Sunday, March 6, 2011

Take Care How You Say Things in Tajikistan

Language was always a battle during my time in Russia and I attribute my proficiency at charades to my incompetence at speaking Russian. By the time I left, I was quite adept at flapping my arms to convey meaning when my linguistic abilities had failed me.

I have already written about wrong footing a travel agent who thought she knew it all by demanding a ticket across the Black Sea by spoon, but there were times when speaking English unwittingly caused greater hilarity, such as my first trip to Tajikistan.

Flying to Tajikistan was a real buzz. I had no real idea where it was, except that it was an outpost and not many people went there. It sounded hot, dry and vaguely exotic and the recent (ongoing?) civil war appealed to my sense of adventure. This was 1993 and post-Soviet Tajikistan was anything but peaceful.

The aid organisation I was working for, Care International, was active in all the former Soviet republics. It was a fascinating time on so many levels, but on a human level, seeing how people who were forced to readjust to the harsh new reality of a society in chaos with a social safety net taken away overnight, was harrowing at times.

The benefits to my employers were obvious: highly skilled, fluent English speakers available in abundance. It was not a question of taking advantage, in many cases the agency jobs were the only show in town paying hard cash, but it led to surreal situations where my driver was a nuclear physicist by profession, my translator a surgeon.

They were patient with my attempts at speaking Russian, and I always knew that I could revert to English if things became difficult, which was a total contrast to my linguistic experience on my trip to the office in Tajikistan, where I was seconded for a week on a fact-finding mission for HQ.

The staff were excellent, extremely hospitable and keen to show me as much as they could of their beautiful country. The level of English, however, was far inferior from the levels I had been accustomed to in Russia, understandably so, given the lack of opportunity to converse with native English speakers.

It was not a problem and we got through the week with a combination of my bad Russian, their (better) English and some of my legendary arm flapping, but it struck me as odd that they always talked about the agency not as Care, but Ka-ray. It was a strange pronunciation, which I put down to their distance from the mother ship, and I did not feel I should jump in and question or correct them. I wish I had done.

On the second day, we entered some official's office for a meeting. It was the usual story - big desk, three telephones of different colours and levels of importance. There were three officials and I strode confidently in, addressing them in my best Russian:

"Hello, I am Paul from Care International. Pleased to meet you," before thrusting my hand forward to the nearest official. They all stared at me, before stifling laughter as best they could. I looked to my Tajik colleague, who had reddened and was averting his eyes.

Confusion reigned and I got the meeting back on track and, as we walked the short distance back to the office in searing heat, I asked my colleague what had been so funny. "It, I... We not say Care here. We say Ka-ray. Reason we say Ka-ray, Care in Tajikistan mean man private thing." Arm flapping aiding the explanation, all became clear, and I learned that day that any embarrassment at trying to cross the Black Sea by spoon in Russian is easily surpassed when striding into a room in Dushanbe and confidently exclaiming:

"Hello, I am Paul from Penis International. Pleased to meet you."


One of the many things I appreciate about writing at Suite 101 is the wealth of diversity and experience of the thousands of writers on the site. There is an expert on every subject, a writer seemingly in every country on the planet.

Thinking that my linguistic faux pax may not be an isolated case, I posted on the forum to see if there were any other amusing foreign language double entrendres. There were some entertaining replies, my favourites being (in their own words):

Martin P. Wilson, FW for Reference Books: When GEC Plessey Telecoms started calling themselves GPT they could not use it in France as Je petai (think that is how it is spelt) means I fart (break wind) and sounds much the same. GPT chairman faced a lot of sniggering first time he went to France after the name change and used the new name, have that from a friend who was a Director at the time.

Carol Finch, FW for Retirement Planning: Denmark produces a range of sweets called Spunk. That caused huge hilarity with the male students I studied with. They may have been old enough to vote but found nothing funnier than asking for a bag of spunk in a shop....

Tony Durrell, FW for Latin American History: I won a bag of rice and a jar of Peruvian Fanny jam at my local shop's Christmas raffle. I do happen to have a fresh jar of Fanny jam in my fridge, as well as a squeezy bottle of Fanny mustard (I ate my Fanny tuna last night).

James Hutchinson, FW for Business Profiles:There was an old movie in which a young bride expresses her love for a lace cap which she calls her 'little Dutch cap.' Unfortunately, 'dutch cap' is British slang for a diaphragm, so lines like "I'm so glad to be here in my wedding dress and my little Dutch cap" brought on unrelieved snickering from rude audiences throughout England's green and pleasant land.

Mushroom Picking, Naked Saunas and Vodka Exchange Rates: Life in the Russian Countryside

One of the major benefits of growing up in a Western city is the seemingly unlimited availability of everything, with a choice of food that is obscene. I fondly remember a Russian friend's first visit to Sainsbury's, as she stared incredulously at the potato section.

"There are TEN different types of potato! Why so many? In Russia, a potato is a potato."

"Until it becomes vodka," I replied.

One of the major disadvantages of growing up in a Western city is the disassociation at birth from the ways of Mother Nature. Coming from a culture where 'fresh' tomatoes, pineapples and kiwi are available all year, it was perhaps not surprising to hear the musings of a fellow expat on my idyllic Croatian island:

"There don't seem to be any tomatoes. They have been really hard to find since the Summer. I wonder why?"

Russian Cultural Experiences - In Search of the Perfect Mushroom

My culinary inadequacies were perhaps most lastingly highlighted in my psyche by the withering look of a six-year old Russian girl, whose total contempt at my triumphant find of my first Russian mushroom, in a forest north of St. Petersburg, informed me there was a massive void in knowledge on how things grow:

"Those are poisonous. Everyone knows that." I will try anything once (although the dog kebab in Seoul and the rat cutlet in Guyana are not top of my list for repeats), but it took more than the usual ration of distilled potato to convince me that I really wanted to spend my first free weekend in weeks trekking round a monastery as a prelude to the main event - the Russian national pastime of mushroom picking.

A whole morning was allocated to the event, which consisted of wandering through the forest, scouring the ground for mushrooms. I stopped listening at that point, but Fiona, my partner in crime in this Russian adventure, sat politely through a detailed explanation on the subtleties of mushroom picking.

Although not keen, we entered into the spirit of things and set off enthusiastically into the woods, wondering once again how we ended up in situations like this. We were eight in total, aged from six to sixty, and attacked the forest as if de-mining it, or as part of a forensics team: each had his own patch and progress was slow, cautious and focused.

Fiona and I were the crappest mushroom pickers ever seen in the region, and a little like the incident with the milkless American cows, the locals looked at us with curiosity - if these two were the pride of the West, perhaps Communism and the Soviet Union weren't so bad after all?

As the rest of the team picked up numerous mushrooms, we were lagging behind until Fiona and I had a simultaneous find - two juicy mushrooms! We screamed out joyously, announcing our find. Whether to humour or encourage us, I am not sure, but the whole posse headed in our direction to celebrate our find, and we watched as each cheerful face turned incredulous that we could have interrupted their sport for such an obviously poisonous mushroom. Westerners!

Russian Cultural Experiences - The Weekend Dacha Visit

We were on a mission and decided to avail ourselves of every opportunity to acquaint ourselves with the earthy nature of Mother Russia, so when we were invited to spend the weekend at a friend's dacha, some 80km south of Petersburg, we jumped at the chance.

Asking what we needed to bring, we were told to bring as many half litre bottles of vodka as we could carry, not for drinking (well not all of it), for vodka was gorodski dyengi, or 'city money' - we were soon to find out why.

As Volodya's battered pale blue Lada took more punishment on the final approach on a rough road to the hamlet where they had bought a dacha, Natasha took great delight in pointing out the various local landmarks - fruit and vegetable related of course. Cranberries were divine in that forest, the mushrooms should be ready over there and so on. She was looking forward to all the potatoes and apples they would be returning with. That sounded like hard work to us, for even I, with my city background, had worked out that kilos of apples and potatoes don't magically appear in sacks.

