26 June 2014

A Russian Summer

Unexpected Seasons

Winters are long around St Petersburg but less severe than in parts of the United States.  Pushkin wrote about the beauty of autumn in our city area but the current climate is usually rainy, and cold.

We hope for good May weather, but spring is often cold and wet. This year both our village and St Petersburg had several hot May days, then raw weather two weeks before summer began on June 21.  June’s cold days and nights have been unusually severe, making for an even shorter growing season.

Larissa planted with an astrology gardening calendar around June 10.  Europeans talk of summer starting June 1, but this year we see no sign of continual warm weather until July.  What’s hopeful is that the nights are getting warmer, from lows of 1 to 5 C to 10 C and better.

An Unwanted Adventuref

The Ostashkov to Peno road, on the way to Zaloze, is atrocious... one lane each way with no dividers and bad shoulders which people drive at dangerous speeds.  Our driver, Dima, wears racing gloves which provide a lugubrious contrast to his old Lada with broken  suspension. 

He seems always pressed for time.  In Russia, it’s customary that the man passenger sits up front, the woman in back.  I dreaded this ride but we could find no one else to take us.  

Halfway to Peno, we were racing in the rain, passing cars and trucks on curves, careening along patchy macadam. The car was shuddering over pot holes.   He ignored the first request to take it easy.  I’m known as a quiet foreigner, but then I screamed in two languages to slow down... and added what I thought of him.  It was hard to tell if he adjusted his driving, but he seemed to become afraid of me, as he kept glancing my way.

Our banya, Peno supermarkets, and mobile grocery stores...

The other day we lit the fire in our banya for the first time this summer.  Now at 71, my love of novelty and adventure are replaced with a wish for simple comfort.  We have a solar shower waiting a few hot days to make it ready, but for Larissa and most Russians, the banya with its many steps, is an essential part of their being.  Larissa noted that we had plenty of hot water, so she invited the people across the way to use the banya when we were finished.  Their grandson, a youngster, was delighted with the old fashioned structure and the splashing of water!

Peno, southeast of us, is changing.  Passenger trains no longer stop there.  But there is a commercial revolution... three supermarkets have opened since a year or so ago.  Larisa found lettuce for sale... the first time we have been able to buy it while on vacation in ten years!

On Tuesdays Lena arrives from Zabelino, the simple town next to us, where she runs the government grocery store.  She has an old truck autolavka from which she sells basic supplies, the best grey bread, and newspapers. We also have two privately owned autolavka stores...  Nadia on Wednesdays and Natasha on Saturdays, with a refrigerator that allows for the sale of a range of perishables, besides the usual canned foods and packaged products.    Now we are well fed, expecting better weather, and staying warm by our wood fired stove.  Stop by for salad and supper!

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17 May 2014

Staying Alert While Leaving for the Village

Another way to stay in touch.

Getting ready to leave the city is more complicated this year. We watch the news to see what's happening, and also to anticipate changes in money supply, prices, and train schedules.

My monthly Social Security and New Jersey teacher pension payments are automatically deposited in US banks.  We use Visa cards issued to our accounts to withdraw in Russia   $300 at a time, at $5 a transaction.  Now we have less confidence that Visa, and even the banks, will fulfill their contracts, and not bend to whatever wind is blowing from Washington.   

I've been wary of Russian banks for years, but now I'm starting to feel our money at times is safer with them.  We have accounts in rubles and dollars.  Whether the ruble or dollar is up or down, the result for us often seems a wash.

When there is a crisis, stores tend to raise prices.  Receipt slip items the past few weeks at our neighborhood Season supermarket are up... but across the way at Pitorichka, one of a  chain of smaller markets, they are about the same as usual.

We have train tickets for June 6... that's right, D Day!.. for Ostashkov, Tverskaya oblast.  I expect this train will be running no matter what.  But as with driving a car, you may control how you drive to an extent, but not  be able to control the car coming towards you... such as what strange thing the US will do next in the current crisis.

We were going to skip TV at the village, but with the current news, we now will bring a small set so we can keep up with what is- and what may- happen.

Our village is quite isolated, which may make us more vulnerable.  We have frquent power failures.  Often after a storm the lines are down for a few hours to a few days.  Some of our neighbors have gas powered electric generators. 

