Sunday, 18 December 2011

Winter is finally here!

I'm sitting in a cafe on Arbat watching the snow fall outside, having just finished my Christmas shopping. Snow makes me happy; what could be better than exploring the almost deserted streets around Novokuznetskaya on an early Sunday evening while the church bells are ringing? (Snow makes everything sound different). I'm heading back to the UK for Christmas and New year in a few days and while I can't wait to see my family and friends, I'm also excited about what Moscow has in store for me for 2012.

One thing I still get asked on a regular basis is my opinion of Moscow. To which I always reply that I really love this city, a response that is usually met with a mixture of surprise and confusion from locals. I genuinely do love this place though, and as it's that time of year and I'm in a reflective sort of mood I thought I'd try to explain why. 

My decision to move here was, as I have explained before, mostly motivated by the need to get a few years teaching under my belt before I do my masters degree, but I think it was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. For a start, I love my job, My colleagues are great and some of my students are fascinating people. Granted the hours aren't particularly social, but I get to be a grammar nerd and talk about languages all day without getting weird looks. In fact I get paid to do it.

People often accuse Muscovites of being cold and unfriendly. Although there may be some truth to that in certain situations (such as on the metro or in Sberbank), I've found that behind the 'public front' most people are pretty warm and helpful, and in a far more genuine way than in many other places I've been to. London, in my opinion is a much more hostile place; people deliberately go out of their way to avoid any contact with anyone. Spend longer than a week there and it starts to feel very lonely. The Russians have a saying; smiling for no reason is a symptom of a fool, which may sound miserable, but what it really means is that Russian smiles are more meaningful, not just a default reaction.

I have met some amazing people in Moscow, Russians and ex-pats. For me, finding not only people whose company you enjoy but with whom you can also honestly and naturally share thoughts and feelings is rare, but I've met some people here who I hope will be friends for life. It's mostly thanks to them that I feel so settled here and haven't felt nearly as homesick as I thought I would. 

Finally, although previous posts might give the impression that I don’t like the size or arrangement of the city, I think that parts of Moscow are beautiful. I mean, I live 15 minutes walk from this:

How lucky am I? 

Instead of a list of things I've learnt, I thought I'd finish with my new year's resolutions, which are, in no particular order:
  • To read as much Russian literature as possible, including War and Peace (but in English, somehow I don't think my Russian is that good yet).
  • To seriously commit to meat free Mondays. I got a bit lazy about it, and didn’t actually last very long last time round.
  • To practice my Russian with people more often.
  • To get out of Moscow a bit and see more of Russia.

Счастья в Новом Году!

P.S. My apologies for the over-sentimental nature of this post (I blame the snow) I promise normal sarcastic services will resume in the new year.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Doing it Privately

So it snowed properly yesterday. Big fat wet clumps of white settled on the ground for about two hours and then disappeared again. No matter, they are the first of many and their appearance means that it is now officially the start of my first Russian winter. It's time to strap in (or wrap up) as I feel the honeymoon period is drawing to a close and my thus far unwavering commitment to this fascinating city is about to be tested to the limit.

I'm not exactly frightened by the prospect of -20°C nights, or navigating ice-rinks to get to the metro, but I do worry about their effect on my social life. I am nothing of a skater at the best of times, and I imagine it's much like driving; a couple of pints will not help the situation. Also, my landlady has asked me to vacate my room by mid-December (she says because her 'family situation has changed' but I suspect it may have something to do with the lecture she gave me a few weeks ago about the risks of a young single girl staying out past 10pm at night) so I have begun the painful process flat-hunting, and the idea of trudging around in the slush viewing apartments does not fill me with joy. 

But more of that later. Right now I want to talk about private students.

Most English teachers in Moscow teach students privately. For most it's either moonlighting on your days off like me or, perhaps more sensibly, working for a school part time and privately the rest of the time. I do know a few teachers who are full-time freelancers but, as far as I can see, it requires some hefty balls and/or good networking skills.

My initial attempts at finding students proved rather successful. In fact, I didn’t find them, they found me. My colleague put me in touch with an Armenian biology teacher with a fourteen year old son who, from what I understood, had won some sort of prize for discovering exciting things in a Petri dish and needed to present his findings in English at a conference. I enjoyed our lessons; I was welcomed by the whole family, was invited to stay for dinner on several occasions and got schooled in Armenian culture. Did you know that the characters of the Armenian alphabet are all based on religious iconography and have hidden meanings when arranged in order into certain patterns? Yeah, me neither.

