Saturday, December 11, 2004


'Na konets'

You may have noticed that I haven't posted anything on this weblog since September. That's because I've done remotely connected with Russia since September. So, until I get round to writing up my final notes and experiences, you can consider this weblog dead, or ar least in deep hibernation.

Thanks for reading.


Wednesday, September 08, 2004


Hello. I had this site recommended to me. Apparently it's just like mine except professional. So if you want to read some stories about Russia by someone who's actually there, check it out. Plus he's got lots of pictures. Whereas I have two.

Monday, September 06, 2004


You may not believe this, but I actually did a little bit of coding to improve my weblog. If you look at any of the entries on this blog, now you'll see a little envelope symbol by the title, after 'Posted by James'. If you click on this envelope, you can forward the entry to a friend. Cool hey?

You are not, however, according to Blogger, allowed to use this feature for 'excessive self promotion'. Whereas me writing about myself day-in, day-out is fine.

Also, incidentally, if you click on the word 'Posted' itself then you can read the entry in a separate page. And if you click on a photo you can see a big version. This is all very high-tech.

Isn't it ironic that my weblog suddenly gets really cool when I've got nothing else to write about?

When I was living in Moscow I had great fun rummaging through the cupboards in the flat as they were all full of junk from the 1970s. One of the treasures I uncovered was a postcard series which featured traditional recipes from all the corners of the Soviet Union. Each card had a picture of a dish on the front, and a recipe on the back. I took the card for my favourite dish, a Georgian lamb soup called 'Kharcho' (Har-CHO), back to England with me.

Anyway, last night I cooked it for the first time, following the Russian cooking instructions. And the finished dish was edible! It had prunes in! And it actually cost quite a lot to buy the ingredients!

If anyone would like the recipe for Kharcho, just let me know. I'd scan the other side of the card in too, but it wouldn't help unless you could speak Russian, and then you'd be better off just asking a Russian how to cook it.

Sunday, September 05, 2004


Yes, there's been quite a while since posts. Um, a couple of months. I even started to get complaints, surprisingly from people who see me on a regular basis. So, sorry about that. But now there will be photos (with enthusiastic captions!) so I hope that it compensates.


The school seige was terrible, that goes without saying. I don't know if you noticed, but the BBC captioned it 'Russia seige', which I suppose is true on several different levels.

Of course there is going to be a crackdown on civil liberties in Russia, and more government-backed murders in Chechnya. The parallels between what is happening in Russia, and what is happening in the US, are pretty clear. I'm sure that the same process would happen here too, if we had a 9/11 or a school siege of our own. Think of how it would affect the ID card argument.

I've been working on a parable. Here it is.


A man was stung by a bee. So he took a big plank and smashed the fuck out of the nearest beehive. Well, of course, he got stung a lot more. 'I knew that was going to happen,' thought the man. 'And it proves I hit the right beehive, and that I was right to hit the beehive. My mistake was not hitting it hard enough.'

No, it's not a mirage brought on by excessive vodka; I have just worked out how I can post pictures to the weblog. So here is one of me in my old flat at Planernaya in Moscow. I think it was taken in late spring.

Isn't it a glorious place to live? Gareth is still there, lucky boy. Have a good look at the tasteful bedding. And the decorative wallpaper. Now that's what I call the high life. Oh, but don't even ask about my hair - I was just about to have it cut.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004


To clear up a bit of confusion... I am already back in the UK, but I have such a backlog of Russia stories to write about that I'll probably be posting on-and-off for another month or so! The trouble is, you can either live your life or write about it - but not both at once. For the past month or two I've been living my life, and now I'm back in England I have time to write about it. Does that say anything about the two countries? Probably not; just about me.

As you might expect, my departure from Russia - for what may be the foreseeable future - was not uneventful. She wouldn't let me leave without a crisis or two to remember her by. I'll write about it now, even though it'll put my weblog out of sync. I'll trust that you won't all be too confused.


As part of my contract, I had a driver booked to take me nice and safely from my front door to the airport, which is outside the city to the south. As it happened, the driver turned up five hours before my plane was due to fly, and such un-Russian time-keeping started to make me suspicious.

