Monday, March 31, 2008

Children's Park Behind the White House

Yesterday afternoon I took the girls to a wonderful children's park located behind the White House (Russian Parliament). It's smack in the center of Moscow, near the Krasnopresenskaya metro station and across the street from the back of the American Embassy. I can't believe I had never known it existed until a friend recently told me that she goes there all the time... (That friend, incidentally, lived next the White House when I first met her. She actually had bullet holes in her kitchen cabinets from the uprising in 1993! Being in her home for playdates, and being at the park today, it's hard to believe that the bloody revolt occurred in such recent times--I had been living here in 1991!)

On the other side of the park, facing the White House, is one of the "Seven Sisters" Stalin skyscrapers--the residential building at Krasnopresenskaya. Through the trees in this second picture you can make out the brick of the American Embassy apartments. (Isn't that cool, Dina? Want me to take more pics of your future home?).

In any case, how I wish I had known about this park earlier!!! How pretty it will be once all the flowers are in bloom. Next time we're there, we'll bring our scooters and roller skates. I took so many pictures of the park, its surroundings, the route we walked to get to it, and, of course... the girls. These windows caught my eye as we approached the park.

The marked contrast between centuries-old architecture and brand-new expensive structures was particularly interesting in this neighborhood; the shot with the reflection of a cathedral in the black granite business center's windows is a favorite.

I also had fun using my telescopic lens for the first time; I'm particularly fond of the close-up of the ladybug and "Golden Fish" fairy tale sculptures.

Within the park, there were winding paved paths, a small chapel, various sculpture gardens based on fairy tales, a life-sized chess board with sculptures, and playgrounds. Look how thrilled Katya was to become part of a chess game! She very deliberately chose her role and how to move. How giddy she was when she won against her imaginary foe.

I used my telescopic lens to take my first real "people" shots today. It was thrilling--but unsettling. I can only imagine what this couple is going through; the possibilities are endless. An affair? A death in the family? News of a terminal illness? They were there for at least two hours; I couldn't tell if they had a child playing nearby or not. The woman was clearly in shock; as I watched them earlier they were much more distraught. I felt so very bad for them.

Now here are the girls in their "Yes, yes, it's really spring!" glory. (Yes, Mom, Katya insisted on picking out her own clothes, and Natalia refuses to wear her headbands any other way. I'm picking my battles).

I must say, the mixture of classical fairy tale themes and the squirrel from "Ice Age" was a bit odd. The girls, however, didn't mind a bit!

For the first time that I can remember, both girls got to just play in dirt. I bet they weren't supposed to... but no one scolded us so I let them just have fun. This wheelbarrow will probably be covered in flowers in May.

This swan will be in bloom, too; there were many other animals set to burst into color, as well.

They made up elaborate stories at each separate play area; what a splendid time. My "Hannah Montana"-loving, trying-to-grow-up-so-fast little girls were just that for a few hours: little girls.

Here are the rest of my pictures from the day.

On our way back to the car, we passed this driveway sign: "Do Not Park In Front Of The Gates! Children Will Go Without Milk And Bread!" I think that there might be an orphanage at this spot associated with the church I describe next. If so, what a cheerful location.

The singing coming from the yellow church was spellbinding.

We couldn't go inside, however, because I had no head scarf and the girls were covered in dirt. I held up my movie camera and hoped that I could capture some of the sound; listen closely! The wind became quite loud; I was only able to record clearly for ten seconds.

Puppy Poll Update

Edited: see link below.

Okay... So many cool new suggestions... I really like Suss, Kuchen, Zucker and Schatzie... My mom would mangle the German, though... "Koochen" and "Zuh-ker" just don't sound nearly as sweet as they are in the original... "Suss" would work, though--she'd say it like " Dr. Seuss." "Schatzie" would still sound fine, too. We'll see!

As my mom mentioned, "Heidi" wouldn't work because of our neighbor's dog... and "Sophie" is the name of my friend's French/American daughter; we now think of the name more as French than German.

