Living on a Commune in Ukraine

Right now my life is interesting as hell. I’ve been living on a commune in Norther Ukraine, several hours by train from Kiev. How the hell did I get here?

It’s a question I ask myself often. I mean when you look at it, the amount of people who will do something like this has got to be less than 1%. Hell, if you look at it from the right perspective, I’m a one-percenter now! Don’t tell Occupy Wall Street..

Before I get into my life, I’d like to first offer a definition of the place I’m living. I previously called it a commune, but I don’t think that’s entirely correct. It’s the closest definition there is to this place, but it wouldn’t really be fair to call it a commune. Here’s what it’s all about.

The Founders

The life behind this place is a family. Leonid and Diana are the husband and wife. They have two girls, Magda and Patagonia (named after her birthplace) and Diana is eight and a half months pregnant at the moment. They live here during the summer and travel in the winter. Being social people who have traveled across the entire world, they have met literally thousands of people.

With that comes an open invitation to come their place. This is the place that I’ve come to. It’s about two acres of land in the middle of nowhere Ukraine. There is a 97 year old building that has been converted into a hostel with ten beds. Then there is also a standalone kitchen building, with a stove that runs on firewood and no running water.

Next to the kitchen is the main house. It’s the only place on the whole property with internet, and it’s where the family sleeps. Across from the house is a barn, and then further down are a few more assorted buildings.

My Work

All of the buildings sit up on a small hill. If you walk down that small decline you hit the garden. That’s where I’ve been getting my sunburn for the last week. I’ve turned a pasty gold (that will fade quickly) pulling weeds and doing other odd jobs.

In return for my work, I have the privilege of indulging in three amazing traditional Ukrainian meals everyday. I’ll tell you, I might not enjoy weeding the garden all that much, but coming up from it and sitting down to a big Ukrainian dinner, with an assortment of people speaking four different languages, it feels awfully swell!

So that’s why I don’t think commune is quite the correct definition. I’m basically staying with a family, who often host people, and have extra bed and extra work. In return I get to practice Russian all day, eat awesome food, play with some great kids, and I don’t pay for rent.

Langauges

I mentioned that it’s possible to hear four different languages at the dinner table. How the hell does that happen on a rural farm in Ukraine?

Well it breaks down like this.

Of course everyone can speak Ukrainian, that’s a given. As the farm is not that farm from the Russian border, everyone speaks fluent Russian as well. So that’s two languages.

Next is a language whose name I can never remember. It starts with a C and I think it’s Cashmish, or something like that. It’s a local dialect, a cross between Russian and Ukrainian. Then finally, since I’m here, I speak a bit of English with anyone who speaks it. Mostly I speak in Russian, but people here want to practice their English as well.

Hearing Russian every day is definitely helping me out. I’m not necessarily learning that much, but I am getting to practice everything I already know. I’m speaking quicker, more accurately, and my accent is decreasing. I still have exactly two months left in Ukraine, and I expect to be killing it with Russian by the time I leave.

How Long am I staying Here

I like it here, but I can’t say I love it. I miss Kiev. In the four days I spent there I had so much fun it shouldn’t even be legal. I also miss hanging out with people age, going to restaurants, and consistent internet.

The patchy internet here means that for the first time since I started this blog, I probably won’t be posting daily for the next week. In fact I may not post at all. I wish it wasn’t the case, but hey, where I’m living is pretty cool, and if there isn’t internet, well it’s a trade off.

That being said, I’ll probably only be here for another week or so. I don’t really feel a huge draw to stay. I like my life, but I liked my life in Kiev a little bit better. Even though I can live comfortably in the country, I think that in my heart I’m a city kid. Miami is my one true love, and I love New York and Kiev to death.

So another week probably.

P.S. – That’s Olga at the top. She’s another volunteer here with me. At that moment, she’s telling off a little crazy kid who bit her. Ukrainian kids, like Russian kids, are a riot..

11 Pictures from the Ukrainian Frontline

I wish I could claim credit for these awesome pictures, but I can’t. They were taken by my friend Théo Humming-Bouffier. He’s been in Ukraine for the last month, documenting the country and meeting all sorts of interesting people. I was lucky enough to meet him at my hostel and he was nice enough to share these photos with me.

I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!

