The joy of using a language ‘in the wild’

Panorama of Munich from the top of St Peter's Church
Munich’s Frauenkirche and Rathaus

Shamefully, I recently visited Munich for the first time. I use the adverb advisedly because I spent six months living in Bavaria, as part of my language degree back in the 90s. Yet, unaccountably, I failed to spend any time in Germany’s third-largest city (aside from using the airport at the start and end of my stay).

Quite aside from being an enriching travel experience – the first overseas trip I’d taken since before the pandemic – it reminded me of how important it is to refresh my language skills in the flesh.

I’ve talked before about my love of language, particularly foreign ones, and German remains one of my favourites. I started learning it 40 years ago and it still enchants me – its logic (both in terms of word construction and syntax), alongside an often-overlooked lyrical quality, make it a delight to learn and speak. Continue reading “The joy of using a language ‘in the wild’”

Memories of a Russian winter: Part 2 – shopping

Dom Knigi (House of Books) in St Petersburg
CC photo via Flickr: House of Books in St Petersburg, one of my favourite places to visit

Given the 21st-century backlash against consumerism, it might seem contrary to write a post about my experiences of shopping in Russia, but different country, different era.

What’s more, shopping presented one of the best opportunities we had as students to practise our language skills in a ‘real’ environment outside the classroom.

As I mentioned in my first post about living in Russia in the 90s, after morning lectures had finished, we invariably headed off into the city centre of St Petersburg to see what we could find.

Shops in Russia – even a major city like St Petersburg – were an oddity. Not their existence, rather what they sold.

Buying food

There wasn’t much originality in shop names in 1992. For example, there were numerous places called ‘Moloko’ meaning milk. The irony was that milk was almost never on sale in these shops – in fact, the primary product available appeared to be cognac (the Russian version).

Looking for items of food was always a major element of our excursions into town. Certain items were always available: every second shop’s window display was stacked with jars of pickled goods.

Pickling was of course, a necessary way for citizens to preserve a glut of produce before they went bad (although I didn’t properly understand that at the time). Continue reading “Memories of a Russian winter: Part 2 – shopping”

Memories of a Russian winter: Part 1 – the transport system

St Petersburg in the snow
CC image via Flickr – St Isaac’s Cathedral, St Petersburg

A recent conversation reminded me that it’s almost 30 years since I spent a winter in St Petersburg. As a modern languages student in the early 1990s, I was lucky enough to spend six months in newly-minted Russia.

It was a magical time and one that I still recall with great fondness, so I thought I’d relay a few of those memories. These particularly relate to how alien the country felt to a callow British 20-something. I’m starting with how we got around.


Every morning we would have Russian classes, allowing us the afternoon to explore the city – something we did without question.

Although we could walk into the heart of the city, it was close to an hour-long trudge, so the trolleybus was a regular option.

A typical trolleybus that you’d see throughout USSR/Russia in the 80s/90s

But this method of transport wasn’t for the fainthearted. Continue reading “Memories of a Russian winter: Part 1 – the transport system”