Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Money talks

Someone's getting a pay rise, woohoo! This is but a small increase to the pittance, but as I like to say, it's better than a kick in the teeth, right?

In honour of this fact, I bring you a couple of otherwise random observations on Russian money matters:

Basically, it's like all the annoying things about Prague, multiplied. If you thought (or if you heard me describe) that the shopkeepers of Prague were anal retentive about changing large bills, then in Russia they're ten times worse. Sometimes I plan entire shopping expeditions on the back of whether I think I'll be able to break a big note. We get our pay doled out in multiples of 1000 roubles, which is about NZ $55 or 20 pounds. So, not a massive amount, but reasonably substantial. It takes cunning strategy to break these notes. Often, if I'm in the supermarket or a bookshop, say, I'll try to whip out the 1000 rouble and pay for a 300 rouble purchase. They will invariably try to extract a smaller note out of you. If you have smaller notes in your wallet, on no account let the shopkeeper see them. They will hone in on this weakness and break your feeble spirit. Don't even try paying with the thousand at the produkti or kiosks around town, it just won't work. Even breaking a 100 rouble note can be troublesome at these places. They will always ask for you to supply the small change as well - for a 454.32 purchase, be ready to supply the 4 roubles, 32 kopecks. This is a problem because it confuses the hell out of me. Why I can't understand that there are rouble coins and kopeck coins, I don't know. After all, there are dollar coins and cent coins, pound coins and pence coins... this has never been a problem area. But with roubles and kopecks, I panic.

Talking of 32 kopecks, if you thought 50 heller coins were useless, then meet kopecks. Just before I left NZ, the 5 cent coin was taken out of circulation, I suppose on the ground that it was essentially useless (5 cent lollies, anyone?). The Russians need to sit up and take note. Usually, the smallest you see is a 10 kopeck coin, which is worth NZ $0.0054. However, 1 kopeck coins do exist - that's right, there are coins that are worth NZ $0.00054, or to put it even more ridiculously, 0.00019 pence. And it's not like you can even buy something worth one kopeck - yet they insist on making things in the supermarket cost 14 roubles, 12 kopecks, etc. Crazy!

Above, I mentioned produkti - the delightful Russian equivalents of the dairy or, for those challenged in Kiwi-speak, corner store, convenience store, etc. Now, Russians are obsessed with preventing shoplifting - probably with good reason. To this end, they plastic-wrap my bag when I go to the supermarket, the drinks fridges on the roadside are controlled somehow with a button - pay your money first, they press something and the fridge opens, and some produkti have lockers where you must stow your bag before you go in. But the best produkti are the ones that are straight out of the Victorian age - all the goods are behind the counter and you have to ask the shopkeeper for the things you want. Ah, classic! It's these little things that make Russia not just a cold New Zealand where they talk funny. Of course, this can be a challenge when you don't know the name for what you want (pointing helps, but this can take time - no, up! up more! down! across!) but that's all part of the fun. Also cool is that, as I discovered last night, you can go to your local produkti and pick up a single egg (3 roubles, 40 kopecks). Now that's handy.

Now, this is unrelated, but question: are there more amputees in Russia, or are they just more visible because they're not cared for properly? Sounds like a silly question, but I really want to know. I must see people missing one or more limbs every day, mostly begging on the streets or on the metro. In New Zealand, would they be whisked off, provided with artificial limbs and given a benefit or assistance to work, and therefore aren't a visible presence in daily life? Or are these hordes of limb-impaired Russians veterans from the war in Afghanistan or somesuch? Are there any enlightening statistics/theories out there? Go forth and seek knowledge, my faithful readers!

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Merry Christmas, everyone!

The very wee small hours of Christmas Day - as you can see, minus 4 & it's snowing!

'The lean' - rarely flattering

Nate, me & Sheri

A happy Christmas dinner - there is some food amongst all that booze, I swear

Apologies for belatedness of Christmas message - recuperating slightly yesterday morn then teaching in the evening, so no opportunities to spread Christmas cheer. However, Russian Christmas is not, as I've informed all you kiddies, until 7th Jan, so by Russian standards I'm early.

Anyway, to bring you all up to speed with my exciting weekend adventures... Friday night I went to see a Russian band called Deti Picassa (Picasso's children), who had been described to me as 'like the Russian Bjork'. Yes, I went anyway... They were okay, place was pretty chill, fun had by all. Plus the coat-check man said I looked pretty in three languages. (He went for Russian first, I said I didn't understand so he switched to English. This, considering I said "thankyou", I clearly did understand. But he decided to throw in some French anyway. [In the hope that I would be swept off my feet by the trilingual coat-check boy??] Don't know what the French part was, I was too confused by the skills of this cunning linguist to follow...)

