Julia and I met in 1987 in Voronezh, a small town in the middle of the Russian Steppe. We had both been sent there by our universities as part of our Russian degrees. Our life in Soviet Russia was tough. We shared a room no bigger than the average garage with two Russian girls, a fridge, a kitchen table and a million cockroaches. The toilets, showers and some of the other students were primitive and dangerous.
Somehow Julia and I survived and our friendship, having been forged in such adversity has proved strong and long lasting. In the last 25 years we have both made good marriages and had three healthy children each. We both teach, love cats and live in comfortable, suburban semis. Neither of us has ever forgotten the hell of the Soviet Union and it has become a base line for what we can endure.
Birmingham was a delightful surprise. My first thought as my train pulled in to the city was to wonder when they will ever finish building it. Every time I’ve been there over the years they seem to be embarking on a massive infrastructure project. When I got into the city proper however, I got to see how advantageous this perpetual re-invention can be. One of the best libraries in the country stands next to a shiny new, acoustically excellent symphonic hall which is a stone’s throw away from the spectacular Georgian buildings that house the city council, museum and university.
The Edwardian tea room was another pleasant surprise. I stumbled across it while wandering around the city museum and as our original meeting point had been knocked down as part of the redevelopment of New Street station, I texted Julia and suggested we meet at the tea room and decide where to go. When she arrived, Julia told me she, her husband and their children had spent many happy hours in the tearoom and that she would be quite happy to stay there. There are literally hundreds of excellent restaurants and cafes in Birmingham but we had no real reason to leave such salubrious surroundings so we stayed.
Julia wafted into the cafe like a gorgeous blonde hurricane. It’s not often you can say ‘you haven’t changed’ and really mean it, but this time it was true, she looked fantastic. The main reason we managed to survive Russia intact is that Julia was a thoroughly nice person – always positive, generous and kind. One glance at her huge smile told me that nothing had changed.
As usual, I couldn’t resist testing this in my puerile, bloody minded way. Julia is the best kind of Christian – she is genuinely in love with The Prince of Peace and while that informs every breath she takes, she never proselytises, patronises or judges. Birmingham museum has a magnificent statue of the angel Lucifer and I just couldn’t help but point out that his beauty and specifically his large penis must be deliberate, after all what could be more tempting? As in the old days, Julia just smiled, refused to take the bait and just said “trust you”.
6 March 2015
The Edwardian Tea Room, Birmingham City Museum
The food in the museum is great and over a bowl of ‘Anglo-Saxon game stew’, and a glass of definitely not Anglo-Saxon red wine, we chatted for hours and could have carried on and on. It was dark by the time we left and I had missed my train, but we hadn’t covered a fraction of the conversations we could have had. It is a testament to the resiliance of womankind that despite a combined total of six kids, nigh on 60 years of marriage and God knows how many students and classes, dinners cooked, carpets hoovered, family members lost, presents wrapped and headaches endured, we could still giggle and joke like the kids we were when we met.