Tyumen Musings Part Twelve: Football in the Capital of Villages

I’ve never been the lithest of athletes – think Gary Pallister’s rosy puffing cheeks after two minutes – but this was something else. The centre-forward on the sun-drenched pitch in front of me was, in the kindest possible way, fat; the neck rolls and potruding stomach were sprouting forth from around the edges of his awfully fitted shirt, and as if to flick a nonchalant two fingers at professionalism, a cigarette clung on to his lips as it burned gradually to the filter. To say this guy didn’t care would be an understatement, although this was a world and a half away from the rebellious cool of James Dean. Shrek, as my wife rather accurately nicknamed him, was strutting his less than graceful stuff as the central sporting commemorations on the most important day in the Russian Calendar, Victory Day, playing the world’s most popular sport, football, but everything just felt surreal.

On a blisteringly hot summer's dayday, the last game of the season mustered a poor turnout

On a blisteringly hot summer’s dayday, the last game of the season mustered a poor turnout

Russia of course will host the FIFA World Cup in only three years, but I am a slightly worried about the reception it will get. Not from the outside world, which will no doubt be dominated by the racism-and-homphobia rhetoric throughout, but from the locals themselves. The success of a tournament depends on the enthusiasm and passion of the host’s citizens as much as anything, and as Shrek himself demonstrated a few years ago, there is a curious relationship Russians have with the sport. If you were to attend a football match in what English people would consider the reasonably-sized city of Tyumen, where I live, you would be treated to a futuristic design, marbled floors, chrome bannisters, huge screens, and a sweeping, open-plan Premier League-standard stadium capable of holding 13,050 spectators. The one notable omission, however, would be actual people.

I was lucky to meet Brazilian playmaker Cleyton before the final match of the season; he has played Europa League football, so unsurprisingly he won't be staying. We'll miss him though...

I was lucky to meet Brazilian playmaker Cleyton before the final match of the season; he has played Europa League football, so unsurprisingly he won’t be staying. We’ll miss him though…

Let’s put this in perspective. Tyumen is a city of at least 700,000 inhabitants, and the nearest major urban area, or at least one with a professional football team, is Ekaterinburg, about the distance from Manchester to London away. Competition for fans, one would assume, shouldn’t be a problem. FC Tyumen have a fascinating, undulating and unique history, and currently reside in the national second tier with a Brazilian magician, Cleyton, on loan from Académica in Portugal. Average attendances, however, have hovered around the 1,500 mark, and the most inspiring chant translates as “We need a goal!”. As the kids would say nowadays, ‘Facepalm’…

Participation is a slightly more complex area to dissect. For obvious reasons, eleven-a-side football is impractical for most of the year, so futsal is a very prominent sport, both from spectating and playing points of view. In fact, MFC Tyumen are one of the strongest teams in the Russian Super League, while Sinara Ekaterinburg won the futsal equivalent of the Champions League a few years ago. I make the pilgrimage to the neighbouring village of Burovskiy, a town founded near the end of the war, most weekends to play with students and friends, and although my contribution is, ahem, not spectacular, the level of the Russians who run rings around me is impressive. Their insistence on the strictest professional rules being adhered is both comical and laudable in equal measures; you would not believe the endless ‘grannies’ meetings’ held over what exactly constitutes five yards, but their passion for the shortened form of the game is clear.

The newly-refurbished Burovskiy Gym hosts titanic 'Russia v Rest of the World' futsal clashes every Saturday, with Jonny 'Siberian McGeady' McKenna pulling the strings for the visitors

The newly-refurbished Burovskiy Gym hosts titanic ‘Russia v Rest of the World’ futsal clashes every Saturday, with Jonny ‘Siberian McGeady’ McKenna pulling the strings for the visitors

The facilities are basic but sufficient, and we love them, despite the god-awful stench from the strange toilet and the original 1940s showers overrun by limescale. Even in a fairly nondescript place a few kilometres outside a city, this gym hall is only part of a fully-equipped sports centre with a swimming pool, Russian ‘banya’ and gymnastics hall. The provisions for pursuing athletic past times is impressive; a throwback to the Soviet era of mass participation and physical fitness. The ethos of taking part is still alive and well, so the issue is not on the playing side of football.

Out of context, maybe, but this image sums up the relationship Russia's established stars such as Andrey Arshavin have with fans

Out of context, maybe, but this image sums up the relationship Russia’s established stars such as Andrey Arshavin have with fans

So what IS the problem? Last year’s exasperated FC Tyumen marketting manager told me “Tyumen is just not a football city” when trying to explain the lack of support for such a popular sport. I don’t see this as being the case, though; I believe it is more to do with the nationwide apathy to their own ‘stars’. Hockey is more broadly followed when it comes to the national team, and the attitudes of overpaid, over-the-hill stars such as Andrey Arshavin, Yuriy Zhirkov and Roman Pavlyuchenko certainly doesn’t help. Maybe there is something more unique to Tyumen that might explain this issue though.

 

Another chant that is often heard in the stands of the magnificent Geolog Stadium is “First Siberian City!”. This needs some quantifying. Tyumen was the first permanent fortress established by the legendary Cossack commander Yermak, although there were other fortified settlements around the same time, such as Tobolsk, birthplace of the creator of the periodic table – and discoverer of the ideal alcoholic content of vodka – Dmitry Mendeleev. The family of the last Tsar, Nikolai II, were imprisoned there in one of Russia’s last remaining stone-built Kremlins before their brutal execution in Ekaterinburg in 1918. Modern times have seen Tyumen blossom with the oil industry bringing enormous investment into the town, thanks to the greatest concentration of Russia’s oil fields being within the oblast, with an increasing number of foreign companies setting down roots in the city. There is still a label, however, half self-depracating and half-insulting, that clings to Tyumen; the Capital of Villages.

This delightful pastel-coloured wooden house could pass for a quaint village residence - instead it is in a city of three quarters of a million people

This delightful pastel-coloured wooden house could pass for a quaint village residence – instead it is in a city of three quarters of a million people

A survey of locals has explained this epithet as a nod to the not so distant past when the current city was made up of a collection of villages on the Tura river, which was for centuries one of the main arteries on the Silk Road between the far East and Europe. One local resident said that the title was something that Tyumenski folk could say to each other to mock themselves, but that coming from outsiders came across as an insult, referring to the city as an under-developed country bumkin type of place. This fine balance between flatly accepting their limitations, and proudly broadcasting their achievements, seems to be at the heart of what it is to be from Tyumen. I don’t profess to have fully understood the entire psyche of the people here, but there is certainly a brand of shoulder shrugging when it comes to problems that I believe translates into football following.

Local architecture summed up in one picture - old wooden house refuses to be knocked down, so a new development is simply designed around it, but hasn't been completed for three years itself

Local architecture summed up in one picture – old wooden house refuses to be knocked down, so a new development is simply designed around it, but hasn’t been completed for three years itself

There is undoubted charm in the pastel-coloured wooden houses that resolutely stand between gleaming glass tower blocks throughout even the very centre of the city, but it has a feel of odd incompletion. I have never seen such a juxtaposition of architectural styles. Is it a refusal to let go of the past, or a lack of effort to finish developing? As with all things in Russia, there is no simple answer, but for a physical representation of the character of the people, you could do much worse than take a look at the simple rustic reminders of centuries past.

