I’ve been having a lot of “how on Earth did I end up here?” thoughts in the last week. Never, when I was doing quadratic equations in secondary school, or contract law in university, did it cross my mind that when I was thirty-two, I’d spend a weekend in an unheard-of southern Russian city, in the middle of a teacher training course I was giving there, updating the Irish-language translation of the website of a student Hall of Residence. It just wasn’t something that I ever discussed with my career guidance teacher.
That said, I’m enjoying it lots. I had kind of regretted accepting the job here so early, when ads came up to give the same course in San Diego, in Bangkok and in Naples, and here was I pledged to going to Rostov-on-Don.
But Rostov has turned out to be lovely. It’s very Mediterranean-feeling in many ways. I walk to work every day through a pedestrianised green-zone with buskers and people at carts and stands selling ice-cream and beer. Lots of people sit outside eating and drinking and there’s a calm and relaxed atmosphere that is really very nice.
The atmosphere may be nice, but the Russians are still an unsmiling people. In ways, I love their unfriendliness. There’s no obligation to say “hello” when you pass a colleague in school, and, unlike in Ireland, where buying something in a shop means that you must say “thank you” at least four times, here you can often buy something without saying a single thing to the shop assistant. This can all be a relief after the inane chatter of Ireland, but what I can’t get used to is not smiling. I was warned before I came here that if you smile a lot in Russia, you can look stupid. This is bad for me. I’m a chronic smiler. Smiling has got me in trouble before. I remember getting on a bus in Poland once, years ago, and smiling apologetically as I handed the driver a stack of coppers to pay my fare. He started shouting at me that it was bad enough to pay in small change, but it was worse that I was laughing at him. My Polish at the time was good enough to understand why he was shouting at me, but not good enough to defend myself. I did the worst thing I could have and I smiled even harder in apology. The driver refused to take my money and told me to get off the bus. Since coming to Russia, I’ve tried to keep my smiling to a minimum.
It’s not that Russians are rude. It’s just that different things are rude here. Kind of. Last night, I was in a pub with a group of Russians. The pub had table service. When they needed another drink, one of the Russian women I was drinking with would shout out “Girl!” to the waitress and “Young man!” to the waiter. The waiter or waitress would then come across to our table, unsmilingly take our order and bring the drinks and none of the people I was drinking with would say “thank you”. At one stage, I said to one of the women I was drinking with that it would be very rude in Ireland to summon a waitress by shouting “Girl!” across the room to them. My colleague said, “It’s kind of rude in Russian too” and she proceeded to roar “Girl!” again about 30 seconds later. I don’t understand these people, but I do find them entertaining.
One of the women I was drinking with last night used to live in Tajikistan. Apparently, she knows someone there who wasn’t doing so well in university, so he brought one of the professors a sheep. He got a degree in return, without having to pass his exams. This sounds quite attractive to me. I could transfer my PhD to Tajikistan and not bother submitting a thesis. I could just hand in a cow and a camel and they’d give me the degree. A wonderful system.
The same woman now lives in Novosibirsk, known as the “Chicago of Siberia”, constructed by prisoners over 100 years ago. She is amazed by shops in Rostov, because you can have a pet shop next to a hardware shop. Apparently, in Novosibirsk (and I only have this one woman as a witness) shops are segregated. There’s a street of shoe shops. And one of clothes shops. There’s even a street of pharmacies. I find this intriguing and bewildering. I always loved the idea of Siberia anyway, but now I have to visit. How on earth do people choose which pharmacy to go to if they’re all on the same street? I wonder do the pharmacies in the middle of the street do very badly compared to the ones on the end of the street? Or maybe the further you venture down the street, the better the bargains get. I will get to Siberia before I die.
My course is going well. It’s a course to teach people how to teach English and most of the students are Russian teachers of English. On the first day, to demonstrate the idea of total-immersion teaching, I gave an Irish language lesson entirely through Irish. It worked very well. A few days later, one of my Russian trainees came up to me. “What does anois mean?” she asked. “Now” I told her. And “a chroí”? Well, “croí” means heart, but “a chroí” means darling. She thanked me and walked away.
