Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Happy Belated Father's Day, Dad!

Being without the internet in Italy really threw me for a loop this year. I usually rely on all the various reminders you get from advertisers about upcoming holidays! I thought for a second that it was the holiday on Sunday, the girls and I wished Chris a hearty holiday as soon as we saw him, but HE told us that it wasn't Father's Day yet! So I missed then wishing my own dad a good day! 

We can't wait to see you, Dad! We'll have to celebrate once we get there! 

A Few Prayers Would Be Welcome...

My best friend in Moscow got that much-dreaded phone call in the middle of the night, and she had to rush to the airport to head to the hospital where her mom is in critical condition from blood clotting and internal bleeding... Her mom is a FORCE OF LIFE and it's so hard to imagine her unconscious...

We literally crossed each other's paths in our coming and going from Moscow and I so wish I could have personally given her a huge hug as she sped home to California... 

If you're the praying kind, please pray that her mother (Marlene) will be healed, that she and the rest of the family will have the strength they need throughout this all, and that her children will do OK without her here in Moscow this week. Her son is starring in a school play tomorrow, and I pray he'll feel confident and enjoy this moment to shine without his mom there. 

Monday, June 22, 2009

Yup, That's Us...

When we flew Aeroflot to Rome, my blog was quoted and pictured in the May issue of the inflight magazine... A few people from our entourage noticed, but it was pretty under-the-radar. 

Not so on the flight home, when we appeared in the June issue. Now that all the kids recognize Katya and Natalia, they immediately noticed their pictures on that back page of the magazine... And now my blog is hardly a school secret anymore! It's not that big a deal, though... I purposely never write anything that could in any way cause conflict, any how. (This month they quoted my episode at the car wash when a driver/bodyguard pointed his gun at me). 

I've got to admit, though, it was kind of fun. Katya and Natalia thought so, too. One of the main things I teach is writing, so it's neat to have my students see that I practice what I preach. Incidentally, you're in this month's magazine, too, Dina. You, too, Kate -- even though I know you asked them not to include you. 

Hmm... Anyone flying Aeroflot in July or August who could let us know who's quoted and what for then? 

Ciao, Italia...

Another teacher and I painted these for the Carnival Day we had at camp.

We got back from Rome Sunday night and my life since, well, has been limited to load after load of laundry... A haircut... Some errands that must be done before we leave for the USA...

So much of our summer clothing contains colors that bleed, so getting it all washed is a l-o-n-g process... 

I'm pretty sure that my Strepp throat came back, too.

Tonight is Graduation at school for the Senior Class... (They all passed their National Exams so they can actually receive diplomas). Then we hit the road tomorrow and we'll be in transit for about 25 hours to go visit my dad on the West Coast...

I am TIRED. The trip to Italy was great, though. I'm glad we went. Natalia grew up a lot and will be in a better position when she starts school in the fall. Katya soaked up every little detail about Italian history, even impressing my Italian host father (not an easy thing to do, I might add). 

The best part for me was getting to use my Italian -- and even more importantly -- making some dear new friends, friends I might not have gotten to know had we been limited to the occasional passing in the hallway during the busy school year. I'm not so tired because of the schedule we had in taking care of the children during the trip... It's more that we adults stayed up for hours and hours talking late into the night! Worth it? Yup! Every secondo.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


One day while in Italy we arranged for a "Pizza School" for the kids. Early in the afternoon, the kids all came and watched while the chef mixed the ingredients for the dough. I was the translator and I had the kids do the math for the ratios of flour, water, salt and yeast. Once the dough was mixed, the chef gave each child a small piece of dough that had already been prepared. 

It was then time to practice forming a perfect pizza crust... Or, perhaps, to adorn oneself with flour... The kids were covered by the time we left! Good thing we had ordered personalized aprons for them as a special souvenir!

This little boy was SO cute. He and Natalia used to go to kindergarten together and he was an equally adorable four-year-old... As I took the following picture, he asked, in all seriousness, "Мне получается?" Oh!!!!! That translates, roughly, as "So, am I doing OK?"

All of the kids had a blast!

That evening, we all went to the hotel's pizzeria. The kids shaped individualized pizzas from the dough we had made, then put on the tomato sauce, mozzarella, parmigiano, olive oil and basil. They made "Pizza Margherita," the pizza named in honor of the queen and with the colors of the Italian flag. 

Natalia even got to put hers into the brick oven because the chef realized that she was my daughter! 

