10 Days. 4 People. 1 Room. – Lena and Brian

When we agreed to take the charter flight to Tashkent, we knew a hotel quarantine was waiting for us at the other end. But we were so eager to get started with the next chapter of our lives that it didn’t really phase us. Until the van pulled up to the back of a midsized low rise hotel on a side street in middle of the city. We all hopped out, passed through a sanitation tunnel (which the kids thought was like sprinklers and wanted to do again), entered through a back door, and shuffled through a series of unlit grand marble halls to the lobby…where we were met by several staff in full PPE. There were only a handful of us checking in, and we were quickly led to our rooms.

We were met with a lovely welcome kit. Two delicious fruit plates with fresh peaches, nectarines and grapes. Bags of nuts. Adorable totes. Mountains of toys on lend by teacher families, which honestly saved our lives. And laptops and teaching supplies. Ah yes, virtual school started in two days – the reason we were here.

Luckily, the room was quite large, which allowed for all our luggage and plenty of extra space. Yet we knew we were in trouble when Noodle informed us on the first day, “This hotel room is boring.” He was right. No kitchen area. The TV had one fuzzy sports channel. The internet was spotty. And one entire wall was glass. The upside to the windows was being able to sit in sunlight for our daily  vitamin D boost and hang our heads out the window for fresh air. The downsides to all this glass were that we baked during the day and had an amazing view of…the parking lot. So much for catching a glimpse of Tashkent.

About an hour after arriving, the doorbell rang and we opened it to find four plastics bags with to-go meals. Everyone was so tired that we fell asleep without eating. Bug and Noodle woke up hungry around 3:00am, so we set some couch cushions around the coffee table and inspected the cold offerings. They were endless. A big bowl of soup, heaping mound of white rice, a dinner roll, some French fries, and a hunk of meat (for Brian and the kids) or grilled vegetables (for Lena). The food was not award winning but it wasn’t terrible either. Bland enough for the kids and seasoned enough for the adults. But wow, the carbs. Thankfully, Lena had insisted on bringing some healthy supplements from Trader Joe’s, such as chia seeds and flax meal for the oatmeal and kale chips and freeze dried broccoli for snacks. (It was a sad day when the kale chips ran out.) Starvation and malnutrition were not going to happen here.

Breakfast consisted of porridge, hard boiled eggs, yogurt, Laughing Cow cheese, packaged cheese slices, questionable meat slices, cold hot dogs, and apricot juice boxes. Noodle enthusiastically ate all four hot dogs every single day. And Lena’s overpacking was well-received when her preparedness brought forth Starbucks instant coffee on the first day and later a French press and canister of grounds. One cup of fresh hot coffee was worth all those baggage overage fees and a nearly missed flight.

The doorbell rang again, and Brian opened it expecting the lunch delivery. Instead, he was met with two people in full PPE carrying a large metal box. The one with the clipboard announced, “COVID Test,” while the other opened box and began setting up. Bug promptly went into full meltdown, and Noodle volunteered to go first. However, Brian took that honor. He wheeled the office chair towards the door, signed some official papers written entirely in Russian, and sat down. Although keeping calm, his eyes definitely widened when the enormous cotton swab was removed from the package. Later COVID tests confirm that this swab was not thin,  flexible, or designed for comfort.

Extremely uncomfortable and burning was how Brian described it. Noodle was up next. Brian enveloped him tightly, and despite some wiggles, the nurse was able to complete the test on her first try. When done, he burst out laughing because it tickled so much. Bug was distraught and cried before, during and after the test. He collapsed on the bed and watched as Lena had her nostrils swabbed. She also was not a fan of the test and ended up with a bloody nose. 

We needed to wait three days for the results, which would determine if we could leave our room and split up for online learning. While waited for the results and for virtual school to begin, we drew pictures, played with toys, watched fuzzy Russian League football, and made obstacle courses around the room. 

