When did I start writing my novel, The Golden Ring? One could argue that it was back in August 1996, the day I landed at the airport in Moscow. I was arriving to begin a two-year stint as an English teacher at the American Home in Vladimir.
From the Scheramitova airport, with the self-proclaimed taxi drivers noisily vying for passengers, to the potholed highway, causing our bus to swerve precariously into on-coming traffic as we headed 180 kilometers east, I was already taking mental notes that would eventually make it into my book. Other scenes from the novel were inspired by the first evening with my host family, all three generations there to greet me, the table laid with half a dozen salads, meat and potatoes, bottles of wine, vodka and Sovietskaya Shampanskaya. After dinner we danced, sang songs and they showed me photographs of the family. I had only known them three hours, but I felt like we were already best friends.
The next day, I was off to work. I taught fifteen hours a week, all levels. Russian schools are extremely advanced academically. My students were hard-working, had excellent memories and were eager to please. However, many were not used to speaking and were intimidated, even in front of a class of only ten to twelve students. A small minority had different notions of honest test-taking, but as the American Home prided itself not only on teaching the language, but also on sharing the culture, we encouraged students to explore our foreign expectations and customs. We were able to do this in the classroom, but also through the English club and social events. With my relatively light work load, I had plenty of time to go to the theater, to night clubs, to the dacha and to birthday parties with my students and friends. I also had an opportunity to improve my Russian during the three hours of private lessons provided by the school and at home with my host family.
I was having such a great time that I stayed on for a second year, as lead teacher. I organized the two-week teacher training at the beginning of the school year, planned meetings and excursions for the new teachers, expanded the school library and brought in additional classroom materials. But I also visited Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, Odessa, as well as the many beautiful smaller towns around Vladimir.
It should probably not have come as a surprise that I fell in love, not only with Russia, but with teaching. Going abroad is one of the most rewarding teaching experiences you could have. I thought I was going to Vladimir to improve my Russian enough to become a conference interpreter, but after two years at the Ecole de Traduction et Interprétation in Geneva, I realized that I did not want to be an interpreter after all. I went back to teaching.
After a wonderful year at Intrax, an ESL school in San Francisco, I moved to France to be with my husband and have been teaching there for the past nine years. Once I started my own business, I was able to organize my schedule in such a way that I would have time for my other passion: writing.
The Golden Ring emerged. It was not until I had the storyline down that I realized the book would be set in Russia. Suddenly it seemed inevitable. Post-Soviet Russia has all the makings of a great novel. The characters are intelligent and sociable. They have a keen sense of humor. The setting is rich in history and art. The economic upheaval and social scrambling make for some interesting twists in the plot. Most importantly, I wanted to share my love for the country and for the people with others.
The book begins with Eva arriving in Moscow to look for her twin sister, Laura, who has disappeared. She follows one lead to the next, weeding through sometimes contradictory information from an economics professor whose nouveau riche boyfriend helps her make ends meet, a factory worker who attends Sunday services with missionaries in the hopes of improving his English and a slew of other colorful characters. Her journey takes her to St. Petersburg and then to the historic Golden Ring region of Vladimir and Suzdal. Though the country has been changing at an incredible speed over the last two decades, The Golden Ring reflects the “Real Russia” as I witnessed it, from typical Russian slang to the absurdities inherent in a country where your office may have the latest computers and faxes, but the telephone line is always down.
As the story is in a narrative style and the sentence structure not too complex, I have been able to share it with my intermediate and advanced students in France, and am pleased to hear them discussing their newly-forming plans to visit Russia. With the journey of having written and published my first novel over, though, my feet are itching again. It is important, as a teacher and as a writer, to have a continuous supply of enthusiasm and refreshing ideas, for oneself as much as for one's audience.
My husband and I have therefore decided to move to Riyadh for a new adventure. From the Middle East, I'll be able to get some perspective on my experience in France, the setting of my second novel, which is currently “under construction”. I know better, though, than to devote myself entirely to the book. I need the stimulus that drives me, that keeps me enthusiastic about starting every day. I need to feel helpful, useful.
With all the opportunities, in virtually every country, for an EFL teacher, I sometimes look at a globe and wonder where I'll go next. Where will I be? That's easy, I realize. I'll be in the classroom.
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Brun-Mercer will be giving talks in April in California, New York and Washington DC. For more information, check out The Golden Ring on Facebook.