Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Messily American--and Independent

A Russian friend remarked the other day that the American kids at school often stand out from the Russian ones because of how they're dressed. The next day, a fellow American mom said the same thing. 

So how do the American kids differ from their peers? 

I think it all comes down to some messiness, some scruffiness around the edges. 

Sure, my kids' closet is filled with stylish and adorable clothing. If I picked out their clothing every day, they would look so cute... coordinated... put-together. The colors would all match, they'd have hair accessories that compliment their clothes, and they'd wear a wide variety of outfits--not the same thing over and over again. 

I think the same could be said for most of the other American kids in the elementary school, too. 

So why are our kids dressed the way they are?

Because they dress themselves. They pick out their own outfits. (They also help to choose their clothing when I initially purchase it, so you'd think it wouldn't be an issue--but they then insist on coming up with their own ways of wearing it once we're back in Moscow). They fiercely assert their independence, sharing their own senses of style. They know what's comfortable. They also want to brush their own hair and do their own pony tails. 

And we let them.

In my case, it's simply not a battle worth fighting. There are other areas of contention that are way more important and I choose to spend my nagging/discipline time on those. If I also harped on about their clothing, they would only hear the "wah-wah-wah-wah-wah-wah" drone of the teacher from the Peanuts cartoon. 

I think there's also more to it... I let them put together those sometimes dreadful combinations in part because I value their need for independence. Their need to take on individual responsibility is more important to me as a mother than others' perceptions of their grooming. Granted, they must be clean and decent--but I'm not to going to sweat the small stuff. 

The more I think about, children's independence/individual identity is a common theme throughout American children's literature, television and film. Eloise. Nancy Drew. Harriet the Spy. Ramona. Tom Sawyer. Nim's Island. Freaky Friday. Ratatouille. Finding Nemo. I could go on and on. 

I just can't think of Russian equivalents... The Russian stories and films my kids are most commonly exposed to tend to emphasize the family as a whole or groups of friends/characters. Cheburashka is an individual, but she's not a person... She's an unknown type of cuddly animal... Pippi Longstocking and Carlson (Astrid Lindgren) are very popular here, but they're Swedish...

Anyone care to share his or her two cents/2 kopeks?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Not Your Everyday Traffic Jam...

Last week I got stuck... for over an hour... on the road along the eastern embankment of the Moscow River. It was raining, cold and very grey, a rather yucky day... But these pastel buildings that line the road are always pretty to look at!

Then, all of the sudden, the following sites appeared to my left: 

The Kremlin is so pretty... I love the contrast of the red brick walls & towers and the white & gold churches...

Meanwhile, to my right I spotted this gem of a church through a dark doorway.

I looked back and could see more of the Kremlin... And little by little I could make out the red and white dome of what was up ahead:

I got stuck for about ten minutes directly across from Saint Basil's. And I didn't really mind!

If only most Moscow traffic jams were as pretty...

Friday, September 25, 2009

Just Outside the Subway Stop...

Last week I had to make a trip to Relod, the bookstore at 15 Pushkharev Pereulok (near Sukharevskaya metro). They have a fantastic selection of English (and some French and Spanish) textbooks/study materials and a very good selection of children's and adult literature in English. The prices aren't cheap, but they're quite reasonable for Moscow and I'm often very pleasantly surprised by what I find there. 

If you go there, be sure to stop at Coffee Bean for some delicious food and drink in a smoke-free environment. 

I've always thought this church is beautiful... If you walk by at sunset, sometimes the last rays reflect off of the green domes in a breathtaking way...

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Hmm... Who's Happy?





It's not just the missing tooth... She's thrilled because of her "tooth fairy bounty"! You see, her tooth fell out during the night. Her father noticed and made sure the tooth fairy heard about it. Then I noticed before daybreak, and also made sure she knew! 

The result? She ended up leaving twice her usual reward* for a healthy lost tooth!

*I'll write more about this in another post...

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Multi-Tasking, Moscow-Style

You can pick up a bra and panties at either end of your daily commute since it's common to see kiosks like this in passageways that lead to and from the subway... Some feature rather risqué designs, too... 

When I think of how long it takes me to pick out bras when back in the USA, how many I have to try on before finding one that fits... I feel so bad for the women who simply point and pay for ones without ever trying them on! 

You can surely forget returning them if the size is wrong....

Friday, September 18, 2009

Some Sisterly TLC

Natalia has been home sick since last Thursday, meeting with the same fate as her sister at the beginning of the school year... Bronchitis that teetered on the edge of pneumonia. She has been so sad to miss all these days of school, especially now that first graders get to stay all day and participate in after-school activities. 

