Friday, June 29, 2007

Going to Ukraine

We're headed to a teeny, tiny village in western Ukraine to vist Liudmila and Styopa, the Russian/Ukrainian couple who babysat for us the first 14 months we were in Moscow. They also came back and stayed with Chris and Natalia for a month this winter when I was in Connecticut for Katya's tonsilectomy/adenoidectomy. They really became a part of the family and we love them dearly. The girls are ecstatic to see them again!

We've been warned that we're the first Americans that most people in the area will have ever met... it is VERY off-the-map. It will be quite exciting to see such a completely different way of life from what we're used to. Our days will be spent picking berries, helping in the garden, wandering in the forest and enjoying the countryside. I'll post again in about a week.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Talia the Tour Guide... NOT!

Talia will never work in tourism--at least not here.

Here's the background:

An American father and his ten-year-old son are visiting a Russian friend in our building. We met when the father stopped me to ask--in the best Russian he could muster--how to take out the trash here (it's actually not that simple). He's a professor from Columbia, but not in the Russian Department. After exchanging pleasantries, we parted ways and Natalia look STUMPED.

"That man is so silly... Doesn't he know better? He thinks that Moscow is a VACATION?"

We ran into them again today and Natalia was still upset. "Hasn't he figured it out yet? Vacation... (shook her head in disbelief)...What is broken with his thinking?"

(I don't, however, think that she intended to "diss" the city; I think that "vacation" to her means Turkey--pools, waterslides and sun. At least I hope so! Moscow isn't that bad! You certainly wouldn't call daily living here a "vacation," but it's a fascinating city! And to those of you contemplating a visit, PLEASE DO! Take advantage of the chance to travel here while we can be your hosts and guides...)

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Delighting in the Little Things--However Mundane They May Be

It's telling to look back and see how my attitudes have changed over the past three years. The day got off to an inauspicious start when NASTY paint fumes made their way into our apartment through the cracks in our main door (we usually just get whiffs of the neighbor's chain smoking). I then spent two hours to get to the bookstore where I was supposed to pick out my students' textbooks for next year--only to find out that the store isn't actually there (don't know why I was given that address...). Thirty minutes of that time had been spent just maneuvering to get a parking spot and the rest I had been stuck in traffic.

The "new-to-Moscow" me would have been really upset by the wrong address (which had been printed on a flyer supposedly from the bookstore). I would have focused on how stressful the traffic had been--and it really was, on what else I could have been doing during that time, and I'd have worried about how I was now going to get those darn books. I'd have also become quite angry with the building guard who refused to help me figure out what had happened to the store--and who wouldn't let me in to ask.

Instead I just shrugged my shoulders and desperately prayed

And when the bank I asked at showed me the way--and it actually had toilet paper (most public bathrooms do NOT)--I literally felt filled with kind feelings towards others. I guess I've gotten so used to things not working out that it's such a joy when even the smallest thing does! It's a little surreal whenever we go back to the USA; I'm dumbfounded by how easy everything is. I also always have in the back of my mind what it was like to live here in 1991; life in Moscow has certainly gotten easier since then!

(I did, in the end, find the bookstore. The staff there was quite helpful and kind and their selection was much better than I'd hoped. They even gave me a discount card despite the fact that I'm a foreigner. It did take me all day long to simply order eight sets of Spanish textbooks--but I'm happy! I know that it could very well have taken much longer!)

Double Dutch (sort of...) Part 1

Double Dutch (sort of) Part 2

The girls continually move from obsession to obsession, inspired by books, music or movies. They get an idea and then seize upon it, entering their own make-believe world. Lately they've mostly pretended to be living in 1774, 1854 or 1945... so their passion the last few days for Double Dutch jump roping in Brooklyn is a little jarring! Inspired by Disney Channel movie Jump In that aired in January, they've formed a double dutch "team" and are both in training "to win the big championship." They've been rushing home from school to do their "speed jumping practice" and to work on their "routines." I'd almost forgotten that my little international Natalia was actually born in Brooklyn... I took the video above when I went to pick the girls up from school yesterday. They've been teaching the whole school how to double dutch, experts they are! Note how hard their friend from Argentina is trying, clueless he's supposed to jump OVER and UNDER the ropes (come to think of it, Katya and Natalia also seem pretty oblivious to that minor technicality)! The girls then proceeded to wrap him up in the rope! Katya is pleading with me to get her on a Moscow double dutch team... She doesn't believe me that such sport doesn't exist here and isn't quite part of the Russian Olympic tradition...

