Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Straight into the deep end.

Back to Moscow after 8 months away. The most surreal, outer-body experience of a return and after nearly three weeks it feels like I never left. So much has changed during my time away and I’m still astounded by the speed this city is developing and propelling itself forward into a 21st-century, modern, technological metropolis. A European outlook is creating a city with more greenery, more pedestrian space and more respect for its surroundings. 

With unbelievably fresh eyes, naïvely tainted by a comforting and calm state of mind, which I eagerly acquired during my adventures in Parma, Rome and Vancouver Island over the last few months, I can’t help feeling much more detached from the life I led here before, and I am so excited to enjoy another side of the city. A side that I couldn’t let myself enjoy completely before while studying was my main focus, my main objective, my reason for being here. That’s a side note now. A project to finish physically, while I propel myself forward into creating a different life in this city. A different approach that I can embrace and nourish, using everything the last few years has given me. 

Distance has only highlighted the sharp societal contrasts I had become so accustomed to before I left, and it’s fascinating to see them again in a new light. Final year of studying and I'm seeing lots of engagement and wedding rings appearing among fellow students. Those deeply-engrained, traditional gender roles are always going to be hard to swallow coming from societies embracing non-binary gendering in full force, and for many young people here your mid-twenties is prime marrying time. Take away the importance of travelling and creating personal experiences for yourself in your twenties - a value we have had the luxury of being instilled in us through our upbringing - and it is the logical next step after finishing your degree. It’s so interesting how the concept of age can vary so much between cultures. 
And female and male roles here are also so set in stone. A puzzled look on my face as a lecturer told off a male student for not grabbing a chair for a female student who had arrived late (we have a chair shortage in our lecture halls, but that’s another story) and I was quickly reminded where I was. Come to think of it, I have always struggled with carrying my own chair, putting my coat on myself and, god forbid, opening a door while holding my own bag… 

Jokes aside, it is refreshing to be back in a city where I feel completely safe on my own at night and never feel threatened by offensive comments or unnecessary "attention" in clubs. My dancing shoes are back on in full force and I’m taking full advantage of the exciting, flourishing music scene the younger generation are creating here. No gender division among those really looking for change. And this 24-hour city has so much to offer. 

A new friend invited me* to his conducting of Don Giovanni on one of the Bolshoi Stages and then to a concert in my favourite concert hall in Moscow, Dom Muziki ('the house of music'), where he was conducting the backing orchestra for a Soviet Russian Icon. Alexander Malinin. A quick search engine gander** can tell you more than I could ever could. 

From the front row seat at the opera - stretch out my legs and my feet were on the stage - to two hours of top hits from a legend of the typical Soviet song - with three outfits changes including a sumptuous blue velvet jacket - and I was reminded of the cultural wealth on my doorstep. Impatient Russians waiting for the concert to start, while the latecomers cleared security checks on entry (a standard when entering most public buildings), didn’t hesitate, at 7.08pm no less, in initiating a persistent clap until orchestra members started filing onto the stage. (Eight minutes of waiting was the ultimate test of their patience.) 

And the concert was extended by at least 20 minutes to accommodate the stream of adoring women bringing him extravagant bouquets of flowers (as is custom at concerts here -see: between every song. I counted over twenty bouquets professionally stacked on top of the piano by the end and quick mental arithmetic (thank you A-level Maths) confirmed at least two-months’ of my living expenses in flowers on top of a piano I could only dream of owning one day. After the initial bemusement, I realised it was beautiful and heartwarming. His songs offer love, warmth and hope and he was a much needed beacon of light for many in a time of need, and still is. Undoubtedly so. 

With my hunger for culture truly satisfied, the cold and crazy daily schedule has me eating at least triple the normal amount and I realised - surprise, surprise - European food is the one thing I really miss. 
Desperate late-night messages to my close friend, Napolitan-born food guru as I struggle to navigate a variety of “cleverly” Italian-branded, yet Russian-produced, pastas and coffees has left me wishing I hadn’t been so generous in giving everyone packets of parmesan as presents when I arrived. Silly me. And a recent revelation, when I had a weird craving for my favourite Canadian breakfast, BAGELS. I can’t find them anywhere. Not even a crumb. Even the highly popular and equally highly overpriced supermarket Azbuka Vkusa (roughly translated ’the alphabet of taste’) with its array of imported European and North American products has seemed to overlook them. A potential business idea? Why not.  

