A winter sport

Russians are a rather peculiar and unexpected people.  Today in class I had a girl say that she’d been in Latvia for the past few days, but that she didn’t like Latvians.  I asked her why, and she said that she found them rude, unsmiling and unfriendly.  I said that that was very unlike Russian people (!).

I remember, a few days after I arrived, a couple of my friends from Australia came to stay.  They were telling me all about their travelling adventures, and I couldn’t help but notice how unusually animated they were.  After a while I asked them why they were moving their faces so much and they accused me of having ‘gone native’ already.

Certainly, when Russians are walking around the place, they’re unsmiling, inconsiderate, and rude.  Of course, ‘walking around’ also extends to when they’re at work, when they’re on the metro, when they’re asking you a question, when they’re shopping, when they’re talking on the phone, and probably every moment that they’re breathing – unless you know them.  Then they’re almost overwhelmingly emotional.

I find all of my students delightful to teach for the fact that their inhibitions are so different to my own.  If you put on a song in class, they’ll all start singing along.  They’ll act anything out, say anything, and write anything.  A task some of my adult students completed yesterday involved writing about a time they’d been betrayed, or betrayed somebody else (I did give them the option of making something up).  When I marked and corrected the writings later on though, it was fairly obvious that the stories were in fact all true, so these students were trusting me with some deeply personal and perhaps painful experiences.

The ‘betrayal’ exercise is part of a new unit on ‘love and romance’.  I started the lesson by giving everyone a list of pickup lines.  It’s a completely foreign concept in Russia and people were largely confused as to why they existed.  Prior to the lesson, I’d been reading through lists of lines (and laughing uncontrollably) in order to censor them a little bit.  While I find people here pretty promiscuous (and entirely lacking in subtlety – my flatmate said that on a scale from Westerners to chimpanzees whose arses go red when they’re in heat, Russians are somewhere in the middle), there is no discussion of sex (or even innuendo) and people find such discussion really confronting.  Sex ed is rare in the extreme.  Discussion of STIs is also taboo – which is not really helpful in a country with the highest HIV rate outside of sub-Saharan Africa.  So I have to tread very carefully in order not to offend peoples’ sensibilities.  Except for today in one of my teenage classes of course, where we somehow stumbled into a discussion on whether same-sex couples should be allowed to have children.  But I digress.

One of the discussion questions in the unit is ‘do you prefer being single or in a relationship, and why?’.  None of my students understood the question.  Not because they didn’t understand the words, mind you, but because the concept of being happy outside a relationship was so completely bizarre.  All of the students, the men as much as the women, were passionate to the point of vehemence  in that there is no point and nothing interesting in life if you’re single.  One of the middle-aged women said that it’s okay to be single when you’re young, she supposes, but of course you’ll be having continual flings – so you’d still be having relationships, perhaps just less serious ones.  I’m not entirely sure that this construes ‘single’, but it’s as much as any of my students would allow.

All of my students spoke at some length about how much and why they like relationships (again, men included – I actually cannot imagine Australian guys passionately telling near-strangers how much they like having a girlfriend/wife).  One of them said that ‘well, we have very long winters’ – and so I taught the saying that ‘relationships are a winter sport’ (a rather salacious comment, apparently).

It should be noted that it’s not just romantic emotions that Russians are overwhelmingly open about – three men started crying in one of my classes the other day after I told them a sad story!  During our Halloween sessions (why on earth were we doing Halloween lessons?  None of us are American, and Russians don’t celebrate Halloween either!!) I told my best ghost story to two teenage classes, and one of the guys was so openly scared that he asked to leave the room.  Eye roll.

Here’s me in class today with some of my students (it’s school holidays this week, so attendance was very low):

Lastly, make sure you check out this blog post on ‘Russian Facts for Visitors‘.  I laughed myself stupid!

Homeless in St Petersburg? You’re in good company.

Ah, if only I’d posted this BEFORE I moved into an apartment Michael found yesterday morning..!

