Saturday, July 28, 2007

Little Mermaids

I had posted this earlier in the week, but I had technical problems with it; here's another try. I shot this video of the girls last weekend, after they had had five days of swimming lessons at camp. They are very proud of their progress! Natalia can swim underwater--until she needs to come up for air. Katya made it across the pool on her back! Natalia's custom-molded earplugs are working very well. Until their surgeries this winter (ear tubes for N, adenoidectomy/tonsilectomey for K), they always got sick after swimming; now they're doing well.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Many Happy Returns...

It is so easy to return or exchange merchandise in the United States. To a be customer, period.

Even if you've lost the sales receipt, 99.9% of stores will give you a refund or store credit if the item is still being stocked. Other retailers with rotating merchandise have "60-Day Refund/180-Day Store Credit" policies. Within 14 days, most retailers will refund you the difference if the item has since gone down in price. Then there are companies like L.L.Bean and Lands' End who stand behind their products for LIFE--glady exchanging or repairing merchandise that is even over twenty years old!!!

Once you've lived in a country where customer service is an oxymoron, it's a shock to do business again the USA.

Cashiers rarely have enough cash in their registers, and they often simply refuse to let you purchase your items unless you have exact change--or small bills. I'm not talking about asking a cashier to break the equivalent of $100 or $50 bills--they often even balk at the equivalent of $20! Can you imagine that happening in the USA?!

Making a return or exchange can also be an arduous process. I once accidentally paid for children's shoes that were one size too small--realizing my mistake immediately. The box with the size I needed was right there on the counter--but they wouldn't exchange them. I had to have my passport with me, which I didn't, in order to make any kind of exchange/return. That meant three more hours of travel time to and from the store, three pages of return slips to fill out (with my passport number, place of issue, residence, reason for exchange, etc. filled out on each page)--and I could only make the return during certain hours when the return/exchange office was open.

The return period is also a strict 14 days in Russia; this was a problem when I hurried to get what we needed before our trip to Turkey in May! The day after we returned to Moscow, instead of unpacking and settling in again, I had to rush to two shops before our two weeks expired.

I know that this is a random topic to post among tales of summer activities, but I know that soon most parents will be busy with back-to-school shopping. Those of us who are expats are even busier since we must also procure: all English-language reading material our families will need; all medications not readily available in Russia; all holiday and birthday gifts/party supplies (you couldn't be certain of getting any specific item if you waited to buy it there--and it would cost much, much more--and party supplies are limited to generic streamers, etc.--if your kid really wants a certain character, etc., you need to get it here); all Halloween-related items (Halloween really doesn't exist there, so we throw our own Halloween party and I try to have some traditional American candies, etc.); and as much of the family's outdoor clothing/boots/clothing needs that you can fit in your suitcases (since it's so much more expensive there). This year I'm co-leading our Brownie troup, so the other mom and I also have to be sure to bring back all the badges and craft supplies, too (Thanks for carrying almost all of it, Ann-Tyler, since you have more kids and a larger baggage allowance!).

As I engage in all of this getting-ready-to-head-back-to-Moscow-errand-running, it's so nice to be treated kindly everywhere I go...
  • The operator at L.L.Bean suggested, "I know this isn't on our website, but the winter coat you wanted for your daughter is actually half off if she'd like turquoise instead..."
  • Barnes and Noble and Borders give me a 20% discount since they consider me a homeschooling mom--I mentioned I couldn't get beginning English books where I live, they asked me why, and then told me I qualified for their Educators' Discount Card!
  • The operator at American Girl opened up the Birthday Party game I wanted and read through the playing cards to make sure the reading level and content wouldn't exclude Katya's friends who aren't from the USA and don't read as well as the native-speaking girls she'll invite. (She then told me I'd better order the game a.s.a.p. since it was actually being discontinued, was half price, and there were only four left in stock!)
  • The employees at the grocery store carefully bag up all my groceries (which are so much cheaper than in Moscow!) and offer to bring them to my car--I certainly don't need the help, but how nice to have them offer.
  • When my car broke down yesterday, the AAA operator asked me if I was stopped "somewhere safe;" her question jarred me. I was thrilled to simply have access to a free tow (included in membership, which certainly doesn't cost much); that they were so quick and kind was an added plus.

We've really "got it good" in the good ole USA!

Certain, ahem, relatives will be quick to post a response to the effect of "Then why are you living there???? When you will you be back????". Yes, life is pretty great in the USA and it is always nice to be here. We'll eventually be back here; this is our home. But while we're in Russia, there is a lot to appreciate.

So why be there? Now that we're over the initial culture shock, it's interesting! You get to watch a country evolve. History lessons come alive. Even the most tedious day is interesting in a different language. You expect things to be harder, so you're prepared. You get some help if you can. And when it's really a pain, you can at least talk about what a pain it has been with your kids who are now bilingual. You are literally friends with people from around the globe; your kids grow up aware of the multitudes of cultures and languages on this earth. They see the world as separated by different frontiers, not boundaries. When stuck in traffic, you know that at least the cars are all moving slowly--so you're unlikely to get in any kind of accident. You're thankful for your ipod, and you and the kids enjoy some good audio book or music together. You, and your kids, have a much deeper appreciation of what it means to be American and fortunate; you're exposed to so many people without the same freedoms and opportunities.

And doing all our shopping while in the US has many benefits: our kids never ask for things during the year, because they know there's no way they'll get them. They're also not exposed to mass media (advertising, store displays, friends with the latest fad) and desire little. Holidays and their true meanings don't get overshadowed by last-minute preparations, since everything is already done! December is spent enjoying our decorations, baking cookies, reading Christmas stories and singing carols.

So You're Adopting in Moscow...

Wow! I'm getting a lot of visitors ever since Rachael has written about our time together while she was in Mosow adopting Katya, her daughter!


I've often noticed parents in Moscow (and on the plane back to NYC) with the new members of their families; it's always fun to strike up a conversation and offer any help I can. Blogging opens up sooo many more ways to help, though. I started my blog in part to help adoptive families make the most of their time in the city.

My blog primarily talks about what it's like actually living in Moscow--and what life is like with two young girls (since our kids' grandparents are the primary readers of the blog and I'm trying to bridge the distance between us). I do, however, have a sidebar with lots of information about Moscow.

In the next month or so, I'll be refining the Places to Go in Moscow with Kids section; you'll get ideas about what to do depending on the age of your child, time of year and weather. I'll also make a list of good places to get fairly-priced souvenirs--dress up clothes (such as what my girls are wearing below), toys, oraments, etc. that would be great to save for each year's "Gotcha" Day (that's the day when an adopted child officially becomes part of his/her new family). Please do check back! And feel free to drop me a line when you're heading to Russia :-) (One nice lady wrote me recently and I accidentally deleted the e-mail; please write again if you wrote and didn't hear back!)

