Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Not Your Average Parking Lot


This morning I made a quick trip to get groceries for Christmas Eve and Day. Yes, that's right, QUICK. 

Look at the view from the parking lot...

"Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Moscow anymore..."


p.s. I loooooooooooooooooooooooooooove Target!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Just Out: American Girl of the Year 2009

I'm excited about the Girl of the Year doll that will be released on January 1st, available for one year. For those of you who don't know, American Girl creates a special doll each year who represents something important about American girls in general. In the books that accompany the doll, the girl learns about how to handle some issue relevant to girls' lives.

Last year's girl, Nicki, had a hard time saying "no" and she had to learn how to prioritize her different activities, volunteering and helping others. She trained guide dogs, and my daughters really enjoyed learning about FIDELCO and those special pups. She also had some troubles with the girls at school; she was friends with girls from two different cliques who pressured her to choose between them. She succeeded in helping the girls to compromise and overcame her anxiety.

Rumor has it that Santa just might have managed to locate Nicki for Katya this year, despite the fact that she was sold out in November of 2007... (Hmm... she's been sitting in our storage unit all that time!)

Chrissa, the girl for 2009, looks fantastic! American Girl is doing something new: they've released her identity before midnight on 1/1 and will be releasing, in conjunction with HBO, a full-length feature film about her on January 5th. Sammi Hanratty stars, a great choice -- we've enjoyed her work on The Suite Life of Zach and Cody in the past. I've also seen her on Cold Case. The topic of the book and movie? Dealing with bullies, mean girls in particular. 

This topic will really resonate with Katya; she developed reflex anoxic seizures when she was six as a result of the stress caused by a girl who bullied her at kindergarten (we didn't know about it at the time). If the American Girl non-fiction books about dealing with social issues and emotions are any indicator, the movie will be very educational.

You can watch the trailer for the movie here.

Contentment


We made a quick trip to the grocery store my first day here, sans enfants. What joy! 

1. a cart that rolls easily

2. an in-store Starbucks where the coffee costs 1/3 of the cost in Moscow

3. free sanitizing wipes and a bin to discard them in once you've wiped down your cart! BRILLIANT! I'm used to having to carry my own and then keep the dirty ones with me...

Oh, yeah... Then there's the whole question of the grocery store where familiar and relatively inexpensive (in comparison to Moscow) items bring a smile to your lips...

I keep hearing about all the "hustle and bustle" of the modern-day Christmas season, but it's feeling darn peaceful to me!

p.s. You all had me laughing with your comments about my lost suitcase... Sure, there could be worse things than having to go buy new clothes -- but the things I had in my bag were real favorites that I had gotten at final markdown prices... It would have been hard to replace them all, and a real pain. The last thing I wanted to do when battling jet lag was  to trudge my way through the mall looking for those things all over again....

That being said, however, I did get to the local factory outlet mall (it's a regular mall, only half the stores are outlets) and I did really enjoy myself... In a mere two hours, I was able to find almost every item on my list of things I need! No Christmas shopping, just essential shoes that have been worn out, and a few basic clothing items that I had worn out, too. All just lovely, comfortable, well-made, and CHEAP! 

Yes, "Contentment" is an excellent title for this post...

Monday, December 22, 2008

Relief

My suitcase has made it to Denver, and is now in my bedroom.

Phew.

Getting to America, Part 3

So, you saw that we had a wonderful impromptu reunion with dear, old friends... Our kids had so much fun during the mere hour and half they had together before we had to leave for the airport...

They came up with presents to share with each other, playing as if it hadn't been a year and a half since they last saw each other...

Ian brought us to the airport, showed us the short-cuts to checking in (he's a pro at it since he travels every week for business), and then we had fun making our way to the gate. Oh, the delight of Bath & Body Works with a big $3 sale! And panda headbands from the zoo shop... Here the girls are decked out as bears holding the bamboo they picked from our friends' yard.


Ran into a high school classmate (Allison) with her family...

Then we boarded. And realized that there had been some kind of consideration shown us after the previous day's flight fiasco. Notice anything?


For example, the fact that the girls were seated in front of me? In BIG seats? Yup! We were in rows 1 and 2 of First Class! NICE.