By the way, the movie is rated G and is quite fun. Corbin Bleu and Keke Palmer are young actors to watch and their songs on the soundtrack really get you moving--as does Jordan Pruitt's "Jump to the Rythm". We were in the US when it first aired last winter and the girls were very excited to actually be present for a bit of pop culture instead of learning about it much later via dvd.

(Blogger keeps malfunctioning and I couldn't combine the video with this post).

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

No Hot Water? Must Be Summer in Moscow.

Today I was at a friend's house on the other side of the city and I saw this warning note hanging on her door: from July 3rd to 23rd she won't have any hot water. For three weeks every summer, Moscow's city government conducts a rolling cut-off of hot water, neighborhood by neighborhood, in order to repair decrepit pipes. Moscow's hot water runs through a citywide, centralized system of aging pipes installed when the Soviet Union's top budget priority was its Cold War nuclear arsenal. Quality was sacrificed for quantity in the housing sector, and today many of Russia's apartment buildings are decaying at a rapid pace. The only way to repair the pipes is to shut the hot water off completely.

For people who can't afford to invest $250 in an individual gas-powered hot water heater and pay to have it installed, even the simplest of daily chores become a huge annoyance. Imagine having to heat your bathwater in pots on top of the stove! Washing dishes and cleaning take a long time, too, since you have to wait for the water to boil. Most Muscovites can afford hot water heaters and aren't affected; for those who can't, however, the sharp divide between rich and poor in the city becomes all the more glaring. If you ride the metro, you can tell which neighborhood is without hot water by how many people getting on at a certain stop haven't bathed. When we lived here in 1999, we didn't have a hot water heater--MAN OH MAN were those showers quick and cold! Certain products are specifically promoted for their effectiveness in cold water; here is an advertisement for dish detergent that shows how well it works in polar ice cap water. Our water is also completely shut off quite frequently whenever there are repairs or renovations in our building. A sign is usually posted the day before the shut-off warning us, but sometimes I don't notice it and it's a nasty inconvenience. When the water then gets turned on again, it is often a yellow/orange, full of rust. Sometimes I have to let it run for half an hour before it's safe (or at least looks safe) to use. We certainly would NEVER drink it.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

"You may NOT pet wild animals!"

All of the sudden the worms from Saturday ( "If we can't have a baby brother, can't we at least have a worm?" ) are looking a lot better. A lot better, say, compared to the tiger we saw yesterday at Gorky Park. Talia really wanted to pet him and I, quite understandably, shrieked, "NO!"Look how close I got to him (I do NOT have a special zoom lense on my camera). How close anyone can get to him--or even closer. And look how carefully he's restrained. Note also the high protective barriers (the dinky poles and tiny chain behind him). There's nothing to stop some kid from running right up to him and jumping on him! Given how much he surely hates being there, it wouldn't take much to set him off... Parents actually pay 50 rubles (about $2) to put their children next to the tiger--either on that white box or right next to it on the floor! I heard one mom say, "Oh, how cute! Misha, want your picture taken?" "Cute" isn't actually the reaction we have when we see the wild animals at the park... Instead we feel a mixture of fear, anger, disgust and pity.

In front of the tiger are this mouse and cat asking for donations: "For cheese" and "For sour cream." (I included them as good examples of the accusative case after the preposition "на" in this idiomatic expression). The money is desperately needed, but what an existence... Animals are routinely submitted to "photo-ops" with kids and their parents at the park, circus and dolphinarium. Here are Katya and Natalia at the Dolphinarium last August; I let them pose for this picture because the profits pay for the animals' food--or so we were told... The bears, tiger and leopard that spend the summer at Gorky Park appear to be the most miserable of them all; it can get so hot and they're cared for by individuals who don't exactly strike me as "professional animal trainers." (They look like college kids who are bored out of their minds--there was one teenage girl with the tiger). The wild animals have lost that "spark" in their eyes and seem to have given up on life when they just lay there, resigned to their situation. How different things are in the USA; animals' well-being is first and foremost when planning an exhibit--not people's desire to get as close as possible.

