Yes, I was in Russia

Back in 2001, I journeyed from Yaroslavl, by way of St Petersburg and Novgorod, to Staraya Russa – the only native-English speaker to have been there in living memory at that time, apparently… From 14th November, so that from now on this week in the calendar is ‘Dostoevsky Week’ (the guy was born on 11th November, 1821). We’re gonna be going back 2021. Please join us.


   In the meantime, winter arrives in Zheldor. They say that if it snows on a certain saint’s day then you’re in for a lot of snow that season. Well, we’ll see, because it is snowing on that particular day. It’s snowing when I wake up and look out the window. It’s snowing as I eat my breakfast of cheap sausage and a lukewarm hardboiled egg and it’s snowing when I enter the street in my padded cotton jacket, the woollen hat that my wife bought me two birthdays ago, and a soft woollen scarf with a check design bought from the local univermag wrapped around my neck, my hands encased in leather driving gloves that I’ve always had and wonder if they’ll be warm enough on this particular occasion. Beneath my feet the pavement is frozen into one giant sheet of ice and I have relearned already to walk over it by lifting up my feet a little more vertically and quickly than normal, which tends to make the leg muscles ache; while up above great ice stalactites dangle precariously from overhead ledges some five or six storeys up and will kill me if there is a thaw and they drop on my head. I laughed when I was first told about these ice-hangs, it just seemed so incongruous with what we know about winter in our safe little corner in the south of England, and then my Russian teacher grew angry and asked why I was laughing when several people a year are killed by these giant ice-spears and I didn’t have the language to answer her (the word I was looking for is nesootvetstvuiuschyi) so I just blushed sheepishly and grew quiet instead. I hate teachers, even though I am one. Teach is what I am on my way to do on this blurry dark-snow morning of ice. I stop off at a kiosk to buy a banana and a currant bun for breaktime, and at another one to purchase a bottle of mineral water – I’ll stop off at the same one later to buy a bottle of beer to wash down my dinner. I swap a joke with the pretty female vendor who has never met an Englishman before me and always laughs at my terrible Russian pronunciation and then it’s across the busy road to school, a set of warm and solid rooms on the second floor of a hundred year old civic building. Very nice. Boris, the owner, is there already and he gives me a big broad grin and shakes my hand. ‘Xolodna?’- ‘Net!’ Our usual greeting since the temperature dropped following an Old Woman’s Summer that went right into and even beyond the middle of September. Now the river is showing signs of freezing at its edges. Soon it will probably be very xolodna indeed. I tell one of the Russian teachers there that, since there’s a weeklong break coming up, I shall head out to Dostoevsky’s for the duration, at which she snorts and says, ‘But this is Russia. You’ll never make it.’

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