Farewell Volgograd!

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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!

A final walk around Volgograd

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Next Sunday I am leaving.  I will take a train to Moscow and from there a flight back to London.  I have already started packing.  Next week is my final week of teaching and this weekend was my final free weekend.  Having pretty much got myself on top of everything I need to be on top of, I found myself deciding to take one last trip around the city to check out one or two things that I had never got round to exploring.

I started off with a tram ride to Monolit station.  The station is named after the Monolit Stadium which is no longer in use.  Many of the trams stop there and turn around instead of continuing to Traktorniy.  You can spot Monolit easily by the McDonalds sign on a high post, under which is of course a McDonalds restaurant, where Ale and I had breakfast before visiting School Number 14 back in September 2016.

I took a look around the stadium, it was fenced off but from what I could see it seemed very small, not big enough for a football pitch.

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I took a walk back in the direction I had come towards the Red October metalwork factory, historically Volgograd’s biggest industrial centre, so important that it gave it’s name to the district between the Central Rayon and the Tractor Factory Rayon.  It’s a smaller operation now than it used to be, extending over a massive area, and in fact it was closed down from any manufacturing activity during the World Cup to try and keep the air less polluted than usual.  The main building has a big sign on the roof identifying it, and there are red and white chimneys behind with, presumably the year they were built, 1986 written on them.

The railway track runs alongside the factory, historically for transporting the raw materials and finished products.  Now it is just a passenger service as far as I can tell.

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On the other side of Prospekt Lenina from Red October, I found the Tsaritsynskaya Opera Theatre.  What I love about this is it eschews both the modern name of the city and the name it bore during World War 2, and sticks to the original name which it probably used when it was first built in what was then Tsaritsyn.  A big statue of something bad happening to a crowd of people sits outside the front.  There is also a pretty fine looking clock.

I hopped on a trolleybus back to Mamaev Kurgan (with the big statue of the lady with the sword) but instead of heading up the hill one final time, instead I skirted the back of the new Volgograd Arena and headed towards the river.  The road curved round and down so it went under the bridge across the Volga that the road alongside Europa Mall takes you over.   After spotting an eagle sculpture I crossed the road and found I was walking down on the embankment, and at one point I found a beach and was right up to the water’s edge.  There was a little drop so I didn’t try and dip anything in the water in case I fell in.

The beach didn’t look very inviting, the sand was dark and covered in caterpillar tracks, but a few fishermen were dotted along its extent.  Back up on the road, there were stencilled warnings in both English and Russian – no swimming.  I wasn’t planning on it today in any event.

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I carried on walking along the lower road until I spotted the familiar spire tower of the Panorama Museum and knew I was back near Lenin Square.  I made my way back up the hill at the first available staircase and headed back to Prospekt Lenina to do a little last-minute shopping for my dinner.  I had been out for 3, maybe 4 hours.

There was one statue I wanted to see (a memorial to the bombing victims of Stalingrad) but missed this time – perhaps I will find time between going to and from lessons over this week?  It’s going to be a busy week as I clear out all the detritus I’ve collected over the past few years and decide what will make the cut for the journey back to the UK.

 

International Day of Peace (III)

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The first three weeks of September have been quite quiet.  Yes, I got a new room-mate, Tim from Australia, who then left again, and a couple of nights ago another new teacher arrived to take over Wesley’s old room.  Wesley has gone to live and work in Volzhskiy – Peter’s old job.  My new flatmate’s name is Albert, he is from Mexico, he is 27 and has never been outside North America before.  The school didn’t give me much notice – I got a message at 12pm saying Eduard would come to clean the flat for the new teacher, but having had a little clean-up for Tim’s arrival at the start of September it didn’t take me long to make the place presentable.

He arrived in the evening with Eduard and Kate (who had been sent at late notice to collect him when someone remembered Eduard doesn’t speak either Spanish nor English) and I felt like I was transported back to my arrival that rainy night in 2016, I knew just how Albert was feeling, that mix of excitement, apprehension and fatigue.  Of course he had done a little research but I was able to fill in the gaps for him of the things that were probably not what he was expecting.  Later on I did the supermarket run with him, just as Svetlana had done with me when Perekrestok was still Okei.  He wanted to buy everything and try every Russian food but we managed to mostly bring it down to absolute essentials.

He had a free day on Thursday but on Friday he was supposed to come with me to Gymnasium no. 14 to make a presentation about his country to the school for the International Day of Peace (September 21st).  This was the third time I would do this – see my previous blogs from 2017 and 2016 – and rather than think up new material I just took along my old presentation from 2016 that had gone down rather well!

For the last few weeks I have been working at Traktorniy office on Tuesdays and Fridays – Sovetskiy is no longer on my schedule, and I have to do Spartanovka on Mondays too.  Traktorniy has a shortage of Russian teachers so I am teaching my groups twice a week – some of my students from last year have come back, others are new.  All the groups in Spartanovka are new for me, I am sharing duties with Wesley there who has other obligations on Mondays, but they need a foreign teacher specifically on that day for one student in particular whose mother is most insistent.

So I was already at Traktorniy in the morning, teaching, and went with Katya on the bus to Gymnasium No. 14, which is actually in the Red October district of the city (between the Centre and Traktorniy).  It is named after the big Red October chemical factory that was shut down over the summer to reduce pollution during the World Cup!  Of course the factory itself is named after the October Revolution in 2017 which I have previously blogged about.

I had warned Albert about the presentation the evening he arrived (I knew it was intended he would go) but he had not received any official notification from the school even on Thursday!  He must have had instructions at some point because Katya called him when he was already on a number 95 bus and gave him directions.  I was concerned he might not understand (she told him to get off at Gymnasium No. 14 bus stop but that would have been difficult for him to listen out for) so I took the phone and gave him simpler directions.  Look for the stop Monolit.  It has a McDonalds.  Get off at the next stop after that.

It seemed to work, when Katya and I arrived from the opposite direction he was waiting at the right place.  Together we went to the school – I actually knew the route better than Katya having been twice before, and waited for the teacher organising it to come and collect us.

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It was a smaller event than the previous two years – Katya later told me that the teacher who used to organise it had left, so it was another teacher doing it now.  There were no children with presentations this year.  I could have given my presentation without the visual aids but it was a good Powerpoint display and most of the kids didn’t understand enough English to know what I was talking about, so I was happy that the computer and projector were working.

Unfortunately for Albert it was not compatible with his phone and did not have an internet connection, so his original plans went up in smoke.  While the hall was filling with children he was frantically sketching down ideas and drawings to help illuminate his descriptions of Mexico.  He had brought some visual aids though – a Mexican flag, a piñada and a miniature sombrero – so he wasn’t completely unprepared.

I don’t know if I’m getting cocky but I’m pretty good at this kind of thing now, I was quite happy to go first, I was comfortable at the podium, I spoke with confidence and authority, I paused appropriately to let the host teacher translate, I worked the audience to make it interactive (Who has a t-shirt with a British flag?  Who has read Harry Potter?), and I knew my material was good.

I then sat back to watch Albert’s presentation – there was a bit of a delay while he tried to get his phone to connect to the projector, but in the end he resorted to showing pictures from his phone at the podium, and holding up his sketched pieces of paper.  But his rapport with the children was good, his speech was informative, he covered all the main aspects of Mexico’s culture and I learned a few new things, particularly about Mexican holidays!  At the end he said he had really enjoyed it!

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Just like previous years, we rang the Bell of Peace at the end of our presentations, though the ceremony was a little less ostentatious this time.  At the end of the event they played the “May there always be sunshine” – but only in Russian, not in four languages as in previous years.  It still got stuck in my head though.

And then just like last year, we went outside to release white balloons into the sky!  I failed, I was standing under a tree, so my set of three balloons just hit the first branch, two got stuck and the third one burst.  Never mind.  A few of the kids posed for photographs and then we were finished.

It’s not typical of what we do as foreign teachers, but it was a nice first experience for Albert, it was nice for me too going back for the third time and being able to round it off, close the circle perhaps, and hand the baton on to the next generation of teachers!

Arctic Road Trip

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Bodø by night

After Summer Camp I allowed myself 1 day of rest before I was off on another adventure to – where else? – the Arctic!

The plan was to drive, for three days, from Moscow to the north-east coast of Norway just north of the Arctic Circle.   We would pass through Finland and Sweden and drive around the Gulf of Bothnia, the northernmost portion of the Baltic Sea.  My girlfriend Janna would be doing all the driving – she had second and third thoughts before deciding to go ahead with this adventure – and we would be finding and booking our accommodation on the way, depending on how far we were able to drive each day.

I would be travelling very light – just a bag with a few clothes in, which I could take in the cabin with me.  I didn’t even have my tablet, the screen cracked during Summer Camp rendering it unusable.  I took an evening flight from Volgograd to Vnukova Airport – for some reason only one door at the airport was open so it was very difficult to get into and out of, but we did eventually escape and set off on our journey late on the Wednesday night.  The plan was that Janna would drive as far as she could on the empty night roads, while I dozed in the passenger seat.  When she couldn’t drive any more she would park and try and get some sleep.

I woke up on Thursday morning in a roadside car park somewhere north of Moscow.  We were using toll roads – another time-saving measure – and instead of having regular petrol stations with little shops selling barbecue briquettes and windscreen fluid, petrol provision on these roads came from anonymous looking cargo containers, with the pumps locked inside the boxes and connected to a credit card reader.  There was only one pump for each type of petrol at each station so you could end up waiting a long time.

We pressed on for St Petersburg, having to join the regular roads because the toll roads only went so far.  Janna had bought a special digital box and put lots of credit on her account for these roads, so the barriers at the entrances and exits would automatically open.  Unfortunately the roads in St Petersburg were run by a different operator, and while in theory they should have been able to read the box too, in practice we kept finding ourselves stuck behind barriers showing defiantly red lights, and having to reverse and go through the cash barriers.  It was very frustrating and turned out to just require a change in the settings of her online account, which no-one had previously explained to her.

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The toll roads in St Petersburg were magnificent, they had huge curved walls, with “ribs” for the overhead lights, so it felt like you were driving through the skeleton of some very long, and long-dead dinosaur.  It skirted the outside of the city – which meant going over the sea, on impressive bridges that seemed to go up and down almost like roller-coasters.  It was a side of St Petersburg we hadn’t seen on our previous visit in May.

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From St Petersburg we headed north-west towards first Vyborg, and then the border.  We joined the back of a long, long queue of cars that seemed to move forward at a frustratingly slow pace.  We sat in that queue for maybe 2 hours before finally reaching the border control point and being waved through.  There was a bit of confusion about where we were supposed to go – people were getting out of their cars, some going to a window, others into a building opposite, and there were border officers checking the vehicles, asking everyone to open their doors and boots (rear trunks).  It turned out that the queue we had been sitting in was for foreign vehicles only, as we had a Russian vehicle we could have just driven past the queue and into the (considerably shorter) next lane!

