Living the Life of A Local

Crossing the road. I’d say that this is what separates the true Roman from the tourist. I’m sure there are many other ways to identify a local, but for me this is the best. It’s the steadily-maintained eye contact. The unhesitant first step out into the road. The way they own the zebra crossing.

Of course, holidaying with a local is about more than just being able to cross the road. It’s amazing how disinterested they can be about the widely celebrated tourist attractions; you can walk past numerous interesting, historical-looking buildings, ask them what they are and find out they never even realised they were there.

The Colosseum will probably barely feature on the radar of a Roman. It’s always been there, it always will be. Tourists come and go but the monuments stay and this is what makes visiting a friend abroad so interesting. Sure, you can take a thousand pictures outside the Pantheon, or spend hours savouring the view from the top of St. Peter’s Basilica, but you are unlikely to experience the ‘real’ Rome that way. Visiting a restaurant with red and white chequered tablecloths may be nice, but it doesn’t compare for one second to the smell of a home-cooked Italian meal diffusing through a home.

On a practical note, interacting with locals becomes much easier when you’re actually with one. Buying a street umbrella is suddenly several Euros cheaper, I’m sure your meals come quicker and your stay is instantaneously warmer and friendlier as a result. The danger of being ripped off (although still present) is minimised. And if, as happens to even the best MMLer, your language skills fail you, there is an instant back-up to avoid the mortifying return to English.

My favourite night in Rome by far was spent on the terrace of my friend’s apartment. His friends all came round, his mother cooked a fantastic array of snacks including onion pizza (much nicer than it sounds) and we saw the night turn into morning, drinking sangria and enjoying the one am warmth. Perhaps an experience that could have been had without a local contact – but it would have been a lot more difficult to come by!

So try to visit as many of your foreign friends as possible (if you haven’t tried to blag your way abroad already); you’re guaranteed to have a unique and, most likely, unforgettable trip.

Reflections on being bilingual and bicultural

Having parents from different racial backgrounds has meant that I have spent most of my life comparing the social customs of England, where I have lived for my whole life, and Japan, my mother’s country.

There are a number of ways in which the linguistic differences between English and Japanese highlight cultural differences between the two societies. Japanese differs drastically from most European languages due to its grammatical ambiguity.  There are no articles, no distinction between singular and plural, no genders for nouns, pronouns are used only in exceptional circumstances and there are few verb tenses. The ambiguous nature of the people reflects this linguistic ambiguity. Questions that the British believe to require a direct response are approached with extreme caution in a Japanese context.

This difference attitude is illustrated by the following story. My mother’s Japanese friend came to Britain to study English and when asked by her host family whether or not she wanted some cake she declined the offer. In truth, she had been craving a slice of victoria sponge all week, but she felt that she could not accept the offer, especially after only being asked once. A few hours later, she returned to the kitchen to discover that the family had devoured the entire cake and that there was not a crumb left for her to eat. She was shocked. In some regions of Japan, anyone who accepts an offering of food before being invited to eat at least thrice is considered to have the social awareness, emotional sensitivity and self-restraint of a hungry elephant.

Japanese is also unusual in that the speech of women collectively differs from that of men and vice versa, a convention to which even toddlers adhere. There are many words and grammatical structures which a man could use without disapproval but would be considered vulgar should they be uttered by a woman. In my opinion this reflects the position of women in Japanese society, who are subject to a great deal of injustice, whether it be with regard to employment or a general sense of inferiority. For example, it is still common for women to be excluded from conferences, even if they hold the same positions as men within the company.

These are but a few examples of how the linguistic disparities between English and Japanese reflect differences in cultural norms as well as how people wish to present themselves to others.

I gave up on trying to order this ice-lolly in Portuguese!

I am standing at the till. I feel a bit like Eminem. My palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy (but don’t worry, on my sweater there’s no spaghetti). I have one shot, one opportunity to exchange a few words in Portuguese with a real life lisboeta:

“No, sorry, I don’t have any change”, “yes please, a bag would be great”. I open my mouth, but the words won’t come out. I’m choking, how!? Everybody, in the queue behind me, is joking now (while also getting very impatient). I stutter. But the clock’s run out, times up, over. The words that every language-learner abroad hates come tumbling out of the cashier’s mouth. “Don’t worry, I speak English”. Snap back to reality.