We had not experienced virtual teaching in the spring so this was a steep learning curve for Lena and Brian. Bug and Noodle had finished up their schooling in Mexico online, so that had given a bit of an idea of what to expect. The internet only worked in a direct line from the door to the desk, so after choreographing a delicate internet set-up, we were able to prep and launch the year. Lena and Bug worked at the desk, where kindergarten was happening, and Brian sat by the door with Noodle where he deftly used his mute button to navigate grade four teaching and preK learning. In an effort to make the first day special, we even took the obligatory first day of school photos with the Do Not Disturb sign in the background. 

After learning that our COVID results were negative, Lena and Bug were able to relocate to a separate hotel room with much better internet for the school day. They literally packed their backpacks, water bottles and snacks, and said good bye for the day. However, on the first day of leaving the room, Lena was warned by our liaison at school that the military guard working that day was not so keen on the arrangement and she should be cautious. Needless to say, Bug was tutored on being extremely quiet, walking quickly without looking around, and acting like everything was normal as they passed the elevator. He did amazingly well, and the guard was strangely not at his desk for the three minutes it took to scurry down the hallway. The way back in the afternoon was a different story. Bug got curious and forgot to whisper, and Lena forgot our room number since this was the only time she had left the room in several days. Thankfully, Brian opened the door and they ducked safely inside. 

Throughout our stay, our school community regularly checked in on us via Telegram, which is a replica of WhatsApp or WeChat. After hearing about the meals, Lena’s teaching partner sent over amazing hummus from a Lebanese restaurant, dark chocolate, and carrots. And after hearing that we were subsisting on water, our principal dropped off several bottles of beer and wine hidden within bags of chocolate, yogurt, crackers, and real cheese. 

Once school began, the days flew by. We kept as normal a schedule as possible with wardrobe changes, meals, playing, evening baths, and bedtime stories. With jet lag, excessive screentime, and the cognitive load of virtual learning – we were exhausted by the end of the day. The best part of our time in quarantine was when our school liaison called to tell us that we could leave the next day. The government had announced that the time was shortened from ten days to seven (it has since shifted back to ten, then to fourteen, and now to quarantine at home). As homeless newbies with nowhere to go, our principal graciously housed us and our mountain of luggage for several days while we put the details of our life together.

Life in Transit – Lena and Brian

After a roller coaster year that involved losing our jobs, moving four times, and a pandemic – we can finally exhale. Against all odds, we have made it to our new home in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. 

Departure

After a flustered farewell to Mexico, we waited in limbo for several months in California. We hunkered down in homes that our family and friends graciously lent us, as sickness, sadness, and uncertainty raged outside. Within our carefully constructed social bubble, we relished reconnecting with Lena’s family and immersing ourselves in nature. By July our new school began speculating about the Uzbek border partially re-opening, so we rounded up all the stuff of our transit life. Camping gear, winter clothes and most toys went into boxes that Brian drove to Phoenix on a sprint to get our shipment sent off. It had been sitting in a storage unit since August after being intercepted in Hamburg on its way to Moscow. Now it would head back to Europe and then south via train from Eastern Europe through Central Asia. Our Kitchen Aid mixer is extremely well traveled. The stories our stuff could tell. Meanwhile, our passports had been sent to the Uzbek Consulate in Washington, DC with extra fees and followed up with phone calls begging to expedite visas in case we were asked to jump on a last minute flight.

The flurry of preparing to leave coincided with preparing to teach remotely on a twelve hour time difference. We were attending Zoom staff meetings that began at 8:00pm and lasted until 3:00am….and then we had to wake up and function as parents of very young kids. We splurged at Target to create virtual learning spaces where we could record lessons and instruct our own children. As soon as we set up our office, we got an email from the school asking us if we could make a charter flight departing from New York in 24 hours. This entailed packing, saying goodbye to family, purchasing last minute flights from San Francisco to New York, and uprooting the kids with minimal notice. Of course we said yes. We just needed to confirm that our permission to be on the flight had made it from Tashkent to New York City. Just as we began to strategize the ultimate departure plan, we got word that the permissions hadn’t arrived. We were off the flight and would likely not have another opportunity until the border opened up to commercial flights in a month or two. 