I needn't have worried. Within minutes of our arrival at the decidedly rustic two-storey wooden house, there was a grunt from outside. Volodya disappeared with a bottle of city money, chatted with the grunter and reappeared with the bottle. He had just negotiated the purchase of twenty kilos of potatoes and had shown the seller that the currency was genuine. Volodya had learned from experience that paying in advance in these situations adversely affected delivery.

Russian Cultural Experiences - The Russian Sauna

More grunters appeared and were dispatched to different parts of the surrounding countryside, while Volodya was focusing on what was for him the main event of the weekend, our private banya, or Russian sauna.

We found the little hamlet enchanting, with its full-time population of two old ladies, abandoned by the young who had left long ago for life in the city. Volodya's pride and joy was the banya he had built behind his house, and it quickly dawned on us both that the real reason for the weekend invitation was so that he and Fiona could spend some time in the sauna.

We had heard about the Russian banya, with its birch tree branches immersed in hot water before being used to lightly beat the body in what was allegedly a very enjoyable and therapeutic experience. Fiona and I were debating the etiquette of the Russian banya - girls first, boys second, or all together, in which case what to wear? - when any further questions were pre-empted by our hosts, who both stripped naked and then invited us to do the same, with Volodya's gaze firmly fixed on my friend.

We looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and went native, and within seconds found ourselves sat in surreal naked sweltering silence in the sauna, which was very hot indeed. "Who's first?" enquired Volodya.

"Paul", answered Fiona, before asking what was on the agenda. I was told to lie down on the wooden bench, while Fiona was invited to choose some birch branches which had been quietly soaking in hot water in the corner. Under Volodya's keen instruction, she then proceeded to beat me from my neck down.

This was my first banya, in July, and an experience I will never forget, but for an added twist, a banya in a Siberian winter is worth the effort. Having been beaten with the birch branches in the heat of the sauna, my colleagues then tossed me stark naked out into the snow and, for twenty seconds - no more - the feeling of rolling around naked in the snow in temperatures of minus twenty after the intense heat, was exquisite. By second twenty-one, the body told me it was time to beat a hasty retreat to the salt fish and beer inside.

Russian Cultural Experiences - Home Delivery Service

Having survived Volodya's attentions, we dressed and returned to the house, to find two huge sacks of apples, 40kg in all, by the front door, with an anxious-looking peasant looking for his payment. Our host disappeared into the house and fetched four half litres of city money.

And here's an interesting cultural difference between home delivery in the UK and the Russian countryside: ordering for home delivery is a simple process - order placed by phone, deliveryman paid on delivery, end of transaction, except in Russia, where the deliveryman was so desperate to cash in that he simply opened the first bottle and settled in to a solo session in our front garden.

We left him to it and he was still there the next morning. He was not alone. We were woken at 3am by another grunter, who had stolen 20kg of potatoes from a farm 10km away, hauled his illicit cache through the forest and demanded instant payment and gratification. The front garden was a war zone in the morning.

I thoroughly enjoyed my forays into Russian nature, and I often raise a smile, as I pick up my nicely packed mushrooms or choose from a variety of potatoes at the supermarket. You get what you pay for but Sainsbury's is quite handy, isn't it?

International Women's Day in Russia and Somalia: How Not to Get the GIrl

For anyone looking for an undiscovered niche market, I can confirm that there is an opportunity to open a florist's in Bosaso, the capital of Puntland in north-eastern Somalia. Business might be slow most of the year, and the lack of flowers in the region might prove a slight constraint, but sales are guaranteed for International Women's Day.

More of Puntland in a minute, but I first became aware of the cultural importance of March 8 while working as an aid worker in Russia. As a Brit, I was vaguely aware of the occasion, although I had no idea when it was or how seriously it was taken. That all changed on March 8, 1993 in the Ural Mountains.

There was an air of expectancy in the office as my American boss Jeff and I entered, but I thought nothing more of it, or the fact that there seemed to be quite a lot of flowers in the secretary's office; perhaps it was her birthday? No came the reply when I asked my Russian friend George, today was International Women's Day, did I not know?

I forgot about it until the end of the working day, as the female staff clocked off and looked at us rather accusingly. I had no idea what we had done wrong, but it was obvious they were not happy with us.

"So what are you doing for Women's Day?" asked George, after the last lady from admin left. "They were expecting something! Come on, this is March 8 in Russia!"

Jeff and I looked at each other blankly and then at George, who explained that this was the day when women are appreciated by their male counterparts, especially their bosses, and especially their foreign bosses.

It was time to find a florist.

Looking for flowers in Russia in the early evening of March 8 is a little like looking for a turkey on Christmas Eve - you either find a real bargain or you go hungry. Luck was not with us for more than an hour as we scoured known floral haunts until finally, we came across the last bunch in the final shop we knew. A rather sad bunch, but a bunch all the same. Convincing each other that it was the thought that would supercede all else, we thought we would begin with Masha, the cutest of the office girls.

Her joy at seeing these two foreign knights arriving unannounced at her door was only mildly tempered by the withering offering in their hands, but it was clear over the welcoming vodka that we had saved the day. We were both lost in her pale blue eyes and could have stayed a month, but we had three more girls to find, and we were not sure that the flowers would live that long.

"Masha, it has been great to finally visit your apartment, and Happy International Women's Day once again," said Jeff, who was gearing up for a reluctant exit. Masha's beaming smile was a joy to behold. "We better get moving and take these flowers to Marina - she's next on our list."

How to lose a beaming smile and watch luscious pale blue eyes turn to stone in one sentence.

Lesson learned for next time. One bunch per lady, no sharing.

Nine years later, the evening of March 7 found me under armed guard in a compound with four Kenyan colleagues in Somalia, with Wanjiru being the only female. Conversation somehow turned to marital rape and I sat there in shock as the guys openly discussed this within the African context, stating quite categorically that there was no such thing as marital rape in the African context, for if a man could not have his wife when he wanted, what was the point in giving all those goats as a dowry.

I could see Wanjiru was uncomfortable with the conversation so I tried to steer it in another direction by asking if International Women's Day was celebrated much in Kenya. Her eyes brightened and she told me that it was a big day in Kenya and, although she was locked up in this hole of a compound in remotest Somalia, she knew that at least one of these marital non-rapists would have made special provision. Jovial murmurings of assent led me to believe that something was in the works.

The big day came. No flowers.

The boys came up with macho excuses as to why they had not provided, but it was clear that Wanjiru was crushed. I was crushed for her and determined to get her some flowers, whatever it took.

My initial research was not encouraging. Three local staff members laughed when I asked them where I could buy flowers in Bosaso. It must be possible surely? Their mockery only strengthened my resolve, and I asked the office administrator if I could borrow a car to find a bunch. He laughed too, but succumbed when I pestered him.

'Borrowing a car' in Puntland was a little more complicated than simply hopping in a jeep. As I was not allowed to drive, I required a driver, reassuringly known as Arafat, keffiyah and all. My pink skin was valuable to would-be kidnappers, so out came the armed guard as well, for I was forbidden to leave the building without one. I thought back to Masha and knew how proud she would be at my efforts all these years later.

"Where to, boss?" enquired Arafat.

I explained my mission and he laughed. Loudly. There were no flowers in this town. I told him to drive to the market, then another, then another. In this dusty, coastal desert town, flowers seemed indeed impossible to come by, but I couldn't let Wanjiru down. I told them to drive around and see if we could spot something.

And there it was.

Crawling up the wall of (and perhaps my memory is playing tricks with the nationality) the private residence of the Dutch consul was the most attractive pink bougainvillea I had ever seen. Flowers! I bade Arafat stop the car, explain our plight to the guard at the gate and beg a few cuttings for the deserving damsel back at HQ. The guard went inside, was granted permission, and reappeared with a knife and one of the ubiquitous blue plastic bags that blight Somali towns.

