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Cristina’s travels TAC 2015 Team Pushkin

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Solfrid Cristin
Winner TAC 2011 & 2012
Senior Member
Joined 3734 days ago

4143 posts - 8863 votes 
Speaks: Norwegian*, Spanish, Swedish, French, English, German, Italian
Studies: Russian

 Message 233 of 297
17 April 2015 at 9:46am | IP Logged 
Moscow and Ukraine


I am writing these events several weeks after they happened, which of course blurs the memory. And when I
sat down to write about Saturday in Moscow, I remembered clearly Saturday afternoon, and everything I saw
and did, but for the life of me I could not remember what I had done on Saturday morning. I thought that
perhaps I had just packed, and that this was why I had no recollection of what I had done. In the end I had to
look at my camera for any clues, and that is when everything came back to me, and I remembered why that
morning was blocked out of my memory. Because on my camera I found pictures of huge groups of
policemen and military troops, wide motor bikes, a huge car painted and equipped to look like a cross
between a tank and a wolf, a wall to wall signs saying "One year since Maidan: we will not forgive and we will
not forget", and young girls with designer bags on their arm, wearing white jackets with the picture of Putin,
and writings saying that they were ready to defend their motherland, and that they would win.
Groups of miners wearing their work wear, and masses of busses orderly parked, wearing the sign Anti-
Maidan, with plates from different places in Russia.

Unwittingly I had fallen into the anti-Maidan demonstration. A demonstration organized by a coalition between
a group of bikers called 'Volki' -the wolves, members of the Russian Orthodox Church and nationalists. I do
not scare easily, but that unholy alliance scared me to the core. I have been to a lot of demonstrations in my
time, for students rights, against abuse of women, for the continued right to abortion, workers rights, to
support the rights of Indians in Guatemala. You name it, I've been there. But I had never, ever seen anything
like this. Organized by massive amounts of police. Lots and lots of military in uniform. Not individuals, they
came in groups of 40-50, many of them, disciplined, marching together. Organized. Planned. And everywhere
lots of pictures of the president, and signs which said that they were ready to defend their country. As if
anyone in their right mind would ever think of attacking Russia after seeing what happened to Napoleon and
Hitler. Or would have any wish to do so even if they did not know there would be hell to pay. But obviously
there is someone who wants the Russian people to believe that that may happen. In the not too remote

I read Russian newspapers every day, in English. Most of it is a pure pleasure, and gives me lots of joy. I
learn funny little tidbits about a society which is much closer and more like mine that you would think, and
smile at the differences. But every time I read Pravda my pulse goes up. They have un unsavory mixture of
rabid, nationalistic propaganda and all the worst stories from the US and Ukraine they can find. In one article
last week they used words like 'cowardly and horrific', and actually called Ukrainians spiders... I am so happy
that I have not yet seen any newspaper in the West that is as Russophobe as Pravda is Americanaphobe.
They are showing a version of the world which breeds hatred and paranoia, so if this is what most people
read, I am not surprised that they can believe that a military attack on Russia is an actual possibility, and that
their view of the world is that they need to defend themselves against the world, where on the other side most
of the West is starting to worry about the possibility of a military attack from Russia. If someone had told me
about such concerns on either side two years ago, I would have suggested he stop smoking his own socks.
Now I see those concerns voiced in the major newspapers. Unlike most of you, who are in your teens and
twenties, I lived through the Cold War. It is not something I would like to see again, not to mention a warm

What worries me the most is that people are growing scared and distrustful on both sides of the borders and
that they start thinking of people from other nations as bad people. I have heard it on both sides of the fence.
Russians who tell me they don't like Americans. Americans who do not like Russians. How can you even
dislike someone you do not know? I know both, I have been to the US and I have been to Russia, I have
American friends and I have Russian friends, and if anything residents of both those countries impress me by
their warmth, hospitality, kindness and generosity. They presumably have their fare share of jerks in both
countries, but my general impression when meeting people from both those countries is entirely positive. My
Russian teacher told me that the amount of Russian students has shrunk to almost nothing. I cannot believe
how short sighted people are. I am counting on the situation to pass in a year or two, so that by the time my
Russian gets to a good level, we are back to normal. It may seem bleak now, but I am old, and I have seen
so many seemingly impossible political events change. I grew up in a world where I feared that South Africa
would drown in blood whenever the Apartheid regime fell, I could not imagine the Berlin wall falling, nor that
Poland would become a member of NATO or Serbia applying for a membership in the EU. And yet they have.
My faith in God is shaky, my faith in humanity is not, and I am an eternal optimist. In the worst of cases and
we do enter into a new Cold War, then having people who speak Russian, who love Russians and respect
Russia, will be an entirely good thing. Forging bonds of friendship across the fence is the only way out of
such a situation. And if the absolutely worst imaginable should happen, a possibility that my brain even
refuses to process, speaking the language could never be a bad thing.

We have for several years now had a good cooperation between Norwegian and Russian military forces. And
we have an agreement which says that once a year either country can ask to inspect any military installation
of their choice. They will then have very precise information on the amount of soldiers, which weapons there
are and what plans there are for reducing or increasing activity there. It has been done for years, in friendship
and in good faith. On April 1st, the Russian armed forces asked to inspect the installations in Northern
Norway, which constitute the lions's share of Norway's armed forces. No problem with that. We honor our
agreements. What made some uneasy, was that the date chosen was April 9th. Which was on the day 75
years after Norway was last occupied by a foreign army. The representative from the Norwegian army was
asked by a journalist whether it was a good idea to accept such a request in the present political climate, and
he answered that it was a very good idea and a no brainer. The point of the agreement is to build trust, and in
particular right now, when trust is scarce on both sides, he found it of great importance to honor agreements,
and be as open and candid as possible. I also read that apparently Norway has less direct issues with Russia
than most other European countries. We have had such a good cooperation in the North and off the coast for
a long time, and they know how we operate. We are predictable and open. And in the current situation,
predictability is a very good thing.

Back to Moscow. My plan for Saturday was to go on a Hop-on-hop-off-tour, seeing the sights of Moscow,
recommended by Serpent. At the end of my quiet little street I was however stopped by the police, and told to
go back. They did not allow people through, bikers and veterans were marching through the street. Not
wanting any sort of trouble with the police, nor making it too clear that I was a foreigner, I immediately
obeyed, and after some time I found a route around and got to the square in front of the Bolshoi theatre,
where I was supposed to take the bus. On the left side of the square I saw some would-be military vehicles
and some actual military vehicles. I took a couple of pictures of the first, but not knowing whether there were
any restrictions on taking photos of military equipment, I did not dare to take any pictures of the last. Unlike
every other demonstration I have ever been to, people were assembling in big groups. Whole classes of
pupils and students and military troops. This was not a spontaneous demonstration. This was orchestrated. I
later read that students and teachers had received a message the day before 'recommending' that they
participate. I assume they were not the only ones.

I went towards the bus-stop to wait for the bus when suddenly there were like 50 men in uniform around me,
waiting to be led to their place in the demonstration. I have worn my Ukraine bracelet proudly all the three
times I have been in Moscow, but I must admit that at that particular time, I made sure it was covered by my
sleeve. For most of you it may perhaps sound funny that I would be frightened by the situation. For a lot of
you, having military marching, is a perfectly normal thing, and part of 4th of July celebrations in the US or the
14th of July parades in France. But I come from a culture where a military parade for our Independence Day
is unthinkable. In our parades on the 17th of May, we have children in national costumes waiving the
Norwegian flag. The only police to be seen are the ones who direct traffic and the ones on the Karl Johan
Street, which leads up to the Royal Castle, and they tend to receive a couple of thousand kisses on that day,
as the pupils who end 12 years of school ( funnily enough called 'Russ' in Norwegian), have crazy
celebrations, and one of the points of their to-do list is to kiss a policeman on the Karl-Johan's Street on the
17th of May. My cousin worked as a regular policeman in Oslo 25 years ago, and he was placed in that street
on the 17th of May one year, and he later said that he had not received that many kisses in his entire life, and
that there is nothing as scary in the whole wide world, as a group of screaming, drunk teen age girls wanting
to kiss you. And he is one of the toughest guys I know. So that is the cultural context I am used to.

While I was in the middle of it I tried to analyze what it was which frightened me. After all I had been in
Ukraine at their Independence Day, and although I did not feel that the military parade was the most exciting
part of the day (I much preferred the folklore festival) I did not feel one bit threatened either. The ambiance
was a strange combination of determination and euphoria, and wearing a vishevanka and the traditional floral
decoration in my hair, I just passed for another Ukrainian. In fact they thought I was a contestant in the
folklore festival.

