Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Teaching Week

After his students, a TEFL teacher’s biggest complaint is always his schedule. Split shifts, early starts, too much marking, late finishes, weekend work, too many classes, different levels. So far, although I’m exactly on my maximum number of weekly teaching hours at 24, I don’t have much to complain about here. I only work Monday to Friday, do one morning class a week, and have at least two groups at each of the three different levels I teach, meaning I can re-use most of my lesson plans. I wasn’t always so lucky: in my second job in Korea, I had six forty-minute classes with six different groups of teenagers every afternoon – and just thirty minutes after a quick lunch and three hours of six-year-olds in the morning to prepare for them all. I asked once if there was a syllabus and was pointed to a piece of paper which said, Lesson One: Page 1 and 2. The extra resources took up less than half a shelf.

As I remember, we mainly played games.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Evenings In (Without Gray and Tyler)

As I don’t finish work until almost nine at night (this isn’t as bad as it sounds – four days out of five I don’t start teaching until ten to four), I’ve mainly been slobbing out in front of the football this week. There are, as you might imagine, some massive differences between the British Champions League experience and what you get on Ukrainian TV. For starters, although the onscreen graphics are in English the commentary, of course, isn’t, so I only ever understand the proper nouns, pass completion rates, average distance covered (individual and team), the ratio of shots on target….

The same commentator (whose physical appearance remains a mystery to me) does every game and the name of the channel’s in the corner instead of the score, which meant I had to wait until Barcelona scored before I realised Stuttgart had too. There’s no going back to the studio at half time either - instead of expert guests you get advert breaks, first-half highlights with random bits of crowd noise, and lots of substitutes kicking balls around, fans looking at their watches and ground staff replacing divots on the pitch.

All of which, it goes without saying, is very much preferable to Graeme Souness.

Getting Online (Part Two)

“Hi Michael,” the office manager began, “I’ve just got a call from the internet people and they’re coming next week now.” “Why?” she went on, answering the question before I could ask, “Because you don’t need a modem, only a cable to connect you. They’ll come next Tuesday at 2 o’clock instead.”

The doorbell rang, and I answered without looking. Two Jehovah’s Witnesses started a spiel in Russian about there being only one god.

Men’s Day

Ukrainian women get their own bank holiday on the 8th of March, when men are supposed to buy them flowers and, for perhaps the only day of the year, do the cooking. (Sales of beans and sliced bread must go through the roof in the first week of March.) In return, February 23rd is Men’s Day, an unofficial holiday that used to honour all those who’d served in the Soviet Army - which thanks to conscription meant pretty much everyone.
In practice, this results in supermarket shelves fit to burst with alcohol, some of which even finds its way into the hands – and down the throats – of foreign English teachers. My intermediate class presented me with a bottle of the local cognac, to be “drunk together with coffee so you feel at home in Odessa”.
The rest of my groups got lots of hints about my birthday, which is on March the 31st (and just so you know, I do accept gifts of booze by international post).

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Backstories: When the Lights Go Off 19/2/2010

My first Ukrainian power cut happened this morning – thirty seconds after I’d stepped into the shower. The bathroom light went out, came back for a second, and then everything faded to black. Fortunately, there was just enough light coming through the door for me to see what I was doing, the hot water tank was full, and I was planning to have frozen pelmeni for dinner anyway.

The power had gone off across the whole of the city centre. The traffic lights were out all the way into school and there was no photocopier once I got there. “How long does this usually last?” I asked the secretary. “Maybe a couple of hours,” she shrugged, then thought for another moment. “I hope.”

This time she was right.

Backstories: Home 17/2/2010

My flat is on Sadovaya, between two pizza restaurants, behind a bus shelter and a baker’s kiosk and a few hundred metres from the Cathedral of the Transfiguration, nearly two hundred years old and newly rebuilt after the Soviets blew it up. There’s a gated courtyard with bare trees, stray cats and a Lada ambulance van, and four flights of stairs before you reach my door - though only the lower three are ever lit at night.

The first thing you notice is the shower, which fills a third of the bathroom, looks like a time travel pod from a 60s sci-fi show, blows water in twelve different directions and has a switch to play the radio while you’re rinsing yourself off. It’s too big to be properly secured to the floor so every movement of your feet shifts the whole thing round like an F1 driver’s gear stick. The toilet cistern is too far forward for the seat to stay upright, meaning you either have to piss sitting down or with one hand outstretched. Hot water is from a boiler above the sink, which is always to be left on.

