The new Androids vs. iphone 5

iphoneandroidThe position of the ubiquitous iphone, as number one, is being challenged by a squad of outsiders: the Samsung Galaxy III, IV, the Nexus 4 and others. This sacrilegious eruption of non-orthodox thinking started on a low key, with wanna-be iphone users buying a phone that would at least navigate their way home at night, be an email answering machine and store contacts. Up until 6 months ago, the iphone was still superior in these basic activities, plus it pouts full synchronicity with itunes. But then the unthinkable started to occur.

Business people started engaging in heretic acts by buying Android machines instead of paying at least a third more for the latest iphone. The following is a non-technical appraisal of the situation by a frustrated iphone5 user.

A German businessman at a recent InterNations meeting told me, spitting between his teeth: “I hate Apple’s control policies, I am anti-closed system.” The fact is that if you are an Apple laptop user, you are probably not even going to look at an android smartphone, why bother? But if you are not, and a large number of us are not, and you happen to buy an iphone, it is very frustrating not to be able to fully synchronise itunes on the Galaxy III or IV from a Mac computer. You cannot seamlessly download music which you have paid for very easily onto some non-Apple smartphones. It can be done, but in Samsung’s case for example, Apple is not a bed partner with a company that it is in court with over patent issues.

boxers

Apple’s old enemy was Microsoft. Some say Microsoft won that battle. This time, the enemy is Google. Apple computers have always, and still do, remain superior and more expensive products because a closed system brings club-membership; thus excluding unnecessary programmes which can clutter up the ‘Mac experience.’ This policy has served Apple well; they have been able to select the best. And charge the most. But the ground is shifting under Apple’s feet. Google has come up with a range of products that are as good as, if not better than Apple’s own.

Apple’s monopoly of the iphone’s built in apps effectively ended with the imaps fiasco. On a recent trip to London, I was directed to an address on the Falkland Islands when trying to find a college in King’s Cross, using imaps. Full synchronicity on a country-by-country basis has not yet been achieved, let alone engagement of where you actually want to get to within one city. All iphone users I know use Google maps. Even with email, gmail is on the way to replacing Apple’s own email programme as the preferred email gateway.

So how has Apple reacted to the fact that the enemy has entered the citadel in an electronic Trojan horse named Google? At first, it seems with great maturity. Google maps was made available on the iphone soon after the maps fiasco, and there is a synchronising system called CalDav and CardDav which synchronises gmail contacts and calendar systems with Apple’s iphone own. All seems well, Apple seems to have realised that it cannot produce the best engineered smartphone in the world—and also control all of its basic functions.

phonesBut on closer look, it soon becomes apparent that synchronicity only goes so far. As a frustrated iphone user, I have mentioned only a few problems, there are many more. For example: to allow users access to Google maps from inside of its native calendar app using IOS6, was a compromise too many for Apple. The user now has to copy the address, always a fiddly operation on a smartphone, and paste it into Google maps. Even gmail calendar apps such as CalenMob are not as good as gmail’s own. Mac followers will argue that all of these functions and more can be provided by acquiring apps, from the ‘App Store’, but why should they when Android phones provide such functions default, if you are prepared to use Google’s services?

The iphone’s own native apps are beginning to look archaic. Calendars and contacts only fully synchronise with a mac computer, or any computer for that matter via itunes, when you are within wifi reach of your laptop or by special Apple USB connection. Of course you can use iclouds, but that is not completely free, and comes with all sorts of Apple proprietary catches. With an Android smartphone, calendars and contacts are synchronised every time you go on the internet. Compare the complexity of loading files and document up onto your iphone with the ease of loading up similar files onto an Android device. With Apple, you use a ‘lightening port cable’ which is not used on any non-Apple products to connect your iphone to your Mac computer, then you can load files through itunes, but it is not easy. With an Android phone, you simply hook up via readily available (and cheap) mini USB cables. Your phone opens up just like an external hard disk and you can load any file to wherever you want. You are in control. Even Apple’s wifi is not fully compatible with some non-Mac computers. Once again, there are apps and ways around this, but Apple still makes it inherently more difficult for non-Apple users to make full use of Apple technology because that is its style. When you buy an iphone make sure that it is compatible with your non-Mac computer if that is what you are using. But not all Mac dealers are even aware of the problems, or want to be.

Apple used to have a point maintaining a closed-door policy. In an unstable IT world, Apple users are protected and secure in the knowledge that big A is looking after them. For the absolute beginner, Apple still offers a safer and more rugged way of communication, and iphones are perhaps the best choice for children and first-time smartphone users. But the world has changed. Android software has stabilised, Google software is superior to Apple’s in ways difficult for the iarmy to comprehend. Having said that, there is no one platform which can, as yet, comes close to offering itune’s vast library of music and video, and this is Apple’s saving grace. The downside is that Apple is pushing all Mac users in the direction of iclouds, which is not free or even necessary when there are free apps out there such as Google Drive and Dropbox, which are still, mercifully, compatible with an iphone.

If Google expands and is able to offer a serious competition to itunes there will be no reason to buy an iphone apart from design and ‘coolness’ reasons. But the latest Android phones are no longer the badly designed, cheap looking flimsy bits of plastic they used to be. Business executives are now seen at airports and even at power meetings with Samsungs and the like. The Russian elite market is still firmly Apple, but this is for prestige reasons rather than anything else.

The battle is not yet over. The vast resources of Apple will undoubtedly convince us that a closed system is superior to an open system for a few more years. Apple’s superb PR machine informs us that great things are afoot, such as an ‘iwatch’. But Google is already ahead with ‘Google Glass’, and is producing, by the way, it’s own version of a smartphone watch. Where is Apple in this new field of wearable technology? There is now a real danger that Apple’s iphones will be sectioned off as being an exclusive but isolated communications service. In today’s world, horizontal communications with all other electronic systems and devices is needed, as no single company can hope to produce the best in every field. The argument is similar to that if free trade vs. protectionism. Are we going to have ‘Apple fridges’ and ‘Apple Cars?’, because that is what we are going to need if Apple is going to maintain it’s closed-door policy.

