The Journey Is My Home

Provided that everything goes as it should, we will all be on our flight to Seattle at this time tomorrow. The bags are packed, the laptop is backed up, the audiobooks downloaded, the entertainment for the kids carefully selected.

As the last load of laundry is tumbling in the dryer, I (Jenia here) finally find myself able to breathe again. I can sit back, look around, and think of what will come after the drive, the two flights, and another drive to our apartment in Shenzhen. The adventure.

There is a rush to it. I’m grinning as I type because with all the difficulties of an international move (and there are quite a few: the culture, the language, the initial lack of a community, the lack of knowledge on how to do the most mundane things) there is also the joy of starting anew and the trill of discovery. Right now, there is a bit of mystery to it: will we like the apartment? How shall we manage without an oven? Will we really eat rice every day? What will our neighborhood grocery store look like? Will there be palm trees on the property? Will there be other families with young kids around? What will I think of hot pot? Where shall we go on our first school break? Will I get to touch a panda?

There is also a strange feeling of relief. We’ve never set foot in China and yet I feel like we’re returning. I think Muriel Rukeyser whose quote I used as the title of this post said it well, the journey is my home, too.

I have little doubt we’ll settle down one day. I would love to have a house all our own, airy and bright, with room for all the linens, and ceramics, and art we’ve collected while traveling. Yet right now the world is calling and we are answering.

That Time I Was Ashamed

Several years ago, Shon & I enjoyed a short trip to Washington D.C.. I loved the National Mall, stood in awe in front of the statue of Lincoln, and wished I could spend a lifetime at the Smithsonian. It was the Holocaust Museum though that shook me to the core and left the most lasting impression. I did expect to be moved by it but I did not know that it wouldn’t be the photographs of starving children or the piles of leather shoes that would bring me to tears. What broke me down was a rather small paragraph of text close to the end of the exhibit detailing the American response to Jewish refugees. As bizarre as it sounds, I don’t think I’ve been more ashamed in my life than I was at that moment. I remember reading about a ship full of Jews being turned around and sent back to Europe (over a quarter of those on the ship ended up dying in the Holocaust) and about Dominican Republic willing to accept more Jewish refugees than any of the first world countries. Since then I have learned that even Japan, Germany’s ally in WWII, saved thousands of Jews. The US though? The self-proclaimed Christian nation? Well, both the population and the government felt that accepting refugees would be too much for the economy, the argument of “they’ll take our jobs” was rather popular, and, well, anti-semitism was no joke.

Does any of it sound familiar?

Today, many of the same people who would agree that the United States should have done more during Holocaust are those adamantly opposed to bringing in Syrian refugees. Without even realizing it, they are using the same arguments their parents and grandparents used 70-something years ago.

Friends, if you call yourself Christian, does your Bible have different footnotes from mine? Is there an asterisk next to Matthew 25:35 that clarifies that “I was a stranger and you invited me in” only refers to said strangers of the same color/nationality/religious affiliation?

I understand some of the fear, I really do. It’s hard to open your heart to someone you don’t know and don’t understand, someone who seems so different from you at a first glance. I know that the potential threat of terrorism can be debilitating. But while it’s potential for us, it is very real for the people fleeing Syria. They have lived through horrors we can barely imagine. They have taken risks we’ve never contemplated. They have made choices I pray I never have to make.

To me, the idea of a child being shot at school by his caucasian classmate is just as scary as the idea of being shot at a concert by an ISIS member. The scarier thing though? Allowing fear to rob me of compassion, humanity, and willingness to take a risk of getting to know someone different.

At the Holocaust Museum in D.C., there is a room called “Genocide: the Threat Continues”. Its purpose is to bring attention to people at risk of mass atrocities. Right now, this room is hosting an exhibit on what the Museum calls “one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time” – the crisis in Syria. And since these people know a thing or two about genocide, it may be worth listening to what they have to say.

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.

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.

Why Travel?

Exactly a week ago, we were sitting at a financial advisor’s office admitting, somewhat embarrassingly, that most of our assets are in our passport stamps.  This morning, I woke up to this view:

IMG_0011.JPG
What embarrassment?

Hello, my name is Jenia, and I am a travelholic.

Traveling makes me happy, preparing for a trip makes me giddy. Heck, I even like packing! If you wake me up in the middle of the night, hand me a ticket to virtually any destination, and allow 30 minutes to get ready, I won’t even consider turning down the offer. Shon is the same, minus the packing part. Little Turtle doesn’t really care yet, truth be told.

Between the 3 of us, here’s what our travel map looks like:

Create your own visited map of The World or Amsterdam travel guide for Android

The old saying about birds of a feather holds true to us as well. We tend to surround ourselves with other travel junkies. This summer, we asked some of them to share why they travel. Here’s what they said:

Andrew, 54 years old, has been to 45 countries:

“Why? Because I do love travel and I want to serve others, serve Christ.”

Bennet, 2; 7 countries:

“Airplanes!”

Emile, 10; 8 countries visited (and at least 2 more planned before October):

“I like to travel because I like to explore and learn new things.”

