At last, we pulled up at the entrance to the camp. There was a group of about 10 people waiting for my arrival; most of these were vazhati, which I’ll explain later. I got out of the car and shook hands with Elena, one of the two young women I had been messaging to organise things. She spoke fairly good English. She translated some of the driver’s words to me, apparently he had really enjoyed our conversations.
I bade farewell to Misha, and was lead by Elena into the camp. It appeared surprisingly twee, with bunting hanging between the trees. She took me to a building where the eldest children slept, up to a twin bedroom, which I was to share with the other volunteer: Anna.
Anna was born in Russia to Russian parents. When she was 5 years old, the family migrated to Ireland. At first she didn’t know any English, but when I met her you would not have guessed. She speaks faultless English with an Irish accent and all the modern slang. So her identity is divided between the two cultures. She speaks fluent Russian at home, grew up on home-cooked Russian food and returns every summer to visit her grandparents in a city which is about 4 hours train ride from the camp. We were the first two native English speakers the camp had ever seen, and we were to be roommates.
The kids hadn’t arrived yet. Anna and I were summoned to the theatre to meet the vazhati. These were the young adults – men and women ranging in age from 17 to 24 – who were assigned to look after one of the 8 groups of children. Each group typically contained around 15 children. There were two or three vazhati for each group. The role of the vazhati was to herd them around, look after them, entertain them, discipline them, etc. In comparison, our role as volunteers was only to entertain them (and to encourage the use of English).
So we met a group of vazhati in the theatre. There was sausage, bread and vodka being passed round. We got a bit drunk and got introduced to everyone; they all seemed really friendly and welcoming. I found the language very difficult, so I just sat there listening and trying to catch the meaning, grinning excitedly. I think the young people were quite shy at first, but after a bit of time/vodka, three vazhati came and sat with Anna and I. They were Lena, who studies English at university, Galina who studies journalism and Nastya, who was just intrigued. They wanted to listen to us speak English, as they hadn’t met many native English speakers before. It was a novel feeling, being interesting just for your language!
The next day, the children arrived at 8am. There wasn’t much for Anna and me to do that day, as everyone was just getting organised and settled in. A rumour seemed to spread among the children that we were German or Scandinavian – a little boy called Andrey excitedly tried to practice his German with me, to no avail. We became good friends anyway; he was very creative and loved making little plastic bracelets and necklaces for us!
As the days went on I made sure to keep a diary. I wrote that being at the camp was a challenge because of the language; I could only be fully understood by one person, Anna, and semi understood by a small handful of others, namely Elena, and a couple of the older kids. Communication on my part required so much energy that I found myself very easily tired out. However, I was also feeling blissfully happy; hanging out with the children was so uplifting and rewarding. I can honestly say I loved them all; they were so unspoilt, so keen to play and learn, and also so generous and kind.