Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Halloween (sort of) Minus One

Katya left this morning for three days away at a Pioneer Youth Camp. (The Pioneers were the Soviet Scouts--and they still exist for hold-outs in the Communist party. I like this picture of scouts that I found below--and that's NOT Katya in this first picture). The whole elementary school went! They're staying at a complex next to a forest with enough bedrooms for all (in small groups), common areas and sports facilities. The first grade is studying Prehistoric Man and they're going to somehow recreate a primitive village; you've got to admire how the teachers throw themselves into their teaching! Katya has been eagerly anticipating this trip; I can't wait to hear how it's going. (The teacher will call each child's parents using her cellphone tonight). So much for making Halloween plans...
There are a few areas in the city where foreigners live in clusters (compounds) and we probably could have found someone who would let us in to trick-or-treat... but given that today is a school day, and I didn't get home from work until 7 p.m. after an hour and a half in traffic, I'm glad we're just staying home. (My 1st graders had fun playing "Duck-Duck-Goose" today--but we said things such as, "trick-trick-trick-OR TREAT" and "ghost-ghost-ghost-WITCH." My high school students, on the other hand, all had midterms... I'll write more about cultural differences in grading some other time).
Talia decided to dress up for school, so she has had a wonderful day even without trick-or-treating. This weekend both girls will get to celebrate as we join our friends at their dacha and all of our kids will recreate Halloween.

Sunday, October 28, 2007


This weekend I got our pumpkins. Unfortunately, I didn't exactly visit a scenic pumpkin patch... (There aren't really any here unless you're actually the farmer. And if you are, you probably don't grow round, bright orange "American style" pumpkins; yours are probably light orange/green/brown and quite misshapen). I bought them at the outdoor/indoor market where I get most of our fruits, vegetables and spices. I must say, this babushka felt quite famous when I asked to take her picture...

I bought a big, round and orange one (typical American pumpkin) for $24, a bargain compared to the $40 I had to pay three years ago. I got another more Russian-looking pumpkin for $4. Here is what our Russian character looked like:

And here is our American jack-o-lantern:

I had the large pumpkin all cleaned out and ready for a face before Russian friends of ours came over. We met them when we first moved here; the girls went to nusery school/pre-k together (the school where we got our kittens from this fall). Even though the girls only were together that first year, we get together with them regularly and we really enjoy their company. It's convenient that they live right around the corner from us. Here's a picture of the girls in December of 2004 during the holiday play. Masha is wearing the white dress and blue headband and is standing in front of Grandfather Frost and his granddaughter. Katya is the third from the right, dressed in a bunny costume.
Masha is one year older than Katya (almost 8) and she had never seen a jack-o-lantern before! I'm sure it's only one more time added to a long list of odd impressions she has of us, her quirky American neighbors...! (She had never seen dress-up clothing before she met Katya; THAT was quite a revelation and she quickly became a devotee...) Masha and Katya came up with the drawing for the pumpkin's face and then I carved it as Masha (and her parents) watched on in awe.

The girls have grown so much... Compare what they looked like tonight with how they were in May of 2005! (This picture was taken at Archangelskoe, a former prince's estate that is now open to the public. It's so pretty there!) Kostya and Karina, Masha's mom and dad, declared over dessert that Katya now speaks better Russian than we do. Our knowledge of grammar is much stronger than hers, but she sounds like a native-speaker. Gosh, to think back to that first day of nusery school when she could barely say a word...

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Russian Fabric for a Good Cause (Get ready to sew, Rachael!)

My friend Rachael adopted a wonderful seven-year-old girl, Katya, from St. Petersburg this spring. Rachael got me into blogging and I love reading about how Katya is adapting to life in America through her blog. While tackling the project of making some Halloween costumes for her kids, Rachael realized that she actually loves sewing--and she learned how to make some gorgeous bags in the process.

A few days ago, Rachael posted that she is going to start an etsy store (it's a site on the web where people sell their crafts) in order to raise money for a group of older orphans in St. Petersburg. She can't forget all the children who were left behind--kids who will probably never be adopted. Moved by her friend Kate's experience taking gifts to children in an orphanage last December, Rachael wrote, "I think what I will do with the proceeds from my Etsy sales in November, is to send the money to Kate and let her "snegoritchka away" as she chooses and then she can post about it after Christmas and fill us all in." (Kate is an American teacher who lives in St. Petersburg, Snegurochka is the granddaughter of Grandfather Frost, the Russian equivalent of Santa).

