Sunday, September 28, 2008

Vernadskovo Circus

Last Sunday Natalia and I went to the new show at the Great Moscow Circus on Prospect Vernadskovo. Every fall her English-language kindergarten goes there on a group outing; we got to join this year's trip because some extra tickets surfaced at the last minute. She was so happy to see all of her friends from the past year!

Last year it snowed the day we went! I started to worry that winter truly is around the corner as I remembered how cold we had been on that afternoon, but when I check my post about the circus last year, I saw that we hadn't gone until mid October. Phew!

I was beyond happy with how some of these pictures turned out! Gosh, have I ever said just how much I adore my Nikon?! 

Since this is Russia, after all, there had to be some gratuitous sexual overtones... I'm sure many of the dads enjoyed the rope ring contortionist who this year writhed around wet... Hmmph. She was, however, incredibly talented, especially at extreme hights with no safety wires! (Why, oh why, do they insist on foregoing safety??! I'd enjoy the show so much more if I knew there weren't a chance a performer could die...) 

The best part about this year's show, in my opinion, were the acrobats... I can't even imagine how they do it... It's painful to even think about!

Natalia made a comment after the performance that went a long way in erasing how unpleasant her temper tantrum had been beforehand...

I asked her, "Didn't you think those Chinese acrobats were amazing?! They twisted up their bodies like pretzels!"

She said, "Well, yeah, they were neat, but you can do that too, Mom..."

She was referring to this, a move I can do when ice skating. Nice praise, but not quite the same thing! Not even remotely! I'll take compliments where I can, though. It's still nice to know my little girl thinks that Mommy can do most everything... (Last weekend: circus acrobat. This weekend: kitten-rescuing hero. What's up for next week?!)

Saturday, September 27, 2008

More than I Bargained for...

Updated at the end at 8:30 p.m.


Last night I rescued this kitten. Katya had been at a friend's house and Natalia and I had gone to bring her home. As we walked to our car in the cold dark, we heard desperate meowing and found a tiny dark kitten pleading for help. I forced the girls to the car, not letting them stop. Then Natalia said, "Mommy, but if a baby were crying like that with no one in the world, we couldn't just walk by and leave it to die..."

She got me.

As we drove home, the girls repeatedly told me that I was their hero. The awe and appreciation in their voices carried me through the rest of the night, giving me strength that I truly ended up needing...

A security guard helped me to force it out from beneath a parked car, I wrapped it in my (thankfully washable) Land's End squall jacket, and we headed home.

I figured we'd give it a bath and I'd call our vet to come check it out tomorrow. I planned on leaving it shut in the bathroom to keep it from exposing our cats -- and kids -- to any potential risk.

Chris was quite sporting about it when I got home...

He helped me to give it a bath. As we unwrapped it and turned on the water, we realized I had taken on much more than I had intended. The cat had been attacked and half of its tail was missing--leaving exposed nerves and lots of blood that began to flow.

It was also covered in fleas that surfaced once the kitten was wet, and its eyes were sealed shut with milky crust.

Chris and I thoroughly disinfected any area exposed to the kitten -- and ourselves -- and placed the kitten in a towel inside a plastic box. I headed out to a 24-hour veterinary clinic, unaware that my evening's adventures were only just beginning.


I waited for two hours and fifteen minutes to be seen at the clinic. I should have gotten in after a mere hour and a half, but a rich Russian woman and her driver were put before me after waiting rather impatiently for a mere ten minutes. Her puppy only needed a shot, so it was supposed to be quick... until her macho driver fainted during the procedure and cut his head! 

When the kitten was finally examined, I learned that the kitten has a virus. The problem with the eyes is a form of pink eye and the tail could be treated with stitches. The fleas, however, are a bit more of a problem... They can't really be treated until after the tail heals. The kitten is very weak, but still fighting to live. 

The real problem was that there's no way to know if it might have rabies -- a problem, it turns out, in the city. The cat had scratched Chris quite deeply (due to the pain of having water and soap on its tail-- before we realized it had an open wound) and we would need to rule out rabies. 