I’m in Love with Kiev After One Day

This morning I flew out of Moscow, which has been my home for the last eight months. To be honest, I was ready for a change. I’m so fucking happy that I made the choice to go to Russia, I would do it again in a heartbeat. However, I had had enough.

Teaching kids is really fucking difficult. Their behavior can be so terrible, and their needs so high, that I often found myself acting more as a baby sitter than as a teacher. This whole month I’ve been counting down the days till I could leave.

Today was that day. Before departing, I had several concerns. First was the reduction in my worldly belongings. I’ve been living out of a suitcase for the last eight months, but I’ve picked up a few things along the way too. That meant that I had to get rid of almost half of my stuff. Most of it was easy, except for loosing a few pieces of clothing that I really liked.

Adapt or die, the saying goes.

My Final Preparations for the Trip

My second concern was my new backpack. The thing has more straps, buckles, and dangling pockets on it than a paratroopers survival pack. All that hardware is great for every day life, so convenient! But I was worried that along the way, some of it would get caught in a conveyor belt at the airport and my pack would be shredded like a politician’s tax return.

So this morning, I wrapped my pack in a role of pilfered scotch tape, crossed my fingers, and dropped it off at the airport.

Fast forward two hours, I’m in Kiev and there’s my bag, the same as when I dropped it off.

The Cutthroat Taxi Business at the Airport

Before I had even walked the hundred steps to the money exchange counter, I had a guy asking me if I needed a taxi (нужно такси?) I ignored him, got my money changed, and then gave my business to the second guy who asked me if I needed a taxi. He was the lucky one I suppose. I got to my hostel, checked in, found a map, chatted for a while in Russian, changed my shirt, and went to explore Kiev.

It turns out that my Hostel is located ideally downtown. I’m a three minute walk from the main square! In New York, first off a hostel could never afford to operate in such a location. Second, hypothetically if it did, it would cost $75 a night.

Kiev prices: about $15 for two nights. How amazing is that!

My First Impression of the City

I’ll give my first impressions of the city. I like it better than Moscow. That could change as I learn more, but here’s why I feel like that now.

Everyone seems to smile a little bit more. God, the soul crushing frown of Russia was starting to get to me. I’m not saying people are happy go lucky in Ukraine, but it seems that everyone’s spirits are at least mildly improved.

The city is beautiful! It seems very European, with cool architecture and a nice theme. Moscow is very nice too, but I feel like Kiev has it beat.

The food is better. I had some traditional Ukrainian food (couldn’t tell you the name to save my life) and it was like biting into god’s dinner. What a fantastic treat! You can be sure I’ll be going back tomorrow.

Those are my three impressions for the day. Tomorrow I’ll walk around more, go visit some parks, find out what the Metro is like, and try to get a data plan for my phone.

I’ll leave you with some pictures from today. I actually came at a perfect time. The weather is outstanding and it happens to be Kiev day! The main road was closed off, flags were everywhere, and people were having a blast. Kiev couldn’t have possibly have made a better impression on me if it tried.

It’s 7:20 In Kiev

So Many Candles, I Couldn’t Tell What the Shape Was Though

There Were a Bunch of Kids Playing in this Cool Fountain

Some Pictures from the Recent War

That Star, and All It Represents

My $2,500 Travel Manifesto

Born out of the idea that it’s possible to live on a very tight budget, I have created a simple challenge for myself. Live for 6 months, in Europe, on $2,500. Or, if you break that down further – $416.67 a month.

I’ve been doing the research, and I know that I can make it happen. It won’t be easy, but anything in life worth having is worth working for.

Instead of sounding abstract, allow me to break down into further detail how I’m preparing myself for this journey, what the rules and guidelines are, and how I’m funding myself.

Part 1) The Saving

There is a skill that I am eternally glad my parents taught me. Money management.

From my mother I learned about credit, paying bills on time, and how to effectively use money. You know the saying, actions speak louder than words? Well that’s the behavior my mother modeled for me. From the time I could speak, till the time I left for college, I watched my mom effectively handle money, and keep an outstanding level of credit, on less than an ideal income.

From my father I learned the power of saving money. My dad lived frugally, and he often talked about it. But the difference between frugal and cheap, is that he was saving to spend later. He lived frugally in order that we could take marvelous vacations and splurge on awesome holidays. Growing up, I came to understand that if you save money, and live below your means, you can buy experiences later on.

