Thursday, 28 February 2013

Behind the Mariinsky Theatre... where I live. If and when I get all mopey about living in this city, its big unfamiliar face and its wide, traffic-filled streets, please remind me that I live behind a world-famous theatre, on my way to school I pass St Isaac's Cathedral (the largest Russian Orthodox cathedral in the city), the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood (arguably one of the most beautiful Orthodox churches), and the Admiralty to name just 3 incredible landmarks.

Our Saviour on Spilled Blood

When I visited in July 2011 the weather was incredibly hot and humid, and the sun barely set, which despite being uncomfortable did make the city much cheerier. According to the bus conductor yesterday, St Petersburg is one of the gloomiest capitals in the world with only 75 days of sunshine per year. She followed that by saying "But everyone on the bus is in good spirits! Have a great day!". She made my day, and also seemed to forget to ask for my fare. The buses may be rammed at rush-hour, but I don't really mind if it means I don't have to pay a kopeck to be squished like a sardine.

The first couple days have not been easy, but I've felt far less jetlagged today so that's meant I could actually pay attention in class. I've also had quite a lot of good news: at work on Tuesday I found out both Reel Big Fish and Distemper are playing in Piter soon, the former on March 24th, and the latter on April 14th (I think I'm going to like this Club Avrora place); also Dad + Anne, and Rob have confirmed that they're coming to visit which is crazy exciting even if that's not for a month. Today I was dithering about the school reception when I heard a group of people speaking English with foreign accents, and in a moment of madness I just turned around and said "Hi English-speaking people! I'm Lois! I'm new here!" and probably giggled. They all shook my hand and told me their names (which I've already forgotten), but what I won't forget is that they were all super-nice, and we all lost track of time and ended up being late to class. One of the guys even gave me a bit of chocolate, which is definitely the way to earn my friendship! Luckily today in our second and third classes we were watching a Russian film, which is pretty funny actually, the main character called his boss "Dried-up" (it's like saying she's an emotionless rusk), and then tried to go back on himself by saying "No, you're wet!" (I cried with laughter until she asked me to explain the joke to my classmate, at which point I went silent). Bless my teachers, they kept asking me if they class is too hard for me - I had to explain that I was just tired and really hungry!

At my internship I've been getting along all right, trying to find interesting things to post. I've undertaken a self-devised project of creating a concert, theatre and exhibition listing for St Petersburg and Moscow, which pretty much means translating Afisha (Russian Time Out magazine) and finding listings in St Petersburg/Moscow In Your Pocket. They only expect me to send 2/3 tweets a day, and 2/3 Facebook posts a week, but the intention is for me to have things scheduled ahead of time.

On Tuesday I got lost on the way home, that was fun. I got on the 22 tram instead of 22 bus and had to rely on my map - eventually it was the sun setting in the West that let me know which way I was headed! I then spent pretty much the whole evening peeling a pomelo. Mmm... pomelo ^_^ On Wednesday night Denis gave me a tour of the local shops, pointed out where is best to buy meat, bread, veg and so on. I did a big shop this evening and made a big batch of Bolognese sauce to stretch over several days. Strange fact: I couldn't find tinned or jarred chopped tomatoes - it was either tomato paste or ready-made sauce. Russians also don't go in for ready-meals, which is a pain when after work you want something easy like those packs of filled pasta that cook in 2 minutes and are always on offer in Sainsbury's back home.

Things are looking up!

Picture attribution: Steven Pavlov [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, 25 February 2013

Lie down. Try not to cry. Cry a lot.

I feel awful. If you're a prospective year abroad student reading this please don't be afraid to feel awful on your first day, trust me it gets better. All the good bits make it worth sticking out the moments when you feel like your whole being is screaming to go home. Why wouldn't it feel awful? 1311 miles from home, it's freezing cold and the streets are covered in ice (nearly fell over 3 times today), everyone I meet is new to me and therefore a potential friend but that requires me to be friendly and make a good impression which is pretty impossible when you're tired as hell and haven't eaten more than a cheese croissant since dinner the previous evening.

I slept really well, but waking up at 07.45 (that's 03.45 UK time) in the pitch-dark was hard. Then I tried to dress quickly so I'd have time for breakfast, but it turned out Denis was waiting to get going to show me the way to class by 08.15 so that had to be skipped. It was a brief walk to the bus stop, then about 10 mins on the bus to Gostiny Dvor, and then another short walk to school. Piter looks pretty gorgeous in the early-morning darkness. Once I got to Liden & Denz I was sat down in front of a test that was supposed to be 25 minutes but I easily took 40 over it without the receptionist noticing. It was way too long to do in 25, can't believe anyone would manage it. Then I waited a short while before being ushered into another room where two teachers sort of interviewed me and two other guys. I didn't realise until afterwards that it was a speaking test.

I got streamed into the 5th class (whatever that means) which already had two boys from Bristol Uni in it. They've been here for 3 weeks, and one assured me that I'll get the hang of it soon and the weeks will fly by. The deal is we have 1 hour 40 mins of grammar and the same amount of speaking/topic-related learning a day, with a 10-minute break each hour. So I start class at 10 am and finish at 2 pm with homework due the next day. Then at 2.30 it's off to work round the corner at the Swedish House of Travel where I'm interning as Social Media Content Assistant for Liden & Denz.

