4 weeks in Russia: Joanna Stingray (in Wonderland)

Thirty five years ago a young American woman arrived in Leningrad and fell in love not only with the city but also with the music scene – bands such as Kino, headed by the legendary Viktor Tsoi (whom I also fell in love with two years ago on discovering him and whom I  often think of  as my second  Russian teacher)

The love affair continued when she subsequently fell in love with and married Tsoi’s bandmate Yuri Kasparyan.

That woman was Joanna Stingray and she went on to play a major part in Russian music of the final years of the Soviet Union, and was also responsible for introducing Russian singers to the USA, via somewhat difficult means. I’d read about Joanna when I read about Viktor Tsoi and so when I spotted an advertisement in a local bookstore announcing her arrival yesterday (Saturday) to publicise her new biography, complete with reminiscences of that time, I decided to turn up. I wasn’t sure whether Joanna would be a half forgotten name from the past, with plenty of spare seats, or whether she still held cult status and people would be queuing up outside to catch a glimpse of her. Either way, I arrived 45 minutes before the start time of 12 midday, since I am that kind of person anyway! And when I arrived, there were only a couple of free seats left at the back. I was lucky. I got a seat. I estimated there were about a hundred chairs but by 12 midday there must have been at least another hundred people standing all around (Russian health and safety, anyone?) and I realised  Joanna Stingray is still very much in the hearts of Russian people.

She gave the whole interview in Russian -fluent Russian albeit full of grammatical errors – very much the kind of Russian you’d learn if you picked most of it up along the way. But hey, kudos to any American who learns/learned Russian, and it certainly allowed the audience to connect with her.  They asked many questions about people of the time, about Tsoi, about communism… and many of her answers were met with applause, from people happy that someone at that time from ‘the West’ had shown an interest in and desire to promote their culture outside of the then Iron Curtain. It was interesting to note that a significant number of the audience would not have been born at the time Joanna, Viktor and other Russian singers and bands were around, and yet they still felt the need to come.

Of course I bought the book! I’ve even started to read it – I can make out quite a bit of it, as it is written in the first person in a fairly conversational style. There is the added motivation that I am interested in the era so I actively want to understand it – always a boost. Here it is (Russian only) Стингрей в стране чудес  –  I got mine at a considerable discount as part of the event. Great photos, and apparently there are two more books on the way over the next couple of years.


4 weeks in Russia: The Man Tuman – Туман Жумабаев/ Tuman Zhumabaev



As if it weren’t enough star-spotting bumping into Russian musician Евгений Фёдоров from Tequila Jazz and Zorge while out for dinner with John and Irina at a (recommended) Asian vegetarian café Laor, the next night I met esteemed artist Tuman Zhumabaev /Туман Жумабаев at the opening of a new exhibition at his own art gallery, tumanart.ru

This was a wonderful experience, thanks to the connections of Irina, not only because I have never actually been to such an opening – many smartly dressed women (and men!) , champagne and the chance to meet the man himself but also because of the opportunity to see such beautiful art. Tuman hails originally from Kyrgyzstan, but for the past thirty years has been producing wonderful paintings – portraits – Vietnamese and Crimea landscapes – all in an enchanting style which, to me, is very reminiscent of the Impressionists. My photos here  don’t do it justice. I recommend you look on the painting page of the tumanart website.

Irina introduced me to Tuman, and when I said I was learning Russian he said he was too 🙂 Apparently he sometimes claims he hardly speaks Russian, yet I suspect that’s not entirely true! His family were there too including his son, also a major talent. Tuman’s wikipedia page gives a biography of Tuman, but only in Russian. There is an older gallery page about Tuman here in English.


4 weeks in Russia: Seeking Serenity in St Petersburg

Today, Sunday, was a beautifully cold but sunny,  blue-sky day in St Petersburg and I took myself off to Старая Деревня, north of the city (where, I only discovered later, Restoration and Storage centre of the Hermitage museum is open to the public) I was there to visit the northernmost Buddhist temple in Russia, built in 1915,  officially recognised in 1989 and now very popular with tourists. It took me twenty minutes on the metro, changing once, and then under ten minutes to walk to the temple. It looks incongruous next to tall concrete skyscrapers with the noise of traffic from the main road,  but when you enter the large gates you are in peaceful oasis. The temple is fronted by a garden with sculptures and spinning prayer wheels with benches to sit and relax.  It’s free to go inside except for the five roubles for those ubiquitous blue plastic shoe covers, and you can visit the ornate prayer rooms and even go into the basement for cabbage soup in a little cafe.

