Thursday, January 31, 2008


This is "sklyakat": icky, oily, muddy slush. For a good part of the year, we have to walk in and around it. Oh, yes... And we DRIVE in it. When it melts, the streets are coated in thick, brown water that splatters EVERYWHERE. Your pants and coats get drops of it all over them. I'm quite relieved that I no longer have a toddler who repeatedly falls in it... That was quite a sight to see--and clean up! Nevertheless, both girls have two complete sets of outwear since one is often being washed.

Until we got a car, I didn't realize how hard the "sklyakat" makes it to drive! It whips up and coats all the windows, making it quite hard to see. It also coats the headlights--but gradually, so you don't realize how thick the dirt is until you turn on the lights and can't tell if they're working.

These lovely layers of mud are rather hard to clean off when they combine with ice and freeze all over the windows. I scrape off what I can, but as the windows warm, the remaining mud then melts. Kate pointed out that you also need to be sure to wipe off the license plates now that a new law took effect on January 1st that all plates must always be clean. As Kate also remarked, thank God they didn't mandate that the whole car must always be clean, too! Impossible! (That didn't stop the cops from giving me a hard time about my dirty car in November, though...)

We need to get the car washed once a week to keep it passably clean--clean enough so that we're not covered in grime by opening the doors, and clean enough to drive safely. Sometimes, though, the car is filthy again within an hour of having left the car wash! THAT is frustrating...

Since getting your car washed is such a necessity, there are often very long lines outside of the carwashes. It can take hours to get it done. If I can wait another day, I do... And I try again when the line isn't so long. To get the outside washed and the inside vacuumed costs about $35. But there are times when you have to get get it done right then and there because it has become too dangerous to drive--and then you're stuck waiting it out.

A little industry of carwash/cafes has sprung up; you can go inside while waiting for your car. I did just that on Monday evening, waiting an hour and a half until it was ready. Three days later, this is what the car already looks like!

Kind of makes you wonder about what you're breathing.

And no wonder the windows to the apartment get so coated in grime that whatever sunshine there is gets quite distorted! This also helps to explain why you need to wash the floors at least four times a week in order to keep the apartment clean; the grime just gets in somehow. (It was like that where we lived in Brooklyn, too; we were next to the expressway).

The girls sometimes play a game, trying to guess what color cars are beneath their coats of dirt. When drivers let weeks go by without washing their cars, you really can't tell what colors they actually are!

So how often do you wash your cars?

Monday, January 28, 2008

Gender Bender!

We are all reeling from some shocking news.

Lyalya. Sweet, cute Lyalya... is a BOY! I'm feeling equally stunned about a.) not having noticed this rather obvious fact before now... and b.) Lyalya isn't a "she," but rather a "he"!!!

Once you've used feminine pronouns with your pet for a half a year, it's quite hard to all of the sudden switch! And our "concept" of Lyalya is that she's a girl--oops--he's a girl--but he's not... and well, you see how this starts to get complicated.

I was in the middle of tutoring my two 11-year-old girls while Lyalya lounged on his back next to us. (Gosh, it was hard to write "his" instead of "her" just there!). One of them remarked that her bottom looked a little odd--"Is THAT (and you know what I mean) her behind?" For the first time, I actually looked at her (HIM! Drat! HIM!) and quickly realized that not only was it not a bottom, but that she/he actually had testicles... and was shocked. There was no denying it!

The girls went running to their moms and we all tried to digest the news! Katya was home, playing in another room. We told her and she went pale. She started to cry as I tried to explain to her how we had been wrong all along--that Lyalya hadn't all of the sudden changed gender. "But didn't she like being a girl? Why did she have to go and get a p----?????" She felt personally hurt, as if this oversight had anything to do with the cat's feelings for her.

Needless to say, as soon as they're old enough, both cats will get immediately sterilized!

We now need to rethink his name. Calling him "Lyalya" is like calling him "La-la" or "Sweetie-poo" in English. That just doesn't jibe with that new anatomy we discovered today. Perhaps "Lyalik"...

This is all just too funny to me. I remember getting some sex ed lessons myself when my parents got me guinea pig as a child. (How old was I, Mom? Fourth grade?) We had Inky, a girl, and then we got Bertha, a girl. Turns out that Bertha was pregnant--quite a surprise. The other surprise was Inky's loud desire for Bertha--and her hot pursuit of her that always took place during dinner time--right next to the table. My parents had certainly never intended for their benign purchase of guinea pig to open up the panacea of questions regarding homosexuality!

Natalia's home... And now we have to break the news to her.

Wonder how Chris will take it, too!

