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I left.

Before I left I had some unfinished business.  That lost statue – I found it.  The Monument to the Victims of the Stalingrad Bombardment shows the effect that large scale bombing can have on individual lives.  I must have walked around the corner of the next street up dozens of times, but never came down this road where the monument is very visible on what is almost a roundabout.

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I found some other street sculpture as well which was quite entertaining and appropriate, a cheery citizen wishing me well on my travels with a hearty flagon of ale!

Throughout the week I was saying farewell to the various offices where I have been teaching.  I didn’t visit Dzherzhinsky much – that was American Stephen’s, then Wesley’s, then Ron’s, but I had the odd class, and a lot of contact with their manager Irina and lead teacher Anna O, who organised all the Christmas shows.  I took some pictures of their pictures to remember them by!

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Voroshilovskiy was my main place of work during my first year, and their management team was one of the most stable of all the offices – Irina, Kate and Alyonna (who started not long after me).  I also got on well with teachers Kate N (before she went on maternity leave), Irina (sometimes) and Rena.  I often saw Alexei, the Chinese teacher there too.  I took a few pictures of the place (and of Alexei!) to remember it!

Once every week (and twice a week in my last month!) I would visit Traktorniy, at the northern end of the city.  For so long their head manager was Nina, but she left in the summer and her place was taken by Anna from Ukraine.  The office was located in a business building that used to be part of the Tractor Factory, on the imposing Dzherzhinsky Square with the pre-war statue of Felix Dzherzhinsky encouraging his Bolshevik troops onwards.  I had long days at Traktorniy, and lots of big groups of children to teach but I always enjoyed those lessons.

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Even further north was the little satellite conurbation of Spartanovka, it was a small but cheery little office with bright friendly murals on the classroom walls.  In my last few months I visited every week but in my first two years it was rarely a place I needed to go.

Kate, the manager from Voroshilovskiy later ended up at Sovetskiy office, the southernmost office which I visited (there are offices in Krasnoarmeiskiy district but I never taught there).  It disappeared from my schedules in September but most of my memorable students from the first two years hadn’t returned after the summer.  It was a friendly office too, with Lana in charge most of the time I was there, and her replacement Nina always ready with a welcoming smile.  I didn’t have a chance to get any memento pictures from there, but I’ve plenty of pictures of Lana and Kate from social events and Summer Camp.

And then there was the central office – Mira 20 as we called it.  It had a complete change of managers from my first year to my second year, and even in my last two months, two of the ones I had got to know well (Sasha and Vika) both went on maternity leave again!  Luckily Anna was there to keep everything running if not perfectly, then close enough.  My super summer camp colleagues Elena and Lena both taught there and I had many great conversations in the teachers’ room.  So many other teachers over the years, some I remember well, a few I didn’t really speak to much – they tended to disappear several weeks before I found out they had left.

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Anyway, I brought cakes on my final day.  Elena, who NEVER works Saturdays, came in – not just for me, it was a coincidence really – Lena was there, Julia S (who previously worked in Central Office then went to St Petersburg for several months) was there.  Gillian was there,  Albert came for a lesson or two.  Anya wasn’t there but I’d said goodbye to her on the Thursday.  I had a Halloween club with 6 rowdy children (age 7-9) mostly dressed up – including the daughter of one of the teachers!  This was immediately followed by adult English Club – though unfortunately only one adult showed up, so it was more like a one-on-one lesson.  Finally I had my last lesson – a guy I’ve been coaching to improve his English for job interviews – and I was finished – long after everyone else had left, except the poor duty manager and the cleaner!  Time to go home and pack.

Packing presented its own problems – I had taken the decision to go to Moscow on the train mainly to avoid excess baggage fairs on the local airlines, but even so putting everything I wanted to take with me into bags I was capable of carrying wasn’t possible.  I had to make sacrifices and leave a few things behind.  Hopefully a lot of it will be of use to the next teacher who stays there!  I made a token effort at cleaning my room but Albert had been using the mop and bucket I’d bought, all those months ago, so they weren’t in a condition to use.  I followed John’s advice (when he departed in 2017) and left Eduard a bottle of vodka as compensation for the extra work I’d be putting him through.

By Sunday lunchtime I had got everything into 4 bags, two of which were barely liftable.  I decided to get the bus to the station because ordering a taxi presented too much of a challenge – not having a smartphone to have an app on, and not speaking sufficient Russian to describe my location.  Albert couldn’t help me because he was working on Sunday Halloween clubs.  I managed to get the bags down the 6 flights of stairs and committed myself to the journey by dropping the keys in the mailbox.  No going back now.

I managed to get out of the block and onto the street before the strap snapped on the big heavy shoulder bag.  Luckily it had wheels, but it was a challenge pulling/pushing both it and my big suitcase at the same time – whilst also carrying my backpack and another shoulder bag.  I reached the bus stop and waited what seemed ages for the Number 2, which as far as I knew always went to the station.

