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Goulash at gunpoint

  Tue 6th February 2018

Back to school after almost a week off and the anxiety has returned, refreshed from its break. Waiting at the bus stop can feel like being in a nightmarish science fiction film. I texted Wendy. "Darling, every morning when I'm getting ready for school, I feel this sense of huge anxiety. I never feel prepared and I feel a complete fraud. I hope this feeling subsides soon into something more banal Xx"

I want my weekday mornings to dull into the customary resignation that characterises work for millions, not this sickness and worry. In the canteen, sitting with the other teachers, my spoon runneth over with borsht, because my hands are shaking.

I don't have my own classroom, and the computers are allocated to individual teachers. I was firmly told off in Russian a few days ago for using a guest account on one of them. Mine won't work because it's not connected to the whiteboards or speakers and so on. The photocopier has been out of action for over a week and the children don't have exercise books for English so everything's on loose bits of paper. They're bored with doing pen and paper exercises all the time, and one class in particular ignores me and fights and throws things at each other.


At the bus stop, someone asks me something. I shrug my shoulders and say "no" in Kazakh, and return to another preoccupation, The Injunction. I don't want to sour anything when I come back to Lancaster in June, but I will have to find a way of telling Wendy that I am refusing to obey it. Her ex uses their daughter as his proxy in his attempts to keep me away from Wendy, by refusing to allow The Little Dictator to be in my company even for a moment.


Because I haven't got a work visa, I have to leave Kazakhstan every four weeks. I was given 30 dollars -- in real Abraham Lincoln paper money -- for my hotel and expenses in Bishkek. Being short of money, I got in touch with a couchsurfer in order to pocket my accommodation allowance.

When I got to Bishtek I couldn't get in touch with him. I was wandering around the bazaar, a warren of little alleys with jackets one minute and whole skinned lambs with their heads still on the next. Night was drawing in and I had nowhere to stay.

I went to what I hoped was a cheap hotel but I had to change all my dollars in order to stay there. It was a noisy, sleepless night, with banging of doors and loud talking long into the night, intermittent silence only between about six and eight. At half nine someone rapped on the door. I said "yes yes", but at five minute intervals she came back. The third time, I thought I'd better let her in. She watched me get my things together and asked me if I was German. No breakfast was ever mentioned.

I had my fare to the airport -- 50p for fourteen miles -- squirrelled away, but little else. I bought a cup of tea from a stall, then decided to just get to the airport. I waited and waited and waited for the matroska -- one of those little minibuses -- but every number except the one I wanted came and left. I had almost resigned myself to having to hitch-hike.

A driver got out of his matroska for a fag. I drew a little picture of a matroska and a road and an aeroplane, and wrote the word "airport" in Russian. He pointed me across the park to another road and the right stop.

We passed through a poverty-striken landscape -- breeze block buildings with corrugated iron rooves, stray dogs and cats, people trudging down long unmade roads that stretch off into the distance. A group of oxen wandered around outside a house, and outside another, a group of men were digging energetically into a house-sized mound of coal, bagging it up.

I sat down in the welcome warmth of the airport, drooling at the bars which glistered with drink, envying the comfortably off people sitting there with beer and wine and food.

All at once, the policemen who were "guarding" the place decided to come and sit adjacent and opposite to me, attracted by the free mobile phone charging point. For the first time in my life, I had six revolvers and two machine guns within lunging distance. The chattiest one of them engaged me in a friendly, if laboriously translated, conversation.

He asked me if I'd eaten anything. "There is an inexpensive restaurant upstairs," said Googlecop. I stood up and shrugged and pulled out all the money I had, much less than a pound.

Using only raised eyebrows and movements of his head, he said "come with me. It's ok, I'll pay." And so, flanked by two armed policemen, I was led out of the public part of the airport, down some steps and into a canteen. I pointed at the food and he ordered for me. Potatoes and meat in a tomato sauce, two hard-boiled eggs, bread, and delicious apricot juice, thick and brown and sweet. I was so grateful.

We went back upstairs. Before we got back to the airport, he introduced me to his colleagues who were on outside duty. He wanted me to give him my whatsapp number. He made a gesture of waving his hand between our mouths and pointing to my phone. I don't know my number or how to give it to anyone, so I handed my phone over to one of the clutch of young policemen keen to show his smartphone prowess. It was all bobbing fur hats and laughter. They had the honesty and generosity of children.


