Friday, July 30, 2010

Journey to the Real World

By the time I left the campus the day had been reduced to a few red streaks in the sky. A plane came in overhead, bound for East Midlands Airport, the 9.07 to Nottingham was going past the gates. One of the teachers was smoking on the road outside. “Hi,” we both said, and did that semi-awkward thing you do when you've talked yourself out and have nothing left to say.

In the distance you could just make out the lights of the Tesco Express.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

This Is Summer School (The Management Mix)

I’m up at seven to do some work before breakfast. After eating, I go back to my office: make class lists, mark exams, sort students into levels, answer constant questions, find materials, help with lesson planning, make excursion itineraries, have meetings. I carry post-it notes everywhere I go with scribbled down tasks and things to check, query, reconfirm. For every job I tick off, there are two still I have to do. I eat quickly at half twelve, even quicker at half six. All I look at online are the emails I get from work. The outside world is another country.

At nine o’clock I leave the office. If I’m lucky I go for a beer and if I’m not I work in my room until I fall asleep. I’m up at seven…

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


“We’ve given you the biggest room,” said Jeff, an Italian with an American father who I’m managing the centre with (he’s responsible for activities, me for teaching). When he opened the door I saw a triangle with a corner snipped out, a single bed taking up half of the smaller side, a low desk the whole of the bigger one. There was a mirror and an empty noticeboard on the wall, a window with a close-up view of a tree, more drawers than I knew what to do with, and a wardrobe with no hangers.

The wardrobe was almost as big as the bathroom. All white, all plastic, there was a lowered floor for the open shower, a sink I could just about fit my hand in, a bolt on the door a centimetre too low to fit anywhere, and a toilet roll dispenser without any toilet roll. “Take your time,” he said, “have a shower and unpack. The most important thing is food. There’s only one place nearby - a Tesco at the gas station.”

Nottingham: Summer School Begins

“Durham, Darlington, York, Doncaster, Grantham, Peterborough, Stevenage, London Kings Cross,” monotoned the voice from the ceiling arches. I hoisted my bags slowly (I had packed for an English summer: open-toed sandals and long-sleeved tops, shorts and a waterproof jacket) and joined the orderly queue waiting for the doors to slide open.

Over the river we began to pick up speed. A red telephone box and the Cathedral at Durham, the train tilting as we came across the bridge, rainclouds and wheat fields, the Medieval walls at York, smoke stacks at Ferrybridge, leaving Doncaster behind, joining a line that had trees growing out of an adjacent track, changing platforms at Grantham, Thatcher, Thatcher, Thatcher. After Ukraine everything looked small, neatly-packaged, and malleable. I sat reading, tuning in and out to the voices nearby. “Is there anything on the telly, do you know?”, “How far’s London?”, “Yeah, she murdered that Charlie, the one that came back from Canada. Or Australia - one of them,” “I’m on the train,” “Leeds are winning Hartlepool. Oooh, that’s good.”

There was a bus stop in front of Nottingham Station and a woman talking loudly on her phone as she looked through the timetable. “Are you from round here?” “Is that a Geordie accent? I used to go out with a sailor from Newcastle.”

Thursday, July 22, 2010

On Onions

Of the thirty Japanese Onion sets I planted back in September, neglect and the (Do we still use the adjective unusual to describe the weather?) heavy winter snowfall left me with a final crop of four (and two halves). I uprooted the survivors yesterday after weeding the vegetable patch by hand and left them in the sun to dry. Tomorrow I'll cook them - in something or other.

Now, what to put there next?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


The taxi came at 5.15. Dawn had broken, the stray dogs were awake and the first marshrutkas were running from the suburbs. I saw a stack of watermelons in a cage by the side of the road, someone staggering out of a 24-hour alcohol shop, and blonde haired women sweeping street corners. "Kyiv, Kyiv, Kyiv," called the minibus drivers. "Taxi? Taxi? Taxi?" ringing in my ear until I finally stepped onboard. Sweat trickled down my back. Another Odessa morning was only just beginning.

Last Day in Odessa

Breakfast at Kompot. Two elderly Americans sat at the table behind. "He's a fucking sailor," said one, "falls in love the second he's off the ship." "I'm flying to Italy later," said the other, "but if there's nothing happening I might come back."

I did a loop of all the usual places: Gor Sad, the Opera House, Primorsky and the Potemkin Steps, Novy Rynok, a beer on Deribasovska. Doors were all open and everyone was sitting outside. "I'll never see you again" blasted out of a cafe window.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Two Days: Arcadia Beach

It was late when we got there, and the worst of the afternoon heat had thankfully died down. We passed a small fairground, there were signs for speed boat rides and sushi bars, MTV on plasma screens, beachfront gyms and men with fishing rods standing in the water. "Who comes here?" I asked, looking around a beach still packed at eight in the evening. She arched her eyebrows. "In summer? Everyone."

