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My University: Setting and Characters

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The university I took classes at was a large, well-known institution which more than 50,000 students attend annually. There are a few campuses within the city, with over 120 undergraduate degrees available. This is the view from the front:

urfuA little bit imposing, right? Its actually really beautiful in the spring/summer (in the winter you’re just trying not to freeze because the bus stop that you get off at–if you’re me–is quite far away). So, you walk in the tiny brown things at the bottom of the picture which are actually pretty large I-Can-Withstand-Russian-Winter wooden doors. On the top of the middle one is a tiny black rectangle which is really pretty big and is a clock/thermometer which you can see from far away and was one of my favorite things cause almost as important as a watch is a thermometer; I would often look down at my watch to see how cold it was and then facepalm because such a thing either hasn’t been invented yet or I haven’t run into it (but I waaaant it).

Inside is a a set of double doors (the whole building is so sturdy and solid to fend off the cold) and a big foyer space with big I’m-in-a-mansion type stairways on either side. It’s a mess of interconnected buildings and hallways and underground tunnels. From the foyer I had to walk through a hallway, where I could give my coat in the winter, then up some stairs, more stairs to the right, turn a 180 to the left, down a hall, up two flights, down another hall, then up four more flights and I’m in the hall where my classes took place in two different classrooms. Fun, right? Lose weight much, did I? If only!

My first impression was that we were totally in Russia. One of the things about the US is that things are a bit more preplanned, or, maybe a better way to say it is that they’re standardized. Russia is not like this (as one can tell from the above description). It seems to an American to be very haphazard and thrown together, but also in a way very well put together in the sense that, well, just look at the columns on that building! It’s well constructed and sturdy, but literally every door is a different size. Like you walk down one of the many hallways and there are big doors here and tiny (I mean, literally so small you’d have to stoop) doors over here and then narrow doors so skinny that some Americans might have difficulty passing through them. All in one hallway! And the funny thing is that all the doors were doubled, so that you walk through one into a little room that has another (probably different) door you have to pass through to enter the room you wanted. And all of them were locked. I’m sorry, did I just spend an entire paragraph on doors? I could go on, but I’ll stop myself here. Actually, I’ll take a minute here to mention the fact that if you felt the need to use the bathroom, as an American, you may be somewhat surprised at what you’d find in there (if you want a better idea of what I mean, check out this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nG9S9vfUmqo I’m pretty sure the bathrooms had some other way of flushing–so says my husband–but I couldn’t find any).

So after passing through the hallways and doors and climbing the chipped concrete stairs (no working elevators stop at the 6th floor), I got to go to class. Out side in the hallway the schedule was posted in Russian for the week, and it often changed and got switched around (to the point where some nights I wouldn’t get home till 8pm and my father in law would have to pick up the kids–which he loved. No, really, he did, no sarcasm). The class was relatively large, with long tables in maybe four or five rows and a isle down the middle, about enough room for four students on each side. In the back was an organized mess of bookshelves and extra tables and a hook where we could hang our coats, if we hadn’t dropped them off in the coat room (I was often the only person to have done so, but I couldn’t stand walking up so many flights of stairs wearing my super warm coat in a heated-to-ninety-degrees building). The teacher’s table was up at the front of the room and had a lectern, which was used by some teachers, though some just sat or stood. There was a whiteboard and a pull-down projector screen. All pretty normal. There were two classrooms that we had classes in, and they were pretty much the same, though one didn’t have bookshelves and stuff in the back because it was smaller. They each had a wall full of windows on one side, where we could see a pretty nice view from the city.

urfu class(not my classroom or class specifically, but similar)

So, I am naturally a bookworm who can’t see very well since I lost my glasses in, like, fifth grade, so I always try for the front row, and eventually settled in a certain spot. The majority of other students were from China, one of whom spoke fluent English and became my closest friend and usually sat next to me. On the other side of the isle in the front row were two guys, one from Jordan (super friendly and outgoing, and everybody’s friend) and one from Tunisia (also really friendly and great, but less outspoken). Later a guy from Turkey came and sat with them. The front row was the most vocal in class and we had quite a bit of fun. In the other rows sat all the other students, who were all from China. They were mostly very quiet (class-wise–during breaks they spoke quite a bit, but mostly only to each other), with some exceptions, and a great majority of them didn’t come to class regularly (sometimes we would only have 5-10 people show up in a class of about 30–3 of which were female). Mostly, it seemed that the Chinese students (including my close friend) didn’t like Russia and didn’t much effort (if at all) into learning the language. Some of the Chinese students spoke some English (about as well as I speak Spanish from learning it in school), but other than that, my friend and I were the only ones who could speak English. But overall, class was really fun and we could understand each other well enough to form some close friendships.