No clinic in Moscow would take in the kitten to treat the virus without knowing if it's rabid, and we certainly couldn't care for it here -- to do so would put our cats, and us, at risk. 

My only option was to pack up at 1:30 a.m. and drive to the opposite end of town to the only open quarantine facility. 

It was scary enough walking out into the dark in the middle of the night from the first clinic. I was not looking forward to prolonging the adventure, but it was too late to turn back... I paid the 600 ruble fee ($20 for the visit and $5 for the iodine and ointment for Chris), even though the vet offered her services for free.

As I got back in my car, I knew with almost certainty that driving alone in the middle of the night would lead to a run-in with the traffic police.


So... I carefully brought the kitten back to the car and embarked on my quest to find the next clinic...

An hour later, after repeatedly getting lost on the dark side streets that formed a labyrinth, I finally arrived. This area, too, was almost pitch black and I wasn't thrilled to be there in the middle of the night...

At least this time they were expecting me and there was no wait. Or so I thought. I had to fill out a lengthy document stating my passport details, the history of the cat, and using all kinds of legaleese about placing the cat with them. I made a mistake in copying and then had to start all over again.

Finally, at 3 a.m., the document was done, I was almost asleep, and the kitten was officially in quarantine. 

The cell is warm, he has the towel we brought him in, and he'll be fed. Unfortunately, that's all the care he'll receive. It breaks my heart to know that I basically handed the kitten over to certain death. I can't imagine how he'll survive without getting his tail sewn up and without medicine to fight the infection in his eyes (and most likely in his tail). 

I was quite persistent, trying to find any other way to treat him. Knowing this is Russia, I offered money to get him medicine while he's there. No. The man there was quite adamant that I would not be able to find any clinic in Moscow willing to take in a cat that could be rabid. This clinic, by the way, is free.

If he's still alive in ten days, there's a possibility I could get him moved elsewhere... 

We're not going to give up on him. If he can make it through this, we'll do whatever we can to help make him well and find him a home. 

The attendant then insisted on procedure and came out to spray the interior of my car. THAT was a lovely smell to drive home in...

Which brings me to our next chapter...


It was now 3:05 a.m. and I headed back into the dark spiderweb of confusing and poorly marked back streets, trying again and again to make my way back to the main roads. 

Unfortunately for me, I didn't realize that one street was one-way -- and I was headed down it in the wrong direction.  I was going very slowly, looking for any street sign to find out what it was called, and there weren't any other cars out.

No cars, I should say, until the three police cars suddenly appeared.

I was screwed.

Little did they know just how screwed I could have been...

Due to continued problems with our registration here, our papers are not in order. I had also just withdrawn $600 to pay bills, money the cops would instantly extort from me if they found it in my possession. 

Somehow I managed to remove our car documents from the glove compartment and hide them -- with almost all my money before pulling to a stop and having the cop at my side. 

I truthfully told the cop I was lost and couldn't see any street signs (it was really dark) to have known it was a one-way street. Then I laid it on. I know that lying is wrong, but this is the way things are done in Russia... There are MUCH more pressing needs for our money. (Many of you will recall the time I was pulled over and all my money was taken because the cop simply thought I looked so horrible that I must certainly have been drunk...!) 

I made sure he saw just how incredibly tired I was. My husband's scratch by a possibly rabid cat turned into my young child's. I made sure to tell how the past six hours had been a long misadventure brought on by simply trying to be a good samaritan. I was shocked our documents -- which were certainly all in perfect order -- weren't in the glove compartment; my husband must have forgotten to put them back there after renewing them. Then I reiterated that I knew how wrong it was to drive the wrong way on a one-way street and asked if I could just please pay my violation fine and head home. 

All of this transpired once they made me come sit in their car. That's usually a good sign -- it means they're going to accept a bribe. I pretended to give them everything I had, giving them every bill I actually had in my wallet -- a whopping 210 rubles (about $8.25). They did look as I pulled out the money; had I not removed all my big bills, they'd have been gone.