I think what frightened me with this demonstration was that it was orchestrated, and not spontaneous, that it
was with such a massive participation of the military and the police, that there was such a feeling of
aggression, and then of course the personal cult. Trying to imagine someone wearing jackets and bringing
iPhone covers with the picture of Erna Solberg, prime minister of Norway, or Stefan Lövfen, prime minster of
Sweden to a demonstration would be so beyond ludicrous that it would not even be remotely funny funny.
And also demonstrating is something you per definition do against the authorities, not for. Demonstrating in
favor of the authorities is something you generally only see in... I cannot even finish the sentence. And
preparing a people for a war - I have never seen that. Not in my lifetime. I have never been so happy that I
look Russian in my entire life, and I did not dare to speak to anyone. Also the laws that have been passed
over the last couple of years to limit civil rights, and the notion that to be a patriot you have to support the
authorities and their vision, is really scary. There was an article in the Moscow Times a few days ago about
different kinds of patriotism, which I found so good that I shared it on Facebook. It worried that only 20 % of
the Russians saw alternative ways of being a patriot. Preferring the half filled glass, I am happy that there is
as much as 20%.

In the end my bus came, I was very relieved to get on it, and I asked the conductor what all the commotion
was about. He almost exploded, saying that these were people who wanted to keep Russia back and wanted
it to sink into corruption and be run by oligarchs. I was very surprised that he was so outspoken, but also
relieved that there were different views on the situation. Nothing scares me as much as a situation where
everyone thinks the same. For a while I was on the bus, listening to the guiding, enjoying the sights, and just
loving being in my favorite city, blocking out anything else. At the turning points of the buses I did however
see a sort of a parking lot with a very long row of buses orderly parked, all wearing the sign 'Anti-Maidan', and
we were told that we could not get back into the center as it was blocked for traffic due to the demonstrations.
I managed to find out which was the stop they were willing to take me to which was closest to mine, and then
walked the rest of the way, seeing large groups of miners in full gear heading towards the centre. I got back
to my hotel in the end, but I was shocked and scared.

In the afternoon I had been invited home to my good friend Tania, who spent the Christmas holiday with me.
She had warned me that her father, although a thoroughly good and kind and wonderful person, was also
very eager to discuss current political events with me. I do not really do that. Not that I don't discuss politics. I
love to. I have discussed politics with my dad since I was 6 years old. But right now, I find discussing current
political affairs with Russians to be a very bad idea. I figure that either we have very different views, and
discussing it will just create a bad mood. Or they are opposed to the current regime, in which case them
discussing it openly, with a foreigner no less, could be dangerous for them. For me the safety of my friends is
more important than anything else in the whole wide world, so I prefer to just think that we probably disagree.
I'll love them just as much even so. If we discussed it, and we did disagree, I would not convince them and
they would not convince me. I love my country and I am very proud of it, and I am very patriotic. I expect
others to be as well, - though of course I prefer the kind of patriotism where you want what is best for your
country, and not what I find to be a travesty of patriotism, namely wanting what is best for the career and the
wallet of a particular politician - but whichever variants they follow, as long as they do not force their opinions
on me, I have no problems with different opinions, and will not force mine upon them. I was therefore a little
bit apprehensive, but I thought that I have had a long life in which to hone my listening skills, and my
diplomatic abilities, so this would be the perfect evening to put that into practice.

As it turned out, he was absolutely adorable and really, really kind, and I was able to deflect most of the
questions and ask him for his opinion without stating mine too assertively, when I got in a pinch. And I tried to
present my views in as gentle a manner as I possibly could. I learned something from him, and in spite of my
evasiveness I hope he learned a little from me. At the very least I hope he saw that just like Russians, what
people in the West really want is to live in peace. He was very skeptical to Americans, as so many are, and I
do not think I succeeded in changing that impression one bit, but he was the perfect host all through the
evening and welcomed me warmly back, so I hope that there is at least one Westerner who holds his good
opinion from now on. The mother was also one of the kindest people I have met, and she had cooked up a
storm. My only problem was that I did not have room to taste everything. She also asked me lots of questions
but very delicately and in a very kind way, so I tried to answer everything as thoroughly as I could. And we
spoke almost only Russian :-) My friend had to interpret occasionally, but a good part of the time I understood
a large part of the conversation. They were really nice and spoke slowly and clearly so that I could
understand them easier. And I'd love to go visit them again whenever I am in Moscow, because it is
wonderful to see a family who love each other so much. I do not yet know when such a visit might be, but I
am very happy that I'll soon see my friend again as she and I will be sharing a room at the polyglot gathering
in Berlin at the end of the month. Are any of you going there by the way?

Another tidbit I found on the net while browsing for all aspects of Russian culture was a comment which
keeps turning up: the notion that Russians touch a lot more than Americans and Western Europeans and that
they have 'no sense of personal space', to the point that one article said that they may appear over-amorous
or pushy. Now I may be a bit dense, but I think any over-amorous or pushy Russians (or rather the perception
thereof) would have registered on my radar, and they absolutely have not. I can think of several possible
reasons why. Most of the Russians I know are internationally minded, and may be an exception to the rule,
also I think there is an age thing, as the only two Russians I can think of which perhaps stood a tad closer
and touched a bit more than I am used to, were in their 50ies and 60ies. It would not occur to me to interpret
in negatively in any way, though, on the contrary. Also when it comes to both touch and personal space then
it plays a huge role how comfortable you are around someone and how well you know them. You would
naturally want to stand closer to someone you know and like, than to someone you hardly know or feel
unsure of. I am really touchy-feely myself, and love hugging people, but a few years ago there was a really
tall and sturdy bear of a guy from one of the ex-Yugoslav republics, who I had spoken to for exactly 1 minute
and 50 seconds at an international meeting, who enveloped me in a huge hug and did not let go, and I almost
had a panic attack. And then of course the last, and possibly most probable reason why this has never
registered with me, is the fact that I am bicultural. Apparently there is a sliding scale, starting with
Scandinavians, then Western Europeans from the middle of Europe - Germany, Austria, the Netherlands etc,
then Americans, then Russians (and presumably other Eastern- Europeans), Western Europeans from
France and down and then Latin-Americans,(and I would guess Asians and Arabs) where Scandinavians
prefer the largest distance, and Latin-Americans like to stand really close indeed. Since I am used to
Spaniards and my two best friends are from Latin-America and Asia, I am - as in so many cases - an
abnormal Scandinavian. What might make other Scandinavians who never lived abroad uncomfortable, to me
just feels friendly, cosy and familiar.

I just saw in The Moscow Times that the ruble has risen with 34% against the dollar just since mid-January,
and although experts warn that the situation is very volatile so that it might change very rapidly again, I hope
it is the beginning of a lasting upward trend. There was also an article on the rising unemployment, which at
first did not look that bad. At the moment it is at 5.8%, which is high in comparison to Norway with only 3.9,
but I checked the numbers for EU, and compared to that Russia is not doing too badly. In the EU it varies
from Germany at 4.8 to Greece at 26%. However, in Russia 32% are experiencing or are expecting to get
fired. 22% expect salary cuts, and 25% of the migrant workers are planning to leave. Not really promising.


Sunday - was a really shitty day. I had hoped that I would either get to see my colleague who I hoped felt
better, or meet espejismo and his grandmother, whose acquaintance I was really eager to make, or go back
to the Tretjakov Gallery with Serpent and her mom. All three possibilities would have made for an absolutely
glorious day. However I woke up with a fever and a cough which sounded like I had tuberculosis, so it soon
became clear to me that I was not going anywhere to see anyone. I spent the day in the lobby drinking tea,
feeling like a wet carpet, and my beloved doorman, Boris, suggested that I ingest large quantities of vodka, to
fight the flue. Generally considering that alcohol is merely the most pleasant thing of many things which do
not work against either flu or colds, I thanked him for his advice, but refrained from following it. The only high
point of my day was 39 exchanged SMSes with my film buff friend. Going to the airport I had asked for the
same Uzbek driver that I had had on my way in, looking forward to a long chat, but I had almost no voice, and
coughed so much, that it was not really possible to have a meaningful conversation. He had brightened up
when he saw me, but I suspect that he was disappointed in the end, since I was not much fun to be around.
At the airport I saw a souvenir stand which consisted of 9 iPhone covers and 3 T-shirts, all with the picture of
Putin, and for several reasons I felt really down when I flew out of Moscow this time. My feelings about my
Russian friends have not changed one bit. I adore them all. I am still as eager to go back to Russia as soon
as I can, I am still as interested in every aspect of Russian culture, and my motivation to study Russian is
stronger than ever. But I am deeply worried. I would lie if I said I was not.

