That Time I Was Ashamed

Several years ago, Shon & I enjoyed a short trip to Washington D.C.. I loved the National Mall, stood in awe in front of the statue of Lincoln, and wished I could spend a lifetime at the Smithsonian. It was the Holocaust Museum though that shook me to the core and left the most lasting impression. I did expect to be moved by it but I did not know that it wouldn’t be the photographs of starving children or the piles of leather shoes that would bring me to tears. What broke me down was a rather small paragraph of text close to the end of the exhibit detailing the American response to Jewish refugees. As bizarre as it sounds, I don’t think I’ve been more ashamed in my life than I was at that moment. I remember reading about a ship full of Jews being turned around and sent back to Europe (over a quarter of those on the ship ended up dying in the Holocaust) and about Dominican Republic willing to accept more Jewish refugees than any of the first world countries. Since then I have learned that even Japan, Germany’s ally in WWII, saved thousands of Jews. The US though? The self-proclaimed Christian nation? Well, both the population and the government felt that accepting refugees would be too much for the economy, the argument of “they’ll take our jobs” was rather popular, and, well, anti-semitism was no joke.

Does any of it sound familiar?

Today, many of the same people who would agree that the United States should have done more during Holocaust are those adamantly opposed to bringing in Syrian refugees. Without even realizing it, they are using the same arguments their parents and grandparents used 70-something years ago.

Friends, if you call yourself Christian, does your Bible have different footnotes from mine? Is there an asterisk next to Matthew 25:35 that clarifies that “I was a stranger and you invited me in” only refers to said strangers of the same color/nationality/religious affiliation?

I understand some of the fear, I really do. It’s hard to open your heart to someone you don’t know and don’t understand, someone who seems so different from you at a first glance. I know that the potential threat of terrorism can be debilitating. But while it’s potential for us, it is very real for the people fleeing Syria. They have lived through horrors we can barely imagine. They have taken risks we’ve never contemplated. They have made choices I pray I never have to make.

To me, the idea of a child being shot at school by his caucasian classmate is just as scary as the idea of being shot at a concert by an ISIS member. The scarier thing though? Allowing fear to rob me of compassion, humanity, and willingness to take a risk of getting to know someone different.

At the Holocaust Museum in D.C., there is a room called “Genocide: the Threat Continues”. Its purpose is to bring attention to people at risk of mass atrocities. Right now, this room is hosting an exhibit on what the Museum calls “one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time” – the crisis in Syria. And since these people know a thing or two about genocide, it may be worth listening to what they have to say.

A Top 10 List: What’s Surprising?

Having been to Russia a few times, Ukraine once, and other Eastern European nations, I don’t always notice the things a newcomer would. I don’t even find things that once surprised me remarkable, tending to forget, instead, that anyone might actually be interested in reading about them. Yet, undoubtedly, there’s quite a few quirks one has to adjust to in this sprawling, chilly land. Here’s a selection of unusual things you might encounter on a daily basis in this neck of the woods.

  1. Trees wearing white paint. Actually, I think it’s lime. The purpose? Er, I don’t know.
  2. Toilets which you can’t flush toilet paper down, along with a little trashcan sitting nearby for your used tissue. Only problematic if there’s no waste basket nearby.


    No basket. Problem?

  3. Shopping centers, train stations, and other large foot-traffic areas with only a few of their many doors unlocked and open. Typically requires you to zig-zag. Let the cursing ensue.
  1. Heating cranked up indoors. This is a cool weather thing, of course, not a summer time issue. Only surprising when you realize that there’s no control over said heating in your apartment, except maybe to disable it altogether.
  2. Heating cranked up in public transportation. All modes. Taxis, buses, you name it. Sweat much?
  3. No lawn mowers. Who cares for the many shabby, overgrown outdoor spaces around apartment buildings and alongside secondary streets? Nobody, it appears, except for on rare special occasions.
  4. Early sunrise and late sunset in summer. This is a product of latitude, of course.
  5. Late sunrise and early sunset in winter. Nothing makes you want to stay in bed more than the sun staying away.
  6. Price tags for ordinary goods with numbers in the thousands. Generally goods aren’t too pricey, but you’ll do a double take as you remind yourself of the exchange rate.
  7. Soup, sour cream, and cabbage are ubiquitous. “I can’t imagine a day without having soup,” a guy told me a couple weeks ago. Of course, the soups here are good, so why not have ’em regularly?

