Halloween 2018

It’s the most wonderful time of the year – no, not Christmas, Halloween. I’ve been distracted by work and my friend’s wedding recently, so I hadn’t planned as much as I would have liked, but I managed to squeeze in a few fun things to mark the occasion.
First up was a trip to the Royal Academy to check out the PsychoBarn, Cornelia Parker’s amazing creation inspired by the house in Psycho. I wore my Odd and the Sparkly brooch to visit, just because.

PsychoBarn

PsychoBarn

On Tuesday I attended a screening of a classic silent film Der Golem (it’s German) at Rich Mix in Shoreditch, complete with live musical soundtrack. Considering the film is almost one hundred years old I thought the special effects were pretty impressive. Sadly, they didn’t provide English translations of the text displayed between the scenes, so I had no idea what was going on.

On Halloween itself I went to see a play about a Victorian séance. It was promising but ultimately unsatisfying, and I began to wonder if I would have been better off having a night in with a horror film or a book of ghost stories.

Lord Halifaxs Ghost Book

Speaking of which, I spied a book on a friend’s Instagram with the most amazing cover that I immediately decided to track down myself. The book was Lord Halifax’s Ghost Book and was full of apparently true stories of ghostly experiences in houses all around the country. I might take these claims with a pinch of salt, but they were entertaining nevertheless.

VA Day of the Dead VA Day of the Dead

As well as Halloween, it was also Dias De Los Muertos – the Mexican Day of the Dead. The V&A held a late to mark the occasion and I went along with a friend. We made a beeline for the crafting area where I made a mask – now displayed on the wall at work – and painted a skull necklace. Despite my known lack of artistic talent, it wasn’t too bad.

Skull crafts

A weekend with Mam

As the title suggests, my mam came down to London for the weekend and we did a few exciting things. Well, they were all exciting for me. A couple of them weren’t too exciting for my mam. Sorry, Mam.

Entrance to Cahoots

Entrance to Cahoots

So the first place we went was Cahoots, the 1940s London Underground-themed bar near Carnaby Street. This was fun and we got some cool cocktails.

St Martin-in-the-Fields

The next day we popped into the National Gallery first – we haven’t been there for ages. I was surprised at how badly it was all signposted compared to, say, the V&A, but there was some interesting stuff. We also had a wander around St Martin-in-the-Fields.

Bomber Command memorial

We also went down to the Bomber Command Memorial, near Green Park, before going for tea at Enzo’s Kitchen – where we went because we are both Inspector Montalbano fans and I was able to get MONTALBANO’S ACTUAL FAVE PASTA. Yum. Sardine pasta, and the nicest bread I have ever had.

Enzo's Kitchen

The next day I dragged Mam to a sonnet event at the Globe – I loved it but I’m not sure she was too keen! Next time she comes down I promise not to take her to things she feels dubious about…

Sonnet Sunday

My veganuary experience; or, confessions of an ice cream fiend

In January, for some unknown reason, I decided to give Veganuary a go. I’m already pescatarian, but eat a vegetarian diet most of the time, so I decided to try giving up all dairy and all other animal-derived products. Here’s my verdict:

The Good

I enjoyed making interesting vegan meals. I used Cooking on a Bootstrap pretty much as a Bible and in particular grew addicted to the black bean and peanut stew. Lots of the meals I ate as a vegetarian were suitable for vegans too. Price-wise, I didn’t find my vegan diet any more expensive than my veggie one, and in some ways it was cheaper as I wasn’t buying cheese.

I loved exploring the range of plant milks. Almond milk is yummy on cereal. Coconut milk is handy for curries and other meals. In general, plant milks and non-dairy spreads last longer than dairy ones, and in the case of spreads are often cheaper. I discovered that many of the foods I love are acidentally vegan – Hobnobs, Oreos, and Tesco Value garlic bread, among others.

I have a sweet tooth and was very happy to discover this brand of Tesco dark chocolate – which I often heated up with coconut milk to make an amazing hot chocolate.

Tesco Ivory Coast 74% Cocoa Plain Chocolate

I also found Alpro chocolate and hazelnut desserts, which are amazing.