The cops actually let me go, and even explained quite clearly how to get to road I needed. I still ended up getting repeatedly lost, however. I'm not used to that side of town -- so even though I knew where I was, I hadn't been prepared for not being able to make legal turns at most places I would have needed to -- causing lengthy detours.

Every time I passed a cop, I felt my stomach turn into jagged rocks.

At 4 a.m. I finally arrived home, ate a quick snack, continued the laundry that needed to be  disinfected, and fell fast asleep.


The girls are quite upset about the kitten, wanting reassurance that he'll live... I don't want to lead them on, but I'm not sharing the full story with them. 

They've been so good about this, staying in their room with the door shut last night as Chris and I scrambled to react to the blood, Chris's scratch and the kitten's pain.

I've made my way through the day in an incredibly tired state. I'm headed to bed early and am about to take a nap. Chris bought me a GPS navigator for car this afternoon after having been so worried while I was repeatedly lost during the night. I'm very thankful!

We'll call tonight and  get an update on the kitten...

Sure wish we'd had a vet like you, Shad, to share the moniker of hero around here last night...

I would have taken pictures throughout the night, but my camera's battery died just as I was walking out the door to the first veterinary clinic. Ah, what pictures they would have been...

Updated at 8:30 p.m. I just called the clinic and was told that Smokey, as the girls have named him, is doing fine. Whatever that specifically means, they wouldn't say. "Fine" could simply mean not showing signs of being rabid... But I'm hopeful! Especially now that my mom has said she would take him!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Happy Birthday, Nana!


I've never gotten my act together before to be organized enough for birthday posts; this will be the year!

Before I jump in the shower and dash off to school, I want to wish a bon, bon anniversaire and feliz, feliz cumpleaños (a happy, happy birthday) to the friend who is the reason I'm a teacher in the first place! 

P~~ was my teacher in in junior high and she teaches at the school that Katya thinks is more special and beautiful than Catherine the Great's palacial estate at Tsaritsyno. (Scroll down through Wednesday's entry to see how Katya said it and to see all the pictures of Tsaritsyno). One of the reasons that Katya thinks the school is so special is because it's the backdrop for all the fun and love she shares with P~~ (whom the girls call "Nana") whenever we're in the States.

P~~ is the kind of teacher you all probably remember as standing out from all your years of schooling, or have seen in memorable films and wished that you could have had... She's the kind of teacher that makes you jump up and down when you find out that your kids were lucky enough to get her for the year. 

Her passion for foreign languages and kids just flow from her... I remember soaking in every moment of class as if it were sunshine. Right then and there, I decided that that was what I was going to do with my life, too. And then she encouraged me all along the way!

She's been there as a friend through every milestone of my life since then and I'm so thankful that my kids love her just as much as I do. 

Have a wonderful, wonderful day, mon amie! Now I'm off to teach and do the same. THANK YOU.



Talk about an American company truly doing its research to customize its product for a foreign market... Frito-Lay has scored a home run in the flavors they conceived for potato chips in Russia. Just to get the point across, take this little quiz:

Which of the following flavors is NOT being sold by Frito-Lay in Russia?

a. caviar
b. smoked mushroom
c. sour cream and chives
d. cheddar
e. vinegar
f. shishkabob (grilled marinated beef skewers)
g. paprika
h. dill
i. bacon
j. crab

Scroll down for the answer...

e. vinegar

All those other flavors actually exist here!!!! What's even crazier is that my kids LOVE most of them!!!! Can you imagine your kid begging in the grocery store, "Pleeeeeeeez, Mom? Can I pleeeeeeez have a big bag of crab-flavored chips?" I'm surprised they sell cheddar-flavored chips; most Russians have never heard of cheddar and it sure is hard to find here... Here's hoping that the chips become very popular and there will be more demand for the actual cheese!

Here's the online ad for shishkabob chips. 

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Puh-leez! My Pet Peeve...

