— How did you end up being in Moscow?
— Oh, that’s a long story. I came here for a week in 1985. But not to teach; to learn, at a chess school. I was really into it, and Russia has the best school for chess. It was a different country then, another world, really: the USSR. Chernenko had only just died, and Gorbachev had not yet been made General Secretary. The second time I was in Russia was in 2006. My contract with a certain telecommunications company had come to an end, and so I decided to go travelling. I went on the Trans-Siberian Express from Vladivostok to Moscow: it was part of the itinerary. I had landed in a different country already. A world opened up! The unleashed creative energy of the people was spilling over. I decided then that I had to come back here.
— They were short visits. Your third time turned out to be more serious, didn’t it?
— It wasn’t any easy choice to make. It all came about at the height of the global financial crisis starting in 2008. Being a financial expert, I decided that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have a second profession: teaching people English. And see the world at the same time. We New Zealanders love travelling. So I became a teacher.
— What encouraged you to take this step?
— John F Kennedy like to say that the concept of “crisis” in the Chinese language is conveyed by two characters: “danger” and “opportunity”. I had the chance to go and do something out of the ordinary. People said that I was mad, but, in the end, I was proved right. In 2009, it wasn’t clear how the situation was going to play out. How was I to get through the crisis? And why couldn’t it be done in Russia? My brother buoyed me up saying: give it a try, suppose you get lucky? He had studied in Irkutsk, and was interested in Russian culture. His enthusiasm for your country really took off when he found out that Russians had a fishing complex in New Zealand.
— Is this the first time you have worked as a teacher?
— No. I taught in Japan for 18 months. But I had to leave because of the crisis. It is difficult for New Zealanders to find work in the European Union as EU citizens have priority over those from outside it. Once I couldn’t get a work visa for the Schengen Area, your country was left as the completely logical choice. You can travel to Europe from Russia, which is where I was trying to get to. When I was looking for work, it was pretty clear that the situation in Russia was better than in other countries. It soon became obvious: Russians adapt themselves better to crisis: they are trying to think something up while Europeans and Australians are busy tearing their hair out.
— Did you find the school ВКС-IH on the internet?
— Yes, there is a popular website in the teaching world: busyteacherscafe.com. A Russian company was looking for an English teacher to work for them. My experience was what they were looking for: Business English.
— Which company did you end up at?
— I was working with pharmacists at Materia Medica Holding. It’s a Russian company with a global name. Then, who didn’t I teach? I worked at oil and gas companies, including Gazprom. I not only taught them English, but also tested them on their command of financial terminology. I went out to a brewing company, Efes, helped a food retail chain, X5 Retail Group, and did language teaching at the Skolkovo business school.
— Which country is the more exotic? Japan or Russia?
— Russia. More is known about Japan in the West. They know about the history of Japan, its traditions, its temples, about the volcano Mount Fuji. The main symbol of Russia for the West is Red Square. But there are so many interesting things here apart from that! And what museums inside the Kremlin! I was amazed by the Palace of the Facets. Not forgetting the cities of the Golden Ring! And that is but a tiny part of Russia. As I see it, the history of Europe is inconceivable without Russia. There is a lot that I love here: the Russian ballet, mathematics. I truly revere the Russian school of mathematics.
— Where is it more expensive to live? Let’s take, as an example, the rent for an apartment?
— My apartment in Moscow is not big but it is more spacious than the one I had in Japan, and a little bit cheaper. The same flat in Melbourne would cost at least 120,000 roubles a month.
— Do you live in the centre of Moscow?
— In Chertanovo. It’s not the centre, but it is not that far away. The area in Moscow is not so important, just as long as the flat is not too far from the metro.
— Was it hard to find an apartment?
— In my case, the school itself took care of everything to do with renting a place. It was all was sorted out before I arrived; all I had to do was have a look at the living quarters and give my approval. However, I could have turned to one of the numerous estate agents, explain what I was after, and dealt with it like that.
Of course, there is a huge difference. In New Zealand and Australia, people tend to live in houses rather than flats. But this too has its upsides. Russian neighbours are more considerate towards those living next door. With us, on a Friday or Saturday, neighbours will put on a barbecue and loud music, and forget you are there.
