Tag Archives: expat

The Conquest of Laundry

As I will be in the air for an extended amount of time in the near future, I’d like to leave you with an anecdote that characterized the first year and a half or so of my life abroad.

Clean clothes. Such a simple concept yet we take it for granted so often. We Americans are spoiled- we have dryers. Until I traveled to Russia for the first time in 1999, I’d never seen anyone hang clothes outside of films or TV. After you wash your clothes, a mere 45 minutes is all you need and you can wrap yourself in the warmth of freshly dried clothes. But soon after I moved abroad I would learn that while a dryer is simply a luxury, a washing machine is essential in our modern, urban life.

Our story begins in Prague, where I first arrived in the beginning of March, 2006. I was there to take a course in subverting the Russian government for the American neocon deep state establishment teaching English as a foreign language, and the school running the course offered students rooms in apartments that they owned. Thankfully, this apartment had a washing machine, so everything was in order. No worries, other than that time I got so hammered I threw up in “the biggest club in Central Europe!” and was later nearly robbed by a woman posing as a cab driver, but that’s a story for another time.

Once the course was over, naturally, they wanted you out, and even if they were to let me stay the room was very pricey, so I set about finding a new place. I eventually got a room overlooking Ječná street. It wasn’t the best arrangement. The most obvious deficiency was the lack of the washing machine. But the landlord, an Afrikaner man married to a Czech woman, promised he’d get one within a week. Needless to say, he didn’t get it within a week. I don’t remember how long it took exactly, but it was much later. And within a few days it was clear that it was broken.

Naturally the only solution while we waited for the landlord to “replace” it was to wash stuff by hand. Needless to say as an American I have no experience washing clothes by hand. Even us poor folk had access to washers and dryers, though they were often coin operated. I never managed to get the smell of soap out of my clothes. I suppose there could be worse smells. Every once in a while, like if I was going out at night, I’d treat myself by having a load of laundry washed at this place that did it for you (not drycleaning, just ordinary laundry). They also pressed it, which was a big plus.

Eventually I ended up moving far from the center of town to an establishment known as Hotel Dum, a name which sounds funny regardless of whether or not you pronounce it correctly. I lived on a floor for long-term residents, most of whom were students. Naturally my first question was about laundry. And of course, I was to be disappointed.

There was a “laundry room,” but it contained only one washing machine. The procedure for using said washing machine was ridiculously complex. What you had to do was leave a deposit with the front desk in order to get a key to the room for 24 hours. However, since there were many other people on the floor who wanted to do laundry, you had to find out from the front desk who had the key and when they would be returning it (assuming they were going to return it around the end of their 24 hours and not early). You’d need to coordinate with this person so as to make the handoff. Of course some people were happy to let you use the washing machine while they had the key, but this meant you had to coordinate your schedules for the day. I probably managed to use that machine maybe three times, about once a month. Needless to say I still paid those people to do my laundry a few more times, most notably when I moved to Russia in late August of 2006.

washingmachine

The Holy Grail that I had sought in Prague in vain. Would I find it in Russia?

Moving to Russia was the realization of a dream I’d had for roughly six years (my Russian and Ukrainian readers are most likely rolling on the floor with laughter at this point), but now it was the potential fulfillment of a great desire I’d had ever since I’d left that first apartment in Prague. Because I would be working in a small town in the Moscow region, I was entitled to my own company-provided apartment (Moscow-based teachers had to share). When I arrived I was quite pleased to see how modern and spacious it was for a one-bedroom. Sadly, it wasn’t modern enough to have a washing machine.

No worries though- the school administrator promised to get me a washing machine within a week. Spoilers: It was more than a week, but they did actually deliver the damned thing. Once it was delivered, I had to wait for the handyman to install it. Of course it was missing some parts and couldn’t be connected as is. The handyman promised to get the parts and return one day.

Unfortunately that day didn’t come soon enough. You see, two new teachers, a married couple, arrived at our humble school and didn’t like the idea of sharing a washing machine with me, a slovenly bachelor living down the block in another building. Thus my washing machine was moved to their apartment. Sharing the washing machine, especially as the weather began to turn unpleasant, wasn’t really practical. But the final insult was still to come.

I want to stress that both these people were extremely pleasant and competent teachers, and we got on very well. But apparently they didn’t take kindly to Russia. These people had taught in China and traveled throughout Southeast Asia, seeing a great deal of underdevelopment and poverty all along the way- and yet they loved it. Russia, however, managed to break them in about two months. My washing machine was torn from my life and given to them, and yet they left. The administrator decided to leave the washing machine where it was, since they already had a new teacher to replace the couple that left. I would spend the rest of that contract washing my clothes by hand, with the same terrible results.

