The announcement started off
VISIT TO PERM, RUSSIA in SEPTEMBER 2012
The Russian and Eurasian Studies Centre together with [Oxford] University’s Department for Continuing Education is arranging for a group of eight people to visit Perm as guests of the Perm State University. They will live in families with at least one English speaker and will have many opportunities to observe real Russian life. The visit is part of an exchange scheme in which the payment made by you supports the visit of a Perm teacher to Oxford.
and after a preparatory early-morning briefing meeting in Oxford some weeks beforehand, this is what happened:
Saturday 8 September
Get up at five am. Taxi to Heathrow. Accustomed queue at passport control in Moscow, it seems they now print the migration card out automatically. Igor, a student from Perm, meets us and asks do we want to get a taxi or the Metro from Paveletsky station to Yaroslavsky. Unbelievable indecision. Francis falls over muscling his luggage onto the AeroExpress train. We descend to a left luggage place then while away the hours at a Sbarro restaurant before waiting in the waiting room. When we get on the train Igor and I have the bottom bunks in one compartment, the top bunks are empty. I sleep soundly for a long time.
Sunday 9 September
I sit on my couchette and stare at the wall opposite (sometimes Igor as well). When we get off the train at Perm’ people appear to take us away; a youngish man called Aleksei comes for me. We go and meet a young woman called Irina. Then we get in a car and set off for what seems to be Irina’s house. Irina’s mother Aleksandra is worried I won’t know how to use the hot water, but it’s just like my system at home. I establish myself in a very large and very very nice room…
Monday 10 September
I sleep, and then have rather a lot of breakfast. Aleksandra gives me the address and Irina’s mobile number, then sets out. Aleksei appears and takes me on a marshrutka, then a bus to the University. Irina rings Aleksei to tell him to tell me to ring her when I want to go home.
The University has a checkpoint that the local council doesn’t allow them to use.
Some important people address us under the impression that we come from Oxford or Oxfordshire. A couple of students of English come to take us round the University Museum and the Botanical Garden. But it’s raining, so we can only go in the greenhouse. But we stand in the rain a long time while they try to work out which greenhouse.
The first thing to see is an exhibition of plants typical of the Permian Era (named after Perm’) and that rather appeals to my sense of humour. After the greenhouse tour I have to ring Irina which I have no idea how to do from my English mobile, so I borrow one of the guides’ and Irina tells me to try again at 8:30. Martin, Heather and I go with a guide to a shop nearby to buy local SIM cards; we have to show our passports and have them photocopied. We walk along ulitsa Lenina and find a pancake place that has WiFi and a nice toilet.
Some time later, I get on a bus and just when I’m wondering where I am Irina gets on as well. We get off some time later and go to a grocery store then get in a crowded car with some of her friends. When we get in, we talk about a visit to her school and I ring Heather who is keen in principle but it depends on her Ekaterinburg visit.
Tuesday 11 September
Irina takes me into town by bus and tram. Our group has a tour round some sights. I go to the student canteen with Martin and Heather, then decide I can’t face it and wander off into town. Then I get on a 68 bus and manage to get off at the right stop by asking the person next to me.
I kill time until 1830, when I am due to ring Irina. I can’t get through. What to do? I ask a taxi-driver, who says he’s never heard of the address. I get on the 16 bus, going the opposite way from what I remember going into town. I get a phonecall from Irina, who says I should get off at ul. Kolyaevo. The bus goes through some familiar-looking regions and then comes to the end of the route. I retrace my path somewhat through mud and then ask a motherly-looking woman who says she has never heard of the place I am living then rings a friend, after which she says I need to cross the road again, get the 16 bus, ask the conductor. I do that and end up at the terminus again.
I try again and get on a 16 bus to Zaprud. Then when it gets to a stop called ul. Startseva I decide it is looking too urban and get off. I try ringing Irina many, many times. It is getting dark and with the other people at the bus-stop looking threatening it is all getting like Twilight Portrait. But with a great effort of concentration I manage to work out how to call Irina using my English card. She says I should get the 16 bus and get off at ul. Kolybalova. I manage to notice that the 16 bus has automated announcements of the stops.
I arrive at the bus-stop and wait. Irina arrives with her uncle in a car. We arrive ouside her house. She asks, Am I angry with her and I say No. Then the front gate turns out to be locked and she doesn’t have the key. I say one of us can climb over the fence but she finds another way in.
