The Kindness of Strangers

And so on Thursday evening I set off with Mum and Dad towards Heathrow Airport. This was probably the most nervous I felt for the whole journey, and I admit that I did find myself a bit weepy at the check-in desk.  But with the power of Caffé Nero and some strong parting words from Mama J, ‘Don’t be an arse. Don’t be a prat.’, I stepped through into security and felt the rush of excitement I had been denying myself through worry the past few weeks. I even laughed when the lights went out on the plane before take-off and a Russian man loudly shouted ‘Спать!/Sleep!’ in a mock-commanding tone. The flight was only marred by the person next to me using the loo three times in the flight which might not sound too bad but is a pain to get up and down that many times between 11 and 2am! When we arrived in Moscow it was a beautiful sunny day, and I was glad to see that I could just relax and pop to the pub in the airport.

I boarded my second flight, heading for Kazan and was excited to see the glorious sunny weather beaming down over Tartastan. But in typical fashion, it was pissing with rain. The university had sent a car to pick me up, and I leapt in with great anticipation, only to find out that my driver was intent on showing me how ‘real Russians drive’. I lived through 10 minutes of dash-cam footage that normally results in bizarre road accidents, with him overtaking cars by swerving into the lane of oncoming traffic. My white knuckle ride was thankfully brief and I checked in to my hostel in Kazan, my temporary base before moving on to University Accommodation. I met some of my dorm buddies and ended up chatting with one Russian girl extensively; she offered me pears from her garden that she’d brought with her and then offered to take me to lunch. Although I was tired and nervous it felt amazing to find someone so warm and welcoming, and who wouldn’t outright laugh at my Russian! She left me at the university afterwards, where I intended to register as a student.

If only it had been that simple. After receiving a form and being told to visit various rooms for stamps (Russians LOVE an official stamp), I went upstairs to find carnage and chaos, swiftly learning that British queueing was but a distant memory. Ferocious mothers were pushing their sons to the front of queues, ‘laddy’ groups pushed quiet bystanders out of the way and I was unable to quite understand it all. Eventually I pushed through to one room to be told I needed to immediately get my medical tests done (in order to be qualified fit and healthy to stay in shared student accommodation) and I was packed off into a taxi, being told that I would be able to order one back to the hostel at the reception of the clinic (with my phone receiving no signal at all at this moment).

I arrived at the Student Clinic and after trying several sets of doors eventually found the way in. This was to be the least of my worries. The clinic was packed with students and judgemental staff who sneered at my desperate fumbling requests for medical exams I didn’t understand but had written on a piece of paper. I was eventually handed a slip instructing me to visit certain rooms to receive mysterious medical tests. The first was a standard blood test, which I again had to wrestle through a crowd of students to receive. These results were to come through in a hour. I went off for my second test, with my arm still stained with some blood from the first,  which I was more aware of; a chest X-Ray. A crowd of about 20 guys and gals swarmed outside room 104 and after letting all the boys through (when the doctor bothered to show up), the girls were finally allowed in. 10 or so of us were bundled into a small changing room where we were instructed to strip our top halves and come through one by one to the X-Ray. At this point I was so far removed from British reserve I didn’t even notice how bizarre it was as we all jostled to get in the X Ray Room first, with our arms crossed over our chests. There’s nothing quite like your first lung X Ray, especially with metallic sounding Russian instructions being shouted at you through a speaker. I was glad to have passed this second task. The final medical exam was signing a paper form, so yeah, I have no idea.

At this point I was tired (only three hours sleep on the planes, approx), frustrated and ready to go back to the hostel to nap. I went to the reception and asked if she could phone a taxi for me since my phone wasn’t working. She looked at me blankly and said, ‘That is…simply impossible’, as the desk phone rang behind her. I was not going down without a fight and refused to leave the desk explaining my stranded predicament. She pressed on about how impossible the whole scenario was and ignored me explaining how I’d been in the city less than 12 hours, so didn’t really have any other options. Reader, she won. I cried a little. It was all a little too surreal a day. Thankfully somewhere overheard my predicament and swiftly pulled me aside, explaining in English that she would call a taxi for me. She was also an international student who had been in Kazan for a year already, and she comforted me explaining that not all Russian bureaucratic works are friendly, to say the least. This small act of kindness and solidarity really turned my day around, and I genuinely do not know what I would have done without her, being in the flap that I was.

Returning to the hostel I reflected on my day of goodies and baddies, amidst being thrown into the Russian environment like Rasputin into the Neva. Even though the day had seen various frustrations, I felt all the more thankful for those who had chatted with me and gave me an elusive Russian smile. Pears and taxis are all you need sometimes.

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