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!


You’ll never see these flowers in a

Russian Hospital !



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.


  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. 


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


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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20 November 2013

Kopek Pandemonium on a Russian Bus


Kopeks are more than three times smaller than this

image, and three times less valuable than in 2000.

Using money can be tricky. 

Sometime in my first years in Russia, a store clerk said Nyet and waved me towards the door.  She didn’t or wouldn’t accept my my 500 ruble bill.  Understandable, but I missed the patient explanation as to why, and the apology that I would likely have received back home in America.

Now with a better sales attitude, more currency in circulation, and computerized registers, stores accept ruble notes with no problem... but kopeks are another story!

Kopeks are worth less and less...

100 kopeks are equal to one ruble.  You can use the dime-size 10 kopek coin or the penny-size 50 kopek coin to get  to the equivalent of 100 kopeks.  These copper coins are worth much less than the American penny.  It would take 3,255 kopeks, the same value as 32.55 rubles, to equal one US  dollar.

Older people often have difficulty grasping how quickly rubles and kopeks have lost value.  A compound inflation rate of 312.11% since June of 2000 is hard to get used to.  In comparison, the US compound inflation was 31.54%.  *fxtop.com Inflation Calculator. 10/06/2000 to 10/11/2013


Babuskas find kopeks and checkouts magnetic!

Babuskas love counting out kopeks from their little change purses while at the supermarket checkout.  This causes aggravation and restlessness among those in line, which I find sort of endearing.  Men, meanwhile, often do not use kopeks, not even taking them from the change tray.

Only little children get kopeks off the ground. 

The Russian Central Bank announced recently that they will stop minting all kopek coins.Pravda.ru

My Story...  true, with fuzzy details sharpened for effect...


The scene of the crime.

One day some years ago Larissa rushed off to the local shopping mall.  Soon I got a call from her asking that I grab a bus and come quickly. On getting off the phone I realized I had no bills and insufficient change for the 12 ruble bus fare.  I grabbed a small plastic bag in which we kept kopeks so as to not clog up our pockets, and hurried to catch any of the three buses that went to where Larissa was waiting.

Breathless, I climbed on an autobus, sat, and counted my few ruble coins up to six rubles, planning to pay the balance with kopeks.  Before I was ready, a tall thin conductress weaved towards me, with a tired exasperated grimace.  I explained in my broken Russian that I needed to pay part of my fare in kopeks.  

I gave her a few rubles which added to half the fare, and then showed her my handful of kopeks  which I was counting to get to the 12 ruble fare.  The poor woman was in a hurry, took my handful of kopeks, and started counting them while she lurched to the front of the bus to another  passenger.  Some people watching shook their heads in commiseration with this hard working woman.

She lunged back, red in the face, and exploded!  ‘You not only gave me a head ache with all this counting, but you’re short 20 kopeks.  I’ll have you arrested.  Get off the bus!’

I told her I would give her the 20 kopeks the next time I saw her, but being kopeks she took that as a further insult.  Fortunately the bus arrived at my stop.

A few days later Larissa asked me why I didn’t want to take the 172 autobus, preferring to wait for another.  I confessed my trepidation that there would be an angry woman looking to kill me, all because of Russian kopeks!


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20 October 2013

A Russian Feat About Feet

Gymnastics of switching between slippers and shoes.

We Americans were raised on flag worship, where it approaches a mortal sin to let the Stars and Stripes touch the ground.  Here in Russia there are serious concerns about feet.  Many people are aware that Russians never wear shoes at home, but switch to slippers at the door. 

We Americans blessed with Russian wives are stressed with a higher expectation... to balance so well that you can switch foot apparel without socks hitting the ground.  Heaven help you if you are spotted out of your shoes and taking the unnecessary step of standing in your stocking feet before donning your slippers...  or vice versa!  People here worry that the sock bottoms will get dirty... as if anyone back in the USA cares.

Now approaching age 71,  an attempt to gracefully move from shoes to slippers has become gradually more difficult for me... This performance anxiety in my creeping old age is something I wouldn’t have to manage in the States. To cope I’ve been known to use my head, putting it against a wall to maintain my balance during the Great Transition. 

Knowing that I am expected to at least attempt this footwear switch has encouraged moments of rank dishonesty, as I warily glance to see if I am being observed by a Russian before I cheat.  It also has inspired a new level of curmudgeonly expletives, most of which are fortunately not understood by the wife and neighbors. 

On asked about this phenomenon, Larissa suggested I find a seat when switching footwear, and observed that only Americans would think of putting socks or other clothes on the floor.

Footnotes about the foot towel, and the leg cross

Most Russian bathrooms have a hook low on the wall for a foot towel.  Whether you just finished a bath or shower, or follow the custom to at least wash your lower legs and feet before bedtime, this extra towel is waiting for you.  To dry your feet with a large bath towel is considered gross.

It’s very rare to see a man on TV crossing his legs as they do in America, wide open.  The main concern about the wide leg cross is that the sole of one shoe flashes out for all to see.  I’ve heard this is profoundly offensive to Arabs but why does it upset Russians?

My views...

There is still some residual prudishness more than 22 years after the end of the Moral Code of the Soviet Union.  Some American men esteem casual or sloppy behavior as Rough and Ready and are known to put their boots on chairs and railings.  Russian culture, less flexible, is quick to stop behavior that may threaten cultural norms.

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