Summer school, Novosibirsk State University 2011: Novosibirsk to Tomsk by bus

In the summer of 2011, I spent 3 months at the Russian language summer school at Novosibirsk State University in western Siberia to work on my language skills prior to starting an MA in translation. This short account describes the bus journey from Novosibirsk to Tomsk that I took one weekend.

It is a hot, sticky afternoon in Novosibirsk, and I am pushing my way through the crowds at the bus station.  We assemble on the dusty, melting tarmac beside the bus to Tomsk, and the crowd surges as we start to board.

In front of me, a lady is helping her elderly mother onto the bus.  The old lady is wearing the archetypal country babushka outfit of flowery nylon dress, woollen tights and galoshes.  Straggles of grey hair emerge from beneath her headscarf.  She is shaky on her feet, and the daughter helps her heave herself up the high step onto the coach.  I climb on behind them and find my seat.  Settling myself in, I notice that the coach’s windscreen is extravagantly decorated with swags of flowered material edged with tassels, the overhead shelves with lacy, blue curtains.

The bus pulls away, and we cruise the suburbs of Novosibirsk. First, the factory districts of crumbling concrete and red-and-white chimney stacks.  Then, over the railway lines to dacha country: the clusters of tiny, wooden houses and kitchen gardens where this nation of apartment-dwellers escapes to for the weekend.   Occasionally, there are new additions to the landscape: the detached houses of Russia’s new rich. Incongruously, the Russians have borrowed an English word for these substantial dwellings, calling them ‘kottedzhi’.

My previous experiences of the Russian countryside have been depressing: country lanes and river banks littered with discarded beer bottles, cigarette butts and old tyres.  However, today, when finally we make it into the open Siberian countryside, it is a delight: an endless, rippled sheet of teal and bottle-green pine forest, alternating with the mottled silver and khaki of birch trees.  We pass villages of weathered log cottages, and, once or twice, old signs for collective farms in the clean, curved typeface of Soviet times: once proud but now barely noticeable, faded and coated with dust from the passing traffic.

After two-and-a-half hours, we stop at what could loosely be called a service station.  There is no WH Smith, Costa Coffee or amusement arcade, but there is a petrol station and a self-service cafe and some surprisingly OK toilets, which we each pay ten roubles to use.  Once toileted, fed and watered, I join the other passengers milling listlessly around the car park.  The truck stop evidently provides an income for those living close by, and weather-beaten locals in cheap nylon tracksuits and flip-flops have set up low tables displaying goods for sale:  mustard-yellow, forest-picked mushrooms and birch venki , the bunches of twigs that Russians use to beat themselves in the banya.  A grey-haired man stands next to a dusty Lada. The car’s bonnet doubles as his shop window and is covered with buckets of tiny wild strawberries.

While stretching my legs, I look around.  The surrounding landscape is devoid of signs of civilisation, the truck stop itself a tiny dot in the Siberian vastness.  I wonder if this is the closest I’ve ever been to the middle of nowhere.



Teaching English in Russia 3: A first brush with ‘new’ Russians

The lift dings, and from it emerges a stocky girl of about 10, and a weather beaten-looking man in a leather jacket.  Taking the man to be the girl’s father, I shake his hand and, as I am in a hurry, mentally file his slightly bemused expression for later.  The girl and I walk to the classroom, accompanied by the gentle swishing sound of her warmly padded winter trousers.  I note the Western brand name on the side, a brand outside the pocket of most of the girl’s contemporaries.

This is Sasha, my latest one-to-one student, my Waterloo and my catch 22 rolled into one.  I am to teach her English, a private lesson once a week, and prepare her for an English language exam.

My predecessor, a young American woman, has left me a note to prepare me for the onslaught of Sasha.  ‘Sasha is a clever little girl,’ it begins ‘who doesn’t like to be told what to do.’  It lists the variety of methods my young charge is likely to use in an endless quest to take control of lesson time.  The mention of the name ‘Sasha’ or worse, ‘Sasha’s mother’, are bywords for eye-rolling and tutting in the staffroom – but no offers to take her off my hands are forthcoming and would anyway have been pointless:  Sasha’s parents want only the best for their children, and, in this small city with few foreigners, the best is a recently arrived Englishwoman with no experience of teaching children and a recently-acquired 3 month TEFL course under her belt.