The Armenians in turn referred me on to a family friend, Masha, a graduate 'working' in her uncle’s Italian restaurant and basically having it easy. She wasn't so much fun, except for when she was rowing with her colleagues during our classes. Inevitably, over the summer more and more lessons were postponed or cancelled and I found myself without any private students as well as very few in school. I wasn't very upset.

When the new school year started to get underway I decided to be proactive and get myself some more work. There are several ways to go about finding students, but you have to be wary of the fact that there are often other people looking to make money out of you. I was introduced to one such individual by a friend of a friend. He was taking full advantage of his position as head of admissions for an English speaking school by arranging tuition for those students who didn't quite make the grade. It seems to me that Russia often attracts a certain kind of ex-pat businessman, and it's not one I particularly care for (the image of a thuggish used-car salesman springs to mind). When I met um...let’s call him Brian, he was very enthusiastic; promised me lots of students and even tried to convince me to work as an art teacher at his school, It seemed like an alright set-up, even if he did want around 20% commission.

In fact Brian was so enthusiastic that he called me several times a day, usually while I was working to offer me students at times at which he already knew I would be unavailable. Then he sent me to meet with the manager of a commercial bank on the assurance that although they had asked for classes at specific times, they would be flexible and happy to negotiate a different schedule. This turned out not to be the case. The manager was not a happy bunny when he realised that I couldn't teach when he wanted, and even though I didn’t understand it, his phone conversation with Brian in my presence was pretty uncomfortable. I didn't hear from Brian again.

The friend of a friend did also refer me to a Korean family whose daughters attend an another English speaking school and needed help preparing for the TOEFL exam, and their friends, with two adorable kids of 3 and 5, to whom I teach art. The pay is pretty good, I pay no commission to anyone and it now seems I have an in with the Moscow Korean community (I have no idea how big it is). I have come to the conclusion that, for me at least, personal referrals are by far the best way to get good private students.

Some things I have learnt:

  • Koreans measure age starting from 1 not 0 and by the number of New Years a person has been alive for. My students for example are 4 and 6 in the Korean calendar
  •  It is actually easier to return clothes in Russian shops than it is in the UK.
  • Why some of my kids’ class are such brats. When their mothers are having slanging matches in the corridors and making each other cry, how can you expect their offspring to be well-adjusted?
  • Drunken Russian guys dancing are hilarious.

My friend who teaches privately full-time has given me permission to blog about some of her experiences, so next time I'll share ssome of her stories.

Until then, до свидания x

Buying beer in baby formula bottles? - Relax, is normal!

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Hey Y'all

This post really ought to begin with an apology for taking so long to update but anybody who knows me will know I'm late for everything. Plus, if I keep apologising then every post will look exactly the same, and also I'm not really sorry (especially when I don't get any updates from anyone else about important events like, say for example, moving in with your girlfriend Joseph Alan Harry Drewry!). So there will be no apology. Deal with it.

I have now been living in Moscow for almost 5 months and all is going swimmingly (apart from my Russian, which is still at the arm-bands and floats stage). Rita, my landlady, left for Germany in May and is still not back, so I have had the flat to myself all summer. I've decided that I enjoy living alone; it's very peaceful. Although I have started talking to myself a lot more. Is that weird? No it's fine, don't worry about it.

The summer has been pretty quiet work-wise; my timetable has been under hours for the last few months. That means I've had a lot of time to explore the city and try to improve my Russian. A few weeks ago my mum and sister came to visit, so I got to behave like a real tourist for a week. I finally went inside St Basils Cathedral (it's better on the outside), though we didn’t get into the Kremlin armoury and I still haven’t seen pickled Lenin.

One of the places we visited was the Museum of Modern Russian History, which is almost as interesting for the events it leaves out as for the stuff it covers; the annexing of Germany and the Cuban missile crisis are both conspicuous by their absence, and it may just be coincidence but most of the English descriptions disappeared from WW2 onwards.