Apple produces superbly engineered, beautiful devices that we all agree are a pleasure to use, but that is no longer enough. The Nexus 4, for example, has a faster processor, built in NFC, a more capable battery, a higher display resolution, bigger RAM and other advantages. And of course it has some standard interfaces like USB, HDMI etc, that makes it more compatible to other devices without any adaptors. Nexus and Apple prices vary, but the Apple machines are universally at least one third more expensive than the new Androids.

Google, having gained the upper hand may turn round to Apple and say; ‘we don’t want you to use our maps on your phones any more.’

GAME OVER

The author has expressed his own opinion in this article (lest the iarmy find him).

Health Care in Moscow Part 1

healthcareHealth is a very touchy thing. Most expats have pretty strong feelings about the Russian Health Service. In the first of a series of articles about health care available in Moscow, Moscow expat Life looks at what is available free or comparatively cheaply from the Russian Health Service. Following articles will look at semi-private and private options.

Officially, when it comes to life-threatening situations, Moscow has absolutely free medical assistance. You don’t need to show your medical insurance policy if your guts are hanging out after a car accident. Emergency medical care is provided to all foreign nationals in case of  life-threatening conditions that require immediate medical treatment. No foreigner I know of has ever been refused access to care in an emergency. The question is, what kind of care?

This question is fairly academic in 90% of real emergencies, as there may not be time to summon an ambulance from your private health care provider, and traffic jams may make it impossible for them to reach you anyway. Private health care providers may rely on Russian emergency services to deliver their patients to them. If you have private medical insurance, it is a good idea to keep an updated insurance document with you at all times.

Having been put into an ambulance, you will then be taken to a local Russian state-run hospital, unless your insurance states you to be taken elsewhere, where you will be given first aid and emergency surgery when necessary. After that, The Russian health care system does not have to provide any further treatment to people without a ‘Compulsory Medical Insurance’ which virtually all Russians have.

Without such a policy, the foreign national will not be offered free treatment for a hip operation, for example, unless he is danger of dying. With a policy, he can get surgery for free, but only if he waits anything from a few weeks to a few months, as resources in the Russian Health Service are limited as they are in most countries’ national health services. There is usually some paper work involved but all of these issues do not present insurmountable problems if you speak the language or know somebody who does. If you are very busy and earn enough to take out private insurance, the Russian Health Service may not be for you. If you want to jump the queue and do not have the time to wait your turn for surgery, then you will need to pay a certain amount of money to the private sector within most hospitals, something which is now done quite legally, as most hospitals have commercial departments. In this case, you can get reasonably good treatment at a very reasonable charge. There are as many different stories about Russian doctors as there are patients, but most of the people I have spoken to who have paid for treatment within the Russian health service were satisfied. You don’t actually have to be a ‘Compulsory Medical Policy’ holder to access these services.

health-in-moscow3Emergency treatment aside, ‘Compulsory Medical Policy’, holders are able to get free consultations in the nearest polyclinic to where he or she lives. So if your ear is blocked up, you have an ingrowing toe nail or you think you have cancer, you can get to see a specialist and undergo all necessary scans, tests for free.

Clearly, you will have to be prepared to wait in line for to see a specialist. Whilst there may be only a few days wait to get to see a doctor to clean your ears out, it may take a week or two to get treatment for an ingrowing toenail. This is something that the local polyclinic will be able to handle, and at this level, in terms of quality of treatment, there probably won’t be a vast difference between the treatment provided by the Russian Health Service and that provided by the private sector, apart from the fact the polyclinic’s facilities may not be as clean as that of a private hospital, and the attitude is different. When I, for example, had to have one my big toenails removed, I was given a lecture about why I look after my feet so badly in the first place. I wasn’t expecting his little telling off, but it was actually very useful. The equipment at many state clinics and polyclinics is now vastly improved in comparison to the situation 10 years ago, however it may take you a couple of weeks to get all the necessary scans done before any surgery can take place, if you have cancer for example.

Getting a ‘Compulsory Medical Insurance’ is easy if you have a residence permit вид на жительство or a temporary residence permit, even a long-term visa. Further details can be found on the site: http://www.mgfoms.ru  which is a Russian language site. You have to scroll down to the bottom of the page and click on: Реестр пунктов выдачи полисов.

health-in-moscow2So what do those foreigners who have used the Russian health care system think of it?

Aik Gobbling is from London. In Moscow he has been teaching English for 5 years. Aik speaks Russian quite well. He is almost a Russian as he calls himself.

“Right now in case of health problems I go to the public hospital mostly. All I needed was a policy which I was given for free because I have a permanent visa. In you go to a pubic hospital, you should be prepared to wait for a doctor for a long time. You may be told something like: ‘the doctor is sick’.

“If you are healthy and need to make just a check up, if you don’t want to spend money, go to the public hospital. But it is going to be hard in case you don’t speak Russian language. I can say 90% of doctors have poor English. Sometimes they try to understand you. But this is not everywhere. For instance, two weeks ago I went to the public hospital to have a check up because I was too weak to work. The women at reception asked me: ‘If you don’t speak Russian then why are you here?!’ I didn’t want to reply her, for me it was painful.

“Before I got my permanent visa I went to the American Medical Center and it is quite OK. The quality of treatment in a public hospital and in a private one is the same but the attitude is different. You buy your own medicines in both types of clinic. But in the private clinics and hospitals there it is much more of a personal touch. They ask you more questions and basically look after you better.

“If we talk about urgent treatment, the Russian system works well. If you need surgery or you had an accident or you are in a serious condition you are taken into a hospital. They will treat you well. I think in that way they are very good because it is not the weekly check up, it is something like life threatening. Even in case you don’t have the documents they won’t tell you to go away.