Through an arch is the main room, painted one half in beige, one half in brown, and meeting halfway in the middle like the front of a Blackburn Rovers top. There’s a double bed pressed against a radiator with blankets not quite big enough to stretch around the sides, a hi-fi with wall-mounted speakers – “You can play as loud as disco. No neighbours,” my landlord told me, cranking the dial all the way to the right – and eighty-channel cable TV, every single one of them in Russian or Ukrainian. No internet – yet – but there is an armchair, a man-sized tree in the kitchen and a balcony with a corrugated iron roof and windows round the sides (although I came home last night to find the floor covered in snow). Around the walls are two separate pictures of a forest at sunset, a Japanese Geisha, a cat crawling out of a Doctor Marten’s boot, a woman undressing behind a red cape, a horse, a woman in black twisting a gun around her finger with the words Sweet Revenge printed underneath in English, and five framed butterflies with Latin names to the side. From the windows you can see the domed roof of the Opera House, a Star of David on the side of a building, a couple of spires, snow melting on blue and red rooftops, and chimneys padded for warmth in space-station silver.

The last room is the kitchen, through another arch and with all mod-cons except for a saucepan, frying pan, chopping board, cheese grater, tin opener…There’s a top-loading washing machine with instructions in Cyrillic, an upright fridge freezer pushed into an alcove, a real oven and an electric kettle which keeps falling on the floor. I work at a low-table with half-circle bench seating round the sides, reminiscent of a caravan. Work is a five-minute walk away, through a iced-up, slightly flooded subway, past a steak house and a Japanese restaurant and on the other side of a courtyard halfway down Odessa’s main street, Deribasovskaya. So far I like everything - except the sleepless nights.

Backstories: Sleepless in Odessa 15-16/2/2010

The loudest sound is the motorised drone of the fridge in the kitchen switching on and off, the most constant the exam-hall tick, tick, tick of the clock and the workings of the toilet cistern through the wall behind my head – like water running constantly from a tap down the side of a sink. Far off, a fog horn sounds from the lighthouse at the port, a moan of pain that goes on and on and on. Cathedral bells intone the hours one on top of another, like a roomful of children reciting their times tables. (A single toll marks each half hour in between.) Through my weightless eyelids, the light bulbs in the ceiling are dark stars spread across the sky. Sometime after six, greyish light starts to streak in through the gap in the blinds. I reach out to reset the alarm I already know I won’t be using for another hour in bed.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Backstories: School 12/2/10

School was a rush of names and faces. Mark the boss, Marina, the manager who I’d met at the airport, and Graham, who I already knew from Riga. Then there were the two Nataliyas, both from Moldova, though one has a slightly superior role to the other. Dasha the runner, a man who doesn’t speak any English who sits out front all day and locks the classroom doors as soon as you’ve finished, Tanya the accountant, Irinya the assistant to the accountant and Lyuda who takes the students’ cash.

Into the teachers’ room there was Olga and Lena and Viktoriya. Elena the DOS was talking to a Michael the American (leading to an unsuccessful attempt to christen me Mike) and nearly everybody else was talking about football. There’s a Hartlepool fan from Hexham, a Shrewsbury fan from Wales and two first year teachers who follow Norwich City and Spurs. Straight after work we all went to the pub.

Getting Online

The two men who came to fit the internet were only forty-five minutes late. They left their shoes and mud at the door, fiddled around with a cable for a few moments, opened and closed the window, then headed upstairs to the roof while I went out to school.

One of the secretaries appeared with my key an hour later. “It’s all done?” “No, there was no key to get on to the roof so they’ll come back next week.” “Monday? Tuesday?” I asked, more in hope than expectation. “Sometime” was all she said in reply.

Backstories: Arriving in Odessa 11/2/10

Ukrainians say rushing travel brings bad luck – and that the most auspicious way to begin a journey is to sit and relax on your luggage. Arriving at Heathrow nine and a half hours before my onward flight, I didn’t have a great deal of choice in the matter. I listened to the last half hour of a Chelsea defeat on the radio, read the Evening Standard from cover to cover, and went through everything the Bradt guide had to say about southern Ukraine. My neighbours changed every few hours: Indians who talked constantly on their mobile phones, watched TV on their laptops, sat and stared at the metal shutters covering WH Smith’s.

