The calm before the storm
I don’t mind admitting that I was terrified of going to Russia. There were so many things to watch out for, so much that could go wrong. We had heard tales of extreme weather, corrupt police, questionable food and unfriendly locals. We’d been warned not to smile too much or wear bright colours, as it would attract unnecessary attention. We were advised to get rabies shots and to make sure our hepatitis jabs were up to date. Then there was the language itself, which we’d only been studying for two years at that point.
The night before I left, my Dad presented me with a gold Saint Christopher necklace that had belonged to my Mom. He’d been keeping it safe for me for years. Now, on the eve of the scariest journey of my life, he decided it was time for me to have it. My brother, one of the most undemonstrative people I know, cried the next day when he walked me to the train station. This is a boy who will not hug me for anything in the world, but he cried when I left for Russia.
I had other parting gifts. My best friend, Jodie, had bought me a very fetching purple and white bobble hat with ear flaps. It was terribly glamorous. She’d also urged me to be careful with the rather snappy line, “No babies or rabies.” Luckily I managed to avoid both those things. One thing I didn’t manage to avoid, however, was visa-related drama.
The joys of visas
Getting visas was incredibly stressful the first time round. For me, just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong. It started with the forms. To obtain a Russian visa, you have to fill out a rather lengthy online form detailing where you will be staying, your reasons for going, precise dates you will be entering and leaving, and any countries visited in the last ten years. Our lecturers had warned us that the Russian government had a habit of changing the forms at the drop of a hat and for no apparent reason. That is precisely what happened to me. In a bid to be organised I had filled in my forms well ahead of time, only for the government to change them the very next day. I was furious. We weren’t due to fly out for weeks, and already the bureaucratic nonsense had started.
Before we could submit our forms, we had to get a certificate proving we were HIV negative. Our lecturers had told us when arranging our tests to specify that it was for a Russian visa, as having had a HIV test can make it difficult to get life insurance later on. I had mine done at Walsall Manor Hospital where, the doctor informed me, the standard procedure is to take an extra vial of blood in order to test for syphilis. It turns out Walsall has a horrendous syphilis problem and has done for years. Delightful.
Once that was taken care of, the only thing left to do was pay a visit to the Russian Visa Centre in London. An inconspicuous building located on a backstreet near Old Street Station, it was a far cry from the fancy embassy I had been expecting. The staff there check the forms and, if everything is in order, submit them for processing. The lady on the desk seemed satisfied with mine until she reached the declaration. Apparently the signature on my form didn’t resemble the one in my passport and it would therefore be rejected. I had spent so long filling in my forms, making sure every last detail was correct, that I hadn’t given a second thought to my signature.
The lady on the desk suggested I queue up to use one of the two computers available in the centre, along with all the other sods who had messed up their forms. I could redo them there and have them sent off that same day; only my login for the online system wasn’t working. I tried every possible combination. Nothing worked. I suspect caps lock was on. While this may seem ridiculously obvious now, at the time I was so stressed that I didn’t think to check. I asked a member of staff if an administrator could reset my login details. He said no. At that point I turned to my then-boyfriend and told him to take me home before I killed someone. I redid my forms at his house, spending a good deal of time practising my own signature to make sure it matched the one in my passport. I submitted them the next day, and a few weeks later I got what was essentially a shiny sticker in my passport. All that stress and palaver for a sticker, and it didn’t even cover the full duration of our visit.
As we were staying for more than ninety days, we had to get our visas extended once we arrived in Russia. This meant having new photos taken, the results of which were rather surprising. Instead of simply printing our pictures, the Russian photographers had airbrushed them considerably to make us look more Slavic. The shape of my eyes and face had been altered, and the boys had had their jawlines reduced. One of our friends had even had her eye colour changed, prompting some concern as to whether the pictures would be deemed acceptable. Apparently they were.
As I had decided to split my year abroad, I had the pleasure of going through the whole visa application process twice. Luckily the second time went much more smoothly than the first. I don’t think I could have handled it otherwise.
