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Diary 6: Back home

In his sixth set of diary entries, Saul Pope tackles the question of why he chose to move to Russia and starts teaching again after the Christmas break.

Thursday 6th January

Ten things I’ve learnt from the two weeks I’ve just spent in England, in no particular order:

  1. I’m totally out of touch with modern British music (aren’t Blur cool any more?).
  2. Judging by the two matches I saw, Leicester City aren’t going to get promoted this year.
  3. Some newspapers not as good as they used to be.
  4. British people complain a lot about trivial things when it’d be easier just to get on with it.
  5. Russian people complain a lot too, but much of it is justified.
  6. Houses in Britain are expensive.
  7. So are most other things, although for some strange reason clothes are much cheaper and better quality than in Russia.
  8. I miss the people there, and the banter, much more than I thought.
  9. I’d definitely like to live in Britain again one day, but at the moment St. Petersburg is more than sufficient.
  10. Despite the continuing trend for ghastly top 100 programmes and wasted half-hours on how clean people’s houses are, British TV is a lot better than Russian TV. By about 1000%

When I first came over to Russia, I kept a daily diary on my computer. In one of the first entries, I made a somewhat lofty attempt to explain my motives for leaving the relative security of Britain to move to one room in Petergof, where I had no friends and was the only foreigner amongst the 80,000 residents. ‘I moved from Britain to get away from the game shows, the reality TV and the Big Strong Boys and to live life’, I clumsily wrote, perhaps at the same time as sticking a big black and white picture of Jack Kerouac on my wall and attempting to develop that ‘On The Road’ look.

I was indeed on the road, and I suppose Petergof is as good a place as any to escape life’s humdrum routine. Initially I did achieve everything I wanted to and was happy, though three years later the joke is back on me, at least in terms of the television thing. Maybe it’s my imagination, but British TV seems better these days, whereas I’m definitely not imagining it when I say that Russian TV is deteriorating fast. Anything goes these days, with reality TV, game shows and repeats of ALF seemingly never off the seventeen terrestrial channels. At present there’s a ‘Big Brother’-style game show screening that’s been on since last summer and the Russian ‘Pop Star’ clone never stops churning out young and ambitious ‘five out of ten’ singers. We’ve even got a version of ‘Family Fortunes’ on out here now. What next?

When back in Britain, and even when I’m not, one question I’m forever being asked is the following – Why Russia? At first I usually think ‘Oh no, here we go again’, but then I come to my senses and realise that I ought to answer properly, if not only to understand for myself why I am living here.

In many ways Russia has become a habit for me, and generally a good one. My interest first began about twenty years ago when, on pouring over my school atlas, I came across foreign and alien (to me) names like Kazakhstan, Vladivostok and Minsk. I tried to imagine what living there must be like, and in particular what the people were like. I was further inspired by a teacher who, bucking the trend of a generation, told my class that the Soviets were just people like we were and that children there went to school just the same as we did. I grew up thinking of the Russians as friends rather than, as many did, enemies, helped in no small part by my mum, who had been to Russia as a schoolgirl in the sixties and had come back with many positive experiences.

From the ages of nine to twelve more important things like cars, football stickers and girls began to take over my life and Russia remained on the backburner, though I always looked out for the country on the news and half-heartedly supported it in international sporting competitions. My curiosity was reawakened in 1990 when a Soviet teacher joined our school, and I decided to take Russian GCSE. At best, I thought, I’d kindle a passion that could last my entire life, at worst I’d get a ‘D’ in GCSE. Luckily the best option prevailed, and I went on to study Russian at university, and during my year abroad met the girl who was to become my wife several years later.

I’m now into my fourth year in Russia, and can probably at last answer with some confidence the question ‘Why Russia?’. It’s just a part of me, and always will be.

Friday 7th January

Having already had Christmas and New Year in Britain, I am lucky enough this year to have made it back over here in time to also be able to celebrate Russian Christmas, which is today. Not that you’d really know. I first realised that it wasn’t going to be a particularly big day when I congratulated my wife in the morning, only for her to ask me what for. I’ve spent the day with my relatives, but Christmas was barely mentioned; the dinner we had was in honour of my wife and I returning. Under the atheist Soviets Christmas was of course not a celebration, with New Year being the one where everyone met their friends and relatives, drank champagne and exchanged presents. Nowadays Christmas is an official holiday, but one with little tradition or importance attached to it unless you are a believer, and so it is that New Year remains the biggie. In terms of the presents, thankfully even that has not reached the heights of the over-commercialised spend-fest splurge we now have in the UK.

