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!

Aya-Falla-What?

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.

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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.

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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.