Saturday, April 19, 2014

С пасхой!

That's right, it's Easter in Russia. And we don't even get a day off. In an Orthodox country. It's not a public holiday (and my company would probably keep going like the Energizer bunny anyway). Can you believe it? In fact, work has been a bit of a grind in general lately. I've on Day 1 of a seven-day workweek and have a ton of marking coming up. Such is life, I guess - and I'm going to Poland in exactly ten days, so that's something to cling to. And boy, do I need a life raft these days. Nine more weeks until this is all over.

So today, I was at work with a bunch of small kids talking about Easter. We painted eggs, learned the Chicken Dance, and watched a Bugs Bunny short (he's a bunny, Easter has bunnies, it works). It interests me that no one so far has brought up the holiday's religious significance, even though the Orthodox church is making a post-Soviet comeback (of course, it never really left). As much as North Americans like to decry the descent of Easter into chocolate and bunnies, it's chocolate and bunnies here too. And delicious fruitcakes.

In the midst of all this, I am still trying to plan the Scandigermafin trip, which is coming along nicely. I've narrowed down hostels for SP, Helsinki, and Stockholm, and am scoping out options for Oslo, Copenhagen, Berlin and Reykjavik. (Hopefully, a nice friend will give me a patch of floor in Toronto.) Not able to book any trains yet, but I'm looking to reserve the Stockholm ferry and Berlin-Reykjavik-Toronto-Winnipeg flights after my next payday. There are some tricky connections there, especially Oslo-Copenhagen, but it will get figured out. Oddly enough, my rail pass is going to be one of the last items ordered, as I need it delivered to Helsinki to roughly coincide with my arrival. I'm also looking at attractions. The Millennium Tour in Stockholm is my #1 pick, as Stieg Larsson is one of my all-time favourite authors (re-reading the trilogy soon), and I've pretty much based the entire trip on being able to follow in the steps of Lisbeth. There are a few obligatory sites in SP (the Hermitage, Nevsky Prospekt) and a couple of places of interest (the Nabokov house). Ditto Berlin. For Copenhagen, I'm hoping to go to Tivoli. I have no idea about Helsinki or Oslo - what does one do in those cities? Well, no matter - it's going to be an exciting month!

But best of all, I FIGURED OUT THE SUITCASE. Russian Post will send it by air for less than $200. Huzzah! It's such a relief to have that taken care of. Bye-bye, Samson the Samsonite, you are going to have a weird adventure of your own. Play nice with the Russian luggage.

So despite some rough days ahead, things are going extremely well at the moment. Of course, since it's Russia, they'll get screwed up as soon as I finish typing this, but I'm getting used to that. For tonight, I'm off to meet my friends with kulich and beer, where we will discuss our upcoming Polish adventure and our inevitable return home (America for them, Canada for me) in just a few short weeks. It's hard to believe how rapidly the Russian adventure is coming to an end. With all I have planned, though, there's a lot to look forward to. Two months until the Baltic party begins! A Happy Easter to you all. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Голова, встречаются стол

My last post was all about the difficulties of moving to Russia - and it is, indeed, an enormous undertaking. However, I assumed leaving Russia would be a breeze. Throw some stuff in a suitcase, get on the plane, arrive in your homeland and cry when you see a Tim Horton's sign. Easy. And it probably would have been. But you know me - I like to make things complicated. I decided that since I was in Europe anyway, I might as well cross a few items off my bucket list. The result is a planned trip to the Nordic countries and Germany, starting in St. Petersburg and going though Finland and Scandinavia, stopping in Berlin before a brief sojourn in Iceland. Because I'm moving around so much, this is going to be a complicated endeavor, but it's a longtime dream. I'm excited.

The issue isn't so much booking hostels and choosing things to see - that stuff is easy and fun. It's all about tying up loose ends in Russia (let's just ignore for a moment that the Ukraine crisis could unravel all my plans in an instant). First, I need to get an actual date of departure from my work, which in Russia is a bit of an uphill path. I might have to sell my soul, is all I'm saying. Then I need to get my rail pass through the mail, and anyone who's familiar with Russian Post is wincing already. Just picture everything you've done to prepare for a trip as ten times more complicated and you've got an idea. The biggest puzzle, though? Definitely the suitcase.

Since I've been living in Russia for almost a year, I've got quite a bit of stuff. Even after paring it down to the essentials, I don't want to leave my beautiful big suitcase here - and it's too bulky to haul around the fjords. I have to get it to Canada (BC would be preferable, but Toronto is okay) from Russia without breaking the bank and without losing the suitcase. You'd think this would be simple, but once again - Russia. Almost no company deals with them, and the added regulations make it ridiculously pricey.