class1(this one is my class, and that’s me in the blue stripes)

There were 5 professors; Grammar, who turned out to be the really helpful person who spoke English and had been emailing me with help getting enrolled–about my age; Speaking, a very friendly woman who understood more English than she spoke and had a daughter the same age as mine–we went to the zoo once with the Grammar teacher and our children; Listening, a tall and skinny woman with stereotypical Russian bleach-blond hair who was very difficult for me to understand initially, but was incredibly kind and a great teacher; Reading, a very nice woman who I really liked, though she was, perhaps, the most strict (if I can even say that of her) professor–we would often laugh together about little things in class, she was very nice as well; and Phonetics/Writing, probably the nicest of them all, she would pictionary the words we didn’t know, and put so much detail and was just very cute. Overall, they were really great and my experiences wouldn’t have been what it was without the peer group I had (fooling around all the time as we were) and the fun professors that tried to keep up in line, though they were laughing right along with us.

One of the best things I took away from study abroad were the great memories and friendships with people who had lives so different from my own, and didn’t even speak the same language.

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Getting Settled

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This is the one step that I was most worried about and proved to be the most I-wouldn’t-have-been-able-to-do-it-without-my-husband-ish (where husband here pretty much means the ability to speak the native language). This is where the kid difficulties were most prominent, because I didn’t have a daycare set up and once one was found they had to go to a doctor to get a wellness check and make sure their vaccinations were sufficient (I brought their records with us).

**An important side note–I wouldn’t have let my kids get shots in Russia cause, well, duh, but especially because of TB issues; my husband grew up in Russia and got vaccinated for tuberculosis and so always tests positive for TB tests in the US (they come up a lot when it comes to immigration and joining the military). I don’t know about older kids and real school, but for preschool daycare the shots they had gotten in the US were just fine.

russian daycare(Pictures of the school the kids went to)daycare5daycare6daycare4

daycare1 daycare2     daycare7The school was not going to help me with setting things up with the kids, so without someone to help me find a doctor and talk for me in the appointment (let alone know what was necessary to get from the appointment paperwork-wise since the daycare people don’t speak English) things would have been significantly more difficult. Once everything was all set, daycare was great and things went well, but it did take some knowledge of Russian for us to get there.

With regard to college, that was a bit of work, too, and the international department at my school was *cough* no help at all with anything. Now, they do have a person who speaks English there (which would have made it easier for me than the many Chinese students who were in my class and had no such Chinese-speaking person available to them) so I should have had some help, but she ended up leaving literally the moment we entered the office. Luckily my husband was there so I was able to get some help through him, but we had to go around to other parts of the college to pay for my courses and find the place where my classes would be (and believe me that place is a mess of hallways and doors and–this is true because, well, Russia–underground tunnels).

Also, we ended up having to go to get a Russian HIV test cause my US version was in English and a whole mess of craziness ensued. I know already that I cannot fully replicate the experience in words, so lets just say that there are no lines for these things in Russia, and when it is -25 degrees outside, a small waiting room becomes a sardine can. If I hadn’t been so completely amused with the situation I was in and enmeshed in the plot of these two guys trying to catch this really pretty girl (it was like watching a telenovela, and I could understand just enough for it to be hilarious), then I’d have been more than a lot claustrophobic and miserable. This was repeated a few days later when we went to get the results and without the entertainment it was only half as fun. I only wish I could have gotten a picture.

Overall, it took me about two weeks to get things settled before I was able to start classes, which really irritated me at the time because I was already arriving later than everyone else to the program, but in retrospect doesn’t seem like that long at all when it comes to setting up a life for oneself and two small children in a foreign country. I’m glad I took the time to get everything settled, because once my classes and the kids’ daycare was set up, everything went relatively smoothly.

Two Kids, Ten Hours, Time Differences, and Tiny Seats.