To end my trip to Moscow on a less gloomy note, I can tell you that when I keep insisting that I am met by
smiling, friendly people everywhere in Russia, in vast contrast to what it was when I was first there, this is not
just my impression, it is backed up by research. The last published Smiling Report ranks Russia 15 out of 69
countries which participated, and that's a whopping 100% improvement over just 10 years. The Smiling
Report measures how friendly shoppers are met around the world, and to come in 15th is very respectable.

It is all the more impressive because I just came across an article giving 15 reasons why Russians do not
smile. Like with all stereotypes, this one has more than a grain of truth, but is also subject to considerable
personal variations. There are lots is smiling Russians. But I am actually starting to appreciate the sentiment
that a smile should mean something, and that it means a lot more if given to just a few. Just like when it has
more worth to be invited to a birthday party to one of your school friends if you are one of 8 rather than one of
30 (the whole class). It also said they considered people who smiled a lot, simpletons. Boy, they must
consider me the biggest simpleton of all times. I solve it through giving a short, polite smile generally, and a
big wide smile with sparkles in my eyes when I really have reason to be happy or I am particularly fond of the
person I speak to.

Do you by the way remember that I said that there were lots of Russians living in the North of Norway? Today
I saw the numbers, and although there is just 0.3% in the whole of Norway, there are 10% in Varanger, which
is not bad. The article also said that Russia is a nation which has been based on expansion, and that there
was therefore just one of its 14 neighbors with which there had never been any armed conflict over the
boarder. Guess which one :-) I also read that the last time a Norwegian policy towards Russia was
formulated, it was specifically mentioned that the long term goal would be to abolish visas between Norway
and Russia altogether, and not just in the North of Norway and Russia. Although I do not think a new and
different strategy has been formulated, I fear that those plans might be postponed, but I hope that is just
temporarily. Not having to bother with a visa would be the coolest thing ever :-)


In March I went to Kiev to do a Russian course. I love Kiev. Not in the 'my heart needs to go there as often as
possible' way that I love Moscow, but it is still a place that feels like home.

At the airport in Oslo I went to the bank to see if it was possible to get some Ukrainian money, but had to wait
for almost 20 minutes. When it was finally my turn, an Asian-looking lady just swept in front of me, put her
money on the desk and started talking to the man behind the counter in rapid fire Russian. Now believing that
a random man in a Norwegian bank will understand Russian is extremely optimistic, and of course he did not
understand a word, so he kept telling her in English that she had to draw a number and she kept talking to
him in Russian. I offered to interpret, and told her that she needed to draw a number, and she answered 'But I
do not know how to read!' I understood that this made it more difficult to understand, and showed her where
the machine was, but by the time I had found out that it was not possible to get any Ukrainian money, I asked
the man in the bank if she could have my turn, so she did not have to wait for 20 minutes too, and he agreed,
so I just called her back to the counter and gave her my number. She was really grateful. I cannot even
imagine how hard it must be to live your life without knowing how to read, so I was happy to do that for her,
even if it was just a really tiny thing. Sometimes I forget how incredibly privileged I am, and forget to be
thankful for the 10 000 small things we all take for granted. That I can breathe without difficulties, walk, eat
and drink anything I want, read, dance, swim, run, that I have a home, people who love me and who I love.
That I have a job, and really nice colleagues. That I can travel. And last but not least I am incredibly grateful
for my daughters.

In Amsterdam, where we changed flights, I got the best laugh of the week. We were handing in our passports
in the passport control when the Dutch guy there suddenly started talking Norwegian to my daughter. And
what does my gorgeous, smart, very verbal and fast talking daughter say in response?: ' Aaaah'. She totally
lost the ability to say anything intelligent. For the next 10 minutes she kept repeating: 'And he was really hot, I
am such an idiot'. I tried to comfort her by pointing out that she could hardly have had a long meaningful
conversation with the guy in the passport control anyhow, and that inability to catch a chance runs in the
family. The fact that I could not stop laughing did not help though, so in the end she just laughed herself, and
said that for any grandchildren I should probably hope for her younger sister, as she was most likely only to
be able to give me grand kittens. The scene repeated itself our second day in Ukraine when a really good
looking guy started talking to her, and her response was the same. She laughed again, and said that she was
clearly totally impossible at this. In her defense, he talked to her in Ukrainian. If he had spoken Russian she
could at least have answered that she did not understand, but in Ukrainian the only thing she can say is 'fire
extinguisher', 'shoe' and a couple of swear words, which are not the easiest items to work into a conversation.

In Amsterdam I bought a book, 'Red Notice', and as you know I am a fast reader, but this book I literally
devoured. It was of 300 and some pages, and I read it in 3-4 hours. It is the story of an American who made a
vast fortune in Russia, and of his lawyer Sergey Magnitsky, who must be one of the bravest and most honest
men I have heard of. And who yet was the only man since the 9th century to be tried and found guilty in a
court of law after his death. I cannot go into details, or I risk breaching the forum rules. But I can say this:
Sergei Magnitsky was a Russian who loved his country and who believed in the law. And he payed the
ultimate price for those beliefs. It is easy to be honest when you are rewarded for being so. It is not so easy
when you get punished for it. I cannot think of anyone I respect more in the whole wide world.

It was a bit stressful on our arrival at Kiev as we were getting in past midnight, we were an hour late after
that, and I was supposed to meet two different people at the airport. One was a representative from the
school who was supposed to pick us up, and one was a person I was supposed to hand over insulin to. I
have become part of a network of Russian women in my area on Facebook. You have no idea how cool I find
that!!! They are the same women I had the 8th of March dinner with, and I am the only Norwegian, and they
obviously post in Russian only, which gives me some nice Russian exposure. One of them sent out a
message that a friend in Ukraine was in desperate need of insulin, and wondered whether anyone would be
traveling to Kiev in the near future. Since I was traveling there 5 days later, I offered my services. In Russian
:-) She immediately wanted to know how and why I was learning Russian, and claimed I had a beautiful
written Russian. So not true, I can barely write at all in Russian, but I still smiled for the next 5 hours :-)
Anyhow, we agreed that I'd bring the insulin to Kiev, and both she and her husband thanked me profusely
and said they wanted me to come over and have dinner with them, and the wife, whose specialty is Russian
philology, offered me to help me with my Russian. I swear, if my ears had not been in the way, I would have
smiled all the way around :-) Anyhow the driver from the school found us first, so I spent the next couple of
minutes looking for the other guy, with the driver being slightly puzzled that I was still looking when he had
already found me, but he understood when I handed over the medicine. Only two days later it occurred to me
that for all I knew, I might have been bringing in heroine, since I knew neither the people who had asked me
to bring it along, nor the guy who received it, but smuggling drugs from Norway to Ukraine would be the least
likely route imaginable. Now you probably understand why Norwegians are considered to be the most trusting
people in the world, though.

Arriving at the apartment, I yet again marveled at the contrast between the quality of the actual apartment
and the entrance in Kiev apartment buildings. In Norway entrances to apartments look nice, in Spain they
sometimes look like palaces, in Ukraine the three entrances I have seen all looked like all the apartments
would be condemned drug nests, but when you got into the apartment they were usually really, really nice.
We had come back to the one we had last year, which is very nice indeed, at least 5 meters up to the ceiling,
huge bedroom, great bathroom with a bathtub you could fit a whole family into, and a beautiful decor. The
entrance however could frighten a convict from Alcatraz, dark, dirty, with an elevator which must be
considerably older than me, dozens of electrical cables hanging out and a tridimensional cobweb in the
window that I have never seen the equal of. 70 by 80 by 70 cm. The Versailles of spiders. And an outer door
which more resembles a prison door, than the door of an apartment block in a fashionable part of Kiev. The
two other entrances I have seen, also in the best part of Kiev, were even worse - syringes, broken glass, and
blood stains, urine and well. Other human waist... And a beautiful flat on the inside. Strange.

On the Sunday we walked around a little in Kiev, and I showed my daughter the pictures of the heavenly
hundred on Maidan Square. It is just three minutes from our flat. The pictures already looked old and torn,
even if they were just a year old. There were two women looking at us, and obviously wondering where we
were from, but not quite daring to ask. I smiled, and said we were from Norway, and one of them looked
seriously at me and said: 'Thank you for being here', then walked away. I wish I could have told you lots of
other interesting things I did that day, which was the only free day we had in Kiev, but I am afraid I spent the
day reading up on genitive endings. Stupid, I know. But it is getting to me that I make so many mistakes.

