Tuesday, November 28, 2006


I have Fridays off (woohoo) so I went to the Old Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, which houses Russian art from the dawn of time (well, icons from the 13th [?] century) to the very early 20th century. It started pretty randomly with room after room of 18th century society portraits and the odd genre painting, which were pretty boring. Then came some 19th C stuff, and then downstairs lots of icons, which were pretty cool, including some with the beautiful silver be-jewelled cases. The Rublyev icons are pretty cool http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rublev. Also liked seeing some paintings I remembered from university classes, such as works by Repin http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Repin etc.

The best thing about the Old Tretyakov (well, one of the best) is that they make you wear these ridiculous plastic-bag things over your shoes. It was a treat to see Russian girls dressed in a miniskirt, off-the-shoulder-top and fishnets with stiletto knee-high boots and these blue plastic bags capping off the outfit. I mean, come on, who dresses up like a hooker to go to an art gallery of all places?

Saturday I went to the New Tretyakov, just to cap off my cultural/artistic experience. Early 20th century Russian art (1910s - 1920s esp) is just my favouritist stuff, so this was a treat. A few of my beloved Kandinskys, a few of El Lissitzky's works (who rocks - library folk, think my posters hanging above my desk) and other Suprematist works which were really cool. And there was Tiana's nemesis in art form - Malevich's Black Square. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Malevich.black-square.jpg
Now, Yansie hates this because it is (as you can see if you follow the link), just a black square on a white background. I must say, however, that it is quite compelling in person. In the New Tretyakov, you can sit in a room with the most colourful, busy paintings (which I like, don't get me wrong), and if you look through into the next room there's Black Square, which really impresses by contrast. But this is a work which is completely different in the flesh than it is in a print or on the net. Get up close and the strong simplicity of the painting dissolves. The white background looks like it's had people's grubby fingers on it for the past ninety years, and the black square itself is covered with a fine network of cracks, which somehow show through rainbow colours, like when you were a kid and you put black crayon on top of coloured crayon and scratched out a pattern. This is the very antithesis of the utter simplicity of form Malevich was striving for, and really makes a mockery of the intentions of the piece. Intriguing, but very much in need of restoration, I would suggest.

Some of the post-Soviet art was also quite interesting. I'm usually not a fan of ultra-modern stuff, but it was quite cool to see how artists are responding to political change. Apparently, under the Soviets abstract art was verboten and the Hermitage's Picassos etc were locked away, so you can really see the artists responding to what's gone on in the world in the last 80 years or whatever. And they're evaluating the Soviety legacy - posters with pictures of Lenin and 'Coca Cola, it's the real thing', and paintings of Stalin and a bear pissing on the USSR, etc.

One word to the curators - why have multi-media installations and not a single chair in the room? Does that make sense to anybody?

Oh, and one more thing - there's different prices for foreigners and Russians. I was told that if you flash your work visa they might let you in as a Russian, but no such luck. Still not very expensive, but it's unjust! I need to learn the Russian for, "I'm a taxpayer, you old crone!"

Friday, November 24, 2006

Notes from the Underground*

* and other modes of transportation...

More about the metro

The metro is a good place to observe Russians in the wild... First of, they seem to have no concept of personal space. Okay, that's probably true to some extent of people in any big city - there's just so many other people around all the time. However, in, say, London, people are eager to move away from you as soon as they possibly can. Yesterday, I was squidged up thigh to thigh with a girl on the metro bench-seats. When the person who had been sitting on her other side got up, she didn't budge an inch. What's with that? And the other day, a woman (not one of the skinny minny Russians) chose to squeeze herself next to me into a space that was maybe wide enough for half a person. I'm sitting there all rigid and uncomfortably upright, my shoulders hunched forwards in an attempt to take up as little space as I possibly can - the Russians are laxed out, probably with their eyes closed (a good strategy to fend off angry babushkas who want to take your seat).

Another fun thing about the metro is that they are all guarded by a double rank of swinging glass doors. These are heavy and have a real kick on them when they swing back into your face. Which they do a lot, since (most) Russians don't bother to hold the door open for you. Which is fine if I'm a yard behind, but if I'm directly behind, it swings back in a manner which is hazardous to my dental health.

