24 years ago today, when I was 17, I went to Moscow for three weeks in December and January as part of a school exchange trip.
It wasn't even my own school's trip, it was our neighbouring all-girl convent school's trip, part of a student exchange. A lot of the girl's families weren't keen on having a teenage boy staying in their house with their teenage daughter for three weeks, and then of their teenage daughter staying in the flat of a teenage boy 1,500 miles away for another three weeks. And so it was that my mum volunteered to have one of the Russian kids stay with us. I got on well with the guy and, two days after Christmas, I found myself on a plane heading to Moscow.
Now, I know what you're all thinking.
A 17 year old boy going on a 3-week school trip - the only male with a group of convent girls, all in a strange city.
You're thinking "Oh my god. That poor guy. It must have been hell."
That's not what you're thinking at all?
Ah, I see. You're thinking it was something more like this:
I'm sorry to disappoint you. It was nothing like Castle Anthrax.
But I didn't bring up my trip to Moscow just to gratuitously insert a Monty Python clip.
Actually, I did. But let's see if I can work this back to sailing.
My trip to Moscow was amazing, but it was also incredibly weird. In fact, it's hard to describe quite how weird it was:
- Having grown up in England, I'd never experienced -30° centigrade (that's -22° Fahrenheit).
- I'd never been in a country where not only could I not understand the words written anywhere, I couldn't even understand the letters. It is so disorientating to look at a metro stop and try to remember a sequence of symbols in order to know where home is. Incidentally, I did learn one piece of Russian: "Осторожно, двери закрываются" (or "Ostorozhno, dveri zakryvayutsa" in the Roman alphabet). It means "Be careful, the doors are closing", and it is announced at every metro station. Other than that, I've got nothing.
- Russia is so culturally different that basic transactions felt incredibly strange. In 1992, there were virtually no shops at all in the same way as we had them in the UK; often you would buy stuff from people on the street (usually for dollars).
- I was a pretty fussy eater when I was 17, meaning that I didn't really eat vegetables (or indeed anything that might be good for me). But when you're staying with a family in a one-bedroom flat, and you can't speak the language to sneakily buy food from somewhere else, then you just suck it up and eat the cabbage soup that you've been given. With the happy result that I now eat vegetables...
- ...but while we were there we did visit McDonalds, which had only opened in Moscow a year or two before. I ordered a Quarterpounder, large chips and a coke, and an extra burger (I was hungry after all the vegetables. And probably hungry for a bit of familiarity too, I guess). I asked my Russian friend what he wanted, and he said he'd get the same as me. As we were sitting eating he asked me how much it had cost, and I told him. He shook his head. Then he told me that our meal had cost around the same as his teacher earned in a month. For him, it was like paying Michelin restaurant prices. For a burger and chips. (Well, for two burgers and chips.)
I could go on, but 'll spare you.
There were many things I learnt on that trip. One of them was that most people struggle when they're dropped somewhere where things are unfamiliar, and it affects some more than others. Of course, going to Moscow is at the more extreme end of this scale, but it is true for even small changes in environment. And I knew that it definitely affected me.
When I sail at a club that I've never been to before, a small part of this disorientation kicks in. For this reason I do a couple of things to try to counter the issue.
We're all supposed to check the tide and wind at a venue before we sail there, and I always do this. The main reason I do this is so that at the end of the first race I can think to myself "Well, the tide wasn't supposed to have that effect. And I'm sure it is windier than the forecast.", etc.
But I also look up the club I'm due to sail at, and have a look at the pictures on their site. It helps it look familiar when I get there. If they have videos of racing at the club then I'll watch them too - it helps familiarise me with the race area, the types of marks I'll need to be able to spot, the type of committee boat they have, and so on. It all leaves me with less things to worry about on the day.
I even look at the immediate area on Google Street View. This helps me familiarise myself with the area, and also lets me know that I'm nearly there when I'm getting close, inevitably later than planned. It means I have less things to panic about when I start to unpack my gear and realise that I've turned up for an event without my boom and half my mast (which has actually happened to me, although it wasn't entirely my fault...).
I'm not an especially nervy person when it comes to visiting a new club, or sailing somewhere unfamiliar, but I do find doing these things help. Everyone is affected by unfamiliarity to a greater or lesser extent, and having some sense of familiarity is an advantage, or at least reduces this disadvantage you have racing against someone who feels at ease in the environs.