Wednesday, December 27, 2006

My Moscow Christmas

Christmas in Moscow was suprisingly OK. I'll admit to a few tears, mostly out of exhaustion, Christmas Eve, but for the most part, it was kind of nice to spend it with my new friends from around the world and to share the excitement and traditions with the Russian students.

I went to the Mel Gibson 'Apocalypto' movie with friends Christmas Eve Day, unfortunatley the only English one playing and with subtitles since its in Myan. What a downer... blood, gore, rape, murder, captivities, and the typical hollywood predictabilities. I'd have paid $100 to watch 'A Christmas Story' instead.

Foreigners are treated a little differently than the locals here. In obvious ways, we're charged more at pubs and restaurants; we aren't allowed to use the coat check if its almost full (they have to save room for their own); and, the cinema hall at was around the building sowe had to walk outside and go in through a backdoor. Popcorn wasn't an option and neither was heat. We get our revenge by making fun of their tacky displays and poor fashion sense. Check out the bull and sheep in this high-priced boutique window.

I was excited to see the Christmas/New Year trees after a fresh snow fall. They're the only real ones I've seen here. Notice California Mike posing in front, sporting a fashionable Canada flag. He's been instructed to behave as Canadian as possible while wearing... act friendly, speak softly, drop the occasional 'eh', and to remember he's politically useless.

Christmas Night was spent with only two students that showed up for the lesson, but we shared we part of it with other students and teachers in my school - a little karaoke, games, chocolate, and malt wine.

On Christmas Day I did a lot of running around from post office to post office, picking up two parcels. My buddy Paul is posing with mom's package in front of some big church. I made him come because I was told the package was three kilos and thought I'd need a hand carrying it. It wasn't but what a nice treat to receive them on that day. Thanks for the fudge, mom!

While walking, we sang 'Silent Night' in German, a midnight mass tradition back home in Canada. Paul speaks German but he doesn't know the words. I thought I knew the words but its clear to him I don't.

Today I had a break from teaching. The school where I have most of my lessons is on a break until January 10th. I'll have to work some next week but will be nice to have more time to catch up on my sleep and do some sightseeing. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

Friday, December 01, 2006

Russian Reality

Okay Okay, relax! I'm here and my life isn't falling apart. I'm just super busy. And thanks for the emails of encouragement but it really isn't that bad. It just took a few days to adjust.

For instance, I no longer wake up disappointed because 'it's NOT just a bad dream.' I haven't been lost in days. In fact, I actually know what I'm doing when it comes to taking the metro and I can be quite pushy when necessary. I brush my teeth with tap water and I haven't dropped dead. I killed a cockroach without crying (just a few little whimpers - oh, and rubber gloves). I can now buy vegetables from the supermarket and, cross my fingers, I haven't been spit on.

Moscow is definitely a place for an adventurous soul and it certainly keeps ones eyes wide open. And not just because its so darn dark all the time (I have yet to see the sun). Some of my fellow teachers tell me that after years of working here, they still don't really understand the culture and its best not to try.

Let me describe a typical day....

Wake up - pinch myself (although not disappointed, I still wonder if its all a dream). Fortunately, we have a nice warm shower in the flat so I spend as much time as possible in there. Then I plan lessons. I'm still trying to learn the new course books so its taking a lot to get a handle on it all. If I have to go to the admin office or one of the schools in the centre for whatever reason, I lose a large chunk of my day since its a 45 min commute. I teach teach two or three classes each weekday, with most classes in the evening. I'm generally home by 11pm. Luckily, the school administrator is always forcing us to eat so I haven't had to worry much about food. I crash as soon as I'm home and never was I so happy to see the weekend as I did this past one. I had caught a nasty cold and desperately needed the rest.

I am amazed at how different the students I teach seem compared to the people I see on the street or in the metro. Most are warm and charming and so very curious about me and Canada. I would consider them comparable to middle-class Canadians but they are, in fact, rich compared to the norm here.

Between lesson planning and school I have managed to buy a cell phone (everyone sends text messages here but I find that about as easy as learning the Russian alphabet), eat out with ex-pat teacher friends, attend a figure skating event, and I spent last weekend in Kiev. I had to get my working visa there so I took a 13-hour (overnight train trip) and managed to stay an extra night at a real hotel. Besides, the strangest massage from a pudgy Ukrainian lady, I had a great time there. I love the wide streets in the centre and people are friendlier than the Russians. In fact, I met a Canadian girl who had immigrated with her family four years ago but now she's back in Ukraine. She and a local Kiev girl gave Melanie (another teacher on a visa run) and me a customized tour. They know so much about their history. There was a memorial to the artificially-produced famine from the 1930's when more millions of people starved to death. When I can, I'll post photos (unfortunately the sun didn't shine there either) but the churches were still lovely.

Back to the streets of Moscow... a typical outing...

A 5-minute walk to the metro station from my stinky flat, I see two women drinking beer (we're talking super-size bottles) in front of the grocery store. This is at 10:30 am. I need to duck from time to time to avoid the spit from the men (maybe if they would stop smoking they wouldn't have to spit so much). I try not to step on it also but its impossible. Once inside the metro station, two dogs are going at it... well, at least one dog is, the other is taking it. I look around in disgust at everyone standing there watching. There's no animal control, obviously. Stray dogs are everywhere and that really bothers me but I don't know what I can do.

The train in the metro is the real interesting part. Most women dress like prostitutes, with thigh-high leather spiked boots and animal print furs. The more I try to mix, by dressing conservatively, the more I stand out. I need at least a fur collar and fur cuffs if I want to blend but really, the outfits are so very outrageous its mind-boggling. For now, I'm not too bothered being stared at so I'll stick with my standard black. I'm lucky I live at the end of one of the lines so I can usually get a seat for serious 'people watching'. Its so crowded, particularly in 'the trains around the centre. We are jammed tighter than mom's pickled cucumbers. And the smell can be stifling. From guys passed out drunk to women's stinky perfume and even vomit. Its grim. Fortunately, all the workers clean at the end of every line and sometimes at night. In fact, the metro is much cleaner than the streets and its supposed to be illegal to liter there. My friend, Emma, and I once missed the last train from the centre at 1:15 am (I know that now for the future) so stayed up all night and caught the first trains at 5:45 am. The place was immaculate. Workers in their little uniforms, sweeping and scrubbing.

The stations themselves are architectually fascinating, some even have chandeliers. I'm dying to take photos - of the places and the crowds and the strange people but that's illegal too. Maybe I'll sneak one w/ my camera phone sometime when I'm feeling brave.

No one on the street smiles but occasionally I'll come across a friendly vendor. The little kiosks are everywhere, including underground between stations and you can buy anything from lingerie to croissants to a set of dishes. I find it so strange that someone would buy underwear in a crowded spot like that.

Got to run now - pay day today.

PS I lost my laptop's hardrive but when computer is up and running again, and I can figure out how to get the internet in my flat, I'll be able to post photos (hopefully prior to my contract being up).