Saturday, May 31, 2008

Sunset at Novodevichy Convent

Activities from Kids' Menu

I thought some of you might enjoy printing these out for your own kids (double click on an image to open it in large format). Coffeemania has a really fun kids' menu; each one is different so the girls never get sick of the activities. They have such delicious food... Their desserts are pure heaven and their latte is the best I've ever tasted... Their prices, however, leave a lot to be desired! Since we go there quite rarely, it's a huge treat for all of us.

I met the man who founded and owns the chain at a prep school fair held in Moscow last fall; his son attends the school where I used to teach in America. I can't imagine how disappointing cafeteria food must be to him after regularly dining in his dad's restaurants!

"Set the Table"
Nakroy na stol (as in "he stole that")

"Whose Noses Are These?"
Chee ehtah nosee (the "s" is pronounced as in "soft")

"Make Lightning"
U-stroy grozu

"Who Lives Here?"
K-toh zdyace (as in "I aced the test") zheev-yoht

"Who's in the Crowd?"
K-toh nahoditsya v tallp-yeh

Jewelry Expo

On Friday morning I took advantage of my last chance to attend the once-monthly jewelry exhibition here in Moscow (we'll be in the USA, then I'll be working). I learned about it from a friend whose jewelry I often admired and went for the first time last fall--just in time to get some Christmas presents for people who were no longer eager to receive Russian-style souvenirs as presents any more... (After four years, five, really, if you count when I lived here in college, the appeal of matrioshkas, Gzhel pottery, lacquered boxes and pins, etc. starts to fade for our relatives in the USA...)

You can find just but anything there: loose stones and beads; traditional amber jewelry; very expensive and fancy jewelry with precious gems in gold or silver; lots of pearl jewelry; diamonds; watches; silver jewelry in range of prices; designs from Thailand and other countries; unique modern pieces done by local artisans.

The expo is held on the last Friday, Saturday and Sunday of every month in a building next to the New Tretyakov Gallery (the Central Artists' House/Dom Hudozhnikov) that's the ugly white box across from Gorky Park. This is what it looks like; next to it is the "Graveyard of Fallen Monuments" sculpture park that I wrote about last month.

Across the street is Gorky Park.

This is what the building where the expo is held. You go behind it to enter the exhibition.

This is the entrance. In this courtyard you also find shops that do museum-quality professional framing at unbelievably low prices.

The entrance to the exhibit takes you back to Soviet times... The interior--with the delapidated first few floors of the building, the outdated ticket kiosk and babushka entrance guards give quite a first impression. Then you enter the area where the jewelry is... And it's a bit overwhelming, spread out over three floors through winding hallways and staircases. This is the most modern area of the expo:

Here are some pictures of my favorite pieces from last fall. I wear this mother-of-pearl and topaz necklace a lot. It's so darn simple and pretty.

I also love this cheerful daisy. I can wear these pendants on either the silver necklace or black leather cord.

I wear this necklace all the time, too. I love the design. I couldn't find it in with my jewelry when I went to take these pictures and I searched for the last day--only to just discover that Natalia had taken it to school and it was at the bottom of her backpack... I'll certainly have to deal with that behavior...

This pendant is really fun, too. It's treated amber! Not quite sure how they do it, but it's so unique. I ended up liking the necklace so much that today I bought a ring to match.

Last fall I also picked up some amber hearts--now the girls can match their Kirsten doll. (Not bad for $5!)

I had fun picking out some new things for myself and others. The Director of the school where I taught this year had given me a rather unexpected extra bit of cash in with my pay for May and I decided to get myself a few pieces to spruce up my wardrobe for the new job next fall. (I pretty much wear solid knit tops all the time; a nice necklace suddenly pulls it all together in a comfortable, yet casual way). Since Mother's Day was completely forgotten in our house (well, not by me...) this year, I also did a little "Happy Mother's Day to Me" browsing...

Here's what I picked out. First off, a happy pink flower. I get so many compliments on my yellow one that I decided to get another.