 

“Two years ago, for example I came down with pneumonia. Fortunately for me, my friends called an ambulance and they took me to a hospital. I spent one week there and then I was transferred to a special clinic at Taganskaya. I was treated completely free of charge and I am quite satisfied. In 2009 one of my friends had a cancer. He was here and he needed quick treatment. He is from UK. The ambulance took him to a special cancer center at Kaschirskaya. As my friend had no insurance but was ready to pay, he was admitted to the hospital, before making payment, by the way. My friend had two operations. The first one cost him 200,000 roubles. They gave him a private room, and he didn’t complain about the treatment. Whatever they did to him, it worked. It is saved his life because of immediate medical intervention.

 

Thierry Cellerin

Thierry Cellerin

Thierry Cellerin came to Russia from France about 10 years ago, and has now set up his own business. He treats health issues no less seriously than business affairs and chooses Private Health Care System.

Within the first 3 years French person is here, he can get medical assistance paid for by the French government, but the amount claimable is very small. So as I was stuck to the National French System it cost me 300 euro a year. Three years later I got Russian insurance from my company which included public hospital care only.

I am a healthy man who never had huge things wrong, fortunately. When I needed a doctor for the first time, my director advised me to go to the hospital on Profsouyznaya. He said that it is for free and it is good. If somebody had told me beforehand about the public medical system in Russia I would never have gone there. The service was terrible. The system itself is very strange. You have to queue to go to the doctor, than you have to queue to the place where you should say that you have visited the specialist and give the documents with the medical insurance. Then I said why should I do this and waste 8 hours of my life when I can pay 1000 rubles and get straight ahead? So I bribed people in the line. In general the doctor was not bad and the treatment was ok. I should have come back to get another X-ray, but I never did. I stopped using that insurance.

 

Haidar Abdulla

Haidar Abdulla

Haidar Abdulla is studying engineering. He has been studying at Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia for 6 years. He is one of the few who is completely satisfied with the Russian Medical Care. In comparison with his country Syria, the Russian medical service surprised him a lot – in a positive way.

“I have a one year visa which I have to renew every year. My insurance is voluntary. Usually I go to the Medical Center of my University or Moscow Public polyclinic №25 when I am sick.

“The first thing which pleased me a lot is the annual medical check-up. We don’t have such a system in Syria. At home, people get to see a doctor when their illness has already become serious, whereas an annual examination helps to prevent illness.

“I like the medical treatment and the doctor’s attention to the patients. All the specialists I had are quite friendly. I can say that they never refused to give me a consultation. I am a healthy man and normally need a full check up once a year. I have never been taken to a hospital but I know how the doctors work. Several years ago on Sunday morning I injured my leg. There was nothing serious but I needed help. So despite a day off I found a surgeon who carried out a small operation, everything went really well. Another story I remember concerns my friend. We were playing football when he fell passing the ball. His leg was badly injured. The ambulance came in 5 minutes, and he is fully recovered now.

Evgeny Avetissov, M.D,  EMC Medical Director

Evgeny Avetissov, M.D,
EMC Medical Director

 

Evgeny Avetissov, M.D,
EMC Medical Director

What do you think of the Russian Health Care System?

“I think that the problem is the qualifications of the doctors. What we can see from talking to  patients who have been exposed to the Russian Health Care System is that some very strange systems of treatment are used, very strange use of prescriptions etc. Sometimes their use is not really logical or done according to international guidelines. There is a clear disconnection between the Russian and international medical systems such as in Europe or America and this is a big problem, in my opinion.“

 

Tanguy de Lassagne, General Manager Russia,International SOS

What do you think about the Russian Health Service?

“After a long period of stagnation, considerable amounts of money are now being invested into building hospitals, procurement of brand new equipment, infrastructure and training of medical staff. Yet the Russian system is not what Western expat would be used to. It remains very bureaucratic, patients should wait in queues for some 1 – 2 weeks until for treatment, and there is a lot of paper work to fill in.

“Ambulances are technically inferior to their western counterparts. Once in hospital, wards are often basic 4-6-8 bedded with no nurse call system and obsolete or no oxygen piping. Hygiene standards are infrequently not being adhered to and nosocomial flora not properly monitored.

“There is an ongoing shortage of nurses and doctors in some areas (emergency, ICU). Medical staff is often overloaded and demotivated being remunerated far below levels dictated by basic common sense. The level of care is overall known as badly substandard with inattention, unprofessional behavior, long waits, and inconsistent access to some specialists and in adherence to internationally accepted guidelines. Over-prescription is common.

“It is said that doctors trained and graduated before the end of Soviet era are very good. But English is not spoken by many doctors and nurses – the further from big cities the less the likelihood. I will not talk about mention fake medications – this does not seem to be a problem now.

Thanks to Alexander Khoderevich, the head doctor  of the People’s Freindship University Medical Centre, and of Moscow Polyclinic No. 25 for help in preparation of this article

Easy Jet Moscow

ejetTrips to London are a regular chore for many expats living in Moscow and this is not just limited to the Brits amongst us as many use London for visa runs, business meetings and of course, shopping.

In the past London flights have been covered by BA, Aeroflot and BMI. However as BMI became part of BA, the number of flights, convenience and price suffered in the aftermath of the takeover.

It was with great interest that we all heard of the arrival of easyJet into Moscow and Moscow expat Life decided to put an easyJet flight to the test.

easyJet is now the second largest airline in the UK and one of the pioneers of the ‘low/no frills concept’ so quite a change to the flights and service that we have been used to on our regular jaunts to London.

Bookings are on line via a simple booking process. For additional charges you pay for your luggage and can book your seats. The easyJet flights are not specifically targeting the business traveller with early morning arrivals rather, most convenient afternoon departures/arrivals to both London Gatwick and to Manchester.

easyjetCorrectly outfitted with my printed boarding passes I made my way to Domodedovo. The easyJet check-in desks offer 3 categories: General Check-in, Bag Drop and Speedy Booking. However, as often tends to happen in Russia no respect was shown for the correct lines. In fact my beautifully printed boarding pass was not requested due to the necessity of a typical DME boarding pass. This does however indicate your seat number.

