So the end of September has come and gone which means I can’t keep you all hanging for any longer – Here’s all of the details about my first month in Voronezh, Russia! 🇷🇺
Where to start? I guess the adventure truly began at 2am in the morning on September 5th, when I was frantically trying to fit my life into one suitcase a few hours before I needed to be on a plane – when will I ever learn that last minute is NOT a stress-free option? It resulted in my Mom fetching a 2nd suitcase, a sad goodbye to some unnecessary items (somehow my Stitch stuffed toy made the cut) and we were finally on our way to London Heathrow. I’ve travelled alone plenty of times now so my parents and I are more than used to the airport goodbyes but this time it was so much harder for some reason and I had tears in my eyes, which is pretty out of character for me! I’m not sure if it’s because I barely had any time at home this summer, or because my Dad was moving to New Zealand at the same time, or just because I was questioning exactly why I ever chose to study Russian at degree level… or maybe just a combination of all 3 but I got on the plane, put on a brave face and turned all the negatives into positives ready to embrace the next 4 months with an open mind.
When I got to Moscow I had to ‘check in’ for my internal flight and it’s safe to say this was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. With no english speaker in sight I was desperately trying to explain that I needed to check in two bags instead of one to no avail. The lady just looked confused and kept trying to just take one of my bags and telling me to leave the other one (great reflection of my russian ability, I know). After running around in circles, I finally located the place where I needed to pay for my excess luggage and I continued through security feeling relieved that the worst was over.
But of course the stress didn’t stop there… I lost my passport. Yep, I LOST my passport in Moscow airport. And not just my usual ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, I’ve lost my phone, guys I’ve lost my phone, seriously… wait I’ve found it’ way. This was a legitimate misplacement of a vital document needed when embarking planes. I looked everywhere I could possibly look but I knew that it was gone, so I ran to find help. My sheer panic meant that what I said in Russian probably sounded something like; ‘Passport. My passport. No. Passport I no have. Important. Help. Passport not in my bag. Please.’ The security people just waved me along pointing me to a door that clearly said ‘NO ENTRY TO THE PUBLIC’ – great, thank you. One of the workers saw me looking pretty flustered and she spoke a bit of english, so she took me to a room where I could report lost items. I waited for about 40 minutes before someone said a passport had been turned in. They showed it to me, but it was an eastern european passport belonging to a 50 year old man and I had to TELL them that it wasn’t mine… First impressions of Russia: oh dear Lord, what have I gotten myself into. I left the room again to have a look around the security area and, as if by magic, a woman came up to me asking if I was looking for my passport – she’d seen it on the side and been trying to find the owner. Luckily, it WAS mine! So my stupid mistake and carelessness was resolved by a wonderful stranger… thank you, whoever you are!
I am happy to tell you that my trials and tribulations in Russia stop there. I don’t want to jinx it, but since then it’s been a pretty smooth ride! I keep telling myself that I got all the bad stuff out of the way at the start, so I could just be free to enjoy my time here without any trouble (let’s hope that’s true – but if it’s not, at least I’m prepared now!)
So, I arrived in Voronezh airport on the smallest plane ever, there were 10 people on board, with 1 air hostess and 1 pilot. The airport isn’t really an airport – it’s a marquee stand and you collect your own suitcase straight off the plane and then walk about 10 metres to a gate where family members and drivers are waiting to collect people… A completely new experience for me! I was taken to my host family straight away and although it was 10pm at night and I was shattered after hours of travelling, they still wanted to chat and feed me about 7 gallons of borsch before I could get any rest. Borsch is a Russian soup and although I hated it the first day I got here, I find myself actually CRAVING it now that I’m almost 1 month in. My palette always adjusts pretty quickly when I’m in a country for a long period of time but that’s not to say I prefer any of this to english food – Oh, how I miss roast potatoes and beans on toast and Dairy Milk chocolate! Only 80-ish more days left till we’re reunited. Stay strong Heinz spaghetti hoops and Angel Delight – i’ll be back in no time.
Anyway, back to the point. My host mom is called Julia and she lives with her husband, daughter and grandson in a small flat. Amazingly, there is still plenty of room for me and they were all very quick to make me feel at home. I’m super lucky to have so many people to practice Russian with and my room is really cosy, albeit extremely ‘traditional’. There’s rugs everywhere – even on the walls, and my bedsheets have a diamond cut into the middle for a reason I’m not quite sure of yet. Then again, there’s loads of wardrobe space, the pillows are so soft I have trouble getting out of bed in the mornings and I have a desk with space for all of my photos so I’m definitely not complaining! Julia does my washing for me every week (she even irons my underwear, which is a luxury that I’m going to miss when I go back home) and she cooks me a 3 course breakfast and a 3 course dinner meaning that there’s never really any need for me to spend money on lunch. The best part is that all of this is just half the price of what I pay for a ROOM in Bath! Amazing.
