Living abroad in the time of Covid

I’m writing this sitting in our isolation flat in Stafford. It’s July 2021 and this morning I stood in front of the bathroom mirror retching as I poked a cotton wool bud into and around my tonsils. Then I stuck it up my nose and twizzled it around. It has since been packaged up and sent by mail through a specially designated ‘priority postbox’ to a lab for analysis.

Needless to say, I never envisaged this would be part of my routine when coming home to visit England the last time we travelled freely between here and Ukraine (including a break in Georgia) in late December 2019/early January 2020. But here we are. Since then, a little strand of RNA wrapped in a fatty envelope turned the world upside down. (Postscript note: Luckily for me, no such little strands were detected on my cotton wool bud that day).

I’ve decided to write this blog mainly for the sake of just documenting what is a key point in history as people who experienced it. And the interesting thing about the Covid thing (oh yeah, by the way, I’m writing about Covid!) is that everyone reading this has experienced it too, but from different perspectives and situations, with varying impacts on their lives depending on where they live, what they do and how old they are.

We’re all involved. Often world events that are splashed across the news networks – though they involve the world technically – are localised in some country or region. Political upheaval in a certain distant country, an oil slick endangering the environment of some island group or perhaps – as it seemed in the early days – a nasty virus outbreak in a faraway Chinese city that few had heard of. We could watch the news, shake our heads, talk about how awful it was, then go do something else. But Covid didn’t let us do this. It came out of the news stories and came knocking on the door.

Nonetheless, even though everyone reading this experienced the crisis in their own way, this is part blog/part diary and while it’s interesting seeing how other people experienced recent world events, it’s also something for me to look back on in the future. So, with that justification, let’s look back on what happened over the last 18 months or so.

We’ll start just at the cusp of chaos. A bit like those disaster movies, this is the bit where everything is life as usual…but there’s a certain feeling things are gonna go wrong. If you’re British and you know the TV hospital series ‘Casualty’, it’s the first 10 minutes when we see the guy climb the wobbly ladder to look at the electric meter just after his family have gone away for the weekend and won’t be back till Monday….
I’ve decided to call this bit –

‘Just before everything got weird’

A flight to England. Christmas! Beers with school friends in the pub.

Reports of a new respiratory disease emerging in China, thousands of miles away-

A road trip around the country to enjoy some festive cheer. Turkey. Stuffing. More drinks.

Where’s Wuhan? ……This thing sounds a bit like SARS. Remember that?

Flight back to Kyiv for New Year’s Eve with Kate’s parents and then an early New Year’s Day flight to Georgia for about a week. Tours. Too much Georgian food. Back to Ukraine.

Looking out over Tbilisi
Looking out over Tbilisi
Georgian countryside
The stunning countryside of Georgia

Have you seen they’re stopping people leaving their tower blocks in Wuhan because of this new virus? Wow, things are getting serious….

And work. Back to class. Teaching – welcome back! – Happy New Year! Let’s hope 2020 is a great one! …..

A visit from friends and a trip to a decommissioned nuclear missile base – because why not? and another weekend trip to the birthplace of the founder of space travel.

Nuclear missile base Ukraine
Pushing the button to launch nuclear missiles

Read more about our visit to an underground nuclear missile base in the middle of the Ukrainian countryside and to Zhytomyr, the home of Sergiy Koroylev and the space museum.

Space Museum Zhytomyr
Real artifacts from the Zhytomyr Space Museum

Then late February I went on a trip with work to Lviv in the west of Ukraine. I arrived by train and went to be part of a big conference at a university with local teachers. At one point I had to stand on stage and ask them what ‘concerns about world problems’ their teenage and university students had. This was meant to be a very general brainstorming request and related to some kinda speaking activity for class…
The whole room of 400 or so teachers (yes, not socially distancing – it wasn’t a thing yet) chorused –

‘Coronavirus!’

And we all laughed a bit. Yes, it was a concern. But still there was this feeling it was distant and things would probably be fine. Bird flu from Asia, Mexican swine flu, Ebola in Africa – yeah, we’d all heard of these potential threats, but we came through ok, right..?

Presentation in Lviv
Presenting to teacher in Lviv at the last face to face event

So the conference ended following pictures and handshaking and refreshments and I flew back to Kyiv the next morning.

And that would be the last time I’d be on a flight until July 2021.

Things started getting weird

A few weeks later, it was time for the company Annual General Meeting when Kate would also travel to Lviv to meet with managers and discuss plans for the rest of the year. New courses, new ideas, new opportunities.