Tyumen Musings Part Eleven: Victory Day, St George and Baba Valya

It is pouring. Not just a thick blanket of rain, but heavy drops that drum a repetitive beat on every surface. It is unseasonably chilly, and I am starting to question the wisdom of leaving the warm, cosy comfort of our flat. Without meaning to brag, I consider myself a bit of an expert when it comes to precipitation – I grew up near Manchester after all, and spent my formative years running around English school playgrounds in shorts – and this was the type of weather that saps the life force out of you. Everyone is soaked to the bone, but they don’t care because it is the most significant and important day of the year in Russia: Victory Day.

A soldier waves the Soviet Union's flag in Stalingrad - modern day Volgograd - in 1943.

A soldier waves the Soviet Union’s flag in Stalingrad – modern day Volgograd – in 1943.

Now when you visit a new country, much more when you actually settle there, I firmly believe that if you don’t know about the history or traditions, you should try to learn about them. My knowledge of Russia in almost all spheres was embarassingly poor prior to my arrival; I am ashamed to admit that I knew about the city of Volgograd thanks to their football team knocking out Manchester United from the UEFA Cup in 1995 despite Peter Schmeichel scoring a header at Old Trafford, and not because it was the site of the singular most brutal, devastating and decisive battles of the Great Patriotic War that lasted about 18 months and claimed up to 2 million lives. So I quickly set about asking my new friends to explain the major days (of which there are many in Russia), and first on the list was the day that marked the end of hositilities against Nazi Germany. I expected to hear about a sombre day of reflection, perhaps of church services and a reflective mood.

The Schoenbrunn Palace in Vienna, where my grandfather was stationed at the end of the Second World War

The Schoenbrunn Palace in Vienna, where my grandfather was stationed at the end of the Second World War

My grandparents served slightly unusual roles in the Second World War, but like all others, witnessed horrific losses. My paternal grandfather served in India, returning with an appreciation for curry that skipped a generation, while my late maternal grandfather helped plan the D-Day landing craft, and also served in a legal department in Rome and Vienna, the latter seeing him accomodated in the stunning Schoenbrun Palace. One common misconception that many major western newspapers have made today, however, is that the Second World War is the exact same thing as the Great Patriotic War; it is not. While we recognise Remembrance Sunday in acknowledgement of the signing of the armistace on 11 November, Russians celebrate, and celebrate is definitely the appropriate word, their victory in the hostilities in which they took part.

The streets of the capital were filled with an impressive - or worrying - array of artillery today.

The streets of the capital were filled with an impressive – or worrying – array of artillery today.

You may have seen pictures in the news of Moscow’s impressive display of military personnel and weaponary, especially the impressive brand new Armata tanks and the RS-24 Yars ICBM launchers. In light of the past 18 months, it comes as a thinly-veiled show of force under the cover of celebrating Russia’s victorious participation in the Great Patriotic War that ended 70 years ago. Never one to miss an opportunity, Mr Putin criticised US foreign policy in his Red Square address, and even went to great lengths to ensure the day would pass with clear skies by seeding silver iodide, liquid nitrogen and dry ice into clouds surrounding the capital to induce early rainfall before the 9th of May, as he has done on previous occassions. In this case, every cloud really does have a silver lining.

No such luck here in Tyumen. Three years ago, however, there was no need for intervention with the weather. As my wife and I walked with our 8-month-old daughter Sophia in the blazing sunshine, we had a brief but unforgettable encounter with a veteran who crossed our path. The old woman, weighed down considerably by her medals, peered inside the pram and smiled as she said; “I hope she never has to see a conflict like I had to.” And off she went, never to be seen by us again. I was so touched by here sincerity, but also by her lightness of expression that I will never forget those few moments.

Students from Tyumen State Oil and Gas University in military uniform - and a mascot bear, of course

Students from Tyumen State Oil and Gas University in military uniform – and a mascot bear, of course

That exchange summed up for me the mood of the day. A year earlier, my first in Tyumen, I had been invited to join in the parade that forms the central part of the celebrations across the country. The central avenue of the city, Ulitsa Respubliki, is completely cordened off to allow a procession made up of soldiers in full dress uniform and different branches of society such as students representing their university or even companies piggybacking the fervour to promote themselves. They make their way past some temporary stands in front of the city and regional government buildings where all veterans are invited to sit in in the shadow of the vast statue of Lenin. Everyone was waving flags and wearing the symbol of Victory Day, an orange and black striped ribbon, while cheering and chanting. Wreathes are laid against the city’s two ‘Eternal Flames’, where the names of all Tyumen residents who gave their lives to defend their country are immortalised on huge slabs of granite, but that’s where the similarities to Remembrance Sunday end.

The ubiquitous orange and black St George's Ribbon has been branded "a symbol of terrorism" by some Ukranians , but is a source of pride for many Russians

The ubiquitous orange and black St George’s Ribbon has been branded “a symbol of terrorism” by some Ukranians , but is a source of pride for many Russians

The ribbon, interestingly, is named after St. George. It seems wherever I go St George follows me; in Italy, I lived in Ferrara in the northern region of Emilia Romagna, a city whose patron saint is also St George. The use of it as a symbol specifically for Russia’s Victory Day is relatively new one, and thanks to separatists in the Donetsk region of Ukraine – where the colours are also traditional – it has been viewed by some as a symbol of aggressive nationalistic support. This is despite its history dating back to the eighteenth century when it was part of the highest military decoration of Imperial Russia, the Order of St George, although then the colours were yellow and black, before they were changed to the current design in 1917.

Free food being handed out on the street after the parade - the menu was similar to what the soldiers in the Great Patriotic War would have eaten i.e. Grechka

Free food being handed out on the street after the parade – the menu was similar to what the soldiers in the Great Patriotic War would have eaten – Grechka

There is certainly an element of the ribbon being used as a badge of patriotic pride by extreme right wing groups, but why should all people be lumped into one group? Through the sheets of chilling Siberian rain today, I saw plenty of genuine gratitude towards the ancestors who had fought for their country. Veterans walked proudly in pristine uniforms, students were dressed in traditional outfits, and people huddled around restored wartime vehicles and held pictures of their departed loved ones. Wagons with vats of piping hot ‘grechka’ (buckwheat) and pork, tea and bread rolls were surrounded by people of all ages as they were dished out for free. It obviously wasn’t exactly the same as what it must have been like in the time of rationing, but the collective spirit and unity was.

My elder daughter Sophia is able to stand in her Peppa Pig raincoat carefree thanks to the efforts, among others, of her grandmother Baba Valya

My elder daughter Sophia is able to stand in her Peppa Pig raincoat carefree thanks to the efforts, among others, of her grandmother Baba Valya

I was initially unsure how to approach a day as uniquely Russian as this. In the five years I have been here, I have decided that I can justify celebrating it too, as my wife’s family showed the courage to protect the land I now call home. Baba Valya is the sole surviving veteran in my family, and she was not even a teenager during the war itself, but she left school to work in the factories producing clothing for the armed forces. She has told me that she felt she would get a better education learning how to live and survive in such times, and by doing what she could to support her countrymen. Her upbringing has without doubt formed her character as a protector of her family – she still grows vegetables and fruit in her garden for us all, and adores her great grandchildren – and for that, I will be forever grateful.