We have our tea. She says I should have something definite to say at the visit to her school. Then we have a tense discussion about how I can find my way home. Eventually she says she will show me the stop for the number 16 tomorrow.
Wednesday 12 September
We start off down the road so she can show me the bus-stop. Then Irina has a mysterious conversation on her phone and Sasha appears in her car to take us to 1905 Square so I can get the tram and Irina can go to her school.
I go to the tourist office and get some more maps; then the group manages to assemble in the rain and we traipse round places where Yuri Zhivago and his Lara might have lived and loved if they had been real people. But they weren’t.
The others go to have some lunch and I decide I need to use the daylight to work out the route home. The 68 and the 16 take me to the ul. Kolybalova stop and I manage to find my way onto the street. But I have no idea which of the many lanes leading off to the left I want. Eventually I manage to get some kind-of-useful directions from a guy with metal teeth delivering beer and then I catch sight of a house with 10 2-ая Кольцевая on a sign. And then I manage to find my way onto the right track and get into the house.
After a bath and several cups of coffee I set off to go to a meeting of the Perm Rotary Club we have been invited to. The quasi-Masonic ritual seems a bit grotesque, but the people and what they are doing seem worthwhile. I help Igor out with some of the interpreting and also respond to some questions addressed to the English side. Then Aleksandr the ex-navy-officer who entertained us with Vysotsky-style songs gives me a lift home and the other passengers are eager with questions about England.
When I get in, Irina says the father of her friend Olya is interested in applied mathematics and economics; I show him some slides and he is interested in system dynamics, forecasting and data mining. We agree to meet next Wednesday. Then Sasha comes round, the girls get into girly mode, and I go to bed.
Thursday 13 September
I am supposed to be leaving early with Sasha to join the day’s trip into the countryside.
The girls drift round without urgency. Irina asks Do you want any porridge? I say No. She makes me some and puts it beside me and looks at me until I eat it. When we finally set off, Sasha demonstrates Formula 1 overtaking with one hand while turning the radio up with the other and pushing back her hair as well somehow…If we don’t make it in time I will say I never managed to speak to Heather about going to Irina’s school and it won’t be my fault. But they have waited beyond the agreed time and Heather rather crossly tells me to hurry up.
We arrive somewhere and climb up a slippery steep path to take a picture and then we slip and slide back down again.
It begins to rain. We have lunch in the rain. After the other 4 have had a go, David and I get in a canoe and set off with an optimistic strike rate. Our Russians are on the phone to their mates–or just flirting–while Heather and Martin’s is doing the paddling.
We visit the Kungur Ice Caves where I get bored and cold and bang my head many, many times and worry about time getting on and how I am going to get home.
It rains. We spend too much time in a souvenir shop. Some of us rather hope we might be setting off back now, but instead we have a picnic under an awning in the rain.
We finally get back to the University and Hatty’s hostess Tanya takes me in her car to find a taxi not near the railway station. The taxi driver and I manage to find the road. Then we drive up and down it looking for Irina’s house. Then I get out and walk up and down looking for Irina’s house. He charges me more than twice the fair price Irina named.
Irina and I have a very guarded conversation. Olga says that I am bored and disappointed with Russia. I say I am certainly not bored or disappointed with the three friends around the kitchen table but I would be better off with a definite aim. I go to bed.
Friday 14 September
Sasha takes us all into town in her car by way of a visit to the local branch of Эхо Москвы, where she hands in a projector and screen. Olga asks me my favourite type of music and guesses it must be opera; I admit I am frightened by how well she understands me. I go to the International Department and find neither Svetlana nor Mariya. Then I come across Svetlana and a guy who wants to show me round the Maths Department, even though there is no-one there. Among general confusion, I say I am due to meet Professor Andrianov on Wednesday.
Then Irina and I meet Heather and they hit it off immediately. After a change of bus we arrive at Irina’s school, where we stand at the front of a class and say a few words about ourselves. Then we say something about differences between England and Russia and Svetlana the teacher tells us when we get it wrong. Heather shows her slides about school matters in England and brings out the stuff they need to remember with great proficiency. We get a fairly random selection of questions; a pretty girl wants to know about getting an English husband and a clever lad asks about highly-paid jobs in London.
After putting Heather on a bus, Irina and I go to a pancake place and a rather low-grade ‘Indian bazaar’, then she helps me buy a replacement woolly hat. In the evening I tiredly draft an email to Svetlana saying we really ought to do something with the presentations I have prepared.