Alpro Chocolate & Hazelnut Desserts

Tesco has recently brought out a range of vegan cheeses, which are reasonably priced and taste good – I really liked the one with jalapeños.

Tesco Free From Jalapeño and Chilli Cheddar

The Bad

I seriously missed regular cheese. And ice cream. I stalked Tesco daily to see if they had any dairy-free Ben and Jerry’s, but it was never in stock. Milk chocolate was out, too. In fact, sweet snack foods were notoriously difficult to find (savoury snack foods were easier, owing to the huge variety of crisps that happen to be vegan).

Constantly checking labels for hidden dairy ingredients became a bore. I know that this becomes less of an issue as you learn to know which foods are suitable and which not, but I grew very grumpy thinking about all the foods I could no longer eat. I felt cross and deprived, and that’s not a good thing.

The Indifferent

Health-wise, I felt no different on a vegan diet. I did feel a bit fatigued at first, but after upping my quota of beans and pulses, I felt fine. I’m convinced that a vegan diet can be just as healthy as a vegetarian or omnivorous one, for the average person anyway.

I had heard that a vegan diet can help clear up eczema, which can be triggered by dairy – this happened to one of my friends. Sadly it didn’t happen to me.

To conclude…

After January was over, I went out and bought a tub of Ben and Jerry’s, and I ate the entire thing.

I believe that a vegan diet can be healthy, cheap, exciting and practical. I also believe that it’s not for me. I’m afraid that I love ice cream, cheese, and chocolate way too much. Having said that, I’m happy to incorporate more dairy alternatives into my life – plant milks, for example. So the month hasn’t been completely wasted.

Hetton Historical Walk (Heritage Open Days)

Hetton-le-Hole Walking Map
Hetton-le-Hole Walking Map

With the onset of September it was time once again for the national Heritage Open Days, which take place each year up and down the country. This year I happened to be at home, but being too lazy to get myself to Newcastle or Durham to check out what was on offer, I ended up only attending one event. This was a historic walk around Hetton-le-Hole, where several members of my family live, grew up and are otherwise associated with.

1872 school house
1872 school house

We met at Hetton Centre, a fairly recent building that happens to be on the site of the old Hetton Hall. The exact date of the Hall’s construction is uncertain but it was built in the classical style. It had become dilapidated by the end of the nineteenth century and was demolished in 1923. We headed to the centre of Hetton, passing the old school house (opened in 1872), before stopping off at the point where the first moving locomotives ran, taking coal from Lyons Colliery to the River Wear.

Signpost towards the Wear
Signpost towards the Wear

The street is still named Railway Street, and just beyond there are still sleepers from the Hetton Railway. The line was surveyed by George Stephenson in 1822 and was supervised by his brother Robert. Our guide took us to nearby Fairy Street, and explained that it was so-called because of the large hillock here nicknamed the Fairy Cradle, which supposedly dated from the Iron Age.

Fairy Street
Fairy Street

We stopped off at the Primitive Methodist Chapel. Primitive Methodism reached Hetton in 1823 and this chapel was opened in 1858. I’ve been here plenty of times over the years for weddings and funerals, but this was the first time I had the chance to look around and take things in from a historical point of view. The church was built entirely by the miners. Interestingly, there used to be a public house attached to the church – not owned by it, just next door – somewhat ironic as Methodists are teetotal!

Primitive Methodist Chapel
Primitive Methodist Chapel
Inside the Chapel
Inside the Chapel

Heading beyond down the road we ended up in a part of town I’d never seen before, and a beautiful though rather run-down building, the former Pavilion Theatre and Cinema, built by Ralph Barton in 1909. The first manager was Linden Travers, father of the actor Bill Travers.

Pavilion Theatre and Cinema
Pavilion Theatre and Cinema

We then stopped at the site of the former Anglican church, now sadly reduced to rubble. A nearby house (Laburnum House) has a blue plaque with details about Nicholas Wood, friend and colleague of George Stephenson, co-founder of the Institute of Mining, and partner in the Hetton Coal Company from 1844, whose grave is in the nearby churchyard.