About four o’clock someone new sat down on my right. He was dressed like a demented officer of cavalry in black leather gloves, a cream-coloured Aquascutum mackintosh that almost met the top of his polished Doctor Marten’s, a pink shirt with braces and gold cufflinks, and a baggy suit in Rupert Bear check, with the trousers tucked into his boots, billowing out over the sides in the shape of two sails. He had a rabbit fur hat on his head, which he took off to reveal close-cropped hair dyed the colour of rust. I saw him turn towards me, and then he began to talk. He was an Algerian with a British passport and a Scottish wife in London, and his big idea was to open a small hotel in Yalta and fly over middle-aged men from England (“Americans too, if they want.”) who wanted to meet Ukrainian girls. “Near the beach, you know. Maybe with a small bar and a place to dance, everything under one roof. You spend all your money in one place. I bring the girls and get my commission. By the way, do you have a mobile number?”

He talked about a German friend in Kiev who was seeing seven girls at once, hiring a car and a driver before calling a different one every day to say he’d just come from the airport and was only in town for one night. There was a heartbroken Welshman in Crimea and a string of girls of his own. “Women here are real women. If you are good in bed, they never leave you.” At five he went in search of his gate – “I’ll call you – maybe we can meet in Yalta.” I still had an hour before my flight to Warsaw.

Changing in Poland for the final leg to Odessa, I counted twenty-six of us on the plane, but the stewardesses were being so generous with the beer that I could have been wrong. The guidebook talked about the “rush of warm sea air” that greets you in Odessa but it was the snowiest winter in years and my first sight of the place was dispiriting. There were clouds all the way, making it seem as if we were flying across an empty page in a book, then we dipped at the last and there were grey apartment blocks and snow piled on grass and a tiny terminal building the size of a small town railway station.

The first person I saw was the secretary from the school, surrounded by part-time taxi drivers badgering her for the fare into the city centre. There was no public transport so she called a company on her mobile and we sat down to wait. Where do you come from? How was your flight? Why were you late? Have you been here before?

I instinctively pulled on the seatbelt as we got into the taxi, but there was nowhere to fasten it and neither of the people in the front was bothering with theirs. I thought the driver might take a second attempt as an insult to his driving, so I concentrated on the window instead. There was a long road with kiosks selling bread rolls, a two-carriage tram, cars avoiding potholes, disused and dilapidated factory units. “What’s your first impression?” “A little but like the Czech Republic,” I replied, thinking back to bread and trams.

We stopped by a big yellow cathedral and a snow-covered park. There was a burnt-out building with flowers left on the steps, as if in memorial to a death, and a pizza restaurant on either side of the block. The landlord was waiting upstairs with his wife and an English-speaking friend. He explained things in Russian, the secretary translated, while the friend asked if I’d seen Alfie, what my favourite football team was and what kind of books I liked to read. “I’ll bring some novels for you,” he said as he left. “I have some questions about grammar.”

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Back in the USSR

Kiev, October 1997. This is how it was. "Show nothing gold," warned the guard at the airport. I stopped to get some chewing gum and got back a handful of coins the size of Smarties. The streets were grey and there were baboushkas wrapped in headscarves down every subway, selling odds-and-ends from dirty blankets that were frayed about the edges. McDonald's had just opened on Sevastapol Square and through the polished glass people in fur coats were eating Filet-O-Fish and Chicken McNuggets. A bunch of us found a basement bar where we downed vodka and pickled herring with a group of men in dark leather jackets who'd come up to see the game. One of them invited us to Odessa. "Yeah, why not?" someone said, but the flight back was straight after full-time and we were all at work the following afternoon.

I didn't realise then that work would one day take me there.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Paris: Evening

From Oscar Wilde's grave and the last stand of the Communards I walked through the Bastille, past the booksellers that line the river as far as Notre Dame and the Louvre, then on across the Tuileries to the obelisk at Place de la Concorde, where the traffic turns right for the Champs-Elysees and I saw the Arc de Triomphe for the only time that day. The first arrondissement became the eighth, I passed the Gare St Lazare and entered the eighteenth as I crossed an iron bridge that cuts a cemetery in two, reaching the hill and Sacre Coeur with the last of the light. There was a merry-go-round, a Korean woman screaming in the face of a man selling postcards, and an English couple posing for a picture by a smashed bottle of wine. We all sat at the top of the steps watching the sun go down. Before it was fully dark I was walking through Belleville, back towards Ménilmontant and my bed for the night.