Not today.  The conductor waited until I had all my bags on the bus then asked me if I was going to the station, I said yes, she said this bus wasn’t.  We went two stops and I got off – a little nearer the station but still a difficult one to traverse.  I crossed Prospekt Lenina and reached the reverse bus stop on the other side.  Now I knew that every bus that stopped here went to the bus station (next to the train station) – it was usually an exit only bus stop.  I waited another 20 minutes or so – more than enough time, even on a Sunday – and no buses came my way.  Even though I had allowed loads of time, all this waiting for buses had eaten into it and I thought I’d better try and get there under my own steam.  Fortunately it was more or less just two straight lines – straight down Port Said street, then along Kommunistichskaya to the station.  But they were quite long lines when you have two big cases to roll!  And nicely flat and tarmacked they were not.

It was only marginal consolation that during that difficult journey, still no buses came past me, demonstrating I had made the correct decision.  I was getting hot and sweaty (I was wearing only a t-shirt even though it was about 5C degrees).  It was only in the second half of Komm. that a passer-by – an old gentleman – offered to help and took one of my cases for a short stretch.  It was a small gesture but very welcome.  Then I was at the station.

Next hassle – security.  I had to get all my bags through one of those big conveyor machines and get myself through the metal detector.  Next hassle – stairs.  I had to make 3 trips to get all my cases down, and keeping an eye on them to make sure no-one tried to make off with one!  Then I had to find the ticket office to pick up my ticket – I only had a paper voucher.  Ah, found it – up more stairs!!!  Another multiple-journey heave, up two flights!

I took a risk at this point and just left my suitcases with a load of other people’s suitcases who were waiting for what appeared to be a long time.  Then I went to get my ticket.  There were lots of windows and a take-a-number system but you needed to put the details in to get the right number for the right window, and by this point I didn’t have time for any of that – my train was leaving in 15 minutes!  I switched straight into “helpless foreigner” mode and went straight for the nearest person in uniform.  She directed me to an office, and the woman in the office came out and brought me to the window I needed.  I showed them my voucher – actually I didn’t, I showed them an English itinerary that they couldn’t make any sense of, they asked me for my passport which I had left in my coat which was with my bags, so I had to run and get that – everyone else was glaring at me for jumping the queue in the first place.  Then I realised I had given them the wrong bit of paper, I found the voucher and they gave me the ticket, and everything was fine!

Fortunately the platform for inter-city trains was on the same level, so I didn’t have to negotiate any more stairs.  I had to ask someone to make sure I was going to the right platform, but having negotiated Russian trains before, at that point I knew how to find my carriage and my cabin.  Except I went in cabin 6 instead of Berth 6 which was in cabin 2… oops!

I was half expecting someone to complain about the amount of luggage I had but no-one did.  There was no chance of getting the big cases onto the overhead shelves so they went under the bench – they just about fitted snugly.  The smaller bags went up top.

I was sharing the cabin with a headmistress called Irina – maybe 10 years older than me.  She made me leave the cabin while she changed into more comfortable travelling clothes!  Her English wasn’t great so we communicated more in Russian – well enough, which reminded me how much I have learned even if it doesn’t feel like enough.  We weren’t joined by any other passengers so we had the cabin to ourselves all the way to Moscow.

I stared out the window as the train headed north past Mamayev Kurgan and the giant, imposing statue of Mat Rodinu – the Motherland Calls, and watched it fade into the distance for probably the final time.

My friend Janna met me at Moscow Pavaletsky train station – with her car, thankfully, so I wouldn’t have to manhandle those bags any more.  We took them to our hotel – ok, a little manhandling required to get them to the lift – and I spent most of the evening trying to Tetris everything into baggage portions that would not arouse the ire of the airline.  It was clear some things – including at least one suitcase – would have to be left behind (Janna was happy to hold onto some things for me).  I had to make some hard decisions about what I could do without and what I really needed to take with me.  In the end I left probably half of my wardrobe, most of my books, and my big heavy coat.

In the event I had some spare capacity and was able to stuff in a few things I thought I was going to have to leave behind.  I could have had more weight in my carry-on bag, but it was stuffed to bursting, and there was some space in one of my cases but it was already dangerously close to the weight limit.

In the morning we woke to winter’s first snow – only a light dusting but a hint of what will be coming over the next few months for those remaining in Russia.  After breakfast we drove to the airport with plenty of time to spare, and because of all our preparation, check-in was painless and effortless.  I’ve played the carry-on baggage game often enough that I know how to use deep pockets and wear extra clothes just to get my bag small enough that they will let me through the gates.

And that was it.  My Russian adventure was over.  I knew I would see Janna again – and probably see Russia again (not such a long time later as it turned out), but my first experience in living overseas, for a massive 26 months, was over.  I had no idea what would come next – just that wherever it was going to be, it will be interesting enough to write about!

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