Russia: Underrated Teaching Location?

Note: Moscow at one point earned the title of World’s Most Expensive City; that’s no longer the case, but it is undoubtedly more expensive than Kazan. The information herein relates to our experiences in Kazan, rather than Russia’s huge capital.

Russia–what a storied place. Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Leningrad, multi-hewed onion domes atop brick towers, Red Square. Having had time to reflect on our year in Russia, a few things really stand out about the experience.

First and foremost, it’s a country that can aptly be described as Second World. Google the phrase and you’ll find that it refers to the former Soviet countries (and a handful of others). While the term Second World is a relic of a bygone era of Cold War, it is still used to describe a country’s level of development–between underdeveloped (Third World) and developed (First World). Perhaps we’d be better off using the phrase “developing” instead of Second World. At any rate, whether we call it Second World or developing, sometimes Russia is as modern and wonderful as can be–spacious new apartment complexes, glittering towers, high speed internet, glamorous German sedans, and all the luxury you might imagine of a country that, as some say, is experiencing a type of resurgence. And yet, those glamorous Teutonic cruisers zoom over potholed pavement, suspension slamming against the stops in a most unglamorous fashion, and despite blazing quick internet, the hot water quits working for days at a time whilst undergoing yet another round of maintenance and repairs. The fancy apartment complex’s landscaping consists of tires as planters, poorly pruned trees and helter-skelter shrubberies. The newly paved parking lot has a section ripped up and poorly repaved scarcely a week after being finished. The parking garages in this complex have never even opened because they are both a terrible deal–one has to pay extra to park in them, as opposed to simply parking on the street level–and also because they are dreadfully constructed. Consequently, navigating through the overcrowded street level parking lot is sometimes impossible.

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on Oct 25, 2015 at 10:47pm PDT

 

It would seem #winter is ending.

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on Feb 29, 2016 at 9:24am PST

 

Second, it’s an inexpensive place to live, assuming that one makes an otherwise competitive Western salary. While it would be classless to share how much I was making, it was in line with a typical IB/international school salary, and included the usual benefits for those sorts of jobs. Suffice it to say that we were able to send up to 70% of our money home monthly. Cab fare using Tap Taxi would run around $2-3 for a typical middle-length ride (Kazan is cheap compared to Moscow or St. Petersburg, by the way), and while eating out could be as expensive as anywhere else if we didn’t use some discretion, we found fantastic delivery sushi, and groceries were inexpensive. During August and September, the fruits and vegetables were surprisingly fresh and delicious. We had trouble finding decent cheeses, though, and settled on Cheese Gallery offerings as usually tasting best. Home DSL internet is inexpensive. Mobile phone service is marvelously affordable–we paid around $3 a month for our MTS internet-equipped phone plans, for instance. A month’s expenses for water, gas, and electricity, as well as whatever fees the apartment complex included, cost around 5,000 rubles (the ruble hovered around 60 to a dollar while we were there).

By some measures, then, teaching in Russia is a great experience. Financially, it was very good for us. Other things made it hard, though. There’s virtually no English spoken on the street (even though some road signs feature both languages), making exploring more of a challenge. Of course, that also helps one be motivated to learn some Russian, and acquiring a foreign language is no small feat.

What about teaching itself? There is a range of opportunity available for an American to teach English. Language schools are one option, although they are basically their own animals as compared to public or private schools. I was able to get a job working at an international school, which, we shall wait and see, may help open doors to other international schools in the future. The school I worked for was brand new, and had its share of growing pains, which made the work environment a bit more difficult than it probably would have been if the school had been established for a while (there’s a good lesson, I think; find a school that’s been around for long enough to be stable, with administrators who have plenty of experience in their roles). In most ways, the work place was nice–it must be said that the new building was generally world-class; having meals (they even accommodated my vegetarianism happily) provided was super convenient; and having transportation to and from work included was a definite perk.

Coming out of the Emirates, I found Russian students to be much easier to work with than the over-privileged Emirati youth, and that was a welcome improvement. Also coming out of the Emirates, the long work days (7:45-4:45) were not a pleasant adjustment, and seriously ate into my quality of family life, while also making it harder to fit routine things like going to the gym into my schedule.

