Monthly Archives: May 2011


Thursday was my last official day of teaching. I am no longer an official native-speaker/English-teaching-assistant! By which I mean I have no more classes, no more lesson plans, no more tooth-pulling as I try and get some response out of my poor tired students. That said, I will miss my students, especially the ones I’ve gotten to know over the course of the whole year. They can be really goofy and silly and are also very smart, and I had a really good time with them.

Some of the other teachers and acquaintances have been asking me what I’m planning to do next. Well, I’m starting my Master’s in Russian Studies in August (at my alma mater’s rival university! the shame!) and that’s two years. To me that seems like a pretty good answer to the “what will you do next” question. But only to me. Everyone else says, “and… what will you do with that? Teach Russian?” To which I kind of laugh and say, “no…”.

One of the things that I have learned this year is that I am not really cut out to be a teacher. I know lots of people who have taught English abroad, both people who have a real interest in teaching and people who have gone on to do other things. I think even within our group of ETAs it’s the same, there are the people who were interested in teaching and in Russia and so decided to do this, and then there are the people who were more interested in Russia and saw teaching as a way to get here. I belong to the latter group. While I do think that my students learned something from me, even if it’s just that not all Americans like McDonald’s, or debunking some other cultural cliche, I think I was able to fulfill the “native speaker” role better than the “English teaching assistant” role. I have learned how to be flexible, how to make lesson plans, how to manage time, and to some degree how to assert control over a group of students who are really only a few years younger than me. I’ve also learned how to improvise when things don’t go as planned, which for me was more often than I would have liked. I’ve also learned to stand up straight (literally, I’m a sloucher) and to not be self-conscious, especially when you are teaching a group of rowdy 18 year old boys who are kind of looking at you (youuu know) and most likely making jokes at your expense thinking you can’t understand them. But I’ve also learned how to joke back with them somewhat, and if nothing else to charm them a bit.

I’ve also grown to appreciate the American style class discussion, and realize to what extent in undergrad I was guilty of the same long periods of silence that my students occasionally subjected me to after I asked them a particularly complicated or just pointless question. I’m glad to be aware of that also going into my program in the fall.

Even with all of these things that I’ve learned, I still maintain that I’m not teacher material. The two main things I don’t have enough of are patience and creativity. It’s better to know this now than later, I think, and I’ve definitely really enjoyed my work this year, but it’s interesting to know more about yourself.

So, I don’t know yet what I will do next, though I still think having a plan for the next two years isn’t too shabby. As for the short term, I’m going to visit a friend in Sochi on Monday. SOCHI. So that’s a pretty good plan too.

Other Signs of Summer

Some other things that I forgot to mention in last week’s post which are also definitely signs of summer:

– Bands playing outside every evening. There are some really good ones that play at some of the key spots in the city, as well as less good ones that play randomly in front of some stores. Somehow the guitar/recorder duo doesn’t really do it, but there’s a really great group that I’ve listened to a few times that plays mostly Russian rock classics. It’s really nice to listen to them play and people watch when it’s 10 at night and still just dusky.

– Mesh shirts. This is something that you don’t usually see in the U.S., but men wearing mesh shirts is definitely a sign of summer. For some reason the older the men and the meshier the shirt, the better.

– Bouquets of lily of the valley. On every street corner there are people selling little bouquets of these cute white flowers. Everywhere. Wherever you look there are people carrying them.

за Воронеж, за победу..

Things are winding down, in four weeks I’ll be in the U.S. In the past week I’ve been to two football (soccer??) matches (games??) at Voronezh’s stadium to support the Voronezh team, Fakel. Fakel means torch. The first game I went to was last Saturday, when Fakel was playing a team from Moscow. We were a little bit worried about how it would be, due to one of those May thunderstorms, but luckily it only drizzled for ten minutes in the second half. Though our team came pretty close to scoring a few times it didn’t really work out, and the final score was 0:0.

Tuesday’s game was a little bit more exciting, goal-wise. On Tuesday Fakel played Baltica, from Kaliningrad. We ended up losing 2:3, but it seemed like it was going to be close a few times, and there were some bad calls by the refs. The stakes were a little bit higher on Tuesday because both teams were fighting to keep their rankings..towards the bottom of the First Division League. So it was really too bad that we lost, because now Fakel is 18th out of 20.  : (

Still, going to matches is more about the atmosphere than it is about the sport itself. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not really a diehard sports fan (though I can, on occasion, proudly root for the Dodgers and the Lakers), but I do love people watching, which is fantastic at these matches. Some of my Russian friends were surprised that I had gone at all, because most spectators are a) male and b) imbibing a ton, and the few women are usually youngish girlfriends/wives who are being good sports for their men. While the match especially on Tuesday got pretty exciting, I also just love hearing the commentary among the Fakel fans (who are all die-hard fans actually) and the, uh, shall we say, colorful expressions used. There’s also a ton of chanting and group cheering that goes on, like “For Voronezh, for victory,” “we need a goal,” “onwards, Voronezh,” and other less printable slogans for when the refs made a bad call. I do like rooting for a team, so.