Here's an amber set--rather unique, huh? It'll look great with a lot of things.

This coral set looks super with a white or black tee and jeans... I'm wearing it today.

These next pictures don't do these amethysts justice at all. The stones just SPARKLE shades of purple, blue and citrine. They'll go with so many of tops!

These earrings and pendant will go with everything--but now that I examine them closely, I don't think I'll wear them together. (The size of the design in the pendant is smaller than that in the earrings).

Last, but not least, I thought this simple wooden cross was really pretty, too.

I also got these for a friend. They've made me think of her ever since I saw them last fall.

If you're in Moscow, I highly recommend checking out the expo! The prices are super. You can bargain with most of the sellers; I got very good deals. Many of the sellers speak English; you can tell they're used to dealing with expat customers. Here's the schedule through November. You can also check out the sponsoring organization's web site for more info.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Still Got It... Somewhat...

(Edited: one more picture added)

I've felt so crummy from my allergies to poplar pollen and the variety of lilacs here that I haven't run in over two weeks... Off the wagon on my "Couch to 5 K" running plan... I will get "back on" as soon as the infection clears and I feel well enough to breathe fully...

Today, however, I took Katya to meet up with one of her school friends at the ice rink at Evropeysky Mall. Katya usually HATES skating, ruining it for our family by complaining incessantly. Her friend, however, has taken lessons for a few years and she was very sweet about encouraging Katya to give it a shot. I've tried again and again to teach her, but well, I'm her mom and what do I know...

Turns out, quite a bit! I've still "got it," to a degree! Since we were the only people on the ice, I was able to do things normally forbidden during a public session. I *almost* tried an axel (a jump in which you rotate one and a half times in the air), but chickened out. I think I need to go a few more times to get "my feet" back and not risk really hurting myself. My scratch spin traveled all over the place and my camel spin was quite wobbly and short.. but I did do them. I can also still do my single jumps.

Now that I have nice skates that fit, I really do want to go more often! I haven't truly skated since college, and even then I didn't do it all that much... I probably was at my best when in ninth grade. I never got very far--I was an intermediate on the USFSA testing scales--but I really enjoyed it.

Oh--perhaps most importantly, Katya had a great time and learned quite a bit! I'd love to be able go skating with both girls on weekends; now I think that will be possible and fun! Here she is happily taking her friend's advice.

Monday, May 26, 2008

"What Time is It?" "Summertime..." Yes, It Is... And in More Ways Than One!

If you google "High School Musical" + Russia, the top hit you get is still a link to my blog... Back from when I got my hands on a bootleg copy of "High School Musical 2" and hosted a little viewing party for friends in our apartment...



The movie has been released in Russian, dubbed by famous actors/singers. The premier was this weekend on Russian television and I'm guessing that the dvd and soundtrack are now in stores as of this week.

I'll definitely go buy it... It'll be great practice for the girls to learn all the songs in Russian. Katya's teacher asked me to have the girls listen to Russian music as much as possible while we're in the USA this summer. I'm assuming you're "in" for copies, Nataliya and Rachael??

Here's a taste of the Russian version:

Katya's Spring Piano Recital

Last week was Katya's final piano recital of the year. (She's quickly practicing beforehand in the picture above). She played three short pieces and then sang a song from the musical "The Little Prince" with all the other students; I'm including video below for grandparents' pleasure.

She had been sick for almost a week before the recital and hadn't had a chance to practice. We still haven't gotten a piano; she really does need one to properly continue. I've been looking for a used piano, but haven't found one yet. We'll probably end up just getting a good digital one (with weighted keys) when we get back from America this August. Now that we might be moving, I'm glad we don't have to also transfer a piano to a new apartment*...

I've also included pictures of the bouquets that Natalia and I brought with us to give both Katya and Katya's teacher.

Bouquets are so unique here; I'd never seen anything quite like them before moving to Russia. The use of big leaves, netting and the occasional prop (little wooden ladybugs, silk butterflies or birds) make them rather eye-catching!