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aeroflot

So, only the longest flight was ten hours, but I simplified things for the sake of alliteration. The start of our trip was a four hour drive to JFK, then we took a ten hour flight to Moscow, and after a four hour layover took a two and a half hour flight to our final destination. Overall, it was around twenty hours of traveling, but we made it. I was mostly afraid of the possibility of having to transfer our luggage myself in Moscow, which we had had to do on our previous trip, and which would most likely have killed me if it had actually happened this time. Luckily, our luggage made its own way across the Atlantic, and I was only responsible for roughly ninety pounds of children, one carry on bag, and a backpack full of toys.

Lists are great for this type of thing, so I am going to provide one here on the best methods I’ve devised on flying over the ocean with a few small children:

  • I swear by the fact that the best time to make the long international flight is late, so that the kids fall asleep for at least some portion of it. For us, this flight left New York just shy of 8pm, and ended up being exactly what I wanted. The excitement of leaving stayed with us long enough to board and eat the dinner they gave us before the kids fell asleep. Since I like to sit in the middle so I can help each of the kids if they need me, it ended up locking me in place for most of the trip, but I hadn’t anticipated much freedom anyway, so things went well.
  • An important thing to remember (which I forgot) when you are planning a trip, is just how tiny the seat space you are allotted is. I had a moment of panic when I came to the seats. Especially after passing through first class.

food

  • The food comes twice on a long trip like this one, so that eats up a bit of time. But, every mom knows that kids don’t always eat on schedule, so packing snacks is always a good idea. I usually pack small granola bars and fruit snacks, a pack of tic tacs as an extra reward incentive if needed, and a few bottles of water bought at the airport after security. This trip I skipped the water, like an idiot, and the overwhelming feeling I had for the duration of our trip was thirst, thirst, thirst. The thing about traveling with children is that you don’t get the good parts of what you’re given by the flight attendants, and that especially includes drinks. The other good use for snacks is the fact that kids (and you) may be slightly underwhelmed at the idea of airplane food (especially if on a plane flown by an international carrier, like Aeroflot, and you get things that aren’t exactly what you might expect). “Breakfast” came at around 4am EST, while the kids were sleeping, and I was given some type of cold fish that turned my stomach at that hour. Instead, I ended up eating a granola bar and trying to rest my head a little longer, despite the fact that a bright beam of Moscow daylight was attacking me from the bit of window that someone across the way had opened.
  • A corollary to the snack packing suggestion is that one should never use food as the primary please-just-be-quiet device while on a plane. We found this out on our first trip to Russia when our son was only 15 months old, and greeted Moscow with a regurgitation of everything that he had been bribed with up until that point. It got everywhere, and I don’t think I need to tell you just how unpleasant it was, nor how much I did not want to experience it again. On this trip, snack amounts were minimized and there was no unfortunate reenactments of the previous episode.

flights-airlines--Aeroflot_inside--620x300

  • One place where mommyguilt over electronics and video game usage should not exist is on a transatlantic flight. Needless to say, it is a lot less embarrassing and there is a lot less guilt when you are sitting next to a quiet, entertained little child instead of a screaming, mucus covered, kicking-you-and-the-person-next-to-you ball of hellfire. I bought each of my kids a kindle for this trip for this very reason (and for the coming winter which would mostly be spent house-bound). I also made sure to bring some kid’s headphones, which ended up being a good thing, because the earbuds they hand out to you aren’t meant for children and, as my kids complained, hurt their ears. The other convenient thing is that there are monitors in the back of each chair and you can play (corny, not so fun but still there) games and watch movies and tv shows on them.

hangman

  • The toy bag is the most important part of traveling with kids. I like to layer the options and put in secret toy surprises and maybe a candy or two, some art sets that don’t require many parts or space, small dolls with bitty clothes, Hangman sets and other travel games, ect. Our hands-down favorite this trip were Melissa and Doug Color Blast sets where the one marker can make all the different colors, and the water blast sets where you just use water to color everything and they’re reusable.

color blast water wow

 

Packing (aka Unexpectedly Necessary Things to Bring)

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So, other things.