Combined, these two skills have allowed me to save 50% of my paycheck since arriving in Russia. This is the origin of the funding for my current journey. This seed money is what’s allowing me to embark on such an adventurous undertaking.

What’s Going to Make this Trip Financially Possible

At this point, I’ll do what poker players don’t do, and I’ll reveal my ace in the hole. I’ll share with you the powerful tool that is going to allow me to pull this trip off on such a small budget.

WorkAway.info

If you haven’t heard about WorkaWay, which I hadn’t till about a month ago, allow me to fill you in. It’s a website with numerous hosts spread across the world. In exchange for a few hours of work every day, a host provides you with shelter, and possibly food.

These hosts are spread across Europe, in every country I could hope to visit. Furthermore, WorkaWay makes the previously limiting expense of a country work for you. I can afford to live in Ukraine or Thailand for next to nothing. Sweden? Fuh-get-aboutit.

WorkaWay takes the prohibitively expensive aspect of a country and reverses it. Since there are more well-off people in first world countries like Sweden or Germany, there are more people who have extra space to let out to a traveler. If a person is well off financially, they will be happy to lend a room and some food, in exchange for some difficult chores. Planting trees, gardening, painting, boat building, language practice, and what have you.

These are the types of jobs I expect to do in the coming months. None of them serious (the maximum limit is five hours a day, five days a week), none of them paid. Food and shelter, that’s all I expect.

My First WorkAway Experience

That’s how I expect to live on $2,500 for six months. I’m going to stay with different hosts in different countries, never spending a dime for shelter. I’ve already arranged my first trip.

I’m going to a commune in Ukraine to plant trees (oh heavens, my life is so awesome!). After that, I’m going to live with a woman in Kiev. In return for English lessons, the only money I’ll be expected to pay is for my electricity bill.

I won’t get into my plans further at the moment (mostly because they don’t exist!) but I will make one final note. WorkaWay has a nautical equivalent.

FindaCrew.net

When Eastern Europe starts to cool down, I may pursue a nautical life. I dream of crossing the Atlantic, or at least sailing down to New Zealand or Australia. The trip isn’t that important, so much as my desire to learn to sail.

That wraps up this section. Next, I want to clarify exactly what my budget will consist of.

Part 2) An Exact Definition of Spending

I want to be very clear about where I will draw the line in my expenditures. I will start living off of my $2,500 on June 1st, 2015. And I will continue to do so until December 1st, 2015.

However, let’s look at my preparations. Before I enter into my frugal living stage, I’m going to make several purchases.

Exception 1

-A $350 Nikon D3500 Camera, for superior recording
-A $250 Osprey hiker’s backpack, for superior comfort
-A $100 SSD Hard Drive for my laptop, for superior durability
-A $100 down payment on Russian lessons with my amazing Skype tutor Irina
-A $32 dollar plane ticket to Stockholm, from Warsaw, for the fulfillment of my long term dream of visiting Sweden

As you can see, that amounts to $832. Which I think is fair, because if someone from America wanted to replicate my journey, that’s less than they would spend for a round-trip plane ticket to Europe.

Exception 2

From August 12th to August 26th, I will be traveling with my sister. We will meet in Berlin, after nearly a year of being apart. By the time we have finished our travels, we will have taken in Dresden, Berlin, Prague, and Krakow.

This will be the second exception to my journey. During this trip I will be living a lifestyle that is necessarily different than the ultra-frugal one demanded by my budget.

I won’t be splurging, but I expect to spend twice as much a day while on this trip than I would otherwise. I have thus made this an exception period, because I would not otherwise be spending that money. Perhaps time will show that I can pay for this trip, while sticking to my original budget, but I won’t hold myself accountable if I go over.

I will keep meticulous records of this two week trip, and I will factor in additional expenses, writing them off as the result of spending some time with my super fabulous, super amazing sister.

Summary

That’s it. Those are my two exceptions. I have several pre-purchases that I will make in order to prepare for my long journey ahead. And I have a two week grace period, while traveling with my sister, that will be excluded from my normal expense column.

Wrapping up this section, I want to take a moment to lay out the reasons I think I will succeed.

1) My proven ability to live according to a strict budget. I am excellent at saving money and not making impulsive purchases.

2) My ability to think outside the box. Where other people see a wall, I see an opportunity. With utmost conviction, I believe that what I am about to do is possible.