The incoming flight landed and there was hardly any pause between seeing the arriving passengers and then being called to board. The turn around time is very short.

You soon notice that you are boarding a no-frills airline and expect crumbs on the floor and tattered magazines.

Service is friendly and professional and the seat pitch (the space between the front of your seat and the one in front) is actually acceptable. However do note that none of the seats recline, so don’t expect to be able to sleep that well!

The food service is on a payment basis only. I don’t have a problem with this but the cultural differences now became very apparent. Most of the passengers on my flight were Russians and there were many puzzled expressions as passengers were confused with the variety of typical British snacks and drinks. Roubles are also not accepted (only Sterling, Euros or Credit Cards) sending many passengers diving through their carry-ons to find the required notes and coins.

easyjet3In general everything went quite smoothly despite the cultural and language differences.

So a lot has changed if your use these flight. No lounges, no business class and no free drinks & food. However at a price of Euro.264 (including seat reservation and 1 piece of luggage) it was a major difference from the BA offer at that time of around Euro.425. For those of you dying for English style crisps you can get your first fix on the aircraft!

I was not travelling on business and for my requirements the times were extremely civilised. Outbound flights were 14:30 to 15:40 and return 14:10 to 21:00.

Arriving in Gatwick was a pleasant change as I always find LGW to be an easier and more relaxed airport to larger Heathrow. However be prepared for a long walk as easjJet gates are located across the ‘bridge’ from the main terminal. However a good walk after a flight is not bad.

On my arrival, Immigration was not busy either for British/European passports or for ‘other’ passports. At least nobody arriving in the UK is called ‘alien’!

My baggage came through quickly and I was soon in the arrivals hall ready to collect my rental car.

easyjet2The return flight 4 days later was also amazingly easy. With easyJet now located in the North Terminal they have a massive dedicated check-in area. I have memories of queuing for an hour in the old South terminal but with many desks open I was checked-in in minutes. Even security control seems easier in Gatwick and the shopping/catering facilities are on par with Heathrow. A good walk out to the gate and this time easy-booking(additional charge) and the rest of us were separated. However all were on the flight without stress.

Again the culture difference was still apparent, however as most of the guests had now spent time now in the  UK learning our idiosyncrasies, the language barrier was not as evident.

My only gripe was not being able to recline the seat, even a little would have helped. I believe that a blow-up pillow would be sufficient for the next flight! It is annoying however that the pre-recoded announcement prior to landing asks you to ‘place your seats in the upright position’ when you can’t move them at all!

My conclusions. For UK flights I am not a loyal passenger. I will fly with anyone based on the criteria of the most convenient times and price. easyJet fulfilled both these points. I booked 26 days in advance. I believe that you can book much cheaper however this was, in my opinion and excellent price for a good flight.

Stalingrad and other WWII stories

stalingradThis year is the seventieth anniversary of the end of the decisive battle at Stalingrad which lasted from August 1942 to February 1943 and left over a million dead from both armies and countless casualties and deaths amongst the civilian population. The total devastation of the City, the horrors of fighting at close quarters in the ruin and rubble, the uninterrupted shelling and bombardment, the deprivation and wholesale slaughter must make Stalingrad the closest man has come to creating hell on earth in the history of human warfare.

Although the price of victory at Stalingrad by the Red Army was high, the reward was the capitulation of the German sixth army and the continuous retreat of the Wehrmacht from Soviet territory from that moment onwards culminating in the final defeat in Berlin in 1945. Those of us lucky enough to have been born afterwards must stop for a moment to reflect on this and what it must have meant for our seniors living through those times.

warMy father was of that generation and wanted me to take him to Stalingrad. I had to remind him that it had been renamed Volgograd in 1961 and rebuilt in Brezhnev-era style with some post-Soviet modern high-rise apartment blocks and a lot of bad roads. A few of the destroyed buildings are ‘preserved’ as reminders of the destruction and there are imposing socialist-realist war memorials to look at. It is not exactly the tourist attraction you would travel half way round the world to see. “Ah, but I want to pay my respects”, he said. “It was the turning point of the War!” He was in his late eighties at the time and, knowing his Yorkshire grit, despite his somewhat decrepit physical state, he was up for making the trip from where he lived in Cincinnati for the last twenty years of his life. Unfortunately, his second wife, an American lady, was not of the same opinion and discouraged me from the attempt. It remains for me to do it one day for him on my own, something I promised him that I would do.

My father was only in the British Army for six weeks, but he was no slouch for the war effort and, despite not fighting, did his bit. He was called up for army training in 1941 and, having not learnt very much about how to fight Hitler’s Wehrmacht, was returned gratefully to civilian life to make steel for the war effort. Having been born near Huddersfield, in what was then the West Riding of Yorkshire, he remarkably avoided being sent down the coal mine like his father and brother before him and at seventeen enrolled as an apprentice at Samuel Fox and Company, Stocksbridge, an important steel works in those days, about 10 miles north west of Sheffield. He earned his degree in metallurgy at Sheffield University by studying in his spare time and attending night school three times a week, walking the ten miles to the city, there and back, to save money on the bus fare. Some of those night school excursions were not without event. On 12th and 15th December 1940 Heinkel, Junker and Dornier bombers in several waves dropped high explosive and incendiary bombs on the City in an attempt to destroy the steel-making capabilities for which Sheffield was then renowned. Apart from destroying the Marples Hotel, a popular pub, the C&A store and some unsightly nineteenth century housing there was relatively little damage to the steelworks themselves and they continued to work almost uninterruptedly throughout the War.

