Quite a few people have asked me “How was Russia?!” since I got back.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate people’s interest, particularly those who worried for my return, but seriously, it’s impossible to cram so many personal emotions and experiences into a few sentences. It’s impossible to compile them into a daylong lecture. So, you end up with the reply “It was great, I never wanted to leave. Thanks” Which is both untrue and insincere. To be honest I don’t want to tell you my experiences unless you REALLY want to know. They are mine, they are special, and they have changed me as a person.
Before I start, I want to make it very clear this was my experience of Russia. Another being may have a completely different involvement and present entirely different opinions and information. A couple of the images are taken from the net, as the photos I’m expecting haven’t arrived yet. I didn’t take many for myself; if I’d have taken a picture of all the wonderful things I saw, I wouldn’t have seen anything!
So, as a foreigner in Russia, I was usually asked three questions by absolutely everyone (you learn to rehearse the most speedy and efficient answers to these questions very quickly.). The first one is: “So, why did you come to Russia?” Usually followed with “Are you crazy?!”. I suppose the answer is yes, by most people’s reckoning, I am crazy. I came to Russia because I decided to; I had an overwhelming feeling there was something there I needed to experience. Plus I find the Russian language absolutely beautiful. I knew nothing about Russia except stereotypes. So, ‘illogically’ and ‘irrationally’ I packed my bags and booked my flights. Why change a personality trait of a lifetime? It hasn’t failed me yet.
On to the stereotypes, that’s another of the top three questions you will be asked. I most commonly filled this gap with the expected responses people wanted to hear that others had of them (Russians don’t smile, they drink vodka all the time, the are self-centred, wear fur, they are tall and beautiful, rude etc.). However, I would go on to say these statements were not true to such an extent; what we see is a different cultural communication and understanding – not a universal definition of a being. For instance; just because in one place something is seen as discourteous, does not mean it is to all.
The third question is “So what do you do?” 90% of Russians I tell my trade…
- Do not understand or
- If the do understand, question if this is my hobby or real job. It’s my real job. Promise.
I find this question and response interesting and within it found the biggest cultural gap between England and Russia. I certainly found I bonded with those who understood and respected my work much easier; they tended to be more open people. In my experience it seems an artistic career isn’t quite so common in Russia, despite the quantity of artistic education available in the form of exhibitions, museums and more. Which leads me on to my next topic.
In Russia, of the people I met, I found that most are very educated about their own country. They know about their art, politics, literature and history. They aim to speak English well and see how knowledge is beneficial to their development. On average I would say they are more in knowledge of their own country than an Englishperson is of theirs. But perhaps I’ve just been attracting this kind of person. Either way it has inspired me to learn and develop my own understanding of the world around me in greater detail.
Another question many people will ask you if visiting both St. P and Moscow is – which do you like better? It seems there is some rivalry. Honestly I couldn’t say; I thought I liked Moscow more due to the busy vibe and grittier atmosphere – the whole place just seems to have more active energy to it. However, I can see myself settling in Saint Petersburg much easier, perhaps because it’s incredibly European and therefore seems more familiar.
When I first arrived at Moscow I won’t deny, I was slightly dazed. Whilst learning Cyrillic was helpful, seeing every sign written in it is another thing and quite intense at first. If I hadn’t have tried to learn it before arriving I would have probably never reached my hostel in Kitay-Gorod. Moscow is lined in a layer of dirt, it’s probably the dirtiest place I’ve ever been and the sky hung thick with fog (don’t make the mistake I did, in taking a white coat). The cars are two tone (fine evasion though hiding number plates I was told, since they have started bringing in parking tickets) and they walls are grey. Despite all this, lights twinkled through and inspired a feeling of wonder in me, with an atmosphere that gave me vitality.
Many of the main buildings are tall and striking, with a definite feel of power – they have a sort of Harry Potter/Ministry of Defence Vs. evil Disney lair kind of feel, though this makes them no less attractive. The town is always busy and humming full of a variety of people. I was regularly told that Moscow is extremely international; I’m pretty sure they’ve all never seen London.
I visited all the tourist attractions, tablet at the ready if I wanted to find a companion or a place to visit. The Kremlin buildings, department stores, cathedrals and museums are all beautiful, both inside and out, you can tell a lot of care has gone into the production of these buildings. I think the most awesome pieces of art I saw were in the Kremlin Armoury; the carriages they have there are incredible, straight out of a fairy-tale.
