Saturday, April 30, 2011

вчера, сегодня, завтра - Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

вчера (vchera) - Yesterday

I devoted an entire lesson to teaching North American slang (and a bit of British - had to teach "chav," after all, it's too great a word!) to my advanced teens. Ok, so part of me was cringing as I taught the inane phrase, "What are you sayin'?" (it makes no sense! Why do people insist on using this as a greeting?) but I do think that learning the slangy, colloquial language is oftentimes just as important as learning the proper, grammatically-correct forms.

And seriously, the English in Mind textbook ACTUALLY expected me to teach a lesson on biogerontology. Because the most exciting thing for teenagers to study in a foreign language is the biological processes of aging, right? What's that? You just fell asleep? Yeah. Imagine having to sit through an ENTIRE 90 minute lesson on such a stimulating subject. Hell, imagine having to TEACH that! So I threw the textbook out the window (not literally) and focused on the things that are actually important. You know. Like what exactly IS a gold-digger, after all?

Luckily, no one was too bummed about missing out on the aging process, and the lesson was a success. We ended with them teaching me some Russkiy mat (swear words), which is basically a language unto itself. I've heard before that in comparison to other languages, English swearing is extremely boring and and dull. I don't really swear in the first place (I still remember accidentally letting the word "crap!" slip out of my mouth one time when I was twelve, and being convinced that I was going to Hell for saying such an awful word! - Yes, I was a melodramatic child), but it was interesting to see just how colourful and VERBOSE Russian swearing can be!

It was a fun lesson especially for a class that can be challenging for me at times. There are twelve students (classes aren't supposed to be any larger than eight) and they are all sixteen and seventeen years old - getting to be that age where they think they're too cool for school and all that. It can be difficult for me to maintain control in the classroom, as well as to keep them interested and engaged in English. I received a compliment at the end of the lesson though that meant a lot to me - one of the students, Masha, said to me, "Our lessons are getting a lot more interesting lately! I finally feel like I'm actually learning!" and a few other students nodded in agreement. Since October, I had been focusing on following the textbook, which, as you can see in my biogerontology example, isn't really "down" with what teens are interested in. I've been trying to branch out a bit and focus more on speaking with some grammar reinforcement, and it looks like my experiment is working so far!

Ok, that's enough about teaching! After work, I hurried home to watch the Russian coverage of the Royal Wedding on First Channel. Luckily my ghetto TV managed to work (with the odd adjustment of the antennae every now and then!):

Pretty awesome, huh?

сегодня (sevodnya) - Today

Today I went out to the shops, bought a bunch of different breakfast-type foods (yogurt, muesli, some kind of indeterminate cream cheese-like spread...there WAS some Philly cream cheese but it was outrageously expensive so I stuck to the Russian version) and then stopped at some local street vendors to buy spinach, beets, and strawberries - yum!

I've just spent the last four hours cleaning the kitchen and bathroom in my flat, and now I'm taking a break while I wait for Natasha to finish work and drop off her vacuum cleaner for me to borrow. Why am I in full-out spring cleaning mode? Because...

завтра (zaftra) - Tomorrow

Tomorrow my parents arrive!! I am so, so excited - I'm planning on causing quite the scene at Domodedovo tomorrow when I see them! It's been eight months since I hugged them good-bye at Pearson Airport, and I can't wait to show them around Moscow, the crazy, beautiful, frustrating, glorious city that's become my home. We're also headed to St. Petersburg for four days so be on the lookout for some blog posts about that!

Hope everyone had/is having/will have a great yesterday/today/tomorrow - thanks for dropping by and paka :)

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Royalty, Romance, Russians - one of these things is not like the other?

Unless you've been living under a rock since November, you know that tomorrow is THE day - the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Media coverage has been insane in both the UK and the US, but you might be surprised to hear that the Royal Wedding is also quite the hot topic du jour here in Russia.

It might be surprising because, after all, Russia was fervently communist for over seventy years, and there's not much room for royals when the workers of the world are uniting. Russia's own Royal Family, the Romanovs, were kicked out in February 1917 and brutally and tragically murdered the following year on Bolshevik orders. So you wouldn't be amiss in assuming that there is little love lost for royalty in Russia.

However, there are some ties between Russia and the Windsors. Take a look at this photo:

Aw, look at the early 20th century twins in matching uniforms, you might be thinking. Au contraire, dear readers. This is a picture of Nicholas II of Russia and his cousin George V of England. Their mothers were sisters, so they were actually first cousins. Not only that, but Nicholas' wife Alexandra's grandmother was Queen Victoria herself (there's a good reason that Victoria is often referred to with the sobriquet "Grandmother of Europe"; her many children went on to marry various heads of European royal families).

So the British Royal Family and the Russian one were closely intertwined through blood. Maybe this connection still holds some ground here in Russia, or maybe there's a simpler reason for why the Royal Wedding has captured Russia's attention.

Maybe, just like countries throughout the world right now, Russia is still a bit of a romantic. After all, there's a little part in ALL of us that still believes (or wants to believe) in fairytales, right? That a girl can meet her prince, fall in love, and become a princess and live happily ever after.