As was the case in the Emirates, and as is usual of international schools and many teaching jobs abroad, living quarters were included as part of the salary package, and the apartment we had was nice and plenty roomy. The location in the Sun City area wasn’t very convenient, which meant we relied heavily on taxis to get around (we could travel by bus, but it took forever and a day), but as I said before, taxi fare is cheap in Kazan, so that was alright. Of course, Russian taxi men are a mixed bag, and you might get a jovial driver one day, and a horrendous jerk the next. Uber has made its way to Kazan, by the way, but I never had any luck finding a car with Uber.

Everyone always asks about the weather. In short, the temperatures only got extremely cold for about a month around January, and only about 2 weeks were truly frigid (-25 c or more). August sucked–it was cold and dreary, but September was made great by Indian Summer–beautiful and clear–and snow fell and stuck from October. In general, after that, winter arrived and it was an overcast crap fest with terribly short days, especially in December, making the arrival of spring and frequent blue skies most welcome around April. May was okay, and June quite nice.

There isn’t much of an expat scene in Kazan. “Single women we knew had a particularly hard time making any kind of connections outside of work,” Jenia says. There are a few small gatherings, there’s a little Western church homegroup that meets regularly, and with coworkers at the school, we had a bit of a social life, but nothing like the thriving one that we experience in Abu Dhabi. But then, as our world-traveling fellow expat-teacher friends the Casales once observed, it is incredibly easy to live in the UAE as an expat. Russia, or at least Kazan (Moscow and St. Petersburg have larger expat populations), doesn’t make it easy to be an expat, although as I said, that does have some benefits, including making it easier or at least more necessary to acquire some language skills. There are lots of events going on, though, with concerts, sports events, and more happening frequently, if one can just navigate enough Russian to figure them out (a task much easier these days with the mind-blowing Google Translate app).

Travel within Russia is inexpensive. We’d recommend visiting the Caucasus–it’s drastically different from the plains which dominate the rest of the Russian landscape.

#Dombay #Russia #Caucasus #caucasusmountains #skiresort

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on Apr 3, 2016 at 2:41am PDT

A final observation is what Jenia calls spotty but inexpensive healthcare. There was only one hospital in all of Kazan, with its 1.2 million people, willing to allow me into the delivery room when our youngest was born, for example. This private hospital, Ava Kazan, did generally offer a Western level experience. “It differed dramatically from doctor to doctor,” Jenia says.  Ava had English-speaking staff, too, which was great, but even they couldn’t get Western-made vaccines (Russian ones don’t have a very good reputation).

Where we spent the last couple of days. #Kazan #россия

A photo posted by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on Nov 28, 2015 at 1:02am PST

 

So is Russia an underrated teaching destination? In some ways, probably so. If you value a place where your dollars stretch a long way, then Kazan is certainly a place where they do. If you don’t need to be surrounded by a large community of Westerners, and if you value the chance to be immersed in Russian (and in the case of Kazan, Tartar) culture, then it’s a neat place to spend some time. So find an established school with experienced leadership, and give it a shot.

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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.

IMG_1840

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.

 

 

The Latest

I’ve seen blogs that languish as their authors lose interest, and it’s sort of a sad thing. The posts get sporadic, and then, with no explanation at all, the writers simply stop updating. When that happens it’s like a story has been interrupted in the middle. It’s like you’re watching TV and the channel suddenly cuts off and won’t come back. I’m always left wondering what has happened to those authors who wrote about their interesting lives–what happened? What did they stop writing for? Did things go badly for them? Inevitably, I find myself hoping for the best–that they quit writing because life simply got too busy, too full of goodness–not that they dropped the virtual pen because they had some tragedy strike, or because everything went sideways, or etc.

As for this blog, it’s languished a bit because it’s been really hard to find time to update. When we write we like to share things we find insightful or memorable for some reason, besides the odd bit about teaching abroad. We like to write about good things, because the world is chock-full of negativity. With the new baby, we simply haven’t had time to sit down and do much writing. We find as a family of four that there aren’t enough hours in the day anymore. And, really, sometimes it’s hard to find good things to write about, too, when life is in something of a rut–not necessarily a nasty place, but nothing remarkable, either.

