Thursday, July 31, 2008

On the Road Again...

The girls and I drove to Loveland, Colorado today to see our
"Moscow" friends one more time before they began their three-day drive back home. They treated us to a yummy lunch before embarking on their s-l-o-w voyage. They loved Estes Park and we plan to meet up there again in, say, fifty weeks... 

The girls were not impressed. "Fifty weeks" sounded awfully long to them, certainly not sooner than one year... Seems pretty far-off to me, too. (Imagine me pouting with a sad face). 

Happy Driving, Jerry and Jeannie!!!


It's now official...

Kind of shaking in my running shoes...

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

What a Deere!

Natalia has become very good friends with the boy who lives next door... They've been inseparable the last few days. She has discovered the world of "boy" toys, thrilled to get behind the wheel of his John Deere tractor! They spent a lot of time today driving between our houses, with me tagging behind...

There's another VERY sweet picture with both of them turning around... I think of it as "Keep Your Eyes on the Road!!". If his mom says it's OK, I'll add it to this post tomorrow.

We then went to the pool and brought him with us. They ran all around the sprinklers, hid in the tunnels of the water playground and swam and swam...

I even heard her tell him, "I love you..."

Hmmm. Not even six and already won over by a fancy car...

Making the Piano Pretty...

These are all the smiley face stickers that Natalia used to "make the piano pretty"... A colorful face for each white key...

My mother-in-law had placed four of those stickers on the piano to help a student during a lesson. Natalia thought she'd complete the task....

Luckily they came off easily and my mother-in-law took it all in stride! Natalia was proud to do such a good job cleaning up...

I made sure that she knew the Italian violin does NOT need a make-over...!!

42% More Expensive than New York City...

I just woke up and signed on to; this was the featured story... Ay, yay, yay... THAT is why I've spent this week making multiple trips to Target and the factory outlets near my in-laws', stocking up before we head back to Moscow next week... Even at $125 a pop, one piece of excess baggage's contents would cost soooooo much more if purchased in Russia...

The moral of this story for you friends living in the U.S.: If you've ever thought of visiting Russia, do it while you can stay with us for free and get "us locals" to show you around...

America's cities don't even make it into the top 20 most expensive in the world, thanks to the declining dollar. Moscow tops the list for the third year running.

By Zack O'Malley,

In 1998, Moscow was in crisis. More than 100,000 Russians took to the streets as a slew of banks--and the life savings of millions of citizens--went bust.

But just a decade later, the global commodities boom has made Russia flush with cash, and Moscow has become a pricey place to live.

That's the finding in Mercer's 2008 Worldwide Cost of Living Survey. Moscow tops the list with a score of 142, up 6% from last year--and 42% higher than New York, the most expensive city in the United States. The Russian capital is followed by Tokyo; London; Oslo, Norway; and Seoul, South Korea.

New York fell from No. 15 to No. 22, thanks to the dollar's protracted woes. Los Angeles is the second-priciest city in the U.S., but Hollywood's denizens can't cry poverty just yet: At No. 55, Los Angeles is cheaper than the best neighborhoods in Lagos, Nigeria (No. 30); Almaty, Kazakhstan (No. 44); and Zagreb, Croatia (No. 49).

"The decline in the ranking of all U.S. cities is due to the weakening value of the U.S. dollar against most major world currencies," says Mercer's Mitch Barnes, a principal at the firm. "The dollar has been declining steadily for the past several years, which has resulted in an overall decrease in the cost of living in 19 U.S. cities, relative to the other major global cities studied."

Behind the numbers

The survey covers 253 cities across six continents and measures the relative cost of more than 200 items in each place, including housing, transport, food, clothing, household goods and entertainment. The survey is used to help American government agencies and multinational companies determine living costs for their expatriate employees, who usually demand a relatively high quality of life.

"Companies may assign high priority to expansion in these economies, but may have to deal with inflationary pressures due to competition for expatriate-level housing," says Yvonne Traber, a research manager at Mercer.

In the wake of the Federal Reserve's bailout of mortgage lenders Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the dollar has continued its slide, falling to a record low against the euro in mid-July. While that's bad news for Americans traveling abroad, it could mean that more international businesses will set up shop in the U.S., where posh cities are suddenly becoming much more affordable.

"The U.S. dollar's loss of value may serve to attract globally mobile executives to business centers such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles," Barnes says. "The difference in cost of living can be significant, particularly for those executives with families."

Most expensive meccas

As for Moscow, prices in the Russian capital show no signs of dropping. The global commodity boom continues to fatten the pockets of local tycoons, and the ruble has appreciated 8% against the dollar since January.

Moscow is home to 74 billionaires, the most of any city in the world. Its three wealthiest citizens (Oleg Deripaska, Vladimir Lisin and Roman Abramovich) each possess fortunes in excess of $25 billion. And Russia's super-wealthy are just getting started: 13 of the country's billionaires are under the age of 40.