The entire amount from Rachael's sales will towards creating a memorable holiday for those children, and I can't wait to see what she'll sew and offer up for sale! Be sure to check out her store once it's up and running; I'll keep you posted when it is.

I offered to help out, getting her unique Russian fabrics for her bags and other crafts. Today I went to the factory store of the best fabric producer in Russia and STOCKED UP. The shop is called Tryokhgornaya Tekhstilnaya Fabrika and it's located at 15 Rochdelskaya ulitsa. The place is FANTASTIC. In addition to unique linens and cottons, they also make gorgeous bedding, tablecloths, towels, napkins, curtains, etc. at extremely reasonable prices.

Here are slideshows of all the fabrics I picked out!!! I bought quite a bit... But it all came to exactly $100. Glad to contribute to your wonderful plans, Rachael! Get ready to sew when you get the fabrics the second week of November!!!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Play-Doh Pumpkins (More cool English lessons)

The Russian government doesn't allow Russian schools to celebrate Halloween at all. No parties, no kids in costumes, no decorations... I think they just don't want a uniquely American (well, it used to be...) holiday invading their culture. The official reason is that the holiday is Satanic and an evil influence on children. Well, certain people would agree to that, too... But COME ON! Little kids in cute costumes... Neighbors interacting... Pumpkins and scarecrows... I LOVE Halloween and it stinks that our kids don't get to really celebrate the way it's meant to be; they're missing out on all of those wonderful childhood trick-or-treating memories.

Our first two years here I had to host a huge Halloween party in our teeny apartment so that the kids would still get to celebrate; last year one of the Brownies lived on the US Embassy compound, so we got to all actually trick-or-treat there. The snowstorm and freezing weather (20 below) sure did distract from the fun, though... And it's hard to come up with a good costume when you have to wear so much outerwear...

In any case, I've been reading some short children's books about Halloween to my 1st and 2nd graders anyway. The lessons have been so much fun; the kids are automatically excited and intrigued. I found some great resources at this site for elementary ESL teachers and was inspired...

I started out by making four batches of orange homemade Play-Doh. The kids had never seen anything like it and LOVED it. (Russian kids use plastiline instead. Plastiline is a much harder modeling clay).

Homemade Play-Doh

1 cup flour
1 cup water
1/2 cup salt
2 tsp. cream of tartar
1 tbsp. vegetable oil
food coloring

Mix dry ingredients. Dissolve coloring in water and add liquid. Cook until the mixture forms a ball, constantly scraping it off the bottom and sides of pot. Remove from pot and knead. Keeps in an airtight container for at least a month.

After reading the kids some stories about pumpkins, I had them make balls out of the dough. We used their rulers to mimic how we cut the top off of a pumpkin and then we scooped out the insides--minus the goop and seeds! I then gave them all birthday candles and they used them as knives to poke out eyes, noses and mouths. They then took their candles and put them inside their pumpkins. We did NOT actually light them.

As the kids worked on their pumpkins, I taught them this song:

Jack-o-lantern (sung to Frère Jacques)

Jack-o-lantern, jack-o-lantern
Burn so bright, burn so bright!
You are burning brightly, you are burning brightly
Through the night, through the night.

Once everyone had finished creating jack-o-lanterns, and mastered the song, I taught them how to sing in a round. They thought it was great fun to sing over one another...

I had them sing using a variety of Halloween voices; they sang as if they were ghosts, monsters, pirates, princesses, etc. To get them to clean up, I had them remove the candles and mash the dough into microphones. They then used the microphones to belt out the song as if they were pop stars! THAT was a big hit.

Yesterday with the second graders we did even more; I gave them a worksheet with a picture of skeleton (a cute cartoon one). Body parts were labeled by how many letters in each word--but they had to figure out what the words were (_ _ _ _ meant "nose"). They LOVED solving the puzzles. I then gave them dough and they used it to create skeletons--talking about each body part. We cleaned up by having imaginary dogs show up--dogs who love to EAT bones! The class had to shout out each body part, one by one, as the dog stole and chomped on it.