Somewhere in Mundaneville, Regulartown, USA, one of our readers is chuckling, imagining life in Kazan, Russia, as pretty unremarkable. He is grinning and saying, “You’re living an adventure, and you think you’re in a rut.” And, dear reader, if you’re the one laughing, you are partly right. Sometimes I pause as I’m walking through the birches and think to myself, “Hey, I’m in Russia, the former USSR, and I was just speaking Russian with a random guy–I’m living a kind of dream;” and that’s all fine and good, but I’m reminded that wherever we travel to, people live more or less the same kinds of lives, observing pretty similar daily routines, not much different from those of anywhere else, except perhaps in location.

So what really is new for us? Well, we’re finishing up the school year at the end of June and packing our bags for someplace new. I was offered a contract for a two year position here in town, but decided it would be best to move on and explore more of the world. Where to next? Stay tuned:)

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.
    IMG_9724

    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.

4.  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.

5. Heating cranked up in public transportation. All modes. Taxis, buses, you name it. Sweat much?

6. 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.

7. Early sunrise and late sunset in summer. This is a product of latitude, of course.

8. Late sunrise and early sunset in winter. Nothing makes you want to stay in bed more than the sun staying away.

9. 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.

10. 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.

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.

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.

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.

Highlights

How about a pictorial post featuring some highlights from our various travels the last few years? It seems like a good idea to me. As you probably know if you read the blog thoroughly, we do talk about our travels a bit, but we’re not really travel bloggers in the sense of step-by-step, day-by-day chronicling of our journeys. That has its own appeal, but lots of people do it and probably better than we could. Instead, I offer a handful of what I think are our best instagrams capturing some curious, challenging, or memorable moments from our adventures, and a micro-snippet of a story for each one.

You’ve gotta be kidding me. Another staircase! AAAAAH! Italy, 2014.

Maybe the coolest looking mall in the world? Even the bathrooms were awesome. You should go there, because it’s technologically amazing. Thailand, 2014.

I attended the Sweihan Camel Festival with a small busload of my students. It was phenomenally boring. We drank coffee together and sat around at one point. UAE, 2014.

South Africa, 2013: no better way to see the hills, or a mongoose. Thank goodness for our friend who watched the little one while we spent an hour doing this!

When you gotta drive following some rain. UAE, 2013.

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Hangin' on the beach with the cattle in Sri Lanka.

A post shared by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

There were cows moving about freely, and there was trash strewn everywhere, too.

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#russia #ryazan #kremlin

A post shared by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

Who cares about the frigid weather and icy walkways? Russia, 2012.

You never know what you’ll encounter in Downtown Dubai. 2012.

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In #Baktapur. #Nepal #BTspringBreak #Travel #Temple

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We strolled through Bhaktapur’s beautiful squares, toddler in tow. Nepal, 2015.

Turtle LOVED off-roading and exploring. Jordan, 2014.

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#wadirum #jordan #travel

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LOVED, not least because there were no seat belts in the Land Cruiser!

Curvy, narrow roads, steep drop-offs, staying just ahead of bad weather. Liechtenstein, 2014.

Seeing the Himalayas–from 32,000 feet. 2015.

Close encounters of the monkey kind, descending from Swamabhunath Temple on a hilltop–Nepal, 2015.

The child loved snow, too, but not mittens. Czech Republic, 2014.

Getting around Wadi Rum the old-fashioned way; the baby aboard in the Boba carrier. He got used to it and didn’t mind after a little while. Jordan, 2014.

The way out of the temperature-constant caverns. France, 2014.

Sometimes sitting on a park bench lets you witness a story. Could it be true love? France, 2014.

Peculiar local customs. UAE, 2012.

More peculiarity–drive-in shisha cafe. UAE, 2012.

Sometimes napping just can’t wait, like here in Nepal, 2015.

Fancy a freshly fried snack? We didn’t. This was at the night market in northeastern Thailand with friends. 2014.

