Sunday, June 24, 2007

On the Road Again

I completed my contract last week so I decided to continue my European tour. I had planned on going back in August so I stored some of my stuff with friends and set off. After leaving Russia, I'm now having to remind myself of why I want to live there. I must be crazy.
A few days in St. Petersburg showed me some beautiful architecture, historical sites, long queues, food poisoning, and the worst customer service you could ever imagine.

Visually, St. Pete's is more appealing than Moscow and one would think I'd be used to the poor customer service, but I think I just had enough of it. I couldn't wait to leave Russia.

I have to admit though that this is one hell of a fountain. Peterhoff, former summer palace of Peter the Great, has hundreds of impressive fountains and gardens. Lovely indeed. This one leads out to the Gulf of Finland.

Not enough to keep me in Russia, though. I took the fastest train out of the country with an overnight stop in Helsinki which confirmed I was back in civilization as I once knew it.
I'm in Estonia now and trying to forget that I'm missing yet another family wedding. I think I'll do something really crazy like rent a car. Stay tuned!

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Moscow Metro

I finally got around to taking a few photos of the infamous Moscow Underground. The first one is from a couple nights ago at 1:30 a.m.. That's why you can't see people, although right after I took this a guy got off the train and threw up. Common downside of the metro.

Each station is unique and some are quite beautiful. There are actually metro tours of the 'socialist realism' art... red stars everywhere. California Mike made it his goal to see each and every station, although I can't understand how he can possibly spend even more time underground.

I live in Meadvedkova, in the North East (top of the orange line). I've spent about the same traveling on the trains as I have physically teaching these past seven months.
Over 8 million people per day are said to use this system and it sometimes feels like you're all packed on one train. It can get pretty hot and uncomfortable, but there's no better place in the world for people watching. Although, I could do without the make-out sessions. It's like the liberal 70's just hit Moscow and everyone's 'doin' it' everywhere... in crude fashion.

Besides that, it seems to be a pretty efficient system. They have little ladies in grey pencil skirts and hats, carrying little red signs and blowing their whistles when guys are passed out and won't get out at the last stop. Because I live at a 'last stop' I see it every night. They often stumble across the aisle to the train going the opposite way. If they can't walk, the little lady gets help and they drag him off onto the platform.

God bless these transit workers. They have a lot to deal with and are able to keep these trains a runnin'. (who sang that? Johnny Cash?)

Friday, June 15, 2007

A Drink and a View

It's Moscow, as seen from the Sky Lounge on the 22nd floor of the Academy of Science building.

I don't know who designed this strange looking building, as seen from the Moscow River, but someone described it as having a 'brain' on top. I'm guessing someone Chinese.

Emma took me for a very expensive caipirinha on my birthday, but we were enjoying the atmosphere so much that we started buying the cheapest thing on the menu... beer, of course, for only 200 rubles.

The lounge seems to be a secret from the Russians. None of my students knew about it and even my friend, another teacher, who studied for a year in the same building wasn't aware of the lounge.

Za vashe zdorovye!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

School Days

When I was home in March, Uncle Jack told me to write about the teaching, which is why I'm really here in the first place. Each night after class, I feel compelled to 'tell all' and the words are in my head when I'm walking home, but by the time I actually get home, usually around 11pm, I'm exhausted. Starting a new career, at a not-so-new age, in a new-to-me country has been quite a challenge.
I've made great strides at being effective from when I first started. I gained some confidence and most students appear to have made some progress, which is good since I really take it to heart when they don't 'get it' or even worse 'digress'.
It's been quite a challenge. I work long hours, often with split shifts. I spend way too much time on the metro - an hour to get to one of the schools where I work every night. Both satellite schools where I teach regular classes have very limited resources and I rarely see other teachers during the week.
On the flip side, it's incredibly rewarding. I suspect it's because most of my students are so motivated. When I hear their stories of having to commute two hours to work, some from low-paying jobs, and then attending costly English lessons three evenings a week, I get inspired to do a good job for them. They're so appreciative and some of them actually thank me for the lessons. (and believe me, all of my lessons were not good - I should be thanking them for letting me use them as guinea pigs). I certainly don't remember appreciating the efforts that any of my teachers put into planning lessons.
I only had one regular children's class, which has closed for the summer. From what I hear from the other teachers, I really scored with this group. Although once they hid behind the door of the classroom and jumped out, making me scream. They thought it was hilarious and I nearly had a heart-attack. They like that word... heart-attack. They brought it up at every opportunity afterward. The thing about teaching kids is they're so quick to learn. They don't even seem like they're trying, yet they remember. Like sponges. It's so hard to keep up with them.
On one of the first sunny days this year, they wanted to play a game outside. I racked my brain only to come up with 'Simon says'. They whipped through the game quite quickly so they asked if they could play a different game. I expected chaos but they carried on playing three more games that included the vocabulary they had just learned, as well as vocabulary from past lessons. Not only did they do it independently, they taught me some new games. They just amaze me. I don't even have to try. What's even better is that they think I'm cool. Apparently the Russian teachers are much more strict. They must appreciate having less authority.