Within minutes, we were homeward bound. A triumph! The local staff were clearly impressed as I appeared with my plastic bag offering. I wasn't really sure how to package the bougainvillea, so decided to leave it as is, working on the premise of nine years ago that it was the thought that really mattered. She had her back to me, deep in some auditing spreadsheet.

"Wanjiru." Grunt. "Wanjiru, Happy International Women's Day." She stopped and began to turn and I could see a smile appearing. The guys had come good!

Until she turned and saw her prize. She looked at the bag, looked at me, turned back to her spreadsheet and muttered:

"Is that really the best you can do?"

Why Don't American Cows Give Milk?

There are moments in travel when you find yourself in positions where there are no answers, moments where you question how you managed to get into such a position from such an innocent chain of events. From the puzzled expressions on the four rugged peasant faces in front of me, eagerly awaiting answers to a genuine question I realised that one such moment had arrived.

I had been in the Urals just over a week. It was February, minus thirty and all I had was a raincoat and a fake Russian hat, but I was comfortable enough in my new home, a room on the fifth floor of the former Communist Party headquarters, with the office at the end of the corridor. I had signed contract for six months to work for a humanitarian aid agency, working as a field monitor on a project distributing milk powder to needy groups.

There was a definite shortage of fresh milk in the area, due both to the economic crisis in early 1993, as well as the terrible environmental and health cost on the population in the Russian industrial heartland. An estimated 70% of women were unable to lactate, according to local health officials. In its efforts to support the fledgling democracy in the post-Soviet era, the American government had initiated various food aid distribution projects, of which this distribution of milk powder was one of the more successful.

Its success did not mean that there were not occasional exceptions, as the looks on the four faces in front of me demonstrated.

One of the accusations levelled against aid is the lack of accountability, where aid is given almost blindly and some of it stolen or not controlled. Having run a project in Rwanda in 1995, where I became the grateful recipient of a consignment of vegetable seeds (a tax write-off for a major US firm), all 1.5 million sachets of them, I can confirm that accountability is high on the agencies' agenda; having received the consignment, I eagerly opened the waybill to find out what we had been sent, only to find a one line entry:

Packets of seed. Quantity 1.5 million.

I can personally attest to the accountability of the project, having to hire 15 non-English speaking casual labourers for almost three weeks to play match the picture, as tomatoes were sorted from sprouts and so on. It was only when I came across white and orange carrots in the same box post-sorting that I realised we weren't going to get a perfect result - I guess it wasn't obvious to someone without English that there were some parsnips in there.

But we got there finally. Quite how much use 8,000 sachets of catnip seed and an untold amount of ornamental gourd seed actually was in the reconstruction effort was open to debate, but the Thai wife of my boss was delighted to get a few sachets of pak choi on the house.

I digress. With accountability all-important and pressure on the social welfare administration due to the collapse of pensions and benefits, the local political gain to be won by diverting some of this lucrative American aid was significant. It was decided that the milk powder would be targeted to three groups: pregnant women, large families (three children minimum) and children under three.

The responsibility for compiling the lists lay with the overworked local social welfare office. Databases with this information simply did not exist and so most of it had to be compiled from scratch, which was clearly open to abuse. As a safeguard, the agency employed people to, amongst other tasks, do random pre-checks of 2% of the lists to establish their accuracy. If there were several errors, the lists were returned and redone (and then rechecked), with the town excluded from the programme if the lists were not forthcoming.

The last time I was a Milk Monitor was at prep school I reflected, as we headed West, crossing into Europe for the day (the official Asia-Europe border is about 40km West of Yekaterinburg, and there is a sign to mark the border. It was cold in the Lada, but not as savage as the great outdoors - I really would have to get a coat.

The sea of white was enchanting though and I sat back and relaxed as my driver Mansur smoked his way to our first stop, some village where I was assured no foreigner had ever ventured. After an hour we reach our destination, a single dirt (frozen mud) track with pretty low-level wooden houses on either side, perhaps fifteen in all, a colourful array of pinks, blues and yellows to offset the ubiquitous white.

Our destination was the pink house of Mikhail Ivanovic Bludov, supposedly inhabited by one of the two large families in the village. Mansur opened the outer gate to reveal a filthy courtyard with five cows milling around, cows obviously belonging to the Bludov family. Hmmm.

We knocked, and a one-toothed older man opened, showing remarkably little surprise at a bearded foreigner at his door and bade us come in before he had asked what we wanted. I got as far as explaining in Russian that I was a British representative of an American aid organisation and...

"You are American? Wonderful! We must have some vodka! I want to hear all about Dallas." And before I could attempt a refusal three healthy tumblers were being poured. His wife entered and was immediately sent into the kitchen to prepare a healthy plate of rabbit pelmeni, a Russian dumpling akin to ravioli. A couple of neighbours were rounded up for the entertainment, as I was quizzed on how many cars and ex-wives I had.

There were fascinated by all things American and my protestations of my Britishness cut no ice. I was as American as the winter was long. It was all one-way traffic and by bottle number three I was beginning to wonder if I would get out alive, still struggling to find a hook on which to anchor a strategy of escape. One of the neighbours had been a little quieter than the rest, suspicious of this foreign intrusion and the reasons behind it.

"This is all very interesting, but why are you actually here?" Finally a chance to explain! I told them all about the aid agency, the American help, the health problems, the lack of milk in the region. They nodded in agreement, it was all true, and this aid project sounded a great thing. I still hadn't answered his question though.

"And Mikhail Ivanovich, according to this list, you have three children, is that correct?" It was and he showed me pictures. "And so, technically you qualify to receive milk powder on the project. My purpose in visiting was to make sure you really did have a large family and that the list was correct."

The atmosphere changed in an instant, most notably in their attitudes to me. Prior to uttering this sentence, I was held somewhat in awe with my wealth of worldly knowledge, after it, the looks of pity betrayed what they were thinking. I was taken to the door to see something outside.

"These, my American friend, are my five cows. They give me milk every day. You must take some home with you today. I don't understand," and he was speaking with genuine peasant confusion, "what is wrong with your American cows and why they don't give milk, but our Russian cows give very good milk. What would I do with your milk powder? Probably feed it to my cows!"

I can only imagine what legends have developed in the area on the basis of the strange American and his milk powder offer. Far from denigrate the project, which did valuable work and had a very successful targeted distribution, this was an extreme example of things not quite working, inevitable in situations where accurate data does not exist and broad solutions are required. I did hear of one example where a similar large family with cows ended up feeding their cows the milk powder, but there were thousands of contented beneficiaries reached though the dairies, kindergartens and distribution points.

While the milk project was successful, the same cannot be true of some of the other projects, whose US military cast offs included brownie mix, chocolate icing, depilatory cream and my favourite, a box within a box within a box which finally opened to reveal two x-ray clip-holders. From 1957. Something for a later blog perhaps...

Mastering Russian The Hard Way - Crossing The Black Sea By Spoon

Learning Russian as a native English speaker is a challenge that has driven many insane and more into the arms of the nearest vodka bottle. Having spent time teaching TEFL, I do agree with the old adage that English is the easiest language to speak badly and the hardest to speak well. But while English has its idiomatic jungle, Russia is rich in noun endings, gerunds and the perfective and imperfective aspects of verbs.

With some of my fellow students at Manchester learning Russian from scratch at university, I found the challenge stimulating. I was fortunate to have had a classical training, learning Latin and Ancient Greek at school, so was well acquainted with the concept of differing noun endings, but Russian took things to a whole new level.

