right are like at all. Their opposition to the EU isn't considered and evidence-based. It's instinctive, knee-jerk and borderline hysterical. They don't acknowledge it's positives - they seek to identify flaws and paint them as the project's whole. Their attitude, not only to the EU but to the concept of Europe as a whole, is one of contempt. It's a relationship of fear and hatred rather than scepticism, and we should call it that - Europhobia.

Because after all, labels matter. Time and again, as a proud pro-European, I have been asked whether I support the transfer of wealth to the Duke of Westminster. Of course not, I say. How about the lack of democratic accountability? No, I'm a Liberal, of course I believe in democracy. How about the waste of having two seats? Don't be ridiculous. But how can you criticise all that, and say you believe in Europe?

As any pro-European knows, the answer is that being pro-European doesn't involve ignoring or whitewashing the EU's flaws. It means seeing yourself as part of Europe, both as an identifier and as a political construct, and commitment to making the EU work. But it also carries a responsibility to identify the EU's problems, and seek to change them - because what's the point in believing in an institution if you don't see it as it is and seek to improve it. In other words, it implies being sceptical.

So the way I see it, we pro-Europeans are the real Eurosceptics, and the Tory right that are celebrating this week are Europhobes, as blinded by their own prejudice as they imply the 'Europhiles' they so deride to be. And we need to reclaim this ground. Opinion polls show that EU reform is popular - more popular than withdrawal. Most people in Britain are Eurosceptic - not Europhobes - and by painting ourselves in this way, we show that we understand their concerns and can represent them better than Little Englander Conservatism. But if we allow the Tories to dictate the terms of the debate, they will be drawn between withdrawal on the one hand, and slavish adherance to the EU in its current form on the other - and we will lose.

If there's one thing we learned from the AV referendum, let it be this - it's the side that is most ruthless in determining the debate that wins. For years, pro-Europeans have allowed the Europhobes to claim that they represent the sceptical majority. It's time to challenge that - stop being apologists for Europe, and use this disaster to move forward.

Moscow Diary: Babushki

Babushka is one of the few Russian words that everyone knows. It means grandmother, or old lady, as opposed to 'dyevushka', meaning 'young lady'. Somewhere around the age of about 50, you jump from being a dyevushka to being a babushka, which entails a number of steps:
- stop wearing heels.
- buy a headscarf or hat.
- buy a shapeless coat
- carry a lot of bags, preferably the mesh plastic ones that my family call refugee bags.
- spend your days working at a market stall or selling things outside the metro.
- bring huge amounts of food on train journeys to feed people with.
- get a job as a museum attendant and get angry with people when you think they haven't seen everything in the museum or when they talk or laugh in the museum.

It can't be easy being a babushka. Many are widows, due to high male mortality, and Moscow is an expensive city, and pensions are low, so pensions don't go a long way. Which is why so many of them have to spend their old age selling boxes of apples outside the metro.

But at the same time, babushki are awesome. The food is obviously useful, but they're also indomitable and indestructable. They aren't in an easy position, but they manage. They command respect - the way I crossed the road when I was first here was to hide behind a babushka. And they're amazing at scaring off unwanted male attention on behalf of younger women. A friend who has taken the Trans-Siberian recalls the time a drunk man tried to attack one of the girls on the train - only for a horde of babushki to come to her rescue. I actually really like this - it's very empowering, especially given our English stereotype of little old lady victim of drunken youths.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Looking at My Own Culture

By coincidence, a friend who is a city lawyer moved to Moscow in the same week I did, so by extension I was admitted to the periphery of her wide circle of lawyers in Moscow. In the end, this has been as interesting as my interactions with Russians, but it's taken me a little while to put my finger on why.

The most obvious, is that it's good to have your perceptions shattered once in a while. It's very easy to think of 'city people' as a homogenous, grey-suited, evil bloc. Of course I know there's more to it than this - I have friends from uni who went into the city - but they do all come out quite similar, and they do all wear a lot of grey. What I forget, of course, is that they started out quite similar too, and that city people are as diverse as any other group. I might have known that intellectually, but seeing it in real life is a handy refresher course.

Thinking about it though, I knew there was more to it than that. And the next point I came up with is that it reaffirms my own choices. I thought about the city a lot of times, and got as far as applying for a law conversion course and almost-applying for some management consultancy jobs. But in the end, I turned down the conversion course and didn't hit send for the management consultancy, because I knew it would suck me in and I knew it would make me miserable. Don't get me wrong; with a few exceptions, the lawyers here are happy being lawyers (some for now, some wanting to stick with it), and they have good lives of a standard way above what I can afford. But it would make me unhappy, and the way I did it, even though it involved years of slave labour, penury, and uncertainty before I finally got a job, was worth it, because through all of it I was working towards something I loved, and I ended up in a job that I love with an organisation that epitomises my ideals. I'll never be rich, I'll probably end up with malaria at some point, and it'll knock Hell out of my relationships, but Oxfam is who I am, and being here and being in a crowd in which I so obviously don't belong has helped reaffirm that.

But when I talked about this with one of the lawyers on Saturday night, I realised that in what I said something was missing. Chewing it over, I realised that what I've valued most in it is the challenge to my thinking.

During my masters degree, we talked occasionally about epistemic communities. Essentially, these are formed when academics and others working on an issue area reach a certain consensus that influences policymakers' thinking in that area - not necessarily because the epistemic community agrees on... well... anything, but because they conform to a similar model of thought that comes to perpetuate itself. Oxfam is a lot like this. Everyone there is a liberal, Guardian-reading, leftie who supports Occupy, worries about their carbon footprint, and thinks couchsurfing is awesome. I'm sure there *are* Telegraph-reading Tories in Oxfam, but they keep their heads down. To all intents and purposes, as a Lib Dem, I'm relatively right wing in Oxfam terms. This has all sorts of advantages - I love being able to explore ideas that are way outside the media mainstream, like the zero growth movement, and feel a part of an international movement of like-minded people. But it's also occasionally stultifying, and it puts me at risk of groupthink.

Being here has been a good counterbalance to that. Among the lawyers, there are plenty of people that care about inequality and climate change, vote Labour or Lib Dem, and read the Guardian. But the epistemic community they make up reads the FT and votes Conservative, and when I mentioned couchsurfing it was clear that most people filed it straight under 'crazy Oxfam hippie shit'. It's good for me to interact with them for a bit - make my arguments, then listen to how they react, what they say, and what freaks them out. Sometimes I think they are accepting arguments that just aren't true - but sometimes they question assumptions of mine that seemed obvious to me. It's less about winning the argument - at the end of the day, most of them will still vote Tory, although I might convert one or two at the margins - and more about seeing which of my assumptions they jump at.

