Helsinki.

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

#Helsinki city center from the water. #Finland #RandTravels

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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.

#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.

A different view of #Johaneskyrk in #Helsinki, #Finland.

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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.

Love the #lilacs in #Helsinki. #Esplanade #Finland #RandTravels

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Playing the #bottles. #StreetMusician #Helsinki

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Another portion of the #JeanSibelius #monument in #Helsinki. #Finland

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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.

A Few Days in Bratislava

It’s different from Prague. Most noticeable immediately is the size of the place. The main train station is none too large. Following Christmas, it’s practically deserted, and that makes it seem smaller still. Today that finally changed, with folks returning to work and the city waking up a bit.

The smile worn by the bus driver is nice. It makes the place feel warmer.

Prices are in Euros, which seems like a hopeful effort at tying Slovakia to greater Europe, while a few days of life here seem to suggest it’s got at least as much in common with Russia as the European Union. I say this because after two days of snow falling, there hasn’t been a single plow run along any of the city streets. “It’s never snowed at the end of December before,” says Jenia. “It took them by surprise. Just like Russia.” The sidewalks are slippery. The people aren’t outgoing and friendly. That’s not to say they’re rude, but they’re not what we fuzzy Americans would generally expect. Lots like Russia. And of course the Slavic languages have lots of similarities, too.

The downtown is pretty and there’s lots of cute cafes. The architecture is nice, though it doesn’t look half as old as Prague does.

So my impression is that this is Eastern Europe, and it is tangibly different than Western Europe. Not bad, but different.

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Merry Christmas from Prague!

Hello all! The holidays find us enjoying the nippy winter weather of the Czech Republic, in a neat little apartment in the Malestrana area of Prague. What a wonderful change from the pleasant but boring UAE December. The city is filled with Christmas cheer–there are stalls set up all around peddling mulled wine, trdelnik (a scrumptious not-too-sweet bread cooked over coals), and roasted chestnuts. There are concerts of Christmas music all around, and choirs performing on the old town square. Angels wrap gifts inside the windows of the Swarovski shop, and tourists bump into each other while sipping from steaming cups as they gawk at the astronomical clock. It’s a great place to be, steeped in European tradition. Happy holidays!

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When to Stay and When to Go

“You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run…”  -Kenny Rogers, The Gambler

“Should I stay or should I go?” -The Clash, Should I Stay or Should I go

“I don’t want to end up cynical like everyone I know who has been here for three years or more.” -Krista

“I’m way more cynical than I was when I came here.” -Chris

Each year we’re here (and we’re in year three, if you forgot) we see more of our friends and fellow 2012 English teachers depart. For us the question of staying and renewing my teaching contract for another year resolved itself when the 2013 school year ended up being much easier than the 2012 one, and also because I couldn’t find anything that seemed like a better offer for me and my family. We’ve determined this will be our last year in the Emirates, as I think we’ve mentioned before. We aim to head somewhere else in next fall, in the way-futuristic-sounding year of 2015.

But why? The package here is good–tax free salary, housing that is provided, good friends who are as close as family, and we’re accustomed to the peculiarities of the area. Jenia has a nice little thing going with her photography, the little one has play groups and other things he goes to. For all practical purposes, this is home now.

So again, why leave?

See the quotes above. It seems a good time to go. We have had, overall, a positive experience. We want to see more of the world, to continue our expat explorations abroad before returning to the USA for a while (notice I didn’t say forever).

Chris has been here 4 years now, and he doesn’t bother with the bright side. He is resigned, in a manner of speaking, to the, er, structure of the work environment, but that doesn’t stop him from complaining about it.

Krista accepted a new job after 2 years because she didn’t want to be like Chris in that way. Now she’s teaching in another Asian country and by the looks of it having a blast.  She left before she could grow cynical.

This year I have to fight to repress snarky comments, the roll of the eyes, the ever-more-snide comments when things go exactly as frustratingly as they typically do at work. At the moment, I’ve managed to look at the bright side of that battle, and say, “Hey, why should I expect anything different? Why be annoyed?”

One of the Arabic Medium Teachers (AMTs) that I work with is from Tunisia.  He’s an English teacher, too. “When we go back to Tunisia to work after teaching here in the UAE or the Gulf we have to undergo rehabilitation,” he said.

I chuckled.

“They observe us and make sure that we can still teach.  They enroll us in a program where we go for training, much more than any other teachers.”

“Wait,” I said, “You’re serious.”

“Yes, I’m serious.”

“Oh. Crap!”

“Yes.”

My teaching skills haven’t been ruined.  Like my colleague, whose school found him perfectly able to conduct classes when he returned to Tunisia for a while before coming back to the UAE, I’ll not need a rehab program. One of the good things about having a bunch of hooligans for students is that my classroom management skills are now second to none.  I mean, I can see a kid’s mobile phone before he even knows he’s gotten it out of his pocket.  I can separate and rearrange a classroom on the fly so quickly the trouble makers are located in different sectors before they can make a peep.

