Monday, December 28, 2009

Working On Christmas... (Back From an Unintended Hiatus)

(Quick intro, then an explanation of how Russian holiday celebrations don't always mesh with those of expats at this time of year).

Well, the past two weeks flew by like a tornado, when the pace of daily life was already reaching peak speed before that!

How hectic has it been? Well... I *still* haven't wrapped any of the presents Chris and I are giving our kids, each other or my mom. That means that they haven't been opened yet, either. There has simply been no time. I thought I'd have it done at the beginning of December, well in advance... but then unexpected obligatory responsibilities kept being added on at work before the holidays.

(It's also hard to get out the gifts in advance because there's no place to hide them once they've been unearthed from various stashes and wrapped).

I could have pulled an all-nighter to get stuff done, but then I'd have been sick for the rest of my mom's visit--and that seemed pretty stupid. (I'm really worn down... Plus, in addition to my regular job, I've had to shoulder all the cleaning/cooking/laundry/grocery shopping since our babysitter is with her family near the southern border of Russia until January 5th).

Santa came to our house this year, though. I guess he had an overload of stuff on his sleigh world-wide because even he didn't wrap this year!

My mom has been doling out her wrapped presents bit by bit each day, though. I must say, it's even nicer... You really savor each thing this way.

But back to the beginning of this post... Many of you will already know this, but it might be a surprise to some readers... Why has it been so crazy here? Why haven't we had time to just pause yet?

Well, because it isn't even Christmas yet!

Russian Orthodox believers follow the Julian calendar, so Christmas here isn't until January 7th. According to that calendar, "Old" New Year's isn't until January 13th. When the Bolsheviks took power, they switched the country to the Gregorian calendar--but Christmas, in the hearts of Christians, remained on January 7th. You weren't supposed to celebrate Christmas in the Soviet Union, so it was easy for people to secretly keep the old date fixed in the minds.

New Years did officially move to December 31st/January 1st, however. Frankly, the whole country basically shuts down now from December 31st to January 13th.... It's New Year's! It's Christmas! It's Old New Years! Any reason for a celebration is seized upon here.

BECAUSE the country comes to a stop for those two weeks, the time leading up to December 31st is JAM-PACKED with every possible responsibility. Any business that needs to be completed before the end of January must be finished within those last days. That's why Chris was required to work on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

About that, though... For the past four years, we have been able to leave the country by December 23rd, leaving other poor expat lawyers to cover for Chris... If someone didn't stay here to cover, then the others couldn't leave... There was another expat around, but his wife had a baby on the 24th--so you couldn't exactly expect him to chip in! Chris did end up being able to work from home on Christmas Eve, though... And he chose to face the consequences of missing a very important meeting with a client on Christmas Day so he could be home with us instead. (That being said, he was constantly "on call" using his Blackberry for a good chunk of the day).

At the same time Chris was so busy, so were our kids (and me) at school. Exams, report cards, a piano recital and holiday performance rehearsals literally ate up last week. Last year we left early and missed it all--but now that I'm the Department Chair for the whole school, that's not so easy (or desirable). I wanted to be there for all the kids--and my own children were eager to be in the various plays themselves for the first time.

Katya had a lead in her grade's holiday show and she did great! Natalia did very well, too. (I'll blog more about individual events later).

This year we got to be a part of all of this and I'm glad we stayed. But in the future? I'm going to make the kids start rehearsing for the holiday performances in September so there is less of a last-minute drain on my time. I'm also going to insist that exams for my students be held before December 12th so I have adequate time for grading and report cards. I really resented being forced to grade exams four days before Christmas instead of baking or reading with my kids. I simply stated flat-out that the other American teacher and I wouldn't be working on Christmas Day, so at least I didn't have to be there for my regular lessons which begin at 8:45 a.m.

I know that I rubbed some people the wrong way with my refusal to work on Christmas Day, but I really don't care. Let it be a lesson in American Culture for them! I tried my best to explain it... I think they "got" it about the actual 25th, but not at all about Christmas Eve or the days leading up to it. There was no sense of why I'd be busier outside of work that week than during any other, of why you couldn't just expect me to write a report on an administrative matter that week without any trouble. At times I really wanted to scream!

It's now pretty much over, though... We're sight-seeing with my mom, and I'm keeping the girls home from school these three days leading up to New Year's. (They still have school since they missed two weeks due to the swine flu quarantine. The high school didn't, so we don't have classes).