How, for example, was one to remember that some numbers demanded the following noun appear in the nominative, the genitive singular or the genitive plural? One of the prime goals of most foreign language learners is to be understood, I found that this was not the case with Russian - the real triumph was being able to formulate a phrase with grammatical correctness. It mattered not that our long-suffering Ukrainian professor grimaced as she tried to decipher the painful utterances being proffered by a gaggle of linguistic Neanderthals. The sense of achievement was always in her acknowledgement that the phrase was grammatically correct.

Nowhere was this truer than the use of the instrumental case, a new one for me. In Russian, the instrumental case is used to indicate how something is done, for instance going to town by train.

I had by now been in the Soviet Union for three weeks and my Russian had improved a little from my pathetic attempts to convince my host family to open the door before I had conceded defeat and put up my tent in the kid's play area. We were encouraged to practice our use of lessons learned in conversation out of the classroom and part of our homework was to come back the next day with three examples where we had used the instrumental case.

I am a firm believer in wading in with a new language and having a go, not being afraid to make a mistake. My initial attempts at Croatian returned the legendary 'I have urinated a book' rather than written one, a simple pronunciation issue brought on by ignoring one of those squiggles about the S, but I am sure a travel agency still talks about my attempts to practice the instrumental case in Moscow.

I needed to organise my onward travel to Bulgaria and the obvious route was by boat across the Black Sea, from Odessa to Varna. Some excellent instrumental case options indeed and I mentally prepared my question. The noun was feminine, so that made the ending a little trickier, but I was sure I had it covered. I strode into a busy office, waited my turn, explained I wanted go from Odessa to Varna by boat:

"Ya hachu yekhat c Odesi do Varni lozhkoi."

I probably had some issues with the verb and the prepositions and cases surrounding the nouns, but so confident was I that I had got my instrumental ending right, that I spoke louder than normal. I wanted to bask in the glory of my grammatical prowess with these native speakers.

My first reaction to the look of total incomprehension of the sales assistant was the standard British response when speaking to a foreigner who doesn't understand: speak louder. With an accompanying twist that I should make more of an effort with my accent, for that was probably at the heart of the miscommunication. The second attempt succeeded only in intensifying the confusion and was accompanied by some sniggers from parts of the room. Finally, she spoke:

"Sorry, I don't understand." I repeated myself as clearly as I could but to no effect. The only possible explanation could be that she wasn't Russian and had a poor grasp of the language. What other reason could there be for not recognising and appreciating a perfectly formed instrumental?

"Do you speak Russian?"

"Yes," she replied dryly. "Do you?"

I was clearly going to get nowhere with such incompetence at the front desk and so I decided to try elsewhere. It was only when I was opening the door to leave that the horrible realisation hit me - I had used the wrong noun! Far from asking about boat travel, I had enquired about ticket prices across the Black Sea by spoon...

I could, and should, have kept walking but I decided to return and right the linguistic wrong. The sales assistant was less than thrilled to see my 180 degree turn. I had only got one letter wrong in the noun, but I could now completely understand why she had been confused. But this time there would be no such problems - I would speak slowly and in my best accent, producing my shiny boat noun in the instrumental case. I could almost smell the sea air.

"Ya hachu yekhat c Odesi do Varni lozhkoi."

A blank expression. Very blank, followed by the raising of eyebrows and then a look I have encountered a lot in life. Pity. Now I was the confused one and went home to look up my boat word in the big dictionary to get to the bottom of this.

Lodka means rowing boat.

Hmmm. An upgrade on a spoon for sure, but still not quite the means of transport for buying tickets. All was not lost, however - at least I had two great examples of the instrumental for class the following day.

As for the onward travel to Bulgaria, I took the 52-hour train via Moldova.

How To Get Arrested In a Bathrobe At St. Petersburg Train Station

I had been advised by more than one caring friend that it was time to upgrade my dressing-gown (aka bathrobe), but there was no more compelling argument than the order I had just received - to cross a ten-lane street and scour the train station for my friend wearing just a dark blue acrylic dressing-gown my mother had bought me for boarding school when I was 13. While I may not have matured mentally since then, I have certainly grown physically, and the offending garment was pushing the levels of acceptable decency to new, low levels.

The day had started out so well. A splendidly sunny Petersburg Sunday greeted us through the curtain-less windows. My unattainable partner in crime rose from her bed and put the coffee on. We agreed that I would do a bit of admin on the computer and then go and check out an art exhibition in the afternoon. I was seriously behind and shifted my naked body under the blanket into a more upright position and started to work.

The phone rang in the corridor and I heard peals of laughter and promises of meeting in twenty minutes. As we hardly knew anyone, I was intrigued.

"That was Steve, a friend from Uni. He just arrived by train from Odessa and is waiting at the station. Let's go!" Feeling slightly irritated that I had a love rival who was probably handsome, I tried to distance myself from the intrusion but, as the only registered driver of the car, I was persuaded to pick him up. I had a mountain of work to do and couldn't be bothered to get dressed, so I slipped into my trusty dressing-gown, planning to head straight back to bed once Steve arrived and presumably dominated Fiona's attention.

We piled into our Yellow Banana, a 1979 Opel Kadett, one careful owner, which I had picked up in Munich, and proceeded to the station, me in grumpy mood. We were perhaps 200m away, or one left turn, when we came across roadworks and a sign intimating no left turn. Unfamiliar with the alternative, I soon came back to the same place, this time behind a taxi which decided to ignore the sign and turn left. I followed suit.

A fatal mistake.

The station came into view, some 200m away across a busy square. So did the traffic policeman who was lurking just around the corner. The taxi in front was allowed to continue, for there was far more interesting prey behind - a car on temporary foreign plates.

Approaching with that officious swagger that indicated that the driver would emerge from the imminent encounter somewhat poorer, he hid his surprise at my attire well. Fiona, no fan of bureaucracy, demonstrated her loyalty by pleading both innocence and a prior commitment and disappeared off to the station in search of Steve. I was asked for papers, which strangely, I had forgotten to pack; this was only supposed to be a five minute turnaround before going back to bed with my paperwork. I was told to get out of the car.

I have always been very fond of my dressing-gown, perhaps due to its homely reminder at boarding school in England. It was now approaching its tenth anniversary and I was as fond of it as ever, having resisted numerous attempts by mother to exchange it for something more to my size and something more... decent.

It was a decision I was already regretting as I followed the officer to the police station around the corner. I succeeded in stopping pedestrians in their tracks as they stared, pointed and laughed. At least it was a sunny day. There wasn't much I could do to change the situation and I didn't know anyone in the city apart from my disloyal friend, so I decided to embrace the situation and smile through my ordeal.

They must have seen some sights in their time at the local police station across the road from St. Petersburg train station, but I could tell from the raised eyebrows, open mouths and sudden silences that this was something special, even by their high standards.

I was escorted into a tiny room with a table and couple of chairs, paint peeling from the walls, smoke heavy in the air. The officer came in with some papers. What would Russian officials do if their form-filling tasks where taken away from them. Having filled out the necessary details and made the appropriate apologies, I thought I had got away with it, thought he was going to take pity on me - I had given him a great story to tell his mates after all.

"There is a fine of fifty roubles. You must pay before you can go."

My initial relief at such a low fine (in the region of $3) was soon overshadowed by the realisation that I didn't have a kopek on me. I theatrically searched my dressing-gown pockets and apologised, explaining that my wallet must be in my other dressing-gown. I was sure he was going to let me off. What else could he do? Keep me here for ever? Send me to the gulag? I was soon to find, and it was infinitely crueller than a spell in Siberia.

"Does your girlfriend have money?"

"I don't know but maybe."

"Then go and ask her for the money." The enormity of the suggestion was beginning to dawn.

"But she is at the station," I pleaded.

"And?" I guided him with imploring eyes over my dressing-gown, needing no words to explain that I was hardly addressed to roam one of Russia's busiest transport hubs.

"You should have thought about how you are dressed before you broke the law. The fine has to be paid. I will be waiting by the car. Go."

