My Commute When I Lived In Kyiv


I’ve taken to leaving for work at around 10am these days. Officially I’m not meant to arrive until around 3pm, and what with it not being a 5 hour commute, I arrive early and get on with work.
A shower, half hour teach-yourself-Russian lesson, and a cup of tea is all I need in the hour before I set off, brief chat with housemate complete. We have two doors to the flat, as do almost all ex-Soviet places, although ours is unusual in that in between the doors we have space for our shoes – most are just a door directly behind another, for security. Being on the second floor (or the first if we’re being British) in a block bereft of a fully functioning elevator system, when leaving I tend to plod down the fire escape, despite the smell of piss and worrying sight of used needles and syringes on the flat roof that extends behind our block. I nod a brief “drasticha” to our concierge, one of four ladies who rotate responsibility for monitoring who comes in and out of the block. All are mid-fifties or older, and vary in character between stern babushka and smiling/shouting/screaming alcoholic. Not even out on to the pot holed road and I’ve run a fairly unfamiliar environment, and this without the dogs belonging to the guy along our corridor – dogs I am unable to judge the temperament of.
Our block is the last of three that peel off the main road, Malishka, (which translate literally as “little one”, as in what one might nickname a child or girlfriend) at an angle of 30 degrees, behind a row of shops. This angle can be confusing when one is trying to establish the direction of a place from inside the flat, as the brain seems to naturally assume that the block is perpendicular to the road. Some days I will walk along the dumpsters beside the blocks, others I will cut through the arch, out on to the road. A small park follows the precinct of sorts, and just before I cross the road to my left, heading for Darnytsya metro station, I stop and talk to my fruit and veg lady. We have slowly developed a relationship based entirely on smiles, laughter and a mutually poor grasp of one anothers’ language. She says “Sank you very much” (the “th” sound too difficult for Slavic tongues often), whilst I just about understand how many grivna and kopekas I need to hand over for my bananas. She smiles a sweet smile (15 years ago she would have been a great beauty) and her gold teeth often glint in the sun, like some sparkle from a toothpaste commercial. We say our faltering goodbyes and I cross the road at the crossing.
For those that have never attempted to cross a road in the former Eastern Bloc, allow me to illuminate some simple truths, the subtle but dangerous differences in meaning that those white stripes across the road convey. In Kiev (well, I say “in Kiev”, but actually I live on the left bank, on the totally flat area that was developed in the 1950’s to house economic migrants drafted here to work in the factories. This area, to the residents of the glacially hilly right bank, the heart of Kiev, is simply not the same city.), as in other cities, one stands at these crossings and waits for a prudent moment to step out and then, and only then, does the traffic begin to stop. Often I find myself stuck in the centre of the road, as a farmer from out of town in his battered Lada ignores me, or an aspirant in a Volga 3110 with tinted windows hurries to his middle management job. It’s more of a worry in the centre of Kiev, where the cars are the all together more frightening Hummers and assorted other toff-roaders. However, touching wood (and often cloth) I still seem to get across unscathed and take the path to the metro. This path is set at the opposite angle to our building and the symmetry is pleasing, some large feng shui to it.
The park through which this path runs is unremarkable, although well lit for those drunken stumbles home once I’ve caught the final metro, which runs until about 12.30am. More often than not I join the queue to buy a token straight away, although if I’m feeling flush, I might splash out 30p (3 grivna) on an espresso. Actually, it’s not about the money, it’s about finishing the coffee two stops down the line and having to carry the cup for the rest of the journey – often I’ll get my caffeine at the other end, paying the 2 grivna surcharge that comes from being downtown. The queues are often long, waiting to get tokens (50 kopeka or 5 pence a journey), not helped by the lack of queuing etiquette displayed by Ukrainians. The trains are efficient, one every 2 minutes or so, and once on board I often zone out to the televisions situated thereon, watching Animal Planet clips, Discovery Channel clips or even trying to get my head around the subtitled news. My Russian has some way to go before I have any understanding of that or of the newspapers people hawk in the crowded carriages. Others sell sweets, maps, magazines, vitamins, all manner of goods on the overland trains, the ones underground being too noisy for their patter to be heard effectively.
The second stop in is Hydropark, an island in the middle of the formidable Dnipro river. This park is a summer place, and only now in the first flushes of spring are people alighting or joining at this station. Pulling away from there, we head towards the hills of Kiev, rising sharply from the river. Looking out to the left, one is treated to the sight of the Statue of the Motherland, a tall imposing steel statue of a woman carrying sword and shield. To ex-pats she is known as Tin Tits. Also in that line of sight are the tops of the various churches and chapels, leafed in gold, that make up the monastery Lavre. Mummified monks lie therein, and a trip to its catacombs is a must on a visit to the city. The last overland station in Dnipro, on the right bank, and from there one is driven directly into the side of a hill and the underground begins.
The first stop on the underground is Arsenalna, the deepest metro station in Europe, one that takes about 8 minutes on an escalator to escape if one does not walk. If one does, it takes about 8 days off your life, so standing still is the best idea. Kreschatik is next, the main Kiev road, and a station linked to Maidan Nezhalostnisti (my spelling is terrible) or Main Square, the site of the Orange Revolution 4 years ago. I may alight here, and grab that 5 grivna coffee, or I may continue on to Teatralna, and bumble across Prorizna to my office, and to here, where I write to you now.