Site of Anglican Church
Site of Anglican Church
Nicholas Wood's blue plaque
Nicholas Wood’s blue plaque
Nicholas Wood's grave
Nicholas Wood’s grave

Crossing the road, we passed the Wesleyan Chapel in Front Street (built in 1824) then ventured towards the oldest part of town, taking in Hetton House, one of the oldest houses in the town, dating from approximately the 1720s and bought by the Lyon family (the Earls of Strathmore) in 1746. The house has two extensions, one dating from the 19th century and one from the 20th. It was most recently used as council offices and closed in 2010. Nearby is the former Standard Theatre, built in 1874. It was converted to a bus garage in 1916.

Wesleyan Chapel
Wesleyan Chapel
Hetton House
Hetton House

The tour ended in style as we stopped at the 18th-century Old Smithy which has recently opened up for occasional open days once again. I really enjoyed the tour and I learned a lot.

Old Smithy
Old Smithy
Old Smithy
Old Smithy
Inside the smithy
Inside the smithy

What I did on my holidays (trip up north, to be precise)

North
North

My week mainly consisted of naps, to be honest. However, during my week at home I also did the following:

Read books
I read War and Peace and the whole of the Enid Blyton ‘Adventure’ series. A bit of a contrast there. W&P was the Maude’s translation in a cute little three-volume edition by Collector’s Library. The Blyton series is the one starring Kiki the parrot, who was always one of my favourite characters, and inspired me with the desire to own a pet parrot (as well as somewhat unrealistic expectations of what parrots are actually capable of).

I also reread a book I discovered a few years ago, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, which is wonderful.

The Haunting of Hill House
The Haunting of Hill House

Dieted
Thanks to my mam, who was on a health kick. In fairness it wasn’t too bad, and we discovered one recipe for macaroni cheese made from Primula Light cheese and mustard, which was amazing. I also ate much more fruit than I usually do, and enough miniature chocolate bars to form several whole ones.

Attended pub quizzes
Two, to be precise. One was my dad’s quiz, which we won, no thanks to me. My dad’s quizzes are HARD. The other was at a pub near to where my parents live. My mam and I went with one of her friends from the estate and said friend’s mother, who was eighty-nine, had never been to a pub quiz before, and was very excited about it. We did fairly well on this one, and I don’t think the three bottles of wine we consumed had too much of a negative effect.

Popped down to Seaham
My mam and I drove down to Seaham to go for a walk and check out the shops. The highlight was undoubtedly a trip to Lickety Split. They do GINGER NUT ICE CREAM.

Seaham harbour
Seaham harbour

Visited some new bars in Newcastle
Newcastle has really changed since I was last there. I went for a friend’s birthday and we started off in The Alchemist which does amazing cocktails.

Me at the Alchemist
Me at The Alchemist

Between us we had one that looked like a miniature bubble bath, one that resembled a science experiment and one that looked like water but which tasted of different things as you drank it. We then moved on to The Botanist which is simply gorgeous.

The Botanist, Newcastle
The Botanist, Newcastle

Celebrated Heritage Open Days
With a tour around Hetton-le-Hole, on which more in my next blog post…

Wreck This Journal – a review

I’ve always wanted to be one of those people who fill pages and pages of journals with intelligent drawings and pretty pictures. However, I am hampered in this desire by the unmistakable fact that I simply cannot draw. My people have never progressed beyond stick men and my animals all look like the children’s drawings IKEA turned into soft toys a few years ago. My brother got all the artistic talent in my family.

Anyway, I decided to give Keri Smith’s Wreck This Journal a go. Smith is an author, illustrator and artist who created this ‘alternative journal’ to help people “engage with the creative process”. It’s full of suggestions that invite you to mess up or destroy the journal in various ways: tearing out pages, immersing it in water, rolling it down a hill. As someone who won’t even bend the spines of her books, the thought of all this made me shudder: but perhaps it would be liberating?

Short answer: no. Some of the prompts were ones I rather enjoyed. Generally these were the ones involving less destruction and more colour: painting a page with nail varnish or lipstick or some such.

Some of the prompts require you to tear pages out of the book. It seemed a bit wasteful to me, but I duly complied.

I cringed when requested to mark a page with dirt, especially when said dirt had to come from a dusty car. Standing on a pavement next to a random car, looking carefully to make sure no one was around before surreptitiously rubbing my book on the side, was possibly my most embarrassing moment of the project.