Our time together quickly establishes a pattern.  On entering the classroom, Sasha invariably grabs a board marker and begs to tell me something that happened at school that day, a story which simply has to be illustrated on the board.  Once seated, she rips open a giant packet of caramel-filled waffles purchased from the vending machine downstairs and begins to cram them into her mouth.   Her cheeks, tanned from the regular visits to the family’s Spanish holiday home, become smooth and rounded like burger buns as she chews.   She speaks English with surprising fluency for a child of her age – but not as well as she – or her parents, I suspect – would like to think.   The reason for this quickly becomes clear.  Pressed to carry out written practice exercises for the exam that her parents want her to take, she spends a good 10 minutes hurling herself around the classroom in a rage, a calf in a pen threatened with the stun gun.  After much persuasion, she carelessly dashes off the required 30 words and then challenges each of my corrections.  The eyes that she fixes on me have a wide, intense stare, like those of a bird of prey, hunting for a weakness to exploit, the eyebrows as bushy as those of an elderly politician. At the same time, I also catch glimpses, in the perfect skin and tumble of thick, wavy hair, of the rather sultry young woman that she is likely to become in a few short years.

My weekly sessions with Sasha continue to be tortuous.  I am completely wrong-footed in the face of her behaviour.   Despite my experience of power games in the corporate world, I am astonished at the level of power that a child 30 years my junior has to make me feel inadequate.  I also feel guilty – surely it is wrong to dislike a child as much as I dislike Sasha – and, on a good day, slightly sorry for this child and her younger brother, also one of my students, who, at the end of a school day, should really be out playing.  And, most shamefully, I frequently fantasize about fighting fire with fire, to subject her to the same disdainful glances and catty remarks of which I am often the recipient (“Do you think you look nice in that colour?”)  Bizarrely, though, as time goes on, I begin to realise that, despite her attempts to show the opposite, I occupy an important part of this child’s life.  Sasha begs me to become her friend on vKontakte, Russia’s social networking site. And in a country where a woman of 25 is considered to be an old maid, she and her brother are fascinated by my single status. “Where are your children?” they ask.  “But why aren’t you married?” and (my particular favourite) “My mum said, ‘When is your English teacher going to get married?’’’

This is my first real brush with the phenomenon that is the ‘new Russian’, or at least its offspring.  The things that would have got you to the head of the queue in Soviet times – the party membership, the war medals – have been superseded by designer labels and 4x4s. Sasha and her parents regard themselves as a cut above the ordinary Russian, and those who work for them are their staff. In only-recently-capitalist Russia, Sasha and her family are living a life of incredible privilege, and they know it.  Theirs is a life of private school, regular foreign holidays, and, that ultimate new Russian status symbol, a mother who doesn’t work. Not for this child daily journeys on a dingy and crowded trolleybus with the rest of humanity: instead, she is able to observe the streets at one remove, from the back seat of a shiny, black 4×4 with tinted windows.

At the end of our first lesson, I ask Sasha, “Who was that man who was with you earlier – was he your father?”  “No,” she replies, tutting and rolling her eyes. “He’s our driver.”

Teaching in Russia 2: Hats

I don’t remember having many hats as a child, but there’s one that particularly sticks in my memory:  it was a white, fluffy beret with a pompom on the top and a red and navy stripe round the rim, and I hated it.   I hated it, not only because it was made of stuff that made my head itch, but also because I was made to wear the hat by my mother, and so it became a symbol of the power struggle between her and my 5-year-old-self.  These days, apart from at weddings and funerals, a hat is a comparatively rare sight in the UK, where I come from: as a rule, the relatively mild climate there means that warm headgear may not be required to survive the winter.  Even if it was, many of the younger generation have discarded this item of clothing as a wussy object worn only by those still tied to their mothers’ apron strings.  Not wearing a hat has become an act of rebellion, and a sign that, however low the temperature, you’re hard enough to cope with it.

In a Russian winter, it’s not possible to have such scruples.  It’s painful enough having to leave your face exposed at -20, so going bareheaded is out of the question. And anyway, anyone who dares take such a risk is likely to suffer a fate worse than frostbite: a dressing-down from a passing babushka.  So it is that the Russian population – women in particular – embrace the hat and celebrate it in all its different forms.  Walking the streets here you will see a vast array of different styles, shapes and materials, with fur (another novelty for the average Brit) by far the favourite.  Buying a hat is a serious business, and simply plonking the hat on your head and admiring yourself in the shop mirror just won’t do: any hat shop assistant worth her salt will fuss around you, tweaking the hat at various points so as to get exactly the right look.