There is much to love about Saint Petersburg, and I would advise anyone to go there at least once if they get the chance. Despite being a relatively young city, it has so much history and culture surrounding it that four months simply wasn’t enough to explore everything. Petersburg boasts some of the most visually stunning buildings I have ever laid eyes on, my personal favourites being the Hermitage, Saint Isaac’s Cathedral and the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood. It is a city of canals and cathedrals, an architectural masterpiece with a distinctly western feel. I would go back there in a heartbeat.
That isn’t to say the four months I spent there were easy. They most definitely were not. A quick flick through my diary from that time shows that I spent much of it feeling stressed, ill, frustrated, homesick or just generally bad-tempered. Petersburg is a sightseer’s dream, but living there was a very different matter. For every one thing I loved about the city there was something else I hated. I had gone to Petersburg with fantastically high expectations. Our lecturers had raved about it, every picture I had seen looked stunning, and the literature I had read made it out to be a place of almost mythological beauty. I expected to love it, so I was massively disappointed when I didn’t.
There were a whole host of reasons why I didn’t take to life in Petersburg as well as I had hoped. Some were to do with my personality, others with the city itself. I lack the natural gregariousness needed to throw myself into new situations, especially when I find said situations intimidating. Other members of the group did not, and I was very conscious of how much better they appeared to be settling in. They made friends more easily, seemed generally happier, and crucially, were far more willing to speak. I have never been a very confident speaker, despite being perfectly proficient at it. Some people will happily speak at any given opportunity, with little regard for grammar or accuracy. I am not one of them. If I was going to speak, I wanted to do it well. Of course, this meant that I felt incredibly nervous every time I had to talk to a Russian.
I didn’t know quite what to make of Petersburg initially. It is indeed a spectacularly beautiful city…if you only ever look up. Concentrate on the glittering spires and onion domes, and you won’t notice the cracked pavements, gaping potholes and grotty backstreets. But for me, by far the worst thing was seeing the beggars on the street, many of them elderly and in visibly poor health. I remember seeing an old man whose whole spine was parallel to the floor, and a lady who shook so violently she could barely stand. No amount of scenery could distract me from that.
Culturally, Petersburg was a huge shock. For the first time in my life I felt homesick. Even routine things like getting cash out or doing the laundry could be stressful. And my God the mood swings. It was pretty much a dead cert that at least one of us would be in a bad mood at any given time. Being tired, hungry, or just feeling a bit under the weather would result in extreme grouchiness. This inevitably meant that whoever hadn’t been in a bad mood initially would end up in one simply by osmosis.
Life in Petersburg wasn’t great for my health. I had four colds in as many months, suffered from frequent headaches, and the food played havoc with my digestion. My skin suffered too, with air pollution, stress and lack of sleep all taking their toll on my complexion. It wasn’t particularly cold, at least not by Russian standards, but the wind off the sea could be fierce, particularly on the bridges. It dried out my skin and caused my lips to chap horribly.
In spite of all this, I now look back on my time in Petersburg with immense fondness. As stressful as it was, it was also an amazing experience. It was equal parts eye-opening, hilarious, and at times downright bizarre. What follows is a compilation of anecdotes detailing specific aspects of my time in Petersburg in all its crazy glory. Everything you are about to read is one hundred per cent true. Whether this makes you want to visit Russia or avoid it like the plague is down to you.
In Petersburg we were given the choice between a homestay and a hotel. All five of us opted for the hotel, at least to begin with. I was already trepidatious about going to Russia, and the prospect of staying in a stranger’s home was just a tad too intimidating. My plan was to get my confidence up in Petersburg so that by the time we went to Yaroslavl, I would be more comfortable with the idea of a homestay.
The hotel was located in the very heart of the city on Sadovaya Ulitsa, which runs perpendicular to Nevsky Prospekt, Petersburg’s main street. The rooms were fine. Basic, but fine. The bathrooms, however, were a different story. For a start, there was only one bathroom per gender per floor. Then there were the peculiar habits of the Russian guests.
On the day we arrived, a group of us went to scout out the facilities. In the bathroom we noticed a strange sign on the wall behind the toilet. At first we thought we must have misunderstood its meaning, as it appeared to be telling people not to stand on the toilet seat. Unable to fathom why anyone would do such a thing, we consulted some of the other students who had been studying Russian for longer than we had. They confirmed that we hadn’t misunderstood; that was indeed what the sign said.
