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I’ve just returned home from a lovely two days in Helsinki, having met the fabulous Mari and Jyrki — previously known only in cyberspace — in person, and generally just enjoying the perfection that is Finland, to find out that my dad’s mom, Grandma Lu, passed away on Saturday.

I’ll write more about both Helsinki and my Grandma later, but I just wanted to let you all know that I might be a bit preoccupied in the next few days. I don’t think I’m going home for the funeral, which is on Wednesday. I don’t think I’d make it in time. What would be better would be visiting my Grandpa once all the chaos dies down. We’ll see. I don’t know. I just found out. It’s late, I should go to bed.

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The other morning when I was walking from the metro to the university at 9:30, something seemed strange. It wasn’t dark out! We’re gaining three or four minutes a day of sunlight. Althought we’re a long way from the sun rising before I have to get up in the morning (my standard for a “reasonable” amount of daylight) I think I can say that the “black days” (my term for the inverse of the famous “white nights”) are over. I feel spring fluttering in my soul already, a genie that must go back in its bottle, because there are still several months of snow ahead of us.

Well, I wasn’t going to talk too much about my students, but…

Today the word “literally” came up in the group’s reading, and I was telling them how this word is often misused, and how the opposite of it is “figuratively”, and we talked about metaphors (“metafor” in Russian) and I asked them to give me an example of one. So my favorite student pipes up, “Wearing a preservatif (condom) is like swimming in shoes.”

Good sport that I am, I wrote it on the board. Even though it was a simile, not a metaphor.

I seem to have established a sort of routine, which explains the dearth of fascinating and insightful posts on this blog. (But check out the fun new blog features, like the GuestMap and the Weather Pixie!)

I’ve been getting up each day a little before 7 to work out, which I do until 7:30 or so, a little longer on days when I’m teaching and don’t have to leave the house til 10. On days when I’m not teaching, I go to Russian lessons at the university. This may change as I take on more teaching gigs and have less time for my own studies. I’m thinking about switching to individual Russian lessons, which would only be a few hours a week. Also, since all the other students in my group are Chinese, I was outvoted as to when to have winter break. They studied through Christmas and New Year’s, but will have two weeks off for Chinese New Year. So this may be a good time to leave the group and get a private teacher.

Anyway, after teaching or learning, I run errands, make lesson plans, study Russian (less and less) and work on editing a 200-page paper for my friend Klaas on EU-Latin American relations. I also try to make sure I do some meditation or yoga and some reading (in English) for pleasure. I brought about 20 books with me to Russia that I want to read by the end of the year, mostly nonfiction that I’ve been meaning to read forever, western philosophy and social theory and crap. I’m trying to intersperse these with Russian literature. Russian literature in translation, that is; I’m just not ready for “War and Peace” in the original yet. Hell, I’m not ready for it in English. I was looking at it today, in fact — Dom Knigi (House of Books) has a decent selection of books in English — but given the historical setting, the length of the book, and my abysmally short attention span, I knew reading it was going to be more work than fun. I bought Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot” instead.

But I digress. So my life has finally fallen into somewhat of a routine, though it will undoubtedly be a constantly changing routine. Nevertheless, I’ll try to have enough adventures to keep this blog full of amusing anecdotes. My students will certainly say amusing things, but I don’t think I should make fun of them too much on the blog, even anonymously. They are more than capable of using the internets and I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings!

Aunt Kelly and I are planning to go to Helsinki this weekend, though Finland is a Normal Country and therefore there won’t be too much to poke fun at. But I’m sure something interesting will happen at the border; it always does.

The word from the language school is that the guys at the IT company liked Tuesday’s lesson very much. Hooray! I’ve got a good one planned for tomorrow, too.

I feel less confident about how the lesson with the eight-year-old went. He’s a super cute, super sweet kid. His mom was’t the posh New Russian I expected at all. They live in a typical dingy Soviet-era high rise, in a comfortable small apartment. The mom didn’t seem too pushy. She seemed quite nice, and obviously is just a very loving mother who wants her son to have as many advantages as she can provide, hence, private English lessons from age 5 onward. She was in and out of the room during the lesson, and every time she walked into the room, the boy’s attention wandered. Although for future lessons his mom won’t be there, only his babysitter, for our first lesson together she understandably wanted to be there to meet me. So I think future lessons will be easier.

