The Village: An Imagining.

One of the quirks of the Russian language is the lack of articles; as a results many Russian speakers misuse articles when speaking English. This has led to possibly my favourite phrase ever. They all love to talk about “The Village

What are you doing at the weekend: I’m going to The Village.

Are you busy this evening: Yes I’m going to The Village.

Would you like to come to The Village.

It doesn’t matter who you talk to they all phrase it the same way, not a village, or my parents’ village. They never name The Village or in any way acknowledge that there may be another village in existence. To me it has a fantastical ring to it, to the point that this is what I imagine based on their descriptions.

To The Village!

Kazakhstan has only one village, it is known as The Village (capital T, capital V). It is somewhere in the centre of the country so that everyone can access it easily.

It seems there is some sort of direct, as the crow flies, means of transport to The Village. I’d like to think they teleport or similar, but they usually talk of taxis and trains so instead there must be a dedicated group of people whose sole responsibility in the nation is to transport people to and from The Village. I like to imagine them in a uniform, wearing national colours as they work for their country, or maybe there are different clans or rival factions, perhaps the train and taxi people are rivals. Maybe there are rogue transporters running people back and forth without official papers smuggling people or object in and out of the village without the authorities knowing; or maybe they do know, but turn a blind eye, taking a slice of course.

fantasy uniform

The village itself must be huge, during the weekend the population of the village must quadruple. It needs to house almost the whole population of Kazakhstan during the weekend and holidays. Maybe it’s on a parallel plane of existence.

During week days the population is old people and a few young children. The old people would be a bit like fantasy elves, they are long lived, stoic and formal. They’ve seen and know too much, they continue to practice the old ways despite the modern advancements their children try to bring back from the cities. I imagine the grandparents indulge their grandchildren in the secrecy of the week, imparting knowledge to them and even occasionally smiling, while the children’s parents work in the many cities.

babushkas_edit

Their houses are immaculately clean as all of the women’s’ time is spent on housework and preparing food for the weekend’s festivities. I picture the men spending their time looking serious and sitting in their chair. They may take a walk around The Village, maybe they will read a book.

Logically however, there must be some sort of spacial rift in The Village as despite my colleagues all going to The Village, they have never mentioned seeing each other there. Or perhaps there is a wrong side of the tracks mentality. Maybe long held family rivalries prevent different groups socialising in The Village, it would not be tolerated. The adults who leave The Village during the week do as they please in the city and this causes friction between them and the previous generations. The grandparents consider going to a city frivolous and unnecessary, they suspect their children are dishonouring their legacy.

fantasy citadel

As soon as they get back to The Village each woman is expected to join in cleaning the house, and preparing the weakly feasts, all their time is to be spent with their own family sharing in the running of the household. I imagine all the females gathered around a stew pot as they prepare a special meal, stirring occasionally as aromatic vapour flows through the house, maybe they make bread and gossip about their neighbours. This is where they gain the knowledge of the old ways. Occasionally special events occur, new year, a birthday, a new birth in which socialising is encouraged, but of course only with friends and allies; the appropriate gifts should be given and feasts prepared. There is a balance between keeping their children doing the right things and keeping them happy.

fantasy-wizards-ingredients-mike-savad

Maybe they are trained to never reveal the true nature of The Village, to never name speak its name as everyone knows names have power. The Kazakhs I know are incredibly difficult to get straight answers from and will reveal little to nothing about themselves. Perhaps they are all hiding a big secret about The Village. Maybe it was their safe place against the Russians.

Or maybe its just a quirk of the language.

Starting My New Teaching Job in Kazakhstan

You may by now realise there is a significant lag between real life and my blogs, however I actually wrote all these at the time they happened, but I’m only now getting around to uploading them. Anyway, below is a continuation of my adventures in Kazakhstan.


My goodness 7:30 feels early when you’re a day behind on sleep plus several hours jet lagged, but never mind, I had to meet N___ at 8:10 so he could show me the way to school and get me through security. A short slightly awkwardly silent 10 minute walk later and we were there. N___explained who I was to the guards so they would let me in before depositing me with the vice principle of something or other.

This was not the woman who had interviewed me or had been emailing me.