Saturday I slobbed around in bed until the afternoon (luxury) then went into town and planned Mon & Tues' lessons - yes, working on a Saturday is lame, but it means today and yesterday mornings blissfully free, so it was worth it. After that, I took a stroll on Arbat street, where I had been informed you can go for all the Russian souvenir tat your heart could possibly desire. I got a Christmas present for Melani, but that was it. I also almost fell over, and when I looked to see what I had stumbled on, it turns out it was a cellphone in working order. I later managed to return it to its owner (a difficult feat, since the conversation mostly consisted of him going "blah blah blah" in Russian and me going "I don't understand". I also, stupidly, informed him "I have your cellphone". Well, duh...) so that was my Christmas good deed - straight to Heaven with me! Then I had an interesting chat with a Kazakhstani guy who was trying to sell me t-shirts. At first it went well - he was so impressed by my New Zealandness that he asked to take a photo of me on his cellphone "So that I have a photo of a New Zealander". Well, that's what he said it was for, at least... He slightly annoyed me by taking the photo and then looking at it and going "Normalno", which means exactly what you think it does. You could at least have said "krasivaya" (pretty)! But then the only size in this t-shirt I wanted to buy (picture of Putin and [in Russian] 'the president needs you' = cool) was men's XL. So I said, "it's very big" and he said something to the effect that "it will fit you though"... That's not the way to make a sale! Apart from the fact that I was wearing my big winter coat, it came down to my mid-thighs. Grrrr. But the t-shirt will be mine, oh yes, it will be mine. There are t-shirt vendors all over this city, Mr!

Then I went home and spent Saturday night in the flat, playing Yahtzee and Boggle with Melani. Fun times! Ha ha.

On Sunday, I declined Melani's invite to church ("I made a list of all the English-speaking churches in Moscow that weren't Catholic!" ah ha ha ha) in favour of lounging around in bed some more. Then at night we headed out to Christmas dinner - roast vegetables! bread sauce (weird, but not bad)! stuffing! chicken! coagulated chocolate 'fondue'! vodka! bubbly! Good times had by all! Caught one of the last metros home, after midnight, and arrived back in my own burb in the wee small hours of Christmas morning - minus 4 and snowing, a White Christmas indeed.

Most of Christmas morning was spent recovering in bed, as aforementioned. When I finally did get up, it was a gorgeous sunny day, with fresh sparkly white snow everywhere (started snowing again later, but when I first headed out it was as perfect a white Christmas as you could wish for). Good news was that all but one of my classes were cancelled this week. They made an elaborate cover schedule for me, on the theory that 'idle hands are the devil's playthings', but it did mean that I got out of having an observed lesson. Woohoo! The day ended badly, when I had to teach an Upper Intermediate class that they'd told me was Intermediate (the SECOND time they've done that to me), so I wasn't prepared at all... But oh well.

Then it was home for a Christmas dinner of hot dogs (sweet!) and watching the football highlights on TV. And enjoying the stripey socks Melani got me.

Hope all of your Christmases were equally exciting!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Winter's here

Remember how I said it was snowing the other night? It's been snowing, on and off, ever since. Not very much, but enough to turn the eerie woods into a winter wonderland (bonus: all the snow makes it super bright at night, much better!). Because it's snowing all the time, it's nice fresh powder that is the underfoot equivalent of packing icing sugar into a measuring cup when you walk on it - it's the best! The dirty brown snow on paths and roads is not so pretty, but oh well. I must say (and laugh at me if you will, those of you with vast snow experience) that the solidity of snowflakes has surprised me. Obviously I know they're just little flakes of ice floating around, but I didn't quite anticipate how they fly in your face and then sit there. It's actually kinda annoying to have to keep brushing snowflakes off your nose and out of your eyebrows etc.
All the snow is not, however, how I know that winter has arrived. This morning on the way to the metro, I noticed my hair was stuck together. "What the-?" What sort of sticky substance could I have in my hair? (PS: Shut up!) It took a few seconds to realise that my freshly-washed hair had actually frozen on the 10-minute walk to the metro... And it's not even that cold yet!
Operation: White Christmas looks distinctly more likely!

Monday, December 18, 2006

Moscow musings

It's snowing! Say what you will about Moscow, it is a magical feeling to be wandering past Red Square when the snow is a-falling and the Christmas trees are lit up (near Red Square is on my way into the school. Red Square proper is not. I almost went in to experience the presumably even more magical feeling of being in Red Square when the snow is a-falling and the Christmas trees are lit up, but I couldn't be bothered, sadly. There's actually an outdoor ice-rink in Red Square - much as I hate ice skating, that would be a cool experience...) We have also had blue sky and possibly sun, although I've been in bed with the flu the majority of the weekend and didn't see it if there was.