Here’s to hoping they fix the heating in our building sooner rather than later, and if anyone fancies shipping over a couple packets of sesame seed bagels, I will more than happily pay for postage. 

Speak soon,


*(after relentless pestering from yours truly I should probably mention)

** I would HIGHLY recommend

fruit salad alla russa hmmm 

beautiful and inspiring Moscow film studios, which effortlessly transport you back in time

the continuation of Europeanisation at its finest - rental motor scooters that no one dares to use in Moscow traffic

the ultimate selection of ketchups - the perfect base to a Russian-style pasta sauce

the blue velvet jacket ft. a MASSIVE organ

one of the beautiful renovations I was surprised with upon my return

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Daily living.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that food takes a central role in day-to-day life in Italy. It’s always amusing to hear friends making fun of each other for the way they cook pasta - “you put onion in your carbonara?!” - and slightly less amusing when they make fun of me for eating dinner at 8pm - “you’re going to eat at 8 like a nonna*?!”. I’ve sat through hours of unbelievably in-depth discussions of meals, ingredients, cooking methods and restaurant comparisons: making sure to learn as much as I can while also trying very very hard to not say anything that would be met with a similar comment. I, of course, would never dream of putting onion in my carbonara. 

I’m slowly learning the tricks to a perfect plate of pasta, although the one time I was left unsupervised to cook dinner, I could barely eat from the pressure and stress I felt for the fear of an Italian person critiquing my Italian dish. I can count the days on one hand that I haven’t seen pasta since I’ve been here and the question on everyone’s lips is - how on earth do Italians not gain weight?? I think I’ve cracked it. Italians spend a disproportionate amount of time standing up. Coffee and a croissant, aka breakfast, are often taken standing up at the bar. A lunchtime slice of pizza or an afternoon tramezzino** (a triangular sandwich normally white bread with crusts cut off) are often consumed standing up. And meeting friends for drinks in the evening normally involves grabbing a drink in a cheap bar and standing in the piazza or surrounding area to chat, joke and have the odd in-depth discussion - probably food-related. It is not uncommon to be “standing around” for a few hours before going off to squeeze in a couple hours of dancing. So, I have come to the conclusion that all this standing must counterbalance the daily pizza and pasta. Surely. Or the hourly espresso - burning off all the calories from the constant caffeine buzz.

Apart from the ordering at the bar and consuming your drink there or outside, another aspect of Italian life that might take getting used to is getting your scontrino (receipt/proof of payment) at the cashier separately from where you order your drink. In busy or touristic places you are normally asked to pay first, but in the majority of places you pay just before you leave and, as my brother remarked on his recent trip with me to Rome, “it’s absolutely genius” as it saves time with baristas trying to take payments as well as take orders and make drinks. Not that I brought this up to remark on this “revolutionary” payment system - I understand that restaurants work like this all over the world, but I’m talking café’s and bars. The thing that strikes me here is the amount of TRUST this system requires - I cannot imagine so much trust in any other place I have lived. [Well, perhaps apart from Hornby Island.***] One wonderful Italian characteristic. Trust. Italians speak their mind and are sincere. There’s no games, reading between the lines or trying to second guess. Candour - accompanied by a flourish of gestures and dramatic expressions, which should generally be taken with a pinch of salt. But don’t put too much on your pasta, or you will be the next joke at the dinner table. 

Alla prossima,

A xx  


**the word is composed of tra-mezz-ino: tra - meaning between, mezzo - meaning middle, ino - the suffix used to denote something small in size. So all the signs pointing to something small to be consumed between meals in the middle of the afternoon.

***i will leave you to google this one

roof top cacio e pepe con carciofi  

the eastern boarder

1st may bbq vibes 
1st may fresh mozzarella vibes

Thursday, 21 February 2019

Where am I?

Back in Europe now for a little while and, after having truly discovered and awakened my Russian side that had stayed dormant for so long, I was fascinated to see how I would adjust back to life in Europe, in Italy. 

Moving to any new place for an extended period of time always involves a few boring, often unnecessarily-complicated errands that take up the first week or so of your time. Now was no different. Coming from a city where everything is open late into the evening, if not 24/7, and lunch break is something to be taken when one has a minute to spare, adjusting to the sacred 90-minute Italian lunch break and generally limited opening hours meant morning rushes to get to places before they closed for lunch as well as factoring in the much more relaxed pace Italians have when it comes to getting things done. I kept missing the guy helping me with my bank account - as it turns out being in “in the afternoons” means arriving at 14:30 and leaving by 16:00. [A guy at the hospital the other day even made a joke to to his colleague who was leaving early; “do you work in a bank now?” - a common theme?] At least everyone is unbelievably friendly so it always feels like you’re talking to an old friend doing whatever they can to help with a big, cheeky grin. 

