Isn’t life full of the unexpected? Five years ago I’d never have believed I’d be living in Russia in five years time, especially not in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. Last week I’d never have believed I would find myself on Saturday evening celebrating Old New Year sitting in the apartment of a chap who used to be the captain of a nuclear submarine based out of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky during the final years of the Cold War. Our host had spent 15 years in the Soviet navy, most of them on Typhoon Class submarines which held around 150 men and were at sea for 78 days at a time, with each person having a shower and change of clothes every 10 days. His job was to patrol the seas looking for evil Yanks and Brits to blow out of the water, or more probably just listen to. He finished his service with a dozen medals on his chest, some of which he showed me with a promise that he’d dig the rest out later. He also showed me his service pictures, when he was a submarine captain at 35 years of age. Nowadays he works as one of the top lawyers for the Russian security and police services in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. Needless to say, he doesn’t get too much hassle from the road police, and nor I suspect from anybody else.
My wife had met him and his wife when she found herself stranded by snow at Khabarovsk airport on the way back from St. Petersburg last month. They have two daughters, one studying in Moscow the other in St. Petersburg, and they were on their way back from visting the latter when they met my wife. Needless to say, in typically superb Russian tradition, they invited us to their place for dinner where they served enough food for the husband’s entire former fleet, tipped buckets of alcohol down our necks, and were very disappointed that at 1am we had to leave so early, seven hours after arriving. I think they miss their children and are searching for a replacement.
On a completely unrelated note, I feel I must dispel a certain myth about Russia, or at least Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, concerning the standard of dentistry available. Having had a complete check-up, cleaning, and three fillings performed only last May when I was still in Dubai I thought I’d be okay for a while, but the other day I found that when I drank cold or hot stuff I got a sharp pain in an upper molar (one that had been repaired in May). It didn’t help that the last few mornings have been below minus twenty. Being a fan of getting these sort of problems solved here and now rather than putting them off for six years and digging out blind at the pain, I got my local sidekick to sort me out with an appointment at the dentist. Perhaps not surprisingly given the Russians’ ability to move swiftly and efficiently when there is a possibility of being paid, I got an appointment immediately.
I was extremely relieved to find myself in a practice as modern and well equipped as any I have found in the West, or in Dubai for that matter. I will refrain from commenting on the appearance of the (female) dentist, because the enormous bollocking I got from my wife when I broached the subject during the description of my wisdom teeth removal is still fresh in my memory, and it was more painful than any tooth extraction. But let’s just say that the dentist was not an ex-miner called Boris and the drill had not been borrowed from Comrade Nikolai who fixes roads for a living. It was all very civilised, very pain free, and above all, pretty cheap at $62 for a drill and fill (about half what it cost in Dubai). They didn’t speak any English though, but having metal instruments in my mouth can hardly make my Russian accent any worse.
Believe it or not, many Brits leave the country to have dentistry work carried out, or wait until they’re back home. Yet judging by my experience today and from what I hear about the current state of dentistry in Britain, I’m surprised they’re not flocking in the other direction.