Thursday, February 04, 2010


We're a small city, true enough, but there still isn't much in the way of good literature about Newcastle-upon-Tyne. There was Kiddar's Luck, of course, Jack Common's masterpiece - "one of the two best working-class novels of the 20th century" - Robert Westall's The Machine Gunners, and the poems that came out of Bloodaxe Books. Jack's Return Home - set in Scunthorpe and written by a Mancunian - feels like it's really about the Toon, but that's only because of the film (which really was a classic, by the way). And then there's Catherine Cookson, who I always suspected was a bit crap but haven't actually read.

I found Richard T. Kelly's The Crusaders in the Edinburgh branch of Fopp, drawn to the arch of the Tyne Bridge on the cover (ok, and the two quid price tag), and devoured the 540 pages like a bag of chips after a Saturday night out. Set in a semi-factional West End in the mid-1990s, with flashbacks to the early-80s, regeneration schemes and several cameos from the black-and-whites themselves, it has the kind of broad, generational sweep you find in the Victorian novelists. If it was a film, it'd be called Once Upon A Time in Newcastle - and Jimmy Woods and DeNiro would be queueing up for the starring roles.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

My Six Point Plan to Improve the World

1. What global cinema really needs right now is more films about vampires (the who, what, when, where, why and how isn't important, but they should all have teeth, a love interest and feature George Clooney in the role of a world-weary traveller). Join my campaign by writing to every major film studio. Orange crayon only, please.

PS If vampires are a no-go, please let them know that zombies will be ok. And/or teenage wizards.

2. Propose changing the format of surprise hit dating show Take Me Out. Blind Date for morons or volunteer hit men hunt a suicidal Paddy McGuinness around a deserted studio? C'mon ITV, let the viewers decide!

3. Golfer? Fuck off.

4. Ban any fundamentalist religious group unable to spell numbers or demonstrate the correct use of 'the' before country names. Try and organise a march now, Islam4UK.

5. People who 'subversively' joined the Facebook group 'remove MK Dons from the 2018 World Cup Bid' because they want to see games at a stadium near their house: well-done, your principled protest has been duly noted (Christ, what's next? Reinstituting apartheid so we can bring back cheaper oranges?) Everyone else, who's in for burning down the ground on the eve of the first game?

6. Frame Piers Morgan for the murder of Simon Cowell. Find a way to implicate Amanda Holden, Rupert Murdoch, every winner of X-Factor and Pop Idol (past and present), Sepp Blatter and that bloke off the advert.

Peace and Love.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

This Was Edinburgh

A Korean in kilt over blue jeans, Spanish and Americans and Irish and Australians, Mars Bar in batter from a pale-skinned thing with a subterranean tan, Turner's watercolours in the gaps between heads, a train ride to Alloa where your feet will ice over behind the far goal, stovies and Bovril for a quid apiece, Deuchars and 80 and Belhaven Best, brown sauce mixed with vinegar, deep fried haggis, a basement consulate with a yellow and blue flag, Salisbury Crags and the roof of the National Museum, Easter Road from Calton Hill, that view as you come out of Waverley, snow falling in Newcastle while we bask in cold, milky sun.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Paris: Not Quite The Long Way Round

I came down from Newcastle at sunrise on the government-run train. There was a man in a kilt on the platform at Durham, someone jogging down a country lane, a foreigner asking "Is this normal class?" and "Which platform do I need to go to at York?" I settled down with The Observer and still had the main section and two magazines left to get through when we arrived at Kings Cross, passing so close to the Emirates Cesc Fabregas could've picked out my window with a through ball.

I changed stations, scanned my ticket at a gate, and checked-in - quickly, painlessly. The new St Pancras was glorious, a Durham Cathedral of Industrial Age Britain. The train, though, was just a little bit shabby, cluttered with luggage and frayed about the edges. Silence. No hollow exhortations to Sit back, relax and enjoy the flight. A cough, a page turning, fingers drumming on a seat back. We go from grey to black without me noticing, then back to grey and five mobile phones receive messages simultaneously. We speed up, and get to Paris just ahead of time.