Working in Utah. And What’s Next.

This year in Utah has been a wonderful one. It’s been a time worth its weight in gold for recharging my professional batteries. I’ve been working at one of the best middle schools in the greater Salt Lake valley area, which effectively implements things like standards-referenced grading, professional learning communities, and generally has an incredibly student-centered ethos.

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This is PJ. He loves taking students outside on nice days to read books. He found it necessary to take drastic measures to prevent further sunburning.

If I didn’t mention it before, I’ve been working with a colleague named PJ who also worked for ADEC in the UAE. Where in the UAE we didn’t work in the same building (ADEC has something like 1,000 schools under its umbrella, and we worked in schools several miles apart), this year we actually did work together. It’s been splendid. We’ve designed excellent assessments (probably a few mediocre ones, too), worked up proficiency scales based on Utah’s version of the Common Core standards (creatively named, wait for it–the Utah Core Standards), pitted our classes against each other in Quizizz tournaments, and much more. This guy has helped keep me sharp.

One thing that I learned from my time abroad is that effective leadership is of the utmost importance–an effective principal can make a school, and an ineffective one can ruin it. Put another way, administrators can either make or break the educational experience for students and the professional experience for teachers. In that regard, the school I’ve been working at has been exceptional. With an approach rooted in ideas from DuFour, Marzano, and Wiggins, this principal has successfully fostered a school environment with an ethos centered around boosting student achievement through various interventions, both general and targeted. Quite a pleasure to be a part of, I must say. This principal also goes above and beyond to help teachers feel valued–conducting giveaways, making payday pancakes every month, and celebrating members of staff regularly. Given that working at this school is quite demanding for teachers, he does a great job keeping staff morale high.

Utah is a beautiful place, and that’s no secret. What’s more, it’s got one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, at 3.1%, and the population has been growing rapidly. This also means that prices in the area are high. While Utah prides itself on having a much lower cost of living than California (which, as Jenia notes, is not even a next-door neighbor), it’s a lot higher than the southeast. Homes are expensive here (a nice looking one on a small corner lot in the subdevelopment nearby is on the market for $450K), and rent for a decent 2 BR apartment runs around $1,000 a month or more (we had almost settled on one that offered 1100 or so square feet and included internet for the price of $1200 a month). Happily, we lucked into a spacious basement apartment for a good price (less than the income-based place), through our personal contacts. This has been great–and the only way that we didn’t go deeply into the red every month, to be honest. Teacher salaries are pretty much a matter of public record, so anyone interested could find out my salary easily, so I’ll talk about what I make. Since my teaching experience overseas wasn’t accepted on the local salary scale, I’ve eked out almost $40K a year here, and it has barely more than allowed us to break even every month. It’s been a challenge to adjust to having to watch every penny, and aggravatingly difficult to make ends meet when, for example, the car needs an oil change, or my motorcycle needs a new tire.

Clearly I’m not in the teaching profession to make money. Education isn’t exactly a career known for filling the coffers. Nonetheless, I do need to make enough to provide for my family, and with Jenia doing the very hard job of stay-at-home-mom, I need to earn a larger sum. So, with some real regret, I tendered my resignation as this year drew to a close and, with some true excitement, accepted a position in Shenzhen, China.

 

 

 

 

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Bubbles

My Facebook circle is pretty diverse (which is more or less an accident). I am friends with people from a variety of countries and probably half of the US states. There are engineers, IT specialists, medical professionals, ministers, human rights activists, designers, accountants, lawyers, scientists, yoga instructors, artists in a broad sense of the word, and a ton of educators. My circle includes Catholics, Russian Orthodox, all kinds of Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Atheists, and, I believe, at least one Pastafarian. The range of political views is just as wide. Still, I can’t pretend I’m not living in a bubble because out of my 457 FB friends there are only 27 people of color. That’s less than 6%. I am purposefully trying to diversify and look for interesting people to follow but I am not very good at this yet.

It’s funny, isn’t it? In the year 2017, the world is at our fingertips. It’s never been this easy to stay in touch with friends and family or find a long-lost childhood friend. Yet somehow, instead of becoming more and more open to the world and each other, we tend to reinforce the walls of our bubble to drain out any voices different from our own. I would like to hope that most of us don’t do it purposefully, that we simply don’t give it any thought, that we were born into this bubble and never even realized it was there.