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Three Days: Farewell Party

"Michael, we have a proposition for you," one of the students said. "Yeah?" I replied, inwardly cursing myself for not having drilled the word suggestion enough. "To thank you for the lessons, we will pay for everything." "Thanks," I tried not to slur, looking at empty glasses, a meat tray the size of an ironing board and the Chernomorets Odessa scarf ("In Russian spelling, not Ukrainian") they'd just given me. "Thanks a lot."

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Everyday Odessa: Wedding Photos

Saturday is wedding day in Odessa. Even with a cruise liner in port, the tourists at the Opera House were outnumbered by bridal parties and the sightseeing coaches had been beaten to the best parking spaces by cars with floral bouquets tied to their bonnets. The couples took turns to pose in front of the fountain, the bust of Pushkin, the Potemkin Steps. "Walk," shouted a photographer. "Stop," said his partner with the video camera. "Now kiss."

Four Days: Goodbye To All That

My last day of work. Two of the groups gave me framed photos "so you won't forget us", another a collection of Ukrainian fairytales, a fourth a coffee table book with then and now shots of Odessa and handwritten messages inside the front cover. "Will you ever come back?" they all asked. "Who knows?" was all I could truthfully reply.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Five Days

"Have you seen what's on that piece of paper?" someone asked as I walked into the teachers' room. Believe, Educate, Anticipate, Inspire, Motivate. "What the fuck's that?" a head appeared at my shoulder, adding the words "You're a tiger! Grrr!" to the bottom of the list. "I dunno. Some management crap, I think."

"When I worked in Britain," took up someone else, "I went to this training course where a bloke stuck pictures of Stonehenge around the walls with "Can you be as good as this?" written underneath. He just kept pointing at them. Thing is, they were really bad photocopies."

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Six Days: The Quiz

With the exams finally over, the humidity becoming as unbearable as a Scouser in defeat, and the students giving more thought to their summer holidays than what's happening in the classroom, this week I've been wheeling out the pub quiz I put together in Riga, updated for Ukraine ("In which year did your president first go to prison?" always gets a laugh).

"The next round is General Knowledge," I told my afternoon class. "Which country did Britain go to war with in 1982?" "The USA?" came the first suggestion. "If there'd been a war between Britain and America, you'd have known about it," I corrected, slipping in a bit of the third conditional (who says quizzes have no linguistic value?). "Holland?" "Ireland?" "No, it's further away." "Iceland?" came a shout from the back, quickly followed by "Japan". "I'll give you a clue. It's not Spain but they speak Spanish." "Italy?"

The evening class, big football fans, got the answer straight away.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Entering the Final Week

Eight Days

"Michael, we're talking about going to the pub together with you on Wednesday night," said my first class of the day. "Will we go for a drink on Thursday?" asked the next one, "When are you free?" the one after that, "Thursday, Friday or Saturday?" I tried to remember what I'd already arranged, seeing my evenings (and hopes of not having to come up with a final lesson plan) disappear. "Wednesday, yes", "We'll decide on Thursday," "Saturday after the football." "You're going to the football?" one asked. "Let's drink on the beach before the game."

Seven Days

Knowing that I was only staying here for five months, I never managed to do much in Russian beyond reading the alphabet, ordering a beer and asking for the bill. That's more than you need at Pyzata Hata, a chain of cheap, point-and-order restaurants that specialises in meat, potatoes and yet more meat. "Mozne eta?" works for one dish, "Y eta" for another. A quick spasiba (with the stress on the 'e'), a smile and a peek at the till usually suffices for the rest.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Everyday Odessa: Remont

I first noticed all the orange metal scaffolding poles the week before last, the men laying tarmac on the roads only yesterday. "They're doing remont on the city," the students told me. I suggested renovate or repair and they dutifully wrote the words down, but next lesson they were back to remont all the same.
For Sale. One careful owner, minor repair work needed.

Slowly but simultaneously, work is going on almost everywhere you look in the city centre, reminding me of the joke my Latvian students used to make: "There are only three seasons in Riga - winter, summer and repair."

Monday, July 12, 2010

Nine Days Left

"It's fifteen minutes by tram," she said, "maybe twenty." And so we ended up, thirty minutes later, on the beach at Fountain Twelfth Station. The sand was flat and narrow and full of bits of shell. "It's like pistachio ice cream," I said. "Pistachio?". Volleyball to the left, a wire fence to the right, I spread out the towel and felt the rain begin to fall.