Talking about doors, the doors on the metro trains clap shut with such force that you'd think they'd take off an arm should you get trapped in them. But fear not, I know from experience that this is not so. They will close on you and they won't open again until you physically force them open, but you'll survive the experience with all limbs intact.

Another instance of Russians' lack of social skills now springs to mind. The other day I was standing, holding on to the overhead rail. Now, to my mind, the most vital time to hold on to said rail is when the train is starting and stopping. So, when we were pulling into a station, I wanted to keep holding on to the rail, despite the fact that I realised the woman next to me was planning to get off shortly. Now, the woman had, I believe, three options: Option A - wait until the train came to a stop, and I'd remove my arm. Option B - say 'excuse me'. Option C - walk around behind me (there was plenty of room). Which option do you think she chose? Trick question - she picked Secret Option D - simply walk into my arm and knock it off the rail. Thanks very much!


I have to walk back and forth to the metro through this little wooded area. Last week, it was a veritable winter wonderland - beautiful, albeit hazardous. I've actually got quite good at walking on ice/snow - you quickly learn little tricks like walking off the path where the snow isn't packed down into slippery ice. I don't know that I'll ever achieve the true Russian skill of traipsing about on the ice in mini skirts and knee-high stiletto boots... Anyway, this week it's been above zero all week, and drizzling quite a bit (at night, I assume, as there's always puddles, but before today I haven't been out in the rain). So, the snow has melted, revealing that there is, in fact, grass in Moscow (yay!), but that below most of the paths there is a whole lotta mud - hazardous to the health of all my pants, safety-pinned up as they may be.

The Bus

Loyal readers will remember that I'm not overly fond of buses. So it's great news that I have to catch one to one of the schools I work at. The buses in Moscow have something I've never seen before - turnstiles on board, so that you can't get on without a ticket. Weird! The buses are often crowded and awful, and Muscovites will happily push and fight to get on them first (as with the metro). Yesterday was my first attempt to catch the bus to the school by myself (on Tuesday, I was met and escorted). I got on and thought it was a good idea to stand by the doors, so that I could identify my stop (get off after the McDonald's!) and be ready to spring from the bus, quick like a bunny (hi Scott!). So there I was in the stairwell, when it suddenly dawned on my that it might not be the best place to stand should the doors open inwards. Okay, so I tried to get up on the step behind me. The only problem there was the guy who was standing behind me didn't move an inch (see above, Muscovites and lack of personal space) so I had to awkwardly hover on the very edge of the step. Hmmm, I thought, maybe I'll just step back down. After all, if I'm shortly to be crushed to death by the doors, surely my fellow travellers will warn me? I think you can guess what comes next... Yes, I overestimated the social skills of the Russians once more, and the doors did indeed close on me, leading to a miserable end to the journey dancing about trying to avoid the doors at each stop...

PS Thanks to Heather for inspiration on the post title, with her musing 'Would Dostoevsky have been a blogger?'

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


Previous post over-optimistic. I hate being a teacher. Hate hate hate hate hate.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Teacher, teacher!

Just had my very first real lesson - 2 1/4 hours, argggh! BUT surprisingly the class was really nice, things seemed to go fine, they managed to do all the activities and the time didn't really drag - in fact, I ended with material to spare, which was a lot better than casting around for things to do at the end of the lesson. I have four more today, which I'm not so prepared for, but hopefully I can fill up one with lots of 'getting to know you' games, the other I have to give a test, which I'm not super sure how to do, but at least it involves me getting paid to sit quietly for an hour and a half (or, more likely, to plan my last lesson), and the last one is a kid's lesson... 6-9 year olds... How's that going to fly?
PS I had to get up at 6.30 am (probably a little earlier than usual because I was stressed about getting here on time) and won't be home until 9.30 pm or so... Then I still have to plan for tomorrow's classes (well, I have tomorrow day to do that as well). All this for a pittance of rubles! The life of an English teacher...

Friday, November 17, 2006

B Mockbe

Or, 'In Moscow' for those illiterati who don't know Russian...

So far I haven't had a chance to see any of the sights, really, although the Kremlin is right next to the metro station where we get off to go to the central school office, so I've seen it a few times in the distance now.