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The presence of the bubble may not be our fault, but I believe that breaking free from it is our responsibility. It may take a lifetime; it may be something we will never truly achieve but we sure can try.

If most of the people in your circle look, talk, and think like you do, I challenge you to talk to somebody different. Listen to somebody with a different skin color, a different religious background, a different socio-economic status. Listen to a legal immigrant, listen to an illegal immigrant, listen to a refugee. Listen to a woman who went to the March for Life and to the woman who went to the Women’s March. Listen to hear, not to reply. At least once a week, read an article from a news source you don’t normally read (sometimes the headlines alone can make my blood boil or my eyes roll but I do read because I want to understand where people are coming from). Read a book about the subject you know little about (extra points if it’s written by someone whose views are not exactly the same as yours). Google. Research. Go to the source. Ask questions to learn rather than to trick or prove wrong. Keep in mind (and gosh, this is hard) that if we disagree, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the other side is stupid and/or closed-minded. It usually means that at least one side (and ouch, it can be yours!) is misinformed or is seeing the issue from a different angle.

You see, I am challenging myself to do all of this, too, and I need good company.

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On Loving Your Neighbors

I wrote this for Venn Magazine in March, 2015. It seems it may be worth repeating.

 

Recently, I saw an article entitled “Why You Need More Muslim Friends.” While a little saddened by the fact that such an article was even necessary, I thought it was worth sharing on my Facebook wall. The response came quicker than I expected. An acquaintance of mine wrote that I could love Muslims all I want, but he would keep hating them.

His response caught me off guard. I wondered how many others felt the same way. And that led me to ask a few questions.

When you say you hate Muslims, do you really know who it actually is you hate? Do you hate the Muslim women in Saudi Arabia who are not allowed to drive? Do you hate the Muslim children who are maimed or killed by the bombs sent by non- Muslims? Do you hate the Muslim laborers who move to a foreign country to work and live in very harsh conditions for $3 a day and send 90% of that money back to their family, whom they don’t see for a years at a time? Or how about those Muslims in Egypt who formed a live chain around the Christians to protect them during prayer?

Do you hate the perfect stranger who stopped when our friend’s car broke down, called a tow truck, paid for the tow truck, and offered to let the guy borrow his own car while the garage was sorting out the problem? Do you hate the Bedouin lady who gave my crying son one of the toys she was selling and insisted my husband took a seat in the shade to calm the boy down? Do you hate the man who practically ran to our car when he realized we were looking at the map, gave us directions and invited us over for tea? Do you hate my friend’s principle who gave him money to help pay his son’s hospital bill, or my other friend’s vice principal who showed up at her house a couple days after the new baby arrived with a box of beautiful baby clothes and so much food they had to invite people over to finish it? Do you hate the Saudi couple we met at a hotel breakfast and who made us laugh till we cried with the stories of their 3 boys?

These are the faces of Islam that you are not likely to see in your everyday life – or ever. I, however, live in a Muslim country. These people are my neighbors in the most literal sense of the word. They have welcomed me into their homes, and I have welcomed them into mine. We broke bread together. We laughed together. We talked about religion, and women’s rights, and travel, and education. They kissed my baby and called blessings upon him, and I kissed their babies and said they’d been willed by God. They even walked with me through my son’s birth.

It’s rather obvious that we are not Muslim. Even our visas state we are Christian. Yet, this has never been a problem. This particular Muslim country has quite a few churches, and, ironically, we have found a more vibrant, dynamic, and welcoming church community here than we ever did in the Bible Belt. We feel safer here than we ever did in southern Georgia. Around here, when it is time to go back to their home countries for the summer, expat moms worry about giving up the safety of our children running around freely and our purses being left in our unlocked cars.

Do not misunderstand me – there are some barbaric traditions carried out in parts of the Muslim world. The things ISIS does cannot be justified. Yet, judging all of Muslims by ISIS is like judging all the Christians by the Westboro Baptist Church. The man who kills his unmarried daughter because she was seen with a man represents all of Islam no more than a man who says he hates Muslims represents all of Christianity – or even all of the Southern Baptists.