pocket Tissues

Pocket Tissues: These are first for a good reason. Before I left I was reading about packing tips on what to bring to Russia, and came across a thing about how public bathrooms in Russia usually lack toilet paper, and so you should bring your own (this was before all those hilariously accurate depictions of Russian life from Sochi). I figured that although it probably wouldn’t be wholly necessary because I’d just limit myself to the bathrooms at home and school to avoid such a problem, I’d bring some of these with me anyway, just in case. And it’s a good thing I did, because–apparently–the school bathrooms (those of which are not just literally holes in the floor you’re supposed to squat over) do not have toilet paper. I’ve seen these for sale in stores here, so it’s not entirely necessary to pack a huge supply (just enough to last your first few days), but definitely something you need to have with you at all times. I have no idea what the situation is at the student hostel, but at this point, I don’t think they could surprise me.

watch

Watch: Although perhaps not super unexpected, I cannot overstress the importance of bringing a watch to Russia. When I first got here I was constantly turning around, looking for a clock, without success. And those clock which could be found were, inevitably, broken. Add that to the already confusing fact of traveling to the other side of the world with an 11 hour time difference, and you have no idea which end is up. Almost a week went by before I somehow found myself in Ikea standing in front of a display of clocks with tears of joy in my eyes. If it had been up to me, I would have bought them all, and just stood on the sidewalk handing them out, but I settled for just one, which I hugged tightly to my chest until it was paid for. Three weeks passed before my husband found me a working watch. You don’t realize how annoying it is not to know what time it is until there are literally no working clocks within a ten mile radius.

binders lined paper hole-punches

Binders, Lined Paper, and 3 Hole Punch: I am a creature of habit, especially when it comes to school. I like things just so, because I know how I do best when I’m trying to study. That being said, I brought my usual school supplies with me to Russia, despite the fact that they took up precious space, and I’m really glad I did because they’re not available here. I like to use 3 ring binders with loose leaf lined paper, and so I brought those things. I did not, however, bring any 3 hole punches here because I didn’t realize that all of our assignments would be on handouts instead of from textbooks. So, I needed a hole punch, but they have a different standard here, with only two holes very close together in the middle. I have yet to find a single hole punch, so I had to settle for a million weirdly placed holes on the side of the paper until it could fit in. My mom eventually sent me a 3 hole punch (despite the fact I told her it wasn’t entirely necessary), but it cost about $15 and took a month to get here (mostly because she didn’t write the apartment number on the envelope, but still).  Now my fear is that I might run out of lined paper. The only paper they sell here is graph paper (the grid kind, all little squares), even in notebooks. I can’t do that. Yes, I’m wicked picky.

pbsnow

Peanut Butter and Grated Cheese: If you’re bringing children to a foreign country, you are headed for a round a pickiness that has never before been seen. Kids not a fan of borscht? At least you can make them a PB sandwich. They don’t like the fact that their pasta is covered in shredded carrots and ketchup? Sprinkle some magical snow on top. The problem, for me at least, was that I couldn’t even lead by example because my stomach was all mad at me for traveling so much and so far and could only handle so much cabbage. I was just as picky as they were and I was mad that I didn’t think of the Parm until that point (they can handle the pasta and ketchup thing, but I cannot–and I have yet to find a decent sauce).

bags

Reusable Nylon Shopping Bags: I so want a few of these (check out: http://www.amazon.com/Mato-Hash-Reusable-Integrated-Red/dp/B00D34TV46/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1393052120&sr=8-1&keywords=reusable+nylon+shopping+bags). I don’t know why I haven’t seen any here yet. Whenever you go to a store you have to buy bags if you want them, and I’m one of those annoying people who don’t want them even when they’re free. Besides, when you have to carry everything you buy with you home on the bus, it’s unpleasant to have to worry about juggling a plastic bag whose bottom is about to give way to that sharp plastic corner on the cake you just bought while simultaneously trying to navigate your children into a seat and fish your money out of your pocket to pay the conductor for your ticket. Therefore, I bought myself a drawstring bag with obnoxious blue smurfs all over it. It was $5 and I used it a total of three times before the drawstring part started to rip off. The other downside of the other reusable bags that I brought with me is that they are huge (good for when visiting the mall with children, however, because two bulky jackets and two sets of snow pants are a terrible burden while you’re sweating under your own, carrying groceries, and trying to keep track of the two of them in a crowd) and inconvenient to carry in my jacket pocket. If I could go back, I would get like three of these cause they’re small enough to keep in your pocket without being a bother, sturdy enough (the handles are built into the body of the bag) to handle regular use, and cheap enough so that you can have a whole bunch extra on hand in case they’re not as resilient as one might hope. I want, I want, I wannnnt.

