Once Upon A Time In Syktyvkar

Not so long ago — in fact just a year ago today — after months spent unsuccessfully looking for work, I was handed a copy of Quest Magazine and told about an advert it was carrying for a voluntary teaching position in Russia.

I phoned the number given that afternoon and left a message with the woman on the other end, then went back to my job search fully expecting that that would be the end of that. After all, I spoke no Russian and had never taught before, and with Quest being an Armed Forces resettlement magazine I wasn’t even sure I’d be eligible to begin with.

But I did hear back. I received a phone call later that afternoon from a Ukrainian woman and her English husband double-checking that I was still interested, and asking whether I would mind speaking to the institute’s director over Skype. From that moment on it all happened so fast. I had to wait for my parents to return from holiday so that they could give their blessing (the school’s requirement, not mine), and the next thing I knew I was being interviewed online.

I bought Rachel Farmer’s Beginner’s Russian from Waterstones and set to work getting to grips with the Cyrillic alphabet. Having only scraped a pass in French at GCSE and somehow come away from four years in Germany knowing little more than “eighteen bread rolls, please” it’s safe to say that languages have never been my strong suit, but the Ukrainian woman who placed the advert was kind enough to tutor me every morning for over a month, and with the exception of ё I could just about get my tongue around it.

A few important details were highlighted along the way: Syktyvkar, a town located 800 miles north-east of Moscow, where I would be living for the duration of my placement, would likely hit temperatures of -30°C while I was there; and in order to actually get there I would need an official invitation, a Visa and three flights either way. Every flight available, whether via Amsterdam or Paris, would require at least a ten hour wait somewhere along the line.

I had to wait longer than anticipated for the invitation, but even then it all seemed to be moving along so fast. Before I knew it I owned snow boots, a few thousand Russian roubles and flights to Moscow. As my departure date loomed ever nearer I began to worry that I was in no way equipped for the ordeal, and despite communications with past volunteers I couldn’t quite put my mind at ease; I knew various greetings and most of the numbers between 1-100 but for the most part proficiency in the language had eluded me.

It began to look as though I wouldn’t be going at all, as with mere days to go I was still lacking one key item: my passport. I had sent it off along with my Visa application and had yet to hear anything back. Returning from an appointment at the hairdressers the Saturday before I was due to leave, however, I found it at home waiting for me. I let everyone know it had finally arrived, set up this very blog to document my experiences, and bade farewell to Dundee for the next two months. Should everything go to plan (and thankfully it did) I would not be returning until Christmas.

I’ve been meaning to go back ever since I returned in December. Unfortunately — or should that be fortunately? — I found employment almost as soon as I returned, and since then have been unable to justify another two- or three-month hiatus from everyday life in Scotland. I’ve always struggled to choose between looking backing and looking forwards — as you’ll see again next week — and given the opportunity I feel I should go somewhere new instead.

But I loved my time in Syktyvkar to bits, and sincerely miss both the people and the culture, and if you’re at all interested in what they had in store for a cold tattie from Scotland then you can read all about my experiences here.

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