Then the first twist happened when the government announced that, due to the risks of infection, they were closing the schools. From the next day. Suddenly, the focus of the meeting changed to all about finding a way to keep our private language school alive by switching to teaching online. In one announcement, life, teaching, socialising and travel changed completely. Here’s what happened next.

Cyberlife

What happened at our school was the biggest reorganisation ever. The classes had to be moved entirely online as rapidly as possible – like, within a week. This involved taking a nationwide school with branches in 3 cities from being 100% face-to-face in the classroom, to being 100% screen-to-screen. It included finding the best online platform, making sure everyone had a laptop and that everyone got at least the basic training on using the tech. Also, everyone had to have what they needed to basically live and teach from their flats.

I’d never taught an online class in my life and it was a steep learning curve – admittedly experienced by people all over the planet at the same time. We went from saying ‘What is Zoom anyway?’ to ‘Zoom is my life!’ in the space of a fortnight. There wasn’t another option. Private language schools like ours were particularly at risk – it was either ‘close indefinitely and hope it goes away’ or ‘go online in a massive logistical and technical nightmare’. I guess the contrast could be summed as – do nothing or do everything at once. We did the second. So far it seems it worked for our school though there have been a lot of casualties in the industry in general.

Keep calm and Zoom on
Basically, how we had to go about things

Interestingly, it was pretty inspiring to see how everyone pulled together. With everyone essentially stuck in their flats (though Ukraine never had the total lockdown thing – we were free to go outside) teachers started talking a lot online – sharing materials and ideas for online teaching. But things still got pretty heavy. Let’s set the background of what was going in general in Ukraine regarding Covid around this time – say March 2020 onwards.

The view from Ukraine

As I said above, schools were closed. Teaching was done online. Shops closed except for food stores. Bars and restaurants were obviously locked down. They closed the Metro. Masks became mandatory in ‘public places’ (though the definition of a public place seemed quite grey). They even closed public parks and put tape around them and across benches.

Trying out some of our first masks
Trying out some of our first masks. There have been many more since then

The result was, our world had narrowed to our small flat and for a lot of people either a small very lonely flat (for those who lived alone) or a small very chaotic and noisy flat for those who lived with their families. With us, it was just me n Kate.

The Kirby-Lloyd Work Station: A typical day

I’m sure if anyone who’s reading this is a teacher you’ll agree that in the early days of online teaching at least – preparation took ages. No longer could I just scribble some sentences quickly on the board – I had to work out how to do it using Zoom or make a PowerPoint slide in advance. Also, gestures are harder. When you’re explaining something to an English language class on a small screen it’s harder to get an individual’s attention, hard to get your point across with a hand movement or an expression. Everything takes longer and with some students it’s hard to know if they’re even taking part at all or playing Minecraft.

Plus, Kate and I were also preparing materials for the lessons for other teachers to take the pressure off some of them – so we had more to put together. On top of that of course, Kate is the academic manager of the school so had endless meetings and things to organise and respond to as the year unfolded.
So on a typical weekday of working from home we’d roll into our office chairs in front of our laptops at around 9:30am. I sat at the kitchen table; Kate had a desk in the bedroom. Prep…prep…prep…a break around 3pm. Teach 4pm-9pm. Everyday. Plus, some prep at least one day of the weekend, stuck in our chairs staring at screens. As the weeks turned into months it got harder and harder and more claustrophobic. I began to hate the sight of my computer screen…

Covid work at home space Kyiv
Kate’s workspace in the corner of our bedroom

PowerPoint Dreams

Prior to Covid I can honestly say I never dreamt about PowerPoint. Why would I? Maybe PowerPoint dreams are something Bill Gates had and leapt up in the morning crying ‘Eureka!’ before designing it (did he design it? I don’t know really. Answers in the comments if you do…). But my PowerPoint dreams were more distressing.

Screens really do mess up your sleep. Either I wouldn’t be able to nod off or I’d wake up at 2am concerned about a PowerPoint for a lesson or webinar I was trying to put together in my sleep. When I finally came round, I’d realise there was no topic to it. My head was just filled with cursors and textboxes and animations. But by that time, I was wide awake and staring at the ceiling. I ended up spending a lot of time reading a book in the sitting room and waiting for the alarm to go off to tell me to get back into my teaching chair.

Kris’ to do list in his office/our kitchen

Webinars – they’re seminars on the web – clever!

