Friday, February 29, 2008

Our Little Superstar

"This is a ball. A princess called Giselle went to the ball." A darn good effort for a little girl who just turned five in December!!!

Today she had a perfect score on her spelling test, too! "Like" is not easy! She is extremely proud. We're feeling very confident about her ability to successfully transfer into Katya's school next year... She is so strong in her English skills that I'll be able to keep her doing appropriate reading and writing at home. And her math?? She can do addition and subtraction up to 20 without any help!

To any of you Moscow parents of children ages 2-6... I'd be happy to share the information about her school! Her teacher (the school's director) is AMAZING!

What's Wrong with this Picture?

I took this picture last week, right when we got our internet connection back. I'd much prefer the actual board game! Katya, however, loves the novelty of being a "big kid" with her dad in their private gaming room at Yahoo. She's growing up so fast...

All this time home sick has fueled her interest in Webkinz, too. I must admit, it's great to have her practice so many American grade-level skills on their web site... She has to answer a variety of questions related to school subjects in order to earn "Kinz Cash" so she can take proper care of her puppy. She's learning to use money, to budget, to earn for a goal... She also has to feed her puppy a varied and balanced diet in order to keep her healthy. The site is a bit addictive, but it's sure an incentive for good behavior; she only gets to log on when she accomplishes the day's behavorial goals.

Here's a picture of her Webkinz puppy that she took with her other big venture into the world of technology... Yes, she took that picture with her cell phone.

Katya had been asking for a phone since school started... She wasn't exaggerating that "everyone else" had one. That might be so, but it's certainly not a reason in our book for her to have one, too! I was a bit perplexed by all the kids running around with cell phones, and I discussed it with many friends. The general consensus for why to have one was summed up succinctly by one Russian friend: "Beslan."

Her comments instantly reminded me September 11, 2001... All my Brooklyn neighbors (myself included--but I knew that MY husband didn't work in the towers... Turns out he was UNDER them in the subway when the first plane hit) anxiously waiting to hear from their spouses, cell phones clutched... And those calls we have all heard, made by people before they died in the towers and from the heroes on board United Airlines Flight 93... Heaven forbid there ever be a dangerous situation, we want the peace of mind of knowing that Katya can always reach us.

She's not allowed to use the phone at school, though, even though it's in her backpack. If she uses it, she knows she'll have it taken away. I don't want to use it to remind her to bring things home, etc... Other moms do that, but she needs to learn those habits on her own...

We gave it to her the night before she went on her school trip to a former Soviet Youth Organization "camp" last month. It was great to hear from her over the course of those three days; the information we received was MUCH more accurate than the "fine" we had had gotten in response to "How was it???" when they went in the fall. Katya tends to get stuck on the negative, too--if anything goes wrong, that's all we hear about. This time, however, we were able to remind her of all the specific fun things she had called to tell us about.

I must add that Katya figured out how to take pictures with the phone, add to her address book and send text messages all on her own (and with the eager help of her classmates). Sorry, Rachael! Soon she'll be texting you into the ground!

The girls I tutor gave Katya this really cool cell phone stand for Valentine's Day... They couldn't have picked a more perfect present! She is quite proud!

p.s. Taking it easy, not feeling much better. Ah, I hate being sick!

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Hail... Ail... Wail...

Edited at the end; a bit more information added. And back to bed.

This picture that I took on Saturday (that's my windshield during a hailstorm) pretty adeptly describes how I'm feeling all over. Hammered by little pellets of ice, a little foggy.

Like my friend "Big Katya," I was diagnosed with "walking pneumonia" today. I saw a doctor who is new to Moscow and who asked such insightful questions such as, "Do you encounter any stress on a daily basis?" (Does that fact that it took us almost an hour of heart-pounding driving along tiny, narrow alleys lined with luxury cars you are are terrified of scraping in order to find a parking space a the medical center count?) "Do you live in an environment with comprised air quality?" (Have you opened your eyes recently?) "Have you been in contact with other people who could be sick?" (Let's see... I'm have kids who attend two different schools, I work in a school, and we live in a city!!!!) This guy has clearly not grasped that we live in MOSCOW, people! I didn't have the heart to just look at him and say, "Um... DUH!!!"

I don't need to be hospitalized (standard procedure in Russian clinics here), but I'm supposed to take it easy. I hate having to miss work!! Katya is sick, too, so we've both been home this week... Poor kid had to miss a big birthday party*, a cool field trip and she'll miss her ballet recital this weekend (she missed all the rehearsals this week, so even if she is better on Saturday, she wouldn't feel able to participate). It's too bad I wore myself out on Saturday on a goose hunt to track down the various parts of her recital costume!!!! (More about that in a post I've been working on since Saturday--but have been too weak to finish). I got a shot to help me breathe better and am now on antibiotics.

And now I'm off to bed. Please forgive me for being so bad recently at answering e-mails and leaving comments on your blogs! (And for replying to many kind comments received from you). I'll get back at it soon.

*On another note, however, we did get to attend the same girl's "family and close friends" birthday party over the weekend. (Here you have a home/family friends party and then a shindig at school, partly b/c you could never fit everyone in an apartment. They rented out a historic movie theater and we were there for over five hours! Chris left work for a few hours to join us. It was a on a national Russian holiday when all the other adults were off, but Chris still had to work. The kids were entertained by actors doing a variety of games with them and then they saw "Alvin and the Chipmunks" in Russian. The adults, meanwhile, mingled and had a formal--and delicious--meal fitting for a wedding. I don't think I'll ever get used to how important birthdays are here! Love it, but we just can't afford to do something like that... I'm glad good Russian friends of ours who are heavily exposed to the US have decided to make a drastic switch and "go American" when it comes to birthdays--it was getting out of hand as costs soar through the roof. That takes a little pressure off of us and makes it not so obvious that we don't do this. Even if we could afford it, we just couldn't bring our American selves to spend money like that on birthday parties--every year--for all four of us! When you're the adult, you're expected to host a formal dinner for all your close friends and family.

