From Russia With Love: Part 1

The first in a three part series following MML student ALEX BOWER’s trip to Russia. His conclusion: “travelling is shit.”

a level physics aladdin Alex Bower Babushka food manners Men mml russia Russian russian politics tea year abroad

This Easter, Alex Bower embarked upon a language course in Moscow, in an attempt to pass his Russian oral exams, which he recently realised are “very fucking close.” Next year, he’ll be living there for his year abroad.

Follow his week-long diary with The Tab over the next three weeks…


It’s early. I’m tired. Travelling is shit.

There is a ridiculous queue for entry into Russia. Anyone who is not white is given a lengthy interview by a stocky visa official. My transfer driver is completely lost. There are lots of old Soviet cars adrift in the snow. This is an interesting metaphor for Russia.

A long car journey later, I find myself standing outside the door of the lady I will be staying with. I ring the doorbell. I am confronted by a short, fat woman wearing a black, one-piece, Adidas tracksuit. Her lank, greasy hair is hanging limply down one side of her face in a sticky brown mess, and she is balding. She introduces herself as Liobov, which means ‘love’.

She opens her mouth. Her top two teeth are at right angles to each other, and every single tooth is surrounded by a deep black soup, which contrasts with the pallid brownness of the rest of her gums in a dysphoria of colour and, as hits me next, smell. As she steps forward, I notice her sallow, pockmarked skin, which is only highlighted by the dim, yellow light that hangs flaccidly from the ceiling by a single white cable. I’m shitting myself. It feels like a scene from a cheap horror movie, and I’m walking right into it.

I make my first blunder by offering to shake hands over the threshold of the doorway. She refuses. This is apparently considered bad luck in superstitious Russia. I step inside and try again. Once again, I am rebuffed, as I haven’t brought my bag inside. Only after fetching it, putting it down, and unpacking half of it am I permitted to shake her hand. It feels like sandpaper in a vice. My hand returns, pumiced and almost certainly bleeding.

Later that evening, I accidentally make babushka cry when I ask about her husband (dead), and her dog (died yesterday). She spends the night pouring over old photographs in tears. I then make it worse by trying to be friendly, saying: “Call me Sasha.” Sasha is Russian for Alex. She replies: “But my husband’s name was Sasha.” Awkward.


I wake up at 7am. A cat is clawing my face. Unless this cat can open doors, she released it on me. So far, so good.

Relations with babushka improve over a nice cup of tea, and a discussion about how evil immigrants are. Turns out, I am much better at discussing Russian politics than making small talk. Fortunately, she’s one of about five Russians who aren’t in love with Putin, so we can bond over that. And she’s an engineer. I did A level Physics. Destiny.

The food is typically gash. Where is the fruit? Where are the vegetables? That’s not a fucking salad: that’s some sliced up carrot. At dinner, I order what I think is chicken and rice. Turns out it is actually chicken feet and rice. I think I ate some claw. Moscow is fucking expensive. It cost me £5 for a canteen style lunch today. And, I passively inhaled enough smoke to have developed a cough-cum-sexy-voice, but also some form of oesophageal complaint. I’m knackered. And the fact that it’s still snowing in March isn’t improving my mood.


Relations with babushka have taken a great leap forward. This morning, she was annoyed with me because I didn’t eat slimy macaroni with cheese and a semi-boiled egg. But, she is now satisfied because we shared a hilarious anecdote about how she forgot her keys and I laughed. I think I’ve perfected the art of pretending to be engaged in a conversation with someone in Russia without comprehending the words they are saying.

I drink a cup of tea, which I accidentally fill with two teaspoonfuls of salt instead of sugar, while pretending to be engaged in some incomprehensible conversation about tennis. I think her son is a tennis coach. Either that, or he’s shagging the Russian number one. Not sure which. When the conversation inevitably dries up, she intermittently breaks the silence by telling me she hates all men, forcing me to drink the seawater tea. I have never been so conscious of the fact that I am a man.

Preceding this sorry state of affairs, we went into a Caucasian restaurant for dinner. Some traditional music and dancing happened. It’s hard to eat and converse when an aggressively attractive Caucasian woman is writhing her perfectly toned stomach in your face. The girls were less keen, and were yet less keen on the cloakroom man, who dressed himself in a costume that had clearly been taken straight out of a politically incorrect Aladdin pantomime, insisted on dressing them whilst smelling their hair. He was strangely less keen to dress me when I asked him to. What’s wrong with my hair?

What will the evil cat get up to next? Will Babushka ever get over her hatred of men? Find out next week.