(11) I’m not sure what I’m doing here (#WorldCup 2018) – who do people support when their own team isn’t playing?

Last Wednesday, my first night in Kaliningrad, I went the “London” pub. Brazil had just beaten Serbia 2-0 and I was in the middle of English, Australian, Brazilian and Russian people talking about football.

I was travel worn.

England’s previous game was in Nizhny Novgorod on the Sunday. I got the train back from there to Moscow and, around midnight, caught the sleeper to Vitebsk in Belarus. Opening the door to the compartment I found a man sitting on his bed in his underpants and two others already asleep. Not much scope for conversation.

In Vitebsk I had a good time with a  friend who I’d there met on a previous visit.

city sign from car Vitebsk 618.JPG

I’d told him I’m planning a reconstruction of the battle of the Ula river (1564), in which the Lithuanians defeated Ivan the Terrible’s Muscovites. It looks close to Vitebsk on google maps but is actually 90 km away. We drove out through the flat, cultivated Belarussian countryside. Two ladies from the local city government took us to the battle site and showed us, on the land, how it happened. We talked about how in Britain, we denote the end of the first world war, with red poppies. In Belarus they denote the end of the second, with green and red, the national colours representing apples. In Russia, the same with orange and black.

Back in Vitebsk, we ate herring and sprats and drank beer and vodka on the sunny/rainy terrace of a bar looking over the river Dvina. Inside, people watched the hitherto triumphant Russian team losing 3-0 to Uruguay.

I learned that school summer holidays in Belarus last three months, from June to August. The next day I noticed several groups of young people out painting and drawing, including these on the banks of the river Dvina.

Dvina, young people sketching Vitebsk 618.JPG

On Tuesday afternoon I caught the train from Vitebsk to Orsha, a couple of hours away.

When I was young there was a television programme about which I remember nothing but the name: The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club.

freight gravity wagon is rolling look at the man (shunter?) also signal box? Vitebsk 618.JPG

In this picture, taken as we left Vitebsk, the wagon is moving slowly, under gravity, from left to right. I wonder if the man in the high visibility jacket, with a tool, is a shunter.

wheel tapper (?) and prodvenitsa Orsha 618.JPG

And in this picture, taken in Orsha, the man with a tool was certainly tapping the wheels of the train on which we had just arrived.

station Orsha 618.JPG

At Orsha I walked away from the magnificent station down what seemed to be the main street looking for a café or restaurant. I found only a karaoke bar; a covered terrace in which sat people selling fresh vegetables; and a pair of golden lions that announced not the Chinese restaurant I imagined but a door shop.

public lions Orsha 618.JPG

So I came back to the café next to the station, where a pair of middle aged short haired blonde women offered 20 or 30 types of beer, a warm welcome and blini which unfortunately – as I don’t eat meat – came stuffed with sausage.

On the toilet door it said out of order but when I said do you have a toilet, they opened it for me.

Still with time before the train, I went to a coffee counter in the station. I found a dozen people watching Argentina-Nigeria. All except me supported Argentina, who won and went through. At one point a big, chiselled man went out, handing his newspaper to a much smaller man in camos. I thought he’d gone; but in 10 minutes he came back, presumably after a cigarette, and reclaimed his property from his newspaper-bearer.

Finally I went further into the dark station. At the waiting room I asked for a beer. Small or large? Oh, large I think. Do you really want a two-litre bottle, then, not the small one-litre kind?

Orsha train Orsha-Kaliningrad 618.JPG

At half midnight I picked up the train from Moscow to Kaliningrad. In the compartment a kindly Russian couple – who told me in the morning that they were off for a week’s holiday at the beach near Kaliningrad – helped me sort myself out.

Kaliningrad is an enclave of Russian territory that you can come to on land only through Poland or Lithuania. Our train reached the Belarus/Lithuania border at five. We had to sit on our beds holding our documents and looking awake, yet submissive, until six. The fourth person in the compartment, a largish man, appeared only for this episode.

Kaliningrad is a big, spread out city. The train pulls in to the south station. Hotel Smile turned out to be kilometres away to the north.

Old Pirate pub Kaliningrad 618.JPG

First I watched the afternoon football in the Old Pirate pub on Lenin Street. When South Korea beat Germany there was a little round of clapping.

I didn’t want to walk. I didn’t want to get a taxi. But there wasn’t a tram, and I find buses in post-Soviet cities hard going. They have minibuses – marshrutkas – which I think originated as shared taxis like those you find in places like Freetown. It is true that here they seem to have been incorporated in the formal bus system – the bus stop has two maps, one for large buses and one for small. Still, I was proud of myself when I jumped on board the no. 63 marshrutka to Prospekt Mira. Less proud, as we drew away, when I realised I had failed in my responsibility, as the last boarding passenger, to close the door.