Janna was frustrated with herself – there is nothing I could have done as any signs there were would have all been in Russian and I had no idea how the border crossing process worked.  I hadn’t seen any signs for the queue we were in or alternative routes.  As a British man, I am quite accustomed to just joining any queue I see assuming it’s the only way to get to where I want to be.

The control officer took a close look at my passport and visa – it was strange, a British citizen travelling from Volgograd to Finland – but everything was in order and he stamped my passport, and we left Russia behind.  We had to go through a very similar process on the Finnish side, though this time it was Janna’s close-to-expiring Schengen visa that was scrutinised, while my EU passport was just waved through with barely a cursory glance.

And then we were driving through Finland!  Smooth roads, fewer roadside buildings, the buildings we saw were all modern, functional and neat, none of the collapsing wooden shells and huts you often see by Russian roads.  I have been in Finland before, but only Helsinki in winter, I’ve never seen the Finnish countryside, and here it was in its full summer colours.

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Summer Colours

We thought we might get as far as a town called Pumaala – in the heart of Finland’s lakeland country, with a series of long bridges criss-crossing the lakes.  In the event, even with our unwelcome delay at the border, we got beyond Pumaala, and a couple of hundred kilometres further, ending up in a smaller town called Juva.  We called into a supermarket for some supplies but we didn’t see any guesthouses or somewhere we could use wi-fi to find one, so we decided to just roll into a campsite and see what they had.  We had seen a sign for one as we came into the town.

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We went into the reception area, I momentarily thought will it be better to try and speak English or Russian here?  Should I let Janna do the talking or myself?  I just started speaking English and the impossibly tall and handsome Finnish man at the desk seemed to understand me fine.  Well almost.  He was giving me quotes for staying for the evening which sounded suspiciously inexpensive – 13 Euros?  I decided some clarification was needed and said we were looking for beds for the night.  He had been giving us the rate just for parking our car and staying in it!

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They had “cottages” that would cost us 60 Euros for a night with everything included.  Janna thought it was a little expensive, to me it sounded like quite a good deal – 30 Euros each for a bed for the night?  The tall Finn said we could take a look at the cabin before we decided and tossed us the key.

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We walked through the forested campsite – passed a couple of wooden buildings, and came to a couple next to each other, there was a man sitting outside the first one with a little dog barking which reminded Janna of her dog – she went and said hello.  We tried the door of the second cabin and couldn’t get it to open, because it was the wrong cabin, ours was one of the next ones!

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Janna took a look inside and was sold.  It was pretty basic but there were 4 beds (two bunks each side), a little refrigerator, and outside there was a verandah with a table and two chairs, a washing line.  We could see the lake through the trees, which excited Janna who wanted to swim.  So we went back and made the payment, then brought the car up to our cottage.

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I was travelling light so I hadn’t been able to fit my crocs (fake) into my bags, so I made my way barefoot to the lake.  This was quite painful, all the little stones and rocks digging in, though I managed to avoid stepping on any pine-cones or stinging insects.  We got to the beach area and dipped our toes in the water – warm enough though colder than the air of course.  Janna didn’t like all the reeds and grasses she would have to wade through and declared she wanted to go in from the jetty.  We walked onto the little wooden jetty, and Janna lowered herself into the water for a swim, while I took pictures with her phone.

She tried to persuade me to go in also but I really wasn’t feeling like immersing my body in cold water and I chickened out.  My masculinity was further dented when she lent me her shoes to walk back to the cottage, while she unconcernedly walked back barefoot.  We both had welcome showers in the respective bathroom blocks and then went to the kitchen area for dinner.  We were only going to have hot-water pasta cups from the supermarket, and the pasta was not cooked as much as it should have been but it wasn’t a bad meal.

We slept well in our little cabin in the woods and had breakfast in the kitchen area again.  We had the place to ourselves.  There were other people in the camp but mostly keeping to themselves in their own cottages, tents and campervans.  One of the perks included in the cost of the camp was free use of the sauna in the morning, and I decided to check it out during the men’s hour – 8.30 to 9.30.  Last time I was in Finland I left without ever using a Finnish sauna, to my eternal regret, and I was determined to have the full experience this time.

I told Janna where I was heading – I didn’t know if I would be back quickly (if I didn’t like it) or if I might be 20 minutes or so.  I figured this was just like my morning shower.  I don’t think Janna got the message though, she was upset I took so long!  There were two saunas but the one for public use was electric-heated.  I went in, had a shower, then joined another man in the sauna and sat on my towel.  First faux-pas!  There was a roll of paper sheets just outside the door, and everyone else was using them to sit on, keeping their towels clean and dry for drying themselves!

There was a window in the sauna with a view of the lake.  After about 15 minutes the other man (who was periodically throwing water on the stones to make more steam) stepped outside and next thing I saw through the window he was walking down the wooden pathway outside, just holding his towel in front of him, and then he jumped in the lake and swam around for 5 minutes.

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The Sauna

He came back, and another man also came and joined us.  Then outside the cabin, I saw a woman.  She seemed to be looking for something.  She sat in the seating area outside the sauna for a few minutes, then came right up to the window and squeezed her face against it.  I don’t think she could see in, but it seemed like a bit of an etiquette breach to me!  She went and sat down again, then the first man went out for another swim in the lake and I later saw that she was talking to him and taking pictures of him, so I guess it was his wife.  I was enjoying the sauna but knew we had a schedule to keep and that Janna was waiting for me, so I came out, had another shower, and headed back to the car.   (She wasn’t happy I had spent so long there!)

We kept driving north through Finland and its thousands of lakes and forests, and around lunchtime we were going past a city called Oulu, so I suggested we stop there, investigate a little and get some lunch.  I wanted to see the sea-front but we only got as far as the shopping centre in the middle of the city, where we ate at a rather fancy, tech-savvy burger bar called Fries and Friends.  The fries were very nice.  We took the opportunity to book our accommodation in Bodø, our final destination, using the wi-fi.   We thought we were being clever by joining a hotel group’s loyalty scheme to get a 20% discount.

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The Border (yes you’re right, I took this one coming back into Finland)

We still didn’t know where we would be staying that night – we thought we would get into Sweden but we weren’t sure how far.  In the event the border caught us by surprise, it was just a couple of signs, one on each side of the road, there were no stops, no controls, no police.  Disappointingly, as we followed the road around the north end of the Gulf of Bothnia, we couldn’t see the sea at all, the road just went through miles of forest.

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We came to another big Baltic city, Luleå.  This time we did get to see the sea, and the sunset.  We stopped just outside the city to try and find a hotel (using good old MacDonalds wi-fi without actually buying any product), and found a rather promising place that didn’t seem too expensive, we booked it and then followed our sat-nav into the city.  In the end we got an upgrade, the hotel we booked was a grand old building and the room we were given was almost palatial!  It was a shame we would only be in it for 10 hours or so!  We had a very good sleep that night, and in the morning we had one of those awesome Scandinavian breakfasts where you can have just about anything!  I was able to have toast and marmalade, English style and a glass of real full-cream milk.  Janna went crazy for the fish, ham and cheese.

Sweden and Finland have very similar roads and towns, all very neat and tidy, everything made of wood but painted in contrasting bright colours.  As we crossed Sweden we started spotting reindeer by the side of the road – we had seen signs for deer since Russia but this was the first time we saw them.  We only saw reindeer though, no larger deer, and no moose.  Janna promised me that Norway would be packed with deer, so many deer we wouldn’t be able to move along the road.  I was sceptical.

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We started to ascend into the mountains.  We experienced rain.  We saw patches of snow on the slopes in the distance.  This was the borderland between Sweden and Norway.  Eventually on a high plain, we came to the border, marked with a big stone.  There was a border checkpoint for drivers with goods to declare, but we just kept on driving.

On the Norwegian side we drove through steep gorges with fast flowing rivers, grey-blue in colour, scouring the bottom.  Along the edges trees grew, sometimes precariously with all their roots exposed.  I wondered how often these trees “jumped” when the force of gravity proved too much for them to resist?  Occasionally spectacular waterfalls streaked down the mountains, from a distance looking like unmoving ice, but foaming and bristling as they came closer.

At some point, still in the mountains we officially entered the Arctic as we crossed the polar circle.  Disappointingly there were no signs or announcements or lines on the road.  Gradually we came down from the heights and then, almost immediately, we were driving alongside coastline again.  Not quite the Atlantic coast, but the intricate network of fjords and inlets that connect to it.  There are no straight roads here, despite the ongoing tunnel-boring industry trying to simplify and shorten transport routes – you have to follow the coast which means twisting and turning and doing 180-degree turns on yourself.

 

We reached our destination at about 5pm, meaning we had travelled almost all the way across Norway and Sweden (from Luleå) in one day.  Our sat-nav had the right city but the wrong destination, we made our way to the Scandic hotel only to be told that we had booked in the OTHER Scandic hotel – for some reason Bodø has two!  (The first one looked nicer, to be honest).

Bodø sits on the end of one of those twisting peninsulas, flirting with the Atlantic coast while being sheltered from its worst excesses.  It has an airport, a railway station and a port, all of which are about 20 minutes walk from each other.  Points of interest we didn’t visit include an aviation museum and a herring factory.  We did check out the harbour, and a feature called Saltstraumen – in English, “The Maelstrom.”  This is the result of one of the biggest tidal differentials in the world, every 6 hours when the tides change, the water in the part of the inlet where they meet, broils and churns like a whirlpool.  The seagulls love it as it pushes all the fish to the surface.  Fishermen love it too, though they have to be careful not to let their boats get caught in the current.

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Sadly on the day we went to the Maelstrom it was very wet and windy.  I managed to get some pictures before my little camera’s retractable lens decided it had retracted for the final time, and I could no longer use it.  We spent much of our second day sheltering from the rain – I spent some of it in a sports bar watching English Premier League football matches.  There was a little arts festival going on while we were there and we enjoyed some free music in one of the town’s squares from a group which seemed to have Israeli influences.  We ate in three restaurants – the first one, En Kopp was excellent (steak and fish), the second one, Peppe’s Pizza was ok (American style pizza), the third one Great Gandhi (Indian) was again excellent!  For a fussy eater like me to find a city with two restaurants serving food I would happily go back to every night, is impressive.

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Chopped steak in pepper sauce at En Kopp restaurant

The journey back was a little more rushed and not really as interesting, as we had seen everything already.  We decided to aim for Oulu on the first day, get back into Russia on the second day, and get me to the airport for my 19:30 flight by 6pm on the third day.  We stopped for waterfalls pictures just after the Swedish border, and got to Oulu after 8pm.

