On blogging for the BBC

You are proud to announce that you are now blogging in Russian (*cough* in translation *cough*)  for the BBC World Service. 

Writing something you knew would be translated was an odd experience. Especially translated into Russian. You have read a fair number of Russian-to-English texts in your time and many of them have been quite odd. Translated Russian can be brutally choppy, something you suspect the fact that Russians do commas all wrong* doesn’t help with although it’s probably the fault of having both more flexible word order in sentences and some really dauntingly information-packed adjectival phrases. In addition, any attempt to render slang across the language barrier is invariably a horrible horrible mistake.

As a result you have decided that the two languages are fundamentally incompatible.

So you decided to try to make life easier for your translator by eschewing things like the affected ‘you’ and the hyperbole, the overuse of adverbs, and the ungrammatical subordinate clauses made to do the work of a full sentence that you use on this blog. A bit. Still, you are deeply grateful to the person who translated this, who clearly had the bigger job of the two of you.

This is what you wrote:

I first went to Russia in 1996 intending to stay for six months and have never entirely left. Well, that’s not literally true. Right now I live in the UK, but in a corner of London that will be forever Slavic because my husband is Russian and my two children are, therefore, half Russian.

Why Russia? No reason, particularly, except that I wanted to live abroad for a while after university and had a choice between Russia and India.

I really hate hot weather.

I come from a small town about thirty miles outside of London. The most interesting thing about it is that Lewis Hamilton, the formula one driver is from there. It’s pleasant but not terribly exciting and Moscow was a bit of a shock, made more so by the fact that I didn’t speak a word of Russian before I arrived. I learned to read the alphabet while negotiating my way round the Metro stations.

Moscow, you see, is big. There are big buildings, some tall, some just heavily monolithic. The doors are built for giants. The roads have seventeen million lanes (some of them). Parks are like walks in the country, and as you fly into the airport, you look down on miles and miles and miles and miles of forest. It is very disconcerting to realise that Moscow has been built in one rather large clearing.

In fact what with coming from a small island nation, I never have really managed to comprehend properly how big Russia itself is. You have to show three maps just to get the weather forecast done and even then the distances involved are mind-boggling.

In addition, the history is impressively, and sometimes oppressively, huge, and it was a history that Russia was still very much living through when I arrived almost completely (you will have gathered) unprepared. I may be a historian by training, but I specialised in 18th Century France and Venice.

I survived and refused to leave because I enjoyed finding out everything I didn’t know before I came and because I adore Russian people (and snow). They are warm, helpful, funny, intelligent, determined and practical. Which is why, of course, I married one of them (and miss snow in winter).

In the fullness of time we had children. And at this point, multicultural families often hit problems, not least of which is whose language do you teach them? Or, how do you make sure that they learn both languages? If you don’t want them to, why not? If you do, how well do you want them to speak?

Our decision, when our son was born in 2008 and reaffirmed when my daughter joined us this year, was that we wanted them to be as balanced bilingual speakers as possible, which means that we wanted them to speak (and read, and write) both English and Russian equally well. This presents some challenges again, especially as we live outside of Russia. I do a lot of the childcare and my Russian is brutal and largely ungrammatical (but with a really good vocabulary relating to potty training, weaning and childhood illnesses).

So I will be writing about how my husband and I, with a lot of help from their Russian babushka, are trying to bring those children up bilingually and with a sound bi-cultural understanding of both Britain and Russia as well.

At the moment this seems to involve me watching a lot of Soviet-era cartoons and having my Russian grammar and vocabulary corrected by a three year old.

*Or is it the English speakers?


On tough love.

A couple of weeks after the Comet was born you packed the Star and his Papa off to Moscow for a month.

Being the mother of a newborn baby is, in some ways, a lot easier when no one else is around. It’s not like you can go out much anyway and the freedom to sleep whenever she does is important.

The main reason why you did it, though, was so that the Star could get his Russian fix, as well as have one last fling as the centre of the universe with unadulterated Papa and Babushka time.

Now, you missed the Star when he was away (oh, and his Papa. Of course). But in almost all respects this turned out to be the right decision and it has certainly done wonders for the Star’s Russian.