A month in a city I know and love deeply, before going to Parma to study at the conservatory until June, Rome allowed me to gently settle back into Italian life before the late end-of-February start of term. Within a couple of days I found my go-to coffee and croissant place and it took a mere few days before I was greeted with a morning “Ciao bella, come stai? Cappuccino, vero? e un cornetto, si?”* 
[see 'Feeling Raf and Ready']. 
In any new place I live in, I tend to get my bearings and orientate myself through food. I like to try as many potential cafe’s, coffee places, restaurants and on-the-go spots as possible (money permitting of course). This not only gives me a perfect opportunity to explore the city, including smaller roads, shortcuts and less touristy areas, but it allows me acquaint myself as quickly as possible with the area as well as giving me some kind of “local” knowledge - a crucial factor in feeling like you have a life there. I found the best ice-cream spot in Rome this way, and of all the people (including a couple complainers about the 15-min walk from the metro to get there) I have subsequently brought there, no one has yet to disagree. Relaxing my diet rules slightly, after some encouragement, I allowed myself to try bucatini all’amatriciana and the best spaghetti alla carbonara Rome has to offer, while also indulging in the normality of having slightly under-sized donuts for breakfast. (They count as a “pastry” here, and who am I to tell them otherwise?)

I quickly adjusted to hectic drivers, buses that run on their own, as of yet, undisclosed schedules and the late dinner time (around 9/9:30pm), and after a few weeks I felt ready to tackle real life in Parma. Having never been there, but knowing the city was located not far from Bologna and with a reputation of a good university and a very good conservatory, I expected the city to be a smaller version of Bologna. Oh, how mistaken I was. I was greeted with this hybrid german-dutch-italian city and I was caught off guard. Parma is clean and orderly. People are on time and follow the rules of the road - including slowing down for pedestrians at a crossing. It feels like there are more bikes than cars - especially in the centre - and the number 5 “bus” is some kind of strange hybrid between bus and electric tram. Think electric tram on wheels. The buses are regular and reliable and people seem to be trustworthy. I have seen bikes left on streets secured by a lock between the back wheel and the frame but standing otherwise freely on the pavement. Things and people here are organised, straightforward and calm - a surprisingly welcome change and breathe of fresh air. 

A city known for its Parma Ham and Parmesan, I wasn’t surprised to see Parmesan being sold in outdoor vending machines to ensure 24-hour access in case of emergency and I’ve vowed to find the best Parmesan in town before my time is up. The coloured houses and clean architecture weirdly remind me of Dusseldorf, while the overwhelming number of bikes, of Amsterdam - this impression not at all hindered by the legalisation of CBD marijuana in Italy and the shops that have been popping up since. However, go into the historical centre and the “italianness” is unmistakeable. The beautiful duomo completed 900 years ago is as stunning as ever and radiates with rich Italian history and art. And there is the ever present slightly hexagonal-circular shape of the old city walls, which are clearly visible on any map and typical to these cities. A day spent in the nearby city of Reggio Emilia (on the same line between Bologna and Piacenza) and the feeling was the same and very comforting. An architecture and a history giving these emiliane cities a character that is beautiful and completely and truly Italian. And, of course, no other country will make ice-cream like they do here. Thankfully I’ve already found my Parma gelato place and it is conveniently right around the corner from my house. 

Visitors are more than welcome. 

Un bacio,

A xxx

*the name for a croissant tends to vary region to region but cornetto/brioche/pasto are all acceptable options. 

breaking rules

mid-winter lake trip

freak hailstorm to cool us down in the heat

central Rome morning views that melt my heart

Parma bike parking

the tomb of the composer of one of the most famous tunes ever written

Monday, 5 November 2018

Strange questions for a strange gal.

For some reason, the colder and darker it gets the less frequent the buses are. Thankfully, the weather is being kind and it hasn’t gotten too cold...yet. Hovering above zero degrees with blue skies, even if we did have an afternoon sprinkle of snow the other day, it's pretty warm for November so I can’t complain. 