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We stayed in an AirBnB-type arrangement this time, the home of Hannu, a bearded technology-loving Finn (he had an 88 inch TV screen!!)  The technology was so advanced we couldn’t work out how to use some of it – our pasta was again undercooked because we couldn’t find a good old-fashioned kettle and had to use a slightly less-than-boiling water heater.  In the evening we took a walk around Oulu, as we had not really seen much of the city on our first stop.  Compared to Russian cities – even British cities – all the buildings seemed so modern and futuristic.  There were so many canals and waterways and fountains and bridges.  Some buildings were powered by hydro-electric force as water trickled through open dynamoes in the parks.

In the morning we enjoyed Hannu’s private sauna – smaller than the one at Juva but cosy and convenient – before heading to the beach, so I could finally see Oulu’s waterfront with the Baltic Sea.

We raced south through Finland, trying not to buy any petrol before we were back in Russia where it was much cheaper.  It was exactly the same route again – through Juva and Pumaala, and this time we got through the border moderately quickly.  There was a bit of a panic when the two petrol stations next to the border turned out to be closed and we didn’t have enough fuel to reach the next nearest one, according to the sat-nav.  For a moment we contemplated going back into Finland!  But then we tried our luck at a lorry-stop – not marked as a petrol station on the map, but which advertised petrol for sale, and did indeed have the Benzine 95 we needed.

I was nervous about getting to the airport in time and wanted as many miles under our belts as we could manage before we stopped for the night.  I vetoed Vyborg and said we needed to get past St Petersberg.  We picked a little town called Pushkin just south of St Petersberg, found some accommodation available, and parked up for the night there.  It was on the top floor of a tower block, in a noisy district – not ideal but better than sleeping in the car!  At least the mosquitoes sharing the room with us enjoyed their night.

In theory we should have had more than enough time to get to the airport, even allowing for stops.  We were using the toll-free roads where we could drive fast without other traffic.  But as we came towards the Moscow ringroads, we just kept hitting jam after jam after jam, and the clock kept on ticking.  To make things worse we were driving into a thunderstorm (although as it turned out these clouds really did have a silver lining, in some way).

With less than an hour to take-off (never mind check-in!) we were taking desperate measures, using bus lanes and beating the speed limit, and we were denied our long emotional goodbye because when we did reach the airport we didn’t have time to find parking, I literally had to jump out of the car with my bag and sprint for the check-in gate.  Of course first you have to go through security to enter the airport, then find the right check-in desk, then there is a queue you have to wait in…

My flight was still showing as checking in so I waited in the queue for about 20 minutes until it flashed “Boarding now.”  At that point I waved my passport at one of the “helpers” in the queue just saying “Volgograd!” and pointing at the screens, and she lifted the barrier to let me jump the queue.  While I was getting my ticket, she started calling for other passengers for Volgograd and Samara.  I clearly wasn’t the only one in a hurry!

I got my ticket with ease and dashed to security, again there were people in front of me not really in any hurry and I was squeezing past them to join quicker-moving queues.  Again I passed through security without being picked out or challenged, and made my way to the gate.  Would I have time to buy something to eat or drink?  People were standing in a line at the gate, so I figured I’d just have time to get a bottle of water.

I went through the gate (again no-one asked me to check my bag size as they had done at Volgograd!) and learning from previous mistakes where I’ve got on the wrong bus and had to get on the back of an aeroplane when my seat was at the front, I checked the buses and picked the right one for my end of the plane.  We waited ages on the bus, while it rained outside, eventually the bus took us to the tarmac and again we seemed to wait ages while lightning flashed around us and we could see cleaning crews entering and exiting the plane.  There was one man on the tarmac waving his arms, he came and talked to the bus driver, and then suddenly we were heading back to the terminal.

I had no idea what was going on, but seemingly neither did anybody else.  There were no announcements, no information on the boards, and the gate crew had all vanished.  I could see people from the buses milling about not sure what to do.  I knew what to do.  I went to Burger King and got something to eat!

With no particular place to go I just waited, it seemed like most of my flight was also still hanging around, and eventually our flight number reappeared on the boards with a new take-off time.  The time had already passed, but it showed they were still thinking of us.  Finally there was an announcement – in Russian and English – apologising that our flight had been delayed and giving a new take off time.  Then the gate crew came back, everyone crowded round them anxious to get back through the gate, I was happy to just sit and wait knowing the buses wouldn’t be leaving until the last person went through.

In the end we got into Volgograd at about 23:30.  I knew I had lessons the following day so I needed to get home and sleep, but it seemed I had missed the last bus or train from the airport.  Everyone else from my flight was waiting outside but their numbers gradually diminished as taxis and family cars appeared to take them away, in twos and threes at a time.  I spotted one other woman with a suitcase, alternatively looking at her phone and at the (useless) train timetables and figured she was in a similar predicament but my Russian was not good enough to make a suggestion of sharing a taxi – I didn’t know where she was going, or if she had made arrangements already.

In the end, a speculative taxi-driver appeared and asked me if I needed a taxi.  Perhaps, I said, in Russian, still half hoping the number 6 bus would roll up so I could get home for a standard 20 roubles.  I showed him my 20 roubles and said “no bus?” and he laughed.  I asked him how much, explaining I was going to the centre, he said 800 roubles.  That’s 40 times more than I had expected to pay had my flight been on time!  On the other hand it’s 200 roubles less than I paid last time I took a taxi to the airport (which I’m not even sure was a taxi).  Not wanting to stand there all night I reluctantly agreed.

He then had a similar conversation with the woman.  It turned out she was going to a different district to me.  She tried to argue we should pay 800 roubles between us (400 each) but the taxi-driver was pretty dismissive of that suggestion.  It was expensive but at this time of night we didn’t have a lot of choice, and its a little bit safer to share a taxi than to just get in someone’s car on your own.

So I made it home, and I was teaching lessons the next day.  Fortunately my August schedule is very light so I have had plenty of opportunity to catch up on sleep and other things I need to do.  September will be busier, October will be mad, but by November it will all be over and I will be back in the UK planning my next adventure.

Summer Camp – Week 3

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Tuesday

Day 15 – World of Records

Song – Imagine Dragons, Believer

With Nata gone and Lyena often busy with administrative tasks I now had huge responsibility for the kids but they didn’t seem to mind and it was actually easier for me to just impose my own way of doing things, particularly arranging team activities and evening performances.  I switched the lesson material to lower intermediate to make it easier for everyone in the last week.

Today we had another sports challenge – football against the Fourth Team.  Unfortunately our star player was one of the three children who had left us, so we only had one 15-year old and four 9-10 year olds.  The other team looked inbetween, maybe 11 or 12 year olds.  Our players were good at running around and kicking the ball forward, sometimes doing tricks, but they weren’t strong, they couldn’t shoot at goal, and they didn’t know how to pass to each other.  The other team took a quick 2-0 lead, they were quiet for the rest of the first half, but then got 3 more in the second half to finish us off.  I felt I could have helped team discipline with some useful instructions, but they wouldn’t have understood me anyway, and they were just out there having fun.

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Camel-ostrich

In the evening we had performances on the theme of Chimera – strange animal hybrids.  The Pumpkins presented us with a camel-ostrich and a giraffe-pig, while the Seals had an Octo-cow.  Their presentation had a girl drawing a picture of an octopus with a cow’s head and getting annoyed with it, calling it a stupid thing, and then someone dressed as the stupid thing coming in and chiding the boy.  The vocals were done using Google Translate making strange noises with unlikely combinations of letters.  “I am the stupid thing.  You are a stupid boy.  Loobloobloobloob loobloobloobloob!”

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We had games too, a quiz about world records, a task to match emoji pairs, and to impersonate various Disney characters.  We also had a memory task – one girl memorised 8 verses of This Is The House That Jack Built, and a fast-texting competition for the girls who were always on their phones.

 

Wednesday

Day 16 – World of Famous People

Song – Avicii, Wake Me Up

Today was another camp performance day, in the morning the group elected one of our 12-year old girls, Valeria to be our entry for the Miss Skazka competition.  The rest of the day was spent with her practicing and polishing her act, while the artists made banners and posters to support her.  For those not involved (mainly the boys) I was outside supervising on the street.  We had been banned from the big football pitch by the camp’s sports chief so we just played around outside the corpus, with a football.

When they got bored with the football there were a couple of games they liked to play – Tukhi Tukhi which was a form of hide and seek, and Cossacks and Bandits (Kazaki i Rasboiniki) which seemed to involve running around the buildings and taking each other prisoner.

There was swimming in the morning and the afternoon today and after dinner we went to the concert with our posters and banners.  Lyera had a song to sing, two of the dancing girls were on stage with her, and one of the little boys who had left my club to join Move Your Body was also on stage doing somersaults.

The other squads had their own entries, linked by a series of performances by the Second Team dressed as sailors and pirates.  Lyera sang her song and then had two other tasks to compete against the others in her age group – drawing and balancing a ping pong ball on a spoon.  She placed 3rd, but I think that is because the Second Team didn’t have their own entrant.

Thursday

Day 17 – World of Professions

Song – Peter Weatherall, People In My Town (a horrible, horrible song!)

Another student left us in the morning, later on we took some photographs because it was our last day with the camera.  I took one of the whole (remaining) team from my balcony.

There was no real evening performance, we had a couple of games based on miming professions (including “cheese sculptor” and “sleeper”) and a crossword that was full of mistakes.  The kids were getting more and more time to do their own preferred activities, be it looking at their phones, playing Uno or Mafia, or if they could get me to supervise them outside Kazaki i Rasboiniki.

Friday

Day 18 – World of Mystery

Song – Skillet, Monster

A special treat today, a couple of pirates came to do a show with our team and the Fourth Squad, playing several games mostly involving water.  The kids seemed to enjoy it though when they realised how wet they were going to get there was suddenly a large line handing phones in to Lyena and I!

Eduard had come in the morning to collect our remaining materials, whatever was left behind was going to get thrown out or at least donated to the camp.  He took my big suitcase with most of my stuff too.  Lyena and I weren’t going to be able to carry much more than our own belongings as well as shepherding the kids when it was time to leave.  I still had my own little camera so I got a few pictures of the pirates.

In the evening we did another camp concert – the theme was Professions (they seem to be a day behind our school’s programme!) and our squad drew Teacher.  Naturally they roped me in to be the stooge in their performance, where they became the teachers and I had to learn some words and songs in Russian.  They knew the rest of the camp would love to hear me speaking in Russian.  They tried to teach me a couple of songs but I had no idea of the words, so instead we went with a song I already knew – Pomegator!