Since arriving here, I have made something of a hobby of studying the different types of hats and head coverings worn by my hosts, and have found that they can be more or less divided into 4 looks: the pompom, the Davy Crockett, the Banana Split and the Romantic Heroine.

The pompom is round and fluffy, and should ideally increase the circumference of your head by at least 5 centimetres and give it the appearance of, well, a rather large pompom.  The Davy Crockett may well resemble the pompom, but for added interest a number of tassels, smaller pompoms or even the odd animal’s paw will have been attached to the top or back of the hat.  This gives that hat its distinctive resemblance to Davy Crockett’s famed raccoon tail hat.  Our third type is the famed Russian ‘earflap’ hat.  This can be a modest affair, such as those worn by army officers and policemen with the earflaps neatly tied on top.  However, the more extravagant version has huge earflaps, often left untied so that they flip out on each side of the wearer’s head.  The wearers thus bear a startling resemblance to the droopy-eared singing dog in the children’s show, the Banana Splits. (Those with time on their hands may check out to make the comparison).  Our final look is easily the most glamorous: the Romantic Heroine wears a flowing fur coat, her face fetchingly framed by the hood – all in all, a look not dissimilar to Meryl Streep’s in ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’.

Of course, with the arrival of spring the hats are being put away for a few short months, but I look forward to next winter when hat season will be with us once again.

dscf0202The author attempts, albeit unsuccessfully, to model the romantic heroine look.

This article first appeared on, the Ekaterinburg city website.

Teaching English in Russia 1: The Agony and the Ecstasy!

I have been teaching in Ekaterinburg since September 2009 at Language Link on Chernyshevskovo Street.  I decided to come to Russia because I studied the Russian language at university some years ago, but didn’t spend that much time here. I chose to come to Ekaterinburg because I had already visited Moscow and St Petersburg and wanted to see another part of the country.

They say that changing jobs and moving house are among life’s more stressful experiences, and, having changed jobs and simultaneously moved country I can certainly vouch for that. My first term here was characterized by late nights preparing lessons, wandering the streets in a dazed fashion trying to get my bearings, and staring blankly at previously untried products in the supermarket.  I don’t mind admitting that on my second day teaching here I seriously considered hightailing it back to the UK. But, despite the stresses of that first term, I knew I’d made the right decision to come here for all sorts of reasons.

Here are the things I like about teaching in Russia: the majority of my students are well-educated, thoughtful people with enquiring minds and a genuine enthusiasm for learning my mother tongue.  I like observing the way the different personalities work in the class, with everyone contributing in their own way.  My students are a mixed age range, and I enjoy not only watching the younger generation begin to make their way in the brave, relatively new world of Russian capitalism, but also hearing comparisons of the past and the present from the older ones.  Also, I like the difference in perspective that being in such a different part of the world to my native city brings: a recent class discussion about the dangers of city life brought up not the subjects that I’d expected, such as pollution and  terrorism, but wild dogs, falling icicles and the need to dodge items being thrown from windows!

There are things I find difficult, of course.  As something of an introvert, I find it hard to stand up in front of a class and be in charge – although, if I were to take the ‘glass half full’ perspective, I would acknowledge that it is a character-building experience!  As a relatively new teacher, I still find I spend a lot of time on lesson preparation and sometimes wonder where my life as a teacher ends and my own life begins.  Also, there are certain aspects of English grammar that are difficult to teach here: neither the definite and indefinite articles (the words ‘a’, ‘an’ and ‘the’, to those unfamiliar with the terminology), nor the verb ‘to be’ in the present tense, exist in Russian.  My attempts to teach these subjects could, I suspect, reduce both me and my students to tears.  Add to the mix pronunciation issues which cause confusion to many Russians, such as the difference between the English short ‘i’ (‘fish’) and the long Russian ‘i’ sound (‘cheap’), or the difference between the soft English ‘h’ and the more guttural Russian ‘kh’, and there’s plenty to keep the English teacher and his/her students busy for a few years.


This article first appeared on, the Ekaterinburg city website. I taught English as a foreign language in Russia between September 2009 – July 2010.