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.

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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.

Not to Be Missed: Annual Al Ain Life Event for Newbies

While we may not be in the UAE anymore, I cannot help but advertise the annual Al Ain Life event for the new teachers, doctors, and other professionals (and families). It’s a great way to meet people, have your questions answered, find someone to take you dune-bashing, and get recommendations for the best hair-dresser in town (it’s Joanna Graville, by the way.) Please see the flyers below for more info!

The Useful Facebook

I am yet to get used to people we meet at random places around town suddenly saying, “Waaait… Are you those folks with a blog? We read it!” And it completely blows my mind when they said they found it useful, too. I get all mushy and warm inside (Shon just feels encouraged to keep on writing.)

All this to say that during one of my most recent encounters, I mentioned the local Facebook groups I found useful, and it occurred to me I should post a list here, as well.

Now, some of these are closed/private, and you will have to ask to be added.

Buying, selling, swapping, free cycling:

Freecycle Al Ain – my personal favorite. Only free stuff.

Al Ain Swap and Shop – buy and sell everything from furniture to clothespins.

UAE Swap and Shop – same as above but on a bigger scale.

Al Ain Infant and Children Supplies Marketplace – everything for the kids, buy & sell.

Abu Dhabi Infant and Children Supplies Marketplace – same as above but on the Emirate level.

Lifestyle, survival, general info:

UAE Natural Family Living Network – if you have crunchy tendencies or simply want to find some organic food.

Grow Your Own (Al Ain) – if life in the desert leaves you yearning for something green.

Al Ain Book Club – duh.

Al Ain Expats Parents Group – don’t be fooled by the name. This is a good location for general questions.

Parenting, pregnancy, nursing:

Al Ain Nursing Mamas – if you need help, encouragement, or just an ear.

Breastfeeding Q&A Dubai & UAE – self-explanatory.

Al Ain Bumps and Babes – all things pregnancy and babies.

Abu Dhabi/Al Ain EMT Parents/Spouses – everything parenting-related.

Afternoon Baby & Children Music Classes – the most popular music classes in town. From 4 months and up.

Al Ain Under 6’s Crafting Group – weekly get-together to encourage the kids’ artsy side. 12 months and up.

These are only the groups I am actually a member of. There are more out there, but I can’t personally recommend them.

Besides this, many housing communities have their own groups as well (Muwaiji Village has one, Hili has one, the Village has one), but they are only open to residents.

Most of the people in these groups are happy to help, so do not hesitate to join. It is likely to make your life easier and more interesting from the very first days in this country.

Thursday List: Things to Bring and Not to Bring

I have to begin by saying 2 things: firstly, I was planning to write this sooner, hoping it would be a bit of help to the people moving to the UAE for the new school year. Sorry if I’m a bit too late, guys! Secondly, this is my very personal opinion, and I’m sorry if this list takes too-girly a turn.

Don’t Bring:

1. Electronics and small appliances that don’t have dual voltage (speaking to Americans here, mostly). First of all, they may not work here even with the converter (Shon’s razor worked, his clippers didn’t), and even if they do work, there’s a good chance they’ll just blow out one day (RIP, my lovely hair-straightener!)

If dual voltage is not a problem, consider weight/price. Will it be cheaper to buy said appliance here or pay for an extra/overweight bag?

If you are curious, we brought our laptops & camera. We bought everything else here (most of it used).

The only exception to this list is a router. Do consider bringing a VPN-compatible router.

2. Books. They are so freaking heavy. Consider investing into e-books or purchasing books online from bookdepository.com They ship worldwide for free.

3. Crafting tools unless you are bringing the supplies as well. For whatever reason, “making things” is not a favorite pastime here. You may have some luck with yarn and embroidery floss for a reasonable price, but expect to pay a pretty penny for the scrapbooking/card-making supplies, and not be able to find any jewelry-making stuff at all.

Consider Bringing:

1. Your favorite outfit even if doesn’t fit the “clothes acceptable in the UAE” category. There will be all sorts of expat get-togethers plus you can always wear it to a hotel restaurant or just on a trip to Dubai.

2. Non-drugstore cosmetics. Clinique and MAC stuff is available, but costs 2-3 times more, ladies. I have a sneaking suspicion this is true for other brands, as well.

3. A bottle of your favorite hair product, if you have difficult hair. Chances are, it will take you a bit of time to find a replacement here (Americans, try Boots pharmacies). Personally, I still bring my favorite hairspray.

4. Clinical strength deodorant. No, you cannot get it here.

5. US ladies, if you are into Victoria’s Secret underwear, bring some along. Two words: unnecessarily expensive.

6. A small/lightweight/flat piece of your current house decor. It’s really nice to have something from home. We brought 2 plywood people with the maps of our hometowns on them, and we haven’t regretted it.