Just for the record, however... Without me next to them to help out, Natalia spilled her drink all over herself, her seat, and it seeped onto my bag -- all within five minutes of sitting down. It was transparent Sprite, so I didn't really care! She wore her pajama bottoms the rest of the way.

So... The flight was great and we arrived... But my clothing still hasn't. It was supposed to be delivered at 6:30 last night, but it's now 6:30 a.m. and I still don't have any pants, socks or underwear... Not to mention my dressy clothing, sweats or exercise clothing...

I'm forcing myself to not freak out, trusting it'll get here...

Getting to America, Part 2

(Recap of Part 1: After a very long day of traveling, we got stranded in America and didn't make our connecting flight. We stayed with old friends, happy to have the unexpected reunion). 

We arrived at our friends' (still called X and Y so I can maintain a surprise for one reader) home at around 9:50 p.m. The kids had now been up for 22 hours... So did they go to bed??

Nooooooooooooo! They had some cocoa with organic candy canes (YUM!). OK, still within the realm of preparing for bed... But what did they do next? (Hmm... I'm wondering if one Moscow reader has recognized the mugs on my friends' table...)


Go on a walk in the neighborhood, in the dark, with Y! He took them on a fantastic adventure to find the two "secret" playgrounds and made them feel like bonafide explorers and they LOVED it! He was trying to tire them out while giving me and my friend a chance to catch up; how really sweet...

After the walk, did they head to bed? Noooooooooooooooo!

They put on mountaineering headlamps and explored the backyard, gathering samples of of the plants in the backyard. They admired the stars (you can't see them in Moscow). 


We finally got them to calm down by playing a board game, then they lay down -- at around midnight -- and were literally sound asleep within seconds. It was unreal!

My friends' boys slept through all of this, never venturing out of their room to investigate... I can't even imagine my kids doing that... (I mean, when I hosted book club last week, the babysitter wondered if the girls could have a bit of the tiramisu -- hoping the rum would help to knock them out!)

THE NEXT MORNING

Oh, it was just grand! First of all, it was an important family holiday* (revealed below). We reminisced about old friends from college and when we lived minutes away from other while Chris was in law school... We were each other's maid-of-honor and we miss each other so much... 

I told her that I'd recently met someone in passing who had lived in that last city where we had been, too -- and that they had longingly spoken of our favorite grocery store* and cafe*, too. It made us miss those spots even more!

We talked about times from our undergraduate and graduate programs, about being pregnant together, about when our kids were babies together...

Then we all had breakfast. A GLORIOUS breakfast of the most amazing bacon, scrambled eggs, muffins and scones. She pulled this all together with no advanced notice of our visit! All while running around to make final preparations for a big party the next day (hint!!!). 

Over breakfast, I told her that I thought she should write two books: one about crafts that are interesting and appropriate for both kids and their parents (she's a genius at this, hint!); and one about gluten-free cooking. Her muffins were INCREDIBLE! (Hint!)

I then told her about two children in Katya's school, a brother and sister who are diabetic and on gluten-free diets. Their mom is finding it a real challenge to cook for them, and I asked my friend if I could share her email with the other mom. At this point, my friend thought of something, and said, "Hey! I have a friend in Moscow who's son is also diabetic; she could be a real resource for that mom!" (You have to have figured this one out by now, M...)

So... one thing lead to another, and my friends told me about this other friend. As she described her, I didn't think we'd met, but I remarked, jokingly, "Moscow is so small, we surely have crossed paths at some point..." 

Oh, how they've crossed...

As we unravelled this mystery, clue by clue, we had goosebumps! We both grabbed our laptop to show each other pictures of the family -- to see if we were talking about the same people. I had some from Thanksgiving, she had some from before her friend's family have moved to Moscow half a year before we did.

Yes, indeed... THEY WERE GUESTS AT THE THANKSGIVING DINNER I HOSTED WITH ANOTHER FAMILY THIS YEAR! (Another family, invited by the other hosts, had in turn asked to add this family to the guest list because they thought we'd all hit it off. How right they were!)

