Friday, September 28, 2007

First Parent-Teacher Conference at Katya's School (It's all A.D.D.-ing up well!)

Today I met with Katya's main teacher for our first conference. She showed me all of Katya's work thus far and the report that was jointly prepared by her, the school's neuropathologist (huh? perhaps it's more like a "counselor"?), and the speech pathologist. Katya's doing great so far and it was interesting to see her various assignments (I don't see most of her work at home since they try to have students complete their homework at school). They have no concerns about her ability to do well; she works very hard, pays close attention in class, asks thoughtful and thorough questions, and completes all assignments carefully. Her Russian isn't on the same level as that of the native speakers', but her teacher doesn't think it's an issue at all.

Yep, that music you are hearing in the background is the harp music accompanying this song: "Thank God we caught her ADD early on and she's getting great help!" (She was only diagnosed last month while we were in the USA).

I'm even more relieved about having proceeded with treating her ADD after hearing about how she's doing socially. Once she adjusted to being on medication, she began to play confidently with other kids. (ADD had mostly affected her socially up until now; she had difficulties staying focused in group conversations and games, often then just giving up and keeping to herself. She also had a hard time focusing on constructive problem solving whenever conflict arose). The teacher has seen very marked progress in this area, stating that although Katya was very happy to arrive at school each day from the very beginning, she clearly struggled emotionally in social situations.

Three weeks later, she is a different kid: mostly confident and social throughout the day. She is a rather serious child and will always need her "down time" to be alone, but she's happy and making choices about how to spend her time based on what she wants--and not based on her fears of how others might not like her. She still has room for improvement, but she's clearly on her way.

Having a kid with ADD opens up a whole new awareness about difficulties posed by being expat parents in Russia. While ADD is recognized as a condition in Russia, it isn't treated. The only reason any diagnosis is made is to simply pacify parents--that there's a reason for their child's behavior, so to be more patient. How tragic!!! There's no medication for it here, and Ritalin is illegal--it's classified as speed!

This causes many problems for expat parents--you have to always have enough of your child's prescription with you when you return from a trip to the USA. Then you encounter the problems with how Ritalin is prescribed in the USA: your prescription has to be received by the pharmacy as a hard copy, so you need to allow for necessary mail time. It's also hard to get more of the prescription than a one month's supply and insurance will only allow you to fill more than one month if you use their mail-order pharmacy. Given how outrageously expensive Ritilin is, it's quite an expensive ordeal!! (Yes, you can file a claim and get reimbursed, but who wants to front $1,800 or more?)

Having now been through this process, I've learned a few things:
  1. Get your prescriptions mailed in as early as possible!!!! Ask the child's doctor to mail in the scrips well in advance of your trip to the USA; even if a change in dosage needs to be made, at least you'll have a good percentage of what you'll need.
  2. Call the insurance company and plead your case if you don't have time for mail-order. They can do an override and you can fill up to six months under your insurance (Cigna International).
  3. Don't assume that any given pharmacy will have more than a month's supply of your child's medication. Call ahead; there was no pharmacy within an hour of my mom's house in CT that could have filled Katya's meds for three months. As a result, we won't have enough to get us to Christmas and Chis has to go the US and bring it back.
  4. You can't mail Ritalin; it is illegal and will be confiscated. If not legally seized, it will likely simply be stolen.
  5. If your Ritalin is stolen, you can file a claim with the insurance company and they will cover a supply to make up for the one that got lost.
  6. You can't ask anyone else to bring Ritalin into the country for you; they could get arrested for drug smuggling. When bringing in the medication, be absolutely certain to keep it in the pharmacy packaging labeled with your child's name. The US embassy has had to intervene in the past for people who were detained for bringing in Ritalin.
  7. The European drug companies are aware of this problem and are working hard to convince Russia to legalize medications which are standard elsewhere.
  8. Don't hide your child's ADD from his or her school; it's better to try to educate them. If they're not open to learning about it and working with you, your child would be better elsewhere...
I also learned at Katya's conference that the school had updated the website; they now have the school's photographer upload photos from each event! (If you'd like to see the school's website, e-mail me and I'll send it to you). These two pictures are from the Wilderness Day last weekend. There were also some sweet ones from the first day of school. Another cool new addition to the school itself is a Ceiva frame in the school's lobby; while you wait for your child, you can see constantly rotating pics of all the classes from that week. I got to see Katya on her field trip to the natural history museum this week!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Natalia can read (with a cute British accent)!

