30-Minute Writing Sketches in Sochi


Episode 8. A Morning in Central Sochi, 11.03am, April 22

Three days ago, excited for this final leg of the trip I got back to the sea. A long bus ride from Esto- Sadok took me to Sochi, the Russian Black Sea pearl, the country’s unofficial summer capital, the city that epitomizes a sea holiday in the minds of a lot of fellow Russians. Just as with my first seaside destination on this trip (Adler), there are multiple versions as to the origin of the word Sochi. There is a river called in the same way whose name originated from Ubikhian, which is a dead language belonging to the Abkhazian and Adygean language family. According to one of the versions, it might have meant «by the sea». Through a sequence of linguistic transformations the word ended up being as we know it today. Sochi doesn’t sound very Russian and is famously grammatically misused by a lot of speakers who instinctively decline it as a plural noun (with a typical -i ending), which it is not. 

During the Caucasian War in the mid-19th century this area was a fort. It was only in the early 1900s that the city’s identity as the country’s future largest resort was forging when the first resort Caucasian Riviera (a nod to the French one) opened in 1909. Even though this place has been a city for only around a century, when I first arrived three days ago, it hit me with its buzz. I instantly felt energized by that urban vibe which I thought I had been missing somehow over the last two weeks. Can I call myself a city person? All I know is that growing up in a small place, which we would jokingly call «neither a city, nor a village», I dreamt of living in a city. Back then the region’s capital where I have been living for the past 15 years now would have been fine by me. But having been to a lot of cities around the world, after all these years I am still struggling to define where exactly I would love to live without fantasizing about other places. I am enchanted by the chic ambiance of Nice. I miss that intoxicating sense of happiness I felt in San Francisco. I often dream of roaming the alley of historic streets of Rome again. I am longing for a solo trip to Paris to get to know it on a more intimate level this time. I would write a whole book about the complexity of New York if only I was not overwhelmed by the number of those already written… Anyway, I am not sure which of these cities I wouldpick for living. Am I yet to discover my perfect match one day..? 

Due to its geographic position, central Sochi might be a bit steep but yet not too strenuous for walking around. Or does looking up at all the various lush palm trees make climbing up seem a lot easier..? I am staying in a guest house in a non-touristy area, just a moderately steep climb from what used to be called Stalin Avenue and is now known as Kurortniy Avenue, which is indicative of the city’s Soviet and recreational identity. On my way down to the sea there is a famous Sanatorium Svetlana (which is a popular Russian female name) founded in the early 1900s. It was in this area that people who later launched a project that would see this place develop into a resort built their summer houses.Looking at the city’s Soviet street names and architecture, I am wondering if it had to give up some of its former Caucasean identity in the process of its transformation…

Sanatoriums, which are a big part of Russia’s cultural or rather social identity, are a Soviet legacy. This period in thecountry’s history evokes nostalgia in our ancestors, the feeling that despite being born in the Soviet Union, our generation finds hard to comprehend. Apart from an alleged sense of security, one of the perks of the Soviet social system was that some workers were sent to sanatoriums for free as a way for them to regain strength and improve health. I have none of my grandparents to tell me more about what living in the Soviet Union in the mid-20th century was like. If I had, I would have documented some of those memories. I just wish I had discovered my love for interviewing while any of them was still there… At least I know that working in a factory in the 1960s, my late grandfather on Mum’s side went to a sanatorium in Baku, Azerbaijan. Being there did wonders for his leg and he came home no longer using his walking stick. 

Yesterday his granddaughter travelled further along Kurortniy Avenue to experience the iconic abandoned sanatorium named after Sergo Ordzhonikidze, a Georgian Bolshevik. It was built in the 1930s in a record time period. This opulent complex covering the area of 16 hectars magestically overlooking the Black Sea was originally designed for accommodating miners and offered a range of different treatments. Despite having no memory of living in the Soviet Union, I was utterly impressed by the imposing beauty of the place. Imagine experiencing it as an average Soviet worker… To me, it was like walking back in time wishing the dead could come alive and talk… How did those workers feel being here during this hugely complex historic period..? Despite crowds of people taking pictures, the place, which got officially closed ten years ago, felt lifeless and deteriorating on a closer look. I did manage to find a perfect spot for some contemplation and a few pictures, of course… Seeing a Lenin statue amidst the lush palm trees was one of the most surreal things of this trip — an homage to the communist past with a subtropical twist… I would certainly love to roam this area more if I ever return… I also got to experience a pure culinary delight on my way back at a legendary Soviet-style canteen famous for its chebureki. This is a traditional Crimean Tatar dish which is a kind of a crescent-shaped pastry filled with ground meat. It is essential to the Soviet and now Russian culinary identity. 

The Sanatorium Ordzhonikidze
A Lenin statue amidst the subtropic greenery

I have decided (quite naively for a 32-year old) that the country’s summer capital could read my mind and reward me with a few sunny days to finish off my trip. At this point I feel that my spiritual rehabilitation has had its effect and I amfinally reconnecting with my old self. Seeing a few operating sanatoriums walking around Adler and Sochi, I can say I wouldn’t like to be treated in one because dealing with doctors would be the last thing I would want during a holiday. At the end of the day, I am Russian who has been lucky to have travelled the world a bit but not Soviet… I want my freedom while travelling, I thrive on it to the point of feeling healed. Seeing some of my selfies I took here in Sochi, Mum mentioned I have got some of my American smile back. That is definitely a part of me that has been so hard to restore since I returned almost three years ago… When I look at that 29-year old girl on the other side of the Atlantic smiling at me from countless pictures, I understand how stupid she was questioning her own beauty… Even though this formerly popular chatup line about Russian women being one of the most beautiful ones in the world is more a thing of the past now, we did grow up under a certain amount of pressure. I have spent all of my life focusing on developing my intelligence and leaving being beautiful to others. But how is beauty measured anyway? Even though I tend not to believe men screaming «Hello, beautiful!» at me, I would agree with those Caucasean men saying that in their distinct accent on a few occasions here in Sochi. It is not up to them to decide that for sure, but sometimes it is great to be reminded of your female powers (in a not too intrusive way). I am no longer in my 20s, but the atmosphere of the city did give me that glow making me feel younger inside than I did confined to my room back home during the lockdown. How old is really old anyway? What I resent the Soviet regime for is creating certain scripts that our ancestors expected us to live by achieving certain things at a certain age. Luckily, we are no longer in the Soviet Union with its «five-year plan» and deadlines to meet. As turbulent as the modern Russia is, I am happy to see my life less scripted than that of my grandparents and parents… 

Those palm trees do make me happy!
The area around another sanatorium

Now it is my fourth day here in Sochi and I have secured myself a lovely spot overlooking the legendary building of the Sochi Sea Port where I can enjoy a postcard view of the Russia’s main all-year resort. This port built in the 1950s is like a channel connecting this only subtropical part of the cold and rough nation with much warmer maritime ones across the sea. The figures on the building’s neoclassical columns are peering into the depth of the sea. The spire punching the sky somehow reminds me of the Fisherman’s Bastion overlooking the Danube in Budapest. Lush palm trees, glamorous yachts and high-rise hotels project a carefree allure, a vibe so different from the one in Adler and Esto-Sadok. All of this brings out the sensual side of me. When I walk these streets, I ignore somewhat unhappy young Mums with kids, grannies trying to discipline their offsprings. They all seem killers of this vibe. As a single lady with no such issues to deal with I just look away. At the end of the day, each city is a canvas that we pick our own way of processing… I choose to focus on the playfulness of this Russian resort the way I see it now during the shoulder season. Being here you feel so plugged into the world stopping to listen to another street performer, to stare at a beautiful shop window, totouch and smell some of those lush trees. That glamour of the Russian Riviera depicted in iconic Soviet films gets to me here… For a moment I feel I am in Limassol, Cyprus and its beautiful marina… 

Even though this pandemic has created a feeling of the iron curtain being pulled back on us, the people walking this area are somewhat different from those I can see in black and white photos from the 1960-70s in front of me. In the recent decades more and more Russians have been travelling outside the country and have gotten to feel some other vibes of other places. So can we learn to stroll along the promenade in a carefree fashion like all those people in warmer countries and make Sochi seem like a somewhat foreign seaside resort? The port is also a popular photoshoot spot — it is nice to watch people creating their own unique snap of this sunny day here in central Sochi. 

I have just finished teaching a class and before it I had my breakfast enjoying a cup of Americano and a fabulous raspberry-pistachio cake. This coffee shop is named Frida after the famous Frida Kahlo, a Mexican wonder woman. She was looking at me from everywhere — cushions, chairs, walls as if begging me to carry on my work despite eyebrows raised along the way. Hers definitely speak volumes of her strong personality. I know how sometimes calling yourself creative is being dismissed by some as pure laziness to engage in real work. They all say the same about us, people in Humanities. The prevalence of STEM jobs in the global market is leaving us feeling unnecessary indeed. Somehow being in this place has inspired me to keep forging my own path no matter how discouraging and frustrating it might feel. I guess having to rush through my breakfast to start a morning class is the price I, a woman in Humanities, pay for my independence, which having my own disposable income is.

