Thursday, 15 December 2011

Things I Miss About the UK

I am packing and it's making me sad, partly because packing is shit, but also because I like it here and I wish I could stay. So I'm distracting things by thinking of 10 things I miss about the UK.

1. David. Being long distance sucks. The bear hug icon on skype just isn't the same. It'll be great to see him again, and see him regularly, and most of all, to not have to stay up till 1am whenever we want to talk.

2. Oxford CS group. And other friends, but mainly CSers.

3. My bike. It's free and keeps me thin and is fast.

4. Pubs. Pubs soothe the English soul. That's why we have dates in them.

5. Rowing. When I get out on the river, all the stresses just fade away, and I feel a million miles from everyday life, even when all I've done is cycle across Oxford at 5am in all the clothes I possess. It's good for me and I don't feel quite right without it.

6. Ale. When it's hot, lager is fine. When it's cold, I don't want to drink something cold, I want a nice warming pint of ale. Also, and ale has flavour. Plus it'll be fun to carry on with the counties challenge (I'm planning West Sussex for New Year, and Cambridge on Jan 2nd).

7. Lib Demming. I've done quite a bit of thinking and blogging and post-commenting here, but I'm looking forward to getting back to real politics, which in Lib Dem terms, means leaflets!

8. Being able to control my own heating. At the moment I need to decide to go to sleep about half an hour in advance, so I can open the window and let cold air in, then shut it and have enough time to get to sleep before it gets suffocating.

9. Getting exercise. Not to be confused with my bike - I also like to run, but people don't really do that here so I felt weird when I tried. Plus in Oxford it's easy to do it in the countryside, so it feels a bit weird doing it in a crowded city. And I like to climb, and I'm really looking forward to hitting the wall again - possibly on Monday after I get back on Saturday!

10. Knowing where to buy stuff. There's something very comforting about knowing where I need to go if I need to buy something or get something done, like getting shoes re-heeled or a key cut or buying stationary. It takes a while in every new country, and it does make life a lot easier.

I should probably also say that I miss my family, but as a foreign office brat, not seeing them for a few months at a time is pretty normal, so while I do miss them, I talk to them often enough, so it's not really hitting the top 10 and anyway it feels like a cop-out.

I do actually feel better now, and more to the point I've successfully procrastinated for at least 20 minutes. Win!

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Moscow Diary: Daylight Saving Time

For some reason best known to themselves, in 2011 the Russians abolished Daylight Saving Time, so we didn't change the clocks. As a result, it currently gets light at about 9:30.

There is currently a debate in the UK about whether to pilot moving to 'double summertime' or Central European Time - so we would still change the clocks, but we would be on GMT+1 in winter, and GMT+2 in summer. There are a number of arguments in favour - some claim it will save electricity, while others suggest that it could lead to a reduction in the number of children killed crossing the roads. The counter-arguments are basically that it's really depressing getting up in the winter in the dark, and that midday should be in the middle of the day. No-one really knows, hence the idea of a pilot.

While I have to admit the stop-kids-dying argument is fairly compelling, I've always come down fairly firmly on the 'keep GMT' side of the argument, but I love a good experiment, so I was quite excited to see what it would be like here. I was concerned, though, that my prior biases would lead to my being grumpy about it to prove myself right, so I decided not to leave off commenting as long as possible in a vague hope that more time would help me make an informed opinion.

Anyway, it's now almost the shortest day, and all I can say is: for the love of all that is sacred, DON'T DO IT! The working day here is 10-6, but even so I'm late to work most days. I set my alarm dutifully for 8 every day, but when I wake up it's just pitch black - like the middle of the night pitch black. Getting up to move is harder than I can do justice to. We're just not made for it! What's more, my colleagues, who don't have my prior prejudices, feel the same.

In the UK, we'd be dealing with the same kinds of hours, and most of us don't get to wander into work at 10:30. And it's SO, SO much worse than normal winter.

Seriously, don't do it.

Moscow Diary: Shampansky

One of my absolute favourite things about Russia is the Soviet Champagne. In Russian it's written with a 'sh' at the beginning, so I call it shampansky to make sure we don't get confused!

