Thursday, December 23, 2010

God Bless Us Every One: Christmas in Russia 2004

Merry Retro-X Christmas . . . a tale from the alcohol-soaked days of Russia 2004. Strangely this is the only time I can remember I was late for a class because of alcohol. PLEASE NOTE: This might as well have taken place on another planet, compared to what Russia, Russians and private language schools are like nowadays.


December 25th rolled around and the management of my school was showing unprecedented Christmas spirit.

They decided to throw us a Christmas party.

This was unheard of, as I said. In the four years that I had worked there, the extent of celebrating Christmas was a plastic Christmas tree in the hallway with some cheap lights wrapped around it blinking feebly. No gifts, no Christmas bonuses -- nothing like that, of course, but they did at least give us a holiday.

We were allowed to take the 25th off, if we wanted, but that isn't actually Christmas in Russia -- Russian Christmas is on January 7th, and the whole country is pretty much drunk from December 30th until January 8th. So most of us just worked on December 25th and then started our two-week holiday a couple days later.

The extent of this fabulous Christmas extravaganza was nothing much -- each class (and we all, at that time had two classes in the evening -- 4:45 to 7:00 and 7:15 to 9:30) got a box of chocolates, a dozen or so mandarin oranges, and some little canapes or something, some ham and olive and cheese things on toothpicks.

And also, each class got two bottles of champagne.

A lot of our students don't drink, but plenty of them do. Those who didn't drink insured that there was plenty of champagne for those of us who did.

The 4:45 to 7:00 classes were jolly enough -- we had a trivia quiz about Santa Claus and read "The Night Before Christmas" and so on. By 7:15, the teachers were all fairly drunk, and the second class featured a much livelier bunch of students, many of whom were coming from Christmas parties at their universities and offices.

By eight o clock someone had broken out a bottle of vodka. By nine o clock we were forcing the collected group of our students to sing "The Twelve Days of Christmas." Many did this enthusiastically. A few embarrassedly snuck out of the building for more sober climes.

Administration came in around nine to ascertain everyone was having a good time, and then they left the building.

Bad move.

By nine-thirty all the kill-joys had left and approximately twenty students and three teachers were in one of the upstairs rooms dancing with the lights off to Harry Belafonte and Aretha Franklin and drinking champagne like it was going out of style.

We ran out of alcohol around ten.

I went to the security guard's office and told him I needed something from the office and took the key. I opened the inner office and stole one of the two cases of cheap local champagne that was in there and took it back to the room.

This was greeted with a general cheer.

I spent most of the evening talking and dancing with a student that I had a bit of a crush on.

I should point out that at that point in my teaching career, I avoided hitting on students. Unless they asked me out first. Or unless they were really good-looking.

And this girl qualified as that. Long curly brown hair and huge green eyes, a mischievous smile and a body that seemed nothing but curves. She'd been smiling at me in the hallways so I finally took the opportunity to get acquainted with her.

I drunkenly slobbered over her, trying to be charming, until eleven or so, when she said her ride was here and she had to go. I escorted her out into the snow to the waiting Mercedes, after getting her mobile phone number. Mercedes -- boyfriend, I figured, but what the hell, she obviously liked me.

When I got back to the party, English Teacher R said to me, "You'd hardly believe she's 15, would you?"

I just stared at him, hoping he was joking.

He saw my look and laughed. "I was hitting on her before you got here, and then English Teacher R2 told me. He's her teacher in Level One, I guess he'd know."

"But. . . but. . ."

"Well, the age of consent is like 14 here anyway, I hear."

"But. . . "

I started dancing with another student of mine, who I knew was 22.

By eleven thirty, everybody was quite drunk and the party was moving back and forth between two rooms. A student was out puking in the snow and English Teacher R fell down the steps, cutting his cheek.

The security guard finally told us we had to leave at twelve.

The party was getting restless at that point anyway; some wanted to go home, others wanted to go to a nightclub. As usual there was disagreement over which nightclub to go to.

I knew where I was going however -- the House of Pain.

The House of Pain (as we call it) is a large university-student-oriented nightclub in our humble city of Vodkaberg, noted for being about the cheapest place in town.

Consequently it's also one of the liveliest -- probably one of the most violent, too, but you take the good with the bad.

The nickname comes not only from the potential for getting your head beaten in by drunken young men, but also the cheap quality vodka -- actually just methylated spirit and water -- which leads to crippling hangovers and, in at least one case, skin rashes and lymphatic problems. (The affected teacher was told by the doctor at the clinic that he frequently saw patients poisoned by cheap vodka from this club.)

