Monday, 10 June 2013

The Accidental Diplomat - Day 7 - A Bridge Over the River Kama

The energy levels began to flag today as all of the flying and travelling began to take its toll. Fortunately the itinerary for the day was a fairly relaxed one. After a hearty breakfast of pancakes, yogurt, fruit and coffee it was off for a guided tour of Perm city. 
On the tour we were driven around the city and show sites including the statue of Boris Pasternak (author of Dr. Zhivago), the friendly bear of Perm, and the 'Salty ears statue' which commemorates all the former residents of Perm who carried salt sacks on their shoulders and suffered from enlarged ears due to the salt rubbing against them.
(Image - The Friendly Bear of Perm)

Taking a leaf out of the habits of the bear I decided that the next few hours should be used for napping, eating, then some more napping. After this rather dull but useful cycle I was much revived and ready to return to exploring Perm.
One of my fellow delegates had found about a boat tour of the Kama River that departed every two hours and lasted about an hour and a half. So a group of us decided that this would be a great way to see the surrounding area and lap up some more of the sun.
The sun gently shone down on us as our boat sailed down the Kama, sea gulls flew along side as children threw pieces of bread to them. The only thing to disrupt the tranquillity of the trip was the pop music blaring from the upper deck. It seemed that we had managed to board the party boat. Many an embarrassed Russia child looked on as their parents boogied down to Russian pop music and even the ever popular Korean hit Gangnam Style.
(Image - Me on a boat on the River Kama)

After dinner I attempted to buy souvenirs from a very grumpy Russian lady in a park who told me that she could not be bothered to serve me and to return tomorrow. In the time that she took to be rude to me she could have made several hundred roubles, but this seemed to escape her notice so I decided to return to the White Nights festival where the service was, well, actual service.
On the way back to the hotel I decided to stop and pick up a beer to make packing for the return to Moscow more enjoyable. Sadly my attempts to buy beer were hampered as it was after 11pm and a new 'no alcohol after 11pm' law was now in place. The strange thing about this law is that beer, spirits and wine cannot be bought after 11pm, even non-alcoholic beer, but Kvas (a Russian yeasty drink that is around 1.5% alcohol) can be bought after 11pm. So instead of stocking up on beer to drink while packing I had kvas, it would seem that my day frolicking around as a peasant had had more of an effect on me that I thought!

Sunday, 9 June 2013

The Accidental Diplomat - Day 6 - Peasant Times

Today was quite possibly one of the most random and fun days of my life! After a somewhat broken night of sleep, mostly caused by my body being confused by the fact it was still light at 1am, our group was taken on an excursion to a place called 'Khokhlovka' which wass a massive open air museum located not far from Perm.
We were greeted by two Russian ladies in traditional dress offering us bread and salt.Yum! There was just long enough to enjoy the view before we were directed into a nearby building where we changed into traditional Russian Peasant costumes. Given that I was named 'Laura' after Laura Ingalls-Wilder authoress of Little House on the Prairie this somehow seemed very apt!

(Image - Me dressed as a Russian Peasant Girl)

Once everyone in our group was changed, and now looking very traditional, it was time for the tour of the museum. Throughout the excursion our guides explained to us about how the buildings were build and the history of the area. This was intermixed with activities such as churning butter, weaving, milking goats and traditional peasant dancing.
(Image - Traditional Peasant Dancing)

After this it was time for a lunch of okrushka (milk, onion, gherkin soup) and pies. Having been walking around in the heat for so long it was great to finally sit and relax. The experience was all the better as this was the view from our table;

Sadly it was then time to return to the Twenty First Century and Perm. There was enough time before dinner to have an explore and see some of the statues and sites. After dinner it was off to the 'White Nights Festival'. To celebrate the extended hours of daylight the city had transformed one of the areas into a mini city with a river, several stages for live music and various bars and cafes. It was both strange and lovely to be able to sit outside in the sun drinking kvas at nearly midnight and not be cold. I may have grumbled about it while trying to sleep but it was a totally unique and undescribible experience!