Right now, I'm torn between several options. So I'm going to crowdsource this. I'm sure there are expats out there who've had to ship large items before. So, guys, should I:

  • Ship it via an airline, like Transaero or Aeroflot, as cargo?
  • Go with one of the few private luggage services (and sell a kidney to do so)?
  • Use something like FedEx or UPS (again, kidney)?
  • Stick with good old Russian Post, which is about as reliable as a fidelity pledge from Don Draper?
If you have any personal experiences, please tell me what you did and how well it worked - a ballpark cost would also be very helpful. Thanks for any advice you've got!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014


Because I don't know how to write "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting a Russian Visa" in Russian yet.

Disclaimer: This applied to Canada, in 2013, with my particular company. Your experience may differ depending on your country and where you are working. With the current political situation, future changes to the process are very likely, and not for the better. It also covers a work visa, which differs from a business visa, which I didn't know for an embarrassingly long time. 

A couple of people have asked me for some tips on coming to Russia. As you can see in all my posts last summer, the process was rather labyrinthine. Bureaucracy in Canada is annoying enough, and Russia makes us look like we're not even trying. Here's a basic overview of the process, and some tips for getting through it.

The most important part of the process is efficiency. On your end, that is - don't expect any whatsoever on theirs. I got my job offer in early May, with a late August start date, and I barely got there. The best thing I can tell you is to hit the ground running when it comes to collecting paper work. Get your background check (whether it's private or through your local police), your references, your HIV test, and all other required documentation in order as soon as you can. You are going to need all the time you can get.

Even if you are perfectly on the ball with your paperwork, everything will come to a grinding halt once you send off for a letter of invitation. See, some countries let you in without a visa, or provide one automatically. Others simply let you go to a consulate and fill out some forms. Russia has decided that they are extra special, so you need to be invited to come. You can't get your visa without it, and you are really not advised to get your plane ticket before you have a visa. Tourists can get one from a hotel or tour company. If you're coming to work, your employer will generally provide one for you. Be wary of one that doesn't, especially on your first time around. Even if your company is efficient and punctual (spoiler alert: it isn't), Russian government processes are infamous for taking forever. You're going to be waiting six weeks, minimum, for that little piece of paper.

Once it finally arrives, you have to assemble yet more paperwork, to the exact specifications of the embassy. If you live far from a visa-processing embassy or consulate, there are several companies able to help you out. I used Travisa, which got the job done. (Note to Canadians: There is no visa-processing consulate west of Toronto, because the West doesn't exist, dontcha know! You will be mailing a lot of stuff to Ottawa, to put it mildly.) Depending how late in the game it is, you will probably have to go for a rush visa. From Canada, this cost about $300. If you're okay with leaving no room for error - and government agencies are often not so much stations of public service as error-factories - then it's about half that for a regular visa. Pay attention to the instructions given, and do not screw up. You will wind up having to resubmit your paperwork, multiple times, which is a huge PITA. If you live far from an embassy, you'll have to overnight it, which is an expensive PITA.

The good news is, you don't throw in a lot of money until late in the process. You need to pay for passport-style photos (to Russian specifications, not your own country's!), background checks, any photocopying or mailing, transcript orders if applicable, and possibly the HIV test. (Disregard the last for civilized countries countries with universal health care - I have no idea how much an HIV test goes for in the States, though I'm told there are cheap or free options out there.) Often, the school will reimburse you for part of this. However, if you quit early, you may have to pay everything back, including fees on the school's side of things, which are not insignificant. Luckily, if you need to save, your first significant expenses will be the visa and the subject of the next section of this post - the plane ticket.

Do not buy the ticket until you have the visa. That is basically courting trouble. It's also another reason to get a rush job - those ticket prices aren't going down anytime soon. Once your be-visaed passport is in your hot little hands, however, hit the Internet and search for the best deal possible. You can get to Moscow pretty rapidly and cheaply from any major European centre (though it's expensive by European standards), and from there to anywhere else in the country. Coming from North America is a bit more convoluted, though I know for sure that there are direct Moscow flights from New York, LA and Toronto. The tickets are also hella expensive. From the West - small-town British Columbia specifically - it cost about $1400, all in. Like a dumbass, I chose an afternoon flight from my town, a red-eye from Vancouver to Toronto, spent the day in Toronto with friends, then took another red-eye to Moscow. This meant losing out on two nights of sleep, which turned me into a zombie for about a week after. Learn from my example, and either go as quickly as you can, or break up the trip a little. A colleague of mine, for example, used the opportunity to overnight in Istanbul and had a great time (and a good sleep!).

So, you've arrived! Congratulations! Get some sleep, look around and settle in. Be sure to have some funds set aside, both to get set up (though your school may provide you with a loan, to be taken out of your salary in increments) and to have an escape hatch in case things aren't working out. In the meantime, you have a tough adjustment ahead of you. Take time to enjoy your new home and to see the beautiful country that you've - finally - reached!

