Being the only English(ish) English speaker in Volgograd has its perks, I am treated as a valuable resource and often have different offices fighting over my services. Occasionally the school gets a request for my services from an outside source, and that has happened this week with the Pedagogical University of Volgograd (basically a teacher-training university).
They are hosting the final of a prestigious nationwide (and Russia is a very wide nation!) English Language contest for schoolchildren, the top prize of which is a certificate worth enough academic credit to tip any student’s grades over the necessary threshold for admittance to the university of their choice. They have assembled a crack team of assessors from their faculty, but while the university is fortunate to employ native French, German, Italian, Spanish and Chinese teachers, they don’t have any native English speakers. And in assessing contestants’ performances there may be occasions when the input of a native speaker is necessary and invaluable. So, they borrowed me.
All my afternoon lessons for the day were cancelled to accommodate the university. At 3.30 I was led from the school office to the university and introduced to Lera, my liaison. I was then left in her care. She introduced me to her boss, Vladimir Ilyich (no, not that one). He seemed like a lovely old professor, the sort that would not be out of place walking around the courtyards of Oxford or Cambridge. Maybe a cross between Richard Briers and Giles Brandreth (apologies to non-British readers who are unlikely to know these people!).
After a little shop talk (people love asking me about language oddities) we were led downstairs to the main auditorium for the opening ceremony of the Olympiad. As a member of the jury, I was sitting in the 2nd row. The guy next to me, Viktor, had very similar clothes to me – shirt, jeans, sweater, no tie – so I wasn’t too worried that everyone else was in smart suits or dresses. Behind us the hall was filling up with the 215 contestants from cities and regions across Russia.
Some music started playing and then a wavy hairstyle came out, atop a student in a very formal tuxedo. He announced (in Russian) that there would be a minute’s silence in memory of the St Petersburg metro attack, and we all stood up. There were about 12 seconds of silence and then the Russian national anthem blared out very loudly.
Straight after this there was a song played over a short film about Stalingrad. Then wavy hair came out again, accompanied by a glamorous co-presenter in a very dressy black dress. They started listing all the competing cities and regions, with occasional cheers, waves, or students standing up to acknowledge their presence.
A man in an army uniform came out playing an accordion, and 12 smiling women in colourful dresses filed in front of him in an arc, and sang a song while waving handkerchiefs at the audience. That was strange.
The glamorous hosts then invited Vladimir Ilyich up on stage. Shortly thereafter Lera went up and joined him, then some other people from the first and second rows. I realised that it was the jury being introduced, and that my name was about to be called out imminently. Fortunately, when it happened some of the people around me nudged me in the right direction, and I took my place on the stage. While there was room for me, the people who followed me found no space, and I found myself stepping backwards to try and encourage the line I was in to morph into a more space-efficient curve. It took a while for the rest of the line to catch on but we got there in the end. Then Vladimir Ilyich stepped forward and gave a little speech, one phrase of which was in English – “character is what carries the day.”
We were allowed to exit the stage, to make room for another official who formally declared the Olympiad open. There was another song, and then the jury retired to the jury room to plan how our roles would work. Lera talked a lot in Russian and mentioned lots of names and times and places. I understood that my role was to be the arbiter of last resort when queries came up that a native speaker might be able to answer. I would be required on Thursday when they marked the written submissions, and on Saturday for the awards ceremonies. Wednesday and Friday there would not be anything for me to do, so I would be released back to the school on those days.
Then we went for dinner. Of course it was all Russian food – a great variety, very well presented, but still, the kind of food I have been running away from all my life. There was some bread which I nippled on, I tried a variety of pork-based items, the main course was pork schnitzel which was actually quite nice but too rich for me to eat much of. I was sat next to Viktor, and when I showed interest in a bottle of green liquid, he revealed it was a beverage made from a type of grass, called Tarkhun. I had a little taste and it reminded me slightly of dental mouthwash, but not unpleasant. So I filled my glass.
I was on the same table as Vladimir Ilyich, the table next to ours had the senior administrators who were running the competition. One after the other they all stood up and made a toast to I still have no idea what. Vladimir too made a toast, the only person not at the top table to do so. Every time there was a toast everyone had to fill their glasses and drink. I can see why Russians have a reputation as being hard drinkers now.
I am looking forward to Thursday and the competition proper. It is nice to get away from my usual routine and see new aspects of life in Volgograd, meet new people, and try new experiences.