Saturday, 8 June 2013

The Accidental Diplomat - Day 5 - The Conference Part 2

I awoke this morning to find a note in the handle of my door informing me about a round table discussion on the teaching of Russian Language abroad with my name on it in bold. This somewhat perplexed me as I had not been told about this event before.
At breakfast I was told that it would be the same as yesterday - sit in the audience etc. Somehow I had the feeling that it would be just like the day before in that I would somehow end up speaking, but as the day before had been a success and it is an honour to be asked to speak I decided to go with the flow and see what happened.
Arriving at the conference venue I tried to hide at the back hoping that maybe I wouldn't be spotted, sadly this failled after it turns out that not only was I due to take part but that there was a name sign on the table. Luckily I was not the first to speak and was able to jot down a few notes about the teaching of Russian Language in the UK, how fortunate I was to have been able to learn it at school, how it was rare in the UK and some reasons for why that was.
(Image - Me speaking at the Round Table discussion)

During the round table the representative from Armenia got slightly bored and decided to start talking to me instead of listening, bit rude but she did say to contact her if I am ever in Armenia. After I had spoken the chair of the round table, Andrei Klimov, commented for a long time on the points that I had made in my speech.
Following some downtime in the gardens of the conference venue with some tea and sunshine there was breifly time for lunch before we were taken on a tour of the newspaper 'Argumenti i Fakti' Perm offices. This was a great chance to meet with their journalists and find out things like how they differ from the Moscow version of the paper.
That evening we had free time to explore the city of Perm. I decided that after sitting inside for so long that I would try to find a nearby beach and enjoy the sun and the 30C heat. Looking at the map I could see that it was a shortish walk over a nearby bridge to the less industrialised side of the river. I packed a bag and headed off.
(Image - The Bridge over the River Kama)

I found the route no problem and could see the beach from the otherside of the river. The problem came in crossing the bridge, because it was fairly high up and exposed my head started to spin part way across. I decided to turn back and try to take a bus instead as we had been told that the number 3 went in that direction. I managed to find the bus no problems and was happily sat enjoying the trip until I realised it was going in the wrong direction. Realising this I jumped out and decided to explore Perm instead as my attempts to ask the ticket lady if the bus went to the beach were met with the reply 'I don't understand, I don't know *glare*'.
Fortunately I was in the city centre and not too far from the hotel so decided to head to a nearby park. This park turned out to be called 'Gorky Park' and was like a smaller version of the 'Gorky Park' in Moscow complete with theme park rides, pop corn and shooting games. After I had had a good look round and enjoyed some ice cream I wandered back to the hotel past statues, beautiful buildings and a couple of highly decorated churches.
(Image - Perm by night)

Of all the places that I have visited in the World Perm is easily one of my favourites. The views are stunning, the buildings beautiful and because of the White Nights you have extra time to enjoy the city by daylight.

Friday, 7 June 2013

The Accidental Diplomat - Day 4 - The Conference

After only an hour of sleep and some serious jet lag after the double city jump it was time to get up and prepare for the conference. Luckily Perm was experiencing the White Night which meant that the sun rose very early and made 6am (1am GMT) feel more like 10am.
Once registration was over there was enough time for a coffee and a mingle with some of the other attendees before I headed over to the venue for my discussion. However, the event did not quite go as I had expected.
I took my seat in the audience on the front row so that I would have easy access to the microphone and could stand up if needed. I was just looking over my speech when one of the organisers came up and asked me why I was sat in the audience when I was meant to be on the panel representing Great Britain. This somewhat through me but it was too late to protest. Next thing I knew I was on the panel for the discussion along side five other people (all native Russian speakers) who were all very high up in their respected organisations. Oh and the event was chaired by the Russian equivalent of Philip Schofield, and was televised.
Eventually my turn to speak came and I decided to give it my best shot and pray their were no follow up questions. There was one but it was about the definition of 'proper Russian' which I was able to draw a parallel to 'Queen's English' and explain the differences to regional English.
(Image - Me on the panel discussion)

As it was a bit early in the day to begin drinking I decided to go and recover with coffee and biscuits, while doing so the chair of the debate, Sergei Brulov, came up to me and chat a had in English. He apologised for being a bit hard with the questions, asked me where I learned Russian language, jokingly accused me of working for MI6 and told me that clearly I would go far. All very encouraging things to hear!
(Image - Me with Sergei Brulov)

After lunch it was time for my fellow delegate to speak on behalf of Great Britain in the international round table that was linked up to countries as far west as Iceland and as far east as Japan. It was truly an amazing experience! It was then time for a drinks reception with the Governor of Perm and some time in the sun enjoying some Russian vodka.
(Image - Me with the Governor of Perm)