She had been made redundant. (was back to being a teacher).

As had the part of the V.P.’s role that included all things connected with international teachers.

That explained the lack of organisation and communication the last 2 months.

Never mind.

i-have-no-idea-what-im-doing-5120x2880-4358

The V.P. explained a lot about who the different V.P.s were and other leadership positions and why the names didn’t match up with the signs on the doors (not that it mattered, I couldn’t read them or remember anyone’s name anyway). She then led me on a tour of the school. It was very tidy and all the pupils looked very smart. Eventually I was deposited at the Physics department. There were 14 people in the physics department, I was the only one fluent in English.

I was made to feel very welcome, offered several different desks in several different workrooms. They all wanted the English speaker in their room.


One of the ladies is called Gulnara.

Gul is a type of flower and nara means camel she informed me.

What a lovely name.

camel-rose-rose-flower-background

I was asked by several people at different times how old I was. Is this a cultural difference? Is it a fairly standard question to ask a relative stranger in Kazakhstan? I didn’t mind telling them I am 30. They were surprised. They said they thought I was younger, so that was nice I suppose.

The school ran on WhatsApp, or that’s how it seemed. There were loads of groups for teachers and classes, it seemed I needed to download it if I was to know what was going on. I did download it. I still didn’t know what’s going on.

whatsapp-update-latest-version

I was given a laptop. Everything was in Russian. The password was in Russian using the Russian keyboard. I figured out the English key equivalent so I could login in, then I switched to the English keyboard and figured everything else out by location.

I went to observe a lesson. This particular teacher has very little English but insisted the pupils speak English only. They were researching part of the topic then explaining it to others. Where I come from that’s a classic “f.o.f.o.” lesson. If this was the level expected of me I might be alright.


The only person in the department who spoke reasonable English was M___, she offered to accompany me to lunch in the cafeteria. I went along and spent approximately 80p on a seasoned rice dish that contained carrots and some unidentified meat. It was quite dry but tasty.  We didn’t linger and soon headed back to the department.

I was WhatsApped by the VP in the middle of the day to tell me my contract didn’t start until tomorrow so after meeting everyone else I was free for the rest of the day.

I took that to mean I could go home. So I did.

Damn jet lag.

I was still awake at midnight.

I listened to my audio Russian lessons for half an hour and learnt to count to ten. Go me.

I eventually slept

russian audio

My New Home in Kazakhstan

I finally got to sleep 15 minutes before landing. The sun was up it was 8:30 in the morning (4:30 a.m. U.K. time) and the airport looked like an abandoned industrial estate with one dilapidated shed on it. I grabbed by hand luggage and followed everyone else walking across what I suppose was the airfield towards the wire fence where people were waiting to greet them.

A random guy said my name (at least I thought so, I could have misheard) and like the sensible person I am I happily followed him, after all I was expecting to be met, though I had no idea by who. He started to lead me towards the car park at which point I felt it wise to ask where I should collect my luggage. Lucky I mentioned it as he hadn’t thought about that. Once my 1 suitcase and backpack were collected we loaded them and ourselves into a minibus with another random guy at the wheel. As the minibus door was being closed yet another random guy tried to barge on board. I get the impression he was some sort of vagrant and the driver and greeter were emphatic in denying him entry and firmly shut the door. Since then I’ve realised there is a very informal “taxi” system around these parts so it probably wasn’t so odd.

DSC_2209

 

I feared for the vehicle, its contents and all other beings on the road during the short drive to my new lodgings, so much so I felt the need to look up the traffic related deaths statistics for Kazakhstan. It was no surprise to find its several times higher than Europe and well above average for the world, so that’s good to know.

roadinjuries_Kazakhstan

My greeter finally introduced himself as N__. He teaches English though he has never been to an English speaking country, so he must have worked hard to get to that level. He offered to meet me at 12:00 to help me get a sim card and cash out. I thought I had better take him up on the offer despite my desire to sleep.