My very favourite was the one that asks you to fill a page with one word written over and over. I found this quite enjoyable, suggesting my heart really does belong to writing.

Well, I’ve completed the book, and I’m not too sure what to do with it now. It’s far too messy to put it in a drawer with my old diaries. I’ll probably just chuck it out, to be honest.

What have I learned from wrecking my journal? Mainly it’s reinforced that destruction really isn’t for me. I’m not an artist and I don’t want to be. Give me words any day.

If you think this book sounds brilliant, you’re probably right: lots of people love it. If not, you might be like me, and that’s also okay. Honest.

Wedding up North(umberland)

I love weddings. I really do. A chance to get dressed up in an over-the-top outfit and enjoy yourself, surrounded by people you (hopefully) know and who are in the mood to celebrate. Of course, not every wedding is a positive experience, but happily the wedding of a family friend I went to last week was lovely.

The wedding took place in Newton Hall in Northumberland. The venue was gorgeous, but it was a shame about the weather, which prevented the photos being taken outside in front of the Hall. Still, a great deal of fun was had by all.
I got this bargainous dress from Collectif a few weeks ago: it’s the Maria Bloom Swing Dress. My mam made me do it: I had a different dress planned to wear, but she persuaded me to get this one. Well, it was in the sale.

Me wearing my new Collectif dress
Awkward mirror selfie

My shoes are ones that I’ve had a long time. They’re lovely and relatively comfortable, but it’s so long since I’ve worn heels that they started to kill me. The bride had thoughtfully provided flip-flops for all the ladies, but I’ve never been able to wear them (toe posts kill me). So I took my own Rollasoles instead. My bag was a charity shop bargain. I did have a jacket to wear but I ended up leaving it in the house, which meant I was absolutely freezing when we got there. Luckily once we made it inside the building it was nice and warm.

The wedding was beautiful, lots of speeches were made and plenty of wine was drunk (mainly by me). I got to see people I haven’t seen for ages, and I may also have had a bit of a dance. Perhaps.

Happy (belated) New Year!

Happy New Year!

Table set
New Year’s Day meal

This sounds rather late considering we’re well into January by now. In my defence, I’ve been busy and 2017 sort of crept up. I spent the few days between Christmas and New Year in a bit of a stupor, like I always do – even more so given I didn’t have to head back down to London on the 30th like I usually do. I spent New Year with my brother, because I don’t really see him much these days. It was just a small house party with me, him, his girlfriend and a couple of friends, one of whom fell asleep at 10pm and duly had a moustache drawn on his face (not by me!). We mainly played a lot of Jackbox Games, and had Jägerbombs at midnight instead of champagne. The next day my parents had their usual New Year’s Day party and we played a game called Coggle, which involves writing down as many things as you can think of in a particular category beginning with a certain letter. It’s really frustrating when you’re writing a list of “vegetables beginning with the letter P” and the time runs out and you realise you’ve forgotten something really obvious like potato.

Food and drink
Midnight Jägerbombs. Classy.

On the second of January – a bank holiday – I travelled back to London, in time for a four-day week at work, during which I tried to settle back in to office routine and helped to finish the last of the Christmas chocolates. In a bid to get more exercise, I decided to try and walk to the theatre: I’ve worked out that most of the off-West End theatres I visit are around an hours walk from work, which is totally doable, so long as it’s not pouring down with rain. This week I walked to the Southwark Playhouse and the Almeida Theatre, which I’m sure has done me some good.

This weekend I’ve taken the chance to have a proper rest – technically, it’s still Christmas, anyway – but I’ve also been more productive than I expected, as I have:

1. Seen Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them. I hardly ever go to the cinema these days; I think I only went once last year, and that was only because my mam wanted to go. However, I really wanted to see this film, so off I went. I loved it – and the ending surprised me. I can’t wait for the next instalment.

2. Finally seen The Sound of Music. I put off watching this film for years, mainly because Mary Poppins had put me off Julie Andrews (I Can. Not. Stand. Mary Poppins. The character, more than the film. Arrogant, smug and stuck-up). This proved to be unfair as she really is rather good in this. Actually, the whole thing is wonderful and I can’t believe I’ve waited so long to find this out. And I call myself a musicals fan.