A day or two later I went to the loo and there, clearly visible on the toilet seat, was a set of shoe prints. Evidently, people were standing on the toilet. Unfortunately, in doing so, they were significantly impeding their ability to aim. We were later told that Russian women did this due to concerns over hygiene. Because rather than sitting down or hovering, it is apparently more hygienic to stand on the toilet, thereby spraying the entire bathroom from a great height. It was up the walls, all over the floor, even on the toilet roll dispenser. On those occasions I would simply go to one of the loos on the other floors. Luckily there was always one in an acceptable condition.
That wasn’t the only issue with the bathrooms in the hotel. There was another sign instructing people not to flush used paper down the toilet, and instead to put it in the bin. The reason for this is that the underground pipes in Petersburg are old and in dire need of repair. I’m sorry, but no. There are some things I am simply not willing to put in a bin. I’d rather take the risk with the plumbing. Petersburg’s dodgy pipes are also the reason it’s not safe to drink the tap water. Instead we were advised to either boil it or buy bottled. You can get away with brushing your teeth with it so long as you don’t swallow any. Personally, I was more worried about swallowing the water from the shower, as this had a definite brown tinge to it and didn’t smell overly pleasant.
The staff at the hotel were, in a word, arseholes. I concluded this after I had a run-in with them over the kitchen key. There was only one kitchen for all the guests, although it wasn’t much used. This was probably because there was hardly anything in it, just a kettle, a microwave and a single electric ring. There was a sign in the kitchen which had clearly been written with the help of Google Translate, as it read, “At the cooking to include the fan. After preparation to switch off.” And there was me worrying about my Russian.
To access the kitchen, we had to go down to reception and ask for the key. As my then-boyfriend and I were among those who used the kitchen the most, we were the ones the staff pointed the finger at when the key went missing. We had indeed borrowed the key that day, but as always, we had returned it straight away afterwards. Someone else had borrowed it after us, and it had then gone missing. The staff on reception either didn’t know this or had forgotten, because they collared me on the way to school the next day and angrily demanded to know where the key was. When I told them the truth, that I didn’t know, they instructed me to try and remember. As it was still quite early in the year, my Russian wasn’t up to arguing back, and I stormed off in a rage.
After that we stopped using the kitchen on principle. There were more than enough restaurants nearby for us to eat out every night, including a really good twenty-four-hour pizza place just next-door. It was more expensive, but I didn’t care. I don’t expect to be ganged up on and essentially had a go at by staff in a place where I am a paying guest. They found the key, as it happened, while cleaning one of the other rooms after the guests had vacated. We never did get an apology.
Philippa was my roommate. I had initially been sharing with my friend, Emily, but she moved out and into a homestay after a few weeks in the hotel. There were a few reasons for this. One was that deep down she had always wanted a homestay anyway, as she felt it would be more beneficial for her language skills. Another was the hotel itself which, it’s fair to say, was not the nicest of establishments. Then there was the fact there had been some tension between the two of us, for reasons that are no longer important. She moved out, which meant there was now a space in my room. As Philippa was also by herself, the hotel staff decided it would make sense for the two of us to share, thereby freeing up an extra room. Neither of us was particularly keen on the idea, but we couldn’t really say no.
Philippa was a strange girl. Everything about her was tiny and unassuming. She rarely spoke, and when she did it was with a squeaky little mouse voice which made her sound awkward and timid. She was also incredibly skinny, no doubt because her diet consisted solely of bread, crisps and apples. The bloody apples. That girl put me off apples for life with her incessant crunching. She kept a bag of them next to her bed and would eat them in the morning before she even got up. Every morning when the alarm went off, she would reach down for an apple and then lie there chomping on it in the dark.
When she wasn’t munching on an apple, she was asleep. She was permanently tired, which given her diet, was in no way surprising. As soon as we got in from school she would lie down and go to sleep, leaving me to either tiptoe around her or go and sit on the chairs in the corridor with a book. Before lying down she would look around the room, turning her head slowly the way grazing animals do. Then she would simply drop onto the bed as if her legs had buckled underneath her. It was very odd, and more than a little annoying.