Saturday 15 September
Irina says that Sasha will take us all into town in her car. We hang around in the church shop–they have a nice copy of Лебединая песня and also just for once a Church Slavonic Bible, though it is heavy, bulky and expensive.
It comes round to four o’clock and I hope I am never going to meet Bad Irina. Then Good Irina comes out of the shop to say that BI is stuck in traffic. I buy the Bible and then BI finally appears. It is all very unpleasant. I agree to give a talk to her first-year students who won’t understand anything as a kind of of performing animal I guess. She gives further instructions about what to say, when to appear and so on.
I go to meet Aleksei Aleksandrovich and we go to the theatre. We have a speech from quite a nice-looking woman about how great (and mystical) the forthcoming season will be, and how the owner of a shop called Polaris has donated wallpaper. The owner of a shop called Polaris stands up and takes a bow.
The show begins and is really rather dreadful. The actors have been made to speak with comedy foreign accents and the text is painfully undramatic. A piece supposed to be about modern music requires the most hackneyed Baroque pieces to affect the audience’s emotions. The audience for its part not only texts but also talks on its mobiles throughout.
At the interval AA is clearly embarrassed at how poor it all is so I suggest we leave. When I get home, I give Olga a Thomas Tallis CD and she looks nonplussed, but thanks me anyway. The girls go to the bathhouse in the garden and I go to bed.
Sunday 16 September
I go into town in Olga’s taxi and we pass Irina on her bike. I sit outside the church shop and Irina arrives on her bike. I guard the bike while she shops in the church shop. We sit. A young man arrives. They talk together indistinctly. I make my excuses and leave.
In the evening I give Sasha and Irina some presents.
Monday 17 September
I go to the University by bus and tram, using some scraps of Wi-Fi connection on the way. I go to see Svetlana, who rings one Larissa and asks her to find me some students. Then I ask about using the Wi-Fi; she rings one San Sanych and wheedles. Mariya gives me train tickets and tells me how to go where I’m going.
I am admitted to Larissa Sergeevna’s presence. She establishes that there is some group whose teacher has gone sick and tells me to come back at 1330. Following earlier instructions, at 1300 I repair to the International Department where one Olga takes me to the computer centre. The guy there completely blanks us and says he knows nothing about nothing. Then he says we can go round the back and see the administrator. He complains that the International Department have been assigned many log-ins and he has no idea what has happened to them. But he relents and I am connected to the outside world.
When I return to give my talk we spend some time connecting my computer to the projector and the IT bloke complains lengthily. One of the students–a group of about 15 young women–is actively interested, and some of the others venture a reaction from time to time. What they like is wordy slides that they can compare with what I am saying–it seems like the words accountant, hinder and rota are new to them–and recommendations for specific books. I recommend If This Is A Man (because everyone ought to read it) The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time (because seeing things through the eyes of someone who doesn’t know what’s going on will help them to understand English life, even if they read it in Russian, and in that case they can pass it on to their geeky brothers or boyfriends) and The Night Watch (so that they get some value from all the Shakespeare they’ve done).
I decline Larissa’s kind offer to talk to a group of students of French at three o’clock, and wander round town. Konstantin keeps on ringing me at inopportune moments with further and contradictory demands, so I never manage to eat and have difficulties shopping as well.
Then I rush to the Theatre Theatre which is miles away and arrive a bit late, but so are they so that’s all right. I find myself liking the Scarlet Sails musical and I might have cried with a better final duet. I also manage to more-or-less explain the story to the others.
I spend a long time waiting to get my things back at the cloakroom, and then at the second bus-stop of my journey home.
Tuesday 18 September
We get on the bus and go to the Gulag Museum at Perm-36. I remember when this was the last camp for political prisoners at the end of the Soviet period, and the guide says that the KGB failed to destroy it completely–because part of it was used as a real psychiatric hospital maybe–so they were able to restore it.
I approve of the modest and low-key nature of the place, a welcome change from Volgograd for example.
We return to the Uni and gather in the canteen. We talk about lapses in organisation and how the return journey will go. As we start off on our various ways home, Martin remarks that there is nothing to say for their flat except it’s easy to find. I suggest they come round to Irina’s lovely house on Friday evening. When I get home I borrow Irina’s dongle and find some worried emails from base telling me not to give anything away while pursuing professional contacts.
I give Irina some presents from Heather and she likes that. I tell her Martin and Heather might be coming round on Friday and she is very pleased. So it ends up with Irina speaking to Heather on my phone and an arrangement for Martin and Heather to come round for traditional afternoon tea on Friday.
