Monday, 31 October 2011

Kazakhstan - The first school race

October 17-21

In a nutshell, I ran around the school in a rasta hat. All will be revealed…

After this weekend we only had one more week of school before half-term. For those who didn’t have this joyous occasion when they were smaller, let me quickly explain. Inbetween each term or semester you get a week off for holiday. There. Explained. If you didn’t have this when you were in school, you’re probably now also jealous.

We spent our final week jumping between student assessments and watching Oliver Twist, so it was a relatively relaxing week for us. Extra-curricular activities – in addition to the additional lessons taken after school – dominated our week. Musical and sporting excellence is a feature of our school, and it was time to show this to a wider audience.

On Monday our school football team played against the American school in Astana, QSI. What started as a bright and warm afternoon soon turned bitterly cold and windy, yet the weather failed to crush the spirit nor the talent of our young soccer stars. Our school won the first match 2-0 before losing the second by a single goal. I had more fun interviewing those involved after the match on behalf of the school magazine. It’s funny how many of the kids thought that they were the player of the match.

This happened after school on Monday, but on the Thursday our classes were interrupted by our ‘Olympic Trial’ – a lap around the school to see who were the fastest kids, and arguably more importantly teachers, in the school. We decided this would be a golden fancy dress opportunity, so out came the hats. Two things of note. One: The fastest child is in Year 3, so is only eight years old. Two: I’m apparently the fastest person in our school, cruising to victory in the teachers’ race in a time of 2’33’’. I do run a lot anyway, so I had a bit of an advantage.

 Kazakh fun fact: I'm not quite as quick as Olga Shishigina, the Kazakh 100m hurdler who won Gold at the Sydney Olympics of 2000 in a time of 12.65 seconds. I'll starting training...

The final act of half-term was to watch our children perform a musical concert for their parents. Many of my class performed on the piano, before one of them performed a street dance on stage. Surely the first time N-Dubz has been played to a large crowd in Kazakhstan. The piece de resistance was the two Year 6 classes joining together to sing a song called ‘Cool Cat’, which impressed the parents enormously. I spoke to many of them afterwards and they all seemed very happy with their child’s progress at our school.

So that’s the first half-term finished at Haileybury Astana. I could fill page after page with what has happened, what hasn’t happened, and what will happen. All I will say is that I have found myself a dream job that, at this moment, I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world.

Love you all


Sunday, 30 October 2011

Kazakhstan - The first kumis

October 13-16

Hello everyone!

Needless to say, school was a struggle the morning after the late late football match. It was for the Thursday as well, though this time it was our fault.

Each teacher in Haileybury Astana is allocated a Teaching Assistant – a TA. Those who look after the very small bambinos have two TA’s, but those of us with children who can walk, talk and (supposedly) tie their own tie or cravat only get one. My TA is a girl called Assel, and the other Year 6 teacher, Fiona, has a tall young man called Denis. I say young, he’s the same age as me. But I count myself as young out here.

The point I want to make is this – in Year 6 we have been extremely lucky with the choice made by the top dogs as to whom our TA’s would be. They are, quite frankly, superstars. We don’t need to rely on them, but they are always there to assist us, be it in teaching, translation or being a friend. These two also helped us find our new apartment, so it is common knowledge around the school that they are a great asset to the school.

We felt that we needed to show them this respect by taking them out for dinner. We visited a restaurant around the corner from my new pad called Turfan, which is a cheap restaurant selling Turkic food. This covers Kazakh, Turkish, Azeri and other food from this region of the world. Really good food, as well. Fried manti, shashlik, baursaki and salads. I must keep running, otherwise I will need to start buying new clothes – an expensive hobby in Astana.

What they don’t seem to have much of in restaurants in this part of the world is diet Coke. Even with friends who speak Russian, sometimes there is a miscommunication. Fiona asked for a diet Coke, before settling on a Sprite. The waitress returned with a Coke, and moved on. It was important to grab her attention to highlight this mistake. Though we failed to do so on this occasion, there is a way of doing this. The Russian way to get a waitress’ attention is to shout DYE-voosh-kah, девушка. It sounds awfully similar to BA-boosh-ka, which is grandmother, and not a mistake you want to make.