Once my mom leaves, however, I will have to go back and much more carefully mark up all of those exam essays...

There is, however, an upside to all of this... I have until January 7th to still bake those Christmas cookies and put together that gingerbread house!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Fighting the Cold...

For the first time since Lyala nearly died in November, the two cats are snuggling. Up until now, Asya kept her distance. She was afraid when he first was ill, even before he went to the vet. Afterwards, he was visibly ailing and smelled strange after being at the clinic. Even once he was better--before he had round number two of surgery--she wouldn't get that close to him.

Until today. Hey, you gotta stay warm however you can...

Arctic Artistry

Half the windows in our apartment are completely covered in frost. It is absolutely beautiful if you just stop to look more closely.

A panel of glass in our bedroom is covered in feather-like patterns that look like crystal. At first glance, it's pretty...

But up close? It's stunning!

In the girls' room, the patterns look like something out of an Impressionist painting. The color scheme varies depending on whether you look up towards the sky or straight out with buildings in the background.

Here are the windows in the girls' room... And below you can see our kitchen.

Pretty nice way to start the day. If only it weren't so darn slippery outside! Amanda's right; this is Moscow... It SHOULD be cold in December. I just don't want to keep sliding around...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Russian English-Language Birthday Card

Katya made this sweet card for Natalia on her birthday. Setting aside the fact that "Corinne" wasn't spelled correctly, I love it. It is a perfect example of how Katya is growing up in two cultures.... The wishes she wrote inside are EXACTLY what Russians say to congratulate people on their birthdays.

It starts young--as soon as kids are old enough to talk, they start spouting these toasts--really! I mentioned when writing about Natalia's kindergarten party how you can easily imagine these little kids thirty years into the future saying the same things, accompanied by a shot of vodka! (That story got published in Aeroflot's flight magazine one month).

To an American, a lot of the syrop-y prose associated with holidays is often a bit much. Instant gag reflex. "You've got to be kidding" reactions. This is really true on Teacher's Day, when the kids in many schools spout over an hour of over-the-top odes to the adults... To Americans, I think, it simply rings as untrue and insincere--the way people often react to the poetry in Hallmark cards.

This poetry is such a part of the culture that one of the administrators in our school simply couldn't believe me that we don't have equivalents in English. She wanted to know the correct versions in English, so they could include them in school's festivities this year. She expected some long, verbose prose that kids use to wish their parents a Merry Christmas. When I deadpanned that kids simply write, "Merry Christmas, Mom and Dad!", she didn't think I was serious... I think she thought I was simply ignorant.

It was hard to explain why we don't say the same things... How sappy poetry written by others is interpreted as insincere in our culture, and can end up having the opposite meaning than that which was intended. We value poetry as poetry--but not in a greeting card, or memorized as rote greetings during an assembly.

Anyone else agree? Or is it just me?

Monday, December 14, 2009

It's This Cold...

I don't know why, but this picture seems to convey how even your runny nose freezes these days. It's -20 Celsius, -4 Fahrenheit. It certainly gets colder than that in Moscow, but it sure feels FRIGID.

So... Beware of falling icicles. ("Dangerous Zone: Snow and icicles fall from the roof.")

Natalia's Party at School

I made the ice out of melted sugar. It tasted like a lollypop! Coconut flakes were snow and I made the frosting with cream cheese.

The kids all loved it, although they were disappointed that you couldn't eat the Littlest Pet Shop animals, too.

Afterwards the kids played "Natalia's Birthday Bingo" for fun prizes; each child got a card with the illustrations I drew and arranged in a different order. (Click on the photo below if you want to see the drawings in more detail). I wanted them to learn some new English vocabulary while making them feel good about the words they've already learned this year:

friends, cat, ice cream, present, balloons, books, lollypop, yo-yo, run, thirteen, magic, t-shirt, tattoo, candy, sing, lipgloss, dog, snow, seven, December, cake, toys, bag, party

I'm now really glad there are no more birthday parties until next September--well, wait... For two years the kids have been waiting to have a party with friends that aren't from school... This winter when things aren't so crazy, we'll see... I've had the supplies for two years now...

It's fun to throw parties for them... If only I could clone myself to help out!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Happy Birthday, Natalia!

"I'm THIS many!"

We began the celebration by baking her cake(s) on Saturday. (King Arthur's Vanilla Butter Cake).

I let her lick the beaters... Yum!

