Staying in Ann Arbor – Life is Wonderful!

This weekend I am in Ann Arbor visiting my dear friend Lena. Lena used to live in Palatine; five minutes drive from me. She is a great person and a true friend, and we have a lot in common, no matter 20 years age difference, me being a crazy workaholic, and her being a homemaker for a long time. I was very sad when they moved to Ann Arbor because of her husband’s work. She visits me from time to time, but it’s not the same. Now, two years after she moved I finally came to visit her.

On Friday after work, I took a Wolverine train from the Union station.

This train moves with speed over 110 mph, but due to the issues with its computer, we were one hour and fifteen minutes late. Lena had to stay up late to meet me at the train station, and we didn’t go to bed till 1 AM, but at 6-30 AM today we were up and ready for adventure.

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Labor Day in Pullman

I have four hours on the Wolverine train to Ann Arbor, MI. I have a comfy seat, an electric plug, and the internet available, so it’s a good time to catch up with everything :). I returned from Wisconsin on Saturday of the Labor Day weekend, so I still had two full days and a little bit for myself. Usually, on Labor Day, I try to do something meaningful, something related to the holiday. And most of the time it means visiting Pullman.

Igor talked me into visiting it for the first time in 2014. I didn’t know anything about its amazing history back then and readily absorbed all the information. At that time, everybody was talking about getting Pullman the status of National Park, and in 2015 this happened.

This year I thought there is no way I can spend almost the whole day on this trip. But then I made some calculations, and due to the new Metra weekend schedule, it all appeared to look doable. So the decision was made, and I told Igor that I am coming.

We were hoping that the new status would escalate the restoration efforts, but the Florence Hotel is still closed to the public, and the factory restoration is still in process.

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How My Life in America Started , and About My First CEO

My move to America won’t be possible without Pam – the CEO of the company, which hired me for my first job in the US. She was an outstanding personality and quite a controversial character, but one thing for sure: it’s only because of her that my move to America has happened.

Granted she was considering the interests of her business first, and for sure I was initially paid on the lower margin of the acceptable pay rate for a position, but she took on herself a responsibility of bringing me over.

In was not only about the money (although if you think about it, with myself and my three children, there were four visas and four airplane tickets to pay for, and as I’ve mentioned earlier, I had no money at all, so all these costs were upfront).

But what is more important, she’d taken on herself a responsibility of being in charge of me and my kids – remember, how my other two potential employers didn’t want to take any responsibility of bringing over a single mother with three children?
Pam did. Not without some risk, but being a divorced mother of two small children herself, she understood a thing or two about me.

If you recall my conversation with John R. before my departure, you remember that he was reassuring me, that I do not need to take any extra money along, because “I am going to America to make money.” It didn’t occur to him, that a person is being paid at the END of a pay period, while you need to pay your rent at the BEGINNING of the month, not mentioning a deposit, and once again, three hundred dollars was all I had.
Moreover, in my first company employees were paid monthly, and with me starting on October 23 I had to pay a deposit and nine days of rent, then receive only 1/4 of my monthly check, and pay November rent… And I also had to pay my other expenses till my November check would come.

My company, personified by Pam lent all this money to me. But that was just the beginning of my financial troubles.

One of the decisive factors which prompted my fearless departure to America was the assumption that G. and his family will help me in many ways, including childcare. I will leave for the future a more detailed explanation of what exactly happened, but as a result of it only a month after my arrival I had to move out, pay a fine for lease breaking, find a new apartment, pay one more deposit, find a daycare for my children, and transfer them to a new school. At that time, I was not practicing yoga and has been quite hysterical.

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Flying to America for the First Time

Before I start, let me tell you a couple of words about how my children have reacted to the news that we are going to go to America. First of all, they were very excited to tell everybody around, and the funny thing is that nobody believed them! They would be at the playground, and would tell other parents: we are going to America for two years!!! And other parents would be yea, sure… And then I come and say that it’s true!

When Anna and I were talking recently about these weeks before our departure, she told me that she remembers there was one thing she was sad about, but she can’t remember what exactly it was. But I remembered! The Fall play in their daycare was in rehearsal at that time; it was a modern version of the Russian folk tale “Репка” (“The Turnip”). Both of them were playing leading parts: Anna was playing a role of Granddaughter, and Vlad was playing a Dog. And they had to miss their artistic triumph!

