Brown Showers and Feathery Mornings

I need to stop treating Russian as some weird variant of Polish. My Polish is far from great, but after three years there, I had a large vocabulary and good listening comprehension skills. So now when someone tells me something about Russian, or explains a new word to me, I often respond by saying, “Oh, it’s just like Polish!” or “It’s much easier in Polish!” or “It’s kind of like that in Polish.” The Russians I know are getting a little tired of me comparing everything to Polish. Poland is a much smaller and much less “significant” country, and it is a little insulting to some Russians to measure Russian against Polish. It’s a bit like a French person arriving in London, and hearing a phrase and saying “That’s just how they say it in the Outer Hebrides!”

In fact, I have to admit that I’m a little disappointed that Russia isn’t a bit more different from Poland. I was told before I came here that provincial Russia was completely different from anywhere else I’d ever been, and while I have been fazed by a few things – like the fact that smiling is so rare (it’s amazing how much you miss strangers smiling) – mostly, it’s been like anywhere in Eastern Europe, only more so. 

I find it weird that water supply in a big city in a modern country is so irregular. Most mornings I have either hot water or cold water, and on the rare mornings when I have both, it’s generally brown. A brown shower is not something that I find inspiring in the morning. 

I’ve never been a fan of the police abroad. It freaks me out to see people carrying guns and it always makes me feel threatened. I think it might be my least favourite part about travelling. And Russia is the first place I’ve ever seen armed and uniformed police standing around in the middle of the day on one of the main city streets drinking (a lot of) beer. When I said it to someone else, the response I got was “Well, who’s going to stop them?” Indeed. 

And the attitude to flats is the same here as it is in most of Eastern Europe. For many, there’s no real division between the idea of a living room and a bedroom. I live in a modern flat, with one big room and one small room. In Ireland, the big room would be a kitchen/living room and the small room would be the bedroom. In Russia, the big room is a bed-living room and the small room is the kitchen. Hundreds of thousands of people across Eastern Europe (in my experience) get up every morning and turn their bed back into a sofa. I think that’s just weird. In all my time in Eastern Europe, I never had a sofa that wasn’t also a bed, and I only once had a bed that wasn’t a sofa. As in this flat here, your wardrobe is frequently not in your bedroom. It’s just a totally different way of thinking about space. 

And I know I’m getting really petty now, but let me talk about pillows for a paragraph. In Ireland, pillows are pillow-shaped. Pillows are pillow-sized. I’m sure you can get large or specially shaped pillows, but in general, every pillow in Ireland will fit, more or less perfectly, into every pillowcase. In Eastern Europe, pillows come in all kinds of shape and size, and pillow cases in all kinds of different shapes and sizes and if you move in your sleep as much as I do, your oddly-shaped pillow escapes from your oddlier-shaped pillowcase every single night, and you wake up with a mouth full of feathers every single morning. 

And they told us that communism brought uniformity…

And then there’s the constant, unrelenting battle for small change. It would appear that the entirety of Eastern Europe empties their cash registers every single night. And starts every day with no change. And every single time you go into a shop you’re asked for exact change. Today, a shop assistant looked genuinely saddened when I paid her with 100 rouble note for a purchase that cost around 83 roubles (less than two euros). And if you don’t have change, and they don’t have it in their till, then they’re not going to find it. On the rare occasions in Ireland where I couldn’t use a card and the shop assistant didn’t have the right change, they would go to the shop next door or somewhere and find the right change. In Russia, that’s the customer’s job. You leave the shop and you find the right change. 

J’accuse Eastern Europe for all of the above. I don’t take any responsibility for the brown water, or the lack of change, or the bizarre pillow situation, the final situation I have to write about may be a little bit my fault though. 

Before I came here, I spoke to the man who did this job before me. He told me that he was regularly taken out for dinners and drinks by his boss and co-tutor. I expected the same treatment, and I wasn’t disappointed. Over my first three days here, I was showered with generosity.

Towards the end of the first week of work here, my boss arranged to meet me at three o’clock on Saturday. We would fill in some progress reports together and then she would show me some of the sights.

I showed up at 2:55. I started writing the reports. My boss didn’t show up at 3:00, or 3:30, or 4:00. At 4:15, I wrote a note that said I was sorry to have missed her, that I’d finished my reports and that I was off for a walk around the city.

I didn’t see her again until Monday. The note I’d left her was gone, so I can only assume that she’d read it. And yet she never mentioned it. And I didn’t mention it. Had I committed some social faux pas? Had I got the meeting place wrong? The day? The time? Had my note been rude?

I don’t know. And I’m too socially awkward to ask.

I remember when I was about 12 years old and some friends of my parents visited and brought their son too, who was also about 12 years old. We knew each other well, but had never been alone together just the two of us. My mother got out my newest board game, and told us to play it in the back room. We sat in the back room in silence for ages. The other boy nudged the box the board game was in with his foot a few times without saying a word. I didn’t time it, but in my memory, I think we must have spent at least three quarters of an hour in complete silence, not making any eye contact, before he finally said, “Do you want to play the board game?” We were only setting the game up when his parents came for him because the visit was over. 

And even though I have absolutely no problem standing up in front of a lecture hall full of people and telling them what to do, I can still be magnificently awkward. 

And just like I couldn’t be the one to suggest we play the board game when I was 12, I can’t bring myself to ask my boss what happened that Saturday. 

And so, we haven’t socialised once in the last three weeks. I still don’t know what happened that day. I go out with other people who work and study in the school, but I haven’t gone out with my co-tutor once in the last three weeks. And I don’t know why. And I’m too bloody awkward to ask. And even if I could have asked three weeks ago, if I did it now, after all this time has passed,  it would just be weird. So I’ll just live with the mystery, and put it down to “Russia”. 

 

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One Response to Brown Showers and Feathery Mornings

  1. The bit about every eastern European having a sofa bed made me laugh. When I did CELTA in Latvia, they put us up in a 2 person apartment with 6 sofas/chairs in total, all of which could be folded out and made into a bed.

    We could have had 9 people living in that little flat and easily had space for everyone to sleep. Bizarre.

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