Please check out Cecelia's blog for pictures from the puppy's first big day out and about. She was taken to church and is being spoiled wonderfully rotten!

Saturday, March 29, 2008

My Mom Has a Puppy!

Cecelia, Rachael's mom, found my mom an adorable dachshund puppy! My mom and her Diane (the friend who went with my mom to meet Cecelia for the first time earlier in the week) will drive to upstate New York to get the puppy next weekend. They'll also bring along one of Diane's baby dwarf bunnies for Cecelia's granddaughter. Yippee! You've all been so, so kind to my mom--offering her condolences after Streusel died... But to have then found her this sweet puppy, Cecelia? And to then have your vet check her out at no charge? And then take her home for the week and puppysit until my mom can come get her??! (Hmm... maybe she'll be housebroken by the time my mom brings her home??!) You are a blessing!!!!

What will we name her? My mom wants to stick with a German name, honoring the Teutonic dachshund roots. Elsa? Frida? Gertie? Gretel? Ilsa? Liesel? Mitzie? Trudy? I'm setting up a poll on my sidebar--give us your vote! The poll will run one week--until my mom brings "??" home. (I can't promise my mom will pick the winning name, but I'm sure she'll appreciate the suggestions!) You can pick more than one name, but don't pick too many! I tried to change the color of the poll tally, but I can't figure it out. Sorry it's so hard to see.

Flying Cats

I came across this article in the The Moscow Times the other day. I had mentioned in my post about our tee pee that Tuesday night the winds were incredibly strong--and that the tee pee collapsed on the girls as a result. Well, it was even stronger than I'd realized!

Flying Cats Near Belorussky

Gusts of wind lifted a pack of street cats into the air for several minutes in central Moscow, Interfax reported Wednesday. The cats meowed wildly as the wind carried them along late Tuesday night on Gruzinsky Val, near the Belorussky Station in central Moscow. In the morning, the cats all appeared to be unharmed. The Moscow and Moscow Region Meteorological Bureau issued a warning for strong winds Tuesday evening.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Hit the Road, Jack (All 148 of You)

A lot has been going in Russia this past week, in particular at the oil company TNK-BP--a combined Russian/British Petroleum venture. To quote The Moscow Times, "First, plainclothes Interior Ministry officers searched TNK-BP's offices on March 19 during an investigation into suspected tax evasion by a company that the 50-50 venture acquired years ago. The next day, the Federal Security Services announced that it had charged a U.S.-Russian employee and his brother with industrial espionage. Then, the Natural Resources Ministry said it would inspect TNK-BP's largest oil field for environmental violations. After that, the Interior Ministry said the firm had violated the immigration law by obtaining business visas instead of work visas for dozens of foreign employees."

Boy, to read it like that, you'd think that TNK-BP has really been up to no good... But everyone basically knows that this is a concocted campaign to weaken the company. Independent Russian and state-controlled Russian companies do not want a British company to be top competitor and they seem to be willing to win at any cost. Hmm... After all, think of what happened to Yukos... The government wanted control of that huge independently owned gas company, the head of it wouldn't sell, so charges were found to bring against him, he's imprisoned in Siberia, the Americans employed there fled the country, and the company was declared bankrupt--and then taken over for a song by unknown bidders--perhaps including Gazprom, the main Russian gas company?

Oh--and what about the fact that Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president-elect, is the Chairman of Gazprom?

What I do know is that two days ago, Chris witnessed a mass exodus of bewildered workers from his building--most likely men among the 148 TNK-BP expat workers who have to leave Russia until their visas are reissued. Talk about hitting the company where it hurts--all that lost productivity, plus the expense of relocating 148 FAMILIES on last-minute business-class flights and undetermined hotel stays in the USA??? I think of all the kids who are school-aged in those families. How difficult for them! The government sure is discouraging British and American expats from wanting to come do business here... The whole visa nonsense is a transparent ploy. The government this year decided to issue a very limited number of year-long work permits to TNK-BP employees (that's what we have). All the other employees are forced to leave the country every three months to get new visas! What a disruption!