Here are the videos. First, here is Katya playing.

Then, here is the group finale when all the students sang and a fourth grader accompanied them.

*Moving Update: There's one apartment on our street--I can even see it from our living room windows-- that we're really hoping we'll get. It's almost 50% bigger than the one we're in now and would cost 95,000 rubles--the amount that our landlord is now going to expect for the apartment we're currently in. It has modern PVX windows, much newer appliances than we have now, a dishwasher (!) and air conditioning...!! The current tenants won't know until the end of next week if they'll be renewing their lease. I'm PRAYING they don't! We'll move into that place if we can; otherwise, we'll likely just negotiate for repairs on our current place and stay put.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

37 Long-Stemmed Roses

The seniors gave me these beautiful flowers at Graduation!

Quite a few of them came from one boy who had been given so many by the younger students that he had difficulty carrying them; I was quite happy to accept his generosity and "help" him by lessening his load! I'm glad that the weather has been cold since Friday; the flowers didn't die within 24 hours from the usual May heat in our apartment and I can still enjoy most of them.

The Last Bell (Последний Звонок)

High School Graduation is soooo different than it is in America... We never learned about the differences in "school culture" in my Russian classes--beyond those that are superfluous, such as the black and white uniforms (during Soviet times), frequent recitations, no school sports teams-- and this year I've had surprise after surprise.

Since moving here with school-aged children, however, we had learned about the importance of September 1st, "The Day of Knowledge." That's when schools all across Russia begin the new academic year, often regardless of whether the date falls on a Saturday or Sunday. Children are dressed in their best (school uniforms or formal suits for both boys and girls, huge bows in girls' hair) and they bring big bouquets of flowers to their teachers. Parents escort their kids and the classes all line up for the opening ceremony, the "линейка," the youngest first-grader rings "the first bell" ("первый звонок") to signify the start of the new year, and the seniors (eleventh graders) help the first graders to their classrooms.

Here was Katya at the opening ceremonies for her school last year.

Two girls from the first grade helped a senior to ring the "first bell," to great applause.

The whole elementary school then gathered on the playground to release celebratory balloons. (Balloons are BIG, I mean BIG, in Russia. They often are used to create lavish sculptures, swirling garlands, etc. for celebrations).

It stands to reason that if there's a "first bell," then there would then be a "last bell." I hadn't realized what a huge affair it is! The students at my school prepared for the ceremony for a few months. I wondered why they needed to rehearse so extensively; in my mind the seniors would walk across the stage, accepting their diplomas, someone might give a speech, and perhaps a few songs would be sung.


That's not-- even-- close!

The "Last Bell" is an incredibly involved ceremony, with students from all grades participating. Each first grader at Katya's school memorized an original poem about each graduating student, highlighting some special talent or characteristic. Katya got to talk about a boy who had been particularly good at English. I don't know much more about that ceremony since I wasn't actually there; Katya didn't exactly fill me in on all the details... and she was only there for a small part of it.

I did, however, get to watch the whole ceremony at the school where I've worked this year. The sense of a "full circle," of the school year coming to a close was reinforced by the fact that we had the exact same cold rain on Friday that we had had on September 1st. (The sun is shining in the pictures of Katya's first day of school because her school chose to wait until Monday, September 3rd, to hold the opening ceremonies). The same balloons decorated the school and there was the same level of excitement. This time, however, the attention was focused on the eldest--and not the youngest.

I already knew to expect the girls to show up in Soviet-era schoolgirl garb. It was rather strange to see the girls who usually wore designer clothing in black dresses and white lace pinafores--with the big white fluffy bows in their hair! I'd seen seniors dressed like that during the last week of May for the previous three years we've lived here. Nevertheless, expecting to see them like this didn't make it less of a surprise! (Nataliya? Olga? I'd love to see any pictures of you guys at your Последний Звонок!)