Wrapping up Summer: A Money Monday Post

ADEC gives us money for flights home once a year, and if we are careful and spend lots of time combing Expedia, Sky Scanner, and similar sites, we can find airfare that is cheap enough that we can afford to make a pit stop along the way. This is possible because the allowance is (supposedly) based on economy airfare for direct flights to teachers’ home ports. Those flights are more convenient in a number of ways, and as a result a little more expensive than those with multiple legs. Anyhow, if you recall, last year we spent two weeks exploring from Amsterdam, because we booked a trip with layovers rather than going home directly. This year we did something similar. We booked a flight with a stop in Milan. From there, we made a big circle, driving almost everyday for a couple hours or more, seeing six countries during 14 days. Then we hopped an airliner for Abu Dhabi and got ourselves back to Al Ain via rental car.

As I’ve said, we couldn’t afford to do this if we weren’t careful about finding affordable airfare. Or rather, we couldn’t justify spending the coin. After all, one of the overarching reasons for returning to Abu Dhabi for a third year is to beef up our savings account and IRAs. A third year’s bonus will be very useful in that, but we aren’t relying on the bonuses alone to set us up financially. That would be stupid, because wherever we go next, be it back to the grand USA or another country, we will need startup funds. So money must go into the bank all along the way or we will be no better off than before.

Now, bearing in mind my Money Monday introduction, I want to share about our trip through northern Italy and the surrounding regions. We saw beautiful scenery, met wonderful people, and learned new lessons about exploring as married parents of a toddler.  How can we do it and not waste everything we have squirreled away into savings and/or plan to put to responsible use to make our futures brighter?  I’ll try to answer that as I write.

Our first stop was Milan. Milan is remarkable in its humdrumness, if that’s a word. It’s amazingly ordinary. I maybe ignorant of other more interesting sights in the area, but in a couple days, we saw everything most people say is worthwhile: the Duomo and nearby Sforza Castle, as well as the canal area. We found the place pleasantly affordable, excluding the shops near the cathedral. It was possible for us to eat dinner for under 20 euros. We spent only one night, and that with a blog buddy of Jenia’s, so we didn’t have to pay anything for lodging. Hooray!

One way we try to save a few bucks is by using ATMs (Bancomats in eurospeak) to make cash withdrawals. If you’ve ever converted cash, you know that the conversion process isn’t simply an even, exact swap of $100 for the equivalent currency. Every exchange place and even banks charge a fee for changing money, and it’s annoying to search for a place which offers the best rates. In fact, some advise you not to worry about looking for the best rates if you are trying to convert money–just do it at the airport where it’s convenient and you’ll save some time and effort, they say, making it worth whatever small difference you pay. But less expensive, if you make large withdrawals at once, is using an ATM, because there’s no conversion fee. This is only less expensive if you withdraw a fairly good amount of money at once, though, since you’ll still pay an ATM fee, potentially from both the ATM and your home bank. Normally we don’t worry much about cash, and try to use our credit card. However, many places in Italy (as well as other places we visited) don’t accept credit.

This brings me to my next point: be sure you authorize your ATM card for overseas usage.  I did that, but I did it two years ago, for a duration of two years (my expected ADEC time). So I couldn’t use my ATM card at all, and I couldn’t make Skype work in order to call the bank. Luckily, the wife’s bank card does still work, and we could use it. But in the meantime, before we’d sorted that situation out, we were limited to places that would accept credit.  We stopped in a gelateria, delighted that the sign on the door said “Mastercard/Visa,” looking forward to our first taste of authentic Italian gelato in many years. Two very friendly brothers ran the shop, and as one of them rang up the total for our two cones, the other had just scooped the first cone for Jenia and was working on mine. Seeing the Visa in my hand, the guy said their machine wasn’t working.

“Oh, crap,” said Jenia, “Stop,” she told the guy who was just about to plop a scoop of frozen deliciousness onto my cone. “I’m so sorry, but we don’t have any cash.  We saw the sign on the door about Visa, and that’s why we came in.”

The brothers exchanged a glance. The one finished my cone, and the other said, “For free!”

Our turn to exchange looks. How nice is that?

“Have a good night,” they said as we turned for the door.

“It’s a good one now,” I told them. We made sure to return the next day and pay for a couple more scoops.

So those guys were pretty cool, and in general, we found the people of Milan to be warm and friendly.  In retrospect, there wasn’t the air of tourist fatigue that some of Italy’s touristy hotspots have (understandably enough).