3) The support of my family. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been born into an adventurous family. Both of my parents have traveled extensively and they can empathize my desire to do the same. I appreciate that they understand what I’m doing, and have my back.

The End Product

I’m going to post regular updates on my blog. Everything from stories, to how the budget is working out, to what I’m finding difficult. As long as I have internet, I’ll surely make at least one post a week about this awesome journey.

And finally, provided that I complete this adventure, on budget and alive, I will write a book about the whole trip. It will detail my decisions along the way, some of the awesome stories I’m bound to accrue, and of course a practical section detailing how you can follow in my footsteps. Once I’ve proved that you can live for six months on a scanty $2,500, I hope that other people are inspired to start out on their own adventures!

TL;DR – Going to Travel around Europe for the next six months on $2,500.

Cheers from Russia (and tomorrow Ukraine).

Sam

The Quirky Russian Lifestyle (Pt. 2)

7) Roads in Russia are the Real Wild West

Have you ever watched those crazy Russian driving videos? If you haven’t you should, they’re awesome! And I can tell you that they are fairly close to the truth (this video is a good example of what I mean).

The rate of accidents here in Russia is astounding. For my work, I’m shuttled to state schools four times a week and so I end up spending about two hours a week on the road. It’s a madhouse! People make dangerous plays on the road just to gain inches. Mopeds and motorcycles weave through traffic, and every other person is talking on a cell phone.

Hell, I was sitting on a bench in Moscow when a tram drove by. The driver didn’t glance at the road for the entire ten seconds that I watched, she was too busy using her phone.

Finally, one of the most memorable experiences here will be the time me, my girlfriend, and her parents were driving back from the dacha. It was like being on a roller-coaster without tracks. Her father was making potentially life-destroying weaves and maneuvers that would have netted thousands of dollars worth of fines in America.

It was one of the craziest experiences of my life!

8) Just Another Dog

Russians love dogs. I mean, Russians really love dogs. It can seem like everyone has one. Which perhaps accounts for the wild dog population. They run free and wild, sometimes in pairs, sometimes alone. They are everywhere, these wild dogs are pervasive. They run alongside the road, they wait outside shops in case someone feeds them.

They bark, and fight, and growl, and chase things. At this point, it’s not even worth looking twice at them. It’s a way of life, the dogs are everywhere (like in the book Rant, by Chuck Palahniuk).

9) Being Unhealthy on the Train

On the Elektreechka (a short distance train), where you always have the option to ride like a suicide case (see part one), you also have other freedoms. People frequently drink on the train, sitting in their seats, always glancing up to look for cops on the prowl.

What goes great with drinking?

Smoking.

Go to the ends of the carriage, the place where the obscenely loud, compressed air doors violently slam shut, and light up. Nobody will look twice, nobody will say anything, it just is.

Your author has indulged before. He isn’t a smoker, but there’s nothing like a bit of tobacco now and again. When in Rome…

10) Ready, Set, Get Married!

I remember in a class I had to teach my kids the meaning of a first, middle, and last name. That first lesson, they were physically incapable of grasping the concept. It didn’t matter how many times I explained it, or how effectively I presented the (seemingly simple) topic.

They were simply unable to understand it, too far out of their realities (in Russia they use familias, which is a whole other topic. Check out this nifty little guide to learn more).

That’s what happened to me when I heard about Russian marriages. It turns out that Russians don’t wait long after proposing, often a few months at most. That means if the proposal is in spring, the marriage is in the summer.

I can’t speak for other countries, but in America, the wedding is usually a year or two after the proposal.

I’m not sure which way I like better, but they certainly are different.

11) Cutting the Grass

You know what I’ve yet to see in Russia? A lawnmower!

I’m sure they exist somewhere, for the big parks and what have you, but I haven’t seen one yet. How do they cut the grass you ask?

With industrial sized weed-wackers. Small armies of immigrants rove through the parks, carrying these oversized, noisy, orange tools. The first time I saw this, I mentioned it to my friend and he said it’s normal. In fact, he seemed to think that using a lawnmower would be odd.

Maybe they have this in other cities too, I can’t say. But where I grew up, there were about 1,000 homes in my village and you can bet your life savings every single home has their own lawnmower.

Check out Part One of the quirky Russian lifestyle..