7. A VPN-compatible router.

8. A traveler’s credit card. We are quite fond of Capital One’s Venture. Most likely, you will not get paid until the end of September, so keep this in mind.

9. If you know you are planning to travel internationally during your time in the UAE, think about bringing some winter clothes. We knew we were going to Russia for Christmas, so we brought our jackets, boots, and a couple of sweaters thus saving a fortune.

A lot of people bring food. I have heard of suitcases packed full of grits (no kidding). While I do notoriously miss my Cheez-Its now and then, I have surely found new favorites (plus, most of the stuff you can’t get is not the best thing for you, anyway, and the healthy stuff can be easily purchased at iherb.com – they ship to the door).

This said, you can find nearly everything here. You will see brands you recognize, and brands you don’t (some of them are just a different name for something familiar). Don’t be afraid of trying new stuff! It’s part of the fun.

Also, if you are curious about baby-related stuff I bring from the States, let me know.

Expat friends, what would you add?

Making a Life

When we started to feel content here in the UAE, it was because we’d committed to making a life here.  Not necessarily to anything long-term, but rather to getting involved in the community.  It’s hard for a westerner to feel like he or she belongs in the area, since the local culture is (at least in Al Ain, I can’t say for sure about Abu Dhabi or Dubai) quite closed to those who don’t speak Arabic.  I’m quite alright with this, since my culture in the USA is much the same way to those who don’t speak English.  It’s all a natural part of moving to a different country.  I know if I learn Arabic beyond the handful of phrases and words I’ve picked up over the last two years (two years!) that more social doors will open.  Although it’s hard to feel like I truly belong here, it’s not been hard to develop relationships with other expats.  Jenia and I have, as we’ve said before, more friends than we did back home in the States.

Kabs (spelling?), freshly made at the Yemeni place.  Ever so tasty.

Kabs (spelling?), bread freshly made at the Yemeni place. Ever so tasty.

For us, this process of feeling comfortable began with people, and slowly expanded to being a part of other things in the area.  We started going to Al Ain Evangelical Church church and attending a small group.  I was invited to play with the church band.  We’ve ended up taking on the responsibility of being small group facilitators, which added a wrinkle to life, and we’ve also started ballroom dancing lessons, something I (Shon writing here, by the way) never thought I’d enjoy at all.

So what’s life like for us now that we’re in the groove?  It looks a little like this, on a relatively relaxing weekend, like the one we just had (which had temperatures dip below 100F and felt marvelous):

On Friday we zipped to the mall, then stopped by our favorite bakery for some savory pastries, and in the evening we attended a choral concert held at Al Qattara Arts Center.  There we met friends and encountered acquaintances, and enjoyed time hanging out with in the relatively cool, oven-dried evening afterward.  Saturday we took Frank and Mel and their expanding family to a fabulously atmospheric (read: hole-in-the-wall) Yemeni restaurant which might be called Al Kabisi (but I’m not sure, as I’ve never successfully translated the sign yet, and I didn’t think to see if it said on the newly-minted English/Arabic menus we were given).  Then we hung around Jahili Park for a while, made a de rigeur visit to Starbucks, where we paid more for drinks than we paid for our entire meal shortly before, and returned home so we could enjoy the evening at home.

We're now accustomed to seeing camels being transported, as well as the odd broken down Bentley and such.

We’re now accustomed to seeing camels being transported, as well as the odd broken down Bentley and such.

Being involved in the community and building a life here has allowed Jenia to build her photography hobby into something more than that.  She’s taken portraits of numerous families on the orange sands and in green parks, done a promo shoot for a local performing duo called Sarah and Adam, and is starting a three-day shoot for a school tomorrow.  It’s great.

Jenia's photos are better than mine, of course, but I snapped this one while she was shooting Sarah and Adam.

Jenia’s photos are better than mine, of course, but I snapped this one while she was shooting Sarah and Adam, and I like it.

I’ve left deeper things out as I recount simple events.  It’s hard to say how much we’ve learned about ourselves as we’ve made a home abroad.  Living here gives us a window on the world that we wouldn’t have had before.  We’ve gained an amazing perspective on life in the Middle East and the Arab world, and grown more culturally empathetic than before.  We’ve found ourselves, as we adapt, stretched and pulled, angered and moved to laughter, exasperated and impressed.

Now, when somebody asks me where I’m from, I no longer immediately respond, “Georgia, in the USA.”  I smile.  I’m from Georgia, yes, but I’m also from the UAE now.  I’ve got a life here, and it’s a nice one that I’m immensely grateful for.  I’m not sure how long we’ll stick around, but for the time being, we’ve got a good thing going.

