You know you’re getting old when you start celebrating the ten-year anniversary of things. Ten years since you sat your GCSEs. A decade since you took your A Levels. Ten years since you started uni, since you graduated. And, for me, ten years since I got on a plane for the first time in my life and went to Russia to teach English.
It was during my last year at university that I started to panic about what I was going to do next. I should point out that this was before the recession, when graduate jobs weren’t quite as thin on the ground as they are now. Even so, I didn’t know what I wanted to do: I just knew I didn’t want to join one of the big firms that hoover up graduates and train them in management. Ever since I was little, my plans for the future had only ever covered full-time education: what I would do afterwards, I hadn’t a clue. Several of my friends were going on to further study, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford that, and anyway, what would I study? I didn’t regret – I never have regretted – studying history, but it isn’t exactly a path to an obvious career. I was no further to making a choice than I had been at eighteen, sixteen, eleven.
What I did have, at the back of my mind, was a desire to travel, and an interest in Russia, mainly through reading Dostoyevsky and Chekhov. I can’t remember where I first got the idea of teaching English abroad, but before I knew it the idea was firmly fixed in my head. I signed up for a TEFL course in St Petersburg, and spent the rest of my final year, when I wasn’t studying or trying to enjoy my last few months as a student, researching Russia, EFL teaching, and anything else I could find that was relevant.
When I graduated, I spent the summer living with my parents and working two jobs – one in a factory (which wasn’t actually that bad) and one in a bar (which I hated – although I did learn to pull a pint, so my time there wasn’t completely wasted). The summer crept by slowly, but at the beginning of October I got on the train at Newcastle to travel down to London. My parents said goodbye at the Metro station and my brother took me to the railway station and lifted my heavy case onto the train.
In London I stayed overnight with a friend. There were a few of us there and we went out and got completely pissed. This probably wasn’t the best idea. I would certainly have missed the plane if my friend Louise hadn’t woken up, called a taxi, and got me, still drunk, out of the house. When I got to the airport the hangover was beginning to hit. I sat on the plane, about to fly for the first time in my life, and wondered what the hell I was doing.
I was picked up at the airport by a bloke carrying a card with my name on it. He drove me to the flat in which I was staying. My Russian landlady was lovely, but didn’t speak any English. I tried to communicate in my halting Russian, but I don’t know what I would have done without my flatmate, a Russian student at Exeter University who was on her year abroad. She introduced me, explained I was a vegetarian (in Russia, people told me, to survive the cold you need to eat lots of meat or drink lots of vodka. The former method was obviously closed to me; henceforth I’d rely on the latter), and explained the house rules to me. I had my own room, with a corner desk and several bookshelves lined with books in Russian I couldn’t understand.
The TEFL course took a month. The school was opposite the Hermitage at the top of Nevsky Prospect. There were only two other students on the course: the previous cohort, in the summer, had apparently been quite full but those of us who’d waited to save a little money before heading abroad were and few and far between. My fellow trainees were an American and an Irishman, though the American left halfway through when his grandfather sadly died.
Surprisingly I quite enjoyed learning to teach, and didn’t perform too badly in the assessments. It was fascinating to see how non-native speakers of English approached the language. One of my students asked me to explain the phrase “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” from Gone With the Wind: it got me to think about the language in ways I’d always taken for granted.
After passing the course I taught a few classes at the school, and I had two solo pupils too, whose homes I had to travel to. They lived in flats on the outskirts of St Petersburg and I had to take the Metro. One of my pupils was a very young child of about five. She had long blonde hair and an angelic face and was possibly the most beautiful child I’d ever seen. On the other hand, I found it very hard to teach her, owing to my lack of experience with children of any kind. Frankly I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, and I think she could sense my lack of confidence.
My other solo pupil was a bit older, about twelve or thirteen. She was easier to get on with and to teach, but I was still a bit nervous around her. I’ve never been particularly confident with teenagers, even when I was one. Back at the school I covered a class of thirteen-year-olds for another teacher who was off sick, and it was one of the most uncomfortable experiences of my life. I found it baffling that they were actually doing what I told them to do. “Open your book at page 36. Fill in the missing words in exercise 1”. It was surreal. I kept expecting them to get up and walk out, or say no, why should we listen to you? But no, they followed the instructions I gave, with only the occasional whisper to suggest they saw how nervous I was. It was bizarre.