I wanted to quickly mention my adult lesson today.  We started the lesson with a fairly lengthy preposition/collocation exercise – for example, finish the sentence “Do you admire any famous people?  What are they well-known ____?”.  As native English speakers, we know that the final word of this sentence should be “for”.  We are interested “in” a sport, we are related “to” people, and we get annoyed “at” people or things.

After we had completed the sentences, we started working on a prepositions/collocations diary for each student, then asked each other the questions for practice.  Haha one of my students said that “all people” annoyed him, and that if he could meet with anybody famous he’d meet with “aliens”.  I asked him what he and the aliens would discuss, and he said “how to kill everybody”.  I asked why he wanted to kill everybody, and he said because they “annoy him”.  I then suggested a few other words he might want to use – ‘annoy’ may not be strong enough.  I said that if he was going to talk about killing everybody, he should at least get his vocab right!

One of my students asked what a cat-fish was, and if it was like “Cat Dog”.  Wtf.  Cat-dog wasn’t even a big cartoon in Australia – how on earth had this random Russian guy seen it?!

The current unit with this particular adult class is natural disasters, from which I accidentally segwayed into global warming.  My students said that Russia is like a different country because of global warming: twenty years ago, winter was -15 or -20 every day and there was heaps of snow, whereas now it’s -3 or -5 and often a ‘black’ winter – so no snow at all.

Speaking of weather-related changes, check out how much it’s changed here over the past month:

You can count on it (groan)

One of my students kept saying ‘clotheses’ in our warmup today, and I’d noticed him doing it before so decided to do some work on countable and uncountable nouns.  The exercise basically involved grouping a series of words into two columns – countable/uncountable.  After the students had finished, I had them compare with their partner.  Two at the back were arguing over whether ‘view’ was countable or not – one said no, whereas one said yes and went on to demonstrate: ‘one view, two view, three view’.  With his Russian accent, it sounded exactly like the Count on Sesame Street, and I completely lost my shit.  It was fantastic.  How did that even happen in real life?!  So we then put youtube and the Count up on the screen to demonstrate what I was talking about.  The whole process made me very happy.

Speaking of Russian cliches, I went on the hunt for taco shells (a hunt which took me far and yonder!) to a kmart-esque supermarket with my friend Naz.  We were chatting about teaching, and she told me a story about how she’d been given this new (fairly high-level) class, and as an introduction they were talking about their childhood aspirations or something.  One of the students responded that he’d wanted to be a pro athlete (sorry if I’m butchering this Naz!).  Another student latched onto the word ‘sport’ and turned to another student to ask ‘what sport do you like?’.  It was more than slightly off-topic.  But Naz’s first thought, rather than ‘oh, she’s clearly in the wrong level class’, was ‘oh well, maybe she’s drunk’.  Because that’s a legitimate state in which to turn up to class in Russia.  Amazing!

Speaking of class levels, I finally hassled the uni enough that they got back to me, have enrolled and start next week.  As part of the placement process, yesterday I had to do a Russian exam (incidentally, I’d never have thought i’d be so happy to get 52% on an exam haha).  It was so brain-melting that when I caught the metro to work afterward, I got out at the other end and was legitimately lost.  I had no idea where I was, despite the fact that I was standing at a metro station to which I travel three days a week.  Oh dear..!

I’m going to finish with a Swedish joke (not an oxymoron!! – or a pun, for that matter).  I was watching a Swedish film called ‘Marianne’ with my friend Karie the other day, and it’s basically about this middle-aged man who’s being haunted at night-time.  So he hasn’t slept in weeks, his wife has died, his mistress is stalking him, his baby has just been murdered, he’s been told to stay home from work because he’s crazy, and his adult daughter has just moved out.  Basically, it’s a shitfight.  And when some people come to visit him and ask ‘how are you’, he responds with this:

I lolled.

The Rila Experienca


My fantastic hostel in Sofia recommended that I go on a day-trip out to a monastery at nearby Rila.  Actually, the guy suggesting it said that there’s a sacred cave out there, and by passing through it you’ll be cleansed of your sins.  He said that I seemed like I needed a bit of cleansing.  There may have been winking.