(Disclaimer about video length: I included not only her first two books, but also outtakes that I knew her grandparents wouldn't want to miss. This is hardly "life in Moscow" fodder, but it's special to us!)

Natalia started reading this week! Her teacher is just wonderful... The children have been working with all the characters (a family) of a British "Learning to Read" series of books in various art and writing projects. They then learned how to write the characters' names and how to read them. For two weeks she brought home books about the family that had no words; she had to tell us the stories in her own words. The books now have words and she's slowly progressing to an increasing amount of words. She can sound out many words and recognizes about 25 from flashcards.

The first time she read "Six in a Bed" to us, she had the strongest British accent throughout! How I wish I had recorded her that time; the more she reads, the more she "americanizes" her pronunciation. Listen in particular to how she says "Kipper" (Kippuh), "Mum" and "Floppy" (Flope-ee).

She is soooooo proud!!!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Wilderness Day at Katya's School (Good thing the dead body was removed before all the kids arrived...)

(Note: I've got access to the internet once more after a week of continued computer problems. I hope that they're now definitively resolved and I'll be posting regularly again).

This Saturday there was an all-day outdoors event for the elementary school. Everyone met up at a train station off of Rublyovskoe-Uspyenskoe Shosse, the road I wrote about last June when we visited friends at the summer dacha resort they were renting. In "New York" terms, that road would be the equivalent of the Long Island Expressway--leading all Manhattanites to their exclusive Hamptons residences--if only the L.I.E. were a rural two-lane road, and it also lead to the cultural equivalent of Greenwich and tony Westchester towns--with luscious forests all around. We then hiked up about 3/4 of a mile into the woods.

The day was absolutely wonderful. The moms in Katya's homeroom had already met and we'd divided amongst ourselves everything we'd need for a nice cookout. I brought all of the paper goods and other moms brought all the food for sandwiches, fresh veggies & fruit, sausages to roast, desserts and beverages. The other parents are really nice and the kids had a great time together. Everyone had known that I'd be bringing Natalia and she was made to feel very welcome. (Siblings were invited, but Natalia was the only little sister in Katya's class to come--probably because Russian families tend to space their kids by at least four to five years; the toddler and baby siblings in the class were simply too young to come.) The mom who brought orange t-shirts gave one to Natalia, too, and the kids included her in all the activities. She LOVED it and now can't wait to go to school there, too.

There were twenty stations set up throughout the woods and each homeroom was given a map with their locations. The kids had to read the map to find where each station was and they had an hour and a half to accomplish all the tasks. The children were given points based on their ability to work as a group and their success in completing challenge. Among the tasks were: pitching a tent (which Katya's group did better than any other group--they even beat the third graders!); locating "north"--which they did based on moss growth on trees and using a compass; identifying wildlife; teamwork tasks such as balancing pencils fingertip-to-fingertip with a partner and in a large circle; guiding a blindfolded partner to a tree and then having the partner identify which tree it had been based on touch; guiding a classmate through a "minefield" by giving good directions--and with their backs to the mine--they only got to see it once before looking away; packing up food for storage in the wilderness; etc.

Each station was staffed by high school students and alumni who did a great job working with the children. I was very impressed by this aspect of the day; the fact that the students gave up their Saturday to do this says a lot about how they feel about their school--and even moreso for the alumni. The school in Connecticut that I attended through ninth grade (it ended in ninth grade) is the kind of place where you would find such a sense of pride and community; I had been keenly hoping to find a school like this for our girls here. After Saturday, I think we did. It was obvious that all the teachers were having as much fun as the kids and that they see being a teacher there is much, much more than simply putting in their hours during the traditional work day. Katya's teachers expertly encouraged the children to work as a team without doing any of the actual tasks themselves.