I am intrigued. This woman is from the Far East of Russia. How did she come across this phrase? I am semi-convinced that she is conducting a Skype-to-Skype relationship with an elderly farmer from Connemara who whispers sweet nothings in Irish across an entire continent. “Now, my darling, now!” “Anois, a chroí! Anois!”
My Russian isn’t progressing as well as my students’ Irish. Sure, I’ve pretty much got my head around reading the Cyrillic alphabet, but I’m not fast at it. As I walk along the street I try to read the names of shops and I do fine, but it takes me so long and occupies so much of my attention that I keep almost walking into people/dogs/bollards/moving traffic/trees. My knowledge of Polish does help me to understand Russian once I’ve managed to decode the alphabet, but the entire experience is exhausting. And I haven’t lived in Poland since 2006. I’ve done a lot of forgetting. And, though Polish really does have an awful lot of similar words to Russian, they are different languages. This is a long way of saying that there’s still a major language barrier for me.
The other day, after work, I went to a supermarket to buy something for dinner. I picked based on the photo on the packaging. It looked like meat in breadcrumbs with a sauce in the middle. Something like a chicken Kiev. I took it home. I managed to decode the cooking instructions on the packet like this: “Something something in hot something and something for something for 12-15 minutes”. I could tell which of the “somethings” were nouns and which were verbs and adjectives, but that wasn’t much help.
I pre-heated the oven to a high temperature and put the meat product inside for 15 minutes. I took the meat product out. The breadcrumb coat was still entirely white. It shouldn’t look like that. I bunged the food back in the oven for another 20 minutes.
It was still white. It felt hot though. Still I wasn’t going to eat something that looked that raw. I decided to fry it. I started frying the meat product. The breadcrumb coating began to look edible, but then the meat burst and the sauce inside started spitting onto the pan. In seconds, the kitchen filled with smoke. There are over 100 apartments in this building. I had visions of my smoke alarm going off, necessitating an evacuation of everyone in the building, firemen breaking into my apartment and discovering it was all because I was trying to fry this meat product which you’re obviously meant to grill.
The smoke alarm did not go off. I turned off the cooker and opened all the windows and looked at the meat product. How badly did I want dinner?
In the end, I put it in the microwave for six minutes. Surely, 35 minutes in a hot oven, followed by being fried until it explodes and fills the kitchen with smoke, and then six minutes in the microwave will cook anything?
The meat product was still quite pale on the outside, and most of the sauce in the middle was burned, and the meat looked like chicken and tasted like bacon, but that was three days ago and I’m still not dead.
Speaking of food, at some stage, I expect the internet to lean forward, put its hand on my knee and say, “All these stories are all well and good, Connor, but how are you?” I’m actually very well.
I love working again. And doing something I’m good at. And I love being abroad again and having new things to look at. And having time to myself. Time to air my mind. I’m exercising again. And I’m not bingeing. And I’ve been doing my transcribing. I’m like some kind of productivity dynamo here. Fingers crossed it lasts.
And I had a very long walk today. I’ve been in Rostov-on-Don for a week and I still haven’t seen the Don. I’ve really only seen Rostov-off-Don. So I decided to find the Don. It was quite a walk. Downhill. And I was aware as I went down the hill that I’d have to go up again. I walked along the river. It’s lovely. There fishermen and children playing, and rich people’s houses. And that’s about all. And GoogleMaps told me of a shortcut to my street. And I followed GoogleMaps. And then GoogleMaps told me I was on my street, except I wasn’t. My street was on a flyover miles above my head. GoogleMaps doesn’t give you relative heights.
There was a stairway up to the flyover. And I didn’t have any choice. So, in 28 degree heat, I started climbing. And climbing. There were two hundred and seventy five steps. I counted them for you, dear reader.
On my walk, I passed a bridal shop.
Isn’t she just the most bad ass bride you’ve ever seen? She definitely has both a diamond-encrusted revolver AND a 1920s ivory cigarette holder.
Then I passed an actual wedding and realised that I HAVE TO get married in Russia. The wedding car had a pair of golden swans on the bonnet. In a bed of flowers. And the bride and groom stood in the open-topped limo and were driven all around the city to be viewed.
Part of Connor was made for Russia and part of Russia was made for Connor.