About twenty minutes into the journey, the driver, Artyom, who I know passingly well, said:
'James. I have very busy day today. If it is okay I will drop you at the train station and you get fast train to airport, yes.'

Normally I wouldn't be too happy about this, but as I knew the driver and had taken the very efficient, quick and clean airport train before, I agreed. Of course, this meant that we now had to drive into the centre of Moscow rather than round the ring road. It also explained the five hour buffer the driver had allowed.

We got within three hundred yards of the station and the traffic ground to a halt. Five minutes passed; ten; fifteen. We inched forward a little and could suddenly see the problem - a tram had come off its track and veered over into the incoming traffic, blocking two lanes. It was obvious that we weren't going anywhere for a while, and though I still had three and a half hours until my flight, I only had fifteen minutes until the train to the airport was due to leave.

Artyom made a split-second decision. He drove the car up in front of a builder's yard, jumped out, and started hauling my enormous suitcase out the back of the car. 'Come on, James! Run!' he implored, and started to leg it down the street with my handluggage, leaving me to handle 'the beast'.

Now I doubt you've ever run down a busy, potholed pavement with a 30kg+suitcase on wheels chundering along behind you. Even worse, it was one of those very scenic but completely impractical streets with trees planted every 15 metres right in the middle of the pavement. It was like Ultimate Pinball, although I think I did well only running over three pedestrians, a small dog and myself (twice).

I made it to the train, retrieved my handluggage, bought a ticket, and was seated in a carriage before you could say 'angry mob'.

The next obstacle to a successful journey home was the check-in desk. A BA staff member took me out of the queue to a special frequent flier zone just because I had an 'e-ticket', which was nice, and I was even assigned a staff member, 'Tanya', to look after me. Inexplicably, there was a camera crew hovering around but I ignored them long enough to heave my suitcase up onto the conveyor.

'Thirty five kilos, sir,' Tanya said, unbelievingly. 'I'm afraid that our absolute maximum is 32.' And I know from experience that you often have to pay excess on anything over 26.

So there I was, opening my giant suitcase on the floor of the airport. What could I take out? Aha - my jacket. Never mind that I was already holding my winter coat and the temperature outside was a balmy 25. And I was wearing my thickest jumper and jeans just to bring the weight down. And look - my towels! They're heavy.

I removed my towels and checked my bag - hovering around 32 and a half kilos - without being charged excess. At the time I assumed it was because I was boarding with the magical e-ticket (which either gets me privileges, or creates confusion, depending on whether the airport staff know what the hell it is). There was another possible reason, which came to light later.

But in the meantime, I was left on the ground floor of the airport with a trolley stacked with - one very large piece of hundluggage, one winter coat (I was wearing my jacket), and six assorted fluffy pink towels. There was no way I could go anywhere without at least securing a plastic bag for the towels. After begging the BA desk for one (which was unsuccessful), I had an idea. It's the kind of idea that always seems to be original and unique when you yourself have it, but later you realise that not only has everyone else had it before, so have you. The idea was to buy something small from a shop, and thus get a plastic bag with the purchase. Genius, eh?

The only flaw in my plan was that I was on the ground floor, and the shops were on the first. The only was between the two seemed to be by escalator, and have you ever tried getting a trolley onto an escalator? The only alternative - carrying all my handluggage by hand - was promptly ruled out after the first attempt resulted in towels scattering to the wind. It's only now that I realise the irony of having handluggage that is impossible to carry by hand. Although trolleyluggage isn't as catchy.

At this point I had the realisation that the likelihood of me getting the towels to the plane were slim, and even if I did so, there was little chance that I would be allowed to board with so much luggage. So I decided to bin the towels. But could I find a bin in the airport? Of course not. It's an airport. Again, I had several options. I did consider leaving the terminal briefly to dump the towels in a bush. But I thought that that would like highly suspicious and probably end up with me being arrested. I also thought about asking my friendly friend at the BA helpdesk to dispose of them for me, but one look at the condition of the towels (remember - they had been on the floor, and not machine washed for six months) and I decided not to inflict that on him. Even though he couldn't get me a plastic bag.