I, for one, will definitely be watching Russian coverage of the Royal Wedding tomorrow, which kicks off at 3:15 Moscow time with a documentary on "The Prince and Cinderella" and will continue broadcasting the event (with a repeat on April 30!) throughout the day on Russia's "First Channel," the main channel on Russian television.

Because I am one of those people who still believes in fairytales :)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Teaching philosophy

Today was another gorgeous spring day and I just couldn't bear the thought of teaching for 9 straight hours inside the school. So, what did I do? I took it outside.

I asked the mothers of my Kids Box students (three of them aged 7-8, all cousins) if I could conduct our class outside this afternoon. I was worried they would say no, although to be honest, I would have understood. Would I theoretically let my child venture outside with a stranger? Um, no. But luckily they were fine with the idea (I think it helps that I've been teaching their children for the past three months and that I teach their other cousin, aka Lebron, out in Belyaninovo), so I led the excited three musketeers out to the courtyard behind the school.

I remember reading a book when I was younger about Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller's teacher. She was completely unable to get through to the deaf and blind Helen at first, until one day when they were outside and Anne had the brilliant idea of running Helen's hand under cold water while signing the word "WATER" into her palm. Suddenly, it clicked - Helen connected the sensation of the water on her skin with the jumbled up symbols being spelled out onto her palm, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I'm a big believer in Anne Sullivan's approach to learning. Learning should be FUN, most of all, and memorable. When learning evokes as many senses as possible - sight, scent, hearing, taste, and touch - the student has an easier time remembering and applying the new information. Sure, I could teach weather vocabulary words to my students from inside the classroom, but it was through running around outside, pointing to birds and trees and flowers, letting the kids feel the warm sun on their faces, that the learning process was made both magical and memorable.

I made up "Pirate Treasure Maps" for the kids, a skill I learned to develop last summer while I was working as a nanny. I'm pretty sure I drew a new pirate map every day for about three weeks while the kids I was in charge of were going through an intense pirate phase! Today Larisa, Marina, and Daniel had to follow their treasure maps around to different places in the courtyard, drawing pictures of the new English words I had written on the map - bird, rock, tree, etc. and at the end of the hunt, we all had some treats and juice!

After the vocabulary lesson, we started playing some games - hide and go seek, tag, running races - which was really fun because I was teaching them English words at the same time, like "Run!" and "Ready, set, go!" as well as getting them to practice their numbers when it was their turn to be "it" and count. I noticed one boy sitting in the courtyard watching us with interest, and then over the course of the next ten minutes, more and more children started gathering to watch us run around shouting in English. Finally, one of them worked up the courage to say in broken English, "What is your name?"

"Katie!" I called out. "Do you want to join in?" He didn't really understand the words I was saying, but my smile and beckoning gestures made the point and soon enough there were five extra kids joining in on my lesson!

It was so much fun but too soon, our forty-five minute lesson was up and we had to head back into the school to meet their mothers. Judging from their flushed faces, big grins, and excited babbling away in Russian to their mums, I think its safe to say that my outside lesson was a success!

I'm really falling in love with teaching. I've gotten to teach and be around children in other scenarios, as I lifeguarded and taught swimming lessons for several years and then worked as a nanny last summer. But these past eight months teaching has really made me realize how much fulfillment and JOY I get out of teaching kids. As I was racing around today making a complete fool of myself in a hopping race around the courtyard, all I could think was, "I am so happy right now."

I used to think I had it all figured out when it came to my future, my career I wanted, my "life plan" so to speak. Now I'm really not totally sure what I want to do, but I'm becoming increasingly sure that it should be something to do with teaching and children.

Anyways, I know this is kind of a boring post but I really just wanted to share my experience teaching today and just how much happiness it brought me, running around with a bunch of Russian kids and feeling the warm sun on my face!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Shoot for the Stars: A Day at the Cosmonaut Museum

Check out the weather in Moscow yesterday:

18 degrees!! Pretty amazing, huh? Around 1pm, Natasha, Stuart, Colleen and I set off to ride the rails into Moscow (for just move along from cart to cart on the train when you see the woman coming around to inspect tickets...not that I advocate ripping the system off or anything, but it DID end up saving us about 200 roubles each!).

Our plan was to meet up with Nina, one of Natasha, Stuart and Colleen's metal friends from Ukraine, and her boyfriend who was visiting for the week from Sweden. Nina had organized a belated "Gagarin" Day in honour of the recent Cosmonaut's Day, so we met at Prospekt Mira and walked over to the Moscow Cosmonaut Museum.

The museum was built in 1964 to commemorate the launch of Sputnik twenty years earlier, and it is housed in the base of a VERY cool monument to the "Conquerors of Space," a soaring rocket that stretches 100m up into the sky.