Right, so update your bank about your travel plans so you avoid any potentially embarrassing run-ins like that, even though it worked out well and put a very good taste in our mouths (that’s a pun, get it?) about the people and place.

The next thing that we dealt with was obtaining transport at a reasonable cost. Everyone knows about Europe’s many trains and convenient network of railways. What is less common knowledge is that the price of train tickets is climbing yearly, making riding the rails less and less appealing for those traveling on a budget. For example, getting a Eurail pass for the two of us and the baby would have cost between 300 and 500 euros a piece, depending on the type of pass and number of days we wanted to spend on trains. That’s a pretty substantial number–if we wanted to travel a little each day, for example, for two weeks, then there wasn’t even a rail pass available that we could use. Another consideration was the toddler. Would Turtle stay put on a train, in his seat, minding his own business? Most likely he’d want to run around the whole time, a tiresome proposition. Last year we used Sixt, and opted to go another round with them. Our rental Fiat Panda 4×4 (!) ended up setting us back about 550 euros, including a carseat for the little one. The seat meant Turtle could nap when we drove, and it didn’t limit us in terms of where we could go or when we could go.

There is a funny story about finding the Sixt location in Milan that I’ll skip, but suffice it to say that my little trip to get the car ended up taking about 3 hours instead of the 1 we’d figured it would, and I had to go to a different location to pick up the car than the one I’d reserved it from. Advice: be careful to map out your destination location carefully ahead of time, and be sure to note what time that place closes.

A nasty fact about traveling Italian highways–they are toll roads, and the tolls are steep.  We logged approximately 160 euros in tolls alone. Fuel is expensive, too, but the Panda diesel was economical (5.4 l/100 km, as opposed to the 13.1 l/100 km I’m used to driving the Chevy here in Al Ain) and we paid roughly another 175 euros for fuel during our stay.  Diesel prices ran about 1.75-1.90 per liter while we were vacationing, just to give you an idea of what to expect if you’re plotting a similar trip.  But still, even if costs surrounding it were high, the car afforded us more freedom and was cheaper than train travel, so we enjoyed it.

And we put it to good use.  Here’s what our travel map looked like, more or less:

From Milan, we made a big circle, with a panhandle added on so we could poke around the Cote d'Azur a bit.

From Milan, we made a big circle, more or less like what’s pictured here, with a panhandle added on so we could poke around the Cote d’Azur a bit. Thanks, Google Maps, for making it easy to plot such courses.

Another way we kept costs under control was to use our cell phones only as wi-fi devices.  There are some affordable options for SIM cards, but we didn’t bother. We took great advantage of wi-fi and used Google Maps for navigation almost exclusively.

Last year we couchsurfed fully half the nights of our trip, which cut hotel costs in half. This year beyond our first night in Milan, we had to pay, as there were no hosts available for us. Ah, well.  So we used Booking.com to look up lodging as we went, only having reserved a couple days in advance.

We stayed in Perledo at a cool Bed and Breakfast with views of Lake Como, along scary narrow roads.  A ferry took the Fiat and family across Lake Como to Menaggio, and we drove to Lugano, Switzerland, to meet another blog buddy of Jenia’s. The next day we were in Vaduz and more remote parts of mountainous Liechtenstein. Afterward we went to soggy Innsbruck, but the views were obscured by rain clouds, so we hit the road early and stayed along the highway in charmingly non-touristy Steinach, where pizza was affordable for a change. Next stop was Venice–an ever so romantic city, especially when you just wander the streets, rather than utilize the slow, crowded water taxis. A cool agriturismo called La Toretta in Siena was next, followed by a B&B in Casarza Ligure, not far from the beautiful (and wickedly crowded) Cinque Terre. Monaco and Nice rounded out the trip, and we returned to a hotel near the airport the night before our flight to Abu Dhabi, being sure to find one that offered a free shuttle to the airport so we could return the car the night before, thereby saving rental fees for an extra day just to go to the airport in the morning.

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Our ferry to #Mennagio arriving. #Italy #LakeComo

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We had pleasant stays in all of the lodgings we selected, but the one place that most stands out was in Casarza Ligure, called Ca De Pria. If you want a nice base of operations from which to explore segments of the Italian riviera, that’s it. The owners treated us like old friends, and could not have been any more welcoming.