When I finish this session, I am going to explore more of the pedestrian part of the city centre away from the sea but lined up with palm trees. I mainly see Mums and kids everywhere and what about romance…? There are hardly any couples around. Those screaming kids definitely ruin the sensual vibe. After all, being child-friendly is what the city aspires to be. What about being one for singles as well? I guess I still have to find this perfect place for me. For now I can just live in the moment savoring the breezy, carefree, playful vibe… And of course, being able to treat myself to a lovely lunch at a Georgian restaurant is another perk of my independence… Have a wonderful afternoon, Sochi! 

Episode 9. My Last Afternoon in Central Sochi, 1.58pm, April 23

This morning I took a shortcut through a park on my way down to the sea. Being experimental and exploring new routes is a sure sign I am getting used to navigating this place, which I think is becoming my favorite on this trip. Yesterday I walked around the area away from the sea promenade to investigate more of the city’s identity. Muralswhich can be found around some of the central streets have been really instrumental in this. Unlike some graffitis that might seem arrogant public acts of self-expression potentially disrupting the urban aesthetics, these art paintings seemrepresentative of the whole nation. There are faces of famous military commanders setting the tone for the most «sacred» holiday, which is Victory Day celebrated on May 9. This day marks the anniversary of the defeat of the Nazis in what we call the Great Patriotic War. Others feature famous Soviet football players back from when we had reasons to be proud of our national team…

There was one specific mural that I went in search of. This is the one featuring the characters of a legendary Soviet comedy called The Diamond Arm. Some of the scenes of this 1969 masterpiece were shot here in the Sea Port of Sochi as well as in a restaurant where I had dinner on my first evening in the city. Along with a few scholars examining identity, I think that films are a very insightful way of exploring a nation’s character. As a translator, I don’t think any colleague would be able to make what our DNA memory seems to grasp perfectly comprehensible to foreigners. I wish I could put into words what exactly this is that makes me laugh and marvel at the quality of screenwriting every time I watch this old-time classics, which is basically on every national holiday. This is when this film is shown on TV along with a few other Soviet films. It seems that each line from The Diamond Arm has become a catchphrase casually used by Russians in a variety of conversations. I feel proud to be old enough to get all these references and to have been exposed to something different from those Russian films released these days… 

The Diamond Arm graffiti
A patriotic graffiti

I continued my exploration of the city centre by visiting the city’s oldest coffee house with an Italian name and the interior evocative of the Italian Risorgimento — I guess that is the closest to Italy we can get for now… The pedestrian Navaginskaya Street lined up with palm trees reminded me that it was the closest I could get to California for now as well… Yes, it was a pleasant change from lots of busy highways in the city as well… I walked a bit further to get to Riviera Park. I didn’t find it particularly impressive except for a restored building of the house of Vasiliy Khludov, a merchant who contributed to shaping the city’s resort identity. My final stop was the Sochi Arboretum for which I walked back to my hotel area. I had doubts about whether I needed to visit as I had already been to the Southern Cultures Park in Adler. But as it was so close to my guest house with its birds seemingly singing right next to my door, I paid a visit. By that point I had been tired of walking, but I knew there would be no time the following day. My first stop was the gorgeous villa Nadezhda (a popular Russian female name also meaning «hope») with its terraced gardens, which also reminded me of Italy. I wish Mum would agree to come down here to find out how close all these lush green trees she has never seen are to home… Again, even not being as fond of plants as Mum, I loved standing up here glaring down into the Black Sea appreciating how many palm trees I have surrounding me. Well, for now my thirst forthem has been quenched on this trip… After walking around and taking pictures of sakuras, magnolias and more palm trees, I was ready to go back down to the sea to see my last but one sunset here in Sochi… 

The Sochi Arboretum

Today I have been teaching the whole morning which started off windy and chilly. I hope that my students don’t hate me for showing them this view I have from a bench in this small park overlooking the sea. Over these past two weeks and a half, I have had to stress out about how I was going to fit work into my time here. There have been a few technical issues related to teaching from the street. I should have probably tried that gazebo a bit further on the right, but I don’t think I would have had any luck keeping it all to myself. I don’t believe now that the world has gone digital, the learning and teaching environment is so important any more. I can say that the best classes I have had were outside a conventional classroom and the most interesting individuals I have worked with were not those from university. I am still struggling whether I should refer to all the people I have been teaching as students or clients. This is a two-way interaction as in the process of our collaboration (that’s what I love calling it), I have been learning about all kinds of areas such as IT, Physics, Medicine, Architecture, Law, Metrology, Real Estate, Banking, Marketing, Archaeology… I am really grateful for the opportunity to go on this trip to work outside a traditional setting… Despite a few obvious perks, our field is getting growingly competitive and saturated making a transition to self-employment not easy at all. So, being able to have a change of scene has been really important for my mental health. I am not a believer in psychotherapy as I think that those of us struggling with mental health issues just have to learn to live with them. All I know is that being as what some scientists refer to as «highly sensitive» people, we have to admit our vulnerability and make an extra effort to take care of our mental well-being. My own personal psychotherapy is travelling and writing… 

One of the downsides of this type of job is that sometimes my schedule changes the last minute. Just like it did now meaning that in an hour I will be teaching my last class on this workation. It is an absolutely relaxing sunny afternoon here in Sochi. Sitting by the sea I am thinking about slow living and simple pleasures in life. Even though I tend to feel anxious at times, I love to take things at my own pace without being rushed to deliver on time and meet tight deadlines. Even though lounging in the sun letting it kiss my skin sounds amazing, it makes working a tiny bit more challenging… I am definitely not excited about working from the comfort of my room back home knowing that I could well be here with a sea breeze blowing into my face and dishevelling my hair. I don’t mind the smell of fresh paint and lack of vacant benches or having to run around to hide from the music blaring from yet another street performer. It is funny how some passers-by joining me on a bench while I was working instantly went away. I hope that hearing me speak English didn’t scare them away. I guess teaching this international language is how you can feel like a foreigner or at least a strange person in your own country… 

I love the colors of the sea today – they somehow remind me of the pristinely azure colors of the Meditarranean in Nice, the city I am going to pay tribute to later this afternoon when I head to a bakery under the same name for what will most probably be my last dessert here in Sochi (what a milestone!). After this last class I am going to a fish restaurant a short walk from here. I am not a fish person but as I am by the Black Sea, I have to eat the local fish which is called red mullet or surmullet in English. Now that Sochi has mostly been kind to me weatherwise, I finally feel like trying some local wine. Actually, despite not being a sucker for seafood, I have already had some fabulous mussels twice in a place that I found out about on Instagram. This taste also took me back to the other seas I have been lucky to see… 

What I don’t mind either is the awkward structure of a restaurant called Platforma built right in the water which is somewhat obstructing the view. It is being put final touches to just in time for the high season. The azure, dark muddy and emerald green are pleasing my senses this afternoon. The wild trees radiate a sense of wilderness as if perched on top of a cliff even though they are just a bit uphill. It is a lot of fun looking for various places to peer into the sea just to be genuinely surprised every time. The sea has this power to take your breath away whenever you lay your eyes on it. I am not sure about the intensity of this power on people who have lived here for a while, though. After the start of all the craziness related to the pandemic, a huge number of people have moved down to this region. But why do they come here for the sea just to complain of how they don’t get to see it more than a couple of times a month – just like that family whose story popped up on my newsfeed..? It is totally beyond me and I don’t think I am ready to take the same leap of faith as they did to even begin to understand…

In about two hours I will be absolutely free to enjoy my last evening (and sunset!) here in Sochi. This time tomorrow I will be arriving home and needless to say, as much as I appreciate having a home to return to, that’s the last thing I would like to do. These past 16 days have gone by in a flash leaving me incredulous that the pandemic and the restrictions have done nothing to stop me from yearning to travel and explore. The only difference is that I have to do it in my own country now. Well, looking at the bright side, I have been doing what few fellow Russians must have even thought of — writing about Russia in Russia in English… 

Episode 10. The Last Morning in Central Sochi, 7.52am, April 24

I started saying goodbye to the Greater Sochi area yesterday while sipping on some local wine and eating smoked cheese on the terrace of my guest house. It was kind of romantic to be watching the Sochi TV tower being lit up in a variety of colors. It reminded me of the World Trade Center in New York lit up in Pride colors in June. I remember thinking of how I would never get to see anything like that back in Russia… I didn’t know the reason for this particularcolor display (other than marking the last night of my trip, of course). On this rainy morning I am finishing my travel journaling sitting beneath a massive palm tree next to a famous cafe called «By the Palm Tree». As there are no articles in Russian, I am not quite sure as to which one I am supposed to use in this name. Given the size of this palm tree, the definite article seems the better option. 

