Wednesday, April 30, 2008
It's harder than it looks!
Use the 1st letter of your name to answer each of the following... they have to be real places, names, things... nothing made up! You CAN'T use your name for the boy/girl.
And to any of you who feel so inspired... Consider yourselves t-t-tagged!
1. What is your name: Tamara
2. Vehicle: Toyota (ours is!)
3. City: Tula (not far from Moscow; they make yummy decorative gingerbread), Tivoli (at this time of year I yearn to be at the Villa d'Este there, outside of Rome...) or Trastevere (Thinking of Tivoli instantly brought this part of Rome to mind... I adore the winding streets, cobblestones, teeny pizzerias and cafes...especially at sunset and first thing in the morning).
4. Boy's Name: Thomas
5. Girl's Name: Talia
6. Beverage: tall latte (does that count?? Just can't bring myself to put down "tea"... and mine would really be a "venti"...)
7. Occupation: teacher
8. Something you wear: t-shirts (preferably J. Jill on final markdown)
9. Food: tacos (As long as I can find cheddar cheese, we have the fixings for taco salads every week. LOVE 'em).
10. Something found in a bathroom: toilet paper (Well, let's just assume it's not a public toilet here...)
11. Reason for Being Late: traffic (!!!!! Jeannie, you KNEW I'd say that!)
12. Author: Tolstoy (I loved War and Peace and Anna Karenina).
13. Something You Shout: Тупой!! ("Tu-poy," as in "dumb, idiotic" to other drivers who can't hear me, anyway... Never really need to shout "tupaya" since women always drive so well...)
14. Animal: hmmm... first thought was "таракан," ("tarakan," as in "cockroach"), but we got rid of the last bunch of them a year ago... How about... tiger? (Can't help but think of Madeline saying, "Poo poo!" "to the tiger in the zoo"). Or... "такса," ("taksa," as in "dachshund")?
15. Body part: toes (hmm... summer's coming... really need a pedicure...)
16. Store: Target (Chris is going there this week while he's in Colorado! It even has a Starbucks, Holly!)
17. Hobby: travel (Just not the return trip to Moscow when I'm loaded down with a zillion suitcases).
18. Color: turquoise
19. Place: theater
20. Word to describe you: tired!
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
This music was so beautiful today that I had to share it; unfortunately, the battery on my video camera died before I was finished filming. The quality of the sound is also NOTHING like it was live; it got garbled in the recording--but is still impressive anyhow.
Salaries for average Russians are much lower than the cost of living in Moscow; that's why it's so common to have doctors, lawyers, scientists, etc. earn extra money by picking up hitchhikers (that's how most people in the city "take a taxi"--you just stick out your hand). Artists earn extra money by performing in the passageways under the street (that's how you cross busy streets) or in the subway.
The quality of the music can vary, but it's bound to be good when you have such a concentration of world-class musicians in one place... And many, many students who are here to study at the conservatory and in real need of money.
I never heard a veritable orchestra in the subway when we were living in New York; this concert today was truly special. They were set up in the passageway linking the Biblioteka Imeni Lenina metro station and the Kremlin/the Alexandrovsky Gardens.
(I have so many half-written posts adding up... Other neat things I've done around the city recently with the girls... I'm just too tired to complete them. Katya has been suffering from increasingly bad insomnia these past few months and it's hurting me almost as much as it's harming her. What seven-year-old can stay awake until 2:30 a.m.??!!! I'm too tired to read others' blogs and comment right now, or answer e-mail. I just offer up this short post for your enjoyment).
Sunday, April 27, 2008
Yesterday I took the girls to Sparrow Hills (formerly Lenin Hills), the famous "park on a hill" in southwestern Moscow. It's across the river from the Luzhniki Olympic arena (where the opening and closing ceremonies for the 1980 Olympics were held) and in front of the imposing Moscow State University skyscraper. Once the weather warms up, this area is always filled with rollerbladers, joggers, caravans of those about to graduate from high school (posing for the obligatory pictures with the Moscow skyline as a backdrop), people going for a stroll. Pretty much all year long, you'll find buses of tourists and limos with newlyweds parked here, too (again, for the posed photos). We posed there last year when Katya graduated from kindergarten.
We then got ice cream and met two older couples from America who graciously shared some wet wipes with us (I'd forgotten mine!). Incidentally, we met two other families from New York on the playground. I told one of the moms about the Russian/English kindergarten Natalia will attend next year; how great it would be to have another good native-English reader in class!