For the Motherland! The side of the base
of the Conquerors of Space monument

The museum was fantastic, and I highly recommend it to anyone in the Moscow area or visiting Moscow. The admission is only 100 roubles (about $3 CDN/USD) and it is definitely something kids will enjoy too - lots of hands-on activities! My only complaint (and I feel like a self-centered Westerner writing this, but...) is that I wish the information in the displays had been in Russian AND English. Luckily, Natasha and Nina could translate for us, but I felt bad constantly going, "Natasha, what does this mean? Nina, help!" Otherwise, though, I would have had a tough time figuring out what some of the displays were about.

The museum did a great job not just focusing on Soviet/Russian contributions to space, but worldwide efforts as well. There was an interactive screen with photographs of all the cosmonauts who have worked for the Russian space program, and you could touch each individual photo to zoom up on their face and see stats on the cosmonaut's nationality, age, how long they were in space for, etc. Unfortunately there were no Canadians, but there were plenty of Americans, Czechs, Indians, Germans, and more! Museum employees were dresesed up in a variety of costumes, from the historically accurate space suits to ones that seemed to be more Star Trek-inspired than Soviet! It added a touch of whimsy to the experience, though. You could also try "space food" at the cafe, although it was a little on the expensive side.

Belka (squirrel) and Strelka (arrow) - two famous
Soviet space dogs who survived their journey and went on to live
healthy long lives back on Earth. These are the actual original
dogs, but obviously stuffed after they died.

Space food in a tube - mm mm good

Instructions on the outside of a space capsule for any passers-by
who might stumble upon a crash landing in the woods!

The chair that simulated what it would be like
in space - if a cosmonaut-in-training survived this ride
without throwing up, he moved to the top of the list
of candidates for space!

After working up an appetite at the museum, we
headed for Yalki Palki, a restaurant on Prospekt Mira,
for dinner. Delicious traditional Russian food and very
good prices!

The mini United Nations: representing America,
Russia, Ukraine, Sweden, Canada, and Scotland
outside the Cosmonaut Museum

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Христос Воскресе! An Orthodox Easter Experience

Христос Воскресе! (Christos voskrese) - Christ is risen!

This is the paschal greeting given by Russian Orthodox believers on Easter. This year, the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox liturgical calendars are aligned for Easter, so both churches will be celebrating the resurrection of Christ tomorrow. However, whereas back in Canada the shops will be currently stuffed with Cadbury creme eggs, chocolate Easter bunnies, and (my personal favourite) sugary marshmallow Peeps, the atmosphere here in Russia is much more sombre and religious. There is nary a chocolate egg or bunny to be found. The lack of commercialism is actually really refreshing, in my opinion, although I certainly wouldn't turn down a Peep if I was offered one!

Soooo good!

My friend Katya invited me to celebrate Holy Saturday (today, the day before Jesus rose from the dead) with her and her grandmother at the Church of the Holy Mother of Vladimir in Mytishi.

Traditionally, Russians will either bake or buy a kulich, a sweet cake with raisins that is only found during the Easter season. It is baked in a cylindrical tin, and decorated with white icing, flowers, sprinkles, and the letters "XB" for "Christ is Risen." Check out the beautiful kulichi that Katya baked:

Kulich is traditionally eaten with paskha, a festal dish that is a delicious blend of all those foods that were forbidden during Lent: tvorog (similar to cottage cheese, although the texture is a bit different - it is one of my favourite foods here in Russia), heavy whipped cream, sugar, eggs, candied fruits and nuts, vanilla, and various spices. Paskha is in the shape of a pyramid, meant to symbolize Christ's tomb, and is eaten as a spread for the kulich.

On Holy Saturday, everyone wraps up their kulichi and dyed Easter eggs, nestles the goods in wicker baskets, and heads for the church. I wasn't totally sure what was going to happen when Katya invited me earlier in the week. This morning, I went for a run and was astonished to see LINES of people - young, old, and every age in between - outside the church with their baskets of kulich and eggs. A few hours (and a perilous marshrutka ride that I count myself lucky to have survived) later, I met up with Katya and her grandmother and we headed for the church.

The first thing (or rather, person) that greeted us outside the church was this:

Let's take a closer look, shall we?

Yes, that would be a man PASSED OUT DRUNK just mere metres from the church walls.

" he...alive?" I ventured.

Katya sighed and looked annoyed. "So Russian," she muttered. Her grandmother clucked her tongue. "Ne harasho," she told me. "Not good." Not good, maybe, but definitely not out of the ordinary unfortunately. There was no time for the Canadian devushka to gape, however, because Katya's grandmother was off and we had to hurry to catch up to her.

Before we entered the walls of the church yard, we had to put on scarves to cover our hair as this is part of the Orthodox faith. Another thing that is different from Catholicism is the way that Orthodox Russians make the sign of the cross - forehead, chest, RIGHT shoulder, THEN left shoulder. Interesting! I made the sign of the cross the way I am used to (the left shoulder first, then the right) and even though it doesn't seem like a big difference, people definitely noticed and gave me slightly weird looks.

We went around to the back where there were tables laid out in the sun. People placed their kulich and eggs on the table and the priest walked up and down, swinging his ...water flicker? (I actually have no idea what that thing is called!) These weren't just mere drops of water though, people. I mean, the priest was DRENCHING us with holy water. He prayed over the kulich and eggs, doused us all with a few more buckets of holy H2O for good measure, and that was that - the kulich and eggs were officially blessed and ready for Easter morning.

