Leaving Russia

In 3 hours we’ll be off the ground, heading to America.

Our year in Russia has been in some ways wonderful, and in other ways, very challenging.

Let’s start with a wonderful thing: we moved here with, and I worked alongside, two sets of friends we met in Al Ain. This year we got to spend lots of time together, and it was great to develop our friendships further.

Here’s a challenge: because of her Russian citizenship, Jenia had a bunch of hassles and hoops to jump through relating to renewing passports and getting one for our November-born baby. That was made harder (to the tune of 6 trips to Ryazan, a 9-hour ordeal) by the school I worked for. How is that possible? Well, Russia has some byzantine paperwork requirements for its citizens, and one of them involves registering in a new city when you move there. My employers somehow couldn’t manage to register my wife, despite more than one promise to do so, which meant she had to travel to Ryazan to handle the paperwork. That was a royal pain. Similarly, since the new baby was given Russian citizenship because her mom is Russian, we had some hassles involving her passport.

Wonderful: teaching Russian kids, after spending a few years in the Emirates, was a delight. Generally, the students apply themselves, and that’s unsurprisingly much more rewarding than trying to instruct unmotivated Emirati boys.

Here’s a second wonderful: shoe condoms and poplar snow. Wonderfully weird, that is. And the shoe covers are more of an annoyance than a good thing, but they’re so delightfully Russian that you have to appreciate them. Poplar snow seems to happen mostly at the beginning of June, when poplar trees spread their fluffy white seeds everywhere the wind will blow them. It’s kind of similar to shoe covers–incredibly annoying, yet also so unique you gotta love it.

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A tiny little bit of poplar snow

A challenge: dealing with a new school and inexperienced leaders therein. You can imagine how daunting setting up an educational institution is, can’t you? There are lots of expectations and it’s hard to hit them all dead center, no doubt about it. However, establishing clear goals and quality communication with experienced leaders at the helm would go a long way toward helping things get up and running without much problem. I say “would,” because that was not the case here. Everyone, except, for the most part, teachers, were doing their jobs for the first time. That was hard. Lesson learned: if you’re heading to a new educational institution, make sure you’re working for folks who know what they’re doing.

Here’s another challenge: midwinter. The sun set before 3pm, and many days it didn’t really come out to shine. Depression city.

Wonderful: seasons. You miss those when you’re in what amounts to year-round summer in the UAE for a few years. And summer in Kazan is really beautiful. Also, since we’re talking seasons, who can’t appreciate a good 3am sunrise?

Challenge: cultural expectations. This is one complication an expat faces almost anywhere–Russia is a different place from the States after all, and even though on the surface Russian culture is similar to that of Western nations, one must only scrape a layer or two to realize that there are lots of little differences. Widespread superstitions and adherence to puzzling traditions (could this just be due to ignorance?) are among these differences. Here are some examples of superstitions we’ve encountered: knocking on wood (familiar, right?) or saying “tfu tfu tfu” after a compliment, not shaking hands over a threshold, not accepting money in your hand at night, to name a few. Jenia can tell you more. As for puzzling traditions/ignorance, I had a mother tell me she didn’t want her child to sit on the bench outside during the winter because she wanted grandchildren one day. For the same reason, girls weren’t allowed to sit on the concrete. Yep, educated adults seriously think their kids will have reproductive issues because of sitting on cold surfaces. I’m telling you, lady, if your kid has gotten so cold that his reproductive system has frozen, then you won’t have to worry about having grandkids, you’ll have to think about replacing your child. Sheesh.

Wonderful: cost of living, assuming you are being paid on a competitive Western rate, is incredibly low. For example, we paid about 200 rubles a month, each, for our prepaid cell phone service, which included data. At current exchange rates, that’s about $3.50. A taxi ride across Kazan, reservations made using the wonderful Tap Taxi app, would usually set us back about 250 rubles, depending of course on where we were going. Hopping the bus costs 25 rubles. Food is similarly inexpensive. Brand name clothing and shoes, on the other hand, are similarly priced to the USA, and by comparison to other things, are very expensive. It’s been a really good year for saving money.

Oh, and I can’t forget to list another wonderful thing: learning Russian. My Russian is low, but I’ve learned a lot. Turtle, on the other hand, has really become a fluent speaker, and that’s fantastic.

So as we’re leaving, it’s obvious that we’ve had a year full of experiences both delightful and aggravating. And while it can be easy to focus on the things which are difficult, I think the year has been worthwhile. At any rate, it is over.