She was a nice girl, don’t get me wrong. We didn’t talk much, what with her being asleep most of the time, but when we did, I found her to be likeable, down-to-earth and surprisingly funny. I moaned about her a lot, chiefly because I like to have background noise when I’m working, and the enforced silence drove me insane. I was so pleased when I got a set of headphones for my birthday, and from then on I whinged about her far less.
The Benedict School
The Benedict School had been pitched to us as a prestigious institution known for delivering high quality Russian language courses to foreign students. So imagine our surprise when we went to have a look at it prior to our course starting, and found that a three-foot-long chunk of the building had sheared off and was just lying there in the middle of the road. Let’s just say it did not inspire confidence.
On our first day we took a test that would sort us into our groups. I was placed in the second of six groups, along with my then-boyfriend. Our timetables were comprised of seven lessons: grammar, translation, conversation, film, media, vocabulary and phonetics. Each subject was taught by a different member of staff, and the vast majority of our lessons were delivered solely in Russian, with only the occasional lapse into English where appropriate. To begin with, hearing only Russian was mentally exhausting. The level of concentration required to process what was being said was so high that by the time last lesson rolled round, we were all but burnt out. It took me about three weeks to get used to it. After that it simply became the norm.
The breakdown of the school day was very different in Russia. School started at ten and finished at half past three. We had three lessons a day, each one lasting for an hour and a half with a thirty-minute break in between. Due to the large intake that year, timetabling constraints meant each group got one day off a week. Ours was Thursday. On our days off we would usually go exploring. Sometimes we had a particular landmark we wanted to see. Other times we would simply pick a direction and head in it. We never got far before stumbling across something impressive. If it had been a particularly stressful week we would go to TGI Fridays and chow down on the biggest burgers we could stomach. It was our way of rebelling against Russia culture: stuffing our faces with western food until we could barely move.
We also paid several visits to the Hermitage on our days off, although we didn’t come close to seeing everything. Just looking around a single section could take an entire afternoon. As in any museum, the expectation was to walk around quietly and sensibly, although this proved rather difficult on one particular occasion. We were in a portrait gallery full of paintings of Russian aristocrats from centuries gone by. One of the portraits was of a general wearing rather tight white breeches. I was soberly admiring the painting when my then-boyfriend came up behind me and murmured in my ear, “The gentleman dresses on the left.” When I asked what he meant, he explained the age-old predicament of men wearing tight trousers-that of deciding which leg to drop your bits down. Which left me sniggering like a child and unable to take any of the paintings seriously from then on.
Some lessons were better than others. I remember quite liking grammar, although a particularly confusing lesson on verbs of motion did almost reduce me and several other members of the group to tears once. Translation was taught by an incredibly surly man called Vitaly, who got annoyed with us during one lesson because no one knew the Russian for rally-driving. But the most universally hated lesson was vocabulary, or lexica.
Lexica was taught by a lady called Tanya who proudly told us during our first lesson that she had written a textbook on the subject. Most of our lessons involved tasks taken from her textbook, which would have been fine had they actually been any good. One day she had us asking each other pointless questions like “What kind of soil should you plant roses in?” and “How often should you water house plants?” But the low point came when she set us a task that required us to comment on different types of clothes hangers and pick out our favourites. Clothes hangers. The principle of the exercise is fine. Getting students to express personal opinions and explain their choices is one of the easiest ways to elicit spontaneous speech. It just would have worked better with virtually anything else. There is very little you can say about the appearance and functionality of a clothes hanger, but we all had a half-hearted attempt. That was until it was my then-boyfriend’s turn, and he flatly told Tanya that it didn’t matter to him which one was the nicest. She simply glossed over it and moved on while the rest of us tried not to laugh.
All things odd
One of the things I noticed during our early explorations of the city were the bizarre names of some of the shops and restaurants. Just down the road from the hotel was a sushi bar called “Kill Fish,” and the enticingly named “Grand Cabbage Café.” There were some interestingly named products too. Our local supermarket stocked a variety of condoms bluntly titled “Relief.” If we’re going to be that brutal, why not have one called “Desperation” or “Low self-esteem?” This was the same supermarket that sold packs of chicken heads and livers for use in God knows what. I don’t even like to think about it.