We have some textbooks, but they’re kind of silly. The mom wants us to do more speaking than reading and writing, because he has English class at school in which they do a lot of drilling, but she wants him to be able to converse and to have good pronunciation. I think speaking and understanding is a big challenge for him. So I have to think of ways to make it fun. I’m thinking we should start out the lessons with a few minutes of reading, where I do most of the reading so that he gets to listen and absorb my lovely American accent. Then maybe we’ll do some playing and drawing, and talk about what he’s doing. He did a lot of that with his last teacher and apparently liked it. Then we’ll spend the last few minutes of the lesson writing a note to his mom so he can tell her what he did, and list the new words that came up, so that he and his mom can practice them between lessons. We’ll see how it goes.

My first lesson was this morning. I was to teach a group at an IT company in a part of town to which I’d never been. Yesterday I was given all of their textbooks and was told that the group was on Chapter 7. I spent several hours yesterday poring over Chapter 7, planning a lesson that would be stimulating and educational.

I was given directions to the place, the kind of directions that make you nervous before you go because they don’t really seem clear — “Take the metro to this stop, exit and walk around the corner, get on the free bus, at least we think there’s a free bus, go to the middle entrance of the orange building, go to the left and call Inna upstairs” — but once you are on the ground, they make sense.

I was fifteen minutes early, but the lesson was at eleven so I figured my contact people would already be at the office. But this is Russia! They don’t have the concept of normal office hours. Nonetheless, the administration gave me a passcard to go upstairs. When I got there, I asked the security guy if he could show me to the room where they have their lessons, so I could get set up. He took me down a long hallway to a small meeting room.

I spread out my books, wrote my name on the whiteboard, and decided to call the mobile phone of the “group leader”, Daniel, which the language school had given me, to let him know that I was already in the classroom. I didn’t remember which room I was in, so I went to open the door and check. The door was locked! The security guard had locked me in the fucking room!

I started to freak out, mildly. If they didn’t want me wandering the halls by myself, I would have happily waited by the front desk, but you don’t lock a person in a room, certainly not a person who has come to perform a service for your company! What if there’s a fire? I started to think all kinds of terrible thoughts about Russia and how their security culture had gone a little too far this time, and how I was going to complain to the language school and tell them that this was unacceptable, that if this was how they treat people than I’d rather be unemployed or leave the country altogether.

Eleven o’clock rolled around. No students. I thought, OK, if they don’t come soon, I’ll call the front desk and flip out and insist that they unlock this door. I was about to dial at 11:05, when the door opened and the students came in. They seemed surprised to see me there. But, we got started.

I asked the students to tell me their names, three things they were interested in outside of work, why they were studying English and what they wanted to work on the most. There were four guys, probably between 25 and 30, and they didn’t have too many surprises for me. They like cars, football, movies, and theater (no, it is not gay for a Russian man to like theater). One guy said he liked walking. One guy said “I like children, women, and mountaineering.” OH-KAY then!

It turned out they were on Chapter 3, not Chapter 7, so my well-laid plans were useless. It occurred to me later that I could have just skipped to Chapter 7, since the book is thematic, rather than one lesson building upon the next, but instead we winged Chapter 3.

It went all right, I think. The guys, being Russian guys, didn’t seem to have any obvious reactions to anything and didn’t make a lot of eye contact, but they didn’t seem bored and they did ask some questions. A big chunk of Chapter 3 was a picture story about two guys that get drunk at a party and are walking down the street and get accused of trying to break into a car and get arrested. It seemed like a situation that could happen to guys of this age group in Russia, so I was grateful that I had to wing it with that story rather than the one about plastic surgery in Chapter 11. I learned the Russian word for the “drunk tank” at the police station — the guys translated it literally as “sober-maker”.