We were flying the KLM airlines. It was a strange flight; I do not think they even offer this kind of flight anymore: we would arrive at Copenhagen in the afternoon, spend a night in a hotel, and leave to Chicago in the morning. The hotel room and airport transfer were both paid by KLM. We did have some time to walk around the city, and I even remember that we went to see the Mermaid, but my mind was not there, and I could not fully enjoy the sights.

We had to eat somewhere, and I’ve asked at the hotel reception, where is the nearest place we can eat, and how much would it cost. I had to exchange some dollars to Denmark kronas, and I knew I wouldn’t need them after that evening. Money was scarce, I only had three hundred dollars, so I could not afford to waste any.

They directed us to the nearest McDonalds, which was a safe choice for kids, but also it was a luxury for us these days, and I could not stop thinking that I didn’t plan to spend that much money before we even come to America.

Fortunately, the hotel stay included breakfast, and we went down pretty early in the morning to be sure we eat before our bus comes. And we could hardly find any food my kids were familiar with. Neither they nor I were used to being served ice-cold milk, and they refused to drink it this way. I remember pleading them to eat some corn flakes with this cold milk, and I forgot what we ended up with, but I believe all of us had finally eaten something.

One thing which warmed my heart was that when we stepped on board of the airplane flying to Chicago, a flight attendant had given Anna and Vlad small Lego sets to build lego airplanes, and coloring books and some crayons. And that was so unusual for us! Real legos were extremely expensive in Russia, I would buy some Polish substitutes, which were also expensive, so they would only get medium-size sets for New Year or their birthdays. Having children be treated as special guests was a completely new concept to me, and I felt right away, that this new world is going to be a place of kindness.

During the long flight, the kids behaved well, didn’t make much noise, asked a flight attendant for some orange juice in English, and tried to connect with other children on the plane. So all was good. I stepped out of the airplane, holding my passport with my working vise (the kids didn’t have their separate passports then), and a note with the name of the company secretary, and their phone and address.

A border control officer took my papers and asked: do you know where you are going to go? I said: no, but somebody is picking me up. The officer said: what if nobody will meet you, what you are going to do? He’d sent me to the room with the wooden barriers, where other people were sitting and waiting, and he told me to sit and wait with them.

Imagine being after nine hours-long flight, with two five-year-olds, not even being able to tell them how much longer we need to wait, and why, and what we are waiting for in the first place. We ended up sitting there for about an hour: I and my five-year-old twins, with no food, no water, no toys, no books. They were doing great, being quite patient. And then an officer appeared at the doors and called on me. He handed me my passport and said: you can go! What? Can I go? No questions, no interrogation, no nothing? Yes, you can go.

We exited back to the baggage claim area. It was empty. No people, no luggage. And then we saw our boxes mounted on one cart, and a tall thin man standing by it – it was Val, and that was the first time we met him. I remember the kids walked towards him and clenched to his hands, and he was so surprised with that, that he just started walking, leaving me behind with the luggage:).

Those were our first steps on American soil.

Getting Ready to Go to America

So, I’ve got a job offer and started to get ready. At that time, getting a work visa was not at all that crazy as nowadays. My phone interviews had happened in mid-June 1996, and at mid-August, I’ve got a package in the mail. The two months in between felt weird since I was not telling anybody; only Boris and my Mom knew, and neither was happy about this development.

The package arrived, and I checked the hours of operation of the US Consulate in Saint Petersburg and went there. As far as I remember, I didn’t even need to make an appointment at that time, I could just show up, get in the line, and get in. And as far as I recall, I didn’t get any visa forms before I came to the Consulate. Now it seems unbelievable, but I actually filled in all the forms by hand and proceeded to the window to talk to the officer. She looked through my papers, asked me something about databases and then said, that the package is incomplete, that they need “articles of incorporation” and “recent tax returns”. Needless to say, these words meant nothing to me, so I had to memorize them to make sure I will be able to cite them in my email.

Another month passed, and a new package had arrived. And I went to the Consulate again, and this time, my work visa was granted.