After the blessing of the kulich, we went into the church to pray. I've never taken any pictures inside a church before, not knowing if it would be seen as disrespectful or not, but Katya had my camera and was snapping away:

The altar and iconostasis

I have to admit this picture cracks me up:
I was looking at the beautiful frescoes on the ceiling
in awe and had no idea Katya was taking a photo!

An icon of Nicholas II and his family - the same
Nicholas whose statue I visited last weekend.
They were made saints by the Orthodox church
outside of Russia in 1981; this was recognized by the
ROC within Russia in 2000. For meeting their horrific deaths
with "Christian humility", they are given the titles of "Passion Bearers."

I am always struck by the powerful, quiet beauty of Orthodox churches. There are no pews or benches to sit on (the congregation stands throughout the length of the service!) which gives the church an open, wide feeling. However, it is usually quite dark inside, with lit candles, smoky incense, and beautiful icons - Orthdoxy truly encapsulates and involves all the human emotions of sight, hearing, scent, touching, and tasting.

With Katya's grandmother - at the end of the day she told
me to consider her my "Russian babushka" and asked me to
pass along a "hello!" to my Canadian babushkas :)
So kind, welcoming, and friendly!

Outside the church

We went back to Katya's grandmother's flat, and she showed me pictures from her travels (Egypt, Holland, Prague, and more!) as well as old photographs of HER grandparents. She has collected many interesting odds and ends over the years, and it was fascinating to see everything and to talk with her (although Katya was definitely working over-time as a translator!). Her flat was very "traditional Russian", with heavy carpets hanging on the walls for insulation during the long winters.

"Young Russians don't like this style," Katya told me, "because it's very old-fashioned!" I liked it though - the carpets added a cosy feel to the room.

"It's not much, but it's ours," her grandmother said humbly as we stood in her room looking at all her treasures from the past. "It's our home." What a beautiful sentiment.

When I put my coat back on to head home, she hugged me warmly and asked if I had a Canadian babushka. "Yes, I have two," I told her, smiling at the thought of my two wonderful grandmothers.

"Tell them I say hello," she instructed me. "And that they have a beautiful granddaughter. And I will be your Russian babushka, da?" Then she hugged me again and said, "Da svidanya - goodbye!"

All in all, today was fascinating and I feel so lucky to have met such a charming, friendly, and wonderful woman. Thank you Katya for sharing the Orthodox Easter experience with me, and for introducing me to your incredible babushka!

Happy Easter!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

So you wanna be an ESL teacher?

This past week, I've gotten a few emails from readers and friends asking me about teaching English. Now, I'm not claiming to be any kind of expert when it comes to TESL. But as someone who's been teaching ESL in a foreign country for the past (almost) 8 months, I guess I do have some advice based on my experiences. So here goes:

1) Do it for the RIGHT reasons

Teaching English overseas has become a VERY popular thing to do in recent years, especially for young 20somethings who are recent university graduates and either want to postpone "real life" for a bit or take a break before diving back into school. And don't get me wrong, teaching English is fun and a great way to see other parts of the world...but it still IS work. Which means, you better at least somewhat enjoy teaching, meeting new people, and speaking in public. If you're really just interested in getting to a foreign country and drinking and partying for a year, teaching ESL probably isn't the best option for you.

2) Do your research

There are many possible countries out there - it seems to me that the most popular one right now is South Korea, but there are certainly many, many options. So do your research! Is there a particular country whose history or culture or food or language you love? What about climate? I often had to keep reminding myself this year (as I trudged through the snow) that I didn't choose Russia because of it's spectacular weather!

Once you've decided on a country, research the heck out of it. Find out what its biggest cities are, what the economy is like, the political situation, cultural norms, etc etc...the Internet is such an amazing resource - use it! I found blogs to be an extremely helpful forum last spring when I was planning out my year in Russia. In fact, I even discovered that the writer of the one blog I found online not only was Canadian, but grew up not too far from where I did! He gave me a lot of practical, useful advice and I am so grateful for all the help!

Blogs are a great way to find out what life is ACTUALLY like living there. And you want to know what daily life is truly like so you can prepare somewhat for the culture shock. Obviously you won't be able to anticipate every new thing before you actually get there and experience life, but "scientia est potentia", right? Knowledge is power.

3) Explore your options

Set up your own students, work for an ESL company, or a find a private school? There are many options when it comes to teaching English overseas. I personally have had a very positive experience with Language Link, one of the "McSchools" of ESL in Russia. Not only did they handle my visa (a hassle for foreigners trying to work in Russia!), but they also met me at the airport, provided paid-for accomodations, and have continued to give support to me whenever I've had questions. One of the main reasons why I chose LL over other companies was their unique "intern-teacher" program, where I got to do a month-long internship in September. After the month, I received a full TESL certificate and became a teacher. Just know that there are TONS of options out there - you don't have to settle for just one school or one company! Compare salaries and benefits and most importantly, pour over any contracts!

