One of the first questions you ever find yourself answering as a university student is about your habitat. Synonymous with introductory conversations in corridors, lecture theatres, or in the pub; “Where are you from?” is a glorious conversation opener that can ensure at least a minute and a half’s chat with, even the dullest of conversationalists.
The responses naturally vary from the expected to the exotic. Here, Jake Tacchi and Ana Shlyakova share their perspectives on their (rather different) backyards of Ipswich and Russia.
Ipswich – Jake Tacchi
A hometown is as formative as relationships with family and friends. It moulds you; it makes you bold: it’s where you buy your first beer, get into your first club and start your first fight. It’s a place where all things seem safe: you know the place and because of that you feel as though you could never get in as much trouble as you would in the outside world. Your hometown forges your identity – at least to a certain extent.
I am always interested to see whether people conform to my preconceived image of their hometown. Is there a ‘Surrey type’, a ‘Northern type’ or a ‘London type’? Not for the most part. People rarely define themselves solely by where they come from; often they even actively distance themselves from such a stereotype – the tracksuit-wearing, rollie-smoking lad from the Hampshire countryside is never more than a stone throw away at any university. However, aspects of where someone comes from are usually visible, whether in an accent, anecdote, or mannerism.
For this article, it had originally been my intention to find Exeter students from the least desirable places to live in the UK (as decided by various polls) and ask them about their relationship to their home towns. I asked around and even posted a plea for people to come forward online. Alas, I had no success. The result could reveal a lack of crap town citizens at Exeter, or that students are embarrassed of their links to Luton, Bradford or Coventry. Sadly, all I can now offer is an homage to my own crap hometown: Ipswich.
Ipswich is where I grew up. It regularly features in the running for the Crap Towns series (a collection of books listing the least desirable towns in the UK) and honestly, its listing is justified. It is a place that has great potential (it’s close to London and a good size), but it only features a collection of crap shops, crap culture, and crap nightlife. In short: crap everything. This being said, I love Ipswich. She is like a great friend. I can slag her off, but I will defend her to death if anyone else tries to. The clubs are terrible, there is very little to do, but whatever you’re doing, no matter how awful, you are doing it with people you love.
Living in a crap town provides a different sense of shared experience. Whenever I meet someone else from Ipswich, I’m elated. They immediately understand a part of me, and I a part of them. If I had found out through the awkward fresher’s questions that someone else was from Ipswich, we could have spoken endlessly about losing a shoe on the sticky floor of ‘Sin’ or being verbally abused at ten o’clock on a Tuesday by a drunkard outside Debenhams. The crapness of my town fosters a sense of camaraderie among its inhabitants.
In twenty years’ time England’s crap towns will be a dying breed. As housing prices push people away from London, places like Ipswich will become more desirable. I live in fear of the day when the local Wetherspoons becomes a gastro pub, when the off-licence becomes a whole food shop and the kebab place starts selling whey smoothies and frozen yoghurt. But I do think it will happen; gentrification is inevitable.
Until then, I walk the grubby streets of Ipswich with a grin on my face. Although it seems like the least special place on earth, to me it is the opposite. I urge you to be proud of your hometown, no matter how abysmal a place it is. It is an integral part of who you are, whether or not you try to distance yourself from it.
London, but technically Russia – Ana Shlyakova
Born in Russia, but having lived in the UK since I was five, I’ve always found myself straddling the cultural gap between these two countries. I now have a British accent (even when speaking Russian) and somewhere amidst the lukewarm murk of British weather seem to have lost my Russian immunity to cold. But, I still see absolutely no logic in putting milk in tea (Russians have it with lemon).
Despite the fall of the Iron Curtain nearly twenty-five years ago, Russia still seems like an untouchable, alien place to many Westerners. People’s reactions, after hearing I’m from Russia, stereotypically fall into three groups: “Are you a communist, or in love with Putin?”, “I’ve read Anna Karenina and War and Peace; I really want to go there!” and “Isn’t Russia cold?” As someone with insight into the real Russia and also an awareness of British culture, I’d like to share my perspective on these stereotypes.
It is rare that a conversation about Russia leaves the subject of communism untouched. I feel like that big, scary, red word which evokes images of propaganda, spies, and mean-looking moustached men crops up, whenever the country is mentioned. It gets particularly controversial when you’re a History undergrad and just happen to utter the words “well… it wasn’t all terrible”.
My entire family grew up under communism and they are very far from blind followers of a dead regime (except for my great-grandad, who would resort to threats of needing Stalin to sort out the youth of today). However, this by no way means that they’d agree with classifying communism as inherently bad. For example, my mother doesn’t complain about receiving a free university education or a grade-based bursary that covered her living expenses. Equally, I doubt any of us would have much issue with a guaranteed job in our chosen sector at the end of all those years of studying, or a rent-free flat. These seem like positive, rather than thoroughly harmful or negative features.
However, one can’t dismiss the crazy queues for staples like bread and other, in particular Western, goods. The scarcity of products meant that a pair of shoes, for instance, would be snapped up regardless of size, colour or whether they matched a coat one luckily found a week before. Yet despite this, no one felt a sudden sense of liberation when communism fell apart in 1991. An initial awe of Western culture soon gave way to the cold reality of hyperinflation (yeah, that bread you used to queue for, you still have to queue for it. It just costs 100 roubles instead of 1). So, in answer to whether I’m a communist, no, I’m not. Few people in today’s Russia are, but don’t be surprised when they mention the benefits that English history textbooks conveniently forget.
At the same time, although Russia is not an authoritarian, red-flagged state anymore, it hasn’t returned to the days of Tsars and nobles either: it is not bedecked with palaces, overly-decorated churches or pretty wooden cottages. This is much like expecting every guy in Britain to wear a top hat (which to be fair, a great deal of Russian people actually do). The fact is that under Lenin, the communists not only assassinated the Tsar, but the entire royal family, and then spent decades attempting to completely eradicate traditional Russian society and culture. This process is not easy to undo. Although a great many churches and other traditional buildings have been restored, one is more likely to find a block of grey high-rises than anything traditionally Russian. Certainly, cultural hubs like St. Petersburg and Moscow house magnificent restored buildings, but, if one travels outside the big cities, to places that aren’t inhabited by the wealthy and powerful, one will instead encounter the grey blocks where Tanya, the shopkeeper, or Anton, the doctor, live.
Of course, tourists are more likely to explore the main cultural hubs, and honestly, why shouldn’t they? No one is going to put down a five star review on TripAdvisor for a dilapidated playground that now contains only a half-burnt swing and a lone ladder which once led to a slide. If anything, I’d even advise the stereotypical tourist experience: take the Trans-Siberian Express, watch the endless pine trees whizz past, and avoid the three-tiered bedded compartment the Russians travel in, unless you want some free homemade vodka. There is nothing wrong with a sheltered tourist experience of Russia if you take care to remember that this is not the full picture.
Modern Russia does not adhere to simple stereotypes; it is a place with a complex identity and history. There aren’t portraits of Stalin everywhere, nor fur-clad Anna Kareninas roaming the streets. Also, it isn’t always cold either; it reaches 40°C in July and I burn a brighter red than the communist flag.