It has been very special being in one of the few places in this country where there are palm trees, those tokens of subtropical heat. Just fantasizing and reminiscing about them warms our hearts during brutal Russian winters. The moment I saw this tree for the first time in Adler 16 days ago, I knew my trip had officially started. Of course, you can have your own house palm tree anywhere in the world, but seeing it growing like this is a totally different feeling. Of course, we have to ignore the fact that some of these palm trees we see in abundance all over the area must have been brought from other lands. They have been a major draw of this destination for at least a century and are even depicted in the city’s flag. Our relationship and a degree of attachment to these trees are in a way determined by our national identity. I remember how amazed my friend from Papua New Guinea was by my excitement to see them on our trip to California. To her, those gigantic palm trees felt like home on the other end of the Pacific while to me, they were a reminder of how far I was from mine… My friend remembered that trip as well when I sent her a picture of that palm tree I am now sitting beneath and I showed her some more during our video call three days ago. It is amazing how these lifeless trees are capable of keeping human connections alive and bringing back shared memories despite thousands of miles between us. 

I am sitting looking at the sea which is pretty calm despite a slight drizzle. Whenever you are leaving a place, you secretly wish it is not a sunny day because you would hate to miss out on one especially given that there haven’t been too many during my 16 days here. I hope these raindrops will not damage my laptop so I will have to keep this post a bit shorter than intended. Well, I have actually moved myself away from the rain to a covered bench so that now I am technically not beneath the tree but just like the cafe — by it. Those palm trees and the sea might get you dreaming about places like Bali. Just like during my first writing session, I remembered this remote island again. I guess thosestalls with Bali-inspired street food I saw on my way show how Sochi aspires to be a place where you can live a dream of many freelancing with a glass of cocktail in your hand. I am not sure this is a scene that will become typical here in the Krasnodar Region, but all I know is that given the state of the current labor market, more people will be able to make this dream a reality. I have been embracing being a freelancer for the last few years and I have no idea how long I will be able to stay one. Now this option definitely sounds even more appealing as this lifestyle seems to suit me. I am a kind of person that thrives on changes which don’t push me too far from my comfort zone but yet far enough to give methat intense feeling of being alive. That has definitely been a refreshing period after the insanity caused by what is referred to as the global pandemic when a lot of like-minded people had what we love most — travelling — snatched from us.

As I said to a student/client a few days ago, I do believe travelling is a privilege and I can’t be complaining knowing so many poor souls out there are struggling to make it through a day. But of course having travelled once, you can’t let go of this newfound addiction and not being able to get any gratification definitely takes its emotional toll. As I said before, this global frenzy hasn’t been able to restrict my desire to explore. Before this trip, I had been wondering if I could be the same traveller again after such a long period of «dry spell», though. Turns out, I can and I am still me. Thatcurious, invigorated self I have been displaying on this trip is the real me after all. I still love my own companyv as well as reflecting on things around and inside me, contemplating myself and my multiple identitities, my job, which is English teaching. 

As for the latter, having spent almost ten years in the field, I don’t feel I have been much in touch with this language lately. It might not have to do with me not watching Netflix or reading while here as I normally do back home. I guess these milestones tend to leave us questioning our previous career choices and reflecting about the future ones. And of course, the soundscape of home hasn’t been conducive to reinforcing my connection with English either. If domestic travelling becomes «a thing», will people be less willing to learn English leaving me with no opportunity to pursue thisfreelancing path..? This might be a possibility — a scary and an intimidating one. Where will it leave me and my cosmopolitan self..? The comfort of uninterrupted mutual understanding of the language as well as small nuances of the reality and landscape inspired by centuries of shared knowledge of shared history haven’t been conducive to making me feel as if I was in another country either. All we know is that a wind of change is blowing strongly into our faces and we are going to have to face whatever comes our way… 

It is peaceful and quiet by this palm tree this Saturday morning. There are hardly any people around except a few ladies having breakfast at the cafe (they must be staff members as it is still closed). The sight of a cup of coffee made me crave one even more. Hopefully I will get my coffee fix a bit later this morning before I head to the airport to catch a flight back home. Well, I have some work to do after I arrrive, but before I get to it, I will have to rest to help me through a sort of a transitional phase between two different realities. I can now smell the coffee too — along with the massive palm tree and the quiet sea it makes for a perfect serene morning scene. The birds are chirping — unlike myself, they don’t have to worry about the rain. It is nice I can wear my heavier jacket so that I don’t have to worry trying to make room for it in my suitcase stuffed with packs of Matsesta tea, some sweets and a Sochi palm tree kit I got yesterday to bring back home. Hopefully I will get some wine at the airport. I keep forgetting the name of Stalin’s favorite I tasted on my trip to Abkhazia two weeks ago, but I will try to get it. I am not aspiring to have anything in common with this infamous person, but truth be told, I liked it as well. It is Kindzmarauli, by the way. I will have to pronounce the name of this Georgian wine a few times to practise saying it to a shop assistant I guess … It should take me a while to process this bizarre mix of somewhat repressing and yet nostalgic Soviet past and dreams of a modern glitz here in central Sochi along with many other things I have encountered on this trip… 

“I Love Sochi” sign

Now I feel I am ready to say goodbye to the Greater Sochi. All of my three locations have been great in their own waydespite my originally low expectations. This has been a wonderful escape and I hope I will be able to afford more of those in the future as I pursue my freelance path offering a degree of freedom and flexibility further. I also hope I will continue with these writing sessions somewhere else in Russia as well… Goodbye and see you one day, Greater Sochi – hopefully not too long from now and under more certain circumstances. 

Navaginskaya Street at night
The last morning in Sochi

The Last Trip of 2019 (Minsk)

Could someone like me – a linguist and a traveler– have asked for a better way to wave goodbye to 2019 than suddenly getting a chance to go on a little trip? With only one day at my disposal, I could have chosen to enjoy a quick break exploring more of the beauty and glory of our capital city. Sounds pretty amazing, right? There are tons of absolutely wonderful things you can do in Moscow. But too much work and self-reflection pushed me into being a bit more adventurous. That was when I remembered my quick trip in 2013. Have you ever travelled abroad for a day and got back home a little over 24 hours later? That was exactly what I did back then. Instead of taking two trains and spending a total of 20 hours on the road, this time two short flights were all it took me to get to a neighboring country – not foreign enough for a Russian to have to get a visa, but still different enough from Moscow to please both a linguist and a traveler.

As someone teaching and attempting to do language research, I knew on this trip I would be able to reflect on the uniting and divisive power of Russian (my mother tongue) as well as to ponder on emerging national identities in what used to be the immense Soviet Union (my country of birth). In the attempt to become a more mindful traveler, I was also hoping to treat my eyes to an engaging mix of the Soviet and European architecture and my palette to familiar but remotely foreign food. Sounds like too much for a day, right? Well, in a nutshell, that was exactly what I had enough time to do in mid-December in the capital city of Belarus. That trip was also short enough for an aspiring writer to describe on a reasonable number of pages. Also, with this story I am going to wrap up 2019 hoping for more work, self-reflection and a few engaging trips in 2020!

That was how I conceived the beginning of my Minsk story if I had got to write it in 2019. I’ve read a few books on travel writing telling me how powerful those opening lines and paragraphs should be to draw my readers in. This hook wasn’t meant to come about in 2019… So, as I am writing this in 2020 already, I am being reminded of how life has a way of changing our agendas, travelling plans, story beginnings and so much more. About two months ago those first news reports on the rapidly spreading virus didn’t disrupt my life at all. A few weeks later, scaremongering in the media culminated into a mix of confusion and despair. Finally, it all seemed disturbingly real as so many trips (including my own) had got called off and whole countries (including those I was hoping to travel to later this year) had gone into lockdown. As reports of growing numbers of people affected by the virus kept coming in, travelling was already the last thing on almost everyone’s minds. I think the moment I knew I had to start this travel piece was when my own country had got shut down. Amidst the escalating COVID-19 pandemic, I am starting to realize that my own quick trip to Belarus would be off the table now. Sadly, we have been isolated not only inside our national borders but also inside our own homes for a while now. Anyway, I would like to think of that last trip of 2019 as only my latest one. I just don’t want to give in to panic and call it the last opportunity I’ve ever had to travel!

Of course, like a drug that one can never go off, travelling has a way of giving us withdrawal symptoms. As it is no longer our choice whether to go anywhere or not, it might feel as if we had never set foot too far from our homes. With this story I am also going to remind myself (and a few readers if I am lucky) that travelling is a privilege. In order to celebrate the fact I’ve had it multiple times, I might finally get to write about all those trips I’d had before the day I boarded a plane for Minsk, Belarus. Just about 20 hours later I was to land back into the comfort on my own bed…

Unlike a lot of places in the world, travelling to Belarus is a breeze for a Russian thanks to the Commonwealth between our countries launched in 1996. Even though you are actually travelling outside Russia, there is no need to worry about getting a visa or forgetting your foreign passport at home. Well, in Russia we all have a “domestic” passport and a “foreign” one for travelling overseas. The only issue I had on my way was finding the security-check point (there is a special entrance for those travelling to Belarus which took me a while to locate). After I had finally made it to my gate, there was some time to do what any traveler loves – people-watching. As crowds of passengers around me were lining up for their flights, without even looking at the flashing flight information screens, I could see and hear that a lot of people weren’t probably going anywhere outside of what used to be the immense Soviet Union. In fact, my country of birth only lasted till I was around 3 years old. In 1991 the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was formed as if in the attempt to piece together whatever was left of that shattered glass. Certainly over the years there have been disputes about the membership in the organization as some states were not willing to join or withdrew their participation later. Despite a few wedges between all of our nations that are still tangible to this day, there is some sense of commonality that explains why people from the CIS countries who might look and sound different are quite familiar rather than foreign to a Russian. I might get to one of these countries one day as most of them don’t require a visa either – that for sure would make for another story!