Good luck in your adoptions!!!!

Monday, July 23, 2007

It's a Small, Small World.. Part 2 (We're so, so sad!!!)

On Friday I wrote about the political ramifications between the UK and Russia as a result of the Alexander Litvinenko murder and ensuing investigation. To recap, Litvinenko, a former KGB officer, was an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. He was somehow poisoned with Polonium 210 while in London (where he resided) on November 1st, dying two weeks later. The U.K. recently issued a warrant for Andrei Lugovoi, also a former KGB officer--but Russia refuses to comply with the extradition. As a result, the U.K. expelled five Russian diplomats--and Russia then did the same, amounting in an incredibly pointless tit-for-tat. (Here is today's latest coverage.)

And here's how this saga has affected us, leaving us so sad and angry at the futility of it all...

We had the incredible luck this year to finally find a speech therapist for Natalia, one who understood bilingualism and who could work with her on American English. She has helped Natalia tremendously and she became a friend, too. I really admired her interest in Russia and its culture, language, children, environment... She has been so much more than a token diplomatic wife and she has actively contributed to those around her. Russia is in her personal history, as her father was an ambassador to Russia many years ago... From her residence at the British Embassy, she could even see the apartment where she had lived as a girl...

And now she has to leave Russia, perhaps forever, by 5 p.m. this Sunday. Her husband occupied a very high post within the embassy and they both have been declared "persone non grate".

I am so, so sad for her and for them both... How utterly stupid of the Russian government to kick out people who were trying so hard to make the country a better place. As always, she has a positive attitude and knows that wherever they go (and that IS a big question; they have no idea where they will now live and work), they will find blessings--but that doesn't take away the sting.

We will miss her--and her wonderful labrador, Pegasus--greatly. Natalia will be heartbroken when she learns that they have left; I don't want to tell her yet... Just yesterday she talked about how D~~~~~ would help her with her voice when she gets back to Moscow. Chris and I pray that Natalia's speech will continue to correct itself naturally; we'll have to take it day-by-day.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Harry Potter!

I've got it! Just got back from Midnight Madness at our local bookstore! (Click here for a link to Barnes and Noble, then click on "Watch the Festivities" to actually see the amazing party. It's worth watching if you haven't attended a Harry Potter release party yourself! I tried to link directly to the video, but couldn't.) I wish I could have gone to the festivities earlier on--we went to a great outdoor Sinatra concert instead, though. There were hundreds of people filling the store and spilling out onto the street, many of them dressed as characters from the book... All those adorable kids in robes and Hogwarts ties... some with the geeky glasses... some with stuffed owls perched on their shoulders... some with brooms... some S.P.E.W. (Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare) activists...

The store had all kinds of activities: a Harry Potter trivia scavenger hunt, lightening bolt tattoos, wand making, mystical creature making, portraits, etc. The party two years ago was great, too! The girls knew enough about the story that they had fun with all the activities. (Their grandparents in Colorado are die-hard Potter fans... They had seen the 1st movie with their grandpa--hadn't been scared--loved it--and then begged for more. Chris's best friend also has an English wife--and they got MARRIED in the castle that is used for filming Hogwarts scenes! Their reception was in the Hogwarts dining hall!)

That summer Katya attended camp for the first time (where the girls both are this summer). A boy in her group kept... um... well, he earned the nickname "Wedgie Boy." A kind clerk in the music section taught Katya the spell "Annoyus Nomoreus" to make the boy stop (she had just finished making her wand and was eager for instruction on how to use it). We still chuckle about that...

I think it's hard for anyone who doesn't love the Harry Potter books to understand what all the fuss is about... I'm simply thrilled to see so many children behaving as if they're about to meet the Beatles--camping out for a place in line--just to buy a book! How great! My mother thinks it outrageous that kids are allowed to stay up until midnight for this---but isn't this a childhood memory worth giving your kid (albeit one a bit older than mine)?! Afterall, it's now over! This was the last book!

I just found this video of the release in Moscow... Fans were thrilled there, too!!!

Friday, July 20, 2007

It's a Small, Small World (musings on the poisoning of a Russian spy)

Yes, it's a small world... And I'm not thinking about the cute boat ride at Disney World...
It amazes me how how stories that make international headlines (or international policies) have direct impact on our little lives.
  • Two days ago I was worried about our friends in the Ukraine after a train wreck produced a toxic cloud near their village (I spoke with them and they're doing fine--then again, they don't think that the radiation from Chernobyl has really been a problem).

  • My maid-of-honor was at the blast at Grand Central on Monday; memories of September 11 made it a terrifying experience. Luckily it wasn't terrorism and most people were ok.

  • China's preparations for the Olympics--and the PR about how well the country is doing--have lead to significantly fewer children being offered for international adoption. For our friends here, the wait to get their daughter is agonizing!

  • Last year the US Congress--without any forewarning--reworked how Americans living overseas are taxed. The changes took place retroactively (it was midyear), were a complete surprise, and hurt.

  • Gas prices have risen during the conflict with Iraq... As a result, two years ago US airlines reduced the baggage allowance of 140 lbs /2 suitcases per passenger by 40 lbs (You can now bring two 50 lb suitcases). Since we're a family of four making two trips to the US per year, that's 320 lbs (6 + suitcases) we can't bring back to Moscow. Think of all the things expats stock up on: baking supplies; medicines; Ziploc bags; books... We still bring those things back, but now you have to pay the excess baggage fees (And 320 lbs in excess baggage costs $625).

  • International policies have a daily impact on my husband's work-- I obviously can't write about that here, though.
So... this brings me back to the fodder for today's post... That whole "small world" thing...

Remember back in November when former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko, a fierce Kremlin critic, was murdered in London by polonium 210? Britain wants to charge Andrei Lugovoi (also formerly with the KGB), but Russia refuses to comply with the extradition. This is the stuff of the greatest of spy novels... Well, the U.K. has retaliated by expelling five Russian diplomats from England. And now Russia has done the same, sending four embassy officials packing.

And what does this mean to us? Perhaps no more speech therapy for Natalia.

We FINALLY located a native-speaker speech pathologist, through the British embassy, to help her and the improvement in Natalia's speech has been tremendous. Her family could be among those being sent back to Britain, though. Probably not, but the initial news reports haven't said how high the rankings are of those being expelled.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Toxic Disaster in Ukraine

I don't know how many of you heard about this horrible accident in western Ukraine on Monday night: a train derailed, caught fire, and released a massive toxic cloud of phosphorous. This happened in the area of Ukraine--between Lvov and the border with Poland--where the girls and I were just two weeks ago. Our friends are there right now, but I haven't been able to reach them by phone. I haven't been able to find a map to exactly pinpoint the path of the cloud, but news reports don't tell of a massive evacuation. (Where would the people go?? And how would they even leave?) Authorities have advised those remaining to avoid well water, vegetables from their gardens and milk from their cows. If you read my entry on Daily Life in a Small Village in Ukraine, you'll know that this is impossible! Our friends rely ENTIRELY on well water, homegrown vegetables and cow's milk!