Getting to the school, NovaMova, was like meeting old friends. This is the fourth time I am there (and the only
time I have not had a mini-disaster with my living arrangements:-), and I know all the administration staff and
most of the teachers. Both the teachers I had this time were teachers I had had before, and really liked, so
within minutes I was happily chatting with them and we were catching up on kids and men and other points of
serious concern :-) For the first time I was able to communicate with the staff in Russian. I already spoke
Russian with the teachers last time, obviously, but with the administration staff I have always spoken English,
since there is usually some problem or financial issue to sort out, but this time we spoke Russian almost all
the time. And the Director of the School, Masha claimed that this was just half a Cristina when she saw me :-)

My old teacher also complimented me, and in the next sentence she said that she saw that I had had my
tooth fixed, and that I should get some of that body shaping underwear and go to a cosmetologist, since then
I would look really great. I laughed so hard that tears run down my cheeks. In less than 20 seconds she had
said what in Norway would have been no less than three really, really tactless things. We only comment on a
person's appearance to say something nice, and often not even that, but I know she loves me and did not
mean to be the very least mean, just helpful. And then of course came the inevitable next question, which of
course also would have been a total no-no in a Norwegian cultural context: Why had I not remarried? Did I
not want to remarry?

I tried to explain to her that if I never meet anyone, that would perfectly fine, as long as my friends stopped
pushing :-). I feel so great right now, that I have a hard time imagining how my life could get any better, but I
know of a thousand ways how it could get worse. No one is hurting my daughters or me neither physically nor
emotionally. I am happy, singing, dancing, twirling around under the rays of the sunshine. I am in a good
place. And I am still not able to relate to a guy anywhere else than in my thoughts.

I tried to explain to her that I was really happy when I after 16 months had progressed enough to even be
able to notice that there was a good looking guy in front of me. That I after 20 months was able to think that I
might want a new man in my life at some point, that I now after 26 months am able to think that I might want
to go on a first date sometime. This year or the next. Or the one after that :-) And I do realize that at this pace
any new marriage might have to happen at the senior citizens' home, but hey, that could be quite romantic. I
am sure the white dress would go splendidly with my white hair :-).

She also gave me a long list of requirements: A new man should be tall, handsome, well educated, rich. I
smiled, as I felt like pointing out to her the fairly obvious fact, that this is hard enough to find when you are
young and free and beautiful. Besides, my priorities have changed. When you are young, nature has made it
so that you look for someone who will give you smart, beautiful kids. And if he can even provide for them, that
is a bonus. But I have already had the tall, dark, handsome husband with a law degree, I have had the smart
and beautiful kids, and I have had the nice little house in a good neighborhood, the fairy tale wedding and the
fairy tale honeymoon. What I did not have was the fairy tale life. So now, whenever the day comes when I
will start looking, I'll be going for someone who is kind and respectful, intelligent and with a sense of humor
and who is not a MCP. And that is as far as my requirements go. And an interest for languages, traveling or
gardening would of course be an asset as well :-)   I actually dreamed that I met someone one of the nights I
was in Kiev (I totally blame that one on my teacher). And my first question to him was :'I don't suppose you
speak any French, Spanish or Russian, do you'? He answered: 'As a matter of fact I do', and then I woke up,
so I never found out which one he spoke, and I have no notion of looks, or age or anything. As a true
language nerd I was only focusing on languages. :-)

I would not need a potential partner to be tall or handsome in order to get cute kids, I have had my kids, and I
really do not want any more. I don't need status, and I certainly do not need him to be rich. Money constituted
some of the bars of my personal prison, and I will never again voluntarily put myself in a position where that
will have the slightest influence on my life. I would literally rather starve. My teacher did not understand.

My daughter made me really proud while we were in Kiev, by the way. I am already proud that instead of
begging me to take her to somewhere warm and sandy (which God knows we could need after a long winter
with no sun - I have such a severe vitamin D-deficiency that I eat vitamins like others eat candy) she agreed
to spend not only her Easter vacation but her birthday in Ukraine, studying Russian. On our second last day
in Kiev she said enthusiastically: " Chill, tomorrow we are doing verbs!" And when your idea of a nice time in
your holiday is studying Russian verbs, you are definitely a cool cat in my eyes.:-) Most of her friends are at
ski resorts, mountain lodges or are lying on beaches in some hot place, and she is freezing her butt off in
Ukraine studying Russian grammar, and not complaining at all. She is just happy that we get to spend some
quality time together, since at home we both seem to be either working or studying all the time. I am so
blessed in that my kids still want to be with me. Many teen agers here consider their parents about as
appealing to be around as poison ivy, and the last people on the planet they want to spend any significant
amount of time with, so I really appreciate the fact that my daughters still love spending time with me. I
moved out when I was 17, and after that I always preferred to be with my friends - as is the norm here. And
since my oldest daughter will most probably be going to Mexico in the fall, and then go to university, I know
that this may be our last real mother and daughter time, and I cherish every moment of it. She does not
understand that, she thinks going to university is just a matter of changing schools, but I know that it changes
your whole mindset and focus, and although I will miss having her at home, I am so proud of the young
woman she has become, and am ready for her to start spreading her wings. I am of course terrified at the
idea of my little girl going alone to Mexico with drug lords and what not, but it is time that she gets to
experience the world, and when I was her age I wanted to go to Libya to study Arabic, so I really have
nothing to complain about. And she is working so hard now to earn enough money to go there, because
curiously enough as a volunteer you not only do not get paid, you actually have to pay for all your own
expenses plus a huge administration fee. Again, she could have chosen to go somewhere nice and relaxing
for her money, but she will go somewhere where she for 5 months will have to shower in cold water and wash
all her clothes by hand, and she chooses to do that because she wants to help children at an orphanage.
Super proud mom here :-)

In the car driving towards Zolotonosha, the little village in Ukraine where we have spent four of the last six
Easter vacations, I could not help thinking how the choices you make in your life push you in the most
unexpected directions. There are two reasons why I started learning Russian: The main one is because I
thought it would be interesting given that the Russian Railways became a member of the international
organization I work with, and I figured it would be a sign of respect. The other reason is my Ukrainian friends,
who I got to know because I worked in the EU-Commision for four months, and their oldest daughter and my
oldest daughter became best friends. The funny thing is of course that while I was in Brussels, I made lots of
acquaintances in high places, and the ones I ended up loving to death and considering family, were illegal
Ukrainian immigrants that I in the beginning had to use arms and legs and drawings to communicate with.   

In the car I sat listening to my daughter and her friend who have now known each other two thirds of their life,
chatting happily in English at the back of the car, since my daughter has forgotten the French in which they
communicated when they were first friends. I was musing over what a marvelous world we live in, where a
short term job in Brussels can lead you into the boons in Ukraine, and make you feel really safe and at home,
when everyone at home think your life is in danger. My Russian studies led me to cross Russia with the
Trans Siberian Express and on my list of things to do before I die I now have things like rafting in Siberia,
hiking on the taiga, seeing the Altai mountains, swimming in the lake Baikal, riding horses in Kazakhstan,
watching the Swan Lake at the Bolshoi Theatre, and reading Anna Karenina in Russian. Since I cannot ride a
horse and suffer from vertigo, am terrified of anything which moves fast, still have problems with my ankle
and can't read anything beyond easy readers yet, watching the Swan Lake may be the only feasible thing,
but hey, a girl is allowed to dream :-) The Russian railways becoming a member of the UIC, and us getting
acquainted with our Ukrainian friends just happened, but deciding to learn Russian was a deliberate choice I
made, which has changed my whole outlook on life and enriched my existence beyond my wildest dreams.

Driving towards Zolotonosha I felt like my life actually was in danger, by the way. Ukrainian drivers are
INSANE. Bat shit crazy. I don't particularly worry about any fighting - too far away. But as a railway man I am
used to thinking of safety all the time and above all else. Ukrainians have this 'following traffic rules is an
option'' attitude. And it is not generally an option they prefer. Bypassing five cars while a truck is driving
towards you full speed? No problem. 120 km an hour on curvy country roads with no street lights, rain and
zero visibility? Piece of cake. Having seat belts? Of course. Having seat belts which function? Whatever
for??? I just closed my eyes and prayed that whatever good and kind I have done in my life would provide me
with enough good karma to get us home safely, and thankfully we did.

