Christmastime in Moscow

Despite the fact that Russia celebrates Orthodox Christmas on January 7th, the Christmas spirit is already in full swing here in Moscow.

The schools where I work have Christmas trees and Santa figures everywhere, and it really makes going in to work very pleasant.  A Russian teacher from the public school where I work has a completely decked-out room now; apparently her kids’ parents bought her a tree and decorations and came in to put them all up last Monday.

Red Square has an ice skating rink, Christmas markets, ice sculptures, and the biggest Christmas tree I’ve ever seen.  With the snow we’ve gotten lately, it’s a beautiful sight.

St. Basil's

St. Basil’s

Inside the GUM ("goom") all decorated for Christmas

Inside the GUM (“goom”) all decorated for Christmas


Christmas market outside GUM in Red Square

We only have 5 more days of work (possibly 4 for me, as my one Friday class is cancelled half the time), and we’ll be on a plane leaving Moscow a week from today.  We have a 24 hour layover in Zurich that we’re really looking forward to.

Our current roommate is moving  to Turkey on Christmas, so someone new is moving in.  We were worried about the new roommate, but today a friend in the company asked if he could move in with us.  It was all settled within a few minutes and he came over a couple hours later to drop off some of his stuff since he’s leaving for break on Friday.  With that figured out and a nice weekend behind us, our first semester teaching abroad is wrapping up quite nicely.


A Weekend of Feasting

Our company is mostly Americans with only a few Canadians.  Considering we were all feeling a bit homesick knowing all of our families were getting together and eating good food at home, last Saturday, we hosted Thanksgiving at our apartment.  Last year my sister and I spent two full days cooking Thanksgiving dinner (and breakfast).  Unwilling to commit to quite so much work again, we held a Thanksgiving potluck.

You can only buy frozen turkey here and it costs an arm and a leg to buy even a small bird.  We don’t have the proper cooking supplies to cook one, either, so we ended up buying five roasted chickens for our group of 13.  My roommate and I went to a small food stall by the metro where they sell whole roasted chickens for 240 rubles (less than $5 at the current awful exchange rate, about $8 at the exchange rate in August).  When we asked for “пять курица” (5 chickens, pronounced pyat kooritsa) the man looked at us like we were crazy, held up five fingers and said “пять? пять?” incredulously.  When we confirmed, he and everyone within earshot started laughing.  These stalls are usually for quick meals; people buy what they want to eat right then and eat it standing in front of the stall.

We made stuffing, mashed potatoes, and a bit of gravy, and everyone else supplied the rest: corn, roast potatoes, mac and cheese, salad, a meat and cheese plate, bread, cranberry sauce, and three different cakes.

With all the food and people it was a really nice holiday.

DSCN4235 DSCN4233On Sunday, we were invited out to dinner with a Russian family.  Seth teaches the 13-year-old, and we had dinner with him and his parents.  They took us to a very nice restaurant and helped us order, as there were no English menus.  They bought a bottle of vodka for the table (excluding their son) and ordered us way more food than we had asked for.  They insisted on getting us salads (Russian salads are more similar to potato salads than anything else back home – they are almost always mayonnaise-based) and a mushroom appetizer.  I had duck with roasted apples and Seth had elk – the food was amazing.  After the main course, they asked what we wanted for dessert.  When we insisted we were full and couldn’t eat anymore, they said “We don’t like this answer,” so we ended up with ice cream.

They insisted on paying for everything, saying that they wanted to show us the way Russians celebrate and their hospitality.  The father said that in Soviet times, there wasn’t much to do but go out to eat, so there is a bit of a tradition of eating lavishly whenever you go to a restaurant.

I had been afraid that the meal would be awkward, as the mother doesn’t speak English, but with the son as a translator everything went smoothly.  The father wanted to know about American education systems and politics, and we were able to talk to him a bit about what it was like living in Russia when the country was closed.

Throughout this all, of course, was vodka.  It’s traditional to take three vodka shots at the beginning of the meal and it’s rude to refuse for anything other than religious or health reasons.  Russians don’t stop drinking until the bottle is empty.  And they ordered a second bottle.  Luckily, our meal was as big as, if not bigger than our Thanksgiving dinner.

After last weekend, we spent most of this weekend in the apartment playing cards and watching movies.  It was relaxing and much needed.  We only have two more weeks until we come home for Christmas, though!

The Apartment

We live in an old, Soviet apartment.  That description may be a bit misleading – it may not be the cleanest place I’ve ever lived, but it’s fully decorated and it’s actually really cozy and nice.


