It is very easy to find people in Astana

  Tue 13th March 2018

Tuesday 10am, Astana airport

Never has an overpriced Hoegaarden tasted so good. This ill-starred venture is coming to an end. I have snapped my Kazakh SIM card in two, and in the immortal words of Dick and Dom, "flushed it down the lav."

I was falsely accused at school yesterday of hitting a girl. Her aunt is a Senator and has threatened to make difficulties for me in Kazakhstan. I did not touch her. I told her off severely (without raising my voice) for doing fuck all during my lessons, sitting with her back to me throughout them, and refusing to pick up a plastic cup she had thrown onto the floor.

At the end of the lesson, I kept her back and gave her a bollocking about being so insolent and bone idle. She looked at me with victory assured in advance, clearly practised in the art she was about to deploy. "You kicked me." She rang her mum, adding being hit to the fiction.

I was summoned to the Director's office. I was alarmed to see a policeman in the office but Lidia assured me it was nothing to do with me; they arrive unannounced at schools to check the roll and its employees against a list of undesirables.

The policeman left, apparently satisfied that we were not harbouring anyone dangerous, like journalists or trade union organisers. I nodded and opened my hands insincerely as I sat through a torrent of Russian from the girl's Dad. I was "invited" to make an apology of which I meant not a word, to her and her parents. The economics of private education means the rule of the child. When it was over, Lidia burst into tears on the stairs, saying that she had only translated a little of what he was saying. "I haven't heard so many bad words for years. It reminds me of how little we [teachers] are here."

Check-in opens in two hours' time so none of this will be my problem soon. Spoilt little Erina, the darling niece of the ruling classes, will have got her way -- again. I only hope that one day her fall will be more painful because it will come from the high place in society she knows she will sail into, despite being a lying, manipulative little bastard.

All of which was the greater shame because there was a ray of hope on Saturday. I took a baby step in Kazakh when I understood verbally, rather than through her gestures, the bus conductor's offer of a vacant seat, and managed to put "it's OK thank you, I'm getting off at the next stop" into satisfactory Kazakh. It's a lovely sounding language. Its rhythms are Brucknerian -- it rolls on and on, keeping you waiting for a climax that never comes.

However, the school's anniversary concert later than day was sadly not remotely evocative of C19th Austrian High Romanticism. Groups of pupils recreated a series of rejected Junior Eurovision entries playing on the mother-whore iconography. Domestic tableaux of rural life were spicily interleaved with hip-hop dance routines featuring older girls in tight skirts and white blouses knotted above the waist. Afterwards, Lidia and I repaired to her house, where I was introduced to her detective husband and her two personable daughters, ready with questions for me, so different from the sullen self-absorption of the English teenager.

I forced down the horsemeat, fighting off the extra ladlefuls of mare's buttock stew that were constantly being introduced to my plate. The warm room chilled for a moment when he said "it is very easy to find people in Astana", and part of me is wondering whether I'll be lifted from the airport and frogmarched back to school. I glance nervously across to the policeman here showing something on his mobile phone to the barmaid, wondering if he's saying "have you seen this man?"

As the delicious local cognac extinguished the taste of mare and had the desired relaxant effects, hubby went off for a sleep and Lidia got us dancing; she's a good dancer, and we resolved to go out one night with the groovier of the teachers.

"You're a handsome man looby," an adjective I cannot ever remember being applied to me. "You need a nice Kazakh girl," and talk turned to possible matches. I'd want one with eyelids, I didn't say. Travel truly narrows the mind. Then we came to business. "Everyone is taking money from us, you know looby. We do the work and Valery, he..."; she was looking for something like "skims off." "In our school, we could keep all the money."

For the first time in this country I am about to leave, I felt relaxed, laughing and even wondering about at least a temporary future here.

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Passing away

  Tue 6th March 2018

Saturday 24th February, Budapest.

It's 11am and I am drinking luscious Soproni IPA in the capital city of the country in which it is made. I have told a unnecessarily big, old lie to get here.

