April 2008 - I’m into my first weekend in my new job posting, in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Sakhalin Island, Russia. It just occurred to me that in less than a year, I’ve managed to get assigned from one end of the Eurasian continental mass, Aberdeen, Scotland, United Kingdom, to the other. Well, there are at least a couple of things in common - the temperature and people who can’t really speak English.
Like one of my colleagues from the UK described, any if he traveled and farther from home he’d be on his way back.
This is quite the frontier boom town.
The local population is a real mix. There are Caucasian Russians, North Asian Russians, and Japanese and Koreans. Part of Sakhalin Island was held by Japan from the Russo- Japanese war around the start of the 20th century to end of the 2nd World War, when Russian troops successfully captured the island. Korean men were brought over to build infrastructure, and women to entertain the troops. It’s not uncommon to see couples or groups of obviously different ethnic backgrounds, but who all speak Russian.
Then there are the oil industry workers and their families. As one New York Times articles said, the English accents one could hear span the globe from Alaska to Western Australia. I’d certainly add the Philippines to that list, as I noticed on my flight over that most of the Asians were Filipinos.
The buildings are mostly square low rise concrete blocks. No real marvel of architecture, but with less than 9 months in a year available for shipment or construction, it’s a feat to have any multi-storey buildings at all.
The café fare - battered fried fish, battered fried chicken breasts, beef goulash or beef stroganoff, which I can’t tell the differences. All are served with mushrooms or pickled vegetable sides. There’s rice, mashed potatoes, and grechka, steamed barley with slices of meat and onions.
Tea time can be with slices of bread with various cheeses, from creamy cheddars to smoky polish varieties.
The soups are really varied and flavorful. There is borsht, which they describe as the best soup in the world. Beef with herbs and sliced vegetables in a tomato base, topped with a dollop of cream. There’s rusolnik, gorokhavi, and korcho, taken with a couple of slices of fresh, dark grain bread.
There are also meat pies, minced beef, or mushrooms and onions, stuffed inside a chiffon cake and sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Their sweet cakes, chiffon topped with slices of fresh fruits and sprinkled with finely powdered sugar.
It’s certainly a big country, as one of my colleagues remarked. A local replied with a straight face, “You think so?” He went on to explain that with Kalinigrad on the Baltic Sea and Chukotka by the Barents Straight, Russia spans 10 time zones. Technically, Chukotka should be on the same time zone as Alaska, GMT-12, but to keep themselves sane, they sensibly opted to keep it at GMT+12.
Their media is quite varied. There’s MTV Sakhalin, with dubbed versions of Scrubs (Klinika), Pimp My Ride, and Cribs. There are local reality shows, like Dom (House), on it’s third season. There are your formula sitcoms and dramas like Papa Doshkii (Daddy’s Girls) and Ranielka. Unfortunately for me, with my extremely basic skills, the dialogue is lost on me. The girls are cute though. What I admire about the shows is that the bright and humorous lives are just behind the walls of the dark grey apartment blocks.
While on the street the people can seem so dour, in a comfortable group, their sense of humor does come out to shine.
“The weather’s usually good on a weekday, when you’re stuck at work and can’t do anything to enjoy it. Then it turns bad Friday night to early Monday,” a local colleague said. He added “Though that may be so you don’t feel to bad when you come in to work on the weekend.”