Among those workers are friends of ours who in June 2006 invited us to their dacha for their daughter's birthday party. Here are my favorite photos from that day. (I knit Natalia's sweater that you see in the last picture).

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Sharp Cookie's First Playground/Scooter Afternoon of 2008!

YIPPEEEE!!!!!!! Witness here the happiest five-year-old around! Talia felt a lot better this afternoon, so I took her outside to play. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and it was the first nice afternoon of the year! Sure, it's still quite chilly--but mud was minimal and we dressed warmly. She was quite talkative and came up with quite a few zingers I'll soon get to.

Before sharing those snippets of conversation, however, here are some pictures of the playground equipment. Most neighborhood playgrounds would miserably fail any level of safety standards... There are enough "good" playgrounds, though, that I'm not complaining. At least they try to make these incredibly old metal structures cheerful by repainting them in bright colors (albeit with paint that smells toxic when fresh).

Now, can you say "butt splinters," anyone?! I just picture kids in sundresses or shorts in that swing... Ouch!

Now back to Natalia...

On why she's still able to ride her scooter so expertly--doing all kinds of wiggles at a good speed: "I remember the olden days, most of them. Just not the wedding so well." (She was referring to the "olden days" of last summer and early fall when we rode our scooters all the time).

Upon hearing some teenage boys using rather bad language in front of us--they peppered their speech with "мать," literally "mother," but in this context it's much closer to the f-bomb (I hear you, Tami, about your frustration at moments like this!!): "Why do they keep talking about their mother? I mean, if she were here, they'd be getting one l-o-n-g time out, dontcha know!?" (Yes, quite astute, Natash!)

Upon taking in the swing at the park--the one with the shredded wooden seat: "I'm not sitting on that swing... Purple pieces of wood in your bum probably hurt just as much as plain old boring brown ones..."

Upon surveying the loud, noisy crowd at the MacCafe--a coffee-house section in some Moscow McDonalds restaurants (we like to go there for darn good lattes and babyccinos--steamed milk with white chocolate syrup) at significantly lower prices than other Moscow coffee shops: "You know, Mommy... Starbucks speaks to me more." ("Speaks to me"????!! Where on Earth did she pick up THAT expression???! I guess she's growing up like Ben!)

Last, but not least, were Talia's observations as we headed home. It suddenly got much colder and Natalia started to complain that she was too tired to scooter back to our building again. I was afraid that we weren't going to make it there in time for when Katya's tutoring session ended. We got a cab and would have made it home with ten minutes to spare--had the driver not been stopped by a traffic cop. He had done nothing wrong and the officer made him get out of the car, really hassling him. Talia got fed up with the wait and then said quite loudly, "When is this going to be OV-ER? Doesn't the driver KNOW that you have to give the policeman money to make him go away??? Should I start crying and shouting that I have to pee now?" I was so glad that the cop didn't speak English! (He ended up just walking away, though, and we got home in time).

Natalia sure is one sharp--and snarky--cookie!

"House of Friendship"

This architectural gem is at 16 Vozdvizhenka Street, in between the Arbat and the Kremlin. It definitely stands out from the surrounding buildings! Just look at the intricate stone shells and lacelike stonework adorning the towers! It was designed by Vladimir Mazyrin at the end of the 19th century for the playboy Arseny Morozov--whose family became one of the city's richest by manufacturing textiles. They were patrons of the arts, employing numerous artists to simply create their extravagant homes.

The design of this particular mansion was inspired by Monserrate Palace in Sintra, Portugal. Inside, the mansion boasts rooms decorated in Chinese, Roman and Gothic styles, some restored after Soviet-period damage. The only way to see the interior of the building is to attend a concert, lecture or the G8 summit in 2006...

In Soviet times the mansion was used by the Union of Friendship Societies.