One minute later, the pizzas were ready and the chefs were SO proud. You could hear them on the phone with their parents later that night: "Mom! Dad! I did it all by myself!" It was wonderful to hear, since that's the whole goal of our summer camp: helping kids to develop independence.

Twenty-two little chefs in the kitchen... It was much crazier when all the older kids had their pizza lesson!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

"Dai Miei" (Going "Home")

At the train station when we had to leave, so sad...

I know they say that "You can't go home..." 

But we did. The girls and I managed to get away from camp for an overnight, taking the train (well, first a bus, then another bus, then the train...) to visit the family I lived with in 1993. 

It was FENOMENALE! (Not too hard to understand some of those cognates in Italian, 'eh? Easier than when I write in Russian!)

Chris and I went back to visit them in 1995, then we went back again when Katya was eleven-months-old in August of 2001... But a lot had certainly happened in the past eight years. 

They had never met Natalia, and Katya hadn't even been able to walk during that last trip! (I should add, however, that she ate her first "gelato" while at their house, strawberry, I think...)

I thought the girls would be rather shy, but I couldn't have been more wrong. From the second Amelia met us a the train station, they treated her like the honorary "nonna" (grandmother) she is and jabbered away non-stop. 

Katya and Natalia instantly trusted and loved both Amelia and Giuseppe. Their hugs and affection for these people I love so much, too, were joyous to watch! Amelia and Giuseppe were equally touched...

Amelia took Katya to look for lightening bugs before bed. It was already exciting enough to be able to see the vast expanse of stars... The lightening bugs were the icing on the cake!

Amelia gave the girls the prettiest ivory beaded necklaces that they love. She gave me the neatest silver and mother-of-pearl bracelet that is SO ME, too. She used to have her own shop where she specialized in a variety of antiques, including jewelry. I love her taste

Giuseppe, my host father, was an admiral in the Italian navy and the family spent two years living in Virginia in the late '70s when he was the naval attaché at the Italian Embassy in Washington. Their sons attended the local public school and the whole family jumped right into a total-immersion experience in American culture and English.

You can tell they lived in America... Where else would you find a tee pee next to an authentic vineyard?!

That's probably why we "clicked" so quickly when I lived with them... We hardly ever spoke English (they knew how important it was for me to improve my Italian), but they "got" where I was from. We talked and talked and laughed and laughed... 

I felt completely at home living with them, absolutely loved and accepted and not at all like a paying boarder. They felt the same way, too... The university's arrangement seemed like a technicality and they wanted me to stay after our program ended to join them on the family ski vacation in Cortina. 

In any case, while driving down those winding roads on the way to their house, I could feel the anticipation building inside me... When we then made our way up the path to their house, slowly passing the woods, olive trees and long rows of grapevines in the vineyard, I wanted to open up every pore in my body to suck in the smell, sights, and experience...

Sheila, the horse, is a new addition to the family. The girls were tickled pink!

I'd love to come back some fall to help with the vendemmia, the grape harvest and making of the wine... What an unforgettable experience that was...

When we then opened the doors to the house, and made our way to "our room," I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. Everything still smelled the same... That blend of wood, antiques, fresh breezes, clean linens, dog fur, fresh and dried flowers, homemade wine, Amelia's perfume, whatever had been cooking... I can't describe it. It's simply "home." 

Walking with the dogs among the olive trees.

Lucky and Tyson, the wolf-like pups rescued from a dumpster.

I had a similar visual reaction... Everything was as I had loved it, with many beautiful changes in the meantime... It's a place that has been developed over time to meet the exact needs of their family: part cottage, part craft center, part impromptu hotel, part intimate café, part restaurant, part garden, part mechanic's atelier, part vineyard, part olive grove, part paradise for dogs lucky enough to find a home there, part horse pasture, part children's "Neverland" where they can run free and play, part terrace for peaceful reading while taking in the breathtaking view...

Doing a little reading on the swing...

This view is spectacular all year long.

Their home is so "them". Their heart and soul have been poured into every nook and cranny of it! Giuseppe (an engineer) never remains still; he is always working the land, making repairs or creating a new project to carry out. The beautiful in-ground pool he built looks down on the land and is built against a stone wall. I enjoyed it even more knowing that the entire project was his doing from start to finish, with each detail reflecting his personal vision of how the family could relax there.

Natalia loved to follow all the dogs (five of them) around. Here they are outside of the "mud room" that Giuseppe renovated.

When you walk around inside, Amelia's taste is reflected in every homey and pretty touch. The living room invites you to sink into the big cushions on the couches, all upholstered by Amelia herself. The cheery yellows, oranges and blues create a sense of happiness even during cold, dark and rainy winter days. The house has a "cocoon" feel to it. Time seems to stop while you're there, and outside concerns don't seem to matter so much from that beautiful hilltop. 