The kids all thought it's so funny that American parents often call their children "pumpkin." I remembered how offended my friend' Rachael's newly-adopted seven-year-old daughter, Katya, was when her mom called her that! She had only been in America for two months, and she already knew what a pumpkin was; she had not, however, learned how much we love them! "Ewwww, Mommy. Pumpkin is orange food. Why, Mommy? Ewwww." A month later, however, she had learned just what the pumpkin means to Americans culturally; she wanted her mom to call her one.

As Rachael wrote, "Last night, I put her to bed with a kiss and a "good-night, sweetheart". Her reply? "Mommy, why nee pumpkin?" "So now you like pumpkin?" I asked. She nodded yes. "Ok, then, well, good-night pumpkin. Mommy loves you". She sweetly replied, "and I love you. You're my mommy pumpkin." I took it as an endearment.

In Russia there aren't any warm, sweet associations with the vegetable. They're also not as pretty as in America; they're often misshapen and a mixture of orange, brown and greens. In addition to this, they're VERY expensive in Moscow! It cost me $40 at an outdoor market (where things tend to be cheap) last year to purchase a pumpkin suitable for making a jack-o-lantern!

Even though it's a lot of prep, it's nice having the younger kids in addition to all of my high school French and Spanish classes. I've never had the advantage (in a school setting) of being a native speaker and a native of the culture; it's fun to share it with them.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Not Your Average Traffic Jam

The traffic is always bad when I leave work. I travel on a major artery into the city, and it's usually bumper-to-bumper for about 1 kilometer. Since traffic is always bad in Moscow, I didn't really think anything of it... That is, until I realized why the traffic is usually bad at that precise spot at around 4 p.m.

There's a man in a wheelchair who travels right up the middle of the road, sometimes on his own, sometimes pushed by a woman. (That's not him in the above picture; I couldn't safely take one. This man is much more haggard and his wheelchair is NOT state-of-the-art). The first time I saw him, I thought he must be drunk. Why on earth would he venture into such dangerous traffic, literally bringing it to a standstill???

I then saw him there on many other occasions, and I realized that he risks his life in the middle of the road because it's the only way he can get anywhere. His neighborhood is in a beautiful, historic area of town--but like most of the city, it isn't wheelchair accessible in the least. The sidewalks are cracked and bumpy, and there are no ramps so he can cross the street. Even with assistance, he wouldn't be able to get up and down from the curbs.

I've asked around, and there is a transportation service for wheelchair-bound Muscovites; it obviously is inadequate, however. The handicapped in Russia are in such a desperate situation that I think they should qualify for refugee status; they cannot live a normal life in this country. Many cannot even leave their apartments! Schools, public spaces and transportation all alienate those who need wheelchairs. (That's also why it's so hard for moms with strollers).

Sure makes you appreciate life in the US, where at least people try to make things accessible.

Friday, October 19, 2007

It's All a Matter of Perspective...

I was about to write a few days ago about events that "make the glass look half empty." Let's start with the apartment:
  • Our refrigerator keeps over icing up and then thawing, leaving the bins filled with water. This has ruined veggies/cheese on many occasions, usually when I've just done difficult and expensive grocery shopping, and often when I'm just about to cook for guests. Most of the compartments on the door also broke off long ago. It also has a really annoying "ding dong" that goes off when the door isn't properly closed; since the seal is breaking off the door, it goes off every time you shut the door until you come back and bang down on the top of the fridge. We'll obviously be buying a new refrigerator soon!!!
  • The floor tiles in our entry and bathroom are very cracked, sometimes snagging socks (or pricking your toes...). They look horrible (and I guess are dangerous if you don't know to look out...), but I guess we've gotten used to them.
  • The bathtub is coming apart from the wall, leading to mold and leakage problems.
  • The oven cooks unevenly and unpredictably, often burning baked goods. This is MOST frustrating when I'm doing a complicated dessert... And very upsetting when Katya and I spent a few hours molding food out of Sculpey clay for her Native American doll, Kaya. We researched food that the Nez Perce would have eaten the late 1700's and made replicas for the doll (dried salmon, camas cakes, huckleberries and blueberries). Replicas the oven burned. TWICE. (Yes, we actually recreated all the food a second time, only to have that batch ruined, too--even though I'd set the oven at half of the original temperature).