3. Changed my room around. For some unknown reason I’ve had my bed in the middle of the room ever since I moved in. Having to walk round the bed every time I wanted something from the other side of the room was a tad annoying, and so I decided to spend the first weekend of the new year productively, and sort it all out. So I pulled everything out from under the bed and moved the bedside table onto the landing and hoovered the other side of the room and pushed the bed over to the side and shoved everything back under the bed again. Phew. That was my exercise for the day sorted.

What have you been up to at the beginning of the year?

Happy Christmas Eve!

I don’t know about you, but I find the week before Christmas always flies by. I’ve been at home for a few days, but it feels like I’ve been here for ages.

Durham
Durham Cathedral

My last day at work was Monday, and I caught the train to Durham really early on Tuesday morning. Despite being shattered I went to the Christmas quiz with my parents. My dad and two others take it in turns to do the pub quiz every Tuesday. This time, however, the one whose turn it was asked the others for help, so the three of them took it in turns to do a round each – a bit like the Three Wise Men. The pub provided Santa hats and crackers, which was nice: I got a mini bowling game in mine, which I’d like to have a go at when I get the chance.

Christmas Quiz
Pub quiz fun times

On Wednesday I went to Beamish with my mam: I’ve got a pass for a year so I want to make the most of it, and I particularly wanted to see what it was like at Christmas. A few years ago they didn’t even open the place at Christmas, except for the town, but these days the whole thing is open and it was absolutely packed. The best bit was the Pockerley Waggonway, which they’d dusted with fake snow and made really Christmassy; they even had reindeer. The market in the town selling mulled wine was pretty good too.

Reindeer
Hello there
Snow
Snow!
Beamish
The town at Beamish

On Thursday I arranged to meet up with one of my friends at the cat cafe in Newcastle. I still haven’t visited London’s cat cafe, but I really wanted to go to this one because of the name – it’s called Mog on the Tyne (my friend and I were singing the song constantly). The cats were so adorable and I was in my element, even though I had to dose myself on antihistamines to combat my unfortunate cat allergy.

Mog on the Tyne
Mog on the Tyne

2016_1222mott03 2016_1222mott10 2016_1222mott11

I was pretty tired by Friday, so it was just as well that I didn’t have much on – just a haircut. Well, I needed to get my roots done too, so I was in there a while. They gave me prosecco so I was quite happy – not so my poor mother who’d brought me to the salon (it’s in our old town, so a bit of a trek). I always get my hair done when I come home as it’s so much cheaper than in London. I get on with the people in the salon too and I’m happy chatting to them, which is pretty unusual for me.

Haircut
New(ish) hair

I posted a photo on Instagram afterwards, but my hair was tucked into my coat and I have a horrible feeling that everyone who liked my photo thought I’d actually got it cut shorter. I don’t care if other people prefer it – longer hair is so much easier to manage on a day-to-day basis so I’m not planning on getting it changed any time soon.

2016_1224riverbar01 2016_1224riverbar02

This morning, I wrapped all my presents then headed out to meet one of my oldest friends for lunch. As I’ve got older I’ve developed different festive traditions and this is one of mine – meeting up with her for food and drinks, though I still like to get home in time to curl up with a book in the evening.

Which is what I’m about to go and do now – Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Christmas selfie
Merry Christmas!

St Petersburg: Ten years after

Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood
Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood

You know you’re getting old when you start celebrating the ten-year anniversary of things. Ten years since you sat your GCSEs. A decade since you took your A Levels. Ten years since you started uni, since you graduated. And, for me, ten years since I got on a plane for the first time in my life and went to Russia to teach English.

It was during my last year at university that I started to panic about what I was going to do next. I should point out that this was before the recession, when graduate jobs weren’t quite as thin on the ground as they are now. Even so, I didn’t know what I wanted to do: I just knew I didn’t want to join one of the big firms that hoover up graduates and train them in management. Ever since I was little, my plans for the future had only ever covered full-time education: what I would do afterwards, I hadn’t a clue. Several of my friends were going on to further study, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford that, and anyway, what would I study? I didn’t regret – I never have regretted – studying history, but it isn’t exactly a path to an obvious career. I was no further to making a choice than I had been at eighteen, sixteen, eleven.