I have recently started watching a soap called Bem-vindo a Beirais to keep up my Portuguese. It’s about a man from Lisbon who moves to a village in the country to look after some greenhouses. As enthralling as that sounds, the main reason I watch it is so that I can pause and rewind the characters when I want, increase and decrease the volume when I want and, most importantly, the characters don’t stop and start speaking English when they discover how poor my Portuguese is. If only I could say the same for the locals I came across in Lisbon this summer. Practising your language abroad is a bit of a catch-22. You’re trying to improve by speaking with the locals but the locals, either to spare you the effort/embarrassment or because they can’t be bothered to deal with your feeble attempts at sounding authentic, find it easier to just launch into English. As I had daily classes at a language school during my week in Portugal, you might wonder why I didn’t practice with the other students. To get a general idea about the level of Portuguese amongst most of them, all you need to do is think back to GCSEs. Let’s just say that the only subjects we were able to approach comfortably were the weather and climate change. Not much of an Eco-warrior, I had little to say about both.

Returning home from my trip was bitter sweet as it made me wonder how helpful travelling really is for a language learner. But maybe that’s missing the point of the trip altogether. I came back with about the same level of Portuguese as I had when I left (although I had somehow mastered a fusion of Portuguese and Spanish known as portunhol, which was spoken by most of the students at the school). I did, however, manage to catch glimpse of how true lisboetas speak. I can pore over lists of vocabulary and verb conjugations to my heart’s content at home, but if I hadn’t gone to Lisbon, would I have known that “muito giro” is no longer the cool way of saying “cool” in Portugal? Or that in Brazil, these words would be met with utter incomprehension and condescension as they are simply not “legal”? You can imagine my confusion when my surfing instructor nicknamed me “bifana”, pork sandwich, before I knew that in Lisbon, it is slang for “fresh meat”. It’s much harder to lose yourself in a foreign culture than it might seem. So, if you get the rare chance to speak Portuguese in Portugal, you better never let it go.

Hitchiking to Morocco and reflections on Language Learning


I am convinced that the only way to truly become fluent in a language, for you to speak it (perhaps not always flawlessly) without hesitation, is to put yourself in a situation where you have to use it as opposed to merely studying when you feel like it. Nothing will force you to use a language quite like being stranded at a French petrol station in the middle of nowhere, knowing your only way out is to convince someone to give you a lift…

It’s no secret that at Cambridge, in MML the emphasis is placed on having a sound grasp of the written languages you are studying, knowing the ins and outs of its obscure grammatical features. (L’imparfait du Subjonctif in French anyone?) For our lecturers, this is more important than a solid grasp of colloquial usage. If your aim is to read medieval literature and philosophy, great! But not so great if you aim to actually speak the language fluently. Reading fluency and oral fluency are two separate phenomena. This is perhaps the biggest complaint I’ve heard (and made) to my peers studying MML at Cambridge; some have even said that their oral French/Spanish has gotten worse since coming here. But hey, that’s what the year abroad is for right?

I’m not bashing the fact that Cambridge is often more concerned with literary forms of language than the colloquial forms; I’ve just come to accept that gaining colloquial fluency has to be something extra-curricular. On a life changing two week trip hitch-hiking though France and Spain to reach Morocco, I came to appreciate what a gift speaking a second or third language fluently truly is.

In April 2012 myself and Leah Knight, both of us Language Freshers at Girton (me French and Arabic, her French and Spanish) and both eager to actually get some speaking practice in before our dreaded oral exams, decided to embark on the trip of a lifetime. We signed ourselves up for Link Community Development’s Charity Hitch-hike, and chose Morocco as our destination. The months flew by and before we knew it we’d raised our money, both through legitimate fund-raising and badgering friends and family, and were on a ferry bound for Le Harvre. Let the adventure begin!

Le Havre, our first sight of France
Le Havre, our first sight of France

Okay so we didn’t get off to the best start. Le Harvre was a wet and miserable place when we were there and we had to walk half a mile outside the city centre in the drizzling grey mist that enveloped the town in order to even stand a chance of getting a lift. To add insult to injury there were two other groups participating in the same event, both headed for Morocco. We had chatted with them on the ferry, and felt a quiet sense of smugness upon finding out that we were the only group that actually spoke the languages of the countries we would be hitching through. Upon arrival in Marrakesh we met up with one of the groups again, and their stories of how great it would have been to understand what was going on half the time confirmed to us what an ace we had up our sleeves being linguists.