The Accidental Diplomat - Day 3 - Moscow to Perm

The rain beat heavily against my window as I opened my curtains before leaving my room to head to a breakfast of pancakes, coffee, fruit and yogurt. Almost as if the city were sad of our departure to Perm later that day.
Following check out it was time for a coach excursion around the Russian Capital. The plan had been to get out at various locations, however due to the rain this was only possible at Sparrows Hills near Moscow State University. Our tour began at Dinamo then we drove down to Tverskaya, on to Red Square, along the Moscow river past the Kremlin then on the Olympic Stadium, Sparrows Hills, Yuro-Zapadnaia, then back round and up to Red Square and the Church of Christ the Saviour. In short we saw all of the key site before heading off to Sheremetovo Airport.
(Image - Red Square in the Rain)
The trip to the airport should not have been too long a journey, in theory. However, our driver didn't seem to have either a sense of direction or any kind of patience. After getting lost near Khimki (a new technology park near Moscow), having a race with another coach, doing a u-turn across 12 lanes of traffic he then got lost again near the airport. Eventually we arrived near Sheremetovo and could at last see the hotel where we would have lunch and the airport we would depart from. Sadly, at this point the driver's patience finally ran out after he got the coach stuck between some parked cars. Upon discovering this he threw up his hands and shouted rather loudly words to the effect of 'buggar this! I'm off! I'm not driving you any further, you can walk from here.' then promptly left for a cigarette leaving our group to walk to the hotel for lunch.
After lunch it was time to check in and board the Aeroflot domestic flight to Perm. Now, I was always aware of how Russians love their security and paperwork but simply getting into Sheremetovo was an adventure in itself - passport control and security just to enter the place. Then more security, check in and passport control. Before I knew it I was boarding.
The first thing that struck me about flying with Aeroflot was the two stunningly beautiful air hostesses who greeted us on the flight. It turned out, however, that they were reserved for the first class passengers and that those in economy were left with the slightly more homely looking hostesses. The second thing that struck me was that alcohol was not to be served on domestic flights - somewhat ironic for a country with a reputation for drinking. Luckily I was befriended by a lovely middle aged man from New Delhi who distracted me from the fact I was on a plane, and sober, by telling me all about Perm and how for him flying for a luxury.
Two hours later we landed at Perm airport and were then driven to our hotel near the Kama River. Perm could not have been more different from Moscow. Where Moscow felt historic, busy and was filled with tower blocks and churches, Perm was rural, calm and exactly as described by Pasternak in Dr. Zhivago.
After dinner and more unpacking, well upending my suitcase onto the floor, we were given our itinerary for the next day at which point I heard my name called for taking part in a discussion that I had not prepared for. I went to the organiser to check this and was informed that this was in fact the case and I would be in a discussion but not to worry as I would be sat in the audience and would only have to speak when asked to.
Following a mild panic I went to my room to write my speech on 'the influence of SMI (Mass media) on the preservation and development of Russian Language'. Even though I had been told that I would only be in the audience I wanted to be prepared.
Around 2am Perm time (9pm GMT) I had finished and had just enough time for about 3 hours of sleep before needing to get up for the conference the next day. Luckily this was also around the time that the sun set meaning that despite being in the middle of the White Nights I was able to sleep in a darkened room.
(Image - The View from my Hotel Room)

