Keeping Tabs: A year abroad in Russia

Aliza Dee’s first column on moonshine, mushrooms and misleading vocab lessons


безлюдная глушь: sparsely populated place in the middle of nowhere [Hilary, Wk.8]

The vocabulary I learnt through the Oxford Ab Initio course lead me to believe that I’d be spending my year abroad in a provincial village in the depths of Siberia, surviving off a purely cabbage diet and fishing through a carefully chiselled hole in the ice.

столкнувшись с жизнью крестьян: having encountered the life of the peasantry [Hilary, Wk.3]

It turns out that  Yaroslavl is larger than envisaged, the Volga is not (yet) frozen… and, there’s occasionally potato, or mystery meat, accompanying said cabbage. A far cry from poverty, my babushka and flatmate, Tatiana, has relinquished the master (and only) bedroom in the flat to me. Since the heating has come on, the gentle gusts from the balcony provide not only a nostalgic reminder of college accommodation, but also an icy respite from the Hades’s furnace raging in the flat.

Carpet belongs on the bed/floor/walls alike in Russia.

шапка набекрень: the hat is tilted, askew, to one side [Michaelmas, Wk.8]

The idea that one might ever be permitted to leave the apartment in any such haphazard fashion is laughable. Less than 20°C necessitates a down-jacket. Damp hair and you may as well go play in the traffic (a threat which carries a lot more weight in Russia), and hats are utterly worthless if not at least 12 ply thick.

Заикаться: to stammer [Michaelmas, Wk.7]

Stammering one’s way through a variety of unfortunate situations is the single largest pastime of any Year Abroad student. Whilst the Oxford course instilled in us a lot of spectacularly niche vocabulary it didn’t stop us staring blankly at a Russian news reporter as he attempted to get a pre-match opinion from us (making up at least 95% of the total females in the crowd) at a Yaroslavl Shinnick/Dinamo Moscow football game; quote, “DO YOU SPEAK FUCKING RUSSIAN LANGUAGE?” No, apparently we don’t.

Blood from a stone

Presumably we’re now a minor Russian internet phenomenon.

медведь: bear (male), медведица: bear (female), медвежонок: little bear [Michaelmas, Wk.6]

It seemed an unnecessary perpetuation of national stereotypes to make a gaggle of impressionable freshers learn three words for ‘bear’ in one week. As much as I would like to reproach such an abominable ethnic slur, the current bear count stands at: one live, one museum, one mascot.

The Ultimate Stereotype: Yaroslavl keeps a town bear… called Masha… in a cage.

Bare bears

Bear with me: the Yaroslavl hockey team mascot

хоккей: hockey [Michaelmas, Wk.1]

Ice, legal fights and serious eurotrash blaring, unsurprisingly, hockey is Russia’s national sport.

Nice hat

Apparently “intelligent sports fans” support hockey, and so I can only imagine (one day I might actually get round to learning to speak the fucking Russian language) the creativity that went into what appeared to be casually racist comments hurled at the opposition’s players on the rare occasion they dared to skate near this superfan.

мариновать грибы: to marinate mushrooms [Michaelmas, Wk.8]

Mushrooms, another integral part of the Russian psyche. In the past three weeks I’ve endured more mushrooms than a culmination of the previous three years; mushroom soup, fried mushrooms, potato with mushrooms, “mushrooms for your friends”, “mushrooms for your enemies”, roasted mushrooms, stewed mushrooms, white mushrooms, grey mushrooms…

Delicious AND nutritious

Contrary to popular belief, such idolisation of The Mushroom is far from limited to the elder generations. Utter disbelief resonated in the voices of two twenty-somethings as they asked “Wait, you don’t have a word for грибник in English?” It appears that the most apt translation of this word is ‘mushroom-hunter’, an honourable and laudable  profession in Russia.

самогонщик: maker of home-distilled spirit, moonshine [Trinity, Wk.5]

Evidently this inclusion on the vocab list was a weak attempt from the Oxford tutors to combat 5th week blues. For no one could require a home-distillery when The Vodka Aisle in the local supermarket could fuel a small Russian city, or one large addiction, through an apocalypse or similar.

It would be criminal not to indulge in £8/litre vodka.

The appearance of водка [vodka] on the 1st reading list, and вода [water] not till the 5th has equally been justified since arrival in Russia. You can’t drink water from the tap, whereas vodka’s available on tap. Amongst the delightful vodka-based concoctions on offer in Yaroslavl is the ‘ай-99’. Don’t be fooled by its uncanny resemblance to the much sought-after Balliol Blue, it’s named after petrol.

Every hour is happy hour

Another favourite is the ‘Ярославская собака’ [Yaroslavl Dog], a delicious creation consisting of a “shot” (minimum 50ml) of Yaroslavl’s cheapest vodka, fresh lemon and Tabasco. Yet unclear which ingredient is supposed to mask which.

многоточие: ellipsis, suspension points, … [Trinity, Wk.2]

Because it wouldn’t truly be a good column without ending on such tension-inducing climactic punctuation…