pid1cI remember as a nipper in the fifties being taken on shopping trips to Sheffield by my Mum when the City centre was still in parts in bomb ruins. The High Street was still a blackened, windowless front and the back-end of the Cathedral was annihilated. When I look at the photos of the destruction of Stalingrad, I am reminded of those images from my early life. I  imagine what it must have been like to be in that bloody mayhem on the Volga, not on the Don. But no matter how awesome it must have been in Sheffield in those nights of the Blitz, it was not Stalingrad. There were no German soldiers firing at you from 30 yards from the debris of C&A; there were no panzers blasting at you coming up Pond Street. Just a few thousand tons of bombs dropping fairly randomly out of the December night sky. In Stalingrad there was no Uncle Albert knocking back a sneaky pint in the Marples before the night shift and not making it back home to Auntie Vera’s for his egg and chips! There was no ‘hugging the enemy’ tactics employed by the Soviets to discourage the German artillery from hitting their own troops. There was no Pavlov house to withstand a 59-day relentless onslaught by the Nazis near Victoria Station. There were just six hundred and sixty dead from those two nights of the Blitz. In Stalingrad, as many as forty thousand civilians and almost half a million Soviet soldiers died, equivalent to the entire population of Sheffield today!

1pi1cSamuel Fox steelworks, apart from one minor but quirky incident, was never hit by German bombers, although by all accounts they had been desperately trying to locate it as a target. Dad was wire department manager throughout the rest of the War and had cooked up a steel alloy to draw the rods used to make the armour-piercing bullets for the Spitfire which had been very successful in knocking out German tanks. This must have been a source of annoyance to the enemy and a good reason to want to find and destroy the production facility. Being quite well hidden in the upper Don valley, the Stocksbridge works was obviously difficult to find, made more confusing by the fact that the British boffins had built a replica of Sheffield somewhere on the top of the Pennines on the way to Manchester. This false town actually got bombed several times with happily no loss of life, except perhaps for a few sheep.

Bringing the action back to Russia, I overheard a conversation once at the bar in Silver’s pub when a young English expat was describing to a couple of his incredulous drinking mates a war-time experience related to him by his grand-father. The relative in question was working the night shift during the War in number two melting shop at Samuel Foxes when one night a lone Dornier, perhaps lost on an abortive sortie to find a suitable target, dumped a stick of bombs over the steelworks. Some of the explosives dropped in the goods-yard killing a guy who was late for work and the others went through the roof where the open-hearth furnaces were working, dropping one by one into the molten steel of each furnace with nothing more than a plop and a thud. If they had missed the furnaces full of steel and landed in open space, there could have been significant damage and loss of life.

w2eThe amazing coincidence of hearing this account told independently in a Moscow bar was that the same story had been told to me by my father who, during this incident, was in the wire mill next door producing his rods for the Spitfire bullets! Small world!

Another minor coincidence resulted in the fact that I exist at all. There was, in the year following the blitz, a day-light bombing raid on Sheffield which very nearly killed my mother. She worked as a shoe-shop assistant in the centre of town and, as the manager was busy, was asked to take the day’s takings to deposit in the bank across the road. As she was queuing in the Midland Bank, a German bomb obliterated Saxone’s shoe shop and killed everyone in the building. Having literally lost her job, she found another in her home town of Stocksbridge polishing steel samples in the lab at Foxes where she met the young head of the wire department. The rest is, of course, history! For this we have to thank the immense sacrifice made at Stalingrad, and a bit of Sheffield steel!

Your health in your hands: Municipal Health Facilities and Documents

healthIn my previous articles in this magazine, I have explored the challenges of accessing and receiving quality treatment while abroad.  Being as healthy as possible is key to a successful posting abroad.  One of expats’ main concerns about moving to a capital city is whether the environment and lifestyle will render you unhealthy and/or unfit.

Check out your level of fitness better at http://www.nhs.uk/LiveWell/Fitness/Pages/Fitnesshome.aspx

Soviet Moscow established a network of Parks of Rest and Culture, designed to encourage workers to get out for some fresh air and exercise to maintain the health of the population; and recent investment means that keeping fit in Moscow has never been so easy. Most residential buildings have a children’s playground (detsky sad) and local shale basketball or tennis court, doubling as a 5 a side football pitch. This heritage remains important and recently a directorate for the Development of Recreation and Leisure Parks of Moscow (Mosgorpark) was set up in 2011 to invest in the recreation industry and increase responsibility for the results of the work of parks, museum estates and museum preserves.

health1The medical profession knows that the success of a fitness programme depends on how interesting and enjoyable the chosen activity is.  What is bliss for Peter can torture for Paul.  But the good news is that most sporting interests are catered for in both informal and formal settings.   This article explores the opportunities available beyond the scope of the existing expat clubs.

One of the charmingly bureaucratic challenges of Russia is the requirement for a Spravka before you can access or participate in community activities. Before we even arrive in Russia, most of us have submitted ourselves to a raft of medical tests for anything from intestinal worms to HIV, in order to provide the supporting documentation (Spravka) to accompany the visa application form.

The other factor that can affect expats’ enjoyment of municipal recreational facilities is the Russian cultural expectation that the facilities are structured rather than open and visitors are expected to practice or train, rather than ‘enjoy’. Thus swimming is expected to be done in lengths, rather than the informal ‘splosh’ sessions that are commonplace in the West.

healthsPrivate gyms, spas and clubs offer the expat a chance to participate without constraint or a spravka, but at a cost. If you do decide to join a gym, check out all the contract options. For example at http://www.hardcandyfitness.com/en/, the 10 month contract includes several training sessions whereas the annual contract only includes one.  Many hotels have private fitness clubs, so if the gym or pool is your thing, check out our listings on page xxx.

We recognise that many expats now arrive on less generous or local contracts, so here is a guide to keeping fit without forking out a mortgage…

Several locations in Moscow are informally known for regular activities such as martial arts classes and dancing on the embankment. As soon as the sun comes out, large groups of people appear with music systems and amplifiers and impromptu sports activities take place.