To cut a very long story long, I finally managed to buy a newspaper from a kiosk and stash the towels in that. That was the last major obstacle but I was then nearly scuppered by my own idiocy.

When I had checked my bag in, my personal assistant Tatiana told me that I would be boarding from Zone C, Gate 3. After I found a bag for the towels, I looked up to see Gate 3 written boldly on the sign above me. I of course followed the arrow round to the left to the gate. Now stop me if I'm wrong, but a good way to number gates and zones would be like this:

Zone A Gates 1-5
Zone B Gates 6-10
Zone C Gates 11-15

- and so on. Instead, this airport had decided to number them like this:

Zone A Gates 1-5
Zone B Gates 1-5
Zone C Gates 1-5

- and so on. So in fact there were a number of Gate 1s, Gate 2s, Gate 3s. And I had the right gate number but the wrong zone, and therefore the wrong gate. Of course, I didn't realise this at the time. 'But there are security checks,' I hear you say. And you would be right. And on this particular day, the security check involved me trying to give my documents to the officials, and the officials waving me through.

It wasn't until I was past security that I realised that my fellow travellers were all, how should I put it, a little bit darker-skinned than me. They looked neither particularly English, nor especially Russian. Just to be on the safe side, I decided to double back and ask one of the officials where exactly this flight was going.



Fortunately I had time to leave this gate and find the real one. Once again I went through the security checks - slightly more rigorous, but again not objecting to me having three items of handluggage. Oops, I bought some cigarettes for my mum so by this time I had four.

I got to the gate itself only to be greeted by along table filled with champagne glasses and other refreshments.

'Have some champagne, sir,' one BA staff member offered.

It turned out that BA were celebrating one year of flights from that particular airport (earlier, they had flown from Sheremetievo in the north). Perhaps this was why I hadn't been charged for excess, especially with a camera crew hovering.

In the end, I made it back home without further adventures, and even managed to stash three of my four bits of handluggage precariously in the overhead locker without them falling and injuring my fellow travellers.

Friday, July 02, 2004


I mentioned in passing that Gareth, Anthony Ian and I went a while ago to visit a friend of Gareth's, Marina, who had invited us to stay and look around her home town of Sergeev Posad for the weekend. SP is one of the towns of the Golden Ring, that historical region to the North East of Moscow. You may remember that I toured round part of the Golden Ring with my dad in May, though due to technical difficulties we never made it as far as Sergeev Posad.

Even among the Golden Ring towns, Sergeev Posad is special, in that it is the centre of the Russian Orthodox Church, and home of the Patriarch, head of Russian Orthodoxy. Think of it as a kind of Russian version of the Vatican City. But without a history of deals with the Nazis.

The three of us met up with Marina in Moscow (you may remember that Ian was having a nosebleed at the time), and took the train a couple of hours out to Sergeev Posad. Marina actually comes from the next town along, the rather less significant and dynamically named town of 'Farm' (in Russian; probably not many rural peasant farmers there speak English).

As it was already evening, we decided to head straight for Farm and look around Sergeev Posad the following day. Surprisingly, there wasn't a great deal to see in Farm and Ian had even stopped bleeding so Marina suggested a barbeque in the woodland by the edge of the lake. This is a typically Russian activity (it involves breaking things, burning things, destroying nature, meat, and drinking), so we gladly accepted.

Three of Marina's friends joined us for the barbecue and our first task, as dictated to us by Marina, was gathering wood for the fire. All Russians are expect fire builders and so Marina took charge of that, while the rest of us went back and forth lugging armfuls of firewood and worrying about snakes.

A much greater peril than snakes, however, in the Russian forest, is mosquitoes. They are big, they are hungry, and they swarm. Our barbecue, as I have said, was on the banks of an admittedly very beautiful lake and so with all the water the mosquitoes were even more numerous than usual.

I was walking back to the fire with an armful of wood when a particularly huge mosquito - about the size of a daddy longlegs, and this is not poetic license - landed on my hand. I gave a little squeal and tried to swat it with my other hand. This other hand, I had forgotten, was holding firewood so all I managed to do was hit myself on the head. I dropped the wood in a heap - the mosquito still hadn't moved - and swatted the thing as hard as I could. It exploded in a great splat of what I hope was my own blood. I must admit it - I screamed.

