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Life in Yaroslavl, with its mad Russian cats

At the end of my second year of University I was Russia bound, on a year placement to enhance my knowledge of the language.  More specifically, I was destined for a city on the Golden Ring called Yaroslavl.  Now a little history and geographical insight before I get going.  Yaroslavl is located about 150 miles north east of Moscow, Russia’s capital city and sits both on the interlaced fingers of the Volga and Kotorosl rivers and also on the Trans-Siberian train line.  It has a population of almost 630,000 and was founded at the start of the 11th century by Yaroslavl The Wise, who bestowed his name on the city.  Over the next few centuries, Yaroslavl became one of the most important trading cities due to its prime location on two main rivers, and forms part of what is know as The Golden Ring – a selection of famous old cities north of Moscow.  Yaroslavl is also home to Russia’s oldest theatre, The Volkov and is recognised by the symbol of a bear, thought to have been slain by Yaroslavl on his first visit to the site.

My first sight of the city when the airless coach pulled over at the road side was an enormous block of apartments, perhaps eight or nine storeys high.  On the dingy wall that faced us was an equally huge image of this exact bear clutching an axe – a symbol which I would learn to recognise and see branded on everything, from buses, to flags and even crockery.

I was called to the front of the bus before anyone else.  My name echoed down the silent rows of seats as Julia – our Russian staff liaison – beckoned me forward with an encouraging beam that only marginally heartened my tense mindset.  I opened my mouth in disbelief; I had imagined we would be first taken inside a building, to a well lit room with a crowd of cheerful Grandmothers standing eagerly in wait for their adopted grandchildren; I certainly had not prepared myself to be booted out into the dark midnight suburbs of Yaroslavl, without even a glance at my Grandmother-to-be for the next three months.  I wanted to take a friend with me; anyone who would come; I didn’t want to be alone.  But holding the bus up did not at that moment seem like a suitable option and so I begrudgingly heaved my way to the front, supporting the weight of two shoulder bags and a fur-lined coat and sombrely disembarked from my safe-haven.  The air was surprisingly thick with a warmth that penetrated through the thickness of my snow coat right to my clammy skin, and I made a mental note that I would not be needing the coat again for some time.  My eyes darted from the only other person on the sidewalk to the near vicinity, then a little further still, to check that the young 40-odd year old woman standing there was indeed my ‘hozyaika’, or host lady.  I wasn’t sure whether her young age made me more or less comfortable, but I took one final look back at the bus load of peaky, anxious faces before gritting my teeth and ploughing headlong into the unknown.

I didn’t honestly pay attention as we took the five minute walk from the drop off point to the apartment, but I can describe it now, in retrospect.  The best way for me to do this is to get you to imagine a ghetto; maybe there are rows of dumpsters littering the only communal bit of grass, or perhaps a lone man staggering along the dirt track; or pot holes that reach up to your knees.  Any of these things could have been found in the immediate vicinity of my apartment.  The blocks of flats were congregated in a square shape, with paths joining one to the next like dot-to-dot.  A rusty climbing frame had become a makeshift washing line, balconies suspended hazardously off the sides of buildings high above your head and stray toms wandered aimlessly in search of a mate.  The thing is, each ‘quadrangle’ of apartment blocks appears very much like the next and getting lost is not a luxury for a foreign student with places to be.  In my first few days of living in block 23, floor 6, flat 5 (with no lift), I got very lost, twice.  I find it interesting that the Russian phrase to get lost, translates as ‘to lose oneself’, indicating that the action has an element of intentionality rather than being an inadvertent mishap.  I certainly had not premeditated ‘losing myself’, nor had I been careless in doing so, but nonetheless I drifted like some forlorn wanderer down road after craggy road in search of a neighbourhood that as far as I was concerned, did not exist on the map.  I quickly mastered the phrase “Izvenitye, vi znayetye gdye eta dom dvadtsat tree? (Excuse me please; do you know where apartment 23 is?).  Somehow or other I normally ended up back home, flustered, sweaty, hugely apologetic and further humiliated by my incompetence at using door keys. As with any decent ghetto, five locks and five different keys put a good margin between my safe haven and the dangerous and foreign world beyond.

