A short exile in Siberia
EVER since 1980, I have wanted to travel to Siberia. Back then, it was the heady days of the Cold War and the adventure must-do of all backpackers: the Trans-Siberian Railway.
Today, the world is a different place, but Siberia still conjures vivid images of vast frozen Soviet wastelands.
Indeed, the only positive image I had of Siberia was of a dashing James Bond saving the world from the Cold War.
I hate the cold, yet here I was, in winter, boarding a plane for Siberia. This was no holiday- after all, no one goes to Siberia for a holiday!
I was invited to Siberia to conduct a training course in the central Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk by the director of a private and well-respected English language school. The participants were all teaching English as a foreign language in private language schools, State Russian schools and Russian universities. It was a partnership between my own Australian business and a Russian school, and was the first training course of its kind to be held in Siberia.
My first impression was that Siberian Russian culture was as harsh as the weather and, trust me, the weather was harsh. The temperature never rose above zero and dropped to -19 overnight. The maximum temperatures were still minuses.
After arriving, one of the first things my Russian colleague told me was that a true Siberian does not fear bad weather, only bad clothing. "In Siberia, one must dress like a cabbage," he said.
The snow, although beautiful, was deep and icy. Did I mention how much I hate the cold?
From the beginning of my trip, I was completely immersed in Siberian culture. I lived with a Russian family and worked with all Russian colleagues.
My colleague's elderly mother cooked traditional Russian food for us every day. Breakfast was heavy black bread with thick slices of cheese. Lunch was borscht (beetroot and cabbage soup). Dinner was a variation of cabbage dishes such as cabbage-filled pastries, cabbage pie, salted cabbage, and cabbage salad.
I was reminded every day that cabbage is good for you and full of vitamin C. I didn't know you could do so much with cabbage.
On first meeting, Russians are abrupt and negative. They speak directly, with a brisk tone and stern manner. They are constantly complaining and rarely speak positively about anyone or any situation.
Everyday life has a rapid pace.
They walk extremely fast, eat quickly, and give short, sharp answers to a question. It was several days before I saw a Russian smile or heard a Russian laugh.
They are suspicious of outsiders and the lingering influence of Communism ensures that Russians are not keen to try new things. "This is not how we do it in Russia" was a phrase I heard often. For an average easy-going Australian, I initially found this a challenging culture to live and work in. And I had to constantly fight against the urge to become negative myself.
However, once they know you can be trusted, Siberians are warm and generous people. Their homes are warm and they are generous with gifts of food.
They are keen to show you their historical places and I was taken to several museums and the ballet.
They are also keen to share their culture and everyday lunchtime conversation becomes a lesson in Siberian culture.
It wasn't long before I discovered the extraordinary culture and people of Krasnoyarsk.
The city streets are filled with gorgeous chocolate shops and exquisite bakeries and cafes.
Many world-class ski fields are on the outskirts of the city. Seven theatres have a constant program of Russian ballets and operas. The city has many art galleries and museums, with a heritage that dates back to long before the time of the great Russian Empires.
Many believe that because most of Russia's scientists, artists, revolutionary leaders and teachers were exiled to Siberia during the time of the Russian Revolution, this is the reason why today Siberians are more outgoing, creative and entrepreneurial than their fellow countrymen. Shopping, entertainment and food in Siberia is also much cheaper than in Moscow and St Petersburg.
It would be an understatement to say that Krasnoyarsk is not generally considered a tourism destination. Few visit and during my month in Siberia, I only met one other foreigner. However, if you want to experience true Siberian Russian culture, I would thoroughly recommend spending some time in this region.
At the end of my time in Siberia, I knew I had grown personally and gained a rich experience. I grew in my understanding of a new culture and adjusted my teaching and leadership style to embrace a challenging situation far from home.
I achieved the goals and objectives of the program and my students were empowered and inspired. Above all, I made new friends, and was warmly received into Siberian society.
I am, however, still looking for James Bond.