When we arrived the boss guy Walter Denz had a chat to me on my own, told me what my job is. When he asked "Any questions?" I pretty much said 'Can you tell me all of that again, in a handy email form? That was too much to take in and remember'. Deal is that I create and post content on all their social networking profiles: Facebook, Google+, Twitter, VKontakte and YouTube (though it seems I'm not expected to make videos). Today I managed to bring my laptop and charger but no plug converter so once lappy ran out of juice I was just brainstorming in my notepad. All I was expected to do this afternoon was have a look and see what the state of affairs is (pretty uncoordinated and messy) and come up with some ideas for things to do with the mess.

At 6 the other intern packed up to go, so I asked if I could leave and then followed suit. I went to Subway because I needed something familiar and filling, then decided to walk home down Sadovaya Street and get some exercise. I managed to buy a SIM card, some cereal and fruit (to prevent scurvy) including a pomelo (mmm... pomelo), and to find a currency exchange which I was too tired to face so just wandered out looking confused.

Finally got home about 8, and intend to do not a lot with my evening once I've completed my homework.
Hope I get the hang of this soon.
'Till tomorrow/Do zavtra!

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Don't Panic

So everything has been a bit of a panic: from rushing to get my visa and get accommodation sorted on time to the last-minute packing to the sudden feeling of being very alone just after taking off that made my eyes go all leaky. However, I thought of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and how it has 'Don't Panic' inscribed on the front in big, friendly letters, and that dammed the flood of tears that was threatening.

I must say, flying Club class is lush! It was super-nice not to have a long queue at the bag drop, and to go through Fast-Track security (though I did set the scanner off and ended up getting frisked, removing my boots, having my bag searched and my spare deodorant thrown away for being oversize). I didn't take as much advantage of the BA lounge as I should have because of mooching about shops, but I wish I'd come there earlier and hungrier because there was one heck of a buffet laid on. I helped myself to teeny-tiny pains au chocolat because I can never say no to them.

Super-tired I reluctantly dragged myself to the gate, whereupon I tried to show my boarding pass to the lady and she had to tell me they hadn't started boarding yet. Pretty sure everyone saw it happen *cringe*. The seats on the plane aren't a whole universe more comfortable, but having a window seat with nobody sitting in the adjacent two seats is nice and private. The food is also a whole lot better; the chocolate mousse pudding thing was easily the best thing I've eaten on a plane. This is as compared to the last BA flight to Russia when it was a choice of omelette or omelette, and I was lucky I'd bought a sandwich.

We touched down in a snowy Pulkovo airport 3 hours after take-off, the sky was clear, bright and blue which seemed a good sign. My bags came on to the carousel first, and soon were being carried to the taxi by the driver sent by Liden & Denz. Once I let on I speak good Russian it became apparent he was a very chatty and friendly type, who told me about his boy-racer past, and assured me I shouldn't worry about meeting Denis after only talking for a brief while on Skype (something about the Russian soul meaning people are very welcoming. The ever-mysterious Russian soul came up only minutes after my arrival, maybe I'm closer to finding out what it is). He took my bags all the way up to Denis' apartment, really feel like I ought to have tipped him!

When I arrived Denis was busy preparing a dinner of pork chops, cauliflower cheese and greens for us both, which was really the best welcome I could have asked for. Once he went out I showered and pretty much managed to recreate Noah's flood on the bathroom floor, oops!! My room is spacious, light-blue, high-ceilinged and I'm about to test how comfy the sofa-bed is.

Night night

Aint nobody got time for blogging!

Sacred faeces! I am departing for St Petersburg tomorrow morning. I'll be leaving my house at 6.30am tomorrow to catch the 9.30am flight from Heathrow direct to Pulkovo Airport. I've done 90% of my packing this evening, having had about 5 hours sleep last night after a banging gig in Ickenham. I am so grateful that I'm getting a lift to Heathrow and that Liden & Denz are providing a free transfer from Pulkovo because I'm really nervous about flying on my own for the first time.

In the end my visa invitation arrived on Wednesday, I submitted it for next-day application on Thursday and had my passport back with me on Friday. That day I booked my flights (Club class being cheaper than economy on the way out, so I'm flying in style tomorrow) and got to packing. I fully intend to publish my 'ultimate packing list' once I feel it lacks the need for further editing, it's a constant work in progress. The idea is that there will be a document you can print, and just delete as appropriate the sections and stuff you don't need until you have a list of everything you might ever need to pack, for any kind of trip.

This has been a ridiculously stressful couple of days, and that's because it takes a month from a company applying for an invitation to sending it out to you, and then one should allow 12-15 working days for standard (non-urgent) visa application. So basically, allow 8 weeks bare minimum to avoid stress. Not 6 weeks from the moment of being accepted on to a course. Consider yourselves warning future year-abroad students ;) Why did I have to leave on the 24th? Because my course dictates I spend two 13-week placements in Russia, and this means I'll be back on May 26th in time for D + A and my boyfriend Rob's birthdays (so many Gemini people!).

