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.

 

 

Alpine Russia

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

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

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

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

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A map from ABC News’s website.

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

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

caucasus-map_a6d4c703

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Latest

I’ve seen blogs that languish as their authors lose interest, and it’s sort of a sad thing. The posts get sporadic, and then, with no explanation at all, the writers simply stop updating. When that happens it’s like a story has been interrupted in the middle. It’s like you’re watching TV and the channel suddenly cuts off and won’t come back. I’m always left wondering what has happened to those authors who wrote about their interesting lives–what happened? What did they stop writing for? Did things go badly for them? Inevitably, I find myself hoping for the best–that they quit writing because life simply got too busy, too full of goodness–not that they dropped the virtual pen because they had some tragedy strike, or because everything went sideways, or etc.

As for this blog, it’s languished a bit because it’s been really hard to find time to update. When we write we like to share things we find insightful or memorable for some reason, besides the odd bit about teaching abroad. We like to write about good things, because the world is chock-full of negativity. With the new baby, we simply haven’t had time to sit down and do much writing. We find as a family of four that there aren’t enough hours in the day anymore. And, really, sometimes it’s hard to find good things to write about, too, when life is in something of a rut–not necessarily a nasty place, but nothing remarkable, either.

Somewhere in Mundaneville, Regulartown, USA, one of our readers is chuckling, imagining life in Kazan, Russia, as pretty unremarkable. He is grinning and saying, “You’re living an adventure, and you think you’re in a rut.” And, dear reader, if you’re the one laughing, you are partly right. Sometimes I pause as I’m walking through the birches and think to myself, “Hey, I’m in Russia, the former USSR, and I was just speaking Russian with a random guy–I’m living a kind of dream;” and that’s all fine and good, but I’m reminded that wherever we travel to, people live more or less the same kinds of lives, observing pretty similar daily routines, not much different from those of anywhere else, except perhaps in location.

So what really is new for us? Well, we’re finishing up the school year at the end of June and packing our bags for someplace new. I was offered a contract for a two year position here in town, but decided it would be best to move on and explore more of the world. Where to next? Stay tuned:)

Russian Winter Has Come…

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

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.

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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.

Money Monday: 4 Years in

It’s been almost 4 years now that we’ve been living the expat life, experiencing life overseas and away from home. Regular readers know that we’ve found this to be a challenging, but generally wonderful period of our lives. We’ve had children, we’ve traveled to corners of the globe we once only day dreamed about, and we’ve mingled with lovely people from all sorts of places we’d have never been blessed to meet otherwise. That said, one of the major stressors in anybody’s life, except maybe the privileged few from the one percent, is finances. Living abroad carries its own stressors, of course, especially after moving to a new location, but we’ve sought and found employment that allows us to significantly allay our financial stresses, and that’s a big deal.

Going rent-free and enjoying the reduced expenses of life in the UAE allowed us to pay off my student loans in 2 years, a task that seemed Herculean, though not impossible, in the USA; the best aspect of working in the UAE was that I, Shon, generated the income (if you subtract taxes) that it took 2 of us to make in the States. The income was one of the redeeming elements of the job, along with the shorter work days.

So where do we stand at this juncture, approaching 4 years into our adventures in ordinary life abroad? How are we faring financially? We are doing alright, I’m glad to say. We’re not wealthy, by any stretch of the imagination, but we’re able to put back a healthy nest egg, a significant portion of which came in the from of the 3 years worth of bonus pay (not really bonus, given that it’s contractually obliged) from working for ADEC; and we’ve been building the savings account nicely.

Besides the savings account, in 2014 we opened a couple of Individual Retirement Accounts and started contributing to them–only to discover that, as we should have known from reading about them, but failed to notice, IRAs are meant to be contributed to from taxable income only, and we would be looking at a significant tax penalty every year we had no USA taxable income (and, of course, one of the main advantages to working in Abu Dhabi was that we weren’t being taxed). So, with the assistance of our Edward Jones financial advisor, we shifted the money into an American Funds mutual fund which Edward Jones manages. That meant no tax penalties, happily. That was about all I could say about it–the mutual fund, called Capital Income Builder, which goes by the ticker CAIBX, had generated a reasonable return for years, and it seemed like a solid enough choice, given that neither of us knew much about investing. Whatever fees we incurred through using a financial advisor was of no consequence, because the advisor was, after all, being paid to help us navigate waters we didn’t know anything about.

However, during the last six months or so, I’ve been learning a great deal about investing, and I’ve discovered that our Edward Jones mutual fund account is probably a financial mistake, since there are plenty of other Electronically Traded Funds (ETFs) which perform better, and cost a lot less to purchase. Not only that, but 2015 turned into a terrible year for CAIBX, and instead of the upper single-digit return it had been generating, it turned -8.5%, making our ongoing investment into that fund seem like a bad choice. Not only that, but taxes on an actively traded mutual fund are higher than a more static ETF, and the fees that it once seemed reasonable to pay Edward Jones (which, by the way, are among the highest of the investment firms, at least according to my research), now don’t seem like such a good idea. After all, the waters of investing are evermore familiar to me at this point. We haven’t yet closed our Edward Jones account, but we will; we’ve reduced what we put into it, however. We will close it, though, and transfer that money into other funds in the near future.

Besides having a savings account and a mutual fund, we’ve also opened up a Scottrade account to manage our own investments with. Scottrade has low brokerage fees and has an excellent program called FRIP, wherein dividend payments are reinvested for free into stocks of your choice. We’ve established a portfolio there with a small number of stocks, and will be expanding it over time, confident that we can do better than -8.5%.

What brought on the interest in investing, you might ask? My friend read The Wealthy English Teacher, penned by a blogger with numerous years spent teaching abroad, and he recommended it to me. I found the book very relatable, and then perused the author’s blog. I’ve also discovered, again, thanks to my friend, blogs like Go Curry CrackerDividend Mantra, and many others, all of which helped show me what’s possible to achieve without much more effort than we were putting into being frugal anyway, and prompted me to get serious about my own investing.

So there you have it. I’m happy to say that we’re doing rather well for ourselves at this point, especially considering where we came from with quite a bit of debt, and we’ve learned a lot about investing our hard-earned cash for ourselves. It’s nice to actually have a net worth these days, and we have every reason to believe that it will continue to expand.

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

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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

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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.

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.

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

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  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

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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.