AARGH! Spacing isn't working on blogger and this post came out looking terrible--but after trying to make it work for way too long, here you go, as is.
Friday, April 25, 2008
After writing about my favorite gadget, the wand that steams milk at home so you can make your own "coffee house" drinks, I decided to do a post about the babyccino (pronounced "baby-chino"). Like my coffee grinder (see yesterday's post), sometimes a little kids' drink also symbolizes so much more than a what it appears to be.
When we first moved here, there was only one place within walking distance of our apartment that sold coffee--and it was terribly expensive, not very good, not very child-friendly (TONS of smoke inside), and at the top of many stairs (hard to navigate with a stroller). Those first months were excruciatingly hard for me.
When our local McDonald's opened a McCafé after our fourth month here, it was a life-changing event for me. It meant that I could take my kids with me to get a much-needed break from time to time. It meant that I could actually afford to get coffees there. It meant that I could get a latte "to go" and sip it at the park--pretending I was still in Park Slope, Brooklyn. It meant that I could escape to the cafe on my own from time to time, just sitting still and reading for a while. Can you really imagine not having a single place you could you go to for a quick coffee and the paper? Make that, ANY PLACE you could go and sit down? Or use a public bathroom? It really didn't exist here yet, making this city seem light years away from the culture to which I was accustomed.
Now, of course, all that has changed... There are cafes all over the city, with four now in my neighborhood (no Starbucks, though). Of them all, McCafé is the only one where there's no smoking allowed--and their prices are still the best by far. Here's a menu of their offerings; I figured that those of you trying to read Russian would enjoy some practice deciphering it! (You can click on the picture to enlarge it).
Here's the "babyccino" up close.
In any case, the McCafé was a huge comfort to me. I discovered the children's drink after a few trips there and didn't mind spending 20 rubles (about 67 cents) to treat the girls. The drink now costs 35 rubles ($1.49) and is still a favorite. We don't go there very often, so the novelty has never worn off. Even so, everyone at our local café knows us... Those who have been there since we moved here remember quite well the girls' glee as they slowly learned Russian and began to place their own orders. Two baristas in particular used to fight over who got to take Katya's order... and they always made her feel like a million bucks (make that rubles).
On January 16, 2005 (I know the date because of my ofoto link), we reached a big milestone in living here. Katya ordered her own babyccino, doing all the speaking in Russian without any help from me. She was EXTREMELY proud of herself. From that point on, Katya always insisted on ordering her own drinks--and drinks for us, her sister and anyone who happened to be with us:
"Можно, пожалуйста, два бейбичина? И гранд латте для Мамы?" ("Mozhna, pozhaluista, dva babychina? Ee grand latte dlya Mamii?")
She was so gosh-darn pleased with herself that sometimes she ordered seconds... and thirds... and we let her, so glad that she was gaining confidence speaking Russian. She proudly clung to her own "frequent coffee" card, collecting punches and redeeming her free drinks. I did the sweetest page in our scrapbook, including her card with all the cup-shaped punches...
A few weekends ago, the day I posted about spending our first real spring day at the park, we went to a McCafé and had our "usual." This time we reached another milestone... NATALIA did the ordering. She could have done it a long time ago, but always felt too shy. She was also quite proud to handle the money.
That particular day felt so odd--yet good. While we each sat sipping our drinks, it was silent. We were all absorbed in reading the magazines we just picked up at a nearby kiosk. The girls seemed so grown up! Just look at Natalia! She was brushing up on her Barbie stories. She can't really read in Russian, but she had fun trying. She'll easily pick it up next year in school.
Katya had chosen a chess magazine featuring moves from "Harry Potter;" remember the "real-live" wizard chess game at the end of the first book? Well, they're selling chess pieces from that scene in the magazine and Katya was elated. She loves chess and is part of the chess club at school. Heaven forbid I try to pick her up early on a Friday, cutting into her chess time!
Before I go, here are some pictures of babyccinos we have shared with others... Recognize yourselves? We miss you!
Every morning I grind fresh coffee beans, brew a pot of coffee, and warm up my milk in the microwave for one minute. I then add 1 teaspoon of unrefined sugar or a dash of vanilla syrup, froth the milk, and add the hot coffee. Instead of using espresso, I prefer to use regular coffee... so I can drink two!
