On one fateful adventure to the laundrymat, or “prachechnaya,” an advertisement caught my eye. It was all in English, and it was advertising for native english speakers to be conversation leaders at english classes. I jumped at the opportunity. I could go meet young Russians who speak english and probably like Americans, what could be better!?
My intrigue did not translate over into successful memorization, however, and it took me a second trip to the laundrymat to successfully master the 5 letter web site www.ispen.ru. After exchanging several emails with the organizer, it was decided that I could stop by one day and see how the classes went along, and if I liked it maybe another day I could lead the class.
The classes take place in the “Center of Modern Arts” on Stolyarny lane near haymarket square. Upon arriving, I realized I was about half a block away from Raskolnikov’s house in Crime and Punishment, which really put my experience in perspective. People live on this street, there are stores and cafes, and it is the setting of one of the most famous novels in Russian literature. It all seemed kind of surreal.
So I found the address on Stolyarny Lane, but I didn’t see the sign for the center. The front gate blocking the entrance to the courtyard was a little intimidating so I walked around the block. It was the only way in. Luckily, someone else arrived just as I made my way back around, and I ducked in without having to talk to a security guard through intercom (the thought of which was terrifying).
When I entered the room there was complete silence. Everyone was evidently waiting for the class to begin, and all eyes were on me, the newcomer. I stuttered out “hello” and the organizer recognized that I must be the American coming to watch the class today. I took my seat and exchanged some minor Russian conversation with an Armenian sitting on my right named “Zaxar.” A few minutes later, the class leader “Jeff” arrived. I was realieved to be joined by a second American, and pretty soon he started the conversation class by asking questions of these mysterious Russian 20-somethings. Even though it was my native language, when it came to my turn I was very nervous to speak. I felt like I had to speak perfectly, or at least come up with something funny or creative to respond with.
For an hour and a half it proceeded this way, everyone taking turns talking about what they did last weekend, a recent change in their life, what they would do with 1,000,000 dollars (and who would they tell about it). Afterwards there was a tea break, and it was decided that I would lead the second half of the class. I was completely unprepared for this but it was a golden opportunity since I will only be here for another two weeks.
So there I was, sitting in the teacher’s chair, being the expert in the room on the english language, and bearing the responsibilty of making sure the conversation was interesting and the questions intriguing, and listeninging intently and correcting their mistakes. I was the leader! And just that same morning I had been in their shoes, speaking a foreign language as my teacher peppered me with questions about this topic or that, correcting my mistakes. But these Russians spoke better English than I spoke Russian. The conversation started with me asking how long they had studied english and why, and they all said they took it in school, and most of them needed it for work. Then we talked about movies, celebrities, whether they would rather be rich or famous (although this was a strange question since they natrually associated the two together), music, and harry potter. One of the young woman in the class said that her favorite celebrity was Jim Carey, which for some reason to me was quite comical. I mean, yeah, he’s funny, but I can’t see an American ever saying that he was their favorite celebrity, over Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp or the like (although Johnny Depp was quite popular in this room).
All in all I think it went well, although I was nervous and finding good questions to ask was hard without being prepared. I met some very interesting people. Zaxar, who I mentioned above, lives near where I do on Vasilievsky island, and we took the subway and walked home together, and he told me about his experiences at a System of a Down concert he attended in Moscow.