On Wednesday Melani (which, I've discovered, is how you spell her name...) and I walked down Novy Arbat Street, which is the big, glitzy shopping street of Moscow (fancier than Wenceslas Square, but the same idea. Melani said it reminded her of Vegas, I was thinking Leceister [sp?] Square, or maybe I mean Piccadilly, whatever's all lit up... For the Auckland crew, it's something like Queen Street [laughs hollowly]...) Anyhoo, it's an audio-visual treat. Yes, audio as well, with music blaring out from the restaurants/casinos. When we first walked past, it was playing 'Rasputin' by Boney M. The new Russia, indeed!

Walking around somewhere like that, you forget the problems of Russia. Sure, there's homeless people (and homeless dogs) in the metro, but that's common to any big city. On the metro today, however, a guy with no legs got on, and instead of a wheelchair, he had a little cart right low down to the ground, and he was holding these little block of wood thingies with handles, to push himself around. Well, maybe that's a lifestyle choice, but to me, suddenly Russia seemed very third world.

A word or two about the metro is in order here. We've been to one or two of the beautiful metro stations you see in guidebooks and so on - chandeliers, mosaics (very Soviet mosaics, at that). But woe betide you if you stop to have a look! Especially in morning rush hour (of which we've caught the tail end the past few days) the metro is beyond crowded. It's actually not too bad on the trains themselves - they come every couple of minutes and ease the congestion, and since we're at the end of the line, people tend to let a half-full train go in order to be at the front of the pack and grab a seat on the next one out. No running to catch the metro in Moscow! What's bad is exiting and entering the metro system. Coming through the doors, through the electronic gates and down the stairs/escalators in the mornings, you could just about pick up your feet and let the crowd take you where it will. People in Russia aren't shy about elbowing, pushing, or standing with their entire body pressed against you. It's not the pleasantest of experiences (note improper superlative formation), but one I suppose I'll have to get used to.

Yesterday in orientation, we had a fun little chat about 'cultural differences' in Russia. Topics included the need to get used to Russians spitting all over the show (although this seems to me to be a Europe-wide phenomenon), the fact that Russians habitually hang up the phone without saying goodbye - don't take it personally, and my particular favourite, a wee seminar on the going rate for bribing the cops (sample bribe - drinking on the metro: 200 rubles). We were advised to ignore the cops as much as possible - don't by any means seek their assistance for such things as directions, you're just asking for a 'passport check', and if they find an extra drop of ink or something on your visa, you'll get fined. They told a humorous little tale of a teacher who got robbed on the metro, a Russian pressed the call button for the police then left, and since the teacher didn't speak enough Russian to explain what had happened, he got arrested for wasting police time ahahahahahaha. Then one of our fellow inductees shared the fact that someone had waved a craft knife at him in the metro the other day. Nice! The advice for what to do if you don't feel safe on the metro? Find a babushka to hang out with. Apparently Russian grandmothers are feared by all. I actually got yelled at one yesterday - "What are you doing, young lady!?" - because I brushed against her flowers with my bag. It had the contrary effect on me, however, because I was just pleased with myself that I knew what she was saying.

Don't know if I'm any more prepared for teaching today than I was yesterday. It
wasn't an especially arduous day, but I was out of the house for some 13 hours, which is probably something I'll need to get used to in the TEFL game, judging by the lifestyles of some of my Prague buddies... Orientation wound up being a bit rushed as they were informed that the power was to be shut off at 4 pm - which they claim isn't a typical event... but who knows? Anyway, there's one more day of it today, in which hopefully we get our timetables and find out what/who/where we're teaching, which is a bit nerve-racking, but at least it will be good to know.

PS My new credit card turned up, woohoo!!!

Thursday, November 16, 2006

From Russia With Love

Last night in Prague! Greg, me & Laurie (kindly ignore the el doublo)

Sonj, me & Laurie

Me & Carolyn

Me & the Gregster - ah the bags, the shiny nose, how hot am I?

Me, Greg, and an oddly prim-and-proper looking Sonj

After seeing this photo, I made the incredibly tactless remark that I look like a Holocaust victim. Which drew the obvious riposte - "Yes, you often see Holocaust victims riding giant dogs!" To rephrase - I look like I haven't slept in a week. To be more accurate, I look like I've slept on the floor for two weeks and had a boozy evening at Radost the night before.

