A Week in Russia. Back in the USSR.

It’s bizarre to be back in Russia.

Despite what many people seem to think, I did not move “back home”. To begin with, I’ve never been to this part of Russia before, but even moving to the town I’m originally from wouldn’t have been moving home. In the past 8 years, I haven’t spent more than 2 weeks at a time in Russia. The country has changed dramatically, and so have I (life does that to you, and immigrant/expat life even more so).

Yes, I speak the language but I speak English, too, and linguistically didn’t feel out of place either in the US or in the UAE. Yes, I know the history, and the literature, and the cultural references, but I don’t know any of the recent movies, TV-stars or music (by choice, mostly). I am not used to hearing Russian anymore and I find myself having trouble understanding some of the local accents. “Sorry” slips off my tongue before I check myself and say “Простите” instead. I have no idea where to look for a nanny, how to pay a phone bill, or where to buy a measuring cup. It’s an odd place to be.

Overall, though, it’s been a good experience so far. As Shon said, the city is very clean and (overgrown lawns and notorious Russian roads aside) rather well-maintained. People are overwhelmingly friendly and helpful. That part in itself simply blows my mind. In my 24 years in Russia before I moved away, I have never seen a post office worker as friendly as the 2 that I encountered this week.

Here are a couple of things I forgot about: decor & clothes. The style of interior decorating is, should we say, unique. To put it in less flattering terms, I wouldn’t be caught dead buying these curtains and chandeliers. And the wallpaper on every single wall in the apartment but the bathroom ones? Yes, kitchen, too. Not my cup of tea. Thank God for good old IKEA with its plain stuff that allows me to tone things down a notch.

As for clothes, people just dress differently. There are quite a few stylish young people (mostly girls) around, but a lot of the choices make one wonder. I am curious whether we stand out much – it surely seems that I may be the only under-40 woman in town wearing boot-cut jeans 🙂 Turtle definitely stands out – he and the other expat kids were the only ones wearing short-sleeved shirts at the playground the other day. The local children were in fleece, or sweatshirts and sweatpants, or full-on jackets, and ALL of them wore beanie hats. The temps were in the upper 60’s. We surely got some stares and were probably considered lacking in basic child-rearing skills.

Grocery shopping is interesting. I anticipated some difficulties due to the sanctions, but things are never as you expect them to be. For example, I found Parmesan but not fresh corn or any kind of squash (fresh broccoli is elusive, too). Wholewheat flour and brown rice cannot be found even at the fanciest of the city’s supermarkets (iHerb, what would we do without you?) and vegetarian products wether soy or myco-protein based are unheard of.

Shopping in general is kind of weird – I miss being able to walk into a CVS (an American chain of pharmacies) and buy milk, pain killer, new nail polish, and a roll of scotch tape all in one place. Here, it requires going to at least 3 different stores. While it may not be a problem if you live or work downtown, it’s quite annoying when you are in the outskirts, carless, and dragging a toddler around.

I’m okay, though. Confused and exhausted, maybe, but fine overall. At the end of the day, being next to Shon & Little Turtle is all that really matters.

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An Ending Comes to an End

Our wonderful friend collected the housing deposit refund check from ADCP one week ago. What was the big delay about?

“They told me I should have known your middle name in order for them to find your check,” she said. “Then I asked why they didn’t phone me when the check was ready [bearing in mind they had promised to do so], and the person told me that if I needed the money then I should track the check down and not the other way around.”

Nice, right? Anyway, I got a text message (still one of the coolest things about living in the UAE–the abundance of text messages quickly and simply confirming transactions) showing that the check was deposited in my bank account the same day. The final step remaining is to transfer that money home, which is on today’s agenda, now that the check has had time to clear, and the Abu Dhabi days are done.

An Ending Continues

Our tenure in Al Ain, in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, has come to an end. I’m not writing from the UAE. No, I’m in a comfortable home that belongs to my relative, with green grass and leafy trees outside the airy, expansive living room. There are clouds in the beautiful blue sky, and it looks like rain is coming. This is definitely not the UAE.