However, when you’re standing outside a petrol station beside a busy road trying to thumb a ride, it doesn’t matter how good your French is, and the other two groups were picked up first. Demoralised and soaked, after a couple of hours we had begun to give up hope when a slightly bemused commuter stopped and offered to take us a few miles down the road. We came to realise that lifts like this weren’t always the best idea as we ended up stranded in an even worse location with even less passing traffic. But hey, we got our first lift and more importantly we had our first conversation in French. (maybe we could do this after all?)

Please stop!
Please stop!

As the day wore on we got better and better at hitching rides, and after having to reject an offer to stay the night in Nantes (too far off course to the west) we had somehow managed to make it all the way to the outskirts of Le Mans by mid-afternoon. This is where disaster struck. The next town on our planned route south from Le Mans was Tours (and putting Morocco on your sign probably wouldn’t get you very far) so upon arrival at Mans we got the biro out (note to self – bring permanent markers next time!) and scribbled ‘Tours’ on a shabby, damp piece of A4 Paper as legibly as we could manage.

Unfortunately for us, the Romanian lorry driver who would pick us up didn’t have the best knowledge of French Geography and thought we were lost tour guides! He was a lot of fun, blaring Romanian rap music and honking his horn whilst driving way too fast and showing us photos of his family, but unfortunately he was headed towards Paris, not south via Tours and before we had time to tell him and get out he’d turned on to the A11 towards Paris. He was such a nice guy, but unfortunately between his rudimentary English and our non-existent Romanian I don’t think we even managed to convey that we didn’t want to go to Paris but were heading south to Morocco; I think he just thought I liked drawing routes on maps. We managed to convince him to pull over at the next service station (which, thank god, had a bridge to the other side of the motorway for us to double back). He was sad to see us go – “in the you go? Ok 🙁 In the bye” – but going to Paris was sadly not an option.

Merde! On est où là?!
Merde! On est où là?!

So there we were, off course and disoriented, sitting in the French version of Welcome Break, sipping coffee and despairing about what to do next. Up until now, all the interaction had come to us. If someone stops to pick up a hitch-hiker, it’s usually out of curiosity or for company. They will more often than not be friendly and willing to talk to you. However, now it was a different kettle of fish. We were stranded and the only way to get out was to actually convince a French person to let two slightly soggy (although not yet smelly – it was only day one) English teenagers in the back of their car.

At first we were both reluctant to approach people, but we came to realise it was getting too late to be picky or shy and we plucked up the courage to talk to literally everyone who pulled up to refill their tank. Eventually, Leah managed to convince a reluctant woman from Le Mans to take us to the outskirts of her town. Persuading someone to give you a lift when you are stranded will certainly flex your language muscles a lot more than anything in French Grammar In Context, Third Edition ever could. She eventually warmed to us, after we assured her that her husband would not find out that she’d picked up autostoppeurs as she was adamant that he’d kill her if he found out!

Our 5 Star forest retreat
Our 5 Star forest retreat, just off the Motorway outside Le Mans

We camped by the side of the road that night (a tent is definitely a must for any hitch-hiker) and the next morning, after brushing off the light dusting of snow that had settled overnight (this was the year that spring got lost somewhere on the way, remember?) we parked ourselves by the side of the road, thumbs outstretched, smiling eagerly, patiently and hopefully waiting. Blanche DuBois was proved right, time and time again, you can always depend on the kindness of strangers.

Over the course of our 1800 mile adventure we were picked up by some amazing and diverse people, who we simply never would have interacted with otherwise. Single men, families, single women, ex-hitch-hikers and ex-gendarmes; teachers, builders and civil servants; we met them all, a complete cross-section of both French and Spanish society. We listened to their amazing stories, which I simply can’t do justice too in a short article like this one, all of which were in their native languages. That beats a 9am Use of class hands down! But after a while the fact that we were speaking another language almost became secondary; the important thing was that we were interacting with these people, sharing our stories with them and listening to theirs. For me, this is fluency. Fluency is not being able to conjugate obscure grammatical tenses that are barely in use today or being able to read centuries old literature. Fluency is being able to express yourself meaningfully and convey emotion – the basic goal of language – the basic goal of being a human being!

Backpacking in Bordeux
Backpacking in Bordeaux

The trip has solidified my philosophy on language. Language is about communication, about culture, and both these things are about meaningful interactions and shared experiences with other people. For me, languages are not about grammar and phonology, interesting though these areas may be to many. For me, being multilingual is such an amazing skill because of the interactions it enables you to have with others who have completely different life experiences and backgrounds. Languages are a means to an end. Taking part in the Hitch was one of the most rewarding and interesting things I have ever done, both in terms of my language ability and my own personal development. So what’s stopping you from going on the adventure of a lifetime?