Equally strange were the huge cages of melons for sale in the square. With their thick metal bars, these cages looked more suited to housing dangerous animals than exotic fruit. You could buy all sorts of random items on the streets of Saint Petersburg. My then-boyfriend wanted a cafetière, and one day we just happened across a lady who had a whole stash of them for a hundred roubles each. Because who hasn’t bought a cafetière in the middle of the street? Once, as we were coming out of the metro station on Vasilyevsky Island, we were met by a toothless old man with a trestle table full of fish. No market, just him on his own. It was so random and unexpected that we couldn’t stop laughing about it for a good five minutes.
It’s fair to say that on the whole, Russia doesn’t have anything like the level of customer service we are accustomed to here. In fact there were times when it seemed the serving staff were either being deliberately unhelpful or just making things up as they went along. On one notable occasion, Emily was refused tea with milk in a café despite them having both of those things to hand. While I fully accept that it is not the norm for Russians to add milk to their tea, I really don’t see that it would have been difficult to just give her what she had asked for.
There was a chain of pancake restaurants in Petersburg that we visited quite often. I always had the same thing, until one day the server told me that my usual summer berry pancake didn’t exist, despite me having had it at least four times in the past. When a group of us visited the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood, one of the cashiers on the ticket desks accepted student cards and the other didn’t. Half of us got in for free while the other half, myself included, had to pay two hundred and fifty roubles. Then there was the barman who rolled his eyes at me because I took a few moments to process how much money he had asked me for in an incredibly loud pub.
Generally speaking, Russians aren’t as used to dealing with foreigners as we are in the UK. Most haven’t had as much practice when it comes to hearing foreign accents or decoding meaning from imperfect speech. On our very first day we went to a café not far from the hotel, where I attempted to order a mineral water. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was mispronouncing water slightly, putting the stress on the wrong syllable. In Russian, stress in incredibly important-get it wrong and it can alter the sound of a word, rendering it incomprehensible to native speakers. However, I was pronouncing the mineral part correctly. On that logic alone, I felt the server should have been able to figure out what I meant. I appreciate that they have relatively little contact with foreigners compared to other places, but it was two words. After three unsuccessful attempts I simply gave up and ordered a tea instead.
The homeless man in the palace gardens
When people ask me what was the strangest thing that happened in Russia, there are two possible contenders. The first is the episode of the tramp in the Yusupov Palace gardens. I had actually forgotten all about him until quite recently, when I was watching a history documentary based in Saint Petersburg. The host was visiting the palace, which had been the site of Rasputin’s murder, and bobbing up from the depths of my memory came this long-forgotten incident.
It was Thursday, our day off, and my then-boyfriend and I had gone for a walk around the palace gardens. We were sitting on a bench minding our own business when we were approached by a homeless man. He asked if we were a couple, and when we said we were, he made a rather strange request: that my boyfriend kiss me in front of him. He was rather insistent, so my boyfriend grudgingly gave me a peck on the cheek in the hope he would leave us alone. No such luck. Apparently that wasn’t “passionate” enough. Basically, he wanted us to give him a show while he stood there and watched. Strangely enough, we made our excuses and left. I don’t believe we ever went back after that.
Chaos and drama
During our time in Petersburg there were two separate but equally unpleasant incidents involving students from other universities. The first served as a warning to the rest of us about the dangers of cheap alcohol, something we had been told to watch out for by our lecturers. During a night out, one of the girls had been drinking what we later suspected to be knock-off vodka. We had heard horror stories of vodka brewed in bathtubs, laced with antifreeze and God knows what else. At Exeter we were told, as a general rule, to make sure we were paying around two hundred and fifty roubles for a shot. Anything less meant it was probably dodgy. Maybe she didn’t know, or maybe it was just awful bad luck, but by the next morning she was having fits. An ambulance was called, and at the hospital it was discovered that her pancreas and gall bladder were swollen. According to the medics, if left much longer she could have died.