Even so, three years seems like enough. It’ll be hard to find another package that has benefits as plentiful as this one, but in terms of workplace satisfaction, the factor that makes many folks grow cold and hard inside in this place (because you gotta deal with frustration somehow), one would think that might be higher in another location.

“You gotta know when to walk away,” as ol’ Kenny sang. We’re planning to walk away in July with tons of amazing memories that we could never have generated anywhere else, and one day we’ll return with our son and be amazed at how different the UAE has become.  The Clash sang “If I stay there will be trouble, if I leave it will be double.”  I can’t apply that verse.  If I stay I there might be some trouble with my psyche, but not the knock-down-drag-out kind of fightin’ that the song suggests.  Until July rolls around, I’m aiming to stay optimistic and enjoy all the good things here, because there are plenty of them.

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.

Summer Break, Pt. 3: Rumbles and Rides

Hello all, Shon here.  This week I’m writing about things we don’t do in the UAE, and which we are enjoying while in Northeastern Georgia.  I want to warn you right off the bat, that part of this post is about motorcycling, so if you find that boring (which you shouldn’t, because it’s amazing), you may want to skip this and spend your time reading something else.

Motorcycling exists in the UAE, of course, but I left my Triumph in the States and don’t ride in the UAE.  Why not?  Because the UAE is known (rightly) for its lunatic drivers, and I figured a motorcyclist is easy prey for a zooming SUV in the wrong hands.  After a couple years’ residence in the area, I now feel I’d be okay, but still, why push my luck?  Besides, it’s just plain too hot to ride in full gear there much of the year.

Georgia is both safer and more comfortable for riding.  Nonetheless, the high humidity does a lot to offset the drastic 20-30 degree Fahrenheit difference in temperature from Al Ain to the southeast US, and normally I don’t go on a ride of any length without full safety gear–armored pants, jacket, etc., which makes the ride much warmer.  Spending any time outdoors is miserable in leathers if you’re not moving and the thermometer reads in the 90s.

Somewhere in Suches, Georgia.

Somewhere in Suches, Georgia.

I’ve put about 450 miles under my bike’s tires in the last couple of weeks, which doesn’t sound like that much, I know.  Still, the Thruxton has been to some of Georgia’s best riding roads–US129, Highway 17, Route 60, and Route 197.  These routes are absolutely beautiful, offering mountain scenery to rival many of the prettiest parts of the world, and smooth, swooping roads that may be the best in the Union.  These trips have been with my brother and another close friend, so the rides are great experiences in more than one way (unless, of course, we end up stuck beside the road doing repairs, when it becomes uncomfortably hot and sticky).

This particular side road ended by turning into National Park Forest Service road.

This particular side road ended by turning into National Park Forest Service road.

Regrettably, the Wife has to stay home and watch the littlest Rand, so she doesn’t share the pleasures of the mountain roads I’ve named above.  Not that she particularly enjoys riding on the back anyway.  Sadder still, she finds herself jealous of the Thruxton because I want to spend time on it, which is itself entirely innocent of any wrongdoing.

Luckily, in a way she does share my taste for horsepower.  She just prefers the sort that has four legs and shoes, rather than tires.

The other day we had the opportunity to go for a lengthy trail ride near Watson Mill State Park in Comer, Georgia, thanks to a friend’s friend who made arrangements.

The ride took us over varied terrain near a fork of the Broad River, through trees and pastures, and was altogether a good time.  Despite the sweltering heat and humidity, the horses were in high spirits.  The owners, who were also our guides, were surprised by the animals’ friskiness.  They’d expected the heat to make them sluggish, but instead, they were frequently trotting and jostling for the pole position.

Jenia takes a moment to enjoy the view atop her white stallion.

Jenia takes a moment to enjoy the view atop her white stallion.

One of our guides and a friend on horseback.

One of our guides, who participates in mounted shooting competitions, and our friend who doesn’t, on horseback.

We’ve both been on horseback a couple of times before, but this was the first time that we got to gallop–and that was lots of fun!  There was a stretch of unbroken, smooth pasture that we were able to let our steeds run on, and run they did.  By the time our ride was done, the equines had worked up a fair lather, and both horses and riders were ready for either a shower or an ice cold glass of water.

The owners have 28 horses which they own mainly for pleasure, but which also are used in various competitions, such as Cowboy Mounted Shooting, something you can check out in this video.

So to recap, we’ve been having a very nice summer.  There’s been good riding that kept us both happy, and like I said in a previous entry, we’re still reveling in the pervasive greenery and gorgeous blue skies.

Summertime

It’s summer. We said masalama to the UAE and are now on US soil, in the great state of Maine. It feels awfully good to be home, visiting family and friends that we haven’t seen for many moons.

The foremost thing we are enjoying, outside of time with people we love, is the freedom to show affection in public. It’s nice to be able to hug or kiss and such without worrying about the local cops slapping me with a fine or something.

It’s also great to roll down the car windows and have cool air flood in. Maine is absolutely fantastic this time of year–cool at night (55 last night) and warm (79 was today’s high) during the day.

Anyway, brevity being the soul of wit or something, I’d better leave off now. Here’s a pic I snapped while outside yesterday.

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