The Quirky Russian Lifestyle (Pt. 1)

1) Everyone Drinks

It was a Monday night and I was heading to the grocery store. It’s a forty-five second walk from my house and weather was beautiful. When I got to the parking lot, I happened to glance right, and there were two cops chilling in their cruiser.

The driver was looking out the window, and the cop riding shotgun was brown bagging a bottle of vodka. I slowed my speed to a crawl so that I could watch him pour a shot down his throat, and replace the cap.

2) A Casual Enforcer

Walking to work along the main road in my town. All sorts of cars passing me, I usually stare at the BMWs and imagine how badly I would like to own one. I came to a stop at a traffic light and waited for it to turn green.

Watching the cars, here comes a cop. Picture this, tiny little car the size of a mini cooper. It’s not the special cops, just two regular blokes, their hair brushing the top of this hilariously undersized clown-car. Guy riding shotgun, holding onto an AK-47 and frowning at people on the street. Middle of the day and it looks like he’s going to fight in Iraq.

3) How Many Ways Can You Ride a Train?

To get to Moscow from where I live, have to take a short distance train called the Elektreechka. It’s notorious for the unsavory class of people that ride it. Drunkenness and debauchery are common.

As are the ways people chose to ride it.

These trains work by electricity, and on top of every carriage is an intimidating array of electrical equipment that looks like it could fry Texas’s entire death row. They don’t even put warning signs around because it’s so obvious you shouldn’t get close it.

One day in March, guy riding on the train, sitting up there, three feet from enough electricity to power Vegas for a day.

This being a train, there is a gap between every train car. A scary, dirty, dark, loud place. A foot of space between each carriage, less when the train turns. Flashback to December. Man, propped up and riding in this space. No discernible reason, just is.

Of the three, least idiotic, grabbing onto a bar on the last train, very end of the carriage, propping your feet on the a little ledge, and holding on for dear life. Not going to lie, if I was a kid in Russia, I would have already tried this. Perfect amount of risk versus thrill. Of three irregular ways of riding the train, this is by far the least suicidal.

4) Does Anybody Have Insurance?

Taken as a whole, Russians are notoriously bad drivers. The rumors are true, accidents are common. But since most driving takes place in town, a majority of accidents are not that large. Fender benders, broken pieces, scratches.

Often, these problems don’t get fixed. Cars everywhere on the road, destroyed bumpers. It’s become normalized, I no longer know a life where a car is immediately fixed after an accident.

5) Creative Parking Spaces

In Russia, cars park on the sidewalk. Outside of buildings, it’s fairly rare to find designated parking. The result is a free for all, and sidewalks are the first to go. Cars pull up their left, or right, two wheels onto the sidewalk, half blocking the path.

This is normal, this is expected, and if you did it in America you would probably get your car towed.

Cars

6) One Student’s Dream

I have two students students who are almost fluent in English. When they told me this story, I was on the verge of tears.

The topic in our class book was boarding schools. From there we transitioned to talking about what it would be like to live in a school full time. Anna then pointed out that it would be impossible to live in their school, because there is no toilet paper in the bathroom. Nor has there been toilet paper in the bathroom for the last five years.

One of the girls then said “Our school notebooks are all missing pages at the end, because we have to rip them out and use them.”

I was chuckling by this point, as it’s such a funny situation. And it got ever funnier when she added only half ironically:

“My dream is to have toilet paper in my school”. Oh god, the laughter is growing..

Then my second student mentions that they only got soap in their bathrooms two years ago (2013).

“But we never use it, it’s always dirty” she says.

“Why is the soap dirty?” I ask.

“Because when students don’t have toilet paper, they…” And she mimes picking up the soap and using it as toilet paper.

I barely restrained the tears. We were all laughing so hard, in appreciation of just how ludicrous the situation is. Russia, what else can you say..

Part Two

The Three Steps to Starting an Adventure

If you don’t have a whole lot of experience starting an adventure, and doing something crazy, it may feel overwhelming in the beginning. Where the hell do I start? You may ask yourself. Or maybe you have an idea, but the obstacles lying in your path seem daunting.

Fret not, starting out on a trip is actually significantly easier than you think. Once you’ve got an idea in mind, turning it into a reality is perfectly doable, so long as you’re willing to exert the effort. By breaking it down into three steps we can find out that planning a big trip, even a multi-country one, really isn’t as hard as it seems.