What’s it Really Like?

I got an email from someone the other day, and it started with the question, “How are you really liking it in Russia?” I have to grin a little because living and writing about life in the UAE required some care with words, given their strict laws (which might be as straightforward as you’d think, or might not be–see these articles for a couple of examples of what can happen if you vent frustration online), and this person emailing me assumed that the same would be true here. Maybe that assumption is correct if you are venturing into the political realm, but I’m certainly not. You can be sure that what I’m writing about life here is simply how I experience it.

Overall, things for us here are really not bad at all. Better than not bad, in fact, being here is quite nice. We’ve got a nice apartment and live in a good part of town. In general, we have been impressed with the friendliness of the locals, who are happy to practice their English with us, and we’ve found aggravations quite few and far between.

Maybe it’s partly because we’ve done this living abroad thing before, but we’ve had an easier time settling into life here than when we moved to Abu Dhabi. Also, though, I must say my employer here has been very accommodating and the process has been much less drawn out, so kudos to the parties involved in making it happen for us.

Now to the point: what’s Kazan, Russia, really like? It’s got a pretty, European-flavored town center, similar to someplace like Bratislava (but bigger). The outskirts look like Anywhere, Russia, or Anywhere, Eastern Europe.

#Church #belltower on #BaumanStreet, #downtown #Kazan #Russia

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

It’s got lots of buses and trams and trolleybuses (electric buses) and taxis.

The sunsets are often beautiful, and the skies themselves frequently dramatic, as today, when the low-hanging clouds were flying through the windy air, creating a vast, moving panorama. Other days the crisp bright blue skies surprise me. Three years of living in the UAE made me appreciate this sort of thing much more.

The landscape is like everyplace else in Russia I’ve been–vast steppe, not in itself particularly interesting, but far from unpleasant.

#tbt to #Булгар and the banks of the #волга river. #Russia

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

Kazan is generally clean and neat, much tidier and modern than I’d expected. I’m told within the last five years the place has undergone quite a transformation. There are a number of old wooden homes, warped and out of square, that still stand, but they’re quickly being replaced by sturdy, concrete and brick structures.

There are things to see around–the Volga (Europe’s largest river), the Kremlin and the leaning and highly storied Suyumbuk Tower, to name a couple.

It’s not without oddities–the driving is peculiarly scary, for people crowd into intersections 3-5 cars across where there’s only supposed to be 1 (or, perhaps, maybe, doubtfully 2). Drivers dart around breaks in the pavement or the manhole cover which protrudes too high into the driveway or roadway; cars crowd every available space (and drivers invent new ones) in the parking lot in front of our apartment complex; buses keep the heat cranked up whether or not the weather requires that, and people stay bundled up in the tram even though it’s too hot for coats; parents over dress their kids for the weather (we’ve seen parents in T-shirts and their kids in snow pants, for example), and you have to wear little shoe covers when you go in some public buildings, such as the school where I work, which is its own brand of annoying (enter the door, stop and stoop over, put some blue plastic things over your shoes, proceed, but now slipily and noisily).

Should you come visit? Yes, absolutely! This place is really worth seeing.

Now, I’ve got to get off to the shiny gym nearby and try to keep myself in shape.

A Week in Russia. Back in the USSR.

It’s bizarre to be back in Russia.

Despite what many people seem to think, I did not move “back home”. To begin with, I’ve never been to this part of Russia before, but even moving to the town I’m originally from wouldn’t have been moving home. In the past 8 years, I haven’t spent more than 2 weeks at a time in Russia. The country has changed dramatically, and so have I (life does that to you, and immigrant/expat life even more so).

Yes, I speak the language but I speak English, too, and linguistically didn’t feel out of place either in the US or in the UAE. Yes, I know the history, and the literature, and the cultural references, but I don’t know any of the recent movies, TV-stars or music (by choice, mostly). I am not used to hearing Russian anymore and I find myself having trouble understanding some of the local accents. “Sorry” slips off my tongue before I check myself and say “Простите” instead. I have no idea where to look for a nanny, how to pay a phone bill, or where to buy a measuring cup. It’s an odd place to be.

