This is now my seventh winter in Moscow and as soon as the weather begins to get cold, my mind always turns back to November 2003 and my arrival in the Russian capital.
It's always interesting to read of people's conceptions (or misconceptions) of Russia. I can't honestly say that I had any of either. My earliest memories of anything to do with Russia stem from a certain Mr. James Bond 007, watching him combat the forces of SPECTRE and deal with many glamorous/beautiful Russian agents. So from an early age Russia always meant beauty and intelligence. My next memory of Russia came from when I was about 8.5 and I went downstairs on Saturday morning to watch 'Going Live!' with Phillip Schofield. To my complete dismay it wasn't on - instead, there was a small man with a large red mark on his forehead speaking in a language I didn't understand. From the pictures I gathered that this was the Soviet President, Mr. Gorbachev, and that there had been a disaster of some sort in the then-Soviet Union. As it transpired over the next few days, he was describing what we now know as the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power station on the Ukraine/Belarus border.
The encounters with James Bond went on, of course, at regular intervals throughout my childhood and early adulthood. I qualified as a teacher, spent one year in one school and two years undertaking supply teaching without any prospect of a long-term position. Then, in October 2003, the opportunity to teach overseas came up thanks to Capita Education. I grabbed it with both hands and have never looked back. Three weeks after getting the job, I was out in Moscow and had the chance to bring to reality all of the thoughts and dreams that I had had, and also to clear up any misconceptions.
Some things are gross stereotypes - queues for bread, mafia on the streets, bears roaming around, winter all year long, people wearing fur hats and fur coats, etc. Anyone who has had anything to do with Russia will have heard them all before, and then some. The fact that the summer here is hotter than that in Britain doesn't seem to have crossed their minds. Anyway...
I arrived in the middle of a snowstorm. The plane descended into Moscow's Sheremet'yevo-2 airport and the pilot announced sub-zero temperatures with falling snow. As we taxied along the runway I stared, wide-eyed, out of the portholes. I had never seen snow like this. Piled higher than my waist in some cases; it was quite amazing.
Of course there have been many memories made since then, but that is one of the strongest. The way that life just carries on here during the cold weather is amazing. Temperatures that would have many European countries at a standstill don't cause a flutter: there was marginally less traffic on the roads today but all of the little kiosks were still open and people were out sweeping the streets to get rid of the snow. The metro, trams and trolleybuses continue to run faithfully; however, the squash inside them increases as everyone is standing right next to each other and wearing thickly-padded clothing.
The effect - or lack of it - on the school's daily life is also worth noting. The children still go outside to play until the temperatures hits -15, at which point we revert to inside activities. Given the huge snowsuits and thickly-padded jackets they wear, plus their hats and gloves, they are always warm. I think that the teachers find it harder because they walk more slowly around the yard, whereas the students are perpetual bundles of energy! Likewise, it's very rare for schools to close. My current school is in a Stalin-era building which was certainly built to last. From the beginning of November until the middle of April the heating is on constantly, so we are surrounded by warmth.