The same little boy, her son's best friend, was on both of our laptops...! I remember hearing how devastated those boys had been to be separated; they had been the best of friends. I also remember how incredibly sad my friend had been when they had left; she and M had been so close, M had been her best friend after we moved away...

So, before I do the final reveal... Here were our older children when they were one...


And when they were three...


And when they were six, four and three...


And yesterday morning!


Surprise, Masha! I feel like an idiot that you and I didn't figure this out on Thanksgiving! I know that Katya (my friend's name is Katya, too) had given me your info before we moved -- and I remember that you and I did e-mail a few times -- but I have no idea why we didn't get together once we arrived! 

I know that that first year in Moscow was so hard for me, tortuous, really... I probably kept waiting until I wasn't such a mess to want to get together; I didn't want to make an awful impression...

When you were at Katya and Ian's, you surely saw the gift I embroidered for them for their wedding present. After they left for their honeymoon, I replicated the wreath of flowers that Katya wore in her hair for the ceremony, and the verse from their wedding program. It was such a fun project! (Ah, the things I got done before kids!)


Here's a close-up of the stitches:


Here we are right before I left... Yikes! Guess I was looking as tired as I felt...


Both girls are now up... It's past 6 a.m. now... Blogging to not feel delirious... My friend Katya blogs, too, and often when pretty darn tired. Don't we all?!

*It was Ben's birthday yesterday!
*We all miss Zingerman's Deli/Shop. 

Getting to America, Part 1

one hour into the flight
Gave the girls their airplane surprises, much to their utter delight. 


I always plan ahead for our flights, stashing two sets of small presents to keep them entertained while on the plane (some toy, some kind of snack they usually don't get). When they were smaller, I gave them dollar store junk, activity and coloring books, mini Play-Doh sets, etc. Nowadays, in addition to the surprises, I always fill their mini purses with a new set of washable markers, a new small blank book, a pack of gum, a lipgloss and a book (whatever they're currently reading).

Natalia has just started to read on her own (actual books, not beginning readers); what a difference this makes! The girls were so quiet on the way to the airport; they were so engrossed in their reading!

Between being able to read and their Didj & Nintendo DS games, the actual flights are now rather easy. SOOO much easier than when they were younger and the dvd player's memory only lasted for three hours... (Let's be honest; the Nintendos were a present for ME -- even though I've never even used them. They buy me HOURS of quiet time when flying or on long car trips. Chris has never been on the same flight as me and the girls, so you gotta do whatever it takes...).

five hours into the flight
Still loving those mini Littlest PetShop sets... They are worth every little ruble!!! Never has an airplane toy been such a hit!!! They keep making up plays starring their little animals.


By the time our plane took off, they had already been traveling for four and a half hours... (Time to get to the airport, checking in, waiting for flight, waiting for plane to actually take off). These toys have completely refreshed them!

eight hours into the flight
Despite having changed into pajamas, neither girl will completely settle down. When one is almost asleep, the other is loud and moves around -- and vice versa. They won't let me sleep a wink; as soon as I fall asleep, they wake me up for this or that. They have fought a bit, but isn't that to be expected? They've been on the road for twelve and a half hours. We're cramped in economy. All things considered, they are VERY good travelers!

ten hours into the flight
Katya is in a rotten mood. Natalia is upset because her sister is -- but not in an empathetic way; instead, they're driving each other crazy. 

Katya is all upset because she missed the big school assembly today -- the holiday assembly that was also a play, dance recital and concert. She even wrote part of the play... and she had main roles in many of the numbers... but for some reason the assembly had to be switched from Friday to Saturday -- and it would have cost $15,000 for me and the girls to change our tickets, remaining in economy, to any other day before Christmas -- so she obviously couldn't participate.

She's mad, and I can understand why... She never asked to be an expat kid, having to travel like this twice a year, going to a school where the week of Christmas isn't a holiday (Russian Christmas in January 7th), missing out on a whole series of important events and parties any time we leave to spend Christmas in America.

I listen and try to be supportive, but she just needs to vent her anger and frustration... Unfortunately that makes me the figurative punching bag. At high altitude, unable to leave my seat.

eleven hours into the flight
Katya has calmed down, in part because Natalia has now fallen asleep. Just in time for us to prepare to land. 