I went there to meet the Mormons.

Two young Mormon missionaries had been hanging around with us for the last three months. We'd seen them on the street once, me and African Student S, and they'd struck up a conversation. We were wary of being converted, at first, but quickly saw they just wanted to know more about the city.

We soon discovered that their devotion to the missionary cause was marginal at best -- they just wanted to have the experience of living in exotic Russia. They started hanging around with us, at our house parties and nightclubs, and it was easy for them because there was a general curfew for missionaries after 9:00pm, so they didn't have to worry about seeing anybody from the Church.

They started out slow; first playing pool for money. Then one of them would drink a beer or two. Then the other started drinking beer; then they both started drinking vodka and absinthe and chasing ass along with the rest of us. Even took them to some gay bars and that sort of thing.

They were both like 19, compared to my 35 at the time.

"Dear boys," I would say to them paternally, in my best Dr. Smith from LOST IN SPACE imitation. "Dear, dear boys." They called me "Daddio" and "Uncle" which I just loved.

I tended to be their guide to the nightlife because the other teachers in town either had girlfriends or were married.

I was relentlessly single. I can pass for rather younger than I am, I should say, and I'm terribly immature anyway, so we usually had a ball together.

Somebody drove me to the House of Pain to meet them and African Student S.

While I was there I blacked out.

I suppose we drank vodka. We always did. The champagne had hit me hard; not something I drank very often.

The evening must have ended around 7:00am because I have a vague memory of the lights coming on in the night club. Always a bad feeling.

I also have a vague memory of making out with somebody, around that time. I'm pretty sure it wasn't a guy because I remember a fairly good sized breast.

I came back to consciousness the next day at around two o clock. I had a class at three, an individual student, a rich man, and I managed to stagger into his office, stinking of alcohol, at three-thirty.

I apologized and said I had over-imbibed at the Christmas party. In a magnificent display of rich guy sarcasm, the rich guy said not to worry about it, and then at the end of the lesson gave me $100.

I nodded and mumbled through the lesson, then went out onto the street. It was snowing but not too cold -- just a bit below freezing. At four-thirty, the sun was already starting to go down. Light grey was changing to dark grey.

I wasn't even hungover yet -- I was still drunk. But my body was racked with all the toxins in the cheap vodka. I bought a bottle of beer and walked up to the school as I drank it, full of a general feeling of dread. I'd forgotten my gloves there, and I felt a need to see what kind of damage we'd caused.

The old security guard -- perhaps that's the wrong word -- he's an old man on a pension, perhaps caretaker is better -- was outside the building, and he laughed when he saw me staggering up.

"Haha! You guys were DRUNK last night!" he said, in Russian.

I nodded dumbly and walked inside, saying I'd forgotten my gloves.

The place was trashed. Spilled champagne covered the floors, which were stickier than a porno video booth on 42nd street. Corks and plastic stoppers and empty champagne bottles were strewn about the classrooms, along with the flayed flesh of orange peels. Obscene pictures had been drawn on all the whiteboards, and someone had vomited all over the side of the men's toilet.

I was goggle-eyed as I approached the caretaker.

"Can I help you clean up?" I asked humbly, in Russian.

He just laughed and patted me on the back. "Merry Christmas," he said in English.

I erased the obscene pictures on the whiteboard before I left.

I went out and bought another beer and walked over to English Teacher M's apartment, where the Christmas goose was cooking and the others were already drinking again.

There are pictures of me on this day, bleary eyed and swollen-faced, eyes rolling in different directions, clutching alcohol bottles and a trollop with equal passion.

Needless to say, that was the last Christmas party that our school threw. Amazingly I didn't get in trouble for it -- English Teacher R did. Since he had the cut on his face, everyone assumed he was the trouble maker.

God bless us every one.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Message Bored

Ah, the year 2002. (Sometimes I feel like the Highlander in his room full of memorobilia, remembering something that happened 300 years ago.) A Russia without advertising everywhere. . . the original English Teacher X website.

Here today, I present (or re-present) one of the first things that I wrote for my first attempt at a website in its Angelfire incarnation, at the end of the cold winter of 2002.

This was before blogs, before facebook, before myspace, and WAY before twitter -- and I was writing on a huge clunky Pentium 1 desktop that a student had given me. (For some reason, the color function had been turned off and everything was in black, white, and shades of grey. That's why the colors are so strange on that original website -- I couldn't see them.)

