The Ex Files: Kazakhstan

My inspiration for the Friend that Made Me Me series was wanting to honour the friends who made us into the people we are today; recognising the truths they helped inspire and the experiences they helped create.  I also wanted to bring to light the point that we are really only ever a sum of our stories and of what people teach us.       

But it’s not just friends who did that, is it?  There’s also (shudder) The Exes.

Now, I think exes get a bad rep.  I know they weren’t all perfect, otherwise we’d be with them now, or married to them, or they’d be canonised.  However, chances are most of us spent a significant portion of our lives with partners who helped shape us in some way and made us who we are.  Even the really bad breakups taught us something, forged us into better, stronger, shinier, more durable versions of ourselves.  

And, for the most part, mine are great.  I’d totally go for a beer with them.  The ones I had a relationship with, perhaps not the (sometimes ill-advised) flings.  Most of them had an international bent, which means I’ll probably never get to see them again, but even so!  I would. 

Mum, if you are reading, please stop here.  I’ll give you the edited version on the phone.  It will involve holding hands and dates at the cinema.   

Onto Kazakhstan:

Photograph from here

I had been living in Germany just a few months.  It was summer, and I was near the Black Forest, and it was beautiful. The days were long, the classes at University were easy, I was living with a great group of people, my German was the best it’s ever been (and that includes my final year oral exams, sadly).  One night, I went to a fellow students’ house party.  There was some  animated discussion going on and a lot of beer.  I was well into both.  I was also on the lookout for a Boyfriend because I thought it would help my language skills and I wanted to meet people that weren’t just students, local people from the local community.  

A good-looking, tall guy walks up. Despite what you may expect, I’ve seen many tall, good-looking guys in Germany, and they are not usually my type.  I like the runts at the back of the class that make me laugh.  I look out the window, acting disinterested.  

And he’s talking to me. Asking me what my name is, why I’m here, where I’m from. Oh please. Every single international student’s conversation starts like this and it’s just not imaginative.  I mumble a response and look elsewhere for conversation.


He’s from Kazakhstan.

My head whips round. Where? Crap, I can be so shallow. Suddenly tall, potentially-painfully-average guy comes alive with hidden mystique and possibilities. I shift up a gear. Kazakhstan, hey? I go from Ice Queen to intriguing and witty in about six seconds. He studies law, he lives alone, his German is flawless.  

About four hours later he offers to walk me home which is nice.  Chivalry is not dead.  On our way out he gets into a fight, but I assume he’s just attempting to strut around secreting masculinity as some men try and do. I sigh, I ignore it, I figure that if he behaves like that again I don’t have to see him anymore.  

The next day, he invites me round for dinner. Quite forward, but the flat is in a busy area and I do the usual “get my friend to do an emergency call two hours in” manouvere. I turn up at his flat.   I knock on the door. He opens it and greets me warmly yet somewhat shiftily. He ushers me into the dining room.There is a large round table. Around this table are sat; in order; Stalin-esque Father, KGB-agent Mother, face-like-the-ceiling-crashed-down-on-her Sister, and Grandmother (or was it Grandfather? I couldn’t tell).

What? Didn’t he say he lived alone? Always one to throw myself in at the deep end, I pretend like this is no issue. I’m good with parents. I’ll be a natural. Granted, I speak no Russian, but roll with it. I am introduced by Potential Paramour as a “marriage prospect”. I bite my tongue for there is no escape and the KGB human-rights record isn’t exactly spanking clean.

After each bite, I am force-fed a shot of vodka, to “aid my digestion”. After half my zakusky I am absolutely trolleyed. After my main course, I am almost on the floor and to my dismay the Potential Lover has to ask KGB-Mother to go easy on me. Grandmother(/father) is still going a treat, knocking it back like it’s Evian.

Then we are asked to be silent. It is, apparently, time to show the cook our appreciation of the hearty repast. I naively think that all I have to do is say thank-you. Oh no. In turn, we each have to stand up and belch. Loudly. On demand. 

What? I can’t burp on purpose!  It comes round to me and I make a sort of strangulated sound and everyone looks at me disappointedly.  

Post meal with Potential Suitor I decide to let the family thing drop. It was a rich cultural experience and I am not one to nit-pick. However, during the meal, his family had been telling me lots about him, in much detail, yet the last two years of his life lie completely unaccounted for.  And the fight.  And he’s living with his family. I cut to the chase whilst entangled in lengthy Slavic limbs on the sofa.

“Have you been to prison?”
Dumbfounded stare. “How did you guess?”
Call me Sherlock. “What did you do?” I asked.
“I don’t want to talk about it”

Right. Sounds great. Am entwined in the embrace of somebody who could well be a psychopathic killer. How am I going to get out of this one?

However, I reason it was only two years, so it couldn’t have been rape or murder, therefore it’s fine. Seriously. That’s what I thought.  And it WAS fine, but still!  So much for rationale!  Now I understand why parents want to do MI6-style checks on their daughters’ boyfriends.  

The Black Forest

Our relationship blossomed over the next few weeks. He taught me to drink vodka Russian-style. He taught me my first Russian words. He introduced me to his friends, more family, his life. He mocked my German incessantly. We got lost in the Black Forest. He let me drive his car and didn’t even shout at me when I drove it into a field. He fed my insatiable curiosity as to what exactly it was like to be in prison.