When he left he understood Russian just fine. He had quite a few words and you noticed that when he was with people from the all-Russian environment of his playgroup he was starting to use Russian more and more exclusively, even in the odd sentence or two. But he was an English speaker first and a Russian speaker quite a distant second, especially at home. Much to his Papa’s consternation.

Since he has spent a month undistracted by his Mama’s habit of breaking into English a crucial moments he has developed into a much more balanced bilingual. In particular, he speaks Russian to his Papa now. Much to his Papa’s relief.

And he has acquired sentences, and largely grammatical sentences at that, which you are most impressed by as you have never really got to grips with the Russian case system. Of course, he still gets his genders confused, but since he is still slightly puzzled by the fact that Mama doesn’t have a pipiska, you feel this is entirely understandable.

He also knows words you don’t. It’s terrible to be outstripped in vocabulary by a three year old, but as he is kind enough to translate a lot of the time, you figure you might catch up eventually.

He has also discovered the word ‘Mamuchka’

Which is Russian for ‘Mummy’.

Of course, he uses it to wheedle.

‘Mama, I need watch television,’ he will say. Inaccurately. ‘Mama? Mama! Mama? Mamamamamamamama? MAMA!’

But after a few minutes of you pretending to be deaf he will become caressing. ‘Mamuchka. I neeeeeeeeed watch TV. Please! Maaaamuchka.’

Accompany this with big eyes and a gentle hug and he is almost irresistible.


This post is now part of the August Blogging Carnival of Bilingualism, hosted by tonguetales.

On unrampant capitalism

So you woke up this morning* to find that the smog had irredeemably settled thickly over your block of flats and that taking the Star out, or even opening the windows was clearly not an option. You therefore fled the flat, leaving the Star to the tender mercies of his babushka, and went to the Tretyakov Gallery, the Twentieth Century version.

You had the place to yourself, almost literally. It’s not all Soviet Realism and paintings of St Alin. Some of it is Kandinsky, for goodness sake. There are baffling and slightly disquieting installations. And it’s particularly interesting, because all of it is Soviet, in the same way that the Old Tretyakov Gallery is interesting because all of it is Russian. Kandinsky on his own is less interesting than Kandinsky with all of his peers, the people who were thinking the same way, trying out the same things. Or rejecting that group’s vision. It’s not about whether the pictures are any good or not, it’s just about seeing the way people of a particular type of society thought and developed themes through art.

That said, in contrast, for you the Old Tretyakov is about the paintings although you lost the ability to tell if these are any good or not a long time ago. You’ve visited the gallery so many times that you just enjoy seeing some of your old favourites. And in doing so you seem to have absorbed some of the cultural optical baggage that Russians pick up in doing so. You feel right at home with sentimental forest views now. Birch trees. Luminous green colours. Bears. Bears hugging the birch trees. That sort of thing.

The ones in the gallery itself are rather better than these**.

You distinctly remember being somewhat snobbish when you first saw such scenes represented in hack artists work for sale on souvenir markets all over Moscow. Now, suddenly, you look at them almost fondly. Although you do wonder if they really sell as well to foreigners new to the genre as pastiches of iconic Soviet posters made over as adverts to McDonalds.

But such thoughts show that although you might think you have soaked up some cultural sensitivity, you have clearly been spending too much time away from the wellspring of the deep Russian soul.

So it should come as no surprise that what you found most shocking about the Tretyakov, Old or New, is the woeful lack of determination to strip the last tourist dollar from visitors. There is a pretty extensive selection of luscious looking art books. For the regular punter, however, there are a few mugs inscribed with various artists’ signatures, some coasters with one or two of the more iconic images on and one type of headscarf with another, but that is pretty much your lot. They don’t even offer a particularly good selection of postcards any more. In fact, in the New Tretyakov didn’t even have that, because both small memento kiosks were closed for your visit. Considering that the shops in the big art galleries in London are always busier than the rooms with the paintings actually in them, you feel that it’s an appalling waste of fund-raising opportunities.

You are quite disgusted. You wanted a T-Shirt of his namesake for the Star at least.

The Three Bogatyrs by Viktor Vasnetsov

*Or not. See What I did on my Holidays Part 1.

Also here, here, here, here, here,  here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

** I give you Shishkin. He does like the bears though.

On Shesh Besh.