**EDIT: I actually did find some of these after three or four months, under a bunch of stuff in the man purse section of my favorite store in my favorite mall. After that, of course, I found them in multiple places.

plug

Outlet Adapter: This one is actually unexpectedly unnecessary.  I bought a few of these online really cheap, in addition to a more expensive power converter one, and a special one for the kid’s kindles (bought as holiday gifts with this trip specifically in mind–such as times like this, when I want to use the computer, it’s too cold to go outside, and the kids are trapped in a tiny apartment with “nothing to do”). Mostly all of these adapters were unnecessary, as I have yet to use the power converter one (I had intended it for my laptop, just in case, but I don’t actually need it), and have used regular ones for the kindles. When I got here, they already had a whole bunch of the simple kind that I had bought (pictured above). I have everything I need plugged in, and still have a small bag of converters I don’t need, most of which aren’t even mine. I don’t know how normal it is to have these lying around, and I certainly wouldn’t know where to buy them, but for me at least they were mostly unnecessary to buy myself.

Packing (aka How to Not Die in Russian Winter)

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So, Russia. Winter. Six months. Where to start?

Winter Coats and Snow Pants: I brought two coats that I could layer and that I thought might do the trick. Then, when I found myself in the airport dealing with my oh-so-wonderful kids and all the stuff that is soon to be listed below, I handed one of them off to my best friend in frustration, figuring I’d figure something out when the time came. Because, if I have learned anything from my current and previous trips to Russia, it is that it is extremely unpleasant to be wearing anything more than a simple shirt and pants–it is just way too hot inside. So, I ended up buying a new winter jacket here in Russia and it was absolutely worth the $70 or so I paid for it. If I wanted to go all out with a stylish black shuba like all those beautiful Russian women who just stepped off the catwalk have, then I would have been set back a bit more than a couple thousand rubles, but I’m more than happy with what I have. It’s bright red (good for when running across icy streets on a snowy day) and very warm, yet not super bulky (as in, very unlike wearing two layered coats). If it starts hitting the negative 30s then I slip an extra sweater on underneath, but other than that, its usually enough in itself. I’d definitely advise anyone heading to Russia in winter to buy a coat here. I bought myself a pair of snow pants as well just in case, but that was stupid, not because they wouldn’t be useful, but because you’re not only supposed to endure the cold, but you’re supposed to look good while doing it, and snow pants just scream out to everyone that you’re a total loser. And that would be fine for me if I had somewhere to put them when I got where I go (mostly just school) because it’s way too hot inside to wear them all day, or even just to carry them. If I could go back, I’d get a extra, perhaps thicker pair of leggings, and another pair which goes only to the knee. My coat reaches mid calf, but still the upper portion of my legs just freeze while I’m waiting for the bus when it’s really cold, and I miss the pair of shorter leggins that I forgot at home.

For the kids, I bought small but warm jackets and big outer jackets at Savers (thrift store), so I was able to get relatively high quality stuff for pretty cheap. On days when it’s in the 30s I try to put the small jackets underneath, but they don’t always let be because, again, it’s just too hot here and most of the time they are either inside or in the car so there’s almost no need. But, those smaller jackets will come in handy, I’m sure, when the bigger coats are too much but it’s still too cold to go out with a jacket. For now, they’re in the closet. The kids wear snow pants every time they leave the house, even if the red is hovering around zero (so it is just a natural part of leaving the house and not a fight each and every time). I also got thick, snow-proof mittens from Savers which I [had my mom sew] to a drawstring which is attached to the back of their coats and goes through the sleeves. They haven’t died yet, so I figure it’s a pretty good system.

clothesScarves, Hats, and Mittens: Ok, so I bought a pair of cloth gloves and a pair of thicker snow gloves to use here, and I’m not sure where the thicker ones are because I have yet to use them. If I’m outside, my hands are usually in my pockets if it’s super cold, and if it’s not then the cloth ones are usually enough. For a scarf, I don’t even remember what I brought, because I’ve been using a random one that my husband gave me or a thicker one that I left behind the last time I came here. If I could magically produce my ideal scarfs (one for cold and one for super cold), the thinner one would be just like the one I have, soft and thin and just regular, and the thicker one would be thick and soft and warm, but in a very specific, wool-like (but not wool, cause I’m allergic) way. The thing about scarfs is that you need them to breathe. Sure, they help so that the skin on your face doesn’t literally freeze while you’re running to/waiting for the bus, but the most important thing is that it needs to be thick enough to warm the air before it gets to your lungs, or else you will get sick. The worst thing about -35 is not being able to breathe, and a good scarf is so important for that. The thick one I have is good for keeping my face warm, but not really for warming the air, unfortunately. Most people walk around with their hand covering the bottom half of their face. My hat is partially wool (I can tell because it itches my forehead), so its warm, but also thin. If it’s really cold I wear my (fur lined) hood up.