In the end, there were five of us heading out, necessitating two taxis.  It was myself, three French guys and one miniature German girl.  Ramona and I went in one taxi, with the three guys in the other.  Luckily, our driver spoke Russian as well as Bulgarian, which Ramona and I could each speak to some extent.  So I had a couple of hours of Russian practice each way, huzzah.

We got out to the monastery, and as it turns out, one of the French guys was some kind of ex-religious scholar, and told us all about the things we were seeing.  Which were a bit messed up, to be fair: the monastery was Orthodox (I think?  It was very different to Russian and Greek Orthodox churches), but covered with paintings which would terrify even the most devout Catholic.  Think scenes of torture and degradation.  Charming!

Once we’d had a good look around, we went for a bit of a walk up a nearby road to see if we could get a good view, while the guys threw snowballs at one another.  And then, spontaneously and with no prior discussion, we all climbed a steep hill and went for a hike in the snow.  It was well past my knee, and on Ramona it was waist-high!  Plus we were all wearing jeans and slip-on shoes.  Seriously though—great life choice, it was so much fun!  Though sadly, my jeans didn’t survive the adventure: I fell through some snow into a tree, got my foot hooked under a branch, the rest of me slid down a hill, and I ended up not only trapped but with my jeans ripped the whole way up.  When Xavier came down to assist me, he spent at least two minutes laughing at me and my arse in the snow before he could bring himself to help.

On the walk, we encountered a wild dog and her adorable cubs, an abandoned shack, and apparently a new kind of monkey: the French guys climbed up some very unsafe-looking trees to take a photo of the monastery.  Haha I think the shot from ground level was just fine!

Being as we were not on anything remotely resembling a track, we had some difficulties getting back to ground level.  The others all got to jump off a high wall into a snowdrift, but because of my back I couldn’t 🙁  So instead I found somewhere to climb.

That night back in Sofia, it all got a little crazy.  We were drinking in the hostel, then I ended up with the French guys (and five more of their friends) at a nearby bar.  Wait, when I said it got a little ‘crazy’, I probably should have said ‘hazy’: memories are understandably indistinct!  I recall that at the bar, asking for rakia (the local spirit), the bartender asked me whether I wanted a ‘little’ or ‘big’ one.  Challenge accepted!  So there was lots of that.  I remember the French guy I was talking to (whose name I, again in typically good form, never bothered to ask) learned I was travelling by myself and was shocked.  He asked me whether I was scared to be in a bar with eight guys whom I didn’t know, and I asked him whether I had something to be scared of?  People were forever asking me that question on my Bloc Trip—’aren’t you scared?’—I mean, how does one respond to that?

Next it was off to some bar the guys had heard of in the student district.  I presume we caught a taxi.  We must have.  Wait, by squinting a bit I can just about remember—I think I had to give directions to the driver in Russian, because he only spoke Russian/Bulgarian, and the guys only spoke French/English/some German.  Whoa, it’s all coming back to me now.

Anyway, we got to the club and it was all a bit crazy.  The music was Western music from circa 2000 (Linkin Park, whaaaat), and it was the same price for one bottle of vodka as three.  So we had three bottles of Absolut on the table, and only two litres of juice (which I’d insisted on).  Every time I turned away to talk to someone, the French guy I’d been talking to earlier in the night would pour extra vodka into my drink (I have deadly peripheral vision), and when I turned back around I’d pour more juice in.  Didn’t think through ratios too well though did I, and sometime after completely forgetting English (I have this theory that after dealing with only French and Russian all day, then copious quantities of alcohol, my brain threw its hands up in the air and went ‘fuck this shit’), became crying drunk (probably not the French guy’s plan?!) and sent myself home.  God, the poor taxi driver: I was completely incoherent.  He gave me tissues though.  Man I’d hate to be a taxi driver.

So that was Rila-day.  Epic.