Did you know that Invercargill has a sizable Russian community? I was saying to a friend the other day that, at the moment, I speak Russian on a weekly basis here - and not because of speaking to the same people, but because of meeting a variety of Russian-speaking people in public spaces.
Mostly, I meet them in the sauna! Local swimming pool has a small public sauna which, I find, is quite a common place to overhear someone talk in Russian or with a very Slavic-sounding English accent that, when I ask the person where they're from, turns out to be from Russia. Or maybe if not from Russia, then from Russian-speaking ex-Soviet countries such as Ukraine, Belarus, Usbekistan etc.
No official count exists, but by my estimate there are about 80 Russian-speaking people in Invercargill. Some Russians I have asked have agreed, guessing it to be about 75-100. I have personally met about 35.
A group of women meets every few weeks for a Russian brunch - a weekend meal at a cafe someplace for an hour of Russian chattering. I've attended one: my brain felt absolutely "fried" afterwards! Not having talked Russian for years, it is linguistically very challenging to put thoughts forward. I can understand everything - but I can't talk back effectively. Words are garbled, or not accessible at all.
My daughter's classmate is from Russia, so I talk to his parents at school, or when they've come for a visit. My son's therapist is an Usbek. I often hear and meet Russian speakers at public events in park - just last weekend I met a homeschooling mom of 2 who's originally from Belarus - or at the library.
Several Russian women have New Zealand passports and New Zealand husbands they've met whilst working in Europe, London mostly. A number of students from Russia is studying engineering, IT and management at SIT (Southern Institute of Technology), our local polytech.
It's a touchy subject I haven't dared to dig too deeply in, but my impression is that Russians I've met here do not take kindly to the current Russian political climate. It's small, off-hand remarks. "Russia's not... well." "You're familiar with what's going on, aren't you." "I did not want to live in a place like that." "I'm a lucky one, I had money to get out. Others aren't as lucky." As much as I would like to ask people, hey, what do you think of Putin?, it's not really a good question to ask, I don't think. (Would probably sound very similar to meeting an American and enquiring if they're Republican, or support Trump.)
I enquired from one of the enrolment clerks at SIT if there had, indeed, been a rise in Russian student numbers in Invercargill. She said yes. Apparently, New Zealand has started promoting overseas tertiary education options on the Russian market, and Invercargill is considerably cheaper to study at than other New Zealand cities. Invercargill, basically, subsidises every foreign student's tuition fees because it recognises that people who move here to study contribute a lot of money towards the local economy (accommodation, food etc), without requiring many public services because, normally, foreign students do not have access to New Zealand's publicly funded healthcare or social benefits. That, basically, even after contributing towards foreign students' tuition fees, Invercargill is still earning enough tax revenue off it to make it worthwhile.
So, to Russian students who can be - but aren't always - cash-strapped, studying in Invercargill is more affordable than elsewhere in New Zealand, and the recent marketing campaigns have brought increasing numbers of them here.
What it means to me, a trilingual European "import"? I speak English the most. I speak Russian a little. I speak Estonian the least.
I've even started to notice a marked increase in my Russian speaking ability since making these Russian acquiantances, and have heard two Russian ladies say that I seem to speak better now than I did a year ago.
Looking into the future, it'll be interesting to see if speaking Russian will become more comfortable than speaking Estonian for me. After 10 years of speaking mostly English, my Estonian syntax has started to deteriorate. I can no longer write well in Estonian and when I speak, although I can recognise that Estonian sentences are "off" - they're composed of Estonian words, but arranged in a way English words would be in English syntax - I cannot fix them. I recognise mistakes, but I no longer know how to fix them.
Sure, my Estonian is still much better than Russian at this point, but I wonder for how long if I keep up speaking Russian on a weekly basis. We'll see.