Link Community Development is an amazing charity who does some great work in Sub Saharan Africa. This incredible event began back in 1992 as the Cambridge-Casablanca challenge, but, believe it or not, myself and Leah were the only group from Cambridge to participate in 2012. And she only heard about the Hitch from her sister at the ‘Other Place’, where it is actually a popular event, akin to Jailbreak (although Hitch-hiking is arguably more meaningful, rewarding and difficult than using your connections to get free plane tickets to Hawaii or Australia). This year me and Leah are determined to get the Hitch up and running again in Cambridge.

If this hasn’t convinced you, here are some photos of what awaits you in Morocco! (Where, let’s not forget, they also speak French… hint hint, nudge nudge)

If Morocco isn’t your cup of mint tea, or perhaps if you’re studying German/Italian then maybe Croatia is the destination for you? The Hitch is of course open to any University student  with a sense of adventure who can find a partner, and navigating the language barrier is certainly very fun at times (see the bit about Romanian lorry drivers), so if you don’t speak the language don’t let this put you off! I just want to stress what an amazing and rewarding opportunity this is for us linguists to actually use our language skills!

Sign up today! You won’t regret it!

Click here to find out more about LCD’s work.

The Magic of the Lamp

Looking at it, I’m finding it hard to see where the light is emanating from. As far as I can tell, the ceiling lamp is made up of three tiered shades, and so only emits reflected light. Each of the shades is moulded at a different angle or contour, and each is of a different size and shape. Although clearly made out of the same material—steel—they each glow a different colour in the light emenating somewhere mysteriously from the inside of the object.

The lamp I was describing is the now (in)famous Poul Henningsen lamp, or PH-lamp, as it’s affectionately referred to by Danes and design enthusiasts alike. First produced in 1923, it neatly sums up all the ideals of what is now commonly known as ‘the Scandinavian Style’: functionality, simplicity and beauty. Still in production after ninety years, recent estimates suggest that one in three Danes have either this lamp or one of its sister-versions hanging in their front room.

Scandinavian design, however, is not just popular at home, but also reigns supreme abroad. The blue-and-yellow word ‘IKEA’ comes distinctly to mind, but shops such as Habitat, John Lewis and even Sainsbury’s derive many of their homeware designs from Scandinavian models. Does the popularity of Scandinavian design tell us anything about the cultures of the five Nordic countries?


The term itself originates in the 1950s, from the name of a travelling exhibition—‘Scandinavian Design’—that toured the United States and Canada over five years in order to show off the latest in Northern European chic. Indeed, the idea itself is part cultural myth: particularly in the case of Finland, promotion of a distinct design aesthetic abroad was a form of ‘soft politics’ in the tense era of the Cold War. Sparse, stripped back designs represented both the bleak post-war era faced by the Scandinavian countries, as well as mythologizing cultural stereotypes of hardiness and resilience. Ilmari Tapiovaara, a key player in post-war Finnish design, claimed that ‘scarcity will create its own style’, and definine new cultural identities for the countries on the periphery of the Soviet Union.

Domestic politics also played a role in the success of Scandinavian design. The dominance of social democracy in the five countries—in Sweden, the Social Democrats governed for forty years non-stop—promoted the idea that cheap, well-designed and stylish household goods should be available to all. Design became political, representing the concrete expression of an ideology of social transformation. Perhaps the apex of this trend was the so-called ‘Million Programme’ in Sweden which, between 1965-1974, built over a million new homes for a booming population. A key feature of the program was the integration of public services into the apartment blocks—something that pre-dated European-wide adoption of similar features. The homes are so cherished that many have been restored to cope with the demands of the 21st century. Here, ‘design’ meant more than just good-looking consumer goods: it meant the active improvement of peoples’ lives.

Social housing in Sweden
Social housing in Sweden, part of the Million Programme

The Scandie effect

But do the sharp, anaethetised designs emanating from Europe’s cold northern rim say something deeper about Scandinavian cultural identity? It’s certainly tempting to read something of a Puritan aesthetic into the muted, clean lines of, say, the PH lamp. Critics have also noted the impact of geography within Scandinavian design, particularly on its glassware, and many Scandinavian craftsmen have acknowledged the influence of the distinctive, stark landscape on their work.