We were at Gorky Park to attend the Midsommer Festival with two Swedish families. The Swedish Embassy and a variety of Swedish companies in Russia organized it and the program was filled with three days' of activities. We were particularly looking forward to the cultural children's games and music. When we arrived, however, there wasn't actually that much going on... The kids were excited to simply see their favorite kids' chairs from IKEA. The photoboards with Pippi Longstocking were fun, too. Russians from a group that reenacts 10th Century Russian and Nordic life were also making these floral wreaths; the girls begged me to wear one for while. Having exhausted the Swedish offerings, we decided to just head over to the regular children's area of the park--where we walked right by that tiger. We were then provided with yet another example of the high quality of service provided at the park... When our pregnant friend tried to sit down in a chair that was outside next to enclosed carousel (that had all the panel windows open), the women who worked there made her stand and go away. She couldn't have sat there until her daughter got off the ride? And when my other friend (and some other parents) went inside to place their kids on animals for the next ride, the women went berserk and yelled at them until the kids were scared. They then forced our friends to leave because they hadn't used the right door. While a few of our kids were finishing up the ride, the women went around and shut all the windows (sure, let the kids have no ventilation while enjoying the extra heat) and locked them so no parents could open them to wave at their kids and take clearer pictures. It was unbelievable and so embarrassing. Among our group was a Spanish woman visiting Russia for the first time and we had really wanted to show off the city; she was aghast by the lack of customer service. There was no point in complaining; who would we have complained to? And no one would have cared. They would have told us to leave if we didn't like it. It's so frustrating when we run into people that give the city and Russian people a bad name; so many people here are kind and good, but it only takes a few horrid ones to reflect badly on the rest.

We then decided to just focus on having the kids enjoy the rest of our time at the park. A new canoe ride was a hit with my girls, called "WigWam, and it has to be the most pathetic representation of Native American culture I've seen in a long time... I kept reminding myself, "It's just a ride! And the kids are having fun!" while also thinking, "Good thing the kids are loving the non-fiction we're reading about tribes throughout North America!"

We tried to check out the lavish Moscow Yacht Festival, but it was definitely not an affair designed for kids... Or at least, not for kids whose parents aren't millionaires contemplating a big purchase... Traffic was uncharacteristically dense on Sunday because of all the people driving in to see the boats, but we got home quickly enough to squeeze in some more scooter riding (and ice cream-YUM!).

Saturday, June 23, 2007

"If we can't have a baby brother, can't we at least have a worm?"

Yes, my kids want a baby brother. They begged for over a year. Realizing that their pleas weren't getting them anywhere, they moved on to begging for a pet. As much as we'd like a pet, it just doesn't make sense to get one as long we we're expats in the city.

Today they fell in love with two worms that they wanted to bring home. We met these new friends at a neat park called "Park Trubyetsky." (See the side bar for many other great parks listed in "Places to Go with Kids in Moscow). It's a "Children's Park," meaning it's enclosed and no smoking or alcohol are allowed inside (in most other areas of Moscow, you'll see men walking around all day with open bottles of beer--beer is cheaper than bottled water here...). This park is absolutely beautiful. The carved bears throughout the park are charming... Check out this picture below for an idea of the park's layout--so many different areas.
One particularly neat spot is a "Dog Playground", complete with carved animals and various obstacle courses/balance beams/etc.! (Russian dogs must be smarter than American dogs, because the pooches I know would just pee on all that equipment...!) Dogs aren't allowed in the park except for in the fenced-in dog area. Other areas include a stable where kids can ride horses, a mini zoo, three playgrounds (the equipment is NOT up to western safetely standards, though), a hill for sliding in the winter, a botanical garden (that's always locked, for some reason), a sculpture garden, tennis courts (that one winter were turned into an ice rink) and an outdoor theater.
There are very tall trees throughout the park that line the pathways. There are always kids on skates, bikes and scooters, babies in carriages, and elderly pedestrians. We stopped off at the McDonald's near the park for some lunch and "babyccinos"--the McCafe kids' version of a cappuccino (foamed milk with white chocolate syrup). The kids had fun ordering and paying for their drinks on their own.
We then stopped to watch the swans. Katya and Natalia wished we had brought bread to feed them.
Then we rode to the Fairy Tale Wooden Sculpture Garden. The mermaid looked newly painted and it caught Katya's attention. All the kids seem to like Baba Yaga's house (which you can climb into).