As the ending continues, I’ve received my end of service payment and transferred the money home. It’s a nice nest egg that makes some of the struggles of the last few years a more pleasant memory. I had no unapproved days off, and my term of employment started almost exactly 3 years ago, so the sum was more or less what I was expecting, with the added bonus of the airfare amount being a little higher than we’d hoped for. My extremely helpful friend in Al Ain has yet to hear from ADCP about the housing deposit refund (4,000 AED, no small amount of money), but she will pick up the check and put it in the bank for me ASAP.  After that is done, our last remaining financial ties to the UAE will be cut.

#boylovesairports #dxb Turtle said "good-bye" to Dubai today.

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The last couple of days in Al Ain went like one would expect–trying to reduce possessions to the bare minimum, weeding out things we wanted to keep and things we could do without, packing the suitcases full, soaking up Al Ain life, as well as enjoying hotel’s amenities and saying goodbyes to many good people we may never see again. We flew out in the morning on Saturday, hauling more luggage than we ever have before, and hopefully more than we will again.

“I hope there’s no small child in front of me,” Jenia said, pushing her baggage cart through the airport. She could see in front of her, so I’m not sure what she was worried about. Granted, she did have to crane her neck and peer over a barely balancing toddler car seat perched atop the hulking stack of luggage, but surely she wouldn’t have actually run over any small life forms in her way.

No more #PalmTrees in a week. #AlAin #AbuDhabi #UAE

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At home in the USA for a week now, we’ve been struck by things like polite drivers, the lushness of the southeast, the ease with which we can communicate, the variety of colors and textures of buildings. As Jenia says, the houses and yards offer a sense of personal identity, which contrasts with the UAE’s impersonal but often imposing homes.

Thus, we’re nearly through with our UAE journey. It’s been trying, but rewarding, and I would judge it thoroughly worth doing. The ending continues until the last bit of money comes in…

An Ending Begins

We have 8 days left in the UAE.

The last week has gone by in a blur as I zipped from place to place after invigilation (which ought instead to be called supervised cheating) at school. But it’s Friday, the weekend is upon us, and I’m ensconced in the Hili Rayhaan hotel, comfortably in a king-sized bed, having spent the morning at a leisurely breakfast and then in the pool. There was even a nap this afternoon. Things are looking up.

Here is what happens at the end of working for ADEC. Unsurprisingly, the resignation procedure is much the same as the arrival procedure, only reversed.

The steps are: wait wait wait wait wait for your resignation (which you submitted in the online system well within the official window of time) to be approved, then wait wait wait wait wait wait some more.

Then with about a month of work left, it’s approved and things start moving quickly.

If you’re me, you print a form that you obtained from someone not your principal (who is supposed to have received said form in his email, but may not be aware of it, or perhaps he was just not at work on the day it was sent). You fill this form out, and then you have to collect about seven signatures from various departments at ADEC headquarters (called “The Zone” around here).

You make a trip to The Zone to get the next couple of signatures, because they’re mostly a formality.

Then you wait a bit, because you’re hung up getting clearance forms (haven’t you heard of those? They’re forms which officially show that you’ve paid your bills and haven’t got any outstanding balance) from the combined power and water company (Al Ain Distribution Company). This requires a visit to one of the AADC places in town. I’d suggest the Al Ain Mall one, or perhaps the Hili Mall one (which is never busy). If you go to the big headquarters near The Zone, you’ll probably wait forever and a half day. Anyway, the process takes a couple of days. You request a final meter reading and clearance certificate, AADC sends you a text message as acknowledgement, and then, if things go correctly, you get a second message to say you’re all set. From prior experience, I can tell you if that message doesn’t come after two days, go visit an AADC office and ask for an update. This all means getting the AADC clearance takes a couple days. Then you’ll need an Etisalat (phone and internet) clearance form, too, and that company forces you to visit the large, crowded, slow office in Sanaiya to get a clearance letter, although it bears noting that you can get service cancelled at several other locations (such as Bawadi Mall). Again, the clearance from takes a couple of days or more. If you’re me, you make no less than eight trips to Etisalat to get this done, and you still have to go collect the form another time.