Founded by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago, No. 3 London is an ancient stalwart when it comes to pricey cities. Though it slipped from last year's No. 2 spot, it remains extremely expensive: Even a ride on one of the city's vaunted double-decker buses costs $5.89.

And while Japan's economy is stagnating, Tokyo is as expensive as ever. For American expats, the city's real-estate prices are the highest in the world: A two-bedroom luxury apartment costs more than $5,100 per month, about $600 more than a comparable pad in Moscow or New York.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

That Moscow Bond...

Those of you who have read my blog for a while now have probably seen the comments left by Jeannie, my friend who was a new expat in Moscow at the same time we were. They're settled now in their new state, but they both sure do miss Russia. The three years that our families shared were incredibly intense, to say the least! Friendships made under such circumstances grow much deeper in a shorter time than those in everyday American life... We were quite sad when they moved back to the USA last March and we miss them a lot.

They planned their summer vacation to include a stop in Colorado so that we could all get together again. Emery, Katya and Natalia picked right up where they had left off! Oh, how they miss each other!

The highlight of the reunion today was that we got to meet Rachel, the newest member of the family! (Jeannie was in her third trimester when we had last seen her). What a cutie she is, with both her mommy and daddy wrapped around her plump little fingers...

They've been traveling through America with Jeannie's parents in RV vehicles. I'd never been inside one before; it was cool! Our girls loved Emery's hiding place in the loft over the front seats.

We joined them near Estes Park, where my dad, the girls and I spent three great days last week. Tomorrow they'll drive closer to where my in-laws live and we'll get spend a few more days together. The girls and I were happy to return to Estes Park... After a delicious meal at our favorite Mexican restaurant there (Ed's Cantina--go there!!!!), we took the girls to the campground's pool. There were other kids swimming, too. I overhead Katya explaining to one girl that we're expatriates--but not the kind that couldn't have tea with loyalists. Funny!

Stuck inside while it briefly rained, all three girls discovered that the grandparents' RV had satellite television... including the Disney Channel... 

Lo and behold, they caught a rerun of the Miley Cyrus concert from last night, minus the 3-D special-effects. That, however, didn't stop Natalia from sharing a pair of glasses with Emery!

Ya-hoo! Rockin' Out during the 3-D Hannah Montana Concert

Last night was the "Hannah Montana: Best of Both Worlds Concert" in 3-D on Disney Channel. It's so rare that my kids actually get to be in America when there's something cool going on... We embraced it whole-heartedly, picking up enough pairs of the free 3-D glasses at Walmart for the whole family.

While I doubt my in-laws will be rushing out to purchase any Miley Cyrus music, we all did have fun watching the concert together...

Even the pups.

Here is Katya and my favorite song, "Let's Dance." 

Tornado Clouds

The sky was stunning tonight as we drove towards Denver. Chris said that dark clouds with streaks like big paint strokes reaching towards the ground often indicate an imminent tornado. Don't worry; they were very, very far away from us.

I, of course, had to stop for pictures...

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Most Beautiful Starbucks in America

Check out the view from the back patio at the Estes Park, Colorado Starbucks...


Katya even recognized how beautiful it was, how unexpected for a chain coffee shop... You certainly realized you weren't in just any Starbucks...

Even the latte tasted lattier. Or, as Katya put it, the steamed milk tasted even more babyccino-ey.

Espresso and Puppies

I saw this sign in a coffee shop in Idaho Springs... I think it's brilliant... If you look more closely, you'll see what I mean! "UNATTENDED CHILDREN WILL BE GIVEN AN ESPRESSO AND A FREE PUPPY."

I'm sure this sign is posted elsewhere in America, but since I live in Moscow, it was new to me!

Horseback Riding through a Gold Mine

Yesterday we went horseback riding near Central City, a former gold mining town that has become a gambling spot... It's rather sad to see how the character of the town has decayed--but it was either add casinos or abandon the town. There was no other industry and the town couldn't maintain itself anymore. In the summer they also host an opera company; ten years ago I got to see a former classmate of mine from junior high school--Jenny Ayres--when she performed in The Magic Flute.

I highly recommend
the stable we used; the owner lead us for an hour and a half on mountain trails that took us by various mine shafts and inside the central structure of an old mine. I tried my best to capture some of the mines and scenery on video; it was much harder than I'd anticipated to do so while riding! Each girl had her own horse and they were in heaven. We all felt like kids again as we relished the joy of seeing the valleys below when we periodically emerged from the paths in the forest.

Talia proved yet again that she's a natural athlete; after the third clip in this video, she almost steered her horse down a treacherous hill instead of sticking to the path... She claims it was an accident, but who really knows... Neither girl was scared a bit and they rode solidly and safely the whole time.

