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Sunbathing in Siberia-Michael Oliver-Semenov

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Sunbathing in Siberia
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Автор: Michael Oliver-Semenov,

Жанр: Путешествия и география, Биографии и Мемуары,

Серия: ,

Издательство: Parthian Books,

Язык: en

served as the first poet in residence for , the magazine of cultural intelligence, and has since been published in a plethora of magazines and journals worldwide, including the , , , and . He is a freelance English teacher and occasionally contributes to the . About the Author Review With little knowledge of post-Soviet Russia, or its language; and without any survival skills, Michael has to adapt to the Siberian way of life. As Russia struggles to find its new identity, Michael too is forced to recreate himself, while finding the tools needed to live with parading nuclear missiles, wild bears, and a host of extreme dangers. Without aiming to be a survival guide, romance or autobiography, manages to be all of them and none. Told completely from the Trans-Siberian and a series of Russian jets, this is the story of a young British poet, who, after becoming engaged to his translator over 3500 miles east, embarks on a journey into the very heart of Siberia to marry his fiancée. However, in place of the desolate wasteland he expected to find, Michael discovers the side of Siberia little known outside of Russia. After 30 years of British rain, Michael has finally to learn the art of sunbathing, in the last place on Earth anyone would think to take a pair of flip-flops.

      M. A. Oliver-Semenov

      SUNBATHING IN SIBERIA:

      A MARRIAGE OF EAST AND WEST IN POST-SOVIET RUSSIA

      To everyone living in Russia,

      everyone living outside of Russia,

      and everyone in-between.

      PART I

      a. Aeroflot Flight SU0242. March 29th 2011. London – Moscow

      Jaffa Cake: A round soft sponge type thing topped with orange coloured jelly and covered in a thin layer of chocolate. How was anyone supposed to know a Jaffa is an orange when it doesn’t say so on the box? It said ‘Jaffa Cakes’, meaning that Jaffa was either the name of the company or it was an actual fruit in its own right, like a kiwi or a banana. Or it could have even been a totally made-up name like rock cakes, which to my knowledge contain no rocks at all. How was I supposed to know that Jaffa wasn’t a country, or a person? Where I grew up there was a local man called Jaffa; and although I suspected it wasn’t his real name it was the only name anyone knew him by; and besides, people had all sorts of weird names, especially in the food world, like Captain Birdseye and Mr Kipling. It was a basic logical deduction that led me to believe that, much in the same way Mr Kipling had invented a type of cake, Jaffa Cakes were invented by someone named Jaffa.

      I was in my late twenties when I discovered that this wasn’t true, that Jaffa was, in fact, a type of orange from a place named Jaffa. I listened to my friends talking about some poor bugger who had admitted that he didn’t know what a Jaffa was. And to my newly acquired middle class, it was something they could laugh heartily about. They couldn’t imagine living in a world where people had no experience of Jaffa oranges being anything other than a slice of gooey jelly placed on top of a cake that came in packs of twelve and was nice enough, and affordable enough, that your mother bought a pack every Friday when she did the shopping.

      Why is a Jaffa Cake a Jaffa Cake and not an orange cake anyway? An apple pie is just an apple pie. It’s not as if a pie baked with Cox’s apples is called a Cox Pie, or a Golden Delicious Pie or Pink Lady Pie. Why not orange cake? Because Jaffa sounds posher, I guessed. Though the only Jaffa I ever knew was the fella who apparently, back in 1985, could get you cheap tracksuits that ‘fell off the back of a lorry’. Took me a while to figure out what that one meant too. For many years I wondered why they didn’t just make lorries with better locks or load them with less stuff before they travelled.

      This was, of course, a distraction. It was all I could think of to keep myself from going crazy. As I took the last of the Jaffa Cakes from the box in my rucksack and stuffed it into my mouth, my mind slid slowly back into panic. There was one question and one question only, rolling around my brain like a ball in a pinball machine, causing me to shudder every time it hit the forefront of my mind. Although it was madness – real madness – I couldn’t help but wonder: ‘Was she going to eat me?’

      i. Point of No Return

      When the doors to the plane were closed and we were taxiing for runway, butterflies began to have twins in my stomach. Or perhaps it was more of a panic attack. It was my first flight alone. I couldn’t hear anyone speak English and all the other people on the plane looked decidedly Russian. Dark thoughts began to enter my mind, pooling like drops of water from a leaky tap. Before I left Wales a helpful friend of mine had shown me an article where a Siberian woman roasted her husband on a barbeque and gobbled him up. There were plenty of other horror stories online about British men deceived by Russian honeytraps, left penniless and passport-less after being beaten and robbed. In these stories vulnerable men were usually lured over by hot women who secretly worked for organised gangs or Russian mafia.