Following the development of Gorky Park in 2011 to offer summer and winter sports and recreation, the winter of 2012 saw the results of the city’s investment into municipal sports and leisure facilities. This winter Sokolniki and other parks featured skating rinks, slides and ice sculptures and more is planned for the summer. Free classes are dotted around the parks offering roller blading or table tennis.

health3Plans are afoot to develop dedicated cycling lanes by 2016, but in the meantime the embankment along the river from the Kremlin past the Olympic stadium Sparrow Hills to Kievskaya offers a safe round circuit for cyclists and roller bladers. Other cyclist friendly locations include Ostankino Park at VDNKh and Krylatsky hills and the embankment on the 229 bus route between Molodyozhnaya and Krylatskaya metro.

Swimming and fitness training present a separate hurdle. Despite the plethora of municipal health and fitness facilities on offer, many of these remain unused by the expat community because of seemingly bureaucratic hurdles before you an access them.

The intention of the Spravka is laudable. The certificate that is issued states that the bearer has been checked for and confirmed free of gastro-intestinal parasites such as worms and skin infections such as warts & verrucas. Whilst we would all like to be reassured that no one with a verruca or gastro-enteritis is using the facilities when we are, the reality is that these are only reliable for the day the tests were done. The certificate is then valid for 12 months from the date of issue – meaning that the certificate is effectively predicting that the bearer will have no conditions affecting their fitness to use the pool during the following year!

Various expat blogs recount often hilarious stories of trying to use local polyclinics to obtain the spravka.  For these reasons a simple Google search will generate several websites offering spravka services.

For details of municipal facilities in your area, please see the list on pages in this magazine.

Editor’s Letter – Summer Issue

John Harrison Editor

John Harrison
Editor

The summer is here at last, and hasn’t it been a long time coming? There was still snow lying on the ground in the Moscow Oblast as this summer edition of Moscow expat Life went to print. The late spring helped the attendance figures at a spree of community events in April and May, culminating in the outrageous National Day celebrated by the Dutch at the Pushkin museum. This event turned into a double-whammy as it coincided with the abdication of Queen Beatrix and the inauguration of her 45 year-old son Prince Willem-Alexander as King. The Dutch community in Moscow is still recovering.

Health is of concern to everybody who lives here. As part of an on-going series on health care facilities available in this city, Moscow expat Life looks at the Russian health service. Continuing this theme, we provide in this issue a comprehensive list of municipal and private fitness centres, so if you have not pumped enough iron to chase the winter blues away, or flown off to Thailand, you no longer have any choice but to head down to your local fitness centre and tune those muscles!

Moscow expat Life has started holding breakfast seminars at Kitchenette restaurant, the first of which is reported on in this issue. Two long time expats; David Gilmartin and Lucy Kenyon share their knowledge of education opportunities available in Moscow for our children. If you have any suggestions for future themes, and/or would like to attend yourself, please write to me. In general we try to write about issues and themes that are of important to you, so please do get in touch.

The Extraordinarily Successful Louis Gouend

Selection_004Louis Gouend has been working in the Moscow club scene since 1993, and has now earned the status of Moscow expat personality. Many of us know him for the positive and creative person that he is. In this interview with Moscow expat Life, Louis tells the story of how he got to where he is now, and how he keeps going despite everything.

“How did you get to where you are now?”

“I’ve been here for twenty years, although I feel like I’ve been here for one year, because I am still learning. I was originally sent to Leipzig in 1993 after school in the Cameroons. My goal was to study automatic control systems. When I arrived I was a bit shocked because the conditions were not very good. I wanted to go back for the first few months, but my father told me to stay put for a year, after which, he said, I could move on somewhere else. But after a few more months I changed my mind. I realised that I like this country, I like the people, I like the girls, I like the facilities because everything was very cheap, just after the fall of the Soviet Union.

“I was on a four-year degree course, studying automatic controls applied to electrical appliances. At this time, I was part of group of young guys who were interested in having a good time, in having a rave, in dance clubs. But I really wanted to come to Moscow, and I came here in 1998. I started studying for a master’s degree in Moscow Technological University. From time to time I organised parties for my friends at the university. They were pretty much free-for-alls; anybody could take the stage. If somebody could sing, or dance, or tell stories, please, they could take the stage. I myself liked to dance and really got into that at the same time as studying. In fact people told me that I should dance for a living, that I should be a professional dancer.

“That was in 1999, and the first club in Moscow opened. I went to see them and told them that dancing is something I do, and I’d like to work there. They told me to come to a casting interview, and they accepted me. I started a part-time job there for two days a week. I got into the inside of this business very quickly. I helped them keep the performances new and fresh. I was the best dancer, a lot of people went to the club just to see my performance. I started to teach some of the clients who were interested in dancing. One day after 6 months, I went to the director of the club and I said that actually, I want more money. He said: ‘let’s do it in a different way. I’ll give you a budget, and you organise all the dancers,’ so that’s how I became chief of all the dancers. I then became art director of this club. After two years, in 2002, I moved to open a new club called ‘A Priori’, where I was promoter and art director. I was number two after the general director. But I was only there for a year because of a conflict with the owners. Owners often have one mission in life, whilst art directors and the creative people, another. Sometimes I am very stubborn and won’t give in. If I feel it is right to go on the left side of the street, and people tell me to go in the right side, I am not going to go on the right side, I don’t care what they say. So I moved again, and decided to open my own Events company. By that time I had some money, and I also bought a cafe in Byelorusskaya. I became a businessman and got married. Unfortunately, things worked out bad for the marriage and the business. Everything crashed, and I went back to the club business, but this time to the strip club business.