Frank & Melissa, 35 & 34; 32 countries by the end of this month:

“We travel to see the world, experience new cultures, try new foods, and get out of our comfort zone.”

Jenna, 27; 17 countries:

“I travel because you can learn so much – about language, people, religion/spirituality, communication, lifestyles, art, food, architecture, view on life (others and your own), and much more.”

Jody, 38; 12 or 13 countries:

“I travel because I love adventure and experiencing new places and peoples and cultures. I have returned to several of these countries as well. I love meeting people and learning new and different perspectives from people. I love to see how people totally blow stereotypes to bits and I enjoy seeing how people from such different places and cultures are really just like me. God’s creation is beautiful and I love communing with Him in his creation.”

Maria, 31; 31 countries:

“I actually never thought about “Why”. It seems a most obvious thing to do with your time. I would rather ask why someone would NOT travel if they have opportunity?”

Megan, 30; 12 countries:

“Travel because it brings adventure, expands your knowledge, and grows your compassion for all man kind.”

Ryanne, 29; 11 countries (+2 more by the end of summer):

“Because there is only one world and we all live in it. To love all and everyone. 1 John 4:12
No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.”

Scott, 28; 17 countries:

“Travel because it “broadens the mind.” Travel opens your mind to new cultures, customs, and ways of life. Experiencing the unfamiliar challenges what you’ve always expected to be universally true. The newness breeds a sense of adventure as you incorporate the unfamiliar into your own expanding worldview.”

Susanne, 47; 11 countries (2 more by October):

“God blessed this world with so many extrordinary places, people, cultures, and things to learn. Then, He gave me an abundance of curiosity and an adventurous spirit, so travel I must.”

I, Jenia, am 31, and have been to 24 countries. I believe that the more I travel, the more I learn about myself, the country I came from, and its people. The more I discover the world, the more I discover myself. That’s the biggest draw of traveling to me.

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?

The Thai Paradox

Our trip to Thailand was great. There were wonderful things (like mango sticky rice), weird but nice things (like hair washing – a 15-minute procedure at a local salon), weird and not nice things (like people eating bugs), and then there was what I called the Thai Paradox.

See, before flying to Bangkok, I emailed our friend in Udon Thani and asked if there was a dress-code (you ask this sort of question after living in the Middle East for 2 years). She was happy I asked and advised to stick with bottoms that are to the knee or lower & tops that cover my shoulders. I was a little bummed, but it wasn’t a big deal, since this is the kind of clothes I wear here every day.

We also did our research on Bangkok and found out that we both needed to wear long bottoms & closed-toe shoes to visit the Grand Palace. Ok, no big deal again, we packed accordingly.

And then we arrived to Thailand & I felt like I was the only woman under 40 in the city of Bangkok who was not wearing a mini. Seriously.

I thought, “Well, this is the capital, it’s more touristy, people are more wild here. It will be different once we head up north-east.”

Wrong! In the very non-touristy Udon Thani girls still wore cute little dresses and shorts so tiny I’d never dare try them on.

When I asked our friends what’s up with the clothing thing, they explained that generally, Thai people dress modestly, but the younger girls and women want to look Western. “Well, I’m Western,” – I said, – “can I dress like a Westerner?” Their answer stunned me.

“You can wear whatever you want and they won’t care, but if you start talking to someone & they find out that you are a) a teacher’s wife and b) a mother, and you are dressed like that, you will basically lose all respect. Because you should know better.”

Now, we are not talking about daisy dukes & cropped t-shirts. We are talking about something above the knee & without sleeves. Quite a modest culture, huh?  NB: I am not talking about the touristy beaches of Thailand here.

Where’s the paradox, you may be asking.

Well, you see, one of the things Thailand is known for is sex tourism. Male & female prostitutes abound, and while prostitution is officially illegal, I hear it’s actually government-controlled. Here’s a Wiki article on the subject: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prostitution_in_Thailand It’s scary, really, how many foreigners come on a vacation & buy a local for the duration of their stay.

What’s even more strange to me, is that it’s not just the foreigners. Our friends told us that it’s considered absolutely normal for a man to have several mistresses + a wife. Sometimes the women aren’t too happy with the arrangement (we heard a story of 3 girlfriends who found out about each other & joined forces: they sold the guy’s pricey electronics & split the money :)), but in general it’s expected and not frowned upon. Even in their non-touristy city, both of our friends have been approached by the locals. They and their expat friends have been offered “special services” at a massage salon, the guys are consistently asked about their Thai wives (and why they don’t have any), the women are being told that the fact they already have husbands “is not a problem”.

Prostitution and extramarital sex? Yay! Bring it on! Let the whole world come and sleep with our people!

Women wearing anything above the knee? No way! That’s too risqué. We are a modest people.

I just don’t get it. I don’t. 

P.S. The whole issue of modesty/modest clothes is something that I get passionate about very quickly, and since I seem to hold a somewhat not-mainstream-Christian view on it, you may not want to bring up the subject with me.

P.P.S. More reading on human trafficking in Thailand: http://www.humantrafficking.org/countries/thailand

NGO’s that help sex workers:

Empower http://www.empowerfoundation.org/index_en.html

SWING https://www.facebook.com/SWINGfoundation/info

If you know of any others, feel free to leave a link in the comments!