5:05 p.m., eleven hours and forty minutes after taking of
We land, all is well, I'm thankful for a safe flight. Natalia is barely able to move, she's so tired... This usually happens... It's so hard to get her off the plane when she only falls asleep at the very end!

5:20 p.m.
We're still in the plane. There's no gate for us. We don't have much time to make our connection...

5:35 p.m.
We're still in the plane. There's no one to drive the tunnel from our plane to the gate. 

5:50 p.m.
We're finally off the plane; the last people, of course, since we were in the very back and Natalia was so tired.

6:15 p.m.
We've made it through customs; if we can get our bags immediately before having to recheck them for our next flight, we just might make our connection

7:00 p.m.
As many of us are still waiting for our bags, people start to talk... Three of us "old-timer" Moscow expats basically shrug. After living in Moscow, we have such low expectations... Of course it could take hours and hours longer than you think it should. Of course it'll often be unpleasant. But, oh, how super, to simply arrive safely -- and to perhaps have your suitcases eventually make it, too.

Some one overhears us and interjects, "You guys are warped! You've lived there for way too long..."

We just laugh. 

In any case, our last bag FINALLY shows up. We've missed our connection. We follow the snaking crowd to this line, where we stood until 8:45 p.m. No toilet. No water. Katya has to push a cart with suitcases for me, because they're too tired to each pull their carry-ons without some help, and the carts are too small to fit our bags on one. 


Oh, how annoying about half of the other people in the line are... So tanned from their vacations in Cancun, most of them without children, complaining even more loudly than my girls about how horrible it is to have to wait in line... Cry me a river, people!

So... to get that straight... The kids have now been traveling for seventeen hours and fifteen minutes, with about thirty minutes of sleep each. This is why they're in matching striped outfits -- it's a long trip, and I'm tired, too. When they're dressed this way, it's much easier for me to keep track of them.


They are TIRED -- but they are real troopers, albeit whiny ones, for the next hour and forty-five minutes that we inch our way back and forth in this line to get reassigned to a different connecting flight. They are also HUNGRY. (Me, too...)

This is where the story gets a little better... A nice couple who also flew in from Moscow lets me use their cell phone to call some good friends in who live nearby so I can try to find us a place to spend the night. At this point, no one has told us if they'll find us hotel rooms. I luck out -- my friends are HOME, instead of going out that night -- and they're thrilled to have us. They then call my in-laws to let them know we won't be arriving tonight. 

8:45 p.m.
We've been reassigned to a flight the next morning. I need to keep all luggage with me overnight; the clerk basically acknowledged that if I check it in advance tonight, there's a high chance some of it will get lost. Great. We then have to put all our luggage back onto a conveyor belt, and go through security all over again (shoes off, laptop on, etc.) to simply leave the terminal, board the train, and make our way to baggage claim -- AGAIN. 

9:05 p.m. 
Now angel music plays in the background... Tah dah! As we emerge from the trains into the airport lobby, one of our friends is waiting for us with a huge smile. The kids are so happy to see him, even though it has been years -- so they can't remember him. They can just instantly tell how kind he is and they're thrilled to get way from me for a bit -- no, make that "go eat food court sweet and sour chicken."

Our friends will be referred to as Y (the husband) and X (the wife) until later in Part 2. As we all discovered the following morning, one of our friends is in for a delightful surprise when she reads these entries and realizes just how small the world is...

To Be Continued... (Really Great, but with a Big and Clothes-less Caveat...)

Live (Barely) from Denver

video

p.s. Natalia got me UP at 1:23 a.m....

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Not a Creature Was Stirring... Except the Mommy, of Course!

Everyone has gone to bed. Look how sweet all the cousins are in their makeshift basement bedroom...


Henry, the new golden retriever pup, is even more wonderful than we could have imagined. He and his buddy, Beatrice, have been asleep for a while...


Sigh. I wonder when I'll be able to fall asleep. I wish I could, wish I could, wish I could... but I'm so overtired that I can't!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

¡Feliz Cumpleaños, Natalia!