Until a week later. We were squeezed onto a repatriation flight technically for Uzbeks moving home during the pandemic (which makes sense because Uzbekistan’s COVID response relies on science and social responsibility), and it departed in five days. But we were now emotionally prepared and had anticipated logistics ahead of time. Best of all, we had visas and permission to enter the country. After previous experiences trying to get visas for other countries (and not always succeeding), we were pleasantly surprised at how logical and pleasant our interactions were with Uzbeks. For example, we called the Consulate and spoke to a person….a person who was friendly and helpful. Amazing. 

The flight to Tashkent left from New York City, but New York had just instituted a self-quarantine requirement for people arriving from several states, including California. No one could really tell us more than transiting would probably be ok. So we booked a nonrefundable room at the only hotel actually at JFK. We were questioned by authorities from the NY Health Department when disembarking our flight from San Francisco, but they waved us on when we explained that we were only staying one night and leaving the country in the morning. Getting to the retro TWA Hotel in Terminal 5 was as to be expected when pushing three teetering carts stacked with 16 suitcases in and out of elevators and on and off the AirTrain. There were some harrowing mishaps of tumbling luggage nearly concussing our wayward children. Brian also discovered that he was not what one might call “in shape.” 

The Flight

We got to the check-in counter exhausted from the trek only to find out that we must pay cash for our baggage overage fees. We were expecting the fee part but not the cash part. After several trips to the ATM and unsuccessful calls to the bank to waive withdrawal limits, we were still short. The incredibly helpful Uzbekistan Airways employee went out of his way to try several work arounds, but without the cash we were stuck. We had used up our built in time cushion trying to solve this fiasco. It did not look like we were going to make the flight.  Then Brian pulled out several money orders that the Uzbek Consulate had returned to us because we hadn’t needed to pay expediting fees for our visas. This would be the first but definitely not the last time that we encountered this type of humbling honesty. In the whirlwind of packing, we hadn’t been able to refund the money orders for cash. It was a Hail Mary for the win. The money orders, totaling the exact amount we needed, were accepted as payment and we sprinted for the security gate.

Security was a nightmare. Crowded. Understaffed. Nothing to protect from COVID (ok, the officials wore gloves….the same pair of gloves to protect themselves but no one else). Multiple rescans of luggage for no reason. By the time we were finally through, the flight was boarding. Naturally, our gate was as far away as possible. We raced through the terminal with overstuffed carry-ons, dragging Bug and Noodle on their Trunkis. We arrived panting at an empty gate and looked at each other in panic. Realizing it had just relocated a few gates down, we quickly spotted the well-masked but definitely not physically distanced crowd. We joined the line and caught our breath for the next hour before we were able to board the delayed flight. 

Our introduction to Uzbekistan Airways was the flight attendants greeting us dressed head to toe in full protective gear. The flight was completely full. We hadn’t seen this many people in months and the close proximity with recycled air was beyond stressful. We weren’t the only ones though. Many people, including us, pulled out packets of bleach wipes and scrubbed down every inch of their seating areas. The flight was relatively uneventful, although the unmasked young boy sitting in front of us continuously leaned into our space to try and play with Bug and Noodle sent Lena into a mild panic attack mixed with guilt. In any other situation, she would have encouraged the kids to play. But a potential super spreader breathing in our food was too much. Brian made gestures that the child needed to wear a mask. The family graciously complied and did their best with the cute little wiggler for the rest of the flight. On the other hand, Bug and Noodle did amazing. They kept their masks on for all twelve hours – even while eating and sleeping – and never objected to being doused in sanitizer each time they went to the toilet. However, Lena trying to rub an essential oil concoction in their nostrils was a step too far. Brian’s biggest complaint was his broken movie screen that kept him from watching any of the five Uzbek or Russian movies available. Oh, and the food was terrible.

Arrival

Watching the map was mesmerizing as we passed over the Arctic, through Russia and over numerous “Stans” that were complete unknowns in our mental imaging of the world. We had no idea what to expect when we arrived in Tashkent. Passport control was slow but undramatic. Luggage collection was another story. The carrousel was packed with not only passengers and airport employees but also drivers and employees from hotels where people would be quarantining. At that time, all passengers arriving into Uzbekistan were required to quarantine for ten days either in a hotel or at a government quarantine facility. As bags began to appear, Brian jockeyed at the non-distanced carousels and Lena corralled the kids in an empty corner of the hall. All the bags must have been sprayed with disinfectant because they were wet even though it was a bright sunny day. Despite Brian’s masterful skill at building suitcase Jenga towers on rickety luggage carts, we did have one small mishap on a crowded ramp. 

