Alex Bower

ALEX BOWER finds teaching English in Moscow tough: you try dealing with a naked penis-examining three year old.

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My favourite thing about being English in Russia is that a surprising number of people think you’re some kind of cross between James Bond and the Beatles. You effortlessly go around being cool everywhere via a combination of dressing like a casino-goer or an Indie superstar, drinking tea, charming women, and being musically original.

My second favourite thing is the constant double-taking I have to do whenever I see strange things on the TV or street, like this hilariously bizarre juice advert, because I never know when my next publicly-frowned upon laughing fit is going to strike next.

My third favourite thing is that you can get an absurdly well-paid job teaching rich people English. A friend of mine teaches the child of a man who owns a 100% stake in an oil refinery, and is not surprised to be paid just under three figures an hour.

No one I know that teaches for that kind of money has anything resembling official qualifications aside from the big one marked “being British”. And no one seems to care. As I discussed last week, qualifications are more or less relative here.

Some friends who run a teaching business got me a few hours a week teaching a 17 year old Russian girl. Even though her name is Elena, which is a lovely name, she insists on being called Helen, which due to her Russian accent sounds like a phlegmy cough. She dyes her hair black and is precise about her appearance to the point that her hair never seems to get any longer, and she wears the exact same clothes every time I see her. Her personal accuracy is at odds with pretty much everything she says, because she is a fan of bizarrely outrageous generalisations, like “all Russians hate all of their friends” and “sailors are less intelligent than people who don’t sail”.

She is very good at maths, but unfortunately wants to do sociology. This, combined with the Russian education system leaving 100% of things to be desired, especially in terms of creativity and free thought (also common sense), makes me work hard to earn my money. When I told her there was more than one potential reading of any novel her jaw dropped so fast it broke the sound barrier before hitting the floor.

The Russian education system appears to rely on learning an enormous number of facts and dates without interpreting them. The problem is that many of these ‘facts’ are wrong or don’t get the same respect as ‘traditional wisdom’. These are the unholy double-team of reasons that led me into an argument with a fully-qualified doctor about whether the common cold was a virus or not. She was absolutely convinced that you just got it from being near a draught, and that antibiotics would help, despite all medical evidence pointing the other way.

This view was also shared by another student I have, who is a psychologist. I feel weird going to see her because it’s like I’m getting paid to see a shrink in some kind of rehabilitation programme. She even secretly analysed my handwriting to give me a character breakdown at our next lesson, where she told me I would either become a success or a menace.

She is very intelligent but she does have a 3 year old child who always runs around, which would be fine if he hadn’t rejected the idea of clothes. It’s really hard to continue explaining the English tense system when a naked child has chosen that moment to squat on your table and painstakingly examine his penis, while his mother is too engrossed in grammar to notice.

I wish I had that kind of concentration in academic situations so I could focus on what my supervisor was saying instead of thinking about how big flies are nowadays and how Raid might have to start making a contingency spray that can take down an eagle, or whether putting a slinky on an escalator would make a crude perpetual motion machine.