Friday, November 29, 2013

Красная плошадь, еще

With the first snow of the year, I thought I'd head back to Red Square and catch some of Russia's winter magic. The lights are up in all the stores, and Ded Moroz is everywhere. It's the holiday season.

Perhaps it wasn't the best day to go - there was no snow on the ground, and the famous skating rink is still being set up. Apart from the beautiful Northern European mist settling in, it was bleak and grey as always. Still, there was a light snow falling, and an air of first-winter excitement. Everyone was happily strolling by and taking pictures of the skating-rink-in-progress.

The grounds in front of the Kremlin were open (there was some sort of military parade when I was there in September), so I looked around and checked out some of the memorials. The flat blocks commemorate famous battles in the Great Patriotic War (also known as WWII) - can you guess what this one is?

I was also lucky enough to have my first unobstructed view of St. Basil's, blocked by a children's festival last time. It's just as beautiful as they say. I couldn't stop staring, and when the church bells rang on the hour, it seemed absolutely perfect. The light snow, the beautiful domes, the ringing throughout the square. I was in Russia, and for the first time in a while, it felt right.

Today I gave Lenin's tomb a pass - once was enough, and it's closed today anyway - but I did get a few pictures of the exterior. Those blocks in the back are tombs of other Soviet leaders. One of them is Stalin, I think the one furthest left.

I wasn't there when that guy nailed his delicate bits to the cobblestones a few weeks back (though that must have been a sight to see), but I did manage to catch the Louis Vuitton monstrosity. Yes, it's as hideous as they say. And yes, I'm with the authorities on this one. It should be taken down. Thankfully, that is exactly what they are doing.

There were news crews everywhere, which I found most interesting - with all the strange and unfortunate events going on in the world, you pick an ugly statue? Somehow, though, it seems fitting. This is an example of the changing nature of Russia. Twenty-five years ago, a giant ugly Louis Vuitton suitcase in Red Square would have been unimaginable. Now, all the brands and fashions of the world have landed in Moscow, and for the most part they've embraced it. Sometimes it's an awkward, overly conspicuous fit, as we see today.

It makes me wonder which direction Russia will go in. It's becoming more and more clear that this moment is something of a turning point. Russia could start on one path, or on another. Maybe several at once. Getting to know Russian youth through my job, I've seen a lot of potential in the next generation. Whatever happens - I think that this decade will be one of crucial changes. For better or for worse.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Снег идет

Well, it's finally happened. We had a few scattered flakes here and there, but winter always seemed just around the corner. Today, however, the skies opened and the uncharacteristically warm autumn finally gave up the ghost. The grass and cars are covered in white. Russian winter is here.

This year it came a little late. My friends tell me that Moscow is usually snowed in by mid-October, and yet here we are, close to December and barely into winter. We actually talked about this on Sunday, which is presumably what finally brought the snow this week. Even so, it's lovely.

I grew up in a part of Canada with mild winters and little snow. We were lucky to get a few scattered drifts in late December and early January. Unlike the rest of the country, which is pretty much like Moscow, we never had to deal with months and months of endless slush and cold. When I moved to Toronto, I finally experienced a real Canadian winter. Sure, it was not without complaints - but in general I had a much higher tolerance for it than the people who'd lived there for years. To me, it was magic.

And so it was tonight. I know we're at the beginning of a long, hard Russian winter. It will last well into what most people consider "spring", without any let-up. Grey, relentless, dull. Even my six-year-olds were confused when I happily told them it was snowing. But those first few flakes are always a touchstone for me. Here, at home, anywhere. It doesn't matter. Snow is something to celebrate.

Tonight, as I staggered back to my apartment, flakes clumping in my eyelashes and whipping across my face, I was smiling. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Это хорошо

If you don't like reading knock-down, drag-out whinefests, then this is not for you. Whinging zone ahead.

The Internet tends to paint TEFL as the perfect experience. You get paid to travel! You get to live in a new culture! What could be better? Make the most of THE BEST YEAR OF YOUR LIFE, before the bad economy and the crushing realities of life catch up with you!

