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

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.

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.