At the end of that contract, I transferred to Moscow. I would be sharing an apartment. Unfortunately this one was old and dark, and the room where I would spend the next year and two months was practically the size of a walk-in closet. But that didn’t concern me when I first arrived. I looked in the kitchen, and there, under the counter, was a washing machine! One that worked! The nightmare was over. I would have clean clothes all the time. I had zero fashion sense and my clothes were cheap or old because my salary was still quite low in those days, but they were clean and didn’t smell like detergent.

From that day on, I would never be without a washing machine. Even when I was in Ukraine for most of this year I was never without a washing machine, because contrary to what you might have read on Sputnik News or novorossiyanews.info, Ukraine has no shortage of washing machines. I can personally attest that Ukraine’s washing machine game is on point.

Since that first rough year abroad I have called many washing machines my own, including two in one place (the door broke on one and it nearly flooded the bathroom). Over the years I’ve noticed something funny about some of these washing machines here. They all tend to be Italian-made. That wouldn’t be particularly remarkable except for the fact that it seems that some of these Italian manufacturers decided that they could overcome language barriers by using a system of hieroglyphic symbols, numbers, and random letters as opposed to words on the front panel of the machine. The second-to-last washing machine I had was impossible to truly decipher. I had to download a manual and it always seemed like no symbol actually did what the manual claimed it would do.

washing machine

Panel of a Zerowatt washing machine similar to the one I had. Nothing here makes sense. It only provides the illusion of control. For in reality, the machine controls you.

It is possible that one must not only decode the symbols on the machine, but also say or chant a magical incantation while setting the dials in order to actually get the desired effect. It shall forever remain a mystery. Thankfully the washing machine which replaced that ancient model is clearly marked with Russian words and works perfectly, a real testimony to Italy’s prowess at producing washing machines. Bravi!

Anyway, I hope this light-hearted saga from the early period of my time abroad proved amusing to you, the reader. Hopefully it will serve as a temporary but welcome distraction from the horrendous awfulness of our modern world. A distraction from things like this, for example.

See you on the other side of the world!*

 

*Where we have dryers too!

Bearded Badass Financial advice

First of all, I’d like to thank my recent donors. Every time someone donates to Russia Without BS, Dmitry Kiselyev sheds a tear…

coincidence

In last night’s article I talked about the financial advice of Mr. Money Mustache. As one reader pointed out, it’s definitely good for long term life planning, but not so great in the short term, a sentiment I wholly agree with. Now that the economic collapse is eight years behind us, I think we can safely say that more Americans have long since begun to rethink habits such as racking up massive credit card debts or borrowing money to buy SUVs. Still, I’m sure there are many who could actually benefit from his thrifty advice.

In the past when I saw millennials bemoaning their financial situation, I thought I could perhaps offer some advice from my personal experience. The problem is, however, that much of my “success” was due to market-determined factors which had nothing to do with any kind of long-term planning or clever financial strategy. In fact, when I explain what got me so interested in Russia and compelled me to move here, I describe it as a sort of teenage delusion. In other words, a delusion happened to put me in a certain country at a time when investors from all over the world were dumping money by boatload into it, and the demand for private English teaching and TOEFL consulting was high. In fact, I actually became aware of this much later than others, and had I taken full advantage of that fact I might have saved up much more money by now. Just to give you an idea of what one could make, as recently as the spring of 2014, I was making roughly the equivalent of $600 from one client. Excluding travel time this worked out to three hours a day, twice a week. Not bad at all.

Obviously those days are long gone, and while most people would say this is driven by politics and specifically those of Vladimir Putin, one cannot ignore the influence the economy has had on Putin’s recent decision making. In other words, the market once favored Russia, then it stopped. This is why my experience doesn’t make for good financial advice. It would amount to “Find a country that is experiencing a boom right now, where there is a demand for English teachers and a small population of super-rich assholes who will pay exorbitant prices to send their precious little snowflakes abroad to study at an overpriced American university. Oh yeah, pray that country’s government isn’t a dictatorship run by a delusional man whose policies are concocted by pseudo-intellectual hacks who base their advice on real time strategy games.”

Of course the work abroad approach is not entirely useless. A TEFL-TESOL certificate to teach English as a foreign language is laughably easy to obtain. I could have got mine online without leaving the States. Most of what you actually need to know you learn on the job; if you have a natural talent for languages or just a really high command of English, you’ll do fine. The trick, however, is turning a TEFL job into a strategy for financial freedom.