I was handed over to my new landlord who led me to my new apartment and his mother who had evidently been finishing off the cleaning. You would not believe the decor of the place, every wall and rug was a different colour and pattern, it was quite something to behold. It was officially the biggest place I had lived in on my own.  Admittedly the only other place I’d lived in alone was my boat, so it wasn’t a massive accomplishment. The landlord’s wife had baked me 4 different cake type items and I was told I would be invited to dine with them in a week or so which I thought was very sweet of them (p.s. this never happened).

 

My apartment consisted of:

  • A kitchen with 1 table and 4 stools. 1 pan, 1 mug, 1 spoon, 2 knives and 2 forks, 1 glass oven dish and several glass plates and bowls.
  • A large double bedroom with balcony.
  • A large living room containing 1 long sofa and 1 small TV.
  • 1 toilet.
  • 1 bathroom.
  • Several large wardrobe type cupboards,
  • A large hallway,
  • 1 spacious other room I like to call the ironing room containing 1 chair, 1 cupboard and an ironing board set up. I don’t believe in ironing.

I stripped out of my sweaty travel clothes (as soon as they had left, not while they were there obviously), climbed into bed and slept for 2 hours before getting up to go and sort out my life. N__ was very helpful and got me set up with a Kazakh sim card so I was reassuringly connected to the internet wherever I went from then on (data and minutes etc. are super cheap out here). My Revolut card as usual thoroughly impressed me by being fully functional in any cash machine getting me interbank rates as I withdrew some money. Then with cash and a sim card sorted I did a spot of shopping before heading home. Then going shopping again as I had forgotten a lot of things.

Things I didn’t bring with but wish I had

  • A towel
  • A hairbrush – oops
  • A white sheet – for my projector
  • Home foods – the supermarkets don’t look very international to say the least

Purchases

  • Milk and cereal – just in case all else fails
  • Pasta and tomato puree – a safe bet
  • Cheese spread and bread – easy lunch solution
  • Blanket – to snuggle up on the sofa and watch TV
  • Water – the tap water tastes bad and I’m not convinced it’s safe to drink
  • Onion, potatoes and peas – it seemed sensible

After settling in for the night, and unpacking everything into a very small portion of the storage available I video called my parents and one of my brothers to show off my still fit and healthy person and also my unusually decorated home. Shattered by this point I decided to eat my packed sandwiches for tea followed by the cakes I had been gifted.

The cakes tasted awful.

I ate chocolate buttons instead.

kazakhstan area

Travelling to Kazakhstan

I know I’ve skipped ahead a bit in the story, and maybe I will go back and fill in the rest of the summer eventually, but for now let’s get on with heading to Kazakhstan.

To The Airport

The day had arrived to travel to Kazakhstan. My sister and I popped into town to buy some more suitable shoes, maybe an extra backpack for luggage and some food to take on the trains and planes. This was accomplished with relative ease before I finished off packing and got dropped at the train station again by my ever so helpful sister. I was to take the 12:20 train to London Euston, then the Underground to Heathrow.

The train was cancelled.

No replacement train or bus was offered, just wait for the next one.

I didn’t have time for that. I re-routed myself and caught a different train to Birmingham New Street.

So did the rest of the world apparently.

I stood in a sweltering carriage for 30 minutes with my large suitcase, a backpack a handbag and my face in some stranger’s armpit.

train

We eventually arrived and I managed to catch a train 5 minutes later to Euston. This one was also standing room only. I sat on the floor by the doors. If I can offer you one travel tip it is this: the floor is the coolest and arguably most spacious seat on a train. I sat there quite happily reading my book and eating my sandwich, leaning on my luggage legs stretched out. Eventually there was space on a seat so I moved to a table to eat some of a large pot of yoghurt I had packed for the occasion and to continue with my book.

Getting to Heathrow from Euston wasn’t as terrible as I had imagined. Sure I had to lug my suitcase and bags through hordes of people in a cramped, hot, airless space, but besides that I simply looked at the map, hopped in a lift (after waiting in a queue), walked down a tunnel and climbed on the next train listing Heathrow terminal  4. It was an hour long journey and I even managed to get a seat for some of it.