At the end of the class, the “group leader” said, “So how did you get into this room, anyway? Did you get a passcard?” I explained how I got in. “Oh, next time I’ll meet you downstairs and we’ll get you a permanent passcard.” Then we went to leave the room, and he pressed a button next to the door, which I think unlocked it. So, I wasn’t really locked in, and the security guy shouldn’t have taken me in there in the first place. Phew. I wasn’t going to have to freak out at anyone.

Tonight I have an individual lesson with an eight-year-old boy. It sounds like he’s a nice rich kid with a pushy mom. We’ll see how it goes. It can’t be more intimidating than a room full of Russian guys.

Aunt Kelly and I took a long walk to the Petrograd Side today to check out a movie theater rumored to show films in their original languages. (Usually films are dubbed, badly.) We were going to try to see “Lemony Snicket”. I asked the cashier if it was in English. Alas, it was dubbed. I was willing to see it in Russian, but Aunt Kelly wasn’t. So we kept walking.

We had lunch and went to take the Metro home. I went through the turnstile. When Aunt Kelly put her card in, the turnstile ate it. There were still five rides on the card! The woman in the controller’s booth started yelling over the loudspeaker. A guard came over. I attempted to explain the situation. He told us we were just going to have to buy a token.

The guard, understanding that I spoke Russian and Aunt Kelly didn’t, motioned for me to go around the controller’s booth back to the other side of the turnstile so that I could help her. We got on line. We got some tokens. Aunt Kelly went through the turnstile. Since I had already been through, I went to the turnstile next to the controller’s booth so she could let me through. She shook her head. I said, “I was already in there.” She said, “Yes, but you left. How many times are you going to go through? You have to pay.” I said “I did pay!” If you count the card that was eaten by the machine, I’d paid six times! She told me to leave. I stood my ground. The line behind me deepened, and the guy after me asked, “What’s the problem, girl?” I started to explain when the guard came and directed me to go back through the passage behind the controller’s booth.

The price to ride the metro in St. Petersburg just went up from eight to 10 rubles, and the bus from seven to 10. 10 rubles is about 35 cents. This is expensive for Russians, but cheap for us. If it weren’t so cheap, I would have made a big stink about the turnstile eating the card. However, I’m not sure I would have had the vocabulary to make a big stink, and that upsets me. What upsets me even more is that controller bitch. We lost a five-ride card and STILL she wouldn’t let me through. Why? Why do they have to be that way?

The other day I got on a bus and found myself in the middle of a tempest in a teacup. A young woman was refusing to pay for her ride, and was arguing with the ticket lady. In addition to the New Year’s price hike, they also got rid of the free transportation benefit for students and pensioners. The young woman was saying “I have to pay for my apartment! I can’t afford to pay for the bus!” The ticket taker was saying, “But you have to pay! It’s the law!” The young woman said “Are you the government, or are you one of us?” The other passengers were taking sides, yelling. Usually no one talks on the bus. The debate raged until the bus reached the end of its route. The driver slammed on the brakes and the young woman went flying. I sprinted off down Nevsky Prospect.

Faithful readers, I’ve made a few changes to the sidebar for your entertainment. I’m still working on it, lest you think these are the only sites I consider worthy of attention.

So. It was quite a week. I managed to get up early every day to work out before going to classes. I did yoga several times. I worked on job applications and editing a paper for my friend Klaas. I studied lots. I did not, alas, eat healthfully. But the supply of candy from Christmas is dwindling and I swear I’m going to eat lots of vegetables this weekend.

I think I may have a job. I met with the folks at the language school that provides English lessons to employees of Aunt Kelly’s company. They liked me and I liked them. Despite my lack of experience, they seem to have confidence that I’ll be a good English teacher. I think I will too. I’ve had enough Russian and French lessons over the course of my life that I have a pretty darn good sense of what works and what doesn’t.

It sounds like I’m going to start next week with one group and one individual at the upper intermediate level. They’re all corporate clients, but they just want conversation. Clever conversation? I can provide that. Shouldn’t be too intimidating, for my first stab at teaching.