Grisslehamn, Sweden

For whatever reason, there is definitely something about the Scandinavian design ethic which appeals. One author of a 1952 article on design notes that ‘one is struck by the large proportion of the population that makes designing a profession.’ Small workshops, and a tradition of factory-floor participation in management decisions—for example, in the making of Saab cars—perhaps translate into a design that is not only elegant, but also better adapted for everyday use. Perhaps it’s this spirit of democracy and cooperation that is in fact the hidden light behind the success of Scandinavian design.

A City Sprung from Marshes

As there’s so much you shouldn’t believe about Russia, at first it seemed facetious to ask you to believe what I say. But, it’s probably safer than most things as I’ve literally been there, done that and, yes, bought the t-shirt.

After living in many different countries all my childhood, I have decided to write about Russia. It is completely different from the UK in so many ways: from the scenery to the language, from the climate to the culture. Moscow (where I lived for two years as a child) is a beautiful and interesting city, but it doesn’t represent the nation’s spirit. So, we shall now go far beyond it, over the Urals and into Western Siberia, to a city sprung from marshes, forests, lakes and people’s hard work: Tyumen. This is the place I write about because I have spent the last four summers in it and part of my family lives there, so I know it much more intimately than any other place in Russia.

Personally, I think Siberia is the most exciting, wild, cultured and little-known part of the country.

There, I have visited forests so huge that a large part of them remains unexplored by humans. Edible mushrooms with caps bigger than an outstretched hand grow there, along with clusters of scarlet stone berries, cranberries and whortleberries.

There, lakes are tucked away in secretive corners, where we have fished, and then ate what we caught after cooking it on a fire by the lakeside. Some fish of the Tyumen region can only be found in Siberia, for example, Muksun and Nelma (members of the salmon family). Many Russians eat it as a delicate-tasting dish, stroganina, made out of the raw, frozen and spiced fish.

Something which is completely unfamiliar to the English is a ‘dacha’. This is an allotment of land, outside the city, which is used as a combination of garden and vegetable plot, so that it both a means of producing food and a place to relax. What is unusual is that there is a house on the land, where part or even all of the summer is spent, and much of the spring and autumn as well. Another important aspect of ‘dacha’ is the ‘banya’. The closest thing I can compare it to is a sauna, but with very high humidity, which is achieved by throwing water over the hot stones. Bunches of leaves from birches, oaks, pines and other trees are wafted for healing purposes.

There are extreme temperatures in Tyumen, it’s true. In winter, it isn’t unusual for the temperature to fall to -30 or -40 degrees Centigrade. Far less famously, it is normal for the temperature in summer to rise to +30 or +40 degrees.

Although Tyumen is a modern, powerful centre of oil and gas industry, the city has a long history, beginning with its foundation in 1586. Its location was chosen for ease of defense, as it is bordered by the river Tura on one side and a deep ravine on another (as our granddad once said on an evening walk along the embankment). Reminders of this history are all around the city, like the plain cross which stands in the centre of one of the squares and marks the site of the first settlement there. Wooden buildings with traditionally carved wooden shutters nestle between concrete office blocks, strange and yet so right.

I was interested by the bone carvings made by the native peoples of the Far North on display at the Museum of Visual Arts which present beauty in simplicity. In contrast to the carvings, the recent exhibitions of Orthodox icons (some of them dating from the 1800s) demonstrate the rich society of those years, when the icons were made of gold and silver.

Think of the dramatic political, social, economic and cultural changes that the local people lived through. The city has a multitude of ‘Palaces of Culture’ (concert halls that also include clubs and cultural events), museums with exhibitions ranging from oil, gas and geology to natural history to art, and churches (including Orthodox, Catholic, Evangelical, mosques), not to mention a Philharmonic Society (a large concert hall with other functions).

Another attraction outside the city is the hot mineral springs. They are considered to be very good for health, so the water is channeled from the geysers into swimming pools so that people may bathe in it. My grandparents go in the winter, when the contrast between the cold air and hot water is very pleasant, but I found it a little too hot in the summer.

If some people know about all of the things above, then hardly anyone has thought of this: the world famous scientist Dmitriy Mendeleyev, who put together the periodic table of chemical elements, came from Tyumen region.

Bref. Je suis étudiante de MML à Cambridge.

‘Bref’ (‘In short’) is a popular French TV show, in which an anonymous,
unemployed thirty-something recounts aspects of his life in humorous three
minute clips.

Bref. Je suis étudiante de MML à Cambridge.