For those wondering you can get from Birmingham New Street to London Heathrow using public transport for about £35 in 3 – 4 hours as follows:

  • New Street –> Euston by train (approx £30 – 2 hours)
  • Head to the underground and pay cash or swipe a oyster, contactless credit or debit card for the rest of the journey (£5 – 1.5 hours)
  • Choose either:
    • Northern line going South – Euston–> Leicester Square
    • or
    • Victoria line going West – Euston –> Green Park
  • Switch to the Piccadilly line going West –> Heathrow (check your particular train goes to the terminal you need – they alternate between terminal 4 and 5)
  • Make sure you swipe your ticket or card when exiting the train line.

tube-medium-zoned

I arrived at the airport with plenty of time to check my bags in. My flight included 2 checked bags of up to 23kg each. I did not want to drag 2 suitcases around so I overpacked my suitcase and included an extra backpack to transfer some stuff into at check in. It worked like a charm.

I took a few moments to enjoy my remaining liquids before going through security. I queued up, and like the practiced professional I am I had laptop, tablet, kobo, phone out and in a tray, bag in another, coat and handbag in another and was through the scanner in moments. Whoop.

My bag got stopped.

Why! I had been so careful.

I had not been careful. I had left a half pot of yoghurt in my bag which over the remainder of the train journey had managed to spill inside its plastic bag and had made a bit of a mess. The security lady was very pleasant about it and in the bin it went. My pre-packed sandwich survived the ordeal and continued on with me to Kazakhstan

The plane was delayed.

I only had 1.5 hours transfer time in Nur- Sultan to begin with. This was a little concerning. Oh Well, nothing I could do about it.

Happy Little accidents

I was flying with Air Astana and when we finally boarded  I had a full row of 3 seats to myself. I considered myself particularly lucky as I when I had checked in online only middle seats were available and I wasn’t looking forward to 6.5 hours sat between 2 strangers.

The service was impeccable. The air hostess was very attentive offering sweets, drinks and headphones early on. I had a pillow and a blanket package already on my seat, and not one of those thin fleecy blue ones I’ve had before. Once we were safely in the air the air hostess returned to ask if I would like to eat first then sleep or sleep then eat. Food and then sleep I thought. The food was served on proper crockery with real metal cutlery. I had thought this was a budget airline, I was very impressed.

After a short time reading my book I looked across to see the man in the aisle opposite me calling the air hostess over and standing up. I looked on in interest as she made his 3 seats into a bed for him. Out of the blanket package she unrolled a mattress topper that she fixed across his seats before ushering him onto it and placing the blanket on top. She caught my eye and indicated did I want my bed made?

Heck yes I did!

I stood up to provide access to the seats and properly looked around for the first time. It was at this point I realised I and a few others were in a separate section to the majority of the flight. Where we all had 3 seats to ourselves they were sat shoulder to shoulder. I glanced back at the rows near mine, all were very business looking men, all with 3 seats to themselves. Had I booked some sort of business class ticket without realising? I wanted to check my ticket but had to wait until my bed was made, naturally.

sleeper economy

I settled across my 3 seats and routed through my bad until I found my ticket. It said sleeper class, was that different to economy? I checked my other booking information, it definitely said economy so I could argue my point. What a happy little accident. Part of me didn’t want to sleep, I had the privilege of these 3 seats it seemed a waste to sleep through it. That being said I did need to sleep so I lay down and made myself as comfortable as possible.

I wasn’t comfortable, I tried very possible sleeping position and failed to sleep in all of them. In the end I settled for sitting up and reading my book. Regardless of the lack of sleep it was one of the best flying experiences I have ever had. Plus as a bonus I got a card that allowed me access to the business class fast pass queues in the airport. I’ve saved that for another journey.

The moral of the story: If your flight offers sleeper class tickets and they don’t cost significantly more, get one!

I had the perfect amount of time to pass through passport control, get my visa stamped and reach my next gate (after nearly entering a part of the airport I wasn’t supposed to). As I was boarded onto the plane the boarding agent (is that what they’re called?) told me my seat number had been changed. O.K. I wasn’t really bothered, it was only a short 2.5 hour flight. As it happened I had been changed to an emergency exit seat, extra leg room and a window; bonus!