I actually sat next to Robin Williams' acting coach at that party, a most interesting man who has produced a plethora of acclaimed movies and trained many American actors in the
Stanislavsky Method. (I read up on the method and tried to teach it to my junior high students when teaching at my last job in the USA--typical private school stuff where you're hired to teach French and Spanish and then find out, oh, by the way, you're also the drama teacher and in charge of putting on a school play. This little background info made it SO interesting to talk with this man!) There was an equally nice couple sitting across from us. Only after a few hours did we make the connection that I'm their eighth grade daughter's (she wasn't at the party) Spanish teacher! I'm used to "expat Moscow" being VERY, VERY small... but we've been here long enough that we're even finding ourselves in similar situations with Russians now. A few weeks ago I was shocked to see a little girl I had tutored last fall on the cover of "Hello," The Russian equivalent of "People." Well, I'll be darned. I had no idea her father is EXTREMELY famous in the music industry. That does explain, however, the head-to-toe Christian Dior ensembles on a four-year-old...

Monday, February 25, 2008

My, OH MY, How Things Have Changed

We were without an internet connection again this week. (That's why I couldn't post this weekend). It's been unreliable since we moved here and I've gotten used to it. Unfortunately, if we don't have internet... we don't have a phone to the USA. We have two lines in our apartment: one that works locally and one that we use for international calls, routed through the internet.

The local phone is pretty reliable and it could be used to call the US--I had to use it this week for that purpose. I bought and used a local scratch-off calling card, though (Arktell seems to be best for you local readers). We learned early on to avoid using our local phone to dial directly. It's not really a question of the costs (which are higher), but rather it's such a hassle to then pay the bill. International calls generate a whole different bill, one which we don't reliably receive, and you have to pay for those calls in person at some office other than where you go to just pay for the regular phone service. None of this, of course, can be done on-line. As a result, it's easy to get your phone service cut off entirely because you didn't know you had a bill to pay--or it hadn't come so you could pay it. You can't just go and put down a sum towards your number, knowing you'd made calls--no paperwork, no money accepted. Oh, and be sure to have your passport. UGH!

For our internet service we have Skype and Vonage. Chris uses Skype to forward calls to his work number and cell phone. Vonage routes calls to our home number; I don't want to get international calls on my cell since if I'm out and using my cell phone, I'm driving or at work (i.e. in front of a class of students whom I am constantly lecturing to TURN OFF THEIR DARN CELL PHONES) most times.

The cool thing about these services is how you they allow you to have local US numbers. We have CT, NY and CO numbers (it's extra for each state added, but cheaper to do that than have the people calling us in those places have to pay for long-distance to reach us). Vonage even lets you keep your old "regular" number when you switch to them! We ended up not doing that, in part to avoid having people call us in the middle of the night, unaware we weren't exactly on "Brooklyn time" anymore :-). I still get the occasional wrong number in the middle of the night ("No, REALLY, you have the wrong number and there's no Javier here..."). When the wrong number dialers call back, I usually inform them that they've actually called Moscow, Russia--that sure freaks them out until I add that they haven't been charged for an international call. Some of the random calls can be a pain, but they've died down for the most part. The New York Times finally "got it" that we don't want to resume our paper delivery ("Trust me... We're really not local anymore...").

But back to title of this post...

I remember what it was like living here in 1991 without ANY internet! I used to have to go to this place:

It's the Central Telegraph building, a down the street from the Kremlin on Tverskaya ulitsa. Going there used to be such a huge ordeal!!! You could arrange for a booth to make prepaid and surely recorded international call, but I didn't do that (way too expensive). I waited in the LONG lines to be allowed to send a fax to a friend at Dartmouth. She then photocopied them and mailed them off to various people. There wasn't ANYWHERE to use the internet, so e-mail was impossible.

I did make some calls, but by calling the international operator from the apartment and reserving a specific time (and hoping the person I'd call would actually be home and answer). The international operator would then call me at the reserved time and put the call through to the USA. Average citizens didn't have phones capable of calling overseas--that's one way to control information! I don't think the procedures have changed since then about how to then pay for that call, but my host family had it all figured out and didn't mind as long as I paid immediately when the bill came. Calls to the US at that time cost more than groceries for a week... I'm sure they were in disbelief. (But life here was so inexpensive--provided you only bought the few items available--that the calls weren't too costly by US standards).

So anyway... After having lived here in 1991 under those conditions, it really doesn't seem like such a big deal to have sporadic internet service sometimes. I never could have imagined during those times being able to download current US television to the computer, looking up local Moscow resources and phone numbers, sharing digital pictures, listening to NPR on my ipod, shopping via the internet (but still not having things directly sent here, though) and... BLOGGING!

Friday, February 22, 2008

My Birthday!

I turned 36 yesterday. It doesn't feel old, so I'm not going to get all upset over it. If anything, life seems to get a bit easier as the years pass... Mind you, I wouldn't mind having the body I had in graduate school again, but, hey... wouldn't we all love to turn back the clock sometimes.

The girls were so excited about my birthday. The day before they secretly made me a few cards; here is one of them. They each decorated half of the outside and wrote messages together on the inside. I love how they collaborated on this!!!

Here are Natalia and her best friend, Spencer, wishing me a happy birthday. They're at Gorky Park at a pavilion near the water and there are fireworks in the background. Next is Katya's mixed-media heart. She used blowpens, glitter, pens and nail polish (hmmm...).

Here's what they wrote. I think Natalia is doing a great job writing, considering that she only turned five in December! Her spelling isn't perfect, but her penmanship is darn good! (Isn't it cute how she says, "Mum"? I love all the "British-isms" she has picked up at school).