The area seems fairly prosperous – a contrast to the long walk I did on Saturday with my son from Lomonosovskaya metro to Obyxovo metro, where we walked parallel to a sinister-looking industrial plant, hidden by high walls and barbed wire, next to an equally sinister looking “”State psychiatric hospital number 6″…

This week I am on leave from Moodle and am continuing the lessons at Liden & Denz without the stress of an upcoming exam. I feel I’ve been through some of the mental stress of the latter picture from Saturday’s walk and am hoping now for some of the serenity of the former picture from today’s excursion 🙂

4 weeks in Russia: Victory – in two parts

Well, obviously, after all that stress, anxiety and cardiac shock,  I had to pass -and I did. But before that, the night before in fact, I had a lovely, relaxed evening with several  ITMO English language teaching  colleagues at the home of John Kuti

We met up at the metro station at Victory Park (Московский парк Победы), a park I highly recommend for a pleasant walk with history lessons thrown in.

It is Lent – Great Lent or the Great Fast here in Russia and so (as a complete contrast from the wonderful but very rich food I experienced last weekend (blog post at your own peril) we had ‘vegan snacks’ which turned out to be marinated tofu, a kind of chickpea/pea puréé and fresh vegetables to add to Lavash bread (kind of like tortillas), mushrooms, fresh fruit and oh – lovely ginger tea. You don’t have to be religious to follow he Great Fast and I think there is certainly merit, health-wise, in restricting yourself periodically.

Conversation flowed freely, mostly about my favourite subject – languages (and a bit of Moodle!) Alexandra had brought her 6 year old son and I experienced that entertaining phenomenon when you meet a young child, native speaker of the language you struggle so hard to master – and they speak it with no effort at all 🙂

We did a circular tour back to the metro to take in Park Aviatorov (aviators’ park) where there is an imposing fighter plane mounted on a concrete base.

I , however, was in no fighting mood when I arrived with the son at the University on Friday morning to get my results. I was as nervous as before the exams themselves. I hoped and expected I would pass – it’s just you can never be certain until you see the actual grades on the paper. So here they are!

  • Writing = 92%
  • Speaking  = 91%
  • Vocab  and Grammar = 87% (Mock horror from daughter: What went wrong? Disaster!)
  • Reading = 90%
  • Listenig = 93%

In just under a year since I did the A2 exam I have got the B1. And yes I am stopping here. No more exams. No, really  – no more exams…

4 weeks in Russia: The curious case of the chair in the corridor…

Day two: Listening and Speaking. I arrived again 45 minutes early, to wait in the wide corridor by the exam room. Yesterday there had been a chair, so I sat on it, giving the young Chinese students who trickled in the opportunity to revise standing up. Today, there was no chair, just me alone in an empty corridor. However, there was a storeroom open and I saw a chair in there and after a short debate with myself, I removed it, positioned it against the wall and sat on it. Within a couple of minutes a cleaning lady arrived with another, officious looking woman who announced in an annoyed tone “What’s that chair doing there? There shouldn’t be any chairs in this corridor! There was one here yesterday but I deliberately put it back! How did it get here?” My honesty surfaced and I felt I should own up. The conversation continued a bit like this:

Me: Actually it was me – I did it- I got the chair – from there (pointing at the storeroom)

Officious woman: There shouldn’t be any chairs in this corridor! What do you want a chair for anyway?

Me: Well – I wanted to sit down. (thinks to self :Well, dur…)

Officious woman. Harumph! Well  you had no right to do that.

Me (Prepares to get out my passport and plead advancing years – although in retrospect I could have produced my cardiogram: she’d have been none the wiser!)

Officious woman: You can’t put it back now because the door is locked. Harumph… (They both walk off)

So I kept my chair and was just pondering on the bureaucratic nature of cleaning supervisors in Russia when the subordinate cleaning woman came back, winked and gave me the nod as if to say “Oh don’t bother about her -you sit on that chair if you want to” Then she asked me where I was from, what I was doing here, we had a chat and I realised: I didn’t need to pass this exam at all. I have already achieved what I set out to do, make myself understood in Russia in a natural way.

My young Chinese co-examinees arrived and we were then taken into the exam room to do the Listening test. My big worry about this was that we could only hear the passages once. However, this was compensated for by the fact that we had plenty of time to read and digest the multiple choice questions, of which there were 30 and about six passages, dialogues and announcements. I felt very tense throughout, and was calculating the time in the test where, if I had got enough correct, I might pass.

