On another day in another place.

The gray sky hangs low, pressing you into the ground, opening out the horizon and forcing everything else to admit its insignificance.

Yet on this unpreposing canvas the reds and yellows of the trees glow. Green grass seems brighter. Buildings are whiter, and every little scrap of litter on the ground shines out in lurid advertisement of its former contents. There is no wind, and no chill in the air. Instead you are wrapped in a gentle soothing clagginess, fine drizzle misting your hair, which is soon warmed away as the fires are lit and bottles of beer are broached.

It is a distinctly autumnal kind of day.

Which is something to be savoured in Russia, a country where your favourite season lasts five minutes between the scorching heat of summer and the first snowfall.

20090416_autumn_leaves

This is also a distinctly Russian works day out.

First, of course, is the enforced dash through culture. A trip around the New Jerusalem Monastery, undergoing, in common with every other Russian Orthodox building at this time, extensive renovations. The money that is being spent on the hand-painted frescoes, re-plastered walls, gold-leafed cupolas and heavily-carved stonemasonry is a testament to just how popular religion becomes if it’s banned for 70-odd years.

Much like any other drug.

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The highlight of the visit is a stone heralded as an exact 1:3 scale copy of the boulder which once covered the enterance of the tomb of Christ. A solemn precession of irritable foriegners, resentlful that this is taking up valuable drinking time, shuffle past, intoning “But how do they know?”

But then comes release. Into the park. Head for the windmill. Ignore the replica wooden peasents hut and chapel, ignore Patriach Nikon’s home-in-exile, ignore the riverside baptismal platform, ignore the colourful wishing trees with their penants of hankerchiefs, scarfs and plastic bags. Head straight for the beer.

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But there is little time to relax, for the entertainment the Boss has laid on is spectacular. In the middle of a field, in the middle of the sodden Russian countryside, you are seranaded by a full brass band, complete with baton-twirling, bright-smiling majorettes in shocking blue and red uniforms. And then, still reeling from the incongruity of it all, the folk singers come on, persuade a gaggle of capering lads to take bread and salt, chivy the company into the spoon game, and start up the ever popular tunnel procession run, last seen played by teenagers on Red Square before a pop-concert.

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And so to bed. Drunken staggering in the half-light, singing, whispering, collapsing.

On чистота – чистоТайд.

Being without the Internet for twenty odd days as a result of the move to the new flat was bad, but being without a washing machine was far far worse.

This is because the washing machine is the single most useful invention ever.

It’s taken a while for you to realise this, of course.

When you were at university, trundling off to the local laundrette on a regular basis didn’t seem that awful. Oh, how foolishly carefree and young you were.

Then you spent a year in Russia in the late 1990s where most households survived without a washing machine, a laundrette or even a mangle.

You found this odd.

Considering that the classic dilemma of the Soviet woman was the need to participate fully in the workplace whilst simaultaneously doing all the housework, shopping and child rearing, you’d have though they would need all the help they could get.

In fact, the suspicion has occasionally crossed your mind that having bred the sort of titanically energetic woman that laughs in the face of domestic labour saving devices, this situation has given rise to a sort of onedownmanship where instead of keeping up with the Ivanovs, it’s the woman who blinks first and admits she can’t manage without assistance who loses the game.

Usually such uncharitable thoughts hit you when you had developed back ache from bending over the bath kneading your clothes or were covered in water after attempting to wring some of it out. The truth of it is probably more of a comment on the thickness of the glass ceiling in the USSR, which might put the woman to work, but wouldn’t have her in charge of something as important as import/ export criteria or manufacturing quotas. And clearly no non laundry cleaning man is going to admit the strategic importance of the washing machine.

You are still impressed by the number of female mathematicians and engineers in your mother’s, hell, your grandmother’s generation though.