Overall, though, it’s been a good experience so far. As Shon said, the city is very clean and (overgrown lawns and notorious Russian roads aside) rather well-maintained. People are overwhelmingly friendly and helpful. That part in itself simply blows my mind. In my 24 years in Russia before I moved away, I have never seen a post office worker as friendly as the 2 that I encountered this week.

Here are a couple of things I forgot about: decor & clothes. The style of interior decorating is, should we say, unique. To put it in less flattering terms, I wouldn’t be caught dead buying these curtains and chandeliers. And the wallpaper on every single wall in the apartment but the bathroom ones? Yes, kitchen, too. Not my cup of tea. Thank God for good old IKEA with its plain stuff that allows me to tone things down a notch.

As for clothes, people just dress differently. There are quite a few stylish young people (mostly girls) around, but a lot of the choices make one wonder. I am curious whether we stand out much – it surely seems that I may be the only under-40 woman in town wearing boot-cut jeans :) Turtle definitely stands out – he and the other expat kids were the only ones wearing short-sleeved shirts at the playground the other day. The local children were in fleece, or sweatshirts and sweatpants, or full-on jackets, and ALL of them wore beanie hats. The temps were in the upper 60’s. We surely got some stares and were probably considered lacking in basic child-rearing skills.

Grocery shopping is interesting. I anticipated some difficulties due to the sanctions, but things are never as you expect them to be. For example, I found Parmesan but not fresh corn or any kind of squash (fresh broccoli is elusive, too). Wholewheat flour and brown rice cannot be found even at the fanciest of the city’s supermarkets (iHerb, what would we do without you?) and vegetarian products wether soy or myco-protein based are unheard of.

Shopping in general is kind of weird – I miss being able to walk into a CVS (an American chain of pharmacies) and buy milk, pain killer, new nail polish, and a roll of scotch tape all in one place. Here, it requires going to at least 3 different stores. While it may not be a problem if you live or work downtown, it’s quite annoying when you are in the outskirts, carless, and dragging a toddler around.

I’m okay, though. Confused and exhausted, maybe, but fine overall. At the end of the day, being next to Shon & Little Turtle is all that really matters.

Not to Be Missed: Annual Al Ain Life Event for Newbies

While we may not be in the UAE anymore, I cannot help but advertise the annual Al Ain Life event for the new teachers, doctors, and other professionals (and families). It’s a great way to meet people, have your questions answered, find someone to take you dune-bashing, and get recommendations for the best hair-dresser in town (it’s Joanna Graville, by the way.) Please see the flyers below for more info!


Ejofallajokull, which sounds like aya-falla-yo-kull. Or something like that. You’ll remember it. It’s the name of the big volcano that halted air traffic over Iceland for what seemed like forever in 2010. That’s when Iceland got a lot of press. Yeah, well, anyway, we’ve been there now. We’ve seen Eja-falla-whatsit and gotten a whirlwind tour of a fair portion of southern Iceland. It’s a pretty cool place.

You know us. You know we like to maximize our travels and explore new places as much as possible. So naturally, on the way home from the UAE for the summer, we booked ourselves a layover in someplace we hadn’t been before.

National Park

If you haven’t been to Iceland, which is attracting a growing number of tourists, you might like to check it out. Courtesy of Icelandair’s attempts to promote the country with stopovers on the way to other destinations, there are some interesting deals available allowing you to have a look around Reykjavik fairly cheaply and easily.

The country is showing up on the silver screen and the ones in your living room with increasing frequency.  Its intriguing landscape served as alien planets in the films Prometheus and Interstellar, and if you watched the Ben Stiller version of Walter Mitty, you saw it take a starring role, as well.

We found Iceland to be sort of Europe light, regardless of whether the country considers itself part of Europe or not (it does). Everyone we encountered was fluent in English (yes, yes, we mostly met people in the hospitality and tourism industry, but not exclusively), while that might not be the case in, say, Italy, or France. It’s also easy to get around without needing to worry about changing money. Credit cards are accepted everywhere, quite literally, to the extent that we didn’t even make an ATM withdrawal once. Right. We were there four full days, buying food from supermarkets, picking up the odd souvenir, and so forth, and we never had Icelandic cash in our hands.