Our first leg flight was called, three hours late, but post-security, flight there was none. We were left in a mall with posters of the most Western-looking models they can find on their budget, girls in ecstasy at a watch. Hour after hour passed. I got talking to au un-flying Dutchman, who told me about his son who'd been expelled from a private school in Asturias. I gave myself backache from trying to straighten up to appear less short to him.

He suggested we have a drink. I wanted a drink very much. Not a drink, but five or eight. I asked him if he could sub me one, trying to create a jovial triviality of my inability to find £2 for a pint. We sat there, in the middle of the night, in a glossy, stilled, liminal zone.

Our flight eventually left at 3.30am, just after my London boss had told me not to go in on Monday. I got home at 9.30 and went to bed. When I got up there were two messages from Lidia at school, who knew I'd spent the night sleepless in airports. "What about lesson plans for Year 4?", followed by a shorter one a few minutes later: "?"

13 comments

Comment from: organ grinder [Visitor]

Ah, to be a Kyrgyz copper.

Tue 6th February 2018 @ 15:47
Comment from: [Member]

The back-handers can’t be up to much though.

Tue 6th February 2018 @ 19:30
Comment from: Eryl [Visitor]

Ye gads, I find this terrifying. But I do think it will make a great book when you’re back, I can see the queues at Waterstone’s already.

Tue 6th February 2018 @ 22:50

I complain about the banality of everything until I’m treated to a proper dose of anxiety. That puts me straight. Banality is an old friend.

Loved the airport story. So wonderful it could’ve been fiction. Eryl is right. This stuff is ripe for sale. Take good notes. Like it or not, you’re a writer.

Wed 7th February 2018 @ 17:36
Comment from: looby [Visitor]

Yes, I came here partly because my life was getting a bit repetitive, but how I miss that familiarity now.

Thanks for your last sentence. It’s always my laziness that holds me back. I do absolutely fuck all with my writing. I can’t be arsed.

Wed 7th February 2018 @ 22:52
Comment from: daisyfae [Visitor]

You certainly had my attention with the title of the post!

The policemen were very kind! How absolutely refreshing!

Agree with the others that you need to take good notes. You could be writing the most important reading material for anyone considering moving abroad to teach English!

Thu 8th February 2018 @ 20:59
Comment from: looby [Visitor]

These *are* my notes Daisy.

Thu 8th February 2018 @ 21:19
Comment from: Leslie Philips [Visitor]

I think most people in teaching have that ‘sense of huge anxiety’ crushing them in the night.People with 30 years under their belt still have it. After all, being with your own kids is hard enough, let alone with a room full of ungrateful, hostile little strangers.
Keep going though. As Woody Allen says, 80% of success is turning up( and that is often the hardest part).

Sat 10th February 2018 @ 15:21
Comment from: looby [Visitor]

That’s a great quote– extended by you I assum.

I’ll carry on for a bit. Wendy was urging me to come home. But what to? I can’t get even minimum wage jobs here, and having people saying they’re glad your back and that they love you doesn’t pay the rent.

Sat 10th February 2018 @ 20:49
Comment from: kono [Visitor]

This post drives home those rare and brief glimpses of how wonderful the human race can be, the kindness of strangers, be it goulash and grog…

The landscape reminded me of all those tin shacks i’ve seen in places like the Dominican Republic and Mexico or the half finished little houses of Jamaica, i’ll have to remember to include the landscape next time i get into the travel posts… good stuff as usual my good sir…

(and what’s with Wendy? can’t she find someone else to torture? to place rules on? someday you will learn my friend, lol!! it’s more trouble than it’s worth… of course i’m just a bitter bastard who has forgotten what lust or love or even a keen liking of the opposite sex feels like…)

Sat 10th February 2018 @ 21:49
Comment from: looby [Visitor]

Yes, people *are* kind to me, all the time.

I should have taken some pictures but I feel it’s a bit imperialistic and unfair to make entertainment out of other people’s struggle.

Wendy occupies me for hours a day. She doesn’t fancy me and in a general sense, she’s said more than once that it’s her daughter and her dog now.

Sun 11th February 2018 @ 06:05
Comment from: Leslie Philips [Visitor]  

I added the bit in brackets.
I think of the Woody Allen quote whenever I have a difficult session ahead. Once I’ve braved the early morning, the protracted train journey and the forced ‘good mornings’ , I think,’the most difficult part is over’.
Or as a long-standing colleague used to say, ‘think of the money…think of the holidays..’

Sun 11th February 2018 @ 16:42
Comment from: [Member]

I won’t get paid during the holidays, and it’s the actual teaching that I dread.

Tue 13th February 2018 @ 10:37


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