Yaroslavl is part of the Golden Ring, and makes for a much more authentically Russian experience than Saint Petersburg. The city as a whole is more industrial than Petersburg, and nowhere near as pretty. Perekop, the area where our school was located, was rather rundown and shabby, with packs of stray dogs roaming around. That being said, there were some lovely parts too, including a particularly beautiful stretch along the Volga River. Lined with fountains, golden-domed cathedrals and meticulously landscaped gardens, it was easily my favourite place to spend a lazy afternoon.
The journey from Moscow to Yaroslavl was terrifying. We were picked up in a minibus and driven along icy motorways in the pitch black for four and a half hours. It was late February, and four-foot high snowdrifts were piled up along the sides of the roads. This didn’t seem to faze our fellow motorists, who continued to overtake and cut each other up despite the perilous conditions. Add to that the fact that our driver neglected to wear his seat belt and spent much of the journey on his phone, and it’s easy to see why I felt jittery. At one point he even took both hands off the wheel in order to remove his coat. We were all exhausted after a long day of travelling, but I was reluctant to go to sleep for fear that I wouldn’t see my own death hurtling towards me. In the end I succumbed, and we arrived in Yaroslavl in one piece.
On the night we arrived my hostess, Lyuda, wasn’t at home. Apparently, she hadn’t been told I would be arriving that evening, which is odd because the other hostesses had clearly got the message. I don’t know if it was a miscommunication or if she simply forgot, but I was the only one out of the five of us who didn’t get to meet their landlady straight away. As Emily’s hostess lived only a few blocks away, I ended up going there instead until Lyuda could swing by to pick me up. I was already incredibly anxious about meeting her, and those couple of hours spent waiting did nothing to calm my nerves. I was so quiet on the walk back that Lyuda initially thought I didn’t speak Russian. It was only when we got home that I began to relax, and she confessed to being pleasantly surprised at how well I could actually speak. Apparently I was one of the stronger of the students she had hosted.
Lyuda lived on her own in a flat in the centre of town, having separated from her husband two years previously. She had two grownup children, a son and a daughter, both of whom lived within easily travelling distance. Her son, Andrei, visited regularly; I never met the daughter. As a sports doctor, Lyuda was required to attend numerous tournaments and sporting events, which meant she was often out in the evenings. Her salary was rather modest, and the extra income she gained from hosting students helped her out a lot. I distinctly remember her telling me that she’d been better off, and her standard of living higher, before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The flat itself was much larger than I’d expected. Most landladies lived in single-bedroom flats, so hosting a student essentially meant giving up their living room for months on end. Lyuda was lucky in that her flat was more spacious. There were two bedrooms, a separate living room, and an extra room at the back that had nothing in it except a clotheshorse and a collection of pot-plants. The electrics were a little dodgy. The light switches had a disconcerting habit of flashing green when flicked, and I’m pretty sure the plug sockets frazzled the battery in my laptop. But the flat as a whole was warm, clean and homely; I had no cause for complaint.
The prospect of living in a stranger’s home for four months didn’t exactly thrill me. It was good in that it pushed me out of my comfort zone and forced me to speak, but older Russian women have a reputation for being formidable. I was worried that I’d get saddled with some strict old battle-axe with an endless list of rules and expectations. Our friends in Irkutsk had a nightly curfew, which essentially saw them locked in the building from eleven at night until six in the morning. I don’t think I could have tolerated such a rigid routine. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried; Lyuda was very relaxed. I was free to come and go as I pleased, free to lie in at the weekends and stagger home at all hours of the night in various states of drunkenness. So long as I left her a note informing her of my plans and whereabouts, there wasn’t an issue.
Generally speaking, Lyuda and I got on well. She could be a little blunt at times, but then so can most Russians when compared to us Brits. We had our differences, of course. She believed in the stiff upper lip approach, whereas I have always been emotionally expressive. It is for this reason that I think she found me a little perplexing at times. Never was this more apparent than the day my then-boyfriend flew home.
It was a Thursday, and as I normally went to his after school on Thursdays, Lyuda was not expecting me home early. So when she heard my key in the lock, she came toddling out of the living room looking confused, minus her trousers. It would appear that when I wasn’t there, she liked to watch TV in her pants. She asked why I wasn’t at his, at which point I burst into tears. Instead of consoling me, she compared me to “a little child,” presuming that he was my first love and that I was inexperienced when it came to relationships. Neither of those things was true, but both made me want to hurl something hard at her head. She then asked if our parents objected to the fact that come September, we would be living in the same house, and seemed genuinely surprised when I said no. The next day she told me I was “gloomy.” Stoicism I can understand, but there were times when Lyuda seemed to suffer from a maddening lack of basic empathy.