We can't just complain to the landlady because we don't dare annoy her. She could easily rent our place for much more than we're paying and we realize how incredibly lucky we are to be in this apartment--even with all the things that are broken in it. Location, location, location... It would be impossible to find anything else in this area (walking distance to Katya's school, very clean air) for less than twice what we're paying now. So we grin and bear it. It's hard to believe that $2,500 is a bargain, but for Moscow, it is...

Then there are these other complications:
  • Renewing our visas has turned out to be very tricky and time-consuming this year, and we can't drive the car without valid visas (because that means the car isn't registered and we have no insurance). I've been without the car since October 4th, which makes life very hard.
  • One of us needs to go to the USA to bring back medications, but we can't go until we get our passports and visas back. We can't even purchase the ticket for said trip until we know when we can leave. (Invariably, the cost will go up the longer we wait...)
I was ready to gripe and gripe about it. Well, not really... At least not here... There's no point in that...

But then something happened yesterday to make me truly appreciate that "the glass is half FULL!" En route to an appointment with Katya, in a taxi, she suddenly threw up all over herself, me and the car. A car that I don't need to extensively clean to remove the smell of vomit, as if you really could... And I was able to help her immediately. Had I been driving, it would have been 25 minutes before I could have exited the traffic on the highway to stop the car and assist her. (And, as I wrote in my last post, at least now we have a clothes dryer. Dealing with stomach flus the few years I was without one was NOT pleasant).

It's all a matter of perspective!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

You Know You've Been in Russia for a Long Time When....

I came across this list on the internet a few months ago and it really struck a chord with me and my friends. This entry was in "rough draft" form since June and I'm finally adding it here with revisions. Another note: my computer will be gone for repairs for the next few days, so I won't have e-mail or access to my blog.

You know you've been in Russia for a long time wh
  • You don't think things are that bad right now.
  • You just assume that accomplishing anything will take much longer than expected and be more complicated than envisioned—and you’re delighted when, in fact, things can be done easily.
  • You expect lengthy traffic jams and include them in your schedule.
  • You have to think twice about throwing away any empty plastic bag. (There’s no such thing as formal recycling here; people tend to use items as many times as they can, though—and sometimes in unexpected ways).
  • You carry a plastic shopping bag with you "just in case".
  • You don’t mind at all having to pay for your plastic shopping bags. In fact, you stock up on them when they’re of good quality because they’ll make good trash bags. (You often have to walk a bit to get to the dumpster for your building, and I’ve yet to find a basic trash bag for less than $1 per bag that doesn’t instantly rip).
  • You think that plastic trash bags are of enough significance that you’d even write about them in this list.
  • You answer the phone by saying, “Allo, allo, allo” before giving the caller a chance to respond. You’ve got your old lady/old man annoyed telephone voice so refined that your closest friends sometimes think they’ve dialed a wrong number because they can’t tell it’s you.
  • You get excited when the dentist smiles and has all his own teeth. (I think it says something that this was the fifth image to come up under the search "russian + man" at Google images...)
  • When crossing the street, you sprint.
  • You ponder the United States Postal System and think, “Wow… People actually get their mail—all of it—delivered directly to their house in a timely fashion!! !”, as if it were a new invention.
  • In winter, you choose your route by determining which icicles are least likely to impale you in the head/falling compacted icy snow is least likely to crush you--as it did this Lexus.

  • You are impressed with the new model Lada or Volga car.
  • You let the telephone ring at least 4 times before you pick it up because it is probably a misconnection or electrical fault.
  • You are pleasantly surprised (truly--enough to actually smile!) when there is toilet paper in the bathroom at work—or ANYWHERE. (This isn’t true in Western companies, but it sure is everywhere else…)
  • You’re no longer surprised when you use a public toilet somewhere to see the sign instructing you to put any toilet paper you use into the trash can—and NOT into the actual toilet (plumbing is really old and bad in much of the city).