We didn’t rehearse much – one of the kids said it would be funnier if I really didn’t sound too good, but we practiced the staging and where to hold the microphone.  Of course when we got on stage there was a huge roar of applause every time I said any word in Russian – the kids in the other camp really loved our show.  We actually placed 2nd out of 4, our first concert performance that wasn’t last place!  I felt a bit bad because it was about me and not about the kids, and some of the other teams did REALLY good performances – the Second Team did an amazing underwater routine with three dancing divers, and their central Asian strongman as Poseidon, and the First Team had a President wrestling Donald Trump to the ground and being fawned over by Superman and Spiderman, no less!  But our team was delighted with the result.

 

Saturday

Day 19 – World of Kingdoms

Song – Abba, Dancing Queen

My first tough day in the camp, Another of the girls left us, and I was left in charge of the remaining kids with instructions to do team activities, the kids didn’t want to do team activities so I started to get strict with them and make them all join in.  One of the kids kept looking at her phone – I gave her several warnings then threatened to take it if she looked at it again, and when she did she tried to argue back that it wasn’t her fault, someone else had done something with the phone – I wasn’t interested, she had had more than enough 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th chances already.

Eventually I got everyone to finish the games and I just left them to do what they wanted.  I made it clear I wasn’t happy with them, and I think Lyena gave them a piece of her mind later on too because they all came and apologised for their behaviour later in the day and in the final candle talk that night.

 

Sunday

Day 20 – Reward Heroes Day

Song – Aerosmith, I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing

Our last full day was a bit muted.  We didn’t have any lessons or clubs, and 10 more students left during the course of the day.  We attended the closing ceremony – without Lyena – and with the oldest boy having left earlier in the day, it was the leader of the other team who stepped up to participate in the flag ceremony.  She realised she had to give a short dedication – as did students from each of the squads – but she didn’t know the words, Lyena had not mentioned (or maybe hadn’t known) anything about this.  Luckily we were waiting beside the Fourth Team and she knew their leader, who was able to coach her quickly on what to say.  She stumbled just once when the time came but everyone helped her remember her lines again and she got a “myaladets” (well done) from the camp head.

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Our “flags”

We then went to the closing concert where all the squads would sing a song.  We had been practicing and learning Waving Flag, the most popular of the Songs of the Day (actually chosen by Lyena who wrote that part of the programme!).  We had flags for everyone to wave, mostly just the posters from all our previous performances – I had the big Zombie poster on a broom handle to wave from the back of the stage.

The girls doing the singing (and drumming) did a good job, but during the chorus the rest of the team just stood there holding their flags the same as the rest of the song, it could have been much better if they had understood what the word “wave” meant!

I was amused by the other acts – the Second Team did an excellent self-written song, perfectly sung and choreographed, but the normally excellent First Team tried doing a traditional song in a circle which they clearly hadn’t rehearsed, their guitarist was off key and the singing was painful.

The camp leaders came on at the end with a rap act, 7 well known Russian rappers and Winnie the Pooh (Vinni-Pukh) played by the ever-smiling leader of the youngest team – just like in the style of most of their performances she had a paper hat with a bear-face drawn on it to show she was a bear.  They proceeded to have a throw-down which, naturally, Vinni-Pukh won with a children’s song!

The student I had had the argument with asked me at lunch if I liked natural apples.  I said sure, why not.  She said her parents would bring me some.  I thought that was a nice gesture.  Later on I accompanied her to the gate to get her parent’s signature as she left, and her father literally filled a shopping bag for me with apples.  He told me they were from Sarpinsky Island, Europe’s largest river island.  It was very heavy and I was unsure how I was going to get them home on the marshrutka tomorrow!

In the evening we had the final disco – everyone went, and some children from other teams left the camp straight after it had finished.

Monday

Day 21 – Final Day

With suitcases packed the night before all that was left to do was return our bedding and towels, get breakfast, and wait for the buses at 9.00 am.  All the materials we didn’t need were left out for the cleaners to take – I grabbed a few small things belonging to the school that had been left behind that I could carry with me, such as a computer mouse.

I had some of my chocolate left so I shared it with the students, along with my infinite supply of apples.  Some students had left clothes on the balcony clothes line, Lyena would take them with her to make sure they could be returned.  Finally we made our way outside to find the Fourth and First teams waiting, I offered them apples to reduce the weight I was carrying and thankfully a large number of them accepted!

We all made our way to the gates and waited in our lines, girls singing songs, boys kicking a football around.  Then the buses were there, we were off, and 20 minutes later we were back in Volzhskiy.  I tried to help get the suitcases off and by the time I looked round half our students had already disappeared with their parents without so much as a goodbye!  Such is the fickle nature of Summer Camp, you can get so close to people for three weeks but as soon as they see their real parents again, you become a forgotten memory.  But at least I had my apples.

Summer Camp – Week 2

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Tuesday

Day 8 – Wonders of Food

Song – Roxette, Milk and Toast and Honey

Today’s special treat for the kids was roller-blading.  Some of them took to it like a duck to water, one or two looked more like giraffes on ice.  I did a lot of hand-holding and supporting, and a little bit of picking up and dusting down, but we got through it without any real injuries.  The boys preferred to play football on the big field which was just opposite the administration building which housed the sports room.

After that, before lunch we had some team activities on the theme of food, just a couple of games and a quiz.  The evening performance was a continuation of the story of the Gingerbread Man on the basis that he didn’t get eaten by the fox.  Confusingly in the programme he is referred to as “The Bun” – perhaps a bit of Google translation there?

The kids of course came up with their own inventive stories, the Seals had Gingerbread Man who, for some reason, spoke like a California surfer being friends (“bros”) with the fox and being surprised when his family found out he was still alive and kicking him out leaving him with nowhere to stay.  Some other animal friends (rabbit, owl, bear) offered to let him stay at their place.  The skit ended with a complex goodbye handshake between the Gingerbread Man and the Fox.

The Pumpkins came up with an entirely different solution after most of their team decided the idea was too boring to get involved with.  The boys in the team (badly) drew little cartoon drawings on small scraps of paper of a the Gingerbread Man getting helped by the fox and both of them being attacked by other animals (I forget the details) and presented it from behind a screen like a puppet show while one of them improvised the story.  It was so amateurish that it was genius!

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Between performances we played games, including passing the empty matchbox nose to nose game – this turned out to be impossible, with a small matchbox and some big noses.  I hastily improvised an alternative, passing a balloon using only elbows.  This worked well.   We used balloons again for a game where partners had to dance with a balloon between them without dropping it or touching it with their hands – at the end of the game they had to burst it without using their hands.

The next game involved everyone dancing then dropping to the ground when the music stopped – the last one had to do a dance like an animal I selected.  This turned out to be very popular, so much that the kids were deliberately staying standing so they could do the animal dances!  Finally we played a game called “Cabbage” which basically involved covering one of the children from each team with as much junk lying around the room as they could find.

Wednesday

Day 9 – Wonders of the Movies

Song – Marilyn Monroe, Diamonds are a Girls Best Friend

Today the kids had swimming and answered a challenge from the Fourth Team to play them at Pioneerball, a variant of volleyball.  This was the first time we went onto the new sports pitch which had a Pioneerball court and a five-a-side football pitch, surrounded by a large wire fence.  The whole squad came to cheer on the six who had been picked to play.

A couple of our team were quite good but we had a couple of weak links too, while the Fourth Squad were all pretty competent players.  We led for a while in the first set but eventually lost the match 2-0.

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Ostrich

In the evening we were going to take part in another camp concert, with the theme of circus.  Our performance, as drawn by Lyena from the available options, would be Training Birds.  Of course the kids decided to flip it around and have the birds training a human (for no obvious reason other than to get the song Despacito into the show, a Spanish man called Don Juan played by one of the girls).  We had a flamingo showing how to dance, an owl showing how to sleep, a peacock (with beautiful painted tail feathers) showing how to strut like a model, an ostrich showing how to hide, a penguin how to walk, a parrot how to talk, and a chicken and a cockerel on how to squawk.  Oh, and a woodpecker how to be a headbanger.   We also had a sign held up throughout the show saying (in Russian script approximating the English words) “Russian Circus.”

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Rashon Syorkus

They rehearsed tirelessly, they had specialised beaks for all the birds and make up and costumes, it was a great little act.  We still came fourth out of four again, but in fairness the other squads had some pretty good shows too.  The Fourth Squad had a boy with a central Asian weightlifter physique, he made a perfect strong-man in their show.

Thursday

Day 10 – Wonders of the Theatre

Song – Queen, The Show Must Go On

Another sports competition, this time it was Tug of War with all the camp involved.  I missed the beginning and by the time I got there I was told that the team had already beaten 2 other squads and only had to face the older teenagers of the First Squad to win the tournament!

Of course we had a mix of ages and only two older, stronger boys, so while it looked close for a few seconds, the older squad won easily.  But we still got 2nd place in a camp competition, better than all those 4th places!  At the end of the competition all the camp leaders came up to face the First Squad, and I was pushed forward to join them.  The First Squad beat us easily too (some of them really are very big!).  We then faced the winners from the younger teams, and they too won (although it’s fair to say we might have not put the same level of performance into that second tug!).

Evening Performance was reinterpreting a famous theatrical performance.  The Seals took on Romeo and Juliet, controversially casting one of the older boys as Juliet.  The Pumpkins, not to be outdone, had a 12-year old girl playing Jesus Christ.  They didn’t really have a performance as such, just costumes and a short (probably improvised) story that their leader read out.

The games were more interesting, we played charades which combined animals and everyday activities (eg a hippopotamus mowing the lawn).  The kids wouldn’t let me stop until they’d done every single one I had (there were about 30 in the materials).  We also had monologues, four of the kids were given a text to read out in the most emotional and dramatic way they could.  We definitely have some budding actors in our squad!

I kept the little girls entertained by giving them a picture drawing task, they randomly picked some elements they had to draw in a picture (eg a rainbow, a fairy, a castle) and they drew some beautiful drawings, so I was able to give an award for Best Picture.

Friday

Day 9 – Wonders of Music

Song – Bon Jovi, It’s My Life

 

There were more camp sports competitions today, involving relay running with various hoops, poles, footballs and cones.  We had a mix of older and younger children, boys and girls, while our competitors were all about the same age as our oldest ones, so unsurprisingly we came last in most of the races, but the kids had fun.  At the end the teams had to line up and do a bit of dancing.  One of the older boys really does not like dancing and was doing the minimum possible to avoid looking out of place while everyone else was doing the Go… Stop… Drop dance moves.

Meanwhile one of the girls was using the school camera to take pictures of the action, I was trying to encourage her to get closer and move round to get front shots instead of just the backs of people’s heads, although for this blog, the back-of-head shots are turning out to be quite useful!

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In the evening we were back on the camp stage again for a competitive dance – six of our girls had been working on the performance during Move Your Body club.  You can guess where we placed!