The ceremony lasted two and a half hours! Each grade participated, performing elaborate dances, singing, and reciting farewell poetry. I particularly enjoyed how the ninth graders picked poetry by famous poets that reflected something about each senior's character. One of the poets cited was Alexander Blok, about whom Chris wrote his senior thesis in college.

Once the younger grades had finished, the seniors themselves took the stage, putting on a song and dance variety show of their own. They sang traditional songs from the '70s through the '90s, thanked each teacher individually with poetry and song, and then performed a final number with children from each grade. It was exceptionally moving to watch their tribute to their first grade teacher, who is still at the school teaching second grade (her currents pupils were very involved in the Graduation celebration). Teachers and parents also participated, sharing anecdotes and good wishes. (I spoke, too). One first-grade boy whom I adore was given the honor of ringing the "last bell" and the ceremonies came to a close.

Afterwards we all moved outdoors, where every grade lined the school square and the seniors stood in the middle to release their farewell balloons. It was then time to come back inside for refreshments and cake. Not just any cake, mind you... Isn't this fancy? Russians are also really into fancy cakes... for all occasions. I'm not a "cake person," though, so I can't tell you how it tasted.

Note the refreshments: alongside the delicious fruit, chocolates, soft drinks and juice are bottle after bottle of CHAMPAGNE and rare Georgian wine. Yup! And not just for the parents! It was so strange for me to see all my students mulling around with their champagne glasses, toasting each other and their parents. A few of those kids are headed to the England and New York for post-graduate years at boarding schools; I made sure that they knew that drinking and smoking at such schools could get you expelled!

They were given school "medals;" they won't receive diplomas until next month after they have passed the rigorous national exams in all subjects.

That's a KEY difference between graduation in America and Russia... When you graduate in America, you're done. You're already into college (unless you're wait-listed) and you have completed all of your schoolwork. There aren't any national exams looming over you. You. Are. Done. When Graduation Day arrives, it is a TRUE CELEBRATION. Afterwards you can truly relax and breathe a sigh of relief.

Russian seniors, however, still have to take a variety of grueling national exams before they have actually met the high school requirements. AFTER they have their exam results, they apply to their various universities. Somehow these exams are graded in time for students to apply to college, get accepted, and start at the beginning of September. I *STILL* don't understand this process.

So they've "graduated," so-to-speak, but they still have all these exams ahead of them, exams that determine if they actually get a diploma or not, and they still don't know where they'll go to college in the fall.

Give me Graduation in America any day... I really feel for these students here. The pressure is acute! The national exams are so demanding that seniors split their time between school and tutoring by university professors--so much so, that they often miss school--and this is normal.

The pressure on the seniors at my school this year was doubled: due to the changes in national exams, the parents and administration chose to have the tenth graders complete the tenth and eleventh grades simultaneously. That's right--the students finished 9th grade in May '07, then did tenth and eleventh grade this year. Many of them are still fifteen-years-old! And they'll start college in the fall??! University here is much more intense than in the USA; you already know your major when you apply and your studies are sharply focused. I can't imagine being ready to do that at fifteen... As a result, three of the ten students who graduated this year are doing post-graduate high school programs overseas before heading to college.

For some reason, the school Katya attends is rather different; students there complete all eleven years (finishing at age eighteen since you start first grade a year later in Russia than in America) and senior year is still a regular year (unless you plan to attend a university requiring special entrance exams and need extra tutoring--law school, for example, since you go straight to law school after high school). Not that we'll be here through high school, but I'm glad that her school isn't so stressful. I hope this difference will influence the atmosphere for me as a teacher there; it would be nice for my students to be able to focus more on our coursework--and not the impending national exams--when I join the faculty at Katya's school next year.

I have one more school day with the younger classes this coming Tuesday, then the year is over. Katya is already finished; she'll stay home with a babysitter while I teach that day. I feel sad about leaving; none of the students know that I won't be back (I was asked to not say anything, so I've dodged students' questions about next year--when they ask about the fall, assuming I'll be their teacher) and I want them to have a good teacher next year! A replacement hasn't been found yet... I really grew fond of many of the kids and I'll wonder how they are as they grow... I know I'll still run into one very sweet ninth-grade girl, however, since her family is good friends with the family of one of Katya's good friends.