In the next month and a half, lots of things were happening, and I can’t recall the whole sequence of events. Finding a flight. Airlines other than Aeroflot just started to make their presence in Russia. It was a total shock to me, that the ticket prices where different for different airlines, and that they could depend on the date the flight is scheduled for. It was news that we were allowed to buy a one-way ticket (it was forbidden with Aeroflot). Then there was all this business of “paying by corporate card” – in the Saint Petersburg office of KLM they recorded the credit card number in the notebook, and told me that they will pass into their New York office, and “will let me know when it comes through”. And remember, I knew nothing about the credit cards at that time!

The date was finally settled, and it was October 22. I was still running around, meeting with people, “seeing each other last time”. I remember my friend asking me: do you even believe it yourself, you are going to America, or you are watching a movie about yourself? I was definitely watching a movie. I was telling everybody that I will return in two years, that I will just save enough money to buy my own apartment. Some of the people were skeptical saying: “Everybody says they will come back, but nobody comes!”I would dismiss these comments – what did they know about me?! Still, one part of me was thinking: I will never come back, I am going away, so that I will never see my Mom anymore, and I will never have to deal with Boris anymore. I will find some nice man over there and will have a family as other people have.

I had no money. Almost none. I was always keeping a poker face about that, but by this time, I was without a rouble in my wallet by the end of the month regularly. I was barely making ends meet, but would rather die, than tell anybody. I’ve sold my desktop computer, because I had to have at least some money with me, and after repaying some minor debts I was left with 300 dollars to start my new life. I was asking John how much money I will need to get along for the first month. With all the idealism of Columbia alumnae, coming from a family with old money, he would reply: Why do you need to take any money with you? You are going to work in America! You are going to make money, not to spend money! – So, will 300 do for the start? – Sure!

Igor was not coming with me. I did not know how to figure out from a distance, whether he will be able to go to school in America, where should I start, whom should I ask. And it never occurred to me that I could ask my new employer! I would never think to do such a thing in Russia, and I had no idea it could be different in the rest of the world. So I left Igor behind, “until I figure things out”.

It was decided that the company will rent an apartment for me in the same building where G. lived with his family. The office manager (and HR, and everything else) from my new company was writing me about the train schedule, about G’s wife, who was supposed to take care of my kids, and I could not figure out what the problem was. The CEO had sent me a very long and detailed email to the effect that I have no idea, how much daycare costs in America, and indeed, I had no idea to such an extent, that I was not getting a message. Both she and John were saying: it’s very expensive! The best thing you can do is to take your mother with you so that she could take care of the kids. But that was the whole point of the idea – to get away from everybody!

The date of departure was approaching. I didn’t have any luggage, so I’ve packed our stuff into five cardboard boxes. I didn’t even take any winter boots for the kids – they are growing, and we will buy better ones in America! I didn’t have money for a cab, and one of Boris’s postgrads agreed to drive us to the airport (very few people owned cars in Russia at that time). I remember all my last good-byes, and remember the same feeling that I am not sure whether I will see everybody again, whether I will ever come back…

How I Decided to Go to America

The year was 1995, and everybody was going to America, almost like the Jews at the beginning of the 20th century. Just try to imagine, that for many years one was not allowed to go to any foreign country, even as a tourist, even to the “socialist” country without the approval of the Communist Party special commission. An opportunity to go abroad – literally anywhere abroad – was the most exciting thing one could imagine. Before Perestroika I was abroad only once – with a delegation from our University, but that will be a topic for some other blog post.

After the trips abroad have become possible, I’ve traveled once – with all my three children to Poland, during the summer of 1995. Now imagine what people felt when all of a sudden, you were allowed to travel. And also, all of a sudden there was email. And several years later – world wide web. Imagine how it felt when, after years of almost complete isolation, you could receive emails from your former classmates living in other countries. You could receive an email list with job postings. Actual job postings from the USA. And you could email, and inquiry and somebody would reply! It was a mind-blowing experience.

So as I’ve said, everybody was going to America. As if it was 1905, and the Jews were fleeing Russian trying to escape pogroms. But this time around there were not just Jews. Everybody wanted to go. And business in the US has also realized that there is a huge workforce market, with skilled workers, totally unexplored. That’s how it all started. The demand was so great that when I look back, I think one should have made a special effort not to go to America.

And there was me, a single mother of three, living in one room of 2-room (not 2-bedroom, just 2-room) apartment, being able to provide daily necessities and more, but absolutely being unable to get out of this one room.

