Do svidaniya

My last days in Russia have flown by. Our course ended on Friday. Every course must be externally assessed and we had our assessor come on the Thursday and Friday of the course. I’ve written about experiences with assessors before here. The assessor on this course was a friendly woman who had never been to Russia before. And she guessed something that no one else has in the last month that I’ve been here. She could tell I was gay.

She started talking about how good-looking all the young men in Russia are. And they are. It’s an incredibly good-looking nation, and the young men of Rostov seem to be universally tanned, muscular and averse to wearing too many clothes. But when the assessor started needling me to agree with her about the beauty of the young men in Russia, I panicked and didn’t agree. We were sitting with my Russian boss, who has an icon of the Blessed Virgin in her office, and her silent Russian husband who has a crucifix in his car. We were in Russia of the “gay propaganda” law, Russia where I could be beaten up, more or less with impunity, Russia, where I could be arrested and deported for agreeing with this woman that Russian men are hot. So I denied my people. I even vaguely considered making a comment about how hot Russian women are but decided I probably couldn’t pull it off convincingly enough.

The assessment went fine.

The teachers who I’ve been training for the last four weeks made a big deal out of the last day. A lot of them wore their fancy frocks and did their hair. About 5 of them spent the last morning of the course walking around the school with a big card saying “free hugs” sellotaped onto their fronts. I couldn’t quite understand the reason, but whatever it was, I didn’t object. I am, after all, a lover of hugs.

For their last day, we asked the trainees to present a different teaching technique in groups. One of the groups presented a dialogue, based on a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman who calls to a housewife to try to sell her a hoover. The punch line of the dialogue was “My husband does the cleaning”. Cue mass hilarity. It really is a different country.

After this session, the trainees produced the champagne they had bought for the day. By the way, Russian champagne is surprisingly lovely. I think it’s my favourite grape-based drink in the world. They gave me a load of presents, including a Russian matryoshka doll that is the size of my head.

And then, we all sang a song. A song about the CELTA course to the tune of a hit Lithuanian pop-rock song. That was a new one on me. I’ve never heard a song about teaching methodologies before, and certainly never to the accompaniment of Baltic electric guitars. It was a lovely final day.

And today, still slightly hungover, I went for lunch with my boss and with the new tutor who’s arrived to do the next course after I leave.

And lunch was a true Russian experience. We went to what I can only call a Glorious Celebration of Tackiness. It’s a group of three restaurants and a “museum”, all owned by the same man, on the banks of the Don river, about 15 minutes outside Rostov.

The first restaurant is a recreated Cossack village, made to look like it’s the 19th century. It’s made up of about 8 houses, but it’s all one restaurant. The waiters and waitresses all walk around in dressed in period clothing, but all have electronic earpieces to communicate with each other, because it’s apparently a really expensive restaurant. In Ireland, a really expensive restaurant wouldn’t have a giant fake well in the middle. It wouldn’t have big plastic mannequins of comely maidens in Cossack dress. It wouldn’t have straw scattered around the big plastic animals. It wouldn’t have giant cannons beside the tables. But this was definitely not Ireland.

Apparently, in Russia, Saturday is the big day for weddings and this group of restaurants was popular as a place for rich couples to come and do their wedding photos. There were at least seven wedding parties wandering around while we were there. The car park had two stretch limos and a stretch Hummer, huge motorbikes covered in flowers and a horse and carriage. In Russia, you don’t hide wealth.

One of the people I was with said, “I’ve never seen so many brides draped around the place.” It was true. There were brides being photographed by the fake village well in the middle of the “village” and there were brides being photographed while hugging giant plastic Cossack soldiers. We went from the “Cossack village” to the next restaurant in the complex. This one is a big wooden ship. At first, we couldn’t get on the ship, as there was a bride lying on the gangway, and another wedding party queuing to have their photos taken there too.

We went to the “museum” instead. This was probably the weirdest part of the whole complex. It was an alcohol museum, with Russian wines, champagnes, cognacs and vodkas arranged around the wall and tables and chairs in the middle. It wasn’t really a museum, so much as a pub. A pub with a “tour guide” who shows you around the different bottles, tells you how old they are and encourages you to buy and drink the most expensive ones.

My boss told me I couldn’t possibly leave Russia without having tasted their homemade vodka, so I said fine, even though I hadn’t had breakfast yet. We sat at one of the “museum” tables and the two ladies were brought wine and the two men were brought vodka. The “tour guide” poured the vodka for us and stood expectantly. We were told to knock the drinks back. And we did. I complimented the vodka, like a good guest should. The “tour guide” took away our glasses and put another two glasses in front of us. The women grinned at us and sipped their wine. This time, the glasses were filled with a dark brown vodka. We were told that this one was herbal and medicinal and was also to be knocked back. I sniffed at the “medicinal” vodka. It smelled a bit like the inside of a church. It tasted quite pleasant. I put the glass down, feeling a little sick. I’m not a morning drinker. The “tour guide” took away our glasses. My boss said, “Of course, in Russia, we always have three vodkas”, while she had another little gulp of her wine. Two new glasses appeared. We were told that this vodka would make us forget the other two and that it was pepper-flavoured. We asked if it was black or white pepper and were told it was chilli-pepper-flavoured vodka. I knocked it back resignedly. It burnt my eyeballs. And so it was, that I staggered out of the museum, tears rolling down my face.

We went to the third restaurant for our lunch. It was beyond the “Cossack village”,the “sailing ship” and the “museum”. This restaurant was a “Windmill” but we sat in the back on a pier that was part of the restaurant. The food was nice and it helped me sober up. Because we were on the pier, we had a good view of the various brides draped around the complex and of another pier, which had two cannons at the end. We were told that lots of people got drunk in the restaurant and it was popular for men to drink on that pier because you could pay a fee and fire the cannons into the river.

I’m glad that I had my most Russian lunch on my last full day here. That’ll probably be the last you hear of my Russian adventures. Unless my flights home create drama, which is more than possible.

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