Here's a quick video clip of the end of the ceremony; the first graders and seniors ballroom danced together and it was so, so sweet... And then the ringing of the "last bell."

Here's a video montage of scenes from the whole day, mainly for those of you who are Russian-speaking readers and might get a kick out of hearing songs you perhaps sang at your graduation! After watching this, you understand why karaoke is so darn popular in Russia; people are trained to perform like this from age seven!

The students and their homeroom teacher then went for a "photo-taking" tour of Victory Park and Sparrow Hills in this Hummer. (Most graduating classes and newlyweds do this--drive from spot to spot for special pictures). I was invited to join them, but I had to hurry to Katya's school for my final parent-teacher conference of the year. (More on that later).

Friday, May 23, 2008


We found out yesterday that our landlord is raising our rent by 1/3. It's insane to me that our simple apartment will cost 95,000 rubles ($4,043) per month. Our apartment has two bedrooms, a living room, a small eating area, small (!) kitchen and bathroom. It's 105 square meters/ 1130 square feet.

Yes, Moscow is the most expensive city in the world (cost of living). Yes, most people we know are paying double--triple!--that amount (and even much more). Families brought over through jobs in oil and gas usually get fantastic expatriate packages that provide housing comparable to what you'd have had in the USA--somewhat. We're not in that category--our housing isn't completely paid for, but we do have an allowance for it. That being said, we just can't bring ourselves to pay such astronomical rent!

So we've lived in an apartment that didn't have the level of renovation you'd find in many other apartments rented by foreigners (or most Russians we know, either)--cracked bathtub, cracked floor tiles in places, broken kitchen drawers, windows from 1953 that you can't really open, no air-conditioning during the summer heatwaves (and you can't open those windows, remember, or the kids--and cats--could fall right out), chipping paint, dying stove and refrigerator, no dishwasher, no closets, no storage...

BUT WE'VE HAD AN AMAZING VIEW OF A BEAUTIFUL PARK AND HAVE BEEN IN ONE OF THE MOST COVETED SPOTS OF THE CITY. Cleanest air you can get here. Great spot for families. Within walking distance of Katya's school. Location, location, location. The location made up for all the apartment's shortcomings--while we knew we were paying a MUCH lower rent than our landlord could charge based on the address.

I should say that for all the apartment's shortcomings, it has nice parquet flooring, white painted walls--most Russian apartments have UGLY embossed and colored wallpaper, lots of sunlight--when there's sun, and super-high ceilings. The landlord also let me paint those murals in the kids' room--most would balk at the idea... It has served us rather well thus far.

Now that the rent is going to skyrocket, though, I'm scrambling to see about moving. If we're going to have to pay that much, perhaps we can find an apartment that's in better condition. I'm sure it's hoping for too much, but a place that would be bigger, too, would be a Godsend...

I'll be getting listings of possible apartments in our neighborhood from two real estate agents tomorrow. There's one potential apartment across the street from us--I can actually look into the windows from our living room. (Can't see anything, but I can tell there are no curtains/lights and it appears the place isn't rented yet).

Think good thoughts for us, OK? And if you're the praying kind, put in a good word for us! I'm terrible about handling moving stress and I need this to go as smoothly as possible... The timing is good, though... School is almost out and we're not leaving for the US until the end of June... It would be great to start off the fresh academic year in a spankin' new (to us) and nicer apartment!

If nothing comes through, then at least we'll know that the rent for the place we're in is fair for the market--and we'll go ahead and negotiate for those repairs the place desperately needs. I hope the landlord would agree...

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Darker Side of the Children's Park behind the White House

"I lay shot
Across Moscow
Beneath me spread out
Blue sky

Like bloody bandages
Clouds at sunset
I perished with honor
In Black October."