Speak to you on the other side of Europe!

Saturday, 2 February 2013

The past, present and the future

Hi again, long time no blog!

The long and short of it is, I didn't post about my last week in Orion once I got back to the UK, and since then I've felt too guilty about that to write. Naughty Lois, slap on the wrist etc.

The past
The last couple days in Orion were bittersweet: we had a last dinner on Saturday 24th November in the dining room where we got officially thanked by everyone in front of everyone, and the kids were encouraged to come to us and say bye, but we knew we had gifts to pass out the next day and that wouldn't be our last chance to talk. We wrapped up all our souvenirs and presents from Blighty and went round all the houses on the Sunday handing them out; it was a shame a few members of the community weren't around to say goodbye to, but we took pictures with the kids and adults who were around. Katya and Yura had us for our last Sunday's meals, and at dinnertime they made a little speech to us about how much we'd changed, come out of our shells, become more grown up and all that, which was really sweet.

On the Monday it was snowing like mad, Vicky took some last pictures before we got in the car. At Domodedovo me and Vicky snuck in a visit to Coffee House for lunch and cheesecake, and raided the duty free for vodka and last-minute souvenirs. The plane home was so fancy! I'd never been on a double-decker plane before, and not one with films in the backs of the seats. I effective drank half a bottle of white wine, half-watched a movie, and then decided to tipsily ramble at Vicky for the rest of the flight.

D + A picked me up at the airport to take me home, which was really lovely of them as I was knackered. I knew I'd be happy to get home, and I expected to be very emotional about it all, but I literally cried with joy when offered a salad. I hadn't seen a lettuce, cucumber, tomato kind of salad for months, I hadn't had a wide choice of tasty food options, and was so overwhelmed by this I burst into tears! So very lame. It took me a matter of days to re-adjust to UK time, quicker than I thought.

The hardest part of coming home was knowing I'd have to leave again. I was distraught at the idea of arranging my next term's internship because I didn't want to leave my family and friends behind having only just arrived home, so it wasn't for a couple of weeks that I got moving with applications.

I looked in to various interesting opportunities, and in the end was offered an excellent position in Liden & Denz doing an internship as their Social Media Content Assistant. Chucked in for free with that I'll be doing a language course in the mornings, while interning in the afternoons. For those of you who thought "Hey wait, I swear Lois said she was going to do that Moscow Times thing", yes, that was one of the potential plans, but in the end Liden & Denz a) got back to me quicker, b) offered a free language course alongside (which will hopefully polish up my Russian where need be) at which c) I will sort of have a ready-made potential social group of fellow students. Also I've already been to St Petersburg so I guess finding my footing will be easier, and due to various links I hope that arranging accomodation will not be too much of a challenge.

The present
To keep busy until I go to St Peterburg I've been to a few bellydancing classes at a local school, which are a lot of fun, but it's hard to commit to doing something every Thursday evening. I hope to take it up properly in Nottingham, think I'll join BellySoc. Today I had my second shift volunteering in the Nightingale Cancer Support Centre shop. I help sort stock, keep the place tidy and make cups of tea while chatting to the other ladies. All those I've met so far are a very friendly bunch and I enjoy getting out of the house and making myself useful. The rest of my time is spent reading The Hunger Games trilogy (hooked), mucking about on the internet and seeing friends, trying to get visits in around the country and in London. If there's one thing being in Russia for 3 months with unreliable internet makes me appreciate, it's that there's nothing like having friends in front of you that you can hug and talk to, not just instant messaging or hoping they read your blog.

The future
24th February is the date I will once again depart for Russia, provided (fingers crossed) my visa invitation arrives soon, and I get some accomodation and some flights sorted. Eep! So soon I hope my contacts will get back to me with some place I can stay, my visa invitation will arrive, I'll fill out my visa application and take it up to London and get my flights booked. At this point I am very grateful for being in a comfortable monetary situation because otherwise I'd be in a total flap about leaving all these bookings so late. At least my travel insurance is sorted, that was a whole day of banging my head against a desk while reading umpteen policy documents. All going well my visa will last me until May 26th, when I'll come back to England and consider my Third Year Abroad done and dusted.

The even-further-in-the-future
But that's not all! Once I'm back from Russia I plan to come terrorise Nottingham Rocksoc for their Liver & Brain events in mid-June, which is like a holiday in itself because it means getting smashed and/or going out for pretty much 10 days on the trot. Then in mid-July I'll be off to Mighty Sounds festival for a long weekend to soak up some sun and ska. Early September I hope I'll be going to Belgrade in Serbia for 3 weeks for a language course, potentially with a friend from uni, so that'd be lovely. Also considering cheekily going to Moscow to sneak in a Moscow Times internship in summer, if they'd still have me. But possibly I'll have to hold that thought until after 4th year as this might be over-ambitious.

Now you're up to date on about 2 months of my year abroad! Boom! More regular updates will come when I'm back in the land of cabbage and vodka.
Ta ta for now,