Am I on the only person out there who absolutely cannot stand visible bra straps?! Everyday mishaps can happen... Everyone can be guilty of it at some time... But on an expensive advertising campaign (for an insurance company)? Come on! Ever heard of PHOTO SHOP, people?!

Some Russians seem to think that bras are intended to be seen... It's quite common for women to wear black or brightly colored ones under  transparent shirts, even to work, even when teaching high school boys (haven't seen anyone doing that where I'm working now, though)!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

All-Russia Honey Expo

One of the reasons we headed to Tsaritsyno last Saturday was so we could stop at the annual All-Russia Honey Exhibition that is being held on the park's grounds. As we finished up our walk through the palatial estate, we followed these signs to the square where almost a thousand vendors from all over the country are selling their artisanal honeys of all varieties.

Russians are SERIOUS about honey, loving it both for its taste and for the wide array of health benefits it provides. The mayor of Moscow himself keeps bees, ensuring the city's support of this annual gathering. You can find knock-offs or pirated versions of almost any product in Moscow: fashion, electronics, music, currency... But you had better not mess with honey.

The purity of the honey at the festival is rigorously tested and anyone attempting to sell honey made from sub-par ingredients or falsely labeled is promptly kicked out.

We've lived here long enough that both girls are "honeyphiles," too. They had to taste as many varieties as they possibly could before choosing their favorites to bring home.

Natalia loves the taste of honey made by bees using pollen from acacia trees. 

Katya prefers honey made by bees using pollen from lavender, clover or linden tree blossoms.

I love honey made from chestnut, blackberry and wild strawberry blossoms. And the honey has to come from the mountains.

In an effort to sell, sell, sell, vendors all display information about all the ailments each type of honey can cure... You name it, they claim honey can help. In all seriousness, honey has been recognized for its homeopathic benefits for centuries! I assumed it would help to calm coughs, but I remember how surprised I was the first time I heard about many of the other ailments being addressed: high blood pressure, circulatory problems, liver problems, back pain, joint pain, kidney disease, poor vision... even male impotence!

All it takes is one look at how serious the crowd is to know that Russians come to this fair firmly believing in honey's power to heal. Almost everyone leaves the fair carrying a large bag filled with a collection of honey, each type purchased to meet a particular need. I saw all kinds of people there, from diplomats to the elderly poor, all with their lists in hand; it didn't matter how expensive the honey was. Like most things in Moscow, honey isn't cheap; but you can barely see through the mob of people shuffling from stall to stall. (This is not an event to attend on your own with small children!)

It's interesting to talk with all the beekeepers; they're eager to tell you about each kind of honey and to make suggestions.

Just look at this huge container full of it! It drips like slow gold!

These types of apartment buildings surround the fair area; how ugly they are in comparison to Tsaritsyno, the palatial estate on the other side of the train tracks!

This huge pole stands at the entrance/exit to the fair. The top is decorated by different people (men, women and children) dancing in celebration of honey.

This is what we brought home. Wonder how long it will last... The kids are loving it on blini; I, on the other hand, have discovered how delicious a honey latte is...


Princesses at the Palace...

And even a lucky globe-trotting Webkinz monkey...

We spent Saturday at Tsaritsyno, a park in southern Moscow that dates back to the 16th century. It first belonged to Tsarina Irina, the sister of Tsar Boris Godunov, and eventually ended up in the hands of Empress Catherine the Great in 1775. Catherine's extravagant tastes extended to her visions for the land, and she embarked upon a very ambitious plan to redesign and rebuild the palace. 

Her first architect, Vasili Bazhenkov, must have rued the day he agreed to work for such a difficult woman. Involved in every aspect of the plans, she personally approved of his original design combining old Russian, Gothic, classical and Arabic styles for the estate. Construction of the luxurious palaces and other buildings continued from 1776 until 1785, when Catherine fired Bazhenkov and decided that the palace was so unacceptable that she had it torn down. Matvey Kazakov then took over as architect, continuing the construction until Catherine died ten years later and funding for the project was exhausted. 

