Week 2: A week to forget, a weekend to remember

School didn’t go as well this time round as my new enemies dative and genitive entered the scene. Really struggled with these cases. If dative / genitive were my wife I’d divorce them, if they were guys I’d probably pick a fight! Well, as a good friend suggested – learning a language is like life. That was the downhill bit (not to say it can’t get worse). Star of the week was my intensive group teacher Ksenia with her enormous sentences embedding all sort of cases for which we had to come up with the right questions. It got better towards the end of the week, but somehow i still feel less confident than a week ago. My first test ended up at 68% – with a fair amount of goodwill from Daria (спaсибо!). 

Other noteworthy events included my first thai boxing session at legend fight club. They offer 7-8.30am sessions, which fits my schedule well though makes already long school days even longer. Wednesday evening the usual catch up with the inlaws. On Thursday i joined the first excurision – the neva embankments. Nice indeed and a good chat with Nastia who currently interns at the excursion department.

Friday couldn’t have arrived sooner. I started into the weekend in style with a few after school pints with helen from australia and a strong force in our group. Afterwards it was dinner time. Daniel had booked places at tartarbar – an upmarket though not crazily priced restaurant. Yuri & Nika joined us too. Many other places followed that night including union bar (great house music) and a karaoke place with more rock music. We met two austrian sisters (lisa & vera) on the way and had a fab time altogether. We wouldnt be home before morning and, clearly not quite sober, i even chipped in a short swim in one of the rivers (shower afterwards was mandatory given the water). Yuri crashed at mine, which my airbnb landlady found less than amusing after she encountered him in her kitchen at 7am ;o) well, thats life.

After some sleep we headed back out to meet daniel and then watch zenit playing rubin kazan. 2:1 in the end to zenit though the game was little inspiring. Anyway, 6 points from two games now for new coach manchini. I also got my zenit short done – with rocketontour label. In fact, we got teo since they misprinted the label at first. Good deal and a new jersey for yuri! In two weeks spartak moscow will be in town – should be fun.

Один город, одна каманда!

One city, one team (aimed at the multiple clubs from Moscow)

The evening was again rich in party as i went out with Chelsea – a fellow student and agriculture consultant funny enough. Two farm guys on the road. It turned into a long night again as we met a few locals. Fun times and a few new friends on top.

But the weekend wasnt over just yet. After some rest, i met katya, alex and the rest of the shabalin clan in a pub for dinner. There flight from london via moldova got very delayed and so they arrived only in the morning. Good call then that i skipped the pick up. Afterwards a catch up with the new friends from the night before at St pete’s no1 hip-hip meet up – 1703 bar. We ended up doing a night guide tour with artur – a cab driver with inpressive knowledge of the city. Finally, i got a glimpse of the open bridges. Beautiful place this city. One thing was for sure by then – no school on monday for me ;o)


Week one at school: pretty packed schedule

After the introductory Monday, the week turned out to be rather work intensive. Every day 3 hours of group lessons until lunchtime, then 1.5h intensive course early after and from wednesday an additional private lesson to refresh the lovely russian grammar (last time i enjoyed lessons was 7-8 years ago after all). This week we focussed on the instrumental and prepositional cases and reviewed the accusative in private lessons. 

The group was fun most of the time though there is one student who doesnt put in the right amount of effort which can be a little annoying and holds up others especially in group exercises with a partner. Monday we will have some new students as Miuki (japan), oskar (denmark and now elbrus bound) and birgit (east germany) finished their courses.

The ‘intensive’ group – oskar, mario & helen

This weeks graduates


On top of the daily 6 hour regime comes homework that consumes another 3 hours or so for me (especially since Daria, my private and group teacher, isnt shy to hand out tasks). Admittedly this was all pretty tiring. Lets see how i fared in our test on friday. Monday will show.

Afterschool activities: Having met katya and hadley on monday, i stayed home in tuesday, met the grandparents of alex on wednesday (which considering it was an all russian affair didnt go to badly) and visited Moo moo burgers (near sadovaya station) / located thai box club (saw some pretty bruised guys in the area) thursday. I havent yet participated i any of the school organised events given my private lesons clashed … so i missed the visit to the vodka museum (but then the bottle of kognac viktor and shared wednesday eve more than compensated ;o).