The city and the people aren’t quite as magnificent as Bath though, which I figured out pretty much as soon as I arrived. The block of flats that I live in is run down, there’s graffiti everywhere and it doesn’t feel too safe at night. Plus the people in Voronezh don’t smile very often, they stare at foreigners and it’s rare to find waiters or shop workers who understand customer service. That said, we have made a few russian friends who break the stereotype so I want to make it clear that everything I’m saying here is an OPINION… not fact!
I have to be honest when I write this blog so I shan’t withhold any details from you – I think the biggest shock for me was seeing the university. I’m here with 3 other students from Bath (Jenny, Mike and Harry – you’ll definitely hear a lot about them over the next few months) and we study an intensive russian language and culture course at Voronezh State University. Unlike Bath, it’s not a campus – it’s spread about all over the city and you even have to take a 30 minute bus to get to some departments from the centre. The inside of the buildings is unlike anything you would see in England. One day we tried to walk up the stairs but there was a table blocking them – no explanation and no value for health and safety, it’s laughable to compare the university here to universities in the UK and don’t even get me STARTED on the bathrooms…
The classrooms are unequipped with broken chairs and piles of dust but the best part is that they are mixed in with the dorm rooms. So basically, when you step outside the classroom you can see people cooking lunch or running in a towel from the showers – it’s so surreal! None of this has actually been a negative though, it’s just an interesting experience. We all know how to laugh at our situation – there’s not a lot else you can do when your teacher stops mid lesson to kill some cockroaches or puts their cigarette out on the floor of the classroom because it really is THAT much of a dump already. I’m starting to love this place!
Our lessons are good so it doesn’t really matter about what our classroom looks like. My Russian is improving every day and although one or two of the teachers may be slightly strict and less understanding if you can’t answer a question quick enough, most are really nice and they do a great job of teaching us what we can’t learn in the UK. We have lessons in speaking, phonetics, translation and verbs as well as optional modules including music, culture and film but I think my favourite hour of the week is our music class with Sergei. We sing Russian songs (I’m not joking when I say we sound like a world class choir… we are X factor worthy) whilst he plays guitar and imparts his life knowledge on us.
I’ll make sure to include some of his best quotes for you:
If I didn’t smoke, I would be a perfect human.
Haven’t you ever seen a drunk policeman? They exist in England too but they hide so perhaps that’s why you don’t see them.
If war comes, Voronezh will be one of the first to suffer so tell David Cameron to come and help you.
The family have children, then the children go to university and then the university put them into little boxes and they’re all packaged up the same.
Smoking kills 1 in 2 people. But it hasn’t killed me yet, so I guess I’m okay.
Of course, it HAS been difficult for me at times and I am still finding my feet. My other friends from Bath have a slightly different set up because their Bath peer mentor who studied in Voronezh last year is super helpful and constantly sends them messages for jobs or new people to meet, whereas mine was non existent after about 2 months of me starting university so I had absolutely no idea about some of the opportunities here. I didn’t know a word of russian when I started my degree 2 years ago, my parents don’t speak any russian and I don’t have family contacts in the area… so as you can see I’m at a slight disadvantage. Then again, that’s all the more reason to step up my game and work a bit harder! I just need to stop comparing myself, have an awesome time exploring a new country and be proud that my Russian is improving every day and will continue to as long as I put the effort in! Not to quote Hannah Montana or anything (100% deliberate Hannah Montana reference) but life’s what you make it! (….. so let’s make it rock 🎵) Wait, I need to remember that other people actually spend their precious time reading this… apologies.
So, I think that’s all the basic information about my life in Voronezh. Now time to speedily fill you in on all the extra bits and bobs that you might be interested in:
– Me and Jenny went to the cinema to watch Disney’s ‘Planes’ in Russian. When the film finished and we were both sound asleep, we realised that we’d essentially paid 200 roubles to have a nap…
– I’m going to get fat. It’s inevitable. All I eat is carbs and I eat more food than ANYONE can possibly imagine. If it wasn’t rude to take my phone to the table then I would get a picture of the feast that I have to tackle alone every morning and night. Plus, it’s weird to go running here or just exercise in general so I can’t even attempt to get fit again. I do need the extra layers for winter here though, so I can only see this as a positive.
– We played rugby in the park, a girl sprained her ankle, we all helped to carry her home – end of story really.