They rushed to give me their cards as soon as they woke up. Natalia's friend Spencer came over for a play date in the morning and then his mom, Julie, took me out for a WONDERFUL lunch at Cafe Pushkin, a gem of a restaurant in the center of the city. Everything inside is strictly 19th-century in appearance and they make you feel like Russian nobility. (Psst... Their business lunch is not to be missed!) Had the battery in my camera not died, I'd have taken more pictures... but here is a little video I managed to get of our desserts. My crème brûlée came with a spun sugar DOME over it that collapsed as it burned!

THANK YOU, Julie!!! I had a splendid time!!!! The celebration will continue this weekend; hopefully Chris and I will do something then :-). Thanks also to you friends in Blogland who wished me well!!

"Моя Семья" (Katya's Family Project for School)

As I wrote earlier this week, Katya just completed a project about her family for school. Every child in her class was asked to create a poster and give a short talk about his or her family, highlighting anything or anyone of particular historical interest. The goals of the project were threefold: to help the children get to know one another better; to help the child learn more about his or her family (that sure happened for us as we learned that our ancestors had been both Patriots and Loyalists!); to have the child and parents work together on the project (the children were expected to tell the parents what to write and each child presented the project with a parent). The whole unit will culminate with a big class party on March 7th for all the children and their families. Each family will present an activity or food that is unique to them; we're going to teach the kids to play Cranium Hullabaloo (I'll probably make a Russian version).

Since Katya is the only foreigner in her class, her presentation was of particular interest to her teachers and classmates. They asked so many questions and were fascinated! We knew that they were particularly intrigued that America is made up of immigrants; what a contrast to Russia! Immigrants are looked down upon here and face much discrimination; we wanted to show how having varied ethnic backgrounds is a source of national pride in America.

"America is a country of immigrants! Everyone has ancestors from different countries. I love my homeland!"

Katya knew that her friends had seen movies such as Pocahontas and cowboy movies; she wanted to show how her history was reflected in those time periods, too. I'm glad she did that--it really grabbed the children's attention! (One mom called last night to say how her daughter came home from school so excited by Katya's project that she talked about it all evening!)

While we certainly simplified things quite a bit, her poster *is* true. FDR wasn't my grandpa's first cousin, but they were related--and the word "cousin" is used very loosely in Russian. I must say that Katya was tickled pink to share that tidbit!

Here's a slide show of the images included in the poster; beneath you'll find her project in both Russian and English. The English translation is a bit awkward; we did it originally in Russian and then had Chris's secretary type it and make some corrections. Had we created the project in English to begin with, we would have used different phrasing.

Мой дедушка – мамин отец живет на Северо-западе Америки. Его предки эмигрировали в Америку из Швеции в конце 19-го века. Они проехали через всю страну в крытом вагоне и стали фермерами. Мой дедушка осуществил «Американскую мечту» - он закончил аспирантуру и стал инженером-атомщиком.

My grandfather, my mom's dad, lives in the American Northwest. His ancestors immigrated to America from Sweden at the end of the 19th century. They traveled across the country in a covered wagon and became farmers. My grandpa realized the "American Dream;" he completed graduate school and became a nuclear engineer.

Мне очень интересно изучать историю Американских индейцев, которые первыми поселились и до сих пор живут в его штате.

I'm very interested in studying the history of the Native Americans who first settled--and still live in--the state where he lives.

Родители моего отца живут в Колорадо – штат на западе с потрясающими и большими горами. Его предки эмигрировали в 18-м веке из Великобритании и Ирландии. Они участвовали в войне за независимость (когда Америка стала самост
оятельной, отделившись от Великобритании), с обоих сторон против друг друга. Его предки тоже решили «открыть запад» и устроили себе новую жизнь, став фермерами на «диком западе». Один родственник был настоящим ковбоем! Как мамин отец, они тоже осуществили «Американскую мечту» - каждое поколение успевает больше, чем предыдущее. Бабушка профессиональный музыкант. Дедушка – первый в его семье закончил аспирантуру и стал хирургом-ортопедом. Интересно, что дедушка год работал врачом на территории Американских индейцев.

My father's parents live in Colorado, a western state with breathtaking large mountains. His ancestors emigrated in the 18th century from Great Britain and Ireland. They fought on both sides, against each other, during the Revolutionary War (when America became independent, separate from Great Britain). His ancestors also decided to settle the West, building themselves new lives as farmers in the "Wild West." One relative was a real cowboy! Like my mother's father, they also realized the "American Dream"-- that each generation will achieve more success than the previous one. Grandma is a professional musician. Grandpa was the first in his family to complete graduate school and he became an orthopedic surgeon. It's interesting that my grandpa worked for a year on a Native American reservation.

Бабушка была первой скрипкой оркестра. Интересно, что дедушке предлагали контракт как профессиональному певцу оперы. Как и они, я тоже очень люблю музыку.

Grandma was the first violin in an orchestra. It's interesting that my grandpa was offered a contract as a professional opera singer. Like them, I also really love music.

Я очень люблю ходить в горы, когда приезжаю к ним в гости.

I love to hike in the mountains when I visit them.

Президент Франклин Делано Рузвельт был 32-м президентом Америки и двоюродным братом моего прадедушки со стороны матери. Фамилия моей бабушки Делано. Он был великим человеком и я им очень горжусь! Вместе с лидерами Советского Союза и Великобритании он победил немцев во Второй Мировой Войне.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the 32nd President of America and a cousin of my great grandfather on my mother's side. My grandma's last name is Delano. He was a great man and I'm very proud of him! Together with the leaders of the Soviet Union and Great Britain, he beat the Germans in the Second World War.

Моя бабушка очень красиво шьет. На Новый Год она нам с сестрой шила два платья в стиле 17-ого века. Я хочу так хорошо работать со своими руками как она и Мама! У нее такса как сосиска!