With it being a bank holiday yesterday and today and lectures being cancelled, I have been able to spend the evening writing this sat in the window of a nearby cafe. (I still spent the day at the piano, don't you worry.) I found myself reflecting on the name of yesterday’s national holiday - The Day of National Unity. A holiday that was celebrated up until the 1917 revolution and again from 2005. I have found myself wondering about the importance of a country having such a holiday. As far as I am aware, there is no equivalent in England - if anything St. Patrick’s day is ironically more unifying there than anything else - whereas, in Canada, I would say that Canada Day is the day that really brings the nation together - this year I felt well and truly unified as I sang the Canadian national anthem dressed in red and white in a country music bar on the west coast. However, to an extent, in a country that is often misunderstood and misrepresented, and where the majority of the population tend to feel alienated from ‘progressive’ Europe, a holiday of national unity might be just what the people need. I would say that England could definitely do with one given the current situation there. It’s not a question of being patriotic or not, and it’s not a question of unifying against anything else. It’s purely the idea of respect for each other - seeing that we are not that different from one another. Respect for cultural traits you share and a common origin and history that defines many parts of the way a nation lives. 

One the funnest - please take this slightly sarcastically - things about living here and being the only English person (and one of only a few Europeans) studying at Academy is that people seem to find me curiously fascinating… not because I’m particularly interesting but more in a stranger/alien-kind of way. People always seem to have a favourite question to ask me, from “Why are you here? We want to go to Europe and you’ve decided to come here and stay, why?” when I first arrived, to asking why my "rubbish” is washed and separated, leading on to “Why do you recycle?”. From “How do you live without meat? What do you eat?” [I recently created a new Instagram account - in Russian - to deal with this one], and the classic “Why do you drink your tea with milk?” to asking if everyone in England talks like they do in Peaky Blinders and how I describe Russia to my friends when I go back. 

Oddly enough, the new favourite stems from COMPLETE confusion about my having a double-barrelled first name. It seems to cause so many issues, which is especially bizarre considering I have been studying with the same people for two years now… why have they only started questioning this now? My favourite is “Why did your mum call you that?” - if anyone can come up with a brilliantly witty reply to this question (baring in mind the less subtle Russian humour) there are tickets to my first solo concert up for grabs. [No set date for this as of yet, but some time in future I can assure you.] 

Russian names do have a fairly standard format that, for reasons as of yet unbeknown to me, no one seems to deviate from; you have your first name, your patronymic name and your surname. Whereas in the UK and in Canada* the number of middle names is limitless with the standard being around 1 or 2, I have yet to meet a Russian that has a middle name in addition to their patronymic name. In my case, as names are shortened with people younger than you or people you are familiar with, the confusion then comes from people not knowing whether to called me Sasha (from Alexandra) or Masha (from Maria). The variations of Sasha, Masha, Sashamasha, Mashasasha, Alexandramasha (I could go on) that I get are endless. 

The beauty of this shortening of names means that are several variations on someone’s name that can be used in different situations to show various degrees of formality, informality, affection and/or annoyance. Informally, Maria can become Masha, Mashka, Mashenka, Maryusa; Ekaterina becomes Katya, Katyusha, Katka. Then you have the ones that I find quite baffling, which are not shorter than the original or, for that matter, very similar to the original such as Vladimir - Volodia, or Natalia - Natasha. However, go for formality and things become much trickier. The confusion for me really starts in having to remember two names for everyone, and then making sure I get them the right way around. When I first moved, I could never remember if my piano teacher was Vladimir Pavlovich or Pavel Vladimirovich. Was my Head of Department Sergei Evgeniovich or Evgeni Sergeevich? What was really rather amusing for my fellow classmates was a source of constant stress and worry and add to that the issue of pronunciation - try saying Tatiana Anatolievna or Aleksandr Artemovich in a Russian accent in a hurry. This way of addressing any one older than you or to whom you would need to show respect means that you can guarantee that you're dealing with a name of at least 5 syllables from the get-go. A far cry from the monosyllabic Daves, Bob's, James's, or John's of yesteryear. Although Bob Bobobvich does has a certain ring to it. 