On Saturday we had a seminar in at one of the central schools - happens once a month, boo! The fun part was that Saturday was the day of a planned march by a coalition of anti-governmental parties - 'Other Russia' - led by Gary Kasparov, the chess guy. The march was actually banned by the city council - illegally, so said the organisers, who vowed to march anyway. As I find out, they didn't march, merely held a rally, but boy, were the police and military out in force in any case! The square that we would normally walk through to get to the school was sealed off with dozens of cops, as were other streets in central Moscow. This meant a wide detour and turning up late for the seminar - that makes two out of two! I think the actual rally was somewhere else, but they were planning to march to where we were, but the excitement must have been over by the time we showed up - I saw one solitary guy with a placard, but hundreds of cops. According to, about 8,500 law enforcement officials were out in Moscow on Saturday (!) Not to stereotype my gracious host nation, but this all seemed pleasingly Russian. Finally, a taste of the uber-authoritarian Russia the Western press harps on about! Sadly, no rioting and police brutality witnessed...

Prague people: Remember those Lay's chips in Prague that were called 'Fromage' but looked and tasted like Sour Cream & Chives? The mystery deepens: here in Moscow the same pack is indeed called Sour Cream & [mystery Russian word] and there's another pack of 'Cheese' flavour... Lay's also come in Mushroom & Sour Cream and Crab flavours here (shudder).

Interesting things I learned in The Moscow Times this week: Russia & Japan dispute a string of islands north of Japan. Because of this long-running issue, the two nations have never signed a formal peace treaty putting an end to their WWII hostilities!

And in cheerful news, more people have been murdered this year in Moscow than last - over 1000 so far in 2006. Moscow's a big city, but compare this to about 200 a year in London, and 571 murders last year in New York. It also charmingly mentioned a big spike in the numbers of serial killers - including one (thankfully apprehended) called the 'Bitsevsky Maniac' because he killed dozens in Moscow's Bitsevsky Park earlier this year. I guess I'll be taking the long way round the eerie woods...

OH and if you thought that working on Christmas Day on a Monday was not bad enough, they found a way to make it worse! My dreaded live observation (when someone comes in and watches you teach eek) was meant to be later this week - a fact I'd actually put out of my mind to the point of forgetting all about it. But this morning, the guy rings up and says "why don't we make it next Monday instead?" "Monday - Christmas Day?" I squeaked. "Yeah, I suppose it is Christmas Day" was the reply - this from a bona fide Canadian, no Russian who doesn't appreciate the sanctity of Christmas... So yes, on Christmas Day on a Monday I have to be observed while I teach. Superfluity of italics in fact not superfluous as they must convey the magnitude of the horror. :(

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Dear me

Man, I turned my back on the kiddies for one minute to rub things off the board and one of them punched the other and made him cry. Wouldn't have minded except there was about 1 minute to the end of class, and I didn't want to look like the worst teacher ever sending a wailing child out to meet its parents. Ha, that makes me sound like the worst teacher ever in itself! The child at least dried its eyes, but I have every expectation that it'll report the incident to its parents, d'oh! This is the stupid class where I've already been told off twice - my stupid Local Organiser (who runs the school) told me AGAIN today to make sure I check homework - which pissed me off even more because I told her more than once the other day that I do check the flipping homework, what does she not believe me? Made sure I wrote on all the kiddies' homework today, although I felt like a sell-out doing it just to show that I'd checked the freaking stuff. Ah, ramble ramble.

Monday, December 11, 2006


The Moscow Times reported on Friday that Moscow's in the grip of a 'heatwave'. Thursday was the hottest December 7th in recorded history - the high of 7.5 degrees Celsius comfortably breaking the old record of 6.6 degrees set way back in 1896. This makes me think that the electronic thermometers around town which regularly display temps up to 9 degrees are all wildly inaccurate, but still - point is that it's unseasonably warm here. Local wisdom has it that if the snow hasn't come to stay by December, then February will be really cold, but I've got my fingers crossed that blessed Global Warming is here to stay. Last winter, so the folks tell me, it hit 40 degrees below zero. Which would be about 50 degrees lower than what we'd term a really cold day back home. For the moment, though, I'm regularly too hot running around town even in my short coat, so viva the destruction of the environment!

