Thursday, November 23, 2006

Lost My Way to School

In the past, getting lost has never bothered me all that much. Although, it really bothered my sister a couple of times (sorry, Sis). I've always seemed to find a lesson in it somehow, or at least a new adventure. In today's 'Lost' episode (Moscow style), I simply got lucky.

The schools that I teach at are in various locations so its been a great enough challenge just learning how to use the metro and trying to figure out the cryllic names. Only the Lord (who I was praying to) knows how I found my way back to the metro station in the school's area. From there, it would have been ideal to telephone the school or look on a map. If only it were that easy. As my father has told me 'You always do things the hard way... ha ha ha."

On my first visit, I was accompanied by a Russian lady from the school for the 20 minute walk. At that time, I certainly found myself confused, but I did manage to find my way back from the school. This time, even though I knew I had never seen the address or the name of this school and couldn't reach anyone to ask before I left, I took a chance that I'd be able to locate it myself. I left myself lots of time in case I got lost. Unfortunatley, it wasn't enough time.

I had my map. I thought I'd try to call the Russian-speaking school administrator (who is the only person at this tiny little school). Too bad I don't know how to use the phones. If I had a Russian credit card, I might have handled it. Why don't I have a mobile phone like everyone else here? Oh yeah, no one will sell me one. I don't have the right kind of visa yet (you actually have to hand over your passport to buy a cell phone/SIM card here).

So there I was. Nothing looked familiar. I contemplated asking a policeman but THAT seemed risky. By the way, I wasn't just standing around lost. I was trying every possible metro exit and street, retracing my steps to the metro (I wasn't going to lose THAT place again). It only took 4 scenarios to find my way to the school and the students were only waiting 1/2 hour for me.

Luckily, this is a very kind class. They laughed at my gestures and drawings on the white board as I tried to explain 'lost' to them. It just happened to be an Absolute Beginner adult class who only had one other English lesson ever (taught by me). At the end of the class, one of the students suggested I drink vodka.

I don't know my lesson in getting lost on this occasion and I'm still not sure that I can find my way from that school again but I'm off now to find another school for another lesson for another class. Too bad I lost my gloves today.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Lost in Isolation

Culture shock
a state of bewilderment and distress experienced by an individual who is suddenly exposed to a new, strange, or foreign social and cultural environment.

Doesn't sound so bad in print. Well, it is. However, it doesn't seem to be taking so long to get used to this crazy (and filthy) environment as one would think. Don't get me wrong. I'm not eating off the streets or anything but I certainly did like being back in Moscow after three days and three nights in Elektrostal.

Elektrostal is a small town of 200,000 people and is 50 km (or a two-hour bumper-to-bumper drive, or a bus to the metro on the edge of town, or an unsafe train ride). I found this out on the drive to the town with the school administrator. Actually, everything she was telling me kept pushing me further and further down.

I had tried to keep my expectations low but when all access (phone, etc) to my outside world was cut off, I called it quits. I won't miss the ants, or the bumpy bed or the water that runs blood red for five minutes and is scalding hot. Maybe one day, when I'm feeling strong enough, I'll relay the naked bathtub story to you.

I shouldn't really give Elektrostal such a hard time since I never gave it much of a chance. I did teach a couple of lessons and the teenagers were really quite nice. Its an industrial town, with steel factories, so the metal taste in my mouth was quite understandable. Apparently a lot of people live there and comute to Moscow so there must be more redeaming qualities I never yet discovered. I had offered to stay on until they found a replacement but they decided to move me right away.

So here I am back in Moscow. The minute I got to the admin offices I had to cover for two lessons, with no time to prepare plans. I also got an orientation of the Russian (cryllic) metro system by the Russian cleaning lady who spoke a little broken English and would show-off her skills to other Russians in ear-distance.

Thanks for emails. Much appreciated but can't respond for a while - keep them coming though. I must go lesson planning now so stay tuned for upcoming postings, including 'Lost on the Metro' and Í Can't Stop Crying'.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Miserable in Moscow

I arrived in Moscow Thursday night and I'm not going to sugar-coat it. So far it sucks!

This place is huge! It took almost two hours to get from the outskirts where the airport is to downtown where the school admin offices are located. Apparently there's a great metro system but there are still many vehicles on the road. The pollution burns the inside of my nostrils. The buildings are the size of city blocks - large 20 story apt buildings... most run down and unsightly. Its strange to see all the luxury cars on the street, amidst the old beaters - many stalled at intersections. Almost all have dark tinted glass.

There was blowing wet snow. Everyone appeared grumpy. The driver from the school made it clear he doesn't speak English and to not bother with further attempts at Russian, although he did manage to say 'Supermarket?' right before he stopped at one. It certainly wasn't Safeway - kind of pathetic, actually, with really bad produce. No wonder everyone is grumpy. I had to buy groceries since I am staying in the school hostel for a few days. The hostel is truly horrible. I won't go into detail because I just ate a burger and don't want to lose it. I cried myself to sleep the first night. Oh, and, Damn, its cold!