Some people are good about letting Larissa bring food to keep in their refrigerators to save it from spoiling. Russian reflexively assumed that any American they meet is rich and would have a generator and car.  One lady figured we were hiding our money and accused Larissa of being either poor or cheap! 

We have no land line for phones in the village.  Most Russian women love to talk for hours on the phone, so just a cellphone is tragic for Larissa.  Besides cellphone, the last few years the village has had a sort of pay phone, connected by antenna to a nationwide system.  We use a card with charged phone time from the local bank.

The roads to Pena, the next larger town to Zaloze,  are rough.  The unpaved segment can be blocked after a heavy rain, and the log bridge down.  People often swerve to the other side of the paved part to avoid pot holes.  Bad roads, unsafe cars, and erratic, sometimes drunk, drivers make for dangerous highways in Russia.

Pena has a clinic and hospital... and  two ferocious dentists, which seem to mainly pull teeth.  I was there a few years ago.  I waited a long time, watching patient after patient half stagger from the treatment room, gripping their jaws with cotton and gauze, with an upset and surprised look in their eyes.

As is  typical in a Russian public dental clinic there were two dentists working in the same room.  My dentist asked me what I wanted him to do.  I explained I needed a chipped tooth smoothed off.  He did this quickly and well... no charge.  Still, I'm going to my gentle woman platne (pay) dentist to check for cavities before we leave.

We are buying three months of pills.  This is fairly easy because Russia doesn't require the brouhaha of prescriptions unless you need to purchase narcotics or psychotropic medications.  

I will pack around 10 to 16 good paperbacks to keep me happy under the apple tree this summer.  They have to fit in my small backpack, as we're also lugging a suitcase, another large pack, a food carrier, and now a small TV and of course, this computer.

Ten years ago there were two or more trains to and from Pena every week starting in May.  Now there's one a week starting in June, but no train after the first days of September.  Each train ticket is 1504 rubles... $43.12.

The last few years the train only lets us off one station before Pena, at Ostashkov. The road trip from Ostashkov to Zaloze is longer, rougher... and more expensive... costing as much as a train ticket from St Petersburg! 

I'm sorry to see the cutback in train service, as it is still a great way to get around Russia.  Now most of the young have cars.  This trend towards more car drivers will continue, so  it's only natural that train travel will have less priority in future transportation planning.

Be sure to have a good summer, and stop by for supper sometime!

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23 April 2014

Reducing Expat Isolation in Russia

                                            Years gone by bring an isolated feeling...

Surprising how getting older increases my sense of isolation... not just from the USA but also how I feel in Russia.  My grandma commented that after she left Scotland some of her relatives and friends there became emotionally distant.  People go on with their lives, now separate from anything about you... others die.

It’s too expensive to buy a home in the USA now.  I’m ready to visit again but I’ve been asked not to fly!   My cardiologist views me as fragile as an uncooked egg!

                                            Our last difficult trip to the USA kept us away for ten years...

Our visit last visit was a mixture of great travel, and bad situations.   While traveling in California I was caught in a legal maneuver in New Jersey.  The judges were switched by the opposing party, and the new one ruled I owed $27,000... done with no accounting, a case of local corruption.  When we arrived at Glacier Park, Montana, I had heart palpitation.  Locals drove us to the American Indian Clinic.  Not being Indian they could  only give me emergency care and send me back to our motel.  An Indian woman drove us to the hospital in Great Falls.  They didn’t keep me overnight because I had no medical insurance.  This was ironic as I made most of my income as a medical insurance salesman before, but New Jersey residency requirements prohibited my having medical insurance on our return visit. 

We decided to press on to a Duke reunion in Durham NC.  As an alumnus, I hoped they would be willing to stabilize me for the return trip to Russia, where I had health coverage as a permanent non-citizen spouse.  To our chagrin, even with Larissa’s yelling and pleading, they were chary about helping me, as, again, I had no health coverage (didn’t matter that I couldn’t).

Back in St Petersburg later when older and eligible for Medicare, I enrolled... but it’s only operative within the USA. Every month Social Security deducts a little over $100 to pay for Part B   I’m at the point where I may cancel Part B, but I hate to take this irrevocable step even though it’s unlikely I’ll ever return.

                                            Russian social culture and language both tough hurdles...

People in my neighborhood don’t wave, call out to people on the street, or make jokes with strangers.  People can be so undemonstrative that for me it’s difficult to spot whether people on buses are related or strangers. After all this time I should have gotten used to this reserve, but it makes me miss the States a lot. 