I wonder if we hate people not because of who they are, but because of who we are – humans. Faulty, messy, broken humans who have such a hard time forgiving, letting go, or much less loving a group we do not understand. We can come up with dozens of excuses, but in the end hatred, like love, is always a choice. It is easier to hate and fear than to use critical thinking and do thorough research. It is easier to be enslaved by these powerful emotions than to break their bondage, but since when is easy slavery preferable to hard-earned freedom?

Maybe we break away from hatred when we know people, real life people, rather than mere headlines. In fact, maybe that article was right after all. Maybe we all need more Muslim friends.

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.

Reverse Culture Shock

This post probably requires a little context, so here it is, in brief. I know I have not specified exactly why I decided to return to the U.S.A. this year, so let me go ahead and lay it out there. My job in Kazan ended after I was offered a revised contract for a new position teaching in the middle school, and besides breaching my existing contract, it also reduced time off and lowered my remuneration, as well as extended things another year. Rather than accept that baloney, I decided to go somewhere else. The separation between my employer and I was generally amicable enough, but I can’t say I’d recommend working for them. Anyway, these last two months have been busy. We relocated from Kazan, Russia, to Bowman, Georgia, carrying the smallest and most manageable amount of belongings we could, and after a month or so, we loaded up a U-Haul with considerably more stuff and drove across the country. There’s all the context needed and then some.

Another day, another #highway. #Colorado

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Now, before returning home, I’d heard more than one account of reverse culture shock: the shockingly difficult readjustment to Home. Folks who have lived abroad and made the return write blog posts that make it sound like the worst thing ever. It is bound to be a stressful process, after all, fitting back into a place that has moved on without you, or, perhaps even harder to cope with, hasn’t moved on at all, and therefore hasn’t changed to keep pace with your evolving view of the world. Your Home friends haven’t traveled abroad extensively (or at all), lived as a welcome minority in a Muslim country, learned how to speak survival Russian, or discovered in a meaningful way that people are basically the same everywhere. Essentially, you and your Home friends will have a lot less in common than before you set off on your grand adventures, trotting the globe. At least that’s what the reverse culture shock fear mongers say.

What the shockers are saying is not without merit. We had little reason to doubt that it would be hard coming Home. We’d had inklings of this seismic shift between ourselves and our Home friends before, when during our return trips we’d recounted memorable tales from our travels and our friends’ eyes glazed over as they tolerated our ramblings, either unable to connect on most levels with them, or else entirely uninterested in what irrelevant strangeness we’d encountered. To be truthful, we quickly learned not to tell stories, unless someone specifically asked for one.

Not a bad view, huh?

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#Utah is #beautiful.

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However, coming home has been easy. Of course, coming home hasn’t ended up as coming Home. The reason we trucked across the country is because one of my friends who shared the wonderfully bizarre experience of living and teaching in Abu Dhabi, and who returned last year, helped me get a job working alongside him at a middle school in the Salt Lake City area. Accordingly, we’ve moved to a new state and settled into a new culture that is notably different from Georgia, with breathtaking scenery to boot, so it’s not Home home, although it is our home country. Utah is so different from Georgia, actually, that as we have been getting accustomed to the area, Jenia has more than once caught herself thinking, “This reminds me of the U.S.,” only to have to laugh and say, “This IS the U.S.!”

Georgia mountains look like this.

#Georgia #mountains are beautiful. #RabunCounty #GA

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Whereas Utah mountains look like this.

Exploring #Utah with #Triumph #RAT #riders on the weekend. The #Thruxton enjoyed itself.

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Anyhow, I am not saying that reverse culture shock doesn’t exist. I’m not saying everyone will have a smooth experience upon returning. As for these expats, though, we’ve been lucky enough that coming home hasn’t been a big jolt.

Regarding future teaching adventures and travels abroad, stay tuned. The traveling life is not over.

 

 

 

 

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.”

#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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Alpine Russia

This post is a bit late. A few months late, in fact, as I’d intended to write it and post it almost as soon as returning from our trip. But life intervened, and it’s been hard to find the time.