OK no more negative stuff... the office/hostel is only a couple of blocks from Red Square so I got some sight seeing in already. Another teacher (my savior) arrived at the hostel last night. He had to leave the last place he was boarding because the family was trying to marry him off to their daughter and the mother kept mending his pants and leaving him notes. I was never so happy to meet a stranger. He, another teacher and I hung out for the evening. We got stopped by the police, too. Apparently that's common. They checked our passports but didn't ask for bribes... phew, lucky this time.

I had borscht and perogies for dinner. Yummy!


Great Ghent

Knowing that everything was taken care of for my new gig, it was nice that I had some time to kill in Europe. I tried to take advantage of my last few days of vacation. After all, its only been six months since I was working full time.

My friend, Helena, let me hang out with her to check out some sculptures and then a modern art museum- an acquired appreciation I believe. We saw some horses running on the beach that day. Love that about this place.

I didn't have the same exhilerated feeling that I had when I first saw the Hague, possibily because of the gloomy weather. Plus it gets dark so early here. It seemed the sun always shone and everyone seemed friendlier. I did, however, manage to find some awe & wonderment in Belgium one day when Carrie, an ex-pat from God's country (Saskatchewan) skipped work to hang out with me.

These photos are of Ghent, just a two-hour train ride away. I couldn't believe how many beautiful buildings there are in such a small area. Since it was a monday a lot of places weren't open but we did get to see the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb (Lamb of God) in Saint Bavo's Cathedral. This unique masterpiece commissioned by a wealthy merchant, was completed in 1432 by Hubert and Jan van Eyck and has an eventful history: it survived the iconoclastic fury in the 16th century; Napoleon got it; and then the Nazi's almost blew it up (it was hidden in a salt mine in Austria). Now its back in the church, but in a side altar so they can charge to view.

Carrie and I also tried out the cherry beer, even though Stella Artois (my favorite beer) is actually FROM Belgium. I'll choose Stella next time since cherry beer tastes pretty much like it sounds.

Yep, Ghent is a pretty great - even if all you want to do is gaze at the architecture. The chocolate is pretty amazing too - and cherries are appreciated. If you're ever in Belgium, Ilsa recommends!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Abroad at Last

  • Last week I left Calgary to get started on my new career of teaching English. There were still a couple minor details... getting a visa, for one. And then there's the logistics... how to get me and the stuff that is to keep me comfortable for the next nine months to Russia.

    The cheap flight to Frankfurt was a no brainer; however, the next decision of train travel, as opposed to a quick flight, proved to be an adventure of its own. It only took one delayed train to screw up the rest of the trip from Frankfurt to the Hague (Holland). I had to switch four times - carrying this load. I'm talking stairs and escalators. Why are elevators always out of service when they're truly needed?

    I found it difficult to maintain the elegance I pretended to have when hauling this stuff. At one point, a German gentleman insisted on carrying my big suitcase (which cost an extra $140 to fly) up some stairs. The Germans are really great that way but I'm sure he was cursing me after he broke all his nails on one hand (hopefully he thought I was American and not Canadian). Ouch!

    The next morning (a few hours after waking my friend in middle of night) I headed to the Russian consulate office, conveniently located three blocks away. There were a few people lined up outside. No one offered any assistance so I pressed the bell - the bell was up three steep, narrow stairs so you have to step back down after ringing. A man peaked out and looked at me inquisitively. I looked up 'I'd like to apply for a tourist visa?' He gestured for me to wait then closed the door. So I waited, and waited, and waited. I got to know a little Japanese guy in the lineup. He told me his story. His company, which specializes in automotive parts, is sending him to Moscow for 4 years. He's not particularly looking forward to it but was really hopeful to get to get his visa on this day after trying on three previous occasions. He seemed to take it all in stride - maybe coming from another 'orderly' culture gave him an edge up.

    When they let me, I remembered Alice in Wonderland and how she had no idea what was in store for her once she entered. In my case it was more waiting. The room was tiny but the waiting let me scope the rest of the goings on. There was a cashier with one lineup, a table for the 'screener' I first met to make sure the next visitors had the right lineup, and then the lineup which contained the most important authoritarian behind a cage at the end of it. The importance surrounding this person was obvious. All they had to say was 'yes' or 'no' - my fate was in their hands. In my case, she said 'no good', gesturing toward my Canadian-sized passport photo and something else I can't even remember anymore. Prior to this confrontation, I had a little help from a guy claiming to be 'special visa services'. He and three others were processing visas like nobody's business. They had stacks of passports and documents and would slip them in the cage when possible, sometimes letting lined-up folks, like myself, to take their turn. From observations on two consecutive days, it appears to be their job to lurk around there for the three hours the consulate office is open on week days. The guy who helped me (maybe because of the bewildered look on my face?) advised me to make some changes so I was back and forth a couple of times that day and ran out of time for the 'no good'changes I needed to make.

The second day went much smoother since I knew what to expect. The guy in charge barely looked at it and I got to go to the cashier lineup. I knew not to complain about the price as I had witnessed a dead, incredulous silence the previous day when some Dutch guy said in a loud voice ''Why so much?"

That taken care of, I had to wait out the five-day waiting period but, who cares, I was in Europe. I love Europe.

Stay tuned for more of my European Vacation.