I do by the way have a comprehensive notion of 'home', having had 28 addresses in my life. Home to me is
anywhere I have slept more than once for more than a few nights. So to me, the flat in Kiev is home, and the
house in Zolotonosha is home. I love that house in Zolotonosha, by the way. It has lots of space, a beautiful
big kitchen and tiled bathroom and a nice garden. My daughter's friend told me that her parents had decided
to move into a smaller flat in the winter, though, because it was getting too expensive to heat it, driving home
how difficult things are for a lot of people here. I try to teach my daughters to save energy, both for
economical and environmental reasons, but I suspect I would have been a lot better at it if the prices of
electricity had been seven times higher than just a few years ago, like it is here. At the same time the salaries
are extremely low. The sister of my hostess works shift on a coffee factory, and she makes in a year what I
make in two weeks, and I do not even have a particularly high salary. My daughter's friend makes 30 cents
an hour in her job, and even in Ukraine that does not buy you much. She has to work for four hours to buy a
drink at a disco, whereas my daughter who makes 15 dollars an hour at her job in Norway can buy a drink
and a half for that, as a drink in a disco in Norway would cost from 10 dollars and upwards. And we think that
that is really expensive. When people hear the price, they usually understand why "vorspiel", in the sense of
a party you have at home before you go out, and where you are supposed to get so wasted that the one
compulsory drink you have to buy at the disco is enough to send you over the edge, is an intrinsic part of
Norwegian culture.

Zolotonosha is unlike any other place I have ever been. To a certain extent it is like going 100 years back in
time. The American boyfriend of my daughter's Ukrainian friend said it was like going back to the 70ies. Of
course he was not born yet in the 70ies, but I who lived through that time know that both in the US and in
Norway we were considerably more advanced in the 70ies. Obviously I was not born 100 years ago either, so
perhaps we are more talking 150 years. I do not know.   Some streets do not have asphalt like I am used to.
Most of the streets in the area we live are paved with parts of concrete which have been stripped off a closed
down airfield, each part being about a couple of meters long. Driving on these is a very special experience.
And the other streets are simply made of earth. What that becomes like in heavy rain, you can just imagine.
In the centre of town there is asphalt, but there are potholes you could hide a 6 year old boy in, so you have
to drive very carefully. There are no street lights, which make walking home in the evening quite interesting.
At least you get an excellent view of the stars. I see old women working in the fields with head scarves, and
they are probably about my age or possibly a few years older, yet look like they are 90 years old. We saw
several women my age get off the bus the other day, and I thought that although Ukrainian women, along
with the Russian ones are the most beautiful in the world when they are young, by the time they hit my age
many are marked by a hard life and a lot of work. In Norway we use to joke that we stay young because of
the cold, but the cards life hands out will also have an impact. I may be grumbling and complaining about
some of the things which have happened in my life when I am down, but my life has been a walk in the park
compared to what some of these unsung heroines of the Ukrainian small villages have been through.

It is blissfully quiet here, though, the kind of quiet you rarely get anymore, which is fantastic for getting a good
rest. The dogs tend to work as an alarm clock, and the first few times that bothered me a bit as they get
really, really loud, and start really, really early, but this time they did not start until after seven in the morning,
and I was awake then anyhow. For a Norwegian city girl, life and conditions in a small Ukrainian village, is an
enormous contrast, but once again, my experience living in Spain helps bridge the gap. I have lived in a
house with no hot water, with pigs and hens and rabbits on the first floor, and us on a second floor, with the
next door house having a floor made of earth, and with donkeys and goats being driven past your door on a
daily basis. That helps you being ready for almost anything later in life. And when I step into the cold
bathroom (bathrooms generally have heated floors in Norway, so we shiver in discomfort at a cold bathroom)
instead of complaining I am just happy that there is hot water. At least warm water. Occasionally :-) Anyway,
the wonderful food and the warmth of the people makes up for anything else. I have always loved them, they
are so open and kind and generous, and the wife is a professional chef and makes the best food ever. The
first evening here we had Ukrainian varenki and delicious fried chicken and potatoes and two home made
cakes. And she apologized for it being a simple meal, saying it would be a lot more the next day. Boy, I am in
so much trouble. I am going to put on 5 kg in just this week.

When I decided to go to Kiev to study Russian for a week, I was a little uncertain as to whether it made
sense. One week is such a short time that it would hardly even have any effect. But this week has somehow
pushed me across a new threshold, where I can say most things I want, and I even occasionally get the
endings right. I still often struggle to understand what people say to me, but I'll just have to work on that by
using podcasts and watching more films for the Super Challenge. I also had my teacher identify my
pronunciation issues. I struggle with ы, ш/щ and л. The first one I can only get right when I really focus, I tend
to say a regular i-sound instead. The second one is even trickier since I struggle to hear the difference. My
teacher said that Щ is first the Ш sound and then the Ч sound, but that is actually not the case. It may be
how it originated, and it may be how it is meant to sound, but it is simply not how it is pronounced by
Russians. I forced her to pronounce a few words with that letter herself, until she had to admit that this is in
fact not how that sound is reproduced in rapid speech. To my ears it sounds like a thinner, softer version of Ш
somehow. As for the Л I have no problem hearing the difference, and I have absolutely no problems
pronouncing the two different l-sounds. We have both sounds in Norwegian as well. I do however have a
problem to remember when to use which l-sound, since that operates differently than in Norwegian, so I tend
to overuse the thin l. I'll have to get my teacher at home to drill me on those. I already walk around all day
saying 'делала, сказала, видела'. I'm allergic to bad pronunciation. I don't mind it so much in others, and in
fact I find even a quite strong Russian accent incredibly sexy, but unfortunately that is so not the case with a
Norwegian accent, it just sounds horrid, so I'll just have to keep at it until I get it right. My intonation is also all
over the place, but I am counting on that to sort itself out when my Russian gets better. It is hard to get the
intonation right when you are still searching for words, and I must probably look funny when I speak, since
when I am thinking about which case ending I should use or how to say a particular word, I tend to close my
left eye, look upwards and make a funny face, and when that happens three-four times in rapid succession in
every sentence I shudder to think of what that must look like. As for grammar, my major problem is still case
endings, and dative in particular. I asked my teacher wether I used it too much or not enough, and apparently
I do both. I use it when I should not, and I don't use it when I should. Great. One of my teachers here actually
applauded every time I by some miracle got the dative case right. Then I mix up all the personal pronouns,
across cases and genders, so it is just a lucky guess whether ей, ему, её or его comes out. And I have
deliberately not gone into the verbs yet. I tend to get the third person plural wrong, and the whole perfective/
imperfective thing I'll simply deal with later. Not to mention the verbs of motion. This week I had what I think is
the first case of me remembering a word in Russian and not in English. For some reason we were saying a
few sentences in English, when I suddenly lacked a word which I could only remember in Russian. I take that
as a good sign :-) I did however complain to my daughter's friend that all Russian teachers seem to believe
that if they just teach you a grammar rule you will never make any mistakes with that again, and that 100 new
words a day, which you hear only once, is something you can remember. She is studying French and English
at university here, and said that it was the same there, and that it was obviously impossible. I was relieved to
hear that. I have been trying to explain to all my teachers, that it is a lot better to give me ten words, repeated
ten times, than giving me a hundred new words, of which I will not remember a single one. And what really
makes smoke come out of my ears, is when they go: 'but we have already had that word' when I ask for the
meaning of a word I have seen once, 18 months ago. I am also frustrated at their belief in the magic of
grammar tables. For me they are simply a starting point. Something you look at to understand the mechanics
of it, and then you should have lots of practice and examples. Every simple time I have gone through a
grammar point, they explain the theory, we then do a few exercises, and just about the time when I
understand it we stop, when for me that is when the useful part starts. I had explained to my teacher before I
came, that I did not want any tables, I just wanted to speak, and have corrections, and whenever there was
the need for grammar explanations we could take it as we went along. She said that she thought that was a
great plan. And then the first day of the week I got a book with 200 pages of tables in my lap, while she
added happily: "And it's just tables, clean cut, no examples or extra talking or such nonsense!" Now don't get
me wrong. She is an absolutely amazing teacher and I have learned so much from her this week, but
although I am not a violent person, at that precise moment I had an image in my head of chasing her down
the street while hitting her repeatedly over the head with the 200 pages of Russian grammar tables.

I am by the way in total awe of my daughter. She has now had a total of three weeks of Russian, two in the
summer and one now, and although she refuses to say anything in Russian, she understands incredibly
much. The first evening we were in Zolotonosha, we talked in Russian 90% of the time, and she managed to
follow the conversation and understand most of what was said. She said she understood everything I said ( of
course helped by the fact that she knows my voice very well, that most of the topics are familiar to her and
that I obviously speak slower and with a simpler vocabulary), but what I found really impressive was that she
managed to follow what the others said too. Wow. I do not know what I have done to deserve daughters that
are this good at languages.