The key point, is that I get even more out of this than when I talk to Tories at home. There, the ones I discuss politics with are people from the political-media world, or 'country' Tories of my parents' world - and although they might profoundly disagree with me on all matters of principle and policy, they have the same priorities and same perspective as me, because they grew up in and live in the same world. We argue about policy, I listen to their points, I make mine, and I make notes about how to win the argument next time. Sometimes I think they're little short of evil, sometimes I win them over, and sometimes I accept that they're right and I'm wrong, but I'm rarely called on to question my fundamental assumptions about the way the world works.

So it's another angle, to another world. It's been good for me, not only from selfish standpoints, like reinforcing my natural tendency towards insufferable smugness, but also because stepping into another world is good for us - and I think most of the lawyers would learn just as much if they came to hang out with my people and listened to us.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Moscow Diary: Weddings

This is a post I've been meaning to write for ages, but which kept getting pushed down my list.

One of the weirdest thing about Russia is that wherever you go on a Saturday, you are surrounded by couples in wedding clothes having their picture taken. As far as I can tell, in Russia, a wedding basically consists of having the ceremony, then traipsing from one local beauty spot to another having your picture taken - parks, lakes, pretty buildings, and, GUM, the shopping centre on Red Square, all seem to be particularly popular locations, and they also all seem to make stops at the local war memorial, where they pose for pictures and the bride leaves the bouquet.

And then there's the dresses. Meringue doesn't even begin to do them justice - massive, over-bright white, crazy lace, you name it. I thought the wedding dresses in Israel were hilarious, but the Russian ones have them beat hands down.

What's impressive, apart from their stamina - it doesn't look like a lot of fun - is that they're completely undeterred by the weather. In -5 or colder in Kazan, they were still out there for hours. They prepare for it though - white knee-high boots, and a nice line in white jackets to go over the dresses. Impressive, but still bemusing - honestly, should I get married, once the ceremony is over, I want to be eating, drinking, and generally making merry - not wandering around in the snow having my picture taken. And if I knew I was going to have to traipse round outside having pictures taken, I wouldn't get married in Russia in November!

I feel even sorrier for the guests. They stand around outside, usually in grotesquely inappropriate clothing, looking freezing and waiting for the couple to be done. Again, not how I would want to spend my friends' weddings, or how I would want my friends to spend my wedding!

So, during my time here, I've made a hobby of taking sneaky pictures of weddings. Below, for your enjoyment, are a few of my favourites:

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Moscow Diary: Trip to Kazan

As I mentioned in my last blog post, at the weekend I went to Kazan, 13 hours on the train to the south-east of Moscow. Kazan is the capital of Tartarstan, and wasn't conquered by Moscow until the 1500s, when Ivan the Terrible conquered the Tartars (St Basil's Cathedral was built to commemorate its fall). It is the largest Muslim region in Russia, and has its own language, Tartar, which is widely spoken and used on signs*. Historically poor, Kazan is being done up as a result of an oil bonanza - but I've since learned that Tartarstan is apparently investing heavily in alternative energy to attempt to diversify its economy - watch this space. The result of all this is that it feels a lot different to other Russian cities, and since I've more or less reached my tolerance for Russian churches, it made a nice change.

We got there at about 8:30am, and stepped out into the snow. For whatever reason, Kazan is significantly colder than Moscow, and the temperature was around -5. It then got colder through the day, so including wind chill, it's fair to say it was nippy. This had benefits though - not just the snow, but also the ice on the river. Leaving our hostel and walking into town, we saw people standing on the ice and fishing - so we scrambled down to the river, and stepped gingerly onto the ice. Possibly stupid - the ice was a bit slushy - but not something I've ever done before and very exciting!

We then made our way to the Kremlin, a world heritage site containing, among other things, a mosque (recently restored) and the Ivan the Terrible tower. In the snow, it was fairy-tale beautiful, so we climbed up to it and walked in to look around the mosque, clambering around the walls of the kremlin at the same time. I could have looked at it for hours, but it was freezing, so after a quick tour, we went to find a some lunch. And how we succeeded - we found a place called 'cafe de Paris', staffed by someone who spoke great English thanks to a stint in Birmingham, was friendly and welcoming (unusual for Russia...) and served great pumpkin soup and an amazing aubergine gratin. The only disappointment was being too full to eat dessert - but we determined to come back for dinner. I'd tell you all to go, but sadly he's having to shut down - the citizens of Kazan clearly don't realise what they're missing!

Fed and watered, we headed out into the cold again, walking round to see the lake (covered in ice) and the market. The market mainly sold food downstairs - a couple of us got a bit over-excited by the relatively cheap jars of passata, and bought some back to Moscow to facilitate tomato-based cooking - but upstairs was what I can only describe as the Russian version of T.K.Maxx. Win! Even better, it was 2 for 3! I was desperately trying not to go mad (I already have far too many clothes, and I need to transport everything back to the UK in a fortnight), but did end up with a shirt and a cardigan, but the others did pretty well, and by judiciously combining our items to maximise the value of the freebies, we all got quite a lot off, and left feeling pretty pleased with ourselves! Emma was particularly excited, having acquired a jumper with squirrels on it to remind us of the previous day's taxidermy!

Next stop, dinner. We found a bar covered with fairy lights and playing an epic soundtrack, and took ourselves in. The cheap cocktails were disappointing, but the wine was still about a fifth of the price it would be in Moscow, so we were still pretty pleased with ourselves, and the place was nice enough, albeit filled with underage drinkers and a big fat man who repeatedly came up to us and asked to 'get to know us' while we yelled at him to go away and asked the manager to chase him off. Disappointingly though, Cafe de Paris was having a salsa evening... so no apple pie for us! Foiled, we turned back to another cafe, where we had lovely tea and tirimisu, before getting a gypsy cab back to the hostel.

Next day, we got up and headed back into town through thick, driving snow, to see the Ivan the Terrible tower. It's called that because of a local legend that Ivan the Terrible insisted on marrying a local princess. Horrified, she demanded he build her the world's tallest tower, then flung herself from the top of it. Sadly the story is apparently not true, but the tower still stands, slightly crooked, above the Kremlin. Next, we completed our tour of the major sights by visiting the Cathedral of Peter and Paul - complete with balcony for views over Kazan's rooves. It was interesting enough, but basically just another Russian church, so we kept the visit short before going off to find food. Distressingly, Cafe de Paris was closed, so our attempt to get some apple pie was foiled again, and we ended up in an English pub.

We then headed back to the hostel, via some very dangerous statues of Lenin. It turns out that when you try to climb on marble to take comedy pictures, it's a bit slippy and you fall over and get massive bruises. So don't do that. We also stopped in at an art exhibition, which seemed to be mainly filled with angry cartoons, but also had a band, some poetry reading (one anti-government poem, which I found interesting) and a really cool installation with glass bottles that made different tones when you hit them with a pen. We enjoyed that a lot.

