Being Russian, being in contact and being on time

Okay, so I found a train and got a ticket (not entirely without assistance from some randomly helpful people, who even lent me money until I got some of my own). My ticket (which in Russia helpfully displays your arrival time) and the timetable both promise that I will be in Moscow early on Sunday morning. Perfect timing, since Natalie arrives on Sunday afternoon. I might even get a look at Lenin.

People think I am Russian. This surprises me. There are, of course, two things that could identify me as foreign – one is the language (both my accent and my relative inability to conjugate verbs and decline nouns and adjectives properly); (not sure if that semi-colon is right – I use them so seldom) the other is my appearance. Usually the latter is a dead give-away. The fact that is not here might be to do with my beard. At least it is useful for something.

My Russian usually gives me away at some point. Russians who think I am foreign have asked me if I am from Poland or the Baltic states (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia – I quite like the idea of being from Estonia), but many of them also say that my accent is “beautiful”, and one even said that I had no accent at all (which I take to mean that I sounded like her, although I guess I am not sure whether that is a good thing or not). Again and again I have cause to thank John Goodliffe and Marina Page at Canterbury University for their untiring and inspiring efforts to teach me this language. Especially when I see other foreigners who do not speak Russian and the huge difference it makes in the ease of getting around and in what I learn.

It is strange to be back here again. Especially because people only speak Russian (in Central Asia the native tongue was always something different, I often met people who did not speak much Russian (especially in Uzbekistan), and I sometimes worried that by talking in Russian I was risking offending them (since Russians are the ex-colonial masters after all)). And because things are immediately so much more European looking. Wide streets, classical buildings, obviously much richer, signs that I can read. Trams and not goats in the middle of the streets.

Six weeks in Central Asia have somehow made me forget (or doubt?) that this place was still here. I still get a thrill from discovering that the maps are right and that, no matter how unlikely it sounds, you can rely on them and expect to find countries just as indicated.

Still I am smiling about it. I like being in Russia (although my previous experiences might give one cause to question why), and this is a part of it (albeit a relatively unsung part) in which I have never been before (in the south of European Russia between the Urals and the Volga). We should not delve too deeply into the reasons I have never been down here. There is always the risk of concluding that it is because there is nothing much here to see. I like to think that it is because that pesky pneumonia curtailed my adventures in this part of the world two years ago.

I have been thinking about future trips a lot. Mostly because I am always working on the list of places to come back to and the list of places never to come to again. For the record, the former is long, the latter is short. I am thinking more and more of travelling more slowly and seeing fewer places along the way in the future. Perhaps the days of enormous itineraries and limited time are over. Perhaps I know now that I can get around in foreign countries, so it is no longer such a challenge to just see if it can be done. Perhaps I am realising that there are many many good reasons to travel (not just the thrill of trying to get from A to B to C to D) and so that trips with other goals (suntan, cuisine, culture, curiousity) could be worthwhile. Not that those things are not part of my travels at present. Of course they are. But I often think that a key reason I like to travel so much is because of the challenge. And that comes down to curiousity – figuring out what I am and am not capable of. Perhaps that is why I like Russia too. And travelling by myself. It is a series of challenges that do not end till the day I unpack my bag.

I met a Russian geologist today. She works for the Russian Academy of Sciences (not sure if this is a credit to her scientific skills, but I think it is and (more importantly for my opinion of her genius) it sounds like it is) and had just spent the last three weeks in the Aral Sea region studying things that I only vaguely understand (not helped by the explanation being in Russian) about the movement of the techtonic plates. She was working with scientists in other countries to compare information on the content of the earth’s crust in different places. This information enables them to figure out which bits of land used to be connected to each other and when, and therefore to date the movements of countries over time. My travels would certainly have been a lot simpler if New Zealand had not floated quite so far away from everywhere else.

Funny all the stuff that is going on that one is blissfully (or otherwise) totally unaware of.

My cellphone has suddenly started working again. Thank you to Vodafone, and everyone else involved. I guess six weeks without it has saved me money. Although maybe I need to pay the bill, since the messages I know I have received are not coming through. Hmmm. I need to change the battery too.

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