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!!!




New year, new exam..

2019 already!  As I said, I did not end this blog, just took some time out continuing my studies. In fact I went back to St Petersburg and to Liden-Denz school for three weeks in September, followed by a visit to Moscow for an online learning conference

I have been continuing my weekly Skype lessons with the wonderful Lilya, but sadly there was no Advanced evening class at UCLAN this year, so all my UK learning has been online. And now it is time: new year – new exam!

cat with Russian materials

My unofficial New Year’s resolution is to take (and pass) the TORFL/TRKI at First Certificate (B1) level by the end of March., 11 months after I took the A2 exam. This is approximately equivalent to the UK ‘A’ level – which I would be interested in taking, but struggle to find a nearby school that offers it. During my three weeks at Liden-Denz in September, I studied alongside a young woman and man who’d both done A level German in UK high schools. I was astonished – until I learned that they had both gone to fee-paying schools 🙂

I plan to spend March in St Petersburg, studying and working for Moodle HQ before and after my class hours. And yes, I am very nervous!

I have been doing sample papers – including A level papers. In terms of the TORFL/TRKI, I am confident in the grammar paper and think I will be OK with the reading paper too.

Writing will be a challenge, particularly as I still haven’t mastered cursive and deeply resent having mastered one alphabet only to have to re-learn it all over again! (like t becomes m and d becomes g… hmmmm)

Speaking I will falter with – I am fine memorising a ten minute speech in Russian – but improvising on unplanned questions is another issue, and I imagine myself biting my nails on that one. (On the other hand, the examiner for the A2 oral exam completely disregarded the script, so maybe I will strike lucky with the B1 oral too)

The listening paper is interesting. For the  B1 TORFL/TRKI, you can only listen to the passages ONCE! (When I did A level French and German years ago, we were played a tape twice. Now for the UK ‘A’ level it appears you are in control of your own tape and can play it as often as you like – within the exam time frame) However, the Russian and UK versions seem to balance out, because although you can only hear the Russian B1 exam passages once, the questions are (to my mind) fairly straightforward. I did the sample paper quite confidently. And while you can listen to the UK ‘A’ level passages as often as you wish, the questions are (in my view) very hard!

So this blog will be updated on a fairly regular basis until I have done the B1 exam. And then I should stop! I really should! I’ll maintain my level of Russian but there is no real reason for me to go on and do higher and higher levels… and besides, with Moodle HQ having a new Northern hemisphere office in Barcelona, I want to raise my level of Spanish above A1. But that is a whole new story….



Mission accomplished – базовый уровень – been there, got the T-shirt!

Ok – I didn’t get a T-shirt but I got a certificate:

And today I fly back to the UK after three weeks of fulfilling my mission of immersing myself in the Russian language and culture. It’s been great – from the first tentative steps in a supermarket trying to understand the cashier’s questions to my final night independently navigating my way to the fourteenth floor of a concrete block to have a very Russian dinner with an ITMO teacher and his Russian wife.

The original aim of this blog was to record my journey learning Russian.  I didn’t imagine at the start that I would actually take an exam and get an “official piece of paper” and now that I have, I realise it’s not enough and I need more.

This is not the end of the blog, rather the end of the first chapter. However, I won’t be blogging weekly or regularly now as I’d like to take my time building up to the B1 level – First certificate. But I’ll be back.. in this blog and in Russia…

TORFL/ ТРКИ Russian exam – I passed!

Yesterday, Friday, I had my final group lesson with the lovely multinational group I have been studying with for the last two weeks. It has been a real pleasure learning with such diverse, motivated people, from the American Dean and German  Theodor, both even older than myself, to the younger and beautiful Italians, Laura, Anna, to the French Philippe, the American with intriguing name Matvei,the young Brits Natasha and Jack, to the polyglot Swiss Darko and more… Happy memories.