There was nothing for it but the stiff British upper lip and I descended in the sunshine focusing on my mission to find a blonde Scottish girl not renowned for splashing the cash at the best of times. As luck would have it, the traffic lights turned green as I was about to cross the enormous road, five lanes each way. The road itself provided plenty of stares from passing traffic, and I began to notice a distance between myself and my fellow pedestrians - I was clearly an unpredictable nutter.

The green man beckoned me forth and I strode with purpose, more than passively aware of the open-mouthed reactions in the front seats of the cars to my right. It was busy at the station and I focused my attention on finding the girl, trying as best I could to ignore the comments and actions of people reacting to my attire. She was nowhere to be found. With gathering desperation, I sought out the less likely places and checked out each platform.

There are twenty-platforms at the main train station in St. Peterburg.

I had failed. Fiona had obviously eloped into the sunset with handsome Steve, and I returned to the car to hand myself in, only to find three people next to the car. The first, Fiona, was doubled up in laughter, standing next to the policeman who was smiling. The third was a young male who I assumed to be Steve, whose eyebrows had never been higher. We were introduced.

"I have heard so much about you," he said, doubtfully, before retreating to a safe distance.

Dress code is rarely mentioned when discussing driving in Russia and my parting advice would be to be careful about taking illegal turns. And make sure you upgrade your dressing-gown first...

Conversational Russian in Central Africa with an Accused Genocidaire

The recent focus on racism in Russia has provoked a high level of debate, but not all the arguments make sense. I had BBC World on background for an entire day last week as I was writing my second book. I watch about an hour's television and get my news through the Internet, but it is refreshing to hear the dulcet tones of the Beeb entering the living room from time to time.

I probably heard the report passively five or six times throughout the afternoon, as it was repeated in each bulletin. The only thing that stays with me is the compelling statistic that seemed to prove that racism in Russian sport was rife by the fact that of the 418 players currently playing in Russia's top league, 'only 30 were black.'

While I found the logic of the argument lacking, I thought the number was exceptionally high for a country with no indigenous black community. Russia is a player in European football terms, no doubt, but I can't see the appeal of a Russian winter to African footballers and besides, one in twelve struck me as high. I would wager that there are a lot less pro rata Russians plying their trade in any of the major leagues. However, it was the thought of the African speaking Russian which took me back in time, to a surreal time of vodka and prisons in post-genocide Rwanda.

Not for the first time in my life, I was out of my depth, both linguistically and actually. I had been so successful overselling my French language prowess ('D' at A-level) that I was appointed Project Manager of an agricultural mission. Language of communication? French. First task? Hire staff as food distribution monitors.

I took local advice and simply put a notice on the gate of our compound that we were hiring, inviting interested parties to appear two days later with completed resumes. The position was not challenging and I hoped to find the ten I needed without wasting more than an hour of the day.

"How many are there?" I asked my local Burundian fixer, Felix, in French.

"More than 450, Sir."

It was a depressing morning. There I was, a foreigner with five minutes' experience in Africa, bad French and very little local knowledge, with the economic power to transform households on a whim. The line was indeed 450 and more, young and desperate people with little to offer in terms of experience, but plenty in desperation.

The average resume was hand-written, single page and contained brief details on name, address, education and hobbies (supporting Manchester United featured large). There was no previous work experience. I went through the formalities of basic interviewing and trusted the judgment of Felix to choose the right people.

After more than an hour in which I had exhausted my French interrogation techniques, the next candidate confidently approached with an impressive collection of papers. There was more purpose about him than the others, a worldliness that implied he was different. The papers showed he was. Written in Cyrillic, a degree in agriculture from the University in St. Petersburg.

"Ty govosih po russki?" I asked in astonishment.

"Da, koneshno," he replied, equally surprised. And so we slipped into animated conversation and forgot our surroundings. Nobody was more surprised than Felix, who surmised that his strange new boss had some language aptitude after all.

A friendship was born and vodka inevitably appeared. Albert drank like a Russian (not an endearing quality), but it was nice to reminisce about the old days. I certainly didn't know everything about him, but when they came to arrest him, the fourth member of my staff in five days, I knew for sure that an injustice was occurring.

The charge was genocide complicity, which was being cast around the country with dangerous abandon - an emergency law stipulated that if five members of different families made the same accusation, it was sufficient to merit an arrest. Many innocent people with nice properties and possessions never made it out of prison, thanks to greedy neighbours.

I was coming to terms with the arrest of the others, especially after they confessed to awful crimes and sent apologies to their Western bosses, but Albert I could not accept. Accepting that I had been working in close quarters and sharing my table and home with mass murderers and rapists was challenging enough, but the arrest of an innocent was too much, and I decided to try and do whatever I could, my only bargaining chip being my white (more pink) skin.

The guards were not pleased to see me but the pink skin had its desired effect and I was ushered into a room and told to wait. Albert, who I had not seen for 48 hours, was brought in and looked a shadow of his former self. He had clearly been beaten up, possibly worse. Two guards stayed in the room.

"Albert, tell me what happened. Have they hurt you?" I asked in Russian.

"Please Monsieur Paul," he replied in French, "No Russian. I do not want them to think we are planning anything."

He told me in front of the guards in French that he was being treated well (I knew he was lying), that he was wrongly arrested as people in his village wanted the family house. I promised to help him and went to see the UN the next day. I was due to leave Kigali for ever two days later, but I managed to arrange for the newly-formed UN Human Rights team to investigate.

They planned to travel to his village on the day I was flying out. On the way to the airport the ever-faithful Felix passed me a tatty letter, addressed to Monsieur Paul. I opened it to find a missive in Russian, which had been smuggled out of prison with the real story. It wasn't pretty and ended with a desperate plea for help and money. I gave Felix what I had and asked him to follow up with the UN. This was 1995 and email and Facebook were not established in the developed world, never mind Rwanda.

I never heard anything further, until, six years later and still in possession of Albert's letter, I returned to Rwanda and went to find him. You can read about my journey here (posting the URL until I can figure out how to link -

The Scary World of the Aeroflot Internal Flight in the Nineties

Imagine the appeal of a hospital with bodies piled up at the entrance, or perhaps a restaurant with victims of its food poisoning on the streets outside enticing you in. These were the welcoming images that I conjured up every time I had the privilege of flying Aeroflot internally in the Nineties.

It seemed that every regional airport had its allocation of carcasses, wrecked Tupolevs through a combination of icy conditions, poor maintenance and inebriated pilots. I had been warned about the dangers of flying Aeorflot within Russia, as whatever service resources that did exist seemed to be earmarked for the international routes. The Soviet airline was a byword for danger, and the experiences on the ground (and in the air) more than justified that tag.

I am still alive, despite the thirty or so internal flights I took in former Soviet Union with Aeroflot. I have had my fair share of air drama elsewhere (if I can figure out how to do links on this blog, I can point you to the Boeing 727 crash in Eritrea in 2001, and John Travolta's discarded private jet developing engine trouble over the skies of Somalia a year later), but it was the Aeroflot experience that stays with me for the warmest memories. I thought I would share a few of my favourite moments with you.

As with most things in life, there was an alternative to Aeroflot - the train. I am a big fan of Russian train travel, an adventure at every stop (and there are MANY stops), but the scheduled train from Moscow to Vladivostok takes nine days versus nine hours on Aeorflot. The stories of local party officials informing Moscow that the airport was closed to ward off any Party visits are probably true and an excellent deterrent, since the nine day alternative would only appeal to the most committed Comrade.

I should qualify Aeroflot time. Nine hours' flying time is nine hours as we know it, but the foreplay to the takeoff could take... days. A friend, a native of Vladivostok, recounted the tale of his flight to Moscow, in which the passengers finally boarded the plane after the usual unexplained delay. Boarding the plane was seen as a good sign, but not a precursor to take-off itself.