After you have your AADC clearance form, you can get your apartment inspected. We pay 180 AED to the apartment manager because one of our screens has a dime-sized hole in it (and it might indeed be our fault, so no problem), then he prints a letter declaring that you’re all set, but in iffier English than that. You take this letter down to The Zone and collect another signature.

By now, you’ve dropped off and then collected, a couple days later, your dependents’ passports at the Infinity Services window in ADEC so they can type up visa cancellation forms for you (saving a few bucks), and you take these passports a few buildings over to immigration and have them cancel the visas. You need to show your own original passport, Emirates ID, and work visa there. The guy in a kandora behind the counter glances at your stuff, then stamps the dependents’ pink visas with red ink which seems to read “cancelled” in Arabic. He also collects their Emirates IDs. A couple moments later a text message arrives from the Ministry of the Interior notifying you of the cancelations. This means your cleared for the next step: having your own visa cancelled. This means I turn in my Emirates ID (bye, little card!) and passport for a day.

The next day, I collect my passport, and the guys older guy sitting in his chair takes a box of passports with paperwork attached to them from a locked cabinet. He looks at my picture carefully, at me, back at the picture, and is smiling and the other guy is laughing.  Then they tell me how somebody else who looked kind of like me picked it up earlier in the day. “Same name,” they said, but I’d be floored if there’s a second Shon Rand running around Al Ain. Regardless, my passport is in my hand, and I can collect another signature on my all-important form. So I do.

And I proceed to housing, where I need another signature. That’s fairly easy. He directs me to hand over another copy of my AADC clearance, and then take copies to the Abu Dhabi Commercial Properties building downtown to get my housing deposit back. I notice it’s almost 3 o’clock, and it’s Thursday, and figure I won’t find anyone there if I go now, so I decide to wait until Sunday for that.

As it turns out, I need to make another trip to ADEC anyway, because I need that Etisalat clearance form which I haven’t got yet in order to submit my super-duper important form to the last people–payroll, who will calculate up my End of Service (EOS) payment.

Thus, over the period of about 9 days, an ending has begun. There is very little left to be done, and hopefully it will all be knocked out on Sunday. There has been a bit of stress, like there was in the beginning, but it’s been tempered by knowledge that things move slowly here, especially when you hope they’ll go fast. We have only 8 days left in the UAE. Wow.

Surprises

New teachers have arrived. We’ve met several of them, and some report reading our blog and finding it helpful. The whole point of chronicling this experience is to give others an accurate idea if what it’s like to teach and live in the UAE, so we are delighted that some people are finding it useful as they decide whether to come over to the desert.

One thing that’s surprised the new teachers, and which just made it’s debut this fall, is that new folks have to pay a housing deposit when they receive their quarters. The figure seems to be 5% of whatever the assigned housing rents for (usually around 65,000 AED in Al Ain, so the deposit would be approximately 3,200). While the idea is doubtless to make those who would flee the, er, challenges of this job think twice before abandoning all their stuff and leaving without paying any of their bills, etc. (and to cover the expenses left behind by those who do run), it’s been an unexpected wallet whammy for newcomers. As one told me, of the 20,000 AED you’re given as a furniture allowance upon arrival (or somewhere near), fully half is now going into the deposit and other necessities, such as the 1,000 AED deposit to have AADC turn on your power, the one for gas (1000 + in our case), whatever it is that Etisalat charges for establishing a phone and internet connection and installation (don’t remember, and don’t wanna look it up), the cost of new SIM cards or new mobile phones (we recommend just getting a new SIM for your GSM compatible smart phone), and so on. That means that the amount of money to buy new furniture is nearly half the amount you’re allotted. If you’ve shopped for furniture lately, you’ve noticed it’s not cheap, and that 10,000 AED ($2700) won’t buy you much.

Dirhams!

Dirhams!

Another surprise of sorts is that even those newcomers who’ve been in the UAE for over a month now haven’t been paid. They got the furniture allowance, yes, but ADEC only recently got around to communicating that they wouldn’t receive their pay until the end of September. Here’s hoping these people set aside enough money to live for a couple months without pay. That is ADEC’s recommendation, after all, so at least one thing isn’t hugely surprising!