Ukraine is still suffering the aftermath of Chernobyl... The lingering effects of that disaster are apparent in the cancer that is even destroying trees. I took this picture not far from Lvov; the balls are manifestations of the cancer. The road was literally lined with such trees. It was so sad; I couldn't stop thinking of how many people have contracted cancer, too. I asked our friends about it, and they just shrugged. They were unaware of how many people have suffered from cancer in the years since; they hadn't even wondered if the local rate of cancer had increased. I guess when you know you won't have any medical help, why think about it? Just live in the moment... They couldn't believe that anyone else would be interested in such questions and found it rather odd that I was curious about the trees--enough to even take pictures.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Going to Bed with a Flashlight... Finally!!!!!

Katya has come home from camp for two days now eager to practice her reading, spelling and penmanship. Her teacher at camp is fantastic! I am so thankful; she has thrown gasoline onto the fire that I've been trying to light all year. It had been frustrating that other families pay me to teach their kids to read and write, yet my own daughter just wouldn't work with me for more than ten minutes at a time (and even ten minutes were hard to get). Here are Katya and one of my students (also a good friend of Katya's) practicing their spelling and reading by giving their dolls a vision test this spring:

Katya loves learning, but she has had a hard time focusing--particulary when working with me. I quickly realized that if I insisted, making our tutoring sessions into a battle, she would have even less interest in reading and writing. The desire had to come from her... I knew she was doing well in school (in Russian) and that the English would catch up, but I've wanted it to be sooner rather than later! I know that she's the type of kid who will LOVE reading once it clicks! She'll lose herself for hours in a book... She'll also write story after story... Some positive peer pressure seems to be doing the trick. She came home from her first day of camp eager to pratice her reading and writing. She actually liked her Scholastics hour at camp more than swimming!!!

I got her some sight word workbooks and we staged a "spelling bee" with her new stage and doll. In the movie based on the Molly character, there's a big scene in which Molly and Emily share first place in the school spelling bee. Katya got her Emily doll ready and they worked together to answer all of my questions. Emily whispered how to spell the words to Katya, then Katya told me and practiced writing them. I pushed the "applause" button on the stage when the bee was over (an hour and a half later!) and Katya was thrilled! She then read me two books before finally agreeing to go to sleep.

Tonight she took a bath and got ready for bed as soon as she came home from camp--so she could spend the rest of the evening working with me. Luckily, Natalia is EXHAUSTED after camp; she fell asleep on the couch almost as soon as we got home! Katya and I ended up doing page after page in her Sight Words workbook and Kumon Rhyming Words workbook, we had a spelling bee, she read four Level 2 books, she started a Phonics comic book, and she read the first page of a Nancy Drew Notebook mystery (an online sample page, to see if the series was worth ordering for her). She even took a flashlight with her to bed--and is still reading! WHAT A WONDERFUL DAY!!!!!!

First Day of Camp

Today (Monday--the blog is set to Russian time and is already publishing tonight's post as if it were done on Tuesday) was the girls' first day of camp. Katya had attended camp for 6 weeks when I worked there two years ago, but this was Natalia's first time. They have been looking forward to camp all year long! It's a great opportunity for them to speak English with native-speaking American friends; they do speak English while in Moscow, but often the other children are British. In addition, Katya is also part of the scholastic program: one small group reading/writing tutorial session per day with an English teacher from the school. I think they will both get so much out these three weeks!
It was also their first time riding a REAL SCHOOLBUS! They loved it! Schoolbuses appear is so many children's books, a symbol of childhood and starting school... Living in Russia, they had never been on a bus. Even private schools in the USA occasionally use schoolbuses for field trips, etc., so Katya would have ridden one by now. The traffic is so bad at drop-off and pick-up that the camp provides the bus ride to a large parking lot near the school for a nominal fee.

The girls had a WONDERFUL day. When asked about what had been the best part of the day, they both thought swimming lessons were fantastic. Natalia also loved the "treasure haunt" they went on near the pond--where she found pineapples. Hmm. Perhaps "pinecones"? Katya delightfully surprised me by adding that her tutoring session had actually been even more fun than swimming!!! She LOVED it! I am soooooo glad (and relieved). Both girls have already made friends and they like their counselors. Katya was surprised--and happy--that there's even a Russian-American girl in her group. (Thankfully, though, they only spoke a teeny bit of Russian--just enough to show how cool it is to the other kids).
Even the girls' dolls are having fun at camp! My mom never gets to celebrate the girls' birthdays with them, so this year she decided to give them their presents early. (She wanted to get to see their faces instead of only seeing a picture). The girls already had Molly, the American Girl doll from 1944 Illinois; my mom got them her best friend, Emily, and their stage. Molly's father is an Army doctor serving in wartime London; Emily is a British girl who comes to live with Molly's family after her home is bombed.

I got them this background scenery book on ebay; it's great! You can open it to all different scenes: Molly's kitchen & bedroom; the local ice cream shop; her school and her summer camp. Knowing that these would be the girls' toys while in the US, I brought over some accessories that would go well (such as the campfire). I then cut some blue fabric to make the girls kerchiefs like their dolls'--and viola, Katya and Natalia's red shorts and white t-shirts suddenly became Camp Gowonagin uniforms, too!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Favorite American Things This Week: The Four "F's"

The past few days have been a jet-lagged blur of getting ready for summer camp and enjoying aspects of life here that don't exist back in Moscow. Let's think about FOOD first. We all LOVE, LOVE, LOVE corn-on-the-cob. Corn is grown as animal food in Europe, and what Americans think of as corn simply doesn't exist. You can get canned corn (even Green Giant brand), or even shrink-wrapped corn from Germany (GROSS), but not these luscious ears of corn we've been devouring on a daily basis... Talia and Katya go at their corn "typewriter" style and could eat ear after ear. (Incidentally, why do we say "ear of corn"? That sounds so odd...)

We've been getting our corn, raspberries, peaches, new red potatoes and sweet peas from the farm stand that's near my mom's house. The berries are so delicious that the pint is often devoured before we even get in the car!

As soon as we've picked out our food, they run to say hi to the horses in the stable. There's one brown horse that they've named "Penny" (after the horse in the Felicity stories) that they really like. Other foods we've enjoyed this week have been ginger ale, root beer, Lean Cuisine, Life cereal, bagels and anything grilled. My mom just got a gas grill and dinner every night is absolutely delicious!