The second incident demonstrated the questionable way in which mental health issues are dealt with in Russia. It was two o’clock in the morning, and my then-boyfriend and I were just getting in after a night out. As we rounded the corner onto our floor, it became clear that something was wrong. People were milling about in the corridor, and there was shouting coming from one of the rooms. We went to see what was going on, and found one of the girls from group one having a full-on emotional breakdown. Some people had tried to calm her down, but to no avail. For some reason she was willing to talk to us, so that is what we did. Just talked to her. She told us she hated Russia, that she was struggling with the course, and that she and her roommate weren’t getting along. In the end it was just too much for her, and she decided she wanted to go home. She was calming down when the paramedics arrived, and then came one of the most horrific things I have ever witnessed.
She was given the “choice” between being sedated there at the hotel, or being sedated at the hospital. Either way they were going to drug her. Apparently it’s the done thing for people having an emotional breakdown. Instead of calming things down, the paramedics made everything ten times worse. She became incredibly distressed again, and no wonder. It was distressing to watch. In the end she agreed to be sedated at the hotel, and was able to catch a flight home the next day. We were later told we were really brave for going in there and staying with her. I don’t think we were. We were just helping someone who was clearly in desperate need of help. Nothing more.
On the subject of horrible incidents, there were two boys on our course who were unfortunate enough to have a run-in with the police. Our lecturers had warned us about Russian police, advising us to steer clear of them wherever possible, and not to do anything that might attract their attention. We were told they had a habit of stopping foreigners, confiscating their documents and then charging to give them back. If ever we saw them while out and about, we would stop talking immediately and move on as quickly as possible. These two lads were on the way home after a night out when one of them decided to have a wee in a doorway. Unfortunately for them, the police happened to be passing just at that moment. They drove the two lads out to the middle of nowhere, took all their money and left them there. It comes to something when the police are as bad as the criminals. Worse, in some cases.
We were in Petersburg at the time of the anti-Putin protests in the run-up to the presidential elections. The demonstrations were held on Nevsky Prospekt, just a fifteen-minute walk from our hotel. Our teachers advised us to steer well clear of the protests, as just being in the wrong place at the wrong time could create real difficulties for us. We didn’t need telling twice. The police arrested two hundred people that day, with over a hundred being detained the night before simply for daring to oppose the government.
Novgorod & Pskov
At the end of October we got a very welcome break in the form of reading week. Most people were going travelling, either to neighbouring countries or to different parts of Russia. As it would be our only opportunity to travel, we decided to make the most of it by visiting some other Russian cities. Our media teacher recommended Novgorod and Pskov. The former, as well as being the nearest major city, was also a place of enormous historical significance. Pskov was located near the Estonian border and was known for being picturesque. We decided to follow her advice, booking two nights in Novgorod and one in Pskov.
The journey to Novgorod took around four hours by coach. To get there we had to drive through a tiny Russian village where the only road was a waterlogged dirt track and the houses little more than wooden cabins. At one point the coach had to mount the grass verge as the wheels were simply spinning in the mud. It was then that I spotted a sign emblazoned with the Russian word for bear. Nudging my then-boyfriend, I pointed to the sign, assuming it meant there were bears in the area. We were in the middle of nowhere surrounded by forest, so it seemed plausible. He seemed to think it was just the name of the village and he was probably right, although I found this strangely disappointing.
When we arrived in Novgorod, it’s fair to say we were not impressed. The road where we were dropped off had no pavement. Instead there was just a muddy, pothole-ridden track on either side of the road. We wandered in the direction of the town centre and found ourselves in a large square. I remember being struck by just how grey everything was: the buildings, the sky, the ground on which we stood, even the clothing of the passers-by. Looking around, you’d think we’d stepped off the coach and into the Soviet era. We had absolutely no idea how to get to our hotel from where we were. Obviously we had researched its location, but that was before being dropped off in a seemingly random part of town. In the end we asked someone. By which I mean I threw a hissy fit and made him ask someone. I turn into quite the drama queen when I’m stressed, it’s really not one of my more endearing traits. Luckily, the second person he asked was a very helpful lady who walked us to the bus stop, put us on the right bus and told the conductor where were heading so she could notify us when it was time to get off. This surprised both of us, as having lived in Petersburg for two months, we were definitely not used to strangers being helpful.