Greg follows the life rule: Always BYO straw

Me, Carolyn and our delicious bowls of alcohol

Look at all those dazzling pools of neon (ranch - is it sad I still remember that quote? Ha ha)

Me, Grace, and a disturbed-looking Greg. PS take your scarf off!

Aw, pretty!

If I didn't know better, I'd say Scotty had been smoking something...

Gracie puts the moves on the Gregster (who looks pretty unimpressed!)

Daniel, Me, Scotty - boy sandwich!

Scott, Laruie and one of our erstwhile students, little Daniel

There's some cool cats for you...

Me & Laurie on the incredibly smoky (well dry-icey) dancefloor

Ha! I look like I'm trying to seduce someone's 12 year old brother (sorry Greg, but it's not your best photo)

Aw, don't Gracie and Al look sweet?

Me & Al, having stolen Gracie's hat

Me Scott & Grace at Radost

Me & Laurie pre-Radost

Thanks to mum for the post title.
Greetings from Moscow! I'm here safe and sound (mostly)...
But first I must recount how I escaped the claws of Little Mother Prague...
On Friday night a bunch of us went to Radost, which is becoming a bit of a Friday night institution. All the guidebooks and so forth on Prague describe Radost along the lines of 'where all the beautiful people hang out', so naturally we all fit right in... Plus we've devised a (mostly) foolproof system for sneaking in without paying the cover charge, oh yeah! Anyway, there were many drinks and much fun had by all who attended. Alasdair and I danced up a storm until he ditched me to go chase some tail (heh heh) grrrrr. For the second time in Prague I proved that I can converse reasonably well in French while incredibly drunk, go me!
Saturday my buddies and I went out for my farewell dinner, which was nice, even though the first-choice destination was full so we ended up at a pretty average Czech place. My Czech friend Kristyna came and gave me a little bottle of Slivovice, which (I think) is Czech cherry brandy??? Praguesters, help me out... And my lovely CELTA friends got me a new wallet (how did they ever know I needed one?) complete with hand-made 'rubles' inside, bless. We had a bit more of a quiet time on Saturday, I think everyone was pretty exhausted from the night before.
On Sunday I went around to Carolyn's in the afternoon and I practised for Russia by starting to drink vodka at 3 in the afternoon (don't ask me what Carolyn's excuse was). We got nicely toasted as various people dropped in and out of the apartment (Scotty and Alasdair excused themselves at one point to go see a live sex show... well, actually, they went to see a movie, the live sex show was an unexpected bonus. No, really...) and then once Carolyn 'retired for the evening' (read: passed out in bed) changed location to Sonja's and kept the party going until quite late, when it was time for me to dissolve into a puddle of tears on the tram home. Thanks to Gregory for making me laugh through those watermelon tears.
The next day it was up early and feeling just the tiniest bit seedy, to take the train to Berlin. It actually passed through quite pretty countryside, following the Vltava most of the way. Dresden looked pretty much as dreary as one might imagine, although things never tend to be at their best when viewed from the train, God knows Auckland's a prime example of that maxim. Anyway, arrived in Berlin to a miserable afternoon and a wee bit of trailing around with my suitcase in the rain. Some woman on crutches yelled at me on the bus to 'move my box' - okay, you try moving a 28 kg suitcase when there's nowhere to put the damn thing, I wasn't doing it on purpose, lady. Sooo, when I finally got to the hostel at about 4 pm I was in no mood for sightseeing, so I'm afraid to say I just went to bed (ah, bed, such a luxury after a couple of weeks on the floor - not that I'm not grateful for it) and didn't see any of Berlin at all. After I got back up, at about 10 pm, I went into the kitchen to make some instant goulash, got the kettle caught on the base as I was picking it up and proceeded to pour boiling water on my hand (what an Eastern European mishap - wounded in the pursuit of goulash). The next day, on the bus to the airport, I got yelled at again - "Nein! Nein! Nein!" for putting my coins in the inappropriate place. So, although I'm sure Berlin is a fine city, I can't say I had a single positive experience in my short stay there...
Got through the airport the next day with no further mishaps than having to pay 25 Euro extra for the above-mentioned 28-kg suitcase (I really didn't buy all that many things in Prague, all my books etc. were in my carry-on - it's a mystery how the extra 6 kgs or so accumulated). Going through passport control etc. in Moscow was actually far easier than in LA airport (take THAT, United Statesians) and I was picked up by a driver and a representative from the school (after fighting my way through hordes of men asking 'taxi, madame?' - why 'madame', I don't know). I was handed an envelope with a metro pass, a phone card with a few dollars on it and a 1500 ruble advance - which is not a lot of money, but it just about doubled my meagre store! Very impressed with the sweet setup so far. We battled through insane Moscow traffic for about 2 1/2 hours to get to the flat - driving past the Kremlin and St Basil's in the process, woohoo. On the motorway there was an open-backed truck full of soldiers, and people in the cars around were throwing packs of cigarettes to them. A Russian tradition? Or are they overwhelmed with patriotic fervour for the boys in khaki - I don't know.
We got to the flat eventually and surprised Melanie, my new flatmate from Arizona, who had thought she was going to be living alone (what a lovely treat for her to have me). She seems nice.