Let's now talk about FUN, as in the great day we had at Kid City, a fantastic children's museum in Middletown, CT. We met up with friends from college whom we hadn't seen in four years! Our four kids had never all been together. Katya (as in my friend, not my daughter) emigrated with her family from St. Petersburg when she was seven-years-old. Her mom and dad came to the museum, too; "Little K" (as in my daughter) enjoyed being their bilingual waitress in the play cafes.

Moving on to a FURRY FRIEND, as in Grandma's dog... Whenever we arrive in CT, the girls are of course excited to see their grandma--but then they quickly rush to hug her dachshund! This picture was taken the night we arrived. Natalia really, really wants a dog... She follows the pup everywhere. I sure wish we could have a pet... Living in a city doesn't preclude us from getting one, but what would we do every time we leave the country? It quickly becomes a more complicated and expensive proposition.

I'll end this posting with my favorite category: how FACILE ("Done or achieved with little effort or difficulty; easy") pretty much everything is... People in the USA take for granted how easy life is here compared to in other places... The most basic things here can be so much more complicated and stressful elsewhere... I love drive-thru ATM's and pharmacies. Walmart or Target, where you can run in with a random shopping list (i.e. items you would need to visit MULTIPLE stores in Russia in order to find--if you can even find them) and be out within 30 minutes. Grocery stores: they carry pretty much everything, it's fresh, the aisles are large enough for quick movement through the store, and the prices are unbelievably cheap compared to Europe and Russia. Smoothly paved roads. Traffic rules that people actually obey (OK, I did speed a little on the highway, but everyone else was, too...).

Friday, July 13, 2007

Friday the 13th

When I just viewed my posting below, I realized that today is Friday the 13th. Earlier this month I wrote about Russian superstitions; I hadn't mentioned that many of our most common American superstitions don't exist in Russia. Friday the 13th is just another day (the number thirteen isn't considered unlucky at all), you can walk under ladders, breaking a mirror won't bring seven years of bad luck, black cats are just black cats, no need to hold you breath when you drive by a graveyard, you can open an umbrella indoors, and if you step on a crack, you won't break your mother's back.

My Blog is One Month Old Today!

It's hard to believe that I started this blog only one month ago. Before beginning, it seemed so complicated and I couldn't imagine creating one as nice as Rachael's... Her postings inspired me to give it a try, though--and once I started, I was hooked.

Top Six Reasons for Doing this Blog

1. Staying in Touch with Family and Friends. The time change makes it hard to connect with people in the US. By the time they're home from work, we're asleep... And when I'm free during the day, people are either still in bed or headed off to work... (Cost isn't an issue; our internet phone service via Vonage gives us multiple local numbers in the USA that people can use to call us). The blog makes it so easy to share actual stories with people, accompanied by helpful links and/or pictures. I like that those who read this blog choose to; it's nicer than sending out newsy e-mails to people who just don't have time to read them. It makes it easy for someone to play "catch-up," too--you can sit down and read multiple entries at one time instead of searching for old e-mails. Since we live in Russia, "real" mail isn't really an option, either--it takes way too long and isn't reliable. Another benefit has been making new friends via the blog.

2. Inspiring My Kids to Learn about Geography. Katya loves checking the map at the bottom of my blog's sidebar. Whenever a new country lights up, she wants me to look it up on the internet so she can learn more about it. (Thanks, Steve, for lighting up all of Southeast Asia!)

3. Helping Others Coming to Moscow/Living in Moscow. I really wish that someone had given me a list of fun things to do with kids when I first moved there (I say "there" because I'm in the USA for a month right now). I didn't know where to look for the information I would have appreciated. Some of the cultural information I try to share here would have been helpful, too.

4. Compared to Scrapbooking, it's FREE and EASY to Do RIGHT NOW. I don't plan to stop making scrapbooks, but I put it off for long periods because it's too much of a hassle to get out all of the materials and I envision needing a big chunk of uninterrupted time... Instead I can simply sit down at the computer and quickly create a finished "product". It will be nice having everything I've written here to prompt my memory when I actually do scrapbook. (In the future I might want to rethink the site I use to blog, however; I'd like an option that lets you publish your blog as an actual album, too. You can creative beautiful digital scrapboooks at, but I wouldn't include the same material: in the blog I include little snipets that I wouldn't want taking up a whole page in an album--and I don't feel compelled to always have accompanying pictures. I also couldn't then add links or the comment forum). The blog really is different from an album, because it can't be too personal by nature; private details will always be most richly preserved in an actual scrapbook and I see the blog and my albums co-exisiting rather well.

5. It's a Chance to Use My English. I miss English words... The vocabularly one uses with younger children and in quick e-mails isn't quite as rich as the one I had when writing in graduate school... I do read to keep up my skills, but English books are much harder to get in Moscow. I also spend most of my reading time improving my Russian and keeping up my other languages that I don't get to use daily.

6. A New Perspective on Daily Life. I find that I now approach each day as a reporter, looking for what's interesting, memorable, funny or good. (No one wants to read a boring, negative blog!) Even in potentially bad situations (certain aspects of the trip to Ukraine, for example), I find myself thinking, "There has to be some good blogging fodder in this!" This has been a benefit of blogging that I never expected, and it's by far the best!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

You TRULY Know You're an Expat When...

... even your children's STUFFED ANIMALS have passports.

The cow that Katya made on Sunday at the Moscow Build-A-Bear actually has DUAL citizenship, in honor of her dear friend who moved back to Sweden this summer. (Katya had me look up the Swedish passport on-line so we could copy the correct color and design.) The cow even has a current Russian Multiple-Entry Visa.

We arrived at JFK yesterday afternoon (on a plane full of newly adopted kids, might I add! Yippee that the USA agencies are accredited again!) and Katya was quite eager to present the Customs & Immigration official with her cow's passport. I placed our three on the counter and Katya confidently slapped down the cow's, too.

Confused Offical: Um, what's this?

Katya: My cow's passport, of course.

Still-Confused Official: Cow? (Looks at me).

I: That's right! (Look PLEADINGLY at the official.)

Wonderful, Kind Official (clearly noting that it must have been a LONG flight for me): Oh. Of course!

Then he actually stamped it and made Katya the proudest cow owner ever!

Katya had wondered if the cow would actually be able to get a stamp in her passport; I told her that I wasn't sure... There aren't exactly guidelines on stuffed animal immigration... Quite the Muscovite, she then smiled and asked, "Can't we just pay him to do it if he says no?"

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Three Year Anniversary!

Three years ago today, Katya, Natalia and I arrived in Moscow; Chris had already been here for two months. I remember how daunting everything was... Even though I had spent quite a bit of time in this city before, living here with young children was sooooo different and sooooo hard... Daily existence literally drained me and I cried myself to sleep for months. Life here was so much more expensive than we had anticipated, and our standard of living took a sharp, sharp dip when we first moved from New York. Every day I encountered some sort of difficulty that never would have arisen in the USA, and it was a constant struggle to keep trying. Even now, just thinking back to that first year numbs me.