Tyumen Musings Part Ten: Wives, Mothers-in-Law and Food

Sometimes you have to look at yourself in the mirror and ask: what the hell were you thinking?

I am sitting in what is fast becoming my regular seat at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, and I am alone. I don’t have an exotic final destination, not even England. Nope, having got up in the hazy dawn of Tyumen, I have flown to this bustling metropolis only to fly straight back in the dead of night later. My wife and daughters are returning from their holiday in England, and I am making a 24-hour return journey across three time zones just to meet them halfway.

Waiting for your family can be an exhausting experience on so many levels - but not long to go now...

Waiting for your family can be an exhausting experience on so many levels – but not long to go now…

Originally the plan was to save my wife looking after two toddlers on her own, which any parent will tell you is no easy task when travelling such long distances. Return tickets from our home city just east of the Ural mountains to Moscow can be ridiculously cheap (think easyjet prices 10 years ago), so I thought why not? I wanted to do something to really help my wife, as although she is superhuman and can multi-task better than anyone, it would help send her off on a more relaxed note to start her break. Right now, though, I’m not ashamed to admit that sitting in an airport for nearly 16 hours only to go back the way I came is just nuts.

When my girls left Tyumen three weeks ago, I was left with an empty, quiet house. Well, it wasn’t quite empty – Kate had cooked some food for me before she left. Nothing unusual, you might say. Well, there wouldn’t be if it was just one dish; my wife, however, is Russian. This means that not only did she cook a tray of lasagna, she also made a chicken casserole with rice, a large chicken and vegetable quiche, pork layered with onions, carrots and potato, some cheese bagels, a bowl of scones and 12 chocolate cupcakes. In one afternoon. While also looking after our daughters. And packing their suitcases.

Yes, my amazing wife Kate really did cook all of that just for her husband - she knows me well

Yes, my amazing wife Kate really did cook all of this just for her husband – she knows me well

Do you see what I mean about her being superhuman? Of course there is every possibility that I am simply the luckiest man alive to find an individual like my wife, that she is an exception to the rule, but after my half decade in Russia I suspect that it is not quite as simple as this. There are a million ways to try to analyse Russian people, in particular the role of women in the family, but let’s take one of my favourites – the dinner table.

The relationship Russian people have with food is spectacularly unique, from the efficiency with which no food is wasted to the incredible hospitality of even the simplest social occassion, but more striking still is how men and women react to each other in the context of food. In my first month here, my all-female class stared at me in disbelief when I revealed that I was living alone. “How do you eat?” they asked me. I shrugged my shoulders – unwilling to admit that I turned to Doshirak noodles, pasta and crisps most evenings – and was greeted next lesson by two tupperware containers of wholesome homecooked food. The strangest thing about this for me was that my students didn’t give me their help out of pity, but out of a sense of simple obligation, as if it was their completely normal duty to help a single man out.

I have packed in my horrific diet since then, partly because I noticed the nuclear glow of the water around the Doshirak, and partly because it is impossible to eat poorly as a married man in this country. At times, waves of guilt at the pampering I receive from my wife wash over me. I dread falling into a chauvenistic 1950s laziness where I expect my wife to cook for me simply because she is my wife, but I am slowly starting to realise that she simply doesn’t see it that way. Russian hospitality, on all levels, is about taking pride in your ability to treat your guests as well as possible, and this extends to family life.

My shameful culinary past involved these strands of processed garbage (other noodle snacks are available bla bla black...)

My shameful culinary past involved these strands of processed garbage (other noodle snacks are available bla bla bla…)

Just before I started dating my wife, she held a party where she cooked seafood pasta for about ten people. Everybody received a healthy portion, but when my plate arrived it was piled so high with prawns, spaghetti and sauce that there must have been half a kilo of delicious dinner, which caused a great deal of amusement. It is true that I have a not inconsiderable (ahem…) apppetite. I once had to leave an Italian lesson because my stomach grumbles were drowning out the teacher – two double cheeseburgers later, I was able to rejoin the lesson. Right from the beginning of our relationship, she knew the way to my heart was through my stomach. Even then, though, the quantity of food was not just an attempt to impress me, but also to ensure she had fulfilled her role as a host.

It doesn’t stop with her. At regular intervals since my supply of wife-cooked food ran out about two and a half weeks ago, my mother in law has come round to cook more soup and main courses than I have ever cooked myself – seriously, anyone would think I am severely handicapped with the level of help I am given getting through the week. On Friday morning, Ira sent my wife Kate a message asking her to ask me if I needed any more food cooking, and because of my guilty conscience I just couldn’t accept any more. Of course, she came anyway and cooked chicken legs, potato and the ubiquitous dill. When I insist as strongly as possible that she needn’t wait on me hand and foot this way, she throws me a look somewhere between offence and disbelief. My parents adore my wife and dote over her almost as much as they do over my daughters Sophia and Darya, so Ira has explained to me that what she does for me is only the bare minimum she knows her daughter is being treated to when she stays with my parents. She is of course absolutely right, but it is still going to take some time to completely break down the barriers of my English reserve and fully accept this without feeling conscious.

Sophia (left) and Darya, her partner in crime. So what if I'm biased - could anyone not miss these two grinning girls?

Sophia (left) and Darya, her partner in crime. So what if I’m biased – could anyone not miss these two grinning girls?

I simply can’t wait for my wife and daughters to touch down later. Three weeks may not sound like much to some people, but three weeks without a Russian wife and daughters is like three weeks for a teenager without an iPad, iPod and iPhone 6; before you knew them your life was fine, but once you have had them in your life, you can’t survive without them. After nearly a month of peace and quiet, chaos and mess will ensue, but one thing is for certain – there’s not a chance that I will be hungry.

Tyumen Musings Part Nine: Stamps, Toasts and Marshrutkas

Public Transport 

I recently bought a car in Tyumen, which I have been desperately looking forward to for so long. Only someone who has lived in this country using public transport will understand the frenzied excitement of being released from the evil clutches of the “Marshrutka”. Just typing the word sends shivers down my spine; the horrors I have experienced on those capsules of torture are enough to send a man insane. Just to clarify, a “marshrutka” is really just a minibus that serves the slightly less popular bus routes of our city and others around Russia; in reality, it is hell on wheels.

Depending on your outlook on life, buses in Latin America can be cacophonous carnivals or cramped cages

Depending on your outlook on life, buses in Latin America can be cacophonous carnivals or cramped cages

Perhaps I am guilty of a little poetic license. There are, after all, many incarnations of the uncomfortable modes of transport around the world. Latin America, for example, has chicken buses – often old converted school buses that had gone out of service in the US. I had the dubious pleasure of using these in Honduras, but at least it really was an adventure. My most memorable journey actually did include a caged chicken as a fellow passenger, but as the beautifully calm forest views rolled towards the Carribean Sea, it was hard to even feel aggrieved about the chronic lack of legroom.

So what makes the mythical “Marshrutka” so awful? For one, the scenery – if I was able to even see out of the window – is ever so slightly less appealing. Ubiquitous building sites, stray dogs, traffic jams (how DO they always know when I will be on the bus? If I was even more cynical I’d imagine a network of spies checking my movements so they could coordinate their departures to clog up my route to work: “He’s leaving the house, go go go!”). The windows are usually too grubby or frosted over to actually make out what is beyond the confines of the mobile prison anyway.

