This week, I met the “native-speaker-in-residence” at the school where I’m working in Rostov-on-Don. He is a tall, broad-shouldered and very tanned man, who says he is from both Australia and New Zealand (I’m not certain what that means). I asked if he liked living in Rostov, and he said “It’s great. It’s only two hours from Istanbul and only four hours from Italy.” I thought this was an odd reason to live in Russia. He continued by saying “And the Russians are mad fuckers, just like you.” I thought this was strange too, given that he’d never met me before. But I’ve come to expect strange things from native speakers working in the English-teaching industry.
There are thousands and thousands of schools all around the world whose primary business is the teaching of English as a foreign language (TEFL). Some of them are mainly staffed by native speakers of English, and some only have local teachers. However, most of the schools I’m familiar with have a core staff of local teachers supplemented by between one and three native speaker teachers, from Britain, Ireland, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Many of these teachers will only stay for a year or two before going home or moving on to another city or country. But many schools have what I call a “native-speaker-in-residence”, who is usually, but not always, a man, who has settled in that city for life.
The native speaker teachers you meet are a mixed bunch. You meet people who are working abroad because they clearly don’t fit in in their own country. There are a lot of gay men and lesbians in their forties, fifties and sixties, who I suspect started travelling because there was no real prospect of a good life for them at home when they were 21. There are quirky hippy types. There are people who clearly have a “past” and you don’t ask questions. There are people who grew up travelling from country to country and never really settled down. There are people who are just plain odd. There are a lot of people who are just doing this until they make it as a writer/poet/musician/actor. There are people who dropped out of university and couldn’t figure out what to do with their lives. There are people who finished university and couldn’t figure out what to do with their lives. And then there are people who just fancied living in the sun/who wanted to work on their Portuguese/who had a boyfriend from Sweden and ended up in the job for that reason.
I first moved to Poland because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, and I had developed an obsession with Finland. I had a guidebook to Finland that I read over and over. I started dreaming of reindeer and saunas, of tall blond men and magical snow. I did a weekend TEFL course and booked a flight to Helsinki. I spent about six days there before realising that I had no idea how to find a job. I was 21 and lacking in life skills. I came home to Ireland, disappointed, went online and applied for every English-teaching job in Europe. Within 24 hours, I had an offer of a job in Spain and another in Poland. I chose Poland. At the time, it was an exotic place. It hasn’t joined the EU yet and there were no Ryanair flights there. No one knew anyone from Poland. I was off on an adventure.
I arrived in Gorzów Wielkopolski, a city in Poland that even Polish people haven’t heard of. I had been told I would get a large modern apartment that I would share with an American teacher. And I did. What I wasn’t told was that the “apartment” was actually the ground floor of my boss’s house. And my boss would often pop down to “check the boiler”.
When I met my housemate, she seemed lovely. Really lovely. She lent me money ( I had arrived in Poland without any zloty), she showed me around, she taught me a few phrases in Polish. She was about seven or eight years older than me and she usually wore ankle-length flannelly skirts with elasticated waists and floral prints in a range of faded pastel colours. She launched into stories about her love life right from the first moment I met her.
It turned out she was living in Poland because she was in love with a Polish man, a sailor, who was ten years older than her. She had met him once in Paris, when both of them were on a flight that had been delayed and they’d been put up in a hotel overnight. All the other passengers had decided to go to bed, but my housemate and this Polish sailor had decided to take a walk around Paris. They’d chatted and exchanged email addresses. They hadn’t kissed, they hadn’t held hands, nothing of that sort had happened. Now, don’t get me wrong. I imagine that I’d be swept away by the romance of an unexpected midnight walk through Paris with a Polish sailor too, but I do find her reaction somewhat extreme.
When she arrived back in America, she started corresponding with the sailor regularly. He was happy to have an American penpal, but didn’t consider her to be anything more than that. She, on the other hand, set to learning Polish, and one day, she wrote to the sailor, to tell him she was moving to Poland. He was perfectly polite in response, although I imagine he was quite surprised.
Gorzów, where we lived, was over 100 km from his hometown, where he lived with his wife and daughter. As a sailor, he was at sea for nine months every year. For the three months he was at home, his wife and daughter were his priority, but once a year my housemate would visit and stay for a weekend in their living room, much to the annoyance of the sailor’s wife.
When I arrived in Gorzów, she’d already been living there for three years, living for that one weekend a year. He never showed any sign that he thought of her as anything more than a friend and she hated Poland and Polish people. But she stayed and lived in hope.
She had a photo of him on her bedroom wall, with a map of the world’s seas. Every night she would go online and check where his ship was and she would mark it with a pin in her map of the world. She was also able to check when his ship was in port, and when he was in port and didn’t email her, she would be upset for days on end.