Food, glorious food
I was somewhat trepidatious about the idea of Russian food prior to my year abroad. Our lecturers hadn’t made it sound overly appetising, with their talk of beetroot and cabbage soup and porridge made from buckwheat. While much of it proved to be far more palatable than I expected, it was still very hit and miss overall. Some things I really enjoyed, enough to actively miss them; others make my face crease in revulsion even now just thinking about them.
It quickly became clear that I would have to abandon some of my food-related qualms whilst in Russia, particularly when it came to meat. You only have to look at some meat-based products to know that they don’t come close to measuring up to the standards we are used to in the UK. Russian bacon turns an off-putting shade of grey when cooked, and the meat found in dumplings and pancakes is so nondescript in taste and appearance that it’s best to just pile on the sour cream and not think about it. Once, Emily was convinced she’d been given the wrong order in a café because her chicken burger had a distinct grey tinge to it. I had to explain to her that there hadn’t been a mistake; that was just how the chicken looked in that particular establishment.
In Petersburg we had been able to choose exactly what we ate and when. Now we each had someone cooking for us, and it was very much the luck of the draw. Emily was once given borscht that looked so unappealing she initially mistook it for cat food. I was one of the luckier ones in that most of what Lyuda gave me was actually really nice. At the weekends she would make me porridge with strawberry jam, which was lovely so long as I wasn’t hung-over. However, after one particularly heavy night involving numerous White Russians, porridge was definitely not what I needed. I had staggered in at five, and Lyuda woke me at eight for breakfast. She found it hilarious and stood over me laughing as I shuddered my way through my bowl of kasha.
Some of Lyuda’s culinary habits struck me as a little odd. She fried everything. Everything. Rice, pasta, mashed potato-things you’d never normally put in a frying pan. She had an oven, but it served as a cupboard for all the pots and pans. I never once saw her use it. If it couldn’t be made on the hob, I didn’t have it. One day I got up to find a huge pan of pasta and chicken on the stove. Assuming that Lyuda was being organised and had cooked my dinner in advance, I made myself toast and went off to school. When I got home she asked me why I hadn’t eaten the breakfast she left me. I had to explain to her that I hadn’t realised it was breakfast.
Cultural differences often reared their heads at mealtimes. Once I came home in the evening to find a whole fish staring at me from the sink. Lyuda cooked it for me the next day, and it was actually really tasty, but as I refused to eat it with my fingers, she concluded that I didn’t like it. While it may be the norm in Russia, for me eating fish with my fingers would have been just a little too strange. Lyuda felt that my preferred method of using a knife and fork was “too slow,” and never made it for me again.
When it came to the world beyond Russia, Lyuda wasn’t exactly the most knowledgeable. Once she asked me if we had onions in England, and seemed mightily impressed when I told her we did. She also asked if we had baked beans, and looked at me like I was insane when I informed her that we have them on toast. I had to explain sandwiches to her too. She had given me something rancid for dinner one day, and later found me angrily making myself a cheese sandwich in the kitchen. She stood there watching me for a few moments with a confused look on her face before asking what on earth I was doing.
Not everything Lyuda made for me was a success. One morning she “cooked” me two boiled eggs for breakfast. I use the word “cooked” very loosely because they were the wobbliest, most watery eggs I have ever seen. I spent a good five minutes just prodding them with a spoon, trying to decide whether to brave them or not. In the end I decided against it. That night Lyuda asked if I had eaten the eggs. I pretended I had, although I did remark on how runny they were. She explained that in Russia, if you want a soft-boiled egg, you drop it in boiling water for fifteen seconds. In other words, you don’t actually boil it at all. Personally, I took this with a sizeable pinch of salt, as Lyuda was rather fond of spouting things that later turned out to be incorrect. She once told me that chicory only grows in Russia, which is definitely not the case.
Over time, the amount of effort Lyuda put into preparing my food declined. One night she made me pasta mixed with chicken. While a little pinker than I was accustomed to, it was not actually unpleasant. I was given the same the next night, only this time I noticed the chicken was coated in yellow jelly. It turned out the chicken was out of a can, only I hadn’t realised the previous night because the jelly had sunk to the bottom. Not wanting to appear rude or ungrateful, I picked my way through as much as I could until started heaving, at which point I sneakily flushed the rest down the toilet. Unfortunately this backfired, as Lyuda assumed I had eaten the lot and therefore incorporated it into her culinary repertoire. That was until the third time, after which I plucked up the courage to tell her I really didn’t like it.