Lots of love from,

Sashamashaalexsamashka xxx 

*I cannot speak for other countries but will very willingly take comments on board and make any necessary additions.

beautiful tactics by the Mosfilm Film Studio
 to avoiding a parking ticket

beautiful autumn (before they cleaned the leaves up..
workers get paid by the bag to clean up leaves!
Unfortunately, it's an ongoing battle...)

beautiful embassy of Brazil
around the corner from academy

beautiful organ in one of the main
(and my favourite) concert halls in Moscow;
where I somehow managed to convince
the administrator to give me a free ticket for a 
6th row seat to a sold-out concert..

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Feeling Raf and Ready.

Back to Moscow, back to real life and the smell of pine tar in my trousers from an August spent sauna-building*, which I got sick of at the time, now puts a smile on my face as it transports me instantaneously back to the paradise that holds such a strong place in my heart and where I spent such a beautiful two months. Although, the weather here has been absolutely glorious and if I didn’t know better I would say that summer is only just beginning. 

I’ve just spent the last couple hours re-reading old Russia posts during my time here. So many things about living here still surprise me that I wanted to make sure I wasn’t repeating myself… apart from talking about croissants in at least four posts, it seems I’m in the clear. 

[I must admit that even now my day is orientated around when I get my daily breakfast of a coffee and croissant, and that I can rank the best coffees and croissants within a 10-minute walking radius of the academy, depending on your favourite flavour. I’ve always been someone whose day is brightened by even the smallest of moments; I find it very comforting that the guy at my favourite coffee place near academy (57p/98¢ for a cappuccino on par with an Italian one) not only remembers my order but also remembers I get it without a plastic lid. You’d be surprised but one thing Russians really do know how to do is good coffee. They have even developed their own type of coffee adding a favourite Russian ingredient that is present in much of what they eat - sugar. The phenomenon of “Raf” coffee (pronounced ‘rough’) took me a while to figure out but recently I finally saw one being made… One shot of espresso and a shot of sugary syrup of your choosing (salted caramel or lavender seems to be favourite around here) topped to the brim, baring in mind they are only sold in medium or large sizes, with frothy cream. Yes, not milk, CREAM. SINGLE CREAM. You are drinking 350ml or 450ml - well minus 20ml for the coffee - of sugar and frothy single cream. GOOD MORNING MOSCOW. Super-charged and ready to roll.] 

Anyway, one post dated 6th December 2015, titled “Stereotypes” made me laugh: 

“I am told that in Moscow the pace of life is even faster. You can have ten meetings a day in various parts of the city (which nearly doubles the area of London) and still have time for dinner and film in the evening!” 

How little did I know that I would end up living in Moscow for what will be almost 4 years…and that Moscow is exactly as I described it: busy and non-stop. I plan my days to the half-hour to fit in as much as possible as I try to make the most of this vibrant, culturally very dynamic, beautiful metropolis I live in and I find it gives me the push to do even more. Daily physiotherapy means taking the bus past academy through the centre every morning and I don’t think I will ever tire of getting that prized window seat on the way in as I ride past the Bol’shoy Theatre on my left, and Red Square and the Kremlin on my right. 

Although… the city does tend to have a way of really keeping you on your toes and even the very experienced Moscovite can be caught unawares. Often even the most well, tightly-planned days end up being the ones where you spend a lot of time running (not literally) around the city but getting very little done. Traffic, lack of centralised organisation within institutions and lots of people not really knowing what they’re talking about as well as quite a few that just can’t be bothered to do their jobs are amongst some of the factors that are generally to blame. Oh and traffic. Did I mention that? When the 6+ lane roads were built through and around the centre of Moscow, cars were few and far between but now it seems they weren’t built quite wide enough. Luckily, free Wifi for all on all public transport means that you can always keep people up-to-date on your whereabouts - listening to someone trying to have a phone conversation while riding in a very noisy metro carriage never fails to be entertaining. 

(Here, I suggest you refer back to the ‘Moscow Mule’ post about Russians not being aware of the ‘missed call’ function on their phones: ) 

Having said that, the city is becoming steadily kinder to its citizens and it’s amazing how much she continues to change and modernise at an alarming pace. Some things, such as all the signs in the metro being updated to also contain station names and exit signs in English, were understandably done for the World Cup. However, the new quiet metro trains with charging ports and interactive map-screens point to an exciting future with technological aspects in the city being far ahead of its European counterparts. In an attempt to change the Russian mentality of outdoor space just being a means to get between home and work and to encourage its citizens to enjoy outdoor public areas and the city they live in, outside spaces are transformed with the seasons and various public holidays. This last month saw a maze of plants, shrubs and trees brought in along Новый Арбат (Novey Arbat - the main street near my academy) with kiosks selling second-hand books for 100 roubles (currently £1.14/CAD$1.96) scattered among the greenery: a wonderful site in the centre of Moscow separating pedestrians from a very, busy road. Various giant swings and hammocks have been hung in a few key squares and streets throughout the city, while a variety of light-up structures pop up regularly inviting a wave of very similar-looking Instagram pictures but very much fulfilling their purpose. These installations range from sparkling mini Red Squares to a 100-metre long star-shaped tunnel of light, from grass animal sculptures to mini climbing walls in the shape of letters spelling out street names. 