– We understand about 2% of the things that people say to us in restaurants, so we find ourselves just saying ‘da’ (yes) to whatever question we are asked. It’s worked well so far but I dread the day that it backfires and we end up ordering something completely unwanted. One time, we asked to see the menu again (which is pronounced pretty much the same in Russian as it is in english) and somehow ended up with the bill… our language may need some work.
– I cut and dyed Jenny’s hair and I’ve decided that hair and beauty is a plausible back up plan if my degree doesn’t work out.
– I have a Russian phone, a library card AND I’ve sorted out my blocked bank card. I consider these all to be mini-achievements as there were times when my Russian was put to the test. Plus, it made me realise the importance of organisation and actually doing things for yourself rather than waiting around and expecting somebody else to do them for you!
– There’s a bar here called ‘Bar Duck’ where free champagne is served all night for girls. There’s also a bar called ‘BARack O’Mama’ (great name, right?) which serves 5 shots of various spirits with some ice and calls it a cocktail…
– I thought that when Russians got drunk they were crazy party animals, but so far all I’ve seen is empty clubs, endless games of ring of fire, terrible dancing and an amateur spelling bee at pre drinks. “How do you spell -insert russian word here-” Are you kidding me? It’s 1am in the morning and I did not sign up for this.
– We saw someone getting shouted at for holding hands with a black person (racism is a problem here) and we’ve seen a few physical fights on the streets.
– There’s a LOT of holes in the ground. They aren’t marked off so it’s super easy to fall into them. We think this is why nobody looks up and smiles here because if you divert your eyes from the pavement at any second you risk ending up in a russian sewer.
– Russians like organised fun. We had a ‘party’ for international students where we were given A PEN AND PAPER and asked to complete exercises in groups… it was basically a russian class. Then we were forced to stand around and sidestep to a terrible live singer before playing ‘games’ to introduce ourselves. Safe to say, we left early. Although, the highlight of the night was Mike being asked who the inventor of curling was. He said ‘Thomas Curling’ with such conviction that he actually won a t-shirt for his ‘knowledge’ despite it being a made up answer.
– The mall here is INSANE. It’s got an indoor theme park, and endless amount of shops, a butterfly garden, an iMax cinema, a food court, bowling alleys, spa, and a massive aquarium!
– We saw a grenade on the way home from university. Army tanks drive around casually on the roads. Oh, and someone from our uni was quarantined due to suspected ebola. (I’ve deliberately made this sound more dramatic than it is: we don’t know if the grenade was real, Voronezh is an army base so of course there’s tanks and there’s no evidence that anyone actually HAS ebola yet)
– We went to the ‘Den Goroda’ of Voronezh, which is basically the town’s birthday. There was a street parade, an awesome air show and fireworks. One of my favourite days since we’ve been here!
– Me and Jenny miss dancing, but Russian dance classes are mainly ballet (great for Jenny) and aimed at small children who are ridiculously talented and want to devote their lives to it (not so great for Jenny), so we’ve resorted to dancing around the boys’ flat – our only form of art expression/exercise here…
– We watched an ice hockey match. It was way more exciting than I imagined it to be and the home team won, which was a bonus because we could jump up and down and mexican wave as if we actually cared what was happening.
– We spent an evening at the ballet theatre watching ‘Swan Lake’, after stuffing our faces with pizza at an amazing Italian restaurant. There were 3 loooong acts and the dancing was mediocre. I definitely did not fall asleep, I definitely did not snore loudly and the people in front of me definitely did not turn around and glare at me…. oh, and me and Jenny definitely didn’t spend 30 minutes in fits of silent giggles because of it all.
And that’s about everything! Russia has been the biggest culture shock that I’ve experienced to date and I love it and hate it all at the same time. Before I came here, my friends joked about what Russia would be like and sometimes it does play up to it’s stereotypes but then other times it completely surprises you!
I sometimes get dragged down by the grey skies and miserable people but then within a second I’m laughing with my friends and planning another fun trip – so it all balances out in the long run. I’m so excited for all the adventures we have to look forward to. University trips, hanging out with friends in the Russian countryside, learning all about the culture by chatting to locals and visiting museums and churches, visits to other Russian cities, embracing the Russian winter… I know that it’s going to be a roller coaster of ups and downs (just like everything else in life) but this experience is invaluable and I truly believe that if I can stick this out and say that I spent 4 months living in Russia then there won’t be a lot that I can’t do 🙂 Here’s to positive thinking!
I apologise for the ridiculously long post but I just had so much to tell you about. We’re off to Moscow today, so I promise it won’t be so long until the next installment!
✌ and ❤, Tara x
If the food isn’t delicious, don’t eat it. If your job isn’t delicious, don’t do it. If you spend time doing stuff that doesn’t make you happy then your life will be ruined – Sergei Victorovich