I’ve only been able to talk with people casually and often when we are in our summer village.  I’ve found a direct relationship between my ability to speak Russian and my social life with the people I see everyday, Russians.  I often go months without speaking English face to face with another native speaker. 

So I am motivated every morning to study my Russian.  Verbs, nouns, pronouns, adjectives, names all change constantly so it seems Russian is a language I will never master.  But I find when I know that my Russian is improving every day, I feel much better about living far from my natural environment!

 

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12 March 2014

Views of Russia which may surprise you!

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You’ll never see these flowers in a

Russian Hospital !

 

Occupations...

Optician stores... that don’t adjust what they sell. We assumed the people who sold us glasses would adjust them, but they can’t... and don’t worry about it.  Typical of many people here who don’t want to expand their knowledge to gain more customers.

Pharmacies rarely have a pharmacist on site, just clerks.  A written prescriptions is only necessary for some psychological drugs.  What’s good is that there’s no charade of professionalism by placing a personalized label on a vial... pills are sold in the same package they are shipped in to the pharmacy from elsewhere in Russia, Germany, India, wherever.

Supermarket managers feel in an elevated position, but are not eager to talk to customers.  They don’t have a badge with a photo and have no customer desk to welcome you.   

Russians favor black more than most Americans.  It’s easier to keep your clothes looking clean when you have a car.  Now I see splashes of color more, including orange, which is surprisingly popular.

Apartment hallways are often drab, dirty, and poorly maintained.  I’ve never seen an inspection form posted in an elevator. Elevators are often vandalized and have graffiti.  Russians often don’t seem to care much about poor and unsafe building conditions outside of their own apartments.  Exterior appearance, what realtors call Curb Appeal, gets little attention.

Flowers are not welcome at hospitals (they’re considered unsanitary).  Are Cut Flowers Really Bad for Hospital Rooms? refutes this belief. Russians don’t send Get Well cards but telephone instead.

Russian cities don’t have good and bad neighborhoods... no ghettos as in America.

A thought... Russians mostly live in vertical villages, in apartments, Americans horizontally in houses.

Laundry soap is sold in small boxes, the size of a large paperback.  Large economy sizes don’t attract Russians.  Small sizes remain popular perhaps partly because many people carry groceries home from the store.

Smoking...

  60% of Russian men smoke, 20% of the women... but younger women smoke 10 times more than older women, so this is trending up.  In contrast, 20.5% of American men smoke, 15.8 of American women. smoking United States  (If you figure that Russia has 1/2 the population of the US, but their men smoke three times as much...  the result is more deaths from cigarettes in the Russian male population than in American men).

  You can buy smokes for 60 rubles, around $1.50.  Cigarette prices 2013 Bloomberg.com  A pack of 20 Marlboro cigarettes costs $1.74 in Russia, compared with $6.36 in the U.S.  Soon an increase will make an average pack price double to $3.00.

  The Russian government has banned smoking at work, at theatres, museums, beaches, parks, playgrounds, restaurants, hotels, markets,  government offices, apartment lobbies, schools, hospitals, clinics, all trains, buses, planes, within 10 meters of bus stops, and railroad stations. 

  Cigarettes cannot be displayed in stores, only a price list.  No cigarette advertising is allowed, no more sponsored events, TV and movies may no longer show smoking, unless artistically necessary.  The ban on smoking in restaurants, trains and hotels will be effective this June.  RIA NOVOSTI  The Russian prison system will have separate sections for smokers.

  I was surprised to see that unified steps to discourage smoking haven’t been possible in the US because smoking regulation is left to each of the 50 states, local towns and cities, territories, and tribal areas.  European countries are well ahead of Russia with smoking bans. 

Food...

Prepared food generally has fewer or no additives than that sold in America.  Russia has stricter rules about healthy food... Little or no GMO grain imports.  Medicated and bleached chicken,  and beef with hormones are frequently refused from the USA and elsewhere.

Most mayonnaise is sold in squeeze bags, not bottles or jars... ketchup, too.  Russian mayonnaise has sunflower oil.

Butter in Russia has no salt.  That’s good for lower blood pressure, but the missing iodization means higher levels of retardation.

Bread has no sodium propionate to retard spoilage.   An extra loaf lasts a long time if placed in the freezer. 