I was once told that 'shampansky' dates from the war, with the French allowing the Russians to call their sparkling wine 'champagne' as a thank-you for rescuing them from the Nazis. The story never did ring true - do trademarks work like that? And anyway, we all know that the French Resistance liberated France on its own. And as it turned out, the truth was more prosaic.

Sparkling wine has been produced in Russia since Tsarist times, but true 'Soviet' Shampansky dates from the Stalin era, when an aristocratic chemist called Anton Frolov-Bagreev (yes, I know the link is in Russian, but that's what Google Translate is for) developed a mass production technique. Frolov-Bagreev had an interesting personal history - a Tsarist winemaker who was exiled to Siberia for his participation in the 1905 revolution, he was reprieved in 1906 when his expertise was realised to be essential. Come the Revolution, this history, combined with his continued value as an expert wine maker, was enough to override his aristocratic background. In 1934 came his final triumph - the development of a technique to make sparkling wine in vats rather than in bottles, dramatically reducing costs and making a "people's champagne" or "sovietsky shampansky".

And since then, they haven't looked back. Come the fall of communism, private companies bought the 'sovietsky shampansky' label, and have been marketing it that way ever since. It's available in every supermarket, starting at a bargainous 92 Rubles, or less than £2. The 92 ruble stuff is pretty undrinkable... unless you add some kind of fruit juice... but for 150 rubles you can get something enjoyable. Which makes it totally feasible to bring shampansky to any kind of social gathering - even if that gathering consists of a night train.

There's something marvellously decadent about being able to invite someone over for an afternoon of champagne whenever you want to. A lifestyle that is definitely beyond me in the UK, but which, thanks to dodgy Russian trademarking, is totally within my reach here. Sadly, though, shampansky's days are numbered. According to the wine-connoisseur's section of the internet, Russia has agreed to stop using the shampansky branding, in exchange for their trademarks being recognised by other wine regions.

I suppose there is a case to be made that Russia becoming a constructive member of the international trademark community is a Good Thing. But I like being able to order soviet champagne in bars, and drink bubbly as often as I like. So... bah, humbug!

Also, I love that this only happened when a shampansky owner bought vineyards in Champagne. Which I'm sure is a coincidence. Not.

Hmph.

Monday, 12 December 2011

The Lib Dems are the real Eurosceptics.

Ever since the UK's disastrous bungling of the EU negotiations, I've been reading about the 'Eurosceptics' and getting steadily more annoyed. Because our framing of the debate between 'eurosceptics' and 'europhiles' plays into the hands of the anti-Europeans.

You see, 'Europhiles' implies some kind of starry-eyed love affair, far removed from daily reality, a borderline obsession, and an uncritical view. It has an unctuous, slippery feel to it, and implies being somehow craven to some outer force.

'Euroscepticism', on the other hand, implies intelligent criticism. A willingness to interrogate the facts, and draw sensible, considered conclusions - and accept the positives of Europe when appropriate. To use a phrase that has become popular in Lib Dem circles when discussing the coalition, it implies being a 'critical friend'.

But that's not what the Tory right are like at all. Their opposition to the EU isn't considered and evidence-based. It's instinctive, knee-jerk and borderline hysterical. They don't acknowledge it's positives - they seek to identify flaws and paint them as the project's whole. Their attitude, not only to the EU but to the concept of Europe as a whole, is one of contempt. It's a relationship of fear and hatred rather than scepticism, and we should call it that - Europhobia.

Because after all, labels matter. Time and again, as a proud pro-European, I have been asked whether I support the transfer of wealth to the Duke of Westminster. Of course not, I say. How about the lack of democratic accountability? No, I'm a Liberal, of course I believe in democracy. How about the waste of having two seats? Don't be ridiculous. But how can you criticise all that, and say you believe in Europe?

As any pro-European knows, the answer is that being pro-European doesn't involve ignoring or whitewashing the EU's flaws. It means seeing yourself as part of Europe, both as an identifier and as a political construct, and commitment to making the EU work. But it also carries a responsibility to identify the EU's problems, and seek to change them - because what's the point in believing in an institution if you don't see it as it is and seek to improve it. In other words, it implies being sceptical.