La vie, c’est super—je regarde des films avec des sous-titres, je lis des livres osés, et des vacances à l’étranger sont fortement conseillées. Tout ça, c’est du travail.

J’ai un gros dictionnaire Oxford-Hachette sur mon étagère. Je ne l’ai jamais utilisé, mais je le garde pour montrer à mes amis que je suis sérieuse. Quand je tape ‘w’ sur mon ordi j’arrive tout de suite sur le site de wordreference.

Il n’y a qu’un garçon dans ma classe de grammaire. Pendant le cours j’imagine souvent des Français fascinés par le rare et bizarre spectacle des Anglais qui se parlent en français. Dans ma tête, je sais qu’ ils se marrent de nos ‘petits accents mignons’.

Une fois, j’ai pris un café de la machine au premier étage de la faculté. Plus jamais. Ensuite j’ai essayé de passer au bureau du Year Abroad. Il n’était pas ouvert. J’ai réessayé le lendemain. Et le jour d’après.

À la fin j’ai choisi ma destination grâce aux photos facebook de quelqu’un qui y était l’année précédente. C’était un bon choix.

J’ai oublié comment former le passé simple pendant mon année en France. Pourtant, j’ai bien appris comment former des monacos, des kirs royaux, des ptits punchs…

Quand j’étais en France, les gens me demandaient sans cesse pourquoi les Anglaises se mettent en mini jupe lorsqu’il fait hyper froid. Je répondais toujours que c’était qu’un gros cliché, en baissant la mienne.

Maintenant lorsque je surprends des touristes français à Cambridge, je souris. Surtout quand ils sont en train de râler du froid, des prix d’entrée ou de la bouffe.

Des fois quand je cherche la définition d’un mot assez dur en français, je tombe sur le même mot en anglais. Ça m’énerve.

Je ne sais pas quoi faire après la fac. Devenir espionne internationale, vedette multilingue ou voyageuse professionnelle me plairait beaucoup je pense.

Mais en fin de compte, il y a plein de choses que je kiffe ici. Mes amis, la ville, même les cours (au moins ceux qui ne sont pas à 9h). Je serai très triste de partir… même si la vie de polyglotte mondiale me paraît bien tentante.

Bref. Je suis étudiante de MML à Cambridge.

Iran, we Love you: Social protest in Israel

Social media icon
Social media icon for Israel-Loves-Iran

March 2012. Ronny Edry, an Israeli graphic designer, posts a poster on facebook which features him carrying his daughter, the latter holding an Israeli flag. ‘Iran, we will never bomb you, we love you’ is written as a slogan on the poster. The picture goes viral and receives reactions from Iran, in both personal messages and posters over facebook. Edry opens a facebook page: Israel-loves-Iran. In Iran a new group is created: Iran-loves-Israel. For the first time, swathes of people between the two countries are in contact with each other – through pictures, photos, slogans and messages. Eventually the group members travel from all over the world to meet. Today, more than 90,000 people like Edry’s pages and multiple countries have a dedicated ‘love’-page. What are the implications of this facebook activity?

Edry explains how it is through the social network that individuals can become part of a new peace movement, which hopes to offer the people the power to prevent a war – a constant threat for the past 10 years. As a graphic designer, this Israeli more than anyone else, perhaps, understands that the image of the Middle East is now changing. For a few blissful days, it is love and hearts that dominate the Middle Eastern news reporting, not news of war and bombs. Every so many weeks, a new campaign is started, publicizing different slogans. Posters bear texts reaching from, ‘we will never bomb you’ to the more politically aggressive, ‘Not ready to die in your war’. The group that designs the posters is called ‘The Peace Factory’; its recent commissions include flight commercials for the Israeli airline El Al to Teheran.

For me, the most striking of the messages the group spreads is that of the impossibility to hate. On several occasions, and in their promo-movies, the main reason for this is underscored as follows: ‘I never met an Iranian, I don’t hate you … I don’t even know you’. Such a powerful slogan, surely, puts into perspective the main reason we must not fight. “Not only am I not prepared to die for a war which was not fought in my name, not only are there Israelis and Iranians who simply want to live in peace and continue their lives, they do not even know each other.” The message is clear: how could anyone justify a war with people they do not know? Whether it is effective, however, is another question entirely.