Money Monday: My Chains Are Gone!

Shon & I have been married for a little over 6 years now.  Today, for the first time in those 6-something years, we are debt free.

We don’t own any property, I don’t have any designer shoes, our phones are not the latest thing on the market, and our baby doesn’t have an iPad, but we don’t owe anybody any money.

And it feels so darn good.

 

 

In Case You’re Wondering: on Mommyhood, Blogging, and Motivation

I don’t remember the last time I wrote for this blog. Yes, part of it is simply being tired and busy: now that Little Turtle is on the constant move, the 3 combined hours of his naps are often the only time to get things done – or to get some rest. Mommyhood can be a bit exhausting, and it so happens that other things take prevalence over blogging. Or so I thought.

Then I realized that even though the number of my posts on my personal Russian-language blog (you’ll find the link on About page if you’re interested) has dropped considerably, I still keep writing for it. The reason is simple: I have a real audience there. Some 300 people follow my blog, and it’s  uncommon to write a post and receive no feedback. People comment and then come back to respond to your response to their comment. Every once in awhile, I find a private message from another blogger asking if everything’s alright, since they haven’t heard from me in a couple of weeks. We’ve met several of my blog friends in person (in Atlanta, Charlotte, Tallahassee, and Haague,) and are hoping to meet more. Gosh, the only 2 Christmas cards we received this year are from my blog buddies!

And then there’s this blog. Nearly 2,000 followers & hardly any comments. I get these notifications on my phone: “so-and-so started following your blog” or “so-and-so liked your post,” and I wonder, “Who are these people? What made them press the button?”

Obviously, this is not a for-profit blog or a popularity contest. Still, it’s not a diary either and it would be great to hear from our readers a bit more often. A smiley face is better than nothing.

Shon is pushing me to write more, saying that as a bilingual mother of an infant living in her 3rd country, traveling rather extensively, and pursuing photography after having had to quit interpreting, I have something to say to the world. My argument is: does the world actually care? My motivation to write evaporates when I think of the lack of communication with our supposed readers.

Who are you? Do you actually read us? Do you find this blog interesting/helpful/relatable? What would you like to see us write about? What do you want to see more of? In other words, do you care?

P.S. It is surprising when every now and then we meet someone in Al Ain, and they tell us they read our blog before coming here. It’s always so good to hear!

The Traveling Turtle or 1 Baby, 2 Months, and 7 Countries

Disclaimer: everything you read below is only our experience and our opinion.

I feel I should begin by saying that even before our Little Turtle was born, we kind of promised each other that as long as he turned out healthy, we would not stop traveling (and living) only because we have a baby.

This dialogue from the “Paris, Je T’Aime” movie is very close to my heart:

Vincent: Claire, make Gaspard a balloon, not a ball and chain.
Claire: Was I a ball and chain?
Vincent: Mon Petit Claire, You were not the ball and chain. You were the zeppelin.

Well, we got us a sweet little zeppelin (in my best Southern accent.) I tend to think that some of it is luck, and some of it is our decision.

After 8 weeks and 9 flights I came to the conclusion that traveling with a baby is not different from doing everything else with a baby. We only needed 4 things: my milk, diapers, patience, and flexibility.

There were only 2 times, I believe, when Turtle thew a fit: once in Maine, when his 5 cousins aged 7 to 14 were overly excited to meet him and he didn’t know what to make of it, and in the car somewhere in Europe when he was just tired of being in the carseat. The rest of the time, he ate (at every sight worth seeing, in every museum), slept in his carrier (we have a Boba Air and love it!), observed his surroundings, and made friends.

A side-note on the carrier: there was only one time we wished we had a stroller.  In Sri Lanka, it would have been nigh impossible to roll it, in Europe, there are cobblestones everywhere. There was never the question of folding/storing/hauling something, which we loved.

Some practical stuff:

In Bonn, we ended up in a bigger hotel room, because they saw we had a baby. I suspect it would have happened at other places, too, if we went to check-in together.

In the Dubai airport, we didn’t have to stand in a single line. In Amsterdam and somewhere in the US we were allowed to board first. KLM was fantastic: the staff was very friendly and thoughtful. They actually provided us with an infant life vest, an infant seatbelt, and a little bag of goodies (even though Turtle was a bit too young for it.) Delta was much less impressive, I’m sad to report.

We were given a bassinet on 2 flights, and an extra seat on 2 flights. We found the extra seat to be more convenient.

At one of the restaurants, the waiter picked up Ari and carried him around during our whole meal, so that we could relax and enjoy our food, which we did!

Not once did I catch anyone giving me the evil eye for nursing in public (I don’t go all-bare, but I don’t use one of those nursing tents either.)

Everywhere we went, people on public transportation were quick to give up their seats so that one of us could sit down. So very sweet.

So there are definite benefits 🙂 The drawbacks are few and far between, the main one being the slower pace: we had to stop to feed him, or he’d get tired of being in the carrier, or our arms/back would get tired. But it’s such a minor thing! We just travel differently now, that’s all.