The culmination of many months of wondering why on earth I had decided to do this… yesterday (Friday) I went with my son (or if you prefer the Russian way, ‘We with my son went..’) to the university to get our results. Delight! We both passed – he passed his B2 exam with an average of 84% (with 96% percent on speaking – brilliant!) and I passed with an average of 90%. The actual results are here:

  • Writing – 85%
  • Speaking – 84%
  • Grammar/Vocabulary – 93%
  • Reading – 93%
  • Listening -96%

I was quite pleased and surprised by the Listening results but slightly irritated by the Writing and Speaking results. It’s the first time I’ve ever got below 90% on any language exam which gives percentages as grades 🙁  I wonder if I might have done better if I hadn’t finished the writing after twenty minutes ? I wonder if I might have done better if the examiner had followed the script of the speaking test to the letter instead of having a natural conversation with me?

Maybe not. Whatever. I should be pleased and I am certainly encouraged to continue to B1 level, as my son is encouraged to continue to C1.

We get the certificates on Monday – watch out for the selfie! And then it’s Onwards and Upwards. (Oh no, not Motion verbs again!!)


TORFL/ ТРКИ- Russian exam Day 2

All done! Oddly, despite having done three exams yesterday I was more nervous today for the two remaining. The listening was done first, in the booths via the computer with headphones. It wasn’t actually too difficult but I found it hard to concentrate. The test lasted half an hour. For my Basic A2 Level the passages were played twice but for the B1 level of the Chinese students (now our new friends!) and the B2 level of my son, they were only played once. Of course no dictionaries, although our Chinese friends had to be reminded to put them away.

For the speaking test, I sat with a lovely silver-haired gentleman who actually smiled! He asked me my first question – how long had I been learning Russian and why did I start – and – well – cue me indulging my passion for languages, son’s move to St Petersburg, fascination with motion verbs,  comparison with German and French… and I was away! I realised we were actually having a conversation rather than an exam,and I wondered when the exam would begin. Was this the warm up? He asked me why I wasn’t doing the B1 level exam (First certificate) instead, so I felt quite encouraged.He then asked me about where I lived and when he informed me he hadn’t visited Preston, I followed my advice of years to students – ask the examiner a question! I asked him where he had visited – Birmingham – which happened to be near my own place of birth. City of the strange accent, I said. A few minutes later, just as I was getting into it, he put his marksheet away, told me that was Basic level done, and said to come back tomorrow for the results!

Which indeed we shall.  Watch this space….

TORFL/ ТРКИ- Russian exam Day 1

Yes – Day 1 is over! That’s the Grammar, Reading and Writing.

I was at the languages institute at St Petersburg university before 9.30 for a 10 am start, along with my son who is doing the Second Certificate, B2 level (I am doing the Basic, A2 level) There were two Chinese boys and three Chinese girls anxiously waiting as well – all doing the First Certificate, B1 level, apparently the most popular one. We all waited outside Room 208…

The exam door was closed until 5 to ten when the supervisor came out and checked our papers and took away our mobile phones. She was actually quite human- I had been expecting a really strict, mean-looking invigilator, but she was almost pleasant. (Should I say surprisingly?)

The room was actually a room of computer booths, rather than rows of front-facing desks. I quite liked this. We will only use the computers tomorrow, for the listening test; today’s exams were on paper. I sat in a booth next to my son – it was quite nice actually, even though we couldn’t communicate and were doing separate exams anyway.

Unexpectedly, the first exam was the Writing 🙁 I had hoped for the Grammar first, to ease me in, as I find that the least difficult, but, whatever. My two questions were fairly straightforward, the first, a letter to a new penfriend introducing yourself and asking questions about him/her. (How many times have I trained GCSE students in similar letters?!) The second question was writing an apology for not being able to attend a party and suggesting a meet up at a later date. I actually finished the two questions in twenty minutes and then spent the rest of the time (up to 50 minutes) double checking word in the dictionary. So much did I feel back in my student days, 40 years ago, that I actually wrote my maiden name on the exam paper and it wasn’t until the last five minutes of the exam that I actually realised, scribbled it out and wrote my current name!!