4) Be flexible and open

Don't head over to a foreign country with the smug belief that English is the best language and the only one worth knowing. Because you will look like an IDIOT. The thing is, all of my students are fluent in Russian (well, duh...I suppose that goes without saying) AND speak much better English than I speak Russian. Not only that, but several of them know some French or German too. One of my students is learning Japanese as well! So they're all much more linguistically talented than I am. I guess what I'm trying to say is this - don't act all high and mighty because YOU know English and they don't.

When it comes to the language of the country you're in, try to learn it - I'm sure you will pick up on a lot of vocabulary naturally, but trust me, when you make a concerted effort to speak the native language, your students LOVE it! Whenever I (attempt to) say something in Russian, everyone cracks up, claps their hands, and cheers. It kinda makes me feel like a celebrity!

5) Know your role

Being a teacher can mean straddling some fine lines at times. You have to be a disciplinarian, an instructor, a friend, an entertainer, a cheerleader...that's a lot of different hats to wear! My main advice here is just make sure you aren't TOO friendly with your teenage classes - you give them an inch, they run a mile...and then its REALLY hard to get them to settle down and do grammar exercises!

6) Know that your schedule will likely suck

The ESL teacher's schedule is not exactly the perk of the job. Because even though you're not saying, "Would you like fries with that?" you are still providing a service and thus, the customer's demands really dictate your schedule. The school I work at offers some classes in the mornings and afternoons for children and "housewives" (not my preferred term of choice, but that is how stay-at-home mothers here refer to themselves), and then evening classes for teenagers and adults. I basically work every day from 12-9pm, and sometimes I have classes scheduled back-to-back the whole time. Which means you can easily go 9 hours without a food or bathroom break! :S

2 day Saturday-Sunday weekends are also not guaranteed. Out of the five teachers at my school, only two of us have a Sat-Sun weekend. Stuart has Sundays and Mondays off, Rhea has Fridays and Sundays, and Colleen has Sundays and Wednesdays.

Just be prepared, that's all I can say! Some days are crazier than others when there are sick teachers and classes to cover, but at the end of the day, there is a real comradery in the school between the teachers and everyone pulls together. I actually love my crazy Fridays because in the 5 minutes between classes Colleen and I always meet in the teacher's room to vent/gobble some strawberries/gulp coffee together, and perk each other up with "Only three more classes! Only two more classes! Okay, last one! We can do this!" :)

7) Have fun!

Honestly, my year of teaching ESL has been the absolute BEST year of my life. I have learned SO much - about myself, about this country, about grammar...haha yes I can now blather on about when to use the present continuous versus the future simple with complete confidence! I think traveling in any context - especially for a long period of time - has the power to truly transform you as a person. Teaching ESL has been the most rewarding job I've ever had, and also one of the most fun. Don't be afraid to embarass yourself - let loose, be dorky, put yourself out will reap the rewards by making memories that will never fade and friends from around the world that will never let you forget the time you dressed up as a fortune teller and got everyone to practice the future simple by telling fortunes!

So that is my advice for anyone out there interested in teaching ESL. If you have any more questions, feel free to comment on my blog or leave your email and I'll do my best to help!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Mission Accomplished: the Hunt for Nicholas II

The other day, Iain and I were hanging out in the teacher's room at school and discussing things we wanted to do while we are both still here in Mytishi (Iain is also headed to a camp, in Bulgaria, for the summer).

A few months ago, I had heard a rumour that there is a statue of Nicholas II (Николай Второй по-русский), the last tsar of Russia. Nicholas was the final ruler in a long line of Romanovs, the Royal Family who had governed Russia since 1613, when 16-year old Mikhail Romanov was elected tsar. In 1917, the over-300 year reign of the Romanovs came to an end with the February Revolution, which saw the abdication of Nicholas...and, in 1918, the execution of both him and his young family - his wife, Alexandra, and their five children - at the hands of the Bolsheviks. This is where the Anastasia legend arose - Anastasia was Nicholas' youngest daughter, who was just seventeen when she was killed (but DON'T get me started on that ridiculous animated "Anastasia" historically inaccurate!).

Anyways, Iain had also heard about this statue, and also that the Communists had periodically tried to blow the statue up over the years but they had never succeeded. Why might they want to blow up a statue of Nicholas II? Well, they WERE trying to rewrite history, after all. And what better way to gloss over the Romanov reign by destroying any reminder of it? Nicholas wasn't exactly a popular fact, his detractors used to refer to him as "Bloody Nicholas" (If you're interested in learning more about him - he really is fascinating! - I highly recommend the biography "Nicholas and Alexandra" by Robert K. Massie).

I keep distracting myself with history here, so I'll stop and get back to the story at hand. We decided that on Saturday we would go on a hunt to find the statue. Iain had the brilliant idea (after all, he went to Trinity College in Dublin, whereas I only went to Playboy's #4 party school in North America, the University of Western Ontario, so brilliant ideas are not my forte although Sledgehammer Bingo apparently is) that the statue would be near a church, because Nicholas II and his family have been made saints by the Russian Orthodox Church.