Budapest (Day 4 and Goodbyes)

One more sunny start to our final “regular” morning here in the capital of Hungary. I was now aware of how much I would miss this lovely breakfast of a tasty selection of sausages, cheeses, and not to forget that divine-tasting triangle-shaped pastry that went down so well with the visitors that the waiters kept bringing more and more fresh supplies of those. My taste of our Budapest mornings is largely composed of this delicate sweet crispiness…

Before we headed out all the way to the conference venue where we were to participate in the poster session, we had some time for a morning stroll along the familiar area in the city centre. That was when it hit me obviously I hadn’t had enough pictures of me taken in front of St. Stephen’s Basilica around which there were preparations for what looked like a wine festival, and the Parliament of course. When does a point come when you actually get tired of this building that is imposed by your vision…?




The walk we were embarking on took me back to our first day here. It’s amazing how time takes on a different dimension while travelling and you don’t look that much at your watch (unless there is another activity on your schedule) but rather measure it with the level of connection you have developed with a particular piece of architecture, street or its corner… I felt if I had had more time on my hands to stay, it could be the right time to take my relationship with the city up to the next level, but there wasn’t much time either to keep reflecting as we had two hours left to get to the conference venue. This time we hoped the walk would be a bit more pleasurable, because we would be walking on the other side of the Danube along the Margaret Island (Margitsziget). It didn’t quite look like an island, rather an oasis of greenery amidst Hungary’s capital city.


Budapest’s largest park offered a great refreshing change of the scenery from our first walk along a row of dull residential buildings. Parks haven’t yet captured my heart entirely, as I am more fond of architecture and little electrifications of the heart and mind it sometimes provides. I can’t say I found something particularly extraordinary about this park, but I would say it was a relaxed and calm one to walk. People basking in the sun, children having fun, a water tower at a distance, some fountains in a few conspicuous places as well.


This walk felt considerably shorter and it wasn’t long before we reached the Árpád Bridge that was empty of any pedestrians as the sun was beating down. When we saw the conference venue, we knew we were already desperate for some shade.

The poster session was quite relaxed and low-key. Our poster featuring a photo of our country’s president captured some attention and being able to speak with a few native speakers and some more people from around the world was fulfilling. One lady from Malaysia wearing a burka was particularly friendly and that got me amazed at how much more there is we can learn from these casual encounters with people coming from cultural backgrounds that we are sometimes too scared to even embark on exploring. Speaking with a few Russians showing off about how they weren’t too happy with the hotel where we were staying wasn’t anything much to learn from.

We left the conference venue about two hours later knowing that our mission had been accomplished and there was no more need to look at our watch till the day was over! We decided to take a slightly different route back to the city centre and were exposed to some parts of the city that were a bit more upbeat than those residential areas we saw on our first afternoon but certainly less vivid and lively than the city centre. I wasn’t sure there were any more tourists walking along this neighbourhood. These streets aren’t something a tourist would particularly come for, but they make for a nice change of scene that you think you only arrive here for.


We even saw a couple of old-fashioned shoe shops as we were approaching the Margaret Bridge with a very clear and distinctive view of the Parliament. Just after we quickly walked past it was when it was decided we would let time take on another dimension and just pause here on a bench overlooking the Parliament that left no room for anything else except the clear blue sky and the Danube. Tomorrow we were to get on another flight back to Russia but for another adventure. I was so right to take time to get a visual memory of what clear blues skies look like… That had been great three days here in Budapest and it was about time we had started picking the memories back up expecting nothing new to come our way. Just to ponder on the sketchy memory of the country, the city and the conference… I felt I had reinforced my connection with the Parliament building as I was sitting gazing at it from across the Danube embankment.


What followed was more like a summary of the memories we had made up to that point. The grandeur of the Chain Bridge and the massive lions guarding it at both sides, a few posh houses overlooking the Danube on our right, a few advertisements featuring the national flag…


I was starting saying my goodbyes now as we were crossing the Chain Bridge – to the emerald blue Danube, to the Buda Castle on the right, to the Parliament that was growing smaller but no less spectacular on the left.


The evening was slowly setting in and it was time for our farewell dinner at one of the restaurants just steps away from the magnificent St. Stephen’s Basilica. The place was quite easy to find and the waiters wearing national clothes were very friendly and efficient despite seemingly limited command of English. The food was a bit too pricey and the choice not so wide-ranging, but the evening was the one to remember. A group of Americans at the next table were very vocal and assertive and kept questioning the waiter about the ingredients in one of the dishes pushing his linguistic skills to the limit as he showed up a few minutes later showing them some photos from the Internet. Poor Hungarian waiter! I ruled out that the first goulash soup I had here was the best and the one I was having at the moment had to be second best. What was equally divine was the Tokaj wine! Cheers to Hungary! Seeing the back of the shirt of one of the waiters that read something like “Are you hungary? I will help” made me chuckle. “Hungary” and “hungry” are too shamelessly similar not to feature that in an advertising campaign. There is something inherently primeval and not quite refine to the feeling of hunger but if you are, Hungary will get you covered for sure with its steamy soups and pickles! It was nice to watch a group of local young visitors and the same waiter at linguistic ease. Another American at the other side asked for help figuring out how much Hungarian money he had on him. Yes, these banknotes are tricky at first! We were taking it slowly so we walked leisurely back to the Chain Bridge to see the buildings lining up the Danube embankment lit up. There were even some chairs you could take and that reminded me of a beach. They were all occupied it being a warm summer night, but I didn’t mind sitting on the pavement getting my last night views of the spectacular Budapest. It felt comfortable and beautiful here.


We made a slow walk back to our hotel through the familiar streets to stop for a final round of drinks at the same place we did the night before. The waiter that miraculously caught my eye the other evening wasn’t working and that was a tiny bit disappointing, but the drinks were cheap and good. What would that be like to frequent a lovely bar like this in a modern European capital like this one… It was our last sleep here in Budapest. Our last morning here was serene and slow as we had enough time not to be in a hurry but not enough to go out any more. Exchanging a few glances and a quick chat with one of the cute waiters I had seen through my other breakfasts here gave me something extra to smile and to miss about this trip. My humble “köszönöm” as he took my plate got him thinking I was Hungarian. There has to be something magical about this word indeed! We spent the remaining forints on a few more souvenirs at the hotel lobby and made an elderly couple we encountered in the elevator a bit jealous. I kept smiling through our peaceful morning ride to the airport and at one point I saw a photo of Leonardo DiCaprio and his mother featured in one of the advertisement boards in a deserted field and that gave me a light-hearted chuckle. We were bound for Moscow, but that wasn’t it yet and that felt a bit strange.

It all seemed to have gone too quick but reasonably slow to realize it had happened to me – Hungary and its capital city of Budapest. I had no idea if I would ever return at any point. For all I knew, I was very highly unlikely to ever ponder on starting learning any Hungarian. But I didn’t fail to find what I came here for – a few more brisk memories to nurture my heart and mind. Köszönöm!

Budapest (Day 1)

Once you start travelling and find your comfort zone growing larger or being in your comfort zone increasingly difficult, there is one big thing you come to realize. This is how flexible your heart and mind become and how they are getting so much better at trying to accommodate, to make new connections and reinforce old ones to make you more open-minded and open-hearted to whatever transformations and manipulations they are both exposed to while that physical body where they reside gets around. Another thing you notice happening to your mind and heart is that they are growing into a magical bubble where most intricate chemical reactions occur with lots and lots of bits and pieces coming together into all sorts of mixes with its smallest atoms and molecules breaking apart or suddenly colliding. And what do you have as a result of all these enigmatic and elaborate reactions? Yes, you have you but not the one you thought you knew because you think you know yourself but some intensely alive human being that sometimes doesn’t feel too much alive at all or feels these molecules and atoms jumping with bursts of life inside them… That’s how you know you are alive. If you are still not quite sure, you will know once you hit the road again to let transformations and manipulations take over. It’s not that they ever stopped taking place inside the mind and heart of yours but it is when you realize you need fuel to keep those atoms and molecules operating to generate new bursts of life that you know you are ALIVE!