Of the many things we did, places we went, and little observations and lessons we gleaned, one was probably more important than the others: traveling with a toddler is different from being on the go with a baby. Our toddler has developed a certain schedule, and when that was too terribly altered, we all paid a price for it. So our evenings were generally kept fairly early, and we discovered that nap times were yet more important–if Turtle napped too long, sleeping too late into the afternoon, he’d be up too late that night. One night I was up with him until 1:30am, which was much too long. It ended up that he would be awake for 6 hours after his last nap, so we tried to make sure we adjusted things accordingly.

One more Money Monday note and I’ll dispense with the formalities and share some pictures. If you live in the UAE and you’re in Al Ain, finding a ride to and from the airport can be a factor when budgeting. Other than phoning friends to do us favors, we’ve found the cheapest, most handy way to get to either DXB or AUD is by renting a car from Hertz. Their least expensive Toyota Yaris or Mazda 2 offers enough room for us and our stuff (but not much to spare) and costs only 89 AED (or 110, including a child seat) for one day. Taxis set you back almost 300 AED, and most people who offer paid transport do it for around 200. Hertz is the best bet by a mile.

Now, for some more photos, one of the rewards we enjoy a great deal for spending money in the way we did. As usual, Jenia made excellent use of her Canon and has some amazing pictures to share, and I’ll get her to upload some soon. I have some that I like, too, and these are among them. Click on the images for full screen viewing.

Il Duomo

Little One in L

Near Sucka

Artists Still in Venice

Statue

untitled-3264

Citroen

I Love Your Life

What a thing to hear, huh? About a week ago we were sitting under a rented umbrella on a rocky Nice beach, and a woman sitting nearby with her family asked where we were from. She has, by the sound of it, a good life herself, where she works from her midwestern home. Mrs. Kramer and her family were taking a shore day while on a Disney Mediterranean cruise, which seems kind of nifty to me. But when she found out that I teach in the UAE while Jenia does photography on the side, her eyes grew wide and she got a big smile on her face. A few more questions asked and answered, she exclaimed, “I love your life!”

That’s the kind of compliment that will make you grin every time. It’s also a little hard to respond well to. “Thanks,” I managed, while feeling a tad silly. I wanted to say, “Actually, my life is pretty mundane,” because it doesn’t seem too special. Yet, given more thought, I’ll admit my lifestyle is somewhat unusual. It’s a funny thing, isn’t it? I have set foot in 12 countries to date this year, including the one I live in, and yet life seems nothing if not, well, ordinary.

Jenia and the wee one enjoying time on the beach in Nice.

Jenia and the wee one enjoying time on the beach in Nice.

That is not to say I didn’t get a kick out of going for a speedboat trip in Thailand, or driving the confusing roads of Siena, Italy. I thrilled at touching Liechtenstein rocks as I hiked to the castle over Vaduz, and I laughed at being one of the many tourists cramming into a pizzeria’s doorway in Vernazza, one of the picturesque Cinque Terre towns, in the midst of a sudden downpour, trying to stay dry. I rejoiced in surprise when the kind brothers who operate a gelateria in Milan gave us free ice cream. Walking the avenues of Venice with my lovely wife was ever so romantic, even with toddler in tow. I’ll admit, this seems a life less ordinary as I consider it further.

But would anyone still smilingly say, “I love your life” if they knew what the normal, routine part of my life is like? The getting up at 6, going to scan my fingerprint to sign in at school, standing through my 13,340th morning assembly (hmm, I wonder how many I’ve really shifted my weight from one foot to the other through?) conducted entirely in Arabic, deal with difficult youth in a constantly changing and inconsistent environment, handle the workload in a responsible manner, try not to balk at conflicting expectations and realities, and then go home and do normal family guy stuff. This is boring at best, isn’t it?

Indeed, day trips to Abu Dhabi or Dubai are even blasé. “Which mall should we go to today, honey? Do you want to swim in the gulf again?” We find ourselves bored as we walk among folks clad in kandoras and abayas, as we notice at some point and then forget again that we are the only white people in the room. We yawn at the idea of going to the same old amazingly green park nearby again. Life in the desert has become normal. The special part is mainly what happens during holidays.