We were excited to meet another teacher from our school who had also made our flight, and not only because she helped push a cart. A friendly presence and easy conversation amidst the chaos and uncertainty quickly calmed our nerves. Also, while loading into the hotel van, we caught a glimpse of school staff who came to wave at us from across the parking lot. It was another warm gesture that really made us feel welcomed. 

Our new colleague pointed out landmarks and local bazaars as our police escort darted through the empty streets. Although normally congested with traffic, the government had restricted cars on the road to control movement and curb COVID’s spread. After a short drive through the city, we arrived at the Miran International Hotel, where we would would exist in limbo for nearly two weeks. While checking into the hotel, the school director appeared outside a window, waved enthusiastically, and snapped photographic proof that we were on Uzbek soil. We were so touched to see him. On top of everything our school had done to get us to Tashkent during a pandemic, these small gestures really set the tone for what type of community we were entering. 

Bewildered and exhausted, we were escorted past military guards and down a dim hallway lit with disinfecting UV lights to our surprisingly spacious and bright room. Noticing the megabed that had been made by pushing two double beds together, all four Thomspers quickly changed into comfy jammies and promptly fell asleep.

There are no affiliate links in this post.

You Are Moving Where? – Lena and Brian

Why don’t you work in ________ (fancy country everyone wants to visit)?

Why would you live in______ ? (random country where we were offered a job)

Do you just send one application and then schools pick you? 

We get these and many other questions when talking to our family and friends in the US about living and working abroad.

Our parents are beginning to grasp the complexity and intensity of changing schools and countries because they serve as psychologists and babysitters during the crazy process. But to others, it is a mysterious part of our lives. The long story short is that we do not really get to choose to work in a specific country. We try to balance multiple factors regarding the school, community, and country. And ultimately, there are a lot more teachers than schools, so the scales are not tipped in our favor in any hiring situation.

Going through this lengthy and stressful search two years in a row is not an experience we would wish for anyone. To clarify a popular FAQ, we do NOT send our applications to a type of clearinghouse and wait to see which schools are interested. That would save us months of work. There are not international school districts (well, there are some companies that own multiple schools, but that’s a different thing). Anyone can call themselves an international school. It is up to us to find out which ones provide aligning pedagogies, solid packages, a supportive community, and a location that meets our family’s needs. This detective work requires a broad international network, access to recruitment databases, participation on Facebook groups, and some luck. 

Schools hire as independent entities, and they do not post openings all at the same time. The window is between October and March, and we can be at different stages of recruitment with different schools throughout that time. There are several recruitment platforms that we pay to belong to, but often positions are tentative or do not correspond with what is listed on a school’s website. So we sometimes spend hours meticulously revising a cover letter and applying to non-existent jobs. Additionally, schools are combing through thousands of applications for each open position. They are so overwhelmed that once positions are filled, updates on the databases and post-interview follow-ups are not always timely. It would be great if there was some way that international schools could set up something like National Signing Day when high school athletes declare their intent to play sports at a university. Maybe there could be a world posting day when all available jobs are announced at once, which might be overwhelming but would level the field. One organization is attempting something like this, but there are a lot of competing agencies and complicated factors.

Our professional website https://brianandlena.weebly.com

To stand out, we have a professional website and attend job fairs hosted by the recruiting agencies. They are expensive and stressful, but often prove effective because face time is so valuable. However, they are a huge financial risk and logistical commitment for educators – especially when we are unemployed. While participating in the fair doesn’t cost too much, the flights and hotel to London, Bangkok, Singapore or Dubai sure do. Not to mention taking time off work and arranging childcare.  Because we weren’t working this year, we opted to attend two fairs – Bangkok in November and London in January. However, Brian did accept a maternity cover and ended up missing two weeks of his four month gig for us to attend both fairs. The detour to Phoenix to bring our toddlers to their grandparents was also costly but necessary. The pace at fairs is so intense that bringing the kids is not an option (unless we brought a caregiver, but it would still prove a huge distraction). Last year, we had 14 interviews in two days with nine schools. While severely jet-lagged.