Maybe the greatest thing is the special fan group called “The Ultras” that have a special section in the stadium and who perform synchronized chants, cheers, and hand motions throughout the whole game. Imagine a group of men not wearing shirts and singing and jumping around for their team. It’s incredible. Even better was on Saturday when the fan group from the Moscow team was also present: every few minutes there would be kind of a cheering war back and forth, as the Torpedo fans and the Fakel fans tried to be more vocal for their respective teams. A few times, when the cheering war started to verge on antagonistic, one of the groups would start a new chant: “Русские вперед!” – Onwards (forward? ahead?) Russians! This would go on for a few minutes, with both sides shouting this at each other, until everyone broke into applause. I really like that, it’s this reminder that although your team might not be the best, and might be suffering a terrible defeat, in the end everyone’s on the same team.. the Russian team.

Other than starting this new phase as a football fan, I’ve been mostly finishing up classes and figuring out what traveling I’m going to do in this last month. The last month! Ah.

Today I also re-watched the Woody Allen classic Love and Death, which is a parody of 19th century Russian everything. I don’t know if it’s because I haven’t watched it in a long time, or maybe because I’ve been living in Russia, but in the first five minutes I was crying from laughing too hard. All my other ETAs, if you haven’t watched it you should immediately, I think it’s on youtube. I’ll leave you with one of my favorite exchanges, between Boris (our hero) and his father:

Father: Remember that nice boy next door, Raskolnikov?
Boris: Yeah.
Father: He killed two ladies.
Boris: What a nasty story.
Father: Bobak told it to me. He heard it from one of the Karamazov brothers.
Boris: He must have been possessed.
Father: Well, he was a raw youth.
Boris: Raw youth, he was an idiot!
Father: He acted assaulted and injured.
Boris: I heard he was a gambler.
Father: You know, he could be your double!
Boris: Really, how novel.

(AHH how many references is that? More than I even thought at first – 10?? Even if you’re groaning because it’s too punny it’s so great. Watch it. Now.)

Post-Victory Victories

So last Monday, the 9th of May, was Victory Day, which is a huge holiday here in Russia. For those of you who are wondering which victory, Victory Day celebrates the victory over the fascists during WWII, which is called the Great Patriotic War here. One of the questions that people here sometimes ask in order to gauge how America-centric one’s political and historical views are is “Who won WWII?” And regardless of what anyone thinks, it’s impossible to ignore the huge sacrifices that the country made as a whole during the war. It’s also very difficult to understand it as an American, because in recent history we’ve never really had a comparable conflict fought on our soil and involving so many people. So yes, Victory Day celebrates a very worthy and important victory.

So what do people do on Victory Day? Mostly walk around and socialize. Usually there is a big parade, but this year they didn’t have one – I think it’s connected with the fact that they’re renovating our main Lenin Square for the city’s 425th anniversary in September, and that’s where they usually hold the parade. Still, the main streets were completely blocked off from cars, and lots of little stages were set up with different performances. There were also special vendors and games and stuff, very much a street fair type of atmosphere. I actually went with some friends to the dacha for the day, and then came back in time to watch the fireworks. As we were watching the fireworks, surrounded by people who had probably been having “festive” beverages the whole day, crying out “Rossiyaa!!” and yelling and clapping, I did feel very patriotic, if you can feel patriotic for a country that is not your own. Connected at the very least.

This week, then, was another very short working week. I think I only have a few more weeks left of teaching, but no one has told me anything official yet. I just know that I had another last class ever with one of my groups, which keeps on happening, so the end must be near. I definitely feel sad to say goodbye to my students, especially the ones who have been very patient with my learning about teaching this year and who have stayed mentally involved in our classes. At the same time, I definitely understand those who have mentally checked out – I’ve been there too – but I just appreciate the commitment and motivation that much more now.

So what are my victories from this week? Well right around Easter my mom told me that she had mailed me two packages, one for Easter and one for my birthday. This is the first time that anyone has sent me anything substantial (not a letter or postcard) the whole year. When a month had gone by without anything appearing, we both started to accept the fact that they weren’t coming. This week, however, I collected both packages, albeit in reverse order! I am sincerely enjoying my See’s Candy Easter treats, as well as my little birthday presents. To make it that much better, the post office I went to in order to get the packages was not the central bureaucratic monster but one of the nice small post offices, with nice ladies who understood that I was not going to be able to fill out the slips as well as a Russian but who took pity on me and gave me my packages anyways. And I didn’t have to wait in any massive lines for hours.