We eventually made it to the hill area (compared to Colorado and New England, it's more like a "bump," but we like it anyway!). The girls loved riding their scooters around and around the hill. Despite being in the city's center, this area feels like a big backyard you can explore that's all your own. Trees grow in clusters that meet kids' need for secret places and it's very quiet.
While exploring, the girls found two green caterpillars. They named them Hermie 1 and Hermie 2, after Max Lucado's Hermie stories. Talia has brought home countless "friends" from school who have miraculously survived the hours in her pockets--and who have been promptly brought back outside. (Never thought I'd have to "de-worm" my kids when they get home from school!).
They begged me to let them keep the "Hermies"... Surprisingly enough, they still think they have a chance of convincing me to welcome a worm into our small apartment. ("But Moooooom, you wouldn't have to walk it! And it's not expensive! And it would be easy to bring with us on the plane when we go to America!"). The girls almost cried when I said we couldn't bring the worms home--and that we couldn't give them a ride in the car. They made their friends log cabins out of twigs and leaves and promised to visit again soon.

Friday, June 22, 2007

The First Russian Book Katya Read by Herself Last December

We shot this video in December when Katya realized that she could read simple books on her own--in Russian. They had read sentences and exercises at school, but she had never tried to read an actual book. Children's literature is quite different here; there isn't a system of graduated readers as there in the USA. There aren't any books geared to help kids gain confidence as beginning readers; it's hard to even find simple picture books. (Chris and I really searched to find the one she is reading above). There tends to be sooo much writing in even the simplest stories, and the text isn't chosen according to developing skills. Katya's experience with Russian books had been frustrating; she hadn't realized that she actually could read as well in Russian as she does in English (since she's so used to simple English books). The best part is the end--she is soooo proud! "I read it all on my own! To the end--all of it!" She jumped up and hugged all of us, including our babysitter, shouting how much she loves each of us. Unfortunately, the camera's memory card ran out before her last--and best--proclamation: "I love myself!!" (as she fell to the floor hugging herself).

Talia's Line from School Graduation

I wanted to figure out both how to shoot a video clip and how to then post it to the blog: and I did! I asked Talia what she would like to say and she chose her little poem from the school graduation ceremony. The younger children all recite short and sweet poems about all the graduating students. Talia's line translates as, "Dressed like a London dandy, he behaves like a gentleman." She had the hiccups while I shot this clip, so her words are a little altered.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

So What Does YOUR Rollerblade Route Look Like? (Pretty cool, huh?)

Today was one of those Moscow days when nothing I'd planned on accomplishing happened quite as I'd hoped... Here was the original list:

1. Go to Mega Mall, arriving at 10 a.m. Bring own skates and use rink in mall for free.
2. Eat lunch at IKEA. Get the bedding we need for our bed and a new mattress for Natalia. Bring mattress home with me.
3. Pick up Natalia at 3:00 for her session with the child psychologist/speech therapist.

Well... That's not exactly what ended up happening. The handle broke off the washing machine door (so you can't use it--and of course at around 3 a.m. Natalia had had an accident on her bed that officially put the mattress into "retirement." It had served us for only two years, but MAN OH MAN were those two years packed with service...) and it took a few hours to get through to the repair center. I thought I was "all set" by having the mobile number of the repairman who has come before, but his number was no longer in service... There was one other person I could have tried, but his number was saved in my mobile phone... and the phone had fallen into the bucket of hot soapy water I used yesterday afternoon to scrub the floor... and I didn't realize it was there until I reached for a rag and pulled out the phone... (I am JINXED! JINXED! NEVER will I get a fancy cell phone; I'm a serial mobile murderer ever since I got pregnant with Natalia! No matter how hard I try, I destroy them! And I'd finally figured out how to use this last one and had saved every number I needed into its memory--and all that information is now lost... Oh well, at least I never lose or hurt my kids...)