Natalia wearing her doll's rebozo

Here are my favorite photos from this past Saturday, Natalia's actual birthday. The "theme" this year ended up being Josefina, the American Girl doll who lived in New Mexico in 1824 with her familia on a rancho


Both girls have been interested in Josefina for a while now, for a few reasons. They know that I speak Spanish, and Natalia in particular has made an effort to learn as much as she can of the language. Her best friend at her Russian kindergarten for our second and third years here was from Argentina and this really sparked her interest; I'm stunned by how much of the language she picked up by spending time with their family. 

Another reason is because Chris was actually born in New Mexico and the girls see New Mexican antiques at their grandparents' home -- the same types of the things you see depicted in the Josefina illustrations. We'll have to take them to New Mexico one of these days! In one of the stories, Josefina befriends a Pueblo Native American girl; how exciting it would be for the girls to actually visit the tribal lands and see how the Pueblo are still maintaining their traditions!

We've had Josefina tucked away for almost two years now... I snagged her and most of her outfits at a consignment shop for a song  and was waiting for Natalia to be old enough to appreciate it all. This was certainly the year!

I think her favorite presents of all were these two outfits that let her dress up as Josefina... A mom a lot like me pieced together the one below from various things she found and her daughter was tickled pink; I, in turn, was equally happy to snap it up off of ebay once her daughter outgrew it!


Natalia's opening a decidedly non-1824 period gift here... Katya, well aware of how much time Natalia gets stuck in traffic going to and from school each day, got her a small Littlest Pet Shop electronic game to help pass the time. Natalia was really touched by Katya's thoughtfulness; she knew that Katya had saved her allowance to buy it.

Here's Natalia in the other dress-up outfit (she's worn it for four days since receiving it -- even to school...) from 1824 New Mexico (again, YAY, ebay!).


 She is delighted, just in case you couldn't tell...


Equally  excelente in her mind is this period loom... She's working on making Josefina a blanket. We can then use my leftover wool to create all kinds of things! It's so cool!


I am so thankful that my girls are so interested in American (and World) history. We have such fun reading and doing crafts together... It makes a world of difference for us as expats who have to spend much of the year indoors! My mouth is already watering at the thought of all the Josefina food we'll get to cook together!

Katya is now using my American Girl educator's guide for the Josefina books; it's too bad they were discontinued! What a great source for further research, historical information, reading comprehension exercises and creative writing! She's using the worksheets for her English class; we get to choose her materials for reading and writing and this is what has her fired up right now.

Natalia's Birthday Party at School


This afternoon we celebrated Natalia's birthday at her kindergarten. She requested a Polly Pocket Hula Dancer cake. Sure, no prob. This is what I came up with... In my copious free time, of course!


Here's a close up of Polly and her friend...


Natalia was so excited! The kids started off by singing "Каравай," the game in which they hold hands and sing in a circle with the birthday child in the middle -- and he or she then picks friends to come hold hands and dance with him or her. I have good video of it, but I'm having trouble uploading it.


As an American, I just can't embrace this game... It automatically leaves other kids out, kids who might feel that this means they're not considered good friends... I can remember how many times it made Katya cry when she was in kindergarten... We just wouldn't do this in the USA! Here, however, it's completely normal and Natalia was really looking forward to it. 


She surprised me by picking as her first friend the girl who has driven her the craziest this year! That girl has bossed her around for months, telling what to do, when to do it, and how... This week, however, they've become friends. I'm so proud of Natalia!


We then played games with our parachute; the kids loved it since they'd never seen one before. The other Russian kids usually have a clown or entertainer come for their birthdays; Chris and I just don't want to do that... I like homemade birthdays...

A nice part of Russian birthdays, however, is how the children all make "toasts" the birthday girl or boy, standing up and wishing them things such as "growing up healthy and tall," "all straight A's in school," "having many friends," "never getting your feelings hurt by other kids," "being happy," etc. 


You can kind of picture these same kids twenty years from now doing the same with a shot glass of vodka or some champagne! It's SO Russian...

When we got home I assembled the cake decorations and they're now waiting for Natalia in the bathtub!


Cool, huh?