Here in the London pub, watching Serbia-Brazil, I supported Serbia as if it was natural. I thought the men next to me along the bar were just supporting Brazil to be annoying. It turned out that half of them were Brazilian, giving them a reasonable excuse. At half time Ronaldinho’s goal against England at the World Cup in 2002 was recalled.

My question (based on this scientific sample of three games): is the neutrals’ favourite always Brazil; Argentina; and anyone-but-Germany? If so, why?

(10) I’m not sure what I’m doing here (#WorldCup 2018) – teaching English football songs to Russians

Last night I went to England’s last group game, against Belgium.

stadium Kaliningrad 618 2 (Russian guy I think judging from the Kalingrad neck ribbon).JPG

Like Volgograd and Nizhny Novgorod’s, Kaliningrad’s stadium is new. Unlike those, the exterior was ugly and the location is dour. Inside, though, it felt more intimate than they did, more like an English club ground.

old "Baltika" stadium Kaliningrad 618.JPG

I’d be interested to know what supporters of the local club feel about the move from their previous stadium, in a park in the west where I’m staying.

Our second string lost to Belgium’s second string 1-0. I was among local fans, there for the experience. Every time one of our strikers shot and missed, a Russian man in front of me, in an England shirt, turned round and said with a big grin  I told you so. You are trying to lose. I told him he was a conspiracy theorist. I could have added that it’s normal..

Next to me were a young Russian couple. I had my face painted again. I had to teach them England chants. Then you clap your hands four times; and then, you lift your arms up in front of you and shout England. As Esther Summerson says at some point in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, which is filling my non-footballing hours, imagine asking me to give advice on that topic. Walking down the stairs after the game the chant was We are going to Rostov, We are going to Rostov.

Earlier I met four Belgian fans – three of them women – who drove here – 1400 km – 18 hours. There’s nothing to play for, they said. It’s just to have fun.

Today is the first day with no football to watch. I just don’t know what to do with myself.

I like Kaliningrad.

my suburb Kaliningrad 618.JPG

I am staying in a green suburb of the green city.

bus maps Kaliningrad 618.JPG

It is a bus city.

buses Kaliningrad 618.JPG

(Why does it feel like more of an achievement to work out the buses in a foreign city than the metro and the trams?)

The cathedral square looks German. However, the cafés you’d expect in a historic centre are gone. For the football, pop-ups have been established along the riverside. But there have been issues with the licensing laws, as I found out when I went looking for lunch before the match. One café would only serve wine in bottles (it did not have a licence to serve it by the glass); not inside, only outside. Another could only serve coke. Imagine going into a bar to see people of different ages with glasses of different shapes, each, on inspection, containing the same brown liquid.

"Gareth Southgate" Kaliningrad 618.JPG

Perhaps stung by criticism of last night’s play, I saw this morning that Gareth Southgate has taken up a new job as an internet salesman. Although he has set aside his waistcoat, the bow tie is a fine replacement.

PS I have some remarks about the journey from Nizhny Novgorod to Kaliningrad, two nights on trains and a night in Vitebsk. But this is  a football blog and there was football last night. Items that are less on topic must wait .

(9) I’m not sure what I’m doing here (#WorldCup 2018) – England fail to miss penalty!

Obviously the fact that Harry Kane scored two penalties out of two in our game against Panama in Nizhny Novgorod on Sunday does nothing to guarantee that we won’t get knocked out by Colombia, or Japan, or Senegal, on penalties, in the round of 16. I was in Gelsenkirchen (fan zone) and Lisbon when Rooney and Beckham missed. But you have to allow an England fan a little hope.

The day before the match I met a young man who works in a coffee shop in the old town.

– What colours do England wear?

– White, mostly.

– There can’t be many of you here, then. When Sweden were here the main street was nothing but blue and yellow.


Panama supporter hat Nizhny Novgorod 618.JPG

Similarly, on Sunday as I walked uphill to the metro there were more red-clad Panamanians than English. Among them there seemed to be as many women as men; children and old people; a different mix from most of the groups of fans.

It seemed the same where I was in the ground.

At the first goal, though, Englishmen sprouted up in the crowd like crocuses on the first February morning of almost-spring.

(I’m now visiting a Belarussian friend. He talked about Bulgakov, about science fiction written by brothers called Strogatsky, about Turgenev. Then he asked me who my favourite writer is and I couldn’t answer. Shakespeare, provided for free on the desert island, doesn’t count. Somehow John Sandford doesn’t count either. But I wonder if it’s that question that brought on this need for simile.)