Also as part of my job I did a lot of seminars with teachers promoting Pearson English teaching products and obviously this also had to go ahead during lockdown. Interesting, this was quite a success story. While in the past I used to visit schools and universities (or go to other cities around the country – as I mentioned with Lviv earlier), now everything was delivered online. The benefit being that anyone anywhere in the world could now join our free webinars. And with most people being stuck at home online, many did! Suddenly it felt like I was doing a weekly radio show. Talking to the camera and delivering a webinar, but unavoidably talking to teachers about the peculiar challenges we were all sharing from teaching online.

Kris Kirby webinar
Doing a webinar for Dinternal
Behind the scenes of the webinars…..viewers couldn’t see the kitchen behind
Behind the scenes of webinars – filming a promo video in the corner of our bedroom

Enough work – what about quarantine fun time?

As I said above, luckily for us, Ukraine never had the ‘STAY AT HOME!’ order. We were always free to spend as much time as we liked outside. And also, luckily for us, we like walking. And this is what became our main Saturday pastime. We’d walk miles around the city.

Now, previously we’d walk miles around the city, but with the aim to find a bar or restaurant at the end of the stroll for refreshments. With this not being an option, we had to plan loops that brought us back to our flat. Which became our new ‘bar’.

In our flat ‘bar’

We mail ordered craft beer from breweries around Ukraine, collected them from the post office and sampled them while we stood at a shelf by the door (who wants to sit down any more???). We played music and discovered different bands online. We attended online ‘lockdown’ concerts through facebook as various artists started responding to the problem of being stuck at home. And we tried lots of restaurants around the city through delivery.

Find out about the various craft beer breweries around Ukraine in our post about craft beer delivery.

Incidentally, the first time we had food delivery on a Saturday night bears recounting. So, it’s March. Kyiv is still cold n dark and I had to go and meet the delivery driver on the street outside our flat at around 8pm. Surreally, in the middle of a capital city on a Saturday night, the street is eerily empty and I’m standing there on the curb as I see this bloke on a moped approaching. He’s in a facemask, as am I. He silently hands me the food and the bill. I pay him and we part ways. It felt like I’d just bought some drugs or perhaps some illegally harvested kidneys. Thankfully it was just burritos.

Then, as the weather became ever so slightly more bearable, we did the respectable thing – and started outside drinking the sort of which I haven’t entertained since I was a teenager in England.

Now, don’t judge. Outside, street or carpark drinking might sound like we’ve slipped into some kind of problem area socially, but it’s actually always been a thing here in Ukraine. Grabbing a beer from a shop and drinking it outside is apparently quite normal and completely legal as long as you’re within a certain radius of the place you bought it. Having said that, if you get into trouble when you try this, it’s nothing to do with me. Anyway, in the small courtyard behind our flat there is this raised ‘garden’ area. And on that raised garden, any given evening of the week you’d find groups of people sitting on a low wall enjoying beers.
There is something quite different to this in Ukraine compared to if it happened in the UK. The beer drinking carpark crowd are generally pretty quiet. I never once saw any trouble. Plus, I once even saw some people drinking sparkling wine from paper cups too and even a small group of older ladies drinking brandy. In the UK you’d be rightly suspect of street drinkers and presumably at some point in the night they’d start throwing bottles at buses or weeing on people’s cars. That’s the UK for ya…

Beers in the ‘garden’ outside our flat

Anyway, before Covid ever happened we had always said we’d give this a whirl (the Ukrainian version that is, not the bottle-throwing/weeing one – obviously we’ve been there already – we’re British…) – as a cultural experience, right..? And in late March 2020 we had the perfect excuse. So it became a thing. Massive long Saturday afternoon walk. Home to our local corner shop – buy a beer each and sit on the wall in our courtyard, savoring the outside world for another 30 minutes, before going inside to have food and prepare for another week at the computer.

The Zoom Events

Then there was of course the fact that now everyone was online it was the time to have ‘Zoom get-togethers’. An online party? Seriously??

But they happened. We met friends in the UK regularly at the weekend in cyberspace to talk and drink and be merry. Not something I’d every thought I’d have done during ‘normal’ times – but great to do when were all so isolated.

Zooming with friends in the UK
Zooming with friends in the UK

Plus there was the quiz. We started doing a regular Sunday late afternoon online pub quiz with fellow teachers in Ukraine. Yes, many of them were people we would normally have seen face-to-face, but now it was all about being online. Each week someone wrote a quiz and each week my team failed miserably to get a respectable score.

