Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Seasons Greetings

Oh, yes. Merry Christmas. Sorry for the delay; the Russians don't celebrate Christmas until January, so it didn't really occur to me at the time that it was Christmas.

Happy New Year, as well -- that is the same over here.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Freezer Surprise

The mysterious objects in my freezer (as mentioned in Freezer-Peek-a-Boo, please forgive my tardiness regarding this follow-up-post) turned out to be:

a) an ice pack. While not especially exciting, it may come in useful in future.

b) a bag of frozen vegetables. At the time, I was notably more excited about this than I was about the ice pack. As I viewed it, eating vegetable was going to make a welcome change from not eating vegetables.

Ominously, the instructions written on the back of the bag were written in Russian, which meant that I was forced to make an educated guess as to how to prepare them. I had one clue, though. From an expanse of Cyrillic appeared the vaguely recognisable phrase "1.5 l". Thus, I brought about a litre and a half of water to the boil, allowing for a margin of error which reflected my uncertainty, and threw in the vegetables.

So good, thus far.

After a few minutes, the water in the pot began to turn a brackish black-brown colour. In addition, as the cooking progressed, I was forced to reassess what most of the constituent vegetables were; some things seemed to change identity (for instance, what I thought were mushrooms were in fact slices of potatoes), other ingrdients lost their identity (there was no obvious tomato in the finished product), and some things remained completely unidentifiable throughout the entire cooking process (beans?).

Not really sure as to how long to cook the vegetables for was beginning to seem a peripheral issue. Having boiled them for an arbitrary period of time, I drained the muddy water from the pot, and looked inside with no small measure of concern. I encountered a mess of what I had been lead to believe were vegetables -- intermingled, stuck together, and giving off the kind of odour that some organisms have evolved in the interests of dissuading predators.

I should have stopped at this point. I should have stopped before this point, perhaps, but curiosity is a harsh mistress.

Without really even being aware of interacting with a fork, I was soon chewing a mouthful of unidentified vegetables. I was really only chewing as a matter of posterity, however, as the food dissolved almost entirely upon contact with saliva. Interestingly, it didn't taste especially bad. The fact is, I couldn't suggest an appropriate adjective for it at all; it simply didn't taste of anything. It wasn't even bland, it was simply -- devoid of stimuli. I decided to take a follow-up sample, in the interests of rigour; and took another bite. Sample was found to be consistent with previous data.

I stared into to pot for a little while longer, indecisive. The onset of a slight, bitter, aftertaste tipped the balance of decision in favour of disposal of the foodstuff.

It just seemed so wasteful.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

How to Acquire Food Vocabulary

As I mentioned in How to Buy an Alarm Clock in Moscow, there is fascinating array of glass-walled kiosks beneath the streets of Moscow, many of which sell food. I find it strange, though, that they all sell the same food: microwaved pastries, for between 20 and 40 rubles each, which is about 1 or 2 New Zealand Dollars. The pastries aren't especially satisfying, and I think that I become ill from one just after I arrived; but they have one overwhelming redemptive quality. They are remarkably useful for learning food vocabulary.

Essentially, to learn a new word, I walk up to the kiosk, order something I can't identify, and, while trying to remember the name of what I bought, mull over what the principle ingredient might be.

So far I have learned the Russian words for: apple, probably lemon, some sort of berry, non-specific meat and what may have been cheese.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

How to Communicate in Russian

I had a conversation with a woman on the street a few weeks ago. Things are starting to cool down here, and the temperature on this particular day was about 5 degrees. Given that the thermostats in the Metro, as well as in every building in the city, are all always set to Sixth Layer; and given that time I spend outside is usually less than ten minutes at a time, I still don't bother with taking a jacket with me unless it is especially cold.

As I was walking to the Metro, a woman commented to me that I was only wearing one layer, and that surely I must be cold (this comment took some time to convey, since I more-or-less couldn't understand her). I smiled knowingly, and said in Russian:

"Well, you know, I'm from New Zealand, and we New Zealand men are notably hardy. Why, we don't suffer from the cold, we revel it; as we feel it to be a conformation of our masculine imperative."

Or, at least, that's what I intended to say. Unfortunately, given my lack of all but the most rudimentary local vocabulary, and my overwhelming lack of knowledge of the grammar of Russian, most of what I intended to say simply didn't emerge from my lips. In fact, the only thing that did come out of my mouth was the distressingly non-sequitur statement: "New Zealand!"

