Monday, April 29, 2019

Busy Days!

On Saturday morning, Julia and I -- with our sons -- met up and caught the bus to Belgorod's Dino Park. Leo, at sixteen, was less enthusiastic than 7-year-old Ilya, and he was sleepy from a late night, but came along happily enough. We caught the bus just across the road and it carried us the 20 minutes or so to Dino Park -- part of what seems to be a European Franchise as there are Dino Parks in Spain as well as several Eastern European countries.

We had a great couple of hours, strolling under the tall pine trees encountering 'life-like, life-sized' models of many different dinosaurs that moved their heads and tails, that gurgled and groaned. We ate pizza in the sunshine and went to a three-D movie that followed the trauma and adventures of a baby tri-ceratops (?). A lot of fun...

The night before, she had invited me to the weekly meet-up of friends who form the English club. We  had walked up together to the statue of Vladimir, the legendary hero credited with founding Belgorod, which gives a great view over the city. Then we went for a long walk around the southern neighbourhoods -- past the great wooden cathedral, past shopping malls and playgrounds, bus stops, kiosks and gardens -- until it was time to meet in a cafe. 

What a pleasant group of people! I chatted for a long time to Pavel and Igor about Cyprus, and about Greeks and Cypriots, and about language. Then Victor, who had been a helicopter pilot before retiring and had lived all over the Soviet Union before settling here in Belgorod joined us, and we chatted some more. I met a young Iraqi man who is hoping to do his civil engineering PhD at university here, and to settle in Russia where he has made strong friendships and created a home. Before I realised it, 10.30 had come and gone and Julia was saying that we had to take a taxi back because we had missed the last bus. Igor gave me his card and said that he would be happy to take us to the museum and battlefields near Kursk if we had time next week -- to text him on Saturday and we would arrange it.

So I did. When we got back from Dino park, I contacted Igor and we arranged a trip yesterday in his little car to Prokhorovka -- between Belgorod and Kursk -- where there is a museum detailing the events of July 1943 and the great tank battles that took place around here.

We met yesterday morning at about 1130, and Leo and I got into Igor's little car with him and Tatiana. Leo was sitting behind Igor -- who is also tall -- with his knees around his ears, a bit like a squashed daddylonglegs. I must remember that if we go in Igor's car again, I should sit behind him, as I am far shorter! The first 30 kilometres were on the wide multi-laned road that leads eventually to Moscow, and we chatted about all sorts of things including infrastructure, work, salaries, and life in general. Then we turned off for 28 kilometres on the local road which was two-lane and less well maintained, "Although," Tatiana remarked, "Belgorod Oblast has much better roads than the other districts. When you go to Voronezh, the road practically stops at the border..."

Igor had been to Prokhorovka a couple of times, so he took us through the field outside of town where many tanks and artillery pieces were displayed. All around us people were climbing on the tanks, photographing their children on tanks, etc... Our talk turned to how best to remember war without glorifying it. Sober topic. We all agreed that creating a notion of heroism and glory led to future generations wanting their own slices of glory, but reached no conclusion about how best to record and remember events in a way that would discourage their repetition.

Then we found our way into the village itself and into the very good museum that -- in the English translations, at least -- simply presented information in a clear and interesting way. Tableaux, videos, static displays of events from Barbarossa to 1945 with and emphasis on the events around Kursk. Leo and I also took a turn in a tank simulator which was scary but fun if you could divorce it from what the game was -- blowing up other tanks, which presumably included other human beings.

Outside there were more static displays including the tank that Best Beloved had driven during his army service (T-35) and more recent models. Then there was another whole museum dedicated to the development of mechanised vehicles, but we were all pretty knackered by then, so we headed back.

Discussion on the way back was about wages and work. A doctor or a nurse, once respected positions in the USSR, are now poorly paid: "On paper," Igor said, "They would get about 30,000 rubles a month." (less than 500 euros -- could that be right???) "But in reality, they would get about 30% less." The difference is apparently in fees and taxes and kickbacks that get nibbled away. So doctors and nurses -- and teachers, also once highly respected -- are exhausted, underpaid, under valued, and fed up. People work two or three jobs here, patching together livings by working wherever and however they can. Young people don't save becasuse "at least if we spend the money right away, we can enjoy it. There is no point in trying to keep it because someone is going to change a law and take it away from you."

It started to rain just as we arrived in the city, so thankfully we did not have to navigate too much through the puddles. Igor left us off with several plans of what do do next week, so stay tuned for further adventures!

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Finding Our Way Around

Many hours over the last few days have been devoted to computer stuff. For years I have been wrestling my Mac Book for space, spending hours trying to delete that unspecific ‘other’ that clogs my storage. Seeing this up close for the second time, Leo said to me the day before yesterday, ‘If I were you, I would just reformat it…’ My initial ‘But… But…’ became ‘How do we reformat?’ And so he took the task upon himself to clean up my Mac — which also meant an upgrade to Mojave.