Spring break for my school fell during the last week of March, and Jenia and our little family were finally able to travel–something we have very much missed doing throughout most of our time in Kazan, due to having a new baby, passport hassles, and the like. We didn’t schedule an international trip, however; we opted to go somewhere within the vast country of Russia–somewhere little known outside the realm of the former USSR, but which was once a thriving vacation destination during the USSR’s existence: Kislovodsk, a place situated in the Caucasus.

The only thing I remember hearing about the Caucasus before moving to Russia involved Chechnya and people dying. There might have been knives involved, but I don’t know for sure. Anyway, what with separatists and gunfire, things I’m sure I remember, the Caucasus seemed a good place to avoid, not unlike, say, Afghanistan, a place about which, as far as I can remember, I’ve never heard any good news.

Russians, however, take a different view. The Caucasus ridge runs through the southernmost extremity of Russia, with Sochi and the Black Sea basically on the western end of the ridge, and the Caspian Sea on the eastern end. Just over the dramatic mountains lie Georgia and Azerbaijan. This region has long been a true destination for Russians seeking a retreat. In fact, there are four towns (pitifully small ones, with populations hardly over 100,000 people) clustered quite closely together which are known for their resorts–with Kislovodsk being first and foremost, and it even bears the slogan “Resort City” plastered on signs at the entrance to town. Kislovodsk is noted for its mineral springs, the waters of which offer a number of medicinal properties, if you believe it.

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A map from ABC News’s website.

We spent our time in Kislovodsk in an Air BnB-sourced apartment (which was great, even though a cat fell through the ceiling one day). We explored the town, finding it quite run down except for the city center, but with all its hills and the expansive Kurortny Park lined by some beautiful sanitariums (not like insane asylums, by the way–maybe I’ll write about them later), still pretty. It was also delightfully inexpensive. We took a train to nearby Piatigorsk one day, a town which figures prominently in Russian literature. Piatigorsk is a bit less run down and more populous, and with its own springs and parks, a nice place to visit.

However, it took a vehicle tour with Caucasus Voyage Club for me to realize the true extent of the area’s diversity–according to our tour guide and driver for our day trip, a wonderful guy named Rasheed, there are no less than 35 totally different languages spoken in the Caucasus.

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Another map from newroute.ru. Kislovodsk is near Piatigorsk.

I learned a lot of 20th century Russian history from Rasheed, as well, as he detailed the spread of communism, “The red virus,” throughout Russia and the toll it took on the once-wealthy region. While Jenia was aware of the brutal treatment of the area’s ethnic groups under the hand of the communists, it was new to me. Rasheed told of the disenfranchisement of the locals to communists from the north, the theft of their properties, and their resistance against their unjust rulers. The might of the Red Army was against them, though, and the locals could not win. Interestingly, when Hitler’s forces swept through the area with orders not to harm anyone unless they were met with resistance, things improved for the locals. The wartime occupiers were actually better masters than those whose country they belonged to. Of course, after the German army withdrew, Stalin made sure to exact revenge for the locals’ cooperation with the invaders. People were rounded up and herded onto trains bound for Kazakhstan, where, if they didn’t die on the way or after arrival, they spent 17 years. After the tremendous tragedy of Stalin’s death, they returned to their country, and things have been more or less normal since then.

Rasheed, wearing a long beard, looks every bit the typical Muslim man, and so he is. He’s nice, open, and friendly. As we learned from him, 60 percent of the population of Kislovodsk is ethnically Russian, which corresponds with the Orthodox church, and the other 40 percent are Muslim, as corresponds with their ethnicities. “How are Muslims treated?” Jenia asked at one point. “I know it was not easy to be involved in a mosque for a while here,” referring to a time of heavy suspicion in Russia toward Muslim people about 10 years ago. Rasheed mentioned under-cover intelligence men in the area, but was not angry about their presence. He said that the climate has changed now, and it’s not bad.

