In this final part of the series, ‘A’ -a Russian visitor to the UK- shares his thoughts on various places of interest, encountered during his stay here -in contrast to the surroundings (and inhabitants) back home.
“Your nation is a ‘sea nation’ -you like it!” so says ‘A’ with a knowing smile -as if discovering the secret at the heart of the British mindset. ‘Well it’s ok’ I felt like saying – somewhat taken aback, but not wishing to burst his proud bubble of apparent insight – I let it pass.
I wonder if he would say the same if he found himself standing in the back of a midlands council estate -but in a moment on Brownsea Island, Poole Bay: everyone seems wed to the sea at a genetic level.
It’s a truth revealed in the plethora of sports and merchant boats passing by; the small sports-craft, sailboats and the gliding windsurfers. There is something about the English ‘messing about in boats’ though, that has stuck over time. Perhaps it takes foreign eyes to see what most of us have forgotten.
‘A’s boat-captain gives a guided tour of the immediate area, and of the sand-bank peninsula; home to the self-segregated ultra-rich, where the vehicles banned for noise pollution are helicopters. That’s with the exception of one, parked like the family saloon on its pad, singled out by the gesturing guide and owned by someone rich enough to afford his own set of rules.
“Ah!” says ‘A,’ recognising something both new and familiar: “Even in England, you can buy your own laws!”
The giant at the window
The word “beautiful” recurs in ‘A’s assessment of his surroundings, whether at sea: staring at the up at the Jurassic Coast or wandering through the region’s ancient architecture. By ‘A’s standards, the buildings are strangely diminutive -well we were a little shorter ‘back then’ of course – between the late medieval period and onwards into the industrial era. Pushing 2 metres in height, ‘A’ remarks that he could almost peer in through some second storey windows, as a character from a Roald Dahl tale.
The (restored) steam train to Corfe Castle was a pleasure that reminded him of trips in Russia via similar means in his early youth. There, in the castle ruins: the falconry demonstrator sent birds of prey low overhead (extra close in his case) with “a special sound” (as ‘A’ puts it) and I have to wonder, just what is the Russian word for “swoosh”.
Ticking off the towns
“Bournemouth doesn’t feel very old,” he says on reflection, “But in Salisbury you can feel the age of the city.” He remarks on its impressively large and ornately detailed cathedral, dwarfing the homes and modern buildings that surround it. “It’s hard to know which is more beautifu,l” he states: “Inside, or outside!”. There, he is regaled by the hymns of worshippers, as compensation for being minutes too late to view the Magna Carta exhibit. Maybe next time?
Salisbury’s thatched cottages remind him of Ukraine; where a similar roofing style is still utilised in some village houses today. Other than that, the region’s beautiful stone work starts to blend in to one and he finds no more superlatives in his arsenal to convey.
Yet more evidence at Portsmouth secures – in ‘A’s mind; that eternal British connection to the sea. Whilst impressed by the vastness of a modern aircraft carrier at a distance, he was able to board Nelson’s Victory and HMS Warrior. Touching reality in the cramped wooden surroundings, his interest is taken by the plight of those once stationed within.
“I could see how they ate, where they slept, the different guns, where the captain lived and the many spheres of naval life,” he states, with a sense of wonderment over the ancient toilet facilities, – though the low ceilings and lintels threatened to render him semi-conscious throughout his exploration.
The familiar dead
‘A’s Oxford is an extended flurry of University halls observed at a distance -and in a hurry- whilst studious inmates labour within. He is surprised to discover that – unlike similar seats of knowledge back home; there is no single (or perhaps twin) structure labelled “Oxford University”, rather a network of over 30+ sites spread across the city, of which the university as a whole is comprised. His guide casually drops names of famous graduates that have passed through these spaces: the living and the dead, and soon the luxury of time runs dry.
In silent parallel to the flora and fauna presenting themselves in the surrounds of Bournemouth, the cold paleontological inhabitants of Oxford’s Museum of Natural History are (again) somehow similar, but different to: ancient denizens witnessed back home in fossilized snapshots of their demise. ‘A’ has time to soak amongst their bones before -once again- it is time to go.