So the way I see it, we pro-Europeans are the real Eurosceptics, and the Tory right that are celebrating this week are Europhobes, as blinded by their own prejudice as they imply the 'Europhiles' they so deride to be. And we need to reclaim this ground. Opinion polls show that EU reform is popular - more popular than withdrawal. Most people in Britain are Eurosceptic - not Europhobes - and by painting ourselves in this way, we show that we understand their concerns and can represent them better than Little Englander Conservatism. But if we allow the Tories to dictate the terms of the debate, they will be drawn between withdrawal on the one hand, and slavish adherance to the EU in its current form on the other - and we will lose.

If there's one thing we learned from the AV referendum, let it be this - it's the side that is most ruthless in determining the debate that wins. For years, pro-Europeans have allowed the Europhobes to claim that they represent the sceptical majority. It's time to challenge that - stop being apologists for Europe, and use this disaster to move forward.

Moscow Diary: Babushki

Babushka is one of the few Russian words that everyone knows. It means grandmother, or old lady, as opposed to 'dyevushka', meaning 'young lady'. Somewhere around the age of about 50, you jump from being a dyevushka to being a babushka, which entails a number of steps:
- stop wearing heels.
- buy a headscarf or hat.
- buy a shapeless coat
- carry a lot of bags, preferably the mesh plastic ones that my family call refugee bags.
- spend your days working at a market stall or selling things outside the metro.
- bring huge amounts of food on train journeys to feed people with.
- get a job as a museum attendant and get angry with people when you think they haven't seen everything in the museum or when they talk or laugh in the museum.

It can't be easy being a babushka. Many are widows, due to high male mortality, and Moscow is an expensive city, and pensions are low, so pensions don't go a long way. Which is why so many of them have to spend their old age selling boxes of apples outside the metro.

But at the same time, babushki are awesome. The food is obviously useful, but they're also indomitable and indestructable. They aren't in an easy position, but they manage. They command respect - the way I crossed the road when I was first here was to hide behind a babushka. And they're amazing at scaring off unwanted male attention on behalf of younger women. A friend who has taken the Trans-Siberian recalls the time a drunk man tried to attack one of the girls on the train - only for a horde of babushki to come to her rescue. I actually really like this - it's very empowering, especially given our English stereotype of little old lady victim of drunken youths.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Looking at My Own Culture

By coincidence, a friend who is a city lawyer moved to Moscow in the same week I did, so by extension I was admitted to the periphery of her wide circle of lawyers in Moscow. In the end, this has been as interesting as my interactions with Russians, but it's taken me a little while to put my finger on why.

The most obvious, is that it's good to have your perceptions shattered once in a while. It's very easy to think of 'city people' as a homogenous, grey-suited, evil bloc. Of course I know there's more to it than this - I have friends from uni who went into the city - but they do all come out quite similar, and they do all wear a lot of grey. What I forget, of course, is that they started out quite similar too, and that city people are as diverse as any other group. I might have known that intellectually, but seeing it in real life is a handy refresher course.

Thinking about it though, I knew there was more to it than that. And the next point I came up with is that it reaffirms my own choices. I thought about the city a lot of times, and got as far as applying for a law conversion course and almost-applying for some management consultancy jobs. But in the end, I turned down the conversion course and didn't hit send for the management consultancy, because I knew it would suck me in and I knew it would make me miserable. Don't get me wrong; with a few exceptions, the lawyers here are happy being lawyers (some for now, some wanting to stick with it), and they have good lives of a standard way above what I can afford. But it would make me unhappy, and the way I did it, even though it involved years of slave labour, penury, and uncertainty before I finally got a job, was worth it, because through all of it I was working towards something I loved, and I ended up in a job that I love with an organisation that epitomises my ideals. I'll never be rich, I'll probably end up with malaria at some point, and it'll knock Hell out of my relationships, but Oxfam is who I am, and being here and being in a crowd in which I so obviously don't belong has helped reaffirm that.

