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.

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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.

 

 

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.

IMG_0519

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.

IMG_0511

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.

A Top 10 List: What’s Surprising?

Having been to Russia a few times, Ukraine once, and other Eastern European nations, I don’t always notice the things a newcomer would. I don’t even find things that once surprised me remarkable, tending to forget, instead, that anyone might actually be interested in reading about them. Yet, undoubtedly, there’s quite a few quirks one has to adjust to in this sprawling, chilly land. Here’s a selection of unusual things you might encounter on a daily basis in this neck of the woods.

  1. Trees wearing white paint. Actually, I think it’s lime. The purpose? Er, I don’t know.
  2. Toilets which you can’t flush toilet paper down, along with a little trashcan sitting nearby for your used tissue. Only problematic if there’s no waste basket nearby.
    IMG_9724

    No basket. Problem?

    3. Shopping centers, train stations, and other large foot-traffic areas with only a few of their many doors unlocked and open. Typically requires you to zig-zag. Let the cursing ensue.

4.  Heating cranked up indoors. This is a cool weather thing, of course, not  a summer time issue. Only surprising when you realize that there’s no control over said heating in your apartment, except maybe to disable it altogether.

5. Heating cranked up in public transportation. All modes. Taxis, buses, you name it. Sweat much?

6. No lawn mowers. Who cares for the many shabby, overgrown outdoor spaces around apartment buildings and alongside secondary streets? Nobody, it appears, except for on rare special occasions.

7. Early sunrise and late sunset in summer. This is a product of latitude, of course.

8. Late sunrise and early sunset in winter. Nothing makes you want to stay in bed more than the sun staying away.

9. Price tags for ordinary goods with numbers in the thousands. Generally goods aren’t too pricey, but you’ll do a double take as you remind yourself of the exchange rate.

10. Soup, sour cream, and cabbage are ubiquitous. “I can’t imagine a day without having soup,” a guy told me a couple weeks ago. Of course, the soups here are good, so why not have ’em regularly?

What’s it Really Like?

I got an email from someone the other day, and it started with the question, “How are you really liking it in Russia?” I have to grin a little because living and writing about life in the UAE required some care with words, given their strict laws (which might be as straightforward as you’d think, or might not be–see these articles for a couple of examples of what can happen if you vent frustration online), and this person emailing me assumed that the same would be true here. Maybe that assumption is correct if you are venturing into the political realm, but I’m certainly not. You can be sure that what I’m writing about life here is simply how I experience it.

Overall, things for us here are really not bad at all. Better than not bad, in fact, being here is quite nice. We’ve got a nice apartment and live in a good part of town. In general, we have been impressed with the friendliness of the locals, who are happy to practice their English with us, and we’ve found aggravations quite few and far between.

Maybe it’s partly because we’ve done this living abroad thing before, but we’ve had an easier time settling into life here than when we moved to Abu Dhabi. Also, though, I must say my employer here has been very accommodating and the process has been much less drawn out, so kudos to the parties involved in making it happen for us.

Now to the point: what’s Kazan, Russia, really like? It’s got a pretty, European-flavored town center, similar to someplace like Bratislava (but bigger). The outskirts look like Anywhere, Russia, or Anywhere, Eastern Europe.

#Church #belltower on #BaumanStreet, #downtown #Kazan #Russia

A post shared by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

It’s got lots of buses and trams and trolleybuses (electric buses) and taxis.

The sunsets are often beautiful, and the skies themselves frequently dramatic, as today, when the low-hanging clouds were flying through the windy air, creating a vast, moving panorama. Other days the crisp bright blue skies surprise me. Three years of living in the UAE made me appreciate this sort of thing much more.

The landscape is like everyplace else in Russia I’ve been–vast steppe, not in itself particularly interesting, but far from unpleasant.

#tbt to #Булгар and the banks of the #волга river. #Russia

A post shared by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

Kazan is generally clean and neat, much tidier and modern than I’d expected. I’m told within the last five years the place has undergone quite a transformation. There are a number of old wooden homes, warped and out of square, that still stand, but they’re quickly being replaced by sturdy, concrete and brick structures.

There are things to see around–the Volga (Europe’s largest river), the Kremlin and the leaning and highly storied Suyumbuk Tower, to name a couple.

