Tuesday, November 27, 2007

"You Look so Horrible, You Must be Drunk"

Not exactly what you want to be told by a traffic cop when you're pulled over after having stayed up until 2:30 a.m. cooking Thanksgiving dinner.

I had to make one last trip out to obtain a necessary ingredient, Challah bread for the wild mushroom stuffing, and the cops made their assessment of me while I waited to make a turn. Mind you, I had done nothing wrong at all... I just looked as if something were wrong.

Hmm.... Let's see... Was anything wrong? Perhaps I was frazzled after the last few days of precisely planned lists so I'd get everything done on time? Perhaps I was seething that the house had been trashed while I was busy cooking in the kitchen? Perhaps I was upset that I'd had to go out again at 11 p.m. to purchase ingredients to make the pumpkin cheesecake all over again after it had been burned in my broken oven (and I'd been covered in smoke)? Perhaps I was still in shock that the coffee I had ordered to go at the bakery had cost $10.25? (STUPID, STUPID, not to check the price first, but COME ON! That much???! I couldn't refuse it because they'd already made it and I knew someone else waiting in line).

Yes... all good reasons to not be looking my loveliest...

But then there was the BEST reason of all to be quaking in my boots at the sight of these cops. I was trying my hardest not to throw up from the fear that they'd realize I was driving illegally. Lest you think we're irresponsible, let me clarify: the Russian government changed the laws regarding work permits for foreigners this past September. Chris's permit expired the first week of October, which meant that our car's registration was now void. You'd think that we could just then go register it again. WRONG. While the old permit laws are now suspended, the new laws have yet to be announced--so we've been in limbo for two months, despite CONSTANT efforts on the part of his firm's lawyers to get the car taken care of. (And when we actually DO get to register it, it will cost us $500 to have someone navigate the bureaucracy at the Russian DMV for us).

So I'm supposed to just happily give up the car for all this time. All this time that we're actually paying SKY HIGH Russian auto insurance on it. After about a month of hitchhiking (people here call it "taking a gypsy cab") and public transportation when possible (not all that possible on the routes I need to go--with kids in tow and heavy bags to-from work or groceries), I gave up and just started driving again. No matter what, I'm going to have to just pay a bribe if I'm pulled over (most likely), so I might as well just drive...

In the meantime, we're just keeping the car documents out of the car; that way the cops don't realize we're truly breaking the law. Instead they can just then threaten to impound the car because I don't have the papers on me. Much better to have them just think that...

In any case, the cop made me take a breathalizer (spelling?) test and get out the car to check that I was stable. Then started the intimidation designed to make me quake in my boots, ultimately grateful when they would finally just let me bribe them.

I pulled out all the stops on this one... I still had to finish cooking for Thanksgiving and get showered, and I was on a TIGHT schedule! Finally they let me just "pay my fine," making sure to state that I was rightfully pulled over because my car was dirty. (Excuse me? Try driving in one the most polluted cities in the world in winter--when wet oily slush gets whipped onto your car by other cars--and tell me how on earth I'm supposed to keep it clean!!)

This cop had gall, though... He didn't believe that an American mom would only have about $38 on her. I had to show him every crevice of my purse to prove that I had given him EVERY SINGLE BILL I HAD. He then made me show him all my credit cards, to prove that I was telling the truth about not having a current ATM card on me (mine have expired and I have yet--GRRRRR--to get the new ones in the mail). He was actually going to make me go withdraw more money for him!!! I'm so glad that Natalia and Katya weren't with me; they already think all cops are crooks... (And that makes my we-lived-in-NYC-on-9/11-police officers-and-fire fighters-are-heroes blood BOIL).

So I finally got to head home, sipping my now-cold expensive cup of coffee, thrilled that I had bought it because that was $10.25 that the cop hadn't managed to take from me. Too bad I hadn't bought two.

By the way, though, Thanksgiving was lovely. Our tradition is to pair up with friends and make it a collaborative effort, hosted in their wonderfully large apartment. This year we all invited new people and I think there were 25 of us... Kids running everywhere (they actually played soccer in the living room), old friends, new friends, perfect.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Patch Adams & Maria's Children (What Wonderful People, What a Wonderful Cause, What a Wonderful Night...)