Living room (note the hand turkeys from Thanksgiving)


Living room ceiling


Living room


Kitchen wall

Kitchen bench with fake brick paneling

Kitchen bench with fake brick wallpaper

Teaching Part II

When I worked at summer camp in the US, kids were always surprising me.  Sometimes it was with presents, sometimes with butts pressed against glass doors, sometimes with astute observations, and sometimes by flashing me.  Most memorably, an eight-year-old once told me that if he had a girlfriend he would “do the humpty dumpty and then kiss her.”  I’m still hoping he didn’t know what he was saying.

Russian kids are also full of surprises and can be very entertaining.  Luckily, they generally don’t speak enough English to talk about anything inappropriate (although one kid did drop a very loud F-bomb in my class one time).

I’m sure I’ll acquire many more anecdotes during my time in Russia, but here are a few from my first  two and a half months!

-Kids here are in love with Angry Birds – I’ve taught the word “angry” in six classes and each time the kids yelled “ANGRYBIRD!” and laughed hysterically.

-I was teaching demonstrative pronouns to my fourth graders.  I asked a student, “What is this?” and he yelled back:  “THIS IS SPARTA!” I’m not even sure how he knew to make that reference; the movie is rated R and he’s 10 years old, for starters.  Also, he said it in English, which he wouldn’t have heard from watching the movie; Western movies are almost always dubbed here.

-Asking first graders to draw pictures of scissors yields surprisingly phallic results.  A couple of times I thought there was a misunderstanding about what I had asked them to draw, because it looked more like graffiti you find in the bathroom than anything a 6-year-old would draw at school.

-Kids here are ALWAYS giving me things – pictures, stickers, bracelets, chocolate.

-My first graders are always completely bemused when I show any sign of understanding Russian.  They automatically translate new English words into Russian when I teach them and sometimes they say things in Russian instead of English when they’re excited.  I tell them whether or not they’re right when I can understand them.  When this happens, they look at me in bewilderment and then discuss among themselves whether or not I can actually understand them.

-I have additional private lessons with one of my kindergarteners.  He can’t speak in full sentences (or broken ones, for that matter), but he always comes in with the most random vocabulary.  Once I asked him what letter comes after “A” and he said “AC/DC Thunderstruck!” and then wrote down “AC\DC” and wanted me to show him how to write “Thunderstruck.”  When I tried to teach him “I’m hot” and “I’m cold” his response was “hot dog!”

Life as an ESL Teacher in Moscow

Because I spend a lot of my time teaching, I have a lot to say about it!  To avoid writing a novel, I’m saving anecdotes and such for next time.  I have a feeling that I may be more interested in writing about teaching than anyone is in reading it, but if you’re curious, here you go:

One of the things I really enjoy about my job is the variety.  My students range from 5-12 years old and have vastly different skill levels.  I teach in two different schools, one public and one private, and teach two clients in their homes.  I teach kindergarten, first grade, and fourth grade at the public school and a craft class for first and second graders at the private school.

People often ask me how I can teach children English without speaking Russian.  When I started with my kindergarten, they could answer the questions “What’s your name” and “How old are you?” and do little else.  Teaching them involves a lot of repetition, singing, and gesturing.  The process feels rather slow, but they’ve learned a lot in the two months I’ve had with them.  They can answer questions like “How many children are there?”  “What color is this?” and “Who’s this?” and follow instructions such as “Touch your shoulders,” “Spin,” “Clap,” and “Act like a monkey.”

First grade is similar; they knew some colors, numbers, and nouns before we started, but not many.  We progress much faster in first grade both because the kids are older and the lessons are longer.  We’re about to start the letter H, and are working on sentences like “It’s a pencil sharpener,” “She’s happy,” and “It’s a star.”  Teaching these types of things requires a lot of time showing them the pattern and encouraging them to follow it.

Unsurprisingly, teaching kindergarten and first grade can be really frustrating but also fun and very gratifying when they finally understand and start using the new words and speech patterns.  I’m convinced that nothing can make you go crazy faster than spending too much time in a classroom trying to communicate with children who don’t speak the same language as you.  Also, getting kindergarten songs stuck in your head is the worst.

The private school where I teach craft has a superb English program; the children’s levels there are much higher than at the public school.  Here’s some examples of what I do with them:

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I really enjoy my fourth graders because they’re old enough to hold conversations.  They like to goof off a lot and can be hard to keep under control but they’re also lots of fun.