Hurrying out of the building where the exhibition was being held, we went back to the hostel, grabbed our stuff, and headed for the train. Sadly, just as hot as the day before, but despite the sleepless night, it was a lovely weekend. Kazan feels very different to Moscow - much smaller and more relaxed, culturally different, and with enough to keep you busy for a weekend but not so much that you need much longer. Highly recommend it to anyone wanting a weekend break outside Moscow.

* It also had local food specialities, which don't include Tartar Sauce - that was invented in France, and named after the Tartars because, allegedly, both are a bit rough.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Moscow Diary: Trains

The trains are one of the great Russian experiences, especially the night trains. Obviously the trans-Siberian week-long adventure is the ultimate, but you can get a lot of the experience on shorter journeys as well. This weekend I got the train to Kazan, 13 hours away, with three friends, and it encapsulated a lot of what's unique and special about Russia

Arriving at the station (eventually), we stepped out into a huge brick and steel building, filled with steam from the trains - all made of metal and with uniformed attendants checking your ticket and passport at each door. There was a roof, but it wasn't enclosed, so it was as cold inside as outside, so we hurried to our train with our breath on the air in front of us. The combination of the cold, such a huge building, the smoke, and the guards looked like what a Russian station *should* look like, and set us up right for the trip.

Once you get used to the trains, they're all basically the same. Three classes- super expensive, second class, where you have four people per cabin, and third class, where there are about 50 beds in a dormitory carriage. When you get into your cabin, you get a mattress roll, a blanket, a pillow and a plastic package containing sheets and a tea towel. Each carriage has a samovar (hot water boiler) so you can make tea and cuppa soups or noodles, because the Russians can't live for more than about an hour without a cup of tea. They all have loos and sinks that have hot and cold taps and a drinking water fountain but no running water (actually, to be fair, the super modern train we got on the way to Kazan did have water). And they have an attendent, who checks your tickets and sells you tea and coffee and snacks and shouts at you if you get out of line. Allegedly, if you ask nicely, they will occasionally open the windows in the corridor for you, but I have yet to see evidence of this.

The practicalities of train life still have a lot of novelty for me, which makes it fun, and this one was particularly magical. Getting on the train, we were quickly out into the snow - it was dark, so we could only see a little way out of the train, passing occasional lights and settlements, miles and miles of silver birches reflecting the light from the train, and perfect, untouched snow beside the train. Then, of course, Russian weirdness kicked in. We stopped for half an hour, and everyone got off and walked around a bit - and there were a load of random traders selling not what I would expect - chocolate, crisps, pies, etc, but glow-in-the-dark Christmas trees, chandeliers, and, best of all, one guy with a selection of taxidermy - two squirrels and a ferret. Perfect for all those occasions when I've been on a long journey and thought 'you know what I need now... a stuffed squirrel'. So we got off, and wandered round a bit, and laughed and jumped in the snow, and back on the train we got.

Back on the train, we got through a couple of bottles of soviet champagne and a whole load of food. On Russian trains, you normally see babushki getting on with lots of huge bags, then opening them up to reveal enormous quantities of food which they share around with younger people. As we were in a cabin on our own (second class has four people per carriage), we weren't in a position to find a babushka, so we'd each channelled our inner babushka to bring as much food as we can manage. The Russian trains are less of a drink-fest than the Georgian ones, as well - there seem to be more families getting them and, generally, fewer large groups of rowdy men, though we did get one group banging on our door aggressively for a while on the way to Kazan before our sole Russian speaker scared them off.

After that though, things go downhill. I've blogged before about the Russian insistence on heating all buildings to about 26 degrees, and the trains are even worse, because they don't have little windows to let air in, so they start in the low 20s and build up steadily through the night. By the time we went to bed, our train was 28 degrees in the corridor, and hotter in the carriage - the only way I could make it bearable was by pressing my feet against the window so that at least part of me would be cool. In a way it was funny - snow outside and sweltering inside - but quite looking forward to someone telling me they're thinking about the Trans-Siberian, and being able to say in all seriousness that they need to be sure they're ready for the heat!

So: when travelling on a Russian train, be sure to bring skimpy clothing, ideally a fan, cuppa soups, booze and teabags. Don't bring your stuffed squirrel, because you'll be able to buy that along the way.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Moscow Diary: The All-Russia Exhibition Centre

One of the trips I made during my early weekends in Moscow was to the All-Russia Exhibition Centre. It was built during Stalin's time to showcase the technical achievements of the Sovient Union, with pavilions representing each region of Russia and each Soviet Socialist Republic.

Obviously, in the new Russia, such things had no place. Going there now, Stalin would turn in his grave. Many of the pavilions are closed, others are visibly dilapidated, others have fallen down (or burnt down) entirely. The only one that looked in good order was the Armenian one, which the Armenian government maintains and uses to market Armenian Brandy (I tried it, and didn't like it, which helped me get over my disappointment at not making it to the distillery in Yerevan earlier this year). The others have mostly been colonised by small traders - whether they're allowed to be there or not, or something in between - selling anything from bulbs and seedlings to leather gloves to fur coats to meat kebabs to fancy jewellary.

Yet despite all this, the fallen grandeur shines through. There is a gold-plated statue, with women representing each Soviet Socialist Republic (allegedly the Ukranian is the prettiest and has the largest breasts). Some of the pavillions are truly beautiful - built in the same period as the Moscow metro, and with the same architectural impulses and same desire to take the best - or most grandiose - of different styles. There's some cool stuff there, like a space shuttle. And it's in a nice park. All in all, this is the closest I can ever get to visiting the Soviet Union (unless I ever make it to North Korea...), and it was bizarre and fun and something you couldn't find anywhere else.

So it was with mixed feelings that I read in today's Moscow Times about a plan to renovate the park, and turn the buildings to various uses - museums on the Soviet Union, a 'Quality of Life Centre', leisure centres, shopping centres (real ones, not tiny stalls!), and hotels. I can see that it would be good for the area - the stallholders will lose their income, but others will get jobs, and the area is horribly under-utilised. A museum on the Soviet Union would also be a welcome addition to Moscow's cultural scene, and this does seem like a good place to have one. And shopping centres, leisure centres, and hotels are the obvious things to do with big old fancy buildings. Russia is booming, and having prime real estate and glorious buildings slowly decay doesn't make sense.

But, at the same time, it makes me sad. The buildings seemed evocative of the collapse of the Soviet Union - the buildings constructed to showcase its proudest achievements, now decaying to nothing. At the time, and when I think about it now, it evokes the poem Ozymandias, the symbol of fallen empires everywhere. Capitalism - the stalls that flourish in those buildings that are open - is grafted onto this, sitting uncomfortably in Soviet casing and looking more than a little shabby in comparison, in the same way that informal markets colonising Roman fora must have looked odd when that empire receded. And in all of this, ordinary people were visiting and having fun - playing on inflatable dragons, drinking brandy, or just wandering and shopping. It is this juxtaposition - Soviet grandeur, informal capitalism, and modern zest - that give the place its charm.