Incidently, the moment you realised that Russia had become altogether too tame a place was when, while interviewing people for positions, the mention of the fact that prospective teachers’ flats wouldn’t contain such a contraption started to produce stunned horrified little silences rather than enthusiastic assurances that it was this sort of exotic experience that was the whole reason for applying to work in the Wild East.

However, you did at least recognise that you were operating from a position of smugness at this point as when you had moved in with B, he did have a washing machine. You suspect that your mother in law had, at some point, used her knowledge of her menfolk’s chronic technology fetish to good effect, in much the same way that the thrift instinct that kept your Dad wedded to a small black and white TV long long after everyone else on the street had a colour set could sometimes be overcome if you dangled the opportunity to play with new gadgetry in front of him.

Although since your Father likes his stuff prototypnic, this was hardly ever much of an improvement. Yes, your family had a ZX81 as its personal computer for much of the 80s.

Anyway, clearly, you thought, your days of subsisting without a washing machine were over. This was before you spent a year in a one room basement (sorry, ‘garden’) flat (with shower room) in Kensington on your return to the UK, where the washing machines were over the other side of a busy road and coin operated. There are many things wrong with living in a one room basement (sorry, ‘garden’) flat (with shower room) on a busy road in Kensington, but this was one of the more irksome ones. The day you moved into your new place, you spent a happy couple of hours sitting on the floor of the kitchen, watching your clothes slosh around in your very own machine with a beatific smile.

However, you had not realised the depths of desperation to which you could sink until the day after you had moved into the flat next door.

At first glance, moving next door seemed like a good idea. It has an extra bedroom for the Star, a balcony for your herbs and space in the kitchen for an actual table. And obviously, going next door meant not having to pack up in quite the same way that going to the other end of the country would do. Especially when B realised that if you took the window out of its frame in one flat, you could easily pass everything except the furniture across to a tall person (your Brother) standing in the new flat.

Unfortunately, this, combined with the fact that while B had made energetic use of the loft in the old flat, the new flat’s loft wasn’t yet fit for purpose, meant that when you and the Star finally entered your new home, you found much of it looking as though it was auditioning for one of the more frighteningly cluttered episodes of How Clean is Your House. It was standing room only, dwarfed by bin bags of clothes, HiFi separates and furniture from both the old and the new flat.

You spent the first week holed up in the bedroom hiding from the mess.

But this was nothing to the despair you nearly had when, investigatingan unpleasant smell in the kitchen, you opened the washing machine and found not only actual stagnant water standing in the bottom, but that the rubber surround to the door was nearly black in places, and what you found when you opened the soap drawer is best left to the imagination.

An entire bottle of bleach later and the smell was still there and you were officially over hysterical hill and rapidly acellerating down the other side.

Because you had finally realised that whatever inconveniences you had suffered when lacking a washing machine before, this is as nothing when faced with the prospect of trying to keep the Star’s vast wardrobe free from piss and puke on three consecutive hours of sleep at a time with only the aid of a bath full of water and soap flakes for company when you are also trying to feed him every two hours to counteract the problem that he seems to absolutely resist turning into one of the big fat monster babies you are forced to sit next to in the baby clinic week after week.

Luckily, at this point, B stuck his head inside the machine and decided that while it did have a powerful smell, that smell was the reek of heavy duty cleaning products, so the odour must be coming from somewhere else.

And lo, it turned out that when plumbing in the kitchen appliances, the former owners had simply made a hole in the waste pipe and shoved the connectors in, thus accounting for the distinctly sewagelike quality of the smell which was one of its more freaky features, although this was overshadowed by what B assured you was the distinct possibility that the contents of the pipe could end up inside the washing machine and the dishwasher should enough people decide to flush their toilets at the same time.

The fact that the floor under the washing machine shows distinct signs of having been saturated at some point was therefore not reassuring.

Luckily, a short trip to the hardware store and much banging and swearing from B later and the washing machine was restored, along with your piece of mind.

And your conviction, now even more firmly held, that the washing machine is the basic measure of civilisation.

On your holiday.