Saturday

Day 12 – Wonders of Dance

Song – Justin Timberlake, Can’t Stop the Feeling

Team Activities involved a dance quiz – identify the dance from the pictures, and from the music, and then a dance competition trying to follow the dance moves in a video.

In the evening performance the teams had to reinvent the origin of a popular dance.  The Seals told the story of a man (a girl with a drawn-on moustache) with a (cardboard) balalaika who, rejected by the women he loved, invented a new dance so that everyone would fall in love with him, before turning down the woman who had shunned him.

The Pumpkins blew everyone away with a hot tango.  It had everything, steamy looks, hair flicks, a super-cool sunglasses-wearing Latino guy (actually our 12-year-old Jesus again) and a sultry sensual chica on his arm (one of the girls that usually isn’t very involved in the performances, but brought it all tonight).  Everyone agreed it was Hotttt.

Sunday

Day 13 – Wonders of Technology

Song – Frank Sinatra, Fly Me To The Moon

We had lessons and clubs as usual but no evening performance because we wanted to go to the camp show and collect our certificate for second place in the tug-of-war.  We didn’t have a performance for the show this time, the other squads put on performances around the theme of sports.

We had to deal with a headlice scare, one of the students from another camp had gone home with nits so the doctor had to check every child in every team.  Two of our young girls were held back for treatment, and a third – the one with long, beautiful braids, had to have her hair unwound and brushed so they could check it properly.  The leaders weren’t checked but I’m wondering if maybe I should get all my hair cut off just to be safe!

Monday

Day 14 – Wonders of Sport

Song – K’Naan, Waving Flag

For Team Activities we had a sports quiz (very hard!), mimes, a crossword and a competition where the teams had to transfer water from one end of the hall to the other using only one spoon for the whole team.  The Pumpkins won but it was by less than a millimetre of water in the cup!

In the evening the teams had to showcase their own new sports.  The Pumpkins went with obstacle-pillow-fights (just an excuse to hit each other with pillows), while the Seals had a genuinely funny sketch involving an 8-hour stare-out marathon (cleverly deploying a dummy card explaining “2 hours later” to signify the passing of time.

There was another sports quiz and a task involving different professions saying “goodbye” in appropriate ways.  There were some strange convoluted handshakes resulting from that!

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In the evening was a special treat that had been rescheduled from Friday when it had been raining – a Foam Party Disco!  We didn’t want to get the school camera wet so I took my little flash camera and got some fun pictures of the night – the kids absolutely loved it, all except for the three who had to watch from a distance because of their hair treatment.

It was the last day with us for Nata, the replacement leader, and we also said goodbye to a couple of our team members – a third, who had gone to his grandmothers for the weekend, took ill and in the event also didn’t come back.  So we were down to 22.

Summer Camp – Week 1

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Tuesday

Day 1 – Welcome Day

Kate and I travelled into Volzhskiy and met up with Lyena and we were assigned a position under the statue of Lenin on the big square. Nine other teams were collecting children across the boulevard. I held up the orange Team 3 sign but our childrens’ parents were looking for our school.  I found a sheet of school symbols (for cutting out and giving to children as tokens) and fastened it to the sign, and that seemed to do the trick.  I was already the only one wearing a school shirt (from last year’s camp) so I was pretty much a walking advertisement and beacon.

My job was holding the sign, Kate and Lyena were doing all the paperwork with the parents, and the gradually increasing number of kids (including brothers and sisters who wouldn’t come to camp) were just running around and playing.  A couple of the kids came up to introduce themselves to me – my first chance to start remembering names.

Eventually we had our 25 children, but the buses were taking a long time to arrive.  At long last we got the signal to get onto one of the buses – suitcases and all, and somehow, Tetris-style, we squeezed all the kids and ourselves in (as well as a bag of important papers that had been entrusted to me).  Fortunately most of my stuff had gone to the camp a few days earlier in my big purple suitcase and was waiting for me there, so I only had a small bag with my computer and some other essentials.

We had the whole bus to our team, so we went round trying to get some introductions and names, but it was too noisy and we only really got halfway round.   I was sat next to a small, nervous young boy whose English was not good enough for any kind of proper conversation.

We reached the camp and got everyone off and in a line and headed through the gates, just like last year.  Another young boy was struggling with an enormous suitcase so I swapped my bag for his, and made a new friend.  We went to the same corpus (dormitary) building as I was in last year but this time we were on the other side of the doors, and the corridor was on the other side of the hall.  Again I had a room to myself, but this time I had a working electrical socket.  Again there was a working fridge and kettle in the teachers room.  On my balcony (I had the only room with a balcony) was a huge pile of junk left over from the second camp.  My room was full of materials – art, sport, technical equipment – that we would be using and Lyena wanted it in the big teacher’s room, so I started moving it, while also collecting my suitcase from Lyena’s room.

Lyena had to go to meetings with the administrators so she left me and Kate to do the orientation speech.  Straight away I was “in charge” because Kate had no idea how any of this worked, but I had seen it done before.  I read the main points of our Code of Behaviour and stressed the importance of being tidy, being on time and doing what the leaders asked them.  Kate helped by translating for the younger children who had no idea what I was saying.  I showed them how to make a line and that they needed to be able to do this quickly several times a day so we could count them before going to the canteen.

Midway through another child arrived (dropped off directly at the camp by her parents) and rather than go through the speech again myself I asked the kids to tell her what they remembered, which was a lot, but not all the most important stuff.

Lyena came back and started allocating bedrooms, then someone came with bedclothes and Lyena started making sets and giving them to children individually – not quite as efficient as Elena’s production line last year but we weren’t really in a hurry.

We had 7 boys and I had learned their names in the first hour, but the 18 girls were more difficult to remember.  We seemed to have 2 of everything – two Katyas, two Dashas, two Sonias, two Lyeras, two Arseniys, two girl Sashas (and a boy Sasha), and two Nastyas – this one we solved by calling one of them Stacy (from Anastasia).  There seemed to be a lot of dark-haired girls with pony tails.  It took me a couple more days to work it all out.

Once they had their rooms sorted out, the kids were split into two teams and given the task of coming up with a team name, a team poster, and doing some team-building tasks together.  The teams called themselves the Pumpkins and the Scotland Seals – the Pumpkins won the team-building tasks by 3 games to 2.

Then it was off to lunch – the first test of our line discipline.  They definitely needed more practice.  After lunch there was rest time, and after rest time and tea time, we had some get-to-know-you games in the yard outside.  Then it was dinnertime, and then they had their first taste of the disco.  Some of them were not very impressed.

Wednesday

Day 2 – Wonders of the Natural World

Song of the day – Miley Cyrus – Do What We Want

After breakfast we had our first lessons.  I took the better intermediate students to the hall, Lyena taught the lower intermediate students in the administration building, and Kate had the little kids in one of the rooms.  They seemed generally engaged and the material wasn’t too difficult.

After lessons the whole team had to decide what they would do for the opening ceremony concert the next day.  It was one of the younger girls who came up with the idea of zombies, and they found a zombie dance on their phones to a tune called “African Zombie.”

Before lunch we were told we could take the students swimming.  One of the leaders was supposed to be in the water with the kids.  None of the leaders really wanted to go in but it seems I didn’t want to go the least because I was the one that ended up going in.  About half the students came along with me, including the youngest one who needed arm-bands and wanted to stay at the shallower end of the pool.  There were some beach balls and inflatables to throw around, it was fun, but we were only allowed in for 15 minutes then we had to come out again.

After lunch and rest time we were supposed to have clubs but the kids needed more time to prepare for the next day’s performance.  I suggested we have Art Club, but the theme is making zombie art and make-up, and we have Move Your Body Club for everyone to practice the zombie dance, and my Wonderbox club can start another day (tomorrow would be the camp opening ceremony).  Lyena agreed.

We tried playing the instructional video on the school laptop but the internet signal was poor and it was very jumpy.  I eventually managed to download it later in the day so we could play it through properly and everyone could watch and practice the moves – the whole group would be taking part.  Meanwhile Art Club were making a beautiful zombie poster.

In the evening both teams did their performances – involving dancing seals and talking pumpkins, and we played some games with balloons and “Hot Potato.”

Thursday

Day 3 – Wonders of the Animal World

Song – Elton John, Crocodile Rock

It turned out that I wasn’t supposed to go in the pool with the kids because I have not been medically certified by all the various necessary certifying agencies required by the camp administrators.  The only leader in our camp who had been certified was Lyena, so it fell on her to take the kids swimming, now and forevermore.  In the event she eventually realised that other teams’ leaders didn’t go in the water with their kids and she started claiming to be too unwell to swim.  After Nata arrived she started sending her to take the kids to the pool instead because of some unwanted attention from one of the pool attendants!  After Nata left she had to start going again on the basis that I beat her in the decisive game of rock-paper-scissors.

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Today was the opening ceremony of the camp, so after tea-time we had to go and stand with all the other teams and watch the Russian flag being raised to the national anthem.  One representative from each team was involved in hoisting the flag, so our oldest boy went.  Then each team started shouting out their team chant.  We panicked a little because we didn’t have one but the same boy – who was the leader of the team Pumpkins suggested we use the Pumpkin motto which was “We were found in the garden!”  We managed to let everyone know just in time for us to shout it in unison when it was our turn.  And that was how it became our team chant.

After that we had some time to prepare for the concert, with many of the kids getting made-up to look like zombies.  We arrived at the stage area and had to watch 7 other acts before it was our turn.  All the other teams had some kind of dance-performance, some really good quality.  The youngest teams had dance leaders standing in front of the stage demonstrating the movements for them to copy.  I recognised some of the leaders of the other teams from previous years.  Of course the leaders were doing their own “act” to link all the performers, something about a king and a queen and a musician and some bandits.

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Then it was our turn, they did their zombie dance – they were all in make-up and looked great, and the choreography was fabulous.  In hindsight I think it was our best performance of the four we did for the camp.  But we still came fourth out of four in the older age group.

After supper, only 4 girls wanted to go to the disco and I was charged with taking them.  It turns out it wasn’t a normal disco, there were some ceremonies and speeches before the dancing began and again, the teams were asked to do their team chants one by one.  I was proud as a peacock when my girls all stood up as one and shouted together “We were found in the garden!”

Friday

Day 4 – Wonders of the Undersea World

Song – Little Mermaid OST, Under the Sea

I had to take both intermediate groups together in the administration centre because Lyena was unavailable for some reason, I gave them the intermediate plus material and a few of them seemed to struggle with it.

We had team activities – there were jigsaw puzzles, a game where you had to make up a name for a dog and write it on a balloon, some tongue twisters, and animal impressions.