"Ladies and Gentlemen," began a soft female voice over the speaker system, "the pilot wishes to inform you that he is ready to take off, but there could be delays of several days due to the weather. He is prepared to fly now, but an additional contribution of 80,000 roubles will be required. The stewardesses will be coming round with some collection buckets." I forget the exchange rate at the time, but the bribe was several hundred dollars. The alternative, a long wait or the dreaded train, was not to be contemplated. The buckets were filled.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for your contributions. We have almost got all the money required. The stewardesses will pass once more and we hope that we can resolve the situation." One more cabin sweep and the aircraft was airborne soon after.

I became fascinated by the stewardesses. The capitalist concepts of customer service and customer satisfaction had not reached the company, and trying to figure out what value these trolley dollies added to the flight occupied a lot of my time. As passengers boarded the plane, they would officiously check each ticket and point to the seat, considerably slowing down the process, before finally giving up and screaming Luboye myesto - any place - in an effort to get the plane to depart a little less late. Had they not been there at all, there would have been no problems.

One of the interesting parts of flying with different airlines was sampling the in-flight service and food. Not so with Aeroflot Internal. The only time I ever had a meal on board was my last flight from Yekaterinburg to Moscow. I was astonished to find an in-flight movie for the first time, but even more astonished by the movie chosen - Airport 77, a gripping tale of an epic plane crash. The food was fine, but the presentation stood out from Emirates, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines and all the other perceived market leaders on service; a plastic tray containing a hunk of beef, a slab or bread and half a cucumber. No cutlery, no drink, no serviette. It was delicious.

The duty-free trolley was always a delight and the one part of the job that the ladies took seriously. For this was where they made their money on the side. Dolls from China, imitation perfume, hardly anything of use, and ALWAYS a finger dial landline telephone (often purple). I would love to meet the marketing guru who could come up with a campaign to turn this into a spontaneous purchase.

Aeroflot Time was really out there on its own, however. Having conducted a survey for a pilot kerosene stove project in Armenia and discovered that a third of beneficiaries had either starved or frozen to death, I engineered a trip to Siberia to the largest stove-producing factory to negotiate a bulk purchase, handily close to the shores of Lake Baikal. I spent a wonderful weekend at the lake, confident I would be back in the office by Monday morning.

There was something novel at the airport in Irkutsk - a screen with information. The initial joy gave way to more than a little depression. I had turned up with my ticket, expecting to fly the same day, the 28th.

"Passengers with tickets to Yekaterinburg for the 23rd should check in at 16.00. For any later flights, there is no news." With a train connection three days or more, I was in some trouble. I scoured the vast wall map of the Soviet Union, trying to pinpoint a town close to Yekaterinburg. Chelyabinsk seemed close and I was amazed to find a flight with availability that afternoon. I hopped on and managed to negotiate a taxi (a blog post in its own right) for $50 to take me the 250 km north. I would not be surprised if some of my fellow passengers manifested on the original flight are still there.

The safety issue can be summed up in two passenger announcements I personally witnessed, as well as a reassuring emergency instruction on a flight from Istanbul to Tbilisi.

"Would the owner of the gas canister at the back please come forward, as it is leaking."

"Does anyone have a spanner?"

And my favourite, the emergency box above the seat in front as we flew to Georgia; The Soviet Union was gone by then, so the carrier must have been one of the deregulated off-shoots, I forget which, but the instructions were unforgettable (in English and Russian):

"In case of emergency, break the glass to release the emergency rope."

Russian drinking exploits are famous the world over and, having experienced them first hand all too often, I can state that they are, if anything, understated. I was going through a self-inflicted dry spell as I took my seat on the flight back to Moscow next to two very jolly young men. I am weak and I soon caved in to their demands to share the bottles they had with them.

Making conversation, I asked them where they were headed. Over the three bottles we drank on the flight (and they had started a long time before me), they told me about the imminent wedding for one of them, how he was off to Kiev via Moscow for a final fling. The other inebriate was escorting him as far as Moscow before catching the turnaround flight as he had to start work in nine hours. I asked him what he did.

"I am a pilot. I will be flying this plane to Tashkent. Cheers!"

A Brewery Tour in the Town With No Beer - Welcome to the Switzerland of the Urals

The Swiss Tourist Board is missing a trick. Having been to Albania recently and hearing the country described as the 'Switzerland of the Balkans', I reflected on the reasons the Swiss don't return the favour and market themselves as the 'Albania of the Alps'. My mind went back to a different time to another Alpine paradise in exile, in the Ural Mountains, and the nondescript town of Krasnoufimsk, which I was assured was in the heart of 'Switzerland of the Urals'.

Perhaps the mind is playing tricks over the 18 years since I visited, as I don't recall pristine lakes and snow-capped mountains in idyllic mountains inhabited by cows with bells and shepherds called Heidi. The only thing that sticks in my mind is the best example I can across of the efficiency of the Soviet distribution system - no bright lights of Geneva and Zurich in my memory, just the nagging question of how a fully-functioning brewery on the edge of town could fail to supply a single drop. An investigation of the brewery itself led to some more baffling questions.

This is not a drinking blog post, although writing about life in rural Russia without reference to a drop of the good stuff is beyond my powers, but drinking was a part of the story.

It was my first official trip and I was determined to make a good impression. A week earlier I had met a girl from Birmingham in an Irish pub in Moscow who was looking for Russian-speaking foreigners to work as aid workers in more remote areas of the country. The pay was four times what I was earning, the adventurer within me awakened and I found myself on a flight to the Ural Mountains three days later, signed contract in hand, proving that I was now employed as a Milk Monitor, a title I had least enjoyed at prep school, for the handsome pay of $1,500 a month.

The project, funded by the American government, seemed to be fulfilling a critical need. As the industrial heartland of the Soviet Union, pollution was a major issue and the knock-on health effects were shocking - it had been reported that 70% of women were unable to lactate. Coupled with the dire economic shortages leading to cattle being slaughtered and the legendary Soviet distribution system, fresh milk was an ever scarcer commodity. A huge targeted distribution of milk powder to pregnant women, large families and children under three was intended to partially address the problem.

I was dispatched to Krasnoufimsk with my Russian colleague Yana after a few days. Our mission was to visit the dairy in the town to gather information on production levels, meet with local council officials to collect lists of potential beneficiaries, then visit a percentage of those beneficiaries to establish that they were genuine. While I was not the first foreigner from the agency to visit, I was the first to spend the night, and that was deemed as cause for celebration by someone. As the town had been off-limits in a closed zone (and hardly a screaming must-see on the tourist trail, despite its Swiss pretensions), a foreigner spending the night was a landmark of sorts.

I remember little of the evening itself, except that there was excess on all levels and it was very jolly. Soviet brotherhood came to the fore as the Georgian wine, Azeri champagne, Armenian brandy and Russian vodka all contributed harmoniously to the mother of all hangovers the following morning. I remembered a lot of toasting to Margaret Thatcher, Winston Curchill and Alan Shearer, each followed by the mandatory downing of sto gram, or 100 grammes of vodka - neat and in one hit (it was only much later in my time in Russia that I learned about the short life expectancy of plants in the vicinity of drinking dens - the dispensing of vodka into unwitting plant pots probably saved my life). In a bid to stem the tide of hard liquor intake, I thought I would switch to beer in this feast of excess, especially as I had seen a brewery on the drive in.

"Your vodka is great," I began in faltering Russian, "but I am more of a beer man and would be keen to try your local brew."

As a conversation killer, I don't think I have ever topped that line.

After what seemed an age of embarrassed silence, feet shuffling and general murmuring, it was explained to me that unfortunately there was no beer in the town, hadn't been for a month and wouldn't be for a while. Realising the embarrassment I had caused, I poured myself 200 grammes, toasted the town and put my liver under more pressure, but the damage was done. My host determined to sort the issue by calling the brewery director and arranging a tour the following morning.