The following exam was the Grammar. Bits of this were quite straightforward and I only had to guess a few of them. Thankfully there was a whole passage using motion verbs so my relentless lessons of the last couple of weeks, plus the video course from Dr Curtis Ford on tips4russian haven’t gone to waste 🙂 HOWEVER.. the layout of the multiple choice answer options was very confusing, going across the page 31,32 and then down to 39 and then across to 37…?  Questions 33 and 34 appeared on the next  page, as if the copying had been done in a strange way. I’m confident I got most of these right and I will be asking for a remark if I get a low grade because I want to make sure the person marking them was aware of the odd location of the answers too 🙂

The reading took me 45 minutes out of the 50, again some challenging texts. I kept forgetting that I was allowed to use a dictionary – it just wasn’t in my psyche, never having been allowed to for my own school and university exams (apart from  a post graduate translation diploma, but that was slightly different)

I realise now I was doing an exam that was at the appropriate level for me. All exams I did at school were way below the level I had already achieved and so always seemed easy. It was interesting to do an exam where I had to really focus, where I sometimes didn’t know words or had to guess.

My  three exams took me from 10 am until 12.30 and I did feel tired afterwards. In fact, we both came back to my apartment and went to sleep for a couple of hours!

Tomorrow – listening and speaking. Speaking is the one I am most concerned about but hey – it’s only a language exam…

Group learning – onwards/upwards (again!)

What a lovely week learning in a multinational, multi-age, motivated class! I wish I were doing the course full time instead of only arriving at lunchtime -but needs must – I have to work in the morning to pay for the classes in the afternoon.

This week the focus has been  on motion verbs – oh my goodness – I wish they would go away. Or outside. Or down. Or up. Or past. Or round! Anyway but stay here 🙂

The drilling is very useful though, and I love the friendliness of the students and teacher. I have to say that the intensity of this learning is getting to me – group class and then private lessons, not to mention my own personal studying – along with the obligatory deciphering of food at the supermarket.

The exam is on Wednesday and Thursday. My son kindly gave me his cold so I went into a chemist’s to buy something for a sore throat – mistakenly asking for something for a sore head instead.. sigh… Never mind. I realised, and then remembered a specific brand in the end…

Cultural evening

Yesterday (Wednesday) I was invited to a concert at the St Petersburg State university of Culture and Arts, about 20 minutes walk from my flat on Nevsky Prospekt. I was the guest of Isabella who teaches English to the choirmasters, orchestra players and performers of tomorrow – very high standards. These were second year student, performing with professional classical musicians. There were some unusual instruments being played too – I wish I’d paid more attention to their names. I did recognise the balalaikas but of the others, one looked remarkably like a pipe, and one looked like a small rugby ball! (Here’s a smartphone video – apologies for the quality)

The building is magnificent – what a place to study in! And the concert was equally magnificent. The students – no more than 19/20 years old I think were on top form, performing with illustrious musicians such as Nicholas Walker. I learned he is keen to promote the works of the lesser known Russian composer Balakirev. I also learned that he speaks great Russian 🙂 Here he is with the students:

Thankyou, Isabella, for inviting me. Such a wonderful event, such committed students and teachers.