So I lived in the slums of Yaroslavl, but surprisingly grew to be quite fond of it.  It actually had a lot of character once you got past the shabby exterior.  For instance, every morning I would traipse past little groups of huddled ‘babooshkas’ and ‘dedooshkas’ (grandmothers and grandfathers) who congregated on benches wearing snug tea-cozy shaped hats and scrutinizing me in silence as I ambled past.  Just when I could scarcely be considered out of earshot, they would erupt back into raucous chitchat, throwing around words like ‘devooshka’ (girl) and ‘inostranni’ (foreign), which of course I smugly recognized.  My aim, though I never consciously decided it, was to smile politely at them every single day until one of them nodded or returned the gesture.  In my mind, I was like Diane Lane in ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ who would nod her head each morning to this little old gentleman who put fresh flowers on a roadside shrine, never once receiving a reaction from him.  Yet one day, no different really from any other, the man goes to leave, hesitates, turns back and unmistakably touches his hat for just a second, before walking away.  Out of the whole film, that was the one part that would infallibly make me cry.

Another attribute of my block was that it had a strong resemblance to a cat refugee camp or something along those lines.  If you walked down the alley late at night, a stray flea-ridden ball of fur might wheedle its way up to you and hover infuriatingly at your feet waiting to be fed.  There were cats everywhere.  Cats lurking behind trees, cats caterwauling like drunk musicians, cats partaking in gang warfare, fur spiked like punks and backs arched like the Sydney Harbour Bridge, cats hissing and spitting like obnoxious teenagers and cats fast asleep in dustbin lids, oblivious to the pitter-patter of mice feet scuttling fearlessly past.  When daylight reappeared, groups of children would emerge from their sleepy hollows armed with cardboard boxes in one arm, and helpless kittens in the other, ready to construct a small-scale community project for the poor starving street-kittens.

My landlady Tatyana had a cat.  It was a white and brown fluffy thing called Masska with beady blue eyes that made her look possessed.  The truth was, I think she had turned a little mad.  The unfortunate creature was destined to spend every living minute in a 15ft squared apartment with no fresh air or chance to socialize with other mogs in the street.  I wondered when she had last seen daylight, if ever.  Now, I’m a cat lover, but my relationship with Masska was one that fluctuated between pity and exasperation.  I used to endeavour to keep her barred from my bedroom while I was home alone, but after one too many occasions opening my door and seeing her sitting patiently staring up at me, two little front paws crossed neatly one over the other, I began to go soft, and sometimes, if I too sought some company, I’d allow her entry to park herself next to me on the bed while I read.  That was Masska when she was being civil.  Masska when psychotic was a different kettle of fish.  This would generally happen when I was powerless to fight back, like if I had been out for the night and had to creep back into the apartment, past Tatyana’s sleeping figure on the sofa and into my room, where I could shut the door and marvel at my brilliantly feigned sobriety.  These were the moments when Masska seemed to hate me.  As soon as my key touched the first outside lock, I could practically sense the little tyrant’s ears pricking up and once I was inside the flat, there would be a brief moment of eye contact, in which I would mouth silently “Don’t you dare”.  Her non verbal retort would be to fly headlong into my room, like a bat-outta-hell and position herself under my chair where it was problematic and time-consuming to extract her.  I would be forced to try everything, from seducing her out with promises of tickles and strokes, which worked for a while, until she realized my grand plan, to trying to lure her out with games like “What’s this I’ve got here Masska?  Is it a wiggly little worm for you to play with?” The latter involved props like belts or dressing gown cords that first had to be located and then generally had to be left outside my door over night once their purpose had been fulfilled.  The cheeky minx was a quick learner though and soon cottoned on that once we were both outside my room, I had a tendency to dart back in and shut the door on her little black nose; she remedied this by learning to recognize the signs and at my first micro-movement, she, like a bullet that’s gone before you have time to blink, would be once again positioned under my chair, looking at me conceitedly as if saying “Nice try. Mwahahahahahah”.  She was the devil, I’m sure.  By this point, I was so tired, frustrated and enraged that I would have no qualms with finding a trainer and practically booting her out of the room.

Possible attack team to deal with a cat problem..

As I mentioned before, the apartment where I stayed for those three months was no bigger than 15ft squared.  My kitchen at home could easily house the living room, kitchen, bedroom, and broom closet bathroom but to be honest, I never had problems with the size.  Tatyana had kindly given me her room which was perfectly comfortable, but this meant that she had to sleep on the sofa bed in the living room which was the central room of the house, and naturally, the route to the bathroom.  On my first night in the flat, when I arrived at midnight exhausted, verbally incompetent and grimy from the long day of travel, I took a shower, as one might expect.  My first thought was that there was no lock on the door.  In fact, there wasn’t even that useful little catch that prevents the door from blowing in the wind (had there been any wind to move it).  Once I had removed the soiled cat litter tray from the bath, (all the while pinching my nose), clambered in and crouched with the hand-held shower low over my head so as not to soak the line of washing that hung above, I was then greeted by nosy little Masska who nudged open the door and waltzed in as if she owned the place.  “This is going to be an interesting year,” I said out loud, realising in dismay there would be no escaping this quirky and alien existence.

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