I got a book called “How to Teach English” which is a dopey and obvious-sounding title, but its recommendations are useful. Mostly I wanted to investigate the section on grammar, since I think the biggest disadvantage of being a native-speaking teacher who is not a linguist is knowing grammar intuitively rather than intellectually, which makes it difficult to explain to others.

It’s a bright and sunny day here. I should get out of the house and soak some of it in.

Ok, I promise I’m not going to become one of those people who posts quiz results rather than proper blog entries all the time, but this one spoke to me more than your average “Which Buffy character are you?” quiz.

Geek

94%

Punk/Rebel

63%

Loner

56%

Drama nerd

56%

Goth

38%

Ghetto gangsta

31%

Stoner

31%

Prep/Jock/Cheerleader

19%

What’s Your High School Stereotype?
created with QuizFarm.com

Today in Russian class we got sidetracked (from our discussion of a point-counterpoint article: “Was Stalin a Great Military Leader or Not?” Yes, Russians still discuss this!) and started talking about retirement. In Russia, retirement age is 55 for women and 60 for men. This seems silly to me, particularly in light of the fact that the median life span for Russians is 70-something for women and only 57 for men. So I asked, “What’s the reason for this policy?” knowing that the answer would probably irritate me in one way or another. The (female) instructor said, “Women have concerns other than work, like love, family, etc., whereas a man’s responsibility is to work.”

Knowing I wasn’t going to get anywhere arguing that work is just as important for women or that men might find just as much fulfillment in family life, I said, “Well, if women need to devote time to their family, wouldn’t it be better to have that time when they’re younger?” After all, the instructor had also just told us that 45 is considered a special age for a woman, because her children would be all grown up and she would have more personal freedom.

So this got me thinking. This is of course a completely crackpot idea and not an original one either, but: what if the retirement age (for everyone) were later, and people took a sabbatical earlier in their life, to have kids, to travel, to write the Great American Novel, whatever. Several old people have told me that retirement isn’t so great — you get all that free time, but you’re not energetic enough to enjoy it. So maybe after five or ten years in the work force, having paid your taxes, you can collect Social Security for a couple of years and pursue your own interests. Then you have to wait until you’re 70 to retire, but better to sit at a desk at 60 than 30, don’t you think?

I’m not a materialistic person, but I’m not good at saving money, either. In my 7 or so years in the work force, most of my disposable income has been spent on experiences — domestic and world travel, language classes, evenings out. Sometimes I feel guilty about this, that I’m being irresponsible in not saving more for the future. But then I think, better to be a poor but interesting old person than a comfortable but boring one. And you never know if you’re going to get hit by a train or something — better to have had a fun life, than to have saved up a bunch of money that you’ll never use, right? (Within reason, of course!)

An institutionalized policy of youth sabbaticals would ameliorate any guilt I feel about my lifestyle. More importantly, it would result in a more fulfilled, well-rounded populace, and possibly reduce unemployment rates.

OK, I SAID it was a unoriginal crackpot idea. But isn’t it nice to think about?

I know, we’re already 10 days into the new year, but since Russian Christmas was just last Friday and the legal holidays don’t end until tomorrow, and today was my first day back in class after a two week break, now is a better time for turning over a new leaf anyway.

There’s nothing particularly interesting about my plans for the new year: eat more healthfully, exercise more, be more organized, meditate and do yoga on a regular basis, work harder at improving my Russian.

The difference is that this year there’s a better chance of sticking to my resolutions. I mean, I’d been trying to do all of these things for the past few years in Washington, but it was pretty hard to do while working full-time, doing activism, being active in the Unitarian church, and maintaining a busy social life. Here I’m not doing any of those things, so I should actually have the time for health and personal enrichment. Unfortunate that things that seem so basic and essential can only be achieved in an extraordinary situation.

About This Blog

I'm an American who started blogging when I moved to Russia in 2004. Eventually I moved to Sweden, where life is pleasant but uneventful, and stopped blogging for lack of interesting things to say. And then I joined Facebook, which further destroyed any motivation for blogging. Maybe someday I'll start blogging again, but for now, this blog is dormant, an archive of The Russia Years: 2004-2008.

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