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After A Year, I’m Nowhere Close To Being A Teacher


Indulge me, picture the scene. The sheets on my adequate double bed have come loose during the night and, despite the fact that I’ve got up and am drinking my second cup of strong coffee, I’m back in bed cursing the bedding. I’m wide-eyed at just gone 8am because Jodie Walker is close to beating me at Words With Friends and Baghdad appears to be fulfilling the worst-case-scenario that wasn’t anticipated for another month at least.

Since I arrived in Iraqi Kurdistan in May, without knowledge beyond the average western news reader, I’ve learnt one thing. Kurdistan is a story in itself; the people, the culture, the places, the tired old travelling cliches are enough to entertain a mildly curious English teacher with aspirations to report and strong desires for the dollars that clear the overdraft back home (I’ll get round to that just as soon as I’ve stopped having fun here, I promise Mr LloydsTSB). I work in “Iraq” even though I’m in this respectful, safe part of the middle east that isn’t, to all intents and purposes, Iraq, but Kurdistan – a “nation” seperate from the hell of recent years, finding its feet.

Teaching has been a learning experience. Just over a year ago I completed a month long CELTA course, the standard qualification for EFL teaching around the world. After almost a year, I’m still no teacher, no wonder most jobs require two years’ experience. Through circumstance I find myself here in Sulaymaniyah, the Kurdistan Region Government’s second city. I could go on, but the essential fact is that the PM of Iraq, as of Monday last, wants the Vice President tried on terrorism charges and the VP has chosen Kurdistan as refuge. And that shits me up. On top of not speaking to anyone in the know since Monday, holed up in my school/flat as I do of weekdays, this morning was rough.

The thing that really laced the boots of my tight-mindedness however, was the shitty lessons I delivered yesterday. Interrupted by film crews for an advert, late students and those too tired to care (so careless in fact that I set that elementary class homework – Show And Tell, stand in front of the class and speak on the topic I give you for 5 minutes), malaise had settled over me before I fell asleep last night, and by midday today I wanted to come home to avoid disrespectful students and possible kidnapping. I did NOT come out here for my demise to be a video sought out on the deeper reaches of the internet by some lardy SlipKnot fan from Ohio.

Three weeks ago I came across a lesson plan online for elementary students focussed around a Mr Bean Christmas episode. It’s quaint for us English, but is loved around the world, especially in somewhere as conservative as the middle east. That careless elementary class had actually progressed well this week, and I’d run out of material. I made a bet with the demotivated, slightly scared self lay in bed with his third too-strong coffee. They provide homework, they get Mr Bean. They don’t, they do photocopied exercises all lesson. A pretty grim failing on my part, but I’m still learning.

I went into the lesson before theirs, armed with too much to get through and a worry that they just weren’t up to it. Self-doubt competed with resignation – I’m going to have to leave Iraq soon enough, it’s all about ME. But it felt like I walked into one of those pier-end arcade machines where you make the coppers waterfall – pennies dropped consistently for two hours. 3rd person singular present simple – DONE. Use of auxiliary “do” with negatives and questions – DONE. Uncountable and countable nouns, positive and negative – DONE. Pronouncing “six” and “next” correctly – DONE. Golly fucking gosh.

My customary two hour break on a Thursday was spent readying the Mr Bean YouTube clip – if lesson one went that well, lesson two would have Atkinson, homework or not. I’m cruising to Christmas baby, and I want giggles.

So they arrived, I taught them peculiar Christmas vocabulary and they looked at me like the pillock I am. But one student hadn’t arrived, and I was so keen to deliver my little gift of idiot to the whole class. I asked, without expectation, “Who’s going to give their speech first?” Of the four available students, six hands went up. Whilst not flawless, these four delivered interesting speeches about their lives, and the audience shot questions that were on the whole fielded with ease. I can’t tell you how good it felt.

Actually, I can. It felt so good that I didn’t feel like Mr Bean was an indulgence for me more than them. Mr Bean was a reward. I’ve got a long way to go, but I rather think I might get the hang of this teaching thing.

Oh, and Iraq? I got out of the building tonight, saw my friends that know. I’m safe. Safe and happy, although there is one thing…….