Russia has every right to move forward, but I can't help being sad about it, and very glad that I was here to enjoy it.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Gearing up for Winter

It’s definitely winter now in Moscow.

When I arrived back from holiday on Monday, it was still dark, with drifting snow in the air. As I left the station, watching dark figures in shapeless dark coats bent into the snow, I thought that this was what I had expected Russia to look like. Dark, grim, snowy, cold, and filled with faceless citizens.

Of course, it then got light and work and sleep helped me to shake off my post red-eye imaginings, but all around me I continue to see signs that winter is here. Every morning there’s snow in the air, and often in the evenings as well, and on Thursday morning there was snow on the ground. The metro is full of shops selling good hats (stylish ones, but made of wool or felt or fur), and whereas they’ve been deserted for most of the time I’ve been here, this week ever time I’ve gone to and from work I see people surrounding them trying on hats. Same goes for gloves – leather ones with lined inners are everywhere.

Most of all, there are the coats. A few people are still in wool, many more are in thick down coats like people wear in Boston, but now the furs are starting to come out. Every morning when I go to work I notice more people in furs than the day before – incredible, silky coats in all shapes and sizes, looking as sleek and strokable as if they were still on the animal. I often have to restrain myself from going up behind them and stroking them – but I think that might be frowned on!

The knowledge that it’s already as cold here as it is in an average January in the UK makes me nervous, but at the same time I’m excited – everyone around me knows what’s coming, but for me it’s new, and each day is like a discovery. There are dangers, like my often-mocked fear of death by falling icicle, but whole new possibilities, like skating and cross-country skiing. And either way, it’ll be an experience.

So today, I joined the Russians in gearing myself up for winter. I already have Mum’s sheepskin coat, and a warm woolly scarf. But I wanted some gloves and a better hat to help me fit in with the crowd, so off to Ismailovsky market I went. An hour or so of wandering around, didn’t find a hat I liked. Then I could only find one stall selling leather gloves, and the guy wouldn’t let me try any of them on, which seemed inauspicious.

But then I found a stall selling reasonably nice black leather boots, and decided to try some just to cheer myself up. Turns out, they’re totally fleece lined! Genius! Like the warmth of Ugg boots, but more waterproof and without having to be the person wearing Ugg boots. So I bought some, thus rendering obsolete my previous plan of ‘wear hiking boots and look like a tool’. Regular readers will be saddened to know that I went with ‘flat’ rather than ‘patent leather over-knee stilettos’, but they did have those so if I have left-over money at any point, those might make their way into the wardrobe as well!

And after that, it got better yet – I found another stall selling wool inner soles to keep the cold from getting through the soles of your shoes. They also sell felt ones, but they didn’t have any in my size and I was worried they might be too thick to fit in my shoes, so I stuck with the woolly ones.

Update: have now hatted myself up - got a fairly poor quality but definitely real fur fur hat to keep my head warm and toasty :-)

End result: I might still not know what’s going to hit me, but I’m starting to feel prepared.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Moscow Diary: Food

I really like Russian food, which I’m told is unusual. But soup makes me happy, and I like cabbage and pickles, and I’ve discovered a taste for grietchka, or buckwheat, a Russian staple that you eat with mushrooms.

I enjoy shopping for food here too. Russia has a reputation for being insanely expensive, which isn’t entirely undeserved, but like Geneva, it isn’t too bad once you know where to go. The supermarkets are fine – there’s one near where I lived in Dinamo that’s pretty cheap – and as long as you don’t mind taking the time to check the price of EVERYTHING before you buy it, you can generally come out without bankrupting yourself. All around the city there are little produkti (food shops), that sell salads, generally involving beetroot, and meat and carbs that you can use to put together a lunch – and they do it for reasonable prices. I’ve been rubbish about bringing in my own lunch, because if I can get something good for 75p, why bother.

And there are markets everywhere – one near work most Fridays and some other days on a cycle I can’t figure out, and another near where I’m living at the moment (not sure what days). They sell all sorts of good quality food, and it’s cheaper than the supermarkets (unlike farmers’ markets back home...). And since I love vegetables, it’s a great way to stock up. Best of all is the honey – they have great vats of it, and you can taste it then buy it by the half-kilo. Cheap it isn’t, but I honestly believe honey to be a cure-all, and this is some of the best honey I’ve ever tasted.

Another thing I like about the food is that it’s incredibly seasonal. In the UK, you can get the same stuff year round. One of the things I enjoyed about Geneva was the seasonality – squashes in the autumn, then different types of veggies and different types of fruit gradually appearing in the spring, expensive at first and then the price gradually dropping till they were dirt-cheap, then gradually rising again. It forced me to think more about eating in season and to experiment more with food, and the excitement of new things appearing added to the joy of each new season.

Russia is the same. When I got here, tomatoes and peppers were everywhere and were cheap, so I made enormous amounts of fresh tomato pasta sauces. Now, tomatoes are unaffordable and you can’t find a pepper for love nor money, but potatoes and carrots are cheap, so I’m on to the soup. There are also beetroot everywhere (and cheap) – so I’m experimenting with how to cook beetroot (let me know if you have ideas) – and squashes. The salads on sale in the produkti near work have changed too, so I’ve had to start trying new things. Eating this way makes me feel closer to the land, and more like its ‘real’ food, grown in real places by real people, not halfway around the world or in a greenhouse. This is how I’m supposed to eat. And I like being forced to experiment. I can’t fall back on a pasta sauce, and I’ll get bored of soup soon enough, so I’ll have to figure out something to do with the beetroot, like figuring out how to make borsch.

So what will I miss when I get home? The markets, for sure, although they presumably stop at some point before the babushki freeze to death. The grietchka. The beetroot salads. The honey. The fact that when I buy real food in a market it's cheap, not horribly expensive.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Moscow Diary: Top 5 Metro Stations

5. Novosyabodskaya

A tough spot to fill, but stained glass windows underground is just cool.

4. Mendeleevskaya

They're very different, but I like some of the newer stations too. They're generally whitewashed and in a minimalist style, but with something to make it interesting - at Mendeleevskaya it's the lights, which are a zig-zag metal creation with round balls at each corner, running all the way down the centre of the station. The station is named after Mendeleev who invented the periodic table, so we think the lights are supposed to be evocative of the elements. Which is pretty cool.

3. Komsomolskaya

Like Versailles. Chandeliers, bright paint, mosaics depicting the history of moscow. Gloriously, ludicrously over the top.

2. Mayakovskaya

Impossibly elegant. It makes me want to dress up in a ball gown with long elbow gloves and sip champagne while making witty and intelligent conversation. Or maybe dance a waltz with someone in a tail coat. Sadly they don't approve of you doing that kind of thing on the metro.