So we set off yesterday evening with Ilya in our mission to find the statue. After wandering around in what could have easily passed for a set for a movie about Vimy Ridge (picture: mud, mud, and more mud. And desolation) we came across a little old babushka with...willow branches in her hand!

Alarms went off in our heads. Today (Sunday) is Willow Sunday, which is the same as Palm Sunday for Catholics...the last Sunday before Easter when people wave willow branches/palms in memory of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. Willow branches in hand = coming from church? Ilya asked her and it turned out that she had indeed come from church and could point us in the right direction. A short while later, we glimpsed this:

The Church of the Anunciation

Here are some more pics of the Church - the front of it was VERY cool - different from any other Orthodox Church I've seen here. It seemed very Eastern/Arabic but I am no expert in architecture so I really am not sure.

The gravesite of Tihon, a monk.

Construction being done on the side of the church

And then we saw this:

The statue! We hurried over there...but ran into this guy first...

You might have to look closely, but that is a man in a bathrobe coming out of his shack to peer at us suspiciously. "Is that the keeper of the statue?" Iain wondered. Luckily he didn't stop us from getting up close and personal with Nicholas II:

The plaque reads: Tsar-Martyr Nicholas II

The statue was very impressive and HUGE (although we had to wonder, don't most martyrs look a little pain? I guess when you're a Tsar-Martyr you have to maintain your regal air) and looked like it had withstood Soviet attempts to blow it up rather well. As someone who LOVES the history of the Romanovs, I really enjoyed seeing this statue. It was absolutely gorgeous out too - a perfect evening for a walk. Lots of new trees have been planted around this area, and fresh soil had been laid for gardens. I'll have to come back in 20 years or so to see the effects; I'm sure it will be a lovely, peaceful place!

We headed back to the main drag in Mytishi, stumbling across some people in the park who were grilling up some shashlik:

And this statue of a cosmonaut, decorated with flowers for the recent Cosmonaut's Day:

This is a billboard warning crazy drivers to pay attention to the "zebra crossings" for pedestrians (hah! Like that will happen!):
Right around the corner from this billboard is another statue, this one commemorating flight (and, fittingly, it can be found on Lyotnaya Street, which means flight!):

And for my final photo in what has turned out to be a photo-heavy post, here is the charming, handsome and not-at-all-creepy Stas Mihailov, who will be staging a concert at the arena across from my flat on June 2nd. Oh, I'll be in camp by then? Rats. Guess I'll have to miss Stas:

If this face doesn't give you nightmares, what will??

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Bring it on, Life

Is it possible to miss people and places before you even have to leave them?

Because that's how I'm feeling tonight. Nostalgic for Russia before I'm even gone! I know that makes no sense, and that I should live in the moment, etc etc...

But I can't help thinking tonight just how much I'm going to miss living here. How much I'm going to miss the people who make me smile day in and day out.

My adult intermediate class tonight asked me with hopeful smiles on their faces, "You're going to be our teacher in September, right?" When I said no, they all seemed so disappointed. Which is definitely flattering to me as a teacher, but it was more than that. Even though I've only been teaching this specific class for a month, I've really bonded with them and I truly look forward to my Tuesday and Thursday nights. They're such an eclectic bunch - two of them, a husband and wife, are surgeons at the Children's hospital in Moscow, another student holds some senior position in the Russian Navy (and is VERY dashing and handsome to boot!), and another works for the municipal government here in Mytishi. All of them are funny, insightful, interesting, and enthusiastic about learning. And I can't believe that in just a month and a half's time, I'm going to have to say goodbye to them.

I'm not sure if, while reading this blog, you've wondered what my plans are for next year or not. I've decided not to return to Russia for another year - as much as I DO love it here, I want to experience other places and adventures as well. I don't want to play my life safe by any means, and even though last year I probably would have laughed at the thought that Russia is "playing it safe", the thing is, Russia really has become my home. And I love that. But I want to see other parts of the world too, and let other parts become my home as well. I want to keep challenging myself, and try new things and meet new people.

So a few months ago, I started considering working as an au pair for a family in Europe. I worked as a nanny last summer and absolutely LOVED the experience and loved the special bond I built with the children - I feel like a big sister to them!

And so I am very, VERY excited to say that I have found my perfect second family. They live in southwestern England and truly remind me of my own family, with similar values and interests and craziness! :) So that will be where I am headed this coming fall - watch out UK! (or should I say, watch out Chelsy Davy because my sights are set on your on-again/off-again boyfriend, Prince Harry! hah!)

I am looking forward to next year more than words can describe, but tonight I am still feeling more than a little sad that I'm leaving Russia behind. I feel like this is the right decision in my heart though. I will ALWAYS love Russia and who knows? Maybe at some point I'll return to live here again. I do know that I will continue to study Russian (or attempt to!), to devour Russian books and music and culture, and dream about Russian hockey players. I'm only twenty-three, and my whole life is ahead of me - and you know what? I don't find that a scary thought anymore. It's exhilarating. Like...bring it on, life. I can't wait to see what you have in store for me!