A slightly less dignified form of transport - the notion of a queue is a very foreign concept on a marshrutka

A slightly less dignified form of transport – the notion of a queue is a very foreign concept on a marshrutka

Being a young man, however, I am obliged to stand, as the usual clientelle are either enormous amorphous mounds of human flesh with indistinguishable features, other than a moody, growling stare, or intoxicated tramps with three remaining teeth and a serious lack of hygiene, clutching a bottle of Uralski Master beer. I live near the beginning of the bus route, but pass through the busiest part of town, so I never get the luxury of sitting. Add to that the fact that I am 6″3″ (sorry, 1.88m…), I cannot stand at my full height unless I hog the spot under the sun roof, so I must crane my neck sideways while holding my lunch, work folders and whatever else I may have.

Russian Stamps

As I mentioned earlier, this horrific experience is now a thing of the past for me – after months of deciding, test-driving and praying, I am the proud owner of a white Hyundai Solaris. It was a proud moment when I drove out of the forecourt without having to squeeze my knees either side of the wheel of my wife’s Hyundai Getz – lovely little runner, with little being the operative word. A quick dash to the transport authorities to get a numberplate, and I would be ready to enjoy my new toy.

A form for adoption that includes 28 separate stamps - OK, it's an extreme example, but you get the idea

A form for adoption that includes 28 separate stamps – OK, it’s an extreme example, but you get the idea

As I mentioned, however, I live in Russia. This means it is impossible to get anything done without a whole swathe of paperwork. OK, I told myself, for once I will accept it as a necessary hurdle. As I glanced down at the seventh or eighth form being filled in, I counted no fewer than six stamps on one page. SIX! for what possible reason could they need so many stamps?? I had to restrain myself from bursting out laughing at the serious policeman.

The truth is you can’t buy anything without a stamp attached to it somewhere. “Even the bread has a stamp,” remarked my colleague Mike, referring to the Uzbek flatbread ‘lavash’- and he’s absolutely right. I have had a receipt from a shop stamped for no other discernible reason other than it looked quite pretty. I admit it does make paperwork look more official, but it really is amusing how seriously the power of the stamp is taken when one considers how regularly corners are cut, shall we say, in these parts.

Even the bread has a stamp on it in Russia - this Uzbek number is a more attractive example

Even the bread has a stamp on it in Russia – this Uzbek number is a more attractive example

One brilliant use of the stamp was used by my other colleague called Mike (who also teaches me Russian grammar – poor soul) exactly a year ago. Last March 31, our director of studies Damian craftily sent an SMS explaining we all had to go for a medical check-up – the dreaded ‘profsmotr’ (see Tyumen Musings Part Four) – at 8am the next morning, and muggins here fell for it hook, line and sinker. Well, I turned up at the said time, and waited for half an hour until giving up and grumpily returning to the office to be greeted by my grinning boss.

After giving Damian his moment of satisfaction, Mike turned up looking slightly concerned. He had arrived in our company relatively recently, and handed his new manager a pile of leaflets and a receipt, fully stamped, to the tune of 4,973 rubles. Given that at the time it equated to nearly £100, he asked Damian who needed to pay the money, and the garrulous Kiwi’s face fell as he realised he would have to explain to the company director that his joke would cost the company some money. Mike then let us all in on his ruse – he had simply used his fluent Russian skills and knowledge of the love of stamps brilliantly to falsify a doctor’s receipt – and we revelled in Damian’s discomfort as he scrambled around all day trying to work out a escape from the situation.

Institutionalized Socializing

'In Soviet Russia, nightclub entertain you' - very rarely are you left to own devices to be sociable

‘In Soviet Russia, nightclub entertain you’ – often you are not left to your own devices to be sociable

Not all officialdom is as pointless or as excessively used as the stamp, however. Social occassions are often run very differently here to how I am used to back in England; there is a layer of formality to proceedings that makes me wrinkle my brow a touch and wonder what is going on. Case in question: a new colleague, Jack, had just arrived, and wanted a night out, so we visited a fairly student-orientated nightclub called Hollywood. The glamour of tinsletown was conspicuous in its abscence, but in we went after chatting to some girls in the queue. Suddenly the lights went up at about 1am. Finished already? Surely not! The dance floor cleared, the music stopped, and it really seemed like that was the end of our evening.

Then out came an MC, who started playing what can only be described as adult versions of children’s birthday party games. There was a place full of young adults being directed how to have fun by some loud bloke on a microphone: it was truly bizarre. These ‘showmen’ are very common at celebrations, especially weddings, where they help people socialise and have fun. Maybe this is the modern way of entertainment – in a world where people can sit across from each other in a restaurant and each have their faces buried into a screen of some description, this form of organized relaxation makes sense, I suppose.

Toasts are a central part of social tradition in Russia - but don't think you'll get away with just saying 'Cheers'

Toasts are a central part of social tradition in Russia – but don’t think you’ll get away with just saying ‘Cheers’

By far my favourite custom, however, is the tradition of toasting. I recently attended a family-orientated birthday celebration of a good friend at her parents’ home, where a handful of friends and a handful of relations were squashed cosily around a table of sensational food and drink (“It only took me about three hours to prepare,” said Milya’s mum – the same superhuman hostess of Tyumen Musings Part Five fame!).

Every five minutes, the conversation was punctuated by a short speech of congratulations to the birthday girl, with both the speaker and Milya herself standing while everyone paid the utmost attention. I used to think of this habit along similar lines as the enforced entertainment MC, but I have come to love it. For me, there should be nothing embarassing about sharing a heartfelt moment with your friends and family, in amongst the laughter and general merriment. If anyone doesn’t know everbody else well, it also helps avoid too many awkward silences, and gives you a window into each person’s relationship with the host/birthday boy or girl. Each toast lasted no longer than a minute or two, but everyone, regardless of ability to speak Russian, was politely encouraged to participate in a way that was impossible to refuse.

Birthday girl Milya's is at the front, on the right, fiancé Johnny is the bearded chap at the back. I'm hugging "Hero" - that honestly IS  his name!

Birthday girl Milya is at the front on the right, fiancé Johnny is the bearded chap at the back. I’m hugging “Hero” in the blue shirt – that honestly IS his name!

I felt moved to thank the grandparents for raising such a wonderful family; they had sat on the other side of the table, steadily necking shots of flavoured vodka all evening without any visible side effects, all the while observing and participating. The value of parents and grandparents in their respective family roles is extremely important here – my wife scolded me for not congratulating her mother when it was my wife’s birthday, and while I was initially confused, I agree with her. Thanks to the 15th toast of the evening, I was able to do just that with my friends – but thank god I was driving, otherwise I’d still be recovering now…

Legal Musings Special: The Labyrinthine Mess of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito’s (Re)Acquittal

I don’t get it. I have read and re-read dozens of reports surrounding the case of Meredith Kercher’s brutal murder, and I just don’t get it. Usually when this happens in my current life, it is some quirk of Russian life that can only be explained away by the simple shrug of resignation that tells of many unfulfilled answers. This time, it is Italy and its legal system that is causing the trouble. My understanding of law is sketchy, but common sense is something we can all subscribe to, no matter what our nationality or disposition. It seems to me that there is a lack of this with regards to the annulment of Raffaelle Sollecito and Amanda Knox’s murder convictions, so although I usually wouldn’t launch into a legal/politcal rant on this platform, I feel moved to in this instance.

