I arrived behind the old iron curtain, unable to see what lay ahead. Slightly apprehensive, I quickly understood something essential to the Russian mentality:they do not smile.
Unpertubed, I excitedly awaited the meeting with my contact person, known by email and photos alone as Galina.
On time she was, followed only a few moments later by uncle Galina.
After some broken how-do-you-dos and an appreciation for body language, we were in the Lada on the way to Moskva.
At this point, I realized the second thing about Russian mentality:they drive like they have a donor card and a suicide note.
The weather was cheating.Russia was supposed to be cold in the winter and hot in the summer.When had the rain come into it?
It was pretty torrential.The roads suffered the most. A rapid metamorphosis from road to river didn‘t reduced my pulse. The driving deteriorated and my fairly extensive diaphoresis continued.
We arrived at the railway station and found a spare window, containing a woman minus her smile. Railway stations are the same across the world. Full of people to whom you shouldn’t lend a tender. The train was a sleeper, leaving in 6 hours. Galina already had her ticket. Uncle got mine, and put me in seccond vlase, one above Galina‘s third. I don’t know if they thought I had money, or just wanted me to be comfortable. Either way I was happy enough.
Off to uncle’s son’s flat to kill 6 hours with some dodgy Russian MTV and bacon and eggs. This girl had done her homework.
I bunked with family of three. The kid was learning English in school. Mum was a microbiologist. They shared their food with me and we tried to teching me some Russian. The domestic words are similair to Czech. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Around mongoloid face appeared around the sliding door.My first real Tatar…Ilehat. He’d come from the airport, too. The one in New York City. His English was great. We exchange emails, fated to meet again in the city for vodka.
After a reasonable nights sleep, it was my duty to go to say good morning to Galina. She was at the wrong and a very busy trans-siberian train. It took 20 minutes.Hurrying back to get my stuff, I jumped down at Kazan‘ and wondered slony the platformo scoop her up pand meet her friend and his Lada.
She’s living in student ‚koloj‘, much like those in Praha. A little shitty, but i’ve had worse and don’t complain. It turned out I was to stay with her in her room. There was no talk of money. This all seemed to suit me.
A trip on the bus brought us to the university and to Bulat, the IFMSA organizer. He had good news and bad news. It wouldn’t be general surgery I would practise.There was a good English speaker in the neurosurgical department and we (Tiago from Portugal, I was to meet in the morning) would be spending our month under his wing. They don’t smile in Russia. Neurosurgery…I smiled.
We went to a 2 year old shopping centre called‘ the ring‘. Slightly skeptical, I entered the town centre monstrosity, to find it as modern and soul destroying as any other western hell-hole of a ‚mall‘. We ate pizza and sushi in the mall cinema. It was washed down with Guiness. Some combination. After another couple of drinks, we headed home.
I was excited by the hospital. It, too was only a couple of years old. It was state of the art. Doctor Bob was met upstairs and he showed us round. A smiler; he was a little fat and had a bushy moustash. His English was self taught and adorable. He told gags.
„What’s diference between God and a neurosurgeon? Sometimes neurosurgeon thinks he’s God, but God never thinks he is a neurosurgeon.“ Ha ha ha.
He sat oposite Alexander(aka Sasha), another English speaker. But not a smiler. Still, a cheeky look hid behind his grimace.
After a chat and coffee with the two girls Galina and Guzelia (Tiago’s contact person). Bob took us to see the boss and Sasha clipping an communicating berry aneurysm.
A few of the surgeons are English speakers, some of course, Berger than others.
We were wel l welcomed and excited about the prospekt of our training.
In the following days, we experienced spinal surgery, meningiomas,gliomas,all in various different locations and pacients.
As well as a numer of craniotomies, we also witnessed some burr holes procedures, and the odd ventricular-peritoneal shunt. That was really cool, by the way.
Now after a few days, uncle Bob recommended that the we visit more‘ traditional‘ Russian hospitál… the infamous ‚hospitál no.15‘. He said it would be like Russian horor Joviš and we would love it.
We loved it.
It was in fact out of a war Joviš set in the fifties… the place was falling to bits and the nurses didnn’t smile. Now, hospitál 15 was designed the neurosurgical emergency department for four days out of seven. The doctors were tired, probably due to working four 36-shitfs in a week. No-one spoke any English, but once we had changed into our scrubs, they seemed to get the idea. The surgeons were more than happy to let us go to work on patiens with lacerations on the scalp, face and ears. A little guidance regarding type of stitch, number and distance apart and we were away…stitching up patient, one by one,consulting each other as we went, with a very annoyed scrub nurse nandiny us various tools,solutions and evil looks.
I would say most if not all of the patiens were drunk…it was, I should mention on Saturday night shift. Drunkeness that finds itself in need of hospital care manifests itself in one of three ways…a drunken road traffic accident (drunk driver vs drunk pedestrian), a drunken figur (drunk vs drunk, drunk vs drunk policeman)or a good old fashioned drunken fall down some drunken stairs or trip on a drunken street. Some were less conscious then others. We dosed our patiens heavily with lidocaine, regardless, generally wanting to give their nociceptors the benefit of the doubt.
Aside from hospital work, with our Russian companions, we visited a monastery on an island populated only by goats. The following week, we swam in the blue lagoon.It was four degrese. That’s cold enough to induce syncope.Its too cold to slowly dip yourself into, so the only way is to jump in.Tiago, Sasha and myself all line dup for solidarity’s sake and all dived in together. I think I momentarily blacked out and and when I climbed out the other side, my skin was burning. Although it doesn’t sound like a pleasant experience, it was all together exhilarating. The problem is that its famous to cure all aliments for the dominy zdar. As a result, you get a whole bunch of sick people swimming in the blue lagoon. Thankfully, there’s no bug nor bakteria on the planet that wants to survive in such cold water, so its more or less sterile.
Russians love sushi. Its prejty cheap, too. They also love vodka. That’s equally as cheap. Some of them skip the vodka and go straight for ethanol/surgical spirits.
Once I’d left Kazan‘, I Headed east along the trans-Siberian. I wanted to reach the Urals and stayed in Perm and Yekaterinburg for a coule of nights here and there. Then I took a 36 hour train to St.Petersburg, more European than Russian. A beautiful city and a true must if you get yourself to Russia. I was lucky enough to be there on the last Wednesday of the month, when the Hermitage was free for all.Ifinally returned to Moscow for a few days. It was Moscow’s birthday at the time, and unfortunately, Red Square was closed off the whole time. We did get into Kremlin, though.
I had wanted to visit Russia ever since I was child. Its rich history, geography, politics, culture is enticing. I loved it and would be happy to return to the friends I made everywhere I went. The friends I made , by the way, smiled…a lot!