This is Me: Vladlena Bobrovnikova
Calling all romantics, we've got a This is Me just for you. A love story that involves Vladlena Bobrovikova, Italy, an Italian swimming champion, lots and lots of ice cream and, of course, handball. So be prepared to read perhaps our cutest story to date...
This is Me: Vladlena Bobrovnikova
My passion for Italy
My career is probably not typical for a Russian handball player. Since the age of 14, I dreamt of moving abroad. I wanted to see the world, learn new languages and discover new cultures. Early in my career I played for Kuban in my home town Krasnodar, but at 23 I decided to leave – first for Serbia, and then for Italy. Rostov also made me an offer already then, but I knew that if I moved, I would stay there for a long time, and I wanted to try my luck abroad.
In Serbia, I spent just several months before my club started to face financial problems and I moved to Italy midway through the season. And then I spent two-and-a-half seasons in the Italian league, first at HC Sassari in Sardinia, and later at HF Teramo on the mainland.
Italy may not be the biggest handball country, but I really enjoyed my time there. It was probably the happiest time of my life. The level of the national league was pretty high at the time, with a lot of foreign players from Romania and the countries of former Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, the Italian handball was hit by the European financial crisis, and now the level has become lower. My teams were quite popular among local people: the hall was often full, and with Teramo, I became an Italian champion in 2012 before moving back to Russia.
It was not easy to adjust to Italy. I arrived there quite young in the era when Russian handball players rarely moved abroad. I am a social person who likes to chat with people, but few people in Sardinia could speak English, so it was a difficult time. I had problems even in supermarkets – I still remember that once I needed to buy an electricity adapter, but could not explain it. However, I didn't lose heart and learned Italian quite fast.
In terms of mentality, Italians are quite different from Russians, especially in Sardinia – after all, it's an island. The weather is sunny, and the people are sunny, too. It often happened that I was looking for an ATM, or asked some elderly lady in the street for directions, and she was like: "Come on, get into my car, and I will drive you there." I don't think many Russians would do the same…
And the Italian food! It tasted so good that I wanted to try everything – and put on four kilos for just a couple of months. Overall, I was completely thrilled by Italy; the abundance of everything and the kindness of the people. I enjoyed the local lifestyle, too. After training, I was free and could go to the seaside or anywhere else.
On top of that, I met my husband in Italy. I got acquainted with Federico through mutual friends at a New Year’s party, and it was love at first sight. Who could have thought that I would find a husband not in Russia, but on the faraway island of Sardinia? He could not imagine either that he would marry a Russian girl and eventually move to Russia. He would have called it a crazy idea, but it did happen…
I will never forget how he proposed me. We had a camper trailer, and each year, we used to travel about 5,000 km from Rostov to Italy, using a ferry to reach Sardinia. We would have breakfast in Bratislava, lunch in Vienna and dinner in Berlin. Once in Vienna, we went to an amusement park and rode a Ferris wheel, and up there, I saw that he was frantically looking for something in his handbag. He then he found a small box, took out a ring and proposed to me. I was shocked but said yes. We got married after a while, making an Italian-Russian wedding in Cagliari, with about 20 Russian guests.
When I played in Italy, I was never called up to Russia national team. In fact, I made my debut there at only 26, which is quite late. By that time, I had already moved to Rostov, and Federico moved with me. We were not married yet, and I remember I also had an offer from a German club then. Federico was ready to go there, too. He said: "I can work even as a dishwasher, but I want to stay with you." He was ready to follow me to the end of the world.
In fact, my husband is a former swimmer, and he even was an Italian champion. But by the time we met he'd already finished his career and worked as a children's coach. Then we moved to Rostov, and it was not easy for him to adjust. He had to learn Russian, which is seen in Italian universities as one of the hardest languages alongside Arabic and Chinese. He had to look for a job and then worked as a waiter in an Italian restaurant.
But after the Olympics in Rio, we started our own business in Rostov, a store selling Italian food – in particular, cheeses, ice cream, croissants and various delicacies. We run it together with another Italian family living in Rostov. It's mostly Federico who deals with it, but I take part, too. So now I'm not just a handball player but also a businesswoman! The store has been open for four years, and I think we are quite successful, even at this difficult time of Covid-19. Rostov fans know that it's our store, and they gladly queue up for Italian food. I think we sell the best ice cream in the city! Even in Italy, where they have all the ingredients to make a great ice cream, it is sometimes not as good as at our place.
Handball is very popular in Rostov, and the players get recognised quite often. But sometimes it happens that people recognise Federico rather than me, knowing that he sells the best ice cream in town. Then I tell him jokingly: "Come on, I'm an Olympic champion, but you're more famous!" Anyway, it means that he has also achieved success in his field.
My husband has never played handball, but he has played water polo, which is in a way similar. And having been married to me for many years, he follows handball as a fan and knows it quite well, too. We have our own little traditions and superstitions – for example, he doesn't shave when I play a big tournament.
Recently Federico has become a Russian citizen, and now he speaks the language fluently. Sometimes it gets funny when I talk to our daughter in Italian, and he in Russian. Or when he comes home after work and start speaking Russian to me, and I answer in Italian. So we use a weird mix of two languages at home.
Our daughter Aria, who will turn three in November, is growing up in an international family. Interestingly, Russian people tend to think that her name is Italian, and the Italians think that it's Russian. But we just wanted a name that sounds good in both languages, and we were inspired by Arya Stark from Game of Thrones, as we both like the show. Besides, we wanted a short name, not like mine!
By the way, some people make jokes about my name, because normally kids in the former USSR were named Vladlen or Vladlena after Vladimir Lenin. In fact, my parents wanted to call me Vlada, but when my dad went to register me, the official asked him: "Okay, and what is the full name – Vladlena?" Dad agreed, so I became Vladlena, but Lenin has nothing to do with it.
I'm very happy with my career. As I said before, I made my debut in the national team quite late, but I went on to become an Olympic champion and enjoyed some success with Rostov. And before that, my dream came true, as I lived abroad and learned new languages. I still can speak Serbian, even if I lived there for just a few months.
We still go to Italy every summer to visit my husband's parents. To be honest, in future we would like to get settled in Sardinia. I had great time there, I speak the language, but now everything depends on when I will finish my career.
When we first moved to Rostov, I signed a two-year contract, and Federico said: "Ok, we'll live there for two years, and then we'll return to Sicily." Then I extended my contract, and he was ready to stay for a couple years more. And now I'm playing my tenth season at the team, and we still live together in Russia.
Only time will tell where we will end up in future.