Instead of driving to Costco and the local grocery store in Brooklyn, I had to push the double stroller in all weather to and from at least three different grocery stores, carrying it up and down a cement passageway beneath the main street--along with all the groceries... Often I couldn't even find what I needed... And when I did, it was hard to even afford it... The grocery store closest to our building wouldn't let me inside with a stroller, but it didn't provide carts. In disbelief, I asked how I was supposed to handle my toddler and carry food--to which the manager replied, "It's not my fault you have two small kids!"

Whenever I did errands further from home, I had to pay high prices for a cab (when you could get one) or hitchhike (not quite as bad as it sounds; everyone here does it since there aren't enough cabs to service the need). When I used public transportation, it usually involved a few transfers and the kids would melt down by the time we headed home. I was stopped a few times by armed policemen who accused me of kidnapping and demanded passports, etc. when Talia (and sometimes Katya) would break down on the bus, crying from stress and exhaustion. "If they're actually your children, then why are they screaming at you so loudly?!!" (Clearly these officers didn't yet have kids of their own--or if they did, they had Grandma nearby to watch them. That meant that they never had to bring their kids with them to do errands...)

Another emotional low point came in January, when after four months of being the only foreigner in her nursery school, Katya cried in despair, "You've ruined my life! I want to throw it out the window!" (Given that we live rather high up from the street, I was scared both figuratively and literally!!) It was very hard for her to adjust to life in a new language, without any of her old friends and the ease of English.

It's hard to grasp how much things have changed in three years! Our kids now speak Russian! To think that the afternoon we arrived, Katya didn't know the language at all... Her first word was спаспиво (spaspivo), which she meant as спасибо (spasibo). Her attempt to say "thank you" came out as "save beer"(rather appropriate for Moscow)! Natalia barely spoke English then--and now she can speak two languages!

The city has also become much more child-friendly and we've figured out how to navigate it. That same grocery store that refused to let me in with a stroller now provides carts with built-in race cars (not that I'd EVER patronize their shop, though). Many restaurants now have "Kids' Brunches" with good entertainment on the weekend. Numerous indoor places to go with kids have opened, helping you to get through the winter. And by now, I've discovered many great places I didn't know existed back then. One of the reasons I started this blog was to try to help some other family just moving here now... How much easier it would have been if someone had given me the list of things to do with kids that I've created on my blog's sidebar...

Adjusting to life here has not been easy, and it was important to me that we celebrate today's significance. I wanted the girls to be very proud of their accomplishments, and to know how proud we are of them, too. I'm also proud of what Chris and I have accomplished; in a few months, we will have lived here longer than we've ever lived anywhere else. We live here, not simply getting by. I'm reading "chick lit" books in Russian for pleasure. I just finished Sophie Kinsella's The Undomesticated Goddess in translation (Богинья на Кухне) and am now halfway through Elena Vesyolaya's Бриллианты Forever, или Кто не носит Tiffani (Diamonds are Forever, or Who Doesn't Wear Tiffany).

It seemed fitting to begin our celebration of today's milestone by a trip to the largest bookstore in town. The children's selection has improved tremendously and we found many great books for Katya--that she can read on her own! Some of them are Russian versions of English favorites: Karma Wilson's Bear Wants More, Bear Stays Up for Christmas, Bear's New Friend, and Bear Snores on and the storybook to the new Disney Pixar movie Ratatouille.

Then we went to see Ratatouille--in English! This was a real treat; usually we have to see all new releases in Russian. We LOVED it. We'd been looking forward to it since last summer when we had seen Cars in English--and there had been a trailer for Ratatouille. (There are a few options for English movies in Moscow, but none is particularly convenient. This one doesn't have toilets in the building, so if your child needs to use the bathroom during the movie, you end up missing about twenty minutes of the film...)

We dropped Chris off at work and I bribed the girls to let me take them to Red Square for an anniversary photo. They did NOT want to go, so I proposed that if they cooperated, I'd take them to the new Evropeisky Mall to play afterward. They quickly agreed and were good sports about posing for the picture above. Unfortunately, two cops hassled me for having stopped where I did, threatening me until they finally agreed to take 500 rubles ($19.45) and go away. The picture was worth the money to me, even if the weather was so overcast that the lighting is too dark... (The blogger in me had an agenda!)

We then headed to the mall. The kids were so good and excited about our celebration that I let them make a cow and a puppy at Build-a-Bear (something I had never let them do before). They cost 400 rubles each ($15.50), so it was a real treat for them at a low-for-Moscow price. They chose red, white and blue dresses for the animals since that's what they had worn the day we moved here. Before they were given their animals' birth certificates, they had to read and recite the pledge below--in Russian. Pretty cool, and a perfect way to celebrate their accomplishments.

We then went to the Princess store, a place the girls always love to visit. The clerk gave them sparkly girly-girl makeovers and they picked out glittery lipglosses. There was NOTHING like this when we first moved here... Little by little, we've witnessed places like this arrive and thrive. We ended our afternoon by playing on the indoor playground inside the mall. The kids are very aware of how recently all of these fun places have opened and they are very appreciative. Me, too; I got to read some more of Vesyolaya's book while they played in the chaperoned Pirates' Labyrinth!

I did NOT want to move here when we did, dreading it for months and months. My friend Mary sent me a book called Who Moved My Cheese? in an effort to help me face the change more positively. The author talked about three-year periods of change, and I really agree... The first year everything is new/hard and you react; the second year you start to figure things out; the third year you actually get to live a "normal" life. This year has still been full of changes due to the kids' health needs, but even so, it has felt so much more normal than the previous two...

The day we moved, we drank a toast to our new adventure with strawberry Frappuccinos from the Starbucks at the JFK airport terminal. Today we raised a toast to our success with milkshakes and cappuccino. "За наши успехи!" Yes, to our success and to much more... wherever it may be.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Russian Superstitions (No, you are NOT taking my daughter to a witch doctor!)

Spending time in a village in Ukraine hightened our awareness of Russian/Eastern European superstitions (more about the witch doctor below). They seem to permeate the culture, shaping daily behavior and thought--so they're absolutely inescapable. The visitor who is unaware of such beliefs and customs is likely to be bewildered... We have found ourselves in situations informed by superstition since we first arrived; even the girls have sometimes reacted with confusion--and occasionally anger. (I now realize, though, that the girls have to have acquired some of these beliefs along with their Russian language... They truly believe that you have to wear tights with a skirt even in June.)

I went through Wikipedia and looked at their entry on Russian superstitions. It is long--and I was surprised to realize that I have encountered almost every belief listed. (In my list of supersitions below, all cited descriptions come from Wikipedia). I've found that superstition also blends with religious faith, particularly among those who haven't been extensively exposed to Western culture through friends or colleagues--people from provincial areas with limited education and financial means.
I was struck by the omnipresence of shrines and chapels throughout western Ukraine. Almost every cottage has some sort of decorative cross in front; if you don't have one, your home will be plagued by sorrow and bad luck. The richer the family, the more elaborate and expensive the shrine. Now, just for fun, here is my list of common Russian superstitions:

Never, ever sit on a cold surface.