I was one of the founders of the Safari Lounge Club, and I worked with Night Flight a couple of times of year with birthdays and New Year. I did that for five years. After Safari, I went to Club XIII, where I worked as Art Director for four years. Then I went back to ArkA club, where I had previously worked and which closed down and then reopened. In 2009, Gary Chaglasyan who I had known for a long time, called me to work in Pacha which opened in 2008. Gary also owned Club XIII. I worked with him for four years and left last December. Two years ago I opened a Go-Go Dance Club. I think that Go-Go is a new dance style in Russia, I am sure that in 15 years, Go-Go will be like what hip-hop is now. After our course, girls gets enough skill to work in clubs as Go-Go dancers. But we don’t just teach dancing, we show them how to make costumes, how to do makeup, how to look after their hair; we have a full programme to help create really good dancers. It is not just for girls who want to work in clubs, it’s for any girl who wants to be more visible, more attractive to men. The school is called the Louis Studio, and now we are trying to expand, and are opening a school for art directors. I am also opening a school for models. I don’t want to work any more, I want to teach this business, because I have a lot of experience.

At the same time, I am doing competitions, PR shows and marketing for clubs, cafes, hotels. I help them understand what partying is all about, how to make their places attractive and so on. I am travelling all over the world right now, finding out how it is done is other places; I am trying to develop this school. It is very important to see how other people are doing this.”

“What has changed in Russia in your business since you started?”

“Before the Soviet Union collapsed, clubs in Moscow were not developed at all. The club business only really started in about 1994. Even at that time, you had two kinds of clubs: very rough places and elite clubs. I was always lucky to be able to work in the elite clubs. The elite clubs didn’t charge entrance fees. Why? So that they could choose the guests. At that time, the people who went to clubs had a lot of money. The normal price for a table was between $5,000 and $10,000, and the tables were busy. At that time, Russians were open to anything that was new. We were one of the first clubs to bring in DJs, we were the first club to do Halloween, and people loved that. Now those times have gone, everything that could have been brought in to Moscow is here. People now have the money to be able to travel all over the world, so it’s difficult to surprise them. Now you have to be really creative.

“Back in the mid-nineties, everything was cheap. We could afford to make really good shows for very little. So we had low cost origination and people who wanted to spend money. We were making very good money. Now it is difficult, very difficult just to get $5,000 for a table, which was previously the lowest price. Clubs don’t have money any more; you can get money only from the bar. Now all the artists are incredible expensive. Costumes are expensive, lighting is expensive, everything is expensive. Without money you cannot hire good staff. No longer are you alone, there used to be only one or two good clubs in Moscow, now there are six or eight amazing clubs, and the competition is very high.”

How do people treat you, a black man in Moscow?

“Sometimes I think I am the only black guy in Russia (laughs). It is really difficult for black guys to live in Russia. In Europe, since the Second World War, people have got used to seeing and living in the same places as black people. But in Russia this process only started after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As one of my friends told me: ‘Louis these people are very strange. You can live with the same people for 10 years, but every time they see you they will always be surprised to see you.’ Even now, being black is still very exotic in Moscow. Black people are not here because they cannot make money anywhere else. It is easier for them to make money in Europe. The social and political situation in Russia is very difficult for black people. For all those black people who are doctors, lawyers and economists, they go to Europe, Canada and America, and have more possibilities than here. For me it is different. I have a business in which I feel completely at home in.

“In general though, as more Russians see more and more black people, Russians are becoming a bit more tolerant, so things are getting better slowly. People who want to have a quiet life, in a country where the government takes care of them, those people go to live in Europe. Here you can only be a fighter, and a good fighter. To be here you should be very politically correct, because you can create serious problems if you don’t behave yourself in the right way. Being at the top, and always in the camera’s eye, like I am, is very difficult. I’m not saying I don’t have problems. I do, but I can solve them. If things were really difficult for me here, I would leave. I have two educations, I have a master’s degree in technology and science, and a degree in economics, and I speak English, French and Russian. I know I can leave whenever I want, but I want to live here. I really want to do things here.

What is your secret?

“When people look at me they see somebody who is still young, at least not old. Why? Because I am positive. It’s very important to be positive, and it’s very important to do what you like to do. When you walk, you have to walk in a way that is in harmony with yourself. Then people who accept you surround you, and you are calm. I am trying to turn all the negative things into positive things. My work is to create ways of making people happy. I am searching for new ideas all the time, and this is keeping me in a good positive mood. So of course, if somebody wants to party, just call Louis. If you have a café, bar restaurant and you have problems, please call me!

What do Russians miss About Russia?

Selection_005After writing last issue about what expats miss when they leave Russia and return to their home countries, I thought I should turn the proposition around and write about what Russian expats miss about home. As before, my research is not particularly scientific, but hopefully contains some interesting thoughts.

Ten or so years ago, I remember the head of an international pharmaceutical firm in Russia telling me that, of his top 20 best-selling products in Russia, only 2 were on the list of bestselling products in his home country. He explained this by saying that for the most part, the medicines that were popular in Russia were ‘old’ (he must have hesitated to say ‘outdated’), whereas in the ‘West’, doctors were prescribing more advanced medicine. We smiled knowingly, almost certainly condescendingly.

injectBut now I find, from my own wife and from other Russian friends, what a nightmare British medicine is in comparison to Russian. For a start, says Katya, a 30-year old HR specialist and mother of Misha, 6, one’s relationship with one’s doctor in Russia is much clearer – friendly, professional, you can contact them directly whenever you need, have them visit at home (in a white coat!) and take your concerns seriously, not to mention offer treatment before they become serious. I guess private medicine in the UK is not that different, though certainly more expensive, but the National Health Service that most of us use really only performs in an emergency. In the experience of many of my Russian friends, British GPs usually have their minds set on getting to their next patient, an impression which probably has more than a grain of truth to it given the targets-based culture of all our public services, and doctors are always reluctant to prescribe medicine when time might eventually lead to the same result. Unexpectedly, Russian medicine, though maybe strangely old-fashioned, is something that Russians definitely miss.