Yes, I might get confused as to what it is exactly for me that provides my mind and heart with some fuel to run on. I mean I know travelling does it all for me, but as time goes by, I find my feelings caused by all of these sorts of reactions to be more and more complex to leave me doubting, rejoicing, regretting, questioning. Is that too much to being alive…? As the longest relationship we will ever have is the one with ourselves, I get to know myself through travelling and my reactions to those reactions I have unravelling in me. One thing I can’t fail to see is how apart from falling profoundly in love with the places I get to see, I become more open to infatuations and flings where I know no profound feelings and impressions will occur or even if they do, they won’t last and I find myself strangely OK with that. Sometimes you need just a little fuel probably to keep your heart pumping with the feelings that once inflamed it without any hope there will be a new explosion, a new collision changing the chemical composition of your mind and heart. That’s how I think I felt about Budapest. I didn’t feel wanting to make a lasting connection with it but as the chance came up, I thought I would grab it. Just to see where it will take me – life is too short to be too sentimental about emotional attachment and letting go. I knew that disconnecting will probably not leave my heart torn into bits and pieces that will have strangest things happening to them when I get back home. Just a quick look, no strings attached…

It was another conference but this time I knew it would be quick and as yes, I am opening myself up to fast-paced and quick relationships, I thought it would be very engaging for my mind and heart to get to go where I hadn’t thought think I’d ever be. Is Hungary (Magyarország) a country to inspire a whole string of associations the way some places that end up on lots of bucket lists do? Probably not, I thought. That was why I decided it would be a good place to make a quick connection with and to see if there is any connection at all in the first place. Of course as it was the case for me with the more familiar Bulgaria, we tend to dismiss some places as dull and not worthy of any proper touristiс attention and never care to attend to them as life is really too short and there are all kinds of places that set the magical processes in our minds and hearts running. Therefore we find it reasonable to avoid the places that might fail to float our boat and take away from that precious time we have here some of which we can spend exploring if we are lucky enough. But even though it might seem more challenging while building relationships with other humans, but I’m a believer of giving places chances even if they are far from being appealing to whatever of our senses. I did have one good reason to want to go to Budapest in particular as it was one of the few places my Mum got to visit in her Soviet-time youth when travelling outside the country was a lot more of a big deal than it is now. In this respect I sometimes find myself older than my own Mum as my idea of getting around seemed to have travelled further than hers as I can enjoy the luxury of actually being able to take in a place I am visiting rather than being too overwhelmed by being somewhere new and trying to get hold of things you don’t have back home. I can travel for impressions that nurture my mind and heart, not for things only. So my Mum’s idea of the Hungarian capital was that it was an endless array of underground kiosks where they were rushing around to get some bargains and things we would end up wearing for years and years after… Instinctively and rationally, I knew mine was going to be a different impression and I was ready to write my own story of Budapest and as I always do, I will get to write twice – with my mind and my heart.

I had to cut down on the time I could set aside to do some research as I knew there wouldn’t be much of it to make any proper connection with the city, let alone the country. But I did remember what the American professor we got a chance to meet back in Nice said about Budapest being one of the most incredible European capitals he’d ever seen and he said in that very enigmatic voice of his while munching on some magnifique French food under the sun of the French Riviera. So I made a conscious choice to take a quick dip into the Hungarian life without much prior investigation with the sound of that American voice ringing distantly in my mind. We will just see how it turns out. That was going to be a long trip as straight after Budapest we were to head to St. Petersburg, our capital of the North. So my touristic lense would have to go into two opposite directions to produce what I hope would be a comprehensive image to my mind and an endearing stray of memories for my heart to behold. I did download a few travel guides on Budapest to scan through on my trip to Moscow from home to give me a quick introduction into some of the major sights and their history. As I said above, as with any formerly communist state, we do tend to get too negligent of any of their prior history focusing more on their relatively recent past instead, which is a huge shame indeed. As I was aware of that, I took time to learn a few facts about the country’s Ottoman past and Habsburg rule that preceded what would be just a few decades that for us came to define the whole country casting it into a group of a few more that comprise what is known as the Soviet block. As much as I expected Hungary to bear a somewhat dull and tedious imprint of its Soviet past as the rest of the places ultimately have, I wanted to get a taste of its unique flavor and its even more unique varieties, something I have grown to believe through my travelling experiences every country and even all the places in it have on a varying scale. Of course with me being me, I did have a sneak at some videos teaching elementary Hungarian and watched a few videos showcasing the capital’s main attractions because yes, it is not just about the impressive Neo-classical Parliament building after all. To wrap this all up, on the final night before my ten-day trip I watched a video of the lovely song that represented Hungary at the Eurovision and tried to get my ears around the sound of the language and feast my eyes on the romantic views of the city. Something for the mind and heart and Budapest, here I come!


Just as we normally do, we had some time in Moscow before our flight and this time we got to spend two days here exploring the places we grew to love in the course of letting all the transformations and manipulations happen to us and two nights at a hotel in a quite sketchy area. Someday I might be able to go on a proper trip to our capital city and write about it. Twice – with my mind and heart as I usually do.

The more you travel by planes, the less of a big deal this kind of travelling becomes and this comes as a surprise for me to think that I don’t actually have much of a recollection of my flight to Budapest apart from a few Hungarians I saw on board and some final reading of my travel guide before I ditch it to experience the actual city. Of course I had some images of the streets as I was reading and through the course of my flight, Budapest seemed to be losing its Soviet flavor to it more and more. As someone who is not a student any longer but deeply engaged into this realm for a living, I know that yearning desire to get out and experience something rather than spending days on end swatting and reading about it, in the end you can’t possibly read up for life, it is going to throw you lessons that you would feel you haven’t read up for anyway.

The thing I was looking forward to most when we arrived was to get my first look at some quirky Hungarian words. I’m always on the lookout for linguistic signs of being somewhere away from home and I didn’t have to look far to see a few graphic images of the Uralic language that is a very distinctive spot on the vivid linguistic landscape of Europe. I was actually relaxed about the linguistic prospects of the next few days as I knew for sure there was no point in even attempting to understand the language and the beautiful thing about it was that being unable to do so wasn’t going to do any harm to my self-image as a professional. I’m making a lot of progress in acknowledging things I have no idea about and getting better about feeling good about it as well. Venturing out into the known is becoming fun now! What we had to do first was to find the taxi that we had booked beforehand, which we realized might be a bit too tricky. It took me surprisingly little to see a man holding a paper with my sister’s name written both in English and Russian on it (I was instinctively more drawn to the Russian image I guess). I took a moment to be proud of how our Cyrillic alphabet sets us apart from people using Latin letters and lends us that enigmatic charm that so many people pursue to get hold of while travelling. We were welcomed to Budapest but didn’t get much further in our conversation from there as the taxi-driver seemed to be really struggling with English after he attempted to tell us something about his family I guess. I wonder how many more stories we would have available to our minds and hearts if we didn’t have languages tearing us apart. I don’t advocate for the common language for all because that would obviously leave me without a job and inspiration but at that particular moment on that hot August afternoon outside the Ferenc Liszt International Airport I do think I wished we had one… Not to get confused by the silence that was due to the linguistic barriers, I took time to look around to get my first glimpses of Hungary keeping in mind that I might never come here again. During such rides from the airport to the city is when you get this very complex feeling of collision of mind and heart when the mental image of home gets outlandishly interrupted by the visual image of a new land that had been here long before you knew you would ever come. We will never have the privilege to know exactly how Columbus felt through the course of his discovery of the American continent but we might feel the tentative Columbus arising in us at moments like those… It was through linguistic signs (phonetic and written ones) that I got in touch with what is home to at least about 2 million people. How can you help falling in love with languages and this way they have to stimulate minds and hearts…?

The central part of Budapest where we arrived some thirty minutes later seemed a bit different from that quick image I got of it and yes, the legendary Hungarian Parliament on the bank of the Danube was nowhere to be seen! Károlyi utca where our hotel was located looked packed with beautiful and very imposing buildings that mentally took me back to Vienne. They seemed a bit rundown but also erased the thoughts I’d been having of Budapest as the capital of a former communist state. I seemed to be enamored with seeing faces on facades peering into the infinite space we are physically sharing with them. I saw some scars on them as if the past had its sharpest knife in its hands and brutally cut through their medieval beauty but I felt no hint of pain but just some sublime breeze of lots of lives lived accompanied by a faint sound of a classical violin piece. Our hotel looked quite chic and we were greeted at the entrance by a porter and I was the first to start the conversation with my humble “Jó napot!” (Good afternoon). Recently I’ve been feeling drawn by some magical spell to move beyond the increasingly international horizons of English that feels like my comfort zone so I knew this very phrase would be said there and then… We were able to check in quite easily. We made our way to the elevator to take us to the third floor accompanied by the porter carrying my suitcase. That sweet young man attempted some small talk and complimented my accent. I said “Thank you!” but explained that I teach English for a living and I’m paid to have a sort of a decent accent after all. But it turned out it wasn’t my English accent that he complimented but my Hungarian accent that caused him to think I was Hungarian first! How on earth could it impress a native speaker? Well, if that was something they were trained to say to anyone attempting to say a few words in Hungarian, it certainly worked well for me as any compliments pertaining to linguistics to me seemed to go a longer way than any relating to the physical appearance. He also told us that not much English was spoken around here but according to him as well, that was “enough” to get by at least. I found myself thinking a moment after the porter had left about whether we were supposed to give him a tip but we had no Hungarian money on us yet so, well… Tipping culture is not what we are big on anyway. A new country, a hotel room – another blissful day in the life of a traveler! As we looked at the map of the city to estimate how far we would be walking from the hotel to the conference venue, we got a bit appalled as they seemed to be at the opposite ends of the map. Well, we considered we were still physically fit for this after all.