Then we had the Speaking part. The first two parts are unprepared questions and the second two parts are prepared, so we had twenty five minutes to prepare for the second part. We had a passage to read – which was a story about a girl, dumped by her boyfriend , who found a lost dog and loved that instead, then discovered the dog was owned by someone else who subsequently became her boyfriend.( And they all lived happily ever after.) Then we had to prepare a personal talk – and again – I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read that the talk (like the Writing exam) was about learning languages, advice on how to do it, your own experiences etc etc. I was eager to get going – and in fact, I was “first on”…

Somewhat of a shock was the fact that I was placed in front of a video camera. These exams, official exams, are recorded. I complained I hadn’t done my hair! I was quite nervous for the first few, unprepared questions but the examiner was very kind (I hope that’s not a trick) and we eventually got onto the girl/boy/dog story, which I had to summarise and give my own opinion of, and then we actually had a very interesting, natural conversation about languages, language learning at a senior age (he started learning Turkish at the age of 54) and the mental benefits of studying a new subject in later life. So I seriously hope I have passed after this.

As I was leaving, the nice cleaning woman saw me and asked me how I got on. I said I’d done the exams and would be back tomorrow with the results. (But they don’t matter. Making connections with people is what matters, and she made me see that. Chair or no chair.)

4 weeks in Russia: Russian exam TORFL/ ТРКИ 1 – Day One

Back again

I’ve been in St Petersburg for two weeks and today did the first part of the First Certificate in the (official, state) Test of Russian as  a Foreign Language. (Information about the level and equivalents here courtesy of Pushkin House) I arrived well before the set time of 10 am at St Petersburg University, and sat waiting along with many young Chinese students for the door to open and the exam to start. Same room as last year, same procedures.

First up: Writing, one hour. There is a long passage on a modern day topic which we must summarise and give our own opinions on, and there is a more informal letter or email on a personal topic which we must then write. I had worried a lot about the first question because the topics in the sample papers are quite complex: I had revised Ecology, the Role of Women in 21st century, Technology in Modern day life, Changing family life… and when the papers were handed out and I looked anxiously at the first question, I laughed out loud. (Well laughed out quietly) “How best to start speaking a foreign language”  I was fazed for a moment, not because I didn’t know what to write but because I didn’t know what to leave out!! The second question was an email about what you’ve up to in the past year – work, studies, family, holidays and plans for the future. I tried to put some good phrases in – remembering my years of telling my own language students the same, so we’ll see.

Second: Grammar, another hour.This consisted of 165 multiple choice questions where you have to get the correct word, be it a verb ending, case ending or appropriate adjective. This was very intense because even if you know the answers and are confident, 165 is a lot to read and reply to. There were some I guessed because I hadn’t learned the topics well enough (verbs of motion – flying – carrying by hand – carrying by car – tut tut) and some I guessed because I genuinely hadn’t seen the words before. Although we can use a dictionary in the Writing exam it is not allowed in the Grammar exam – and there is no time, anyway. The pass mark is 66%, which is 109 out of 165. That means I could get up to 57 wrong and still pass. Hopefully  I have got fewer wrong than that.

Third: Reading. This was fifty minutes and consisted of three  passages, one on the Summer gardens in St Petersburg, one on some Russian academic whose name I forgot immediately after the test and the final one on the home town of Grandfather Frost. There were only twenty questions to compensate for the length of the passages but I am slightly concerned about this one because I found the questions quite straightforward (always a worrying sign) and kept looking for tricks to catch me out. Also, I completely forgot we were allowed to use a dictionary, as I just don’t have the habit of it from my previous student days. By the time I remembered, the exam was almost over. Well, if I was caught out, then I deserve it. I will find out on Friday.

And tomorrow: Listening and Speaking!

4 weeks in Russia: всё хорошо! (All Good)

(This is a follow up from yesterday’s blog: I fainted into the pelmeni)

Today was probably one of the best days in the last two weeks simply because I got off the laptop, closed the Russian textbooks and went outside. I had a good walk around Victory Park (парк Победы) with ITMO English teacher John Kuti, followed by a lovely digestible and relaxed vegan lunch, followed by another walk along Leninski Prospect to the metro station where I hopped on to go and meet my son and head off for the cardiologist’s appointment his Russian girlfriend had organised. A cardiologist appointment on a Sunday afternoon? This is private medicine – maybe you get that in the UK if you pay, but I wouldn’t know.

It was at a private clinic called Scandinavia Clinic (a chain, one of which happened fortuitously to be literally next door to the English school just off Prospekt Veteranov) I had to sign  a package of forms – in Russian and in English though I basically just signed on the dotted lines – and then after a couple of minutes wait we  were invited into a large airy room by a friendly, grandmotherly looking cardiologist with a white coat and a smile. Yes -a smile! So my son was there to give the background and translate anything I didn’t understand, while the girlfriend was there to translate anything my son didn’t understand. The system worked well apart from having to ask Google what the English for щитовидная железа (thyroid gland was) It cost 2,5000 roubles, just under £30 if you are interested.