I woke up and checked the time. Ten o'clock, so plenty of time to have a bowl round Budapest before getting my flight to Manchester. Put the lights on and thought the little studio apartment might face onto a forcibly collectivised wall.

I look outside; a few brassy stars making it through Budapest's cloak of electrification, and wonder how long we will persist in the nostalgia of calling the stars' competitors "artificial light". I realise that it's dark because it is 5am, my phone and my body both still on Kazakh time.

Tuesday 6th March, Astana.

Living here feels like being in some sort of KGB stress test experiment: once you get however shaky a grip on a certain level, they invent new tests. There isn't much teaching in what I do. Sometimes I feel humiliated and small, a plaything for the children to belittle. I find it difficult to cope with the anxiety that accompanies me every day: she's the only thing that sometimes gets into bed with me.

On Thursday of last week, after a humiliating "lesson" with Year 5, many of whom completely ignored me, I started jotting down some short and medium term escape plans. Eventually, I self-pitied myself into thinking that even having to wait until pay day on 10th March would be unbearable. I emailed my brother, asking if he could get in touch with my mother to take her up on her offer of loaning me at any time, the fare home.

By the time I had sloughed off the day, the not inconsiderable sum it takes to leave Astana quickly was in my account -- a gift, he said, not a loan. I then stupidly yoked myself into one of the inept and cowardly lies to which I am prone to resort: I told school that my mother had died. Just before I arrived, I rubbed some snow into my eyes in order to induce a tearful, reddened visage appropriate for someone recently bereaved.

Back in Lancaster on Monday, I had a rare moral qualm, as everyone at the school sent condolences -- tempered with a couple of unsubtle requests that I deal with my mother's demise as quickly as possible. I felt guilty about shifting all my work onto Lidia and Hera, who already work harder than me for a quarter of my salary. After a few days, I invented a Saturday funeral and told them I would be back today to resume teaching on Monday.

Meantime, I fell back into the same easy ways of Lancaster. I saw Wendy. I had almost forgotten how headily enjoyable it is to be in her company and how I much I love looking at her; little moments of still wonder, staring at her when she had her back turned to me at the bar, the slow seconds of stroking her all along her back -- my only regret being that I can only use my eyes to do this.

I arrived back in Astana on Sunday, tempted to wait an hour and get straight back on the plane. I rang Lidia to let her know I was here, and after a few pleasantries, she alleged that I had agreed to work through the forthcoming week's holiday. I would never have agreed to such a thing. Lidia said that she would talk to the Director about it, but there's no "discussion" possible.

Yesterday morning, wide awake at 4.30am with the fear rising and shading into a despair about my powerlessness in school, and faced with the prospect of losing my longed-for holiday, I resolved to throw in the towel, but to do it properly this time: tell no-one.

Yesterday, everyone was far more pleased to see me than I them; and by the end of the day, their kindness had worked again and I had conditionally, and temporarily, shelved my plan to leave the country this weekend: whilst it would be greatly helpful for my future to get a reference from the school, I'll be on a plane to Manchester this Sunday if they insist on me working through the single week of holiday I get in a six-month contract.

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I tell you what I want, what I really really want

  Tue 20th February 2018

Another disastrous double period with Year 7. According to their whim, they mock me in a language they know I don't understand, or ignore me altogether. I look at the clock constantly, counting down the minutes until I can get rid of them. Then, later in the afternoon, a therapeutic calm with a younger class who have taken to a project about writing a newspaper with more enthusiasm than I'd expected. I wish I could crack open the heads of Year 7.

I had a phone call from my boss in London, who runs the agency for which I am a sub-contractor. To my surprise, and somewhat to my disappointment, she told me that I was the teacher they should have appointed in September. I don't want to be wanted here. I assumed that word would have got round the school now about the poor quality of my teaching and that we were all gritting our teeth until the end of the year when we could force a smiled farewell.

My long overdue first social engagement on Saturday night allowed me to dispose of the unavoidable foreigner's rite of passage: a taxi to a hotel for a Valentine's Day do cost me a tenner; I was informed later that it should have been about two quid.

