September 21st was the International Day of Peace and all the foreign teachers at the school were invited to an event at Gymnasium 14, one of the city’s schools in the Tractorzavodskiy district. It started at 8.50am which meant an early start for Wesley and I, with Peter travelling from Volzhskiy.
This event was the same event at the same school that I had taken part in last year, however whereas last year we were asked to put together a detailed presentation, this year we were just asked to speak for 10 minutes about our country. Knowing Peter would be talking about Scotland I was left with a dilemma – do I talk about only England, my adopted country, do I talk about Northern Ireland which isn’t really a country at all, just a province – and the traditions and culture of which I am mostly unfamiliar? Or do I fudge and talk about all-of-the-UK-except-Scotland? In the end this was the approach I decided to take.
It was only in the morning before setting off that I wrote anything down. Without any time for any proper research I decided the best point of access was the wide variety of traditional dialects in the UK. I can do a passable job at imitating most of them so I thought it would be entertaining to give the audience of schoolchildren a guided tour of British accents. I was even prepared, if I really had to fill in some time, to sing the first verse and chorus of the Geordie anthem “The Blaydon Races.” I hastily scribbled down a list of the regions and cities whose accent I could decently speak, and a few key words of what other things I remembered about them (I did do a minimal amount of googling at this point).
Wesley and I set off together, I had put on my Flags of the World tie, he was wearing a South Africa scarf – of course he would be talking about South Africa. We arrived at the designated stop early, having allowed ourselves plenty of time, and waited. Before long Anna from the Traktorniy office arrived. Guy, the French teacher had already said he would be unable to come because he was unwell so we were just waiting for Peter.
Marshrutka after marshrutka came by from Volshskiy, a few stopped but none of them were carrying Peter. Eventually Anna said we had to go, so we started making our way towards the school, glancing backwards expecting Peter to magically appear at any moment. We all tried calling him but none of us could get through.
We arrived at the school and the security guard sent for one of the teachers to collect us – she remembered me from last year’s rather well-received presentation. We were taken into the familiar assembly hall which was once again decorated with symbols of peace and had a big screen announcing the International Day of Peace. We were introduced to the two children hosting and translating, Tanya and Mila.
The hall began to fill up, as it did so Peter arrived and took his place next to us. Eventually we were ready to start. There was a bit of debate about who would go first but it was never really in doubt, as I had been there before it was going to be my responsibility. I walked up to the lectern and introduced myself. It seemed like this year’s audience were a bit older than the previous year’s.
I had thought of a new approach while going over things in my mind and I explained I would be telling them about some of the interesting places in the UK outside the usual landmarks of London, Oxford and Cambridge. I then started describing Cornwall, throwing in a description of the Cornish Pasty and how it originated as a way for miners to eat both meat and a sweet dessert without having to wash their hands.
I skipped the accent because I thought it would be better to demonstrate all the accents together at the end so they would be easy to compare. However as I got into my rhythm I realised I had more than enough material just describing all the regions and cities, with the odd little anecdote (eg for Yorkshire the tradition of Yorkshiremen returning to the county with their wives just for the birth of their children so their children would be allowed to play for the county cricket team!).
In the end I probably overran a little, having covered Cornwall, Wales, the Isle of Man, Northern Ireland, Liverpool, Manchester, Yorkshire and Newcastle. I mentioned the Lake District, the Peak District, the Pennines, the Norfolk Broads and the New Forest briefly at the end and hurriedly tied up my talk when I saw the organising teacher gesturing at me from the audience.
I sat down (after ringing the bell) and Wesley went up. He had a lot of facts about South Africa’s population, economy, demographics, education and culture. What he didn’t have was a lot of time. He was in mid flow when the organising teacher came up and asked him if he could say a few words in Afrikaans (she never asked me to speak Geordie!), and then hustled him off the stage so that Peter could come up for a very short speech. He only had 1 minute or so to say a few things about Scotland before the clock ran out and we had to sing the closing song – the same song as last year but only in Russian and English this time. I don’t think Peter was too upset at coming all the way from Volzhsky and then only getting to speak for a minute, I think he was quite relieved he didn’t have to stay up there any longer than necessary.
One of the students hosting, Mila asked if she could get a picture with me, outside. I was happy to oblige. In the end it became something of a free-for-all with all the students taking turns to stand with Peter, Wesley and I to get a photograph. In between all of that there was a ceremony with the balloons that had previously decorated the hall. Each foreign teacher was given a “dove” balloon, while most of the students had normal round white balloons. On the teacher’s signal we all let our balloons go and they floated up into the sky (or into the trees, it was a bit hit and miss).
During Wesley’s speech I had got a message that they needed me for another lesson at 10.30 in the central office, so my plans for the day were totally changed, I ended up not having time to go home and get my bag and scrounging together materials for two or three lessons with what I could find in the office. Having to get off the bus on the way back to the centre and wait for another one, for reasons I cannot explain, also didn’t help. But of course I got through it, like I always do. Another busy week, 41 hours with only a couple of cancellations and a couple of extra lessons in their place, but with a year of experience under my belt it is becoming easier to deal with situations such as having to take a lesson at very short notice or with no preparations, even sometimes no materials at all!