It has taken two days. Because the MiniMac is my travelling computer, it doesn’t have a lot of stuff on it permanently, so moving documents and photos to flash sticks was not too much of a chore. But setting up again was a nightmare. I had copies of my passwords, but reconnecting to my email provider in Cyprus is not happening — perhaps because we are in Russia? Open Office does not seem to be able to run on Mojave yet, so I have had to default to Pages, and numerous other things that I have taken for granted as being easily available on the MiniMac have had to be reconstructed. And no, I did not have the password to Blogger…

And I am a technological Dunce. My eyes glaze at the mention of Apps, giga- bytes, storage, platforms… Seriously, I can tolerate such talk for about 5 minutes… Which of course has a price. Total dependence on my teenager. 
I THINK that we are there now.

Except for the hours spent cursing technology and begging for Leo’s help, I have been walking around. On Tuesday morning Julia and I met and she took me to the park. Because my style of photography is extremely antisocial, I took no pictures, but the weather was glorious: the water mirror-calm, the shadows defined, even the squirrels came out to play.

She made me speak Russian (we originally met because she was making recordings as a Russian teacher, and as part of the same programme I had signed up to be a s’tame’ student in the recordings in return for free lessons), and I realise how much I miss having a teacher and how difficult it is to learn a language like Russian without constant access to hearing speakers, and involving yourself in speaking it. She also showed me a very good coffee house!

 Yesterday the weather was cloudy, but I retraced our steps anyway, and went to see the tanks parked at the War Museum. In the afternoon I dragged Leo down to the park with the promise of squirrels, but we didn’t see any. We did, however, go into the war museum, and it seems to be very good. Not a word of English anywhere, but a very effective diorama of the Battle of Kursk — and lots of information if I could have translated it all. Sophia, Best Beloved, and I all recently read Svetlana Alexeievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War, so I scanned the photos for those of women, and found quite a few. Beside the Kursk Diorama museum there is also a small memorial to the Fallen of Afghanistan.
Then we walked home via the market where I bought some spinach as I am craving greens.  I love the way that this city is so easy to walk around. Lots of green spaces, wide areas where people can walk, huge parks whose leaves are coming into flower -- and lots of random public statuary. Lenin, Marx, and Engles, of course, and the usual war memorials -- many of which are getting another lick of paint or a polish in advance of the.9th of May's Victory Day celebrations; I also saw a Chernobyl memorial; a memorial to women and workers (I think), as well as a fair bit of random statuary -- a street sweeper with a cat, a woman knitting stockings, an artist and his dog. Enchanting!

This morning I walked a seven kilometre circle in a different direction, up to the north and around. I found some nice walls to photograph, and then met Julia and we spent the morning in the coffee shop — she helped me with some Russian, and then we talked about the Gulag Archipelago (which she had read in school), and Russian society, and how it is to be a language teacher. She had posted a film by a Russian journalist about Kolyma — the gulags, the conditions, the spurious reasons for so many millions of people enduring such horrifying fates — and it is good to see that these topics exist in the open. Many people do not want to face them by revisiting the past, but at least their existence is not being denied.

I remember another Russian friend shrugging at the mention of Stalin and saying “My grandmother said that he was not so bad…” And hearing others say that Stalin was the only person who could have united the country sufficiently to fight and then win the Second World War, but I have my doubts.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Exploring the Neighbourhood

Going out alone with a camera is always a little fraught for me. Sometimes people are actively hostile, as they can be in the markets in Chania: I guess there stallholders are so fed up with tourists taking their photo, that they lose patience and can be quite aggressive. This morning I left the flat pretty early and headed for the city centre – looking for the market because I knew that I wanted to buy fruit and veg, and also to 'see what is there' in the long light of early morning when the streets are quiet and the sun is not yet overhead.

Vendors were just setting up. Some were ok and asked me where I was from and what I was doing. Tourism is not common here which is nice, but strange. Others were unpleasant, even when I was not photographing them... The presence of a camera seemed unnerving, and at one point a woman followed me, asking what I was doing. I shrugged and smiled, being a dumb foreigner – not a difficult act to follow.

I don't like being photographed particularly, and so am careful to be discreet, and not to photograph faces. By and large it went ok, but where do all the artificial flowers come from? And where do they go? Spring and Easter are traditionally the time for grave maintenance and decoration, but there are plastic flowers EVERYWHERE in the city.

 Not far from our flat is a dual row of small village houses completely ringed by Soviet-era high-rises. Ninety percent of their light is cut out by the behemoths all around, but these old houses still stand, some of them with brave gardens and flowering fruit trees.

On the way back I went into the shop where we bought our SIM cards yesterday to ask them for help as I could not get the phones to ring each other, and could not understand the recorded message when the calls did not go through. With the great help of Google Translate, the man in the shop explained that while the number began with 7, you actually have to dial an 8 (although it saves as a 7). Who knew? At least I didn't feel like too much of an idiot...
I came back in time to hand our passports over to our host and have breakfast, then Leo and I set out to find an adapter for his laptop plug. Google Maps was our friend, and we eventually found a place and managed to buy a plug.

I want to go home,” Leo said as we left our building.
“Why?” I asked.
“It's comfortable there, I know how to be. I am not like the rest of you. I just want to stay in Cyprus.”

