Little Free Library

In the gardens of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, stands a little wooden cabinet with a glass door, filled with books, and with the words “Little Free Library” painted on the front. Anyone can take books from this cabinet, and anyone is also welcome to leave books there that they no longer want. I used to walk past it every time I went to see my friend at the college, and it always made me smile.

I had assumed that this was an independent initiative of the college (Cambridge is full of quirks like that), so imagine my surprise when I stumbled accross an identical one right in the middle of Samara! I stopped to take a photo of it, only to realise my camera was out of battery. As I was doing so, I suddenly realised that someone was standing behind me, watching me. I turned around, somewhat embarrassed, to see a man, probably in his mid-forties.

Being English, and therefore perpetually awkward, I apologised and explained my behaviour, and we got talking. Sergei Alexandrovich is a literature fanatic – in ten minutes or so, he walked me through his personal interpretations of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, spoke about the difficulties of translating Pushkin, and explained his deep love of Lermontov. He also explained to me why a person cannot be complete until they have studied both yoga and philosophy (it’s to do with creating and controlling your own worldview).

I was expected somewhere, so I couldn’t stay long, but Sergei Alexandrovich asked me for my name and phone number so we could stay in touch. My sense of self-preservation kicked in here and so when I declined to give him my number, he pointed out his flat accross the road, had me memorise the address, and made me promise to drop by. At that, he went home and I promptly marched off in the wrong direction, causing me to be late for my meeting anyway. But that’s another story for another time.

In England, Russians are often perceived as closed and unfriendly. I have always found the opposite to be the case, and I think this unexpected encounter stands to prove that. True, in certain “official” circumstances – shops, banks, on public transport – people can be very curt. But as soon as there’s a talking point – in this case, a little free library – most Russians I’ve met have been open, warm and interesting.

It’s hard to imagine a stranger on the streets of any big city in the UK stopping to discuss literature. Maybe it’s unusual here too. But it certainly was interesting.

I doubt I will stop by Sergei Alexandrovich’s flat, but I will definitely return to the Little Free Library – even if it’s only to take that photograph!

(Incidentally, I’ve since learnt that Little Free Libraries exist all over the world, and that the project started in the USA. You can even see a map with all of the libraries marked on it, although for some reason Samara isn’t there:
littlefreelibrary.org/ourmap/)

I finally did manage to go back and get that picture, though!

I finally did manage to go back and get that picture, even if it’s not the best quality!

Where’s your boyfriend?

One of the most common questions I’ve received since being here (after “You left London? For Samara? Why?!”) is: “Where’s your boyfriend?”. It seems to be a standard conversation-opener in all sorts of situations: at work; in my host family; with new friends; pretty much everywhere.

I knew that Russians had different attitudes towards relationships from us – people tend to get married at around 21 or 22, for instance, and if a person (read: woman) isn’t married by the time they’re in their late twenties, then they’re considered old. Nonetheless, I wasn’t prepared for quite how often the question would be raised in seemingly unrelated conversations.

Today, for example, I taught an English conversation class at one of Samara’s many universities, whilst the teacher sat and observed, occasionally interjecting. And so, this conversation occurred:

Me: Well, you see, the English education system differs vastly from the Russian one in that…
Teacher: But where’s your boyfriend?
Me: I’m sorry…what?
Teacher: Where’s your boyfriend?
Me: I don’t have one.
Teacher: No, no. I mean…where’s your boyfriend?
Me: But I don’t have one.
Teacher: But your boyfriend, where is he? Is he also a volunteer in Samara?
Me: No, I don’t have a boyfriend.
Teacher: What, not at all?
Me: Not at all.
Teacher: How old are you?
Me: 22
Teacher: Shame on you! Here, you can go out with Dima (one of the students in the class who had the misfortune to arrive late at that moment)

People are genuinely surprised, sometimes even shocked, to learn that the average marriage age in the UK is 30 for women, and they don’t understand why I’m not actively looking for a husband. I’ve met many beautiful, intelligent women in their late twenties and early thirties who have told me that their families put them under enourmous pressure, even sometimes make them feel like failures, because they are not yet married. For me this is completely alien – how can these women, who have learnt foreign languages, travelled, studied, forged successful careers for themselves, be seen as failures purely because they have orbited the sun thirty times and not signed a piece of paper binding them to another person? It seems especially ironic since Russia has, allegedly, the highest divorce rates in the world (in terms of crude numbers, although not as a marriage:divorce ratio). Tellingly, those I spoke to found nothing shocking in men waiting until 30 or older to marry; only women.

Still, I am very aware that I cannot come to Russia and simply impose my British ideals on the country, and I do recognise lots of advantages in relationships “po russkii”.

For one thing, children have the luxury of young, active parents and even young, active grandparents who are alive well into their children and grandchildrens’ adulthoods.

There is also a sense of mutual respect between men and women that I really like: relationships tend to be serious, long-term commitments. While this might frighten a young, flighty, Guardian-reading British graduate like me, I have to admit that there is a great deal to be said for making a commitment to another person and sticking with it through thick and thin.

I’ve wondered many times who’s got it right, the Russians or the Brits, and I still don’t know the answer. That said, I don’t see myself rushing to the altar any time soon…Dima from the English lesson, don’t hold your breath!

Hello!

So, I have yielded to the pressure and created a blog about my year spent as an EVS (European Voluntary Service) volunteer in Samara, Russia. I want this to be something more than just “What I Did On My Holidays”. My initial plan was to compile a collection of Russian jokes, but this is proving harder than planned, as every person I’ve asked thus far has replied “Ой, я не знаю. Я вообще не люблю анекдоты” (“Oh, I don’t know. I don’t really like jokes”) or something along those lines.

So instead, I want to use this blog as a platform to share what I learn and what I experience here, both good and bad. I’ll write what I notice about Russian culture, post photographs, comment on differences between Russia and the UK.

So watch this space…