More Black Forest.  It was pretty magical.  Even with an ex-con.  

I mean can you imagine it? To have you freedom taken away from you, to be let out of your cell for one hour in 24 to take a walk in a concrete yard just able to see a sliver of blue sky, to know you have given up everything you once knew because of one stupid mistake? It emerged that he’d stabbed someone in a fight (I realise I’m not selling him well, here). It didn’t even make me angry. It made me fundamentally reassess my views on prison, on rehabilitation, on justice.  He made a mistake. He’s paid his dues. He was taken out of society. He was duly punished. He had a hell of a lot of time to think, enclosed in four walls for two whole years.

It threw up a lot of interesting questions. How long should somebody be punished? Should people be let out again? Is shutting someone up in a darkened room for a long, long time just a very simplistic solution to rehabilitate the complex mind of a criminal?

And reintegration into society is even more difficult to deal with. To have to interact within a society where so many people are bitterly prejudiced against ex-cons. It’s almost as if people are punished their whole life for one mistake; whether they are in prison or out of it.

Bertrand Russell once said; The reformative effect of punishment is a belief that dies hard, chiefly I think, because it is so satisfying to our sadistic impulses..

Is prison really the best solution or does it destroy people far more than we could ever understand? 

This is the kind of thing exes should be making you think about! The really important questions! And I’m now working in criminal justice, and trying to answer those very questions, ten years on.

I left said ex-con after a few weeks to go Interrailing around Eastern Europe (with Catherine). When I flew back to the UK I got a call from him. “Send me a picture of you”, he said. “Something I can show my friends and family. All the pictures I have of you you’re laughing or doing something stupid. Send me a picture of you sitting on a chair, in a nice dress, with your hair over your shoulders and with make-up on”

The profanity I unleashed upon his misogynistic soul has no place in this blog. Stabbings, lies and fighting I can cope with. Sexism, not.

Categories: Family, Friends and Relationships, Life Experience
13 interesting thoughts on this


  1. Posted January 24, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Wow, Anna! Fantastic story! I'm glad you drew the line at sexism ;)


  2. Posted January 24, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    I love this, Anna, thanks for sharing! It's always really fascinating to look back on things that happened in the past or people you knew and find that the path from them help lead you to where you are today.


  3. Emily
    Posted January 24, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    Anna, I love reading your writing. You have such an interesting take on things and make me think. xx

  4. Posted January 24, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much! Your comments have really made me smile – especially yours, Emily! it can be a bit of a risk, this blogging business!

    If anyone's got any exes they'd like to honour perhaps we could make The Ex Files a mini-series…I've certainly got a few up my sleeve who taught me Life Lessons!

  5. Posted January 24, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Fantastic last paragraph. Still chuckling.

    Anna, it doesn't surprise me that you have dated, a former criminal from Kazakhstan, and have been more bothered by his sexism than fighting or stabbing. It sounds so like you, and reconfirms our suspicions that you are a spy. May I suggest that Angelina Jolie plays you, if there is ever to be a movie on your life. I think she would be a good fit (thinking the movie would be similar to the film Salt).

    I loved that you turned your head around on Kazakhstan. I would too! I got off with Canadian, Irish, Indian and Kiwi men just to find out if they are better kissers than British blokes (I liked to research these things in my youth).

  6. Posted January 24, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Katie. Your comment actually made tea come out of my nose.

    I wish my life was like Salt!

  7. Posted January 24, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Last paragraph made me choke on my Diet Coke. Anna, your life makes mine seem so stunningly dull!

    K x

  8. Posted January 24, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    Mine too Katielase! I'm now wishing I'd spent a year abroad in uni, though I'm pretty sure my reaction to the family meal/first date would have been very different!

  9. Becca
    Posted January 24, 2012 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    Best Anna K story ever. I had to stop walking to read it.

    My one fling was an unmitigated disaster. We went for dinner, old friends, god awful god god awful moment and then me trying to creep out his house at 6.30am only to bump into his Dad. Oh dearest mother of God. He said 'are you not staying for breakfast?' (read what sort of tramp are you)

    Me (saving self) 'I can't stay I'm going to Church'.

    What CAN you do??!

  10. Carly
    Posted January 24, 2012 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    I normally hate LOL and ROFL and PMSL and all of those abbreviations and I know there is an important message within your piece, but that bit about being force fed Vodka and then having to belch actually made me Laugh Out Loud (whilst reading in bed next to the Intended – he's looking at me funny). What a cracking piece, well done. Let's get the Ex-Files rolling! X

  11. Posted January 24, 2012 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant tale, brilliantly told. Can't believe I haven't heard it before. The Ex Files is a great idea- can't wait for more! Xx

  12. Posted January 24, 2012 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. Posted January 24, 2012 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

    OMG Anna, this is BRILLIANT!! Love that you were forcefed vodka by his family. Yes please can the Ex Files be a regular series -I have some crackers!!!

    Anita x

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Hello! We're Clare, Aisling and Anna and welcome to a corner of the world where smart, flawed, real women talk about the bigger picture; about their experiences, stories and opinions on all aspects of being a woman today, from marriage to feminism to pretty, too.

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