Hmm... Feels good. It was cheaper -- and more delicious -- to buy the Polly Pocket toys and make the cake than to order one... I'm thankful I can bake!

Huh?!

It's so tempting to say "only in Moscow...", but I'm sure surprises like this exist throughout the world... It's just SO MOSCOW to be minding your business, running errands, when SMACK you walk into something completely unexpected -- something in absolute contrast to your surroundings. Old vs. New is a common theme throughout the city, yet sometimes it's still jarring... 

See for yourself...


First you see this ugly apartment building on the left. Quite typical for Moscow. Thanks, Krushchev. Lots of grey, dirty slush... Grey skies... And then... Do you see that spot of blue up ahead? 


Can you believe it?! This gem of a robin's egg blue "gingerbread house" is just plopped into the center of Moscow, a random building on the street. Nothing special, it seems to have an office inside!


It's all so clean, so cheerful, so pretty! Utterly unexpected, and absolutely appreciated.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Natalia's Birthday Dancing



Natalia put on this dance show for us last Friday in honor of her birthday. She has picked up on the fact that famous Russian singers and dancers put on big shows when they have an important birthday -- so she had to prepare something for us, of course!

She is growing up so fast... I LOVE the expressions on her face and her pert little pig tail...

I remember how flummoxed her kindergarten teacher was by her dancing last year. She was the only student with an older sibling; no one else had been exposed to "big kid" culture. She corrupted the whole class, sneaking them into the pirate tent for impromptu makeovers and dance lessons.
 
I took her aside to talk about this, asking, "WHERE did you learn to dance like that??" She thought about it, then innocently replied, "Why, after church at the Hard Rock Cafe, of course!" (You've got to realize that the Hard Rock hosts a great kids' brunch on the weekends and is usually packed with expats after church on Sundays... We're not irresponsible parents!)

In any case, touché!

Photo from Five Years Ago...

Katya, 3 years and 3 months & Natalia, 1 year

I took this picture at Macy's in Manhattan the Christmas before we moved to Moscow. That was when I could still make the girls dress in whatever I chose... In the midst of all the chaos this week, this picture is fun to admire. 

Hmm... The picture doesn't quite capture some of the other memories, though! Dealing with a double stroller on the subway and downtown, little girls running or crawling away at any chance they got... Having to hide in the furniture department behind a bed for an emergency diaper change... 

I sure do love Macy's Santa Land... Katya and Natalia haven't seen Santa since we moved here; instead they've come across Dyed Moroz. It's just not the same thing, though... 

My mom is suggesting - um - on my case - to take the kids to see him once we get to Colorado, but I'm a little hesitant... They would see him for what he is in a city-kid second. As long as it's all in their imaginations, it hasn't even occurred to Katya to doubt his existence. Technology makes it so easy -- they've tracked Santa's flight on NORAD and believed every bit of it!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Katya's Piano Recital

Last Friday was Katya's piano recital. We tried to get a piano in time for her to be able to practice, but there's a waiting list at our dealer in Moscow. January...

We borrowed a friend's keyboard so she could get in some practice... Once we have an instrument at home, she'll make much more progress... Up until know we've been waiting to see if she would remain interested...


Here she is with one her classmates. His dad is a famous soccer player and he's the sweetest kid; Katya is really glad that they have the same piano teacher. His mom, who has two sons, repeatedly gave the sweetest looks to Katya and her doll!

video

After just one week of having a keyboard at home, Natalia already taught herself "Sur le pont d'Avignon"! We'll start her on lessons as soon as our piano arrives.

video

This folk musician was invited to perform using a variety of Russian instruments throughout the concert; she was very interesting! You would have LOVED it, Annie!

video

The kids all sang this song together at the end of the concert. The little girl in the floral dress is one of Katya's friends; she's a dual Russian/American citizen since her mom is American and her dad is Russian. 


Natalia was given her Josefina doll for her birthday the night before. She had been looking forward to having her birthday party at school that day, but instead was home sick all week (and then we found out about Katya's concert). She wasn't exactly pleased to sit there for an hour and a half, but she did very well. 


The girls were very sweet when we got home!


We then settled in for family movie night...