Our tour took us over the Caucasus ridge, where the towering twin peaks of Elbrus were concealed in the dramatic clouds, and where water runs from one side downward to the Black Sea, and from the other to the Caspian Sea; we continued past the Sintina Temple, the earliest Christian monastery in the area, established in the tenth century, along a sparkling shallow river, to the tiny ski-resort town of Dombay and its cable car up the towering mountain I thought was also called Dombay, but which it turns out is actually known as Mount Mussa Achitara. Sunlight had vanquished the gray clouds by the time we arrived, and there was a perfect, deep blue sky. There wasn’t much to Dombay other than the ski slopes–but wow. That mountain, and those slopes. What a place. We only ascended about two thirds of the mountain’s height (2,277 meters), as we didn’t feel like taking the toddler and baby on a chairlift, which was the mode of transportation from there to the top (3,200 meters), but nonetheless, the views were like something from the Swiss Alps. There was a peculiar little hotel that looks as though it just arrived from outer space. There were men with with yaks (wanna photo with ’em? Only a hundred rubles). There was pine cone jelly and sunglasses and hats for sale. The walkways were slippery and covered with snow and ice. It was a giant lawsuit waiting to happen, but it was fantastic. We ate some delicious, fresh bread in a restaurant, then went outside and frolicked as best we could with a baby in a carrier and a toddler in tow. We managed to get sunburned, too, although the temperature was right at freezing.

On our ride home, Rasheed put the pedal down a little bit, not needing to explain so much about the countryside. Speaking of which, we had marvelous views from the ridge when we crested it again–this time Elbrus revealed just how much taller it stood than the surrounding mountains–and at 18, 510 feet/5,642 meters, it is an imposing sight indeed. A little trivia for you–Europe’s tallest peak is the tenth highest in the world, and a dormant volcano, too.

Once again, I’ve discovered that the reality of a place can be drastically different from what we hear about on the news. While it’s true that Rasheed did have a knife (it’s a tradition! And we got to hold it!), there was no blood spilled, nobody shot, and nary a separatist in sight; the Caucasus turned out to be wonderful. While I’m not ready to go to Afghanistan to see if things are really crummy there or not, I’d venture to say that any trip to the resort town of Kislovodsk would be well worth it, and I’d happily go back.

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:)

Russian Winter Has Come…

…and gone, or so it seems. It’s been snowing here since October, so what is going on? I expected a frigid winter, and while it has been significantly below freezing since about the end of November, it hasn’t been the sort of “Holy crap, it’s horrendous!” cold that I’d anticipated. Except for about a 2-3 week stretch, that is. Last week it was down all the way to -20 Fahrenheit.

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The day it started warming up. Look at how quickly it bounced back t0 + temps.

That was pretty much Russia as I’d expected it: nose hair freezing weather. It was actually cold enough that public schools closed for a couple days. My school, holding the weather in contempt, did not follow suit. After a couple of days in a chilly classroom, suddenly I found myself with two electrical space heaters to augment my room’s 4 hot water radiators, and a room that’s always plenty warm. During that cold snap the school doctor also started planting little home-made paper trays full of sliced onion in all the classrooms and even common areas.

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Nice little carton, huh?

Did I mention there’s supposedly a flu epidemic going around? Not that I’d have much way of knowing it, since my Russian language skills are rudimentary at best, and since I haven’t seen anyone outrageously sick, either.

Anyway, two days ago, the temperature bounced back up. Now, it’s above freezing and the all the white stuff is melting; roads are slushy (a slight improvement in the case of the really secondary ones which they seem to have given up plowing after the snowfall got really serious and the cold snap occurred).

Today I went outside–it’s a rare sunny day (see some photos above from another sunny day a couple weeks ago, when it was 7 Fahrenheit and Turtle and I ventured outside for some fun in the snow)–and found that the fleet of tractors and skid steer loaders which at first did a somewhat acceptable job of keeping our residentail area’s driveways somewhat cleared of snow was active again for the first time in approximately 3 weeks. In the interim, the snow had gotten so deep on these roads that cars’ undercarriages were scraping the snow flat between the deep ruts cut by their tires. For a country where winter comes at the same time every year, it seems to always be a surprise here, and even though Kazan is far better at handling it and keeping the main roads clear than Ryazan, the other smaller city I’ve spent time in here, it is quite astonishing from a first-world perspective. To cope, people buy studded winter tires as a matter of course, and get stuck remarkably little, given the conditions.

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The forecast for the next week is fairly warm, hovering not far below freezing, so that should be nice. February’s first week is already virtually past, so maybe we have only a few weeks of real winter left.