I had the pleasure of meeting Meredith Kercher - or 'Mez', as she was introduced to me

I had the pleasure of meeting Meredith Kercher – or ‘Mez’, as she was introduced to me

Meredith was a fellow student of Leeds University where I also studied Italian, but our paths never crossed a great deal. I did meet her once, however. Our mutual friend Dom suggested going to watch the up and coming singer ‘Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly’ in the Strawberry Fields pub in Leeds, so we watched, drank, and even chatted about vague plans to fly out to Rome and watch Oasis and Stereophonics in concert. It was a fun time, especially as we had waltzed straight to the front of the queue with “VIP” tickets. Everybody who knew her will have their own memories of ‘Mez’; mine are of a smart girl who had a quick mind and a sharp wit, much sharper than Dom’s or mine anyway.

The campaign behind Amanda Knox even reached the high priestess of US TV - Oprah Winfrey

The campaign behind Amanda Knox even reached the high priestess of US TV – Oprah Winfrey

After the horrific events in 2007, it was hard to know where to turn to for answers. Why? Who? How? In a case that swiftly developed into an international news item with even Hilary Clinton wading in to offer her political sway to the case, it was answers everyone wanted. Pictures of Amanda Knox, Meredith’s flatmate in Perugia, were published of her performing cartwheels outside the police station the morning after being questioned; a $4 million dollar book deal with HarperCollins was signed in 2012 for the Seattle-born defendent to tell her story; sickening details of what had immediately preceded the murder were splashed across front pages worldwide.

Amanda Knox maintains she was treated harshly by Italian authorities, who she claims manipulated a confession out of her

Amanda Knox maintains she was treated harshly by Italian authorities, who she claims manipulated a confession out of her

As if that were not unsettling enough, the handling of the case by the Italian police, and then by the justice department, became more and more bizarre. Knox claimed that she had been pressured into confessing to the crime without the support of a lawyer, which in itself would be a heinous miscarriage of responsibility. She claimed an astonishing 62% of exonorees in murder cases have been forced into a false confession in an interview with the Guardian’s Simon Hatterstone. It does not stretch the imagination too much to believe this was possible. Another friend of mine was studying in Turin the year before Meredith arrived in Perugia, and was caught up in a police sting operation targetting marijuna dealers. She was forced to give evidence in court without a translator, a fairly intimidating experience for young foreigner who had been guilty only of attempting to buy light drugs (fortunately her Italian was excellent – she received a commendation at graduation the following year).

Raffaele Sollecito was branded as 'Forest Gump' by his own defence lawyer, Giulia Bongiorno - but it worked in his favour

Raffaele Sollecito was branded as ‘Forest Gump’ by his own defence lawyer, Giulia Bongiorno – but it worked in his favour

At the conclusion of the initial court case in 2009, Sollecito and Knox had been sentenced to 25 and 28 and a half years in prison respectively, but after an appeal they were acquitted. This is a standard process; without the right to appeal, many innocent people would be sent down wrongly. The Kercher family had to go back to the drawing board having thought they’d been given closure, while Knox was given hope of claiming back at least some part of her life.

But skip forward a few years, and the madness really began. According to the multi-tiered Italian legal appeals system, after the initial sentence has been passed, the Supreme Court can reopen the case and effectively retry a defendant twice for the same crime. Italian lawyers claim this protects the state and defendants, giving them multiple chances to reach the right verdict. Well of course it protects the state; if the lower courts cannot be trusted, this system allows the higher courts to mop up the mess made by their supposedly competent but inferior ‘junior’ colleagues. To me, this simply says that the Supreme Court doesn’t have sufficient faith in its own legal system, which is hardly a reassuring stance to take.

Sollecito's attorney - Giulia Bongiorno - is virtually a celebrity in her own right as a star defence lawyer

Sollecito’s attorney – Giulia Bongiorno – is virtually a celebrity in her own right as a star defence lawyer

The crowning glory of this incomprehnsible mess happened late on Friday night when the superstar lawyer Giulia Bongiorno, who had previously represented Italian football legend Francesco Totti and former PM Giulio Andreotti, convinced a five-judge panel to overturn the Supreme Court’s verdict, this time (so they tell us) definitively. What the fourth verdict should do is categorically close off this case with a satisfactory conclusion; instead all it has done is create more questions than before.

Ivorian Rudy Guede has been left as the only convicted person in this case, with his reduced sentence already half spent

Ivorian Rudy Guede has been left as the only convicted person in this case, with his reduced sentence already half spent

Rudy Guede’s conviction has by and large passed under the radar in comparison to the  global rollercoaster of this case’s journey, but the Ivorian has already served half of his 16-year sentence for his part in the murder. That’s right, his part. The same court that acquitted Knox and Sollecito ruled that Guede could not have committed the crime alone, as suggested by the much longer sentences handed down initially to the former lovers. Considering that there have been no other suspects, other than swiftly-acquitted Patrick Lumumba, it begs the fairly obvious question – if the Supreme Court now believes they didn’t do it, who do they believe did do it? Will they work tirelessly day and night to find the accomplice(s) of Guede? Do they even believe they can find who did it? These are the bare minimum of questions that must surely be answered.

Amanda Knox has received coverage across major TV networks, book deals and newspapers - forcing the debate onto an even more global stage

Amanda Knox has received coverage across major TV networks, book deals and newspapers – forcing the debate onto an even more global stage

Other nuances of the case beggar belief. The DNA that was said to place Knox and Sollecito at the crime scene was later revealed to be unreliable – how could the forensics team be either so incompetent, or even more worringly, so corrupt as to produce false evidence? The disgusting build-up of a virtual media war between armies of supporters of Meredith and Knox spawned a well-used nickname that was designed to add extra ‘appeal’ to the American. I refuse to repeat it, as its very use perpetuates the problem of distinguishing between the image of a person and the reality.

The bottom line, in my honest and humble opinion, is that the Italian legal system has been shown to be a complete mess. The very least the Kercher family deserve is finality, especially when one considers their composure and grace under such unimagineable pressure. The very least Knox deserves, if she is indeed entirely innocent, is her life back. And therein lies the worst part; I only feel able to write ‘if she is innocent’, because my own faith in Italian justice is non-existent. Such a flimsy and messy process transforms what should be a thorough examination of the facts into a battle of who has the more persuasive lawyer. Instead of being the cornerstone of a democratic country, the system becomes a different beast entirely.

Tyumen Musings Part Eight: Ukraine, Brotherhood and Pampers

UKRAINE.

Boris Nemtsov with Bill Clinton at the 4th annual  Yalta European Strategy conference.

Boris Nemtsov with Bill Clinton at the 4th annual Yalta European Strategy conference.

There, that got your attention. Admittedly it’s not difficult these days with the ongoing tensions between Kiev and Moscow, and especially after opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was shot dead near the Kremlin last week by an as-of-yet unidentified assassin from the back of a car. I’m not here to regurgitate the endless reports and editorials on the subject, however; I want to bring you a more personal side of the dynamic between these ancient peoples, a relationship that is often formed in people’s minds by mainstream media. As always with Russia, not all is as it seems at first glance.

