Friday, January 17, 2014

(Migrated from Live Journal)

Technically I’m not allowed to reminisce. I’m still here. But there’s time for me to take a deep breath and pause between studying for Monday’s TORFL test.

Russia. Where do I even start?

Stalin, communism, vodka, snow, Putin, Pussy Riot–No, no, no, no, no. No. Let’s start small. Let’s start with Nizhny Novgorod. Small(er).

As Russia’s fifth biggest city, Nizhny Novgorod is home to around 1,250,000 inhabitants, and is just one of many Russian cities fed by the Volga River – the longest river in Europe. It’s far enough from Moscow to be excluded from the famous Golden Ring, but not far enough to leave the timezone GMT + 4.
Nizhny Novgorod, known to me as “NN”, is a city divided. The lower part of the city, divided by the Oka River, is characterised by its auto-motoring industry, it’s where life exists at its crust, “the real Russia”, as they like to call it. It is also where one would find the railway station and the airport. The upper part of Nizhny Novgorod is home to the cultural hub of the city. It’s where we see most tourists and the most popular tourist destinations. Everything coming to and from the Kremlin.
The Kremlin of NN is located on a beautiful riverbank, on whose edge a fantastic vantage point of where the rivers Volga and Oka meet is provided. And perhaps it’s just luck of the draw, but next to this riverbank is where our university is located.

It’s January now, but I still remember my first impression of the city when I first arrived toward the end of August. It was late summer and everything was still green; green grass, green trees, blue skies, white clouds, the Volga, the Oka. It was absolutely serene, romantic. Butterflies and sunshine and all that nonsense.
One of the first things that struck me was how grand everything was. Living in Taiwan I was used to manoeuvring a concrete jungle, through which the skyline would often not be visible because of towering skyscrapers that wouldn’t stop getting taller and taller. In NN, walking on the riverbank, I would look up and I would see sky. Endless, blue sky. It’s something that I believe I often took for granted in South Africa. Bliss.
The thing about this scene that makes it so special is not because it’s in Nizhny Novgorod, but because it’s in Russia.

Like many other times I’ve formed an impression of a country, the people make a big difference. However, in NN it wasn’t many Russians I met first, it was many foreigners.

In the winter semester of 2013, the Linguistics University of Nizhny Novgorod played host to around two dozen international students, half of whom I had the privilege of meeting in early September as I shared a dormitory with them. French, Austrians, Germans, Koreans, just to name a few. These students could have gone anywhere, but for whatever reason they ended up here, in Nizhny, with me. And I with them.

On top of the international students, we were luckily enough to live with Russian students in the dormitory as well. This, for me, was one of the major pluses of life in the dormitory these five months. Although I must admit, when I first found out that I would be living with a Russian roommate, I wasn’t all that optimistic.

“What if he’s really weird?”
“What if he doesn’t like Asians?”
“What if…what if he speaks Russian really really fast?”

Funnily enough, my fears weren’t allayed by our first meeting. An emotionless lump sat in front of a computer truly did not help with my first impression. However, after getting to know the guy, I must say, he’s quite a nice chap. I was so worried about not fitting in, I was so anxiety-stricken, that I had forgotten a key point in interpersonal interactions. That is, he may be Russian, but he’s human too. If I’m allowed to be shy, why isn’t he? Come now, John. Be reasonable. My other roommate, by the way, a Frenchman, is a dedicated language boffin with the best slapstick humour you could ever hope for, always inventing a new way to “hack” a language.

Their details will be reserved for my memory only, because nobody reading this would ever understand them unless they met them.

Early September was met with a string of new acquaintances. New roommates, new floor-mates, new classmates and new teachers. Over the next three weeks I would take it upon myself to get acquainted with the group of people with whom I would be spending the next five months. To some degree, my need for integration was too much. So much so that I forgot other priorities.

September until now has been bitter sweet. Many things happened, and many things didn’t. Most things went swimmingly, others, to my despair, didn’t. But if there’s anything I’ve learnt, it’s that some things are well and truly out of my control. A sucker punch for a control freak like myself.

I spent my 24th in NN, having spend my previous five in Taiwan. It was very special. I think I have long reached the age when I start to care less about what I do on my birthday and I just want to spend it with people who are most important to me. I don’t need to go bar hopping and I don’t need to get shit-faced; that was never for me anyway. All I want is a quiet evening somewhere with good food and good wine (or champagne. Naturally).