My grandmother sews very beautifully. For Christmas she sewed two 17th century-style dresses for me and my sister. I want to be as handy as she and Mom are! She has a dachshund like a sausage!

Мои предки со стороны Делано помогли открыть Америку; они приплыли на «Мейфлауэр» из Великобритании в 1630-м году. Половина тех пассажиров погибла в пути; жизнь была очень сложной. Они праздновали День Благодарения – праздник, который до сих пор является очень важным для всех Американцев. Предки с маминой стороны тоже приплыли в Америку в начале 20-го века из Германии и Нидерландов. В Нью-Йорке их встретила Статуя Свободы. Они искали лучшую жизнь – они верили, что улицы в Америке вымощены золотом. Прапрадедушка работал фотографом и художником. Оттуда моя и мамина страсть к искусству и фотографии? Их внуки и пра-внуки--вклучая моя мама--осуществили их мечту, окончили аспирантуру в престижних университетах и стали профессиональними.

My ancestors on the Delano side helped to discover America; they sailed over on the Mayflower from Great Britain in 1630. Half of the passengers died along the way; life was very hard. They celebrated Thanksgiving, a holiday which is still very important for all Americans. Ancestors on my mother's side also sailed to America at the beginning of the 20th Century from Germany and the Netherlands. They were greeted in New York by the Statue of Liberty. They were looking for a better life; they believed that streets in America were paved with gold. My great-great grandfather worked as a photographer and artist. Is that where my and my mother's love of art and photography comes from? Their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, including my mother, realized their dreams by completing graduate school in prestigious universities and by becoming professionals.

Я люблю изучать историю своих предков и своей страны, играя с историческими куклами и, читая историческую литературу.

I love to study the history of my ancestors and my country by playing with historical dolls and by reading historical literature.

Сейчас моя американская семья не живет в Америке! Мы переехали сюда, когда мне было почти четыре года и я не знала ни слова по-русски. Мой отец международный юрист. Моя мама преподает французский, испанский и английский языки в русской школе. Моей сестре Наталье пять лет. Она пойдет в нашу школу в следующем году. Для нашей семьи очень важны иностранные языки. Мы также очень любим книги. Я обожаю читать. Нам весело вместе. Я люблю свою семью!

My American family doesn't live in America now! We moved here when I was almost four-years-old and I didn't know a word of Russian. My father is an international lawyer. My mom teaches French, Spanish and English in a Russian school. My sister, Natalia, is five-years-old. She will be in our school next year. Foreign languages are very important in our family. We also really love books. I'm crazy about reading. We have fun together. I love my family!

Мы с Наташей очень любим играть со своими кошками – Саша и Ася, им семь месяцев.

Natasha and I love to play with our kittens, Sasha and Asya. They're seven-months-old.

On a separate note, making that poster with Katya was the first time I'd used my scrapbooking tools in A-G-E-S! I MISS IT!!!! One of these days I have to dive back in and get caught up...

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Overheard at Starbucks (Another Language Geek "Hah Hah" Moment)

At the coffee bar, around the little round shelf where the barista puts your finished beverage. The cafe was quite crowded, so it was noisy and there were quite a few people waiting.

--Латтэ для **аши! Latte for **asha!

No one had heard the barista very well; the first part of the person's name was muffled. All the people eager for their caffeine fix eagerly swooped in to claim the cup, asking if it was theirs.

--Для Маши? For Masha?

----Для Паши? For Pasha?

--Для Саши? For Sasha?

--Нет! Для Даши! No! For Dasha!

The funny thing is that no one else thought this was funny! Luckily I contained my laughter. To them it's completely normal that 50% (it seems) of Russians have a name that ends in --asha. The actual names for Masha, Pasha, Sasha and Dasha are Mariya, Pavel, Alexander/Alexandra and Darya, but everyone tends to be called by the shorter diminutives used above.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Patriots and Loyalists

I can't do much of a post tonight; I've been really busy helping Katya to finish up her big "My Family" project for school. I'll go with her to school in the morning (on my way to work) and present it with her.

I'm planning on posting photos of her poster and the text (in Russian and English), but tonight I'll share this little SHOCKING news--at least Katya was stunned by it! MY ancestors were Patriots... and CHRIS' were Loyalists (with a few Patriots in there)!!!! Katya was flabbergasted when I told her, and I must admit that I was just as surprised when Chris shared that information. How had this never come up before? The girls have been interested in the Revolutionary War period for a year now, acting out the American Girl Felicity stories and playing with the dolls that my mom and dad gave them for Christmas.

Natalia's doll is Felicity, a Patriot... Katya's is Elizabeth, Felicity's best friend, whose family are Loyalists.

And now sisters face the same divide! I must admit, they're LOVING this intrigue. After learning about her ancestors, Katya devoured the Magic Tree House book about the Revolutionary War! I'd link to it, but she fell asleep with it under her pillow.

(The picture was taken when we went to American Girl Place in New York City with my mom this January. She made matching girl/doll period costumes for both girls and they're gorgeous! We hadn't finished hemming Katya's yet, however, before our trip--so here Katya's modeling a really cute "tea lessons" dress I snagged on ebay).

Monday, February 18, 2008

Big Baby

I had heard a variation on this somewhere else--and chuckled at the time--but last night Natalia said it on her own.

Natalia: "Mommy, I'm really upset that you wouldn't snuggle me last night. I really wanted you and you hurt my feelings."

Me: "Honey, I can't cuddle you every night after we read stories. I needed to go spend time with Daddy."

Natalia: "You snuggled him and not me. It's not fair!"

Me: "Natalia, sometimes Daddy wants to be snuggled, too."

Natalia: [thinking about it] "Big baby."

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Lovin' Life in the Magic Tree House!

