Life at the camp was super fun for Anna and me. The kids loved us either like friends or, if they were younger, celebrities. Children we’d never met would yell our names and run over for hugs and even autographs. The vast majority had never met a foreigner before. The children were so lovely, so unspoilt.They had endless questions for us, and gave us loads of presents, such as Loom bands, which were a massive craze there. I had two full arms of them by the end. They utterly loved their camp life. From our point of view, it didn’t change much from day to day, but for them they were surrounded by friends and gossip about each other, and the exciting people older than them. I remember as a child always having a reverent fascination with people in the years above.
Two weeks in I was feeling a little tired of the routine. Apparently we had a day off coming up. Anna and I were fantasising manically about having pizza and a glass of wine, maybe even some real coffee (coffee not so much of a thing where we were, if it ever was served it was craazily sugary!!) It would be a welcome change from our daily boiled potatoes and cabbage.
One of these days of anticipation, Anna and I walked 30 minutes, during still hours, to get some sushki (glazed ring-shape breadsticks) and halva (condensed sunflower seeds and sugar – yummy and calorific goodness) from the little shop at the end of the dusty road. On the walk back we talked about soviet times, communism, and her family’s personal experiences of the era. It was really fascinating. Anna thinks communism could work if it was managed better. I don’t hold that view, but I still like discussing all potential ways of managing things. Anna and I were becoming good friends. She is also one of the most hilarious people I’ve ever met – we had the biggest laughing fits sometimes. Occasionally she would deliberately mistranslate things people were saying to make me laugh, which was really funny but it can’t have worked too well in my favour – everyone probably thought I was mad!
On the second Friday night, Anna and I went to the evening show as usual. We were waiting in the hustle and bustle while groups were arriving and finding seats, when Viktor comes over to us and tells us we’re going to be presenting the show which was about to start. Anna was fairly horrified and really we were terrible improvisers but we tried and it was quite funny in the end. We had to come up with entertaining ways of introducing each group. I played a giant game of Simon Says with them, which succeeded despite the language difficulty.
Our day-off soon came and it was great. We had one of the English teachers take us round some typical sights in the city, for example a statue of Lenin (I think there’s one in every Russian city) and a statue of Pushkin. The city had been bombed to pieces by the Germans and so now lots of these sights were very new, not long rebuilt, for example Admiralty Square by the lakeside. We also saw many Soviet skyscrapers, one of which I stayed in on my last night in the country. We saw a beautiful, huge Orthodox church, a war memorial, many different types of Russian transport and parks. Something in the park that you wouldn’t find in the UK was a “wanted” board with photos of criminals, which I found interesting.
After a long time walking we finally stopped for lunch at a European restaurant called “Biscuit”. It felt a bit like cheating not to go somewhere Russian, but Anna and I were desparate for our fantasy pizza! We each ordered a nice salad each, and had a large vegetarian pizza between us. It was one of the most satisfying meals I’ve ever eaten – I remember leaning back in the bench seat and feeling like I’d just had sex. Anna and I later broke away from our guide and went to the shopping centre to drink wine, eat baklava and sit on our phones. The whole thing felt so luxurious and indulgent.Much as I was loving the camp and the people in it, I don’t think I’m made for full-on forest life!