Thursday, 6 June 2013

The Accidental Diplomat - Day 2 - Moscow Baby

For the second morning in a row my alarm forcible wakened up at an ungodly hour, the only difference today was that it was in fact 8am Moscow time (5am GMT). Falling over my stuff to get to my alarm clock I vowed that the next time I unpacked something I would use a slightly more organised approach.
The first activity on the itinerary was a meeting with the head of Rossotrudnichestvo Moscow who explained to us the aims of the organisation before taking questions from our group. It was interesting to hear about the work that they do in a variety of different countries around the world. 
(Image - Me with the Head of Rossotrudnichestvo Moscow)
Then it was on to lunch at a nearby hotel. So far on this trip I had been offered some fairly normal dishes, however, it was at lunch that I was reminded of some of the more obscure aspects of Russian cooking. For example the format is almost always some form of heavily mayonnaised 'salad', soup, main dish, cake. Today I was given carrot, onion and mayo 'salad', cheese soup with mystery meat, cheesy fish with rice and a massive slice of honey cake. All of which was tasty but very different from the food I am used to in the UK.
(Image - Cheesy Fish and Rice)
With lunch over it was off to the International Language Library where we had the chance to explore the collection and hear from it's head. As a present from one of the groups that works alongside the library we were given some copies of books with parallel translation in them - Russian on one side, English on the other.
Upon returning to my hotel room before dinner I discovered that the maid had not liked my style of unpacking and had decided to reorganise all of my things. This made it slightly tricky for locating clean clothes and, amongst other things, my cuddly toy cat which meant that changing for dinner in fact became a very long and arduous process.
At dinner I was greeted with yet more interesting dishes to sample such as beetroot and mayo 'salad' however this was counterbalanced by a delicious cabbage soup and bread. Just as we were finishing dinner the organisers of the conference informed us that tomorrow morning we would need to appear at breakfast with our fully packed suitcases as we would not be returning to our hotel before our Aeroflot flight to Perm.
In all my time in Russia I had successfully managed to avoid Aeroflot, or Aeroflop as they are more popularly known, and domestic Russian flights which are known for their low levels of safety and high crash rates. As the train to Perm would take around 30 hours and the conference was due to begin the next morning there was no way out - I was going to be flying Aeroflot.
Luckily I managed to find three activities to distract myself from thinking about this - FaceTiming my family after discovering free wifi in the hotel lobby, watching Russian TV (Twilight was on STS :D ) and packing. Anyone who knows me will know how much I simply, erm, love this activity, which was made even more fun by spending several hours trying to locate all of my things after the maid had 'tidied up'. Luckily my approach to packing is similar to my approach to unpacking - grab all the items, fold them, cram them in, sit on suitcase, zip up. Sorted!

The Accidental Diplomat - Day 1 - Arrivals

At 3:30am on Monday May 27th my alarm clock screamed out that it was time to get up, get dressed and head down to Heathrow for my flight to Moscow before I would head to Perm where I would be a delegate at a conference entitle 'Russia Language between Europe and Asia.'
After two night buses and a train I arrived at Heathrow where I had enough time to check in and sample the delights of the Duty Free section. As someone who does not particularly like flying being able to try some new whiskey or a nice orange vodka before a fly is a definite bonus. A flight is a much more enjoyable experience following a rather large shot of orange vodka, or three.
It was then time to board the plane where I was able to meet my fellow UK delegates for the trip. We had previously communicated by email and it was nice to finally meet them and be able to put faces to names.
Four hours later our plane landed at Domodedovo Airport in Moscow where we were greeted by a taxi driver holding a sign for our conference and a torrential thunderstorm that would rival some of the ones in the UK. It was then that we got to experience the legendary Moscow traffic jams. On previous trips to and from the airport I had always used the express train and negated these jams, today however I was able to experience the joy of taking an hour to travel just over 5 miles. No wonder Russians are such terrible drivers.
Eventually we arrived at our very Soviet looking hotel and were given our conference itineraries and told that there would be a welcome dinner later that evening where we would have the chance to meet the other delegations. There was a few hours to spare so we had time to settle in and unpack.
My style of unpacking is to open my suitcase and tip everything on the floor, so for me unpacking was done in about thirty seconds. This then gave me time to run out of the hotel and buy a new SIM card for my Russian mobile. Luckily for me there was a Evroset kiosk not far from the hotel and close to Dinamo metro station. The only thing standing between me and it was 12 lanes of traffic. Upon witnessing several Ladas jump through red lights I decided it was best not to try to play frogger but to in fact simply wait at the crossing. It didn't take long to sort my SIM and I was back in time to change for dinner.
During the dinner I got to meet my fellow delegates from countries such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Belarus, Ukraine, Vietnam, USA, France, Tajikistan, and Moldova. All of whom spoke Russian and it was amazing to communicate with people such a range of countries.
With dinner over it was time for bed before the conference activities began the next day. After four years away from Moscow it felt very strange to be back. Especially when I opened the curtains of my hotel room to see that my view was overlooking a building that I used to see everyday when I was walking to Sokol metro station. It seemed as Moscow was exactly how I had left it.
(Image - The View from my Hotel Room, Moscow)