What I did have, at the back of my mind, was a desire to travel, and an interest in Russia, mainly through reading Dostoyevsky and Chekhov. I can’t remember where I first got the idea of teaching English abroad, but before I knew it the idea was firmly fixed in my head. I signed up for a TEFL course in St Petersburg, and spent the rest of my final year, when I wasn’t studying or trying to enjoy my last few months as a student, researching Russia, EFL teaching, and anything else I could find that was relevant.

When I graduated, I spent the summer living with my parents and working two jobs – one in a factory (which wasn’t actually that bad) and one in a bar (which I hated – although I did learn to pull a pint, so my time there wasn’t completely wasted). The summer crept by slowly, but at the beginning of October I got on the train at Newcastle to travel down to London. My parents said goodbye at the Metro station and my brother took me to the railway station and lifted my heavy case onto the train.

In London I stayed overnight with a friend. There were a few of us there and we went out and got completely pissed. This probably wasn’t the best idea. I would certainly have missed the plane if my friend Louise hadn’t woken up, called a taxi, and got me, still drunk, out of the house. When I got to the airport the hangover was beginning to hit. I sat on the plane, about to fly for the first time in my life, and wondered what the hell I was doing.

I was picked up at the airport by a bloke carrying a card with my name on it. He drove me to the flat in which I was staying. My Russian landlady was lovely, but didn’t speak any English. I tried to communicate in my halting Russian, but I don’t know what I would have done without my flatmate, a Russian student at Exeter University who was on her year abroad. She introduced me, explained I was a vegetarian (in Russia, people told me, to survive the cold you need to eat lots of meat or drink lots of vodka. The former method was obviously closed to me; henceforth I’d rely on the latter), and explained the house rules to me. I had my own room, with a corner desk and several bookshelves lined with books in Russian I couldn’t understand.

My room
My room

The TEFL course took a month. The school was opposite the Hermitage at the top of Nevsky Prospect. There were only two other students on the course: the previous cohort, in the summer, had apparently been quite full but those of us who’d waited to save a little money before heading abroad were and few and far between. My fellow trainees were an American and an Irishman, though the American left halfway through when his grandfather sadly died.

The Hermitage
The Hermitage

Surprisingly I quite enjoyed learning to teach, and didn’t perform too badly in the assessments. It was fascinating to see how non-native speakers of English approached the language. One of my students asked me to explain the phrase “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” from Gone With the Wind: it got me to think about the language in ways I’d always taken for granted.

The Bronze Horseman
The Bronze Horseman

After passing the course I taught a few classes at the school, and I had two solo pupils too, whose homes I had to travel to. They lived in flats on the outskirts of St Petersburg and I had to take the Metro. One of my pupils was a very young child of about five. She had long blonde hair and an angelic face and was possibly the most beautiful child I’d ever seen. On the other hand, I found it very hard to teach her, owing to my lack of experience with children of any kind. Frankly I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, and I think she could sense my lack of confidence.

St Isaac's Cathedral
St Isaac’s Cathedral

My other solo pupil was a bit older, about twelve or thirteen. She was easier to get on with and to teach, but I was still a bit nervous around her. I’ve never been particularly confident with teenagers, even when I was one. Back at the school I covered a class of thirteen-year-olds for another teacher who was off sick, and it was one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my life. I found it baffling that they were actually doing what I told them to do. “Open your book at page 36. Fill in the missing words in exercise 1”. It was surreal. I kept expecting them to get up and walk out, or say no, why should we listen to you? But no, they followed the instructions I gave, with only the occasional whisper to suggest they saw how nervous I was. It was bizarre.

One of the very few photos of me from this period of my life.
One of the very few photos of me from this period of my life. With cake.

I definitely felt more comfortable around the adult students. Some of them were my age. A few were older, and one man was retired. I certainly can’t claim to have been the greatest teacher in the world, but I do think I was reasonably competent when it came to instructing these classes of adults.

