Published: May 5th 2009May 5th 2009
A couple weeks ago I revisited Kudimkar, the delightful and snowy capital of the formerly autonomous Perm-Komi region. Some of the Perm-Komi people still speak Komi, but I’d bet English is probably more widespread these days. Svetlana of Kudimkar (to differentiate her from Sveta my wife) invited me to address of conference of English teachers. The two-day trip required the usual 10,000 forms, and as they were all in Russian, completing them fell on Sveta (the wife). I prepared a couple of my lessons. Perhaps the most appealing part of this little escape was that it came in the middle of a busy week - meaning if the forms were complete and signed, I had an ironclad excuse to miss nearly all of my Wednesday and Thursday classes.
I boarded the bus at 6:50 and arrived in Kudimkar some four hours later. Svetlana of Kudimkar met me at the station and hurried me into a cab. We drove an entire four blocks. A short but furious late April snow storm (winters are not much colder than those in Nebraska, but they are longer) made the cab not entirely unnecessary. “I hope you have some ideas about what you want to do tomorrow,” Svetlana said. I hadn’t and said so. Svetlana said nothing more and assumed a serious expression. She led me to a small office where kindly old ladies served me tea and told me that the teachers were in the next room. They were waiting. “Are we late? I don’t have to have tea.”
“No! Enjoy your tea! They can wait!”
I tried. Svetlana stood nearby. She watched me. When not fixed on me, her eyes shot anxious glances at the door. So I poured the near boiling water down my throat and stood up, the scalding being less painful than the tension.
We entered an auditorium filled with English teachers. Surprisingly, among the thirty or so included three men. As a rule, Russian men do not teach English. I was shown my seat - front and center. No instructions, no schedule, just me and all those faces, waiting, judging. I realized at that moment that there would be no conference, at least not the kind with which I was familiar. There would, however, be me. I was the show. And I had five hours to fill. Eight tomorrow. I fooled with some chalk for awhile, and then, with nothing else to do, wrote my name on the board.
After this introduction, I demanded that my audience reciprocate, which took quite awhile because there were so many of them. They had come from all over the formerly autonomous Komi-Perm region. Formerly autonomous because in 2004 a day-tripping Putin dropped down in his helicopter announce that he was merging the Komi-Permian autonomous region with the Perm region. This remains a sore point for Komi-Permians who blame the merger for the region’s decline.
I fielded the standard foreigner questions, “Do you like Russia,” “Why would you ever come to Perm?” “What do Americans think of Russia,” etc., killing nearly 30 minutes. Then I launched into my methodology talk. Svetlana interrupted me - “Give us a lesson!” Svetlana of Kudimkar has mastered the exhortatory style of leadership. One ignores her commands at one’s own risk. So I gave a lesson, but not only that, I explained why I structured it the way I did, putting a grammar section here, a vocabulary lesson there. The teachers tolerated my pedantry for about five minutes.
“How much do you make?!?” This timely, if abrupt, interjection saved me from further boring the teachers and led us into a spirited discussion of the misery that is teaching and the bleak future that awaits us as pensioners.
And finally the one hour arrived mark and with it a saving five minute break. Over a second cup of tea, Svetlana of Kudimkar explained that I was giving the teachers too much credit. “Treat them like pupils! Correct their grammar! Make them do group work! Don’t explain why you do anything. This is what they want!” I did as I was told, except for the grammar correction, which I left in the able hands of Svetlana of Kudimkar. The teachers worked in groups, drew pictures, and performed one-act skits. At one we decamped for lunch. My next lesson, built around a Madonna song, went nowhere fast. One young fan, happily chirped along to “You’ll See” but the older, more spinsterish women glared at my visuals (one had Madonna wearing an aggressive conical bra and an even fiercer expression). “Excuse me,” one of them interrupted. “How can I use this in my class?” She got me - I don’t know how I use it in my classes.
“I want to know about American holidays!”
So for the next couple of hours I became The American and gave them the low down on the Easter Bunny, Squanto, and Santa. Svetlana was wrong. The teachers did not want to be treated like students. They wanted The American. The remainder of my stay went off without a hitch. The next day I did some lessons, held a debate (proposition: it is better to be married than to be single), and they went well because I interspersed the necessary conference tedium with some American time. I departed and they serenaded me and gave me pamphlets.
I returned to Perm exhausted and late for my night class. My thoughtful students took me out for a couple drinks, which turned into multiple wine bottles, followed by a cab ride home at 2 AM. Sveta greeted me and wondered where my shirt and backpack were. “Probably back at the restaurant.” Meaning that my passport, visa, and laptop were hanging out there too. A British girl named Flip once told me, though I never really believed it, that in Russia if you don’t have a passport, you have to leave the country within 24 hours. But how could you leave without a passport? It can’t be true. Anyway, I greeted this misfortune with Buddha-like serenity. “Don’t worry,” I explained to Sveta. “You can call Brudershaft. They were very nice to me there.” Sveta dialled the number, and yes, the very nice Brudershaft employees certainly remembered that foreigner with the big backpack. They also remembered that same foreigner was wearing the big backpack when he left. “Well,” I concluded, “it must be in the cab.” And I went to sleep.
By dawn, a groggy panic, along with a splitting headache, had replaced my early morning “come what may” musings. I could only hope (because real thought was out of the question) that one of the two students in the cab saw the bag and had taken it with them. Frantic yet narcoleptic, I boarded the bus. That’s when I got the everything’s ok text from Sveta - the backpack was safe. Super students Vitalyi and Anna had indeed rescued my bag and had even taken it out for some more drinks until calling it a night around 5. As for the plastic bag and my shirt? I guess that got left in the cab.