I also had the chance to talk extensively with the school's director. His parents founded the school in the '90s after living in America--they wanted to create an intellectually exciting school where children were loved and encouraged to develop not only as students, but also as well-adjusted and happy individuals. I'm so impressed thus far that I may teach there full-time next year; we'll see :-) It would be great to work where the kids go to school; I loved the "second family" atmosphere of the schools I attended and taught at in the USA.

And yet... this IS NOT the USA! While chatting, the director shared with me how last spring the school had celebrated the anniversary of the school's founding by clearing this area of forest--and that a dead body had been discovered as they collected litter. To his surprise, this Friday, as they prepared for the elementary school's wilderness day, they saw that the body still hadn't been removed! Luckily that task was accomplished before all the children arrived the next day...

So... as much as the day reminded me of the "Fall Family Clean-Up" (i.e. raking leaves) at my old school in Connecticut, there was that special "Moscow touch"...

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Random Weekly Recap

The past two weeks have been an exhausting blur of new schools for both girls, a birthday, birthday parties (yeah--one at school, one here with old friends), MAJOR reorganizing in the apartment, a new job for Chris (he switched law firms) and a new job for me. And spotty internet access and a failing computer. Needless to say, I'm utterly exhausted. The post about all the "Katyas" that I just did had actually been almost completely written two weeks ago--I simply had never had the time to finish it.

This week is going to be hectic until Friday--but here's a quick update for those of you who have been asking:

The girls both love their new schools (and so do we). We're as pleased as punch with their teachers, peers and learning. Katya is quite happy that there's a sweet American girl (half Russian) in her English class (it's just them; she's in second grade and farther along in reading than Katya--but just far enough that it's inspiring to Katya to catch up). It was also surprising to open up the Russian version of "People" and see three of Katya's classmates from the first day of school with their famous parents (a singer and two soccer players).

The kittens are still a joy. Each one knows who is her "owner" and appropriately goes to sleep with the right girl. It's amazing! The kittens cuddle Katya and Natalia all night long!

For the most part, I'm enjoying teaching again. I have eighteen (yes, EIGHTEEN!!!!!!) different classes to prep for, though, the two days I teach. I'm spending a full third day simply preparing for the two days teaching. It'll get easier once I have French and Spanish textbooks, but that will be at least three more weeks. The students are testing me right now, trying to see what they can get away with. It's not fun being the disciplinarian at home AND at school, but I know from experience that once they know me, it'll be easier.

I got up the courage to cut Natalia's hair. It had been growing out for two years from when Katya played hairdresser and hacked it off... I was reticent to ever cut their hair lest it rekindle their desire to try it again themselves (Katya has done this five times...). It turned out considerably better than when Katya last cut her hair! You be the judge:

Katya's American Girl Pajama Madness birthday party was a hit. The kit was fantastic; the decorations, activities, party favors and games that came with it were wonderful. Katya had a great time seeing her friends from Brownies (we haven't yet met--first meeting of the year is this Thursday). She also invited Masha, her first Russian friend from when we moved here, and Alisa, the American/Russian friend at her new school. The flip flop cake (I called it "slippers" to make it fit the party's theme) turned out both adorable and delicious. So glad I was able to get fruit roll-ups for the straps during Stockmann's "New York" month!

It's officially fall here in Moscow and you need a coat (plus a hat for the kids). The weather changes soooo fast. Oh... that means that winter will be here soon, too....

So Many Katyas...

Rachael commented a few weeks ago about how many Katyas we have floating around (it can get confusing when she comments here in my blog and mentions her own daughter--see below)... I thought I'd do a posting about how we came up with her name and just how common it is here in Russia. I'll also put faces to the many Katyas that appear in my blog.

I've loved the name Katya, or Katerina, ever since I first watched Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov skate in 1986 at the Goodwill Games. I used to skate competitively and I really admired her talent; she and Sergei were pure magic on the ice! She was my age and there she was an Olympic champion in Calgary in '88!

I actually met her father in 1989 after an ice show in Connecticut and he gave me their home address to write her. I had already started studying Russian then and he was impressed; he wanted Katya to keep working on her English. When I spent the fall in Moscow in 1991 I got to go to her home, even though she wasn't there (she was in the United States giving birth to Darya). It was amazing to see so many of her medals in her room! You can see a tribute to Sergei (he died suddenly and tragically from heart failure in 1995) and clips of their skating here.