The island is an absolutely fascinating place to visit. The landscape is otherworldly. It’s often beautiful, and surprisingly delicate. The Suderlandsvegur, highway 1, departs Reykjavik and goes south. Before long, there is a hillside rising up on the right hand side of the road. It has a phrase carved into it. The words were, it turns out, put there by a boy scout troop having fun some 50 years ago, and the vegetation they destroyed hasn’t recovered yet. This might give you an idea of the difficulty that Icelanders face when it comes to farming the unfriendly soil. If not, consider that the waterfall called Skogarfoss is named for a forest (“skogar” means forest, “foss” means waterfall). Even though there is no forest there, because the original Norse settlers chopped the trees down to make room for their animals to graze, some 1100 years ago. The trees have never really returned.

For most of its years as a nation, Iceland has been extraordinarily poor. Only after WWII did the island start to develop into a reasonable economy. Now, standards of living are high. Costs of living are, too, with food being very expensive (much of it being imported, of course), as well as most everything else. Heating and electricity, at least, are affordable. It costs one guy, a tour guide we had, about the price of a large pizza to heat his home for a month. It’s so cheap because water is heated naturally geothermally (Is that a word? Autocorrect doesn’t think so) and stored in huge tanks for the city. This is completely renewable and sustainable. Electricity is also generated through entirely sustainable means.


There are places we’ve visited that we agree we’d love to live. Iceland isn’t one of them. The weather is too oppressive. It’s not severely cold–surprisingly, temperatures hover in the middle-50’s F much of the year, and don’t go very far below freezing most of the winter–but the thick, grey clouds hang claustrophobically low, and visibility is often minimal. “The tallest mountain in Iceland is right over there, across the water,” said a buddy who was showing us around one afternoon. “But you can’t see it now.” Indeed, I’d have never suspected. When the clouds finally parted on the last day of our trip, what a sight we were treated to. The view across the bay was nice. The scenery was extraordinary, in fact. We’d love to go back and spend more time in Iceland, getting farther beyond Reykjavik than we did, but we’d never live there.


Ejafallajo…right, the volcano, anyway, probably helped Iceland to emerge into the consciousness of the average person in the States. Hollywood continues to explore the place, and I’d recommend that you do, too. Despite not being a place I’d like to spend years, it’s fascinating, and I’d love to have more time there.

First Impressions of Kazan

It’s Saturday, and we’ve now been in Kazan almost an entire week. We’ve had time to stroll around the neighborhood, venture downtown a bit, and generally get our bearings. While it’s no surprise that things are different here than, say, Abu Dhabi or the southeastern USA, it’s also different from what we expected in more ways than one. This is, of course, because one of us used to live in Russia, and because the other has been to the country three times before. Here’s a quick list of first impressions.

View from the apartment in #Kazan, #Russia

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

  1. Kazan isn’t like Ryazan, Moscow, or St. Petersburg. While those cities have their charm, this one is notably cleaner and the mood different.
  2. People are friendly. Yeah, okay, this is really an extension of #1. But, considering earlier experiences in Russia, it bears mention.
  3. The city center is pretty; the outskirts are like most other Russian cities, if possibly a bit less drab.
  4. Sunny days are beautiful. That said, it seems like there are lots of cloudy ones, and they’re cold and dreary.
  5. What’s up with letting grass get overgrown? That’s par for the course in Russia, but still. I must say it was remarkable to see someone with a weedeater the other day cutting back the tall stuff nearby.
  6. All the usual mod-cons are here–wifi, etc. I might add it seems A/C is a bit less common than we’re accustomed to. One super-duper handy smartphone app we’ve been turned on to is called Tap Taxi. It allows us to call a taxi using the app, and it’s even possible to request child seats. Since the interface is in English, it makes the task much easier than calling on the phone.
  7. Cabs are cheap and public transportation cheaper still. The public transportation is clean and modern, and most of the announcements are made in both Russian and English.
  8. Russian food is still tasty! Kvas, anyone?
  9. This seems like it will be a completely decent place to live.
  10. And last, but not least, considering the international climate of the last year or so, there seems to be no anti-American/Western sentiment from the average Joe (Josef?).