After a while we set out on our walk, which we hoped would take us two hours or so with a little break to get something to eat. I love those first moments of being in a new place on your own feet not just in a taxi. I knew I would have to disconnect long before I might even consider connecting so I was just living the moment peering at the imposing facades without even bothering too much about not knowing what they housed. There were lots of places with traditional Hungarian food in the area and I loved being exposed to this superficial feel of the country that tourism marketing specialists are working so hard at creating in a way appropriate to generate more profit and draw more visitors. These Hungarians working in these dining places might not know or even care to know what kind of thoughts we as tourists were having in our heads as fuel to inspire our feelings that will still be shaping up when we get back home… We got a glimpse of the first attraction on our right, which was St.Stephen Basilica. At that moment all we knew was that it seemed a bit too expensive and touristy to eat here (we already had some local forints on us). We kept walking as my sister reassured me that we were approaching the Danube and the Parliament.

We saw a place offering a nice view of what I learned later on was Liberty Square (Szabadság tér) and a new monument commemorating German Occupation of Hungary with splashes of fountains and some messages with what might be some attempts to address important social issues facing the country. We come and go while all these places and their people are dealing with their lives sometimes in languages we can’t even dare to make sense of. On the left we had the building of the former Stock Exchange Palace and somehow this area had a bit of a sentimentally gruesome edge to it and matched the salty taste of pickled cucumbers that looked like fresh ones unlike those back home as no vinegar is used for them that we had served to us after quite a bit of waiting together with some local variation of pasta and chicken. There was some lonely deserted feeling in the air and people weren’t smiling too much but some happy couples walking by or people with cute dogs did bring back memories of the squares I’d had inspire my feeling of happiness and a desire to belong there. I had to refer back to my knowledge of the place as being the capital of a communist state again and switch back on to its aspirations of the European future. That had to be a bit hurried meal as we didn’t want to be late for the conference opening. Stepping a bit into the square, we felt a breath of home on us as we saw the last monument dating back to the Soviet era in the middle. It felt like a mix of the Austrian influence of the imposing buildings and the Soviet one that wouldn’t let go (for us anyway as we had brought chunks of it on us all the way from Russia) was here.


We kept walking squeezed between arrays of enigmatic and rather deserted buildings featuring a few memorial tables on their rather dull facades. The Hungarian history was attempting to murmur something vaguely to me but just as back at the airport, the conversation was really happening as all I could see were some images of words I couldn’t make out at all for the reasons I stated above. It seemed like a really foreign place and the feeling is always more acute when you are in a non-touristy area like this with people going about their daily routine and working while you are out here travelling. One or two crossroads later, I got reminded what exactly I was here for when I saw a part of the Hungarian Parliament Building on the left! Just like this! How come it is here and no one is pushing their way to get a couple of breathtaking photos? Will it be just me standing here in sheer awe with this rather unexpected first encounter with this marvelous Hungarian landmark piece of architecture? I felt as if it had been abandoned by the rest of the tourists and I was giving it its due attention there and then. I just couldn’t believe I could have this building I’d seen countless times in photos all to myself!


We knew we had to keep walking a bit further to get to the Danube bank and get better views from there on our left. There were a few casual eating places, flower kiosks here – nothing to impress a traveler. The first of Budapest’s seven bridges we got to walk was Margaret Bridge (Margit híd)  built between 1872 and 1876. From here we could see Margaret Island, a popular recreational zone right in the city center, spanning on our right. Of course still on my left I could take in the iconic view of the Parliament. That was a real “moment of truth” every tourist gets to experience at some point as my mind got busy matching the actual view right in front of me and what I’d seen in photos. There is invariably a bit of an element of disappointment to such experiences as these two images rarely match. The real Parliament looked a bit smaller but its architectural details looked a lot more majestic against the humble Danube that looked even smaller. I had to mind where I was going as the bridge was very busy with people moving in both directions and it was quite hot up here. None of these people seemed to be bothered much with the Parliament and I felt I was the only one who kept looking back to get another look.


What followed as we crossed the bridge was a very long sweaty walk across a rather dull residential part of Budapest. We were not sensible enough to estimate how long this walk would actually take us as the Árpád Bridge (the longest one in Hungary), which was just near the conference venue, seemed so close but oddly enough, we never seemed to approach it. Even though that wasn’t definitely a touristy walk and a myriad of the city’s attractions was right there behind our increasingly tired backs, as I go through manipulations and transformations travelling generously awards me with, I find myself being content to have to have a few walks like this. Just an ordinary life, yes, the Soviet feel is there despite being extinguished for a while by my travel book back on the plane a few hours before. It is fascinating to be trying to see if there is anything that would catch a tourist’s eye here and I have to conclude there wasn’t much. But at the end of the day, isn’t that a taste of life that we travel for? In combination with an array of touristic stuff selling in shops and experiences that locals might never cared about, these walks make for a spell-bounding substance that keeps the zest for travelling beckoning us back on the road again and again. Some two (!) hours later (they felt even longer than that), we finally reached the hotel after mistaking it for a few other hotels on our way. Yes, we had just reached from one end of the map to the other! The five-star Aquincum Hotel is set where there are now ruins of ancient city of the Roman Empire. As one of the luxuries offered by the Roman civilization, local people could enjoy public baths and that would be another highlight of Budapest that we would get us completely soaked a bit later on this trip!

The interior of the hotel looked very impressive and took us a few decades back with its chick décor all around that splendid extravagant massive space that had the air of luxury and opulence lingering in there. We were just in time for the conference opening and even had some time to spare to stay in the lounge and watch some of the hotel residents. It’s a very different lifestyle we adopt once we check in at a hotel and it’s interesting to think that we wouldn’t have all ended up in this space together otherwise. The opening was a bit hasty and rushed with some quick speeches in a really bad English… We stuck around for a bit more for the reception and had our first try of the local wines and snacks at least watching some people we could see through the glass enjoying their spa sessions. Our stomachs were in need of some fuel after that long sweaty walk, even more so than our minds and hearts.

In spite of going out of her way to convince me we did need to try to overcome a few possible linguistic barriers and try to get a taxi back to the hotel, my sister agreed it would be good to have a more relaxed walk back as it hadn’t got dark yet. Or was that the effect the wine had had on us…? The area seemed to have lost its dull and depressing edge and I felt more like a local headed somewhere past these residential buildings. But unlike one, I was also more relaxed to stop for a tiny bit longer to see through the lights coming through some of the windows contemplating how lives behind them were different from those back home. The first difference that I could think of was that the evening news someone was probably watching was in the enigmatic language of that country – linguists would be linguists, I say…

It was really extraordinary to see the Parliament building again just like this somewhere in the distance while we were still surrounded by these residential buildings. That felt like two contradicting echoes attempting to merge into one to make where we were now – Budapest. We started our way along the Margaret Bridge again and were able to do some more relaxed evening-time people-watching. The views of the Parliament lit up in the distance were a far more delicious treat to our senses than the wine! I get some moments when I develop a quick fondness of photography and spend a while just playing around with my camera. There was too much to play around with in this surreal view, surreal enough to build up beautiful expectations about the next few days!


The streets were getting deserted even though it was just a bit past nine. It was really odd and made Budapest feel like an abandoned destination altogether. The same buildings we walked by earlier that day were now like a part of a silent numb jungle that didn’t even bother to break its crunchy silence for us. Where were any people at all…? That was a puzzle we knew we might not get enough time to work on solving.


After a while, we did find ourselves outside the silent jungle as we reached St.Stephen’s Basilica celebrating the Hungarian king who founded the country in 896. We decided it would be nice to stay in this square in front of the church and ponder on our first night here in Budapest. We got some coffee at one of the places and I found the girl at the checkout so delighted when I said “Köszönöm!” (“Thank you!”). She smiled and said something sounding very complicated that must have been “You are welcome!”. It’s how one little word can make you part of a regular everyday conversation… As my sister left to find a bathroom, I had a moment all to myself sitting in the corner of this square sipping on my coffee looking at the gorgeous façade of the basilica and I needed nothing more to tell my mind and heart that I was in this part of the world that I probably need nothing else to compare with to know I love best! Just this combination of people, a string of sounds they make as they speak their languages (or trying to use other ones), this saturated nocturnal air, this church and me in this cozy straw chair with a chocolate muffin on the table…


We found our way back to the hotel safely and really loved the area around it even though it didn’t seem too busy. I had a few glances at the Elizabeth Bridge (Erzsébet híd) named after Empress Elisabeth “Sissi” (the one we encountered on our brief trip to Vienne) just on the right as we were approaching the hotel. I loved its white cables against the capital’s starry sky. We walked for a little bit more to find some small bakeries right across the corner closing for the night. There was a lot to want to wake up to see the next morning. We were ready to experience our quiet first night in Hungary. Of course I couldn’t resist browsing a few tourist magazines I had lying on my bedside table. I love that comforting and yet empowering feeling they give me to inspire me to want to pursue my dreams and keep on writing. Good night, Budapest!