colourful beanbag hangout 

Some institutions in the city do seem to be taking longer to play catch-up, my academy included. A decision to drastically change our curriculum, taking away a number of so-called ‘useless’ subjects and adding a couple new ones, four days after this academic year had already started reminded me that organisation here still leaves a lot to be desired and not all parts of Russian society are developing as quickly as others. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised when the library catalogue is still very much 'analogue' with index cards typed individually (seemingly on a typewriter) and sorted into tens of little wooden drawers and stacked along the wall of the reading room in the back corner of the questionably-built mansard. Getting something from the library (the door optimistically marked “library” opens up to a metre-squared space to stand in at a counter with two women behind it) involves filling out a slip with your book request while the librarians find your flimsy library ID card from a filing cabinet behind them and just picking a due date from the calendar hanging on the wall. It turns out I’m such a geek these days that one of the librarians knows me by name and regularly greets me in the hallway and outside academy (though I find this mildly crossing the line).

mysterious door leading to the 'bibliotek'

inside the mysterious 'bibliotek'

However, we recently found out that this lack of central, official system in academy can be absolutely played to our advantage. Exams for non-performance subjects are down to the teachers and certain teachers are known for being stricter than others. While Philosophy, History of Art and Aesthetics are generally feared for being almost impassible on the first try with a huge number of requirements from teachers before you even get to the exam, some teachers are much more flexible and simply require attendance. This was the case with a new subject recently added to our timetable, where the teacher asked how many lessons we thought would be necessary as the minimum attendance requirement to pass the course with an автомат (av-to-mat; automatic pass). What a wonderful system when the students can decide the minimum attendance rate. When he later asked the (in retrospect perhaps rhetorical) question on how to make students want to study of their own accord, being the keen student I have now become, I piped up that all the teacher needed to do was to find an interesting way to talk about the subject. His reply of “well, it’s hard to make this subject interesting” got a laugh from the class but made us realise we should have suggested a much lower minimum attendance rate…At least I’m already 50% of the way there.

Chat very very soon…exciting projects coming up, which I look forward to sharing with you. 

Masha xx 

*(technically баня-buildling pronounced ban-ya)

Sunday, 4 March 2018


This is now my 3rd winter in Russia (I have stayed much longer than I originally planned), yet I still get excited as ever when heavy snow starts to fall and cover the city in a glistening blanket of white, transforming it into a magical wonderland before your eyes. I still look on in astonishment as hoards of workers in head-to-toe bright orange arctic gear appear as if from nowhere within minutes, like ants after a storm, snow shovels in hand - they have been waiting and this is their moment. I feel like a child as a I get a kick from hearing the roar of the 20-long line of industrial-sized snow ploughs, tearing through the main roads of central Moscow leaving a wall of snow in their wake, and as they pass I look on with a huge grin on my face. Within days, courtyards, pavements and roads are cleared, huge piles of snow on street corners are loaded into dump trucks and taken out of sight, and life in Moscow ploughs steadily on without even batting an eyelid.

A couple days later, white snow clouds lighten the night sky and you know you're in for a treat.

Although, that's not to say that I'm a big fan of cold climates. I once again took advantage of having January off to get as far south as my bank account would allow and I ended up spending a couple weeks in Italy. Five years after I first fell in love, my heart is never far from the wonderful country. I had only been to Rome twice before for short, touristy trips and I was intrigued to see how "living" there would compare with Bologna. Admittedly, after so much time in Russia, it took me a few days to adjust to the pace of life - very relaxed - and to afternoon closing times between lunch and dinner. When expressing my surprise that a local store that had clearly said "open all hours" was closed when I stopped by in the evening, my friend explained that that simply meant it was open during napping hours in the afternoon... I soon had the main stops on the two metro lines memorised and I learnt to not trust "arrival times" at metro stations or bus stops - Italian minutes seem to have a funny way of being able to last anything between 50 and 150 seconds.