For the kids, I was lucky enough to find these great tube scarf things that have the texture and elasticity of thick socks. This way, I don’t have to fight about tying a scarf over their face; I just pull it over their head and zip their coats on top of it, and they can push it down if its warm or pull it up over their faces if its really cold. 99 cents each, and totally great. Their hats are normal cloth hats, cause they always wear their hoods up.

Boots and Socks: I bought these great (I thought they were great, anyway) boots from the men’s shoe department at Wal-Mart that were rated for up to -2 F, but it was unanimously decided when I arrived that they were hideous and I had to be given a new pair right away. I have huge feet, so finding shoes has always been difficult for me, and so despite looking for something more feminine, they reluctantly settled upon some old men’s shoes that they had recently been given by a relative. To me, they’re great, but in comparison to the highly fashionable females around me, they’re not looked upon as very trendy. The only problem to me is that they have laces instead of zippers and so it takes more time to put my shoes on–again, big feet–then everyone else. So, if I could repack (and magically find decent shoes in my size) I’d find something warm with zippers. Also, I have a bunch of those thick socks men wear when they work construction for long periods outside. They’re great.

For the kids,  I just bought high-quality snow boots from Savers, and a bunch of thick socks.

kids on sled<—Seen here: the preferred method of travel for children. Not something you can pack, necessarily, but something well worth buying (or borrowing from relatives).

Visas (aka 4 round trips to the Russian Consulate)

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ruscon

Let’s talk about how fun dealing with Russian Bureaucracy is (hint: not very fun). So there are two ways to go about getting a visa to Russia on your own: you can mail in your application to their visa processing facility or you can go to a Russian consulate and apply in person. Financially, the latter is theoretically best if you live very close to one of the five locations in the US (NYC, Washington D.C., Houston TX, Seattle WA, San Francisco CA). I personally live closest to NYC (a mere 4 hour drive away), and since driving is fun we always go there in person whenever we have official matters to deal with regarding Russian stuff. Also, there is a $30 application fee (soon to be $33 after Feb 15th), a $30 mail processing fee, and a $35 cost for shipping your passport back to you via Certified mail (not counting the $$ you spend to send it to them) if you want to skip the drive and do it all by mail–as in, $95 on top of visa costs for each application (in my case, 3 people = 3 applications). Also, if you mess up on your application, which you inevitably will (see below), there is a–you guessed it!–$30 charge for fixing it for you. But still, that $95 extra could be worth it (or your only option) if you live far enough or if you mess up you application as much as yours truly.

So, I got together all the documents I needed for the visa applications and filled out the forms online (https://visa.kdmid.ru/PetitionChoice.aspx). This was a process in itself, let me tell you, and most of the difficulty lay with getting my school to send my invitation (Приглашение-Priglashenie). This time around we didn’t get an official governmental invitation for my kids’ homestay visa, instead getting just a notarized letter of invitation from my sister-in-law, which is the protocol for getting a three year homestay visa, instead of the shorter kind. My school, however, needed to send me a letter of invitation, and because they didn’t really go about that with any haste, I ended up leaving a few weeks later than I had originally planned. Once they had it ready, my sister-in-law needed to go (to the school? I’m not sure) to pay for it and then to pick it up and have it mailed to me (all the documents she ended up sending me somehow ended up costing more than a hundred dollars). In addition to the original invitation (it is always advisable to make copies of everything before you submit it, especially the invitation, keeping one copy on you and one at home–the first time we went to Russia they asked for the invitation in the airport, which we obviously didn’t have because we submitted it with the application)…so, yeah, invitation, 2 color photos–not smiling, the completed application (more on that below), your passport–valid for at least another year and a half, an original HIV blood test certificate*, and a Money Order for the cost of the visa (you need a separate one for each application, for the exact amount, and it is sometimes helpful to bring multiple Money Orders if you can for different amounts if you’re not sure; I’ve seen so many people sent away because of issues with Money Orders, and you can always just cash leftovers yourself when you get home).