It’s not without oddities–the driving is peculiarly scary, for people crowd into intersections 3-5 cars across where there’s only supposed to be 1 (or, perhaps, maybe, doubtfully 2). Drivers dart around breaks in the pavement or the manhole cover which protrudes too high into the driveway or roadway; cars crowd every available space (and drivers invent new ones) in the parking lot in front of our apartment complex; buses keep the heat cranked up whether or not the weather requires that, and people stay bundled up in the tram even though it’s too hot for coats; parents over dress their kids for the weather (we’ve seen parents in T-shirts and their kids in snow pants, for example), and you have to wear little shoe covers when you go in some public buildings, such as the school where I work, which is its own brand of annoying (enter the door, stop and stoop over, put some blue plastic things over your shoes, proceed, but now slipily and noisily).

Should you come visit? Yes, absolutely! This place is really worth seeing.

Now, I’ve got to get off to the shiny gym nearby and try to keep myself in shape.

First Impressions of Kazan

It’s Saturday, and we’ve now been in Kazan almost an entire week. We’ve had time to stroll around the neighborhood, venture downtown a bit, and generally get our bearings. While it’s no surprise that things are different here than, say, Abu Dhabi or the southeastern USA, it’s also different from what we expected in more ways than one. This is, of course, because one of us used to live in Russia, and because the other has been to the country three times before. Here’s a quick list of first impressions.

View from the apartment in #Kazan, #Russia

A post shared by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

  1. Kazan isn’t like Ryazan, Moscow, or St. Petersburg. While those cities have their charm, this one is notably cleaner and the mood different.
  2. People are friendly. Yeah, okay, this is really an extension of #1. But, considering earlier experiences in Russia, it bears mention.
  3. The city center is pretty; the outskirts are like most other Russian cities, if possibly a bit less drab.
  4. Sunny days are beautiful. That said, it seems like there are lots of cloudy ones, and they’re cold and dreary.
  5. What’s up with letting grass get overgrown? That’s par for the course in Russia, but still. I must say it was remarkable to see someone with a weedeater the other day cutting back the tall stuff nearby.
  6. All the usual mod-cons are here–wifi, etc. I might add it seems A/C is a bit less common than we’re accustomed to. One super-duper handy smartphone app we’ve been turned on to is called Tap Taxi. It allows us to call a taxi using the app, and it’s even possible to request child seats. Since the interface is in English, it makes the task much easier than calling on the phone.
  7. Cabs are cheap and public transportation cheaper still. The public transportation is clean and modern, and most of the announcements are made in both Russian and English.
  8. Russian food is still tasty! Kvas, anyone?
  9. This seems like it will be a completely decent place to live.
  10. And last, but not least, considering the international climate of the last year or so, there seems to be no anti-American/Western sentiment from the average Joe (Josef?).

The beautiful #KulSharifMosque inside the #Kremlin's walls in #Kazan, #Russia

A post shared by Shon Rand (@shonmrand) on

Although we have been impressed by most of the same things, Jenia has a somewhat different perspective. Stay tuned for a post from her. Until then, dosvedanya.

The Next Adventure

Fall is right around the corner. New school years are beginning here in Georgia. Teachers are reporting for duty. Our new adventure is about to start: we will be moving to Kazan, Russia, where I (Shon) will be teaching at a virtually brand-new international school.

Kazan is the capital of Tatarstan, and is known as Russia’s Third City (despite being the eighth largest in the country). It has a population which is 50/50 Christian and Muslim, and numbers over a million people. The city is a center of education and manufacturing, and is becoming increasingly well-known for hosting sporting events. 2018 will see the FIFA World Cup take place in Russia, and some of the games will be in Kazan.

For a nice, starry-eyed promotional video about the place, have a look at this video: 

I’m excited to be going to a school where the calendar is unlikely to change (short of a legitimate emergency) and where I’ll have well under 32 students in my classes. The school has a truly bilingual program, and the curriculum is modeled on the typical International Baccalaureate one, which is sensible, well-grounded, and features a number of interdisciplinary features that really make it stand out. Besides the promising work environment, I’m also happy that we’ll be in a place where there is grass which grows naturally.

The adventure begins when we soar out of Atlanta this weekend.