1. Ploschad Revolutsi.

By far the most fun. Life-sized statues of happy workers, students and revolutionaries - anyone the Soviets wanted to celebrate - flank each column, and one of them has a dog whose nose you rub for luck - see how its nose is rubbed clean in the picture. The fact that the station is called Revolutionary Square is the icing on the cake.

Moscow Diary: Dating

Today I've been mostly thinking about dating (David, if you're reading, don't worry, it's not me that's doing it).

A British friend has a date with a Russian, and looked into how to behave. Obviously, as I've mentioned before, the man pays for everything. And your date involves dinner as a matter of course. After that, they'll definitely walk/drive you home. So far so different to the UK. The worst part, though, was when we found out that he was likely to bring flowers - what on earth do you do with flowers in a restaurant? We worried about it for a while, but both consulted our colleagues, and it turns out that this is a common occurance, so Russian restaurants are well-prepared, and will give you a vase to put them in. Brilliant.

As we were talking about it, my colleagues naturally found it hilarious that I didn't know this stuff, so we talked about dating more broadly and what we did in the UK. I don't think I've EVER had a first date that didn't involve the pub, and everyone I mentioned this to seems to agree. I found this weird when I went to the US as well - not that it came up for me, but they all seem to do a designated date activity, like dinner or a movie. I find this idea frankly terrifying - it opens up a minefield of convention, like who pays, what restaurant you go to. Plus if you hate them you then have to sit through a whole meal with them. And since it's so obviously a date, some poor soul has to do the asking out. Nightmare. In the pub, you avoid all this - it avoids the paying issue, as you can buy rounds in boy-girl-boy order, and it's easier to run away early if it's going badly. Plus everyone needs some Dutch courage.

The funniest part though, was when I asked my colleague who had lived in the UK what she found odd about dating in the UK, and she replied that the hardest part was figuring out when she was being asked out. That puzzled me a bit, because it honestly hadn't occured to me that that could be an issue. In fact, thinking about it and bugging a few English friends about it over skype, we came to the conclusion that the ambiguity is the whole point of the pub date model. Going for a drink in the pub is such a normal activity that it doesn't have to seem like a date, so if it doesn't go well you can pretend you were just having a drink with a friend - easy!

But on the other hand, now that I actually think about occasions when it has been a problem, it's pretty hard to unravel if you *do* know the code - can't imagine what it's like if you don't! And if you don't know the person well enough or see them often enough to be able to find a way to ask them out for a drink without obviously asking them out for a drink, it's pretty hard to make it happen. Being able to ask someone out for dinner without that seeming uber-keen and scary does make it rather simpler. And being in an environment that doesn't revolve around getting drunk would also be handy for things like knowing if you actually fancy someone and actually get on with them.

Of course, I'm a socially awkward English person who needs a drink to talk to a stranger and finds the idea of a formal date frankly terrifying, so I like the pub, but I have to grudgingly concede that they do have a point. But either way, there's a whole different strategy underlying it, and it does reinforce my long-held view that without the pub the English would have died out a long time ago...

Monday, 31 October 2011

Moscow Diary: Hairstyles

Russian women have amazing hairstyles. Even on regular workdays, I see people on the metro with amazing combinations of plaits and buns and lord only knows what - the picture is more complicated than most of the ones I've seen, and the *most* complicated ones seem to mainly make an appearance at weddings, but even day to day complicated plaited arrangements seem common. And I haven't the faintest idea how they manage it - I can only conclude that Russian women are far better coordinated and far more nimble-fingered than I am!

Moscow Diary: More Metro

The more time I spend in Russia, the more obsessed I get with the Metro. So I've started comparing it with the London Underground:

- The trains are far more frequent in Moscow (Moscow 1, London 0)
- The escalators are incredibly slow and there are often huge bottlenecks getting into the platform (Moscow 1, London 1)
- But the actual platforms tend to be less crowded, presumably because of the more frequent trains and bottlenecks getting down to the platform (Moscow 2, London 1)
- The trains in Moscow have fewer places to hold on and stop and start more aggressively, including occasionally at random in the tunnel, so you occasionally get flung halfway across the carriage and into the person behind you (Moscow 2, London 2)
- The stations in Moscow are incredibly varied and beautiful, so every journey is a little adventure (Moscow 3, London 2)
- But there are very few signs at each station to tell you which station you're at (Moscow 3, London 3)
- But that means you have to memorise the stations and recognise them by their artistic style, which is more fun (Moscow 4, London 3)
- The Moscow metro runs extra services in winter to take into account the fact that the capacity of each train is reduced as people are wearing large coats so take up more space - brilliant piece of planning! (Moscow 5, London 3)
- Moscow is much cheaper (Moscow 6, London 3)
- Moscow starts earlier (5:30am) and runs later (1am) (Moscow 7, London 3)
- Moscow has scary ticket barriers (Moscow 7, London 4)
- Did I mention the stations? I'm counting them again because I like them so much (Moscow 8, London 4)

Surprise surprise, Moscow wins! I love the Metro!

Coming soon, my top 5 favourite metro stations, with pictures.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Moscow Diary: Condoms

These are the brands of condom available in my local supermarket. I really want to know what goes through someone's head when they deliberate between the 'romantic love' condoms and the 'relief' condoms to decide what message they want to send their partner.


"Well, ordinarily I would go with 'romantic love', but I don't really like this girl that much, so I'm going to go with 'relief'"

or perhaps preparing to say something like:

"I know you said you wanted to wait, but I really love you, look, it says it on the box of condoms and everything"

Any other suggestions welcomed, and obviously if anyone knows the actual difference then I'd love to know!

Moscow Diary: Heating

In the UK, you get to control the level of the heating in your home, and when it goes on and off, and pay the bill yourself for the heat you use. Not so in Russia – at least not in Russian apartments. The heating is controlled centrally for the whole building, so at a particular date, or when it’s been below a particular temperature for a certain number of days, the heating gets switched on for the whole building. In my case, that was last week, and it meant going from sleeping in a hoodie to sleeping in a t-shirt with the window open. Seriously, it’s that hot.

Some thoughts:
- rapid temperature changes = can’t be good for you!
- the bit of my brain that worries about climate change wants to cry. I understand that you need central heating in Russia, but seriously, it’s winter, it’s meant to be cold, just put a jumper on!
- the obsession with high heat has got to be related to not paying gas bills individually, or people would just put jumpers on and turn the heat down to save money.
- I’m going to need to do some serious layering!

On the plus side, at least this way you avoid thermostat wars with your housemates...

Moscow Diary: Gender

Mostly Russia seems pretty similar to the UK, but there are definitely some areas that club you over the head sometimes. One of the big ones is gender relations.