The final victory: as I was leaving the post office yesterday, Easter package in hand, a middle-aged woman with her husband came up to me and stopped me on the street. “Excuse me,” she said, “we’re not from here. Can you tell me, where do people walk around here? We started to go this direction but we weren’t sure..” I promptly pointed her in the right direction, where people walk (I know that doesn’t really translate exactly but whatever: hang out, walk around, etc), and they went on their way. Maybe this is proof that my time here really has improved my Russian? When people stop me on the street I can actually understand them and then provide an adequate answer? In five weeks I’ll already be back in the US, but I think I’m starting to see how much I’ve learned in the months here.

Signs of Summer

This is how I can tell that it’s summer in the city:

1. There are ice cream stands and kvas stands wherever you go. Consequently the “no ice cream” signs on doors of shops actually seem necessary.

2. Whole sections of the freezer aisle in the supermarket, which previously held frozen vegetables and some ice cream, are now entirely ice cream. Only ice cream. The vegetables and frozen meat have been demoted and devalued in order to make way for ice cream.

3. I feel compelled to freeze most of my food before eating it. Yogurt goes in the freezer. Frozen bananas? Check. After schlepping around feeling myself melting away I only want to eat frozen things.

4. Areas in public places that have been piles of dirt and snow for months turn into really nice flowerbeds overnight. (Or during lunchtime. I was sitting on a bench in one of the parks a few days ago, waiting for a friend, when I found myself in the middle of the planting process. When I came back after lunch the whole section of the park had been planted.)

5. The fountains in the parks work.

6. Wherever you look there are teenagers making out.

7. There are people biking and rollerblading around the city.

8. Wooden walkways appear out of nowhere because it’s time to start to start doing summer ремонт on the buildings and you gotta protect your pedestrians.

9. Everyone is happy all the time and no one wants to do any work. (Noticeable decrease in class attendance, but really I can’t blame anyone. I was the same.)

The bad signs of summer, which are so few that they don’t even get a real list: the pollution is pretty intense, especially when it’s in the 70s and higher, and I’ve also heard quite a bit about what I think are ticks or other mite-type of insects. I took a really long rambling walk through the city yesterday, and found some pretty buildings that I hadn’t seen before in some neighborhoods I hadn’t visited, but when I got back to my place I had a major pollution headache. As for the ticks, some of the teachers were talking about how they just appear out of nowhere, for example after walks through the center of the city. I don’t know if they’re actually ticks. But still. Any insect that makes people think that they need to go to the health clinic after finding one is a bad insect, ain’t no friend of mine.

…только раз в году.

You know that part in Monty Python and the Holy Grail with the bit of animation as the knights are continuing on their quest? Ok IMDB is helping me out here, the narrator says, “Winter changed into spring, spring changed into summer, summer changed back into winter, and winter gave spring and summer a miss and went straight on into autumn…”

This is how I feel about spring: it lasted a day. Winter –> Summer. They gave spring a miss and skipped over it. The end. One day I was walking along, barely noticing the tiny little leaves on the trees on my street, and the next day all the trees have leafed out, its actually shady, it’s warmer than 70, we’re having those typical summer storms.. Which is great. Just totally sudden, even though I was expecting it.

The beginning of May is great because there are some more holidays. May 1 is, well, May 1, but because it fell on a Sunday this year the following Monday was also an official day off. I didn’t really do much, just walked around a bit, saw some friends, the usual. There was some sort of anime festival here over the weekend, so there were lots of teens dressed up in funny costumes, which was interesting. On May 1 there were also a bunch of kids wandering around with signs saying “free hugs,”although I don’t know exactly what that was about.

I also had my birthday yesterday! It happened that it was also the last class I had with one of my groups of students, which I didn’t even know until the end of the class period, which made me feel all sentimental. After we had finished with the main part of the lesson, we were kind of just sitting and saying our goodbyes when they asked me about my impressions of Voronezh, about my year, and I felt this little swell of pride for the city, because it has been my home for the past months.

After work, I went to my surrogate Russian family for my birthday dinner. We made my grandmother’s rosemary chicken, and made lots of champagne toasts, and it was just perfect. I’m just realizing that this was the first birthday in 5 years that I celebrated in a home, and the first birthday in ages that didn’t fall in the middle of final exams or APs or some other generally stressful academic period. It was a really wonderful day.

I can’t believe I only have about a month and a half left. It’s time to really get into gear and do all the things I’ve been wanting to do but haven’t done yet.