A broken TV and a twenty-second power cut couldn't spoil the World Cup Final. The players managed that just fine by themselves. I watched (and tried my best not to sleep through) the game with Ukrainian beer in a Greek-owned cafe. It is the World Cup after all.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Everyday Odessa: Statues

Ukraine wouldn't be Ukraine without a queue of people waiting to be photographed in front of, on, draped provocatively across, or simply standing beside a bronze statue. In Odessa, the City Gardens, where you'll find not one but two lions, a wacky sportsman on a staircase, a dining room chair and Bob Paisley reclining on a park bench, is the place to head for yet more of those unforgettable "And here's me with an inanimate object" shots.

Failing that, there's always Pushkin.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Ten Days Left

Never drink and dive. Several Żubrówkas and a small bowl of cereal left me inadequately prepared for the first high ball of the morning, which squirmed back out of my grasp and dropped straight at the feet of the only opposition player within thirty metres of the goal. "Shit happens," I shrugged. "I'm a shotstopper."

Algeria versus the combined might of Ukraine, Vietnam and Chechnya.

It wasn't a good day for goalkeepers all round. One of the students got both hands to a long-range shot only to see it slip tamely through his fingers with a sound like a wet carrier bag flapping against a tree trunk. Another, built up pre-tournament as a professional volleyball player, was about as agile as a sweeping brush. By the last of the group stage games the only hope for the two student teams was for Algeria to beat England. They didn't. After the two international teams played out a convenient one-all draw, Ukraine 1 took on Ukraine 2 for third and fourth place, Ukraine 1 triumphing in a penalty shoot-out won by a Chechen shot that the goalkeeper unsuccessfully tried to beat away with a flick of his right foot.

The final was settled by the referee, the winning goal scored while the Algerians were (rightly) appealing for a foul at the other end of the pitch. "We cannot congratulate you because you did not win," they all said at the end. The referee was too busy asking for money off next year's course fees.

The first of the morning's refereeing controversies.

Penalties in the third-place play off.

The English celebrate their historic victory.

Friday, July 09, 2010

The Twelve Days of Odessa

Twelve Days Left

I walked around the city centre for two hours trying to track down a Chornomorets Odessa top to take back home with me. And failed. "Umbro doesn't make it anymore so they've moved to a new shop," a student told me later. "It's cheap Nike shit next season."

Eleven Days Left

The students were in no hurry to leave at the end of my morning class. "What will you do after you finish your Master's?" they asked. "I don't know, maybe try and teach at a university in Japan or Korea." "Korea? The people there are very strange."

In the afternoon the sky turned from sunglasses to Sodom in five minutes flat, and the students who hadn't checked the weather forecast turned up soaked and bedraggled for their final exams. Those who had didn't turn up at all.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Spanish Lessons

"This is dull. I hope this doesn't go to extra-time," said the Englishman just before Puyol scored. "That was boring," agreed the Ukrainian when the final whistle went. But if the game lacked the crash, bang, wallop of Germany's previous two wins that was mainly because Spain did to them what they had done to England: made it seem as if the two teams were playing entirely different sports. As the Guardian's Raphael Honigstein tweeted, "Spain were absolutely brilliant in midfield, a pleasure to watch. If you find that boring, you don't understand football."

Xavi completed ninety-two accurate passes out of one hundred and six attempts - an astonishing performance in a World Cup Semi-Final. If Lampard, Barry and Gerrard had been capable of strangling the life from the German midfield, would England fans have called them boring? Probably. It would have taken about five minutes of possession football for the first shouts of "Get it up the pitch, man!" or "Have a dig."

The English problem isn't the weight of expectation, the lack of a winter break, or the number of foreigners in the Premier League. It's the way we still insist on playing the game.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Lights Go Off (Part 6)

The lights went off at three o'clock. The photocopier stopped mid-page, the air conditioner went silent and the computers shut themselves down with a beep. "Again?" someone said, staring at a pile of uncopied handouts. "We have some battery-powered lights, "said the boss," but if your students can't see, tell them they can either have the lesson in the pub or come back another time. It's Ukraine, they'll understand."

Two Ukraines

"Happy Constitution Day!" I wished the students in my FCE class who'd turned up despite the bank holiday. "Constitution Day?" snorted one, waving his hand dismissively in the air, "It's something for people in the west of Ukraine."

It was the answer I'd expected to get. For most Odessits, their city is a country of its own (the same student had previously told me he would be missing the next class because "I have to go to Ukraine on a business trip"), a state within a state that, barring a few brief months in 1919, didn't even exist until the Soviet invasion of September 1939.