In a circular room, someone dressed as a giant tomato went round with a photographer, cajoling girls in expensive dresses into the angled cock-legged pose. Well dressed middle-aged men wearing the assurance of money, looking just like the engineers and teachers that most of us foreigners are, and the thin sliver of locals who can afford £4.50 a pint. On a low raised stage a man with the British chav-thug haircut -- shaved sides and an erect half-centimetre of crown -- was playing Yesterday and similarly stale covers on an electric violin.

I tried to locate my Kazakh teacher-to-be but when I arrived I was assured by two separate members of staff that the public internet which was asking me for a password was not working. I circulated the room for a few minutes looking at women's chests. We had all been issued with name stickers, and most women put them on the un-named zone just northeast of the left breast.

I fell in with an amusing couple of locals who had become friends after working in the same engineering firm. we talked about cross-cultural difficulties. I said I find the Kazzers' questions rather direct. If they don't get the information they want, they don't take the hint to change the subject, but will ask an even more searching one. "But don't you want to know people?" he asked.

The joint wasn't really jumping, with an inept DJ providing an interval of silence in between each track in order to keep the dancefloor regularly cleared, so when they asked me if I fancied a drum n' bass night going on with a DJ from London I responded enthusiastically. We got to the pub where younger women, friends of the bloke, kept arriving and sitting at our table. Unfortunately that's more than can be said for the DJ, who hadn't turned up.

The bloke went home but the girl was keen to try a third place. A warm wash of sexual desire for her in the taxi, about which I did nothing at all, hoping in some inverted way that she would read my silent inaction. I got out at my flat to get some more money but I still find the layout of my block confusing, because the lifts and corridors move about according to how much I've had to drink. When I got outside I couldn't find the taxi. A frustrating evening was completed by discovering, on going to ring her, that I had lost my phone.

My sister, a slender and stylish Home Counties girl now beached in Middlesbrough, tells me that she's had her first tattoo, is having more, and and wants to become a tattooist.

Coming across that decision whilst reading her long, honest and interesting email, I could hear an almost audible voice in my head. "Be a writer looby! It's so fucking obvious!" My book is already written. You're reading it.

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Wine o'clock

  Fri 16th February 2018

I wonder how much longer I'll last. I'm out of my depth. I'm scared of the children and dread every day I go to school -- which at the moment is six days a week. I get paid again on 10th March, at which point I'll have the air fare home.

I did two very stupid things yesterday. I had two glasses of wine before I went to school, and vigorous teeth brushing was insufficient to conceal the wine breath. Late in the afternoon, Lidia and I were sat together in her empty classroom. She came over all serious, over-reaching herself in claiming to be a friend and that she knows me well. "Did you take a drink yesterday?" I said I'd met up with someone for a couple of drinks the previous evening. She said that another teacher had remarked upon it too.

Then, in the evening, I decided to plumb further depths of idiocy in acting against my own interests. I went to chat to the people in a refrigeration equipment company who want English lessons and I have agreed to twice weekly two hour lessons with them. When I finish school I cannot get home quickly enough; now, I've signed myself up to working more hours at the end of the day, with a bus journey home that is about forty-five minutes. I couldn't care less about the £17 an hour it will bring in, and I need to work out a way of getting out of this before the first lesson on Tuesday.

The owners of my house in Lancaster have put it up for sale. Kim said a while ago that I can stay with her in Durham over the summer, which I'll enjoy; and Trina's said that I can stay on her narrowboat. It just would have been handy to have my own base in Lancaster.

I rang Kitty the other night. She broke off for a couple of minutes to speak to me as she was in an informal meeting with her boss and said that she'd ring back a little later.

She forgot to put the phone down afterwards and I heard her say "that was looby. Kazakhstan. You kind of love him but want to strangle him at the same time." We had a good laugh about it when she rang back. I could listen to her voice every day. Just laughing with her for a few minutes was joyful, something in short supply here.

