Thursday, 25 April 2013

Decisions, Decisions...

This hasn't been an easy decision to make, and I haven't taken it lightly at all.

What I'm trying to say is that I'm coming home early. I'm not chickening out, I've just had enough of trying to deal with my (reoccurring) mental health issues without professional help and pretending they're not a problem.

I'd love to say I'm a happy-go-lucky optimistic girl all the time, but the truth is I am one of those "1 in 4 people [who] will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year" (Mental Health Foundation UK statistic). This isn't something easy to open up about, but I feel it's beneficial to be honest about why I'm coming home so people reading this blog understand that persevering through homesickness on a year abroad is one thing, but that dealing with depression on your own is quite another.

I'm flying back to the UK on Saturday 4th of May. The reason why it's not sooner is because:
a) it's a lot of co-ordination to try and sort all this stuff out with landlord, school, flights and so on
b) if I stay in Russia for 10 weeks it's fine with my university, but 9 is too short and would result in repercussions for my funding.
c) my lovely friends have made it possible by being very sweet and understanding, and helping get me out the house most of the day so I'm not going weird on my own.

I really appreciate everyone who has offered words of support and understanding and sent me e-hugs and the like.

Lois x

Monday, 22 April 2013

Massive catch-up

I haven't written a blog in a while as I've had a most tumultuous few weeks. Last I wrote was Monday 8th, so here's run down in dates and pictures.

9/4 Meant to meet Lindsay and go shopping, was dead excited. Alena forced me to cancel and work for 4 hours. Started to regret this internship thing.

11/4 Rob arrived, we chilled and went for dinner next to the hotel at a decent Thai place. The Saint-Petersburg hotel does have excellent views from the rooms with a Neva view, and actual double beds (not just 2 singles pushed together), but in other ways is very basic - no nice free toiletries to steal!

12/4 I went to school, Rob on a tour of town. We went for lunch at Grizzly Bar, and I don't care what the reviewers say, I think it's wicked. The cheerleader-waitresses could do with being rather more cheery, but my burger was fittingly bigger than my face and delicious which is all that matters really. Then we tried to go to the bread museum and failed because they'd already stopped admissions for the day, so we went to the museum or erotica instead. This is the most PG photo I took there:

The school had a vodka party on for Cosmonauts' Day, so we went along and had what could be described as too much. I ended up playing guitar and singing quietly to myself trying to work out Swing Life Away by Rise Against, which I used to know by heart. I also chatted to lots of people I hadn't got properly acquainted with before so that was worthwhile. Afterwards nothing was happening with my friends so Rob & I went to an Irish pub called O'Hooligans which may or may not have been nice, all I remember is the Long Island Iced Tea there is very, very strong.

Gratuitous ceiling shot
13/4 Hopped a bus to my ends to grab something from my flat. Took a walk from there to the St. Isaac's cathedral which is a St. Petersburg must-see, via a great restaurant called Teplo. I've been up to the cathedral colonnade before where you can get stunning views of the city and take great photos, but entrance to the cathedral is separate. The inside is stunning, of course. In the evening we relaxed, had a picnic in the hotel room and watched Adventure Time - time well spent.

14/4 Walked all the way from the hotel to the Kunstkamera on the Vasilevsky Island. I was happy to go round again because I saw some things that I'd rushed past before, and learnt some more interesting things. Didn't spend such a long time in front of the pickled deformed babies this time round! We crossed over to the palace embankment to do the compulsory tourist thing of taking pictures in front of the Winter Palace. Then I had to go home and work on proof-reading some documents for work before DISTEMPER. Distemper are my second favourite band in the world, ever, after A. I'd only seen them live once before, and that was a brief early-afternoon set at Mighty Sounds festival last year. In Aurora they totally set it off - their fans were very up for skanking, conga lines and circle pits despite it being Sunday night. They played many of my favourite songs, so I was a very happy bunny. I bought a t-shirt too, it has a top-hatted dreadlock-wearing skull with crossed pimp-canes on it. Sick as :D

15/4-18/4 Nothing much happened. I broke up with Rob (I always had the feeling it would be a make-or-break trip, bit disappointed that it was the latter, but glad I ended it because it was not a thing that was going to make either of us happy in the long run). I baked brownies round at Lisa's house and we ate them half-burnt, half-raw with lots of ice-cream. I did a lot of laundry too, and I got excited for...