The palaces became very dilapidated over the years, creating a fairy-tale atmosphere that hung (and actually still does) over the lake, ponds, gates, bridges, church, woods and winding paths... I remember horseback riding there in 1991; I felt transported back in time, as if I'd unknowingly entered some parallel universe. Before the estate's renovation (it was just completed last year), rock climbers used to practice their skills on the crumbling brick walls!

Tsartisyno is a wonderful destination if you want to stroll around the grounds, perhaps even stopping to picnic. You can also enter the various museums, featuring the history of Catherine the Great and the estate. Since at any given time, only a small fraction of the museum's collection is on display, each new trip is an opportunity to see something new. You can view some of the palace's interior, and there's a cafe in the basement.

Click here to see the museum's official website in English. Click here to go on a virtual tour of the grounds (very cool)!

The Musical Fountain
Water sprays up in time to classical music; it's quite beautiful!

If you get too close, you get quite wet! We're lucky that Katya's coat dried out rather quickly...

You'll notice throughout this post all the pictures of various newlyweds! Tsaritsyno is a very popular spot for photographs after one's wedding ceremony; I counted seventeen different couples; on a warmer -- and less rainy -- day, there would be many, many more!

Katya and Natalia stopped -- on their own -- to give all of the coins in their pockets to an old woman who was begging. Katya has been saving for a quite a while, but she gave this woman all she had with her (about two dollars). We were so proud!

The Large Bridge over the Ravine. 
If we had let her, Natalia would have played on these hills all afternoon... I think we'll come back here to go sledding this winter.

The Third Cavalier Building
I love all the white details; they're like royal icing on a gingerbread house!

The Figure Bridge and the Grand Palace 
On the lawn you can see the ruins from the palaces that were torn down. 

The Figure Bridge

Natalia had a really hard day on Saturday... I kept thinking of Daniel Powter's song "Bad Day" as if it were the soundtrack for her (and us, as a result)... It's so easy for one to look at the pictures of our day at the estate and to think, "Oh, how incredibly lovely... How I wish we could be there!!!" Yet, for us it's our reality; this is where we live and the ups (and downs) of life play out with these beautiful spots as the backdrop... 

Given a choice, I'd have loved to just open the non-existent backdoor to our non-existent house  and to have sent the kids out to play in our non-existent backyard while we had a simple day at home! 

If we just stay home all weekend, everyone starts to go stir-crazy; the only way the kids get to run around outside is if we actually go somewhere. Chris was actually off work on Saturday, too -- so I wanted to take advantage of having him around to go somewhere I wouldn't want to on my own with the girls. (I could, of course, go there on my own --but given the ups and downs of their recent behavior, I didn't want to venture that far from home by myself)

This bridge is stunning...

In these next two pictures, look at the contrast between the truly old (ruins of the destroyed palace), the restored bridge, and the Krushchev-era ugly block apartment building in the background! That's Moscow, in a nutshell, for you... Constant contrast of the old and new, of the ugly and beautiful, of all extremes...

Here's a close-up of the apartment building in the background. I lived in a building like that in 1991; they're all over the city and they're all pretty much falling apart. 

Here are some views of the church, Bread House (straight ahead, it housed the kitchens) and the Grand Palace.

Church of Our Lady Life-Giving Spring

The color of the roof makes this seem like Cinderella's castle to me... How appropriate to see the bride beneath... 

The Gallery with the Gate

At this point in our walk, Katya made a comment that will warm many of your hearts (those of you who know me in real life). When I asked her if she thought it was absolutely beautiful on these grounds, she thought a minute, shrugged her shoulders, and then said, "You know... Not so much... It's not nearly as beautiful as ****" (a school I attended as a kid that she and Natalia adore, too... Sorry I can't give any more information without compromising our identity). OK, OK... As if I'd needed a reminder to send in my annual Alumni Fund donation... ! You, too, Meese! 

We then walked along the wide paths, stopping to check out even more brides, and to eat some ice cream. You know you're used to living here when you join the crowds and eat ice cream even when you're freezing.