Finally, my Wonderbox club started, and I had plenty of material to draw from from the unused lessons.  I had 3 girls (none of the younger ones), 3 young boys and three older boys.  Two of the younger boys would later switch to Art and Move Your Body club so we ended up with 7 regulars.  All the clubs took place in the same place, the Wonder Box, though there was one day when a thunderstorm threatened to deluge us that we hastened indoors to finish the club in one of the rooms.

The Evening Performance saw two remarkable stories about the origins of mermaids.  The Seals’ interpretation had a chanting shaman beating a drum (empty water bottle) in a hypnotic performance by a very talented older girl.  Also notable were the octopus noises one of the boys was making in the background – this became a kind of signature for the boy concerned!  The Pumpkins dressed two girls up as mermaids with fish-tails fastened to their waists and had a story involving an undersea castle and a blue-faced drowned man.  The performance wasn’t so intense but the story had a little more, ahem, depth.

I was hosting the show as Sebastian the Crab (with Lyena as Ariel).  I had paper plates sellotaped to my hand for my claws, a pretty cheap and cheesy effect but it really helped bring the character alive.  Sadly I couldn’t prevent my Jamaican accent continually veering into French but I doubt any of my young Russian audience could tell the difference.

Saturday

Day 5 – Wonders of the Cities

Song – Frank Sinatra – New York, New York

With Kate gone I kept the full intermediate group and we switched to the hall for lessons.  Later on we had some team activities with jigsaw puzzles, anagrams and a quiz.  The teams had some time to prepare for their evening performance in which they had to present their dream city.  The Seals responded by drawing a giant cactus, with a face, of course.

After clubs we went to play outside for a while with Sasha’s football.  One of the older boys had been itching to play football since we arrived and as soon as he had a football at his feet it became clear the others were going to have to work hard to get it off him!  Just like last year I was the anointed football supervisor, any time the boys wanted to go out on the street I was the one who had to accompany them.  It was not such an onerous task as last year with fewer insects to deal with but I was still a bit jealous of Lyena sitting inside on the comfortable couches.

The Evening Performance revealed the Seals’ motives, the cactus was the President of some kind of mutant population that escaped from Chernobyl and set up their own city.  The Pumpkins went a lot more traditional with a very well drawn diagram of a city with all the normal city stuff in it – hospital, bakery, that kind of thing.  Their presentation was quite short but it was what they were asked to do, while the Seals had gone way off=topic!  There were some games too, a geography quiz and some more tongue twisters.

Sunday

Day 6 – Wonders of the Sights

Song – One Republic, Good Life

I found a way to keep the younger girls entertained, to pretend to be a zombie and walk slowly after them.  For the rest of the camp, whenever we went outside I had one of them pulling my sleeve, putting their arms out in front of their bodies and pleading “Zombie?”

Our new teacher Nata had arrived so I was back to lessons with just the intermediate plus group (about 10 students).  A couple should really have been lower intermediate, but wanted to study with their friends.

Our main task today was for the whole group, we would be joining the rest of the camp for another themed performance evening, this time Television, and Lyena had drawn the Kultura channel.  The kids came up with the idea of a museum where they would display just about anything, and one of the kids would go and interview some of the exhibiting artists.  We had a couple of paintings (one was actually a pretty good rendition of two scary black monsters on a red background), and a couple of kids made up as statues, including a Cupid.  They did the show entirely in Russian so I didn’t really know what they were saying but I’m sure it was funny.  They did ask me about the first line which was along the lines of “Good evening to our viewers, if anyone is actually watching.”

Fourth out of four.

Monday

Day 7 – Wonders of the World of Literature

Song – Frank Sinatra, Fairy Tale

After much pestering by the older boys, Lyena agreed I could take them to the big football pitch.  It’s not a great pitch, it’s more weeds than grass and there’s big holes in it, but it has goals and a fence round it to keep the ball in.  All seven boys would always come along if there was football to be played.  Of the girls only the oldest-of-the-younger-ones joined in a couple of times.

The Evening Performance task was to reimagine a work of literature.  The Seals took Snow White and turned one of the dwarfs into a murdering cannibal – cleverly giving the role to the youngest, cutest, sweetest girl.  I loved the dwarf hats two of the tween girls had made, coloured paper cones with wool pom-poms on top.  The girl playing Snow White also did quite an impressive breakdance before the dwarves wrapped her up in Scotch tape.

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Quidditch

The Pumpkins took Harry Potter and recreated the Quidditch scene.  Sasha was painted gold to represent the Snitch and one of the other boys had Harry Potter glasses painted onto his face, along with the ubiquitous lightning scar.  They pretty much just wanted an excuse to run around chasing each other with broomsticks (which I had appropriated for them from the girls’ bathroom).

We had some games around the performances, all the kids joined together in a line and the front of the line had to get the “tail” from the back of the line without anyone letting go – this turned out to be very easy.  Next I had them get their whole team across two chairs – for the bigger kids it was easy, they just stepped over (though one or two failed and got eliminated).  The team element was working together to help the smaller kids get over, which they generally did quite well.

Summer Camp Reflections

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I have just returned from my second year at Skazka summer camp, and had a really good time!  We had a great bunch of kids, a great camp leader, lots of interesting activities and games, and just enough edible food to keep me alive.

The Kids

This year we had 25 kids, a couple fewer than last year, but we also had fewer leaders.  However there must be something in the DNA of kids that come to summer camp, because there were so many similarities with last year’s kids that it was uncanny.  There were about a dozen of our kids who basically had an exact counterpart in last year’s camp – different names, but the same age, gender, hair colour, hair style and interests (art, dancing, performing, sport, causing trouble).

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We had the small girls who loved dancing.  We had the noisy little boys running around causing trouble.  We had the shy tweenage girls who just wanted to be alone and draw.  We had the precocious older teenagers who wanted to be in charge of everything, and the moody ones who just wanted to sit and look at their phones.  We had a couple of boys who only wanted to play football.  It was like I had just gone back in time to summer 2017.

The Administrators

There was also the same problems with our group being a little seperate from the rest of the camp – having our own programme, not joining all the daily activities and performances, and (probably not unconnected) a lot of issues with the camp administration being hard on us for tidyness, behaviour and getting kids to bed on time.  Wesley in the previous shift (we were the third Reward camp of four at Skazka this year) had told me there was a lot of conflict between his leader, Ruslana and the camp administration, but my leader Lyena, who I’ve worked with before and know quite well, thought this was more of a personality clash, and ultimately she managed to build quite a good relationship with the head of the camp, so that the only real problems we had were when the Managing Director came to visit – he had very tough standards and made a lot of noise on his visits, but the head reassured us he was like that with all the teams, not just ours.

For example, I had a room to myself which I usually left unlocked, he would look in on his visits and complain that it was so untidy (I had my teaching materials, computer cables etc on the spare bed, and I only made a perfunctory effort at making my own bed).  The solution suggested by the camp administrator after the MD was gone was just keep my door locked so he couldn’t see my room!

The Leaders

Unlike last year where we had 3 Russian teachers and myself, the programme had been prepared on the basis that there would only be two teachers – the camp leader and the foreign teacher.  During the previous shift it became apparent this was very difficult to work, and they found a third teacher to come in in a support role (it was actually my leader Elena from last year).

At quite short notice they found us a third teacher too – Kate, who I knew mainly as a manager at Voroshilovskiy office and more recently Sovetskiy office.  She has been doing some teaching with very small children and was press-ganged into coming to camp having never been outside of Volgograd before, and was quite nervous about it.

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Lyena the Leader

Lyena too had never been to camp before so I was the experienced veteran, and was able to use a lot of my knowledge of what happened last year, problems to be avoided and measures we could take to help things go a bit more smoothly.  I was also quite familiar with some of the material we would be using from the city camps I had done earlier in the summer, so the lessons and the clubs needed next to no preparation – I’m getting pretty good at just looking at the materials and instinctively knowing how to use them.

I made a special effort to learn all the kids names quickly, stressed to them the importance of being in bed and in line for the canteen on time, and practiced making lines in pairs so I could count them quickly.  I’ve become very good at not only counting (much faster than Lyena) but spotting which kids are missing.  Over the course of the camp with kids disappearing for days with their parents or treatment with the doctor, the numbers kept changing so you have to keep track of that too.  I also made a point of wearing my orange cap (from last year’s camp) every time we went out of the corpus (dormitary building), so I was recognisable and easy to find quickly.  At the disco I always sat in the same spot so the kids knew where to find me.  Little things like that just save time in the long run.

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Lyena and Nata

In the event, Kate only lasted a few days before becoming ill and leaving the camp on Day 5, it turned out for good.  Lyena and I managed on our own for a couple of days until a new teacher neither of us knew, Nata arrived.  She was a new teacher at Reward and quite quiet, she found it hard to get the kids’ attention a lot of the time but they grew quite attached to her.  However she only stayed just over a week, for the final week Lyena and I were on our own again.  I took the intermediate kids into my intermediate plus group, Lyena kept the smaller kids, but more often than not Lyena had administrative duties – meetings, taking kids to doctors and parents etc, and I was left on my own in charge of 22 kids (three left before the final week).  But it was fine, they mostly did what they were told, they calmed down when I told them to calm down, they all understood my mix of English, Russian and mime, I got on well with them all.

The Routine

Wake up at 8.00, agenda at 8.30 in the hall (the large room in the corpus), including rewards and special symbols (tokens) for the stars of the previous day.  Then there was always a Song of the Day based on the day’s theme, we’d listen, fill in the words, then sing.  Then it was breakfast at the canteen – line up, walk to the canteen, walk back.

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Walk to the canteen, walk back…

At 10.00 we would have lessons.  My intermediate plus group were in the hall, Lyena had the little kids in one of the rooms, with my laptop which was the only one that worked without an electric cord.  Nata took her intermediate group to the administration building where there were tables and electrical sockets.  The lessons were programmed to be 1 hour 20 minutes, the agenda had them finishing at 11.30.  I always used the full hour and a half, but Lyena and Nata always seemed to be finished after an hour or so.  After lessons on most days there was some kind of team activity, or camp sports – if it was over 27 degrees, the kids could go swimming for 15 minutes, though only a handful of them did on any one day.

And then at 13.30 it was lunch at the canteen – line up, walk to the canteen, walk back. After lunch was rest time – the best time of the day.  Children had to wash their feet then be on their beds by 14:00 and stay there, quiet, for 2 hours.  They could sleep or read or draw, but they had to stay on their beds and be quiet, no phones allowed.  At 16:00 we got them up again, and got ready for Tea-Time – line up, walk to the canteen, walk back.