Dizzy with the successful contemplation of high art in the Tretyakov Gallery, you have just fallen over on the street*. Or perhaps you were overcome by the heat. Either way you came down a right thump and have retreated to a café for food and tea.

The Tretyakov Gallery

They do exceptionally good tea here. It comes in a vast teapot accompanied by small glasses to sip it from, little rocks of sugar to add and tiny teaspoons to stir contemplatively. You have drunk a lot of those glasses by now, and partaken of, amongst other things, roasted aubergines smothered in garlic, and are feeling quite restored although not quite yet ready to go back out into the furnace that is Moscow at 2pm on what they promise is to be the last day of the heatwave**.

Tea in Moscow is a bit like coffee in London. You take for granted that it will be leaf of exceptional quality and frequently specially blended. And then you are surprised when you get back to the UK and somebody hands you a cup of lukewarm water with a teabag haphazardly immersed in it.

In much the same way you forget that in the UK, when you order coffee outside of the capital, it will be mid-range instant, whereas within the city limits even the meanest greasy spoon will have a go at brewing you something freshly ground. It may not be especially nice, but it can hardly be worse than the cup a five-star hotel gave you recently. Of course, that hotel was a good four hours north of the centre of the British universe.

Anyway, there was an ominous crack as your bag hit the pavement and so you are feeling the need to check over your computer thoroughly. It seems to be working. You hope you will be able to say the same about your camera. Perhaps you ought to give it a test and in this way demonstrate another feature of Moscow life, the theme restaurant showcasing the cuisine of the Caucuses.

You’ve already been to one of these this holiday and very nice it was too, with its English salad and mountain of kebab meat, not to mention the starter of yoghurt, dill and rice drink.

The English salad - it's the pomegranates that give it away.

But best of all was the small fountain tinkling between plastic grape vines, plush and slightly too low couches, tasselled nylon draperies and assorted atmospheric vessels of mysterious purpose.


The fountain


This one is not quite that impressive, but it does have the same attention to detail shown by the fibreglass walls simulating rustic mud huts. Sadly, the wait staff are not in full national costume today, but you can only hope they haven’t done away with it altogether.

You blame Irish theme pubs, but not too much as in fact, you’ve rejoiced ever since the Shesh Besh chain, which is where you are, opened about 8 years ago. This is because you enjoy unembarrassed tacky, partly because of the aubergines but mostly because it represented a new dawn in lifestyle in Moscow, something for the aspiring middle class. Prior to places like this, there was the very cheap or the very expensive and not much in between that wasn’t McDonalds.

There are only so many plates of pelamini you want to eat standing up and sadly very few of your friends are oligarchs.

*Or not. See What I did on my Holidays Part 1.

**They lied. It wasn’t.

On cold showers.

The hot water came back on today*.

Russian flats have communal heating and hot water systems and every year in the summer the boilers are turned off for maintenance for anything from two weeks to a month. Guess who timed their visit to coincide with this? Only a person who hadn’t been in Moscow over the summer for a long time could have thought that July was a good month to visit.

Still, if you must survive without hot water for a month you would prefer it to be in the middle of a heatwave rather than, as happens with your communal heating and hot water system back in Britain, in the middle of winter, which is when the largely unserviced boiler invariably packs up.

Of course, in these sweltering temperatures cold showers actually start to sound like a good idea.

They do require a certain technique though. You recommend starting by washing your hair. Upside down so the full shock of the cold water doesn’t hit straight away but you start to cool down. You tend to start to feel giddy about half way through as your body temperature plummets, but there is a blissful five minutes or so after you have finished when you are, for the first time since the last shower, actually not uncomfortably hot.

It is, however, quite distressing how warm the floor, your clothes and, in fact everything you then touch feels.

*Or not. See What I did on my holidays part 1.

On (being under) Pushkin’s nose.

So here you are in the great outdoors once again* on what you are hoping is the antepenultimate day of the Great Heatwave**.