That's fair enough,” I told him. “But it would be an awful shame if you never had anything to compare Cyprus with. If at least you have been out and seen other places and how other people live and then you want to go home and never leave, that is ok. But you cannot say that Cyprus is the best place to live if you have never been anywhere else.” I rabbitted on about how seeing other places in the world can make you appreciate aspects of home, and also realise how things at home can be improved, and finished by saying, “Well, it's only another 12 nights. We'll be home soon enough...”

I don't think that my words made much difference, I think that getting out and doing things was the catalyst – that, and deciding to buy a new phone because here smartphones are about thirty percent cheaper than at home and he will be working for the summer and able to pay me back. So we went back to the nice mobile phone shop on the corner and went through the whole rigamarole of buying a phone and registering it. This time the people in the shop asked a lot more questions about who we are and where we are from. Even though we have Cypriot passports, we speak English, so they assumed that we are English and asked me if London were nice. That gave rise to a more involved conversation, and other people in the shop started listening and commenting, too.

Then we went to the bakery next door and bought pizzas and fruit pies and went home for lunch.
Cultural experiences all around!

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Return to Russia

Yesterday the Little White Donkey dusted off her travelling shoes and, reluctant Leo in tow, climbed on board a Siberian Airlines flight to Moscow. Comfortable flight, easy – albeit rushed – transfer to central Moscow, still money on the Troika card from 2017 for us to take the Metro to Kursk station, and a walk of 15 minutes to the Loft Hotel. We got in at about 11, thanks to Google Maps, passing a roaring scary drunk on the way. Leo said, “Man he is swearing!”. I asked how he knew, and he said that he has known how to swear in Russian since he was about 13, thanks to video games.

The room was comfortable, the weather not cold. Neither of us slept much, and the alarm rang at 5.30. Daylight, already, up here.

My dear son was not feeling cheerful, but we got to the train station in time and he found the platform, where I could not. That's why I brought him!

On the train, we cannot connect to the internet although there is wifi, as our devices will not let us for some reason. Probably when we get Beeline cards we will be able to use a secure connection and then will be able to connect ourselves. In the mean time, I do not mind being free of notifications and the constant beckoning of FaceBook.

Outside a dun-coloured landscape unrolls under a clear blue sky. Miles of birch trees broken by villages with houses of turquoise and green. Up close, when they are near the track, you can see that the wood is often broken and weathered, that there are tiles missing from the roofs. The first green is struggling through the weeds crushed by snow, and a very few trees are beginning to bud. The evergreens – pine and cypress glow like emeralds.

There are piles of garbage everywhere, plastic and glass debris glitters in the sun. Standing water is mirror clear and around the edges of pools, the first grass is appearing through the mud.

Eventually I gave up on Leo who took himself up to his top bunk and turned his back – after, to be fair, trying to figure out the wifi – and went off in search of the restaurant wagon and a toilet. I found both and managed to order breakfast – kasha and coffee. It is impossible to avoid milk, butter, cheese, and eggs here, but I am trying where I can and not getting stressed about it. I am also glad that I kept the cheese triangles from S7 and one of the bread rolls. They went down nicely with the strong black coffee.

As we go further south there is more green on the ground, more trees are in bud. I spent the last hour going through the poetry that was in the documents on this computer. Some of it is actually not bad. I have also read the Writing Maps on creating story – disconnecting from the net can lead to positive things! Still I am drawn to poetry over prose.

Thinking of the loss of memory that comes with being constantly connected and able to access information at any time: you lose phone numbers because they are stored on your phone, you lose poems because why remember them when you can google them? I know it's trite, but I am thinking of the poem Ithaka by Cavafis. About the journey being important, not the destination, and I am feeling this crawling down the face of this massive country as a slow decompressing. I want to remember the poem, and cannot. Without Google, I might not have read it so often, but without unlimited access to Google, I might have remembered it. Or thought to memorise it...

So after seven hours on the train, we arrived into Belgorod Station and I called my friend and Russian teacher Julia, whom I had met on a programme with Dennis School in 2017. Blessings on Julia... we would have managed without her, but her presence made life much, much simpler. She guided us to the apartment, called the landlord (who speaks no English) and helped us settle in.
She also took us to get SIM cards so that we do not have to pay Cyta's high roaming rates, and translated to help us out. Blessings on Julia... And on Beeline for providing an excellent 2 week rate for 9 euros with 30 minutes of calls and texts AND unlimited internet...

Then, going above and beyond the call of hospitality, Julia showed us to a pizza restaurant (more on that later) and sat with us while we ate before taking us to a supermarket, giving us tips like “Don't drink the water!” and guiding us 'home'. I had brought her some Cyprus cheeses and also soujouko, but forgot to give them to her! Still, we are sure to meet again in the next day or two.

Tomorrow morning, the landlord is going to show up at 10 and take our passports for registration with the police. I will probably go out and walk around the city, try and find morning light and parks and colours. Both Julia and Sergei (landlord) said that the city was safe, but it is not touristic, and they advised against attracting too much attention as foreigners.