Saintly halo? On the upper bunk of the train!
18/4 MOSCOW! On Thursday night I met Yael and Lisa outside Stockmann and we headed to Moskovsky Station to take the night train to Moscow. After a great deal of confusion with ticket-machines and queueing at the ticket offices we managed to exchange our printed coupons for real train tickets. The train left at 11pm and got in at 7.15am. We took plenty of snacks, slept in our clothes and generally found it rather pleasant and convenient. I had a laugh trying to get up to the top bunk, but in the end slept rather well, rocked by the motion of the train.

19/4 Once we arrived at Leningradsky station we lugged our rucksacks and cases to the Backpacker Ecohostel to dump them there, stopping for a coffee in Kitay-Gorod on the way. We took a walk in the warmth and sunshine to Red Square, which was beautiful and awe-inspiring and as impressive as the first time I saw it back in October. We wandered through the Kremlin but ultimately were a bit disappointed that we couldn't take a seat in the gardens, and that everywhere you go there are armed policemen blowing whistles as you if you put a foot out of place. 
St Basil's is stunning

From the heights of the Kremlin wall we spotted a boat on the river, and decided to ask tourist info where we'd catch such a cruise. Turned out the season had started that day! So we hot-footed it to Gorky Park and rushed through to the jetty. We just missed a boat that went east through town, but got on the next one a minute later. On the boat you can buy cheap drinks and sit either inside or out on the top deck. It took maybe 45 mins to get to Kiev station, which is only 1 metro away from where we started, but it was a very pleasant time and we didn't pay a kopeck for it!
On a boat!
Back at the hostel afterwards we showered and napped, recovering our energy. We went for a Chinese dinner in the evening, and then on the way home we noticed a beauty parlour offering very cheap manicures. It took us all of a minute to decide it was a great idea, and soon we were all seated watching The Hangover in Russian in plush fuchsia chairs, having our nails filed and painted by attentive and almost-silent young ladies. Funnily enough I'd never had a manicure before - I never knew that my cuticles needed pushing and cutting off with tiny sharp scissors, or that the skin around my nails should be trimmed. However, the final effect is very nice: lovely neat black nails with a hint of blue glitter. Me gusta :) After that pudding and cocktails were consumed at Dve Palochki before hitting the hay.

20/4 Saturday morning I lead Lisa and Yael to the Ismailovsky flea market where I bought all my souvenirs last time. They said they really enjoyed it and seemed to have a lot of success shopping so that made me happy. I bought a few trinkets - a fridge magnet and a cute ladybird-bracelet. At the Ismailovsky Kremlin there was some kind of Renaissance fair going on, with men dressed as knights (bogatyrs), having pretend sword fights to power metal music. Kids were playing cute medieval games and making cardboard swords and shields. D'aww.

MGU and me
After all that we napped (phew, this tourist stuff is exhausting!), and then went for dinner at a super place Yael picked out that was round the corner called Zapasnik Art-Garbage. Not as pretentious as it sounds, I found it quite endearing that all the dishes were named after works of art, and the kebabs were wicked. Quite expensive though we spent a long time there having a right laugh. We popped to the nearest shop to buy provisions for breakfast to find it was basically Fortnum & Masons! They even had Fortnum's teas for sale. You could pay a tenner for a loaf of bread there if you weren't careful. Early night ensued I think.

21/4 It felt like our time in Moscow was all too brief when I had to pack up Sunday morning. Our adventure to Vorobyovy Gory (Sparrow Hills) started a little late because I got talking to another resident of the hostel: turned out she was also a former Kitezh volunteer who had been there on her 3rd year abroad back in 2007! Small world! On the way to Sparrow Hills we got rather shaken: on the metro, right in front of us, a fight broke out between opposing sides of football supporters. Spartak vs something red & blue. It was very frightening for all of us: I nearly jumped into the lap of the lady to my left! Some guy was bleeding, others were swinging from the handrails while kicking out with their legs. Scary biscuits. We leapt off the train and got the next one, thank God we pulled into a station quickly.

After that our walk was pleasant if chilly and windy - the views from the top are worth the trek, and the Moscow State University building (one of the famous Seven Sisters skyscrapers) has architecture that makes even little me marvel, and I'm not normally interested in that.