This turned into another 2am bedtime, which led to the rest of the week being a bit of a blur. I was summoned into an excitable state when we conducted our air resistance experiment – making parachutes and dropping them from the top of the school. I can only offer my apologies to the Playmobil men that were decapitated during this experiment, but it was in the name of Science.

My mind may have also been distracted by the thought of the upcoming Saturday. This had potential to be one of the best days of my life, at least from a sporting perspective. Wales in a Rugby World Cup semi-final for the second ever time, Man Utd playing against Liverpool, and our housewarming party for our new abode.

As we know, the first two events didn’t turn out as planned. Our housewarming, however, was fantastic fun, aided immensely by a rather alternative version of pass the parcel. Not one for the kids to try at home. I also tried kumis for the first time. This is a traditional Kazakh alcoholic drink. Fermented horse’s milk. It tastes as rough as it sounds.

Kazakh fun fact: Kumis is thought to be good for your health. Among notables to use kumis as a cure were writers Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov.

The pain of the rugby will take a while to disappear from my system, but I’m very proud of how they performed in the tournament. Besides, their exit leaves me to concentrate on my job for the next week before half-term. One week to go before late nights and lie-ins. I can assure you that none of them will involve kumis.

Love you all


Saturday, 29 October 2011

Kazakhstan - The first Kazakhstan football match

October 12

Hello everyone!

Being a sports junkie, one of the first things I decided to investigate were sporting fixtures. Astana has a bit of sporting pedigree – it hosted the Asian Winter Games in January of this year, and is home to the famous Astana cycling team that Lance Armstrong rode for. Much of the sporting infrastructure has been recently completed, meaning that national team events are moving up here from Almaty. The Kazakh national football team is one such entity.

Bizarrely, and going against the idea of the country being the heart of the Central Asian region, Kazakhstan competes in European football competition under the UEFA umbrella. They have done so with…well…very limited success. The fact that Wales are ahead of them in the world rankings should suggest the quality of my newest national team. They cannot qualify for next year’s European Championships in Poland & Ukraine.

Kazakhstan fun fact: Kazakhstan is the country that is the furthest east in UEFA.

They did, however, have one final qualifying match at home after we arrived for our Astana adventure. Their final game was against Austria in the remarkable Astana Arena. We were always going to go, but once we found out that halfway-line tickets were 1,000KZT – £4 – we eagerly snapped up the stubs. Like many of the new, futuristic buildings, it is illuminated at night, and looks spectacular. It is a 30,000-seater stadium that has a retractable roof amongst many other gadgets. The roof was closed for this game.

One potential reason for this may have been to echo and exaggerate the atmosphere generated by the small number of fans inside the ground. Not even close to a sell-out. Partly this is due to a sense of apathy and frustration amongst Kazakh nationals about the standard of their team, but the kick-off time didn’t help. Due to the time difference and the relative power of Austro-German television networks, the game kicked off on a Tuesday at 18:00CET. Which is 22:00 Kazakh time. Ridiculous, and thus understandable why there were so many empty seats. It even seemed like the military had been bussed in to fill out the ground a little bit.

Considering this, the atmosphere was pretty good. At either end of the ground were the hardcore supporters who, often without shirts protecting their precocious bellies, were dancing, chanting and singing loudly and proudly. The chants themselves were predictable enough – KA-ZAKH-STAN was the staple roar of choice – but most of the crowd tried to get involved, which made a change from the prawn sandwich brigades you now often find in the UK.

Owing to it being a relatively meaningless match as neither side could qualify (or is really that good), the match was fairly uninspiring for the first hour or so. Our local lads seemed content to soak up pressure from the schnitzel scoffers before ballooning the ball up to a poor man’s Peter Crouch. This all changed in the second half when, upon realising that Austria aren’t actually that good, the Kazakh players started to spray the ball around the astroturf surface majestically and precisely.

It finished as an ultimately entertaining 0-0 draw, with the last 25 minutes being end-to-end, chance-after-chance, almost amateurish fun. Kazakhstan’s Sergei Ostapenko name came closest to scoring when his towering header crashed against the crossbar, and his side were fully meriting of at least a point from this game. Austria did put the ball in the net in the first minute of injury time – well, the Kazakh ‘keeper punched a cross into another player, which ricocheted into the goal – but our feeling of horror quickly changed to relief when we saw the linesman holding his flag out for offside.