Katya has discovered the Magic Treehouse books and is as proud as a peacock. I had bought books 1-29 last summer while in the USA, hoping she would grow into them this year and eagerly devour the whole series. Since I have to purchase all the books they read (no library for young English readers here unless you're enrolled at the English-language schools--and we live too far from the schools to get guest library cards), I try to anticipate the girls' interests the two times a year we're in America. Our house feels like a bookstore or library; I'm glad that Natalia will get to use all these books, too! My private students all benefit from the books, as well. Someone is going to be sooooo darn lucky to inherit all these from us one day... A complete young girl's library, without having to lug it from the USA! (A note to other expat parents: Borders and Barnes & Noble will give you a 20% homeschooler discount when you buy books for your kids from them).

I've felt for a while that Katya was teetering on the edge of an ocean, dipping her toes in... but afraid to swim. Afraid to get all wet, and certainly not interested in riding the surf.

All that changed this week. Katya is now a bonafide reader.

I've heard from countless expat parents that this day would come... and that it would change everything. I've worried so much the past two years as the divide between Katya and her peers in America grew more and more pronounced; they were reading large chapter books and I could barely get her to memorize three-letter sight words. The more I tried to work with her, the more she dug in her heels in resistance. (This was particularly frustrating since I had taught a Russian friend of hers to read--and that girl was doing better than my own child!)

One mom that I particularly respect told me to just be patient, reminding me that those peers in America don't know how to read and write in RUSSIAN, and that Katya's brain has certainly been working hard all this time. She assured me that once Katya learned to read, really read, I wouldn't need to worry. I've done my best to create a home environment conducive to reading: lots of books available to take her down any path of interest; daily reading together; books on tape in the car; quality movies based on good books; fun board games that build English skills; and a bedroom with little nooks where she would want to curl up with a book.

That mom shared with me the experiences of their own older children, all who attended Russian schools through sixth grade. By reading voraciously, they learned spelling and grammar. Reading made the kids want to write, providing ample opportunity to hone their skills. Developing a broad vocabulary was also relatively effortless; their knowledge of Russian helped them to better analyze English and they remembered the words they read.

This all makes sense to me... I agreed, in principal... But until I saw Katya sprout wings this week and FLY, I was still uneasy.


While home sick for two weeks, Katya had been anticipating her class's big field trip that they went on this week. They were about to return to the Pioneer (Soviet Youth) camp they had visited for three days in the fall*; this time they would be studying medieval times, focusing on knights and castles. (The children built a castle in the snow, learned to play period music and do period dances, ate representative food, molded armor, studied tapestries and costumes, went through a series of "trials" to advance from page to knight. They all had a blast!).

Her excitement about the topic lead her to follow my lead when I suggested we read one of our books on knights: The Knight at Dawn. We started it at bedtime and read the first two chapters. Katya was so enthralled that she had to know more--and ended up finishing the whole book on her own that night! Sure, she stayed up (and has been staying up) much later than we'd like, but I DON'T CARE. I'm am THRILLED that she's so passionate about reading now! In the past week she has read four more of the books!

We're thankful that Chris has a quick business trip to New York City in a few weeks; he can bring back more books in the series for us!

*Last fall they immersed themselves in recreating the times of Prehistoric Man; the teachers helped them to explore the civilization in exciting hands-on ways. Katya's favorite activity was "hunting" in the forest. They learned to throw darts at balloons on trees. Inside the balloons were pictures of prehistoric animals and a number that indicated how many people in Katya's tribe that the animal could feed. She had to keep hunting until she met her tribe's needs. How cool is that???!!

Edited the next morning: Katya read another book last night! She loved Tonight on the Titanic, #17 in the series. She was so excited to tell us all about the sinking of ship afterwards. Oh--and I realized how many typos I'd missed! I wrote this entry sooo fast and didn't have time to check it. Just corrected it.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

More About that Day of Recitals in December

(Below this post is another post with pictures from Katya's Christmas assembly at school and her first piano recital. Here's a story about what was happening behind the scenes that day. Warning: It's rather long).

As I've alluded to before, some stuff happened in December that seriously complicated our departure to the US before Christmas. I hadn't written about it before because, well, it was so hard to live through it that I hadn't felt like going through it again in writing.

But it's a real part of life here... and in many other parts of the world, too. Before I get into the story, here's some background information:

Alcoholism is a major disease in Russia and countries that used to be part of the Soviet Block. According to this recent study, 40% of Ukrainian and Russian men are alcoholics--and that figure actually seems low to me.

Life is rather depressing in these countries for a vast majority of the population; economic changes have benefited such a small percentage of the total population. You see beer and vodka everywhere; not surprising since it's cheaper to buy a beer than a soda or water. It used to shock me to see kids drinking on their way to middle school; I remember kids being expelled their senior year at the prep school I used to teach at for having a beer...

In any case, alcohol abuse casts a dark shadow over life here. I have so many friends whose husbands have been sucked into this black hole, too. Drinking is such a part of doing business here and it's very easy (and common) for expat men to end up in trouble.

Now on to the story of what happened...

You might remember our former Ukrainian nanny and her husband; I wrote about our trip to visit them in a tiny village in western Ukraine last July. We really cared about them; they felt like family and we planned to keep up our friendship long-term.

Styopa, the husband, was supposed to arrive three days before we left for Christmas in the US, thus being able to vist with us and help out so I could get us packed up smoothly (and grade my student's end-of-term exams w/o having to watch the girls). He was then going to stay here while we were gone, caring for our cats and doing some odd jobs around the apartment.

The day of Katya's school play and piano recital was the day he arrived on the 10 a.m. train from Kiev. By 11 a.m. he was at our apartment with our babysitter and Natalia--and within ten minutes he was BEYOND drunk. I was at Katya's school watching her play, so the babysitter tried to deal with the situation on her own--but he really scared her with his aggressive behavior. Yes, she is a Catholic nun--but she has seen a lot in her day and it takes a lot rattle her. She kept Natalia as far away from him as possible and as soon as she saw Talia off to school, she sent me an sms to call her immediately.