Then we got off the horses and enjoyed peaceful, loving conversation with our angelic daughters who embody sisterly love. If you've read my previous entries since embarking on this vacation, you'll get my drift...

Bear Lake

The last place we visited at Rocky Mountain National Park before leaving was Bear Lake. It's an alpine lake in a glacial crater and we thought it was beautiful!

My dad and I soon tired of keeping the girls from climbing the rocks that fall into the water, eager to dip their hands in it... We knew their whole bodies would inadvertently follow... So we hiked a little past the lake, where Natalia discovered a vast area filled with rocks. Being the astute children they are, they exclaimed, "Oh! The ROCKY Mountains!"

Talia and my dad had learned about lichen on the hike they went on without Katya and me; he taught me how the colorful formations on the rocks are the result of algae and fungus interacting. 

Here's a close-up of the lichen; it's quite pretty! Hmm... "Fungus" and "pretty" aren't words that I would have imagined putting together in the same sentence!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Junior Rangers

Last year my friend Katya (referred to before as "Big Katya"--in comparison to my "little" Katya--my buddy from college and graduate school... we were each other's maids-of-honor...) and her family went on a road trip that brought them to a few National Parks. While reading about their travels, I learned about how much they had enjoyed the Junior Ranger programs at Shenandoah and Acadia National Parks. 

Based on her recommendation, I looked into the Junior Ranger programs available at parks within a drive from my in-laws' near Denver. That's how we ended up picking Rocky Mountain National Park, entering from the town of Estes Park

We picked up the girls' Junior Ranger booklets (you have to attend at least one ranger-lead activity and do fifteen other activities on your own as you learn about the animals, plants and ecosystem of the park) the afternoon we arrived at the park.

Ranger John lead two talks that we went to: Lions and Bears and Big Horn Sheep. He was great! 

I had wondered about all the homes on the edges of the park... Kind of puts the occasional bear sightings at my mom's home in Connecticut into perspective... If you want your dog to be able to be outside here, you need to have it in a strong cage with a roof--no matter how high the pen's walls! Mountain lions will jump from the ground onto the first floor roof of your home and then down into the pen! They can also jump right over the pen's walls! And if you're about to be attacked by one, this is what you'll hear:


That's right, NOTHING, as it leaps at you most likely from above and behind. Yeek. Really makes me not want to go running on my in-laws' mesa... 

Other unwanted guests? Well, we never did see elk in the park.... but we passed six of them hanging out by a family's clothesline and patio furniture as we drove back into town one day...

Now onto sheep: the longhorn sheep is perhaps the most famous animal associated with the park. Those curving horns make for a great logo and their mating rituals are a big draw to the park in December. I can't really imagine the meadows filled with sheep head-butting each other to see who is the most dominant! And the ewes belting out their cry that they're "ready" to be courted...

Natalia ended up helping out during the talk. First she held an eight-year-old male's horn for everyone to see and examine. She took her "job" quite seriously! The horn was quite heavy, but she refused to put it down until told to do so.

The girls also got to handle ewe horns. They only grow a little--then the nutrients that make the horns are refocused on making the females fertile. 

The ranger had a few boys act out ramming each other while the girls all stood to the side and watched. He then had a small boy, pretending to be a younger ram, compete for the females' attention by sneaking up on them and playfully kicking them. Natalia was chosen to then chase him--and she gladly complied. That's how younger male rams compete to reproduce--by distracting the ewes during the ramming ritual. 

We learned that big horn sheep hit the ground three times with their hoof to say "come here" or "come back." The ranger had all the kids act it out so we would!

We then found a quiet area to finish up the girls' Junior Ranger booklets. While they worked, this guy jumped up right next to us and almost walked on the girls. 

Natalia then got a chance to share some of what she'd learned with my dad the previous morning--at the ranger walk they had attended while Katya and I were back at the hotel. First of all, this little guy is not a chipmunk!  If he were, the markings would continue onto his face. Turns out he's a ground squirrel. Then Natalia and my dad taught Katya and me about Ponderosa trees.

They told us to get close to the bark and really smell it-- and it was surprisingly sweet and fragrant, like vanilla! I never would have known... 

My dad was pretty fascinated by the history of the park--how much of the land was acquired from people who had come to possess property there through the Homestead Act in the 1860's. To think that some of those meadows were once golf courses!

He had fun helping Katya with her answers. She was still pretty agitated our last day in the park and sitting with my dad or being held by him (on his lap, on his shoulders) calmed her down. I think he like it, too...

The last page of the Junior Ranger booklet asks kids to journal about being in the park; What did they think about the park? How did it make them feel to be there? Natalia was quite succinct: "Great! I love everything!"