An Israel-loves-Palestine group exists with less than 2,000 likes. Meanwhile tension between Gaza and Israel not only remains, it seems to have increased in its intensity. I cannot help but ask myself: do Israelis and Palestinians know each other well enough to actually hate each other? Is there too much hate already to spread the love through images of smiling people and warming hearts? Or are the prospects of a war between Israel and Iran more threatening and pressing than the current situation between Palestine and Israel?

Edry stresses that his project is meant to prevent a war, to ‘reach the other side before it is too late’ (TEDx Jaffa 2012). Yet clearly the conflict between Palestinians and Israel is not avoidable, and has not been for many years. Opposition movements to the Israel-loves-Palestine campaign – who use similar poster strategies – focus on the violence of the Israeli army above all else. This, if anything, is evidence for the possible failure of this initiative.

On the other hand, the Israel-Iran group has made it as far as the parody show Eretz Nehederet (A Wonderful Country). Such publicity is a visible marker of success, for now the group is both recognized as a trend in Israel, and given all the attention it needs (that and the tens of international and pan-Arabic newspapers writing about the movement). Not only Israel, but other main players in the Middle East have been involved in this new initiative. The Facebook-hype of giving power to the voice of the people is a continuing phenomenon and in Iran, especially, the movement has grown stronger in its lending the individual a voice. If at the start of the initiative posters were posted in which faces were still unrecognizable, people now appear full frontal to the camera, and engage with our gaze. More importantly, their names stand defiantly alongside.

So whilst discussions concerning a nuclear war continue on higher political levels (and might still, for another ten years to come), this does not prevent people from all over the world in making their objections clear, not only to their own government, but also to those who would suffer the implications of a such a war. We can only hope their voices will be heard.

A Year Abroad in Moscow

The homestay. What better way to truly experience Russia? You don’t want tourism, you want realism. You close your eyes and put your hands in the life of an online company who promise to find you a host and a home for a month. You’ll get better at Russian, and that’s pretty much all that’s guaranteed. You’ll have ‘a Russian experience’, which is a very ambiguous phrase.

And so I move in with Lyubov.

Fiery red hair, gravelly voice: she’s not going to take shit from anyone and she has seven locks on her door just to make sure. She is the most wonderfully eccentric and fantastic woman, and her name literally means ‘Love’. England has the same trend of taking names from virtues too—Grace, Joy, Hope—but they’re all a bit wishy-washy. In Russia they go straight for the jugular.

As soon as I arrive I realise the catch: I’m sleeping in her room. Not with her, which is probably a good thing, but then she’s moved into the sitting room to sleep on the sofa, and that leaves me with a healthy dose of guilt from day one. I never thought I’d be the kind of guy who forces an old lady to sleep on a sofa. I’m learning every day. So I’m in her bed, with its electric-blue satin sheets, the porcelain cats and cherubs watching me from corners of the room, Jesus looking down at me from above my head, tapestries of bears playing in a wood near Smolensk on the walls, and lacy curtains hiding a view of the local karaoke club, where I know that what goes on is definitely not karaoke or they’d never allow karaoke at children’s parties.

I’ve opted to cook for myself, but nonetheless Lyubov insists on making me the odd meal. Again that phrase ‘a Russian experience’ is thrown out there. But it suits me fine for the first few days, because the endless supply of home-grown apples, onions and potatoes from her last dacha visit has limited my designated fridge space to three square inches. And, to be fair, some of her food is quite tasty. The pumpkin porridge is a triumph. But then the red onion and kidney bean mulch needs a bit of work, and cranberries take all the fun out of an apple pie. And I challenge the politest man in the world to finish a glass of kefir without choking and saying ‘I think there’s something wrong with your milk.’

I learn Lyubov’s household rules by trial and error. When you make a mistake, you learn the rule and remember for next time. It’s a lot like grammar. You wash your hands on arrival. You always leave your keys on the hook. Under no circumstances do you put a spoon in the fridge.

Once a week a very small Tadjik mystic comes to tell her fortune. For a modest fee. I know when he’s coming over because Lyubov boils up a pot of special tea. They go into her study and shut the door. I wish I knew what goes on in there but sadly I never will. All I know is that he can only see into the future short-term because he comes every week. And seeing as Lyubov’s fate remains largely the same, he presumably doesn’t have much trouble finding things to predict. He may have fooled her but he knows I’m on to him. I pass him in the hallway as he stuffs his rubles into his pocket and puts on his boots, and he gives me a look that says ‘Don’t rat me out, mate’. The first thing Lyubov said to me when I moved in was that I should always be careful not to get mugged by a Tadjik. I’d point this out to her but it might look cheeky. Also, I don’t want to cross a mystic. He has the power to make my life very difficult: if he decides to sense an evil presence in Lyubov’s house then I’m gone.