French 'Glamour' mag - I want ska cake!
After another metro ride (and a trek to find Universitet station!) we got to Arbat, did the typical walking thing of walking along and trying to pick a place to eat. We settled on Mu-Mu, which is bizarrely cow-themed. We stuffed ourselves silly and then headed for a photo opp at the Bolshoi Theatre. On the way we saw probably over a hundred teenagers holding 'Free Hugs!' signs walking down the Arbat and hugging anyone who came up to them. I thought the was the cutest and happiest and most cheerful thing I've ever seen Russians do, and I wish it happened in SPB, but I think that SPB people are too grumpy and gloomy for that!

From the Bolshoi we travelled back to the hostel and lazed about in common room reading magazines until we decided to pick up our bags and get moving. We stopped for tea at a cute cafe (mmm peppermint tea) before going down the metro. Finding the ticket office at Leningradsky was a nightmare, but once we'd got our tickets we were most relieved. Some noms were acquired at Kroshka Kartoshka and we say about playing cards until it was time to board the train at 21.30. We departed at 22.10 and got back to SPB at 06.00... oof. So I bussed it home and went straight to bed. 

22/4 I had every intention of getting up for school at 08.30 today but my body had other ideas and I came round 2 hours after that! Since then I have mostly been writing this and Skyping my parents, but that's another story and not such a happy one.

I hope to keep you more informed of goings-on in the future,
Bye for now!

Monday, 8 April 2013

A Visit from the 'Rents: Part 2

  Like the ska kid I am I'm going to pick it up (where I left off), I've been mega busy and a bit ill hence no posts for nearly a week.


Organ donated by Chicago, never played!
I played truant and took the morning off school, reason being the friend I made in the cafe that random time was flying to New York that evening. She had kindly offered to give me a tour of the Grand Choral Synagogue, so I was really grateful she made some time in between shopping and packing to give me and my parents a marvellous and eye-opening tour of the synagogue, and also glad I had a chance to say goodbye and bon voyage in person! I don't think I would have seen the synagogue otherwise, and if I hadn't taken her tour I would never have got to see the attic, the room where they store all the old books (Jewish law forbids burning them, sacred texts and items must be given a ceremonial burial), and hear all the stories. After the tour we went round the shop - I found a tub of houmous which I consider a major victory. D&A stopped at mine for tea and a bite of lunch, then we headed out again.

Room full of old sacred texts and items
Main hall of the Grand Choral Synagogue

We caught a bus tour of town that was more infuriating than anything! This kind of tour is good if you only have a weekend in the city: you can spend a few hours listening to audio commentary while driving around and looking out the windows, and you get a few opportunities to get off the bus, stretch your legs and take pictures. For example, we stopped outside the St. Isaac Cathedral and monument to Nicholas I, outside the Aurora cruiser, and in front of Saviour on Spilled Blood. I did much the same trip when I came here in July 2011, but I learned a few new bits and bobs still. However, for the whole tour the same music looped in the headphones! It was behind the commentary and also in the breaks, and often the audio skipped back to the start of the previous segment, repeating what had just been heard. Like having 'Land of Hope and Glory' played at you for several hours. Wouldn't recommend that company, Davranov tours...

A bustling Marketplace
For dinner we stopped at Marketplace on Nevsky Prospekt, which I read about in a guide. Really liked the laid-back atmosphere, all the food was yummy, and the system of taking a tray and picking what you like from the huge selection on offer means you can have whatever kind of cuisine takes your fancy at the time. The chefs cook the food up right in front of you, if you keep a keen eye out you can get a salmon steak fresh off the grill! My favourite bit was the citrus kompot though, a sweet drink made of dried fruits (and full of sugar!) that I got pretty fond of in Orion.


After classes on Thursday the troops were rallied to head to the Baltika Brewery for a tour. It took a while to get there - a metro all the way to Parnas, then a wait for a big Baltika-branded company coach to pick us up. We weren't allowed to take pictures inside the brewery for security reasons, but trust me the enormous fermenting and largering vessels were very impressive! They held over a million litres of beer at a time or something ridiculous. So we got the whole spiel: company history, how they brew their beer, where they get their hops and barley from (good question D!), and a tour of their own Baltika mini-museum. The best part was the tasting, obviously! We were seated at 2 long tables in their tasting bar, on which about 15 kinds of beer per table were laid. Some were repeats, but I tried to get round to tasting all the unfamiliar ones. One tasted of black bread and was brewed from rye (yuck!), but I really liked their super-girly Eve beer. It's aimed straight at the female market with swirly purple stickers and all, but the mango & orange and passionfruit flavours were super-tasty. Not as good as Belgian fruit beer mind you, but then this is Russian beer we're talking about!
So punk, taking photos where it's not allowed...