Oh, Boy... (No pun intended... Truly!) Natalia is rather intrigued. Upon verification, she declared that she wanted to switch cats with Katya because, "I love boys. So she's, um, he's mine." Uh-oh!!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Ahoy There, Matey! (No, not that kind of pirate...)

Supposedly there has been a huge crackdown on piracy in Russia within the last year. Yes, we have noticed that quite a few video kiosks were closed down... But new ones sprang up in their places almost instantly. To illustrate my point, look at these tables outside of a subway station that are covered with new releases (or not even yet released copies) of American and Russian films. The films cost 120 rubles, or a little under $5. (The prices are negotiable when you buy more).

Definitely illegal.

And then note the officer (I think he's with the army) walking right by! He even stopped to check out the movies... I didn't dare take his picture, though. No one really pays attention to the piracy here; closures are just for show.

You can also get almost any music or computer software this way, too.

Here's a video of the underground passageway at metro Biblioteka Imeni Lenina, just across from the Kremlin and Manezh. You can't cross most major streets at street-level; you have go under the streets instead. In many crossings you can find kiosks like these, selling pretty much the same thing: pirated videos/music/software; hundreds of newspapers and magazines; ugly Chinese-made clothing; cheap make-up and hosiery/lingerie; baked bread pockets filled with meat (!!!!), cabbage, potatoes or mushrooms; snack food and soft drinks (beer, for some reason, is usually only sold at street level); tacky tchochki objects (who actually buys that stuff???); flowers... and sometimes office supplies; tickets to events around the city; fruits/vegetables; random household necessities such as cords, lightbulbs, etc; accessories for cell phones. In the very center of the city you'll also find touristy souvenirs.

This particular passageway has all of the above--and a kiosk selling religious necklaces, literature and mini icons, too. It looks SO out-of-place! Software and music cost about $2.40 and movies were about $4.75.

Not Everything Here is Gray or Brick!

During the long, gray days of winter, I relish the unexpected palette of paint that you find on Moscow buildings. It's not uncommon to walk by buildings in that range from pastel to bright variations of every color of the rainbow. Here are a few to give you an idea:

Sunday, January 13, 2008

4:23 a.m... Or, the Joys of Jet-Lag!

Natalia is still WIDE awake! So was Katya, until 1:45 a.m.! One benefit of the kids' insomnia has been that I got our six 20 x 20 x 20 inch cube boxes unpacked (that's 367 lbs of luggage). Still three suitcases to go (but they're partially unpacked). Had to completely overhaul my wardrobe in order to make space for new stuff, but that was fun! It's nice to have bought new clothing because I've dropped two sizes (and not because I'm about to have a baby or just had one)!

(This video is courtesy of my new Flip video camera, a marvelous little gadget you can find here. Thanks for the recommendation, Rachael! It rocks!!)

As soon as I've made more progress getting settled in, I'll upload all the pictures I've taken with my new, amazing Nikon SLR camera and I'll blog more. I've just been really, really busy preparing for the trip back (wait until you see what my mom's living room looked like in the midst of the packing...) and now that I'm back, there's so much more work to be done...

We got out of the house today, though, and had a wonderful time at a Russian kids' matinee with friends. (Great new discovery--can't believe I didn't know about it before--the 5 Svezd movie complex with a play area for kids! I'll post about it later).

Oh--for those of you who might have asked, our flight back was actually WONDERFUL! Somehow it just flew by (no pun intended, truly) and when it the crew brought out breakfast sandwiches--usually meaning there's about an hour until landing--I was shocked; I was prepared at that point for at least four more hours of travel. Nice people around us (who MOVED so I could be with the girls) and great choices on my part for "airplane surprises"--check this out; Katya loved it and used it for seven hours straight! (What a well-spent $8.25 at Barnes and Noble--gotta love the educators' discount I get since I homeschool English!)

The day didn't start so smoothly, though... The driver who was supposed to bring us and all of our luggage to JFK never showed!!!! My mom worked miracles and arranged for another driver with a van who got us there just in the nick of time. I was then joyfully surprised that Katya's Platinum Medallion status with Delta (not quite sure how she has attained this and no one else has) entitled her to THREE 70 lb bags (usual allowance is two 50 lb bags). This was great news since Delta has now significantly raised their excess baggage fees from $100 per extra 50 lb bag to $125, and any luggage weighing between 50 and 70 lbs now costs an additional $50 (used to cost $25). Needless to say, these changes impact us greatly! (No matter what, though, it's cheaper overall for us to bring back what we do from the USA than to try to find it here. My six pairs of new shoes that cost $134 total on final markdown would have cost at least $450 here...).