Before I saw her sms, I called home to see if Styopa could watch Katya for a few hours that afternoon. She didn't feel well at the end of her holiday play and she wanted to sleep before her piano recital that evening. As soon as Styopa answered his phone, however, I could tell something was wrong. Pretty quickly, I determined that he was plastered. A call from our babysitter confirmed it--and the situation was much worse than I had feared. His behavior had been way out of line on all fronts.

I was livid. Here's the history behind my outrage that day:

A year and a half ago, when Styopa and Liudmila were about to move back to Ukraine, they had stayed with us for a few weeks. One afternoon I had come home to find Natalia missing and Styopa passed out on our couch. I was TERRIFIED about where Natalia was until I learned that Liudmila had come home and taken Natalia out; Styopa had then had vodka after they left.

We had really had it out then... They KNEW how unacceptable that was. They KNEW we didn't allow any drinking near our kids or in our home (we'll have wine with dinners, but we don't want people who care for our kids to drink--and we knew that Russian/Ukrainian men easily overdo it). They knew how much alcohol abuse had harmed people close to us--and how much it hurt us. Styopa BEGGED us for forgiveness and really seemed to get how wrong what he had done was. He ended up giving up alcohol and had been sober for a year when we visted them last summer. When he then asked to come help us over the Christmas holiday, I was glad to have him--I was going to pay someone anyway, and I knew how much the money would help them.

He really betrayed our trust by arriving at our home drunk--and by getting even drunker. The shattering of our trust was hard enough--but then came all the logistical complications:
  • I had to scramble to find a place for Katya to spend the afternoon while I was at work (couldn't exactly cancel at exam time).
  • I also needed to find someone to watch Natalia--at their house-- that night while we would be at Katya's piano recital; Chris and I wanted to be able to focus on Katya.
  • Then I had to rush home to get Katya's gown for the performance. I was afraid to go in on my own and Chris rushed to try to meet me in time; unfortunately traffic was very, very bad and I had to go by myself. I ended up waiting 45 minutes to get into our apartment because Styopa was too drunk to even open our door! Being locked out of our apartment was beyond the pale! He had bolted it from inside and there was nothing I could do. I had to pound on the door so loudly that our whole building heard--and drawing such attention to oneself is NOT good. He eventually crawled to the door, I ran in to grab the dress, and ran out again--just barely making it to the school in time.
  • Chris, Katya and I had to then go pick up Natalia from our friend's home after the recital, spending over an hour in traffic... an hour we didn't have.
  • We decided to go out to dinner, keeping the kids up as late as possible so they would fall asleep immediately upon our return home. We didn't want them to interact with Styopa at all. Our plan worked, but it was a long night. Styopa was passed-out on our living room couch and oblivious to anything.
  • Chris and I slept with the kids to make sure they were safe during the night. In the morning, we hurriedly got them ready for school as silently as possible. We didn't want Styopa to wake up while they were home.
  • As soon as kids were gone, we got ourselves ready for the day. Chris then went in to wake up Styopa, telling him it was time to get up and that we all needed to leave together. Styopa was still so drunk that he came into the bathroom and started to use the toilet while I was at the sink and mirror putting on my makeup!
  • We tried to make sure that we had all of his belongings and packed up food and beverages for him. We all went to the car, Styopa still staggering, and we drove to the train station where he had arrived the morning before. Chris then handed him the money for his train fare, plus another $150, and told him that he needed to "go home." Styopa did not understand; he kept repeating that his home was our home. That he wasn't leaving; that he was going back to our place. He was really desperate. Chris explained that that just wasn't possible and that he should take the train leaving in four hours back to Kiev. After twenty minutes, Styopa finally picked up his bag and started to walk away. We had purposely parked next to a cop (first time we were glad to see one) and he remarked that Styopa wouldn't likely make it home... We didn't know, but we couldn't keep him in our home. We couldn't endanger our kids to help him!
  • We also couldn't have him in our home after the damage he had just done to it. He peed all over our nicest piece of furniture--our Natuzzi leather couch that had been Chris's gift to me when I was pregnant with Katya. That couch has moved all over with us and we love it. Now we can't stand to sit on it. You just can't remove some damage... A couch will cost us at least $1,600--and a similiar Natuzzi one would be at least $3,000! Styopa had also made huge messes in our bathroom and kitchen. We couldn't trust our belongings or cats to him, either.
  • Chris then rushed back to our apartment to make sure that Styopa hadn't returned there; we had no way of knowing if he had a copy of the key from when they used to work for us. We knew that losing us would be a harsh blow to him; we have been his only financial back-up as he struggles with poverty in Ukraine. His marriage was dissolving and he would be horrified to lose the relationship with our girls, too. We didn't know he would react when that desperate. We just couldn't have him back in the apartment without us there.
  • When Chris got back, the apartment was locked from within--and Chris panicked. He rang the bell over and over and over, banged on the door, tried calling our number and Styopa's--but to no avail. He ended up entering the building from another entrance to gain access to hall that has a window a floor above us that looks out diagonally onto our balcony. He actually jumped to our balcony from the seventh floor. Afraid of being caught on the balcony by Styopa, he had to get into the kitchen fast--and the only way to do so was to break through two layers of glass on the doors. There was glass EVERYWHERE in our kitchen and Chris got quite cut up.
  • Once inside, however, there was no sign of Styopa--our lock chamber had actually sunk inside the front door (perhaps because of my 45 minutes of pounding on it the day before) and was jammed. I rushed home to care for Chris and help. The rest of the day was a mad scramble to get all of the locks and glass replaced before our departure the next day. We had to get medical attention for Chris's hand (luckily there was no major damage other than the cuts). We had to arrange more emergency babysitting for both girls elsewhere. We had to get all that glass cleaned up. I had to find someone else to care for our cats starting the next day. Oh, and I had to pack. (I had planned on having the time to thoroughly clean out our stuff before leaving--so there would be space for the things we would bring back from the USA--but that sure didn't happen. That's partly why I had no time to blog once we got back here in January--I had to do all that sorting that had never been done before I could unpack).
  • Chris ended up missing that entire day of work--and the last day before leaving the country on vacation is always a very, very important day to be in the office! There's sooo much that needs to be done!
  • Through all of this, we had to figure out how to talk to the girls. They're old enough that they knew something was seriously wrong. They had also been eagerly anticipating Styopa's visit--and when Talia had seen him, he was too drunk to even talk to her coherently. He really hurt them emotionally, let them down.