Joking aside, I was reminded of two important messages I had long forgotten since moving away. Family and Time.

The people I met working at the recording studio next door to where I was practising every day were shocked to hear I was planning to come in on Sundays. "What about family day?" they asked. "You shouldn't be practising on a's a day of rest and for spending time at home with your family." With a family that travels and works constantly and living in a city that never sleeps and where working days can easily be 12 hours long, I had to take a minute to let it sink in and then quickly try to explain myself... "in Russia, blah blah blah". Not surprisingly, my explanations were met with looks of amusement and disbelief.

A common and popular conversation topic between people from different countries is often stereotypes. During the first of a few magical al fresco lunches in the magnificent Roman winter sun I was treated to while I was there, this topic came up and I was asked if it was generally assumed that Italians never do any work. A smile in response answered the question for them, but I was quick to add, that with weather and food like they have, who's to blame them? Later that afternoon, I took a quick break from playing and walked into the next room to find everyone (six or so men) standing around chatting without a care in the world - I did a coffee round and joined in, trying to catch on to their Roman lingo. As one of the them was about to leave, I joked as kindly as possible: "and they say that Italians never do any work..". Putting his helmet on, he smiled, looked me in the eyes and said, "I don't live to work, I work to live."

The general concept of Time is that we have lots of it, but it is also precious and every minute should be enjoyed. Whether that be having an espresso with friends, relaxed lunch breaks in the winter sun, making that effort to pick some fresh chilli's from the garden for lunch, taking that detour to stop by the best place for pistachio croissants, working half-days to spend time with your family or taking time out of your busy teaching day to introduce a newcomer to fellows colleagues and musicians, it is about really respecting the time we are given. When I tell people my age at academy in Moscow, they frown and and give me a look of concern, commenting that I'm quite late on in the game and instilling in me a great sense of urgency to press on. In Italy, people smile with hope and anticipation, telling me how I'm young and I have so much time ahead of me. This concept of using every moment, relishing it and appreciating it whether it be work- or play-related is a message I was grateful to have been reminded of.

Back in Russia, I am more appreciative than ever of reliable public transport and 24h shops, however, I'm also doing what I can to keep those pieces of Italy with me.

(This may or may not include cooking pasta on an almost daily basis and constantly bugging my friends to send me pistachio croissants* and gelato).

More frequents posts to come from now on (I promise)...and a website and some music in the making.

Ciao for now,

A-M xxx 

*though croissants are technically french, a 'cornetto' is Italian and a 'cornetto a pistachio' even more so. 

This ceiling fresco in Villa Borghese took my breath away (and get me sever neck pain) and I haven't stopped thinking about it since.

The best lunch 5€ will buy you - a regional 'mini-pizza' called a pinsa. 

0 km farm produce at your service.

Start your day the right way.

River and canal walking in St. P - the perks of cold winters. 

Saturday, 6 May 2017

A Russian beating.

There are some traditions and practices in various cultures, which are very difficult to explain to someone who hasn't had the experience themselves. A Russian banya is no different. "It's just a sauna" people might say... and while it might look similar on first glance, the similarities end there.

A Russian banya is much more humid and so tends to feel hotter. This high heat/high humidity combination is supposedly very good for your health, especially your heart and lungs as well as blood flow and clearing toxins from the body. This is due to the way the room is heated. Stones are heated in a enclosed space, as opposed to the open stones that you see in a Finnish sauna, which allows them to get 3/4 times hotter. Furthermore, water is dumped over the stones and as it evaporates, the пар ('par' - steam) is produced ensuring high humidity - the key element. Being naked is a given, although hats are worn to prevent you from overheating. While going to the sauna in Europe and elsewhere might be considered a luxury, going to a banya is seen as a necessity for health and cleanliness. The tradition of going to a banya dates back centuries - to a time where Russians were much cleaner than their European counterparts! And so going to a banya is essentially not for relaxation but for cleansing, cleaning, scrubbing, purging, purifying and restoring; and a key part of this process is beating yourself or one another with branches generally made from birch or oak. The branches play a vital part in circulating the hot air and as a massage to stimulate extracting toxins from your skin. So people are actually generally quite 'active' as they go between beating themselves, beating others, having tea breaks and scrubbing. Afterwards, people will wish you a "с легкоим паром" ("s loh-kim pa-rom") meaning they hope you had a nice banya experience.