So, the application. You need to fill it out online, that’s the only way they accept it, and when you print it you have to make sure it is double-sided. Also, very important, you need to choose if you are going to the Consulate or the visa processing center on the application. They will not take it if the wrong location is on the application. I filled it out as well as I thought I could and drove on over to the consulate, kids in tow, to apply for our visas, hoping that everything was alright so that we could get them in before everything shut down for New Year (the Russian version of secular Christmas, celebrated for roughly the first week of the year, this year till the 8th). One benefit to applying at the visa processing center is that you don’t have to do it in person (as in, the kids don’t have to come) and that they’re more helpful to Americans (read: non-Russian speakers) than the consulate. I had been to the consulate in NYC a few times before, and figured I knew what to expect, but I didn’t even think about the fact that I had always gone with me (Russian speaking) husband. They are miles less helpful if you don’t speak Russian, and I’m sure that that’s why I had so much difficulty this time around. First off, there is a cage outside the building in which you need to stand until they let you in, whether you have an appointment or not. There will be many other people in the cage with you and older men and women will push ahead of you without any notion of joining the “line.” It is a good introduction to what you should expect when you get to Russia: there are no lines, people will do what they need to do, and you have to make yourself heard to get what you need. So, when you get in, you wait until there is an available window and then cringe as the woman behind the bullet-proof glass silently judges you when you make her aware of the fact that you don’t speak Russian (this is especially true when applying for a homestay visa). Expect to be coming back, because you most certainly did something wrong on your application, or have forgotten some important document. It is inevitable; don’t get your hopes up.

I want to preface the following list of ways that I messed up with the fact that on more than one occasion when we messed up my husband’s documents or forgot stuff they accepted it anyway and were comparatively very helpful. Not so when it was just me. The first time I messed up it was because I had been given an invitation from my school for only until March instead of July, and my kids’ invitations were for three years. On the website it asks for your dates of travel, and I stupidly put in the dates we would be traveling rather than the dates specified on the invitations. Also, I put “official” passport instead of “tourist.” So, had to drive back home. The next time I went, I got stuck in NYC traffic for three hours and missed the window of time that the consulate is open. The third time I went, I had chosen the wrong type of student visa on my application. Question: “Purpose of visit (section)” Choose: Study. Question: “Purpose of visit” Choose: Courses (NOT Study. I chose study, and I was wrong). Luckily, this lady was much more helpful and told me that I could email her the fixed application (when I told the first lady, who, presumably, could have let me email her things, too, that I drove 4 hours to get there, she pretty much said that that stinks but she didn’t care).** The forth time I drove there was to pick up our passports.As it is, I finished everything off believing wholeheartedly that I would have been much better off just mailing things in and paying the extra $$, since most of that was spent anyway on gas and tolls.

*I don’t know how important it is, but it could very well be extremely important: I got mine done at Planned Parenthood and when they gave me the certificate, I had to tell the lady specifically to write that it was a blood test (there are other kinds of HIV tests, and the Consulate site specifically says blood test). It may not be terribly important, but they can be ridiculously picky sometimes, so it’s good to make sure. Also, when I got to Russia I had to extend my visa and in doing so, I had to submit another HIV certificate. I had a copy of my other one, which was still officially good, since they consider them valid for up to 3 months, but as it wasn’t in Russian, I had to get it done again here. Probably the school would help you with that usually, but mine has shown no sign of being helpful in that regard, and my husband and I had quite an adventure getting it done here.

**How to avoid such difficulties? Can’t you just call them and ask if you have questions? Well, yes, you can call (212-430-5990). Enjoy listening to the sound of the ringing on the other end of the line. Can’t you just email them? Yes, (visaruscon@gmail.com) and that would probably be your best chance at getting help, but I wouldn’t count on it. All the info in this comes from personal experience and ruscon.org, their official website.

Budgeting!

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If you’re in an official program, you likely have to just pay one big chunk to that program and they’ll take care of everything. If not, you need to take many different factors into account to figure out just how much your trip is going to cost. I’m going to list a bunch of things (mostly taken from my school’s budgeting checklist) with some commentary:

Application Fee/Tuition: How much the program actually costs, including any deposits or whatever you need to get in.