      Being of moderate intelligence I wasn’t altogether convinced I would be eaten by Siberian cannibals, but still, I was afraid. It was completely irrational and a bit cowardly, but while I had nobody to talk to and knowing there would be few people who could understand me once we reached our destination, my mind played a few paranoid tricks on me. I even started wondering whether Nastya worked for the KGB and wanted to ensnare me so I could be used to spy on the UK. In hindsight I can see that it was fear of the unknown and nervousness over our impending wedding that caused such silly thoughts, plus I had hardly told anybody the real reason why I was heading to Russia. I didn’t know what I would do if Nastya somehow failed to meet me in Moscow. I also didn’t know the Russian word for help, or any other Russian for that matter.

      Over the four hour flight I managed to turn my fear into excitement and reminded myself that Nastya wasn’t likely to eat me or sell me as a sex slave to the mob. During one weekend in Paris, while out walking in broad daylight, we had been stopped in the street by two young people who tried to con me out of my money. It was Nastya who didn’t lose her nerve, grabbing me by the arm and forcefully pulling me through the con-artists to the safety of a café. It was Nastya who had seen me safely back to Gare Du Nord station, knowing that my sense of direction was rubbish. I knew that she loved me. I knew from our first meeting in Paris in January 2010.

      We had met at the station and hurried back to our hotel where we made love clumsily as two people do when they make love for the first time. Afterwards, while Nastya had a shower, I sat at the edge of the bed and looked out over Paris at night. I was overcome with a sadness that seemed impossible to get past; I was sad that we had so little time together, that we had to part so soon after we had just met, that we lived so far apart from each other and that it would be a struggle to make our relationship work. Nastya seemed to sense this and, without me even noticing that she had left the bathroom, came and held me. In that moment she kept me from falling into myself. It was the most important embrace of my life. I don’t know how long she held me for but most of my troubles and internal battles left me there and then. Knowing this, it was crazy to think even for a moment that she could wish me any harm, or look at me like I would taste good with potatoes and tomato sauce.

      ii. A Very Long-distance Courtship

      I was born Michael Anthony Oliver, or Little Mike, which is what my parents and sisters liked to call me when they wanted to piss me off. This only lasted for the sixteen years it took until I left home and then, after inheriting my mother’s genes, I became big Mike; 6ft, slim and with hair that couldn’t decide if it belonged on top of a hedgehog or on Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry. As a conscientious young man I did my homework, left high school, and went on to A-Levels in college, only somewhere along the line something went wrong. I didn’t go to university. Instead I found myself working for five years in a high street bank as a mortgage underwriter and general office clerk. It was there that I earned my new name. This is a hotly disputed point between my parents even to this day, but when I was born one of the two decided to give me my father’s name, word for word, including middle name. For a minute or so they had discussed calling me Mark, but this was thrown aside as my dad already had an estranged son by this name through a previous marriage.

      At twenty, well after I had left home, I toyed with the idea of calling myself Archibald Lasalles, after the long distance runner from the 1981 film Gallipoli, starring Mark Lee and Mel Gibson. In school, those who didn’t like football were made to run long distance through country lanes to the Greendown pub a few miles away, and back again within the hour. At the same time, in history class, when we were asked to re-enact a scene from history, I chose to be Archie Lasalles on his final run over the front line in World War I, so the name seemed a good one to keep for myself, though it proved a bit mouthy. After two weeks I ditched it.

      When I started at the bank in 2002, the boss who was forever kissing my arse for some reason, called me Chairman Mao, as M.A.O. were the initials I signed letters with. It stuck. I didn’t hate my birth name, Michael is after all the name of some archangel, and a keyring I bought when I was on a school trip at the age of five had said ‘Michael: who is like the lord’, but having the same name as my father had left me feeling as though I didn’t have an identity of my own and without this I struggled to live as a human being separate from him. However,

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