Half time, 5-0 to my team.

Fifteen years ago I took my mother to the football for the only time in her life. Anderlecht beat Westerlo 8-1. (Which may have given her a false impression.) Even then I can’t remember whether Anderlecht had scored as many as five at half time.

(She was not sport-free. She went to ice hockey in Liverpool in the late forties.)

I liked Lingard’s goal most.

I climbed up to the back of the stadium and looked about, full of joy.

Panamanian, Russian and English people who stayed for the whole game were on the again cramped and crowded train back to Moscow. They’d calculated better than me. I left the game to walk back, as I thought I had to, after 60 minutes.

Since it only ended 6-1, maybe I made the right choice.

(8) I’m not sure what I’m doing here (#WorldCup 2018) – the tattoo-based approach to supporting Manchester United

It’s midday on Sunday. I’m in Nizhny Novgorod eating cheese and waiting for the England-Panama game to start.

On the streets of the city this morning I saw many Panama fans, more or less an equal mix of men and women. Now, near the stadium – another beautiful one overlooking the Volga – the proportion of Englishmen is increasing. It’s hot.

On the station platform in Moscow yesterday morning I met an Australian couple. The bloke told me that although he left Manchester forty years ago when he was nine, he has the MUFC crest tattoed on his back.

The train was cramped and crowded, with a 20 minute queue for the toilets, and took four hours. When we arrived we had to queue for another 20 minutes to get out of the station (security check to get into the city). I mention this because the rest of the organisation over the week I have been her has been superb.

At Nizhny Novgorod station three young people in British consular uniform gave out cards with emergency numbers if we get into trouble. I thought I’d need mine as soon as I left the stadium. But the tough-looking man who jumped out of a rough-looking bar shouting Camera! Camera! only wanted to be in a photograph with me.

Before looking for my hotel I settled down in a bar to watch the Belgium-Tunisia game. (Couldn’t help cheering for Belgium, I’ve lived there too long not to be pleased they now have a good team.) I got into conversation with a young man from Beijing. I am beginning to wish that my answer to the question “Where do you come from in England?” was, for example, Maidenhead or Millom, not Manchester. This man not only had an excellent tattoo of Sir Alex on his right shoulder; not only knew more about United than I do, which is par for the course; but also knew more about Stockport County. Trying to win back some credibility, I mentioned that Matt Busby came to my school in the early 70s to give a talk. He drew my attention to the tattoo of Sir Matt, alongside Bobby Charlton, on his right calf.

Matt Busby Li Yan's calf Nizhny Novgorod 618 Bobby Charlton.JPG

sunbathers Oka river Nizhny Novgorod 618 3.JPG

I walked across the river Oka, plus sunbathers, to my hotel. It was on the ground floor of a block of flats. As in Moscow, I had no windows. Unlike in Moscow I had four rooms, a 6-seater settee, a jacuzzi and a sauna.

settee hotel room Nizhny Novgorod 618.JPG

I ate in a restaurant where garlic was among the condiments.

condiments garlic Nizhny Novgorod 618.JPG

(7) I’m not sure what I’m doing here (#WorldCup 2018) – lost in the Moscow metro

I’m writing from Nizhny Novgorod, where I’ve arrived on a crowded train for the next England game. Quite a lot hotter than Moscow. Tunisia-Belgium has just kicked off in the bar where I am. I’m torn because I like Belgium, where I live; but they are our opponents in the group.

Today’s blog, though, is about the Moscow metro.

I came to Moscow for work in 2004. The only way I could find my way on the metro was to memorise the first few (Cyrlllic) letters of a station’s name, get on a train at random, get out at the next stop and work out which line I was on, going in which direction.

This is what first put in my head the idea of working out both the country and the language.

This is my third long visit, and I’ve been learning Russian since 2012. As you can see from the map of the route I followed on Thursday to get to my hotel at Arbatskaya, I’ve made a great deal of progress in metro navigation as a result.

metro map Moscow 618.JPG

At Prospect Mira a woman (holding a book) came up to me and said Are you a tourist? Can I help? I was grateful, and asked how she knew I was a tourist – my camera? my hat? It was your smile, she said.

Things I noticed on the metro during my stay in Moscow:

  • It’s cheap. A single trip costs about 75 eurocents.
  • It’s deep. One escalator ride that I timed, at Alexevsksaya, took two minutes and 18 seconds from the top to the bottom.
  • On the escalator, people know to stand on the right hand side and leave the left side free.
  • It’s fast, because stations are far apart: more like London than Paris.
  • It’s grand.
  • From the train, it isn’t easy to read the names of the stations. (This is part of the problem.)
  • There were no advertisements, though there were fixtures for them.