Passport/Visa Costs: This one was the worst for me, for reasons you will understand when I find time to write about my experiences with the Russian consulate. When I spoke to my financial aid adviser, she told me to quote high on my budget because the amount I put down (total, not just for visas or anything in specific) would be the maximum amount they could give me no matter what. And I did try to do that, but obviously I didn’t want to lie or anything so I just put down the basic amounts for visas to Russia and that was that. As my next blog post will suggest, however, things ended up being a bit more expensive than I thought, and having already submitted my budget to both my school and Gilman, I was stuck with the lower amounts (not a huge deal, but still annoying). If it’s an option, I’d put the highest amounts listed on your country’s visa page, because you never know what might happen. Russia’s visa info can be found here:

http://ruscon.org/visa_dep_ENG.html

Immunizations: For Russia, there are no immunizations that I know of (I didn’t get any), so this isn’t an issue if you’re going there. I know Tuberculosis is a problem here, but in the US we don’t vaccinate for it (my husband tests positive for TB even though he doesn’t have it because they do some kind of vaccine thing for it in Russia). One thing about bringing kids with you–I asked their pediatrician if they should get anything for Russia, and he said no. Still, if you are planning to put your children in a Russian daycare you should bring a copy of their immunizations and also a general letter saying that they are in good health, preferably translated into Russian. Otherwise, without the letter of good health, you will have to take them to a doctor to be examined. I had to do this, it cost about $30 for the two of them (I didn’t bother to use the insurance for it, though I probably still could get reimbursed) and wasn’t a big deal, but if you don’t speak Russian or know anyone there who will help you (don’t count on your school, they will not), it could be an issue. Also, they needed to submit stool samples to a laboratory to test for parasitic worms (about $10 each).

Health Insurance: Gilman required that my health insurance not only let me go to the doctor but also cover accidents, emergency evacuation, and repatriation of remains. I was counting on just using my regular insurance (Tricare–my husband’s military), but they couldn’t give me a letter saying I was covered for those four things, so I had to buy some on my own. For myself and my kids for six months (they did it by days–187) it cost just over $300. Just to give you an idea.

Plane Tickets: Easily the most expensive thing on this list, especially if you’re not traveling alone. I flew Aeroflot and it was somewhere around $1100 each round-trip ticket. Try to fly midweek and keep an eye out for the best prices. I used Expedia.

Special Course Fees/School Supplies: For me, I didn’t have anything here cause my school just includes everything in tuition. But, as an American college student will well know, this could end up being an expensive slot as well.

Local Transportation: You’ll likely be taking the bus or the subway or some kind of public transportation, even if you’re living in the dorms and can walk to class. If you’re traveling to Russia in winter, there is no doubt you won’t want to be walking anywhere. I got an EKAPTA (yekarta) so that each month Ii can put money on it and pay 18 rubles (52 cents) each ride instead of 23 (66 cents), and its about $35 for 70 rides which is enough for me for about a month. I live about 40 minutes by bus from my university, and I have to back and forth everyday. My kids’ daycare is within walking distance of my apartment, but my father-in-law drives us because it is January in Russia. ‘Nuff said.

Food: This might be included, in some cases, but regardless you’ll still want to budget some money here so that you can have some level of independence in your culinary choices. I’ve noticed here that food costs about the same amount as in the US, and I have no idea about restaurants.

Laundry: Clean clothes are a must, especially so that you can pack less. In my case, we have a washer, but we have to hang-dry our clothes overnight.

Housing: I want to say that the dorm that was offered to me cost about $30 a month–ah, how cheap it is to be childless! Iif you have to get an apartment, make sure to include the deposit in your budget.

Personal Expenses: Souvenirs, gifts for family, ect. The only thing is, this category isn’t really of the type that other people will pay for, so you won’t include it in your official budget, but start saving for it, because people are going to be expecting things when you get back! Think lots of key chains and magnets (and I don’t know about Moscow, but here they’re only about $2 each).

Obviously, this is not exhaustive, and depending on your personal situation, you’ll have a specific set of needs of your own. This list is just a starting point, and the figures I quoted are inexact and temporary because everything changes in a minute. Good luck!