Her classmates really miss her, too; they've sent home get-well cards and stop me in the hallways to inquire when she'll be back. Their drawings were precious, even including broken hearts! It's quite impressive how those 6-year-olds determinedly sounded out and wrote "выздоравливай!" ("Vuizdoravlivay!"/"Get Well!")

Tomorrow is the school picnic in a Moscow forest, and she won't be able to go... I'm so sad for her, since she loved the event when Katya was in first grade (last year the weather didn't cooperate, so it was cancelled). 

Thursday, September 17, 2009


The physical education teacher for the third and fourth graders at Katya's school is a woman who was once on the Russian Women's National Soccer Team, an extremely enthusiastic lover of the sport! The kids often play soccer during recess and Katya eagerly anticipated the chance to learn from her this fall.

I mentioned this to the teacher at the beginning of the year, and she told me that she dreams of starting a girls' team that would play a few afternoons a week. Because of her connections, the girls would even get a chance to play in a national stadium a few times, just for fun. Given the plethora of after-school activities, most kids are around to be able to participate. Yay! I thought it would be a given that enough girls would sign up to get the team going.


I have been so surprised to learn that soccer isn't considered an appropriate sport for girls by most parents here; it's okay for kids to play during gym class, but being on an actual team is an entirely different proposition... The other most enthusiastic sporty girl in Katya's class wanted to join, but she just broke her leg...

There just aren't enough girls to get it off the ground--YET. I'm not giving up. I've been trying to talk to parents about it. Most just politely smile, by now used to my American "cluelessness" at times, I guess...

(I could have signed the girls up the American Youth Soccer League in Moscow, but it meets first thing on Saturday mornings FAR AWAY from where we live--and I don't have the stamina to pull it off.)

I just don't get it. These parents grew up under Communism, when sports were almost a religion, and girls were encouraged to be as athletic as boys! Maybe that was simply the perception, though? Just as people kept their religion to themselves, perhaps they kept their beliefs about girls' and boy's roles private, too?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Score! Happy Birthday, Katya!

"Кате 9! Ура! Ура!"/"Каtya's 9! Hurrah! Hurrah!"

Everything is happening a little late this fall... Katya actually turned 9 on September 3rd, but she was still home sick that week with pneumonia. The following week I was too tuckered out to pull off baking her the kind of cake she wanted, plus leading some fun activity for her classmates... So we postponed her school party until this week. (Her party with friends? Um, some time later this year... A mid-winter "girly-girl" spa-type party...)

She really wanted a soccer ball cake... I found a round ball cake pan while in the USA, along with some cool soccer party favors (pencils/erasers/tattoos/stickers/chocolates). I then added in some green Pop-Rocks candy and the kids went nuts over the "firework" feeling on their tongues!

Chris (and many others, I'm sure), think I'm nuts to try so hard when making their cakes... But no matter how tiring it might be, it's important to me. I want them to look back in years to come and remember how their birthday cakes were always unique, made with love, and delicious. I personally can't stand store-bought cakes, and I'm loathe to spend what it would cost for a truly yummy cake here in Moscow... So I persist in this endeavor--no matter how FRUSTRATING it is to do so with an oven that always burns half of what I bake. 

This cake is composed of four different batches of cake, two of which I had to bake again after the temperature in the oven jumped and charred them....

It's still so hot in our apartment that the buttercream and cream cheese frostings all started to melt, rending it impossible to pipe them with a pastry bag and tip... Somehow, though, it still turned out rather well. 

Katya was so pleased...

Her classmates all thought it was pretty darn cool, too. Parents here don't usually bake their own kids' cakes. She didn't like standing out when in first and second grade, no matter how much her classmates raved about the taste. I suggested perhaps simply buying a cake this year, only to have her balk at the idea. "But you HAVE to make my cake!" I guess it's now cool...

Her classmates all know me pretty well now that I teach in the school, too... And they really enjoy the Musical Theater Club I'm leading once a week, so she wanted me to make the cake and lead her class in a game of Bingo in English.

The class loved playing Bingo (the cool notebooks I gave out as prizes were a hit) and they didn't want to stop to head outside for recess. They'll enjoy it when I throw an evening English Bingo event for the whole grade later this year, complete with prizes brought back from America.

Her friends were extremely thoughtful about her birthday. Now that the kids know each other so well, she received the kindest presents... Her favorites were a BBC video about how art has shaped world history and various books that featured logic puzzles or fun doodling exercises. 

One mom went as far as to think of Katya while they were in the USA this past summer. She even brought back a scrapbooking kit for "Best Friends" that lets you make two friendship books with your pal. Such thoughtfulness made her--and me---so thankful for the bonds we have built with kindred classmates and parents.

"What Can I Get for You?" (Katya's Favorite Birthday Present)

Gosh, I still haven't managed to post anything from Katya's birthday two weeks ago... First thing that morning, she woke me up so she could get her present!