What the city lacked, the hotel made up for. We stayed in the Radisson, where the staff were lovely, the breakfast was amazing and the bed was humongous. We could easily have spent the whole two days just holed up in the hotel, but we resisted the temptation and set out to explore Novgorod.
Our first port of call was the kremlin. Any reservations I had about the city vanished as soon as I set foot in it. Located on the left bank of the Volkhov River, the kremlin houses impressive statues, towers dating back to the thirteen hundreds and a stunning silver-domed cathedral. It was worth going to Novgorod just for that.
I didn’t know what to expect of Pskov, having never heard of it until our teacher mentioned it to us. General consensus was that Novgorod was the nicer city, so I was surprised to discover that we both preferred Pskov by quite a long way. Our room in the hotel looked out over the river, with the kremlin less than a hundred metres away on the opposite bank. At night the cathedral was lit up, its onion domes reflected brilliantly against the sky. And so many stars. We didn’t get to see many stars in Petersburg due to light pollution. In Pskov the whole sky was spangled with them, twinkling silver on a canvas of inky blue. It was really quite beautiful.
While the Pskov kremlin wasn’t as large or impressive as the one in Novgorod, the cathedral was still stunning and well worth the visit. There was a strange moment in the gift shop when we spied busts of Hitler and Stalin for sale. Stalin I could just about get my head around, but Hitler? I didn’t think such things still existed. There was also an enormous stuffed bear in the gift shop with a sign around its neck warning shoppers that touching it would incur a charge of five hundred roubles.
Later that day we went for a walk down by the river, where we found a ruined medieval tower and several pretty churches. Along the bank were large brick houses with conservatories just like the ones back home. It sounds silly, but the sight of them made me really happy. It was like someone had simply picked up a row of houses from back home and plonked them down on the riverbank in Pskov. Virtually all the Russians we met lived in poorly maintained blocks of flats, so to see something so distinctly western-looking was wonderfully refreshing.
I turned twenty-one in Petersburg. To celebrate, we went for a curry at one of the city’s few Indian restaurants. The staff there spoke better English than Russian, which made me wonder how they coped with day-to-day life, but did mean that for one glorious evening we could almost pretend we were back home. They stunned us at one point by asking how the food was; something none of the other restaurants we visited had done.
That evening I had a phone call from home. It had taken my Dad about half an hour to figure out the dialling code for Saint Petersburg, but with the help of my brother and Google, he had got there in the end.
I got some rather lovely presents for my twenty-first, including a porcelain teacup and saucer in the Petersburg colours of white and blue from Emily. I still have it, although I don’t use it much for fear of dropping it. For my main present, my then-boyfriend took me to see the Nutcracker at the Mikhailovsky Theatre. I had never seen a proper show before, so to watch such a quintessentially Russian ballet at one of the country’s oldest theatres was just magical. Even now, more than three years after we broke up, it remains one of the sweetest things anyone has ever done for me, and one that I will remember always.
Back to normality
We flew home on the twenty-third of December. The cabin crew were so polite, so helpful, so wonderfully British that it took a bit of getting used to. After four months of being referred to as devushka, or girl, it was strange being called Madam again. I’ll never forget coming in to land and seeing all of London laid out beneath us, thousands of tiny orange lights as far as the eye could see. I don’t think I’d ever been happier to see anything in my life. You sometimes hear of people clapping when planes touch down. I had never encountered this, and wondered who on earth these people were. I can now tell you they are the people flying out of Russia the day before Christmas Eve.
My journey didn’t end there. Unfortunately I still had a three-hour coach ride up to the Midlands. As much as I had looked forward to being home, I do have to admit that getting off the coach at Wolverhampton bus station was the mother of all comedowns. But being home was blissful. We had just over two months before we flew back out to Moscow. Two months to organise new visas, to relax and decompress, and to try and psyche ourselves up ready to go back. If I’m honest, I was not looking forward to it one bit. If I hadn’t liked Petersburg, I would surely hate Yaroslavl. Or so I thought. In actual fact I preferred it, but that it another story for another day.