Russian men, by and large, appear to be unafraid of their nipples.
Many of them wear tight, skinny tops – little vest-type things with no sleeves, and sometimes no sides. Their nipples are in no way hidden and point accusingly at the world like some kind of Soviet missiles waiting to be launched.
One such young man is my boss’s son. On Sunday night at midnight, I was sitting on my bed under the airconditioning unit, basking in its coldness while typing lesson plans (because that’s just how I roll). I heard the buzzer on my door ring. I jumped off my bed and ran to answer the intercom. I heard a man’s voice. It gruffly said, “Baggage. Airport. Come.”
My heart soared. My bag had come! Finally. I scrambled to get dressed. Since my baggage was missing, I had been wearing the same clothes for four days. I looked at my four-day underpants, considered sniffing them, and then decided it wasn’t worth it. I would go to the airport commando.
I climbed onto the slowest lift in the world and descended fourteen floors. Standing outside my front door were my boss’s husband, and a young man, presumably my boss’s adult son. He looked like what I imagine a Russian surfer boy might look like. Or maybe a Russian rugby lad. All nipples and shoulders and flip flops and bonhomie. He gripped my hand in a hearty, silent handshake and we all got in my boss’s husband’s car, bound for the airport.
We drove in complete silence.
When we arrived at the airport, it was closed. We didn’t quite have to ring a doorbell to get in, but we did have to make our presence known.
Inside, barriers were pulled down over windows, many of the lights were switched off and about six members of security, in uniforms and with guns and/or sticks were the only people around.
Bear in mind that Rostov is a city the size of Dublin. It is apparently the “Capital of Southern Russia” and the “Gateway to the Caucuses and Central Asia”. Their airport does not reflect this.
My boss’s son’s presence became clear. He was sent in with me to “translate”. He didn’t say a single word to me the whole time.
But I didn’t care. They had my bag. I signed 43 different pieces of paper written entirely in Russian, not understanding a single word, and we were back into the car for another silent drive.
When I got out of the car, my boss’s son have me another silent, but hearty and powerful, handshake. I got my suitcase upstairs. I didn’t even open it at first. I just hugged it, and stroked it. In a slightly carnal manner. It was good to have it again.
There was a handwritten note sellotaped to my front door when I first arrived in my flat here on Sunday. I couldn’t understand a word of it. I considered ignoring it, given that I was only staying in the flat for a month. What was the worst that could happen?
Then I remembered my flat in Zaspa in Gdańsk, Poland, where I lived for a year in 2004/05. It was a nice quiet block and most of the residents were elderly couples. There was a large notice in the hallway of that block for weeks. I, being 23 and foreign, didn’t pay any attention to the sign.
I should have taken notice of the sign. The sign said that the gas would be cut off on such-and-such a day and all residents should be at home because the gas company would be calling to each flat to install new meters. The gas company duly came. They cut the gas off for the building. They started installing new meters in the other flats. Then they got to my flat. I wasn’t in. They couldn’t install a new meter in my flat. Apparently, this meant that they couldn’t reconnect the gas. My entire block of flats was without gas for almost a week because I hadn’t read a notice. No gas meant no heating and no cookers.
Some of the residents found out that it was my fault. And one day I was accosted in the hallway by a group of elderly ladies. They told me that they were driven to having sandwiches for dinner. They told me their grandchildren refused to visit because it was too cold. I was the devil himself.
I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. So this time, I brought the note that was taped to my door to my boss. She looked at it and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll give it to the secretary”. That was a bit too vague for me. I asked what the note said. “Oh, they want to come and check the electricity meter”.
What does this mean? Should I be prepared for a burly Russian electrician to pop in without warning? This could be bad. The last time I was abroad and there were electrical problems was when I broke the motor on my toilet in France and I ended up hiding in the streets of Strasbourg while my teenage French landlord washed his clothes.
Rostov is reputed to be at the heart of Russian organised crime, and before I came here, I was told that it was the home of the Russian mafia. I have heard no gunshots. I have seen no wailing widows. I haven’t even caught a whiff of a headless horse. The city seems very safe. In fact, in the school where I work, people leave laptops and iPhones unattended in classrooms and offices with open doors and nothing seems to get stolen.
I share an office with my boss, who is the owner of the school and is working on the course with me, and with her husband, who she employs as the School Director. He seems to do two things. He has a large stack of passports, which he often flicks through. Sometimes he photocopies pages from them. I have never seen anyone claim any of these passports. The other main thing he does is to open the safe, take out wads of roubles and leave. Passports and cash. That’s it. I’m obviously not saying I share an office with Russian Mob Boss, but I’ll let you all know if a policeman’s body ends up in the staff room fridge.
In Eastern Europe they like food that is contained in other food. They like to stuff things, to encase them, to wrap them. They have pancakes with a variety of fillings, doughballs with a variety of fillings, stuffed cabbage leaves, stuffed dumplings, balls of potato dough filled with something or other, bread with filling in the middle, croquettes with all kinds of different things in the through the centre. They like their food to come in food.
Every lunchtime, I have taken to playing Russian food roulette. There is a shop near the school that sells bread rolls that are stuffed. They have long and complex labels in Cyrillic and I’ve been wholly unsuccessful at guessing what’s inside them. It could be chocolate. It could be spinach. It could be cream cheese. It could be apricot jam. I just buy two and eat them, in an exciting game of chance. Today, for my first course, I had bread with jam in the middle. My second course was, disappointingly, an unstuffed roll. It was bound to happen eventually. I picked a dud. Tomorrow I’m hoping for some cream cheese. But if I know the Slavs, I’m just as likely to end up with a mouthful of poppy seeds.
The school I work in is attractive and modern. The walls of the corridors are lined with the qualification certificates of the teachers. Some are in Russian, but many of them are in English. When I’m bored, I stop to look at them.
There is a woman working in the school I’m in, and her surname, when written in English, is spelled “Ladygina”. Of course, being me, I’m reading that so that it rhymes with “China”.
I don’t know if I’ve met this colleague yet, but I honour her. In fact, I have temporarily christened a part of my own anatomy “my ladygina”. But you didn’t need to know that.