In Russia, women wear heels and makeup, and chivalry is not dead. Several times on the metro young men have offered me their seat, to my general incredulity – why on earth they think I’m less capable of standing than they are I have no idea! As it happens, of course, I am less capable of standing, because I’m wearing silly high-heeled shoes because that’s what you do in Russia. But the Russian girls seem to be happy running around in even sillier high-heeled shoes, so it can’t be that. On dates, the men are expected to pay for everything. I asked a Russian friend about it and pointed out that it was a bit harsh on the guy if they earn the same amount – she replied that it was awesome if you were a girl. Then one of my British friends, preparing for a date with a Russian asked what I thought about it – and maybe it shouldn’t seem weird, but it really really does.

Then there’s the stereotyping. I was at home a couple of weeks ago and the internet stopped working. Maxim was going to fix it, and I commented that I didn’t understand computers much. Yasna, who is generally independent, has a career, and doesn’t seem to see herself as limited by gender, said that of course I didn’t understand computers – that was men’s work. I was so flabbergasted I just stared blankly, which was probably a good thing because it stopped me saying something offensive! A week or two later, I was about to cut a watermelon, when Lena, my other housemate stopped me and asked Maxim to do it instead – again, that was man’s work.

But with my geek hat on, I’ve got to point out that that’s just the metropolitan stuff you see if you live on a comfortable income in Moscow, and in the country at large there’s a much bigger gender crisis. While women here live to 75 on average, men die at 63, mainly because of alcoholism and heart disease. As well as being disastrous for men, this means that poor people are overwhelmingly women – elderly widows and younger ones who are left to raise families alone, often having spent long periods outside the workforce. And people aren’t good at practicing safe sex, so STIs are rising and the abortion rate is terrifying. It isn’t a subject I know much about, but poor sexual health practices are generally linked to a combination of lack of knowledge and women not feeling able to assert themselves. So the gender system is negatively affecting both men and women – which is why gender mainstreaming is such an important part of Oxfam’s work here.

All in all, it’s enough to get you down sometimes. But I’m an optimist, and luckily the trends bear me out – the male average life expectancy has risen from 59 a few years ago, and the abortion rate is down from 1.6 for every 1 live births to 1.2 (yup, told you it was scary). At a social level, in the UK I have occasionally gone out with people who’ve been slightly surprised at my insistence on buying rounds on dates (usually this is a reasonably good sign that they aren’t someone I want to go out with!), so splitting it is obviously not yet ubiquitous. So there are reasons to be cheerful, and I’d be interested to come back in a decade or so and see how things have changed.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Moscow Diary: Smiling

Russians are notorious for being miserable bastards. Most Russians tell me that isn’t true, they just don’t smile unless there’s a reason to. I’m not totally convinced by this – I can usually think of quite a lot of reasons to smile, starting with the slightly-sanctimonious ‘well, you’re not in a refugee camp in Somalia’ and working down from there, and being generally happy seems like as good a reason to smile as any. But I can see their point, and if they don’t want to smile and be happy, it’s no skin off my nose.

Where it is a problem, is that smiling isn’t only evidence of an unusually happy demeanor – it’s also a sign of being an idiot. A number of us Brits have been told off for smiling too much, and told that people won’t take us seriously. So now, as well as having to communicate with people with handsignals and dodgy Russian, I have to remember to not smile while I’m doing it. Or just accept that people will think I’m an idiot, which at the moment seems rather more appealing!

Moscow Diary: Tea

Everywhere you go, there are certain questions that people ask you. In most of Africa I get asked if I’m saved. In Georgia I got asked if I liked Khatchapuri. And in Moscow I get asked what the tea is like in England. This then breaks down into sub-questions, where people ask me what brands of tea are available in England (which makes sense, as there a lot of brands of ‘English’ tea available here that I’ve never seen in the UK), how we drink our tea (with MILK? Really?), and what I think of Russian tea. I’ve also been asked twice why English Breakfast is called English Breakfast (me: “err... because we drink it for breakfast?” Russian: “but is it made in the UK?” Me: “no, I think it’s made in India” Russian: “So why English breakfast? Why not just breakfast” Me: “Err....”)

The reason is that Russians really love their tea. I live in a particularly tea-loving household, with a housemate who is a professional tea taster (seriously, that job exists) and with only one box of teabags in the house (some redbush ones I brought from the UK, which my housemates have relegated to a dark corner of the cupboard). But ordinary cafes and restaurants have huge tea menus, usually with several types of black and green teas, as well as various types of tea with berries and other herbs added (for pedants: often these involve actual tea as well, so can accurately be called ‘teas’ rather than ‘infusions’). When I travelled to the country for the weekend with a couchsurfer, I was given vast amounts of tea made with bundles of herbs added, brewed strong in a teapot, and topped up with water from the kettle. And my colleagues regularly have in-depth discussions about the best things to add to regular black tea. It’s a pretty limited sample, but it seems fair to say that the Russians like their tea.

This obviously has its advantages – I, along with most other British people I know, constantly complain about how in many countries they make tea with hot water rather than boiling water, so it’s never quite right. And that isn’t a problem in Russia. Plus drinking lots of different teas is fun, and whereas I resent paying a cafe to dump a teabag in a mug, I don’t resent paying them to make me a mix of tea and berries in a little teapot.

The downside, though, is the questioning. There is an apparently widespread view of the UK as some kind of tea-drinking mecca. Which is ironic, while the UK consumes huge amounts of tea each year, our tea-making doesn’t generally extend to much more than dumping a Tetley teabag in the mug and adding boiling water. Our tea preferences are generally limited to the exact amount of milk and a totally baffling interest in whether the milk should go in the cup before or after you pour (aside: if you put the milk in first, how on earth do you judge if you’ve put in the right amount?). But of course I don’t want to tell them that, because it would be like telling a six year old that Santa doesn’t exist. So I’m left explaining that we like our tea strong and with milk, and that it’s very different from Russian tea and they’re both good in their own way. And meanwhile, my colleagues, who’ve mostly actually been to the UK, tell me what a disappointment it was to them.

Conclusion: if I ever have a Russian visitor in the UK, I need to get some seriously good tea, and put some serious effort into preparing it.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Moscow Notes: The Metro

The Moscow metro is a key part of the city. It’s known for its spectacular stations, built by Stalin to keep the population’s spirits up and inspire them with Soviet glory should they be forced to shelter there in a war. And they don’t disappoint – even the dull stations have high ceilings, tall columns and decorated walls, and the more ornate ones are adorned with mosaics, chandeliers, paintings, statues, plasterwork and marble – each different, and all beautiful.

But the metro’s not only amazing for its architecture. It’s also massive, extending all the way out to the outer ring road, and is it the second most-used rapid transit system in the world (Tokyo comes first, if you’re curious), with 10 million people using it every day to get to work. The trains come regularly every couple of minutes, starting at 5:30am and closing at 1am. Even on Sunday. Mobile phones work throughout the metro, and they’re talking about setting up wifi. Seriously, London can learn from this.