Wednesday 19 September
We wait outside the Art Gallery for a student to come and take us to the Regional Museum. We wait some more. Heather suggests going into the Art Gallery to ask if they can ring the Regional Museum and find out if our student is there. So she tries that and I accompany. Then the student appears and we set off. She’s running late, that’s all there is to it.
So we go to the Regional Museum, which is low-key but interesting enough. Then I return to sit outside the Art Gallery. I send Konstantin a text to say I am free. I sit for half an hour and get cold. Maybe I can go home?
I get a call from Professor Andrianov, who then appears very quickly and we apologise to each other. He commissions various treatments for my sore throat by mobile phone. He says it is a pity I am stuck in the outskirts and they can arrange for me to stay in a hotel instead. I say that I am fine with Irina and we have visits with neighbours planned for the rest of our time.
When we arrive, Prognoz turns out to occupy one or more former arms factories. He takes me to a very large boardroom and plies me with liquids. He says that they support the Orthodox Church and the Jewish community and have had a visit from the Israeli Ambassador.
Then he leads me to a frighteningly futuristic boardroom–this time it’s The Target that is referenced–where the young guns display whizzy products. I ask questions about how they actually support decisions, what they do about data quality, and what exactly their offering is. This is all in Russian. Then the top guys interrogate me about where an automated system such as theirs might be used. I suggest–using the example of road maintenance–that it might be local councils or the Highways Agency.
Then there is a break while students file in. I am to give a talk completely different from what I was told. I am to talk about my work in general terms, first of all in English (for the international students) and then summarising in Russian. Saying the same thing would be too easy! So I do that. I tell them to understand the real problem and the real data. At the end, someone asks about the Olympics.
After that I am put in a car and taken to the University. I tell my pals that it was about the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life…
We get in a minibus and go to a Palace of Culture in some farflung remoteness. The Panfilov Ballet starts with music that is far too loud, and at the beginning it’s about the level you might expect at such a venue. At the interval some of our lot are distinctly unhappy and refuse to re-enter the auditorium. The second half is a lot better; I start off by thinking that some of the numbers with the fat people are at the level of a normal show at Sadlers Wells, while at the end with Люби друг друга it is like a very good show there.
When I get in Irina serves me some dinner and asks me about my day, especially the meeting with Olga’s father.
Thursday 20 September
When I wake up I have a nasty sore throat and no voice. I text Bad Irina to say I will not be able to give a talk for her. Aleksandra (who has reappeared) makes me an infusion of Ural herbs that I am supposed to gargle.
I finally set off for the day’s excursions and as you do in these circumstances miss the bus and tram. I am making reasonable progress when an accident means the tram is sent round all kind of remote parts and finally ends up at the University.
So after coming home and admitting my delinquency to Aleksandra I set off again and arrive quite early at the opera house. There is no atmosphere. The performance is appalling. I sleep through most of the first half and then escape.
I have a long wait for the tram, then get a 38 to fairly near home. Aleksandra kindly produces some dinner for me and Irina is nowhere to be seen.
Friday 21 September
I go into town starting with the 38 bus and we assemble and set off for Khokhlovka. We have a very clued-up guide called Stanislav and start off with a typical izba from the Perm region. I am interested to see many things I have only been able to imagine from literary sources.
Next there is a church with some rare features.
Stanislav says it’s called a ship church because everything is in one line. He also says he is an atheist and asks us to greet Richard Dawkins for him. The whole place seems to reflect an entirely sensible way of making a living in the local circumstances, as opposed to Perm-36 which is a pathological way of doing this.
We have some involved discussion about what various things are called: the balcony on the watchtower where you pull up the boards and pour boiling oil on assailants for instance.
For the moment, we have no idea about what to call boxes to hide things from bears, though later on the word cache seems to be the right one.
And here’s a nice picture of a windmill:
Anyway. We get back to the University and Tanya rings to get us a taxi. Nothing happens. We watch students come and go. Tanya tells us about the how greedy and dishonest Russian taxi drivers are. The first firm are still trying to find a car. She cancels them and tries another. Olga comes by and says she will be along in an hour. Tanya says she has won an award to do some work on idioms in Vanity Fair. The taxi finally arrives and we set off hazardously.
Irina and her father are sitting outside in the sunshine. He introduces himself as Vladimir. Slightly chaotic conversation starts off. From time to time Vladimir takes Martin or me outside for some serious man talk and so that he can have a smoke. He shows me some medals and gives me a Spetsnaz combat jacket. In fact, he presents Martin and me with some military insignia as well.