Anyway, the flat is pretty cool - two big bedrooms, a bathroom and a little kitchen. My room has a QUEEN sized bed, oh bliss! So if you Prague cats wanted to come visit me before (and let's face it, you know you did), how much more to you want to visit now that you know you get to sleep with me in the big-girl bed? There is also lots of wardrobe and drawer space, bedside tables, which I always like, a nice big armchair and a desk. Also a TV, which I can't get working, but we'll keep trying - I was looking at the Russian TV schedule yesterday and there's a daily diet of 'Top Gear' and 'Veronica Mars', along with such thrilling Russian shows as 'Profession: Journalist' and 'Detective Story'.
The flat is out in the wops (that is not a racist slur, Canadians and others, it means in the middle of nowhere) - relative to the city centre that is. It's only a short walk (through this snow-covered park/wood, which looks like something out of a Russian novel - just waiting for a wolf to spring out from behind a tree [not that sort of wolf, Carolyn], although I'm petrified of falling over on the ice) to the metro, but it's the last stop on what is definitely (like the yellow line in Prague) a 'ghetto line'- crappy trains, no electronic signs etc, but actually not as jerky as the yellow trains in Prague. Oh, and there are broken-down escalators everywhere, whoever made that prediction is correct.
Ahhh... running out of time to make it to day one 'orientation' as my real teaching life in Moscow begins (help me!). Plus you're probably all bored out of your mind by this post by now. I expect some comments from you all. xxxx

Thursday, November 09, 2006

In which things get better

Okay, so yesterday I went to the consulate, at 10 am this time. When I turned up, there was already about 6 people crowded around the gate in front of me. It took about 15 minutes before anyone came out of the consulate, during which time more people turned up and started pressing up around the gate. During this time, just to set the scene it was drizzling slightly... When the gatekeeper finally came out, rather than letting people in in any kind of fair-seeming order, he would point to people he wanted to come in. What??? As (I think) Scotty said, it was like waiting behind the velvet rope at a nightclub, except at this 'nightclub' I was slightly worried the crowd would turn vicious - you should have seen everyone pressing forward whenever the gatekeeper approached, like at a rock concert or something. Actually, it put me in mind of those photos of the last helicopters leaving the American embassy in Vietnam... Anyhoo, whenever the gatekeeper came out, people were shouting out (in Russian) what they were there for, which seemed to sway the gatekeeper somehow, although I couldn't tell whether he was just letting people in for new passports, or for visas, or what was going on. Some people were waving little slips of paper, which panicked me slightly since I didn't have one. After about 45 minutes of this, I worked my way up to right before the gate and summoned the courage to bleat 'visa' the next time he approached. No result. However, on his next trip to the gate, I was given the nod. Sweet! Once I got inside, I saw that there was some method to the whole affair - there were different queues dependent on whether you were getting a passport, applying for a visa, or picking your visa up, so whenever he escorted one person out from a particular queue, he would try to pick someone who needed to go to the same counter. Even so, have the Russians not heard of waiting rooms or something?
Once inside, I was (as I had been all week) wracked with anxiety over whether I had all the requisite documents and whether I could actually afford the visa fee. When I got to the counter I said in halting Russian "I need a visa..." I was planning to go on "by tomorrow, how much is it?" but the visa guy cut me off (in Russian) with a sarky "I know you need a visa, can I have your documents please?" Okay, fair enough, I was at the visa counter, but come on, I wasn't actually just being Captain Obvious (another Laurie-ism) I did have a point if he'd let me finish... Anyway, to my relief, the forms were fine, no AIDS test required, and the visa fee was about NZ$120, which I had, and which I thought was fairly reasonable for next-day service.
I couldn't really relax up until this morning, when I picked up my visa (woohoo!) because I was nervous that I'd turn up and they'd be all "we've found an irregularity in your application, Miss Gwan", but no such problem - I'm off to Russia!