One thing you MUST do if travelling to Moscow is take an afternoon to visit the spectacular underground stations, each is charming in its own right. Check out more images here: http://www.beeflowers.com/moscowmetro/index.htm
I think my favourite part of seeing Moscow as with any travelling I have done, is seeing the city from a resident’s point of view, including their take on the tourist parts; they always have stimulating and relative information to contribute to my learning. I also visited the hospital, university art lectures, a school play, local markets, parks, a theatre press showing, a variety of homes and hostels and many café, bar and club gems. The list goes on. Despite the seemingly dreary appearance at this time of year, I felt a constant electric buzz in my body, something that left me the moment I stepped off the train and into Saint Petersburg; I’m still trying to understand what this meant.
I travelled to St. P on the sleeper train with two friends I met in Moscow. On arrival I felt everything was just so big, the buildings are broad and long, making me feel doll sized. The city seemed absent of people, as if there were not enough to fill it – far removed from the hum of Moscow.
We wandered the city, walking through the fortress and along the embankments, attending the “Black Days” Couchsufing events throughout the weekend. Sunday night at the karaoke was a brilliant laugh; I woke up Monday with one of the biggest headaches of my life; don’t mix Vodka and Brandy in your evening.
In the early hours on Monday morning I had been subject to some attempted sketchy behaviour (though no fault of my wonderful host), so I moved on quickly to stay with my next host family. From Tuesday I finally started my own adventure of Saint Petersburg (whilst it was lovely to have such nice friends around at the weekend, Russian speaking dominates (obviously) so you tend to get cut out of the organisation and route planning which is usually what adjusts your mind to the new environment).
I get bored of people calling Saint Petersburg beautiful, it’s stating the obvious – everyone says it; “Oh, the architecture!” “Oh, the rivers!” and yes, it is beautiful, amazingly so. However, I felt there was more to be seen, a depth I wasn’t experiencing simply walking around Nevsky Prospekt and in and out of cathedrals and museums. So I spent a lot of time either on my own drawing and writing, or speaking with companions I had met through couch surfing whilst walking and eating pancakes.
I spent Friday in Immigration and the Police Station getting my migration slip, though the day ended much better than it started as I had met Yulia (an absolute angel) that morning and spent the evening in several bars talking with new and lovely friends. I left Russia on the Sunday, having done my first teaching class. I will be back next year to live in St. P for a year, teaching English.
Travelling instilled in my something I already knew: possessions are inanimate and in my opinion, distract from living life. We become too comfortable in our surroundings and do not feel comfortable without our things. Home should be wherever we are happy and safe, no matter what we carry with us. Trekking round with a (just about hand luggage size) rucksack, I realised how little I really need have to live my life, and how if ever without that extra bit of makeup or the perfect shoes, you are still able to put yourself across perfectly well, those who do not see past this are shallow and not worth speaking to anyway. I also realised you don’t need to wash your clothes as often as you think. I wore the same pair of jeans for 3 weeks and washed them twice – usually, I wash them after every wearing. So often we place too much importance on the insignificant. I’m working on getting rid of my possessions and clothes, along with superficial wants and needs. I spend too much time splitting my energy and not enough time focussing it.
So what else did I learn? I really learnt the importance of kindness. Kind people make the world spin. So much can be achieved thanks to the kindness of one person. I found this quality in all of my hosts, and especially of a particularly special Russian girl who without I may have crumbled. She helped me out when I lost my migration card – explaining how to get to immigration properly, coming out of hours to take me to the police station to help me fix everything, housing me for free in the hostel she worked at, introducing me to her friends and her favourite bars, calling me when I cried and laughing with me when I smiled. I have been speaking to her since I got back and I am sure we will remain firm friends always. Almost every single person I met showed kindness towards me in some way (besides the few I frustrated because I couldn’t understand). Without this I am sure my experiences whilst travelling would have meant much less, or at least been much harder.
I wrote a diary almost every day I was in Russia, I think this was partially due to being on my own, and being able to trust myself with my thoughts and opinions on what I was experiencing, finding satisfaction in divulging information to someone that would understand. I went through a full spectrum of emotion whilst travelling; extreme excitement, terror and fear, love, bitter loneliness, boredom, exhilaration… but most of all, I felt content at being alive and opening myself to embracing these emotions, dealing with them on my own and with the help of pretty much complete strangers. Travelling has given me strength, as a person to walk alone in the world and realise everything that surrounds you is temporary and changing. Nothing really matters so long as you can adapt to your surroundings and find faith in humanity.
If you want to know more, just ask.