I assumed that having been told I wasn’t a fan of canned chicken, Lyuda would steer clear of canned meat altogether. No such luck. Apparently she thought I might be more receptive to canned beef instead. Once, in an effort to disguise the flavour, she mixed it in with some baked beans, which then sat congealing in the frying pan for hours until I got home. I was already feeling delicate, as my then-boyfriend had flown home earlier that day. In my heightened emotional state, the sight of baked beans laced with chunks of beef and globs of jelly was enough to send me over the edge. That was a low point: twenty-one years old and quietly sobbing into a frying pan.
Another nauseating concoction was boil-in-the-bag rice and mayonnaise, which Lyuda took to making on an increasingly regular basis towards the end of my stay. While I like both those things, when mixed together in a frying pan the result was a sticky, gloopy mess with a decidedly unpleasant aftertaste. When I’d had as much as I could stomach, I would quietly dispose of the rest by secreting it inside a napkin, which would then follow the canned chicken on a one-way trip down the toilet. Other culinary fails included the time Lyuda left my pelmeni in water for five hours while she was at work, then acted surprised when they were soggy and overcooked.
Klavdia was my then-boyfriend’s hostess. She was warm, generous and genuinely funny, although not always intentionally. I absolutely adored her. Klavdia’s story was a rather sad one. Her husband had died the year before, and although she had a grownup daughter who visited, she admitted to being lonely a lot of the time. She loved the company, loved having someone to look after and fuss over. Two people to fuss over, even better. I was welcome there any time and could stay over as often as I liked.
I remember the first time I met Klavdia. She told me I was beautiful the second I walked through the door, all the more flattering given her penchant for saying exactly what she thought. When my then-boyfriend’s hair was cut too short for her liking, she told him so, many times. If she thought someone wasn’t very photogenic she would say so, often in startlingly blunt terms. Had she thought I was a bit of a munter, I’m sure she would have mentioned it. My name caused her some confusion to begin with. On hearing it for the first time she blinked confusedly and then said, “I don’t understand.” Most Russian women have first names ending in “a” or “ya,” so foreign names ending in consonants can be a little perplexing for them at first.
Klavdia was a far better cook than Lyuda. Often when I stayed over, we would wake up to find a huge pile of mini-pancakes on the kitchen table. Slathered in cream and jam, they were just delicious, and infinitely preferable to anything Lyuda made. She also made amazing borscht, shchi and my personal favourite, chicken noodle soup. Very much a feeder, she routinely plied us with huge amounts of food until we could barely move. Despite this, she would often joke about how little I ate, comparing my appetite to that of a “little chicken.” You only have to glance at me for half a second to know that this is not the case.
My refusal to eat Russian sausages became something of a running joke with Klavdia. Every mealtime she would try to coax me into trying them. On one occasion she stood waggling them at me from across the kitchen and repeatedly asking, “Are you sure you don’t want one?” Every time I declined she waggled them more insistently, until eventually all three of us were crying with laughter. She also found it strange that I didn’t take jam in my tea. I found it strange that that was an option.
Klavdia was very particular about certain things. One night a group of us were heading to a restaurant in town. The booking was made for eight o’clock, which she didn’t think was a suitable time to be eating. She repeatedly told us we should go at six instead, and then asked if we wanted something to eat before we left. Apparently we “shouldn’t have gone to a restaurant hungry.”
I visited Klavdia on my last night in Yaroslavl after my then-boyfriend had flown home. He left two weeks earlier than originally planned to attend a summer school in Berlin. I didn’t think she was serious when she said she wanted to see me one last time. That was until she rang me out of the blue one day and asked when I could come over. As usual, she stuffed me full of all my favourite foods until I could hardly move. I was about to leave when she asked if I wanted more tea. I declined. She then asked if I wanted more food. Again I declined. Then she played her trump card by asking if I wanted some red wine. I sat back down pretty quickly.
I think it’s very telling that my last night was spent with Klavdia and not Lyuda. The fundamental difference between our hostesses was that Klavdia did it for the company and the enjoyment, while Lyuda did it primarily for the money. When Lyuda wasn’t there, Klavdia was. When Lyuda made me feel silly, Klavdia understood. When Lyuda could no longer be bothered, Klavdia could never do enough. She was a lovely, lovely lady and I will never, ever forget her.
Walking in a Winter Wonderland
The snow in Yaroslavl was that magical kind that we simply don’t get back home. It was crisp, powdery and perfectly white, not that slushy grey stuff we have over here. Only in Russia have I seen snowflakes with the delicate, perfectly symmetrical shapes depicted on Christmas cards. I miss that kind of snow. Real snow. Snow that didn’t even begin to melt until April. Several times it tricked us into thinking it was melting, only to come down thicker than ever over night.
The snow may have been lovely, but the ice definitely was not. We all had our feet taken out from under us at some point. I remember going arse over tit on a patch of ice on the way back to my then-boyfriend’s flat. One second I was upright, the next I was landing really hard on my arse. Cue a minor emotional breakdown right there in the courtyard.