I picked out this hand-carved and painted nativity set for them in Moscow, knowing it would look great with the living and dining room colors. I'm so happy they love it! They placed it on top of their cabinet that is beneath the wall of bookcases. 

My favorite place of all is the back porch; it's the heart of the home. The walls act as a frame, setting off the spectacular view of the valley below. 

"A tavola! Si mangia!" ("Come to the table! Let's eat!")

Natalia helped out by sweeping the floor. The dogs loved doing their part by getting rid of any errant crumbs...

Directly across from the table, on the other side of the valley and atop a mountain, you can see the Monastery of Monte Cassino. At night the valley seems to be an ocean reflecting the lights of the stars above. 

Here are some more of my favorite pictures... First of Natalia with Tyson after hours of swimming, then of Katya with Charlie:

The girls enjoyed swimming almost every day while we were in Italy, except for when sick. They sure do love water...

We all cannot wait to go visit them again... SOON. The olive oil I brought back will be a lovely reminder when we open it this fall. The bottles of homemade red and white wine? Well... I was worried they would break while in transit back to Moscow, so they just had to be shared with my colleagues who have now become friends, colleagues who graciously covered for me so I could have those two days away...

Saturday, June 13, 2009

"BAM! You're Dead!"

No, Natalia did not have some terrible accident. Her face, of course, is Mount Vesuvius. Exploding. And if she looks at you and shouts, "BAM!"... Well, you're frozen in time like the people who died instantly at Pompeii. In the background, incidentally, is Mount Vesuvius... I took these pictures when our group was near Naples.

She has been shrieking "BAM!" a lot. 

The younger kids painted each other's faces and bodies the other day at the beach, picking some theme related to their trip to Italy. They had so much fun!

Luckily that lovely black and red mess washed off in the salt water!

Natalia and I, unfortunately, never did make it to Pompeii the other day... She was still too sick to go... There's no way I could have taken her on a day trip of outdoor walking in very hot sun while she had a fever...

She did, however, sit in on the classes I taught about Pompeii and she is now obsessed with volcanoes. 

This is what I did: 
  • Based on their trip to sites from Ancient Rome, I asked the kids to imagine what daily life was like during that time. How did people spend their time? What kinds of jobs did people do? What did they do for fun? What was home life like? 
  • We then wrote those ideas on slips of paper and they had to draw one out of a hat and act it out. For this part they spoke English and made little dialogues with a partner for their scenes.
  • I then put on a piece of music that sounds "happy-go-lucky," but has some tension, barely noticeable, in the background--but it slowly builds... During this, for almost a minute, they acted out their scenes all at the same time, without talking.
  • When the cymbals then clash and there's an "explosion," I stopped the music and shouted, "FREEZE!" They then stayed in whatever position they had  been in. 
  • I then shouted, "You're not in Rome... You're in Pompeii, and you have all just died! Look around at all of your classmates... Everyone in Pompeii was just going about normal life that fateful day in August 79 AD... Those figures you'll see tomorrow were actual people, many your age, with similar daily routines..."
I hoped that by doing this exercise, they would see Pompeii from a more personal point-0f-view. I couldn't accompany them on that day trip, but they told me afterward what a super time they had.

Friday, June 12, 2009


A fun "summer read" (in Italian), a seat by the pool, and my kids swimming in the background.


(So what if it only lasted for ten minutes. It was still great!)

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

When in Rome...

At the Fontana di Trevi, right after tossing in our coins to ensure our return one day to Rome!

I can finally connect my computer to the internet, albeit while standing at hotel's check-in desk with an ethernet cord plugged in... 

I can't write too much because Natalia's patience is wearing thin (it took almost 40 minutes to get the internet connection to work), but here's a quick update:

Both girls developed Strep throat after I did, but we're pretty much over it. As a result, we've only been to the beach once! Ugh! I really hope we can get some sun tomorrow!

Katya is off on a day trip to Pompeii today, absolutely thrilled to be going... They'll actually walk on Vesuvius. Natalia and I will go tomorrow with the older students.

In front of St. Peter's

Last weekend we went to Rome. I went with the younger students on Saturday; the older group went on Sunday and actually got to see the Pope (high up from his window) while at St. Peter's! How cool is that?!

Will: Natalia only let me take these pictures at the Vatican because I told her how much it would mean to you personally! Perhaps that's why she's giving you such a nice smile...