Now before anyone gets the wrong idea, you should point out that it is always hot in summer in Moscow. Long days of blazing sunshine occasionally punctuated by the odd short, very short, sharp, very sharp shower, that’s what you were expecting. Temperatures starting at 38 degrees and rising from there you weren’t, and neither was anyone else. Every day a new record. Today is, apparently, the hottest day since 1837 or something. The roads are melting despite the trucks they send round twice a day to spray water all over them and the news has taken to showing Russians frolicking in different fountains in lieu of finding a new way to paraphrase the word ‘warm’. There’s been a run on hand-held Regency style fans and the ice-cream makers are celebrating, also on the news. Your favourite heat generated story so far, however, has been the recipes for home-made drinks, superior to water in that they are supposed to replace the lost salts and such that the body looses through sweat. You think someone should tell the makers of sports drinks about the one which is based on fermented fungus, although your mind boggles a bit at how they would market it.

You doubt whether you would have survived 38 degrees plus in humid old London. But here, as long as you stay out of the sun as much as possible it’s just about doable, although you would recommend being off the streets altogether between 12 and about 6pm. But one of the nice things about Moscow is the number of trees. The park you are currently lounging in is, essentially, a wood.

In the park.

There are a couple of wide paths through it, a play area at one end we shall be patronising as soon as the Star wakes up and a permanent fun fair at the other. You are opposite a statue of Pushkin, and they are playing Wham at you over the loudspeakers. There is also very little direct sunlight and that suits you just fine. Altogether a very pleasant spot.


There was also very direct sunlight on your and the Star’s amble through leafy courtyards on your way here. You do like the courtyards in this area. Quite apart from the trees, you cannot go any significant distance without stumbling across another play area. This means you can lure the Star pretty much anywhere you want to go as he has realised this too. You both had a very nice time trundling from climbing frame to climbing frame, slide to swing and sand pit to sand pit, all painted in bright primary colours and many slightly on the exciting side of the health and safety debate. What you find most charming is the way the sand smells of the sea and has little bits of shell in it. You have visions of the mayor of Moscow just sending a bunch of trucks down to the Crimea to scoop up whatever they found on the beach. What with this, the trees, and the fact that this area has been visited by a bunch of graffiti artists you have had a very nice stroll indeed.

A courtyard

Of course, you haven’t actually seen any other children. Courtyard culture, apart from random babushkas, is mainly for evenings. That’s when people come out, sit around the play areas play cards, gossip, smoke, strum guitars, and watch their kids, or, frequently, their grandkids, climb all over the play equipment. As the evening wears on, there are fewer kids and their womenfolk, and more men, teenagers and booze. It’s fun, apart from when the Star knocks over the neighbour’s kid in defence of his toy car. It does mean that the Star isn’t getting to sleep until later than normal, but then since his afternoon constitutional can’t start until the heat has subsided a bit at 7pm and what with the extra long siestas you are all having in an attempt to hide completely from the horrible temperatures, you feel quite justified in letting him stay out late anyway. It also means that there are rather more cigarette butts and husks of sunflower seeds lying about the next day than you would wish, and quite a lot of empty beer bottles in the bins, but you can’t have everything.

No, mornings children spend in the parks. You usually spend them in the park.

Overlooking the nearest park.

The relative cool means you can go further away from home than just the playground next to your front door. But there aren’t a lot of children, as every sane person has sent their kid out of Moscow altogether for the duration. To the datcha with babushka, to summer camp, to friends who happen to live in Odessa, wherever. This is partly because of the heat, partly because school summer holidays are very very very long, and partly because of the way the peat bogs that surround Moscow catch fire with boring regularity every summer. It’s at its worst in the mornings of course, which is threatening to cause particular problems this year as when the smog has cleared it is too hot to go out, but when it is cool enough to go out, there’s too much pollution in the air. Generally, though, you have been lucky with the wind and today, for example, you have seized on the stiff breeze and escape the flat for the day. Hence the stroll, the park and this bench.


It has to be said that by the time the Star woke up at two the heat was so oppressive that after listlessly wandering around the play area for a bit you were forced to make a break for the nearest supermarket.

The playground in question.

Air-conditioning is a wonderful wonderful thing. After an hour or so of idling in front of the cake section, and laden down with as many bottles of water as the pushchair could hold, you were sufficiently fortified to head for home, via the other park. You really hope you do not have to experience again the way the too warm air enveloped you as you came out of the shop. Really it is too much when even the breeze feels like someone has turned the hairdryer up to hot and is chasing you around with it.***

*Or not. See What I did on my Holidays Part 1.

**It wasn’t.

***Sadly, you did.