Of course, starting at 10pm meant that the game didn’t finish until close to midnight, and the fact that the ground is slightly outside the city resulted in us failing to get a taxi and walking much of the way home. 2am bedtime on a school night? Worth it to hear the booming voices proudly reciting the Kazakh national anthem. Worth it to feel the energy of being at an international football match once again. Worth it to see a futuristic, fascinating stadium.


Love you all


Friday, 28 October 2011

Kazakhstan - The first clown show

October 3-9

Hello everyone!

We have had a rather sporty weekend here in the backwaters of Central Asia. In school we play football every Friday afternoon after the children have departed for the weekend. It’s great fun and a thoroughly enjoyable release after a busy final day of the week. We also played on a brisk Sunday morning but, knowing what happens on Saturday night that will not be a regular occurrence.

Watching sport is also a popular pastime for the Kazakhs. Football and hockey (it’s not called ice hockey out here) are the most popular, but if you search hard enough you can find just about any sport. It seems a long time ago that we had to rely on the wonders of Skype to watch the Rugby World Cup now that we have found a bar near our new house that shows the games. Wales played Ireland on the Saturday. It started at 11am Kazakh time. The bar opens at 11.30am. Having a rugby-mad Russian-speaking friend we play football with has never been more important. Especially as Wales scored in the first five minutes. Even though we were late so missed that.

Kazakh fun fact: The Kazakh rugby team is 31st in the world, and were only two games away from qualifying for the World Cup.

That result put me in a good mood, but also made me wonder about home. I rarely miss home, and this isn’t one of those times, but having home comforts. One such comfort is a Sunday roast, and one of the teachers very kindly offered to make it for us. Roast beef, all the trimmings, gravy…and Yorkshire puddings. We were in heaven.

School is as entertaining and wonderful as ever. Over the last two weeks we have moved onto poetry, and made our children write & perform alternative versions of two poems: The Magic of the Brain by Jenny Joseph, and Vegan Delight by Benjamin Zephaniah. Their work on the former has made a great display outside the classroom, and the latter has educated me on yet more Kazakh food that I have to try. Their Kazakh interpretation of the verse goes like this, to a very fast beat:

Amazing chak-chak,
Saucy samsa,
Fantastic kazi
and lovely laghman,
Marvellous manti,
Yummy shuzhuk,
Juicy beshbarmak
and salty kurt.

The school had a surprise for the kids on the Thursday. Murat the Clown was going to perform a short set for us all at lunchtime before heading off to perform for President Nazarbayev. It was a bigger surprise when the clown, after being surrounded by female dancers in clothes that didn’t seem entirely appropriate for the target audience, asked for male adult members of the audience to assist in his next act. It wasn’t much of a surprise that I was coerced onto the stage.

It’s quite fortunate that I don’t seem to possess much in the way of dignity. The first thing the four volunteers had to do was perform a dance stated by the clown. The two teaching assistants did very funny and impressive local routines, whilst one of the older teachers – the one who made us Sunday lunch – performed a unique rumba. I was last. The dance I had to do? ‘Follow me’, whispers the crazy clown as I am motioned from backstage.

The dance I had to perform is called the lezginka, a traditional dance from this region of the world. It looks good on the video, but I think my version would have got more hits, simply because of how hilariously bad it was. Not to worry, though. Onto task two, where we are all sat facing in different directions on chairs that form a square. I’d seen this before. It is when the chairs are removed and you manage to balance using each other. I almost slipped, so it almost collapsed straight away. My kids are taking great joy in reminding me how red my face was from being unable to breathe and struggling to hold the weight. Never try this trick whilst wearing a tie. Ever.

After this we were taken to the front, assuming we would bow, take our applause and sit sheepily back in our seats. Oh no. Lots of Russian shouting from the clown, of which I recognised one part – ‘can-can’. Oh dear. We knew exactly what was going to happen. The music starts…3…2…1…ai-ai-ippy-ippy-ai-ai and all that. It was atrocious, and my class remind me about that on a daily basis. Still, it’s nice to show them that I’m not perfect, right?

So another week of working hard and clowning around in Kazakhstan. Part of me still feels like I have just arrived; part feels that I have been here for months. But every time I think this, a surprise makes me remember where I am in the world. Even if that surprise forces me to act like an idiot on stage.