Two weekends ago I attended the most amazing fundraiser, an auction lead by Patch Adams, the famous American doctor, to benefit a local charity called Maria's Children. (You might have seen the film about him starring Robin Williams). Through his organization, the Gesundheit Institute, he comes to Russia every November with a group of up to 40 people from all walks of life who spread hope and joy to orphans in hospitals, orphanages and in hospice.


I can't believe that in our three + years here, I had never heard of Maria and the incredible work she does. Her website describes their mission this way:

Maria's Children uses art therapy to help in the social, psychological and intellectual rehabilitation of orphans and special-needs children. In this way, we seek to enable them to become fully-valued members of society, sharing the same rights as everyone else. We would like there to be the greatest number possible of happy and successful people in our society.


Maria runs a studio where the children learn about so much more than just art... While at the studio, orphans are encouraged, loved and able to interact with compassionate adults and children who are outside of the state orphanage system. I would like to join the adults who volunteer there, bringing their own children along. What an opportunity for Katya and Natalia--to paint with such an accomplished artist while developing friendships with these special children. I met an American businessman whose wife and daughters volunteer at the studio often and he said that it has changed their lives.

Click here to see a gallery of artwork done by Maria's children. The paintings are absolutely beautiful and full of such hope. Here is a sample of some of the collaborative paintings and quilts:



I was invited to the fundraiser by a colleague of Chris's who has been working with Maria's Children for a few years. I leaped at the chance to go; it's too bad that Chris and Katya were still in America. Natalia and I arrived the American Bar & Grill unsure of what the evening would bring...

There were clowns everywhere!! The forty people that Patch had brought with him to Russia were in full costume, larger than life, celebrating with Maria, her family, the many children she helps, volunteers and supporters. Natalia was quite afraid and clung to me. Patch himself came over to put her at ease, making some silly faces to elicit a giggle. So what did my little girl defiantly tell him, perhaps the most famous person she has ever met, looking him straight in the eye?

"NOT FUNNY."

He was clearly used to working with all types, and he smiled and tried a different trick for Natalia... After which she deadpanned, again...

"STILL NOT FUNNY."

He decided to cut his losses and moved on...

One particularly kind girl came over and made it her mission to make Natalia comfortable. She is the sweetest, sweetest girl and sure enough, she won over my defiant and frightened little girl. Natalia cried when we had to leave later that night; she didn't want to leave her new friend.

I later learned that Heda and her brother (they're together in the picture below) are refugees from Chechnya that Maria has welcomed into her home. (In addition to her four children, there are eight other lovely boys and girls in need who live with them). Heda's home was destroyed during the war and there's no place for her and her brother in the refugee camp where their parents are. The visiting clowns (mainly from the USA, but also from Canada, South America and Europe) were so moved by Heda and her brother's attitudes of gratitude and hope in the face of their personal difficulties that they pledged to provide the necessary money to rebuild their home. Once the construction is complete, their family will be reunited.


The clown in the black and white has run the financial operations of Patch's organization since it was founded and this was the first time he decided to participate personally. He was joined by his granddaughter, an impressive young woman who just finished nursing school. The two of them had goosebumps as they spoke about what this trip has meant to them; they will go back to the USA changed people--and as a nurse with a whole new perspective.

This man and wife have devoted their retired lives to volunteer work and they were equally passionate about what they have seen on this trip. They met two very special boys at one orphanage that they wished they could have brought home with them. They gave every bit of energy they had inspiring the crowd to donate and celebrating all of the young artists. Another man I met is a very successful head of a internet company in Canada who had a life-changing moment last year in an ER waiting room; he watched a man his age (early forties) die of a brain aneurism while he waited for care (mainly because of quotas in the Canadian healthcare system that lead to very long lines). He doesn't really need to work anymore, and he has devoted himself to fostering change in his country's healthcare system. He was accompanied by his seven-year-old daughter (look for Raggedy Ann in the pictures of the auction) and they were having the time of their lives while making a difference in others'.

The auction itself was fantastic. To set the scene, many of those in attendance had donned clothing from the "dress up" piles in the entryway (Katya has to join me at this event next year!!!). We were all encouraged to fully participate; as a result, you had no idea who was a poor Russian volunteer, who was an expat businessman, or who was a Russian multi-millionaire. This was sooo different than other charity events where people come to see and be seen--and the charity is just a backdrop. The people at this event CARED about the children and whole-heartedly supported what Maria is doing.