That being said, however, I will miss my students and friends here so much. But I guess I need to take my own advice and just enjoy my next month and a half here before camp starts. And make sure that all my students (ok, well maybe not ALL...I'm still freaked out by that kid who asked me about charred flesh once) have my email address and know that if they're ever in Canada, there's a spot for them at my dinner table (uhh, maybe I should check with my parents first...right Mum and Dad?)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

This is Ground Control to Major Tom...

With an enthusiastic "Поехали!" (Let's go!), Yuri Gagarin launched Vostok 1 from Kazakhstan to become the first man to orbit space fifty years ago today, on April 12, 1961.

Once up in space,orbiting the earth at 17,000 miles an hour, he whistled a Soviet tune over the radio - “The Motherland hears, the Motherland knows/Where her son flies in the sky.”

Today is День Космотавтики (dyen kosmatovtiki), Cosmonaut's Day, here in Russia. In celebration of this momentuous event in history, First Orbit has put together an English-language movie that is available on Youtube. Unfortunately I am still extremely technologically-impaired and I have no idea how to upload videos onto my blog. So all I can do is point you in the right direction (check it out here) and STRONGLY suggest that you watch at least the first few minutes. It starts off with Gagarin's original speech before take-off, coupled with black and white photographs of different moments of his life. It is VERY moving and the musical score is incredible.

After successfully orbiting the earth on a 108-minute space flight, the 27 year old son of a carpenter reflected, “Orbiting Earth in the spaceship, I saw how beautiful our planet is. People, let us 
preserve and increase this beauty, not destroy it.” Very wise words.

Happy Cosmonaut's Day!

(Gagarin's quote in Russian: Облетев Землю в корабле-спутнике, я увидел, как прекрасна наша планета. Люди, будем хранить и приумножать эту красоту, а не разрушать её!)

Monday, April 11, 2011

This one time, at Russian camp...

Today I was told that my last day of work would be May 31st. That was a bit of a shock to me - May 31st is not that far away! It hit me just how much I'm going to miss the school and Mytishi, and especially my students.

Once I found out when my last day was, a new question was raised. My contract with Language Link is until July 1st, so what was going to happen to me in that interim month? I had heard that I might be sent to teach at a school in Moscow, which, although it would have been okay, wasn't something I was super pumped about. I commuted back and forth between Moscow and Mytishi during my month-long internship in September, and, well, spending upwards of 5 hours a day on a commute isn't exactly the best use of my time!

So you can imagine how thrilled and excited I was to receive an email today, informing me that I had been given a placement at a summer camp! The camp, Euroclub, (website is here, but in Russian only) is located about 60km northwest of Moscow, in the wilderness. I'll move there June 2nd, and will be there until June 28th, working 6 hours a day, 6 days a week, with Sundays off and three consecutive days off in the middle of the month. I'll be the only English instructor, and lesson structure and content are entirely my prerogative - a challenge and definitely something I'll have to prepare for, but it should also be really fun! Meals are free and included, and in my free time I'm encouraged to use the swimming pool, the fitness centre, the hiking trails...and horse back riding!'s basically a DREAM.

The only downside is that there is no internet at the camp, so The Devushka Diaries will have to go on a bit of a hiatus in June. I'm not sure how isolated this camp is from civilization, but if there's a town nearby I'll try to get some wifi - otherwise, I will have a lot to write about in July! I am really excited for this opportunity - it should be something fun and different, and it will be great to see another part of Russia.

Here is what one of the instructors who taught there last summer said about the camp:

“The Euroclub experience was...interesting. The location is a little unsettling at first, if you haven't been exposed to the walled-in prison atmosphere of an athletic training camp of that type."

Hmm...can't say I HAVE been exposed to any walled-in prision-like atmospheres...

"The food is surprisingly good and the living accommodations are pretty nice, although it may be a bit of a walk to a shower. The kids are mostly well-behaved and glad to have a chance to practice their English. It is, however, a difficult line to walk during class time; the kids are there for, essentially, vacation. They want to have fun and practice speaking. However, the administration of Euroclub is under a lot of pressure from parents who want their kids to receive intensive education during these English classes. They want to see a lot of written grammar exercises. Classes are approximately 40-55 minutes, so it's fairly easy to work in a decent balance of enjoyable activities and drier written grammar work."

"Also, the kids are really friendly! Don't be afraid to go visit them in their dormitories, they really like seeing you outside of class and getting to speak English more."

Bring it on! June sounds like its going to be an interesting, fun, and exciting month. Russian wilderness, here I come! :)

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Lessons from Russian Women

1) When going out, even if its just to the local perekrestok grocery store, high heels and makeup are a must.

2) Never sit on concrete and/or cold surfaces, because they will make you infertile.

3) A scarf is a woman's best friend and can be used in many ways, from a chic wrap to a knotted kerchief over the hair.

4) Your husband = the breadwinner. You = the bread baker.

5) Scrunchees are not only an acceptable hair accessory, but quite fashionable (ok, ok, enough with the scrunchee hate...I promise this is the last time I mention them!)

6) Salads are only salads with copious amounts of mayonnaise and undeterminate meat product in them.

