A student’s view from the provinces
Volgograd - It's a condition of my degree that I have to spend a year living in Russia, and it's always been an ambition of mine as well. After suffering mild culture shock in Moscow, I thought that living elsewhere in Russia would be a breeze for a sophisticated British student like myself. Not so. Away from the tourist spotlight which falls on Moscow and St Petersburg, the rest of Russia works to other rules. Time moves at a different pace in my new home town, where not only are postcards from 1989 still on sale, they are in fact the only postcards on sale.
Being a student in provincial Russia is particularly difficult, because there's not much to do. Rather than immersing ourselves in our books and striving to improve our understanding of Russian, we have to find other things to occupy our time. This means going to the cinema at least twice a week, even to see truly awful films (Epic Movie, anyone?), but being too much of a miserly student to pay out an extra ten roubles for the really good VIP seats. And you may find that you develop a keen interest in the hitherto utterly incomprehensible game of Russian billiards, purely because it's a lot cheaper than going bowling.
The nightlife can also be problematic. At 11pm, when the student populations of Moscow and St. Petersburg are just emerging to begin their nights out, the bars here are just closing. The main nightclub in town is doing well tohave an intake of more than twenty on a Friday night. And, if you decide to stay in, you quickly discover that your Russian neighbors are not shy about calling the militsia if you speak above a whisper after 8pm.
In common with Moscow, the shops never seem to have enough change, and thousand rouble notes at the kassa are met with a sharp intake of breath and heavenward eye rolling. But here, they don't bother with the meaningless social nicety of an explanation. No, here they save time and valuable oxygen by simply snatching your wouldbe purchases from your clutching fingers and tucking them out of reach behind the counter, as if you had just announced your intention to assasinate the cashier with your cornflakes and toilet roll.
And the rouble shortage in the provinces is not restricted to shops. So, if you're one of those students who always brings dollars ecause you were too lazy to order roubles at the travel agent, be warned - you may get to the bureau de change with a fistful of dollars, only to be told that the bank has run out of roubles.
Away from the westernised big cities, Russian men do not shake hands with women. The first time this happened, and I was ignored after my male companions were greeted with warm handshakes, I was left dumbfounded. Now, however, I have come to regard this as an added advantage of provincial life, since I don't need to grasp any sweaty hands whilst trying to remember who's a Sasha and who's a Lyokha. Female students should, though, be cautious: there are some Russian men (no doubt other nationalities suffer from them as well) who will try to kiss your hand instead of shaking it.
And there are other benefits. Cleaner air, less traffic, cheaper prices and, as a rule, the people are much friendlier. Some Russian friends brought a carrier bag full of whole (and fortunately cooked) prawns to go with our beer one night. In any bar in Moscow, this would have resulted in immediate ejection from said bar to the street, the prawns ground underfoot by the okhranniki.
Here, they just brought us extra napkins. And would I swap the idylls of rural life for the glitter and grime of Moscow?
In a heartbeat. But I'm here for at least another two months, so if anybody could explain the rules of Russian billiards to me, I'd be ever so grateful...