She took a look at my cardiogram (which I have now kept as my “souvenir of St Petersburg”) and pronounced it fine. She asked a lot of questions, about the event, prodded me in various places, took my blood pressure (120/70!), listened to various parts of my chest and pronounced me fine once more, всё хорошо! One of those things, probably caused by stress of two weeks relentless work and study combined with anxiety of a  big meal with unknown (but very, very kind) people. She wrote out a  prescription for some Vitamin B6  (which I will probably take) and some kind of relaxant which I shall probably not take- although Google says it is popular and fine; I am not sure I want to go into my Russian exam in a state of artificial bliss.

So all’s well that ends well. And I have another authentic Russian experience to add to my list. On a side note, now we can laugh about it, my son recounted how, the moment I collapsed, the landlord, wife and daughter were shocked and jumped to action – the mum to help, the dad to call the ambulance… but the two babushka grandmothers, both in their 80s just sat nonchalantly at the table, continued eating, obviously with the attitude “I’ve been through a lot worse than this” In fact one of them told my son, while I was lying weakly on the bed “I’ve collapsed loads of times and I’ve always been perfectly all right”

And so, indeed, was I..

4 weeks in Russia: So I fainted into the pelmeni..

Well not quite. I think it was after the raspberry cream cake…

These last two weeks have been manic, trying to keep my head above water in a class a level above my own. My exam is B1 and I am in the B2 class, conscientiously spending hours doing the homework while at the same time continuing my work for Moodle. Study work eat sleep. Study work eat sleep.

So for a pleasant interlude my son’s landlord invited us to his home in the area of Peterhof. First he, his wife and daughter treated us to a guided tour of the palace – I was impressed with myself with how much of the commentary I could understand. And then we went back to their (very impressive) home – for another short tour which included a basement den where they have a sauna and cold bath)

We then met the two grandmothers who also live with them and I had plenty of opportunity to practise speaking Russian. Champagne to celebrate the event, along with the seven year anniversary of my son having his first Russian lesson in London. All the food was homemade – from the borscht to the salad olivier to the blini to the gathered mushrooms preserved picked and tomatoes, pelmeni, fruit compote and finally a beautiful cream cake made by Lisa the fifteen year old daughter. And yes, I tried everything offered to me. Strangely, just after the cake and as I was drinking the green tea I suddenly became very hot – not just for a few seconds but for what seemed a longer time – and then the room seemed to go round and round and I suddenly realised I was going to faint. I had enough awareness to shout “I’m going to faint! Somebody help me” In English because I couldn’t remember the Russian  -and my son was sitting next to me. The next thing I knew I was being tapped on the face by my son saying “Mum – are you going to come back to us?” And I felt a kind of regret because actually for the very few seconds I was actually ‘out’ I had felt a lovely calm, relaxing sleep… Then of course major panic ensued with the landlort, Sergei calling the paramedics and the mum taking my blood pressure…After feeling very hot and then cold and sick I was actually mostly ok by the time the paramedics came. That was an experience. I have never been visited upon my paramedics in England let alone Russia! There was a guy and a woman and they had a enormous bag of – well, what looked like lots of different phials of potions to me! They did my blood pressure (ok ) a fingerprick bloodtest (presumably ok because nobody said otherwise) and a cardiogram which was most interesting since I have never had one. I had to strip off, lie on the bed and have some monitors stuck to my chest and like a clip on each arm. Then some paper came out of a machine to the side of the bed. They both looked at it carefully and when I asked what it meant they didn’t say anything – which was a bit disturbing… They did talk when my son and the mum Olga came back in though. It was fine except for a “minor weakness” (we didn’t really understand what that meant) which might be nothing – I might have had it all my life without knowing – but which they recommended getting checked out by a cardiologist. They also recommended going to be checked out at hospital, but they weren’t too concerned when we turned that invitation down. Their general conclusion was that it was a ‘one off’ – maybe some food that disagreed, maybe over exertion – but they did advise going to a cardiologist. When they heard I would get it checked out in two weeks back in England they thought that was too long, so now, here I am, Saturday night, back in my own flat courtesy of Sergei, expecting a call from my son in the morning regarding a cardiologist appointment tomorrow evening (private, paying) He is working tomorrow until four and I have a nice invitation to lunch and a walk in the park, neither of which we feel the need to cancel, so it will have to be around sixish if available.