Unfortunately, when your experience doesn't go as it should, even if it just gets a little bumpy, you tend to feel stranded. Here you are, seeing the world, living the life of an adventurer.  You have a job. You're doing things many people would love to do. You have no right to complain. When you're in a new country, though, when you're far from everyone you love and adjusting to a new job, it's difficult not to get lonely and worn out.

And it's hard to stop feeling guilty about doing what's right for you.

My job tends to control my life, as most jobs do. Make no mistake, teaching is not something you can breeze around with. I work basically all the time. Part of this is not typical to the job - we've had a lot of difficulty with new technology, teachers who left, etc. - but a lot of it is just the humdrum exhaustion of teaching. Until you've experienced it, you can't know how rough it is. My school is go, go, go nonstop, without even a real break at the New Year like the rest of Russia. On top of it, I teach more classes than anyone else at the school, and am picking up the slack after some of the courses were shifted around. So I throw myself into it just to keep afloat. There's no getting rid of the stress, though.

On the weekends (or more accurately, the one day I usually have off), I collapse in a heap. I don't want to go out. I don't want to look around Moscow. I just want to sleep and watch television. But I feel that I have to. I'm here, I don't have family and friends - I need to put myself out there and I need to make the most of my grand adventure. Then I remember the laundry that needs to be done, the pile of marking waiting for me, the nearly empty fridge, and my will just disappears. Get up, microwave something to eat, catch up on some work, maybe work in an episode of Girls if I'm lucky. Social life? Sightseeing? Ha!

I think of all the stuff in Russia I still need to see - Izmailovsky Market, those trips to St. Petersburg and Yasnaya Polyana I should plan but never have the time or energy to do - and it's hard not to feel like a slacker. All my expat friends are clubbing and going to museums. Not me. I need my sleep. I need alone time. Part of this problem is of my own making - I'm a major introvert and pay the price. That's fine. The problem is that I don't feel I can go out, even if I wanted to. The weekend is to rest and recuperate and catch up so that next week isn't pure hell. If I can get out once, it's a victory. But still - I feel weird for not keeping up the pace like everyone else does.

In my spare time, when I have it, I read a lot of books (I've finished more novels in the past three months than in the five years preceding it) and watch a lot of television. Some current shows - I contribute to a TV blog roughly four times a week - and my backlog of "TV that people have recommended for me". Hopefully one of these days I'll try to do some writing, but for now I'm just too exhausted. Which is ridiculous, because if I wait to be in the right space, it will never happen.

And I lean on the familiar. I drink Coca-Cola more than I ever did at home, because it's there and it's the same. I look up CBC articles. I watch endless episodes of The Simpsons, even though I've seen them all. I've followed the Rob Ford controversy more closely than I ever would have in Toronto. I'm seeing Elton John on December 6th even though I've seen him before. I probably keep up with my friends and family on Facebook a little too much. But it's what I need right now, and that's okay.

It's okay. All of it. 

But it's hard to convince yourself when you're caught in the middle. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013


Yes, I have been a faithless blogger. Feel free to beat me for it. The truth is, teaching is hard and Russia is hard and I've had a ton of bureaucratic crap to deal with over the past few weeks. Fortunately, most of that is settled. And the teaching does get easier. It really does. Even my "worst" classes are starting to fall into place. That includes the kindergarten-age class where half the boys will only answer to Spiderman, and one unique child insists on being addressed as "Table".

It's hard to believe I'm two months into this. We're approaching the New Year's holiday soon, in eight weeks' time, and everyone around me is making plans. Lots of Russians head out of the country to warmer climes - which is not surprising when you consider the number of Canadians who flee to Arizona and Mexico every winter. Canada and Russia, we have more in common than we think.

Anyway, I have a (short) break coming up. Travel is cheaper here, and since I don't have any family to visit, I figure it might be time to have a warm weather New Year's for once. When the clock strikes midnight, should I be in Tel Aviv? Dubrovnik? Casablanca? Send your suggestions this way!