One would assume that the recent conflict has sharpened a pre-existing rivalry between the two populations. While this may be true for some factions of society, particularly for those elements of ethnic Russians in Eastern Ukraine proclaiming a ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’, my experience of the relationship between the two people is somewhat different. I live in Western Siberia in the oil city of Tyumen, and there are a relatively high number of residents born in other cities, regions and even countries, amongst which there are many Ukranians. It was my taxi driver last night, however, who persuaded me to write this.

An armed soldier of the People's Republic of Donetsk patrolling the streets

An armed soldier of the People’s Republic of Donetsk patrolling the streets

With grammatically awkward but perfectly understandable English he explained how he had moved from his home town of Mariupol by the Sea of Azov (between Crimea, Ukraine and Krasnodar Krai) only about 100km from Donetsk, and less than 50km from the border with Southern Russia. Mariupol has seen some of the worst battles in the crisis, with 29 people killed in a single long-range missile attack in January alone, and its strategic position as Donetsk’s nearest major sea port makes it vulnerable to future aggression. His wife and daughter had left their hometown with him only two months ago fearing for their safety, but the rest of his family had remained for a different fear – that of leaving their homeland in the first place. “I really wanted to live in America, but my English not good enough,” he explained to me. “There technology and clothes cheap, but salaries big. I work on vessel but not have good English, so I leave for Tyumen.”

I wondered if he had felt any discomfort or unpleasantness due to his nationality. “No! No, here everything fine, only people say about poor life in Ukraine. No problem for me.” While the dialogue produced by western media focusses on the violent protests and military skirmishes, the fact remains that many Russians see a brotherhood with Ukranian people. I am not an experienced political reporter or analyst. I can only relay to you a view from inside Russia. The situation on the ground is beyond words – the unmarked militia, the burning buildings, the bloodshed, the violations of political processes. I am not here to gloss over the atrocities that have been committed; I am just simply not in a position to deal with them on this platform.

Vladimir Zhirinovskiy - founder of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, former Vice Chairman of the State Duma, and followed by over 1.2 million people on Twitter

Vladimir Zhirinovskiy – founder of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, former Vice Chairman of the State Duma, and followed by over 1.2 million people on Twitter

A brief look down the list of names of my students at our English language school shows many “-shenko/-chenko” surnames – a traditional Ukranian name ending. When I broach the topic of the conflict with them, the ethnic Russians don’t begin a tubthumping jingoistic rant against their neighbours, nor do those with Ukranian heritage look around nervously expecting a backlash – simply because there isn’t one coming. Political discussion rarely produces a heated debate between the people I know here. When I carried out a quick survey a few weeks ago of all 50-odd students I currently teach to name one other politician other than President Vladimir Putin or Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, they couldn’t name one, including Nemtsov himself. Well, they did mention Zhirinovskiy, but while everyone knows him more for his populist extreme nationalist views and outlandish comments, not many seem to have much in-depth knowledge of his political history.

A friend of my Russian wife told her about some neighbours of theirs who had bought a new flat. Being relatively successful in business, the husband had decided to give his flat on a ‘long-term loan’ to a family of Ukranians who had been forced to leave their home country, effectively helping them settle rent free. I later discovered that there are a number of websites and groups on ‘VKontakte’ (the Russian-language equivalent of Facebook) where Russians submit their unused clothes, buy supplies such as nappies, food and medicine and send donations to Ukranian families affected by the crisis.

The carnage in Mariupol has been devastating

The carnage in Mariupol has been devastating (Photo: Marko Djurica/Reuters)

This support is not indicative of the whole nation. There remain a number of stains on the national character and reputation, including many far-right groups who express abhorrently racist and homophobic views. It would be unfair to tar the whole population with this brush, however; Russian people are a highly-complex group who an intelligent sociologist could take decades studying and still not definitively map out their identity.

If I could leave you with one thought, let it be this: next time you read about the latest developments in Ukraine, just remember that for every armed separatist or corrupt politician, there is an honest, selfless and helpful citizen.

Tyumen Musings Part Seven: Coconuts, Peaches and Defending the (Adopted) Fatherland

While the world slaughters Vladimir Putin’s policies amid broken ceasefires in Ukraine and a currency that is still not showing signs of recovery, there is one side of Russia that is continually overlooked, or at least – in my humble opinion – misjudged: the people. I have written before about the overwhelming warmth I have felt from my new Siberian family and friends (check out Tyumen Musings Part Five), but seeing as today is Defenders of the Fatherland Day I thought it worth going further and unearthing what it is that makes me want to try and protect the reputation of the people.

One is Russian, the other is English - but which is which?...

One is Russian, the other is English – but which is which?…

Firstly, it is important to accept that defining the Russian mentality and character is something Russians themselves are unable to do concisely. A student of mine contrasted the general differences between Russians and the English by describing his countrymen as coconuts and mine as peaches. “Hmm, I thought Russia was an abyss of frozen tundra, so what have coconuts got to do with the country?” I hear you say. Well, in short, Kostya explained that Russians are hard on the outside but soft on the inside; they want to appear to be tough, but some have a lack of gumption to back up their macho façade. Englishmen, he argued, are the opposite – all pleases and thank yous on the outside, but with determination and guts. I’m not sure how much I agree with the image, but it is telling that a Russian saw his own countrymen in this way.

Flanked by Russian soldiers, Vladimir Putin lays a wreath near the Kremlin a year ago today

Flanked by Russian soldiers, Vladimir Putin lays a wreath near the Kremlin a year ago today

Secondly, it is hard to get definitive, unanimous and clear cut answers about the true meaning of this special day. Its roots are firmly in celebrating the contributions of the armed forces, although nowadays it has been opened up to effectively become ‘Men’s Day’. Even though most of my students have confirmed that the focus of the day is not so entrenched in recognising the military, I feel slightly uncomfortable being included in a day that I don’t directly contribute to. This is a country where conscription is alive and kicking (the mandatory period of service for men under the age of 27 was only recently reduced from two years to one), although being Russia, there is a plethora of creative excuses people seem to employ just to avoid having to spend twelve months digging holes in some remote Siberian backwater. A scratched back here, a bribe paid there, and hey presto, Sergey and Dmitry get to stay at home – although further education and medical ailments are legitimate. There is an odd rule that conscripts are posted far from their home town – and in Russia, that really is a long distance; think time zones, not bus rides.

Bullying takes all forms, even internationally. Aggressive foreign policy from Moscow could be seen as one form, the smearing of Russian people is another.

Bullying takes all forms, even internationally. Aggressive foreign policy from Moscow could be seen as one form, the smearing of Russian people is another.

Each story that appears in the global press painting Russians as racist, bigoted and introverted sparks a pang of indignation inside me that I can’t control. The harsh truth is that there are sizeable segments of this society that blight the country with their morally abhorrent views, but certainly not a majority as the red top papers in particular would have you believe. This twinge I feel reminds me of how I felt at school sometimes. I was mercilessly bullied for nearly a decade by people who played on my sense of pride and individuality, and but for the support of my best friend George, one or two tutors and my family, I would have crumbled completely. Without question I developed a sharp sensitivity to injustice, or at least what I perceive to be thus, and I think this is the driving force behind my desire to open people’s eyes to the real Russia.