Love you all


Sunday, 23 October 2011

Kazakhstan - The first performance of Swan Lake

September 25-October 2

Hello everyone!

The summer weather seems to have left Kazakhstan for now – we are beginning to hit something of a cold snap. It’s all relative, of course. When we are in the depths of despair that will be January I am sure that we will look back on autumn and dream of temperatures approaching 4’C. It is partly because of this that we are still exploring at every opportunity, trying to find every gem that Astana has to offer before our expeditions are cut short by fatally freezing winds.

We tried and failed to find the Asian market on the Saturday – a real shame, as kimchi would do wonders for the cold I seem to have had for most of the month. We were told about this thus-far oasis by two other expatriates who are connected to the British Embassy. We got to meet some bigwigs and players when the Astana International Club paid a visit to our school for the first time on the Friday evening. Wine, cheese and reminiscing about home comforts (hello custard) – a great start to any weekend. Though we were told to shush when the British Ambassador started to play the piano.

As part of this event we were allocated a group of visitors and were encouraged to show them every positive aspect of our school, which seems to have garnered a fantastic reputation inside its first embryonic month of existence. Contrary to what I initially thought, our school is far from the sole international education establishment in Astana. Other schools such as QSI and Miras also employ English-speaking teachers, as do the universities. My tour was conducted to four members of the English Department from the Nazarbayev University – being connected with the President, it’s fairly prestigious, but also very new, meaning the teachers I spoke to could see many similarities.

Kazakhstan fun fact: Two years ago, not a single brick of our school had been laid. The land was steppe – deserted, lifeless desert. Not so lifeless now!

This Friday had been designated as Teachers’ Day in our school. I’ve experienced a Teachers’ Day before in Korea, where I was given enough pepero to encourage me to keep using the gym. However, this occasion celebrating those who made all of you what you are today is held on different days across the world. Korea’s was in May – in Kazakhstan it is held on the first Sunday of October. Obviously as we don’t teach on a Sunday, we would have missed out, so we bumped it up to a Friday.

As usual, this involved an assembly, and as usual yours truly was coerced into taking part. Not the easiest quiz either – ‘how much do you know about your kids’ was our topic. The other four teachers taking part had between three and eight kids in their respective classes. I have thirteen. Fair? Not a chance. I did get through to a tie-break before losing, aided by my ever-wonderful kids screaming ‘Mr Smith! Mr Smith!’ whenever I was thinking of the answer to a ludicrous question. ‘How many of your children’s surnames start with the letter Z?’ works better in Kazakhstan than it would in Britain, I can assure you of that. We then showed them a slideshow of us at work and play, which went down a storm.

As in Korea, I did get some presents. Cards, flowers, chocolate…oh, and two incredibly expensive pens. One from Dubai, and one which came in a Mont Blanc bag. As far as I’m aware, both are legit – they should be, considering the fees parents pay for their kids to enjoy the benefits of our school. It shouldn’t just be about teachers though – my teaching assistant, Assel, does a fantastic job, so on the sly we made her a card and then sent her on a fraudulent photocopy-collecting task so all the children could sign it for her. She was pleasantly surprised when we presented it to her.

Her work was never more important to me than on the previous evening, when we had our first – and my first – parent’s evening. For those who don’t know the British system, parents are invited to meet the teachers two or three times during the school year as means of a verbal progress report. Half of my kids don’t speak English – more than half of their parents are in a similar boat, so Assel was vital for translation. In spite of our nerves, it passed without incident, and was a positive experience for all of us.

Our reward for enduring the parents – unfortunately some other teachers had more issues than I did – was a trip to see Swan Lake, the famous Tchaikovsky ballet. I’ve seen Black Swan, off of Oscar movie fame, but had never to my knowledge seen a ballet performance in the flesh before. It started late, and we hadn’t had much sleep…no, I didn’t actually fall asleep. I thoroughly enjoyed the show, even though others described it as ‘amateur dramatics’. Moscow state circus may be out of reach for them for a couple of years. I may end up ahead of them in the queue for that if the threat to buy me the red tights worn by the jester is carried out.

It’s been another wonderful week in amazing Astana. I’m glad we’re managing to enjoy ourselves while it’s still possible to venture outside, and we will endeavour to keep this up for as long as humanely possible.

Love you all