Dostoyevsky's grave in the Tikhvin Cemetery
Dostoyevsky’s grave in the Tikhvin Cemetery

When I wasn’t teaching, I was out exploring the city. It was beautiful, but dirty, with rickety old vehicles spilling out fumes. There was a grandeur about the city that had faded in places but was still visible here and there. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Hermitage, or Winter Palace, a vast and beautiful store of art. With my Russian student card, I got in for free, and I visited frequently: it took me about five visits to see everything. Incredible as it was, I actually preferred the Russian Museum, with its collections of unusual and, to me, previously unknown works by artists such as Arkhip Kuindzhi and Ilya Repin.

Aerial view
Aerial view

My favourite pastime was to explore the city’s literary past. I visited the former flats of Anna Akhmatova and Alexander Pushkin, and spent an entire Saturday afternoon wandering the woods on the outskirts of the city, trying to find the spot where Russia’s national poet was shot in a duel (the search was fruitless). I visited Dostoyevsky’s house, and spent another afternoon searching for the locations used in his novel Crime and Punishment. Apart from the muddy cars dotted here and there around the square, nothing much had changed since the nineteenth century.

Sennaya Ploshchad (Haymarket Square), made famous by Crime and Punishment
Sennaya Ploshchad (Haymarket Square), made famous by Crime and Punishment

As time went on I ventured further afield, risking buses to go out to the palaces. In the middle of winter the fountains weren’t running at Peterhof, but it was almost worth it to practically have the place to myself. At Catherine’s Palace the snow lay thick on the ground and I could imagine myself in the nineteenth century. It was cold, but rather to my disappointment, not overwhelmingly so. I’d had visions of regaling my family and friends back home with tales of unthinkable cold, a frozen Neva, snow everywhere, but it didn’t even snow on Christmas Day.

The fountains at Peterhof
The fountains at Peterhof

I was supposed to stay in Russia a year; I ended up leaving after three months. Why? Mainly because of money. Once I’d finished my course and started teaching, the school couldn’t offer me enough hours to make ends meet. Most EFL teachers supplemented their income by taking on extra students privately, but I certainly didn’t have the confidence or the wherewithal to go about doing that.

Statue of Pushkin
Statue of Pushkin in Tsarskoe Selo

I missed home. I don’t know if I was homesick exactly, and much as I missed my family and friends, on a day to day basis it was Britain as a place that I missed: the pubs, the coffee shops, even the supermarkets, I missed television: in Russia programmes are dubbed, not subtitled, though we did once go and see the new James Bond and cheer when the Houses of Parliament appeared on the screen. I often hung out at the British Council, which had a library of English-language books that helped to assuage my homesickness. I remained fascinated by Russian culture, and tried to learn as much about it as I could, not to mention the language itself, but at the same time I clung to everything British that I could find.

Moyka River
Moyka River

I spent Christmas in St Petersburg, the first – and so far only – time I’ve spent it away from home. My housemate and closest friend had gone back to the UK for Christmas, but some of her friends had kindly invited me to have dinner with them. I had to teach in the morning (in Russia Christmas is celebrated in early January, and 25 December is just a normal day) and then I met them at their flat. I had a lovely day, but less than a week later I was back in the UK, celebrating New Year with a friend in London before heading back home to see my family and try and figure out what on earth I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

Christmas
Christmas

In many ways, I was glad to be back. While I would still love to travel I think it’s highly unlikely that I would ever live abroad again. Sometimes I regret not sticking it out, and wonder if leaving early makes me a worse person: weaker, less resilient.

A rare snowy day
A rare snowy day

At the same time, I don’t for a minute regret my experiences. Early in the hours of one autumn morning, after an all-night clubbing session with Russian pop music and cheap shots of vodka, I walked down Nevsky Prospect in the cold, ears ringing, exhausted, still slightly drunk, and realised that I was in Russia, in St Petersburg, somewhere I’d only read about in Dostoyevsky and Gogol. I was there, and I’d got there by myself, I’d decided that I wanted to go, and I’d gone.

That thought still sustains me, sometimes.

I haven’t been back to Russia in the past decade, but every autumn when the nights start to draw in, I get a sudden urge to get out my Russian phrasebooks; and when the frost begins and I smell the unexpectedly nostalgic scent of petrol in the cold, I am taken right back to that autumn of 2006.

Happy New Year
Happy New Year