Gareth was nearby, also collecting firewood, and this is what he heard:

SQUEAL! I see the mosquito.
THONK! I hit myself on the head.
CRUMP! I drop the wood.
SLAP! the mosquito is dead.
SCREAM! I am a big girl's blouse.

I then come staggering out of the wood with my bloody, swollen, hand held out in front of me like a loaded gun.

"Bloody hell, James, what's wrong?" asks Gareth with concern.
"Mosquito," I reply.

I did not mention it before, but Ian does not have much luck with metro trains. Once, when he was on a train with Gareth and I, he failed to even make it off the carriage at our destination before the doors shut and the train whisked him somewhere else. Gareth and I were left on the platform looking gormless and wondering if Ian had the sense and the ability to find his way back to the station.

Another time, his shopping bag split just as he was stepping off the train - resulting in oranges and other (unfortunately round) foodstuffs rolling about on the carriage floor. There we were, the three of us, desparately scrabbling about between peoples' feet trying to retrieve fruit before the doors closed.

From the time of my previous post, Ian's luck continued to be poor. He managed to get assaulted in a train station late at night, misplace his passport, and break our front door for a second time. Somehow, though, he managed to make it all the way to Kazan for a job interview. Wonders never cease... at the moment he is working up in Zelenograd in Moscow Region for Language Link. Zelenograd is widely known of the Stevenage of Russia. Looks like Ian's luck isn't improving...

Tuesday, June 22, 2004


Let me introduce you to Ian. Ian is an English teacher who has been working down in the sunny Russian resort town of Sochi, on the Black Sea. He is English, like myself, mild mannered and bespectacled, like Clark Kent, and is an old friend of my flatmate's. In fact, Ian is staying with us at the moment. Oh, one other thing - Ian is the unluckiest man in the world.

Ian had to leave Sochi under a cloud. His boss refused to let him take all the holiday time that he was owed; Ian went ahead and took it anyway; he was sacked, without being payed his previous six weeks' wages. The school he worked at also tried to confiscate his passport in order to cancel his visa, and held his property under lock and key until he handed over his documents. Eventually, with the intervention of the police, Ian recovered his stuff (though not the money he was owed). And after a couple of months teaching privately in Sochi, not receiving a regular salary, he decided to come to Moscow and try his luck. Never a good idea as far as Ian is concerned.

So Ian arrived at our flat on Thursday evening, feeling a little under the weather. He woke up the following day with full-blown flu, and spent the next 48 hours sleeping on my broken sofa rather than looking for employment as planned. On Sunday, feeling a little better, he decided to get up and take a shower. In the shower, he managed to - somehow - knock several shower tiles off the wall which smashed in the bathtub and cut one of his feet wide open. He spent the next twenty minutes bleeding over the kitchen floor.

Once he had stopped bleeding, he came out with me and my flatmate Gareth to meet a Russian friend of ours, Marina, who had invited us to visit her home town for a couple of days. While we were sitting on a bench in the metro station, waiting for Marina, Ian's nose started to bleed. It continued to trickle blood for the next hour and a half - when we met Marina, when we bought train tickets, when we got onto the train, when the train left. Ian spent most of that day with a ball of tissue held to his face.

Since then, Ian's bad luck has been less dramatic but it has continued. This morning, for example, I asked Ian to venture out into the communal corridor of our block of flats to throw our rubbish down the rubbish chute; when he came back, thirty seconds later, he was unable to shut or lock the door. Somehow, merely through his touch, the door had warped and now no longer fitted the frame.

My flatmate has a theory that Ian's bad luck has been replicating, in random order, the plagues visited upon Egypt in the Old Testament. We've had the rivers of blood, for example! In fact, Gareth even blames his piles on Ian's coming.

Either that or Ian's boss in Sochi is in league with the devil, and has placed a curse him which will haunt him for the rest of his days.

Ian still has twenty four hours with us - what more damage can he do? Watch this space.