— You love travelling. How do you manage to get about without companions?
— With organized tours, there isn’t a problem. Independent travelling is trickier. The thing I love to do the most on a trip is long journeys by bike round different countries. Like from Paris in the north of France to Amsterdam and Poland.
— How many kilometres have you covered then?
— 2,500! That trip took a couple of months. Is that a lot? Travellers aren’t those people you see in lycra flying past you on super-lightweight bikes. We move slowly, we drink coffee, eat pizza, talk to the locals. With chocolate, coffee, and pizza, there is no problem at all: these words sound almost the same in Russian as they do in English.
These days, independent travel in Russia has got easier. If you need to go on the metro, you buy a pass from the machine. If you need a long distance ticket, you can buy one over the internet. You don’t have to explain yourself to someone in person. It’s very convenient for someone like me whose Russian isn’t very good.
— Have you found a travelling partner here?
— Not yet. I want to get by bike from Moscow to Murmansk in the Arctic Circle. It’s not easy finding an accomplice crazy enough for such an undertaking. But I haven’t given up hope yet.
— Have you met any of your compatriots in Moscow?
— Of course. You can find Kiwis everywhere. They love to investigate the world because our country is so far away from the rest of civilization. I know three or four teachers from New Zealand who are working here. They are connected to our school in one way or another.
— Do you not have problems with social interaction here?
— It is as if there are two Russias: the official one, and the personal one. We know about the Russian bureaucracy and that dealing with it isn’t always pleasant. Of course, as far as I am concerned, the personal Russia is more to my liking. The people here are very amiable although that isn’t always obvious at first glance. What’s surprising is how students here can easily switch to informal relations with the teacher. They just want to chat. In Japan, for example, teaching is usually done without any personal interaction, with both sides keeping their distance.
I like such an attitude. I admit that for me, teaching is more than just a job. It goes without saying that I try to do it as well as I possibly can. I prepare myself for every lesson but for me it is fun as well.Overall, in Russia, personal relationships are valued more highly than in other countries. It can be awkward sometimes, though. You can give a woman a chocolate on the 8th of March, and that business matter which seemed to be unsolvable will then be solved.
— Do you find everyday communication difficult?
— Supermarkets are similar in all countries. New Zealand cheese, Australian apples (they, by the way, are cheaper here than they are in Australia), Australian wine. The choice is unbelievable, the widest in the world, in my view. The quality is about the same as in New Zealand or Australia, for the same money. You choose the goods yourself. You see the price on the cash till display. You show your store card to get your discount, be that in Russia, Germany, China or Japan. It’s very similar. Like it is with people in all countries: they have more in common than they do differences.
— How do you spend your spare time?
— If it weren’t for my timetable, I would spend it differently, but I also give lessons in the evening. There are seminars on a Saturday. So making it to the theatre or the ballet, which I adore, doesn’t happen very often. I’ve been to the Bolshoi Theatre but there are other interesting places in Moscow, too. Sometimes I play football with my mates. I’ve been to some of the games at the Luzhniki Stadium.
— Do you get to work by car?
— No way! I haven’t bought a car in Moscow. I just don’t understand how anyone can drive a car here. There is a very strange attitude towards driving in Russia. Let’s just say that they really like honking their horns whether there is good reason for it or not. In Japan, nobody beeps in a traffic jam. I, by the way, wouldn’t say that the traffic jams in Moscow are all that bad. Cars don’t stand there dead still. They do kind of move. Buses and trolleybuses get people to work and to their houses.
— Do you go on bike rides round Moscow at all?
— No. I like to go for a walk, see what people are up to. Cities are often called concrete jungles. But there are a lot of parks in Moscow. There are quite a few streets where the lanes of traffic are interspersed with green patches with trees, lawns and footpaths. I love Gorky Park. In the parks, in summer, there are exhibitions, dances, concerts, barbecues: plenty of everything. In winter, I often see people on cross-country skis.
— Do you have a Russian wife yet?
— No. But I haven’t given up hope yet!