I could live in a place like this
“London is the capital of Great Britain,” ’A’ laughs as he parrots the phrase drummed into him and his classmates at school. Compared to Moscow and St.Petersburg, he considers the city to be “more suitable to live in, more comfortable”. He found that he could readily understand the layout and “how I could get around and live here!”. He states approvingly that: “The buildings are not too high, the narrow streets and wide paths are convenient and comfortable to walk on. There is less traffic – it is good for a traveler.”
By extension, he considers the opposite true in all respects back home -at least where the two principal cities are concerned. Moscow, particularly is renowned for it’s thunderous, fuming multi-lanes that never stop and St.Petersburg’s traffic can be quite formidable too.
No wonder then that both pedestrians and vehicles are governed by traffic lights. In Russia it’s an offence to ignore their automated countdowns and to blithely “jaywalk” across the street instead. As intimated above: those Russian streets are often pretty wide -so you’ll have plenty of opportunity to be hit. That’s not withstanding the “adventurous” driving and often absent road markings, incidentally.
By coincidence ‘A’ is present at the Queen’s birthday parade and enjoys the pomp and ceremony on display, but is a little vexed by the existence of differing“official” and biological dates. “For Russians; that is impossible!” he states dismissively, “We don’t celebrate before the day!”. He is aghast at the very idea of such a thing.
Although he found the event ‘most interesting’, his guide and tour colleagues were not transfixed enough by the occasion to remain present. As if triggered by a hidden command; the group splinters to pursue their separate paths of interest elsewhere, leaving ‘A’ standing to admire the sights, alone. By the time he realised this, he is the only Russian (probably) in the immediate vicinity, So much for travelling companions – at least for these.
Russian on the loose
With time to do a little exploring of his own, ‘A’ sets out to see what he can find, though the return bus to Bournemouth sets an immovable deadline, looming ever closer. What to do?
He finds another reminder of a place close (relatively speaking) to home: the Guards Crimean War Memorial in Waterloo Place. After staring up at the dark, somber characters standing at ease on their monument platform, he heads to the nearby Thames to study its steady, grey flow. Iit washes minutes from his dwindling time span and scatters them downstream. ‘Time to go.
The remainder of his London visit is divided into two: part pleasure, part necessity. Madame Tussauds is the highlight -where he marvels at the excellent standard of work in the likenesses on show. That’s for the most part, although he proclaims: “Trump is not like the real Trump! I thought that everything should be excellent!”.
Everyone’s a critic, but there’s more: “I have not seen Putin and Yeltsin,” he complains. Two notable exceptions, surely? As compensation there are, however: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis. After towering over them -whilst grabbing a selfie as proof- he becomes aware of a fundamental need stirring within.
“I am in London,” he says “I am hungry. In one hour our buses will meet us. I need to eat something!”. After scouting the vicinity for a likely venue, he chances upon a group of youths fraternising an eatery. Youth in search of food generally equates to “affordable” -an assumption that seems reasonable enough in most minds, however ‘A’ has unwittingly stumbled upon the rich kids cafe.
Mind you, he does order one of the most traditionally expensive items: at least in the UK. After a steak and salad (which he describes as “grass”) plus beer; the venue relieves him of £52. That’s over 4000 Rubles in home-money. Brutal.
My advice is (typically) too late: “You could have gone to a supermarket and-” ‘A’ cuts me short and blurts: “First of all, I should know where IS a supermarket!”. That is true of course, so let’s just put this one down to experience.
“Poppal na dengi!” he shrugs. This translates into “hit on the money!”. It was a hit of course, but if your biggest mistake is a mild overspend then frankly: life is good. ‘A’ meets his bus on time and is whisked away -just like his cash. It’s a four hour slog back down to Bournemouth where the remainder of his stay awaits him. Then Heathrow, heading home.