Getting there

Before we bid goodbye to Moscow, we needed to meet our tour guide and fellow travelers. We knew our train for Brest was leaving at 15.40 and we were all supposed to meet at 15.00. The last thing we wanted was to be late so we came to the train station a bit earlier. All sweaty and sticky, we had been hanging around the platform since 14.00 hoping the tour guide would show up earlier because the station was getting crowded and it would take her a while to make sure everyone was here.
We were looking at other people at the platform in a bit of puzzlement wondering whether those were the people to keep us company throughout the upcoming trip. There were going to be a lot of people on the train for Brest and only 40 of them were our fellow passengers. We were hoping we would be travelling with some quiet intellectuals because another last thing we wanted was a bunch of disorderly individuals that would totally ruin this dream trip. That seemed like a scene from a detective story – us looking passers-by up and down speculating on whether they could be people going on a coach trip with us. What if they all got cold feet (like before a wedding) and stayed home and we will be travelling on our own? This might sound like a perfect trip – we were up for it! I’m not very social so I’d love to mix only with my sister and friend without having to engage in some small talk with people I don’t know.
It was 14.50 already but the guide was nowhere to be seen. I saw a picture of her on the website of the travel agency we booked with but ironically she was wearing sun glasses in it, so the only thing I knew about her is that she was slim and blonde. The picture might have been from a while ago and by then she could have dyed her hair black and gained a considerable amount of weight. It would take a discerning eye of Watson and Holmes to identify this lady. She had all essential documents (passport, train tickets) so without her showing up there would be no trip at all. Now it all came down to her. She might have been a bit more punctual and saved us the trouble of sticking around waiting for her to come. To make things even worse, we hadn’t succeeded in identifying any of our fellow travelers. We were told to wait near the first coach and there was nobody around. There were some people looking lost and confused as us but they turned out to be going on another coach trip. Some people were just casually hanging around and by the looks of it, they weren’t looking for anyone. We were done with looking around and playing detectives so we transformed into witches pronouncing curses on the tour guide. We all started into a rant about how misfortunate and miserable we were having our holiday plans wrecked by this one tour guide whose job was to make sure everything was running smoothly instead of leaving us there high and dry.
Now, in hindsight, the whole situation seems utterly ridiculous because she wasn’t late in the first place and it seems funny how it got us on edge. I guess we just wished for the trip to be perfect, it was a dream that we had worked towards for the whole year and this was what got us jittery.
It was 15.00 when a woman who matched what I saw in the photo finally made an appearance (she must have checked her watch against the chimes of the Kuranty in Red Square). Out of the blue, people started crowding outside our coach (there was no way they could have met the tour guide before!) so this was then that we were made sure we wouldn’t be travelling alone. I sized everyone up to see if any of these people would constitute a threat to my dream trip. As I was doing so, I felt a sting of jealousy (I generally have a jealous streak) – I didn’t want all those people there! Instead, I wanted to have Europe all to myself! But anyway, I had to come to terms with the fact I couldn’t afford an individual trip yet so I would have to share my dream with a bunch of strangers (neither of whom hopefully would turn out to be bonkers).
Now that wait and anticipation was over, things seemed to start looking up for us and everything seemed to be as planned. The tour guide called the names of each traveler and gave them all the paperwork. The crowd seemed quite big, which made it feel like there were going to be more than 40 people on the train. I had to make my way through the crowd not to miss our names being called. There was nothing to worry about but Russians love to panic over even small things. It felt as like we were queueing up for some freebie – no one wanted to miss out. After we made sure that all the travelling documents (except for the passports) were there, we were all set to go.
So here it was… Another invasion of privacy (i.e. a sleeper-train trip) began. We weren’t happy to find out we were going to share a compartment with a woman with a four or five year old who looked like a nuisance. The coach was very stuffy but I knew I was strong enough to make it through another trip on a train. As we were already on our way to Brest where we were to arrive 14 hours later, I started reflecting on this short stay in Moscow and texted my Mum about it as long as there was a signal and before we set out far from the capital. The tour guide was walking around the coach giving each passenger individually their passports and providing some instructions on what we need to do after we arrive in Brest. Obviously we had another mountain to climb before we got to Europe. We were to find the coach that would be taking us on your trip. There were supposed to be lots of them near the station in Brest so it might be pretty hard. Seeing a ridiculous picture of me in the Schengen visa made me feel better about that mission. I knew we would be fine…
The way seemed incredibly long. We tried different things to keep us busy but we were soon bored. The only person that kept us entertained was a nuisance girl. I felt like giving her a slap. That should be good fun! I just don’t feel comfortable around loud kids…
Having climbed on our top berths (another mountain to climb), I attempted to learn some basic words and expressions of Polish. My friend joined me and we had a bit of fun pronouncing all these. There is an assumption that Russian and Polish are similar but that is not entirely true (more about it later). We are both language teacher and would feel awkward being in the country without speaking a word of its tongue…
Our phones were going mad with the signal on and off. So we went to get them charged. There was only one socket and we were happy to occupy it. It felt really good and refreshing to be standing there having a chat (about nothing in particular like friends sometimes do) and looking out of the window. We were still in Russia but it was a part of it we had never been to before. The scenery looked different. There were dense woods all around us. I couldn’t believe it was the last of Russia I would be seeing before I come back ten days later. There were some old houses sliding by… We seemed to be halfway between Russia and Poland (where our trip would start). It felt nice to be unaware of what this trip would bring. I wish I could go back to this moment.
There was a long stop in Smolensk so we got out for some fresh air. The station looked really disappointing. Voronezh didn’t seem like a country town to us anymore. The next stop was to be in Belarus. It was getting dark and we had some 7 more hours to go. The next day would the first day of our trip and we needed to get some sleep to get ready for it.
As I was drifting in and out of sleep, I heard the woman and her girl getting off so I knew we were already in Belarus. Even though we were technically in a different country, nothing changed. I tried to look out the window to hear the announcements at the stations we stopped at – they were all in Russian. Belarus was part of what was a huge country till 1991 and it never completely felt like a different state. I was trying to fall back asleep and to quench my linguistic curiosity when one man got in. He was in our compartment where the woman and the girl used to be. It was pretty dark and I didn’t see his face. My friend’s blanket fell off from her top coach and she climbed down to pick it up. The man tried to help her out because it was dark and she was only half awake and he tried to tell her something but she wouldn’t understand. This was when I started contemplating cultural and linguistic differences and letting the thought of being abroad sink in. I was thrilled about it.
Dawn was breaking as we woke up to get cleaned up and dressed. The view from the window was dreary with dense forests and swamps all around. It was still Belarus. I started remembering History classes and Soviet partisans (this is how they called people involved in the resistance movement during the World War II) who were hiding in these woods. I was happy to be in touch with the history of my country but I was looking forward to experiencing Europe which was not a long way off now.
About an hour later we arrived safely in Brest. The bags seemed so hard to carry and I couldn’t wait to put them somewhere. Finding our coach wasn’t that hard and the trip was kicking off right there and then. We were all like a group of kids. The tour guide counted us. Everyone seemed to be here except one person. She had to call the roll only to find out that the first person on the list was the one to be missing. We couldn’t go without him. This was when we experienced the first downside of group travelling when the entire group has to wait on one person. It was kind of annoying. The tour guide was agitated but it wasn’t long before she found the missing person and brought this man of thirty or something into the coach as if he was a small kid. She told him to apologize, which he did. He was now a good boy. We were now ready to go. We needed to be at the Belarus-Polish border as soon as possible not to get stuck there for ages as there were plenty more coaches at the check point.
I was sorry we didn’t have time to visit the Brest Fortress which was awarded the title of Hero Fortress. It is one of the most famous World War II war monuments that commemorate the defense of the frontier stronghold during the first week of the war.

Introduction (Before it all started)



Travelling abroad has long been something I really wanted to do. For a number of reasons… First off, I have a strong belief that every person in this world needs to get around and explore the world. There is a German expression that comes to mind when we start elaborating on the educational value of travelling. It is “Reisen bildet” which means “Travel broadens the mind”… There’s no doubt about that really… But to me it’s not education in the classical sense, not the one that we can get at schools (for free if we’re smart and lucky enough to get into a nice school). It’s not education that makes one put an all-nighter and slave at books… There’s no need to sit exams and impatiently waiting for the results to come in… It’s not an obligation after all… A university education can potentially open up our eyes to the world and open the door into this vibrant world to us… But, likewise, it might not… Much depends on how one’s life works out… But travelling, which is to me a complementary form of education, does wonders for people… It makes you feel, see, hear… All of the things a healthy person can do at birth but… DIFFERENTLY… It can make you feel, see, hear in such a new, intense way that you may end up feeling you weren’t able to feel, see and hear before…

Ok, this is how I felt about travelling and the role it played in an ordinary human life. The bottom line is that I reckon one’s life ceases to be ordinary after they cross the border… And what’s across the border? This question got me wondering since I was a young kid. There’s this thing about growing up in this country. I guess it all goes back to the times when there was the so-called “iron curtain” when people were not free to get around. I don’t know exactly how people of other countries felt about this obviously dramatic situation but in this country even people like me who don’t have the memory of the iron curtain were born with the lasting notion that there’s something completely different, new, vibrant right across the border. I have to admit that somewhere in the back of my young mind I thought even the air abroad was different from ours… It might sound like a really stupid thing to assume as the air is not geographically confined… It is something that we all share… But what is truly different is its quality… We naturally find it easier to breathe in the countryside than we do in a sprawling city… It’s the same thing with life… It’s a gift we are all granted at birth but we all choose or have to use this gift differently… Some mess it up while others make the best of it… Sure, there’s a multitude of ways to live your life…

