Tuesday was a strange day. I had to get up early to go to another school in the Sovetskiy district for another contest, like in Kirovskiy I would be hosting with Jane but instead of the English-fluent manager Lana, we would be accompanied by Nina, who doesn’t really know any useful English.
I thought the story of the day was going to be getting my timing wrong, setting off too late, failing to find a bus or marshrutka going in the right direction – since the city reduced the number of marshrutkas heading to places like Sovetskiy has become a little more complicated, Lana now has no choice but to change vehicles every morning where she used to be able to get several direct marshrutka services. Because I’ve moved closer to the centre it is a little easier for me with more routes passing my location, but still I have to try and forget the old numbers I used and remember the new ones that get me where I need to go.
Generally the 64A is a good bet and I was dismayed when one drove past me without stopping. They sometimes do this if there is a vehicle fault, or if they are full, or if they have just finished a shift and are going home. Fortunately another was right behind, I jumped aboard and thrust 100 roubles into the driver’s hand saying “Dvadsat” (twenty). I think the fare was only 15 but I find it easier to just pay 20 for everything and avoid getting into arguments where I don’t really understand what the problem is. Most of the drivers don’t mind. I’ve only been given change once. Ever.
Anyway, my next worry was whether I would find the right stop. I was told two stops further on from the office, and Jane would meet me there. In the event, despite a lot of traffic, I arrived 20 minutes before I was supposed to, and wasn’t entirely sure I was in the right place. I was just about to go into a shop to buy some water when Jane, accompanied by her 5-year old daughter, greeted me, and said we should head straight for the school.
I’ve been in about 6 different schools in Volgograd now, they all seem to have the same staircases, and all the staircases seem to have children running down them slightly too fast. I had been told to bring my passport so they would let me in – I remembered to look it out but forgot to actually put it in my pocket, but this is Russia, so it turned out not to be so important after all.
We were put in some kind of staff room while we waited for Nina, and more significantly, the students we would be judging, who were engaged in a test. The staff room was not empty. There was a young teacher and 5 young students (7 or 8 years old), dressed smartly, doing what appeared to be a dance class. The dance teacher would play the same track again and again and show the same moves again and again, and say the same words – “one, two, three, four, one, one, one” in Russian (when counting, Russians use the word “rass” instead of “adeen” for one, so I just remember her doing a downward wave of her hand while saying “rass… rass… rass…”).
The dance was a little more sophisticated, there was a bit where the students walked around holding their heads saying “oyoyoyoy” then a bit where they huddled then all jumped backwards at the same time. It was a good routine. But there was one girl, Zhena, who lacked what I would call lane discipline, she was exuberantly moving all over the dance floor instead of keeping a tight line like all the other kids.
We were stuck watching this routine for about 20 minutes. It was both hypnotic and maddening at the same time! Jane’s daughter was fascinated with it and Jane whispered to me that she would probably be dancing it all day when they got home.
Eventually Nina joined us, and in due course we were led to the room where we would have the contest. Unlike Tractorniy, there were no balloons or decorations, and we were a bit alarmed when we were told that there would only be three performers. We would have to pad out the other activities, which had been designed for young students, but weren’t really appropriate for the 15 and 16 year olds before us! There was a dancing-based activity in particular that I thought just wouldn’t work with this audience.
We were supposed to give prizes to three boys and three girls (a month’s free lessons for the winner, and discounts for the runners up) but with only three contestants, the only question was who would get which prize. We had one guy singing “Yesterday” very well, but mangling a few of the words, another guy giving a phonetically perfect, but rather dry rendition of a Scottish poem, and a young girl giving a very quiet performance of something I didn’t really hear. In the end we gave the two boys the prizes on the basis that between them, they had about an equal amount of talent and competence in English, even if their specific skill distribution was rather more uneven. The girl got a discount certificate for at least being willing to sing in front of the rest of her classmates.