I definitely felt more comfortable around the adult students. Some of them were my age. A few were older, and one man was retired. I certainly can’t claim to have been the greatest teacher in the world, but I do think I was reasonably competent when it came to instructing these classes of adults.
When I wasn’t teaching, I was out exploring the city. It was beautiful, but dirty, with rickety old vehicles spilling out fumes. There was a grandeur about the city that had faded in places but was still visible here and there. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Hermitage, or Winter Palace, a vast and beautiful store of art. With my Russian student card, I got in for free, and I visited frequently: it took me about five visits to see everything. Incredible as it was, I actually preferred the Russian Museum, with its collections of unusual and, to me, previously unknown works by artists such as Arkhip Kuindzhi and Ilya Repin.
My favourite pastime was to explore the city’s literary past. I visited the former flats of Anna Akhmatova and Alexander Pushkin, and spent an entire Saturday afternoon wandering the woods on the outskirts of the city, trying to find the spot where Russia’s national poet was shot in a duel (the search was fruitless). I visited Dostoyevsky’s house, and spent another afternoon searching for the locations used in his novel Crime and Punishment. Apart from the muddy cars dotted here and there around the square, nothing much had changed since the nineteenth century.
As time went on I ventured further afield, risking buses to go out to the palaces. In the middle of winter the fountains weren’t running at Peterhof, but it was almost worth it to practically have the place to myself. At Catherine’s Palace the snow lay thick on the ground and I could imagine myself in the nineteenth century. It was cold, but rather to my disappointment, not overwhelmingly so. I’d had visions of regaling my family and friends back home with tales of unthinkable cold, a frozen Neva, snow everywhere, but it didn’t even snow on Christmas Day.
I was supposed to stay in Russia a year; I ended up leaving after three months. Why? Mainly because of money. Once I’d finished my course and started teaching, the school couldn’t offer me enough hours to make ends meet. Most EFL teachers supplemented their income by taking on extra students privately, but I certainly didn’t have the confidence or the wherewithal to go about doing that.
I missed home. I don’t know if I was homesick exactly, and much as I missed my family and friends, on a day to day basis it was Britain as a place that I missed: the pubs, the coffee shops, even the supermarkets, I missed television: in Russia programmes are dubbed, not subtitled, though we did once go and see the new James Bond and cheer when the Houses of Parliament appeared on the screen. I often hung out at the British Council, which had a library of English-language books that helped to assuage my homesickness. I remained fascinated by Russian culture, and tried to learn as much about it as I could, not to mention the language itself, but at the same time I clung to everything British that I could find.
I spent Christmas in St Petersburg, the first – and so far only – time I’ve spent it away from home. My housemate and closest friend had gone back to the UK for Christmas, but some of her friends had kindly invited me to have dinner with them. I had to teach in the morning (in Russia Christmas is celebrated in early January, and 25 December is just a normal day) and then I met them at their flat. I had a lovely day, but less than a week later I was back in the UK, celebrating New Year with a friend in London before heading back home to see my family and try and figure out what on earth I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
In many ways, I was glad to be back. While I would still love to travel I think it’s highly unlikely that I would ever live abroad again. Sometimes I regret not sticking it out, and wonder if leaving early makes me a worse person: weaker, less resilient.
At the same time, I don’t for a minute regret my experiences. Early in the hours of one autumn morning, after an all-night clubbing session with Russian pop music and cheap shots of vodka, I walked down Nevsky Prospect in the cold, ears ringing, exhausted, still slightly drunk, and realised that I was in Russia, in St Petersburg, somewhere I’d only read about in Dostoyevsky and Gogol. I was there, and I’d got there by myself, I’d decided that I wanted to go, and I’d gone.
That thought still sustains me, sometimes.
I haven’t been back to Russia in the past decade, but every autumn when the nights start to draw in, I get a sudden urge to get out my Russian phrasebooks; and when the frost begins and I smell the unexpectedly nostalgic scent of petrol in the cold, I am taken right back to that autumn of 2006.