 

 

On hot days there was usually an afternoon swimming session at around 5pm, if not that is when the clubs would start.  In the hall there was Art Club and Move Your Body where kids would make something specific or learn a specific dance each day – though sometimes we “borrowed” the time to make props and learn dances for performances.  I had the Wonderbox club in a wooden pavilion outside which immediately became known as the Wonder Box, or Wonder Karopke.  I only had 7 or 8 students and halfway through a couple of them went to join Move Your Body.  It was mainly puzzles and riddles – often too difficult for the younger kids to understand, some active games most of which were so unpopular that I stopped suggesting them, and a video that absolutely no-one ever wanted to watch, but I forced them to because “it’s in the programme.”  The kids were mainly there for the games – they wanted to play hide and seek (or a Russian version called “Tukhi Tukhi”) but I got them interested enough to do some of the better games in the programmes and some which I remembered from last year that worked really well – Touch the Tree was popular (I just tell them to touch something and they have to find it and touch it).  Statues was popular, Wink Murderer, Flinch and Sleeping Tigers.  Some of our games were so popular that kids from other teams came to join in – one time they kept playing even after my kids went inside.

After clubs there was usually time for some practice for the evening performance, then at 19:30 we were at the canteen again for dinner – line up, walk to the canteen, walk back.  If there was a camp performance we would walk straight to the stage, but usually it was an evening performance in our hall.  Unlike last year we never used the auditorium – in the first week it was always raining when we planned to go there so we just got into the habit of staying in the hall.

After evening performance it was Supper Time (or Second Dinner) – usually a milky drink and something sweet, fruit or a biscuit (no jelly candy this year, I’ve just realised!).  Line up, walk to the canteen, walk back – unless we were going to the disco, then walk to the disco.  Nata and I were usually the ones who took the kids that wanted to go to the disco – generally it was just 4 of the girls, with another 4 or 5 sometimes tagging along if they felt in the mood.  Just like last year they generally played the same songs every night – certainly there was not a single disco where I did not hear them play “Medusa.”  My favourite song from last year, “Pomegator” didn’t get any air-time at the disco this year, but they played it at the end of camp performances.

At 10:00 the disco has finished and we are back at the corpus for Candle Talk.  For some inexplicable reason (Lyena thought it was fire regulation, I thought it was just forgetfulness) we had not been issued with any candles, so our “candle” was Lyena’s phone light.  It was the same routine as last year, although there were a couple of nights where candle talk was cancelled (Sacrilege!!) so the children could get to bed early.

The Canteen

Five times a day we would visit the canteen (occasionally four times and we would take second dinner home with us after dinner).  The kids would all go into the hand-washing room and wash their hands (me too if mine weren’t clean already) then sit at the tables.  We had four tables with 6 spaces so one of the kids – usually one from the small boys table – would come and join the teachers at the leader’s table.

During the day there was usually something at one of the meals I could eat (though we weren’t supposed to eat anything at teatime or suppertime, there was often leftover food the children didn’t want).  On days where there was nothing, I had the back-up of dried noodles in my room, just add hot water from the kettle in the teachers room.  They were surprisingly tasty and filling!  After last year’s experience I had brought a sufficient supply of cola, crisps and chocolates to last the whole camp – in fact I took some chocolate back home with me.  Unlike last year I was making ice cubes from the first day, so I could relax at the end of a hot day with an ice-cold cola drink (beginning with P).  I did get through more than I expected so it was a welcome relief when Eduard came to collect our materials before the final weekend, and brought along 2 extra bottles just to get me through!

The canteen served chicken soup 2 or 3 times a week, sometimes with potatoes in it, or beans, I usually just skimmed off the liquid.  I could manage the chicken cutlets, but they got in the habit this year of serving beetroot with everything, the nice tomato sauce they gave us last year (in miniscule helpings) seemed to be a thing of the past.  The best meal I had was a nice baked chicken leg with pasta, but they often served the tasty chicken-in-batter which I was told Elena referred to as “Stephen-chicken” in the last camp, because it was the only thing I liked last year.  Last year, though, they served it with pasta and tomato sauce, this year it kept appearing with potatoes and beetroot, and just once with buckwheat.

The Wildlife

Last year the predominant wildlife was flies and mosquitoes, we could not go outside without getting bitten and swarmed.  This year they were not a problem – perhaps because camp was later in the year this time round.  I got a few bites in the first week – mainly from sitting under the lights in the disco, I think, but after I started wearing a long-sleeved shirt to the disco, I didn’t have any more problems.

There were lots of wasps and hornets – especially on my balcony, I think there is a nest in the brickwork.  I woke up one morning with a wasp crawling and scratching on my toe and my leg immediately cramped – it was a feat of endurance to gently guide it away before pulling back my leg and screaming!  Our youngest little girl brought Lyena a gift in her fist, she opened her palm and there was a live wasp, she didn’t flinch at all.  But 15 minutes later another wasp stung her on the back, so what goes around comes around.  I think the only other person who got stung that I know of was Lyena.

Next on our safari was a frog, it hopped across our path as I was taking the four hardcore dancers to the disco one night.  The most interesting animal experience I had was with a bat.  I’ve never seen one up close before, but one inexplicably flew into our corridor (the girls keep leaving the balcony door open at night and everything flies in).  I heard everyone screaming and came out to find an empty corridor but dozens of heads peeking out from doors – including the camp administrator who was visiting at that moment and had sought shelter in one of the kids rooms.  Lyena was standing in the bathroom doorway calling for me, suggesting I catch it with a towel.  I shouted at the kids to close the doors so the bat would be contained in the corridor.  The bat was just flying up and down the corridor so it was quite easy to catch, just using the towel like a net – in fact it kind of grabbed the towel and just perched like it was waiting for me to take it outside.  It was so light I thought I had missed it!  I went out on the balcony, set the towel down and unfolded it, and there he was, just lying there, panting.  I wanted to go get a camera but the bat decided it was time to leave and pulled itself off the ground and flapped off into the night.  The camp administrator came out and thanked me profusely, from that point on we noticed they had a much friendlier attitude towards us!  I thought it was strange that both the head and the bat just happened to appear at the same time.  But it worked out well for us.

We had an unusual little visitor to the Wonder Box, an insect with a long abdomen but only one set of wings, and short legs under its body.  It would land in the same spot at around the same time each day.  The kids thought it was a wasp or a mosquito but it looked very different, and I spotted one of them sitting on the tree behind the Wonder Box eating a housefly.  The oldest kid thought it was an ovidian (harvestman) but they are arachnids with 8 legs, this was definitely some kind of fly.

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Robber fly

Unfortunately one of them landed next to one of the kids who panicked and walloped it with her shoe squishing it dead (upsetting one of the other kids).  When another robber fly appeared later in the same spot I felt a little bit sad for it, presuming it was looking for its mate.  The other kid decided to stand over it and protect it from harm.  I later found it (I presume it was the same one) in the corpus building on the floor in one piece but struggling to move.  I lifted it up on some paper and put it on the tree where I had first seen it.  It perched itself securely but didn’t look too healthy, and later it had disappeared. I never saw any of them again.

I spent much of that night on a slow internet connection looking at websites about insects and lots of different pictures and eventually I recognised it as a robber fly – harmless to humans, if left alone, but it will eat flies, mosquitoes and wasps.

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On the final day a dragonfly landed on a reed near where I was standing, and didn’t fly away when I got my camera out.  Just like with the robber fly, my camera had difficulty getting the thin body into focus, but I got a decent still from a video I took of it.  They usually are so jittery, but this one stopped for a long long time, posing for me to admire its beautiful wings and body structure!

World Cup Climax

SEMI-FINAL 1: France 1-0 Belgium

Not the free-flowing football goal-fest you might have expected after France 4-3 Argentina and Belgium 3-2 Japan, but a deserved victory ground out by France after neutralising Belgium’s attacking riches.  I watched at the Fan Fest, which was still pretty well attended despite Russia having left the competition.

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SEMI-FINAL 2: England 1-2 Croatia

The pain of being an England supporter!  It’s the hope that kills you.  Amid spattering rain and the occasional rumble of thunder, I sat in my preferred position at Fan Fest, near the top of the steps, as central as possible.  Occasionally you have to wave people out of the way as they stand in front of you oblivious to the people behind them, occasionally you have to hold your breath as someone’s cigarette smoke drifts in your direction, and occasionally people trying to reach the lower levels squeeze past you, risking knocking over your drink and standing on your stuff.  But the view is good and at half-time you can beat the queues to the drinks stalls.

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Of course it all started well, right in the first few minutes when another England set piece resulted in a beautiful goal.  It looked so promising, Croatia were tired from extra time and penalties in their previous two games – or were they just pacing themselves?  Generally England controlled the first half and were defensively solid.

In the second half, Croatia grabbed a goal out of nothing – but that’s what they do.  It is what their midfield players and attackers are capable of doing.  England wobbled, but survived one or two close calls to guide the match to extra time.  And then it happened again, another ball that could easily be defended, wasn’t.  Suddenly a Croatian player had our goal at his mercy, and Mandzukic didn’t miss.

While there was plenty of the extra time period left, England’s attacks were toothless, and Croatia’s defence was solid.  They swatted away our set piece deliveries like bothersome flies.  Of course I kept hoping, but I knew that bringing this game back would be beyond the players we had on the pitch.

So England would not be in the World Cup Final, but they had still had a very good tournament, achieved way more than anyone predicted for them, and a handful of our players – Trippier, Pickford, Maguire, Henderson – established themselves as reliable, capable international stalwarts.  There is a solidity about England that wasn’t there before (albeit we conceded in every game but one) but what there isn’t is creativity.  Hopefully that will come with our next generation of players, currently World Champions at under-17 and under-20 levels.

And Croatia – that wasn’t even a country 30 years ago – was in a World Cup Final, with players like Modric, Rakitic, Vida and Subasic capable of taking on anyone.  They beat my hosts Russia, my home team England but you had to admire their spirit, skill and perseverance.

THIRD PLACE PLAY-OFF: Belgium 2-0 England

I didn’t head to Fan Fest for this one, I just watched it on an intermittent stream at home, not really minding that I was missing so much of the match.  Belgium were on top and deservedly won though there were some encouraging signs in the second half before Belgium got their second goal that England could have got back into it.  No-one remembers if you finish 3rd or 4th so it isn’t a major disappointment.

THE WORLD CUP FINAL: France 4-2 Croatia

Finally, one of the best games of the tournament!  Of course I was at Fan Fest, and it was very well attended – the best attendance for any match not involving Russia.  I took my favoured position again and was able to relax and enjoy the match without any pressure.

I had watched the build up and pundits opinions (as best I could with the streaming limitations) at home, including the Closing Ceremony which featured Nicky Jam and Will Smith singing what has become known to me as “The Halftime Song” (actually “Live It Up”) because of the inevitability of its appearance at Fan Fest.  But it was nice to see it being performed live.

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After some epic thunderstorms over the weekend, it started off quite wet, but if there was any rain at all it was just the odd drop.  The space to sit was a bit more limited than usual as some spots had big puddles.  Most people knew now to bring something to sit on even if it was just a piece of cardboard or a plastic bag.