Then in college I met another Katya who became a dear friend and my maid of honor. She had emigrated from Russia (St. Petersburg) as a child. Petite and considered small by all of us in college, it's quite funny that in our family she's referred to as "Big Katya"--to differentiate her from "our Katya." This summer we were able to meet up for the first time in four years; I got to meet her younger son and she got to hear our girls speak Russian. We all lived together in Ann Arbor, MI for three years when Chris was in Law School. We went through our first pregnancies together and then enjoyed being new moms together, too. It was very hard to leave Michigan and our daily friendship. I still miss going to the Farmers' Market and Zingerman's together...

Three years later we moved to Russia... and the number of Katyas we knew literally exploded. We had originally chosen Russian names for our kids because we met in our Russian classes and they jazz up our COMMON English last name. We also figured we'd be in Russia at some point for Chris's job, and having Russian names would help the girls to fit in more easily. I remember Katya's first day of nursery school in Moscow so clearly; she came home AMAZED that she had met another Katya! "There's anOTHER Katya in the world! And I met her!" Little did she know how many she would meet in the next few years!

Since then there has always been another Katya in her class at each school she attends. Her gymnastics teacher was named Katya. Chris has colleagues who are either named Katya or whose wives are.

In May we then met another very special Katya--who had just been adopted from St. Petersburg by an American family in Michigan (her mom is the Rachael mentioned at the beginning of this post). The girls thought it was quite wonderful to share the same name--and how ironic that "Katya from Michigan's" (that's how we refer to her) first American friend was also named Katya!

You just don't have the variety in first names that one finds in America... Chances are, any woman you meet here is going to be named Ekaterina (Katya); Natalia (Natasha); Irina; Anastasia (Nastya); Elena (Lena); Olga (Olya); Maria (Masha); Tatyana (Tanya). She might then also be Anya, Sveta, Karina, Lyuba, Lyudmila, Marina, Tamara, Nadya, Evgenya, Zhenya or Maya. I'm sure I'm forgetting a few, but that list covers most of it... I find it very hard to remember new acquaintances' names because of this! Since most women's names end in -a or -ya, they start to all blend together in my mind.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Katya's 7th Birthday

I'm still trying to catch up on posts from last week since we didn't have any internet...

Katya's birthday is spanning a few weeks this year! Months, actually... My mom really misses never getting to see the girls on their birthdays, so this year she gave them their presents when we arrived for our summer holiday at her house. I'm glad that she got to see how much fun they have with their Emily doll and their theater stage! Her actual birthday was last Monday, but since the day would already be busy with first-day-of-school hustle and bustle for both her and her sister, we observed her birthday as a family the day before.

Chris surprised us all with a nice lunch out at Goodman's Steak House and a stop at Build-A-Bear. I think he brought the kids there just as much for himself as for them; he loves watching how happy they are as they create their new pals. As they made their dogs, they kept saying how nice it would be to have a real pet... Little did we all know!!! While at Evropeisky Mall, we saw that the ice rink on the top floor will open in October. That will be super!

Sunday morning Katya opened up her birthday presents. As usual, she was happy to get lots of new books from us and her grandparents in Colorado. Since there's no children's library for English books here (that we could get to--we could pay a fee to use the school library of one of the Anglo schools here, but given Moscow traffic, it's just not an option), every occasion in our family is feted by books. Katya and Natalia have particularly loved the American Girl books about Kaya, a Nez Pierce Native American girl growing up in 1764 on the land that eventually became Oregon and Utah. Katya was thrilled to receive Kaya from my dad--who lives in Oregon and has taken us to places described in the books.

She was also excited to get a few matching outfits to wear with her dolls and some historical dress-up clothing (in her "Kit" twinset and skirt as she rode her scooter home from school); she had outgrown most of what we had (for dress-up). I found period dresses on ebay that she has been eager to wear--luckily they're lovely enough that she can wear them to school and not raise any eyebrows. She LIVES in dress-up clothing, getting into character for days on end, so it's the best toy she could get. The many months she spent wearing the same worn "Little House on the Prairie" dress last year were interesting... particularly when she would tell her teachers, "Я пионерка!"/"I'm a pioneer"--because "pioneer" here means "member of the communist youth organization"!