On friday Nika, yuri and daniel took me to a public concert in ‘new holland’. We were late and only saw two songs in the end of the russian band motorama. But it was fun nonetheless in this nicely refurbished (and very colourful) outdoor space. Afterwards we sampled some really decent russian craft beers at the Redrum bar. Great night out! 

First day at school and a BBQ at Katya & Hadley’s

My first day back at school started well after I finally got a decent night sleep. Swapped the morning shower for a catwash given there is no hot water in the district for another week (happens often in St pete center in summer under the banner of maintenance). It was a warm day again (after a miserable summer so far this year i am told) and a short 15min walk to my school – the Dershavin institute on Troitskiy prospect. 

By 8.45 I had registered and did my oral placement test. They put me in the elementary level class, which is the second lowest. According to their schedule it would take me 48 weeks @ 25h weekly to make the top level. Well, I got 5 to make some progress. The class is full. 10 people in the morning/midday sessions and 5 in the afternoon/intensive course. Many students are younger, some older (namely a German & Australian lady). Overall I felt very comfortable to speak and not afraid to make (inevitable) mistakes. Time will tell how quickly i can improve.

Yes, a student again!

After school we had a brief orientation walk in the area, which I used to obtain my local SIM card. Cheap (600RUB or 9EUR/month for 16GB & 500min) and swift. Just show passport and all is done in 10mins.

For the evening Katya & Hadley had invited me over for BBQ. First time I met their one month old son Max who kept the young parents busy, but showed some sympathy when we had dinner and went off to dreamland. They reside in a very nice villa in the Northern suburbs of the city literally on the seaside (gulf of finland). Quite a bit to go from the center, but a painless experience by metro & overground (and a quick cab ride when there is no traffic). Citymapper is a most helpful app and the journey gave me plenty of time to complete my homework (i needed it). We chatted for quite a while, had loads of meat (i ate for two having not had lunch today) and I got some more insights about my upcoming work exerience at their biggest farm in Issad. They seem as excited about this as i am. Lets see what ‘surprises’ they have up their sleeve ;o)

Comfortable & very wide trains

Huge & nice metro stations

What a great evening. Just a relaxed time with two great friends. How things have changed. It seems only yesterday that I visited Russia together with Katya when we wrote research together at KBW back in 2011 i think. Time flies. 

Guess which plate is mine ;o)

Now its almost 1am, but the city is very much alive. Its still not really dark (white nights) and many people hang out on the embankments probably some waiting for the beautiful bridges to open and many probably cherishing the short summer season (also the city doesnt really start working before 9/10am …). One actually needs to know the opening hours well especially if you live on one of the islands – many have gotten stuck as their is no transport off the islands after about 2am given the metro is closed from midnight and there are no ferries (well, unless you fancy a swim that is). 

I feel already very much at home here. But for now … good night or доброй ночи! 

Arriving in St. Petersburg … lets learn some Russian!

I have been offline for the past month and spent much time with my son Alex, catching up with friends in London and also some hiking in Catalonia around Tom & Marta’s excellent wedding. Sadly, all my camera gear got stolen out of my car in London. So iphone pictures for now.

For the next five weeks St Petersburg shall be my new home. Just moved into my room on Griboyedova canal. Large room in a proper old fashioned house along one of the three canal’s. The host lady Maria seems nice and doesn’t speak much english (helpful for my language efforts). There is also a black cat sharing the appartment. 

The travel to Russia was uncomplicated this time round. Yura picked me up from the airport after a sleepy flight owing to the short night after the killers concert in London hyde park yesterday. We spent a nice afternoon in the center enjoying good food at the ‘clean plates society’ and walked a fair bit catching up on events since we met for NYE. For dinner he invited me over to his place and prepared some tasty steaks.  Great to see Nika & Max again.

Now its time to get some rest and get ready for my first day back at school (and the oral placement test). Lets see how much I can improve my Russian before heading to the village of Issad in late August to commence my farm job. The last time I studied the language is now many years ago though some vocab remains. 

Loving it and really looking forward to some fun time in this great city that holds so many memories for me. A visit to Nika’s dacha and the first home game of Zenit (the local football team) are already scheduled. And soon Alex will arrive for his 3w with the grandparents. 