What is not as pleasant is the fact that it's been a month since I've seen the sun (yes, I've been here a month tomorrow - bizarre!). There were wild rumours floating about one of the teachers' rooms the other day that Mr. Sun had in fact been briefly sighted at midday, but I wasn't one of those fortunate enough to verify that with me own peepers. Last Saturday night we did see the moon though, which caused wild jubilation. Look at all my photos of Moscow for an accurate picture of the grey gloom we endure night and day.

Some random things I've been meaning to blog about - Melani originally thought my name was 'Jar' when we met. I thought this was highly bizarre until I introduced myself to a Canadian girl who instantly went, "Oh, hi Jar" (very accepting, that).

I showed Melani the Halloween photos of myself, which I was worried would lead her to condemn me to the fires of Hell, but she actually laughed and made the comment, "But you always dress so conservatively! Even your pyjamas are conservative!". Leaving aside the disturbing matter of what she expects me to wear to bed (a see-through negligee?) this proves that (up until that point) she hadn't seen me out of boring teacher mode. As you'll no doubt remember, I learned my lesson about low-cut tops and the classroom not mixing, so I'm the original straight-laced schoolmarm in the week and mostly dressed down on the weekend.

Well, that's all of 'interest' I have to say. And that wasn't even particularly interesting.
Oh, wait, went to the movies on Friday - starved of English-language entertainment, I tells you. Everything on Russian TV is dubbed - often badly dubbed, so if you watch an American sitcom and concentrate really hard you can hear some of the dialogue underneath the Russian dubbing ('cause they don't remove the original soundtrack). This, however, is not particularly conducive to relaxation. I also watch the sports channel sometimes, since obviously I can get it without understanding the Russian. Last night was the third time I've seen Biathlon (cross-country skiing and target shooting) featured on TV. The third time in Russia, I mean. Weird. They do show some of the English premiereship matches, however. Anyway, I digress. We went to see The Holiday which was mucho cheesy, and the tickets were about as expensive as you pay at home, but still - sometimes you just want to see something in English, right?

Saturday went to this party at someone's place. Entertaining enough. Drank too much, stayed on the floor (stupid metro closes at 1 am) then staggered home on Sunday (after taking in a few Simpsons episodes on my host's laptop) to spend the rest of the day in bed.

Woke up this morning feeling particularly lethargic, which my kids' class last hour did nothing to shake. Plus the local organiser came in at the begininng and asked me in this annoying way to 'please check the kids' homework'. I said I did check it, but I don't think she believed me. One of the parents apparently complained that there is no sign of checking... One of the parents previously complained that I don't give enough homework. Ah, I hate this job!

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Moscow snaps

1000 rouble note - yes, it has a picture of a bear carrying an axe on it, way cool!

I can tell you I have a paper towel on my head - why, who put it there and who's taking the photo I cannot tell you

Forget his name, Me, Anna & Morgan at the metro party

Whatcha doing there, Gwannel?

Party people

Party team - me, Garth, forgot his name & Paul

Group shot at the metro party

People getting their groove on at the metro party

Nigel, me & Patrick

Me & Melani in front of St Basil's - I wrapped up with the head scarf for the photo - it's not really that cold

GUM, the famous department store, at night

Red Square at night - pity the Christmas tree's not lit up

The gates into Red Square at night

Church (I think) of the Assumption - built in the 1990s because Stalin knocked down the original

St. Basil's

Statue in front of St. B's

St Basil's

A church next to Red Square

The Kremlin walls

The State History Museum by Red Square

The gates to Red Square

The path through the freaky woods - still with vestiges of snow

The scissors we got given - from the 'Everything For the Modern Rapist' kit

Our beloved broom slash bundle of sticks

The scenic view from my window - a construction zone guaranteed to wake me up any morning I might have the luxury of sleeping in. Snow's melted by now.

The other side of my bedroom.

My new home! (Prior to messing it up completely)

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Weekend

Hello all. More photos added to my October posts - a few to 'A Viennese Affair', a few to 'Auf Wiedershen, Vienna', a couple to 'TGIF' and a couple to 'Cesky Krumlov etc.' - click on the archives for October and you'll find them. More to follow soon.

