Once I had settled into my new apartment and fallen into something resembling a routine with regards to my school duties (and once I had exhausted the rations provided by my hosts), it was time to brave the mean streets of Syktyvkar and ransack the nearest supermarket for supplies.
Since my arrival on Wednesday evening, I had shared calamari with my welcoming party (though it might well have been an out-of-date Cheese String), dined out on delicious sushi with my fellow faculty members, and shared a pepperoni pizza with the school’s founder. But it was time to eat at home, alone.
Upon leaving the flat, however, I was stopped dead in my tracks, having thought I’d just heard something roar. Not the wind — I was already used to that, but something else. Something…heavy. Dismissing it as merely a figment of my hungry imagination — a quick turn having revealed no bears or wolves — I carried on to the shops undaunted.
Although hardly new to the challenges of buying groceries abroad — I had lived for four years in Germany and visited Romania, France and Greece since — I was not quite prepared for just how difficult it would be here. Sure, they had Nutella, Lays and, er, Irn Bru, but everything else just looked so…well, so Russian.
Arriving at the check-out with bread, cheese, water (though still or sparkling, I could not say), pasta, pasta sauce (probably), 2.5% fat milk (semi-skimmed?), chocolate (Snickers) and maybe, hopefully washing detergent, I handed over some money and waited for my change. I was getting change, right? I’m pretty sure that’s how this works?
It seems that, in Russia, as a result of the denominations of money used, you cannot go a single transaction without some sort of lengthy compromise. I thought I was doing well recognising the sub-total, but I simply wasn’t prepared for the cashier to demand a specific combination of coins with which to close the sale. Luckily, for me at least, in the end she just gave up.
But I’d done it. I’d won. I’d won food, and perhaps washing detergent, and all it had cost me was £9.20, half an hour of my life and one extremely red face. I have since enjoyed coffee (after slicing my finger open trying to get into the sugar cubes — both already provided), sandwiches and pasta bake. The food here really is very nice — of better quality than you would ever find in the U.K — and you really feel as though you have earnt it. After mistakenly purchasing three separate bottles of sparkling water, still just tasted so good.
As for the roar? Well, it turns out that I wasn’t going mad after all; there is, in a rather sad-looking little circus situated just across the road from my flat, a tiger, and perhaps even other animals as well. I can hear its desperate growls from my bedroom, and have seen it pacing back and forth in what passes for a cage — unprotected from the elements in a small circle of similarly barren cabins. That explains the blast door guarding my entrance, I suppose.
Anyway, that’s enough for today. I have tickets to a traditional Russian concert, and the more people I can put between myself and Timur (I’ve named it) the better.