A friend told me about a young couple I recently met planning to move to the dacha they rented full-time for the summer. Having been there myself, the lack of running water crossed my mind and I asked how they would wash during the time they were there. "They have a banya there," was the answer I got, accompanied with a quizzical look for asking such an obvious question. Cleanse in the heat, scrub and dump a fresh bucket of water from the well over your body afterwards and you are good to go. There is no doubt that this centuries-old tradition is just as current as it ever was and, having seen a mother with her very young toddler in the public banya I went to, it is clearly something that is introduced from a very young age. My friend also explained that there are many communal apartments that still don't have bathrooms - and many with bath tubs in the kitchen - and so going to a banya is really without question.

So, still feeling a bit groggy from the winter, my mum was kind enough to invite me to join her for a luxury banya experience for two that she had been given as a present. Having only had one banya experience before, almost a year ago (with a group of friends in a small hut on the side of a small lake), I didn't know what to expect going to a luxury spa in the centre of Moscow.

I certainly didn't expect a very young, handsome male wearing a small towel around his waist to open the door to our private banya complex, complete with a table full of fruits, nuts, nibbles, compot and herbal teas for our 2-hour session. I certainly didn't expect having to be stark naked in front of this young, handsome man - "of course you have to be naked, it's a banya" - as I lay on the sauna bench while he beat us with oak branches (front and back) and scrubbed our skin with a mixture of honey and salt. And I certainly didn't expect the 2-hour session to end with lying on a marble table (still naked) in another room, with unbelievably bright lighting, while he used a hemp-like material to scrub clean - just soap this time - every inch of my rejuvenated and newly-purified skin. So that's how the other half live...I have always wondered.

Although I worry that I lost some of the 'purity' waiting at the bus stop for half an hour as they decided to close off the road just as we got to the stop. Unfortunately a daily occurrence in Moscow, which only adds to the constant heavy traffic, for anyone deemed "important" enough to merit such treatment. All cars are completely stopped and blocked off from the main roads to allow for a swift journey for the brigade of security cars, police cars and the car containing the VIP. This time we waited for a full 20-minutes before we saw the dazzling lights of the vehicles coming towards us in the distance. It is a wonderful excuse for being late to lectures though...

A month later, with no Easter holidays scheduled into our university timetable and a only one day off for May-bank holiday, I decided that a self-assigned holiday wouldn't do anyone any harm and I didn't hesitate to book the first train I could back to St. Petersburg. Nearly six months apart and it felt wonderful to be back - as is often the case, you have more appreciation for a place when you are only there for a restricted amount of time.

A friend mentioned that there was a public banya very close to the flat and I was keen to give it another go. Emphasis here must be made on the word 'public' and on the fact that this place cost 1/26 of the price of the luxury spa...

Mentally preparing myself on the way, I felt excited yet slightly apprehensive as I approached the entrance. No handsome, young males to open the door for me this time and, without the added awkwardness, strolling around naked felt wonderfully liberating and very natural. Trying to act cool as I opened the door to the banya, I quickly scanned the room for the ideal spot. It's safe to say, there are not many places in the world where you open the door to a room full of naked babyshka's wearing hats while beating themselves ferociously with branches. It's a shame that you can't take photos...! First time on my own in a banya and not realising that you are supposed to soak the branch in water before using it in the sauna, I was immediately identified as the novice and my lack of hat and body scrubbing materials only highlighted this. However, I beat myself with my bundle of the brunches the best I could and managed the plunge into the ice-cold pool more than once. On leaving at closing time (11pm) I heard a fellow bather bid a "see you tomorrow" to the woman at the front desk - it seems that for those with the time it is a daily ritual. When it costs £3.99 (CAN$7.05) for a 2-hour session or £1.33 (CAN$2.35) if you come before 5pm, it's hard to find a reason not to. As I made the 5-minute walk home, I felt unbelievably fresh and rejuvenated and vowed to find a local place when I get back to Moscow.
I am pretty much an expert now after all.

Happy bank holidays,

A xx

Coming out of hibernation and taking an afternoon to explore

Stunning beach an hour train ride from St. P 

The extension on the left is where you will find the kitchen and the banya - what more do you need...?

Waking up to a burning sensation on my neck and face from the morning sun - priceless.

All the great Russian Soviet composers seriously vibing and sticking to the rules; no smiling in photographs