Anyway, on Friday I went in pursuit of a phantom exhibit of Soviet propaganda posters. That would have been hella cool, but it was not to be - alas, all enquiries at the Russian Contemporary History Museum came to naught. I did, however, look around the museum, which was moderately interesting. All the labels etc. were in Russian, but they did at least provide a printed info sheet for each room, so I sort of knew what I was looking at. The most interesting incident was when I went the wrong way around a circular layout of rooms - going back in history, as it were. I realised my error and just decided to walk back to the first room in the sequence (Russia under Krushchev) and then proceed towards Russia under Putin in the correct order. However, when I had found my starting-point, I ran up against the babushka-y guard. "Devushka!" ("Young lady!") - "you've already been that way!" (this is all in Russian, btw). Me: "I know, but I didn't see it." Babs: "No, you need to go this way!" (pointing back to the rooms I had viewed before I went astray). Me: "No, I've seen them." Babs: Frustrated, takes me by the elbow and escorts me back to where she wants me to go. Me: Waits a few minutes then tries to sneak back to the part of the museum I actually haven't seen yet. Ah, but the babushka has foreseen this cunning manouevre and is has elected to lie in wait for me, rather than return to her post. Me: "I've seen those rooms." Babs: "But you've seen the other rooms too." Me: "No, I was in those rooms, but I don't see [bad russian alert]" Babs: "Ah, you haven't seen everything." Me: "Yes!" Finally, the light has dawned and she lets me through (the way where I have to view them in the wrong order, but I'll settle for that at this stage). So I walk back into the rooms and encounter the next babushka - "Devushka! You've been this way already!"...

Saturday I hung out with Melani and a teacher who's even newer than me, Nigel - made me feel like I actually knew a thing or two about Moscow, which was nice. Walked around the outside of St Basil's for like the 5th time, but it's all good. Sat night we 'crashed' a party given by another teacher (who I'd never actually met, but it's all good). It was nice to actually talk to some people and make some friends. Plus they had a lethal punch made up of juice, wine, and vodka - yummy! We played some drunken badminton on the street at about 2 in the morning, while irate Russians yelled at us from their balconies. I'm surprised the militsia didn't get called in! Ended up crashing on their couch (stupid last metro leaves at 1 am) - good time had by all.

Unsurprisingly, Sunday was a wash...

Today (birthday!) not going well. Had to get up ridiculously early for reasons I can't be bothered going into, after possibly the worst night's sleep ever. Now hanging around at work all day :( Won't be off until 10 tonight. Grrr! Ah well, happy birthday to me...

Friday, December 01, 2006

Human Misery

UPDATE - I stole some photos from Scotty's blog - can find them below in the 'Cesky Krumlov' etc. post - will have to go back a wee bit. Will put some on of my own soon - was going to upload the rest of my Vienna photos today but alas! brought the wrong CD in :( Also not sure how to use the editing software at the school. Will try though...

Something that you see a lot of in Moscow. Especially in the metro - after you fight your way through the people trying to give you pamphlets and the people trying to sell you stuff (newspapers, a string of something that looks like dried mushrooms but I wouldn't swear to it in a court of law, balloons, mittens - you name it) then there are the beggars. Most of them have the common decency just to huddle on the floor or to drape themselves artistically over their crutches, but there are your pushy homeless as well. Last night on the metro a guy with a cane and a sign got on, accompanied by a bright-looking little girl of about 7. It was the girl's job to give the begging spiel - the only word of which I caught being "Pomogitye" - "Help". Today on the way to school there was another guy begging on crutches. Not to be harsh, but he kinda looked like he was faking it.

Once you get off the metro, you'll doubtless walk past a row of portaloos. Wait - the door of that one's open and there's someone inside. Not using the facilities, but sitting in there, fully dressed, maybe with a blanket or a book. "Oh my God," you think, "people are living in the portaloo!" Look again, and perhaps you'll see the crone dart out to collect payment from a portaloo user. "No," you realise "they don't live in a portaloo, they work in a portaloo!" These 'portaloo gnomes', as I call them, are everywhere. For me, that's a bad business model - buy an extra portaloo which you won't be able to use, and pay for the portaloo gnome to guard it every day. Surely there's not that much money to be made. And that has to be a contender for worst job ever - in stinky summer and freezing winter, you have to sit all day in a tiny little toilet with the door open. I just hope it's ethnic Russians filling the posts, none of these dirty migrants who come here and steal all the jobs.

Plus - more about the metro (yes, I realise you're probably sick of hearing about it). That respected English-language journal, The Moscow Times (or is that The Moscow News I forget?) (sample article, last week - "Putin vows to retain influence after his presidential term ends. Here's all the reasons why we think that's a brilliant idea. PS Did we mention that he's handsome and he smells nice, too?") (too many brackets, I've lost the train of the sentence, let's start again): The Moscow Times reported yesterday some interesting stats about the Moscow metro. An average of 9 million people use the metro every day (well, 9 million trips, I suppose - I entered the metro 4 times yesterday). This is compared to 2.7 million for the London Underground. On workdays, between 8 am and 9 am, 920,000 people will use the Moscow metro on an average day. So not so far off the population of Auckland, all underground. On workdays between 7 am and 8 pm, there will be no fewer than 400,000 passengers on the metro at any one time. So no wonder it's crowded!