Another thing to watch out for were the icicles. Around a dozen people a year are killed by falling icicles in Petersburg alone. Luckily for us, November and December had been unseasonably mild; there hadn’t been an icicle in sight. In Yaroslavl it was a very different story. One day my then-boyfriend and I were walking back to his flat from the bus stop. There was no pavement on that stretch of road, so we ducked under a cordon and walked along the grass verge. We were trudging along quite happily when I said, “I wonder why this bit is cordoned off.” No sooner had I said it than the penny dropped. We stopped, looked up, and there, clinging to the drainpipes above our heads, were icicles that could have skewered a small child. Needless to say, we ducked back under the cordon pretty sharpish, with more than a few expletives being uttered in the process.
The Yaroslavl Russian Language Centre made the Benedict School look like the height of luxury. At least in Petersburg we had our own building; in Yaroslavl we had two tiny classrooms hidden away in a corner of a school, accessible via a rather smelly cloakroom. The school itself was more than a little shabby, and populated by children with cringe-inducing mullets. The toilets were horrible, with an unusually large gap between the door and the floor. Once, Emily found one of the cleaners having a shit with the door wide open, for reasons that are beyond my ability to comprehend.
The YRLC was presided over by Anna. I would never have gone to Yaroslavl had it not been for her. She came to Exeter in our second year to deliver a talk about the city, the course and what we could hope to get from it. So persuasive was she that five of us decided to split our year abroad specifically so we could go there. I had never even heard of Yaroslavl prior to that talk, never mind considered living there for four months.
Anna was fantastically forthright. She once told me that I “shouldn’t be shy ever,” which is wonderful advice to give to an introvert. If one of us was off school due to illness, she would cheerily announce the reason to the rest of the class, no matter how embarrassing. At the meal to celebrate the end of our course, she drunkenly told my then-boyfriend and me that students like us were the reason she did her job. She then announced that other members of the group “still needed some work.” The students in question were visibly shocked and upset, and we felt terrible.
Not everything Anna told us about Yaroslavl was positive. She cautioned us against walking back from town on our own after dark because a former student had been robbed by two drunken men while doing just that. According to Anna, the only reason these men didn’t also rape her was because they were too inebriated. Personally, I’m inclined to think they probably were just thieves and not would-be rapists, but Anna’s opinion seemed to be that if you would commit one crime you would commit them all.
On the subject of crime, it was with a strange pride that Anna told us how money intended for road maintenance had been siphoned off by local officials, including the previous mayor. Apparently this is quite a common occurrence in Russia, with Tomsk, Volgograd and Yekaterinburg experiencing the same issue. Yaroslavl’s pothole problem is so bad that in 2013, local activists decided to demonstrate just how slow and ineffective the government was in tackling the problem. How did they do this? By planting potatoes in the holes. I’m not making this up, they really did. According to one article, they wanted “to see if these potatoes would grow faster than the city authorities repair the roads.”
In April of 2012, just over a month into our stay, Yaroslavl elected a new mayor. The successful candidate was Yevgeny Urlashov, and his appointment was notable because he was not a member of Putin’s party, United Russia. At the time there was a real sense of optimism. People felt that if opposition candidates could win in local elections, they could perhaps bring about real change from within. Less than two years later, Urlashov was arrested on charges of alleged embezzlement and receiving bribes. In 2016 he was sentenced to twelve years in prison. He maintains his innocence, stating that the charges were fabricated as an excuse to remove him from office. Personally, I’m inclined to agree. I tried to find some concrete evidence for the previous mayor’s alleged involvement in the siphoning off of public funds. There isn’t any. Not a dicky bird. There are, however, plenty of articles documenting Urlashov’s supposed crimes. Funny that. Clearly, the Moscow censors are as active and effective as ever.
The school in Yaroslavl took a long time to grow on me. We only had four lessons: grammar, translation, conversation and reading. Unusually for me, I really liked conversation. We had a very talented teacher who, despite only being a year older than us, did a much better job of getting me to talk than any of the others had. She chose interesting topics that we could really get our teeth into, and not once did she ask our opinion on clothes hangers. She was also a good laugh, and came drinking with us several times even though technically she wasn’t supposed to.
My worst lesson by far was reading. Every lesson we were given a text and would take it in turns to read sections out loud. If we hesitated or stumbled over a tricky word, our teacher would jump straight in and correct us. It infuriated me and knocked my confidence, which hadn’t been high to begin with. At one point I was convinced she was deliberately giving me smaller chunks to read than the others, which in my mind was proof that she thought I was weaker than them. It’s true I didn’t have much by way of an authentic Russian accent. I knew that, and I was trying. Really bloody hard. Having someone come to my rescue every time I hesitated was not helpful. A teacher myself nowadays, I am fully aware of how counterproductive over-correction can be. I just wanted her to back off, give me a moment and let me carry on. I would have got there eventually.