First days at school

So yesterday – Monday – I arrived at 11 at the school I’ll be studying at in the afternoons during my stay.  I was expecting a placement test and was explaining to the receptionist who didn’t seem au fait with my arrival when the manager (imagine a confident, youngish efficient woman!) came up and took over She knew what my plan was, so she booked me in.  Then instead of a placement test, she took me straight a  class going on from 11, due to finish at 11:45, to “get me quickly started”, so she said. A big surprise to the teacher, and to the four rather quiet introvert types who were in the class. The class was on past participles which I haven’t studied but have a vague awareness of – mostly the teacher talking and then going around the class getting each person to answer a question from the handout. It was called “A+” and (I discovered later it is the level above my current level) One poor young English girl seemed very nervy, shaking even, when answering. Poor girl. The teacher was perfectly pleasant – just brusque, efficient. I did, however manage to answer my questions but mainly because I simply counted up to the question that was my turn and worked on figuring out the answer while the others were answering theirs!!
Then we finished at 11:45 and the next class was at 12. The class  wasn’t as active as I’d wanted, and certainly harder than expected but I could cope.. so was steeling myself for the next session 12- 1.45 when my weekly Skype teacher came in and said she personally thought I should be in the class next door – bigger class, nearer my level.  So she took me into there, introduced me to the new teacher  and I sat waiting for the next lesson.
Then the manager woman came in – walked right up to my bit of the table, leaned her elbows on it , over to me and asked, very sternly, почему Bы здесь? почему Bы здесь  What are you doing here? What are you doing here? If I’d been a young girl I’d have been so upset and scared!! And I am a paying customer! But luckily the new teacher came over to the manager to explain they thought this level class would be a better fit, so they’s suggested I move,  so the manager left me alone. Phew!
Anyway this class was/is much more my level. more interactive – 9 students – a mix of some older  men from USA/Germany and some young Italian, French and German student, girls and boys. Some are not quite as good as I am and some are better than I am but on the whole, this is just the right class for me. I attend the 12 – 1.45 class each day. (They also have a morning class but I can’t attend that as I have to work)
It’s so nice to be in a class of students -of varying ages and nationalities but all of whom were very motivated to learn. Today (Tuesday) we continued looking at motion verbs and their prefixes – perfect complement to the Tips4Russian courses I have been working through. I kind of wish I could attend classes all day – but Moodle 3.5 new features screencasts and screenshots beckon, and I have a job and a life outside of Russian 🙂

Week 2 – 8 April: On immersion, caviar, chicken and snails

So I’m here! I arrived for my three week stay on Tuesday and took part in a conference at ITMO university from Wednesday until Friday. (Watch my Moodle blog for two posts about that excellent event.)

When I arrived at the entrance on the first day, I was surprised and slightly anxious to discover there were no big signs pointing to the conference. I hung around looking and feeling lost for about ten minutes and then realised I only had one option: I’d have to ask the guy at the reception desk. In Russian. So with my carefully rehearsed “I’m here for the conference” and my improvised ” but I don’t know where to go”, I crossed my fingers in the hope his answer would make sense to me. It did. He hadn’t heard of the conference. Fortunately his colleague had, and told me to go down the corridor and up to the next floor. I happily walked off towards the stairs and then it suddenly dawned on me: I actually understood!!

I haven’t had a Russian lesson for two weeks although at the ITMO conference evening reception I was grilled in an intense but thoroughly satisfying way on all possible A2 oral conversation topics by the lovely Ludmilla when she learned  I am taking the TORFL/ TRKI in two weeks. I’m surrounded by Russian, on the streets, on the TV, in the shops – and of course, my phone and laptop are clearly aware I’m in Russia. So in this first week of immersion, what have I learned?

  • It takes twice as long to go around the supermarket (‘Perekrestok’ supermarket chain here) because I have to read every item, letter by letter. You can’t rely on the pictures because they can sometimes be misleading. I thought these were fruit purées until I realised Russians simply love  mayonnaise…

  • When you first approach the till with your UK ‘bag for life’ and they ask you in a single word if you want a bag (пакет?) reply with a curt, monosyllabic нет – at least, if you want to emulate the Russians ahead of you in the queue. My son thinks I should do it the English way, with an apologetic “No thankyou – I’ve brought my own bag to be environmentally friendly” – but I think it will just delay the people after me.
  • There’s an awful lot of caviar-based products! I don’t particularly like caviar, but I eat anything. Which is fortunate because on the second day I bought a pot noodle and upon eating discovered it was oyster flavour – a new one on me. But OK
  • My language skills did extend to realising that my pear (груша) yoghurt did NOT include chicken (курица) but I had to wait until I’d checked the actual word to discover its extra ingredient (корица) was in fact, cinnamon. But now I’ll always remember!
  • I thought snail repair was a misprint for nail repair until my friend Google told me it is actually A Thing:

From tomorrow (Monday) I will be working for Moodle in the morning and evening and studying in the afternoon. Wish me luck, or as  Viktor Tsoi said (sort of) , пожелай мне удачи

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