We then went back to the meadow where Ranger John was and he went over the girls' booklets with them, asking them questions about what they had learned. They were so proud to be officially sworn in as Junior Rangers!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Didn't Exactly Plan to Be Blogging this Morning

Aren't these deer beautiful? 

I figured all along that this morning I'd spot many animals in the forest... I planned on filling up my camera's memory card throughout the day.

I intended to then download the photographs TONIGHT.

Instead, I'm here. 

Not in the mountains, but back at our hotel, looking up at them. Granted, the view is GORGEOUS, but I'd rather be hiking up there than blogging...

Those pictures of the deer? Taken as I drove back to the hotel this morning with Katya, leaving my dad and Natalia to enjoy the trek with a Park Ranger.

We had a such a fun day planned and were "up and at 'em" nice and early. Trek at 10 a.m., some downtime for lunch, then more afternoon activities in the park...

Then reality--or your seven-year-old--sinks in.

Even though Katya had the energy to go swimming in the hotel pool this a.m. before breakfast, she crashed afterwards. We got her into the car and up to the ranger station, but then the moaning began. The threats of imminent vomit. Then the familiar whining and moaning started up again.

I'd had it. 

I didn't want her  spoiling the morning for my dad and Natalia, so I brought her back to the hotel. She's been in bed for an hour, but hardly sleeping... I know she's tired because she woke up for the day (and, therefore, so did I...) at 4 a.m. We could check out within the next half hour and not have to pay for tonight, but I think she'll be fine for this afternoon's activities and we'll stay through tomorrow as originally planned.

We had a L-O-N-G talk about what it means to cry wolf... It's hard as a parent when you have no idea if your kid is actually sick or full of it... I've erred before, forcing her to do things when she's actually ill... Better to have let her rest, I guess.

Here's hoping that the rest of the day will be much more enjoyable... 

Anyone else ever feel that you need a vacation from your vacation? Yeah... That's why I'm doing the Half Marathon in Chicago... Those few days on my own, grueling as the race will be, will really recharge me... 

Rocky Mountain High

We arrived today at one of Colorado's many National Parks. (I won't say which one until we've left so I don't give away our location to any nut job out there). Both girls COMPLAINED about leaving their paternal grandparents' home for a few days and the car ride was far from joyful. On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd rate today's parental joy factor near the very bottom... I kept wondering if Ritalin loses its effect the higher altitude you reach... That sure seemed to be the case... 

You would never know from these pictures taken later in the afternoon just how dreadful much of today was... 

Ever wonder about all those cheerful pictures in people's albums, particularly scrapbookers'? All those titles that go unsaid... God sure knew what he was doing when he gave my children such beautiful and angelic faces. When my patience is BEYOND gone, my love never is... When I'm about to SCREAM at them, their faces remind me of their hearts...

But the park made it all worthwhile. The whining, wailing and fighting stopped, no... make that periodically subsided... as the girls realized that maybe their mother actually does know a thing or two about planning something fun for us to do. (You'd think they would have learned by now... As much as they drag their feet to any planned outing, they almost always end up having a blast). 

After a few hours checking into our hotel, grabbing lunch and meandering a bit around town, we headed up into the park. The ranger who gave me the materials for the Junior Ranger Program was super; we'll go on a hike tomorrow morning with him. I'll write more about the Junior Ranger Program tomorrow; that's what we'll spend the entire day doing. 

He suggested a short hike up to a beautiful waterfall to end our day and it was fantastic. Upon entering the park, we almost immediately noticed the wildlife... Three deer, a wolf (!), a raven... During our hike we also came across many of these fellows:

Clearly demonstrating that she's NOT a Coloradan like her dad, Katya claimed to spot a shark and flamingo in the park... (HUH? How could she read that many encyclopedias and come up with that?!). 

The hike was rather short, only two miles, but it was more than enough for the girls... They had fun without getting too tired; they energetically scampered over rocks, touched trees and leaves and looked for wildlife. Within minutes of heading down the trail, Katya exclaimed, "Wow!!"

They had a great time hiking with my dad. 

Katya held his hand a lot and they enjoyed dipping their hands and faces in the cold mountain water.

The waterfall was so pretty... and LOUD! 

Both girls were so awe-struck that they posed for some pictures without any protest! 

We finished off the day with dinner at a restaurant I'll whole-heartedly recommend once I disclose our location. After I snapped this following picture, the owner came up and commented that one day Natalia will probably hate me for it... I replied that she had so many other pictures to find embarrassing that this one would barely even merit mention... And if she really didn't like the picture, she wouldn't have to wait until she's a teen-ager to be annoyed; I would likely be posting it on the internet within two hours! That sure got a chuckle out of him!

He even offered to refund us the price of her meal if she'd fallen asleep before it came!

Everyone is now in bed and I'm going to sneak out to run on the treadmill before hitting the sack...