1. Logistics

You have your place in mind I trust? Ok great! Let’s get started. I’m assuming you’ve already checked ticket prices, and you’ve found them to be manageable. The next step is a Visa.

If you’re from a Western country, most countries will not require you to get a Visa. However, you want to be very clear on this. Try not to not only find government websites, but also read firsthand accounts of other travelers. Visa requirements can change at any time, especially in less developed countries.

A quick note on Visas for Europe. Many European countries fall under a single Visa (called Schengen). For an American, that means you’ll only be able to spend a total of three months in any Schengen area. For example, even you if you visit France, Poland, and Germany, they will all add towards your ninety day total.

2. Three Reason to Travel Alone

To be honest, I’m not the person who should be writing about this subject. I’m horribly biased and I don’t expect it to change anytime soon. See the thing is, I’ve never traveled with another person in my life. If I have an adventure, I cook it up and do it. This has always worked well for me, here’s why.

First, you’re not always going to be able to find someone to go on a trip with. If the choice is being doing it alone, and not going, well I hope you make the right decision!

Secondly, part of going on an adventure is meeting new people. If you have a friend with you, it’s going to be easier to hang out with him and not enjoy fresh faces. Meeting people, especially if they speak a different language, can seem daunting. If your friend is there, you’ll be way less likely to go out of your way.

Third, once you get there, you and your friend may have radically different ideas about how to have fun. Personally, I never get excited about museums. I would rather walk around on the street and go to random bars.

If your friend is interested in different things, it can cast a wet blanket over the whole trip. Neither of you is going to want to do the others activity. Then if you compromise and split it down the middle, each of you is not going to be have as much fun as you would alone.

3. Ignoring the Critics

What’s the difference between a vacation and an adventure? A vacation is safe, it’s the type of thing that everyone nods approvingly about and says:

“Oh man, that’s going to be awesome! I wish I could go.”

Then there is an adventure. This is when you head off into uncharted territory to really discover something new. This is something that many people will never do, and they will be quick to express their dissent.

“It sounds really cool, but is it safe?”

Or

“Are you sure, that doesn’t sound like it will be much fun..”

Ignoring these people is a crucial step in any large adventure. People who don’t support you on your adventure don’t deserve to be taken seriously. Likely, they have a limited view of the world. There’s simply no reason to give them any credit. The simplest test to see whether you’re going on a vacation, or an adventure, is to watch the expressions on people’s faces. If you tell them your plans, and they smile lazily; vacation. If you tell them your plans, and their eye brows shoot up; ding, ding, ding, ADVENTURE!

Other People’s Experiences

While you’re looking for information, it’s important to ignore the bad. Look, the deal is, no matter WHERE you go, there is going to be someone who has had a bad experience there and written about it. You can’t listen to these naysayers. If you want to go somewhere, it doesn’t matter what experience someone else had.

Your Visa and plane ticket are the two most important logistical details. The rest is icing. In the true spirit of adventure, pack light! Whatever climate your heading to, pack less than you think you’ll need and it will be just the right amount of stuff. If you don’t have a backpack yet, I have some suggestions for you. What I’ve found to be most important is that you can take it carry on. After preparing your whole trip, imagine how much it would suck to lose your luggage because of some stupid airline.

A Fish In Water, Experiencing a New Culture

If you spend your whole life in one country, you’re never going to get the chance to experience a new culture. For plenty of people that’s not a big deal. Hell, it wasn’t a big deal for me either. When I came to Russia, experiencing the culture was the furthest thing from my mind. I wanted to learn the language!

But with the language comes the culture. My first month in Russia was underwhelming. I felt like everything was the same, and I couldn’t understand why Russians and Americans don’t get along better. Only after seven months in Russia have I started to get some sense of the cultural differences. The defining moment for came on a Sunday night. First came the event, then an incidental explanation that showed me I’m not alone.

The Unwritten Rules of Bar Culture

Sunday night, in a basement bar. Downtown Moscow, drinking with my friend. By this point my Russian is good enough that I feel confident opening conversations. So when two guys sat down next to us, I introduced myself and asked them a few questions.

Turns out they were students from St. Petersburg , here in Moscow to study engineering. We talked for a few minutes and then I returned to my table. They finished their beers and left. Shortly afterwards a few guys took the empty table. They were talking amiably, although I couldn’t understand much over the music. When a there was a lull in the conversation I stood up and introduced myself.