To give some historical perspective, after 1991 all previously state-owned apartments were “privatized” meaning, that each person has received “for free” in their own possession the place they were living in. So if it happened to be a one person in a 2-room apartment, they would automatically own it. If there would be five people leaving in a similar apartment, as in my case, each of us would own “1/5 of the apartment”. The apartment renting was virtually non-existent, and when available would cost more than I could afford. Plus, you could go to the doctor only at your place of registration, and renting would not provide registration for you. Also, there was no mortgage in existence. The only way to get something bigger than one room in this 2-room apartment was to buy a place, paying in cash.

Knowing the salaries in the US, and knowing the cost of apartments in Saint-Petersburg at that time, I figured out that it will take me two years to come up with the money I needed, and joined the crowd looking for jobs in the US. I absolutely didn’t want to emigrate, at least that’s what I was telling myself. To be honest, how when I recall these times, I think that I was thinking two separate thoughts. One of them was that I can’t imagine living anywhere except Saint Petersburg, and I just need to make this trip before it is time for Anna and Vlad to go to school (because schools in America are obviously horrible, everybody knows that). The other thought (or the other me) was “I want to leave and never come back”. My relationships with my mother were a constant crisis, my relationships with Boris were a constant crisis, So for some reason, I thought that I can run away from all of these crises at once.

So I’ve stopped to resist and started to look. First, two job offers came from New York. One was arranged by John Roseman, a significant person in my life (another “save for later” note), a new-yorker living in Saint Petersburg trying to build new and just capitalism in the New Russia. This did not go through. His friends in New York told him that it is too much of responsibility to bring a single mother of three to America. “What if one of your children will get sick? You can’t stay at home, you have to go to work, what will you do?” Also, recalling other emails he’d shown to me at that time, I suspect, that the way their attorneys were going to arrange my working visa was not 100% legal (there was something along the lines “she needs first to come to the US and start working, and then…”)

The second one also came from a friend, who was already working in the US at that time. That one was some questionable Russian-owned company in New York, and the conversation went along the same lines: it’s all great, but how you feel first coming to the US and work for a little bit on some project, and then we’ll see…

That was not an option either.

My friend Irina left to work in another “strange” place. If I recall it correctly, it was presented as studying abroad, and the pay was below all possible standards, but it was not called “salary”, and thereby people could be invited to work and be paid a little bit over minimum wages. Irina talked with her boss about me. Single mother, three children. Will I go to Miami, FL, to work for 26,000? No, even being as naive as I was at that time, I knew enough to understand it was not an option.

And then there was G., with whom I worked at Urbansoft, with John being a director (another “save for later” note – he deserves a separate story). By that time G. has been working in Illinois as a consultant for some time, and one of the clients he was assigned to asked him, whether he knows somebody in Russia who would come to work for them.

Then there was a call. My goodness, an international call! And G. was asking whether I am interested… And then there was a phone interview with Patrick, the manager of IT for the company I didn’t even know the name of at that time. And – it didn’t work. I didn’t make it.

As I’ve learned later, they hired Val, who was “one person does it all” at the moment. But 6 months later they decided they need a separate DB person. And they called me again.

Patrick was not with the company anymore, so I’ve interviewed with another manager. Again – phone interview! With people from America! How exciting and how scary!

That was when my “primary key story” had happened, and I could not believe I’ve got a job offer for just knowing what is a primary key, and what is a foreign key (the very basics of the database theory for those who are not in the field). To be precise, it took not one but two phone interviews, since at the first one I sounded “a little bit nervous”, as I was told. Ha! “A little bit”! A lot!

This second interview ended with unbelievable “We would like to have you as a part of our team”. Actually, I do not recall being especially overjoyed. It was something else. I remembered Irina sitting in the empty apartment the day before her family was about to board the plane… She was really excited… as for me…

… I called Boris right away and told him we need to talk. When we met, I told him: I’ve got a job offer from America. Heading out to meet him, I was thinking to myself: if he only says, “I do not want you to go”, I will stay. He told me later that he understood quite well, that this would be the case, so he replied: Good! You should go!

Again, later he told me that he wanted me to take this opportunity, for mine and my children’s sake, and he was feeling that his life is about to end, but he said: You should go! And I was like: Well, if you really want me to go, I will go and will never look back!!!

And that’s how my journey has begun.