Saturday, April 5, 2014


Let's talk pop culture.

First of all, I have to tell you that I'm a huge pop culture fanatic. I majored in Cinema Studies, read several books a week, and spend a lot of free time watching television. In addition to this blog, I recap several series a week for another website, which occupies an insane amount of my time. At the beginning of March, I got up at 4 AM to watch the Oscars, messaging a friend in Toronto over Facebook the entire time. I regret nothing. 

As any high school teacher knows, one of the easiest ways to capture teens' attentions is to bring in pop culture references as often as possible. This is especially easy in language learning, because you can disguise a moderate amount of screentime under the guise if "listening practice" and "cultural studies". Promise them you'll show an episode of The Simpsons if they do the test without complaining. If they're talking, get their attention with the Hunger Games whistle. Last week, a truly brilliant teacher got his students to behave by threatening Game of Thrones spoilers. And my teens are just like anyone else - they eat it up. I recently received an essay which amounts to Breaking Bad fanfiction, and let me tell you, I felt sad having to report it to the director.

Over the past few months, I've noticed a strange duality in how Russians view the arts and entertainment - or at least what's coming out of Hollywood. Everyone is up-to-date on many of the latest films and books out there - you should see my classes "volunteer as tribute" whenever I ask a question, and I have some scarily young Walking Dead devotees - but on the other hand, there is a huge fondness for the 80's and 90's. When asked to select the greatest hero of all time, one of classes overwhelmingly voted for Michael Jackson. Along with Madonna, he is the artist I've heard most about this year. The Russians I've met love their King and Queen of Pop. Their memory's a little selective, though - in a class on advertising, I showed my students the Michael Jackson Pepsi commercial (pictured above), and no one could identify him. I think they still associate him with the later Wacko Jacko image. And if you polled my teen classes on their favorite actor, Leonardo DiCaprio would undoubtedly come out on top. (This probably has nothing to do with the fact that Putin admires him. Not even a little.) Sometimes I swear I've time warped to 1998.

I'm not sure why these particular artists remain so much more popular than in North America, even after all these years, or why so many young people seem to prefer films from the late 90's-early 00's. It could be the legendary Russian 80's nostalgia (very much present in some quarters, and quite understandable when you consider how terrible the 90's were). Some people have suggested to me, before and after I came to Russia, that culturally the country's values are more in line with past decades, in especially in social values. I'm not so sure about this - the kids have embraced Game of Thrones and Justin Bieber with gusto. The Internet makes it easier than ever to spread trends around the globe in seconds, which makes this leaning towards the past all the more unusual. The differences are interesting to consider - but in the meantime, I'm glad that youth's obsession with entertainment is universal.

Friday, April 4, 2014


It occurred to me that every blogger has an obligatory "places to go in Moscow" post. Part of the reason I haven't done one is because I'm not much of a "going-out" person. Though I love hanging out with friends and enjoy seeing new places, I'm pretty introverted and am just as content to hang out with a blank Word document and a season of House, MD. Nonetheless, I do manage to leave the house sometimes, and here's what I've collected. Metro stations are in parentheses, using Cyrillic lettering.

  • Atlantis Karaoke (Чертаного). I've visited a couple of times with friends. It's a little difficult to find, but when you get there, it's a really great time - even with the 2000r cover charge. The food is okay, the decor lovely (the chairs are comfy!), but best of all is their enormous catalogue of Russian and international pop songs.

  • It's a cliche, but go skating at Gorky Park (Октябрскаяа). It's really one of the best winter experiences to be had. Lit up in eerie blue and full of odd turns, it's worth the sore ankles you have for days after. Where else can you drink mulled wine in the middle of a park? I blogged about it before, so for more details go here

  • If you need to get caught up on your literature, head up to Dom Knigi (several locations, but I prefer the one near Арбатская). Literally translating to "House of Books", the store does indeed have thousands of books, but also tons of gifts, maps, educational resources, music, DVDs, and stationery. It is also a nice place to purchase the elusive postcard, of which Moscow has surprisingly few. You can get lost there for an entire afternoon. Best of all, their stock comes in several languages, making it a haven for us dumb expats. (Though I must admit, one of my nerdier habits is to go around photographing famous book titles in Russian.) There's a blog post here

  • The Wooden Doors Anti-Cafe (Лубяанка) is much more suited to my style than a night on the town. A nice, relaxed place to hang out, it offers many different kinds of tea, as well as huge baskets of cookies. Additional food and drink is available at the counter. For this you pay an hourly fee, rather than springing for each item - the point of the recent "anti-cafe" movement. The couches are comfortable, the atmosphere homey, but best of all are the board games. The cafe offers a wide selection, both in Russian and in English. Board game cafes are not a new thing, but Wooden Doors does it very well. 