GRC Bangkok Fair, November 2019

The hardest parts of selling ourselves as a package has been that we are two elementary teachers with two dependents. Rightfully so, schools look to hire the hard to fill positions first, such as high school physics or calculus. Once they find the right person, her/his partner typically fills another open position…which often happens to be elementary classroom. So the positions we are recruiting for are frequently reserved for spousal hires, which leaves us waiting to see how schools’ “puzzles” are coming together later in the hiring season. Additionally, many schools allot a certain number of spaces for dependent students because these kids will attend for free. Most allow two kids, although some accept three. Either way, those spaces are often held for that physics teacher who might have three kids. One school told us that their board would not allow hires with dependents until after January. If we had a penny for every rejection email that talked about the “puzzle.”

Bug and Noodle mid-flight

Unfortunately, we were not lucky at the November fair. Perhaps our self-presentation was off or schools were just not ready to commit to two elementary teachers so early in the recruitment season. Who knows. Analyzing the experience of a job fair is a complete mindf%&#. We did reconnect with wonderful friends and network with recruiters at excellent schools. Plus, we ate a lot of Thai food, saw the Pope (his motorcade drove by our hotel!), and had an amazing 12 hour layover in Hong Kong. So it wasn’t a total miss. But it sure was expensive.

Mid-Levels, Hong Kong

After the fair, online recruitment took over. While Brian was working and commuting two and half hours a day, Lena was holding the household together and spearheading applications. The only common time to interview with schools around the world was in middle of the night. We would get the kids to sleep, take a nap, and wake up at midnight to put on our suit jackets (pajama pants stayed on). Or we would wake up at 3:30am for a 4:30am interview and then Brian would go off to work. We were exhausted. Thank goodness for the world clock function on our iPhones to keep track of all the time differences. We even had one night with 3 interviews in three different countries. We only made one scheduling error which was apparently forgiven because the school did hired us.

However, that school hadn’t hired us by early December. After months of pouring our hearts into applications, waiting weeks to hear back (and often not), and sinking into self-doubt when offers were not made – we were losing steam. Underlying this whole experience was the sadness that Russia would not materialize this year either (there had been a slight possibility). Losing our dream school made it hard to get excited about other opportunities. As Christmas neared, many international teaching friends were posting on social media about their exciting plans for next year while we were still in the trenches, so we decided to try the London fair again since we scored our (since lost) jobs there last year. We bought all the plane tickets, booked the nonrefundable hotel, and located the only two winter(-ish) jackets for sale in all of tropical Puerto Vallarta.

Airport Express from Paddington Station, London

Naturally, two days after we tossed a ton of money into attending the January fair, we finally landed an offer at a school that we were genuinely excited about. Since the money had been spent, we decided to travel to London for a kid-free mini-holiday. Although we did not attend the actual fair, we did support dear friends and further build our professional network. And see a West End show. And visit incredible museums.

Now that the huge pressure of finding jobs has lifted, we have entered the transitioning stage. Schools know they have elementary openings, but current teachers can opt to switch grade levels for the following year, so new hires need to wait to find out their actual grade assignment. Also, we are receiving mountains of information about obtaining visas, work permits, health insurance, finding housing, and sending an international shipment of goods – which involves all kinds of paperwork, official stamps, trips to embassies, and communication across timezones – and simply fills the space once reserved for finding the job.

From CNN: Best things to do in Uzbekistan, an unmissable gem of Central Asia

At this time, we are excited to announce that The Wandering Thomspers will be moving to Uzbekistan – a travel destination currently receiving tons of positive media attention. Lena will teach Kindergarten and Brian will teach Grade 4 at Tashkent International School. Given the current state of the pandemic, we have no idea if we will be teaching in person or remotely starting in August. At least this #YearOnNotOff has hammered home the need for flexibility and open-mindedness about all the possible life trajectories we might find ourselves on. We are just grateful for the opportunity to join a special community and grow in a new experience.

Anyone interested in more details about moving into international education can leave a message below or contact us via this website. We are happy to share what we have learned!