On previous visits I noticed that most people would be reading – books, newspapers or Kindles. Despite the woman who helped me, that seems largely to have gone.

As in London and Paris, you can change lines underground. But the stations on different lines have different names, and the passages between them have a feeling of having been added later (look at the picture below).

public plants metro Moscow 618.JPG

PS Азар (Hazard) scores from a penalty after 6 minutes. I can’t resist a little cheer. Has anyone missed a penalty yet at this world cup – or are we writing for England to get one?

(6) I’m not sure what I’m doing here (#WorldCup 2018) – Today, you don’t cry

Wednesday was another hot day in Volgograd. I ate sushi for lunch (less widespread than in 2012 when I first travelled in Russia) and went to a “British-Russian” pub to watch the Morocco-Portugal game. The pub felt quite as it should, though it had run out of London Pride and had shamrocks over the bar. The bill came in a telephone box:

telephone box tin for bill russian british pub Volgograd 618..JPG

A couple of Icelandic women came in. They remarked that two thousand Icelanders would be in Volgograd for the match against Nigeria. They reminisced boldly about their times in France two years ago. I reflected that their Norwegian ancestors used to “go viking”, matching themselves against the warriors of warmer, more fertile countries in the south.

people in corridor train Volgograd-Moscow 618.JPG

The Moscow train left at five. (I look at this photograph and hear my brother asking, is anything in focus?)

train Volgograd-Moscow 618 river.JPG

Going along, as it got dark, I read How to travel without seeing, by Andrés Neuman: A journal supposedly reflects our thoughts, experiences and emotions. Not at all. It creates them. If we didn’t write, reality would disappear from our minds. Our eyes would remain empty. I went to sleep early on my top bunk, alone in the compartment. Other people got on in the night: four year old Jarek, his father Sasha, and his grandmother. In the three minutes allowed for the stop she settled them properly down and got off.

Jarik Sasha train Volgograd-Moscow 618.JPG

From Moscow they were flying home to Vladivostock. Sasha’s English was decent. He said his Chinese is about the same. That’s the language he aims to get better at, because he uses it in his antiques business.

samovar train Volgograd-Moscow 618.JPG

One of the things to like about long-distance trains in Russia is the samovar opposite the prodvenitsa’s compartment. You can use it to make tea. Or pot noodles. In our carriage an English group seemed to have chosen this as their food for the tournament.

Paveletskaia station Moscow 618 2.JPG

However, there was no restaurant car. I hadn’t brought food for the 21 hour journey. When we came into Moscow at two yesterday afternoon I was hungry. I spent the rest of the day watching the day’s three games in different bars, eating piles of prawns, vegeburgers and other things, and drinking decent wine.

prawns Moscow 618 2 eggs.JPG

These prawns (described as from Magadan, which seems unlikely) all came with eggs attached. Is this is a Russian preference?

I watched the second half of Croatia-Argentina (3-0) in a sports bar on New Arbat Street. At the end of the game the Russian commentator said Today, you don’t cry. I’m still working out what that might have meant.

I ended the evening in a bar where you can pay to activate a tap that allows you to serve yourself red wine. I didn’t.

wine tap bar Moscow 618.JPG

(5) I’m not sure what I’m doing here (#WorldCup 2018) – watching football with the Russian supporters

Russia-Egypt Volgograd 618.JPG

Yesterday in the hot night I sat outside a bar in the centre, watching the Russia-Egypt game with people from Volgograd. They were happy to include me. Mostly men, some women too. One man wore a CCCP shirt.

I listened to the chants.The women didn’t join in. The basic Russian chant (RASS – EE – YA, all on one low note) is quite daunting. The men sang out for Rotor Volgograd, too, and once for Mo Salah (perhaps some have Liverpool as their Premier League team). There was also a song in English:

Oh oh oh
We’re the fans of RUSSIA
Oh oh oh
Drinking all the VODKA
Oh oh oh
We are going all the way

goal Russia-Egypt Volgograd 618.JPG

During the second half I got a text saying that a big piece of work in Brussels finally came off. I had a gin and tonic in celebration even though I couldn’t explain why.

I told them I was English. There was no evidence of anyone saying, Shall we biff him then? The thing I had to resist was too much pizza thrust on me by Dima, who I was sharing a table with.

On the walk home I passed a couple of fans who were a bit drunker, one said something about “tourist”. I turned round and talked to them, he said sorry and I congratulated them on Russia’s three goals.

Earlier I visited the museum of the battle of Stalingrad. Not sure if it was appropriate, I asked a group of Germans nearby what it is like to come here. We’ve come on purpose, an older one said – our next game is in Sochi. It is complicated.