Lots of things they do are the same as London, too. People stand on the right on the escalators, which makes me feel bizarrely at home, and people queue in an orderly manner for the kassa. Everyone reads (a lot of them on kindles). There is a ‘Metro’ newspaper, which everyone reads in the morning. And no-one smiles, and everyone avoids looking at anyone else, and if they meet your eye by accident they turn away as quick as they can. So far, so familiar.

Of course there are things that are different. The timing boards tell you when the last train left, not when the next one is. On the plus side, if you know how often they are you can figure out how long you’ll be waiting, and at least they’re accurate, but on the other hand, it isn’t as helpful as knowing when the next one will be. The other main difference is the circle line – in London, anyone with sense avoids using it if they possibly can. It’s horribly slow, has a station every 10 metres, and the trains are enormously infrequent. So in Moscow, I began by instinctively arranging routes so as not to go on the circle line. I quickly learned my mistake – not only are the circle line stations the most spectacular, but it works incredibly quickly and the interchanges tend to be pretty short. Turns out that when they work, circle lines are actually pretty useful!

But the only thing which even comes close to a culture shock is the ticket barriers. They work on a smart card system (you either buy a pass, or a card with a certain number of journeys pre-loaded), but the barriers aren’t always closed, making it disturbingly easy to avoid tapping in by accident. To avoid this, there are police in scary uniforms with massive peaked caps stationed at strategic points in every station, and they don’t hesitate to stop you if they think you’re trying to dodge. Needless to say, this is slightly intimidating for the novice metro user – and, as a friend pointed out the other day, the terror you feel when the militzia move, and the relief you feel when you realise they’re stopping someone else and scurry away before they notice you, is a definite insight into how totalitarianism works!

Moscow Notes: The Scale of the City

When my housemates asked me what was different about Moscow, I actually found it pretty hard to answer – it’s a big developed city, and they’re all a bit the same, and the combination of Budapest a couple of years ago and Tblisi and Yerevan this year meant I’d kind of got over the post-Communist stuff. So beyond ‘well all the signs are in funny letters’ I was a bit stumped.

When I thought about it, though, the main thing I’m struggling to get my head around is the sheer scale of the city. A lot of the time you don’t notice – after all, if you just go from your apartment to the metro and then from the metro to work it doesn’t feel that big, and the metro is much faster than the London underground, so even going right to the outer ring doesn’t take that long (yes, I have done – to go to Ikea. So I’ve now shopped in Ikea in three countries. Oh yes.)

But the thing is, that Moscow is MASSIVE. At least 12 million people in the city itself, and 20 million if you count ‘greater Moscow’. And everything in the city is bigger than it is in London. The main roads aren’t 2 or 3 lanes each way, they’re 4 or 5 lanes each way. The buildings are a bit bigger – I live on the 12th floor, and I’m not in a big apartment block. And even in the centre of town, the metro stations are a really long way apart – but you don’t realise till you try and walk, because the scale makes them look close together on a map. The shopping centres are huge. The parks are huge. The monuments are huge.

Conclusion: Moscow is like London, but on growth hormones.

Friday, 9 September 2011

24 Hours in Moscow

I arrived in Moscow on Wednesday at about 8:30pm, and was met by someone from work who drove me to my apartment – so far so easy. I’d found a room through the wonders of couchsurfing, with a couple called Yasna and Maxim. Yasna is from Vladivostok and works as a translator, and Maxim is from Odessa, in Ukraine, and works as a web developer. Their roommate is travelling, so I’m subletting his room for September and October. Before meeting them I was obviously worried – you get a lot of information on a couchsurfing profile, and the references are especially useful, but agreeing to live with total strangers for two months is generally a bit daunting! But they were incredibly welcoming, and put me at ease straight away, as did my third flatmate, Lyena (an Osteopath from Ekaterinburg).

Yasna had told me that the apartment was ‘Stalin era’, which sounds ominous but which is apparently a Good Thing. Stalin era apartments tend to have thick walls (so you can’t hear your neighbours at night) and high ceilings, with large living areas. Khrushchev-era apartments, on the other hand, tend to be smaller, with lower ceilings and thin walls, and the buildings tend to be uglier. Modern apartments are a bit shiny, but basically similar to Khrushchev ones. So far so good, and the apartment, when I saw it, was better than I could have hoped – huge living spaces and nice bathrooms, and on the 12th floor with beautiful views over the city. Somehow, I seem to have landed on my feet.

Sadly though, there are always challenges, and so far the doors seem to be my nemesis. Getting in on the first night proved impossible, and the driver had to work out how to work the code. The next morning, when I left to go to work, I couldn’t find the button to get out and in the end just skulked in the hallway until someone else left. I then faced a new challenge: procuring money. On Yasna’s advice, I had decided to buy a three month metro pass, which required cash. I found a cashpoint no problem (at the bank near the metro), but it didn’t like being asked to speak English, and gobbled my card. Luckily, work were picking me up today, so I didn’t need to worry, but I was a bit concerned about how I would feed myself over the coming months.

A quick pep talk later, I headed back to the apartment to wait for my ride and figure out my next move (3 attempts at the door, all unsuccessful – eventually I tailgated someone going in). Happily, a solution was at hand. Apparently, machines eating cards is a common occurrence in Russia, and rather than waiting for the bank to send you a new card, you simply go to the bank, who open up the machine for you and give you your card back (Aside: anyone know how they do that? Can't help thinking that the high incidence of card eating might be related to the tendency to jemmy with the machine until it gives up the card). Obviously this wasn’t something I was going to attempt alone, but when Jemma arrived to collect me (I couldn't find the button to get out, and in the end asked Yasna to come and show me where it was... apparently it was right in front of me all along), we took ourselves to the bank where, on presentation of my passport, I was reunited with my card.

We then drove to the office, where I spent the day battling to be able to save things on the server, open calendars, and other such exciting tasks. At lunch, my colleague Sergey took me first to a bank (success! I have money!) and then to what turned out to be an English pub that does good lunch deals. To my delight, it serves London Pride, HoneyDew, and Aspell’s Cider! Suddenly, I feel at home, and all is well with the world!

In the evening, it was time to attempt the subway. Armed with a map, I headed first to the kiosk to buy my pass. Clearly there was no way I would be able to communicate what I wanted, so Yasna had written what I wanted for me on a piece of paper to give to the ticket lady. I handed it over with a 5000 ruble note and what I hoped was a winning smile. Looking perplexed, she took the note, but confusion soon turned to laughter and I was soon tripping on my way with the desired pass in my pocket. My Cyrillic might be pretty dodgy, but it was good enough to work out where to change lines and follow the signs for my line, and before I knew it I was triumphantly home.