Vladimir Shustrov - my father in law (with his granddaughter Dasha on his knee, and his other granddaughter Sophia)

Vladimir Shustrov – my father in law (with his granddaughter Dasha on his knee, and his other granddaughter Sophia on his wife Ira’s knee)

My wife’s father Vladimir is as fine a man as you will ever meet. He, like many, had lived through the breakup of the Soviet Union and the horrific financial crisis of 1998 (chickens then cost 6,000 roubles, which last summer would have worked out at £120) before the Russian economy collapsed last year. He brought up a young family with two children in a one room flat, but through hard work and astute preparation, ensured that his family never went without. I haven’t asked him about his military service, but for me it should not be relevant in the context of Defenders of the Fatherland Day: he defends the country by being progressive, thoughtful and kind, and I am lucky to have him as my father in law.

Wikileaks has a tad more effect on the world's conscience than my blog, but we both want the same thing - truth.

Wikileaks has a tad more effect on the world’s conscience than my blog, but we both want the same thing – truth.

I am aware that I have highlighted some serious problems that occur in Russia, so some may say that to suggest there is an injustice about the portrayal of the people of this country is inaccurate, but I can only describe my reactions. I am a strong believer in following your gut instinct, and my gut tells me that there is a gap in the worldwide understanding of my adopted homeland. I am hardly going to make waves from my personal blog here, but I sincerely hope that those of you who read this will take the effort to not condemn all Russians based on the limited image served up by newspapers – in the words of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate; “if you want the truth, you have to go and seek it out for yourself.” This is my contribution to Defenders of the Fatherland Day – my version of the truth about Russia.

 

Media Musings Special: Twitter, Kate Garraway and Underpants

Last week, two strange things happenned to me. Firstly, Kate Garraway asked me live on ITV what pants I was wearing, and secondly, 1.5 million people watched as she said I “must be a man of class and demeanour.” Quite frankly, I’m still trying to work out which was more bizarre a week later. When a beautiful woman asks about what’s inside your trousers, you don’t expect to be sharing the moment with so many people, while co-presenter and fellow Strictly Come Dancing competitor Susanna Reid’s hysterics just added to the moment.

Only the best guests appear on prime time morning TV - David Beckham, Me....

Only the best guests appear on prime time morning TV – David Beckham, Me….

Perhaps I should backtrack a little. On Tuesday evening in Tyumen I received a message from a producer at Good Morning Britain, the channel’s flagship breakfast show, asking if I would be interested in appearing live on the show the next morning to talk about surviving the weather in Siberia. Apparently back in England the temperature had dropped to -7° or -8°, and the media were labelling the weather system that had travelled all the way from my part of the world ‘The Beast from the East’, so they thought it’d be fun to get some perspective from over here.

After a quick exchange of tweets, we spoke on Skype and emailed the final details of what was due to be discussed in the morning, and arranged to speak at about 5.30am UK time (the show started at 6am). A few adjustments to the camera angle and lighting later, I was all set to go, and listened as various clips of the live show were audible through my tablet as I munched on my cereal. My allotted time at 7.10 am UK time crept ever closer, but the odd thing was I couldn’t see what was going on in the studio, as the Skype connection was only one way.

I had considered what I ought to wear, but settled on a suit and a clean shave (my wife and mother would have slaughtered me if I had not made myself look as presentable as possible, so an FC Tyumen football shirt was dismissed). For the record, my underwear was not thermal, as my interviewer enquired. It was all over in a flash, or at least it seemed that way, so I really didn’t have time to get nervous, and ended up thoroughly enjoying myself.

Whatever you may think/understand about social media, it has worked wonders for my fledgling journalistic ambitions

Whatever you may think/understand about social media, it has worked wonders for my fledgling journalistic ambitions

Looking back, I still can’t believe it happened to me. I am still only 29, and I have begun to embrace the modern wonders of social media, but I have barely begun to conceptualize the sheer scale of its potential. Why did they pick me? Far-fetched as it may sound, I really am probably one of the few British people actively blogging from Siberia, so when they must have done a search for possible interviewee, I’m certain one of my diary entries about FC Tyumen came up – they’re entitled “Englishman in Siberia”. Imagine; if I had chosen a different title months ago, I’d never have had such an amazing opportunity.

Perhaps I should take some perspective at this point: for all my wonder at the three minute segment on live TV I had, guess who today’s guest was? David Beckham. And back down to earth I come…

Anyway, here is the video of my debut on live TV. If you want to find out more about life in Siberia, take a look at my other blog posts here, and if you enjoy it, tell anyone you think might be interested – the more the merrier!

Moscow Musings: Planes, Names and Games

This is an experiment. Well, perhaps that’s a slightly grandiose term; the truth is I’m sitting on the grubby floor of Domodedovo Airport near a socket to charge up my tablet while waiting for my delay to magically disappear, so I’m going to try and see what inspiration pours forth. Like David Moyes though, I’m getting my excuses in early – I’m not sure if I have slept at all in the last four days, so forgive the possible lack of coherence.

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‘Domodedovo’ – Grandfather House, or Home Video’ depending on who you ask.

“Domodedovo” is a pleasant enough name lyrically, even if my parents find it slightly challenging to pronounce. Instead they christened it Domovideo (“Sheremetovo” has also been transformed into Sharapova in our household). ‘Grandfather House’ is such a picturesque image for a bustling hub of international travel, but that would be an approximate translation of the small area 40km out of Moscow city centre that lends it name to one of the major airports in one of the busiest cities for thousands of miles.

Thinking of names got me thinking about my time in this wondrous nation of culture – there is a curious difference in approaches and attitudes to labelling various places between my home and adopted countries. The streets near my childhood home are called such wonderful things as “Green Walk” and “The Firs”, conjuring justified images of leafy foliage and beautiful scenery. In fairly stark contrast, my walk to work on my first week in Tyumen took me from my home, sandwiched between Factory Street and Mechanic Street, along Soviet Street until I turned onto Waterpipe Street. The thing is, despite being a classic city centre area, that route through Siberia’s oil capital isn’t remotely ugly. Admittedly I did have to cross Maxim Gorkovo street, named after the legendary Russian realist writer who rubbed shoulders with Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov, but is that really the extent of the imagination of the historic city’s planners? And that’s before I even get started on Car Battery Street…

Alexei Maximovich Peshkov - better known as Maxim Gorky - would probably be pleased to know his named street sits next to Soviet Street

Alexei Maximovich Peshkov – better known as Maxim Gorky – would probably be pleased to know his named street sits next to Soviet Street

Then there are the schools and hospitals. I find the western habit of naming educational establishments and medical centres after saints rather quaint and reassuring. Here? My daughter attends an absolutely first rate kindergarten – not called St Maragaret’s or Happy Learners, but No. 172. 172! Not that it makes the slight bit of realistic difference, but for me the character of a place begins with the name. In that sense, the systematic organisation of citywide institutions seems to fit in to the Soviet ideology of everybody being equal, but I can hardly see the harm in using some of the greatest exponents of art and science to identify schools.