  • You notice that a friend’s cell phone is smaller than yours and you're jealous. You actually care what kind of cell phone you have. (Not true for me, but for most other people I know…).
  • You look at people's shoes to determine where they are from. It used to be that old, ugly, bad shoes meant the person was Russian. Nowadays things have changed so much that if the shoe isn’t of the latest style or expensive, you know the person is probably from America! (Muscovites would never sacrifice style for comfort. Any self-respecting woman—and many men—under the age of fifty would NEVER wear “comfort” shoes such as you’d find on 99% of the American population)
  • Your day seems brighter after seeing that some goon's luxury car has been scratched up.
  • You are thrown off- guard when anyone in the service industry actually smiles at you.
  • You're not sure what to do when the GAI (traffic cop) only asks you to pay the official fine.
  • It doesn't seem strange to pay the GAI $2.25 for crossing the double line while making an illegal U-turn, and $35 for a mediocre entrée at a mediocre restaurant.
  • Your kids automatically know to start crying that they have to pee as soon as the traffic cop approaches. (Don't get me wrong; I'm not a bad driver getting stopped all the time for violations I've made. Here they just stop you all the time to ostensibly check your documents--but it's actually to get bribes. Click here to see what Natalia think of them...).
  • You’re surprised when in the USA that you don’t need to present your passport (or even your driver’s license) in order make a return—and that you needn’t fill out pages of forms to do so.
  • You plan your vacation around those times of the year when the hot water is turned off. (Even if you have a hot water heater in your apartment, many others don’t, and it really smells on the subway at those times… Just look how crowded it can get at rush hour! Keep in mind that this all takes place deep underground, without fresh air.)

  • You are relieved when the guy standing next to you on the bus actually uses a handkerchief—or has taken a shower in the last few days.
  • You are envious because your expatriate friend has smaller door keys than you do.
  • You are surprised when you go back to the USA and your drink comes with ice in it.
  • You get off the plane in the USA and the sunshine in winter blinds you; you haven’t seen it for so long that you forgot what it was like. (That is so true!!!!)

  • You develop a liking for beetroot and cabbage.
  • You know seven people whose favorite novel is The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.
  • You change into tapki (slippers) and wash your hands as soon as you walk into your apartment.
  • You actually own tapki (slippers) that other people can put on when they visit you.
  • You take a trip to Budapest or Prague and think you've been to heaven.
  • You can read barcodes, and you start shopping for products by their country of production.
  • You know more than 20 Olgas, 25 Lenas and 25 Katyas.
  • You put the empty bottle of wine on the floor in a restaurant.
  • You kick young people out of their seats on the subway to make way for the elderly and mothers with small children, slowly morphing into a harsh babushka...
  • You have to check your passport for an arrival-in-Russia date (necessary when filling out certain paperwork).
  • Remont (repair) becomes an integral part of your vocabulary.
  • It seems odd to you that when back in the USA, cashiers don't rip the top of your sales receipt approximately 1/2 inch before handing it you. (It's a very odd custom here that NO salesclerk will dare violate. They will NOT hand you a receipt w/o tearing it first for fear of some harsh punishment by their bosses. No one, however, can explain to me why this must be done...)
  • Cigarette smoke becomes tolerable; it shocks you to be in the USA and not smell it everywhere.
  • You think metal doors are a necessity.
  • You speak to other expats in your native language, but forget a few of the simplest words and throw in some Russian ones.
  • You remember how many kilos you weigh - but forget how many pounds.
  • A gallon of gasoline or milk seems like a foreign concept.
  • You no longer miss the foods you grew up with, and pass them up at foreign-owned supermarkets.
  • You look for black bread, kvas and kefir in the supermarket, and ask to buy half a head of cabbage.
  • You see a car behind you with flashing lights and think it's some politician.
  • You don't feel guilty about not paying on the trolleybus. (It can be impossible to get a ticket from the driver—who should be driving—if the bus is crowded, you have kids with you, and you don’t have exact change. The fine is only 200 rubles/$4 if you’re caught, and the ticket is only 25 rubles to begin with).

  • The elevator aroma seems reassuring somehow.
  • You no longer think living without a clothes dryer is an inconvenience. (I can’t believe I did it for two and half years…I actually got used to it!)
  • You can heat water on the stove and shower with it in less than 10 minutes.
  • You know the Moscow Metro better than you know the subway system back home. If you don’t have a subway system back home, you realize how much you’d miss good public transportation. (For those here who live and work right near a subway stop, it truly is fantastic! And the stations are gorgeous!)