ADEC Housing

Lots of folks have dropped by this blog looking for information about ADEC housing.  If you’re one of those folks who wonder what sort of digs a person gets when they come to work here, I can help you out.

In short, the answer is: it varies.  In Abu Dhabi, the apartments are usually pretty nice. They’re fairly small, but from the photos I’ve seen others share, they’re fairly well-appointed to begin with, with built-in wardrobes and such.  Many of them are in a new section of the city that may require you to drive a good ways to work.

Those teachers placed in Madinat Zayed or other places in the Western Region of Al Gharbia, often have totally different housing.  Many of them share a big place.  Others are put up in hotels.

Those of us who are put in Al Ain have been given very different housing from one another.  We were told during orientation back in August that “There are no small places in Al Ain.”  That is hardly accurate.  What ADEC looks for, we’re told, are places that adhere to local codes and regulations.  They evidently don’t give much regard to size, however, for that statement about small places was simply inaccurate.  Jenia and I were first placed in a tiny 2-BR apartment with a miniature kitchen and bathrooms.  The apartment was in the Sultan Bin Tahnoon complex, and was brand new, but was much too small for the two of us (nevermind when number three shows up).  Another teacher found herself placed in a run-down complex with a sign warning about danger on the door.  She had to fight and fight with ADEC to get herself put in a better complex.  They did eventually see reason, but it was a struggle.

The first complex we were placed in, Sultan Bin Tahnoon.

The first complex we were placed in, Sultan Bin Tahnoon.

Tiny little bathroom in Tahnoon.

Tiny little bathroom in Tahnoon.  The shower is nearly on top of the toilet.

This is almost the entire apartment, aside from bathrooms and eensy-weensy kitchen.  The photo makes it look bigger than it actually is.

This is almost the entire apartment, aside from bathrooms and eensy-weensy kitchen. The photo makes it look considerably bigger than it actually is.

Fortunately for us, a colleague of mine was interested in swapping apartments, so we exchanged keys and went to the ADEC headquarters in Al Ain and had it made official.  There was no problem with that at all.  The place we’re in now is much bigger, albeit still not even close to large by American standards.  Like the first tiny place, we’ve got two bedrooms.  But there are three bathrooms (all quite small, but reasonable), a small kitchen (this time with room for a full-size stove and a dishwasher), and a living/dining room.  Other teachers are placed in the Hili complex, which seems more generously sized, although its location isn’t quite as convenient.  Yet others are placed in The Village (typically those with two or more kids), which offers very spacious quarters.

The complex where we now live is

The complex where we now live is much better than the first one.  It’s got a swimming pool (albeit a small one) and a (not-too-well-appointed) gym, and even underground parking, which helps keep the car a lot cooler during the hot months.

Our new apartment actually has a reasonable amount of space.

Our new apartment actually has a reasonable amount of space.

The bathroom, by comparison, is roomy, although there is still no storage or shelves.

The master bathroom, by comparison, is roomy, although there is still no storage or shelves.

So what can you expect if you sign up for a job with ADEC?  To have no idea whatsoever what to expect.

Thoughts on Housing

Reflecting on the housing situation, I’ve talked with folks who thought the apartments in the Tahnood complex were just fine.  Those were mostly singles, actually, and if I were single, I’d probably be fine with a little apartment, too.  But where’s the logic in placing married couples and families in teensy-weensy places?  I’m guessing here, and only guessing, but my guess is there wasn’t any logic applied.  In fact, I’m betting that the housing people at ADEC probably went no farther than finding government-approved housing that had the requisite number of bedrooms and baths, and they may not have considered the actual size of the apartments.  Perhaps a visit with the ADEC housing folks in Al Ain will help me understand why Jenia and I were placed where we were, and, keeping my fingers crossed, maybe the will agree to move us to a better-appointed place (with a better kitchen and at least a little more living space).  There are no guarantees, and I realize that.  But with a little luck, firmness, politeness, and persistence, maybe we can make arrangements that will make living easier.  But that will have to wait until after Eid, the big holiday following Ramadan.