I had forgotten just how much I LOVE ROME. Amo! Amo! Amo!  I have to get back there when not accompanying 24 kids, on a very strict "WE WILL PACK THIS ALL IN/STOP NO WHERE/NO CAFES/NO PIZZA/NO SIMPLY MEANDERING" itinerary. We spent almost as much time in the bus traveling there as we did sightseeing... I'm not used to sightseeing with kids in tow, not to mention so many of them! That being said, it went well.

At Piazza della Rotonda, across from the Pantheon

I remembered it so well, as if still in college... We drove by the university where I took a class and the shop where my host mother worked... 

The antiques shop where my host mother worked, Papadato

Mid-afternoon, I just couldn't take following the group around any longer, not getting a chance to pop into any of my favorite spots... So when Katya's fever spiked (to 103.6!!!), we ditched the tour in the Pantheon to grab a  "granita di café" (espresso slush) and some iced teas from Caffé Tazza d'Oro (The Golden Cup), the best coffee shop ever... That's where I first discovered coffee.

In front of the Caffé Tazza d'Oro

I used to pop in there and pick up a coffee to bring to my host mom at her shop after classes ended. There is also a lovely Murina glass shop near the café where I picked a few really pretty necklaces... Yay!

We ended our day walking around the Forum and Colosseum (but not going in). There's only so much you can cram into six and a half hours in Rome!

The Forum

Katya hadn't been so sick when we left that morning... Her fever didn't come on until it was too late to turn back, and then it came and went in waves... The school doctor was with us the whole time and we literally nursed her through the the day...

The next day, we had an evening program with trivia about Rome for younger kids. One question was "What is the name of main cathedral at the Vatican?" One girl made us all BURST into laughter when she answered, "Saint Peter Alexandrovich!" That's the name of our school doctor, and we when all see him now, we cross ourselves and crack up! Our doctor certainly has been a lifesaver for me and the girls (we are getting well remarkably fast), but as he pointed out, it's not quite grounds for sainthood...

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Che Confusione!!!!

This trip has made it very clear to me how the brain associates certain situations and people with certain languages. For example, kids who always speak German with Dad, French with Mom, and English when they're all together, have NO problem keeping the languages straight. You can even throw in a Russian-speaking nanny and the kid will speak all four languages.

But start to mix it up? Then things get complicated... If Mom starts speaking German, or Dad starts speaking French... Then you're bound to have a confused kid for a while. It will all work out after a period of adaptation, but it won't happen right away.

That's what's happening to me. The American, who is used to teaching French and Spanish, but lives in Moscow, and is in Italy with her Russian school. Uh, yeah. It's messy. Throw in the German tourists I had to speak with this morning so they wouldn't sit at our students' tables and you get A VERY MESSED-UP TAMARA.

My colleagues think it's a hoot! My brain simply registers that I'm not speaking English, so I then think I'm using the right language. But I keep sitting down to conversations between the hotel staff and my Russian colleagues, when I'm supposed to translate. They all sit there with poker faces, curious how long it will it take before I realize I'm speaking Russian to the Italians and vice versa!

At the end of the day, though? I'M LOVING IT! I am SUCH a language geek! I'm amazed how my Italian has come back and I'm having so much fun with it.

Ciao da Italia!

I'm without internet here*, but managed to get on the hotel's private computer for a few minutes... I'm so used to living in Moscow, that I had forgotten the initial culture shock when I lived in Italy. You know, how time is all relative... How you can never really count on anything working or getting done quickly...

All is fine, though!

All one hundred of us arrived safely and the kids are having a lot of fun. That says a lot, considering that we didn't see any sun for the first three days. It RAINED. Cold, dark, downpours. ALL THE TIME. Oh, did I mention that I didn't pack raincoats? Yeah, I know, not too swift on my part.

I also have Strepp throat, which started the day before we left, but I had chalked up to simple fatigue. Luckily the school doctor came with us, bringing a mini pharmacy along with him! I'm well on my way to recovery.

The girls are having fun, and that's what really matters! I'm enjoying my teaching, too. Last night was the "Opening Ceremony" and my students put on the camp skit that so many of you must know... The one where one person hides behind another, inserting his arms in the first person's sleeves. The first person then tries to pour a drink, brush his teeth, put on lip gloss, talk on the phone, etc... It was a HOOT and the kids all loved it; they'd never seen such a skit before.

*I'm purposely not giving out any specifics about our itinerary for safety reasons, but we're based in a town on the western coast, travelling around to sight see and basically creating a summer camp for the kids at our hotel.