She looked at me with furrowed eyebrows, and walked away.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

How to Teach on Camp

Last week was spent, not in Moscow, as all of my other weeks have been since I arrived in Russia, but in the countryside (I say last week, when in fact, by the time of posting, it has been about a month since I got back). I was on camp, or, more accurately, I was teaching on a BKC English Camp. Essentially, I signed up to teach three different classes throughout the day: a group of 9 and 10 year-olds, an group of 10 and 11 year-olds, and a group of 13 and 14 year-olds. What was I thinking? At best, I hold children in disdain. Let's not get drawn into "at worst".

Some students were more memorable than others. Regrettably, the most memorable students were typically the ones who were the least well behaved. For instance, I had one 9-year-old who had two volume setting: yelling and maximum. In addition, he said (yelled) only two sentences in English over the course of the entire week:

"She needs to pee-pee!" Honestly. This is the first thing that he said to me in English. And by this point it was Wednesday. His follow-up utterance was:

"Serge is a super super super super super super super [breath] super super super super super FAT PIG![maniacal laugh]" To his credit, his delivery was so impressive that even Serge laughed. Plus, we had been studying animals in class, so at least he was using target language.

Another student of mine evidently had difficulty discerning the difference between his chair and everywhere else. Any activities that we did outside the classroom typically involved him running laps of the hallway like a cricket player, and most in-class activities amounted to him playing Fort under his desk. In addition, he smelled distressingly of rotten play-dough.

If I were to offer some advice to the camp time-tabler, it would be this: review the following excerpt from the daily timetable:

4.15: snack (invariably super super super sweet cookies)

4.30: English lesson. (Note: my youngest class).

I feel confident in attributing some of my classroom management problems to this.

By Thursday I had devised a solution. I would hold the lesson in the eighth floor lounge. Having a dozen hyper-active 10-year-olds run up seven flights of stairs does help to re-calibrate their energy levels, although only slightly, as it turns out. It was rather like trying to empty a bucket with an eye-dropper. As an extension to the solution, I didn't tell the students that they would need to bring all of their books and pens upstairs with them; ergo, most of the students would then have to run back down seven flights of stairs, and up again. And, finally, for the most hyper-active, off task students, a special mission: "Oh no! I've left [arbitrary object of trivial importance] downstairs in the classroom! Can you quickly run down and get it for me?" Even this wasn't always sufficient.

Intermittently, the class behaved well, and for minutes at a time, was genuinely fun to teach. I especially enjoyed the Design Your Own Superhero Lesson, in which the students designed their own superhero (I also love titular instructions). As we were brainstorming various superhero names, all of the students but one ran out of ideas after Spiderman. One kid took it upon himself to single-handedly filled the rest of my board with progressively obscure super-heroes, some of which I had previously only heard of in passing. Then, when it came time to design super heroes, he created IronHulk: The Incredible Hulk, but in a IronMan's suit of armour. Is that not simplistically brilliant? IronHulk could practically take on Superman. If I had to pick odds, I would say that this student will loose his virginity during his first week of university.

My teenage class was somewhat different. In fact, I had very few issues with them, by and large. The same can be said for positive experiences too. Essentially, in typical teen style, they didn't do much of anything. There were, of course, notable exceptions.

On day one, I gave the class a "Getting to you know you" speaking task, and left them to speak in pairs. Walking past one student who was speaking in Russian, I cleared my throat assertively. He gave me a bewildered look, then said:

"Oh, do you want me to speak in English?"

Did I need to specify that? You are on English camp! And right now, you are sitting in your daily English lesson! I gave you instructions in English, and a handout written in English! Forgive me for assuming that, as I gave my instructions, it would be an insult to your intelligence to specify the language that you should employ! . . . "Um, yes, please."

Additionally, I had two students who kept arguing with each other. One of them even started crying once.

Hey, I've got a solution for you: one which doesn't require my intervention every ten minutes! Don't sit next to each other! This isn't an airplane, and there isn't assigned seating! This should not be a lesson in basic initiative!

Additionally, they told me that I look like Pushkin. I take as a welcome change from being told that I look like Art Garfunkle.

By far, though, my most memorable student also made me the most uncomfortable. She was ten years old, and had the most un-subtle crush on me I have ever encountered. I'm not especially quick on the uptake when it comes to this sort of things, but she made sure I didn't need to be to understand her intentions. It would have been adorable and endearing, were it not for the fact that, in the absence of the necessary English skills, she kept grabbing out at me whenever she wanted my attention. Given her four foot stature, I found myself having to always be ready to leap backwards at a moment's notice.

I'm weak on drawing long posts to a satisfactory conclusion.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Racist Joke

Jefferson Davis and Adolf Hitler walk into a bar. Davis turns to Hitler and says: "What? Is this it?"