Anyway, seeing as this is meant to be a diary about teaching, I’d better try and talk shop for a while. We start back, following the success of the play, on Monday, and I hope we’ll be able to ride on the crest of that wave for a while, even though it seems like months since we did it. At present my main concern is that now everyone will be back on time, as most people went back home for the holidays and some didn’t have return tickets but were fairly confident of being able to get one. Call me a pessimistic boss but I wasn’t so confident, so fingers crossed everyone will be ready for action come Monday morning.

A couple of teachers have also left us as their contracts expired in December, so there are several new people turning up this month, three of whom should already be here. I’ve been trying to get in touch with them all day to no avail. This could mean one of two things a) they like it a lot here and already feel confident enough to go out for the day on their own or b) they changed their minds about coming to Russia at the airport, and are still in Luton (or wherever)….

Monday 10th January

Well, they almost all made it back. Just one missing, but for the moment I’m going to have to reserve comment on him. The most important thing is that the three new teachers have all settled in well it seems, and I hope that their first day’s teaching has gone well. Three more are arriving on the night train from Moscow on Sunday morning, so it’s early doors for me. At least the weather’s good for it. Yesterday was the hottest day in January in St. Petersburg for over fifty years; we reached the heady heights of four degrees.

Saturday 15th January

If I was hoping for a quiet first week back, then it didn’t happen. On Tuesday I ‘released’ one teacher from his contract (the one who didn’t come back), cue protracted arguments about how to get his bags back to America, who his visa belongs to and who is to blame for the whole situation.

At that point it seemed that things could only get better, at least that was until some of the teachers who are still here stopped turning up for lessons, leaving yours truly to cover with precisely no minutes preparation time when I’d had some quality time with my wife planned instead. One even sent pupils instructions for the lesson by SMS, hoping to bypass the inconvenience of telling me or anyone else in authority that there wouldn’t be a teacher at the lesson and hoping that they would just get on with it. They didn’t.

Hopefully a fine for each of the teachers involved will put a stop to these no-shows, and I suppose the silver lining is that they seemed repentant when I spoke to them yesterday. On the plus side, the new teachers all seem to be doing well, both in terms of teaching and slotting in to the school. Today I’m going to meet a friend who, until this morning, I hadn’t spoken to for seven years. I worked and shared a flat with Rob during my first spell teaching here in 1997/1998, and whilst he has moved on to bigger and better things, I am still getting to grips with the conditional and trying to stop teachers delivering lessons by SMS. He’s back for a holiday this week, and I’m looking forward to catching up with him.

Monday 17th January

Had a pretty good weekend with Rob – I’d forgotten how good some of the bars in St. Petersburg are, even if one we visited had run out of beer. Their green tea was nice though. He also made me think about the future, and what I want to do once my contract is up in the summer and I am once again a free agent. I really enjoy EFL teaching – the creativity involved in making a good lesson, the thrill of rolling it out and seeing if it works as well as you’d imagined, the joy of interacting with and (hopefully) inspiring people – but it doesn’t leave a lot of time for your nearest and dearest. On a good day I get a couple of very tired hours after work with my wife, and that’s not what I want for the rest of my life.

The quality hours were shortened even further yesterday by me getting up at 6.00 on Sunday morning and heading to the Moscow station to meet our latest staff additions, though for some strange reason I always enjoy getting up much earlier than I would usually at the weekends. I think it’s because it means I actually have a weekend rather than two half days.

I was also pleased to see that although looking a little shocked, all three are very pleasant people who, it seems, want to work hard and are looking forward to life in frozen St. Petersburg.

Tuesday 18th January

Just spent 1 ½ hours in the cold waiting under a huge statue of Lenin for a teacher who, due to an administrative error, was never going to turn up. Frozen St. Petersburg indeed.

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