These children's stories... the stories of the children dying in hospice... of children dying because they can't afford medical care... of children abandoned by their parents due to war or other problems... of children maimed by terrorist bombings... of children valiantly struggling to survive... these stories could have left one in tears. The remarkable aspect of this evening was that there certainly were tears shed--but through laughter and hope.

Each child had decided how the money from the sale of his or her painting would be used. Many of the artists were present, and we learned a little about them before they talked about their artwork. Then we heard about they were determined to make the world a better place, how they wanted to make a difference with the proceeds from the sale of their paintings, collages, textile art, sculptures and ceramics.

I was particularly moved by the story of a girl in Beslan who lost her sister during the attack on their school three years ago. At the summer camp Maria runs, she became friends with an orphan who was injured in the bombing of a central Moscow subway station years ago. The girl from Beslan wanted the money from the sale of her painting to fund dance lessons for her friend in Moscow who dreams of dancing, even without one of her feet.

Yes, I know. How can you hear that story and not be moved to ACT?

Each painting had an equally moving and important story.

It was particularly awesome to learn just how all the money raised last year had been spent--and to see the pictures of each child whose life had been saved or significantly improved. Every single dollar made a difference.

I HIGHLY encourage anyone in Moscow who reads this to attend the auction next November--or to get involved sooner in some other way. I've made it my mission to tell every expat friend I know here to spread the word throughout their offices; that auction should have been attended by MANY more people than were there. To those of you not in Moscow, visit Maria's website and donate!!

Here's video from the final sale of the evening, a set of a painted table and chairs that went for $25,000!!!! Words can't describe the looks on the faces of ALL of the artists as we guests fought to own their artwork, donating sums of money beyond their wildest comprehension. Look at the girl in the tie-dyed shirt to Patch's right; she's one of the artists and the recipient of the dance lessons.



I couldn't exactly afford the auctioned works, but I bought over $120 in cards and calendars to give as gifts this Christmas. I also bought a set of two mugs... by twin brothers with severe physical disabilities who have grown up abandoned in orphanages and are now too old for the orphanage--so they've been sent to an "institute" with minimal care where they're basically just left to die. The ceramics teacher who works with Maria still visits the boys and brings them clay and other supplies. One brother is much more capable than the other and he is the one who has participated in the ceramics lessons over the years. The second mug, however, was made by his brother--who can barely move his arms--after his brother taught him how. These mugs are now Katya and Natalia's favorites.

This was my 100th post... I had wondered what I'd write about, would I make it special in some way... I hope this did the trick! I hope that my blog can in some way inspire others to help these children.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Yet Another Hacked Haircut in Our House

Luckily, this time the cutting wasn't done by Katya to herself or to her sister (or the time I woke up to find Natalia staring at me, scissors in hand, contemplating MY hair...)!!!

Yesterday Katya was doing a "fake stained glass" project that involved glitter glue. Glitter glue, it turns out, that is PERMANENT. Believe me, we tried EVERY WAY POSSIBLE to get that glue out. The template filled with sparkly glue of every color of the rainbow was on the table--when all of the sudden, Lylalya (one of our kittens) jumped up to see what was going on--and sat directly on the glue.

The necessary haircut that followed is one that you can imagine; I won't be posting a picture!!

I know, I know, you want a picture... But I was so busy dealing with the glue that I didn't take a before. Without that, well, the "after" picture is just a cat butt with chunks of hair cut off all around it... and a misshapen tail... Sorry, no pic. If I took one now, it wouldn't look nearly as bad as it originally did. Better to just imagine it :-)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

It's Always October 31st at Our House...




Meet Kaya and Speaking Rain.

Native American girls in Moscow.

I still haven't found boxes so we can make a teepee together, but that didn't stop them from creating their own! Theirs isn't quite as sturdy as the cardboard structure I envision creating and it collapsed on them a few times--especially when the kittens "divebombed" onto the top of it--but they sure had a lot of fun! And hey, their teepee had the modern convenience of a cordless phone... (The cat didn't exactly like being put into a "cradleboard," though... Our cats are soooo patient...)