On our second day here I offered my services as second, assistant under-cook. I have to admit I had an
ulterior motive. I wanted to learn how to cook some of the delicacies that my hostess serve, and I wanted to
learn some of the kitchen vocabulary. I used to love to cook, it was my biggest hobby after languages, I used
to read cooking books in bed, but I have not done anything about it for many, many years. Living in the house
of a professional chef, was simply too good of an opportunity to miss. So I have made draniki, salad and fried
meat, wondering how it is possible to make such fantastic food with so little equipment. Everything is chipped
or worn down or half broken and yet out comes the most amazing dishes. I grated onions and potatoes on a
not very sharp grater which was 4 by 10 cm, and when you grate 2 kg of potatoes on such a tiny grater, it
feels like you are doing it for a year. She chops her own chopped meat and makes absolutely everything
from scratch. I was also eager to make a better impression in the kitchen since when we were in Belgium
she made us wonderful food all the time, and the one time I cooked it was a mini-disaster. I had invited our
friends and some of their relatives over for a combined Easter dinner and double birthday (our oldest
daughters have a nine day difference between their birthdays) and prepared all the dishes the day before, to
make sure everything would run smoothly. The only thing I needed to do was to cook spaghetti. And then it
turned out that I had prepared 6 dishes containing meat on the one day of the year when they did not eat
meat for religious reasons, so the only thing they could eat was the spaghetti. Which I then proceeded to lose
in the sink... Only time in my life that this has ever happened to me. Not exactly a smashing success.

I think I did ok now though, and it all tasted great. There were more dishes than I could even taste. In addition
to the three I made, there was home made pilemeni, fish in mustard sauce, chicken stuffed with pancakes
(yes, you did read that), liver cake and two more salads. I knew I could not hurt their feelings by just barely
touching the dishes, so I ate like I had not seen food in 9 months, (which actually comes fairly close to the
truth:-) and after that I felt like a stuffed goose. I have been getting used to really small portions, and now it
felt like I had eaten not only a football but the goal and the keeper as well.   My host kept filling up my glass of
wine, so in the end I had to tell him to stop, because if I got any more wine I'd start dancing on the table.
Really bad strategy on my part. In my defense I had already had three glasses of wine, and strategy is not my
forte under those circumstances. He just laughed and said that now things were getting interesting, and
proceeded to pour the rest of the bottle into my glass. A huge milk glass sized glass. A now full one. I could of
course have just left it, but the white wine was so delicious that I did not. I was already at home and among
friends so I figured I was safe. And there was no dancing, on the table or anywhere else, so my host was very
disappointed. I was however delighted to see that I do not have the same problem in Russian as I have in
French. When I drink alcohol I can still speak English and Spanish without any problems, but unlike most
other people, I cannot speak French. My tongue gets in a twist, and I start stumbling on the easiest of words.
It turned out that I don't have that problem in Russian :-) I do not think my Russian got any better, but as far
as I noticed, it did not get any worse either. Which is good to know.

Coming home I checked my weight, and sure enough. I had put on 4 kg. In just 10 days. My body has gotten
used to small amounts of healthy food and lots of exercise, so sitting on my butt for 10 days doing grammar
exercises and eating copious amounts of delicious Ukrainian food is not a good strategy. Oh well, I have
already managed to lose a couple of them, so I'll be rid of it in two three weeks, I hope. And it was so worth

Otherwise I noticed with relief that there is less tension here now. Last time I was here the bitterness towards
Russians was bordering on hatred. I left in August just as Russian troops were flooding over the border,
giving the separatists enough support so that they could drive back the Ukrainian forces, crushing every hope
of seeing an end to the conflict soon. Understandably everything was seen in black and white. Now, however,
things had cooled down a little, and those I spoke with expressed no animosity against Russians this time.
On the contrary, they underlined how closely connected the two peoples were, and how many family
connections they all had. My friends for instance have 75% Russian roots. A practical example of how this
situation affected people's daily life was the story of a neighbor, an old lady, who was experiencing a lot of
trouble with some people who were supposed to help her, and her son and daughter could not help her,
because they both live in Moscow and were afraid to come and visit. I do not know if they thought they would
get trouble coming in to Ukraine or going back to Russia, but in any event the little old lady is without help. I
do not think they actually would have had any trouble coming to Ukraine, but I do understand their concern. I
was less impressed by the boyfriend of a friend of mine who is a Ukrainian living in Israel, and who does not
have the guts to come and visit her in Ukraine since he believes the story that Ukraine has been taken over
by a Fascist government and is afraid to come here. When I, who am a woman, a foreigner and speaking
badly Russian have come, and bringing my daughter to boot, without feeling any fear at all, a native who will
not come here even to visit the woman he supposedly loves... well. Like I said. I am unimpressed.

I must admit I was relived that things are getting more normal, though. When I left Ukraine last time I was so
worried, that I said to my friends in Zolotonosha and both my Russian teachers that they and their families
could come and stay with me if things got rough. In practical terms we are talking about 4 families with a total
of 14 people, which of course could be a tad impractical even for me. There would however have been two
Russian teachers, one professional chef and a security guard and former policeman among them, so at least
I would have been well taught, well fed and well protected :-)

Yesterday I found the explanation for why I seemingly understand less than I speak. That is of course
impossible, your passive vocabulary will always be larger than your active one. So why does it seem like
that? My Russian teacher gave me a clue which gave me an epiphany yesterday, when she said that she had
never met anyone who was as good as me at getting around not knowing certain words, and with as good
strategies in saying what I wanted to say anyway. (She obviously never met my mom, who at her French
exam got the following feed back: "It is scary how little you know, but it is impressive how skilled you are at
using what little you know", and who operated as a guide and interpreter for the entire family when we were in
France and Spain knowing less than 100 words of each language.)

Anyhow, my epiphany went as follows: Since people understand what I say, and my accent is not too bad,
they assume I understand a lot more than I actually do, and speak both faster and at a higher level than I
have a chance to understand. Thus creating the illusion of me understanding less than I can speak. The fact
that when I passed the A2 exam, my strongest subject was listening, where I got over 90% indicates that I
cannot be that bad at it.

So, I have had a wonderful visit to Russia and a wonderful visit to Ukraine, meeting people I care about, and
learning more about both the language and the cultures, and I have lots of good memories from both,
although I made some reflections that I had so far been able to shove to the back of my mind. And all I can
say at this point is the following: God bless Russia, God bless Ukraine. And God bless us all...

Epilogue: Portugal

I have been in Portugal for three days for a meeting. I get by very well with my Spanish - either they speak
Spanish as well, or they speak Portuguese and I speak Spanish. Though it is an age thing. Over 35 and I use
Spanish. Under 35 and I'll use English. We had a useful and efficient meeting, and after the last day we were
taken around Lisbon by our Portuguese colleagues. We almost never have time for any extras, but the
connections between Oslo and Lisbon are a bit patchy, so I decided to wait for the direct flight the next day,
as did some of my colleagues. It was lovely and warm, and in the company of the three Portuguese we were
shown some of the nice corners of the city, traveling up to the hill on a quaint little tramway, having an ice
cream walking down, eating a special cake which had been made after a secret recipe since 1837 in Belen
and ending the evening in a restaurant owned by some friends of one of our colleagues. The evening before
we had been taken to an extremely posh restaurant. One of those where you have to watch that you use the
correct knife to the correct dish, and with pressed table cloths and napkins. Lovely food, but formal,
particularly since I was seated next to the Vice -CEO. He is very sweet, but he is who he is. Tonight,
however, the local neighborhood restaurant where we had dinner, was the kind with paper table cloth (great
for writing and drawing when the linguistic side got too complicated), with great food, (garlic shrimp, grilled
pork, different sorts of rice and risotto, fried potatoes, pork in red wine, grilled sardines, cheese and the best
olives I have eaten in my life) and the kind of relaxed atmosphere where everyone had their elbows and half
the body on the table, and we laughed and ate and drank and toasted and had a fantastic time. I decided to
do a Russian style toast, and made a point of doing it so early that the vino verde and the grappa had not
taken effect yet, and of saying something really nice and personal about each and one of the five others
around the table. I can't have done too badly, because my Dutch colleague said twice that it was the nicest
toast he had ever heard (he has obviously never been among Russians!). I'll do only Russian style toasts
from now on. :-)

My Portuguese colleague is not just a colleague, she is a really close friend. After having worked in this field
for so long, I obviously know lots of people, but most of them I would only categorize as acquaintances.
There are no more than 4-5 that are actual friends, but she is perhaps the closest one. She probably saved
my job the other day, when I got so mad that I literally saw red. She talked me down for half an hour while I
cried and raged over the phone. Real friends are the ones that know not only your sunny sides, but also your
dark sides, and who still love you, and she and I can tell each other everything. Having friends like that is
worth more than a million dollars.