At dinner after the first day of school, we stuck candles into one of the leftover cupcakes I'd made to bring to school. Her birthday party with friends will be next weekend; I'll make a real cake then.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Home Sweet Home...

It's safe to say that the kittens are settling in quite well! They are comfortable with us and so nice to have around. I'm thankful that we got two at the same time; Katya and Natalia enjoy fussing over their own kittens and it's all they think about. After a few scratches, the girls now know when to leave Asya and Lyalya alone. The kittens are quite intrigued by our doll-sized furniture and quickly claimed it as their own. My heart MELTED when I saw Asya curled up on Molly's bed with Bennet and Yank, the doll's puppies! It's so funny when they look at themselves in the mirror over the dresser in that room, too.

The kittens' other favorite place to play and nap is in the dolls' tent. They're so much fun at this size!

Calling all Americans in Moscow: Head to Stockmann's for "New York" Month Bargains!

I stopped in at Stockmann's, the Finnish department store, on Tuesday morning to pick up some cheddar (couldn't get it anywhere else and I really wanted it for chili and enchiladas). Not only did they have cheddar, but it was also ON SALE (Um, if you consider 690 rubles per kilo/$12.55 per pound a bargain...)! And they're celebrating "New York in Motion" month!

I also ran into a good friend and got to chat with her for a while! She told me a story about how when she first moved here, she asked for a kilo of hamburger meat--and was shocked to then notice that it was going to cost her SEVENTY FIVE DOLLARS--$34 per pound! She was so embarrassed that she snuck it out of her cart and left it in the poultry section! Stockmann's is NOT known for low prices--but their sale items are always a nice surprise.

I was tickled pink to see so many American items there, things that are usually non-existent here. Some of the prices were much higher than I'd willingly pay, but you know... If any of those more expensive items had been something I really, really love, I'd have been glad to buy them anyway... (The Chips Ahoy cookies cost 245 rubles/$9.80 a bag--I passed on them... But I did indulge in Pepperidge Farm Nantucket chunky cookies and milk chocolate/pecan cookies for 130 rubles/$5.20 a bag! I'll keep those on hand for "Ugh! I can't stand being here and need a break!" bleak days). I observed one other woman who giddily threw a variety of Paul Newman's salad dressings, mustards and bbq sauces at 245 rubles/$9.80 a bottle into her cart.

The biggest surprise of all was Shop Rite mac 'n cheese. I'd never buy that in the USA, preferring Annie's organics, but I gladly snapped up 25 boxes at the bargain price of 35 rubles/$1.40. Convenience foods aren't commonly available here, and you can't easily get take-out or delivery. Now that I'm working, I wanted to have a stash of easy dinners on hand. I also picked up many bottles of Shop Rite honey barbeque sauce and K.C. Masterpiece spicy barbeque sauce. (They were a real bargain, too, at 85 rubles/$3.40 and 105 rubles/$4.20). I also stocked up on Campbell's low fat "Cream of Mushroom" and "Cream of Broccoli" soups since they're so easy to use in casseroles.

Other "Yay!!! I actually found this here in Moscow!!" items were fruit roll-ups (I need a box to make the straps on the flip flops cake I'm making for Katya's birthday party) at 185 rubles/$7.40 and a graham cracker crust/pumpkin pie filling (don't remember the price, truthfully didn't even look). I've made my own pumpkin filling in years past, but you can't get all the necessary spices here--allspice, clove, etc.

Here's my list of items worth checking out during their sale (either based on great price for Moscow or the "how lucky you can find it" factor). Advertised prices are significantly cheaper than they were at Stockmann's in the center; go to the Mega locations for these listed prices:

  • Stove Top stuffing/ 95 rubles
  • Newman's Own salsa/ 95 rublesLea & Perrin's Worcestershire Sauce/ 85 rubles
  • Hershey's Chocolate and Strawberry syrups/ 99 rublesmini pastel marshmallows/ 45 rubles
  • Hershey bars/ 25 rubles
  • Pepperidge Farm Dark Chocolate, Nantucket and Sausalito Big Chunk cookies/ 110 rubles
  • Maple Grove Farms Maple, Blueberry and Raspberry Syrups/ 115 rubles
  • Aunt Jemima Buttermilk Pancake Mix/ 85 rubles
  • Skippy Super Chunk and Creamy Peanut Butter (small jar)/ 135 rubles
  • Wishbone salad dressings/ 80 rubles
  • Campbell's Soups/79 rubles
  • Newman's Own Salad Dressings/ 170 rubles
  • Hellman's Mustards and Mayonnaises/ 125-135 rubles
  • Hershey's Kisses/190 rubles
  • Marshmallow Fluff/ 80 rubles
  • Big White Marshmallows/ 60 rubles (for roasting, smores, or Rice Krispy Treats)
  • KC Masterpiece Hickory Brown Sugar, Original and Spicy bbq sauce/ 110 rubles
  • Shop Rite Mac 'n Cheese/ 29 rubles
  • Betty Crocker Cake/Muffin/Icing mixes (didn't catch the price b/c I do my own baking)
  • Pumpkin Pie Mix/forgot price
  • Keebler Graham Cracker Pie Crust/forgot price

Scenes from Katya's 1st Day of School

Here you can see scenes from the opening ceremonies at Katya's school: a view of the crowd assembled in the courtyard (ending on Katya's nervous face)... Katya's class parading around the group, with Katya's name being called... Joseph Kobzon singing with the crowd... Katya's teacher singing a famous Russian birthday song to her. (I've described all of these events in my earlier "Katya's 1st Day of School" post).

Natalia's 1st Day of School

Monday was also Natalia's first day at her new kindergarten. Her speech therapist had recommended trying an all-English environment; we're very lucky that we procured the last spot at a wonderful British school. (Even luckier, given that our speech therapist and her diplomat husband were unfairly and unexpectedly expelled from Russia in July...) Natalia was so excited for school to start! She loved the bouquet we brought her teacher, too. (All Russian kids bring their teachers flowers on the first day of school--and Natalia didn't want to be left out. Katya had given her teachers beautiful bouquets like this one, too).

There will be eight children in Natalia's class and they're quite an international bunch of little English speakers. As is common in expat families, a few of the children speak multiple languages at home since their parents are from different countries. I haven't met all of the other families yet (not everyone is back from holidays), but so far I know that the kids have Austrian, Australian, American, English, Hungarian, Korean and Russian backgrounds.

Every day they work on fine motor skills, handwriting, pre-math, and literacy--and a wide variety of creative activities. I'm very impressed by the teacher; she is extremely organized and her lesson plans are so well thought-out. Natalia will be reading this year! She is quite proud! Natalia also loves the independence that her teacher strives to encourage in all the children. They have a uniform of a school t-shirt so that no one ever need worry about the consequences of stray paint and self-poured snacks.

We're looking forward to the outings already on the calendar--field trips, a celebration of the anniversary of the school's founding, a holiday party. The other parents that I know are very nice and it's fun to hang out with them. I had already met many of the other moms through the International Women's Club toddler playgroup we attended our first year in Moscow.

Talia is also looking forward to the "clubs" that start next week after school. She'll do an extra hour four days of week of the following activities: Russian; Art; Ballet and Cooking. We'll have to see how staying that extra hour affects the time it takes to drive home. It's quite possible that 6 p.m. traffic could make the trip take more than twice as long--and getting home at 7 p.m. (or later) on a daily basis just isn't something I'm willing to do. Her school day doesn't begin until 1 p.m., but she's up each day by 8:30 a.m. anyway... That's just too long a day.

Every day Talia brings home a reader, flashcards, one simple sheet of homework and her day's artwork. She prances to the door, quite proud of the "big girl" contents of her backpack. She had me take this picture on our stoop after her first day; she even looks bigger! (Good thing no babushka was around; I'd have certainly been yelled at for letting Natalia lay down on cold marble!)

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Katya's 1st Day of School

Monday was Katya's first day of school (and her birthday! I'll post more about that separately, but you can see her wearing her favorite birthday gift from Chris and me--a matching outfit with her doll, Kit). This year it was a HUGE deal, because you don't start elementary school until age seven (or almost) in Russia. Last year she was still at a Russian kindergarten--where they cover material commonly taught in first grade in the United States. Being a первый классница is something that every child looks forward to--and that parents and everyone else celebrate, too.

