Living abroad can, I suppose, be a lonely lifestyle – you are leaving all the people you know behind (although in today’s interconnected world it is very easy to stay in touch), and you have a limited pool of people with whom you can cultivate friendships, consisting of those who understand whatever languages you speak.
Some people choose their destinations because they already have contacts there, but while I have international friends all over the world, I did not know anyone in Volgograd before 31st August (except perhaps the lady who interviewed me on Skype).
I have been lucky that the first person I met here, at the airport in fact, Ale, is such a nice guy. We are new teachers together, we arrived at the same time, we share Russian lessons and have had a few introductory rituals in common. I am happy to call Ale my friend and I get on well with him. Ale does have another friend here – one of his students from back home in Venice knew someone in Volgograd and passed on their details, and they have met up a couple of times.
Ale’s flatmate is John, the American teacher who specialises in small children. I can also call him a friend now, he is an interesting character, he took Ale and I out to dinner in our first few days, and gave us plenty of advice about how the school works and how the city works. Mostly the advice is that it doesn’t.
And of course there is Jorge my former flatmate. I don’t see him around so much but I will occasionally bump into him between classes. He was integral in showing me some basic things about our flat – how the internet worked, how the washing machine worked, where the rubbish goes, that kind of thing.
I wonder about the other foreign students here. There is another American, Emily, who I have met briefly a couple of times. John does not seem to know her particularly well and I wonder about her life outside of work – does she have lots of Russian friends, is she friends with some of the teachers and managers at the school, or is she happy being alone and (like me) spending most of her spare time preparing lesson plans and resting?
There is another British teacher, Peter, who few people have met because he is not based in Volgograd but in Volshkiy, a nearby city on the other side of the Volga – it is only about 45 minutes away by car or bus, but there is little cross-staffing between the two cities. I asked Svetlana if there were more foreign students – she said there is a French teacher called Guy, and a couple of Chinese teachers, and a Czech girl. There are 3 new teachers coming in October, two women who will be based in the centre and a male who will be based in Dzherzhinskiy. None of them are from the UK, a couple are American. I guess it will be good not to be the new guy any more!
The methodologist, Mikhail (pronounced like the English Michael) has been very friendly this week, he has given me a proofreading task for a school publication, and he came and chatted to me in the park (beside that fountain you all love) while I was having a break, enjoying some increasingly rare sunshine and a packet of Lays bacon-flavour crisps (soooo good!). We talked about football and weather, and I tapped him for a bit more information about the school and schedules. It seems I may be spending more time in Voroshilovskiy with fewer trips to Tractorniy and Sovetskiy when the new recruits arrive. He seems happy with my work so far, especially the English Club and the school presentation.
Today I also had a good chat with Irina, who shares some students with me at Voroshilovskiy. There are a few managers and teachers who will always smile when they see me, though I am still trying to remember everyone’s names. I enjoy talking to Galina, the librarian. Irina (a different Irina) in the International Department always makes me smile too, she reminds me of CJ in The West Wing, she always looks so earnest when trying to process conflicting information.
I don’t have much of a social life so far – just a couple of evenings out with Ale and John, but really I was never all that sociable back in Bromley. And most evenings I am either busy preparing the next day’s lessons or so tired I just want to sleep – did I say or? That should be And. I wonder if that will be the same in 2, 4, 6 months time, or if I will have new friends I have not even met yet? Jorge just moved in with one of his ex-students, so you never know where life will take you!