When the mystic is gone I ask Lyubov what he said. He told her ‘she should be careful with her money’. The man clearly has an excellent sense of humour.

I live out of my suitcase because the cupboard is full of Lyubov’s things. When the day arrives when it’s all starting to fester and get a bit nasty I ask her if she has a washing machine. She pretty much laughs in my face. She has a friend over at the time and she laughs at me too. Lyubov says something that I don’t fully understand. It probably translates roughly as ‘Man up, Little Lord Fauntleroy, and wash your clothes in the bath.’

As I prepare to bathe my pants and socks, Lyubov comes to my rescue with her secret weapon: a portable, miniature clothes-washing apparatus. It looks like a phone-charger with a black plastic teardrop on the end of the wire, about the size of a spoon-head. Lyubov assures me that it cleans clothes perfectly well. We fill up a plastic tub with water and detergent and tip my washing in. We plug in the contraption and she places the end in the water. I watch it, expecting it to spring to life. Nothing happens. No noise, no vibrating, the water doesn’t move, nothing. Apparently we leave it for an hour and it washes everything. I’m not convinced. I shut it in the bathroom—perhaps it doesn’t like being watched. I look it up on Google and I can’t find any evidence that phone-charger washing machines exist. The Tadjik mystic must have sold it to her.

After an hour the water is brown, which is progress, I think, but the black plastic teardrop still sits there, looking at me smugly and doing nothing. I poke it and Lyubov tells me to leave it alone. I retreat to my room.

In the end the clothes are as clean as any clothes that have sat in stagnant, tepid, soapy water for two hours. It’ll have to do. Now it’ll probably be a week until they’re dry. I sneak a look at the instructions for this magic washer. They’re very long and I can’t be bothered to translate them, suffice to say that if it actually was a genuine gadget for cleaning clothes, we certainly didn’t use it properly. Part of me thinks it was just a washing machine extension cord.

Lyubov used to be a teacher of Russian literature and language. As well as being extremely useful for me, as it allows me to have long chats in about the books I’m reading, which is great all-round practice, it also means she has a few students who pop in and out from time to time for lessons. On one of my poorly-timed hall crossings I meet one of these pupils as she’s leaving. She’s an English-speaking girl, so I make my usual small talk about how badly I speak Russian and how well she speaks English and what I’m doing in Moscow. It’s a nice enough chat, but then I see Lyubov scurry pass with a sly smile on her face and a scheme visibly forming in her head. Curse my natural charm. I tell the girl that my samovar has boiled and escape to the shelter of the kitchen. I hear the two of them giggling conspiratorially in the foyer.

A few minutes later, in comes Lyubov.

‘You know the best way to get really good at Russian?’

Here it comes.

‘Get a Russian girlfriend.’

I laugh it off and tell her that I already have an English girlfriend, which is why my English is so good. That outstanding piece of humour completely passes her by. She asks me if I like the girl and I say she’s pleasant. She tells me that the girl is sixteen and wealthy and I wonder if she’s testing my moral compass. Regardless, next time she comes over Lyubov is determined to make sure we become friends. Who knows, maybe we could go to a museum together? I make a mental note of the day and the time so I know when to be out of the house.

A week on I know she’s still working on that particular scheme so I have to be on my guard. If Dostoyevsky has taught me one thing, it’s that older ladies love to matchmake naive men. But then if it’s taught her one thing, it’s that students murder landladies with axes, so hopefully she won’t press the matter.

Lyubov is wonderful. I’ve got two more weeks with her, so it’s not over yet, but I’ll miss her when I’m gone. She probably won’t miss me because she’ll be glad to have her bed back. I’ve heard her laughing with her friends at my idiotic, bumbling Englishness, which makes me feel less bad about thrusting her into the blogosphere without her knowledge. I’ve gambled and I’m confident that she isn’t a blogger. Even if she is, it doesn’t matter, because this piece is a tribute to how delightfully quirky she is and how much fun it’s been living with her. She’s taught me so much: about Russia, Russian culture, the food, the outlook, the literature, all of it. I feel like I’m her protégé. I’m certainly her fan. You could even call me her lyubovnik*. And when you start pulling Russian puns like that out of the bag, you can be sure you’ve learned something.

* I’m not her lyubovnik.