I woke up with a sore throat and, despite 10 hours’ sleep, feeling utterly exhausted. I asked M. if we could cut short our day in Lisvyanka and go back to Irkutsk, and she once again agreed. I was never so glad to see the suburbs of Irkutsk come into view. I went back to Coffee and Book, the underground cafe – literally underground, down some steps past small shops into an arched, brick, dimly lit space with friendly English-speaking waitresses – and had real espresso from a real Italian espresso machine. I thanked the waitress afterwards, telling her I’d been drinking nescafe – she shook her head and said that was very bad. With her help we got directions to our hostel nearby, dropped off our daybags and went back to Philip’s to collect our suitcases and backpacks. Philip served us tea and morse-berries – a tart, white-red berry native to Siberia – and told us stories about Russians.
He’s fluent in Russian and could pick out cultural differences more clearly than I could. Russians, he told us, are deathly afraid of getting sick, to the point that he’s stopped telling them when he has a cold, as they insist he take medication. When he had a cough, one told him seriously that he should call an ambulance. Queuing doesn’t really exist: if you leave space, someone cuts in front of you. He told us about going back to his hometown in Ohio and lining up tightly because he assumed a Russian might cut in.
Having got our stuff to the hostel, walking down pavement – even if it wasn’t real sidewalk – without my life’s possessions on my back was a wonderful feeling, as was eating the fastfood pasta we eventually found, and doing laundry. Life in civilization is a great, great thing. Previously Irkutsk had felt small, more like a bustling town than a city. Now I imagined that I could live here, in the old section next to wooden buildings subsiding unevenly below street level, protected from the endless wilderness by cafes, museums and adidas shops.