And the first thing out of the ring-leaders mouth wasn’t a return hello, it was a question.

“Ты голобой?”

In case you don’t speak Russian, he asked me if I was gay. And it wasn’t so much of a question  as a statement. For the next five minutes I made my case, but I never convinced him. He probably got a kick out of telling his buddies about the gay American who hit on him at the bar. Frustrating, but I quickly forgot about it. What made the incident interesting to me was an article I read the next day.

Why Americans Confuse People

I was browsing through Quora and I saw an article on friendship in Switzerland. I started to read it, and three paragraphs in I came across an idea that fit my situation perfectly.  An American living in Switzerland discovered that at bars, men often thought he was gay.

Hey, that just happened to me! What the hell is going on here?

The authors suggestion is that in America, we have different social rules. For example, we mimic signs of friendship, even when we don’t mean it. When you carry that behavior to another country, people don’t know how to interpret it. So they revert to their first explanation for odd behavior: homosexuality.

To Understand Your Own Culture, First You Must Leave It

Learning a new culture is a way to shed light on your own. When you’ve lived in the same place your whole life, you have nothing to compare it to. Seven months in Russia has shown me that I like my culture better. But now I can say that with some authority, and I can say why I like my culture better.

When I eventually find my way home, I’ll be returning with a new perspective. Travelling is an invaluable experience that you can use to discover more about yourself. At some point though, travel isn’t enough. To truly understand a culture, you have to live in it over the course of many months.

The experience will show you how other people live, and it will shed light on customs in your own home country that you’re unaware of.

What the Hell is a Russian State School?

When I started looking for employment in Russia, I didn’t imagine that I would end up working in a Russian state school. In fact, I didn’t even know what a state school was! It sounds like something draconian where they send repeat offenders for a lobotomy and lithium. It turned out to be nothing of the sort. State schools is another way of saying public schools. For the last three months, I have gotten the opportunity to spend four days a week teaching in the Russian public school system.

After securing employment in June, I signed a contract in America that explicitly stated I would be working in a private school. I felt elated after having achieved my goal of finding work in Russia. However, after four weeks in country, the school I work for was forced to fire an incompetent teacher at a different branch. At the end of September it created a black hole that sucked in a teacher from our branch. His absence created another void. Josh was the designated state school teacher, who would teach in the schools now?

At the time, I had been flouting the dress code. Long past the date when my boss had mandated dress shoes, I had been wearing sneakers. When I was called into the head administrators office, immediately after sitting down I tucked my feet beneath my seat. I was apprehensive about being scolded for my breach in etiquette. In retrospect it seems silly but at the time, I sure was nervous.

They sat me down and Dave cut straight to the point.

“So, as you know were moving Josh to the other branch. Since he was supposed to teach in the state schools, we need someone else to work there now. We want you to do it. Would you be ok with teaching in the state schools?”

At the time I didn’t understand what they were asking. I had no idea that teaching in the state schools meant a car ride there and back. I didn’t understand that it would mean sharing a common classroom without the ability to customize it. I had never taught a class on my own before and I was wildly naive about the entire experience. With my two most senior bosses staring at me I was like a deer caught in the headlights.

I stammered out “Yeah ok, that’s fine.”

Teaching Kids, and Only Kids

Three months later I have my regrets, but they are not substantial. What’s affected me more than the location of the state schools, or the impersonal classroom, is the makeup of my classes. By agreeing to teach solely in state schools, I guaranteed that every one of my students would be a kid. A majority of my students are under the age of ten. In fact, it was Arseni’s birthday on Thursday. After we sang the happy birthday song, I asked him how old he is. Everyone in the class was impressed when he said ten! Turning ten is a momentous achievement for many of my students.

I work four days a week. I prepare lessons from 12:00 to 2:30 and I teach from 3:00 to 8:00. On Mondays and Wednesday I’m in school number eleven. Tuesdays and Thursdays I spend at school number eight. One of the nicest perks of my job is having Fridays off. I use the day to sleep in late, prepare for Monday’s lessons and then at 1:20 I have a Russian lesson.

Some things are the same as back home. Students learn about using computers, there is a cafeteria and a gym. Teachers walk around the halls with lines of stress etched into their faces. When I pass a teacher in the hall, I always give the formal greeting, здравствуйте. However, one of the quirks of Russia is that they number their schools instead of using names. Come to think of it, I haven’t a clue how they cheer for their sports teams.