Yesterday I also booked my flight, out of Berlin, and today I picked up my train ticket. So Monday morning I leave Prague for a 5-hour train ride to Berlin, then spend the night there before flying out to Moscow Tuesday morning (it is much cheaper to do it that way - lets say, with the train ticket and hostel etc. 200 euro as opposed to about 500 euro to fly direct from Prague).

I also arranged for my replacement credit card to be sent to me in Moscow, and today I picked up some emergency cash. Mum promised the guy at the bank that I would 'give him a plug on my blog' - yes, since I have an audience of millions who look at me as their god, here you go. Bruce from the National Bank at Auckland University is a star. Sarcasm aside, he really was great - called me about 5 times to talk about various options to get me a card and cash and always friendly and nice... Well done, Bruce.
I have a sinking feeling that I'm going to be absolutely stony broke in Moscow (and there's nothing like being in an unfamilar city to drain one's funds) but I will have a place to live, which is the main thing, and I suppose I'll just have to tighten my metaphorical belt (although good news, my literal belt needs tightening as well... pity it's on the last hole and I can't tighten it, so it really does more to weigh my pants down than to hold them up) and stick it out as best I can until whenever it is I start getting paid.

I definitely have mixed feelings about leaving Prague. I've really come to love the city, and most of all, the friends I've made here. I've been running around extorting promises from people to 'try' to come and visit me in Moscow, and I'm sure we're all going to have a good time this weekend, my last in Prague :( But, at the same time, I'm going to be living in Moscow, which is by far the coolest thing I've ever done in my short life to date! Stay tuned for Muscovite adventures soon...

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

In which everything goes all f@ck!d up

It's been a few days between posts (unusually, I know) because I've been having a bad old time of it. On Monday I was pleased as punch to find a full-length coat at Tesco for $70 (okay, it's probably not the world's best coat, but at $70, how can you go wrong?) and then have a halfway-decent passport photo taken, when, on arriving back at Greg and Laurie's flat I went to pull the photos out of my wallet to show Laurie and... no wallet. I'm always really careful about keeping eyes and paws on my bag plus it closes with a big velcroed flap, so I don't see how anyone could have managed to pickpocket it, but I'm at a bit of a loss to explain how it jumped out by itself. My working theories are either that I left it on a counter or something after buying something (which would make me an idiot) or that it somehow flew out when I took my scarf and gloves out on the way home. Well, it's not the end of the world, of course, but it does leave me in the tricky position of not knowing whether I can afford my Russian visa (more on that later). Plus there were lots of things in there that are irreplaceable (e.g. student ID) or a pain to replace (driver's license). However, I didn't have much money (maybe $20) in it, mostly because I don't have much money full stop. I did have a 100 euro traveller's cheque at home though, which I'm enormously grateful for now. My lovely and wonderful mum sorted me out with the bank though, after I spent 150 crowns I really couldn't afford to lose on hold with the bank in NZ before some stupid girl came on and said it would take 2-3 weeks to send a replacement credit card and I would have to be there for whenever it might turn up in that period!

On Tuesday I went down to the police station to report it, which was actually a very pain-free process, with a lovely Engilsh-speaking copper (although I realised later he didn't actually bother to take a contact phone number, which I suppose reflects the odds of it actually turning up). Don't think I'll claim on it with my insurance, I doubt they'll pay anything out - you know how they are...