Drama

Again I was highly interested in the goings on in the aisle across from me. A woman was wanting to sit next to her friend but her ticket was for a different seat (bare in mind I am inferring as it was all in Russian of Kazakh or some such) the air hostess would not allow her to just take a different passengers seat so she waited in the aisle seat on my side of the plane. Eventually the passenger whose seat she wanted arrived. After a moments discussion he nodded and she took his seat and he sat in the aisle seat on my side.

That was when the drama really began.

The woman’s official seat was not this one, it was much further down the plane. The guy did not want this but the woman had now taken his seat and was refusing to budge. Queues were forming, the person who had the aisle seat ticket on my side arrived and wanted his seat. The woman still refused to move, the displaced guy was waving his ticket around, the air hostess attempted to reason with both, the new guy had no idea what was going on and simply took his seat ignoring all else. An extra air host arrived and nothing changed (is it air host for male and air hostess for female? I’ve never thought about before. Maybe its air steward and air stewardess. Oh well I’m not going back and changing it now). Eventually the displaced guy got a seat the row behind mine which was still an emergency exit seat so he had the extra leg room.

After the low key drama boarding the plane the flight was completely uneventful. I finished a very entertaining book about inter-railing around Europe in the 90s, and completed a few puzzles in my puzzle book. I did of course attempt to sleep but not very successfully.

dont lean out window

 

Finally we landed in what appeared to be a barren piece of land with a rickety old shed in it, apparently it was the airport.

First impressions of Kazakhstan coming soon.

When Things Come Together

Ooh another Kazakhstan section, but you’ve turned down the job, what could possibly be happening now I hear you ask. Well, 4 days after declining the job offer in Kazakhstan, the international recruitment lady contacted me to suggest the same job, for the same group of schools, in a different city, in the same country, where I would be able to find accommodation allowing dogs, and as it’s a rural city it pays more (counter-intuitively).

s-margot.jpg

Though I would have to re-interview for the role with the staff at the new school. I now considered myself experienced with these interviews having completed one before with great success, so I thought, Why not and signed myself up for another Skype interview.

The interview seemed very much more a token interview this time. They seemed to have decided that if the previous school in the big city had wanted me then it must be their lucky day to get me out in the sticks.

After a little deliberation I decided to accept this job offer.

Team teaching grade 10-12 physics only, class size a maximum of 12 students: it sounded like a the most idyllic job I could have ever imagined.

s sketch tewkesbury

Then came the logistics. This is one of the main things about being a grown-up that I hate. Admin. Insurance, documentation, notaries, visas, vaccines, flights, council tax … and so on and so forth.

Plus I still had to get through the rest of the school term; though as the year 11’s had gone on exam leave my timetable was significantly improved and summer time on a narrowboat is wonderful, I especially enjoyed my mini veg garden.

Many of my colleagues were both envious and confused by my decision. Envious as I was leaving before what looked to be a difficult year, and confused as Kazakhstan wasn’t really an obvious choice. I don’t know the precise nuances of each of their situations, but I do believe people are rarely as trapped in their jobs as they think they are. If they really wanted a change they could do it, it might be difficult or uncomfortable but I don’t believe impossible.

I was due to start at the beginning of September alas the paperwork side of things slowed things down considerably to the point that I wasn’t entirely sure it would all come together, but , spoiler alert, it did, and I’ll tell you more about that in another post.

So here is where the real tale begins, as I start my journey towards teaching physics in Kazakhstan.

s boat & margot

So How About Kazakhstan?

So I sent off my one and only job application for a physics teaching job in Kazakhstan of all places. Did I think I would be asked to interview? Did I know enough A-level Physics? Did I want the job in Kazakhstan?

I didn’t think at all, I didn’t need to, it was only an application not a lifetime commitment with legal contract.

A few weeks later I was asked for a Skype interview. Again I thought, Why not? Did I think I would be offered the job? Did I know enough A-level Physics? Did I want the job in Kazakhstan?

Again, I didn’t think much, I didn’t need to it was only an interview not a lifetime commitment with legal contract.

I could interview, then, if they didn’t offer me the job I  was no worse off, If they did offer me the job I could still say no, or, I could say yes, but I would have to interview to get those options, and I like options.

I gave another spectacular interview, this time sat on my boat with Margot climbing on me.