And this time, I even managed to work the door.


Here’s what I wrote in Chad... apologies for the delays in posting, holidays (should eventually be recorded in the other blog) and moving to Moscow (on which more later) got in the way of internetting.

After nearly two weeks in Chad I really ought to have some impressions, but somehow they seem lacking. I think part of the problem is that I’m comparing N’Djamena to other African cities, which isn’t entirely helpful to those who haven’t spent silly amounts of time in Africa. I haven’t been to the town centre (apparently there’s a market, which is worth a visit on Saturdays, but I was working on Saturday). It’s Ramadan, which makes the whole city seem dead during the day. And as if all that wasn’t enough, I’m biased against the country because the water supply and the generator at the guesthouse were broken for most of the time I was there. So I’m trying to avoid being unduly harsh.

That said, there are obviously some things that stand out. The main one is the obvious poverty. With the caveat that we’re near the end of rainy season, the roads here are some of the worst I’ve seen anywhere, with a veritable lake of mud between the guesthouse and the office, and the roads completely impassable without a four wheel drive – even in the capital city. Wierdly though, despite the mud everywhere, it manages to be dusty. The office is swept twice a day, and each time huge piles of mud gather to be swept out onto the balcony. With all this humidity and rain in the air, I wonder where it’s coming from.

I think what I find most depressing though, is that I can't see much sign of growth. Burundi was horribly poor, but there was building going on everywhere and it looked like somewhere that was reconstructing itself. Maybe it's just because it's Ramadan and the rainy season, but I really couldn't see much of that in Chad.

On Friday night we head out for drinks, so I get to see a little of the N’Djamena expat scene. The people I meet seem nice enough – mostly French, with a liberal sprinkling of Italians. I’m surprised to see a large group of men, with over-muscled shoulders and shaved heads – turns out there’s a massive French base here, just as there is in Cote d’Ivoire – cue some recycled humour about how the French have never quite got round to leaving Africa. Cynicism notwithstanding, the bar is fun with good music, and I’m forced to admit that Chad isn’t all bad, though Chirac, the Finance Manager, and I take no time to impress on everyone the clear superiority of the Great Lakes Region to the Sahel.

My cynicism returns though, later in the evening, when the prostitutes start arriving. I know whenever you go to an expat bar in Africa they’re there, but somehow it seemed more blatant here. Maybe because the only Chadian women in the bar seemed to be prostitutes, or maybe just because I’m not used to it right now so I notice them more. The toilets were near the entrance to the bar, so while I was waiting I watched them getting ready to go in – arranging hair, putting on makeup, arranging themselves in their bras, and taking off their comfy flipflops to put on heels. Don’t get me wrong – there was smiling and laughter, and I realise these women probably make a lot more money than they could any other way. But it was still one of the saddest things I’ve seen in a long time.

Sunday, the only things to do in N’Djamena are hang out at home, and go to the pool. Since there isn’t much space to hang out in the house, once I finished my report, I headed to the pool. After days of doing nothing but be driven between the office and the house, I felt like I’d practically lost the use of my legs, so the extortionate entrance fee was more than worth it, and I have to admit it was a nice atmosphere – the sun was out, so lying by the pool reading a book was a pretty good way to unwind, and a nice long swim did me no end of good. And I met some nice French people, who invited me back to theirs to drink wine and eat cheese in the form of the ripest camembert I’ve ever tasted – definitely not what I expected to be doing in Chad! We then headed on to a party at the WFP house, where I met some Burundians who knew some of my Burundian friends from two years ago (the world of African expats is a pretty small one). Suffice it to say that by the end of the evening I was pretty tired for a Sunday night, but all in all considerably mellowed towards Chad.

So would I go back? It wasn’t hideous, and the social scene would be fine for a few months, and I think outside of Ramadan there’d be a bit more energy about the place. But the dust and the heat would get to me, and so would the restricted social circle, and so would the fact that there’s literally nothing to see in the country outside of N’Djamena, so no chance for exploring. So while I would probably go back for a short time, it’s definitely not somewhere I see myself spending long amounts of time.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

How to get to Chad

I am scared of many things, like zombies and failure. But there are few things that frighten me as much as handing my passport to the angry bureaucrat and walking away, with nothing but his assurance that I’ll get it back the next day. But such was my introduction to Chad.

Even before I landed I was clear that I was definitely back in Africa. The plane had a business class section that took up more than half the plane, and I couldn’t figure out why, as there aren’t a lot of business opportunities in Chad, until I realised it might have something to do with the large UN presence. On this occasion, though, it was mostly empty, with all the passengers crammed into the jam-packed economy section. My fellow passengers were exactly who I would have expected to be going to Chad – diaspora returning home, NGO people tapping away on computers, and a missionary couple with four blond children, very visible crosses, and lots of luggage.

The plane landed, and we were escorted onto buses to drive to the terminal – even though we could see the terminal about 20 metres away, and it was probably quicker to walk than to get the bus. Then, because I didn’t yet have a visa, I had to go to the police post to get a safe passage permit. Here an angry man glared at me, and shoved a piece of paper in my general direction. Closer examination proved it to be a form, so I filled it out using the pen in my bag. Big mistake.

“Who told you to do that? Did I tell you to do that?” he shouted at me, stabbing the form with his finger, before scrumpling it up and throwing it in a corner.

Unsure quite what I’d done wrong, I managed only a feeble “errr... ” and started an apology, before he interjected “don’t you have a black pen?”

“No... sorry” I replied. Sighing at my incompetence, he handed me a black biro, which I used to fill in the form again. And again. Big mistake.

“Again? You’ve done it again!” he shouted, stabbing the form again then throwing it away again. The next minute or so consisted of rapid and angry French, most of which I didn’t absorb, but eventually I gathered that the ‘duration of visit’ line at the top was for him to fill in, not me, and that I was supposed to have guessed this. Silly me, for not realising that the random official got to decide how long I stayed, rather than me. I filled in the form again, and this time, finally, it was accepted, signed, and stamped. I got the form, he got my passport. Couldn’t help feeling it wasn’t much of a swap.

I then used my safe passage permit to go through passport control, where no-one checked my Yellow Fever certificate, and got my back from the belt. I then had to join a veritable scrum to get out – all bags had to be first compared with the tag on your boarding pass by an official wandering through the crowd at random, before being scanned in an ancient x-ray (god knows what they’re looking for, but never mind), and given back to you. The entire flight was trying to shove to the front of the queue, but I was grabbed by an official and dragged to the front. Bags scanned, I continued through the cage door (yes, really) that separated the baggage hall from arrivals, where after an initial moment of looking around wildly assuming I’d been left at the airport, I was greeted by Youssouf, the Office Manager, and welcomed to Chad.

Oh, and it’s now Wednesday, and I still don’t have my passport back.