"It is widely believed in Russia that sitting on cold surfaces, such as rocks or even the ground, is not simply taboo for a woman, but it is extremely hazardous to her health and inhibits her ability to bear children (by somehow exposing her ovaries to the cold). It is a practice that is rigorously upheld, especially in cold weather and with young children, who will often unknowingly sit on the ground, and who will frequently be lifted up by a supervising adult."

This has to be the number one superstition that I have faced again and again and again!!!! Russian grandmothers (babushki) feel impelled by God to tear into any mother who is so careless as to let her children face possible infertility... I just grin and bore it for the first year or so... and then it started to really get to me. One day the girls wouldn't listen me and come to the door to go inside. They were really carrying on and I ended up sitting on the steps until they tired of their tantrums. In the meantime, a babushka came up and started YELLING at me with derision and anger, "Are you an idiot? Get up or you won't be able to have any more children!" I raised my eyebrows, gestured to my shrieking childen, lay back against the step behind me, smiled, and said, "Great!". She was soooo stunned and walked away quicky.

A famous incident relating to this superstition also arose in 1985 as Ted Turner was preparing for the Moscow Goodwill Games. The stadium he constructed that was to host a majority of the events had concrete seats--and he was accused of secretly plotting to make Russian women infertile. I've heard this anecdote for years and just tried to substantiate it with sources--and I couldn't. Even this is just a Russian urban legend, it illustrates the superstition quite well! The people who have recounted this incident to me did so with such outrage as if they were sharing the details of an undercover plot involving mass poisoning.

Avoid chilling the body at all costs.

"Russians believe it is crucial to stay dry and warm at all times in order to protect one's health."

Given that five months of the year are filled with cold snow and slush, this is difficult. They also believe it is downright dangerous to drink chilled beverages--and God forbid you add ice! (But what, though, about Russians who go swimming for "polar bear swims"--when it's the middle of winter? Or what about dunking yourself in cold water after the sauna? I just don't get it!)

I have often been chided for how my kids are dressed and I've pretty much gotten used to it. I refuse to make my kids wear tights when it's over 65 degrees outside! Russian kids, however, will be seen wearing tights and hats when it's as warm as 80 degrees! (This seems to be particularly true when the seasons are changing).

When Talia was still a toddler, she often refused to wear a hat and boots. While in the stroller, she would throw off her hat and kick her boots as far as they would go (unbeknownst to me as I pushed along--and then I'd have to retrace my tracks to find the missing footwear). Given how expensive it is to replace boots here, I ended up just taking them off of her when she was defiant and I'd place them in the stroller's basket. This ENRAGED certain babushki. One was particularly shocked by my lack of parenting skills and berated me at length. Once she finished, I smiled and asked her if she would like to try putting the boot back on Natalia. She did, and Natalia then kicked it hard--right at her ear. The babushka got the point and muttered, "Wild American child..." as she scowled and walked away.

Every time I order my kids' beverages in a restaurant, the server has to ask at least twice if I truly wanted their beverages chilled. They insist, "Don't you really mean warm?" Warm juice? Warm Sprite? Warm water? Yuck!! I'm then sometimes warned how my children will become sick, just in case I hadn't understood. Katya occasionally chimes in, "Not just chilled... We want ICE!" That's my little American!

The whole "to go" concept in beverages isn't really catching on here; perhaps it's because of a fear that the drink would inadvertently get cold.

Tea will keep you healthy or cure illnesses.

The kids at nursery school all sit down for tea throughout the day. It's quite sweet--both the scene and the drink! My kids love tea with sugar or honey. People here drink tea all day long; tea is much more popular than coffee. When someone is sick, a remedy of tea with homemade raspberry jam in it is often offered. My host mother in 1991 always made sure to make enough jam during the summer to last the whole year--and you only got to taste it when sick. Given how Russians believe that drinking a cold beverage will lead to illness, it makes sense that they have an affinity for the warm beverage.

Antibiotics and Western medicine are suspicious; home remedies work just as well... or better.

Homeopathic medicine is quite common throughout Europe, so Russia isn't unique in this practice... But there seems to be a mistrust of anything else. I constantly got unsollicited advice about how to treat the girls when they used to get sick so often. I've even been told that instead of working with a child psychologist and speech therapist, all Natalia needs is a certain herb that will sharpen her mind and calm her down--by the director of her former school! Perhaps it could help a little? But I really do trust the care she's getting, and she's doing so much better...

In places such as remote villages, there's probably an element of self-preservation is putting so much trust in home remedies. Our friends in Ukraine don't have access to modern medical care, so it's good for their peace of mind to believe that the old woman in the neighboring town truly does have magical healing powers that far surpass the effectiveness of any American doctor or hospital. While we were there, Styopa actually drove us for two hours to the remote home of a shaman/mystical healer who would be able to stop Natalia from occasionally peeing at night. He didn't TELL me that's where we were going until we were almost there... Luckily, she wasn't home... Despite my curiosity, I wouldn't have let Natalia go in, anyway; I didn't want anything said that would make her self-conscious about something that's not even an issue.

Do not greet visitors over the threshold.

"Shaking hands and giving things across the threshold is taboo. Usually a guest will come inside before shaking a host's hand when arriving and shake it before leaving the threshold when leaving. Sometimes people will even avoid saying "hello" and "goodbye" across the threshold."

I had an "aha!" moment as I read the above superstition... Now I know why some of the people I tutor back away when I open the door for them and hold out my hand... Or why they don't say anything until inside. I had no idea I was committing a faux pas!

Never, ever give someone an even number of flowers.

"It is traditional in Russia for men to give flowers to women on nearly every occasion, but only an odd number can be given. Giving an even number of flowers is taboo, because even numbers are brought to funerals."

The type of flower you give also holds superstitious meaning--you can unintentionally send the wrong message. For example, if a man gives his secretary gardenias for her birthday, he could unwittingly be giving her a message of of his secret love!

Always bring a hostess gift.

"You should never go to someone else's house empty handed. Flowers, alcoholic beverages and/or dessert are common gifts to bring when invited to someone's home." If you don't bring a gift, you are bringing bad luck to both the host and your friendship.

Bringing a hostess gift is good manners in many cultures, but here it is exceptionally important. I have gotten so used to it that I never, ever show up empty-handed--even when visiting expat friends. This sometimes makes my expat friends uncomfortable, i.e. they had really insisted that I didn't need to bring anything...

Propose a toast when drinking and always accept what is offered to you.