  • A weekend anywhere in the Baltics (Eastern Europe) qualifies as a trip to the West.
  • A week at a family resort in Turkey qualifies as a luxury vacation (really!!!).

  • You sit in silence with your eyes shut for a few moments before leaving on any long journey. (Check out my July entry on Russian superstitions for mention of this and the items below).
  • You look in the mirror to turn away bad luck if you have to return home to pick up something you've forgotten.
  • You feel queasy when someone tries to shake your hand over a threshold.
  • You catch yourself whistling indoors and feel guilty.
  • You never smile in public when you're alone.
  • You know the official at the metro station/airport/border post/post office/railway station etc. etc. is going to say “Nyet!”, but you argue anyway.
  • That strange pungent mix of odours of stale sawdust, sweat and grime in the metro makes you feel safe and at home...
  • You are in awe that after 3 days home in the USA, your shoes are still clean.
  • You’re thrilled if there actually is a coatcheck in the USA, but then offended that you’re asked to pay.
  • For Women: You get dressed up to simply go grocery shopping when you’re back in the USA.
  • The word 'salad' ceases for you to have anything to do with lettuce. (It can be any mixture that has some veggies in it, often containing lots of mayonnaise and some meat).
  • You can recite in Russian all the words to the “please wait” telephone recording you hear when ordering a taxi, the recordings in the metro and on the bus, and random commercials from radio and TV—ads for items you never even buy.
  • You begin paying attention to peoples' floors and can distinguish the quality of linoleum and/or parquet, and thus determine social status, taste, and income (e.g. embezzled, earned, pension, unpaid, etc.).
  • You can spark a debate by asking for a decent Mexican restaurant (There isn’t one).
  • You hear the radio say it is zero degrees outside and you think it is a nice day for a change.
  • You voluntarily take a stroll in the park, and get an ice cream, on a sub-zero day.
  • When pulled over by a policeman, you pretend not to speak Russian and say Ya ne ponedelnik instead of Ya ne ponimayu on purpose. (“I’m not Monday” instead of “I don’t understand”).
  • You pretend not to speak Russian when you walk in to a restaurant and ask to use their bathroom without buying anything.
  • You are no longer surprised when your taxi driver tells you that before Perestroika he worked as a rocket scientist or surgeon. (The most common way of getting around here after the subway is to hitchhike—“private cabs” that you thumb down and negotiate a price with. There aren’t enough legitimate cabs to meet the city’s need. The economy is so bad that many highly-trained professionals instead drive their own cars as taxis; they make more that way. That’s what the man who drives for us does; being a physicist just didn’t pay…)
  • You’ve lived here long enough that Ramstore (a Turkish supermarket that is crummy in comparison to any successful, large US chain) seems amazing to you! ( Before the one near us opened, my shopping was so much harder… I still need to visit at least two or three shops/outdoor markets to do my weekly shopping, but it’s MUCH easier).
  • You know which kiosks (metal shacks lining street corners and in underground street passageways) sell the odds and ends you need for your home (electrical supplies, lightbulbs, etc).

  • You laugh at Russian jokes.
  • You actually get these jokes.
  • You no longer feel like going to your 'home' country. Somehow the hassle of the travel takes away from the vacation… And since you’re used to living here, you don’t feel a regular craving to leave—although you’re glad to go home when you do.
  • You continue to 'cross' the number 7 back at home.
  • You think it's too hot, no matter what season you return home. And you think it's too cold indoors. (Well… Global warming has changed this some… We can get such intense hot spells here that it’s unbearable, especially since there’s almost no air-conditioning and older windows can’t be opened if you have kids in the house—they could fall right out. Just picture being a PACKED subway car when it’s 100 degrees plus humidity … It seems too cold indoors when you're back in the USA because in Moscow heat is controlled by the city for most buildings--and you can't really regulate the temperature inside your apartment other than by opening the windows).
  • You dress in layers in all seasons, particularly in August-June. Oh... OK... that's all seasons if you just skip July... Those other months the weather can really vary (June and August can be both really hot or quite cool). During the rest of the year, the contrast between the cold weather and overheated indoors demands layers. My friend Rachael's daughter, who was adopted from St. Petersburg at age 7 this past April, is still clinging to her layerly ways even now that she's American...
  • When in the USA, you specify 'no gas' when asking for mineral water. (Here there’s always a choice of carbonated or still water and they’re distinguished by “c gazom” or “byez gaza”—with or without carbonation).
  • You’re dumbfounded that you can get water to drink at a US restaurant that’s free—and that didn’t cost 1/3 of your lunch tab (You can’t drink tap water here and bottled water is expensive).
  • You are dumbstruck back at home when high school or college students wait on you with a smile, reciting a 90 second spiel on the 'specials of the day' and display complete knowledge of the contents of each menu item...
  • Your kids who didn’t speak a word of Russian when you moved here are now embarrassed by your accent, vocabulary and grammatical mistakes.
  • Your kids assume that you can bribe anyone to get what you need. (Click here to see how Katya figured she could bribe the US Customs & Immigration official to put a stamp in her stuffed animal's passport).
  • You think it’s normal for kids in kindergarten and elementary school to go to bed at 9 p.m. or later (Kids get home later here, nap more, and start going to bed much later than in the USA by age 3). The most popular show for children is called "Good Night, Children" and it's on from 8:50 to 9 p.m.

