I Gave It A Year

Time flies, doesn’t it?

This time last year I was preparing to leave Russia after two months spent teaching English in the north-western city of Syktyvkar. I don’t know if it was the freezing temperatures or the piping hot borsch, but I felt rejuvenated and refocused, ready to return home and start afresh; ready to get off my laurels and shoot for the stars.

364 days later and I’m back to my old tricks, looking back instead of forward and struggling under the pressures of daily life. I’m back at home, working another minimum wage job and writing once again for free. 2013 saw no great adventure, no great escape. Despite some half-baked plans to visit Prague or France I’ve not even made it out of Scotland.

There have been occasional reprieves, of course. I’ve spent much of the year in Glasgow, attending press screenings, conducting interviews at the Scottish BAFTAs and even walking the first leg of the West Highland Way (which I intend to complete in April). I’ve also watched the sunrise from Arthur’s Seat, slept overnight in Tullibole Castle and visited my ancestral home at Neish Island. So it’s still been far from uneventful.

Nevertheless, I’ve been searching for that same optimism and confidence that came hand in hand with my Russian odyssey; that same sense of accomplishment and pride that helped to galvanise my spirits and give the world a workable, oystery glow. I looked back through my photographs and notes from the trip, but to my surprise struggled to find any record of my last few days in Syktyvkar. Not that it mattered; I closed my eyes and it all came flooding back.

By that point in my trip I was assisting with every class. My fellow native speaker had already left for England, and I was therefore at the institute from nine or ten in the morning until half seven at night. As my free time dwindled my blogs became less regular; it was now hitting lows of -35 degrees at night and increasingly I was just heading straight home after class, climbing into bed and going into forced hibernation.

I could sense that the end was nigh, and following a bout of food poisoning and what had felt like a close encounter with frostbite I was pretty much ready to leave. It didn’t help that Syktyvkar was finally starting to celebrate the festive season, and as New Year Yolkas sprung up around the city I started to feel more and more homesick for Christmas in Britain. I wanted mince pies, tinsel and English-language Coca-Cola adverts.

Despite the increase in responsibilities, I had asked for part of my final full day off in order to say my goodbyes to the city. I had found the lyrics to a number of Christmas songs and carols, and I spent the morning darting between classrooms as I helped students with their pronunciation of words like Rudolf and sleigh. After months reading dry (and surprisingly difficult) extracts about swimming lessons and visits to the park it was nice to kick back with something a little more lyrical and fun.

I found the goodbyes more upsetting than I had expected to. The students — both school-age and adult — had all been a pleasure to teach, and it was a shame to have to wave farewell for what would most likely be the last time. One of my students had bought me a book about the Komi Republic, of which Syktyvkar is the capital city, while another had given me a handmade Christmas card. Many of the older students had added me on the Russian social networking site ВКонтакте (pronounced “Contactia”), however since returning to the UK I have never had much reason to log back in.

I had plans for the evening — the principle had arranged a leaving-cum-Christmas party at Комильфо (pronounced “Komilfo”), where, rather fittingly, I had enjoyed my first proper meal a little over eight weeks previously — and so set out at lunch to shop for leaving presents, souvenirs for friends and family back home, and cleaning products with which to tidy my flat. But not before I’d had one last bite to eat at Cafeshion.

My search for Christmas cards took me back to ул. Интернациональная (Internatsionalnaya Street), where the school had been located upon my arrival — to the very building where it had been situated prior to the move, in fact. Rather than taking the stairs to the second floor, however, I turned left at the kiosk and passed a number of small businesses until I had found the one I was looking for. I bought twenty cards, then waited, confused for a moment, until I realised that the envelopes were sold separately.

I then went to the main supermarket in Torgovyy Dvor to buy Domestos bleach and any other detergents I could identify. I had tried to keep my flat tidy throughout my stay, but there was no denying that it needed to be cleaned if I was going to hand it back without feeling any guilt. The hoover didn’t work and there didn’t seem to be a mop, which couldn’t be helped, but I still wanted to give everything a wipe before I left. While there I bought fridge magnets for my mother and a Cheburashka doll for my cousin.

I dropped everything off at the flat and headed back to ул. Первомайская to meet everyone for dinner. Rather than sharing a number of sushi platters as before, we this time ordered individual meals. I can’t for the life of me remember what I had to eat — I think it might have been duck — but I know that whatever it might have been it was absolutely delicious.

In celebration of our multicultural mealtime — I was after all a Scotsman eating Japanese food in remotest Russians — we decided to invoke Thanksgiving and take it in turns to give our respective thanks for the past year. We then wrote predictions and encouragements for the following year, mixed them up, and redistributed them to those around the table. It was a strange custom, out of context and without precedent, but one that made a lasting impression nonetheless.

With an early start and the first of three long flights to look forward to in the morning, I had not planned to stay late or drink too much. The truth was, however, that as we talked and ate I really didn’t want to leave. As my new friends started to shower me with gifts I began to think that I might not even be able to. I was suddenly the proud owner of three expensive-looking bottles of настойка (Russian liqueur) and spent much of the night wondering how I was going to fit them into my suitcase for the trip home.

I eventually left the restaurant, fighting back tears as everyone went their separate ways. As I cleaned and packed and napped I replayed the previous eight weeks in my mind and felt an almost overwhelming sense of accomplishment for the first time in years. For the first time, in fact, since I’d taken the next-but-one biggest risk of my life and interned in London for six weeks, working a job in the evenings and sleeping in dodgy hostel by night.

For two months I had been travelling again. It had been the most exciting, humbling, gratifying, terrifying and satisfying experience, and I was eager to spend the next year seeking out many more like it. Leading up to my departure I had been asked if I would like to go back in February, to see Syktyvkar in the spring and do it all again with fewer layers of clothing (but much more mosquito repellent).

I’d said maybe, perhaps, but the truth was that I didn’t want to wait that long. I wanted a job and a life and another adventure then and there, and I was reluctant to put everything on hold until May so that I could spend another few months in Syktyvkar. I didn’t go back, but I didn’t do much of anything else either, settling for a series of part-time jobs and day trips around Scotland. As I said, I didn’t even make it to Prague.

But next year will be different; next year will be another adventure, in which I push myself to accomplish something else, visit new countries and meet new people. Because time does fly, and I want to fly with it.

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