Katya has been sick for the past few days; acting out the Kaya stories and imagining her own has helped to keep her occupied. I think she's just worn out from the flight back from Colorado and only has a bad cold--but I'm letting her rest so it doesn't become something worse. I know that she'd rather be at school since she begged me to bring her there as soon as they got back to Moscow on Monday morning. (Teacher, asking about why she was late: "Oh, Katyusha, long time in traffic today?" Katya: "Ohhhh, yes. You wouldn't believe how long it takes it get here from America.")



Pi-la-kah,
my dad, is recording one of these stories for the girls for Christmas and I know they'll love it. I'd like to record more stories... Partly to just have them, partly to save myself from reading the same tale ad nauseum some nights :-)

Katya had saved up her tooth fairy money (she has lost a LOT of teeth in the past two years) and she bought this costume from a wonderful seamstress on ebay. I highly recommend her if you're in the market for an ultra-soft "indian" costume (she also does pirates).

The girls have been having a lot of fun learning some of the Nez Perce language, too; they often include these following words as they play. And you bet that I'd better play along and use the right words, too--or I have two angry little squaws on my hands!

They actually went to bed in their teepee, as you can see from the slideshow. That was the only way I could think of to make Katya actually go to bed! She had slept all day and just wasn't tired. (Jet lag hits them very hard when they fly back directly from Colorado). I overheard Natalia tell Katya after the lights were out, "Don't worry, sister... You can go to sleep. I'll wake you if the wolves come and Toe-ta and Eetsa are nearby." Too cute!

This morning we didn't have hot water again, so our "rustic" role-playing felt all-the-more real! Given our experience staying in a rural village in Ukraine this summer, though, it was really no big deal... It's all a matter of perspective... Hey, at least we didn't have to carry the water!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Great Gifts that Help Others

My friend Rachael's Etsy (online site where people sell their crafts) is up and running! Check it out; it's called Simple Wishes. Her simple wish is to provide a wonderful Christmas for some older orphans on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. 100 % of her sales up until December 18th will be used by a friend of hers, Kate, who will purchase toys and other presents and deliver them personally. I contributed Russian fabric to Rachael's shop and you can see some cute matryoshka library totes that she has made so far. She is mainly selling beautiful fabric totes and purses, but her sisters are also helping out by donating pottery and paintings. You can click on "items sold" to see other bags she has made; she's open to filling a few special request orders. You can also donate directly to her cause via PayPal at her online shop.

Considering that Rachael is a mom to four kids *and* a full-time practicing doctor, I'm amazed that she's doing this--and I would love to send any of you her way! It's hard to believe that she only just got into sewing (she wanted to personally make her daughter Katya's first Halloween costume--she's seven and joined their family in April); her seams are perfectly straight and the bags look great! I guess all those years of sewing up people were good practice...!

Another delicious holiday offering is homemade truffles by Elle. Her shop is called Sweet Hope and I've heard that her chocolates are amazing. What's even nicer is that she uses the proceeds from her annual sale to provide a grant to a deserving family facing the staggering costs of adoption. I'm giving some of these for Christmas...

You could also win a long list of wonderful prizes (to give as gifts or to keep for yourself!) in very big, very awesome raffle that two generous blogging moms have organized to support two other families in their adoption journeys. Sig and her family are adoptiong 10-year-old Tarana from Azerbaijan, and Krystal and her family are adopting brothers Gerson and Elviz from Guatemala. Just look at these kids!!! Check out their stories; I did and I was moved to donate Russian children's books to their raffle. You can purchase a ticket for just $5 and view the long list of prizes (including handmade boutique children's clothing, a digital camera, scrapbooking supplies and gift certificates to Target, Gymboree and Starbucks) here. Hurry, the raffle ends on Friday, November 16th!



I also love the beautiful zip-up bags that Heather sells on Etsy. She and her husband are in the process of adopting a little girl from China and all of her sale proceeds go towards bringing Lily home. Her combinations of of fabrics are gorgeous and unusual; these bags would be memorable gift.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Thinking of You & Katya, Rachael!

Tonight Talia and I got stuck in traffic at a special spot--Smolenskaya Ploschad. It means a lot to us because from where we were sitting, we saw the hotel where our friends Rachael and Katya stayed this past April when Katya's adoption was finalized and they awaited her USA passport. Here is the Belgrade Hotel:


In front of us was the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the gothic administration building where Katya's papers were processed.