She and Natalia had really been wanting this cool concession stand from American Girl... Her grandparents all chipped in and wowed her with this really cool toy. She has had a lot of fun practicing using American money (I got her a complete set of larger play money) with the cash register, setting it up next to Natalia's ice rink. Since she was still home sick, she used it non-stop that week!

I'm glad they have fun playing with the money; she is still rather confused when it comes to understanding the relative values of rubles, euros and dollars.

They also have plans to use it as a bookstore (they're making mini books), grocery store, and veterinary clinic/pet shop (you can make your own banner to put on top). This toy gets four stars for play value!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Vegetable Stands

There are stands like this all over Moscow from May until the end of September. It's unfortunate that we miss a good chunk of that time! They're so CONVENIENT!

Another plus: these days you don't have to bring your portable radiation counter with you! The produce isn't coming from anywhere near Chernobyl; it's mostly from places like Adzherbaijan, Georgia, etc. 

In any case, now I'm here and I can pick up some produce as I walk Katya home from school. If only I had more time to actually cook these days...!

When we first moved here, these stands provided my kids' first introductions to fruits they had never seen before: varieties of currants and berries that were so juicy! Some were sweet, some were VERY tart, but they all made it into my pâte brisée crusts...

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Scenes from the Dacha

Homing pigeons trained by the boy's grandfather.

Two weekends ago (yeah, I'm still catching up, people...), Katya was well enough to join her class for a big birthday party at a boy's dacha. Ten kids in her class are born over the summer, so the parents threw one big party. She was SO happy to spend time with her friends again!

There were bright red apples literally popping off the trees. Some of us returned to the city with bags full! Other friends keep bringing us apples from their dachas, too. We're eating lots of applesauce!

Their cat had kittens a month ago, five of them... They are just SO cute... My girls, of course, pleaded for us to bring home one to join our gang... But no. Two is enough. They can be content to look back at this cute picture!

Friday, September 11, 2009

So It's September 11th Again...

As some of you know, we were living in New York City when the attacks on the World Trade Center occurred. One of the most disappointing things for me as a parent now in Moscow is how my children have learned to regard the police as corrupt and dishonest, certainly not here to help us, and definitely not heroes. 

Before we moved to Moscow, we used to use double our cookie and pesto recipes to share with the firemen next door... 

We bought extra presents at holidays to share with the thirteen families from the firehouse in our neighborhood who all lost a father...

We always said "thank you" to the men and women police officers we'd walk by in our neighborhood...

It has made me rather sad that my kids don't have that sense of reverence, gratitude and admiration for public servants here. Truly, why would they? 

There was the Thanksgiving I was shaken down for driving while looking unattractive...

Or the time when Natalia thought police officers simply handle money all day long...

Or the day when Katya just assumed that officials can always be bribed...

Or the time in 2006 when we got pulled over for no reason at all, and the cop was taking a long, verbose time getting around to asking for his bribe money. Katya was five at the time, and quite impatient that we were late to her dance class... So she simply chimed in, rather annoyed, from the backseat: "Could you please just hurry up and take Mommy's money? We're late for ballet!" The cop was so surprised and shamed that he simply walked away!

All this being said, I was delighted yesterday when visiting Katya's school to hear something much more positive...

A particularly bright and kind boy from her grade came up to me and proudly declared that he was going to be a police officer when he grew up. This boy is from the kind of family that you wouldn't, err, expect to be encouraging such a professional aspiration...

His smile was so wide, his eyes so bright, and he truly looked inspired by the idea. It kind of made my afternoon to see some renewed faith in the profession.

But then this morning I realized that he could possibly be 100% aware of what it means to be a police officer in Moscow, and it could be precisely for those unsavory reasons that he would be intrigued by the job!


"Street Talk"

This isn't the clearest photo; it's all I could manage with the camera on my phone. What you're looking at is a VERY dirty car, one that clearly hasn't been driven in AGES, simply left parked on the side of the road.

Someone must have walked by it enough to think it might be abandoned... Or at least no longer wanted by it's owner. What to do? Well, simply write "I'll buy it" on the window, by  tracing through all the dust and grime, also leaving your mobile number.

"I'm not selling" was the reply later left beneath.

I'm not sure why, but I found this very funny.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Quick Update

Katya better and happily back at school? Check!

Classes going well for all? Check!

Me busier than I could ever have imagined? Check, check, check!

But really enjoying it, provided I can get enough sleep? Check!

Me deciding to not start baking Katya's birthday cake at 10:30 p.m. and postponing her party until next Wednesday so I could take care of ME and go to bed? Check!

Katya understanding and being supportive about it? Well, eventually, check!