We also went to St Petersburg for a few days, which was the first time I'd been outside Moscow. I was surprised by how different the two cities are. St Pete feels much more European, a lot more of the old town, with its winding streets and canals, has been preserved. The Hermitage was pretty awesome, especially the state rooms; what self-respecting tsar could do without a solid gold mechanical clock in the form of a life-size peacock? It puts the Vicky centre to shame. I also didn't realise that they have their own version of St Basils; the more impressively named Church of the Saviour on Spilled blood (it's better on the inside). It rained a lot and two days isn't enough to see everything, so I'm already planning a second trip before the end of the year.

 Church of the Saviour on Spilled blood

What else has happened? Well I've spent too long talking to Americans and my accent is slipping; I keep catching myself saying things like 'store' and 'movie' - eugh! I started having Russian lessons with a private tutor, and then stopped, but I'm planning on starting up again this week. I'm still not very good, I can cope in everyday situations but I can't have a conversation yet. I may also have inadvertently become a fan of ice hockey after going to see the Mayors cup at the weekend. This means I'll have to adopt a Moscow team, but there are too many to choose from. 

The new school year began for us today so things will be getting busier again at work, and I was slightly surprised to find that I'm actually looking forward to seeing my kids class again (we'll see how long that lasts).

Things I have learnt recently.
  • A lot about Russian history thanks to Martin Sixsmith's Russia: the Wild East on Radio 4
  • Bulgakov is brilliantly bonkers. The Master and Margarita is awesome.
  • That the voice on the metro changes from male to female depending on which direction you're travelling - handy that.
  • How to make spiced tea.
  • How to use the intercom in my flat, finally.
  • That the genitive case is evil.
I can't remember anything else that would be of any interest, so I'll leave it there.

Until next time (and I make no promises as to when that might be)...
пока пока! x

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Does Size Matter?

Hello there. I realise it's been a while since I updated this. You probably would like to know what I’ve been up to and have no doubt been on the edge of your seat waiting to find out whether the saying yes thing landed me in any dangerous and/or hilarious situations (it didn't). Unfortunately you'll have to wait a little bit longer for that. I promise I'll provide a more general update in the next few days, OK? In the meantime I would just like to say:

Moscow is big.

Unfathomably vast in fact. For a country that is over 6 and a half million square miles it's not all that surprising that the seat of power is such a sprawling expanse of spacyness* (that's ignoring the fact that Moscow has not actually been the capital for all that long), but this is a different kind of big; psychologically big, conceptually big. Giant fuck-off onion domes, main streets with six lanes of traffic, 1940s skyscrapers as wide as they are tall big.

I suppose really I should point out that I'm making a distinction here between size and scale. Yes Moscow is 500 square miles and the city and the surrounding area is home to around 12 million people, but it doesn't feel that big; as in many other cities, when you stop relying on the metro and actually travel above ground, you realise that the distances are not as great as they first seemed. When I flew into Mexico I couldn't actually see the city boundaries at any point, but on the ground it's busy narrow streets made it feel, if not exactly small,  certainly much closer.

What's different about Moscow however, is that in what is a relatively average sized city centre, everything is so much more spread out. Huge roads slice through the centre while soviet era blocks loom over the smaller streets. The squares are often large, fairly empty spaces (Red Square doesn't even have benches!) and most statues are at least three times the size of those in Europe. All this can be a tad daunting and sometimes leaves me feeling a little lost.

Don't get me wrong, this is a beautiful city, the big imposing structures are interspersed with glittering church domes and the pastel facades of baroque town houses. The parks are lovely, and although they are currently plaguing us with пух (fluff, or summer snow), the poplar trees make the more residential areas wonderfully green. And of course Moscow Metro stations are infinitely more attractive and far more spacious than their counterparts elsewhere in the world.

Maybe it's the fact that I come from a country where anything above 4 hours travel time counts as an epic journey, or the fact that sometimes I feel pretty cut-off by the language barrier, or just that I tend to go wandering around the city at weekends, when many residents retreat to their dachas, but I can’t quite pin down the character of this place yet; I still haven’t figured out what's going on within all this space. I know it's not as empty as it seems. I must be missing something, but I'll keep looking.

* To any of my students reading this - spacyness is not a real word. I made it up. Please don't use it. I was too tired and too lazy to find something better.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Yes Woman

So I'm three weeks in. I'm already beginning to settle into a bit of a routine (although a few long weekends have messed with that a little) now that my work schedule is pretty much sorted. My social life isn't up to much yet but I'm working on it...