7) Don't accept a fur coat unless its from your husband. Boyfriends and potential suitors are not permitted to give you such an extravagant gift, although Cartier watches and Elton John concert tickets are fine.

8) If you're smart and thrifty, you'll wait until you're in Europe to buy your designer clothes. Everyone knows that the prices are jacked up in Moscow.

9) The most stylish places to travel are the UAE, Egypt, Turkey, Israel and Spain.

10) You can't always get what you want. But pushing often helps.

11) You WILL become a babushka one day. It is inevitable. So enjoy the heels and mini-skirts now!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

"Devushka Diaries" joins the Mile High Club

Back in March, my friend and fellow teacher here in Mytishi, Iain, flew to Finland for the long weekend. He was flipping through Aeroflot's in-flight magazine when he saw a familiar face - my own!

Aeroflot published some excerpts from expats' blogs about life in Russia. Which is cool, I guess, although I had no idea and it might have been nice if they had at least told me.

But I don't really care - I know I put this out here on the Internet, and that means ANYONE could be reading this. What I do care about is their choice of excerpts they used!

They picked the absolute worst sections of my blog to use - two different posts where I'm either complaining about Russia or making fun of it. And yeah, sure, I AM guilty of the occasional snarky post or exasperated rant (I think that is just part and parcel of being an expat in a foreign country), but I think overall my posts are positive and happy...right? Or do I come across as this self-righteous, entitled foreigner who makes fun of scrunchees and bemoans the lack of hot water a little TOO much?

The thing is, I love Russia and I have loved my experience living here so far. Russia is not a perfect country (there's no such thing!) and sometimes I do compare Russia negatively to the country I grew up in, Canada.

A year ago I loved Russia blindly - the Russia of Tolstoy, the Russia of romantic snowy troika rides, the Russia of hot hockey players if I'm being completely honest! :) But now I love Russia because I feel like I am a little closer to understanding her, a little closer to the REAL Russia if you will. The Russia where people may not smile at you in the streets, but where they welcome you into their homes and their hearts with a plate of food and a bottle of vodka. The Russia where you can literally buy a cabbage on every street corner. The Russia where your 15 year old students have a favourite literary critic AND a favourite rapper. The Russia where centuries of history can be found side-by-side with modern skyscrapers. The Russia where both the driver of the Bentley and the driver of the Lada will honk their horn, swerve wildly through traffic, and roar over a puddle of mud and water, soaking passersby without a second thought (proving my theory that it doesn't matter if you're rich or not, anyone can be an a**hole!). The Russia where you can visit Red Square many, many times...and it never gets old. It never ceases to completely amaze you, to stop you in your tracks and make you go, "Wow."

This is my Russia, and I love it.

(So if you're reading this, oh unknown Aeroflot employee who gets the thankless task of trolling the internet for expat blogs, consider THIS post for your next in-flight magazine. Not the ones where I'm complaining about scrunchees and sequins!)

Note "hot Russian hockey player" cut-out
in background of teacher's room!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

I Have Survived!

Walking along the Moskva River today

It might just be me, but it seems like the Gloria Gaynor karoake classic "I Will Survive" is played everywhere here! I hear it all the time, on buses, in stores, in restaurants, even in class (it is one of the songs featured in New English File textbooks).

Anyways, this post is inspired by the song, but instead of the future simple I'm using the present perfect here in my version - I HAVE survived...the infamous Russian winter.

Yes, folks, today was a balmy, gorgeous 14 degrees and I think its finally safe to say that winter is over and spring is here.

Upon reflection, I find myself glossing over the worst of the past five months. Like, "Oh, it wasn't THAT bad." But then...I remember wanting to curse but not being able to open my frozen lips while I waited approximately 45 minutes to an excruciating hour for the #314 to come pick me up from the side of a desolate highway two times a week. I remember those two and a half weeks in December when I was forced to pay 2oo roubles to shower at the pool because our water heater was broken. I remember trying to go for a run and having to turn back because my eyelashes were freezing to my face and I couldn't see.

So, maybe I'm looking back on the past with rose-tinted glasses.

But then again, although the winter was long and brutal at times, I have to be grateful for the frozen body parts because it makes you appreciate spring all the more when it finally DOES arrive.

Like today. It was perfect. I went for a long walk from Pushkin Square down Tverskaya Ulitsa (the main street in Moscow) all the way to Red Square, then along the banks of the Moskva River until I got to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. I turned around there, then walked to Lubyanka where I popped in at Biblio Globus and picked up a couple more English books. The sidewalks were just packed with other people out and about enjoying the day and the glorious sunshine. I had a blast exploring more of this beautiful city!

Afterwards, I met up with some friends for dinner at a delicious vegetarian restaurant, Jagganath, and then headed back home.

Now I'm basking in the glow of a great day, and in the realization that I'm a survivor...I have survived a Russian winter and lived to tell about it!

Tverskaya Ulitsa (in the background you can see
the spires of the Kremlin)

Tverskaya Ulitsa

Russians and their love of ice cream!

Cleaning the streets - almost got soaked!