After the police station, I had to go pick up my letter of invitation from Russia, which involved going all the way out to the airport and following some very vague instructions as to where I should go. Eventually I found the right neck of the woods, after asking about 3 people for directions, but genius here thought she was collecting a letter from DHL... Literally hours later, and after an emergency (and VERY pricey) email check at the airport, I found out it was UPS that had my package. I had actually found the UPS building, but since I was convinced it was DHL I needed (who were actually down the road a little bit), I did plenty more wandering first. So that was a frustrating day, but I wound up with my precious letter of invitation in the end.

Armed with the letter of invitation, the next step is actually getting the visa. Since the only website I can find for the Russian Embassy/Consulate in Prague lists email addresses and phone numbers that don't actually work and has little information of use, I managed to turn up 5 minutes after the visa office closes for the day (naturally it's only open for 2 hours, from 10 am - 12 pm...) so that was an exercise in frustration. It also exposed how fricking awful my command of the Russian language is these days. The only address on the website is actually the Embassy's address, not the Consulate's, so I went there first and had a little conversation with the gatekeeper or whoever in my execrable Russian:

Russian guy: Slushaiyu ("I'm listening" PS excuse awful transliteration if any Russian scholars happen to read this)

Me: Gavaritye po-anglitsky ("Do you speak English?)

RG: Po-russky! (Russian!)

Me: Khochu visi (I want a visa)

RG: Visu (Your grammar sucks, lady) He then proceeds to give me the address of the consulate - I understood what he was doing, but I just couldn't catch the street name (which, to be fair, is Czech of course)

Me: Ummm, ummm, adress...

RG: Repeats it about 4 times

Me: Ummm...

RG: (Periodically) Sluchaiyu

Me: Ummm, ne znaiyu russky slovo... adress, a, b, c... ("I don't know the Russian word, address, a, b, c" - a vain attempt to get him to spell the street name... Eventually I got it, but I couldn't remember even how to say 'thankyou', all I could think in was stupid Czech 'dekuji'! Of course when I left I remembered it was 'spasibo'...)

So it's probably due to my poor Russian skills that I wound up late for the visa... Once there, I think I figured out that the visa I want costs 1500 crowns, which is about $100 and is about half the money I have, so I'm fervently hoping that I read the information correctly. I was freaked out because it definitely said somewhere on the info board that Czechs needed an AIDS test, and if I need one too I'm probably sunk in terms of getting the visa in time to get to Russia on Tuesday, but I've just looked at the Embassy website again and it says you need the AIDS test when applying for a visa for more than 3 months - for some bureaucratic reason I have to apply for a 3-month single-entry business visa and then when I'm in Russia convert it into a 12-month multiple-entry visa, so if everyone could just cross all their fingers and toes that that's correct & that the visa does cost 1500 crowns, then I might just be able to make it to Moscow on time.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Moscow calling

Hurrah! I've just heard that the letter of invitation, the necessary first step to getting a Russian visa, will be arriving in my hot little hands on Tuesday. I still haven't heard anything back from the Russian embassy, so who knows if I need to organise an HIV/AIDS test or any other such requirement, I think I might just show up on Wednesday or something if I don't hear from them by then.

I've started making my little preparations for Russian life - buying some warm(er) clothes, primarily. I've also taken the liberty of trawling around on the net for some information on Russian life.
In winter, it can fall to 30 degrees below zero (hmmm, let me just close my eyes and imagine that for a second - nope, can't quite manage it) and washing machines, I learn to my dismay, are not readily available 'be prepared to handwash' :(
From the US Consulate, I've learned that swarms of children (possibly armed with knives) sometimes attack tourists, knocking them down and stealing their possessions. Always fun... Also, neo-Nazi racist movements are on the rise in Russia, so one should take care if of 'African or Asian origin'. Well, at least that's not me.
You should also take extreme care who you drink with, as drink and food spiking is also on the rise.
Security on Russian internal flights is apparently a little hazy, leading to two Russian commerical airliners being downed by terrorist acts in the last few years. And of course, terrorism is not restricted to the skies - we all remember the Beslan school siege and the opera house siege. There have also recently been explosions in Russian marketplaces, which 'appear to be motivated by commerical concerns, rather than targeting foreigners' - business Russian-style, huh?

What have I let myself in for?