We really like the school that we chose for Katya. It's a private school that runs from nursery school through 11th grade (the last year of high school in Russia); Natalia will do her last year of kindergarten there next year. The school is very American in that it stresses child development in all areas, not only in academics. All it took was a quick chat with the director to know that it just felt "right" there; I knew that Katya would be loved, nurtured and challenged. Katya liked a lot, too, when we first visited and when she returned for orientation meetings.

You can tell how carefully they approach the first graders' adaptation to school by how they've developed the orientation process: all incoming first graders spent three mornings at the school last spring after the regular school year had ended. They got to meet one another and every first grade teacher during those sessions, as well as familiarize themselves with the actual school building and "feel" of a class. The teachers discussed all of the children and divided them into homerooms based on their impressions and detailed questionaires that parents and the school psychologist had filled out (each child had already met with the school psychologist upon enrollment).

During the two weeks before school started, Katya and I were invited to come meet her classroom teachers during an individual meeting. Each class has two teachers: one main teacher who runs the class and another teacher who closely follows each child, ensuring that he/she is learning and thriving. Katya and I split up so that we could spend time one-on-one with both teachers. They used the meeting to get to know Katya better and to go through an EXTREMELY detailed questionaire with me about Katya's likes and dislikes, learning styles, ways of coping in different situations, etc. They wanted to have every bit of information possible to hit the ground running with her (and every other child in the class).

The first day of school was wonderful! The elementary school children, their parents and all of the faculty gathered on the playground for a formal ceremony and parade into the building. (Chris remembered that it had been exactly three years ago during the exact same celebration that 186 schoolchildren were murdered in Beslan when terrorists took them hostage; what a tragedy... Some students from Katya's school were touched by terrorism, too--they were among those taken hostage in the seizure of Dubrovka theater in 2002. I'm not sure if they survived).

In any case, the first graders were the guests of honor; they sat by the stage on special benches. There were welcoming speeches and then the first graders were officially introduced. The 11th graders paired up with 1st graders, pinning the school pin on them and escorting them in a celebratory march as each child's name was read aloud. Older students spoke and sang, and then there was a real surprise: it turns out that a famous Russian singer, Joseph Kobzon, has a granddaughter in the first grade--and he sang for and with us all. Even Chris, Katya and I knew the song he sang, "Пусть Всегда" (May there always be). Katya didn't know who he was, of course, but she recognized him on a billboard as we drove through the city later that day and was tickled pink.

It was then time for the "первый звонок" (first bell). The 11th grader who had attended the school for the longest (or who was the youngest in first grade) rings the bell with the youngest (or first to be enrolled) first grader. Every school does this--and the graduation ceremonies in 11th grade are appropriately called "последный звонок" (last bell).

A very nice 11th grade girl (who had been one of the hosts of the program--so Katya felt quite special) then brought Katya to her classroom and stayed with her for the next hour and a half. Parents waited while the children did a craft with their older buddy and teacher, then all the first graders and their parents went to another school playground for a balloon-releasing ceremony. That morning each child had written a wish on a slip of paper and tied it to balloon. Katya wished for happiness, which was so bittersweet; it makes us sad that she hasn't been happier all along. The balloons looked so beautiful in the sky...

We then went back inside for what I thought would be a very quick mini birthday party for Katya. I had made a unicorn pinata and cupcakes; nothing too fancy since I knew that the first day of school would be short and rather busy!

Much to Katya's (and my!!!) surprise, her teachers had also arranged a surprise party for her! It's traditional in most Russian schools to give your classmates birthday presents, but we never expected it because no one had even met Katya yet! How would they have even know about her birthday??! It turns out that teachers had told the parents of every child in the class... and the parents had been hiding birthday presents for Katya all morning! I had been waiting with all those parents, utterly oblivious to the bags they were hiding from me! (In the picture below she's only holding HALF of them! Edited comment later: I temporarily removed the picture of her with her presents b/c you could see the name of her school on her pin. I'll figure out how to airbrush it out and post it again later. ) I met two sets of parents that were particularly nice; I hope we'll become good friends. Katya likes their children, too. (Thus far, she thinks everyone is kind and friendly).