Some notable moments in NN include long walks in parks, strolling through the town, a cable car ride, a trip to Vladimir, local cuisine in cafes, excellent Nizhny Novgorod-style sushi, short-films in a Soviet-era cinema and most impressively, trips to theatres. The old Soviet-era cinema is one place I particularly like because it’s affordable and they host some great short-film festivals. I am looking forward to watching a showing of this year’s Oscar short-films one of these days.

Allow me a moment to talk about theatres.

I have had the privilege of seeing “Swan Lake” and “The Nutcracker” at two different ballet houses, one in NN and another through a friend’s contact in Moscow. I am not a ballet boffin at all, but I am very impressed with this culture of going to ballets and plays. The cheapest tickets are not extremely cheap, but they don’t exactly make you go broke. Our tickets were 300rub, roughly US$10, and the prices go up from there. For a two-hour ballet with an enjoyable orchestra and decent ballet dancers, I was really impressed. Sure, it’s not the Bolshoi, but who am I to compare?

I am a big fan of the idea that every city has their own theatres in which they show plays and ballets, because this means that they have academies where they train youth for performance arts. And what’s more, the prices are affordable, making a visit to the theatre very, very accessible to the public. And the same goes for the Gorky Amphitheatre, which I might add is a thing of beauty. We were lucky enough to see a wonderful reproduction of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” there, and although I didn’t understand 100 percent because it was in Russian, the acting was stupendous.

When I think of local culture like this, I think of the type of local culture Taiwan has. I can think of the local operas and plays we have too on the streets and sometimes around temples. It’s also great, but just not as grand. I am unfortunately not as appreciative toward this type of culture because I wasn’t born into it. I wasn’t born into ballet either, but for some reason I just feel a greater sense of appreciation when I see it here in Russia. This is also because if I wanted to watch a famous play or ballet in Taiwan, I’d have to pay thousands to catch one at the National Theater, something that would kill the feeling for me. A local culture should be accessible to the locals, and thankfully Taiwan’s plays and operas are just that. You know what? I’m going to go watch one when I go back to Taiwan in February. I think I know a few people who wouldn’t mind tagging along.

Russia has been so radically different from anything I have ever experienced before. The climate, the culture, the people, all so radically different. I am not sure if the Russian mentality and state of mind is caused by their cold climate, but it sure makes them tougher than most other nationalities I have met before. It is very hard to bring a Russian down because it’s difficult to find a situation not experienced by a Russian before. Their government isn’t the most liberal and their climate isn’t the most forgiving, but Russian people are so wonderfully true, in every sense of the word.

There is always the air of a bygone era in Russia, an era which many seem reluctant to let go of. A Russian person at first glance may seem disinterested or even indifferent at times. That is the norm. But a Russian friend will be the loyalest acquaintance you could ever hope for. Their truthfulness is also proven in the way that if you ever ask a Russian how they are, you’d better be ready to find a place to sit down because he or she is about to tell you their life story. Oh, and don’t be surprised to hear a Russian tell you that he or she doesn’t drink vodka. It’s actually very, very common.

My first experience of a white Christmas was here in Russia, signs of snowfall having arrived as early as September. The feeling of slow, soft snow dropping on my face is difficult to describe, but it’s the closest thing to being nine-years-old again. The sound of walking on an ice- and snow-covered pavement is impossible to forget, the ground literally crackling beneath my feet. And the silence of a snow-filled city in the dead of night leaves impressions just as strong. The cold weather is made bearable by the central heating indoors, something that I would never imagine us having in Taiwan or South Africa.

If you’re to survive a Russian winter, you have to know how to dress well. Not in the good-looking sense, but in the warm sense. There are a million things that foreigners do wrong when it comes to the way we dress for winter. To a Russian, we are forever ill-prepared.

Having been in Moscow and in Nizhny Novgorod, it’s easy to notice a difference. Moscow is unforgiving as one of the most expensive cities in the world, and returning to Nizhny Novgorod always feels peaceful. Life is slower here, although relatively not as convenient. Moscow’s complex metro system is hell for the non-Russian speaker. And don’t expect customer service either, unless you’re ready for an earful. Moscow is the hub of Russia and the capital of hardcore. If you can handle Moscow, you can handle anywhere else in the world. I hope I find a chance to stay there after the summer.

Russia is a magical country, one I never imagined coming to. And now that I’m here, it’s a country I cannot imagine living without.

Russia is by no means perfect, but I’m from South Africa and it’s not perfect there either. Taiwan is well-governed and it’s easy to live in, yet for me it’s not paradise. Perhaps I’m destined to travel from country to country in search of a place to call my own. That doesn’t sound too bad to be honest. JSF.

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