Photography basics in Dalston ft. Quintina Valero

“Photography is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving. What you have caught on film is captured forever… It remembers little things, long after you have forgotten everything.” (A. Siskind)

My history with Tina stretches back a decade when we were neighbors and part of the houseboat community in Butlers Wharf (not far from Tower Bridge) in 2005/06. I lived on the Dutch barge ‘Ijsbrandt’ and she lived next door in a flat-bottomed steel beast called ‘de lachende moor’. The later is still owned by the dad of my now godson, Paul, but his stories are for another day. I do remember helping to put up the basic structure of what would become Tina’s bedroom in the boat (Paul suffered from chronical lack of urgency when it came to these things). I also remember a god night out in Shoreditch afterwards to honour this achievement.

Tina made her move out of finance in Spain and into photojournalism already back then, studied photojournalism in London and is now one of the top newcomers in the photography world. Most of all she is one of the nicest people you can imagine. Do have a look at her amazing work (link). She has documented migration issues in Europe and Africa, life after Chernobyl (its been 30 years jn 2016!) and other important issues such as prostitution and human trafficking as featured in the Guardian here and the Sunday times (picture below).

Recent Sunday Times article ft. Tina

So when I needed some help to get started in photography … Tina was my first port of call and she didn’t let me down. We arranged to meet on a Monday in  her place in Dalston, East London (frankly an area I wouldn’t have visited 10y ago when I lived in nearby Shoreditch, but things have changed).

Since my new camera hadn’t arrived yet, we used her Canon and a 24/105mm lens with minimum aperture of 4.0. For basic stuff it doesn’t really depend on the model/make of the camera. Personally I use a Sony alpha 7r II with a 24/240mm (3.5 aperture) superzoom Sony lens and most likely a 35mm (1.4) fixed lens.

Intro to catching the right light

Topic for the day was how to use the camera in manual mode and make sure that there is sufficient light.

  • Aperture: In essence the aperture stands for the focus / sharpness of a lens (the pupil of the camera). Large aperture lets you capture many objects in a frame while a low aperture will focus on one object (say a face) while the rest around it will look blurry/fizzy. A low aperture reading (say 1.4) lets in more light. Low aperture is expensive and thus a 35mm lens with f1.4 can quickly set you back GBP1,000+. For fixed lenses the minimum aperture is a constant more or less, while for zoom lenses you will most often find a rising aperture as you increase the zoom.



Swing sharp


Foreground sharp

  • Timer: The timer settings allow you to control how long you want to let light come ‘through the door’. It’s measures in fractions of a second (e.g. 1/250), but since only the denominator is quoted a smaller number improves light and vice versa.



  • ISO: Higher number caches more light. In normal light ISO100/200 will do just fine. Some may remember this from the standard  Kodak film rolls back in the days. Modern day cameras let you take this up to much higher levels though you should use a tripod some stage (my Sony offers above ISO100,000).
  • Flash: Flash can be of good help when natural light is rare. Dark rooms being one example, but more importantly also when a picture involves competing lights e.g. bright sky vs. darker foreground. Since all camera adjustment apply to both natural light sources, then flash can give you the edge to increase light in the closer vicinity.

Now it has to be said that these settings interact. For example higher aperture reduces light, so you have to ‘open the door longer’ to collect more light or increase ISO (or both). But that will come with experience. At least I know the levers now.

Tina in action … picture of snake teeth ;o)

By the time we had gone through the four points, taken a few snaps and laughed our socks off on several occasions (Tina was still recovering from a 5 day seminar in the countryside, which was at least say unusual ;o) our feet started to get cold and it was time for some food.

We opted for a Japanese place (Tonkotsu East) based in converted railway arches not far from Haggerston overground station (same area as a restaurant that I had previously visited with Chanel). The food was good and even included a special ‘Spanish’ ramen from a very god Spanish friend of Tina – I remember well the long queues at Borough Market as folks patiently waited for their  chorizo sandwich. He went on to launch his own restaurants (link). Only downside of the place was the chilly temperature in the room (hold on tight to your ramen soup!).

Overall an amazing and unusual way to spend a day in London on a Monday morning. Thanks Mrs. Valero! Will definitely consider your workshop idea once I got my head around the new toy.