The fault lines run deep. "For us (in the west) the Second World War didn't end until the 1950s when the last of the anti-Communists was killed," a Ukrainian-speaker from Lviv told me on the bus from Yalta. "Don't listen to this thing," a man in a Russia baseball cap interrupted, "his grandfather was probably a Nazi." The controversial Education and Science Minister, Dmytro Tabachnyk, was hardly any more reasoned, dismissing Ukainian as a "dialect of Polish" and accusing "Halychany" (western Ukrainians) of "practically (not having) anything in common with the people of Great Ukraine, not in mentality, not in religion, not in linguistics, not in the political arena". People in Lviv (or Lvov if you speak Russian) took to the streets in protest at his appointment. Not that it made any difference: their candidate had already lost.

Politically and linguistically, the divide is between the west and the centre, where Ukrainian is spoken, and the Russian-speaking east and south. Culturally, Kiev looks west - "The problem with Ukraine is the lazy attitude of people in Donetsk and Odessa," two separate people told me last time I was in the capital. "Odessa? There are too many Jews," added someone who'd recently travelled forward in time from 1936 - but the language you hear on the streets is usually the same as in Odessa.

Like the Belgians and the British, Ukrainians stick together in spite of their differences. "There is hope for this country," said the man on the bus from Yalta. "When you go to Donetsk you notice there are no Russian businesses there. They realise that Russia is the biggest threat to their economy." Most of my students call themselves Odessit first but Ukrainian, not Russian, second. Still, there are dissenters. "I realised that I didn't like the people in west Ukraine," said one, returning from Lviv. "Their humour is different."

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

First One In

Our first signing of the summer falls into the Warren Barton category of unappreciated former full-backs. "Astonished #NUFC think James Perch will cut it in Prem. Nice lad but, trust me, he was #NFFC whipping boy. Poor even in Lg 1," tweeted Guardian writer and Forest fan Daniel Taylor. Forum writers were more evenly split: "Good luck to him. Tried his nuts off for us and was a useful jack of all trades" was a common response, "Most people wanted shut of him. Its a shame in that he gave us cover, but he wasn't any good for more than that" and "Are Newcastle preparing for the Championship so soon?" another.

A centre-forward turned midfielder turned centre-half turned right-back, Perch's best performance of last season was in our home win over Forest, which does at least suggest he can rise to the big occasion. At 24 he still has time to improve and his versatility makes him, if nothing else, a useful addition to a small squad.

With just over a month to the start of the season, hopefully this is the first of many some more than one.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

At the Beach

England Revisited

"Makes you feel better about England," said the person on my left as Klose volleyed in Germany's fourth goal. "Puts the England result into perspective," came the text a few seconds later. "That's just what I was writing to Heiko," said John, looking up from his phone. "And if that goal had been given, who knows?"

It took Joe Cole to put things clearly: "It wasn't just the Germany game. Over the course of the tournament we looked a long way behind the other top nations and when it came to the crunch, the best side won. People will talk about the decision not to allow Frank Lampard's goal, but it was plain and simple to see that we just weren't good enough.

Almost every team I have played for – including England – always want to hit the front players as early as possible. You won't get away with that at international level. It's about technique, keeping control of the ball, passing and moving. We seem to abandon good technique because we are obsessed with getting the ball from back to front as quickly as possible. That doesn't work against top teams."

As England's tournament showed, it doesn't always work against the bottom ones either. In fact, the only thing this World Cup has put into perspective is my theory that a talented team of players doesn't really need a great coach to win the competition. Between them, Dunga and Diego put paid to that one.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

On Pastera

I'm living on Vulice Pastera, which runs from the City Gardens on Deribasovskaya to the first of the disused grey and red smokestacks on the edge of town. It's an arty street, with a gallery-cum-cafe, a theatre and the M.Gorky State Scientific Library on my fifteen-minute walk into school. Directly across the road there's a church and the back entrance to a hospital, and there are two twenty-four hour chemists within a hundred metres of the flat. Further down, past the State Qualification Boards for Seafarers is the Iranian Cultural Mission, whose sign, the 'House of Ukraine-Iran Friendship', is half-crowded out by a Kangaroo in boxing gloves advertising a language school and a collection of parrots. Next door is a basement shop selling nothing but ladies' underwear.

Outdoor Drinking

Summer in Odessa: flowerbeds, cruise ships, beaches and outdoor drinking. The first of the pavement bars appeared back in April, canvas stalls springing up overnight, needing no more investment than a single beer pump, a few plastic seats and a (locked) portaloo somewhere nearby. Then came the fancier places: tables and chairs slung out in front of restaurants, with potted plants and blankets and big screens showing all the games from the World Cup. There are so many of them you could probably walk in a loop around the city centre without ever losing track of the score - or the sound of vuvuzelas.