One thing that Russia has in abundance, of course, is space. I’m not sure I ever really understood that, living in Moscow. I went out to dachas of course, and even managed trips north to the Kola peninsula for the salmon, and south to Astrakhan for the ducks, but somehow, the sense of space mostly eluded me. In fact, dacha villages just seemed to confirm the sense of people living cheek by jowl. But then my friend Pyotr (now in England) mentioned how he missed the fishing, and I noticed my Russian parents-in-law looking in British fishing magazines at the typical photos of grinning fishermen clutching the carp they had just caught (and would shortly release). They commented on how pot-bellied and unnatural the fish looked, not like the wild fish they caught and ate on their 3-week long, mosquito-bitten, sunburnt, vodka-fuelled adventures down the Volga. If you want to fish in Russia, you can travel into serious wilderness, catch wild fish, and live on them!

Sergei Sokolov, a web developer and entrepreneur freshly returned from a year and half in Thailand, commented on Russia’s particular dairy culture. Thais are not big on dairy – no tvorog or kefir (not to mention buckwheat!) – though Sergei did acknowledge that fresh fish and fruit every day went some way to compensating for the lack of Russian comfort food.

Again on the subject of food, Katya mentioned the lack of varieties of honey. In my innocence, I thought she was probably just disappointed by the lack of choice in Sainsbury’s, and offered to bring a pot back from my native Shropshire. The response was withering: “Thank you for your Shropshire honey, but can you find me camel thorn honey from Kazakhstan or honey with propolis from the Siberian taiga?” I looked up propolis, also known as bee-glue, and found that bees use it to fill small holes in their hives, and people as something of a panacea for all ills. Though much promoted by the alternative medicines industry, I agree it is unlikely to be available in natural form direct from the producer. Then there is the lack of mushroom picking opportunities.

Sergei also mentioned energy! Who could deny that? The energy in Moscow has something to do with adrenilin, and however much of a paradise life by a warm tropical sea might be, something existential draws one back to where the action is.

Flowers for Muscovites

moscow

If you visited the USSR any time during the 1970’s or 1980’s you will have been witness to the drab, colourless life of the country. Clothes were drab and badly made, shops hardly existed and what they contained was hardly worth the effort of shopping. Public spaces were just as drab as the private spaces. Broken fountains, stumps of trees lining the boulevards and no flowers. Was Moscow completely devoid of flowers?

Memory suggests that this was the case but there must have been some flowers in the Alexander Garden, near Pushkin’s statue and perhaps in the Kremlin. Living in a city in western Europe, London, Amsterdam, Paris you see gardens, window-boxes and parks full of flowers. The contract between these cities and Moscow could not have been starker. Now that Spring has finally arrived in London we can begin to enjoy the amazing variety of flowers and trees coming into blossom. Since 1991 Moscow has also been brightened up in spring-time by blossom but where do you find it?

Nicolas Ollivant In Russia: October 1997-January 2000 with EBRD, May 2003-November 2010 with Cushman & Wakefield

Nicolas Ollivant
In Russia: October 1997-January 2000 with EBRD, May 2003-November 2010 with Cushman & Wakefield

The City Administration has done a certain amount to clean up the depressing courtyards between apartment buildings but mostly these courtyards are full of trees. The Administration has also introduced flower boxes on some of the main thoroughfares. But where do you go to see a regular garden? This is one of the greatest differences between Moscow and London, the absence of small gardens. However, in Moscow they can be found. In Soviet times the areas around churches and within the territory of monasteries were used for parking, for depositing building materials or for rubbish. Since the small areas around churches and within monasteries have been given back to the Church there has been a dramatic change in Moscow.

A visit to Novospassky Monastery (Krestyanskaya Pl.) would in the past have revealed no more than dusty spaces and heaps of coal and, in the 1970’s, drunks transported there by the police to recover from the night before. Since the return of the monastery to the Orthodox Church these spaces have been transformed into a beautiful garden and orchard. The same is true of Sretenskiy (on Bolshaya Lubyanka) and Rozhdestvenskiy (on ul. Rozhdestvenka). The great baroque church of Clement Pope of Rome (Klimentovsky per.) has recovered its garden and reconstructed its gateway. Even small churches such as the church of the Ascension on Bolshaya Nikitskaya opposite the Conservatoire and the church of the Assumption/Dormition on Gazetniy per. have small but well-kept gardens.

Seeing this transformation of parts of the Moscow landscape was one of the joys of Spring in Moscow. In a small way, the restoration of monastery and church gardens has symbolized the positive changes taking place in Russia. Of course in some cases, such as the Zachatievsky monastery (on Ostozhenka) the revival of the garden was accompanied by the rebuilding of a great church. In London it is easy to take for granted the huge variety of parks, gardens and squares. This would never happen in Moscow where even small changes have great significance. Was the lack of gardens in Moscow during Soviet times a deliberate policy or just a by-product of life in a totalitarian state? In any case, the horticultural changes that have taken place over the last 20 years are quite remarkable.

Summer on the Terraces

scandThe 18th Scandinavia café summer season opened traditionally with a party on the 2nd of May, something that happens every year regardless of the weather. This year was all of plus 10 and heavy rain poured down from the heavens. Be this as it may, the famous Scandinavia hamburgers with beer must be eaten in fresh air to mark that summer has come to Moscow, and this is what happened in this most popular of expat outdoor cafés.

Always on the menu are huge baked potatoes with a variety of fillings (gravlax, crayfish, tuna mix, etc…). A wok is constantly simmering with tiger shrimps, grilled salmon, and other scrumptious foods.

The Scandinavia Café is in a special location; it is inside a large courtyard, only 20 metres away from Tverskaya. But there are no cars here, instead there are green trees. Swedish people will serve you, and you can be welcomed in at least three or four languages. Beer and homemade lemonade in pitchers are the most popular beverages here.

flightThe Flight Café, adjoining Night Flight is just a few steps away from Pushkin Square. This is a street cafe, an excellent meeting place where you can relax. The classic cheesecake is very tasty and very soft. You can spend a long time in the Flight Café drinking coffee, sipping a glass of wine, being slightly detached from the busy life on Moscow’s main street. You are welcome!