The last thing on my mind as I was awoken by Yana and a sledgehammer going in my head was a tour of a brewery, but there was no escaping the invitation. I wasn't even sure I could navigate our 9am tour of the dairy, not great hangover material, but we had to fulfil our obligations and dutifully appeared outside the brewery gates at 10am as arranged.

Having worked as a student in a brewery in Munich, I had some idea of the process and wasn't expecting the latest equipment, which was just as well. The process was labour intensive, with a less than semi-automated production facility generously augmented by human help at every turn. While I remember one worker, whose sole job it was to balance the beer cap on the top before the machine pressed it down, and another who had to manually apply the labels to each bottle, it was the eagle-eyed old lady scouring every bottle who had me fascinated.

The rickety conveyor pushed forward the recently filled bottles in single file, her eyes darting expertly over each new arrival. I had no idea what her job was, but the concentration was complete. After perhaps a hundred bottles, more, she finally pounced, deftly lifting an offending bottle from the pack. I leaned forward to ascertain what made this bottle stand out from the crowd and saw that its neck was full! Too much beer in this bottle and all bottles should be equal.

By now enthralled, I turned my attention once more to the eagle, and satisfaction was soon forthcoming. After perhaps another minute, a second bottle was plucked from the crowd, this one a little light on liquid. With expert movements, the imbalance was rectified and both bottles sent on their way to the bottle top balancer. I asked her how long she had been doing the job. Thirty years was the reply.

As esteemed guests (if only they knew), we were ushered up to the director's office to meet the man who ran the factory. I was surprised to find he was German and speculated internally that he might have fallen victim to the misrepresentations of the Swiss Urals Tourist Board, until he told me that his father settled here after the war. I wanted to pursue that avenue, the ex-German POW community in the Urals but, along with beer distribution networks, I had a feeling the interest would be unwelcome.

I had more pressing problems, such as how to avoid drinking anything that would surely be offered. Yana, my teetotal colleague, who was clearly enjoying the moral superiority of clear mind and head, gleefully told me that there could be no greater offence than my refusing to drink.

And so my fate was sealed. A phone call was made, beer summonsed. The door opened and the local brew was brought forward and placed on the table in a... bucket. I watched in horror as my non-comrades each presented passable excuses as to why they could not partake - the driver was driving, the director was on duty, my host was too hung over. I was handed a half-litre glass. There was no obvious etiquette for extracting the glass from the bucket, so I simply dipped my glass in and scooped it out. It was foul.

Yana's helpful (gleeful?) cultural advice was to drink a minimum of three, after which the Azeri white came out, a signal for a sharp exit if ever there was one. I made my excuses and we were soon on the road, two cases of the bad stuff in the boot.

It was my first cultural lesson of doing business in Russia. Invent a health or religious reason why you can't drink. Or perish. Not quite the marketing slogan the Switzerland of the Urals might have been striving for, but an essential survival tip.

Homeless In The Soviet Union - A Long Way From Manchester

I realised I was killing generations of Western stereotypes at a stroke. Whether the gathering crowd swallowed the official Party line that the Soviet Union was the ultimate paradise, or were clandestine followers of JR and Dallas, there was no escaping the reality that there was no stereotype out there to match to the events unfolding in front of them - a British student with three words of bad Russian had finally cracked and was now unpacking a tent in the children's playground and seemed to be shaping up to spend the night.

Even with the more relaxed atmosphere of Gorbachev's glasnost, entertainment in the vast apartment blocks in the suburbs of Moscow was thin on the ground, but this Brit had endeavoured in the past hour to liven up an otherwise dull Saturday evening. With darkness approaching, it seemed he was saving his grand finale for a spot of camping among the apartment blocks. Perhaps P.G. Wodehouse was right - the English really are eccentric; that was one stereotype being reinforced.


Money was more than tight. Having paid for the course and home-stay accommodation with a real Soviet family in July 1991, I needed to make some decisions about my finances and the summer. Once I got to Moscow, life was cheap. I could live a month there for almost nothing and, assuming I could get to Bulgaria afterwards for my month of teaching English with the Moonies, that should also cost next to nothing. The tricky part was getting to Moscow and back from Bulgaria with only £200 ($300) for the whole summer. Flying to Moscow was out of the question.

"Sorry, I am only going as far as Stafford," answered my first lift, after I told him that Moscow was my destination, but I hopped in anyway. Stafford became Dover, Ostend and soon Poland, after a very generous Pole took me all the way to his home town from the ferry, fed and housed me and slipped me 20 marks before dropping me on the road to Warsaw.

A ten-minute wait and I was off again and was soon in the Polish capital, destination train station. It had gone like a dream, but I wasn't insane; the train from the border town of Brest to Moscow took 24 hours, so who knows how long it would have taken to hitch? Besides, a $3 ticket to Brest and inside the Soviet Union, the real cheap living could begin; I had been told that the Brest - Moscow ticket was just $1.

My illusions were shattered when I went to board the train. I had heard about people hanging off trains in India and now I had a real-life East European equivalent, and there was not a hope I would make it alive. I fell into broken conversation with an equally ejected Russian who was returning home after selling his Lada for good profit. He ended up smuggling me into a hostel for the night and was gone when I awoke.

Onward travel options were limited and I finally took advantage of a $90 one-way special with Polish airline LOT, later that day, thereby abandoning my lofty overland ambitions and touching down at Sheremetyevo some hours later. Having negotiated passport control, I was through, alone in the Soviet Union.

I suppose I could have called the host family and got them to meet me, but it seemed an inconvenience to them, added to the fact that my Russian wasn't good enough to ask for change for the phone, never mind make a phone call. The school had sent me an excellent detailed map of Moscow and I had found my address on the map, a mere couple of inches from Red Square.

A couple of inches on a Moscow map is a long way in reality.

By now, I was on a mission to arrive unannounced, proudly showing that I could get by without having to rely on my host family. All was going well as a friendly lady with a little English mothered me onto the dirty yellow bus and we were on our way. Claiming she was going the same way, she escorted me to the fabled Moscow Metro, gave me a 15 kopek token and bid me farewell, insisting I got out after two stops.

The escalator was fast and deep, the train punctual and quick and within minutes I was ascending another escalator and out into the evening sunshine and the street containing my new home. I felt a flush of pride. My house number was 268 and I was passing 34, so not too far to go.

Russian apartment blocks are further apart than terraced houses in Rusholme.

After more than an hour inching towards my goal, I finally saw the magic 268 and veered off to the left. The various entrances were round the back facing a massive central courtyard. It was perhaps 8pm and there was a relaxed, neighbourly feeling about the place: kids playing, old ladies gossiping on benches, friends walking and smoking. They all noticed the arrival of the foreigner.

I nodded to a few and checked the paper with the address. Entrance five. Pleased, I passed three star-struck babuskas by the door and entered the dimly-lit corridor. The rickety lift smelled of urine and I doubted its uneven floor would hold my weight, but I went up to the fifth floor. There in front of me was my final destination - under the spy hole of a heavy metal door, a small oval metal tag bore the numbers 492. I rang the bell, heart pounding a little, my sentence of introduction prepared. I heard footsteps but the door remained closed.

"Kto tam?" It was an auspicious moment. I was having my first Russian conversation with a native. And I understood! Admittedly, enquiring as to my identity was the most taxing of questions, but it was a start.

"Menya zavut Paul Bradbury. Ya anglichanin," I replied with pride, as though I had uttered a code to open the gates of Babylon. The door remained closed. The Voice muttered something incomprehensible and, worse, the footsteps retreated. I rang the bell again, only to go through the same routine again. For whatever reason, The Voice was not convinced.

I needed another plan of attack and my options were limited. I decided to try and find a phone, but with no coins, a private phone was the only option. I went back to the old ladies, who eyed me with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity.