To our right was the Golden Ring Hotel--which often lights up different colors at night. Rachael taught Katya her first colors in English by looking at these lights with her out of their hotel room window across the street. Белый... Синий... Красный... White... Blue... Red.

Wow. How things have changed. Katya is now just another member of her loving family in Michigan... a sweet girl who is as American as apple pie and who speaks English amazingly well. How nice to think of such wonderful things while sitting in traffic :-)

"Mommy -Talia Time"... Our Fun Day Together


Look who's feeling ever-so-confident on her skates! Today we went back to Evropeysky Mall. I let Talia choose how she wanted to spend our special day "just us" and she begged to go skating again--and to make a cat at Build-A-Bear.



She's so cute at the end of that clip; she says how she wants to stay skating "for ever and ever." I would like for her to start lessons... She has made such progress in just two days! Hmm... We'll see... It really would be a shame not to encourage her interest; we live one bus stop from the Olympic ice complex and instruction here is both excellent and inexpensive. We tried lessons two years ago with Katya, but she just couldn't "hack" the intense discipline required. I think that given the progress Natalia has made (see my last post), she would actually enjoy it.

She then made a cat "to keep Asya and Lyalya company" when she's at school. Of course, she was thinking only of her cats! Seriously, though, she insisted that she needed to make an animal for Katya so she wouldn't feel left out--but I reassured her that Katya was having a good time on her own in Colorado and that today was a special day just for her since she had stayed here in Moscow with me. She named her cat "Tinkerbell" for obvious reasons. I'm glad she's into Peter Pan right now, because I already purchased all of her birthday decorations, etc. when we were in the USA last summer--and she's having a Tinkerbell party.


We both then went to the salon for an appointment I had and she sat sooooo patiently while she waited! They set up "The Little Mermaid" on the dvd player for her and she charmed the socks off of everyone. (I can't even imagine having done this with her a year ago!!!!).

After nine years of horrible nails, I decided to get gel nails. My nails are super thin, peeling off and ripping as soon as they grow at all. I was often embarrassed pointing out grammar mistakes to my students with my ugly nails (not to mention how many of my students sport amazing manicures themselves...) and I felt even more awkward at Katya's school in front of all the other moms... I just haven't wanted to spend the money on nails, though--until I got roped into yet another private English student--one that I absolutely couldn't refuse. Our landlady called me from the hospital after a surgeon saved her husband's life (heart attack and complications). She asked if I couldn't possibly find the time to tutor the doctor's twelve-year-old daughter. Well, you know I sure did! And I'm using that money to do something nice for myself--ergo the nails.

We then came home to our eagerly awaiting kittens. Who might not be so eager to greet us next time we come home. This is why. Behold Ariel, the Little Mermaid.


And Sleeping Beauty.


I tried to convince her that the kittens wouldn't be as excited about these outfits as she was, but she truly did not believe me. She actually thought the kittens would be thrilled! Luckily the kittens didn't suffer too much and they gave just enough scratches to deter her from future feline dress-up sessions...

Progress on all Fronts

Natalia asked me to post this picture of her enjoying a "baby-ccino" at the McCafe this week. We are having soooo much fun by ourselves.

I got good news on Thursday, too. The American psychologist who has been overseeing Natalia's speech delay/articulation difficulties and the anger-control problems that developed as a result declared that Natalia's progress is outstanding on all fronts (we've noticed it at home and school, too). Even though we had to stop her speech therapy (because the therapist had to leave Russia), her speech is now right on target for her age, mainly as a result of having switched to a British kindergarten for the year.

Her progress in reading, writing and articulation (both the ability to express complex thoughts and her pronunciation overall) is excellent across the board. Her tantrums are less frequent and much shorter in duration, too; she is able to share her opinions and negotiate instead of screaming in frustration.

Given this progress, we'll now get to scale back on the amount of sessions she has with the psychologist and we can proceed confidently with our plan to put her back into a Russian school (where Katya goes) next fall. YAY!

Now off to another day of fun adventures à deux...!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Playhouses (I need cardboard, people!!!!)

I've got "the bug" again. I need to build. I need to paint. My REAL impulse is to repaint the girls' room, painting over the Madeline murals and instead creating murals with scenes of all the different historical figures from the American Girl books. Kit high up in a tree in her tree house... Felicity riding her horse... Kaya with her wild dog... Samantha and Nellie reading or boating at Piney Point... Molly tap dancing...