So you and B went on holiday.

You haven’t the energy for much description right now – in the last two weeks you have spent five days locked in a room with thirty three 8 year olds who have been fed a bowl of sugar for breakfast each and 30 minutes writing down the story of Britain from 1000 (AD) to 2000 (AD). This covered four pages, you are pleased to say, even if you didn’t mention any names or dates between 1066 and Henry VIII.

You have realised that as a practsing teacher you really did spend a lot of time on your feet, pacing about, but discovered that as a student teacher you are required to sit in one place for hours at a time.

This is surprisingly difficult.

You have also spent more time than you really feel comfortable with smiling politely and getting to know new people, and you have established that you are seemingly the only one on your course who graduated more than ten years ago.

Hell, you are the only one on your course who graduated more than six years ago, and until you spoke up that person had been feeling quite uncomfortable.

Luckily there are at least a few people over thirty, which is one reason for not having strong hysterics. The other is that you haven’t finished later than 3.30pm for two weeks, although the stack of books on the to be read pile is now reading alarming proportions.

 For this reason, no one should be too surprised if this is your last post for a while.

And this one will consist of mostly pictures.

You were thrilled that a trip round Aunts and Grandfathers on the Welsh borders meant you could look at some castles.

The Ludlow one is most impressive:

Ludlow Castle

In contrast, this is about it for Bridgenorth:

Bridgenorth Castle

This is more of a fortified mannor house:

A fortified mannor house

And here is Aberystwyth’s:

Aberystwyth Castle

Note the war memorial in the background. No, really, do. Round the other side there’s an even bigger sculpture than the angel you can see on the top there. Of an exceptionally scantily clad woman. And you can really only describe the pose as ‘writhing’. Shame the picture didn’t come out, but you are sure everyone can usefully put their imaginations to work.

Andway, statues of near nacked suggestively posed women? In Aberystwyth? In the heartlands of Methodist protestantism? What were they thinking?

Still, they also have a stone circle, so perhaps years of repression were really a cover for wild pagan roots. Here’s a bit of it:

Aberystwyth, from the castle

And some more photos of scenes ffrom Aber:

From Aberystwyth castle

Aberystwyth, from the ‘mountain’ railway

The Welsh Coast

As is your wont while sightseeing, you had an exciting time viewing churches. B was particularly thrilled by this one in Ludlow, until you realised that it was merely Catholic, rather than evidence of Orthodoxy:

Ludlow RC Church

You prefered this Anglo Saxon one, although you seem to have taken a picture of the Norman tower rather than the walls you were particularly excited by:

An Anglo Saxon Church

And then there was Hereford Cathedral, which you are not sure the nine hour detour really justified, especially as when you got there, you didn’t go in as they were having some kind of flower festival.

Hereford Cathedral

Hereford Catchdral from the front

You did a bit of disaster tourism too. The floods have effectively closed down the Severn Valley Railway, which has had an unfortunate effect on Bridgenorth in particular, but did mean you go to see plenty of steam trains sitting about:

The Severn Valley Railway

A Severn Valley Railway Loco

And you are undecided if sophisticated London could come up with an installation more poinant than this, caused by the collapse of the bridge in Ludlow:

The effects of the flood in Ludlow

You are also undecided if it was the Shropshire towns or the copurtyside which provided the biggest contrast to life in the city though.

Bridgenorth

A nice building in Ludlow

A nice house

Isn’t this one yellow?

Shropshire

Although you had rather had your fill after spending the afternoon lost in the Welsh borderlands:

Wales

Wales

Wales

Wales

Wales

Wales

Wales

And then there was the car you hired for the trip:

The Car

Well, ‘hired’ is the wrong word. You actually booked the far more sensible Ford Focus. When you turned up, however, they offered you the Beetle and….

People kept looking at you as you drove along. It was most disconcerting. You and B are quietly in agreement that you are both far to untrendy to really carry such a machine off for any length of time.

But still…