One day it all came to a head. We were reading a text about Sparrow Mountains in Moscow, and I had just finished my chunk. I had tried really hard, and for once I thought I had actually read it well. Afterwards our teacher, Lena, told me I had “a really English accent,” and I lost it. Unable to stop the tears, I got up and walked out of the class. Lena followed, and seemed genuinely confused as to why I was upset. I explained to her that while I knew I didn’t have a good Russian accent, I really was trying my best. She looked puzzled and asked who had said that. That’s when I started to suspect that I’d misunderstood. What Lena meant was that I used to have a really English-sounding accent, but now it was disappearing. I had stopped listening after the word “accent,” and had therefore missed the most important part. Back in the classroom, the others were listening in absolute silence. They knew the penny had dropped when they heard the burst of laughter. Needless to say, I felt a bit daft, but at least my reading was improving.
When presented with English speakers, some Russians will use it as an excuse to test out their own language skills. The staff at the YRLC were no exception. This led to some hilarious slip-ups, the most memorable of which was Anna confusing a queen bee with the Queen Mother. I don’t remember how or why we got on to the topic of bee keeping, but I do remember her cheerily announcing that the Queen Mother was only fertilised once a year. It was quite some time before we could stop laughing enough to explain the mix-up to her.
The banya is a Russian sauna or bathhouse, and one of the country’s most quintessential traditions. I was initially reluctant to try the banya, as I had never coped well with heat. The idea of sitting in a sweltering hot room, sweating my eyeballs out in a state of undress did not appeal to me in the slightest. A couple of my friends had visited banyas in Petersburg and loved it, although the stories they told of Russians walking around naked and beating each other with birch twigs did nothing to persuade me. It wasn’t until we went to Yaroslavl that I eventually consented to giving it a go.
I had initially refused when Anna tried to talk me into it. She was a big advocate of the banya on the grounds that it had health benefits. The heat apparently helps to increase circulation, open up pores and reduce muscle tension. So far so plausible. However, I did stop listening when Anna claimed that the banya could cure cancer. If that were the case then a) no Russians would die from cancer and b) the rest of the world would have cottoned on, therefore no one would die from cancer. Anna didn’t know my family history, but I found the idea that my Mom could have been saved if only someone had thought to pop her in a sauna utterly ludicrous. That being said, after sitting out one banya session and repeatedly being told I was missing out, I decided to bite the bullet and try it after all.
The banya we went to was a hut at the bottom of a hill at a ski resort. Anna had booked the place out for us overnight, so naturally it turned into a huge piss-up. It was March, the snow was still thick on the ground, and the temperature was set to reach minus twenty that night. The guards had told us in no uncertain terms not to venture back up the slope after dark, as they might mistake us for a wild animal and shoot us. We didn’t need telling twice.
Would I go so far as to say I enjoyed the banya? I’m not sure. I tolerated it much better than I anticipated, although I did come over very lightheaded towards the end. We’d been warned not to wear synthetic materials or anything containing metal, as the former would simply melt onto our skin, while the latter would get so hot as to burn us. In the end I opted for a pair of cotton knickers and a little cotton vest top I used for sleeping in. It was strange, sitting there in a cramped, stiflingly hot room in what was essentially underwear, pouring with sweat and unable to see clearly because I couldn’t wear my glasses. The air was so hot that it stung my nostrils when I inhaled, making it impossible to breathe through my nose. It was also the one and only time in my life when my teeth have felt hot. My actual teeth. When does that ever happen?
Due to the extreme temperature, it was recommended that we only stay in the hot part of the banya for a few minutes at a time. The idea was to alternate between the heat of the sauna and the cold outside. Personally, I found the cooling down to be by far the more pleasant experience. After the searing heat of the banya, the air outside felt no colder than the average spring day back home. I remember standing there in minus twenty, my hair crisp from the frost, rubbing handfuls of snow on my arms and being surprised at how wonderfully refreshing it felt. Even now, when I see snow, I’m tempted to scoop it up and rub it on my skin-an admission that makes British people look at me like I’m insane.
Baked onions and cranberry juice
Russians are very big on homemade cures, so much so that one of our second-year oral classes centred on this very topic. Of the remedies we looked at, a disproportionate number seemed to involve either onions or garlic. One suggested setting fire to garlic and inhaling the smoke to clear a blocked nose, while another advocated eating a whole baked onion. If you were suffering from a particularly stubborn cold, the advice was to add peppercorns to vodka, drink it, then get under the covers and physically sweat it out. While the medical validity of some of these cures is questionable at best, the lesson provided an interesting look at this particular aspect of Russian culture, and gave us a good laugh in the process. I’ll admit that I was sceptical. Surely people didn’t believe that this stuff actually worked?