  • My top museum in the city is the Tolstoy Literary Museum (Кропоткинскаяа). Just steps away from the Pushkin Literary Museum (interesting, but much less appealing to me), it is believed to be the oldest literary memorial museum in the world - it was founded in 1911, just one year after Tolstoy's death. It's a little low on personal artifacts, since the majority are housed at Yasnaya Polyana (his estate near Tula). However, this is made up for by the huge volume of items related to his writing. We have the requisite scribbled notes, but there are also pieces from his personal library, original editions, and a lot of paraphernalia detailing his literary influence. This includes excerpts from operas and films based on his work, old costumes either dating from the era or lifted from stage and screen, and what essentially amounts to War and Peace fanart. There are rooms dedicated specifically to Anna Karenina and War and Peace, as well as exhibits related to his other works. It is also notable for a large collection of Tolstoy portraits and photographs. A few personal items are included, such as Sofiya Tolstoy's wedding gloves, but in this museum his work is the star. He is my favourite author, so perhaps I'm a tad biased, but it is a highlight for any fan of Russian literature. Blog post here

  • Mybar (Театралнаяа) is an excellent hangout for any expat. It's kind of a hole in the wall, filled with the ubiquitous cigarette smoke of Moscow nightlife and dark enough that you don't notice the wear and tear, but hey, they've got great wings. It's somewhat of a haunt among my school's teachers. 

  • For a nice dinner, you can check out Guria (Парк Културы), which offers incredible Georgian food for a very decent price. Try their Khachapuri, which is basically a giant pie/pancake stuffed with any kind of filling - I'm partial to their cheese and bean varieties. Georgian is the one culinary type that might be difficult to replicate in Canada, and I'm already in mourning. 
Off the top of my head, these are some nice places to explore in the city. I think this is comprehensive enough to appeal to different interests and sensibilities, though it's only a tiny starter. Moscow is the biggest city in Europe, and offers an enormous variety of things to do. Get out and explore!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014


Well, Moscow April Fooled us this week, teasing spring and then throwing a bunch of snow around like confetti. The buildings are full of icicles and winter jackets are out once again. Apparently Moscow spring tends to go back-and-forth like this. Serves me right for crowing about doing Napoleon one better.

Erratic weather aside, I'm stunned that we're actually in April. It feels like only a little while since I stepped off the plane at Domodedovo last August - and like no time at all since my visit to Israel. Time is slipping away, and I'm trying to enjoy myself, though as the days go by I become increasingly impatient for it to be over. The school's been fun, the students are great, but looking at the calendar I find myself quite fidgety. I've got so many plans, and baby, it's time to live them.

My tentative date of departure from Moscow is June 23rd, barring any kind of opposition on my school's part, though I'm confident it will work out. From there, it's on to St. Petersburg, Finland, and my ultimate bucket list item - Scandinavia. I, too, can frolic in the fjords and chase reindeer, presumably on a motorcycle with a tattooed hacker, or else during a chess game with Death. I'm not picky. Mostly, I'm excited to visit countries where I'm not quite so foreign. Sure, the countries of Northern Europe (I'm tacking on Germany and Iceland) are pretty different from Canada. At the same time, I don't need a visa, our countries agree on most major International Incidents (as us expats have been very worried about lately - but that blog post comes later), and there's generally a lot less of a cultural clash. Russia is exciting precisely because it's so different, but differences can be very wearing.

The next eleven weeks are going to be a tough slog, no matter what I do. I cling to the weirdest things to keep my thoughts on track. For example, I brought a big bottle of shampoo back from Israel, and whenever I see it perched on my bathtub, I smile. I had an awesome, relaxing time, and it will happen again. Seeing those glorious Hebrew letters under the Head and Shoulders logo brings back all those good memories of vacation. And, you know, sunlight.

(Have I cracked? I think I've finally cracked.)

Of course, once back in Canada I have absolutely no plans, but all in good time. If not, there's always my backup plan of marrying Prince Harry. For now, all I can do is wait in Moscow...and wait...and wait...

Експатриант, Блоггер и Успех!

And now, a quick detour...

As precisely none of you have noticed, I have a new button on my blog's sidebar. That's right - I'm an InterNations Top Moscow Blog! Between that and getting followed by ExpatsBlog on Twitter, it's been a banner week. They're a community based on linking expats all around the globe. They feature blogs with tips on expat life (which is where yours truly comes in), host local expat events and offer comprehensive city and country guides. Check them out here if you're starting out and want a head start, or if you're a seasoned expat and would like a few more connections. In the meantime, I will bask in my newfound miniscule fame. Carry on.