I have three private clients: a 6-year-old boy who likes to get up and wander around the room throughout the lesson and can be very frustrating, an 11-year-old girl who is very sweet and always gets me tea and snacks when I’m there, and a 12-year-old girl whose English is excellent and is really nice to talk to.

Last week, a teacher at the public school asked me to give her private lessons.  I’ve taught her three times since then and I’m really enjoying having an adult student.  She was motivated enough to seek me out and pay me for lessons, so she really applies herself.  She asks me for homework, and when I give it to her she asks for more.  During lessons, she actually wants to do grammar practice, unlike my students, who sigh dramatically when they realize I have grammar worksheets.

I teach 20 hours a week (a little less, really, since some of my classes are 45 minutes long).  Of course, I also spend time planning and preparing for lessons.  My schedule is spread out, which can be exhausting.  On Tuesday, my longest day, I start teaching at 9am and finish at 7:30 pm.  I only teach for six hours of that time though.  Fridays, however, are lovely – I have one class from 6-7pm and that’s all.

St. Petersburg

November 4th marked Russian Unity Day – a holiday that commemorates the end of the Polish occupation of Moscow in 1612.  We had a 4 day weekend, and took the opportunity to travel to St. Petersburg.

I’ve wanted to go to St. Petersburg since I watched Anastasia, and predictably, I was singing “have you heard, there’s a rumor in St. Petersburg!” the entire time I was there.

St. Petersburg has a very different feel from Moscow – it is considered the cultural capital of Russia and is much more European.  It’s a smaller city (about 5 million people compared to Moscow’s 11.5 million official residents).  More people there speak English, probably because St. Petersburg is a much bigger tourist attraction than Moscow.

Proof of English in St. Petersburg/Russian advertising at its finest:


Here in Moscow, it’s rare to encounter someone who speaks any English.  It would be hard to get by here without knowing the Russian alphabet and at least a few phrases.  Restaurants even in the city center rarely offer English menus, so unless you go to a cafeteria where you can just point at what you want, you’re pretty helpless if you don’t know the names of some Russian foods.  (For the record, my knowledge of food is pretty much limited to chicken, french fries, meat, beer, and soup.  I’m still not entirely sure what I get when I ask for meat.  I think maybe it’s pork.)

Anyway, St. Petersburg is beautiful and we spent a lot of our time exploring museums.  We went to the Hermitage, the Russian State Museum (an art museum), and the Museum of Ethnography.

St Petersburg 2013

The Hermitage

St Petersburg 2057

From the Russian State Museum

St Petersburg 2027

Inside the Hermitage

We visited Peter and Paul’s fortress, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and many other beautiful, historic buildings.  However, I think the most beautiful sight in the city was the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood:

St Petersburg 2050St Petersburg 2086St Petersburg 2001

Moscow Life

I’ve been in Moscow for almost two months now and have been meaning to write about it, but somehow it seems that whenever I think about writing I’m far away from my computer.

I have too much to say so I’ll just start out with some general impressions of Moscow and Muscovites:

-Muscovite women seem to have everything together all the time.  You never see them digging through purses, scarfing down food while trying to make the next metro, struggling with tangled headphones, or trying to disengage themselves from scarves that seem intent on strangling them.  You can see me doing all these things quite frequently, on the other hand.

-Muscovites have no tolerance for cold.  ZERO.  As soon as it hits about 50 degrees Farhenheit they’re all wearing thigh- and knee-length parkas.  When it’s in the upper 40s and I go out without a big coat, people look at me like I’m crazy and my student Masha always asks: “But where is your jacket? Aren’t you cold outside?”

We did see this guy on a recent trip to St. Petersburg though:

St Petersburg 2006

That was closer to what I expected of Russians.

-I’m kind of convinced that Muscovites are required to take a class in braiding hair during school because they always have these super elaborate braids that look like they were done by professionals.

-You have to watch out for old ladies here.  They are the fiercest people you will encounter, especially on the metro.  If you get in their way, you will be shoved and possibly kicked.  If you’re sitting on the metro and they want your seat, they will tell you to get up (even if there are empty seats farther down the train).  Seth once saw an old lady kick a man off a bench that was half empty because she didn’t want to walk to the other side of it.

-The metro is a bloodbath at rush hour.  If you’re not prepared to casually push your way in the front of the line and shove onto the train, you will probably get stuck in the metro station until rush hour is over.

Okay- that’s all for now. I’ll leave you all with some pictures from Moscow:


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