And then we went to Russia. Where, it turns out, people do still believe in strange cures. When my then-boyfriend had a bad cold, his hostess boiled an egg, wrapped it in a tea towel and made him hold it against his face. When he asked, “Is this going to help?” she replied, “Yes, of course.” I wasn’t there that day, which was probably for the best as I think I may have actually laughed myself to death had I seen it. Part of me is still convinced that she was just messing with him, playing a little game to see what was the most ridiculous thing she could get the English boy to do. She also boiled a whole saucepan of potatoes just so he could inhale the steam, although quite why a kettle wouldn’t suffice is anyone’s guess.
When doling out health advice, Russians can be very forceful. One lesson became extremely heated after Anna repeatedly tried to cajole one of our group into having an ECG. The girl in question had been suffering with headaches which, while decidedly unpleasant, was not unusual for her. Concerned, her hostess contacted Anna, who then spent a great deal of time listing all the terrifying potential causes. Unsurprisingly, this only served to make her more stressed than she already was.
The combination of strange cures and over-bearing Russians was enough to put me off accessing medical treatment unless it was a genuine emergency. So when I came down with a raging case of cystitis, I decided to say nothing at all. Unfortunately, it’s not a condition you can easily hide from someone you’re living with, not when you have to keep dashing to the loo every ten minutes. Of course Lyuda noticed. Not only that, she tried to talk me into seeing a gynaecologist. I flat out refused. At school, one of my friends joked, “You know they’re going to stick a baked onion up there, don’t you?” In hindsight, I really should have seen someone. Instead I endured three weeks of absolute agony. It felt like someone had doused my urethra in petrol and then struck a match on it. At its worst, just wearing underwear was painful. And yet I was adamant I was not going to a Russian doctor.
It wasn’t that I doubted their knowledge or capabilities, far from it. My reluctance was the result of stories we’d heard from fellow students and even some of our teachers: tales of doctors being rather judgemental towards foreign students, and even cooperating more if we gave them a little gift in the form of alcohol. This second claim may sound like a bad stereotype, but it was enough to put me off, especially as my affliction was rather sensitive in nature.
Those three weeks were awful. I got funny looks on buses because I insisted on standing up even when there were plenty of seats. I had trouble concentrating in class, partly because I had to keep running to the loo and partly because it was impossible to find a sitting position that was even vaguely comfortable. I was guzzling litres of cranberry juice every day in a desperate attempt to shift the infection. In the end I decided to take some time off. Once again, I didn’t tell Lyuda. We’d already had one awkward conversation; the less she knew, the better.
My plan to quietly skip school without Lyuda finding out should have been a doddle. She left for work before I was awake and usually got back after me. But on this particular day I had left my keys in the door, effectively locking her out. Instead of knocking or going downstairs and ringing the buzzer like any normal human, she phoned Anna, who then phoned Klavdia, who phoned my then-boyfriend. He then rang me to say Lyuda was stuck outside. Luckily Anna didn’t mention to Lyuda that I hadn’t been in school that day, sparing me the awkwardness of having to explain why.
Russian TV did not make the best impression on me, I’ll be honest. In Petersburg, my viewing had been mainly confined to films I already knew dubbed over in Russian. In Yaroslavl the TV was on all the time. Lyuda felt that having it on would help with my language immersion and she was right, even if the programmes she watched were trash.
The one that sticks out the most in my memory is an awful programme whose title translates as “Let’s get married.” Lyuda was obsessed with it. Every evening, a single woman was mercilessly grilled by three smug presenters as to why she wasn’t yet hitched. The implication was always that she had either made poor choices in life or simply been the victim of bad luck. It was never because she had chosen to pursue a career or travel the world before settling down. Every episode, a trio of men were paraded in front of the woman in the hope of securing a date. They were required to field questions about their jobs, their aspirations in life and their attitude to marriage before presenting their chosen skill. This was usually something mundane and domestic like making pancakes. The woman would then choose which of them she would go on a date with, if any. Sometimes all three were deemed unworthy, and the woman would emerge from behind a screen on her own at the end of the show. In one particularly horrendous episode, one of suitors was black. On seeing him, the woman looked dismayed and hid her face in her hands. Lyuda seemed to think this was a perfectly reasonable reaction; I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
There was an equally awful show in which twelve women vied for the chance to go on holiday with a young, single man. It was essentially a game show, with one woman being eliminated after each round by the man himself. There was one round in which the man in question was presented with photographs of the women’s arses, and had to reject the one whose derrière pleased him the least. If that wasn’t horrendous enough, he chose to eliminate the only woman who had kept her skirt on in her photo; all the others had opted for thongs. Personally, I would argue that if refusing to bare your arse to a man you don’t know on national TV is a deal-breaker, then that man is not worth your time.