"Ya anglichanin. Vi telefon?" After some brief consultation among themselves, my pathetic appeal for a telephone seemed to have been not only understood, but granted, as I was led into a ground-floor flat and handed an archaic bright purple phone. I dialled the number of my host family.

"Menya zav..." Clunk. It seemed The Voice was even less amenable to telephone solicitation. My last resort was to call the emergency number on the school's welcome letter. They should be able to sort something out. Under the watchful eye of the spellbound old ladies I dialled and it rang. And rang. And rang.

I am sure there were useful practical suggestions from the old dears but I didn't understand a word. It would soon be dark and here I was, alone on my first night in the Soviet Union. There was nothing for it but to unpack the tent and choose a grassy spot next to the kid's playground. I was aware of the growing crowd, of windows being tapped, of other windows opened and, once assembled, I nodded to the crowd and disappeared inside the tent.

It had been an adrenaline-filled day, but I had finally made it to the Soviet Union. I was safe and, although the accommodation was not quite how I had planned it, tomorrow was another day and I was sure I could get The Voice to crack. I drifted into sleep.

"Englishman!" I was roused from slumber soon afterwards by a young male voice. Unzipping the tent, I emerged to find a tall, handsome young man hovering over me. "Are you Paul Bradbury?" Shocked that he knew my name, I was impressed at how good the KGB were - scarily impressive. I nodded, wondering if I was about to be arrested for violating some vagrancy law.

"My name is Timur. I hear my grandfather would not let you into the flat. I am sorry. We were not expecting you for another month. Come now. You must be hungry." To the delight of the lingering onlookers, the tent was dissembled, explanations were given and we disappeared inside. It was time to meet The Voice.

A hugely humble 84 year-old pensioner greeted me warmly and apologetically, ushering me into the kitchen, before plying me with food and vodka, as if stuffing me somehow could nullify the shame he felt at refusing entry to his foreign guest. No amount of assurance from me could console him.

If the excitement of the Summer of 1991 had stopped with arrival in flat 492, it would still have been a memorable time, but the ensuing weeks attempting to learn Russian in Moscow and teaching English with the Moonies in Bulgaria took the adventure to a whole new level. But that's another story.

How Not To Conduct A Live Television Interview in Russian

The carrots were small, even by Siberian winter standards. A day away from the office politics had its attractions of course, but not in exchange for being bounced along poor roads in an unheated Lada in temperatures of minus twenty; and the chance to visit the birthplace of Boris Yeltsin, the remote village of Butka in the Urals - the last stop on a road that nobody went down anyway - seemed a tiny orange vegetable indeed for the ordeal of conducting a live interview on an emotive topic in a language that was not my own. I declined the offer. Or tried to.

"You are the only Russian-speaking expat in the office, so you don't have a choice," asserted my linguistically-challenged American boss. "And make sure you take a picture of Yeltsin's house for me."

News spread and caused much mirth among the ladies in the office. Unlike my foreign superiors, they knew the truth - my Russian sucked. They clearly enjoyed telling me that the interview would be live on local television in the small town of Talitsa, but would also command a slot on the evening regional news. Great. How to become a laughing stock in one easy step.

I tried to look at the positives as Mansur, my Tartar driver, slid along the road east of Yekaterinburg, where our office was based. I wonder what he made of it all, these random trips to the edge of civilisation to hear about cows being fed milk powder, unloading industrial cans of peanut butter with the Red Army and now this, a live television interview defending the programme. Whatever his thoughts, he kept them to himself and drove as professionally as he smoked - jobs paying $300 a month in the Urals in 1993 were hard to come by.

By the time we reached the small town of Talitsa a couple of hours later, I had relaxed somewhat. My laptop battery was good and I had caught up with some reports. Although this was my first interview on television, it couldn't be too taxing, surely? As I was running the distribution programme, I knew about all aspects and had answers prepared for the obvious questions.

If anything, I was even more reassured on arriving at the small studio, where I was warmly greeted by a Soviet relic of an interviewer, but her welcome seemed genuine. We conversed a little as I went through make-up, and she even acquiesced to my request to go through all the questions before the interview, in order to ensure that I understood the Russian. I did. I was pleased and was even starting to enjoy myself.

The project was groundbreaking and a little controversial, but it was the realities at the coalface that prompted the demand (not request) for the interview. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the social network also disintegrated, leaving millions of former Soviet citizens, Russian and non-Russian, without an effective safety net. America was keen to support the fledgling democracy and to get its message of support and some practical help to as many people as possible.

Operation Provide Hope was born, a series of humanitarian aid delivery projects to all the former Soviet republics, targeting the needy. The bulk of the food came from American military warehouses, stockpiled food for an anticipated long war in Iraq. Of an estimated 90 items that were sent in military size rations (4kg tins of ketchup, anyone?), the agency had to find a nutritional mix and reach as many people as possible and therefore limited each recipient to four items each.

With the differing linguistic scripts causing much confusion (I fondly recall spending ten minutes with an agitated pensioner going through the four letters on one 4kg grey tin - C was the Russian S, O was common ground, R an inverted Ya and N an inverted Ee), I supported the idea of inserting a helpful leaflet with not only a translation of each of the 90 items, but some helpful explanations as well.

But this was post-Soviet Russia where nobody trusted anyone. The joy of receiving something for free quickly disappeared with the discovery that they had been robbed. How else could one explain a nice leaflet with 90 items in a box containing just four? With accusations of theft levelled at the local authorities, it was deemed that the best rebuttal would be a live interview in Russian with an expat working for the agency by a renowned ruthless local journalist.


All was set. I had even gone through my answers with my new best friend, and she promised it would be a gentle and friendly interview. The cameras rolled and I was introduced and was encouraged to greet the camera. I was by now totally relaxed as the camera returned to my host.

"Paul, thank you for coming on the show. What we would all like to know is how you can justify sending humanitarian aid to Russia when it all gets stolen and ends up in kiosks?"


I did a quick recap on the prepared questions and must have missed this one. I fumbled out what I thought was a spirited defence, but the next attack was soon forthcoming from a different angle:

"I understand that this aid has come from the American military and half has been sent to Russia and the rest to Somalia?" Nodded assent. "So do you Americans view Russia and Somalia on the same level on the world stage?" It would have been pedantic to have claimed my British heritage, and I longed for some remote Somali desert to eat me up, but I survived. Or so I thought.

"And Paul has now kindly agreed to come with me to meet some disgruntled beneficiaries to address their concerns face to face, haven't you Paul?" With the camera zooming in on my nasal blackheads, I acquiesced meekly.

I was on a hiding to nothing, and I knew that whatever awaited me would include some footage of me with an invalid of the first degree. Disabilities were graded according to severity - short-sightedness is a degree for example - with the most severe disabilities categorised as Invalids of the First and Second Degree.

She cut a pathetic figure outside her tumbledown shack of a wooden house somewhere outside the town. The journalist expertly picked at her complaints, pulling the heart strings with her tale of losing her husband in Stalingrad in 1943, struggling though life with various disabilities, only to experience a brief ray of hope - the delivery of humanitarian aid from America.

With Herculean strength, she struggled to the Ministry of Social Welfare and received her package. Emboldened by this nutritious bonus, she returned home and opened her parcel. The outrage was intense, the disappointment indescribable. One of the tins had a dent in it! She was incandescent at the local authority's decision to refuse to replace it.

"And so," pressed my nemesis, exposing my blackheads to more regional spotlight, "what are you going to do about it?"

Mansur was silent as we toured the carrot in Butka, and he smoked a little more on the cold drive home, but I was angry at being set up. I told my boss to never ever ask me to do another television interview.

"I am sorry you feel that way, Paul, because we had another call while you were away, and we have booked you in to do a live demonstration on what to do with peanut butter on Thursday in Nizhni Tagil."