There is something admirable about her passion, but she wasn’t easy to live with. Her rage when the sailor didn’t email her was very volatile. I started locking my bedroom door when she arrived in my room one night asking me if I’d go to the shops for her and buy her vodka.
And one day she got very angry with one of the other three native speakers in the city when it was revealed that he had kissed a Polish woman – it was not fair that she had been there for three years and still hadn’t found love and that he had been there for a few weeks and he had. And another night, she lashed out at me bitterly asking why it was that I hadn’t fallen in love with her. I had told her that I was gay, but that didn’t matter to her. She was still angry at me for not being in love with her.
It was a relief to move out.
That summer, having decided that I wanted to stay in teaching, I decided to do a proper training course (as my weekend course had given me no teaching skills whatsoever). I spent a month in Wroclaw in Southern Poland doing the Cambridge CELTA, the premier teacher training qualification in TEFL, on which I am now a trainer. I was put in a flat with an Englishman, who was about ten years older than me and was sick of working in high finance, so he was going to try out travelling and teaching for a while.
On our first night in Wroclaw, we went drinking and I drank a bit too much. I vomited all over myself and all over the pub. The barstaff were, understandably, annoyed. My new flatmate gave them what would be considered a reasonable tip for this situation in England, about £50, and the bar staff were suddenly delighted, as this was probably more than they’d usually get in tips in a whole month. He took me home and ordered me to strip off as my clothes were covered in sick. I didn’t question it when he decided to help me to clean myself up and as he lifted my entirely naked body into bed. I was too drunk to question it.
The next day, he started questioning me. He asked, “How do you wind down?” “What do you do to relax at the end of the day?” “What kind of clothes do you wear when you’re at home alone?” It took me a while to click what was going on. No wonder he was fine with dealing with Naked Connor. He was a nudist. He found it relaxing to hang out naked.
And one night I really understood it. Wroclaw is in central Europe, it was July and we’d suffered from two weeks of oppressive, dead heat. One night, the heat broke. There was a torrential downpour, there was thunder and lightning. And he convinced me to get out on the balcony and dance and roar completely naked in the rain.
It’s something everyone should do once.
And, so far as I know, he wasn’t gay. After the course he started going out with one of our female colleagues. He just enjoyed social nudity.
After that, I moved to Gdansk, where I lived alone. However, the following summer, I returned to Wroclaw to do a course in how to teach English for business purposes. This time I was sharing a flat with a Canadian. He was a really sweet man, who I got on with from the second I met him.
He had just returned from Japan, where he and his brother were in the second most popular Kiss tribute band in Japan. He told me tales of the band’s photo shoots, which all seemed to involve him and his brother getting naked together.
That course was only a week long, but after another year in Gdansk, I was back in Wroclaw for the two-month Cambridge DELTA, the teaching diploma that is notoriously stressful. Out of seventeen people on our course three dropped out and three ended up in hospital at one stage or another.
One of the people who dropped out was my flatmate. He was an English man who had spent the previous ten years or so teaching in Ukraine. It was 2006, and he was a young English man in his 30s who lived an international lifestyle, but when I told him I was gay, I remember him staggering back. He had never met anyone gay before. He asked me if I had AIDS and I assured him that I didn’t. He was OKish after that, but one time when he was going to the bathroom without his top on and he made one of literally ran when he saw me for fear I would have sex thoughts about his naked back. Very different from the Kiss fan the year before, and the nudist the year before that.
After about ten days of the course, he decided it was just too stressful for him and he dropped out. His Ukranian wife arrived for a visit around the same time. The part of Ukraine they were from was much poorer than Poland. She had never lived in a flat with a washing machine before. She used to derive great joy from washing clothes in it, and from watching it in operation. She couldn’t understand why her husband had dropped out from such an expensive course, and spent hours trying to persuade him to go back.
It is a very stressful course, and one way to make it more stressful is to arrive home to someone who has dropped out of the course because of how stressful it is, and his wife, who is torn between the joy of having a washing machine and the “shame” of having a husband who had dropped out. They stayed for almost two weeks after he dropped out, wearing me down. He forbade me from telling his wife that I was gay – “she just wouldn’t understand”.
After the DELTA, I came home to Ireland, and I’ve continued to work in the world of TEFL ever since, and I continue to meet insane and wonderful people. I’ve worked with poets and missionaries, with the lovelorn and the casanovas, with the certifiably mad and the insanely interesting. I love these crazy people, I love being one of these crazy people and I’m genuinely glad that this is the path I accidentally chose when I was 22.