Yana’s Conversational English Class


Traveller's Coffee Dome Action

The Travellers Coffee dome we are meeting Yana at is a delightfully unique building that takes the form of a ten metre diameter geodesic sphere. In the day the windows make beautiful reflections of the clouds and surrounding buildings on the street. At night soft area lights fill each of the three floors with a warm glow that’s complemented by an array of fairy lights that run along the triangular edges. Suspended in the centre of the dome at the level of the second floor is a huge gently curved metal bowl, about a metre across, in which is growing a large tree. The tree passes through the floor above to form an amazing centrepiece to the building; at night the tree is lit by fairy lights as well. The aesthetics are glorious and the coffee generally matches it. Considering good coffee is hard to come by in Russia, this provides some welcome relief.

Traveller's Coffee Dome

Yana’s client is a company that is encouraging all its engineers and human resource people to get to a high enough level of English to deal with American companies more easily. The company manufactures and installs all kinds of piping; plastic, concrete, whatever you need. Yana arrives and leads us around a corner to an office building where we head to a conference room and get settled as the students arrive. We are getting used to the standard Russian names as we are introduced to another Nastya, Ivan, Olga, Lyuda and Peter. They are all curious about the novelty of having three Australians in residence and Peter finds us all some coffee. Most of them finished work in the last half hour and none of them have left the building, rather they’ve elected to stay behind for the chance to talk to us. Yana’s plan for the session is that one person at a time will stand and draw pictures on the whiteboard that explain something about who they are and what they like. Everyone then has to guess what the pictures mean and the person then has to explain themselves and field questions as required; all in English. Yana gets things started and we discover how much she likes cakes, her husband and ice skating. From here we all take turns and we discover some amazing people.

One beautiful young lady, Olga, reveals she’s an engineer who studied at the Omsk State Transport University. This was an institution created when the Trans-Siberian line was still being built over a hundred years ago. Her final project had been to create a train line infrastructure, including way points, signalling, station design and a timetable for rolling traffic. This was for a real section of Russian countryside in Siberia as a true test of her engineering abilities. She went on to reveal she also loves ice skating and playing the balalaika; a Russian guitar like instrument with a triangular sound box. Then she mentions that the instrument is always with her and right now is in her car outside. This way she can play it whenever she feels the need. Don and I are both looking at her in wonder thinking she’s the absolute perfect blend of beauty, intelligence and talent; but is surprisingly quietly spoken and shy at the same time. Perhaps she’s just shy about speaking English. A young, very confident, man, Ivan, then takes his turn and we discover he had grown up in an extremely heavy industrial town in Siberia; famous now for its incredible levels of pollution. He had studied at Novosibirsk State University completing a more general engineering degree. He mentions his wife is a musician and that he’d been in the army already for national service and that he still goes hunting in the Taiga (the huge tracts of forest in Siberia and the Russian Far East).

Nastya, a stunning Asian-Russian girl stands up nervously to take her turn. She’s also an engineer, but where Olga had studied Railways, her specialty was in Ports. Her final assignment had been to design a cold water port on Russia’s north coast. Don and I comment generally how astonishingly smart and beautiful these Russian women are. They blush and demand we take our turns. We tell them stories of life in Australia, growing up with heat and dangerous animals, working with telecommunication systems (Don), national and global IT systems (myself) and teaching high school kids about photography, art and theatre (Lari). Crazy parties we’d enjoyed in Darwin together came up between us all, since we love Australia’s party culture. Lari speaks about her love of photography and, in particular, that she still uses traditional film to capture moments. Don speaks of festivals and I finish off with my eclipse chasing stories. But I’m mostly deciding that Nastya is my chief love for the day.