We finally set off for the bus stop. Irina leads us through some back ways and Martin takes pictures of houses. On the way back, Irina says she is now very keen to visit England. I say she is welcome to stay with me, but she needs to make sure her parents are happy with the idea and it will be a good idea to bring a friend.
Saturday 22 September
Sasha appears and hangs around a bit before Olga wakes up and gets herself together. We drive to the station and I find our lot assembled on the platform. When the train arrives, I am in a compartment with a toddler and his carers. They aren’t keen on him being disturbed. So I spend the day sitting in other group members’ compartments or going to the restaurant car with them. The restaurant car steadily runs out of everything. In the corridor, David tells me some interesting things about the history of the Russian language, which he has studied in Sweden. In Swedish.
I sleep pretty well, apart from when the toddler goes on the rampage very early in the morning.
Sunday 23 September
Vera has been ill in the night. The taxi discussion continues and we decide Vera and Francis will go in one and Helen and Hatty in another–I will arrange.
At the station I submit to a tout wearing what might be an official badge. Then I have to run after Vera and Francis to say it is 500R each. The rest of us go on the Metro, which involves trailing along corridors and up and down steps.
After the normal Sunday transport problems in London, I arrive home late, wet and disoriented.
If anyone is interested in having a go themselves, this is an annual event and you can see the full announcement for 2013 here.
Two weeks for ~ £ 1,000 is very good VFM though I think you need some specific interest in Russia to find it all worthwhile.
ANNEX 1: MY SUGGESTIONS
At the end, I made the following suggestions to Karen Hewitt, the organiser:
Here are a few specific points which you may find it useful to consider. They are meant to be things that participants and organisers on the English side could do, rather than imposing more burdens on the Russians. These are essentially my points, but I’ve circulated them round the group and taken out or toned down those that people disagreed with.
1. Aim and scope
I found it was difficult to explain what we were up to, possibly because I wasn’t so sure myself. The explanation that ‘This is really meant to subsidise English teachers from Perm going to Oxford, but we also hope to be of some use while we’re here’ didn’t seem to help. People also seemed to be expecting a fully-fledged academic exchange with people from Oxford University. (As an aside, apart from this confusion, I don’t think the Permians we met had much interest in Oxford, while they certainly did in England generally and in London.)
Recommendation: Write down what seems to be an adequate description of the purpose of the trip and the nature of its participants and see whether people agree with it.
There was some confusion here. People were keen to give talks to students and were expecting some timetable to be produced for Friday/Monday with slots to fit their own talks into. In fact, nothing of the sort happened and it dawned rather slowly at least on me that what you had to do was tell Svetlana what students you wanted and she would arrange it. So one of my painstakingly-prepared presentations went unused.
Recommendation: I think all you need to do is to include a statement in the guidance that if you want to speak to students you should tell Svetlana what students you want and when.
Similarly to the above, I think there was a great desire among the group members to do something useful for the Permians–students and otherwise–and likewise they wanted to speak to us, but somehow it never quite happened. There were a number of simple things we could have done, like for instance appearing at the same same table in the canteen each day or putting up a notice to say we would be happy to talk to students and would be in such and such a room at such and such a time for a chat, but by the time this had occurred to us time was running out.
Recommendation: Include a statement in the guidance to the effect that if you want to make yourself useful there are various things you can do [as above], otherwise you can just go on the excursions.
We wondered about the necessity of getting the train both ways, rather than flying back say, and whether a policy of booking bottom bunks was the best. But there was no consensus for change.
Recommendation: No change
5. Comments on English teachers possibly going to Oxford: None
This is becoming something that happens because it happens and so it’s beginning to drift.
Recommendation: The arrangements for the programme should be reviewed in the light of a clearly-articulated purpose.
ANNEX 2: OBJECTIVES
Since no-one was specifying any objectives apart from raising money, I decided that they were:
1. Subsidise Permian teacher/s coming to Oxford
2. Give participants different experiences of Russia and do this as cheaply as possible
3. Give Perm State University students and other Permians exposure to native English speakers by
–participants giving talks requested by those tasked with service teaching of English in other faculties
–participants volunteering talks on their own areas of interest
4. Give participants the opportunity to
–find out how their own area/s of interest/professional expertise are conducted in Perm/Russia
–exchange experiences with their counterparts