Katya was stunned and her wish for happiness was instantly granted; she knew she belonged and that she would have many kind friends. The children's gifts were incredibly thoughtful and generous and she loves each and every one of them. The children were soooo happy to have surprised her and make her birthday special; that meant the most of all.

We then went to the dining room for cupcakes and tea (soooo Russian... The kids have tea three times a day; Katya loves it). While the children ate, their teachers lead them in song: "Пусть Бегут", the theme song to the Cheburashka cartoons--and a popular birthday song, created by Eduard Uspensky (for whom I did some translation work when I came to Moscow as a college student in 1991!!! I never would have believed then that my daughter would one day be serenaded by that song on her birthday...)

It was then time to go home... Katya didn't want to leave :-) We hurried home, though, to get Natalia--who was about to have her own first day at a new school! I'll post more about that separately.

Added the next day: In response to a comment about Katya wanting happiness as her balloon-releasing wish, I wanted to clarify a little. Katya wanted to be happy at her new school. She wanted her school to live up to her hopes. At her previous school there was one manipulative, mean girl who chipped away at Katya while pretending to be her friend. Unfortunately, we didn't realize how hurt Katya was until the school year was almost over. For Katya, happiness is being around other kind children. We're working a great deal with her on how to react in a healthy way when someone isn't so nice, since kids will be kids and she's bound to get her feelings hurt sometimes.

If the Bear's Drinking Champagne and the Belly Dancer Has a Boa Constrictor, it Must Be the 1st Day of School!

Only in Russia... See you for yourself snippets from the opening ceremonies at my new school on Saturday, September 1st. Many Russian schools officially start the new academic year on the 1st--regardless of what day of the week it happens to be. The day is a national holiday, "День Знания" ("Day of Knowledge"), and it's a very big deal. Kids often wear the black and white suit/vest and skirt formal attire that was common during the years of the USSR. Students, especially first graders, bring big bouquets of flowers for their teachers.

This year I was actually part of the ceremony; my school has the foreign language teachers greet the students in each language taught there.

I was very excited to meet more teachers and students; my colleagues thus far are extremely nice and they seem to love their profession.

Meet Asya and Lyalya

I took this video before bedtime last night... We'd had the kittens for only a few hours. The girls are so happy!


Can you believe that I actually got the girls kittens???!! Only two months ago I refused to let them even keep a worm when they begged and pleaded for ANYTHING living--rationalizing that if I won't let them have a baby brother, couldn't they at least have a pet? No matter how dinky the animal?

I finally caved. Truth is, I've wanted them to have a pet for a while now. It's not their fault that we're expats in a city with no yard... In my mind, the rosy image of childhood evokes a yard and a pet. They can't just go outside to play the way I wish they could--but we can make it work for them to have an animal--oh, make that animalS.

On our way home from school yesterday, we stopped in at the nursery school Katya attended our first year in Moscow. Her old teachers were so happy to see her--and to show her the kittens... An hour later, I'd called both Chris and our landlady and we had added these two adorable six-week-old sisters to our family.

I got two for a couple of reasons: no fighting among the girls over who gets to pet the cat, the cats can keep each other company when we're not home during the day and when we're in the USA (they'll of course be looked in on and taken care of, though!), and I want the girls to each bond with their respective kittens. Both girls can get very tense and I hope that cuddling their cats will help them to relax.

So far, so good... Even Mr."I really hate cats" Chris loves them... He wanted them to sleep with us! He was able to charm Katya's kitten, Lyalya (name given to her at the nursery school that so far we've kept) into falling asleep on his chest and then we all moved into our bed. Sleep quality wasn't too good last night... But Lyalya slept curled next to Katya's head for hours! Both girls had been very difficult to awaken in the morning now that school has started--but today they were up bright and early so they could play with their kittens. Katya loves school so much that she has been upset to leave each day--but today she was happy to rush home and see Lyalya. (I'll write much more about her school in the next few days; I had no internet for a week--ARGH!!!-- and have lots to cover!)

Both kittens are slowly exploring the apartment; they're particularly intrigued by the doll-sized items. They love the dolls' tent and the Build-A-Bear boxes!