Margot
My little Margot

And on this occasion they did offer me the job.

Only one question was left, did I want the job in Kazakhstan? See how I saved myself so much worry and work by not thinking about things, now most of the questions had answered themselves without my interference.

But did I want the job in Kazakhstan?

This one I did think about. I was given 24 hours to accept the offer.

I did not accept their offer in 24 hours, after all I had barely thought about the possibility of actually getting the job. Instead I sent them a perfectly reasonable holding email as follows:

Sorry for the delay in replying. Before I can accept I need to check a few logistics at my end concerning my dog and home. I hope to be able to give a firm response early next week. I may have some questions before then, I hope that is OK.

Kind regards

Etc

LocationKazakhstan

I read the contract, it was a 1 year contract initially, the contact hours were well balanced with non contact hours, the holidays were good, the pay was great, plus there was a relocation package and accommodation and utilities paid, 2 return flights a year also paid. It seemed like a very good deal but I had questions.

My questions were as follows:

  • What does a typical timetable look like?

I was emailed a fairly unintelligible one in Russian or Kazakh, I’m not sure which.

  • Can I bring my dog? (very important)

They will negotiate with the landlord.

  • Is there a bath? (extremely important)

Maybe a bath, maybe a shower.

  • Are there cooking facilities? ( I don’t like cooking but it’s good to know)

Apartments are equipped with basic cooking facilities and the relocation allowance should cover anything else required.

  • What is the notice period if things are not working out at either end? (I like to have an escape plan in place before committing to anything)

1 month notice.

With a 1 month notice period (read escape plan), the ability to bring my dog and the possibility of a bath I thought as usual, Why not!

Approximately 102 hours after being given 24 hours to accept the job, I finally accepted the job!

15 hours later I am informed the landlords do not allow pets. I am now to reconfirm my acceptance of the job in light of this recent development.

I decide to spend the week trying to find dog friendly accommodation in the city for myself before confirming. I fail at this and so I decline the job. I had between myself and God decided that Margot was my non-negotiable, If God didn’t want me to go to Kazakhstan then this was his way to stop me.

So that was that. I bet you thought I was going to Kazakhstan. That that would be an adventure worth writing about as opposed to turning down my one and only job offer. But hey ho, that’s what happened.

 

Let’s Go Abroad

The Easter holidays had arrived, and I had decided to visit my parents in Spain (proper Spanish Spain in the mountains, I explain this every time as I subconsciously fear people imagining us as classic Brits abroad. Maybe we really are and just don’t know it). I hadn’t been out that way since I had got my dog the previous summer. I still didn’t have a post teaching plan but was very much looking forward to some down time and maybe putting in some serious thought on the subject.

xativa sketch_edit

Teaching abroad wasn’t an option I had considered seriously mostly due to being kind of over it by this point. However,  as I was in Spain anyway, I emailed the local international school and asked to have a look around. I had no frame of reference for teaching in Spain, what were the conditions like, working hours, salary, student mentality etc, it was worth looking into. The school  were more than happy for me to visit. They gave me a guided tour followed by asking me if I would come for an interview for a physics position they had available immediately. I thought, Why not?, so turned up at beautiful marbled school all shiny and slippery and expensive looking, designed to impress parents into spending large amounts of money to educate their children there.

I gave a spectacular interview.

I never heard from them again.

I didn’t want to work there anyway.

No really I didn’t. The pay was less than the UK, the working hours and holidays were similar, the workload was maybe lighter, there was a language barrier and general differences in behaviour expectations. From my point of view the pupils were chatty and rude. It didn’t seem like a great alternative to teaching in the UK.

So there you are, this isn’t a tale about taking a teaching job in Spain, rather a mini tale of being ghosted by a Spanish school after they asked me to interview.

Immediately after my Spain interview I knew it wasn’t for me so I sat outside in the Spanish sun and googled where in the world is it best to teach. On a random list, somewhere near the top was listed Kazakhstan with a link to a job advert in Astana and I thought why not? So I spent the next hour filling in their application form and sent it off.

This was the one and only application form I had submitted since handing in my notice.

So how’d that pan out? I’ll tell you next time.

bocairent sketch