But since we don't know if we'll be in our apartment after this May (when our lease is up), I'm reluctant to put in that amount of effort...

So... instead... how about a cool new playhouse?

I'm kind of known for my playhouses. I'm the mom that (unintentionally!!!) made other moms in Brooklyn feel like intimidated, uncreative losers when they'd come over for playdates at our house. We didn't just have tea parties... We had them in the Eiffel Tower. Want a cool reading nook? Why not read that book inside St. Basil's Cathedral! You liked the Madeline story? Why not play in her house--complete with the iron lattice-work outside of each window (made out of black pipe cleaners). You like farm animals? Have a barn!

YES, I had a lot of frustrated creative energy coursing through my veins! I was so used to throwing myself into my job teaching and directing middle school theater productions... and all of the sudden I was just... home. Pretty much hanging out with only my toddler all the time. It all started when I made this dinky house one day while Katya was napping (she was 10-months-old). The roof did, however, have scalloped overhang... The flowerbox was two-dimensional and there were real curtains on a rod.

It didn't take long for me to become pretty bored with that little house... I had BIG ideas! I wanted to travel--but knew it would be while before we could. I missed our friends in Russia. So.... I brought St. Basil's to us! We had a tiny apartment, but there was some available space wrapping around a corner--so I spliced boxes at a 90 degree angle and created this:

Here's the page I made about that house in our scrapbook. I even installed rugs, a flashlight that worked like a lamp and shelves for her picture books. I did a sponge paint technique to mimic the brick of the actual cathedral in Red Square and I used popsicle sticks painted gold to create Russian Orthodox crosses on top of each papier-mache dome. The towers were made so you could stand up inside them and look out. That playhouse was COOL. Be-yond cool. It was a shame to have to destroy it when we moved that spring to a different apartment; there was no way to take it apart without ruining it and it would never have fit out of the door and down three flights of stairs. (Wow, I'd forgotten I used to do that many stairs with a stroller each day...)

Katya's next interest was farm animals, inspired by the petting zoo at a farm near my mom's house. I worked nights to surprise her with this barn. The sides were painted to mimic knotty wood and the roof was spliced to mimic a rounded, tiled barn. I used grey felt to make actual tiles that I separately stapled on. There was a cow peering out of one window, a door with a real handle, a mother duck and her offspring, a puppy and flowers grew three-dimentionally. Katya loved putting on puppet shows through those windows and her friends loved the barn, too.


When Katya was three, she fell in love with the Madeline books. This lead to many more playhouses and murals... Here's the first house I made, as exact a replica of the "old house in Paris" as I could create (compare it to the illustrations in the book!). I already mentioned how I used a drill and pipe cleaners for the lattice-work in front of each window... Also note the chimney with smoke coming out. Here's Natalia in front of it at six months.


The girls loved this playhouse so much that I begged the movers to send it with all of our stuff to Moscow--and it made it here intact!!! Having that house really helped the girls to settle in once we arrived in Russia. They no longer had their Madeline murals, but at least they had their familiar house to play in... It took a few months for me to recreate the murals you can see in this picture.


That playhouse even had working Christmas lights in the windows... We finally gave that playhouse away to a friend of mine last spring in order to make way for a couch in the girls' room. (I had nowhere to sit with both girls and read).



Before we left Brooklyn for Moscow, though, I had made one other playhouse... Behold "La Tour Eiffel"!!!


That house was AWESOME. The way that I cut out spaces in the tower made it light inside--but still a "secret" place. The girls loved reading and playing in there. Here's Katya with one of her friends having a tea party. It's too bad that this house couldn't make the move to Moscow; it was shaped in such an odd way and was too big. A friend of mine took it for her kids.


So... where does this all lead? I want to make a teepee for the girls, and I really wanted to have it done by this coming Monday when Katya and Chris get back from Colorado. This being Moscow, however, there was of course a snag...

NO ONE would sell me large cardboard boxes. NO ONE. And I tried EVERYWHERE. Every single moving company (they wouldn't sell me any supplies unless I was moving with them). The big stores that are the equivalent of Home Depot and Office Max. I went to Ikea and asked. No. I also asked at two malls and five huge furniture stores. No, no, no. No one would take my number and call me once boxes came in, either. I found some by dumpsters--but with trash on them. I've actually spent time over a five day period trying to get these darn boxes! Me and my quests... Once I get started, I just won't give up.