Styopa called the next day to say he was back in Ukraine and "sorry about how things had worked out." That didn't even BEGIN to cover what had happened! I told him I couldn't talk about it, that I was glad he was home, but that he had really destroyed our trust and then I hung up.

He tried to reach me at my mom's over the holidays, but we were in Colorado at the time.

And then he called me on my mobile on Valentines's Day.

I tend to give people chance after chance after chance... I'm trusting to a fault. But the mother bear in me fiercely looks out for her cubs. And I have to respect Chris. Chris faced injury, missed work and financial hardship (the money we paid for Styopa's train tickets and some extra money, the new locks, the new glass, the medical bills, plus the cost to replace our couch) as a result of Styopa's behavior. That missed day of work also meant he had to work while in Colorado, cutting into our vacation.

As much as we still love Liudmila--and do feel for Styopa--we just don't think we can continue the relationship. She didn't warn us about his drinking before came here in December and we haven't heard from her since. The stakes are too high to try again, I think. If we lived in the same city, you could visit without having to make a larger commitment--but we can't have them come here to our home again, and we're certainly not going there.

Styopa just doesn't get it... He thinks it's all behind us, that all he needs to do is give me his explanation--but that explanation didn't include a real apology. It was all excuses that deflected responsibility, and I wouldn't get into it. He still thinks we will come visit them this summer.

This is so hard. The girls still ask for them, but I just can't keep up the relationship with them, other than to pray for the best for them... Any thoughts? (Argh, as I write this I'm upset all over again about my girls' being forced to grow up just a little faster as they see harshness in the world).

December Recitals... Can We Fit a Piano in the Apartment?

I've never gotten around to writing about the holiday recitals at Katya's school and I've been meaning to for a while. The first and second grades had an English-language holiday celebration that parents were invited to attend. Of course I went--but I had no idea that it was actually a play, and Katya was one of two leads!!!! She had never told me! IF ONLY I'D ALREADY GOTTEN MY FLIP VIDEO CAMERA! None of the videos I took with my old digital camera came out; there's a picture, but no sound. Boo hoo!

Here Katya is with most of her classmates, waiting for the performance to begin. Katya and another little boy played a brother and sister who eagerly await Santa Claus; the other kids were in multiple musical numbers woven throughout the script. This performance was MUCH more fun that the traditional "Yolki" New Year's performances at most Russian elementary schools and kindergartens; no l-o-n-g poetry recitals by very scared children and long-winded monologues by Grandfather Frost and Snegurochka, his annoying grandaughter (yeah, I'm a little biased). The kids at Katya's school actually had a lot of fun putting on the show.

Katya was a little scared in front of the dense audience; there wasn't ANY space left in the overcrowded room. I was glad when I finally got to hug her at the end.

That night was Katya's first piano recital. She had been taking lessons twice a week for two and a half months from a teacher who comes to their school to work with children individually in the afternoon. Katya has tried a variety of lessons over the years, never wanting to stick with anything long term... But piano seems to be different. She has a passion about it that we've never seen before.

We've held off about buying a keyboard or piano, wanting to be certain that she would continue with her lessons of her own free will. In the meantime, her interest has only grown stronger. She plays Natalia's Barbie keyboard with such seriousness!

The time has definitely come to upgrade. Given Katya's musical background (Chris's mom is a professional violinist who has been first violin of various orchestras and ensembles and his dad was offered a professional contract as an opera singer--but he became a surgeon instead), we want to "do this right." It doesn't seem to make sense to start her on a keyboard, encouraging bad habits (the keys wouldn't be the right weight, with authentic sound or feel) that would then need to unlearned in the future. I think we're going to get a piano, and soon.

Now where, oh where, will we fit it in our small apartment? Oh, well--where there's a will, there's a way!

As a bonus, here's Katya playing on a friend's piano in Connecticut over the holidays. She sings the song first in English and then in Russian. Note her sassy little sister!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Hah! (I'll let you in on one of my "language geek" jokes...)

Due to the new law requiring license plates to be clean (visible), the driver of this van wiped off both the plate and rear enlarged print of the license plate (required on vans and larger vehicles). This is how you know that the van is *actually* white; otherwise you would have no idea about the actual color.

Now here's the punchline... Look at the print on the side of the van.

It reads, "Cleanliness--It's Prestige. Primex." HAH, HAH, HAH! I almost swerved while driving when I saw this!!!! You know you've become a hard-core blogger when you then revise your plans for the morning so you can follow the van until the moment presents itself to get a picture... I went an extra thirty minutes out of my way (only going one mile, but in traffic) to get this last shot. It was relaxing, though... I caught up on favorite NPR podcasts (This American Life and Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me).

In other news, our family is inching its way back to health and I resolve to blog more. For those of you far away from Moscow, YOU'RE LUCKY! The flu this year has been HORRIBLE, and it seems to have been a strain not prevented by the flu shots. Most people have been sick for 1 1/2 to 2 weeks; a friend's daughter finally went back to school two days ago and there were only three of the regular fifteen kids in her second grade class!

Friday, February 8, 2008

"It made me happy all over..."