The girls love it when I make them babyccinos: foamed milk with anything delicious added in. The promise of the special drink can sometimes magically get girls out of bed, cure sad faces and generally instill peace. Their favorite flavorings are:
- Hershey's chocolate or strawberry syrup (a real treat; you can only get it at Stockmann--the expensive Finnish grocery store that carries American and other international brands)
- honey, the yummy artisan/organic Russian kinds
- vanilla or caramel syrup from Starbucks
Thursday, April 24, 2008
In order to understand why the purchase of a coffee grinder is worthy of being written about on my blog, let me explain...
Had you been over to our apartment for coffee this past year, I would have had to excuse myself to quickly run to the living room--old American coffee grinder in hand. If you followed me, you'd have been lucky enough to see this:
Yes, a bit odd. (Aren't you glad that I'm trying my hand at an illustrated post, however? Spared you the picture! And this way you can't see all the mess on and under the desk! Although, I must say, my rear is looking better now that I'm running four times a week...) My friends know by now that I wasn't trying to initiate a game of hide and seek. I wasn't compulsively checking to make sure my home was free of dust-bunnies. Then you'd hear:
...and you'd realize that I had to grind my coffee beans under the computer. Why? It's the only place in the house where we have a power strip attached to a voltage converter, of course! We used to have an extra converter that we kept in the kitchen, but it died a year ago... and that's when my daily run to crawl under the desk started.
Now, why, you might wonder, didn't we just go out and buy another converter? Or... why didn't we just buy a coffee grinder that worked in Russia--right type of plug and voltage requirements? I mean, it's just a small coffee grinder, right?
Except it wasn't.
When we moved here, we had to replace almost every single ^&%$#%^&%*(@! appliance we owned. Most of which we had received as wedding presents and hadn't had to purchase in the first place. Having to then buy them all, all over again, when we had their US-compatible counterparts collecting dust in America--and when they cost at least double in Russia compared to US prices--was maddening. But you just can't do without a vacuum cleaner, right??! And you have to have a washing machine... We spent over $400 repeatedly repairing the one that was in the apartment from the previous tenants before spending about that much on a new one this winter... (I lived without a dryer for two years, but eventually that got thankfully welcomed into our home.)
Our immediate priorities were the vacuum, a television/VCR (so the kids had something to occupy them while I unpacked) and storage--so we made many, many trips to IKEA for various pieces of furniture. Little by little, I then got back to adding electronic items: an alarm clock, a radio/CD player, a blow dryer, an iron, a coffee maker (we used a French press for almost a year), a food processor (which our housekeeper recently broke somehow...), a cheap-o hand-held mixer, an electric kettle (a necessity in Russia where everyone drinks tea all the time), and a waffle iron/panini maker. I still don't have a blender. And don't even get me started on how much I miss my KitchenAid standing mixer.
So... after our many trips to the electronics market, this is what our kitchen counter now looks like:
Nice coffee maker, my new coffee grinder, the electric kettle, my Starbucks beans (I still am beyond giddy that I can buy them here... Nah, the excitement hasn't waned one single bit...), and a dock for my ipod so I can listen to NPR while cooking.
That's a counter you'd expect to see in someone's home. A regular, normal home.
But let's get back to that grinder. Yes, why didn't I just buy one say, four years ago? Or at least a year ago when the voltage converter died? I had already purchased all those other appliances, after all. Those, however, I had to. You can't exactly brew your coffee under the computer desk. Ditto for using the food processor, kettle or waffle maker.
The grinder, however, was so small... And it wasn't really that much of an inconvenience...
In the end, I realize that it wasn't about size. It wasn't about the cost. It was about not really getting settled. About hanging on to some small bit of regular USA life, of not just accepting that this is where I am now. That I'm not leaving in a few months, so what's the point of buying a new grinder, anyway?
Over the past months, a lot has changed. Maybe the memory of the miserable packing we have to do every time we leave the USA to come back here has faded just enough that I can forget about it for a while... But somehow this is where we are. It's good. The kids are thriving at their schools. Chris enjoys his job, however draining it may be. I have nice friends. I can drive pretty much anywhere in the city without getting too lost and without having a heart attack. I know where to find most items. I roll with the punches when a "WHY AM I HERE? I HATE MOSCOW!!" day comes around. We finally joined a gym and it's wonderful to go there. We love our neighborhood. I know it. I have my favorite running routes/rollerblading paths. It's familiar. At this time of the year, it's about to become beautiful. We've been here long enough that we expect the difficulties and have adjusted to many of them. That frees up a lot of mental energy to simply enjoy life here, instead.