I thought I was a neutral but after France took the lead with an unfortunate own goal from a dubious free-kick I realised I actually really wanted Croatia and Luka Modric to win.

Just like their three previous knockout games, Croatia came back, and equalised with a beautiful goal.  But fate was not on their side.  A corner where the ball touched the hand of a Croatian player was referred to VAR – the system that is supposed to be used to correct clear and obvious errors by the referee.  The referee had initially said no penalty, but after studying the video footage for what seemed like several minutes, he awarded the penalty.  In my view, if the referee cannot see immediately that there is an error in his decision from one look at the video footage, he shouldn’t change the decision because, if there is an error at all, it isn’t clear nor obvious.

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Griezmann took the penalty, and as he did so I took a photograph, as the screen was neatly bracketed by a rainbow.  Things were certainly looking sunny for France who had been outplayed in the first half by Croatia but managed to get themselves 2-1 ahead.  There then followed the usual performance of The Halftime Song and the Budweiser Guy trying to get everyone to do Mexican waves and shouting, followed by some people on the crowd being shown dancing on the big screen.  The usual nonsense, but for the last time.

In the second half Croatia were still controlling possession but now were vulnerable on the counter-attack.  Twice France broke through and shots from Pogba and Mbappe found the net from outside the area.  With 20 minutes still to go, an uncharacteristic error by the French goalkeeper Lloris allowed Mandzukic to pull one back – if they could have got one more it would have really unnerved the French, but it was not to be.  France defended professionally and Modric’s magic was ineffective.  France were the World Champions.  Modric got the consolation prize of being named the tournament’s best player, quite rightly.

The skies darkened while we waited for the presentation ceremony.  Rain poured down in Moscow as the players were awarded their medals and the World Cup trophy, but in Volgograd the cloudy skies held back and we stayed dry.  There was a brief glitch in the broadcast but they stayed with events in Moscow until the presentation was complete.  Then we were presented with a Swiss band called Kadebostany – actually quite good, I stayed for 5 or 6 numbers.

So, now it’s all over – after 1 month, 64 matches, 169 goals, 2 hat-tricks, 219 yellow cards, 4 red cards, 22 penalties scored, 7 missed (not counting the 4 penalty shootouts) and over 5 million visitors to FIFA Fan Fests across the 11 host cities.  No more football until – actually the qualifiers for next season’s Europa League have already started, and the Premier League begins in less than a month.

For me the next 3 weeks are all about Summer Camp, starting on Tuesday.  I have a better idea what to expect this year – I’m going to the same place but with a different team and different kids, and I’ve already worked with some of the material I’ll be using at City Camp.  I’m not yet certain I’ll have internet access but I’m trying to resolve that!

After that I’ll have a short break and then back to teaching.  I extended my contract to October because I don’t anticipate starting a new job until the new year so I may as well take an extra couple of months of paid work before coming back to the British Isles in November to sort a few things out.  Ultimately where I go next will be more of an opportunistic decision than one that is carefully planned out.  Let’s see what’s out there!

World Cup Quarter Finals

 

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Friday 17:00 – France 2-0 Uruguay

With one of my students moving a lesson it became possible for me to watch most of this game, but I had to go straight from my previous lesson and I had to return by 18:45 for the next one, which would probably be before the end.

I actually missed kick-off but didn’t miss much action.  France scored a header just before half-time and seemed very much in control.  I got my times mixed up and decided I needed to leave at about 18:10 (I could have stayed another 20 minutes), France did get a second goal somewhere between my leaving the area where I could hear cheers in the distance and my arriving at the school, but it was clear from what I had seen they were on course to win this one comfortably.

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Friday 21:00 – Belgium 2-1 Brazil

Hungry after a long day at work, and carrying a bag that I couldn’t take to Fan Fest I decided to watch the first half at home while I had some food, then head over to the Fan Fest for the second half.  By the time I got there Belgium were 2-0 up but Brazil were very much still in the game.  It was quite miserable, a little colder than was comfortable and incessant rain falling, I stuck it out for about 20 minutes and then decided that was enough “experience” for me and retreated to the company of my home.  Between my leaving the fan-fest and arriving home, Brazil pulled a goal back.  Despite the jumpy stream there were no more decisive moments to miss after I got back, so Belgium finished the winners 2-1.

Saturday 17:00 – England 2-0 Sweden

I finished all my lessons for the day a good 4 hours before this one started so I was able to get through the whole England playlist and read all the build-up on the internet and listen to British TV broadcasts.  Suitably psyched, I headed for the Fan Fest and secured a prime spot front and centre, no Colombians in sight (although in the second half a couple came and sat uncomfortably close to me).

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As the game was kicking off there were flashes of lightning across the Volga and a storm in progress.  Fortunately the rain never came in our direction, and later on the sun came out!

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England were never in any danger and scored a couple of goals to secure the result long before the final whistle.  It was such a difference to the nervy Colombia game.  First clean sheet of the tournament too, that will be good for the goalkeeper’s confidence.  The only disappointment was that Kane didn’t score, but our other Harry got one, so it all works out.  I’m pretty sure this is the longest sequence of England games where someone called Harry has scored.  Ever.

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At the final whistle a group of other English guys in the crowd acknowledged me and I saluted them back with a croaky “It’s coming home!”

Saturday 21:00 – Russia 2-2 Croatia (Croatia win on penalties)

This one was electric.  The steps were full.  The grass banks were full.  The concrete area under the screen was full.  The place was just absolutely packed.  It was packed for every Russia game but for this one the crowds just seemed to go on for miles.  People continued arriving after me – I found a seat on a slightly raised cable-cover crossing the road between the screen and the steps, and sat on my trusty rolled up rug so that my height wouldn’t obstruct those behind me.

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The crowd went absolutely wild when Cheryshev scored the opening goal, a beautiful curling shot from outside the box.  Sadly, Croatia equalised within minutes, Kramaric getting his head on the end of a good cross.  After that it was quite an exciting game, every Russian attack greeted with cheers of excitement, while the Croatians largely sat back.

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At half-time I went for a drink.  The queues were massive but I could still see the screen from the queue so I wasn’t too worried.  It was about 10 minutes into the second half before I made my way back.

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The game drifted into extra time when once again the crowd – and indeed the commentator – were silenced as an innocuous header from Vida rolled past the Russian goalkeeper into the net, catching everyone by surprise.  Around me I could see tears and despair as the dream started fading away and hope disappeared.  But then the crowd rallied, and started chanting “Ross-i-ya!  Ross-i-ya!” and it almost seemed that the team, in Sochi could hear them and responded.  With only 5 minutes remaining until they went out, Russia won a free kick on the edge of the area, it came in high and “Super” Mario Fernandes headed it into the net, to the absolute delight of the crowd.

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Of course that only meant the drama was extended into the lottery of a penalty shootout.  But it seemed the crowd now believed Russia were destined to win.  It didn’t start well.  Fyodor Smolov missed the first penalty.  The next two were scored but then Akinfeev saved Kovacic’s penalty for Croatia and everything was level again.

All Russia had to do was put the next one away to get some momentum, and put the pressure on Croatia.  Up stepped Super Mario, the goal hero.  He blazed it wide of the left post.  Modric stepped up and confidently scored.  Russia’s ageing warhorse, 38-year old Sergei Ignashaev needed to put the next one away, and he did, confidently and powerfully.

With every Croatian penalty the crowd were chanting “Igor! Igor!” hoping that Akinfeev could reproduce his heroics against Spain.  But he couldn’t stop Vida beating him again, and after Kuzyaev kept Russia alive, he needed to stop Rakitic or Russia would be out.

He couldn’t.  The crowd just stared blankly at the screens as the Croatians started to celebrate, and one or two turned their backs and started to move towards the exits.  Then the Russian TV channel switched to the distraught Russian players and I automatically started applauding.  Simultaneously applause broke out all around the crowd, and even a few chants of Ross-i-ya.  Their team had lost but they had fought right until the end, they had come from behind in extra time, they had taken their opponents to penalties and made them take all 5.  This is after beating former World Champions Spain, and scoring 8 goals in the group games.  From being the lowest ranked team in the competition, branded as no-hopers, they had come within an inch of the semi-finals, and engaged almost the whole country in a tournament that had largely been put on for the benefit of foreigners.

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I was so proud of them.  I was proud of Russia for being proud of them.  Of course my team were safely through to the semi-finals so I could afford to be magnanimous, and Croatia having to play an extra 30 minutes and penalties didn’t harm England’s chances either.  Well done Russia!

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Looking Ahead

With a real possibility of England being in the World Cup Final I wondered how viable it would be for me to get tickets.  There were some available on various websites but always at extortionate prices.  I started checking out the official ticket website and to my surprise it was – occasionally, and intermittently – showing tickets available for the Final.  Unfortunately whenever I tried to purchase them, I got an error message, either “the tickets are no longer available” or a more generic “something went wrong, please try again.”

I spent almost the whole of Sunday on that damn website.  Queuing, refreshing, applying, entering the code, getting the error message, going back to the beginning.  I know I am supposed to start Summer Camp the day after the Final so flying back from Moscow that day isn’t ideal but I’m sure I could smooth over any loose ends with the school, it isn’t every day you get the chance to see your country in a World Cup Final (or even just see a World Cup Final!).

At some point I started wondering, why not the England semi-final?  Again, tickets for that were generally either completely unavailable or low availability, but I started requesting them as soon as I saw them.  I have lessons on Wednesday, I can’t teach and go to Moscow at the same time, so if I was successful in getting tickets I’d have some explaining to do.  But again, this is a humongous opportunity for an experience I’d have for the rest of my life.  But again, the technology just wasn’t working for me.  The tickets were (according to the website) available for purchase, its just whenever I attempted to purchase them, “something went wrong.”

Today I continued my efforts but most of the afternoon was taken up with lessons.  I kept losing my place in the queue – you have to wait half an hour or so but then you have to confirm within 10 minutes or start again.  That’s not really compatible with a timetable of hour-long lessons and half-hour gaps.  Also, tickets for the final have completely stopped appearing altogether.  And as of this evening (Monday night) the England match has been removed from the website as an “available product”!  The final is still there – I can apply for and successfully reserve tickets for France v Belgium (don’t worry I put them back in the system as soon as I checked it was working), but England v Croatia has vanished.  My hope is they are just letting the supply of (presumably returned) tickets build up so that when they put it back online, people have a realistic chance of buying one, rather than it just being a lottery of whoever happens to be entering a code at the very moment a ticket in a certain category becomes available.

I’ll be honest, I’ve no idea how it works or if it works and my chances of getting a ticket seem to be minimal.  But if I am successful… if, if, if… then boy, will I have a story to tell you!