Katya missed seven days of school while sick with the flu and bronchitis. On her tenth day at home, her wonderful teacher checked in with me to find out how Katya was doing. Up until I answered the phone, Katya had been sitting next to me coughing uncontrollably and blowing her nose non-stop. Once she realized it was her teacher on the phone, however, she was silent.

After I hung up, I complimented Katya for having managed to be quiet while we spoke. "Oh, Mommy...," she replied, "I just couldn't make any noise! I've missed my teacher so very much... It made me happy all over to hear the sound of her voice... Now I feel so much better."

Her teacher does, in fact, have the kindest voice. Listening to her is like getting a warm hug. The children (and the parents) love her to pieces; I am so incredibly thankful that Katya's class will stay together as a group with her and their equally great assistant teacher through fourth grade! She is 110% a professional: passionate about methodology; subject content; and working with the children. I took the above video when trying to videotape our most recent parent-teacher conference so Chris could see it. Katya is still doing wonderfully; we are so proud!! In addition to her strong academic work, she has fit in well with her classmates and made many friends.

Thursday, February 7, 2008


Thank you, thank you, Rachael, for the pointers about how to design one's own blog header. Your explanations were very helpful--and yet I *still* spent way too many hours to admit how long it took.

Once I got the hang of it, it was fun to play around with the designs--but I still very frustrated by the limitations. I wish that "ribbons" came in colors other than pink and brown. I wish I could crop my picture of matrioshka dolls so that there's no background--just the dolls, so I could position them on the page as a decoration. (Anyone know how to do that???? I'd be SOOOO grateful!) I would also really appreciate it if anyone could show me how to install seamless wallpaper strips on both sides of the blog, about 2 cm wide (or maybe a tad bigger).

Here's another header I did:

Time to go back to bed... Still sick... But at least both girls were in school today for the first time in thirteen days!!!

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

It's Been a Hard Day's Night

So... This morning Katya and I went back to the doctor's office. He took one look at me and exclaimed, "Ah! Mais quelle tête tu fais!" (Kind of a polite way of saying, "Whoah! You look horrible!"). That's sure how I felt...

Final diagnosis: an infection that is like Strepp; an inner ear infection; a sinus infection and the flu. Yikes. Katya had a chest x-ray and still has bronchitis.

It took everything out of me to just get us to the doctor and home. I sat there trembling from the fever while we waited for the x-rays.

It was soooo nice to finally get home and crash. Katya felt a lot better than I did, though, and she begged me to teach her how to knit. I didn't get to sleep, but we did relax.

The babysitter arrived a bit before Natalia got home and I thought I'd have an easy night; I could finally go to sleep. Natalia thought otherwise. She refused to listen to Nina and I had to step in--again, and again, and again, and... well... you get the picture. I won't get into details--suffice to say it was BAD. NOTHING would get through to Natalia.

Talk about a parenting low. I felt so ill and I just wanted to rest. I wanted my kids to snuggle with me and help to keep things quiet. I wanted them to take their medicine without making a fuss. Katya was really good, but Natalia fought me every step of the way...

This is what I heard for about an hour and a half, off and on. Incidentally, this is what I used to hear every day for much longer. I really pray that her vocal chords will heal one day from the damage done in the past. It tears me apart when she abuses her voice; I know how she's hurting herself by doing so, and I want her to be able to sing and speak with the voice God intended her to have!

Now she's sound asleep. Amen. And so, in a few minutes, will I be, too.

p.s. The shower is no longer at our house. Another friend generously offered to host it and I'll just show up if I have no more fever. I would have loved to have hosted it myself--with all the bells and whistles--but there's no way I could. My friend will be glad... She's always telling me to "let go" a little and not push myself so hard...

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Lots of Laying Around

First of all, here's an update about our little Lyalya who turned out to be a boy. Katya has renamed him "Sasha" since the name works for both genders; she thought it would "ease" his transition (no joke). The cats have loved having us all home during the past two weeks; they snuggle, snuggle, snuggle all the time! (More on our being home below). Natalia didn't want Asya to feel left out in the whole name game, so she added another name for her, too--Jasmine.

You've probably noticed that I haven't posted much recently. First it was because of jet lag and unpacking, and now it's because of the FLU. Katya has been home sick since last Tuesday and Natalia only just went back to school today (she had been home since last Monday). Their fevers kept them awake at night for a week, so I got little rest... and well, surprise, surprise... I now have a really bad case of the flu myself.

I realized yesterday that I wouldn't be able to go to work today and tomorrow, so I called in and let the school's director know... But in the back of my mind, I figured I was too sick to work--but not too sick to get some stuff done in the apartment or to tinker around with the blog redesign tips that Rachael had posted this weekend. HAH.

My fever has been up to 104 and I've had three baths today; I've spent the last day alternately burning up or freezing, moaning to myself from the all-over pain. It's a good sign that I feel well enough to do this posting right now... I just *had* to get out of bed... I'm so thankful that we recently hired some more help (Chris learned before Christmas that his hours this year will be even worse than in the past--something I couldn't even imagine--so we hired some more help so that I can focus on parenting instead of everything else). This is the first time in years that I could actually stay in bed when ill because someone else took over for me.

Please, please send me healthy thoughts... I'm supposed to throw a surprise baby shower in our apartment for my best American friend here in Moscow on Friday and I really, really don't want to have to cancel!!!! (She's pretty busy right now getting ready to head to the US to give birth, so I'm not worried about her reading this blog before the party). She never had a shower with her two little boys because she was living here and didn't really know that many Americans (showers are an "American" thing; I've literally freaked out the international guests invited to this by suggesting that they "jinx" the baby by giving gifts before it's born...); I want this to be a wonderful night for her!

I let go of my visions of shower games and activities mid-fever last night... Just isn't going to happen... Now I'm hoping I can still pull off some decorating, a lasagna and a nice dessert.

Now back to bed... And I hope to be blogging more regularly soon!