I've now written a few times about the super children's park behind the White House (parliament building) and US Embassy. In this entry I showed you many, many pictures of this wonderful spot, in this entry I talked about a pretty cross there, and here I spoke about yet another fun day we spent there.

Now I'd like to give you a little tour of the memorial just outside the park--the memorial to some of the 187 people who were killed during the ten-day coup attempt by anti-Yeltsin forces in October of 1993. Those ten days were the bloodiest in Moscow streets since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917--and most of us in the West watched it unfold on CNN.

People are sometimes confused by the fact that there were two attempted coups where the White House was a central spot--in both 1991 and in 1993.


On August 18, 1991 Communist hard-liners and military leader of the Soviet Union, upset by the direction the country was taking under Gorbachev's reforms, forced Gorbachev into house arrest while he was vacationing on the Black Sea. Their key mistake was not also detaining Yeltsin, then the President of the Soviet Republic of Russia. He got back to Moscow the next day and went straight to the White House--where he then gathered support to defeat the hard-liners. The White House was the central landmark of this crisis; citizens surrounded it, risking their lives, to prevent tanks from getting close enough to overtake it.

The coup was over, having failed, on August 21. It is remarkable that only three citizens died while defending the White House; Yeltsin declared them "Heroes the USSR." The men responsible for plotting the coup were arrested or committed suicide. Gorbachev, however, didn't exactly emerge "victorious." The days of the USSR were numbered and the Communist party no longer ruled the nation. The failed coup by the party's staunchest supporters had been a final blow. Gorbachev resigned as the General Secretary of the Communist Party and by December 25, 1991, the Soviet Union was officially dissolved. The former republics were then independent countries, and the flag of the Soviet Union was replaced by the Russian flag at the Kremlin.


The next coup came in October of 1993, known as "Black October." (As opposed to "Red October," the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917). This time Yeltsin found himself as the target; citizens were disenchanted by the staggering inflation and plummeting economy in Russia. The process of privatizing businesses in Russia, of switching from a Communist to Capitalist economy was (and still is) very difficult; support for Yeltsin waned as life became harder and harder. In an effort to force his privatization plan through the government, Yeltsin illegally disbanded the Russian legislature (the Supreme Soviet and Congress of People's Deputies) and called for a referendum on a new Constitution--one that granted him considerably more power.

The Congress rejected Yeltsin's moves, calling for his impeachment. Yeltsin's former Vice President, Aleksandr Rutskoy, declared himself the acting President and the coup began. The legislature refused to disband and leave the White House. Citizens rallied behind the legislature, surrounding the White House to protect it from Yeltsin and the military (who remained loyal to Yeltsin). Bloodshed erupted, Yeltsin and the military overtook the White House, and an estimated 437 were injured and 187 killed in the process. Yeltsin continued as the leader of Russia until retiring in 1999, when he handed over the Presidency to Vladimir Putin.

The Memorial behind the White House

After the bloodshed of 1993, mourners created makeshift shrines to those who were killed during the fighting. Panels with glass cases tell the story of what happened during the coup, honor those who died with obituaries and photographs, and hold collages of memorial poems and articles.

These shrines always have fresh flowers mixed among the fake ones, even in winter. You can just imagine relatives who visit this site regularly, watching all the young parents and kids playing inside the park, oblivious to their sorrow.

The calendar lets mourners know which saint to pray to on each specific day.

This shrine is for an Orthodox priest who died in the fighting.

This "ship" was built from the wreckage of the fighting.

Knowing the history of the White House--and what has happened on this pretty grass behind it--sure adds deeper meaning to the scenes of children playing so joyfully inside the adjoining park. Most people I know think that Yeltsin was right, that for all his shortcomings he did do what needed to be done to jump start the transition to capitalism. I was actually in Moscow for Christmas and New Year's in 1993, just two months later. My friends then said they had supported Yeltsin because of the belief that no matter how hard their lives were economically at that moment, they had to persevere for the promise of the future.

The majority of those friends are now living considerably better lives than they had ever imagined!