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Class action

  Tue 13th February 2018

A humiliating two lessons yesterday with year 7.

Some of them point blank refused to do the work. Others scrawled all over their papers with felt pen, or ripped holes in it. I would rather teach children who misbehave because of some problems at home or the indirect result of poverty. There is nothing as ugly as an entitled rich-kid teenager who knows that whatever he or she does, there won't be anything to worry about in life until the police get involved.

They need a good bollocking, but that's difficult to administer when they don't respect me in the slightest. I'm losing the school, a class at a time. I was shaking when I came out of my mauling, wondering if the day of sneaking in a bottle of red is that far off.

It's got to get better. I've now got a photocopier. I've asked for exercise books and to be added as a guest user on the other teachers' computers. Why hasn't the school reflected on why two teachers left by Christmas?

For the next four weeks I'm working 9 till 1 on Saturday as well because of all the time we lost during the blizzard. Those mere four hours manage to ripple into tarnishing the weekend.

I got paid on Monday. I was hoping that seeing my bank balance leap into four figures would help the anxiety, but it's undimmed, coming in a diurnal wave. I had to repay my brother and Trina some money they lent me to get me out here, but as from next month I want to squirrel about £450 away somewhere safe, so that if I crack -- at the moment it feels more like "when" -- I can just go to the airport, change my mobile number, and leave it all behind me. Without that money I'm trapped.

Guest of honour at lunch at school on Friday, I was sat in the privileged position at a Kazakh table, midway down its long side, with six other teachers and our Director, to be "treated" -- as they described it -- to the national dish of horsemeat.

It started well, with fermented mare's milk which is sour, refreshing and slightly alcoholic. I cut the horsemeat into tiny pieces and covered each forkful with a piece of carrot or potato. Worse than the horsemeat were the chunks of sausage it was cooked with, which were enclosed in a thick off-white tubing.

But they'd gone to a great deal of trouble for me. There were several toasts and short speeches, punctuated by more mare's milk, which had the great merit of concealing the taste of the food, as I managed its delicate poise on my cusp of vomiting. It was with relief that we turned to the pudding -- deep-friend Kazakh doughnuts, crystallised fruit and pistachios. There was a bit of surrogate mummying going on as cheery comments on my thinness were made about me.

I found out on Friday that the other teachers come out with £340 a month. I'm on more than quadruple that. So belt up and get on with it looby.

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:: Next >>

looby, n.; pl. loobies. A lout; an awkward, stupid, clownish person

M / 53 / Lancaster ("the Brighton of the North").

"Looby is a left-wing intellectual who is obsessed with a) women's clothes and b) tits." -- Joy of Bex.

WLTM literate woman, 40-65. Must have nice tits, a PhD, and an mdma factory in the shed, although the first on its own will do in the short term.

There are plenty of bastards who drink moderately. Of course, I don't consider them to be people. They are not our comrades.
Sergei Korovin, quoted in Pavel Krusanov, The Blue Book of the Alcoholic

I am here to change my life. I am here to force myself to change my life.
Chinese man I met during Freshers Week at Lancaster University, 2008

Tell me, why is it that even when we are enjoying music, for instance, or a beautiful evening, or a conversation in agreeable company, it all seems no more than a hint of some infinite felicity existing apart somewhere, rather than actual happiness – such, I mean, as we ourselves can really possess?
Turgenev, Fathers and Sons

I hate the iPod; I hate the idea that music is such a personal thing that you can just stick some earplugs in your ears and have an experience with music. Music is a social phenomenon.
Jeremy Wagner

Using words well is a social virtue. Use 'fortuitous' once more to mean 'fortunate' and you move an English word another step towards the dustbin. If your mistake took hold, no-one who valued clarity would be able to use the word again.
John Whale

One good thing about being a Marxist is that you don't have to pretend to like work.
Terry Eagleton, What Is A Novel?, Lancaster University, 1 Feb 2010

The working man is a fucking loser.
Mick, The Golden Lion, Lancaster, 21 Mar 2011

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