First though, I should talk about teaching. I'm working for EF, which either stands for English First or Education First, depending on which bit of the company you work for. In my case, my money is on the former. 
Now it would seem that EF is a pretty big deal in these parts. It was announced last week that EF "has been appointed as Official Supplier to the XXII Olympic and XI Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi in 2014, in the category of “Language Training Services” I kid you not, they also 'supplied' English to the Beijing games in 2008. Add to that the fact that there are over 20 EF schools in Moscow and plenty more scattered around the rest of the country, and you might be forgiven for thinking that we're monopolising the market somewhat. But don't be silly, that kind of thing almost never happens, especially not in Russia. 

But aside from the tiny voice inside my head jeering at me from time to time and calling me a corporate bitch, I'm really enjoying my job. I teach just under 30 academic hours (40mins) a week, which is split pretty much evenly between groups and individuals at the moment, but that may change as we're coming up to the end of the school year. Most of my students are great, well motivated and genuinely interesting people. However I do have the misfortune of having one of the most arrogant men in the universe in one of my groups, but I don't have the energy or time (only 2 weeks left of that course) to do much about it. My last exchange with him just dissolved into a staring match. Also, on Saturdays I teach a 4 hour TOEFL exam preparation class, which is a bit of a nightmare, but again, the students are great which stops it being too boring.

So back to the social life then. On Easter Sunday I was invited by a friend form work to attend an informal bible study/worship at the home of some friends of hers, an American missionary couple from her church. Yes you did read that correctly, and no I haven't been converted, but I did meet some really great people and had an excellent time attempting to sing Russian hymns, eating cake and playing rumikub, and I was very glad I accepted the invitation.

At some point during the course of that day I decided that saying yes to things (within reason) was probably a good day-to-day strategy for meeting people and exploring more of this city. So When one of the guys I met that day offered to take me on a bit of a guided tour of the city I naturally agreed, and had a really nice day.

Since then saying yes has also meant that meeting a potential private student turned into dinner with the family and a whole afternoon learning about traditional Armenian music and dance, and tomorrow evening I have agreed to attend an ex-pat/English speakers meet-up at some American bar, with the aim of making some more friends. I did however turn down lunch with a Frenchman I met on an ex-pat forum, but I'm regretting that slightly now.

So for the time being I will be taking Danny Wallace's advice and we'll see how it goes. I've never actually read Yes Man, but I'm sure it has a happy ending, right?

This week I have learnt/discovered:
  • The rules to Mafia - my new favourite game.
  • The awesomeness of Perov and Kuindji (painters).
  • That washing white shirts with orange bed sheets is a bad idea.
  • That the Russians have a very skewed idea of temperature (hats and scarves in 20°C!?!?)
That's all for now, sorry for rambling.



Saturday, 16 April 2011


 Well I made it to Moscow and I finally have an apartment. The company was planning on having somewhere ready and waiting for me to view and hopefully move into as soon as I arrived, but this was not to be. On Wednesday they found somewhere, and Sergei from HR took me to view it after work. It was nice enough and the girl I would have been sharing with was nice. Unfortunately I was so exhausted and disorientated and I had no clue what anyone was saying, that when they asked me to say yes and sign the contract I freaked out, burst into tears and ran into the loo. when I calmed down we agreed to sleep on it. Needless to say the landlady decided she didn’t want to live with a hysterical foreigner who doesn’t speak the language.

This actually turned out to be a very lucky. On Thursday the agent found this place. It had just be advertised that day, I came to see it on the agreement that even if I didn’t want it I could stay the night, but it's perfect. My landlady/flatmate, Margarita is a German actress. She's been babushkaing (is that a word?) me a fair bit; I'm being force-fed tea and cake etc. She's going away from the end of next week until September so I have the place to myself all summer.

So, let me give you the guided tour...

Welcome to flat 13! It's in an old Stalinist block so the stairwells are a bit crusty, but from the outside it's pretty.

And so is the inside.

My room! Bless it.

My bed. Yes I know it looks like a sofa, it is, but it's also a bed. This is pretty standard practice in Russia. It does pull out to a double but I'm lazy and it's plenty big enough as is for now.