  • You think it's perfectly normal to slip 1,000 rubles ($40) to your son's teachers each month so they'll be nice to him, overlooking certain behaviors or helping in extra ways. (Then again, wouldn't it be nice if you could somehow make some teachers in the USA a little bit nicer sometimes??)
  • Your kids confuse the words “library” and “bookstore” when in the USA because they’re used to seeing you have to buy every English-language book they read (which you bring back to Russia for them).
  • As you do your internet shopping prior to a trip back to the USA, you can rather successfully run a tally in your head of how much bulk and how many pounds you have accumulated—separated into 50 lb. piles (the basic suitcase limit).
  • You can’t remember what life was like in the USA when you regularly watched certain TV shows on certain days. Now you probably don’t watch TV at all except for the occasional dvd or shows off of your ipod.
  • You realize that all the observations above are what you love about Russia, that you've been here long enough to feel at home, and wonder whether you'll ever able to fit back in when you return to your country of origin.
Well... I wouldn't say that all of those above topics are what I love about Russia... or that I wonder if I'll fit back in when we return to the USA... (Stop the panicking, Mom; those words were included in the original list I found). I would say, however, that the country does kind of grow on you--especially when you've lived here long enough to see just how far it has come. I also know that the "big move" expats make back to the USA is often quite difficult. One tends to think of "culture shock" only hitting you when you move overseas--but many of our friends have found that it's often just as hard when you move back (perhaps it ends up being that way when one naively assumes that the move back, unlike the original move overseas, will be a piece of cake). Good friends of ours left Moscow in May and they are often bored to death now in Iowa, missing the intensity of life here, the excitement, the hustle...

I've been having a few rough weeks of "ARGH! MOS-COW!!!" troubles
(I'll get to that some other day) and I wouldn't say by any stretch of the imagination that I'm blindly swept away by Russia's wonders... BUT, even in the gloom, there are things that sway you and make you appreciate aspects of life here. As I look over that list, I'm amazed by humans' ability to adapt. I never would have thought four years ago that much of this list would now be normal behavior for me.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

I'm on TV with my Second Graders!

Last week PBK TV, the Russian equivalent of CNN/MSNBC, did a story on private Moscow schools that use foreign methodology. The show is called "Сфера интересов" and the school's director asked if I could participate. You can see clips of me teaching Madeline to my favorite group of second graders. They didn't include me using the Rassias Method, but they did choose to highlight my facial expressions and moving around the classroom--sharp departures from the traditional Russian classroom where the teacher remains seated and is much more reserved.

Click here to see the whole show. For those of you non-Russian speakers, my class is between minutes 8:41 and 9:13 and 12:07 and 12:48.

Monday, October 15, 2007

"I think I'm so happy..." (Or, "My, what clean ears you have...")

The girls BEGGED me to include the video clips that are spliced together above... Katya, a blogger-to-be, even asked me to *take* both clips so they could be put on the blog...