As my flight began the descent into Grandfather House, the two flight attendants were discussing the snow that had mounted up on the ground in Moscow. The temperature was a hardly bone-chillling minus one, but they said with some justification that if the same conditions befell a UK airport, it would be brought to a complete standstill. Case in point: a few years ago I arrived in the depths of western Siberia in -29° and about four feet of snow with not a whisper of complaint from the ground staff at Roschino airport. Around the same time, Heathrow airport, one of the busiest hubs in the world, cancelled a number of flights two days BEFORE some snow was forecast to arrive. Obviously, a region where there is permanent snow for four or five months of the year is likely to be better prepared for adverse conditions, but the planes can’t be totally different. I never cease to be amazed at the capacity of modern aircraft to withstand the most challenging conditions, especially in Russia where there is by far the widest range of weather in a single nation.

Don't be fooled - this is only the calm before the storm...

Don’t be fooled – this is only the calm before the storm…

The length of time is one major factor in the difficulty of cooping with this journey, but in truth the hardest part was waving goodbye to my two little daughters for two weeks. The fortnight I will spend without disturbances at night will be wonderful to help catch up on missed sleep, but as any parent worth their salt will tell you, it is impossible to predict how hard it hits you when you have to leave your children for any length of time. In the maddening queue to board the plane, there was a young family with kids about the age of my girls who were playing a game of hide and seek, dragging ‘daddy’ into the fun. I realise for many travellers the idea of having toddlers giggling and screaming near them is tantamount to torture, and I agree with them, but for an entirely different reason – it is heart wrenching to see such innocent play when you realise you are going to miss out on it for a while.

No encouragement is needed when Sophia and Dasha perform!

No encouragement is needed when Sophia and Dasha perform!

Sophia attended her first pantomime in England last week, and she has picked up a further flair for the dramatic by copying the actors’ bow to accept applause. Her performances include showing off dance moves, completing a jigsaw, or simply eating a piece of toast, but all are followed by a quick, low dip of the head as she accepts (=demands) the adulation of her audience. Dasha on the other hand loves to run after her big sister, then she panics when she realises she is more than a metre away from mummy. After spotting her hero, she grins the widest grin and giggles loudly as she collapses into Kate’s lap. Bath time would be better described as a visit to a water park – everyone in the room gets soaked, whether they want to or not, and of course this is hilarious for the two youngest members of my family.

These little games are what keep me going. The downside is that when I am away from them, it makes it harder, but I know that their English grandparents will be enraptured by the constant laughter. And when they return, I will relish the regular drives down Friendship Street to take Sophia to kindergarten – at least they got one name right.

2014 Musings: Achievement, Chance and Football

Life revolves around football. Children and families are important, sure; my two toddlers are infinite sources of energy, happiness and inspiration, and how I would survive without my wife I have no idea. But remove the world’s most popular sport from the equation and things look rather bleak. Let me explain.

Good and Bad can be split by a white line - just ask my daughter

Good and Bad can be split by a white line – just ask my daughter

Before Sophia could walk, she could understand good and bad on a screen. Seeing the ridiculously gangly frame of robot enthusiast and part time footballer Peter Crouch equalise against Manchester United, she started crying. It was only when she saw Rio Ferdinand make a crucial clearance that she calmed down and realised things were under control. Before the offending strike by Abby Clancy’s eye candy, she had been perfectly still and attentive, something no other form of audio-visual stimulation had been able to do. Some of her first steps in the garden were chasing after a football, which improved her confidence, physical development and hand-eye coordination. Her younger sister Dasha may only be a year and a half old, but she is already showing exceptional skills when kicking. She needs to keep her head and toes down when striking the ball, but I will let her off for now.

Forget FIFA – Football Really Is A Force For Good

How the heart bled for Stevie G... Cheer up, you have helped contribute towards the education of many an English student!

How the heart bled for Stevie G… Cheer up, you have helped contribute towards the education of many an English student!

And me? Well, I watch then odd game of football if it’s on, I suppose. In all seriousness, it helps explain a huge range of grammar areas – “What WAS Steven Gerrard THINKING [past continuous] when he SLIPPED [past simple] – while indulging my own interest, which can only be a win win situation. My classes full of smart, professional women who have zero inclination to sit in the freezing cold and watch a group of men who love themselves more than anything run around (I can’t understand why not either!) get to broaden their minds too.

The Beautiful Game - What would we do without it?

The Beautiful Game – What would we do without it?

Football changed my life outside the classroom last year. In the summer, I went along to our fabulous Geolog Stadium (check out my ‘published articles’ section of this blog for a link to my article all about it) to buy myself a season ticket, armed with 3,200 rubles (even at the exchange rates before the market madness turned the Russian economy upside down, that equated to the price of one dead rubber league match at Old Trafford against Hull…). I was directed to the marketing manager’s office where I would join a whopping 150 others in signing up for a whole year of FC Tyumen in advance. Anton spoke very impressively in English as we sorted out the details, and showed a real excitement at receiving support from a real live Englishman. As I looked out of the window onto the pitch to watch the first team training, a fleeting thought crossed my mind – I could joke about wanting to be a journalist one day.

Positive Philosophy in South London

Modern, south west London: the unlikely setting for a lifetime's worth of philosophy

Morden, south west London: the unlikely setting for a lifetime’s worth of philosophy

When I lived in a fairly drab flat in Morden in the days after completing a journalism course in Wimbledon, my then flat mate Tom invited his fellow South African friend round one night. In walked this towering dread locked fellow full of infectious energy, and he immediately asked me what I was. Not what I DID, what I WAS. I answered with the slightly depressing truth: nothing. I was struggling to make ends meet as my savings ran dry faster than Arjen Robben down the wing. But the garrulous Springbok pushed for more – I revealed that I wanted to be a journalist, and he imparted some simple wisdom. “You ARE a journalist, you are just unemployed at the moment.”

As the sun beat down outside Anton’s office at the Geolog, those words came back to me. What the hell, I had nothing to lose. I mentioned the idea, and before I knew it, the amazing press officer Viktoria was standing before me handing me a press pass for the season. Apparently there aren’t many Englishmen who regularly watch a Siberian club who had been in the third tier for the last decade or so. That was in July. Less than half a year later, and I have been published in Sale Sharks Matchday Program, Sovietsky Sport magazine, FourFourTwo.com, These Football Times and others; I have started this blog, which has been visited nearly 2,000 times, and has been used by Znak.com, a popular Russian independent news blog; by my rough estimate, about half a million people have read my work; one of my articles was nominated by A Football Review on their list of Best Football Writing of 2014 alongside industry giants such as Sid Lowe and Jonathan Wilson; I am part of a brand new quarterly football magazine called White Lines; and best of all, I have gained an unquantifiable level of deep, inner satisfaction.

Achievement

You might recognise this fella - his speech about 'our greatest fear', written by Marianne Williamson, is inspiring

You might recognise this fella – his speech about ‘our greatest fear’, written by Marianne Williamson, is inspiring

OK, so I am blowing my own trumpet a little – but why not? I am proud of my achievements, and I am not, who else will be? As Marianne Williamson famously said;

“We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do.”

I don’t mean it to come across as bragging, especially as I have still a huge amount to achieve to catch up with the rest. What I wanted was to show how such a small moment can have such a profound effect on someone’s life. I still clean up mess and change bedsheets at god-awful times of the night, reports still don’t write themselves, but I have fulfilled a part of personal self-satisfaction that I believe everyone needs to do. 2014 was a potentially life-changing one for me in a purely personal sense – if all that was possible in such a short time, imagine what could be be done in 2015 and beyond? Good luck to all of us – I have a feeling we might need it over the coming months…