Sunday quiz with Kyiv friends who were couldn’t meet face to face

The light at the end of the tunnel….?

Gradually, as the summer approached certain restrictions began to be lifted. This doesn’t mean there weren’t more lockdowns, but at least this big one was coming to an end. Our school stayed online until the summer break though and we all waited impatiently for Friday July 11th.

London School of English end of year photo 2020
London School of English end of year photo 2020

The date is burned into my memory as the last day of teaching for the academic year 2019-2020. Vividly I remember the last class of the year resulted in just one student turning up late – after all, exams were done and results were out and they’d had enough of being on Zoom too. It was an adult class and after a 10 minute chat she said she just wanted to thank me for the course, but would like to let me start my holiday early. I protested of course….. but a minute or 2 later Kate and I were popping a cork on a bottle of Champagne (i.e. fizzy wine) to celebrate making it this far.

End of year bubbly

Summer ‘20

With many restrictions lifted but a trip to England seeming too difficult, we spent the summer touring eastern Ukraine. A trip that would take in beaches, wineries, WW2 airfields, statues and various dumplings. All of which we may not have seen if we hadn’t been ‘trapped’ in Ukraine.

Read more about our travels around Ukraine during Covid – starting with our post on Things to do in Poltava.

Semi-normality…?

The new semester saw us back in the real classroom. Yes, I no longer taught virtual students in little square boxes on a computer screen. We were back, with liberal splashes of 70% ethanol and weird outbreak-style face shields, but we were back. At least for a while – shorter ‘fire-break’ quarantines followed.
My only misgiving about teaching in the real classroom…is I can no longer mute any of the students….. 😀

Teaching in a face shield
Teaching in a face shield

Christmas ‘20

Again, going home didn’t feel like a viable option. So we spent it in Ukraine, meeting families on Zoom from a distance. Ukraine made the decision to lift restrictions….and then bring in a lockdown straight after Ukrainian Christmas in early January for 2 weeks. It seemed to be – celebrate!!!!! – Then stay at home to contain the spread when everyone’s infected! But we were happy to have a few weeks on holiday and freedom before the quarantine, given what other countries were going through.

Merry Christmas 2020!

Bringing us back to the view from England in July 2021

As summer ’21 approached we realized we had to go home and visit. We’d been away too long. Despite restrictions and isolation rules and the cost of tests, we had to go home. We realized if we left it to Xmas ’21 and if the isolation rules were the same (i.e. in the UK as of July you had to isolate for 10 days on arrival from amber-list countries – 5 days pending a clear extra test) we wouldn’t be able to visit then either. Pushing our next trip to summer 2022. When, let’s be honest, some other crap will have probably happened like an environmental tipping point or alien invasion. Hence the decision.

The good news is, although it seemed like a ridiculously remote possibility for a long time, we managed to get vaccinated in Ukraine just before our UK trip. Ukraine prioritised those working in education at some point and therefore we made the grade.

Kate after a Covid jab – an unnecessarily large plaster there

As I’m writing this last section after our trip, I can confirm we did not test positive for Covid during any of our tests in England or on our return to Ukraine. We had a great trip visiting our families and are now ‘safely’ (?) back at work. The new semester starts next week. Let’s see how long we can keep it in a real classroom…

Covid tests UK
One of many Covid tests we had over the summer

Looking back and taking stock

I’m writing this last bit on the 24th of August, 2021 in Kyiv. It’s Ukrainian independence day – a big one – 30 years since they left the Soviet Union. There’s a military parade and every now and then I can hear a jet fighter zoom by overhead, though I can’t use the word ‘zoom’ (Zoom) in the same way anymore.

The pandemic is far from over. Even as I type this, I’m seeing reports of the crisis deepening in our old haunt of SE Asia. Lockdowns continue. Cases surge. Antivaxxers spout garbage. The news turns to the new variants and we work our way through the Greek alphabet assigning them names.

But what’s the ‘take-home-message’ (which seems an interesting phrase given many people are trapped at home and won’t be taking anything there..)?Well, I could go on about the negativities. The Covid deniers. The conspiracy theories. The failings of governments around the world. And of course, the casualties. But I think everyone knows about those things already. The positivity I’d take away from all this, is people pulling together and doing their best despite the anxieties, the sleepless nights, the overwork, the boredom and the PowerPoint dreams.

And of course, for many – the danger.

Now, go and wash your hands like it’s 2020 and give everybody some space.
…And if you get the chance – have a beer on wall outside a shop in Ukraine.

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