By the time I had arranged for a repairman to come here tomorrow, I got to IKEA an hour and a half later than planned. I rushed to the rink and got my skates on, only to find out that they had closed it due to humidity until later in the day (no specific time given). I rushed through the errands at IKEA, only to realize that the mattress wouldn't fit in the car w/o damaging it structurally. I was a little too scared to tie it onto the roof; I didn't want to scratch the car and/or have the mattress fly off on the highway... So I had to grin and bear it and pay for delivery. (Just a question--why on Earth are the prices at IKEA in Russia more expensive than those at IKEA in America? It's not as if the furniture had to CROSS THE ATLANTIC OCEAN or anything! Sweden is practically next door!)

I got to the rink--where people were skating--only to discover that they were ending the session in five minutes and the rink wouldn't open again until after I had to be at the girls' school to pick up Natalia. I tried to make lemons out of lemonade and used the free time I had to hunt for a plastic sheet to protect Talia's new mattress. I found one, but it cost $35!!! In my hardened Moscow mood, I simply bought it and was glad. It's worth it just to have it done! I also got a cup of coffee and drank it s-l-o-w-l-y. (Just think... Next time I'm there, it'll probably be September, and there will be a Starbucks!).

I really missed having gone skating, though. I got new custom Klingbeil figure skates this summer and am finally able to skate again! I used to skate competitively, and I have feet that simply do NOT fit in regular pre-made boots. (Come to think of it, they don't fit very well into any type of shoes... Extra wide around the ball of the foot, but extra narrow in the heel... with unusual arches, too...) My feet had grown during my first pregnancy, and I hadn't been able to fit in my skates since then... I've YEARNED to skate again and it's so much fun to go now... Once I got home with Natalia and she started her session with the therapist, I decided to continue with my "lemonade from lemons" attitude and I went rollerblading. (Julia--I listened to Shakira as I skated! Whoo hoo! And Dad--I LOVE my ipod!). I had a few hours, so I decided to go to the Moscow River and skate there. Here are some pictures from my route:

I noticed that Moscow Festival of Yachts was ready to begin... There are luxury boats all up and down the river... Beyond that pedestrian bridge is Gorky Park (on the right).
You can see Gorky Park across the river (where there's the Buran space shuttle and the tall Ferris Wheel). On the right is "Mama Zoya," one of the best Georgian restaurants (it's in the boat) in the city. Their shashliki (shishkabobs of meat/fish/veggies), pomegranate sauce and hachapouri (bread with cheese) are WONDERFUL. Here's a decorative detail at the top of one of the many "Stalin-era" apartment buildings that line the river; it's pretty typical of "wholesome" Soviet progaganda of healthy, happy, productive youth. These buildings were mostly built by German POWs after the war and they're among the most coveted apartments in the city--luckily Stalin was pretty obsessed with making his architectural mark and his buildings are throughout the city. We live in a Stalin-era building, too, and they're SO much nicer than the concrete rectangles built under Krushchev...

On my right, I then saw the monument to Peter the Great and the "Red October" Chocolate Factory. The Factory is going to relocate soon and the premises will be renovated into luxury apartments; I really hope I can get a tour of the factory before it closes!! (They're not that easy to get and I've been trying for half a year). This is what the whole view looks like there... Chocolate Factory, Peter the Great, in far, far distance a Stalin skyscraper I'll write about later in this entry (kind of neat to see how I made my way there) and the "President" Hotel (the red building on the right). When we first moved to Moscow in July 2004, my friend Julie (from when I taught in Michigan) was there with her adorable newly-adopted son, Peter... It was so exciting to meet him and to see her at that special time of her life!

On my left, I went by the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Stalin had ordered it blown up in 1931 and public swimming pools occupied the land until 1994, when the cathedral's reconstruction began. The marble from the destroyed cathedral was used to make many of the subway stations on the red line. I'll post more about the metro (subway) on another day. The other building pictured is famous for housing Communist party bigwigs. It contained shops that "regular" people couldn't shop at and was quite unlike other city accomodations... How fitting that there's now a Mercedes logo on the roof!
I went a little further and then was rewarded with this view of the Kremlin! Isn't it beautiful?!