The living room/Margarita’s room. It has a piano and a Christmas tree, what more do I need? At the back is the balcony, it's all boxed in to make a bit of a conservatory thingy, but I haven’t ventured out there yet. She's going to leave this room open when she leaves so I can use it.

And Finally, the kitchen. I'm quite excited about the oven, I m
might have to bake something soon.

The best thing about this place though is the location. It's in Zamoskvoreche, just south of the centre, about 20mins walk from Red Square and only 20mins by metro to work. I am told I am a very jammy cow, and I'm thinking I might have to ply my colleagues with more Cadburys chocolate to stop them hating me for it. Apparently sometimes running away in tears is a good thing, who knew?

Work wise everything is good, my first full teaching week starts on Monday, though my schedule is still a little empty at the moment. I have a TOEFL exam group, so desperately trying to get to grips with it so I can stay ahead of them. Other than that I'm enjoying it and looking forward to having more classes.

Things I've learnt this week:
  • 9 year olds can turn any game into a fight.
  • The central heating is regulated by the government, they decide when it is switched off for the summer (which is not yet)
  • I can actually have a passable conversation in a mixture of French, German, English and Russian.
  • Muscovites are all professional hat wearers - were talking +100 at least.
  • being on a suburban train in rush hour is what sardines feel like.
Hugs and kisses and friendly pats on the shoulder.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

"You're doing what?!?"

Hello, my name is Vanessa, and, as I suspect you already know me if you're reading this I'll leave the introductions there. In a weeks time I will turn 24, and very shortly after that will be moving to Moscow to work as an English Teacher.

"Wow that's exciting. But you don't speak Russian, and I'm sure you said you never ever wanted to teach?"

Yes. Well, erm, there is that. I suppose I'd better explain.

Although I managed to get a pretty good degree, I never really gave much thought as to what I wanted to do with it. Not a particularly clever move when you find yourself graduating at the height of the recession and joining some 400,000 others competing for a rapidly dwindling number of jobs. Luckily I had already decided that as well as never teaching, I wasn't going to join the "graduate scheme rat race". My plan (such as it was) was to move back home, find myself a nice, easy, albeit not brilliantly paid admin job, find a studio and paint. I'd work on the bigger picture stuff later. Simple right? Haha.

I basically spent a year bimbling about. I never managed to get the admin job, instead I spent a good few months on the dole between temping jobs; Catering mostly, which was depressing as hell; I reckon a temp pot washer is pretty much as as low as it gets. However I did get to spend a month at the boots photo processing unit skimming through pictures of stags spending their last night of freedom passed out in a hotel room, having numerous 'hilarious' objects placed between their buttocks by their mates, so you know, not all bad, and I did have a studio, which was pretty awesome.

Anyway, I ended up doing some proofreading for a couple of foreign PhD students and actually kind of enjoyed it. So my mum suggested I reconsider the dreaded T-word and arranged for me to spend a day with a colleague and friend of hers, Lezli, an EAP lecturer at NTU.

Lezli was really helpful and let me observe and assist in a couple of her classes, I found the material she was teaching really interesting and she suggested that I go and do a TEFL course, which I did. I really enjoyed it, and actually found that I wasn't that bad at it either.

The problem was a lot of other people had the same idea, and so even with a pretty decent CELTA pass grade from a pretty decent school (International House), without any teaching experience I was back to square one. I got myself a couple of months experience at a summer school in Oxford which was brilliant but exhausting; I even managed to cope with European teenagers giving me the Kevin treatment. 2 months experience didn't really give me much of an edge though especially with UK language schools, even with the private tuition I've been doing since then. So it was going to have to be abroad.

"Why not Spain then?" I hear you ask. Well, I did try, but unfortunately Spain and South America are pretty popular destinations for EFL teachers. It became obvious that if I was going to have any chance at this I needed to go for those countries that wouldn't be many people's top choices, and as Mum vetoed Iraq, I decided to go for Eastern Europe.

So here we are, I am about to become an economic migrant in a country I've never been to before and may have just slightly insulted, desperately attempting to cram some basic Russian and get my head around кириллица (Cyrillic). I'm really excited about experiencing a new culture, learning a new language, and doing a job I really enjoy. Now I just have to get through the visa process.

I'll be using this blog to keep people informed of what I'm up to in Moscow and probably to ramble about teaching stuff from time to time, but I promise not all my posts will be this long. So watch this space for news.