So, growing up I knew for sure there was something different somewhere outside this country where I was born… I had no clue whether I would ever get to feel, see, hear it… Or would it just stay a sort of a forbidden fruit I’d never have the privilege of tasting? Yes, here it is considered a privilege to go to another country… Well, there’s traditionally a list of countries that few people would like to go to… But Europe and America have always been a sweet paradise to us… I know this might seem like a very limited and foolish view… I guess it is the media that do a wonderful job giving us the impression people are more well-off in these regions of the world… This is what lures hoards of people into this heaven on earth… But the sad truth is that life is not that easy and the media often turn out to be highly biased and tend to twist the facts to suit their political agendas… It is up to the way one feels, sees and hears to make the right assumption and hence read between the lines or see beyond the screen (reading declines in popularity so this newly coined expression to me best describes this ability)…

So how do we think of things that are brand new and things we might never get to experience? They are all like a part of a FAIRYTALE… The one that ignited our imagination, nurtured a DREAM and took us far, far away (to what seemed a different country even if it was a classical Russian fairytale)… It’s something that we used to be read to sleep as we were lying tucked in warm nice beds of ours… It’s something that had the voice of that someone so close, so dear (one is so lucky if they have a person like that reading sweet fairytales to them)… And what if it is the right way to learn to feel, see, hear differently? I mean as sweet and tempting as a fairytale is, it’s even sweeter to be secure in the knowledge there’s that person or people who used to read to you to sleep now waiting for you to go back from this fairytale (it might eventually not turn out to be a fairytale) … It’s just a thought… I’ll be coming back to that later in my story which kicks off as soon as I set on my trip to a fairytale (or what might not turn out to be one)…

So after I had all these fairytales lovingly read to me and had my inflamed mind take me incredibly far away, how could I know I would ever find myself in a fairytale and have my innermost dreams ever come true? Eventually one of such dreams I wanted to see become real was seeing what was across the border and learning how to feel, see, and hear differently (well, I might have to learn to breathe differently as you remember I was on a mission to try whether the air abroad was different)…

I chose to pursue a career in foreign languages which obviously could be of help if I ever got a chance to go abroad. Basically my job is to teach others to use a foreign language in their daily life and make the best of all the opportunities it offers. Anyway, that’s what I’d like the ultimate goal of a teacher of a foreign language to be… So since I got into the University I knew I was compelled to develop a burning passion for travelling and was yearning to see more of the world. Actually my daily routine (almost my whole life really, except that incredibly brief trip to Moscow I was on when I was 11) was confined to the area between the place where I was born and the place where I moved to study. That was not the geographical scope of life I was dreaming of… My feelings, my vision, my hearing were longing to be enhanced, become more acute by what I thought could be the most amazing experience in my life.

Well, I AM a dreamer (I don’t even need people telling me this time and time again) and a part of me still childishly believed in fairytales and I sought to find out how much the media twisted the facts (both positive and negative). At that point I was educated enough to realize people abroad were not all naturally more well-off and had their problems to deal with. What I wanted to see is how different these problems were and how differently they were dealt with…

I was desperate for a breath of fresh air and wanted to get a taste of an education I was talking about in the beginning. I know too well that a University degree does not suffice to make a person really sophisticated and open their eyes to the world beyond. I had a physical and mental feeling it was not enough for me anyway… So it all came down to whether I ever got a chance to experience the diversity of the world…

Fairytales like that are not for free and one needs money to buy them a ticket to see what’s across the border. Sometimes I get way too pessimistic about life (is it about Russian people generally having a grim outlook on life?) and thought I might have to face the fact I might never get to live this dream of mine… I knew there are fairytale-like things life within the borders has to offer but I set my mind on travelling and wouldn’t let go of my dream…

I remember getting terribly jealous of people who were on a magic trip abroad… Some of them didn’t really care, I mean it wasn’t even a dream come true for them – they just wanted to have fun and perhaps show off and say they had money to spend… I mean they weren’t even transformed by this experience… Did they really learn how to feel, see, and hear in a different way? Or was it possible at all or was it just something I imagined in my dreamy mind? Well, there certainly was something magical about abroad that kept almost all people I know who had a ‘privilege’ (as I still think it is) of travelling abroad coming back for more… Whenever I asked them to tell me more about their trip(s), all of them struggled for words to describe it and there was something about the way they spoke, some glitter in their eyes that got me thinking there might be no words to describe these overflowing emotions so all I could do was get away and feel, see, and hear it all for myself… At least not all of these people were dreamers like me so there was a huge motivation for me to travel… Besides, there was no iron curtain to keep me from getting out of the country… Well, let’s admit which is in itself a dream for lots of Russians….

So here I was, really determined to go on a trip abroad. I knew I was going to book it with the money I’d earned myself without asking my parents to give me some extra money I lacked. Besides having my dream come true, going abroad with my own money would give me a huge confidence boost. It just makes all hard work and effort more worthwhile, not just something you have to do to survive. The time of anticipation of the fairytale is probably the longest but the sweetest. Whenever I felt down and drained, I looked into some trips on the website of the tourist company a person I know working for a tourist agency recommended. In an odd way all these tempting alluring descriptions of trips to different countries of Europe drew such bright, colorful, stunning pictures in my mind that I couldn’t wait to hit the road…. Other than that, it seemed to give my life a huge purpose…. At some point it really turned into an obsession, I could go on and on about my future trip and all the things I would be seeing and experiencing…

Choosing places to go to is next toughest thing after earning money…I heard lots of positive reviews of coach trips. It’s a relatively safe and comfortable way of travelling which offers a good value for money. It is reassuring to know that in order to get the privilege of travelling one does not have to be rich anymore. So fairytales and new countries are so much easier to reach and discover. As I said, after I chose the trip that looked interesting and affordable, my imagination ran wild. Virtually not a day went by that I didn’t fantasize of what it would be like to find myself in a completely different country. What will I be feeling physically and emotionally as I will be walking the streets of the cities I previously saw only on TV? The anticipation took over my mind completely. If I had the time, I think I would sit down and write a book about the trip I hadn’t even been on….

After the trip was booked and paid for, I got a quirky feeling that there was no way back and there was no changing my mind… Why would a person in their right mind be thinking like that, working hard towards his goal and then getting doubts about whether it was a right thing to do at all? I guess it was because the dream was so massive and so unlikely to ever come true (so I believed) and I relished so much just fantasizing about it that when it was actually to come true, it ceased to be a fairytale and became a plan. But I absolutely loved this plan and was hoping nothing would stand in the way of me staying true to it. It was a massively beautiful plan that really made me not care at all about some stupid and small things and people in my life. I was proud of myself for actually going along with my dream and not giving up on it despite of being told how dangerous it might be to go to a different country. There are certain risks involved in getting any dream come true really. But the biggest risk for me was that I might get disappointed with my trip and maybe I was mistaken when I thought that was the glitter in the eyes of the people who had travelled abroad? Or maybe it’s just a thing with every dream that it’s much sweeter as something you fantasize about than something that is true?

As I was just a couple of days away, I started getting really panicky. I hate packing even though I know it’s an indispensable (and the least fun) part of travelling. I was sitting staring at my suitcase having no clue how on earth I was going to pack all the stuff I wanted to take with me. I knew that all the things I would finally squeeze and force into my suitcase would be a part of this dream and will always remind me of this trip and my big dream for many years to come. At that point I got really sentimental. The thought of me being away from this country gave me a chill (?). What will be happening here as I will be away? All these questions and doubts kept bugging me. I guess it’s all part of our love-hate relationship with our country. We want to get away and afraid we’re going to be missing it after we do…

I knew that just in a couple of days I was going to see it all for myself. It’s actually a hard task trying to put this feeling into words. It’s like finally getting to meet your dream man, the one you’ve been longing to see which you thought would change your life forever. But as soon as you realize it’s just a human, you might be afraid of actually facing him. What if he turns out to be just a man but not the one you’ve been dreaming about? What if this date turns out to be a complete disaster with all your dreams come crashing down? Well, it wasn’t my idea of a perfect date anyway as I was paying for it all by myself and it wasn’t my dream man (countries in this case) wanting to see me, I was the one who wanted to go and see them. I had two options anyway – either I get utterly disappointed and find myself something else to dream about (I’m a dreamer so I shouldn’t have any problems with that) or I fall in love like mad and will be devastated as I know this date won’t last long and will have to wait and hope for another chance to go there again)…

Ok, I was all set to go, all my things packed. Needless to say, deciding on the wardrobe was the hardest thing to do as even though I knew my dream countries wouldn’t give a toss about the way I would look, I wanted to look my best (or as good as my suitcase will allow me to). I was hoping I wouldn’t leave anything behind because I wanted it to be a perfect fairytale and was ready to forget about the world I used to know and make a memory… Ok, I made sure I had taken my contact lenses (I was ready to see differently). Feeling and hearing shouldn’t be a problem either. I was wondering – will I be the same again? Is the air going to be different? Bon voyage to me anyway!