After I started writing this post, I got a call back from one moving company after I had tried them again, BEGGING. I explained that it was for a nursery school studying Native Americans and that we needed to get it done for a unit on Thanksgiving and had offered to pay whatever it cost. (I could always say "no" if the price was too high--and I AM studying Thanksgiving with my younger English students.) Well... this being Russia, someone finally took my bribe! (I had tried bribing all along; I wasn't stupid enough to wait this long before trying...)

I can go to a warehouse on the other side of Moscow on Monday morning and buy some boxes at prices between $3 and $15. It's not a done deal, however, until I have the boxes in my possession... Too bad I can't have the teepee already built, however, before Katya and Chris get back... She's in a "Nez Perce" Native American phase right now, inspired by the American Girl Kaya books. She had saved her tooth fairy money and ordered a dress-up costume like Kaya's clothing that was waiting for her in Colorado and she's having so much fun...

I'll post pictures of the teepee once it's done!

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Awkward and Uncomfortable

I came home yesterday to find the young woman who cleans for us cowering in fear. Truly scared. And I am always sooooo nice, friendly, generous. I didn't have any help until I went back to work this fall, so I know it's hard work--and I'm so appreciative. (Cleaning here isn't like cleaning in your average US town--the pollution is so bad that you need to scrub floors at least three times per week and the windows need thorough cleanings every few weeks to fully let in the sun. Laundry also takes twice as long and everything needs to be ironed. We also have no dishwasher.) I had given her some nice clothes that don't fit me any more earlier in the morning. Didn't matter. The glass caraffe for our coffee maker had broken as she washed it and she was terrified.

I immediately smiled at her, reassured her that it was ok, that it had already happened to me twice before... But it took a while for her to really believe me and not look scared.

It makes you really wonder what other people she has worked for before.

And then I went to take the trash out, two big bags of trash from various rooms in the house all mixed together. Stuff from the bathroom and den mixed in with some food that had gone bad, etc. There were about four grown men and women who eagerly pounced on my trash as soon as I put it in the dumpster. One said almost immediately, "The glass broke, huh?" as he pondered salvaging our coffee maker. (It was actually already broken and barely working before the caraffe broke; this was the final excuse I had needed to just get a new one).

I don't think I'll ever get over people going through my garbage. I try to always separate anything that could remotely be reused again so that they can claim those items without having them covered in gook. But my personal garbage...I feel horrible that they go through it and get dirty, embarrassed to be exposed that way, frustrated that their lives are so hard that they're reduced to this.

I know it sounds odd to some of you that I even have a cleaning lady... and that we now have a driver for Natalia... Life here is just so different. It takes so long to get basic things done that I just *can't* do it all without being utterly exhausted and/or having it take away from time with the kids. (Last year I used to clean some times at 10 p.m. once the kids were in bed, when I should have been heading to bed myself...)

Today I had the day "off"--but I spent almost five hours simply getting the car washed
(that took 1 1/2 hours... there are always long lines at car washes since cars get COATED in pollution) and buying winter tires--and trying to find someone to put them on. I finally gave up and they're in our trunk. (Incidentally, I shouldn't even be driving the car since it's STILL not registered--6 weeks now of bureaucracy--but it's going to snow any day now and today was the only day I could spend all that time dealing with tires.)

I needed the driver for Natalia because traffic is so bad that were I driving her, I wouldn't be able to plan on doing anything between noon and seven every day. I'd have a few hours to kill by her school, but I wouldn't be able to work then... Or do Brownies with Katya.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Skating at the new Evropeysky Rink


Talia is enjoying her time with me on our own. First of all, the kittens are so happy to have us home again after the weekend away (I had someone check in on them) that they are SUPER affectionate. They want to be held all the time and instantly settle in to snuggle. Talia also likes not having to compromise with her sister about what stories we read, what movie she wants to watch or well, about everything!

This morning I took her ice skating at the new rink in Evropeysky Mall at Kievsky Vokzal (train station). The rink is fantastic! There are actually two--one for adults with a cafe in the middle of the ice (hard to picture, I know, I'll take a picture next time we're there) and a smaller one for children. Natalia loved "shakin' it" to the music and declared that she could skate. I think she just as pleased about wearing her favorite pink marabou-trimmed skating dress as she was about the actual activity... In any case, I bet we'll be going there often! Here she is, um, skating...