And then on Monday I officially accepted a new job working full-time teaching high school English and French at Katya's school, a wonderful private Russian school that goes from 1st to 11th grade (Russian schools end after year eleven). I won't be teaching English grammar; that's NOT my cup of tea, not my professional background... I'll be teaching classes on American culture, creative writing, essay writing, analytical thought/writing... Basically, I'll be able to examine almost any topic of interest with the students that will help them to develop their speaking, reading, writing, and aural comprehension while also teaching them about America. I'm sure I'll get a lot of inspiration from NPR, music, short stories... I'll also be using good textbooks; I won't have to invent the courses from scratch. The kids will have four hours per week with their regular English teacher--doing grammar, etc. My classes will be separate, a way to enrich the curriculum--and the director's way to seize the opportunity to benefit from my skills as an experienced teacher and native speaker.
I'm sick of putting off my life, thinking that "some day when we're back in the USA," I'll go back to teaching full-time at a nice school. A school my kids can go to. A school where I'll get to really be part of things, the community of teachers, kids and parents... Working part-time this year was a good way to get my feet wet again, but often more frustrating than rewarding--it placed all of the schedule constraints on me without enough of the rewards. The salary didn't cover hiring someone else to do all I that I no longer could. I wasn't there enough to establish the relationship necessary with students that would have made a real dent in behavioral problems. It just wasn't a situation where it was worth throwing myself heart and soul into it--and only when you do that, do you truly get the rewards.
I got tired of thinking of all the reasons why it wouldn't work to go back to work full-time, teaching the way I really wanted to. So I'm doing whatever I need to so that it will. Hiring the necessary help, doing all I can so that my schedule can accommodate the girls' and my needs. I know it won't be easy, that there will certainly be headaches along the way... But it's worth a try. And it'll feel good to be able to help out financially in a significant way.
Like you, Rachael, I'll have one day off--I love that I was able to pull that off! I also won't have to stay at school all afternoon for after-school activities. I will, however, have to be at school by 8:30 a.m. at the latest.
No time to be running to the living room to grind my coffee beans.
And no need to keep doing so.
So I walked into Starbucks... Now is when you can year Holly's angels singing in their full glory...
... and got meself a nice lil' burr grinder. "I am woman, hear me burr." Life is good.
We won't always be here, but I'm going to enjoy it while we are. And when we leave?? I can make some woman who has just moved here rather happy by giving her the coffee grinder I'll no longer need.
WOW. Just realized that this is my 200th post since starting the blog. Rather fitting that I wrote about a milestone, huh?
Chris has been "flagged." The officer at least let Chris know that there's some process he can go through with the State Department to clear this up--but he hardly has the spare time to deal with this! If he doesn't, however, he can expect trouble every time he travels to and from the USA.
Then again, what's the big deal? He always travels to the USA on his own. Being quickly detained is nothing compared to traveling on my own with both girls--and then packing us up to head back to Russia with six months (or more) of supplies...
Sunday, April 20, 2008
My friend Rachael posted the cutest video of Katya singing this popular Russian lullaby today. It's from "Good Night, Children," a very, very popular children's television program that is on every night from 8:50 to 9:00 p.m. (As I've said before, Russian kids go to bed later than their American peers... NO ONE is in bed asleep before nine, at least no one I've ever met... People used to think I was strange for making my kids go to bed earlier than that...).
You can check out Katya's singing on her mom's blog--but here is the original for all to enjoy. Isn't the claymation neat?
...THAT WASN'T THE ONE WE'VE LIVED IN FOR ALMOST FOUR YEARS!
Last night I surprised Chris by arranging for a taxi to pick him up from work (he was at work at 7 p.m. on a Saturday night) and drop him off at the Marriot Renaissance Hotel in northern Moscow. (That's the Olympic Arena complex you see in the pictures; we were last there for Disney Princesses on Ice. Viewing the domes from our room was much more enjoyable!) The housekeeper stayed with the kids for the night, and it actually went fairly well--well enough that we can do this again in the future. (Perhaps for White Nights in Saint Petersburg?)