But when I talked about this with one of the lawyers on Saturday night, I realised that in what I said something was missing. Chewing it over, I realised that what I've valued most in it is the challenge to my thinking.

During my masters degree, we talked occasionally about epistemic communities. Essentially, these are formed when academics and others working on an issue area reach a certain consensus that influences policymakers' thinking in that area - not necessarily because the epistemic community agrees on... well... anything, but because they conform to a similar model of thought that comes to perpetuate itself. Oxfam is a lot like this. Everyone there is a liberal, Guardian-reading, leftie who supports Occupy, worries about their carbon footprint, and thinks couchsurfing is awesome. I'm sure there *are* Telegraph-reading Tories in Oxfam, but they keep their heads down. To all intents and purposes, as a Lib Dem, I'm relatively right wing in Oxfam terms. This has all sorts of advantages - I love being able to explore ideas that are way outside the media mainstream, like the zero growth movement, and feel a part of an international movement of like-minded people. But it's also occasionally stultifying, and it puts me at risk of groupthink.

Being here has been a good counterbalance to that. Among the lawyers, there are plenty of people that care about inequality and climate change, vote Labour or Lib Dem, and read the Guardian. But the epistemic community they make up reads the FT and votes Conservative, and when I mentioned couchsurfing it was clear that most people filed it straight under 'crazy Oxfam hippie shit'. It's good for me to interact with them for a bit - make my arguments, then listen to how they react, what they say, and what freaks them out. Sometimes I think they are accepting arguments that just aren't true - but sometimes they question assumptions of mine that seemed obvious to me. It's less about winning the argument - at the end of the day, most of them will still vote Tory, although I might convert one or two at the margins - and more about seeing which of my assumptions they jump at.

The key point, is that I get even more out of this than when I talk to Tories at home. There, the ones I discuss politics with are people from the political-media world, or 'country' Tories of my parents' world - and although they might profoundly disagree with me on all matters of principle and policy, they have the same priorities and same perspective as me, because they grew up in and live in the same world. We argue about policy, I listen to their points, I make mine, and I make notes about how to win the argument next time. Sometimes I think they're little short of evil, sometimes I win them over, and sometimes I accept that they're right and I'm wrong, but I'm rarely called on to question my fundamental assumptions about the way the world works.

So it's another angle, to another world. It's been good for me, not only from selfish standpoints, like reinforcing my natural tendency towards insufferable smugness, but also because stepping into another world is good for us - and I think most of the lawyers would learn just as much if they came to hang out with my people and listened to us.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Moscow Diary: Weddings

This is a post I've been meaning to write for ages, but which kept getting pushed down my list.

One of the weirdest thing about Russia is that wherever you go on a Saturday, you are surrounded by couples in wedding clothes having their picture taken. As far as I can tell, in Russia, a wedding basically consists of having the ceremony, then traipsing from one local beauty spot to another having your picture taken - parks, lakes, pretty buildings, and, GUM, the shopping centre on Red Square, all seem to be particularly popular locations, and they also all seem to make stops at the local war memorial, where they pose for pictures and the bride leaves the bouquet.

And then there's the dresses. Meringue doesn't even begin to do them justice - massive, over-bright white, crazy lace, you name it. I thought the wedding dresses in Israel were hilarious, but the Russian ones have them beat hands down.

What's impressive, apart from their stamina - it doesn't look like a lot of fun - is that they're completely undeterred by the weather. In -5 or colder in Kazan, they were still out there for hours. They prepare for it though - white knee-high boots, and a nice line in white jackets to go over the dresses. Impressive, but still bemusing - honestly, should I get married, once the ceremony is over, I want to be eating, drinking, and generally making merry - not wandering around in the snow having my picture taken. And if I knew I was going to have to traipse round outside having pictures taken, I wouldn't get married in Russia in November!

I feel even sorrier for the guests. They stand around outside, usually in grotesquely inappropriate clothing, looking freezing and waiting for the couple to be done. Again, not how I would want to spend my friends' weddings, or how I would want my friends to spend my wedding!

So, during my time here, I've made a hobby of taking sneaky pictures of weddings. Below, for your enjoyment, are a few of my favourites: