Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher

Beginning again

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Sevastopol is great.

I love the city, and can’t get enough of seeing the sea all the time.

The people I work with are friendly and supportive, the students are enthusiastic, and the school itself is a pleasure to be in, self-contained with bright, colourful classrooms and good facilities.

My job is exactly what I needed and wanted at this point in my career.

I love learning languages, and the challenge of learning Russian is stimulating. I want to learn it. I really do.

I don’t regret my decision to leave the UK and to move here.

But beginning again is always difficult. And every time I do it, I block out this period, so I’m writing about it now to remember how it feels later.

Because the lack of Russian means I often feel like a child.

I can’t communicate anything beyond my most basic needs, and sometimes not even that. I can understand a fair amount, but I can’t reply. I can’t tell people which bits I understood and which bits I didn’t. I can see their frustration when I don’t understand. Some are patient, and try again, or rephrase what they said, and if they’re lucky, I understand. I’m totally dependent on others, and any English skill they might have, for anything beyond the basics.

I can’t do some of the things I enjoy, like going to the cinema and switching off. I can still go, but I have to think, not least because a lot of the films here are in Ukrainian, which I don’t speak at all. Watching a film at home is good, but it’s not the same.

I want to go out and make friends, but I’ve never been good at doing that in a foreign language, however easy I may find it in English. Most of my friends are from being in a new situation at the same time, like going to the jungle (!), or from working with them, and despite having studied three languages to high levels and lived in many other countries, I have almost no friends who I communicate with in a foreign language. And the English-speaking community here is tiny. The people at school are great, but I need to make a real effort to meet more people. I don’t drink, and don’t like being in pubs when I don’t already know people there. I can’t join a class or chat to random people yet, unless they want to hear about where I’m from and who is in my family ad nauseum, or talk and talk and not care that I can’t respond.

I’m a very confident person, but lacking the language strips me of my confidence when I leave my English bubble.

I know I could visit lots of places around Crimea, and I really want to, but I don’t know how to get to any of those places, or what would happen if I got stuck there. When I ask bus drivers to get off at the next stop (which you have to do on public transport here), at least one person looks at me every time, because it’s clear I’m a foreigner. This is compounded by being a woman and choosing to wear trainers and a rucksack to get to and from work, something no self-respecting Ukrainian woman would ever do, and another reason why people stare at me at times. But the handbag and heels look has never worked for me, so I won’t be blending in any time soon. Most of the time I can switch off the stares, but sometimes they niggle, and sometimes they build up.

I know the theories about language learning, about getting out there and speaking to people, but you need a certain level of basic sentences to do that, or a certain level of alcohol, which I will never have. I know I should study a bit each day, but honestly I can’t be bothered. I know I should immerse myself in the language if I want to improve, and since I’m surrounded by Russian, that should be easy to do. I don’t shy away from encounters with Russian, and I’m constantly listening and reading. But I don’t actively seek them out either.

I think I’ll be here for a while.

Three months in, the novelty is wearing off, and this is always when it gets difficult. It did in Malaysia. It did in Paraguay. I didn’t have the benefit of social media in either of those places, and I remember how homesick I was then. I can’t imagine living this life without the internet now. It got difficult in Newcastle too, despite being in the UK. I avoided it in Brno because I developed a group of good friends in the same situation as me very quickly. And I know I’ll look back at this time with the benefit of hindsight, a good level of Russian, a group of friends, and a whole host of new experiences, and I won’t really remember this feeling of slight helplessness.

So right now I have to make a few promises to myself, and I have to stick to them:

  1. Saturday is Russian day, with at least two hours of study, plus my lesson
  2. Sunday is a relaxation day, including a day trip whenever possible
  3. I will not spend any weekend entirely in my flat, regardless of how bad the weather is
  4. Before June, I will have joined a class of some kind, maybe dance, maybe a language I already speak, maybe something completely new so I can meet new people

I’m a sucker for punishment. Constant new beginnings don’t make for an easy life, but I know that, and I still choose to begin again. It will be worth it in the end. And if I tell you my promises, I have to stick to them, right?

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Comments on: "Beginning again" (27)

  1. Good for you Sandy! I know I don’t react much to your blogposts but often read them and am incredible grateful for all the work you to to share your ideas with others.
    I think you are incredibly lucid about this “new beginning” lark, and I really do wish you the very best of luck.
    Take care, and, yes, I’m sure it will pay off in the end,
    Gill

    • Thanks a lot Gill. It’s not something I’ve really read about anywhere else, although I’m sure I can’t be the only one who feels/has felt like this. All aspects of the profession, right?
      Sandy

  2. I think it’s all part of cultural readjustment/shock/stress, call it what you will (which also includes language shock/stress etc). For me, it helps knowing that the down times (sad/angry/frustrated etc) are just that and that they will pass and I’m not going mad, it’s just normal… (I read a bit about it for my Delta module 3 – English-speaking environment)
    Good luck with the promises! :-) I think having projects/plans/goals of any type on the go is a good thing! Helps with motivation.
    Take care and enjoy the good times xx

  3. It’s a good idea to do this (oh, and do read that book I passed you via Kate, it covers this in detail!). Can you find expatriate groups in some of your other languages, or will that confuse the Russian? I know you worked in lots of different languages simultaneously in Paraguay so assume you could cope. Could you find someone to have mutual conversation sessions with – i.e. you chat in Russian with someone who chats in English with you, alternately? I remember them arranging this for students at Birmingham, which is why I thought about it.

    And I’m glad you have social media so you don’t feel so far away and we can support and listen when you need us to – as well as cheer you on and celebrate, of course!

    • Thanks Liz. I’m hoping to organise a language exchange at some point soon, and I’ll probably start using couchsurfing more to get to know people. Need to just get out of the flat more!

      • Oh, I have a Russian friend who’s an interpreter, I’ll put you in touch, she knows so many people that she might know some nice people in your area.

  4. annloseva said:

    Sandy,

    I would be happy to help you with Russian, chat/Skype once in a while, or on your Russian day. E-mail. Whatever you think could work for you.
    I admire your attitude and I can picture the scenes you’re describing.
    Also I start worrying about what life would be like to me when I find a job in Japan and move there…

    Let me know if I could be of help.
    Happy new beginning.

    • Thanks Anna. Email would be good as I don’t practice my writing at all at the moment.
      And didn’t mean to make you worry! It’s a blip I think most people go through, but one we don’t seem tot alk about. I’ve never left a country still having that feeling – it always goes away. Good luck with the job hunt!

      • annloseva said:

        My pleasure Sandy, I sent you my email in a FB message. So, looking forward to writing in Russian.
        Thanks, I am hopeful..)

  5. An inspirational and frankly honest blog post. Those promises will help you through and very soon it will get easier. Just keep going and think of summer…and let me know when I can visit!!!

  6. Marian Hemsted said:

    Well done Sandy – so brave and so honest. You are right, it will get better because it did last time and the time before. It will get better because you have such a fantastic, positive attitude to life and everything. Yes, go dancing as it is good to have physical exercise but it will be a fun, cultural experience too. Look forward to seeing the video in due corse! Marian xxx

    Sent from my iPhone

  7. HI Sandy – really like your blog but have never commented before. Just wanted to say that ‘this, too, will pass’ is a good thing to hang onto (at least it works for me). Also, (is it an English teacher’s disease?) I read this and thought immediately that it would be a brilliant authentic text to use with my ESOL learners who share a lot of your frustrations far from their homes and struggling with the language and culture….
    Will you be at Harrogate this year? Jo

    • Hi Jo,
      Thanks for the comment and looking forward to more :) One reason I wrote the post was for those teaching foreign students in the UK, especially people who might not have been in this situation themselves. Feel free to use it with your students…it wouldn’t be the first time, and I think it’s a teacher’s disease in general. I look at all kinds of things with those eyes :)
      I will indeed be in Harrogate. See you there!
      Sandy

  8. Goodness this brings back memories… It is hard at first, isn’t it? I remember going to French classes in Poland (they kindly organised a class just for the English teachers, which wasn’t really the aim) and dance (best draw a veil, my pirouetting is probably still a funny anecdote). But as things get easier, there are great moments, friendships and experiences to come. Per ardua ad Astra!

    • Thanks Rachael. I’ve been to tango in Paraguay and belly dancing in Czech Republic, and I do enjoy the dance classes, but no one could ever accuse me of being any good at either ;)

  9. Hi. I enjoyed reading your experience of settling into a new country. I am 6 months into an open-ended move to Germany having done previous stints in Ireland and Finland. Your experience sounds so familiar with exactly the same moans and gripes as me. I made the decision to put myself outside the expat community and consequently restricted my social circle. I have fab neighbours who invite me for coffee, etc. But I feel so useless with my one word/simple childlike conversation. I listen to German language learning podcasts in the car every day. But as we all know, production is the hardest part and I’m not doing enough. Teaching saves me, but having gone down the road of technical English, my arts background leaves me at the mercy of my students!!. However, think of my daughter who, at the age of nearly 13, has been sent to the local Gymnasium. Nothing that I experience compares to her daily challenges.

    • Hi Naomi,
      Thanks for the comment, and I sympathise with you completely. The first place I lived alone was Germany when I was 18, in a tiny little village. I was too scared to go out and speak to people, so got incredibly homesick. If I could do it again, I would go to the local pub every night – my German would be so much better now! Ahhh, hindsight… (which I really should learn from!) I can’t imagine what it must be like for your daughter. It will all be worth it in the end, but you just have to keep going. For your German you might like to try Quizlet – do you know it? I use it with my English students all the time, and it’s pretty addictive. And I know exactly what you mean about teaching saving you.
      Good luck with everything!
      Sandy

  10. Being someone in an environment with an unfamiliar puts you in a delicate situation and makes you sensitive to the surroundings and somewhat on edge. The fact of the matter is that the things which normally don’t affect us in the slightest can have an unexpected impact upon us when we feel this pressure. People always look at us in a strange way, because people are strange. When you’re surrounded by speakers of an different culture, the thought that the other person is a weirdo will no longer suffice.

    I know that other people looking at you, or perhaps perceiving you in a strange way isn’t enough to deter you from your international exploits, otherwise you wouldn’t have done what you’ve done. Ultimately, it’s not possible to know what thought processes are connected with people’s expressions or actions, since all we have to go on is their word. If someone has problems with a girl wearing trainers or travelling by themselves, it says more about them then it does about you – just because most people think something doesn’t make them right.

    As you correctly mention, there is no one to speak to in English in the majority of Sevastopol’s population. If you speak to anyone on Russian then they are very limited in the language they can reply in. People are arseholes, but people are also angels – you get all types, but people mostly react well to anyone else that they meet. What’s more, living abroad you have the benefit of millions of teaching surrounding you who can answer any and all of your questions. For next Saturday, I suggest the following:

    Go out and ask as many people as possible the time or directions. It doesn’t matter if you know the answer or not, the fact of the matter is you’ll be communicating in a non-committal way (and you’ll never have to see these people again, so there’s nothing to regret).

    I’ve found this works very well for me and helps me to get out of my head and generally increases my confidence and ability to talk to strangers, whether it’s trying to get language practice, or going and picking up women.

    Also, there’s lots of activities that can be done without the help of alcohol (and for some alcohol even ruins the activity!) Dancing, sport, yoga, hiking, sailing, theatre, boardgames. I wouldn’t even recommend alcohol for getting to know people, my quality friendships have come without it.

    Finally, the biggest mistake anyone can make is relying too much on English. It’s better to experience temporary discomfort by doing something new and subsequently overcoming it than it is to experience a life of discomfort for not being able to do it.

    • Hi James,
      Thanks for taking the time to write this down…I can digest it more than as part of one of our staffroom conversations ;)
      “Ultimately, it’s not possible to know what thought processes are connected with people’s expressions or actions, since all we have to go on is their word. ” – that’s very true, although it can be difficult to remember it in the moment.
      “Go out and ask as many people as possible the time or directions. It doesn’t matter if you know the answer or not, the fact of the matter is you’ll be communicating in a non-committal way (and you’ll never have to see these people again, so there’s nothing to regret).” – I will try this, although probably when the weather’s a bit warmer. Also when I’ve learnt how to ask for the time and/or directions ;) At the moment, I can only tell them that I have a headache, or ask them for food, both of which might not get the desired response! But it’s a very good idea, and definitely one for my list. Ask me again in a couple of months whether I’ve been brave enough to do it. I don’t think I’ll be going out and picking up men any time soon though…
      Thanks for the salsa class recommendation today, and I’ll be picking your brain for other social links before you head to Kiev (and probably after too). Not planning on relying too much on English for long, but right now I still need to for most things. Work in progress.
      Thanks James :)

  11. Len Holder said:

    Hi Sandy,

    An interesting and thoughtful post. Life is full of new beginnings.

    I am really enjoying giving talks about my early experiences a Dartmouth Naval College, Outward Bound Sea School, my first trip to sea, meeting with people of different cultures etc. Now, I remember the unusual and “funny” bits, but know that, at the time, there were many hours of boredom, apprehension or uncertainty. I kept a journal about what I did at sea, but not what I was thinking. Your blogs will make a much more interesting life history than my journals!

    I sat next to a Towcester gentleman at a Probus Club lunch last week who was very knowledgeable about Sevastapol and the Crimea, explaining about the Russian Naval Academy and the divided harbour, and the nuclear submarine pens which are now open to the public. He recommended a visit!

    Best wishes
    Grandy X

    • Hi Grandy,
      Thanks for the message. One of the reason I want to write about the downs as well as the ups is to remember a fuller picture later on. I feel much better today, partly because I got it out of my system yesterday! I think it’s also good for people who don’t know much about the nature of the peripatetic English teacher’s lifestyle to see that there are unromantic bits as well as the excitement of foreign travel and meeting new people.
      I don’t know if there are nuclear submarine pens in Sevastopol itself, but I’ve been to the ones in Balaklava, which were fascinating. They were invisible from the air, and could be used as a nuclear bunker for the inhabitants of the town if necessary. I was given a book about the Crimean War today which I’m looking forward to reading. There is a lot of history here, but not a lot available in English, so that’s another reason to improve my Russian!
      Love Sandy xxx

  12. It is fascinating I read the comments that have been written in response to this brave post. Making any major change in your life is a big step. Thank you for the support you have given me about the changes I have made in my life. I have not moved countries but I have stepped away from my previous career. A lot of the learning from this post and responses apply to me too. I will also step out to meet and interact with more people. Thank you again.

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