“Давай, номер 11, давай ДАВАЙ!” (Let’s go number 11, let’s go LET’S GO!)

A Typical Work Day

The only thing the two schools I teach at have in common are their security guards. At the beginning of every shift I am greeted by overweight, bored and underworked security guards. Unless they’re on the phone they flash a smile as they hand me the keys to my room. Their job is superfluous. Russia has its problems, but unlike America, they don’t have an insidious problem with school shootings.

I usually arrive at the school fifteen minutes before class. I get the key from the guard and unlock my room. Unpacking my backpack takes a scant two minutes. After everything is sorted on my desk, I prepare for class. In maintaining discipline, body language and posture is indelible. By reaching towards the ceiling and then trying in vain to touch my toes, I begin to assume a commanding posture. Shoulders rolled back, neck straight and chin lifted. This Wednesday in my second class, I spontaneously stretched out with the help of my student.

Little Misha can’t weigh more than nine gallons of milk. The board was covered in math problems from the previous class and he was erasing the bottom half. The upper reaches were out of his grasp. When he had finished with the bottom, I grabbed him around the middle, the fingers from my two hands nearly touching each other. For twenty seconds I held him up high while he erased the board. Significantly less efficient than erasing it myself but loads more entertaining for everyone.

My Students Level of English

Every day I work my way up the fluency ladder. I start off with my spastic nine year olds. At their level, I’m thrilled when my more ambitious students produce a sentence like “he’s a crazy student” or “she has a card.” Most of what they learn is vocab without context. They can identify all sorts of words from pencil to swing but they haven’t discovered how to make sentences yet. At this age, however, they learn quickly and their pronunciation is better than adults.

Teenagers pour into the classroom next. Their level of English varies wildly. By the age of twelve or thirteen, some of them are capable of holding a normal conversation on a variety of topics. Other’s can’t distinguish between a person asking “how old are you” and “how are you.” Maybe it’s because in Russian, the two questions are very dissimilar: “сколько тебе лет” as opposed to “как дела.”

On Monday and Wednesday nights I am rewarded with a chance to teach two teenage Armenian girls. Both being named Anna, I refer colloquially to them as “The Annas.” At the age of fourteen, they are already fluent in three languages; Russian, Armenian and English. Because they speak great English and have a good work ethic, our classes are always interesting. The Annas hope to become architects someday. I like to cater to their future whenever possible. We have designed imaginary apartments filled with furniture. Mock cities with parks, subway stations and apartments. Last week we created our ideal houses while learning the vocabulary that goes with it. There are few Russian kids who are as familiarized with a floor plan as The Annas.

After My Shift is Over

During the winter, it’s dark in Russia before five. By the time I leave my school at eight, it might as well be midnight. Every day Leonard, my driver, picks me up from the front entrance of the school. He’s a stout six feet with a small sheath of grey hair on his mostly bald head. I’ve known him for four months and I’ve never seen him move with haste. Hands in his pockets, shoulders lightly slumped and frowning, he moves from point A to point B like a tank crawling across the battlefield.

I spend more time lost in confusion with Leonard than any other person in Russia. After forty-two-years of smoking, he speaks a deep husky Russian. It was indiscernible to me for a full two weeks. After three months of car rides I’ve gotten past the accent, but that’s only like peeling the skin off the onion. He speaks quickly and makes no effort to aid me in understanding. The only time he speaks slowly or consistently uses vocabulary I understand is while making a crucial point.

By the time I arrive home I’m usually running on empty. It’s nine at night and time for me to cook dinner. I bring my laptop to the kitchen and set it down on the messy table. If I’m especially tired, I watch South Park. If there is some spirit left, I’ll read the New Yorker online while my dinner sizzles in olive oil.

It’s an interesting life. As a whole it’s agreeable although sometimes it can be challenging. Many times have I imagined buying a plane ticket and leaving Russia for good. It’s a refreshingly pleasing thought that brings relief to me on the hard days. But I know that before my plane was even out of Russian airspace I would regret it. Challenges make life interesting (like the time I tried to eat a raw egg in my girlfriend’s Moscow apartment). They can make life hard in the short term but they are wonderful fodder for stories later on.