On a dare I slipped a bottle of beer into my hoody pocket from the tasting, escaped unnoticed too! Strangely I pinched the Old Bobby English-style ale though, which was probably a strange thing to do seeing as it wasn't the very best of the bunch. Still, at least it's one that's easy to drink when I get round to it. At the end we were given commemorative half-litre glasses which are exclusive "As a reminder of your visit to our company" ones. Snazzy.

Once back in town I went out for dinner as it was a friend's last night out. After that we hit a few bars - the first had live music going on which varied from a bit rubbish to pretty cool. I went and danced a bit, but on asking for a CD or a band name neither was forthcoming. We switched to another bar which started out empty apart from us and a few girls on a night out. After drinking up some courage we started on the karaoke in earnest: Phillip and I being the token metalheads decided it'd be a great idea to request some Rammstein and System of a Down, and scared pretty much everyone in the bar with our growling and headbanging! Awesome times.

Some point after many shots I ended up dancing on the table. I will maintain that Lisa started it, and I only followed suit because the guys called me a loser. Bold, stupid, drunk, call me what you will, but Vodka-Lois was not going to be called a loser! Oh dear Vodka-Lois, oh dear.


Predictably I was horribly hungover come Friday morning but also feeling very ill with a cold. I'd been sneezing the whole day before but Friday I was utterly stuffed-up, so I lounged in bed, watched The Perks of Being a Wallflower (enjoyable film), and D&A came over with essential groceries and commiserations.


Took a walking tour of town with D&A themed around the revolution and early Soviet times. Didn't learn an awful lot but the guide was very nice. I learned about the first communal building in St. Petersburg, how it was mainly occupied by kulaks and other wealthy ex-peasants. The grim tale goes that once they started voicing their dissatisfaction with the Soviet lifestyle most residents of the building were put to death: an eerie tale indeed.

We took a break for lunch in Cherdak which is not at all far from the Museum of Political History. The latter is worth a trip because if, like me, you haven't studied Russian history post-1900 properly then you'll learn a lot about the chronology of events after the revolution. It gives an idea of what life was like in Soviet times, lots of info on Lenin, Stalin and Khrushchev too. My favourite exhibit was this poster on the left, advertising an Akvarium concert on October 1st 1983. Nostalgic!


D&A invited me over to their hotel for breakfast: I stuffed myself with bacon pancakes, smoked salmon and sour cream pancakes, pineapple (aint nobody got time to cut up a pineapple!) and cheesecake. I cried a bit as they drove off in the taxi, but I was far more glad they made the trip than sad that they had to go home again. They treated me to so many museum trips and tasty dinners. I really enjoyed being a tourist here, not just a student and intern.

Today (Monday) was back to the old school grind, but I was more oblivious than usual having missed 2 days. Those are the only 2 days I've skipped so far and I'm nearly halfway through my time here, I think that's an achievement. Thursday will be halfway through my time here, and also is the day my boyfriend is arriving from London. Awesome times ahead!

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

A visit from the 'rents: Part 1. Wherein Lois mostly eats food.

How is it already the end of Tuesday? I have no idea!


So Dad + Anne arrived on Saturday, I met them at their hotel (the Alexander House Boutique Hotel, it's as 4* as the name sounds, think they'd recommend it), whereupon they presented me with a massive M&S bag full of goodies from England.
Featuring: 6 Creme Eggs, a Green & Black's easter egg, several bars of Sainsbury's Taste the Difference Chocolate, 2 jars of crunchy peanut butter, 2 packets of Jaffa Cakes, vegetarian stock cubes, The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing t-shirt, the new Say Anything CD and Let's Go Nowhere's EP. You know, just the essentials!
We then went for dinner at Rada & K, a vegetarian and vegan restaurant (36 Gorokhovaya ulitsa, just off Sadovaya ulitsa). I'd rate it quite well - the system of picking from a wide choice of ready-prepared dishes, salads and desserts means no waiting for food, and the lady on the door was super-helpful with finding us a table while we went to grab our food. We tried some plov (pilaf I think in English) and potato dishes, as well as a couple salads, all cheap and cheerful. I think it's an easy place for non-Russians to go because you can just look at the dishes and point to what you want, no language necessary.