Cheese is more likely to get mold because of few or no preservatives.  You can keep it fresh by putting a piece of cloth soaked with vinegar in the holder.

Russian behavior...

Men shake hands, but usually look away while doing so.  My mother’s advice to ‘smile, look them in the eye, and use a firm  handshake’ doesn’t seem to apply.

Russians mind their own business.  They aren’t quick to call the police to complain as many do in America.  In America the police seem to be everywhere, but police in Russia are often absent, don’t swagger, don’t feel they are paramilitaries on terrorism alert.  However, they may not be available when you need them.  They respond to a crime, but usually have no interest in prevention, or detection.

It’s very hard to scare a Russian.  They are sympathetic about 9/11 but have seen much worse without panicking.

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12 January 2014

Ups and Downs of Vacation Time in the USA and Russia

SDC10976

The peaceful waters of our summer lake

 

Trying to sort out your life?  If you want to know your own values, why not consider what vacation time has meant to you.  The years click by and you can easily get in a no vacation rut.

Picasa Content

A surfeit of vacation time in Russia...

This year we haven’t had the cold snowy weather of other years.  Temperatures are often below freezing, but we’ve had more rain than snow... a discouraging situation for the average Russian who loves bracing weather closer to –10 degrees centigrade.  This crummy weather provides little to do this year, but want it or not the government mandates an extra 8 days off from January 1 through January 8 for salaried workers.

Back in the USSR, and now...

Larissa in Soviet times had month  long vacations every summer along with holidays during the year.  Month vacations continue now, with

added paid time off from New Years to the day after Russian Christmas, January 8th, and a complex system of two and three day weekends, adding up to another 20 days off.  Sometimes working days are switched to a Saturday or Sunday.

Workers who have their own little grocery store, or fruit stand, or work day to day, miss out on a lot of this paid time off, just as in the US.

USA The No Vacation Nation

The American worker has lost a lot of vacation ground compared to Europeans the last 30 years.  Americans have no legislation guaranteeing any time off, and now have much shorter vacation time than most other developed countries, in the statistical basement with Canada and Mexico.  What’s all the more sad is that Americans are likely to not use all the days coming to them. 

You can’t recover lost vacation time

1965 to 1976... Lots of vacation

I taught in public schools before and after the Navy from 1965 to 1983.   The Navy gave us 30 days vacation a year, and lots of other days off by request.  New Jersey public schools were closed for 10 weeks during the summer, and for 3 one week vacations during the school year... Christmas, February, and Easter, along with a day or two for Thanksgiving, and personal days. 

1976 to 1999... 23 Years straight of No vacation...

Carefree summers ended when I married, taking on a family of wife and soon five children. A teacher’s summer off is without pay, and replacing this lost income was a yearly anxiety as summer jobs usually were not even comparable to a teacher’s pay.  Eventually I saw that living poor as a burned out teacher was worse than trying to get by doing something that might have more future.

I quit teaching and got a position as a life and health insurance salesman with a local agency.  The results were a lot more freedom and a real opportunity to make more money.  For the next several years I had no paid vacation time and little money to enjoy any time off. 

This situation continued after I started my own small agency in 1993.  I could find no one who was willing or able to run the agency in my absence.  In 1999 I had money to spend, and a new wife to enjoy it with, so we took a few weeks honeymoon at a New Jersey mountain lake and at the Jersey shore.

2000 to 2014... Proclaimed myself Retired !

We left American in June 2000.  For a few years we had both time and money to enjoy extensive travel in Europe and two trips when we covered a lot of the USA.  But with advancing age, illness, and less vigor we spend the warm months at our village house and occasionally go to a sanatorium for a week.

One of several of my life’s missteps which maybe you can learn from...

I left the Navy in 1970, and with the aid of the GI bill I started my graduate classes to become a history college professor but within a few months that life became unattractive to me.  I should have switched plans to some practical way to make a living, such as school administrator, but instead I took courses to get a Masters in Education, guaranteeing poverty if I ever had a family.  If you want good vacations throughout your life, you have to be practical and realistic in your career plans.

 

Click these hot links for further information...

Americans Receive Half the Vacation Time as Russians... Hotels.com

The average American worker got 14 vacation days last year but only used 10 of them, according to a survey by Expedia.

The U.S. is the only developed country without a federal mandate for a minimum number of vacation days.  International Business Times

 

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