It's a wonder that Katya and Natalia get any sleep at night with all the loving they're getting from the kittens! They actually sleep right through the marathon ear-cleaning sessions... (Could it be that the kittens miss nursing and that's why they're fixated with sucking on the girls' ears? They can do it for HOURS as if in a trance). I can't imagine how they don't wake up! You can hear on the clips how loudly both kittens purr, too--right into the girls' ears!

Katya and Natalia go to bed willingly now, though... They know that the kittens will come join them and they treasure that time to cuddle.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

How's This for Some Political Math (i.e. Dead Spy = No Cheddar Cheese)

Murdered ex-KGB spy in London + Sheltered Russian Suspect = Angry British Government

Angry British Government + Angry Russian Government = Expelled Russian & British Diplomats

Moscow - (British Diplomat + Speech Therapist Wife) = No More Speech Therapy for Natalia

Still Angry British Government + Still Angry Russian Government = No Cheddar Cheese in Moscow

No Cheddar Cheese in Moscow= Very Angry Tamara

Good friends in Moscow + Generous Houseguest Bearing Cheddar from Vermont = VERY HAPPY TAMARA

Go figure. Who would have thought that the political fallout from the Litvinenko murder could lead to strained trade relations that mean no cheddar cheese in Moscow... (That's what the manager at the cheese counter of one of the city's main stores told me). Take away our speech therapist, and then take away cheddar, too???????

This may sound so ridiculous and petty, but no cheddar means no tacos! No enchiladas! No quesadillas! And those foods are so YUMMY and EASY for a working mom to serve up! And my kids would actually eat them!

I'm embarrassed to admit that I spent over six hours two weeks ago trying to track down cheddar in Moscow. You'd think I'd have cut my losses and just given up... But after the three hours it took to buy the groceries for the above-mentioned Mexican meals, minus the cheddar, I was DETERMINED to get the cheddar! I kept thinking, "Just one more store..." and then it became one more... and one more...

So all of you readers in the USA who can easily procure a large chunk of generic cheddar, consider yourselves so very, very lucky!!!!!!!

This story had a (temporary) happy ending because last weekend we went over to some good friends' for dinner. Having heard about my cheddar woes, they offered me a chunk of Cabot Extra Sharp that their friend had brought with her as a hostess gift when she visited from New York earlier in the month. They would have loved it, but they knew it would mean so much more to me... And right they were... THANK YOU! THANK YOU! I actually met their friend and I send along my heartfelt thanks to her, too! (Turns out we both went to the same high school! Small world. If only this world were small enough, though, for me to now get my hands on another block of cheddar...)

Oh... and in case you're wondering, I *didn't* share. The kids got Tex-Mex with Gouda. I savored every single sliver of that amazing Cabot cheese myself. Gotta get your pampering where you can!

Natalia's School Celebrates at the Circus... (with a big surprise at the end)

Natalia's school officially turned "2" this month and to celebrate, the director bought everyone tickets to the circus. We went to The Great Moscow Circus, our absolute favorite. We saw this program: "Around the World in 130 Minutes." This was by far the best show they've put on in three years. The level of skill, creativity, energy and pizazz continued to stun me throughout the performance. I don't think I'll ever get used to absolute mastery of Russian circus performers... In the US, so much of the circus is the special effects... Here, the PEOPLE are the circus and they exceed your wildest expectations every time. And they do it without safety nets, although I truly wish they would! I'm so scared for them during the show that it takes away from the enjoyment.

To give you a taste of what we saw, here are some of the highlights:

Riding one-handed off the side of horse? Yes! Trapeze artists on ICE SKATES (they started off the number skating) where the man is balancing on his head and holding the woman upside down with NO safety equipment? Yes again!

Delightfully funny clowns and Kenyan gymnasts that seemed to jump and flip like kernels of happy popcorn!

The real surprise came at the end; during a particularly hair-raising high-wire act, the floor had disappeared and had been replaced by a pool--without our even realizing it. All of the sudden there was a hula-hoop and acrobatic act surrounded by synchronized swimmers--and it ended at the very ceiling of the circus dome (again with no safety wires) while there was a spectacular fountain and laser light show beneath. If you're in Moscow, don't miss this show!!!

I mentioned in the title of this posting that the show ended with a real surprise. It would appear that I was talking about the show's finale. If only. The true surprise came when we left the circus and saw the weather outside.

It is now officially winter. Ugh. Luckily the kids thought it was great...