Hot Russian Balalaika Action

Almost three hours have slipped by and we can tell the effort of speaking English is making them all more and more tired. Yana wraps things up thanking everyone and pointing out the session was only meant to last an hour. We immediately invite everyone down to a café to have some beer and keep talking. A few have to return home, but four of them come along for the fun of it; including Ivan and Nastya. When we get outside Olga asks us to wait a moment as she opens the back of her car. In a moment she has the Balalaika in her hands and it isn’t any normal instrument either. It is one of the ones that were used during the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games opening ceremony.
“How on earth did you come to acquire that?” I ask in amazement.
“Well, I was visiting a garage that was fixing my car and I noticed they had a piano in the office. I asked if I might play it while I waited and the manager was very happy with the idea. It wasn’t terribly well tuned, but I played a few songs as we waited for the job to be finished”
“Why was there a piano in a garage office?” I query, shaking my head in wonder.
“Well, apparently his wife played it when she worked there, helping with the paperwork to keep things going. She’s looking after young kids at home now, but the piano stayed.”
“So, he gave you a balalaika?”
“Oh no, he did enjoy it and wanted to thank me, so he presented me with a large fire extinguisher.” I burst out laughing.
“So you traded the fire extinguisher?”
“Oh no, I said I couldn’t really use a large fire extinguisher and it was probably more useful where it was. So he asked if I played any other instruments, out of interest, and I told him I enjoyed the balalaika as well. He smiled, then got up and fetched a balalaika from another room in the garage.”
I laugh again,
“This wasn’t really a ‘garage’ was it? You mean ‘music shop’ don’t you?”, I ask incredulously.
She laughs and then corrects me,
“Oh no, it was a garage, they were making my car work again. I don’t know why he had all these instruments hanging around really, but this is the balalaika he gave me.”
I smile and nod, then think aloud,
“Can you play it now?”
She smiles shyly, tunes it for a bit and plays a smooth, flowing tune. I try to get a photo or video of her playing, but the camera makes her suddenly shy and she stops. Not so shy that she didn’t then strike classic Russian woman poses for some photos, before handing me the instrument. She soon says her goodbyes and drives home as the remaining group ambles down the street to find the café our friends have decided we need to visit.

Metal Balalaika Action

We manage to find a table big enough for all of us and Vortex Yulia arrives with a couple of friends. There must be eight or ten of us now and the beer orders go in quickly as we check over the menu. I try to find out more about Nastya, who sits across from me.
“This Total Eclipse that will happen here on Friday,” she begins, “what will happen exactly?”
“Well, a bit under an hour before Totality the moon will start to cross the face of the sun”, I explain, holding my hands up to illustrate, “As it crosses you don’t notice very much until the last fifteen minutes. Then the sky gets darker, shadows take on a weird double image quality, birds act like its nightfall and everyone will feel very excited.” I’m caught in my passion for the moment now, I feel utterly alive and I feel the glow from this feeling spread across the room.
“Then you get to see the sun turn black. You can look straight at it then.”
“But..you can’t look at the sun. It’s dangerous. Don’t you need special glasses or a camera or something?”
I retrieve the eclipse glasses from my money belt and hand them to her. She tries them on and looks even cuter.
“You should come and join us when we watch it on Friday afternoon”
“What time is it happening?”
“About twenty to five”
“I will still be at work until five o’clock.”
Her food arrives so she moves up the table to sit next to Ivan, who she is sharing with. There’s a buzz amongst the people sitting there and Vortex Yulia quietly explains to me that the men sitting at the next table are well known local Russian gangster types. I make a point of not looking for a while, but when I next visit the toilet I discover two very Russian looking men wearing expensive suits and dark sunglasses talking quietly but pointedly to each other. Nobody else sits at the huge table, even though the place is crowded and plenty of people are waiting for tables. On my return Vortex Yulia’s asking about our day, so I describe the ice-cream I had and she knows it immediately. It’s a strong memory from her childhood. Apparently the ice-cream I had was the standard kind when she was growing up,
“…and it’s still one of my very favourites.”
She drifts off, remembering the past for a while and a gentle smile softens across her face.

Nastya modelling eclipse glasses...

By the time we finish it’s after midnight and we all split up to return home. Walking along the dark streets is a pleasure after the hot day; a gentle breeze tickles the trees and strokes the pavement. This city has a calmer life to it; like Yekaterinburg, but its own place again. You feel the movement of the city’s life is constant, but somehow buried beneath the static calm of the buildings and parks we enjoy walking through every day. The broad streets and open squares lend to this atmosphere of easy living, but it’s the river meandering around the city, hugging it closely, that completes the feeling. It is a place happy with its own existence and happy to weather the years away looking after its people. On the first part of the walk I ask Vortex Yulia and Yana if they might spare a kitchen for me to attempt to cook them some South East Asian food tomorrow. Yana immediately demands I use hers to cook whatever I want so she can watch me prepare food she’s never tasted before. Vortex Yulia says I can use some pots and pans from her place if I need to and I start deciding exactly what I want to cook.
“Where can we get the best fresh meat and vegetables?”, I ask.
“Vanya will be going to the markets in the morning and you will be able to find everything there”, Yana advises.
We split up and make our way to the two apartments and once again I fall asleep with a feeling of warm contentedness that gives me a lazy smile as I relax into the couch.


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