Those of you who have had to spend the obligatory expensive visits in Moscow when adopting probably can't fathom choosing to spend a night at an overpriced hotel in this city... But it was GREAT. No one crawled into my bed other than my husband--wait, make that, no kid crawled into our bed, and I was then too tired to deal with evicting her, so I just gave up and slept on an IKEA twin bed in the kids' room. Didn't happen last night. The sheets had the highest cotton count I've ever felt. The bed was HUGE. We got coffee brought to us by room service in the morning. The fitness center was amazing and the pool was beautiful. The dinner we had in the hotel's German restaurant was surprisingly delicious, as were breakfast and lunch today. The bath towels were lusciously thick and luxurious. Next time we go, we'll plan on taking in an English-language movie at the theater adjacent to the hotel. I'll also remember to bring my swimsuit. (And yes... there WILL be a next time).
For those of you regular Muscovites, the hotel offers a "Lovers' Special" for a total (all fees/taxes included) for 9,300 rubles ($396): champagne/fresh fruit waiting in room, a suite, access to health club and pool, one night's stay on a Friday or Saturday. I know that price sounds crazy compared to hotel prices in the US, but it's a BARGAIN for Moscow. Heck, the Ritz would've been $1,600!!!!
As I write this, I realize that Chris and I hadn't been alone since when I was eight months pregnant with Natalia. That's over five years ago. WE WERE LONG OVERDUE FOR A SINGLE NIGHT.
I even got in TWO C25K workouts--one once I arrived yesterday, before Chris did, and then one this morning with Chris. Today I jogged 5 kilometers for the first time! I walked briskly at intervals in between, but I DID IT! (I must confess, however, that I am TIRED right now. Soooooooo tired. Much more tired than I can afford to be. Maybe there's a reason I wasn't supposed to have exerted myself that much at this point of the training plan... But I'm not sore, and I felt able to do it at the time). Chris even did workout number one with me! I sure hope he continues! I bet he will; who wants to see his wife kicking his butt on the adjacent treadmill??!
On a blogosphere "Isn't the world small?" note, I met an adoptive family from Kentucky when I was checking in... I wish I remembered their names, but they had just arrived from Ivanovo and their adorable 20-month-old little boy is Elijah (Ilya Alexandrovich). She knew who you guys are, Tami and Annie! She's read your blogs :-)
If we were still living in the USA, we'd have the option of somehow having the kids spend a night or a few days with their various grandparents--here, that's just not possible. When we do go back to the USA, Chris and I only overlap for at most two weeks in Colorado--and he wants to spend that time with his parents. It would also be too hard for them to watch both girls on their own--and we'd still end up having to pay for a hotel in order to get away. We know some people here who have had a nanny for long enough that they feel comfortable having the kids spend some time at the nanny's dacha (simple house in the countryside); they're the luckiest! (Both the kids and the parents!)
Another factor in really needing a break is that we have been living in small apartments ever since we got married. Our current apartment is the largest we've ever had, and it's only 347 square feet! When you add into consideration that we have no storage or yard, the place feels even smaller; you can never have the kids play in the backyard while you steal five minutes together. We're always all together, kind of on top of one other, for better and for worse. There's NO privacy. Come to think of it, a main factor in how relaxing the hotel room was is that there wasn't stuff covering every single space of the room. No vertical storage. No bicycles hanging all up the walls when you walked in the room. No winter tires being stored until next fall. No Christmas decorations and suitcases stacked on shelves in the entryway. Hee hee... I just thought of how you could really punish a criminal who follows Fen-Shui: make him live in our apartment! He'd BEG for a less cruel sentence!
Saturday, April 19, 2008
"Sorry, honey-- I can't make it home tonight; I have to stay late at the office." When guys in Moscow say this, they aren't necessarily at work. They could actually be here, right next to the famous Moscow Zoo. Yes, you got that right... Practically sharing an entrance with the zoo is this building--THE OFFICE--where the last thing on men's minds is their paperwork. I was appalled when I first saw this place four years ago--at that time, you could even enter it directly from inside the zoo. At one point, it looked as if it were closing--and then it sprang back, being so mainstream that there's even a popular cafe, "Shokoladnitsa," in it's entrance.
This strip club will even drive you home, with a businessman escort inside who apologizes to the wife that they had to keep the husband at the meeting for so long. They provide phone alibis, too. How do I know all this? They're written about in mainstream publications! You'd think that such publicity would kind of kill the effectiveness of their alibis, but the place seems to be thriving, judging from all the coverage it's getting. The existence of such places certainly compounds the stress felt by those husbands who are working super late, who can't help it, who wish they could be at home, and who know that in this city, someone will always raise an eyebrow about a guy who "works late"...
All of this is right up the street from the US Embassy, smack in the center of the city.