Special Request: Madeline on the Arbat

Our first winter in Moscow, I couldn't get Katya to wear a scarf. Shealso didn't have much use for hats. (Natalia wouldn't keep her boots on, either... But that's another story I wrote about in my Russian superstitions post). Desperate to keep her warm enough--and to keep the angry babushkas from attacking me en masse, I came up with the idea of having this old lady on Starii Arbat Street custom-make a hat for Katya. I've since learned that you can have just about anything made on commission here; you just have to bring your designs and possibly an interpreter with you. I still plan to have a matrioshka doll artist custom-make some dolls for us... Maybe a set with all the grandchildren's faces on the bellies for my in-laws... Maybe a set with my girls playing with my mom's dachshunds for her... You can also get portraits done--in a range of prices, from rough sketches to fancy oil paintings.

I photocopied some Madeline illustrations and sketched what I wanted the hat to look like. For 400 rubles (about $15 back then--ah, the falling dollar is yet another story...), she created this yellow and black hat! I then added the hair and an attached red scarf (I knit the red scarf part with a cashmere yarn hoping that Katya wouldn't complain about the feel of it). Katya looked so darn cute... And the hat was splendidly warm... Unfortunately, none of the Russians "got" the hat and they thought it was quite weird that we dressed our daughter to look like a clown (the orange yarn hair). Never a people to keep their comments to themselves, they asked me many a question...

Katya was quite proud for the first few days. Here are some other views:

Unfortunately, Katya's extra-sensitive skin ended up itching from the wool. And so the hat was relegated to the bins in our entryway. I can't bear to part with it, though...

Happy Little Squaws

Since I knew we were going to be home for a few days in a row while waiting to be healthier, I came up with a plan to keep the girls both entertained and relatively sedate. We built a tee pee, of course.

I started with 8 long pieces of wood, twine and 3 meters of fabric. Had I had the benefit of hindsight, I'd have purchased either stronger wood (but this was all I could find) or much more of it. The cats have gradually snapped four of the pieces... Three days later, our tee is now rectangular as a result. I would also have purchased 5 meters (or maybe even six) to allow for full coverage. I had to use some other fabric to cover the door after the brown fabric ran out.

I then slowly tied the pieces of wood together with twine.

One snapped pole later and with fabric added, here is our tee pee. The girls made decorations to hang from the top--but those backfired. The cats took them as an invitation to mount--and snap--the legs of the structure.

What do you once you've built a tee pee? Why, a little scalping--no, haircutting--of course. (How do you write text with an editorial line through it?)

I wanted to try to save the money that the haircuts at the great new kids' salon cost. The girls both needed cuts but we weren't up to leaving the apartment yet.

My sweet, unsuspecting squaw.

I wish I hadn't cut their hair myself. They both don't look bad--but they don't look great, either. Talia kept moving and it came out much shorter than I'd intended--and it's still not completely even. I'll have it professionally evened out in two months, before "end-of-the-year" school performances, etc. I hope that I haven't revived their tendencies to experiment with playing "beauty parlor" themselves. Oh, the horrible memories that have arisen from eager children with scissors...

The girls have both enjoyed reading, drawing, watching TV and... sleeping in the tee pee. Here they are settling in for the night. We're reading the Kaya books again and they fell asleep talking about them. Katya--as in my crafty friend in Atlanta: note the quilt they're using inside! They have been using the green flannel side to pretend that it's grass. Thank you so much for making that for our Katya... You did such a beautiful job...

We actually had a windstorm at about 2 a.m. that whipped open the small panels in our windows, almost knocking over the tee pee and slamming shut the living room door. It woke me up right away!

Quite a "The Wizard of Oz" moment, huh? (See those splayed legs sticking out???) Imagine that tee pee flying through the tornado and landing on the little wicked witch... Luckily my two little squaws aren't trying to brave snowstorms in their structure! About an hour later, Talia came and joined me in bed... Not surprisingly, she claimed that she hadn't been very comfortable.

Okay, okay... the post that never ends... But just this morning I took these last pictures in the tee pee and they came out so darn sweet... Gosh, they love having this structure! Good move on my part; they don't want to do anything else and are completely engaged in their play. So now, last but not not least, just for fun:

That last picture makes me think her hair didn't turn out quite as poorly as I'd thought!