The other three prizes we gave according to the paper-plate drawing competition. Again a boy got the top prize, with a rather detailed landscape of Westminster landmarks, but we found two girls whose artwork was sufficiently merit-worthy to justify an even gender split of prizes.
I tried to engineer a memory game instead of the dancing activity, but there were too many refuseniks for it to work very well. “I went to London and I saw… Big Ben, a red bus, the Queen, the Queen’s guards, the British flag, many people, the Tube, a cup of tea…”
Anyway the students seemed happy enough with the contest, and the outcome, the teachers were happy with an event allowing the students to interact with a native English speaker, and my school were happy that they got to promote their services and hopefully recruit the winners as customers.
We went back to the office, which was about a 15 minute walk, and I started preparing for my afternoon lessons. I went into my classroom to check a CD and opened the window because there was an odd smell. Then I went back to the office to work on my lesson plans on my laptop…
And then there was a very loud bang, an even louder crunch, and our building started shaking. Nina, Jane and I all looked at each other in a moment of confusion, then we all stood up and walked to the window.
People were coming out of the building and gathering in the car park. We could see them looking at something and pointing to the north of our building but we could not see what they were looking at. Other people were coming from further down the street and across the road, running towards whatever had happened. Several of these people were wearing uniforms of various kinds, but mostly policemen.
None of us had the faintest idea what was happening, so I said I would go and look, and got my coat. The others sounded a bit surprised but I shrugged and headed out. Other people were leaving the building – it wasn’t quite an evacuation but it had a similar feel. I walked straight through the car park, didn’t see anything at first glance, and walked a little way up the street. Just to the north of our building there is a small market, and then a side-road coming off the main Ulitsa Universitete. On the other side of the road, is another block building, just like the one housing our office. Now, there was a big hole in it.
There was a little square space at the end of the market, and this was rapidly filling up with people. Across the road was a 4 or 5 storey building with the hold in the side, and indeed in the roof. You could see the interiors of the rooms inside where the walls had collapsed. At the base of the hole was a pile of rubble, cascading out of the building, and over a JCB digger which looked like you would expect a JCB digger to look after you drop a ton of masonry on it. One or two people were tentatively climbing onto the rubble pile, to see if there was anyone inside who needed help.
People were taking pictures, I took a couple of my own, so I could show the girls in the office what had happened. I already suspected that whatever the cause of this was, it was likely people had been hurt or killed. Amazingly, in the rooms next to the collapsed rooms, people were visible. One man was hanging out a window as if trying to look round and see what had happened to the apartment next door. Higher up a little white-haired old lady shuffled out onto her balcony and looked down at the devastation. For all I knew the rest of the building could come down at any moment, and this babushka was just looking around, scowling, as if someone had just offered her a candy bar she didn’t like.
My building (which again, was just across the road from the collapsed building), happens to house a police station, and the square was beginning to fill up with police. I saw there were injured people being treated – a woman had blood on her arm. A lot of people were just staring in shock, some were hugging each other. I figured I should get back to the office, there wasn’t anything I could do to help and staying to watch I could just get in the way of the emergency services.
On my way back I noticed the hole in the building was actually visible from the car park outside our entrance, I hadn’t even noticed it. I went back to the office. Nina wasn’t there, but I showed Jane the pictures. I was a bit choked up so couldn’t say anything but the pictures spoke for themselves anyway.
Over the next few hours the police cordoned off the whole market area and (I presume) made the building safe. I carried on preparing my lessons but some of our students cancelled because their parents weren’t sure if the area was safe. I was checking the news services and eventually something popped up on Tass and on RT (Russia Today) saying that a gas explosion had ripped through a building in Volgograd and at least 2 people had been killed. At the time of writing, the number has risen to 4. Considering how many people live in these apartments, that is a remarkably small number. Apparently the strong smell of gas had been reported, and it was after workmen arrived at the scene that the explosion happened. I thought back to the funny smell in the classroom that morning.
My other take-away from this is that in Russia, if there is an explosion, everyone will run towards it, rather than away from it.