Despite my love of children, I actually prefer teaching adults. I've learned so much about their culture and their perspectives about current and past events. The classes are quite small, my biggest being eight so it's easy to give them individual attention. If they get to be too small, the school asks them for more money to keep the class running in order to pay the teacher. Gulp! Not that I see much of it on my meagre wages. I guess that's the typical 'Russian' way.
I've taught levels from Absolute Beginner to Advanced and enjoy aspects of both. My first beginner class is almost finished their Elementary level and it's so fun to finally be able to have regular, well almost regular conversations with them.
They treat me good, too. I've had customized tours of the city, help with anything I need, including free (although illegal) internet, and copious amounts of well wishes on my birthday - text messages, phone calls, and gifts. However will I survive without all this attention later on? So despite all the crap I had to deal with here, it's resulted in not only some new skills, but a great experience and great new friends.
Teaching English in Moscow? Ilsa recommends.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Dacha

One thing that all of my students have in common is that they all have dachas. They go almost every weekend in the summer to their country homes, what I call a 'cabin' or a 'cottage'. Some retired folk live in them year round, if they're lucky enough to have heat and running water.
This past weekend my former student, Elmira, took me and Emma to her family's dacha. We were treated like royalty by her parents.

Their house is modest but the yard is quite big - 6 Sotok (600x800m) , with lovely plants and veggies... tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, and a greenhouse for herbs.

They know most of their neighbors. However, some, which have changed ownership, now contain mansions with giant fences. They're avoided due to 'suspicious activities'.

Elmira's sister, Gulia, is barbecuing sausages. Yummy!
Dacha's have been around for the select few since the 1700's, but in Soviet time an important duty of trade unions was to obtain the land for the dachas and distribute it among the members of the union in order for people to grow their own food. Since everyone then was a member of one or another trade union, every family had a chance to get the land. It was federal land until sometime after the collapse of the soviet union when it was offically signed over to the people. Now tens of millions of Russians, some who can barely afford to survive, are landowners.

Elmira's father, a Tatar, was so excited to have 'foreigners' visiting. He used to work for the ministry and said it's been a very long time since he had foreigners in his house. Elmira said he could only speak Russian, but, as the day progressed, there were more and more English words, perfectly pronunciated, mixed into his Russian.

Luckily, Emma can speak Russian so there wasn't the pressure of socialising with gestures... like an 'English' lesson. However, Elmira was constantly translating to ensure I didn't feel left out.. or maybe to practice her English.

This area has recently become a village, but there is still a lot of green space and a little river running through this park.

There were people having picnics, playing football, or just walking around the apple trees, like we were.

We came across the goat lady, reportedly a constant figure in this park. Her friend asked us for money when he saw I was taking photos but we pretended he was joking.
We stopped at the natural spring for some 'holy water'.

It was wonderful being around nature again and away from the crazy city. In fact, it was very much like being in a small Canadian town or at a cabin. The biggest difference, aside from the goat lady, is the reverence felt by the Russians about their country homes. They don't take them for granted.

Dachas are definitely not cabins... they are part of their culture. I hope they can sustain the test of time.