I let her miss school today and we joined the K~~~ family (they were also at the dacha with us) for a nice lunch and "Bee Movie" in Russian. It was cute--better than I'd been expecting. We all chucked at this joke, spoken by a mosquito who works as a lawyer, "I was born a parasite... All I needed to do was buy a briefcase..."

Added on Tuesday: I forgot to write that yesterday was an official Russian holiday; that's why our friends were able to go to the movie with us. Dima had the day off from work and neither girl had school. Only Talia's school was operating as usual since it's private and English. The holiday is a rather funny one that pretty much everyone mocks, while still being glad to have the day off. There used to be a Soviet holiday around this time of year that couldn't be celebrated after the USSR fell apart. Instead the politicians invented this new one: Day of National Unity. It's quite ridiculous since the former Soviet Republics barely seem to get along these days, and there is very little tolerance in Russia for citizens who aren't ethnic caucasians.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Martha Stewart and Kitty Litter... YUM!

How's that for a title...

I've been baking... We're about to go to our friends' dacha for the weekend and I'm bring two VERY different desserts.

Here's the Martha Stewart Chocolate Endpaper Tart below. I'll include directions on how to make it later (no time right now); it's incredibly delicious, quite impressive and actually rather easy to make.


Then there's the cake that the girls asked me to make... They're planning a big Halloween bash for our three families and this was their top choice. Yup, a Kitty Litter Cake.

The older girls, Polina and Julia, helped me make it yesterday during their English lesson. It was one of their first times baking and I sincerely hope it doesn't become part of their standard repertoire.

The cake is actually quite good, though... I didn't have all of the ingredients available here, though, and had to improvise on how to create cat poop. How's that for a shopping list... "Hmm... what in this aisle could be used to create realistic poo?"...

Kitty Litter Cake

1 vanilla or butter cake (I made one using the King Arthur Flour cookbook)
1 chocolate cake (again, I used a recipe from King Arthur Flour)
2 large pkg vanilla instant pudding mix, prepared
1 large pkg vanilla sandwich cookies
green food coloring
12 small Tootsie Rolls®

1 new kitty litter pan
1 new plastic kitty litter pan liner
1 new pooper scooper

Prepare cakes and bake according to directions (any size pans).

Prepare pudding mix and chill until ready to assemble.

Crumble white sandwich cookies in small batches in food processor, scraping often. Set aside all but about 1/4 cup. To the 1/4 cup cookie crumbs, add a few drops green food coloring and mix until completely colored.

When cakes are cooled to room temperature, crumble into a large bowl. Toss with half the remaining white cookie crumbs and the chilled pudding. Important: mix in just enough of the pudding to moisten it. You don't want it too soggy. Combine gently.

Line a new, clean kitty litter box. Put the cake/pudding/cookie mixture into the litter box.

Put three unwrapped Tootsie rolls in a microwave safe dish and heat until soft and pliable. Shape ends so they are no longer blunt, curving slightly. Repeat with 3 more Tootsie rolls bury them in the mixture. Sprinkle the other half of cookie crumbs over top. Scatter the green cookie crumbs lightly on top of everything -- this is supposed to look like the chlorophyll in kitty litter.

Heat 3 Tootsie Rolls in the microwave until almost melted. Scrape them on top of the cake; sprinkle with cookie crumbs. Spread remaining Tootsie Rolls over the top; take one and heat until pliable, hang it over the side of the kitty litter box, sprinkling it lightly with cookie crumbs. Place the box on a newspaper and sprinkle a few of the cookie crumbs around for a truly disgusting effect!

Katya is also back from her school trip. All in all, she loved it. The three days were a culmination of the elementary school's study of Prehistoric Man. One of Katya's favorite activities was learning how they hunted; the teachers spread balloons throughout an area of the woods and the kids (with supervision) had to find balloons and pop them with darts. Inside each balloon was a picture of what animal they had killed--and how many people it could feed. The kids needed to keep hunting until they had fed their families. Pretty neat, huh?? I'll write more about the trip when we get back from the dacha! (Kate--it had nothing to do with actual Pioneers, though--her school simply used the facilities).