Anyway, the only big well-known site about English teaching abroad was Dave's ESL cafe, which had a well-trafficked message board. I found it to be a huge monument to misinformation, whining, and hypocrisy. Negative posts were often quickly deleted in those days.

I wanted to make a real uncensored message board -- and I actually had it up in a couple of forms for a while, but at the time couldn't find a good one that didn't immediately get filled up with spam and even viruses.

So I made a fake one, while I was working on the real ones, which can be seen here:

The original fake message board on the Angelfire Website

A slightly better looking version from the later website, in the wayback machine archives.

It's one of the few things I've ever written that actually made me laugh out loud -- of course, that doesn't mean you're going to . . . but I think I very accurately captured the bombastic yet completely anonymous and shady feel of an ESL message board.

There are two stories there -- the first is a flame-war between Charles Pangolin, a DOS in the Phillipines, and an employee named Robert "Snake" Pliskin (a none-to-subtle homage there -- if you don't get it, do a Google search and then go see one of the most awesome films ever made.) The second involves the Candide-like misadventures of a bright-eyed idealistic young newbie in Thailand and the Phillipines.

Somebody suggested in the comments that I do some fiction? Well, this is the closest you're probably going to get to that.

Prior to about 2002, there actually used to be so few people on Dave's message boards that they were vertically linear -- there would be a list of posts, straight down the page, which you could post on, generally without registering. Check it out via the Wayback Machine, here.

Dave's Message Board in 2000:

At little research there reveals that Dave changed to the current registration type board in 2004 -- I know that's when I started spamming as Charles Pangolin, with extremely funny results -- regrettably they don't seem to be stored in the archives and are thus lost in time.

The fake message board attempts to replicate, not very succesfully, the look of the old linear type board.

I suppose I could make a fake message board that looked real, easily enough, but, now, who cares. . .

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Tourist X

I had an acquaintance who worked in a photo-developing place. This was back in the 90's, of course, before digital photography made that job as obsolete as buggy whips and lava lamps.

He kept a massive photo album of copies of pictures he'd stolen.

This was referred to loosely as "The Tome of Agony."

These little glimpses into people's lives were fascinating and terrifying in a way the current carefully planned reams of photos on Myspace or Facebook are not -- the amateur porn (much more than you'd think, of that, went into commercial film developing places), the pictures of profoundly unattractive or overweight or deformed people smiling cheerfully for the camera, the pictures of people who'd been in accidents or assaults and for insurance, legal or just sentimental reasons, had photographed it.

There was a special section reserved for photos of birthday parties of hydrocephalic children.

Anyway, to get to the point:

One section consisted of dozens of identical photos of people on vacation. Separate people, at separate times, making the exact same photos. Again and again and again

There must have been five dozen pictures of grinning tourists standing alone between the legs of the Eiffel Tower, for example.

"Did they all think they were the first person to make this picture," my friend pondered. "Because the look on their faces suggests so."

As Tyler Durden says -- You are not special. You are not a beautiful unique snowflake. You are not special. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else.

Travelling always makes me think of that now.

Especially thought of it as I stumbled around Jordan with the Girlfriend, a couple of weeks ago. She missed a connection and arrived a day late -- we went to Aqaba, where I suppose I should be grateful for the last few chances to see Red Sea coral before all of it dies, and the magnificent ancient city of Petra, where we paid $80 each to get in and jockeyed for camera angles free of tourists before Girlfreind got hot and tired and we left after 5 hours.

We slapped Dead Sea mud all over each other at a resort there, and wandered the crowded streets and ate shawarmas and chicken in Amman, which seemed to have more heavy smokers even thanRussia.

There are pictures of me at Petra in a plaid shirt, cargo shorts, a white ball hat, and sunglasses and sandals. I look like a complete middle-aged tourist, lacking only a fanny pack.

(Of course I own a fanny pack -- I've had the same one since my first backpacking trip in 1992. Haven't worn it in a while. It's older than most of the people in the Top 40 these days. Uh, is there still such a thing as the Top 40? Maybe I should say "Most Popular on Itunes" or whatever. )

Next trip is in February -- Girlfriend wants to go to Goa in India. (My last trip to India in 1994 -- during which I incessantly wore my fanny pack -- ended with me catching the stomach parasite giardia and losing about 20 kg in weight.)