However, my school (well, they are in the business of recruiting foreigners) has this to say: 'Once someone has expressed an interest in coming to Moscow, every mother will no doubt be beside herself with worry. Reassure her - it is not as bad as you have read in the Western press.'

In case I sound like I'm down on Project: Moscow, I'm really not - still looking forward to it, but as An Awfully Big Adventure, some of which will be scary in the extreme, but which will also be lots of fun, I hope. I'm aiming to be in Moscow by the 15th of November, which is really not so far away now. Luckily I've also lined up a hefty list of people who have promised to come visit me, so they'd better not let me down!

In my Prague life, things are ticking on... Friday night we went out to gay night at Radost, a yummy vegetarian restaurant slash club. I sneaked (snuck?) in my own vodka as a cost-cutting measure (shush!) and justly endured the slings and arrows of my outrageous friends. It was fun, although both ladies and gentlemen were generally impervious to my charms. Yesterday Scotty, Sonja and I went shopping, where we outfitted Scotty for winter in Prague, since he came sadly under-equipped for the season (not what we expect from a native of Thunder Bay, Canada - his warm clothes are being shipped as we speak...) and then we headed back to Carolyn's for movie night Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure ha ha ha with Laurie, Greg, Gracie and Alasdair making up the rest of the gang. Today Scott, Sonja, Greg and I went to an exhibition that contrasted photos of Prague from the last 19th - early 20th century with photos of the same areas today. It was interesting seeing how much has changed, considering to the casual eye (minus the tourist tat), one would imagine that Prague's been preserved more-or-less intact through the ages: not so!

PS It has snowed a little the past few days, mostly while I've been tucked up in bed, and it hasn't been the sort of snow that's stuck, unfortunately, just a few wee snowflakes in the air. Well, I'll get plenty of snow soon enough.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The minutiae of life

Hello all, nothing interesting to report really.

The guy on the next computer is looking at porn in public - classy.

I have moved out of the hostel (yes!) and on to the floor of Greg & Laurie's new flat (bless them). The taxi driver yesterday flipped out when we tried to get him to drive a little further than the expected destination (Laurie told him the metro station and then was going to direct him from there) but since there was much yelling and swearing in Czech accompanied by 'Nerozumim! Nerozumim!' (I don't understand!) whenever we tried to say anything to him (his English wasn't brilliant, but up until that point, he'd managed...) we got out at a random point and had to drag my one insanely heavy suitcase and Laurie's two suitcases and five or so plastic bags the rest of the way.

I have to sleep on the floor now, but it's all good. Greg brought his mattress into Laurie's room as well last night, since he managed to freak himself out with the thought that he was going to die from inhaling poison gas in his room... Apparently there's a weird chemical odour in there, I don't know, I couldn't be bothered getting up to investigate it. In any case, he deserves to be a bit freaked out considering he came home while I was in the bathroom this morning and hid behind the kitchen counter and scared the living daylights out of me because I didn't know anyone had come home. He's constantly trying to surprise people with such tricks, and considering I screamed it's probably one of his most successful to date, dammit!

I managed to get the deposit back on the costume, due to the sewing/gaffer-taping skills of the indominatable (sp?) Alasdair. I took Carolyn's back as well, which of course he threw on the floor without so much as glancing at, before proceeding to open mine up and look at it, for some god-unknown reason (isn't it always the way, though), but our expert repair job passed muster, so I didn't have to throw the enormous sum of 1000 crowns (c. $70) down the drain.

Only other thing of note is that the weather has finally turned here. It's gone from being astonishingly mild (most nights, as I told mumsie, warm enough for just a t-shirt) with a couple of episodes of what I would term NZ-cold thrown in, to being properly cold. Not quite as bad as in Canada, where going outside felt like a slap in the face, but cold enough so that you feel the air you're breathing in is burning the back of your nose a little bit. According to www.weather.co.uk, it's currently 2 degrees (today's high!), but feels like -4 due to wind chill. Don't know about that, but it was certainly chilly last night, and there are snow showers forecast for this evening/night (low of really -4) and tomorrow, which I'm excited about. I'm excited about wearing coats and gloves and scarves and hats, and I know "this too shall pass" and probably rather quickly, but I'm going to enjoy being excited for the moment. Expect lots of photos if it does snow.