As a rule, TEFL jobs don’t pay much, but they will usually pay slightly more than the average salary of the country you’re in. That being said, don’t expect to get ahead via a huge salary. What you want to look for is places that provide free accommodation or at least decent rent reimbursement. Not having to pay rent can make an otherwise paltry salary go much further.

Another advantage of teaching abroad is that some schools offer annual bonuses and flight reimbursement. One of the schools I worked for in Moscow had something like a $900 flight reimbursement per contract for teachers from the US and Canada. Since I only went back to the US one time back when I worked on contract for them, that money just went right into savings.

The best thing about working as an English teacher abroad is that you generally aren’t expected to work very long hours. This is especially true when you’ve been doing this for a few years and you don’t need any preparation time. The advantage to this is twofold. First, if you aren’t making massive amounts of money, at least you’re getting a decent salary for doing very little work. More importantly, that extra time gives you opportunities to find private clients, and that’s where the bulk of your money comes from. Eventually once you become adept enough at gathering private clients, you may be able to become fully self-employed, assuming you can handle any visa or work permit requirements that particular country might have. The time you spend working for a school to get the free accommodation and bonuses is like time you save up for your initial “capital” that will allow you to go fully freelance.

The added time also means you won’t be limited to doing one job. On several occasions I’ve been asked to do voice over and dubbing work. It’s never really reliable, but pretty much every time it was a good chunk of money for virtually no work. The first time I did it I think I spent a total of 30 minutes actually doing the dubbing work, an for that I was paid $400 in cash. Actual US dollars, that is. Of course that’s just Russia. I’ve heard English-teaching expats in China getting all sorts of acting parts in TV shows, commercials, and films, almost without looking. Foreign media producers will often need native speakers to dub commercials, films, TV shows, etc. I remember hearing about one teacher who got to dub the lead role in the Russian film Admiral, for example. I guarantee you he was very well compensated for that.  Aside from voice acting I’ve also had plenty of translation and proofreading jobs as well.

Expat communities often get a bad rap for being full of horny middle aged men and other social defectives, but in my experience there are often separate, very different expat communities which rarely overlap. Some of those communities are full of creative types who are full of plans and just looking for someone to help with some kind of project. Think Youtube channel, ad revenue, travel websites, etc. Whatever the case, you will often meet people, even from your own country, whom you would never encounter in your life at home. This broadens your experience exponentially and gives you a lot of good ideas.

I’m also by no means the only person who’s gone from English teaching into journalism. While RT’s going insane and rapidly losing its ability to attract foreigners with the promise of high, often above-market salaries, there are other options. I’m told China’s CCTV is quite generous and very accessible for people just breaking into the business, for example. China also happens to have very high demand for English teachers, by the way.

If there’s one more thing I could recommend, something I couldn’t do, it would be setting aside some money in mutual fund or similar investment before you move abroad. Add money to it while you can once you get settled in a country. This way you’ll at least have some kind of nest egg should you decide to return. Another thing I personally didn’t have time to take advantage of was the ability to study abroad. Higher education is generally cheaper outside of the US, and in some cases there are opportunities to study for free. Why not pick up a master’s while you’re working abroad?

There is a joke among TEFL teachers that it isn’t a real job. True, we all see our share of people who are doing it to fund their backpacking trek across the Old World or middle-aged men riding the loser carousel, but people who take it seriously manage to lead pretty kickass lives. For most of the time I spent working in Russia I can say with confidence that I generally made more, sometimes much more money when I worked in the States in my old job. Of course that old job was dirty, backbreaking labor in one of America’s most boring cities. Years later I might have been making as much as $1000 less per month, yet I was working maybe 15-18 actual hours a week, paying zero rent, and collecting bonuses. More importantly, I was living in a completely different country. In the States, the concept of vacation was practically unknown to me. In two years of working abroad I had visited six different countries.

Look at it this way. If you’re looking at working 40-50 hours a week for roughly $2000 a month in your American home town or making $1500 a month plus free or subsidized accommodation while working maybe half of the hours in an exotic foreign country, is that not worth the difference? In all likelihood you’ll probably be able to save more from that $1500 than the $2000-2500 you get commuting to the daily grind in the US. I realize plenty of readers may make much more than that, but I’m looking at that angry millennial who is working off their debt in Starbucks or Best Buy.

The capitalist is admired for investing his capital where it brings the most returns. Why shouldn’t workers do the same with their labor power? Take advantage of globalization. Read up on the job, research the countries, make a plan, and escape.  Go! 

Just don’t go to Russia.