How odd.I am not the fainting kind. I really am not. In months to come I will look upon this as one of the pivotal moments in my journey towards mastering the Russian language. Today however, I would just rather  put it behind me. It has somewhat reminded me of my advancing age and my mortality….

4 weeks in Russia: Too much, too soon!

One day in and my brain is full… I wonder what the Russian for “I’ve bitten off more than I can chew” is?

Having worked extra for Moodle on Sunday in order to take some time out registering at the school and doing the placement test on Monday,  I duly turned up at 8.45, did the test and a small oral exam and was placed in a group with two Germans, a Korean, a Swiss, an American and an Italian. One of the things I’ve loved about the language school is the diversity of the cultures. The first session revised time prepositions and the second was conversational vocab related to nutrition and food preparation – making me acutely aware of how many verbs and kitchen words I have simply never learned. Too many, in fact to actively memorise – I mean – how often am I going to need снять пену с бульона ?

BBC webpage
You can’t hide from the internet

At two pm I went with my son or – as the Russians delightfully say “We with my son went” to the university to sign up for the exams. This is where it all went wrong. Fine for my son who is going to do the 3rd certificate (C1 level) in May but my carefully constructed plan of studying for three weeks and then in the final week of March taking the exam was abruptly  destroyed when they said the room was full with a group of Chinese students and there was no availability. Could I do the week earlier -that is, 20th and 21st March? Well I could – I can – I don’t want to – but it was either that or not do the exam at all during this lengthy stay. So I booked it. Arrghhh.

However, psychologically I then figured that if I don’t pass all the elements I can simply say both to myself and others “Well – I didn’t have enough time – I was’t ready”… and I can rebook for May, when my son does his. And it will also mean that the fourth week I am here, I can continue the Russian classes but just for the pleasure of learning, not with a significant goal in mind.

Then at five pm I had my private lesson with the lovely Lilya and by 7.30 pm I was utterly shattered, so the homework for today has hastily been done this morning  just like my students who used to rush it at the last minute. Moodle has had some of me since 6 am and the rest of me from 2pm – roll on next week when I have booked some leave…

4 weeks in Russia: Turning off the heat and deciphering the butter

I’m in St Petersburg for just over four weeks to see my son, work as normal for Moodle and study Russian with the possible aim of taking another exam.  I’ll be blogging occasionally with my cultural experiences and observations, starting with Day 1

I arrived without any hitches yesterday afternoon, Ist March. I am staying in a (now very ) familiar apartment on Nevsky Prospekt, almost palatial, and extremely convenient. The building is one of the very old ones with no lift but fortunately a young workman decided to show off his strength by carrying my 27kg suitcase up the four floors – who was I to protest?

One thing I have noticed previously about Russia is that, when it is unbearably cold outside, they seem (to me) to make it unbearably warm inside! And not for the first time did I struggle last night trying to find the heating controls so  I didn’t spend all night perspiring in bed. I usually end up opening a window, which then brings in very chilly air and is most environmentally unfriendly.

Additionally, this morning I decided to figure out the oven. I can’t spend four weeks living off microwave or one ring hob meals; I want to stew, roast, bake. While the apartment itself is decorated in a beautiful 19th century style, the kitchen and bathroom are hi-tech, which meant the electric oven had an array of settings and a manual in Russian, Turkish, Polish and Slovenian… I never read manuals anyway, so by trial and error I managed to turn it on and set the correct temperature. Great. But then once I had decided my experiment was a success, it seemed impossible to turn it off. I turned the dials back to zero – waited for the fan to turn off and the oven to cool down – no chance. In despair I turned to the manual, deciphered the Russian, tried the suggested settings – still nothing doing. I had a very hot oven in a very hot apartment! After about an hour and a half, I gave up and went to the shops, resigned to contacting my host, Olga, for enlightenment. Lo and behold when I returned, the oven had finally switched itself off. While that does mean I won’t have to swelter any more, it also means I have no idea which of my attempts actually worked, so that when I do use the oven for real (“in anger” as Moodle developers say) I won’t be any the wiser how to turn it off!!

My trip to the local supermarket, перекрёсток  reminded me of the confusion I feel when trying to buy simple products in Russia such  as milk or butter. I just wanted something to spread on my bread – but which butter should I get? Is there no olive spread, which is what I buy  at home? I spend ages looking and ultimately buy based on price, telling myself I am not fussy anyway fortunately. I have bought something spreadable in a tub, though what it consists of I have no real idea. Milk is the same but I am not over concerned as long as it has a picture of a cow on it. The one I chose called itself правильное молоко, which I interpreted as “correct milk” – so that must be the one!!!




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