Here you can see the path I followed as I skated. I could never take this route during the spring or fall; the traffic would be too thick and it would be very dangerous (not to mention how polluted the air would be). In the summer, however, as long as I don't go fast, it's ok. You can also make out domes of churches inside the Kremlin.

I included this close-up of one of the Kremlin towers so you can see the mosaiac effect; I think it's so pretty... Across the river was this old pink church... The mixture of old and new, restored and decaying is quite striking wherever you look in Moscow. I skated a little further and then this view appeared...
The famous Red Square and St. Basil's Cathedral! The Kremlin ends on the left, and Red Square and the famous department store "GUM" are behind St. Basil's. I love driving by this area at night when everything is lit up. It is absolutely beautiful, even moreso at night when there has just been a fresh snowfall. I tried to take a picture with me in it, but it didn't come out very well. Oh, well, here it is to prove that these are my pictures! I then skated under the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge and had another view of St. Basil's... I had to include this picture, even though it came out so dark... Note the advertisement for Maybelline (Garnier) tanning cream--with a model's bikini-clad tush. OH HOW LENIN'S EMBALMING FLUID IS BUBBLING INSIDE THE MAUSOLEUM! I then skated further up the river and got to this famous "Seven Sisters" (Stalin had seven huge skyscrapers built throughout the city and they're called the Seven Sisters--among them are Moscow State University and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) Stalinist Gothic building below.

This picture can't convey how HUGE the building is. That address was initially a very prestigious place to live--it was a reward to be given an apartment there, and only the most important people moved in... But many also disappeared from there during Stalin's famous purges. The building contains secret passageways for spying and bugs--of the eavesdropping kind--were EVERYWHERE. I included a close-up of the top spire; the proud and strong Soviet workers are omnipresent!

I then got on a riverboat and headed home. Traffic had picked up and there were too many cars parked on the sidewalk for it to be safe to skate. While on the boat, I met a really nice woman from Tennessee who is here with her sister's mission trip from North Carolina. It was fun to talk with her and point out all the sites as we rode along. Unfortunately, my camera battery died and I couldn't take pictures all the way to the end--but here's a picture of the Luzhniki Stadium where the 1980 Olympics were (next to it is the arena where we cheered on the USA during the 2006 World Figure Skating Championships).

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Year of the Striped Dog

I had meant to take pictures of this advertising campaign last year to show my mom (a dachshund nut), but never got around to it. Beeline is a mobile phone company and they have really great ads. This particular campaign was called "С годом полосатой собаки!" (S Godom Polosatoi Sobaki/"Congratulations on the Year of the Striped Dog!"). Russians celebrate Chinese New Year's traditions mixed in with their own--so whatever animal is being celebrated under the Chinese New Year always gets feted here, too. According to the Chinese Zodiac calendar, 2006 was the Year of the Dog. Beeline used these ads both at the beginning of 2006 and then again at the end of the year.
In any case, Beeline chose to mix their yellow & black "bee" logo with the dachshund for their ad campaign. The initial ads seemed to play up how long the dachshund is--meaning, "talk longer." They cleverly printed the ad on the thin screens used to wrap around buildings undergoing renovations--so the dog literally went around the corner, longer and longer... I think they also chose the dachshund because it's such a popular animal here. This makes sense; most people live in small apartments and the dachshund doesn't take up much room! (Given how slushy and dirty the streets are all winter, though, I sure wouldn't want to be walking one a few times per day and then letting it back into my home...) Click here to see the video clips of the ads.
2007 is The Year of the Pig; there were pig items for sale all over the city during the holidays!! Some of the items were quite unusual... Anyone out there want a huge candle of a "Dyed Moroz" (Grandfather Frost--the Russian equivalent of Santa Claus) with a Pig "Snyegurochka" (his granddaughter, the Snow Maiden) in a long blond braid and traditional Russian dress? Or how about this skiing pig that moves along to holiday music? (I got these things for my mom's friend who collects pig stuff...)

(Editorial note: Thanks, Kate, for reminding me about the pigs!!)