"It is traditional to always propose some kind of toast when drinking. Refusing to drink vodka on certain occasions or to a certain toast (honor) may sometimes be considered rude. For instance refusing to drink vodka at a funeral banquet is considered unacceptable. However you never toast in honor of those who have died or on Easter (for the same reason). Your glass cannot touch the table from the time a toast is proposed to the time you drink. Your glass should remain on the table when it is being refilled. Many Russians consider it bad form not to finish a bottle of vodka once it has been opened, no matter how few people there are left to finish it. It is also considered bad form to drink alcohol -- even relatively mild beverages, such as beer -- without eating something between sips or shots. For this reason, Russian cuisine is particularly rich in appetizers and finger-foods (закуски), as they are used as chasers. When pouring wine, you should never pour back handed."

One could go on and on and on about drinking customs... They are so important that it really is hard for people who abstain from alcohol. Things have changed enough that when in business/social company here (i.e. Russians used to Westerners and exposed to Western culture), expats needn't worry about mortally offending colleagues and friends by not drinking. In other company, however, you really can end up commiting a serious faux pas. I've known friends to lie, claiming to have a rare life-threatening heart condition for which they're on medication--and that when mixed with alcohol, the medication could prove fatal--and the Russian hosts didn't even accept that as a reason to abstain!

Always wear and offer slippers to anyone who visits your home.

This is so true! EVERYONE wears tapochki (slippers) here, and most Russians have a basket of slippers ready to offer anyone who visits. I hope I haven't offended my friends by wearing my socks most of the time (or by not having enough slippers to offer them). Slippers take up space, though, and we have so little of that in our entryway! They're also harder to clean. I finally invested in fun chenille socks to offer my students when they come for lessons; afterwards I can just throw them in the wash.

Do not whistle indoors.

"Whistling indoors is taboo. Russians sometimes say superstitiously that you will "whistle away your money". The origins of this are in superstition, as it used to be considered a sin: it was believed that when you whistled you were entertaining the devil. In general it is considered rude."

Oh.... Now I get why I got so many odd looks when trying to teach the girls to whistle while we waited for the airplane the other day.... It was a big waiting area and we weren't near anyone to bother--but when people walked by, they seemed really surprised...

Do not point.

"It is impolite to point with your finger. But if you must point, it's better to use your entire hand instead of your finger."

It's impolite to point in many cultures, so this doesn't surprise me... But this could explain the shocked responses I got from all the students and observing administrators and teachers at the school I interviewed at this spring. I conducted the class using the Rassias method of language drills, which requires constant snapping and pointing around the room at the students as you keep them on their toes and elicit responses. Evidently they weren't too offended, though, since I got the job!

Observe a group moment of silence before leaving on a journey and don't go back if you forget something!

"Before leaving for a long journey the traveler(s), and all those who are seeing them off, must sit for a moment in silence before leaving the house. It is often conveniently written off as a time to sit and think of anything one may have forgotten..."

"Returning home for forgotten things is also a bad omen. It is believed that you are followed by a guardian angel when you leave your home. If you unexpectedly decide to return, the confused angel will be waiting alone on the side of the road and will be powerless to protect you. Consequently you will invite danger to your journey if you do go back home… unless of course you look in the mirror where the evil spirits lurk, or even stick out your tongue to scare them away before leaving the house again…"

Our friends in the Ukraine used to drive me crazy by insisting we sit down as we bustled to head to the airport; I thought they didn't "get" that we were in a rush! Instead, they were trying to wish us luck... Chris chimed in about the importance of never going back to get something you've forgotten; I guess even at work it's a big no-no (just think of how that can complicate a business transaction!). He also said that the group moment of silence before leaving on a trip is made even luckier if you observe it while sitting on your packed luggage.

Don't clean up after someone who is travelling until he/she returns.

"After someone has left the house on a long journey, their room and/or their things should not be cleaned up until they have arrived".

And to think of how we asked Liudmila and Styopa to clean every time we left and to have the house sparkling clean right before we'd return!

Knock on wood and spit three times over your left shoulder for good luck.

"Knocking on wood is practiced just as much, and in most cases much more, in Russia as it is everywhere else. However Russians tend to add a symbolic three spits over one's left shoulder (or simply with the head turned to the left), and Russians will often knock three times as well. Traditionally one was spitting on the devil (who is always on the left)."

EVERY Russian I know does the fake spit three times over the left shoulder! I remember how my favorite Russian professor in college did it, and how surprised I was to then see everyone else do it, too, once I got to Russia.

Don't look into a broken mirror.

"Breaking a mirror isn't considered bad luck in Russia, but looking at one's reflection in a broken mirror is. And the effect is more severe than 7 years of bad luck."

A babushka was once VERY upset that I let the kids look at a broken mirror when we walked by the garbage dumpsters. She yelled at me about it, but I thought she was just afraid I'd let them touch the jagged glass. Well, that was two years ago, so we only have five more to get through...

Never celebrate a birthday before the actual date.

"Birthday parties should be celebrated on or after one's birthday, not before. So when one's birthday falls during the week, it's best to celebrate the following weekend."

This past year, two other moms and I decided to hold a joint birthday party for our daughters. Their birthdays were all within three weeks of each other, and it was just so much easier... Natalia's birthday, however, hadn't yet passed... The Russian teachers were a little worried and bewildered by my carefree happiness about the early party... They were afraid I was bring her bad luck. (Only one of many times, I sure, when they secretly thought how odd foreigners can be!)

Don't buy anything for a baby until it has been born.

I knew that Jewish tradition prohibits early preparation for a baby's arrival, but I didn't know that this was true in Russia, as well. One of the girls' teachers is due to have a baby any day now, and I suggested to some of the other parents that we have a baby shower for her. They had no idea what a baby shower even was--and when I explained the custom, they all said, "No!" in unison. Instead I gave the teacher a small bag with a a cute onesie and a nursing bra when school ended. She was actually worried until I told her that I'd already had the onesie--and the bra--but had never used them (both items still had tags). I guess that passing along something we already had, as opposed to going out and specifically buying something for the baby, wasn't as much of a bad omen.

Don’t show your newborn baby to a stranger until it is 40 days old.

There are many nannies/grandmas/new moms pushing around carriages in our neighborhood. The girls love to try to peek at the babies as they go by, and we often get piercing looks as a result. I thought it was more a question of disliking nosiness, or of wanting to keep the baby completely away from any perceived breeze--but perhaps they think that our trying to see the baby could bring it bad luck... (That thought makes my neighbors not seem to unfriendly after all...)

Don't step over anyone.

"It is often considered taboo to step over people, or parts of their body, who are on the ground. It is often said that it will prevent the person from growing (if they are not fully grown already). It is better to politely ask the person to move or to find a way around them. If one accidentally steps over a person (or people), it is sometimes standard to step backwards over them."