Getting back to the hotel shortly before midnight, there was a mini-disaster going on, with our ministry having
sent us a message at 16.30 (in spite of our working hours technically finishing at 15.45,) asking for
information for that same evening, or at the very latest tomorrow at 12. Given that I had one employee in
Rome, and one on the air plane from Portugal to Oslo, I had to deal with it myself, sending off a few e-mails,
making a secret prayer that my British colleagues would not crucify me for asking them for information with
those kinds of deadlines. And that the vino verde and the grappa did not cause too many spelling errors :-)
However, I hope my colleagues and the ministry was satisfied when I saw and dealt with the question after
one o clock Norwegian time, and they had the answer the next morning at 07.25. Saved by the bell and good
international colleagues :-)

But still. I love my job. Like everyone else I sometimes get really frustrated, but on the whole I am very lucky,
being able to use my languages in my job, traveling to nice places, and being able to share a pleasant
evening, some laughs and a bottle of vino verde with the warmest and kindest of colleagues. Life is good :-)
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 Message 234 of 297
18 April 2015 at 1:10am | IP Logged 
Solfrid Cristin wrote:
showing a version of the world which breeds hatred and paranoia, so if this is what most people read[...]

This I want to believe.

Edited by mrwarper on 18 April 2015 at 1:11am

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 Message 235 of 297
19 April 2015 at 1:19am | IP Logged 
I was in Lisbon last Sunday eating the same pastéis de Belém... :D
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Solfrid Cristin
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 Message 236 of 297
19 April 2015 at 9:20am | IP Logged 
@mrwarper: Thank you for the link. Brilliant.

@expugnator: It is a small world :-)
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Solfrid Cristin
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 Message 237 of 297
03 August 2015 at 8:24pm | IP Logged 

Do you know what I would do if I had unlimited funds? I would fly Aeroflot business class everywhere I went.
Some of you may remember the bleak version from the 70ies and 80ies, but just as Russian men know how
to treat a lady, the current Aeroflot sure know how to treat their customers. Champagne, salmon, duck breast
with foie-gras all served individually as courses on a little white table cloth, and not all together on a tray as
every other company does - hmmm. This I could definitely get used to.

It was a great start to a five week stay in Russia. I am doing a four week Russian course in Moscow before I
continue to Siberia where I will have a week of vacation. With an all Russian speaking group and a Russian
guide... Right now it still feels like utter and complete madness to have said yes to that. My Russian is
nowhere near up to that, but I still have three weeks to go, so I'll just study my motion verbs, my cases and
my vocabulary like a good girl and hope for the best. I'll be going to the Lake Baikal and although I just read
that the temperature in the water at this time of the year may be as low as between 8-12 degrees, I will fulfill
my dream of swimming in the Lake Baikal. Next year I am considering whitewater rafting in Siberia, or hiking
in the Altai Mountains or on Kamchatka. And I have my eyes set on Jakutsk in January. Between now and
then all I need to do is to hit the gym for some serious work outs every day, to get into the shape of my life,
and to win the lottery to finance my travels. Piece of cake if you ask me:-)

I have a flat in the centre of Moscow, on Tverskaya street, and although we of course had some
complications getting in - it would not be me otherwise - I am really happy with it. The location is perfect: 20
minutes' walk to school, likewise to the Red Square, and it is spacious for one person. Beautiful bathroom,
modern kitchen and most modern amenities. Hot water is unfortunately not one of those amenities at the
moment, but cold showers are supposed to be good for both body and soul, so by the time I am through both
my body and my soul should be amazing:-) In Kiev last year I had no operative toilet for 5 days and cold
showers only, for a full month, so I'm not complaining. Today I was told that the entire area had had the hot
water turned off for renovation, and I will get it back on August 8th. Oh, well. I'll manage :-) For someone used
to sleeping with an open window and waking up to birdsong the noise and pollution takes some getting used
to, but with earplugs and double glazed windows I am fine.

I have so far (a week) almost used Russian only. Not terribly correct Russian, but Russian all the same. I get
my meaning through, and my comprehension covers a range between 90 % ( my teachers) down to almost
zero (very fast speaker using a French R). Liden and Denz is an amazing school, who have a Russian only
policy, and when I have spoken Russian for 6 hours a day, my head is so empty that I can hardly remember
my own name. I was very specific in my demands to the school, and they must have thought I would be very
hard to please. They have therefore given me what I suspect are the very best teachers of the school. Both
are really young, incredibly sweet but firm, and extremely competent. And they really listen to my needs, so
that instead of doing two hours of theoretical grammar and 10 minutes of exercises, they do 10 minute
chunks of grammar, which is my upper limit of how much I can absorb, and then we do lots of exercises and
a ton of speaking.

I arrived on Saturday and headed for the closest 'produkti' - food store. I think they thought that I must be very
poor, since I looked at the price tags very carefully before I selected one tomato, one cucumber, one orange
and some bread, butter, eggs, meat, yoghurt, water and cheese. Of course they could not know that I was
curious about the price differences between Moscow and Oslo, and the print on the price tags was so small
that I struggled to read it - hence the long time spent - and since my fridge just has one little shelf in addition
to space for water, I had to chose wisely in order to make sure that what I bought would fit in the fridge.

Since the summer has been pretty cool in Moscow too, I left most of my summer clothes at home, only to be
hit by almost 30 degrees on Sunday. Deciding that this would probably be my one crack at warmth and
swimming at the same time, I found a sort of beach club which was absolutely magnificent. Not quite what I
am used to though. Norwegian beaches are the most unglamorous places on earth. Everybody arrives with
their towel and their sandwiches, lie down on the grass, the sand or the "svaberg" (half way between a
mountain and a stone) and there is not an elegant dress in sight. Here there was a helicopter pad next to the
club, a long line of luxury cars outside, there were comfortable hammocks and a very nice swimming pool
with heated water, you got a huge towel, you could rent a VIP-tent which looked like something out of
Aladdin's cave, you could order food from 4 different ethnic kitchens and every cocktail known to man, and
people were super elegant with a ton of jewelry and high heels. It was a scene which would be absolutely
unimaginable in Norway. It struck me that compared to the crowd which frequented this place, I was 30 years
too old, five shades too pale, at least 10 kg overweight and my yearly income was probably 80% too low.
Fortunately I had had the foresight to put on a nice dress and shoes, since I had suspected that I was not in
Kansas anymore. This was the playing ground for the young and beautiful and the people with Rolexes which
cost more than my car. When it was new.   From a sociological point of view it was incredibly interesting
though. I suddenly understood what a friend of mine who runs a travel agency especially geared towards
Russians (his wife is Russian), meant when he told me that their main challenge was that the level of service
which their clients wanted was simply not available in Norway. We are an extremely egalitarian society
where people feel nothing but contempt for those who throw their wealth about. Consequently the few very
wealthy Norwegians there are, are generally very discrete and make sure that they cannot be distinguished
from the rest. We do have a handful of people with private planes, and who fly 30 of their closest relatives to
Mauritius to celebrate Christmas, but that handful are not enough to create a market.   

After the swimming pool I had been invited to dinner with the parents of my good friend Tania. It was
incredibly nice to see them again, and I was also happy to see them now at the beginning of my stay, so they
could see the progress that I have (hopefully) made at the end of the month. They are amazing at trying to
get me to understand, and tried every different way of explaining things. I learned a new little tidbit about
Russian culture, which is that they will generally have a little snack with - or right after - their drinks. I do not
know how I had not picked up on that before, but I guess that the fact that I drink way too little alcohol is one
of the reasons :-) We discussed traveling, and the father told me that he had been on Sakhalin Island. I
mentioned the only thing I knew about Sakhalin Island, which was that Chekhov spent a considerable amount
of time there, registering prisoners, who were otherwise pretty much forgotten by society. Apparently that is
not a well known fact here, so he said I must be wrong, as there had not been any prison on Sakhalin Island,
but I found a link which I sent, so they could see that this was not something I had made up.

On Monday school started, and I was acquainted with a really nice Swede, Marc, who I have had lunch with
ever since. 30 years old, and whose Syrian mother went to Lebanon to join a convent, and was introduced to
her best friends's fiancé who she ended up marrying. I bet her best friend did not see that one coming.
Anyway, with the situation in Lebanon at the time they ended up fleeing to Sweden where the family has lived
ever since. He's a lot of fun, and we switch between Russian, English and Swedish/Norwegian on a 2% -
96% -2 % ratio. I know it makes little sense for two Scandinavians to speak English, but we started out with it
and it sort of stuck. And his English is excellent.