The beautiful #KulSharifMosque inside the #Kremlin's walls in #Kazan, #Russia

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

Although we have been impressed by most of the same things, Jenia has a somewhat different perspective. Stay tuned for a post from her. Until then, dosvedanya.

The Next Adventure

Fall is right around the corner. New school years are beginning here in Georgia. Teachers are reporting for duty. Our new adventure is about to start: we will be moving to Kazan, Russia, where I (Shon) will be teaching at a virtually brand-new international school.

Kazan is the capital of Tatarstan, and is known as Russia’s Third City (despite being the eighth largest in the country). It has a population which is 50/50 Christian and Muslim, and numbers over a million people. The city is a center of education and manufacturing, and is becoming increasingly well-known for hosting sporting events. 2018 will see the FIFA World Cup take place in Russia, and some of the games will be in Kazan.

For a nice, starry-eyed promotional video about the place, have a look at this video: 

I’m excited to be going to a school where the calendar is unlikely to change (short of a legitimate emergency) and where I’ll have well under 32 students in my classes. The school has a truly bilingual program, and the curriculum is modeled on the typical International Baccalaureate one, which is sensible, well-grounded, and features a number of interdisciplinary features that really make it stand out. Besides the promising work environment, I’m also happy that we’ll be in a place where there is grass which grows naturally.

The adventure begins when we soar out of Atlanta this weekend.

An Ending Comes to an End

Our wonderful friend collected the housing deposit refund check from ADCP one week ago. What was the big delay about?

“They told me I should have known your middle name in order for them to find your check,” she said. “Then I asked why they didn’t phone me when the check was ready [bearing in mind they had promised to do so], and the person told me that if I needed the money then I should track the check down and not the other way around.”

Nice, right? Anyway, I got a text message (still one of the coolest things about living in the UAE–the abundance of text messages quickly and simply confirming transactions) showing that the check was deposited in my bank account the same day. The final step remaining is to transfer that money home, which is on today’s agenda, now that the check has had time to clear, and the Abu Dhabi days are done.

An Ending Continues

Our tenure in Al Ain, in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, has come to an end. I’m not writing from the UAE. No, I’m in a comfortable home that belongs to my relative, with green grass and leafy trees outside the airy, expansive living room. There are clouds in the beautiful blue sky, and it looks like rain is coming. This is definitely not the UAE.

As the ending continues, I’ve received my end of service payment and transferred the money home. It’s a nice nest egg that makes some of the struggles of the last few years a more pleasant memory. I had no unapproved days off, and my term of employment started almost exactly 3 years ago, so the sum was more or less what I was expecting, with the added bonus of the airfare amount being a little higher than we’d hoped for. My extremely helpful friend in Al Ain has yet to hear from ADCP about the housing deposit refund (4,000 AED, no small amount of money), but she will pick up the check and put it in the bank for me ASAP.  After that is done, our last remaining financial ties to the UAE will be cut.

#boylovesairports #dxb Turtle said "good-bye" to Dubai today.

A photo posted by jeniarand (@jeniarand) on

The last couple of days in Al Ain went like one would expect–trying to reduce possessions to the bare minimum, weeding out things we wanted to keep and things we could do without, packing the suitcases full, soaking up Al Ain life, as well as enjoying hotel’s amenities and saying goodbyes to many good people we may never see again. We flew out in the morning on Saturday, hauling more luggage than we ever have before, and hopefully more than we will again.

“I hope there’s no small child in front of me,” Jenia said, pushing her baggage cart through the airport. She could see in front of her, so I’m not sure what she was worried about. Granted, she did have to crane her neck and peer over a barely balancing toddler car seat perched atop the hulking stack of luggage, but surely she wouldn’t have actually run over any small life forms in her way.

No more #PalmTrees in a week. #AlAin #AbuDhabi #UAE

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

At home in the USA for a week now, we’ve been struck by things like polite drivers, the lushness of the southeast, the ease with which we can communicate, the variety of colors and textures of buildings. As Jenia says, the houses and yards offer a sense of personal identity, which contrasts with the UAE’s impersonal but often imposing homes.

Thus, we’re nearly through with our UAE journey. It’s been trying, but rewarding, and I would judge it thoroughly worth doing. The ending continues until the last bit of money comes in…