Winter Living

Last night I finally gave in.  I put a blanket on the bed.  Hitherto we’ve been comfortable enough with simply a top sheet and a bedspread.  But winter has settled in, and it’s in the 50’s Fahrenheit at night now.  Brrrr.

Yet, it’s not exactly chilly during the day.  Today I wore jeans and a long sleeve shirt, and then found myself too warm when I was outside in the sun for a little while.  I had to roll my sleeves up.

However, it’s been cloudy on and off over the last week, and there’s been a bit of drizzle now and then.  That means it’s been pretty nice and cool in general.

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When it’s a clear day, which is still most of them, the sky is actually blue and the visibility is better than it is in spring, summer, and fall.  That makes it an excellent time of year to head to the dunes for photos, and Jenia’s had a number of shoots in the desert recently.

One day we made it to the city for a tour of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, and were rewarded with nice, comfortable weather that was also good for pictures.  Most of the time skies are quite gray, which always makes for disappointing images.  Now, however, the heavens are pretty, and it’s a nice contrast against the white domes and minarets.

Right now the air is clean and, in Al Ain, crisp.  The humidity that hangs heavily in Abu Dhabi and Dubai is still present, but the temperatures are low enough that it’s no bother.

This is definitely the best time of the year in the UAE.

What’s New? It’s All Routine, I Tell You.

What is there to write about? We’re long overdue for an update on here, but there just hasn’t been much of particular note going on. At least I don’t think there is, anyway.

On one front, relief is in sight–the winter holidays are almost upon us. This means the weather is getting comfortable, and it also means my time trying to corral students into their seats and get something accomplished is limited. Whew.

On another hand, we haven’t had to deal with all the junk that we did last fall, since we don’t need to deal with immigration hassles and such. That means we’re able to enjoy simply living a great deal more, rather than dealing with distractions all the time.

We don’t notice the crazy stuff so much anymore. But every now and again something especially interesting pops up, like the convoy of cars last month that were driving with their flashers on. We joined in, just for grins, and after getting bored, passed the group and snapped this picture of the guy acting as videographer for the whole goofy parade.

Every day #ridiculousness in #uae #alain #crazy #fromthecarwindow

A post shared by jeniarand (@jeniarand) on

The baby is crawling–and hoisting himself up to standing positions (and then tumbling down again).

We’ve been trying to stay busy, but have been tired out because of aforementioned offspring. Still, we’ve managed to fit in time to hit the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and the F1 races in Abu Dhabi last weekend.

Good day for a race #F1 #yas

A post shared by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

#etihad pavilion at #formula1 #abudhabi

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We’re continually thankful for having good friends here, and for meeting new people and making new friends, too.

Jenia’s been getting more photography work, including for my coworker Adam’s musical duo known as Sarah and Adam. I snapped this picture with my phone when Jenia was shooting.

Oh, and there could be a raise in my future at work–that would be nice. There’s been much talk in the press lately about how pay rises were approved, and the rumor is that would be an across-the-board 2000 AED raise per month. That would be just lovely. It would sure make putting up with the difficult environment more rewarding.

While still on the topic of work, I should probably mention that this year has been easier thus far. With the administration taking a firmer stance on a few things (most notably and sensibly discipline), as well as assigning classrooms to teachers and having students switch rooms (instead of confining them in one space the whole day), the incidences of vandalism and hooliganism are much reduced.

But what else is there to write about? I mean, this is pretty ordinary stuff, right? You don’t want to waste your time reading about how we’re struggling to beat back the roach invasion (the little suckers moved in while we were gone this summer, and whatever we do seems to have very little affect on getting rid of them), or how I opened the fridge, grabbed the milk jug, and poured yogurt onto my cereal this morning, right? (that would be a result of the fridge failing to cool for some reason, and the milk curdling during the night) There’s not much point in writing about upcoming events, but I’ll mention them anyway. We’re looking forward to having Jenia’s parents come to visit in a couple weeks. After that, when they return to Russia, we’ll hop on a plane for a far-away country, too (but not Russia). Am I leaving you in suspense? Hopefully. 🙂

Thursday List: Things I Never Thought I’d Say Before I Moved Here

1. It’s 95F. Do you think it’s warm enough to go to the beach?

2. I am freezing, if I knew it was going to be 55 degrees outside, I would have brought my jacket along.

3. Yes. (To a person asking if they can take your baby to the back room of the office to show to their colleagues.)

4. I’ve been to 3 malls today.

5. Let’s go to the park tonight. I miss grass.

6. What time are we meeting your students at the mall?

7. We have not been to Dubai in, like, two weeks!

And the worst one:

8. I miss Walmart and Target.