My favourite thing I saw on Russian TV was actually a children’s cartoon that I came across while channel hopping. It features a lion cub who meets a turtle, and the two of them sing a song about lying in the sun. I was twenty-one at the time, but I found it utterly enchanting. The tune is so bouncy and catchy that I sometimes find myself humming it even now. I must also admit to occasionally watching the video on YouTube when I’m feeling particularly nostalgic.
Moscow and Rostov
In May a group of us went to Moscow. We caught the train, which whisked us from Yaroslavl to the capital in a mere four hours. Back home, a four-hour train journey seems dreadfully long; in Russia it seemed like nothing at all. They say in Russia that you are either a Petersburg person or a Moscow person. They also say that Petersburg attracts people with brains, while Moscow attracts those with money. By that token I should have been firmly in the Petersburg camp, so I was surprised to discover that I actually preferred Moscow. The sheer scale of the Russian capital is mind-blowing. Red Square is far and away the most impressive place I have ever been. Although we were only there for a short time, we managed to pack in plenty of sightseeing, with visits to the Kremlin, Sparrow Mountains and Moscow State University. The glorious weather only added to the experience, although I was rather sunburnt by the end.
Rostov is another of the Golden Ring cities, located just fifty kilometres southwest of Yaroslavl. My memories of Rostov itself are a little sketchy. I remember being given a talk about the city and wandering around a collection of old buildings in the sweltering heat. I also remember Anna making us pose for cutesy group photos like we were the Von Trapps. But the thing that sticks out the most was actually the journey home. Halfway up the motorway our driver asked if we wanted to see some bears. I assumed there must have been a zoo or a sanctuary nearby. Instead we pulled into a regular service station with a cage off to one side. Inside were two fully-grown bears. What they were doing in a cramped cage on the side of a Russian motorway is anyone’s guess. The cage itself didn’t look anywhere near large enough, and afforded them next to no protection from the elements. The floor was bare, and seeing them in there was genuinely saddening. By the time we got back in the minibus we were all rather subdued. I for one found myself hoping they didn’t get left there through the winter.
Also in May, the city’s hot water supply was switched off for three weeks so that maintenance work could be carried out. Washing became a lengthy process involving multiple trips back and forth to boil kettles and saucepans of water. Perhaps it was for this reason that some people decided to do away with washing altogether. I remember crying with laughter when my then-boyfriend complained to me about having to sit next to a man on a marshrutka whose “whole body smelt like dick.” The weather was starting to get hot by that point, which can only have exacerbated the problem.
Snow White and the Russian Stereotypes
It was customary for every cohort to put on a play for the hostesses at the end of the course. Ours was a retelling of Snow White, as written and directed by Anna. She decided it would be hilarious for Snow White to be played by the only Asian guy in the group, prompting some concerns as to whether this was just a little too controversial. Luckily, Ameer saw the funny side and embraced the role with gusto. The part of the prince was played by one of our female friends, and the rest of us were allocated roles pertaining to different Russian stereotypes. I was a bureaucrat; my then-boyfriend was a Mafioso. We had a scene in which he had to bribe me with a bottle of cognac in return for Snow White’s visa registration, which the hostesses found rather amusing. Other characters included the drunkard, the babushka, the sulky youth and of course, Putin himself.
The three men by the river
Anyone who read my piece on Saint Petersburg will know the story of the tramp in the palace gardens and his bizarre desire to watch me and my then-boyfriend kissing. I would love to be able to say that this was the strangest kissing-related incident to befall me in Russia, but alas it was not. That took place some seven months later in Yaroslavl. Once again I was sitting on a bench minding my own business, only this time I was alone.
I had gone for a walk by the river, and was sitting reading a book when three men walked by. I could see them shooting sideways glances at me, and as they passed I distinctly heard one of them tell his friend not to touch me. Deciding that the best course of action was the play it casual, I stayed put and carried on reading, although I kept a watchful eye on them as they went by.
When they were about ten metres away, one of them stopped and doubled back to talk to me. I didn’t mind; I’m happy to chat to people if that is all they want. He initially didn’t believe me when I said I was English, which I took as a sign that my Russian had improved drastically. He asked me a few questions about myself before bidding me goodbye and rejoining his friends. I was relieved, and no harm done.