Me so pressed for time that I haven't really checked email/blogs since getting back to Moscow? Check, regretfully...

Natalia with a fever for the past 24 hours and now home sick? (Probably a virus). Check! :-(

Us all thrilled we own the complete run of The Brady Bunch? Check! Check! Check!

Just Sittin' Around...

A group of local "babushki"...

And some laid-back members of the "militsii." Note the guy in middle busy sending an sms and the other guy on the phone... Yes, our country is in ever-vigilant hands.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Natalia's First SMS in Russian

Natalia took my cell phone from me last week, found my friend--the director of the school--in my address book, and wrote her the following message to thank her for the piece of cake she had sent home with me:

Эта наташа я абажала ваш Торт спасиба*

I was so surprised to see that sent message on my phone! Way to go, Natalia! Hmm... She hadn't even started school yet, but was already sms-ing the head of her school... I'm glad both girls are in a school that feels like a second home to them, where they really feel loved.

*"It's natasha i adored your Cake thanks," with some spelling mistakes since she doesn't know when "o" makes an "a" sound or vice versa. She'll certainly work on that in first and second grade!

Natalia's "First Bell"

Last Tuesday was Natalia's "First Bell," her first day of school as a first grader. It's a huge deal here, since September 1st is a national holiday when all schoolchildren return to the classroom. Children get dressed up, carry a new backpack, and bring bouquets for their teachers. There's a celebration outdoors for all the children and their parents, very formal and celebratory. 

Aren't the bouquets beautiful? Talk about unusual... Check this one out!

Natalia was ecstatic when the big day finally arrived... She was up before 6 a.m., fully dressed before my alarm even went off! She even did her own hair and had her backpack all ready!  

Here she is with her teacher:

I had to attend the opening ceremonies for the middle and high school first thing in the morning, so I met Chris and Natalia at the elementary school playground. Each class is assigned a place to stand lining the courtyard, with the first graders getting seats "of honor" up front. Natalia was a little nervous at times...

But then she relaxed and had a great time!

Look closely at the little boy next to her; he fell asleep for a little bit, landing right in his bouquet! His older brother is in Katya's class. A few of the first graders are also younger siblings of my students; it's fun to have those outside connections.

I'm sure you notice the big white hair bows in the girl next to Natalia, too... They're omnipresent around here on holidays! 

After some speeches, songs and skits by faculty and returning students (Katya would have been part of all that had she not been ill), the first graders were introduced one by one. They rose and walked around the inside of the courtyard, welcomed by the whole school. It was very touching how thrilled Katya's class was to greet Natalia; they CHEERED at the top of their lungs as she strode by! She was so nervous, though, that she didn't even notice! You can see two friends from kindergarten who are now "big second graders" with ear-to-ear smiles as Natalia walked by them in this picture:

At our school, the eleventh graders (the seniors) all pair up with a first grader and escort them throughout the morning. They start off standing behind them, then they present them with the school pin. One of my English students, Max, was matched up with Natalia and her wee hight made him look even taller than he is!

The eleventh graders gave little bells to all the first graders towards the end of the ceremony, and they all then "rang the first bell" to officially begin the 2009-2010 school year. This year the little kids get to keep their bells and Natalia is thrilled! She has been using it to play school with her stuffed animals and dolls. 

She also gave it to Katya, because she felt sorry that her big sister had to miss the first day of school. How sweet...

After the ceremony ended, the eleventh graders had the first graders write a wish for their first year of school on a piece of paper. They then tied the wishes to a golden star ballon, and as a group released the balloons into the sky so their dreams would come true. Natalia won't tell me what she wished for! 

The eleventh graders then escorted the first graders and their parents to the school building, where they had a special first lesson to introduce to them to school. It was awfully crowded, since parents stayed, too. 

After the lessons ended, the school's director beckoned for me to come over. She was worried that Natalia looked so sad, afraid that something had gone wrong. Not to worry... Natalia was only upset because the day had been too short and she wanted to stay!

I didn't have to teach until later that afternoon, so Natalia and I took our time walking home. We stopped by to visit Katya's class and made a little video of everyone wishing her well, hoping she would be healthy enough to return to school soon. 

Then Natalia and I meandered home, stopping for ice cream and to admire the flowers. 

Natalia is very proud of her purse and shoes!

I should add that she loves school more and more each day; it's definitely living up to her expectations. Yay!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

If You See These..

Pretty, huh?

Or multiple strands of these...

... Then it must be September 1st, the national holiday known as "The Day of Knowledge," and the first day of school for ALL Russian children.

I'm a sucker for all the cool balloon decorations. I love them! I've never seen such creativity with balloons back in the USA... These photos are only a basic example of what you can find at celebrations here.