 

 

Helsinki.

“I’m off on Monday. Let’s go to Finland.”

That’s the genesis of our 3-day trip to Helsinki. A direct flight from Kazan to Helsinki turned out to be cheaper than a flight to St. Petersburg, so we booked three tix and headed north to Russia’s nordic nieghbor.

Here’s the short story: we loved visiting Helsinki.

Now for the longer one: Helsinki is a splendid place that has lots to offer while being compact enough to tour easily in a brief time period. It’s surrounded by sea and gulls swoop and cry wherever you find yourself. Oddly, we both noted that there’s no strong salty odor flavoring the air. We don’t know the reason for this, so feel free to enlighten us if you do.

A tip I picked up from watching a Rick Steves’ Europe episode about Helsinki was to take the number 3 tram, which runs in a loop around the city, and allows you to hop on and off as you wish (tickets are good for an hour). This way you get a cheap tour without paying Big Bus rates. The trams are impressively smooth and quiet, making a serene way to get around. And speaking of getting around, everyone we met spoke good English.

For us, highlights included the beautiful parks; accidentally stumbling upon the Sibelius monument, a lovely curiosity; exploring the neoclassical area around Senate Square, and a special tour of the Finnish National Opera house. We also liked the City Museum (which has a cool interactive history section for kids). We’d probably skip the so-called “Canal Tour” (so-called because I don’t remember an actual canal) which ran in a 90-minute loop around the harbor if we were to do it again, and instead opt for a 15-minute ride out to the 18th century fortress Suomenlinna, since you get some of the same views with the chance to kick around the island as a bonus. 90 minutes gets a bit repetitive by the time it’s over.

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#Stage at the #opera.

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Here are a few other observations: during our time in Helsinki, it was quite cold–every day required a light jacket, with highs in the fifties and low sixties. We were lucky with the sun, though, as every day offered beautiful skies (punctuated by a few hours of clouds as if underscoring the point that clear weather was a blessing). The sun did not set until 10:45 pm and the sky was still streaked with red at midnight. Sunrise was at 3:30. The long days made it easy to fit in lots of sightseeing.

The city doesn’t date back to the medieval era like many European ones, and it hasn’t got a 1000-year plus history like many Russian ones, but it makes up for this with its modernity, cleanliness, and easy navigability. Helsinki seems like a place built to use, and it’s well-kept without being ostentatious.

We tried to eat on the cheap, as we didn’t want to blow too much money. With everything being expensive, we only ate meals out three times–once at Fazer (19.90 euros for two sandwiches, a yogurt parfait, and two hot teas), once at McDonald’s (they have a mediocre veggie burger), and once at Subway. Otherwise we bought food from the local supermarket and made ourselves little picnics.

Also scrimping a bit, we decided to forgo a Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt this time, as the ones we liked would have set us back 34.95 euros, and I’ll be a monkey’s uncle before I spend almost forty bucks on a simple shirt that probably ought to go for fifteen. All that said, the dollar is quite strong against the euro right now, so our bucks passed further than we expected them to.

As usual, we didn’t take a stroller. Instead, we carried the kids in Boba and Tula carriers. Boy, hauling a 3-yeard old toddler around will build up some leg muscles. “If we do this every day,” I told Jenia, “We’ll be the very picture of fitness.”

And about kids: traveling with the little ones continues to be like doing most anything else with them: occasionally challenging, but also rewarding. We structure our days differently (usually with space for naps) than we did  in the days BC (Before Children), and we take into account that we’ll need to balance our day with activities that allow for play time as well as sightseeing. There were no major meltdowns or surprising episodes during this 3-day weekend–in spite of late-night flights to and from Helsinki. As Jenia said long ago now, it’s easy to allow children to be an anchor, but it’s also possible to let them be balloons and have them carry us to new destinations. It’s quite true that four years ago, we’d have missed out on the City Museum, and we’d have spent much less time relaxing in the city’s beautiful parks.

There’s much more of Finland to see than just Helsinki, of course, but we did thoroughly enjoy our visit to the city. The city center is compact enough to take in most of–or probably all of, if you’re not traveling slowly with kids–the highlights in one day. If, like us, you happen to have a few days on your hands, I’d recommend a quick trip to the nordic city of Helsinki.

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Playing the #bottles. #StreetMusician #Helsinki

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