Still, I continued to watch him. I could see him regaling his friends with an account of our conversation. By now all three of them were looking at me, and the man I had spoken to was gesturing in my direction. Then, to my dismay, they started walking back towards me. The others apparently didn’t believe that their friend had just happened across an English girl who could speak Russian, and wanted to see for themselves. A lengthy conversation ensued, during which they showed off their knowledge of London landmarks and quizzed me on places in England. Again I didn’t mind this, although their inability to grasp that Birmingham was not a suburb of London was mildly annoying.
When the time came for them to depart, two of the men bid me farewell with an old-fashioned kiss on the hand. The third, not to be outdone, kissed me no fewer than three times in what he called “the Russian way.” Once on each cheek and then, without asking, on the mouth. I didn’t know what to do. I hadn’t expected it, and I certainly didn’t want it. In the end I resolved to sit tight; it would be over in a couple of seconds. But what a long couple of seconds they were. Me, sat perfectly still, my lips clamped firmly shut as I tried to ignore the scratchiness of his horrible moustache.
Finally it was over, and the three of them moved on. I waited a few seconds before reaching for my bottle of water, swilling my mouth out and spitting into a nearby bin. Since then I’ve had a lot of time to ponder my reaction, or lack thereof. Had it happened at home, or had I been older, I’m sure I would have objected, maybe even shoved him off me. But I wasn’t at home. I was in Russia, a country that never loses the ability to wrong-foot you, where just going for a walk can result in you being kissed by a middle-aged, moustachioed man you’ve never met before. It was, without doubt, one of the strangest things to ever befall me. There would be other creepy men, other ill-judged advances, but thankfully none of them saw fit to attach themselves to my face without my permission.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t the only weirdo to cross my path in Russia. The day before we flew home, Tom and Emily went to a military museum in Moscow. I wasn’t fussed about going, so instead I went for a stroll along Tverskaya Ulitsa while I waited for them. I was sitting on a bench in a small square when a middle-aged man in a beige trench coat approached me. He said he’d been watching me from across the square (always a good start), that he really liked me and would I sit on his bench and drink beer with him. Yes of course, creepy intoxicated man who is clearly older than my Dad. Why wouldn’t I want to drink beer with you? I declined as politely as I could, and he shuffled back to his bench. My year abroad taught me a great many things, one of which was that if I sit out in public for any length of time, there’s a high chance I’ll get propositioned by a weirdo.
My last two weeks in Yaroslavl were spent mostly by myself. Most of the others had gone to the Crimea for ten days, but as money was tight, I opted out. Anna suggested I ask Lyuda for part of my rent money back so I could join them, but as she relied on it to supplement her salary, I simply wasn’t willing to do that. Instead I passed the time by going for long walks, reading and sitting in coffee shops for hours on end so I could use the WiFi.
I wasn’t completely alone. Two days before we flew home, Emily came back from her travels in Siberia. Our penultimate night was spent in Café Bristol, one of our favourite bars, where we shared a bottle of champagne. We should really have called it a night at that point, but champagne, I find, is one of those pesky drinks that like to trick you into thinking more is a good idea. By the time we left we’d essentially had a bottle each, and we were completely sozzled. I suggested going for a walk by the river. Emily wasn’t too keen. It was after midnight and pitch black, but I was rather insistent, so we did.
It is perhaps not surprising, given the alcohol, that we ended up arguing. Not real arguing, but sort of drunkenly bickering about what had gone on that year: the tension, the fallouts, the differences of opinion. Bickering whilst simultaneously affirming what good friends we were in spite of it all. There were tears on both sides. We must have looked ridiculous. And all the time we were being bitten mercilessly by mosquitoes. Then, just as we were heading home around two o’clock, the heavens opened and we got caught in an almighty thunderstorm. By the time we got home we were soaked to the skin. It was a strange, oddly theatrical but undeniably memorable way to spend our penultimate night in Yaroslavl.
I have countless other memories of Yaroslavl, things that randomly pop into my head from time to time. Things like International Women’s Day when Lyuda’s son, Andrei, presented me with a bunch of tulips simply for being female. Walking home in minus twelve wearing just a dress and not feeling the cold because of the vodka. Being convinced that I was about to die a fiery death because the bus I was travelling on was smoking. Trying out cross-country skiing and laughing hysterically as I slid backwards down a hill. Domodedovo airport looking like a set from a bond film due to the snow-covered pine trees lining the runway. Emily asking her hostesses’ mother about environmental issues in Russia and being spectacularly shot down with the line, “This is a spy’s topic.” Hearing Klavdia shouting at someone down the phone, wondering who she was arguing with, and being told she was “just having a chat.” Going out for lunch and one of the girls being told that as it was a festival, the chef wasn’t cooking risotto and she would have to choose something else. Art classes in which we got to paint our own set of Russian dolls. So many things that made those four months the uniquely fascinating experience they were. I’m hoping to find my way back there one day for more adventures, more craziness and more boundless Russian hospitality.