I saw the girls' ballet teacher do the reverse backwards step over Katya last year! She had accidentally stepped over Katya while helping her with her split. I had thought her behavior was a little strange; now I know why!

Don't break bread with your hands.

"Bread should only be cut with a knife, not with your hands. Otherwise, it is said, that your life will be broken."

That explains why our dinner guests have avoided the baguette! I didn't know I should put out a board and bread knife...

A person coming towards you with empty buckets means bad luck; full buckets mean good luck.

Styopa was really upset whenever we drove by peasants with empty buckets; he would instantly cross himself a few times and say a prayer. Katya noticed this and thought it was quite odd; this is how our conversations about superstitions first started. On the other hand, he was very happy whenever we passed someone with buckets full of water, milk or produce!

A funeral procession brings good luck. But one should never cross its path or it is bad luck.

Before we got a car, I used to ride with other people. I thought it odd that they would smile at funeral processions! Now I guess they were simply glad at the good luck they had just received.

If it rains on someone's wedding, it means they'll be wealthy.

This is also true in Italy: "Sposa bagnata, sempre fortunata." We've attended two Russian weddings here; both times it rained and the families were actually happy about it!

If one or more birds defecate on you, it's good luck.

Katya came home from school this spring with bird poop on her; it had happened as they were getting in the van to drive home and she didn't have time to get washed up. She was so angry that her teachers had congratulated her on her good fortune! She certainly didn't feel lucky!

Friday, July 6, 2007

Katya's Proverb Lessons

Katya surprised us while we were out hunting for mushrooms. Unimpressed by Natalia's impatience, she started spouting Russian proverbs...

Без труда не вынуть и рыбки из пруда.
No pain, no gain.
(Without effort you can't get fish from the pond.)

Закончи дело, гуляай смело.
Work before play.
(Finish the job and then have fun).

За двумя зайцами погонишься, ни одного не поймаешь.
Grasp all, lose all.
(If you go after two rabbits, you won't catch a single one.)

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Daily Life in a Tiny Village in Ukraine

We just got back from the Ukraine. The village we visited is located near the Carpathian mountains of western Ukraine, next to the border with Poland. On the map below, look to the far left and find "L'viv" (Lvov). We were to the left of Lvov, on the border. (I'm so glad that I got to go to Lvov, too; I had wanted to visit there ever since studying the Holocaust and learning about the annihilation of the Jewish community there and in the surrounding areas).
We visited Styopa and Liudmila, the couple who babysat for us our first year and a half in Moscow. It was quite an experience to both travel and spend time there! (More on the "travel" aspect in another posting). This is a view of their home from the street. It consists of a two-room cottage (table/dining area and living room/bedroom) and a separate shack where they cook and bathe. I'll write more about our time there in a separate posting; here is an overview of what daily life is like for them in their town.

The week we spent there certainly gave us a new appreciation of how "modern" Moscow is... When the girls and I got home this morning (after travelling for a full day), we desperately wanted a hot shower... But due to renovation work in our building, there was no water at all... Once it was turned on again, there was no hot water--and our hot water heater wouldn't work... I was too tired to heat water on the stove and sponge bathe the girls, but I took a cold shower myself and didn't even care! I was so thankful to simply have running water!

"The Vegetable Garden"

They grow enough vegetables to last all year long, primarily potatoes, onions, beets, garlic, carrots and cabbage.. The girls really liked the potatoes and fresh dill. (Good, since they ate little else other than salad and bread... Liudmila ended up having to leave after one day to watch her granddaughter and Styopa did all the cooking). Tending the garden and running the household fills up all of Liudmila's time. It is HARD work. Styopa's cousin makes enough butter and cheese for them all, and cows provide fresh milk and cream three times per day.

"The Faucet"
Fresh water used to come from this well next the house, but a flood this spring damaged the water and they can't use it anymore. Now they must cross the street to a cousin's house and use water from their well. When the stream water is clean, they use that instead for bathing and laundry.

"The Dishwasher"
We haven't had a dishwasher in nine years, but this was certainly more work than we're used to! It sure is hard to truly get the dishes clean... Washing hands and brushing teeth don't quite get done that much... (It was hard to always find water and soap after the girls used the outhouse or bucket).

"The Shower/Bath Room (Banya)"
In order to bathe, you have to carry over water from across the street, heat it on the stove, carry it into the banya, mix it with cold water to the right temperature, and ladel it on. This explains why it's common to bathe only once a week--if that. (YUCK!) Most people who then move to a city where it's easy to bathe still only do so occasionally--it doesn't even occur to them.

"The Lawn Mower, Version 1"
The neighbors' cows come over regularly to keep the lawn in check.

"The Lawn Mower, Version 2"
Whatever the cows don't eat, Styopa cuts down with a sickle.
"Cat Food"
The cat's diet of mice is supplemented with fresh fish whenever possible. Styopa catches fish for her in the stream behind the house. The girls LOVED trying (key word there) to catch fish.

"The Winter Grocery Store"
Shopping in the village consists of a padlocked metal shed and a delapidated one-room hut. Selection is EXTREMELY limited, of poor quality and overpriced, so our friends avoid having to buy anything. (They also need to live on their combined pensions of $165 per month).

"The Refrigerator"
This cellar stays cool all-year-round and serves as the refrigerator for potatoes and other root vegetables that don't need to be canned. The girls remember hearing about such cellars during pioneer times and were quite fascinated.

"The All-in-One Stove, Hot Water Heater and Garbage Disposal"

I think that says it all...

"Local Mushrooms" and "Local Florist"
We had a lot of fun looking for mushrooms and zemlyaniki (wild strawberries) in the hills.
Both girls also loved picking wildflowers in the hills behind the house.

"Closest Shop for Eggs, Poultry and Honey"
Styopa does odd jobs for these neighbors in exchange for these foods.

"Closest Store"
The green metal box is actually a store. It primarily sells flour, sugar, beer, vodka and toilet paper.

"Local School"
Note all the playground equipment--considered to be quite a great selection. It's made out of painted rusting steel, VERY typical in countries of the former USSR.

"Local Library"
Even the pigs are welcome here! (Not quite like the libraries where you work, Dotty! And certainly no internet...)

"Closest Emergency Room"
You drive up this dirt driveway to the medical clinic in the nearest big town. There's also a "hospital" in the village, but it's a concrete block structure that is falling apart and is staffed by one old doctor who couldn't make ends meet on her pension and liked working. I wish I could have taken a picture of it!!! (And I am SOOO thankful we didn't require any medical attention while there!)

"Delivery Service"
Styopa is pretty busy driving people around in his 1983 Lada. Many other locals get around on these homemade carriages. They're also used for hauling materials for farming and produce. The majority of people don't have jobs other than farming--there aren't jobs to be had! While beautiful, the area is extremely depressing. Most people here lived better during Soviet times and a sense of hopelessness hangs everywhere.