Me and my new bf, Peter the Great
Sunday D+A came to my flat, met Denis my flatmate and we all had a long chat. Then the three of us tourists went off the the Peter-Paul Fortress to sightsee. Lunch was at a cafe claiming it served 'Soviet specialities'. I couldn't tell it much apart from today's Russian cuisine, not much has changed, apart from the food's gone a bit cold. We went around the cathedral, the outside of which is unfortunately under restoration at the moment and not visible for scaffolding; we went around the prison museum (eerie and stuffy, but very interesting as it was especially for high-profile political prisoners during Tsarist times, and about as far as you can get from the London Dungeon franchise); and around the Museum of the History of Saint Petersburg (which is bigger than it looks and takes a long time to go around with the audioguide. I'd suggest walking through early history if that's not your bag and skipping to the juicier bits - my favourite exhibit is a 5' tall dollshouse which is a perfect little replica of a 19th Century St Petersburg block of apartments.

For dinner on Sunday I led them to Agravi where I dined with my friends on Friday as I'd enjoyed the food so much. The waitress recognised me, we must have been quite a rowdy bunch! My god, Khachapuri is such a brilliant thing. It's pizza-shaped, with the entire disc of the base being stuffed with cheese, more cheese sprinkled on top of the surprise-cheese flatbread receptacle, and then grilled until melted and golden brown on top. Then stuffed into my face. Oh god. I want more now. The Chakhokhbili (spiced chicken stew) was wonderful as well. It's fancy, about £20 for a two course meal with drinks, but great for an occasional treat.


The Leningrad Defence Museum
On Monday after my classes we headed to the Leningrad Defence Museum, stopping on the way at Botanika for lunch which was conveniently situated opposite Solyanoy Pereulok on which the museum is located. Serendipity worked out very nicely: I had the best salad I've ever ordered in a restaurant (warm tomato, asparagus, broccoli, kale and parmesan) and some tasty samosas. The combo plates are a clever idea for the indecisive who want filling up quickly.

The Leningrad Defence Museum I would highly recommend. I got in for a mere 100 roubles for convincing the cashier I was a Russian student. Foreigners pay higher prices for entry, so always try on your best "Один студент" ('Adeen studyent', lit. one student) and show them your ISIC card. That is, if you are a student. Adults just say "Adeen" and put down your money. That should cut it.

The museum had most interesting parts summed up in English on plaques but I understood most of the Russian. There was an exhibition of propaganda relating to WWII and the siege of Leningrad. Would you believe people made jelly from joiner's glue and boiled up leather belts to eat? It's one of the longest sieges in history, at 900 days between 1941-44. Sombre and harrowing yes, but makes far more of an impression than getting your history facts off Wikipedia.


While I was in school working away D+A kindly dropped by Computer World and picked me up a shiny new operational digital camera, so expect to see a more pictures on this blog from now on! The ones here today were mainly taken by Anne's tablet as I've only just now switched on my new camera. Though it's a Which Best Buy (Dad did all the research, I just nodded and said 'Ok, I'll get that one') the battery cover feels really flimsy, but hey, it was only £60 and when I'm buying my own digital camera I'd always go for a value-for-money point-and-shoot over anything fancy that I can't use properly.

The Museum of F.M. Dostoevskii
After a wolfing some tasty Russian-style pastries at the rather inaptly named British Bakery we went to the Dostoevsky House Museum on Kuznechny Pereulok 5. I found the museum wonderful, though it could really have done with some seats. You need to get an audioguide for 170 roubles on top of the 80 rouble student entrance ticket because there's no posters or descriptions on anything. Disadvantage being the audioguide is really long, and with no seats there's no way I could listen through the whole thing in one go. I think I'd take another trip there just to enjoy the whole audioguide talk. The museum is in two parts: the apartment itself decked out as it would have been in Dostoevsky's time there (he moved house many times, but this is the one they've preserved as a museum), and the other part which is more about his life and work. I have already studied an awful lot about this classic Russian writer but I still learned plenty new today which just goes to show it's a very informative museum.

We had dinner at Ukrop just around the corner. Very English-friendly there, with menus very well translated although missing a few tricks: we had to google a few ingredients to find they were only sweet potato (batata), mooli/white radish (daikon) and diced tomatoes (tomato concasse). I thought I wasn't very hungry but the salad only whet my appetite for more raw/vegan food, so I shared the raw courgette pasta with tomato sauce, and had a slice of vegan banana cake for pudding. Top notch grub! Nobody will ever hire me to do restaurant reviews...

This has taken forever to write, it's pretty much time for bed now! Night night!