The saying goes along the lines of wherever you go, there you are, and that’s a tried and true if cliched sentiment for a reason. I’m no more happy now than I was when I had what you might call a regular job in a typical school in the States. There was a phase where I was really stressed out by moving, on the contrary, but I’ve adjusted long ago. I’m still me, and I’m the same in the USA, France, or the UAE.

That said, over time, assuming I am not resistive to it, traveling and working abroad does change me. I notice that I don’t bear the same political or social prejudices, and my cultural biases have altered. I think these changes are good ones, but who’s to say I wouldn’t change similarly if I worked at home in the USA? I’d grow and mature regardless of where I lived, wouldn’t I? But I certainly wouldn’t be able to explore the world as easily if I hadn’t packed a few bags and relocated overseas.

So here’s what I’m getting at. I live a life that is a bit unusual, yep, but much of it isn’t anything worth talking about. It’s a struggle, same as any life, anywhere. But Mrs. Kramer, thanks for making me ponder it a bit. Thanks for reminding me that I’m blessed. And I know you were thinking about the glamor of travel and life abroad in glitzy Abu Dhabi, but when it comes down to it, what really makes my life special is the people in it. Teaching a classroom full of kids is more rewarding when I learn some Arabic phrases from them, when I build some relationships there and remember that this is a job that’s different and memorable when compared to the one I had back home. So yeah, there are those people, students, but they’re not really the ones I’m talking about. Venice would have been ho-hum without my wife. Sitting on the sea-washed stones of Nice would have been less fun if I wasn’t able to watch my little son enjoy the waves in his mother’s arms. Going to exotic places is more fun when I can share the experience with my loved ones. Exploring is about expanding, and the most important thing to expand is the love in my heart. It’s easy to forget that in the clamor of day to day living, no matter where in the world I find myself.

A Scene from France

The baby is asleep in his Graco car seat. The wife and I share bits of conversation as the miles (excuse me, kilometers, for we’re in France) drift lazily past. We haven’t gotten to the interstate highway yet, and I don’t think we will. It’s become increasingly obvious that those green signs with white letters that clearly pointed toward Luxembourg in the center of Reims weren’t indicating the most direct route.

Pop music plays on the radio until we get tired of it and switch it off. Most of the songs are in English, and it’s nice to turn the dial and be able to find any number of radio stations playing music that is comprehensible to the average Western ear.

We zip from one small town to another. The speed limit’s not posted, but the other cars on the two-lane road seem to be moving about 100 kph, so that’s where I keep it, more or less. Sometimes the road gets rough, the faded blacktop mottled with pockmarks, and I slow, and at one of these points a guy in a heavy black BMW sedan who’s been behind me for a while blows past. I wonder how he can move so fast on this rough pavement and not be endangering himself and his passengers.

The sun comes out for a little while just as we leave another of the villages, and as the gray clouds peel back to expose blue sky, we marvel at the beauty of the gently rolling hills that stretch out until the eye can see no more to either side. There are pastures and recently cut wheat fields in shades of gold and green. Monolithic windmills spin slowly in the gentle breeze, and farmhouses and barns perch picturesquely in the distance.

The French countryside somewhere along a rural road between Rheims and Luxembourg.

The vast and lovely French countryside.

“I know why Van Gogh found this worth painting,” I tell Jenia.

“It’s beautiful.”

Van Gogh's Wheat Field, 1888.

Van Gogh’s Wheat Field, 1888.

As we continue, the road is lined with trees on either side, trees that jut proudly upward, forming an umbrella over the road now and again. Beyond these, there are no trees to the left or right, just fields reaching out into the distance.

The Ardennes region of France, along D980, 7 km from Cauroy.

The Ardennes region of France, along D980, 7 km from Cauroy.

When we make our way slowly through a tiny town called Cauroy, there’s a community yard sale that seems to be in its final moments.

“Oh, I want to go,” Jenia says. So I take a side street that I figure will lead back to the little square, but the road instead brings us to a big shed and farm equipment. A man nearby watches us curiously. After turning around, I park beside the road and watch chickens through a fence while Jenia goes to browse the junk on sale. She comes back in 10 minutes with a couple of kitchen goods, items unique and inexpensive, nifty souvenirs.

This is because we took the long way.