I am by the way now the proud owner of not one, not two but three telephones. Two of them Russian. And I
fear that when the inevitable moment comes when my going to Russia so often raises the interest of both the
Russian FSB and the Norwegian PST (our countries' respective secret services) being in possession of two
Russian phones may be hard to explain. And that 'sheer stupidity and lack of technological insight' may not
fly with either of them, as the reason why. The thing is that I went to get a new SIM- card so that it would not
be so expensive to use my phone. While I was standing there, I realized that changing the SIM-card might be
really inconvenient, so I asked for an inexpensive phone. The sales assistant was incredibly sweet and
helped me with everything, and he even went into English since he spoke Russian so fast, and with a French
R to boot, that I did not understand what he said. Since I generally do not sign anything without reading it
carefully first, it felt incredibly scary to sign a whole contract in Russian, but since it was a standard sales
contract, I figured I just had to take a leap of faith and sign. And I was really relieved that it was a simple
NOKIA phone that I would know how to handle. Of course as soon as I came home it struck me that given
that I was intending to use the phone to surf on the Internet, having a SIM-card for smartphones would not
get me very far without an actual smartphone. So 15 minutes later I was back in the shop asking if I could
change it for a smartphone. Unfortunately the policy of the shop was to only change phones which were
broken, and since mine had not been used yet, it was obviously not broken.

I therefore had to get a second Russian phone, and since this one was a smart phone, I needed a ton of help,
and again the sales assistant was super helpful, putting in the card, setting up Facebook and Twitter and
What's up for me, and setting the date, the time and the language. I asked him if I could come back if there
was anything else I did not understand, so he let me know when he was working the following days. Really
amazing level of service.   He then asked me if he could practice his English with me, and when I said yes, he
put his name and telephone number in my phone, and called his own phone from it, so it would be easy for
us to get in touch. So I now have two Russian phones. The Norwegian PST will probably suspect me of
being a Russian agent, the Russian FSB, who know that I don't work for them, will probably assume I am a
Norwegian agent, and none of them will probably have the imagination to fathom anyone who gets as
obsessed with a language and a culture which I do.

By the time I got home, Marc invited me to go out with his Russian friend Sasha, and although it was raining
cats and dogs I went, deciding that homework could wait. Making new friends could not. His friend wanted to
take us to a coffee bar run by some friends of his. Guys that were so serious about their coffee that they
bought their coffee from Norway, (who had a supplier from Burundi) and their cups from New Zealand, just to
get the very best quality imaginable. The bar was smaller than my kitchen. And I have a tiny kitchen. Walking
there we got absolutely drenched, and the cars driving through the small rivers formally known as the streets
of Moscow, at a 100km an hour, really did not help. I love Moscow, but the one responsible for the drainage
should have been fired on the spot or forced to take an hour's walk in the city every time it rained. (I later
discovered that they had the same problem in Kazan). Apparently a lot of roads are getting upgraded, but the
drainage is not, and walking through the streets is a recipe for disaster. It reminded me of what it was like
being young, though. Lots of walking in the rain, sore feet, getting soaking wet, and lots and lots of laughter:-)

A female friend of Sasha's, Sarah, asked me where I was from, and I suggested that she could guess.
Although she had studied in Oxford, and spoke an excellent English herself, she could not place my accent,
and after suggesting American, Canadian and Australian, I said I'd give her a hint,: that I came from one of
Russia's neighbors. Given that there are only 14 of those in the world, and that my ethnicity pretty much rules
out half of them, I figured it would not be too difficult to find out. In spite of her being highly educated, she was
a doctor, she did not succeed until the others hinted about fiords. I asked her how come she did not go for
Finland or Norway, and she said I was too skinny to be a Finn. (I almost kissed her and took her with me
home :-) We then went for the best ice cream I have eaten in my life, at which point Sarah discovered that I
had the telephone number of a guy in the phone I had bought a couple of hours before. " What? I have lived
in Russia for 23 years and can't find a guy, and you have a man's telephone number in your phone 5 minutes
after you have bought it?, she exclaimed! I just laughed and said that to the best of my knowledge he was
only after my language skills, particularly given the fact that he could not be more than 30 years old. Tops.
But they claimed their version of the story was much more fun. I think my version is the correct one, though,
as we have so far exchanged a few messages in English and that's that :-) She commented - like so many
have lately - that I looked Russian, and said that the only thing that identified me as non-Russian was my
smile. For some reason I have had a lot of comments on my smile while I have been here. I guess that since I
am so happy I go around smiling even more than I usually do, which gets noticed.

On Thursday I went to bunker 42, which is the Cold War museum. The school secretary claimed that I was
better off listening to it in Russian, since the guides' accent in English was generally pretty bad, so I accepted,
though I regretted that choice later. When I got to the museum I regretted going there at all, since it was only
then that I realized that it was 65 meters under the surface. Now, I have a really bad case of claustrophobia,
and have been dragged screaming and sobbing out of silver mines, railway tunnels and other structures
under the surface more than once, so I have actively avoided going anywhere near any such structures for
the last 20 year or so, but since Moscow cured me of my vertigo the last time I was here, I decided to see if it
could fix my claustrophobia this time. As the guide started talking I realized two things. 1. He was really cute,
so cute that I discretely checked out whether he was wearing a wedding ring. 2. I would have no chance in
hell following what he was saying in Russian. The rest of the group was Russian, and he talked at what
seemed like 200 km an hour, but which was probably just normal native Russian speed. We then walked
down 65 meters into the abyss - with me feeling that I was descending to Hell -musky smell and all - and
focusing on breathing and not hyperventilating. Even if I understood little of what he said, it was interesting to
see what it was like, and I was relieved to see that even during the Cold War, none of the targets indicated on
the map were located in Norway. I think the one new thing I learned there, was about the Cuba crisis. We all
know the story: The Russians placed missiles on Cuba. Kennedy threatened full war, and the Russians
withdrew the missiles. I had always vaguely wondered why they did that in the first place, and on Thursday I
got the answer. It turns out that the Americans had placed missiles on bases in Turkey, with could reach
Moscow in half the time any Russian missiles could reach the US. Krutchov understandably got quite cranky,
and made a deal with Castro. And yes, the Russians withdrew their missiles from Cuba, but the Americans
also withdrew their missiles from Turkey. Even though I am quite interested in history, that was news to me,
but when I discussed it with Marc the next day, he already knew, so I guess some historians were aware of it.
Gave me a new perspective though. And underlined that there are always two sides to every story.

It was damp and musty, and the guide explained how ventilation was one of the major challenges, and how it
was so damp that there were several pumps to get the water away. Towards the end of the visit he ordered
us into a tunnel and when we were well into it, he turned off the lights, and alarms and angry voices over the
loud speaker came on. I thought I would have a heart attack, I was so scared that my heart raced at what felt
like super human speed, but then I closed my eyes, reminded myself that this was just a prank, and
managed to keep my cool.

On the way out he offered to bring the three ladies out by the small lift with room for four (Russian men are
unfailing gentlemen), but one of the ladies insisted of bringing three more guys as well, so all in all we were
seven as the lift started towards the surface. At this point I actually started praying. I am not good with lifts at
the best of times, this underground lift scared me to death, and the idea of putting in tialmost twice the people
it was intended for, increasing the chance of a stop, made me really uncomfortable. We got out all right
though, but I have never been happier to leave a lift.

And I know the question at the tip of your tongue :-) Did the guide have a wedding ring? Nope. Did I act on
that information? No. Too much of a chicken:-)

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 Message 238 of 297
03 August 2015 at 10:13pm | IP Logged 
Between now and then all I need to do is to hit the gym for some serious work outs every day, to get into the shape of my life, and to win the lottery to finance my travels. Piece of cake if you ask me:-)[

Those are good goals, and mine too! But so far, the only one I am really good at is getting cake.

It's fun to read about a part of the world I've never seen. You descriptions give me wanderlust!

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Solfrid Cristin
Winner TAC 2011 & 2012
Senior Member
Joined 3734 days ago

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Studies: Russian

 Message 239 of 297
04 August 2015 at 4:38am | IP Logged 
meramarina wrote:
Between now and then all I need to do is to hit the gym for some serious
work outs every day, to get into the shape of my life, and to win the lottery to finance my travels. Piece of
cake if you ask me:-)[

Those are good goals, and mine too! But so far, the only one I am really good at is getting cake.

It's fun to read about a part of the world I've never seen. You descriptions give me wanderlust!

If you liked this, you will probably like even more my tales from Tatarstan which come next :-)
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Russian Federation
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 Message 240 of 297
04 August 2015 at 9:12am | IP Logged 
Being from Tatarstan myself, I can't help wondering: which cities are you going to visit?

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