Today she got up bright and early to unwrap her presents. More than anything, she wanted this pink picnic table with birthday treats. It is so darn cute! The look on her face was precious!

The theme for the dolls' "party" is friendship; after she sang herself a birthday song, she had fun reading from the box of conversational cards about friendship that decorate the picnic table.

She and Katya enjoyed playing with her presents later on. They did magic tricks and styled their dolls' hair while we watched a Christmas movie.

Later in the morning we met up with friends at the Starbucks on Old Arbat Street. They were having a "Children's Party" with some activities and there was going to be free cocoa. Much to our surprise, they ended up throwing a birthday party--for free--for Natalia! They even made a "cake" out of muffins and lollypops!

Here are all the kids afterwards while the snow started to fall again.

Tomorrow is Natalia's party at school; a cool cake I'll finish making and Bingo with her classmates.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Lot of Pressure for A Fifteen-Year-Old...

This past week one of my tenth-grade girls started to leave the building with tears streaming down her face...

I convinced her to stay for while to talk, and I felt so bad for her...

That evening we had Parent-Teacher conferences, and the pressure about what she's going to do in college (university) had become too much.

Like kids in many other European countries, Russian students have to decide what they're going to basically do with their lives by the end of their Junior Year (10th grade here). Universities don't allow you the freedom to choose a major after your first year; most are highly specialized and it isn't even feasible for you to take courses outside of your area of speciality.

As a result, you have to know what you're going to major in--and pretty much do afterwards--before you even apply. If you hope to get in on "бюджет" (scholarship), you have to stand out as extremely qualified in your area--and fully committed.

The university application process has become so corrupt that if you can't get in on "budzhyet," then your chances of doing so without paying extensive bribe money are very slim. This particular student's family can't afford to pay for university, so she basically feels backed into a corner with no way out. (Russian universities traditionally are inexpensive and open to all qualified students--but the increasing amount of bribe money many have to pay makes them more closely resemble American universities when you look at the ratio of cost to family income).

She needs to know by now what she plans to do so she can start making herself really stand out in that area... Her problem is that she likes everything in school and feels such angst about having to so sharply narrow her focus before she's certain.

The upside to the Russian way of doing things is that you basically cover material in both an undergraduate program and master's program within your four years of study...

But is that truly a good thing? I'm not sure that it's worth it. When I taught first-year foreign language oral drill classes in college, so many of my Freshmen came in certain about their eventual majors and paths in life... A year later, over half of them changed directions, some quite radically...

How you can decide what you're going to do with your life when you haven't been exposed to all the choices out there?

This is even truer when I look at how Russian high schools don't offer all the elective classes you can take in a good American school. Everyone takes pretty much the same thing and you don't have the freedom to pursue more specialized topics such as marine biology, forensic chemistry, literature by theme or topical history.

In the meantime, I urged my student to make some lists of what she loves doing--what kinds of activities are so enjoyable to her that she genuinely loses track of time when involved in them. I then suggested that she think of what jobs would allow her to do those things; perhaps that could help her narrow her focus in a less stressful way... In any case, I told her that the most important thing is to pick a pursuit that fulfills her, rather than simply being the means to a financial end...

I'll write more about the university application process some other time.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Sweet Dreams... Or "Сладкиx Снов"

Katya was talking in her sleep last night, something she doesn't usually do. Heck, the girl hardly ever seems to sleep, period... (But that's a whole other story...)

I crept over to try to make some sense out of her mumbling, only to distinctly hear, "Ммм...Ну... так вкусно, да..."

Roughly translated, that's, "Mmm... Well.... So yummy, yeah..."

The kid literally has sweet dreams.

Who knew she had them in Russian?

Thursday, December 10, 2009


Our local veterinary clinic has successfully healed Lyalya a second time... His stitches were removed today and he's doing great. The girls were so upset while he was hospitalized the first time that they created this veterinary clinic/pet shop.

Lyalya happily slept on the girls' advent calendar for a while after all the fuss.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Волшебник of Oz

I bought this book for Katya two weeks ago: a Russian version of The Wizard of Oz series by Frank Baum.

She had been begging me to buy the collection of stories ever since her class took a trip to a local library in November. According to her, the author of the book had been there and he had been enchanting.

I just looked up the book on the internet... She evidently didn't talk with the author himself... Alexander Volkov was born in 1891.

But, hey! Anyone who can get Katya excited to tackle a 991 page book in Russian has my gratitude! That makes The Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling seem downright short!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

First Snowstorm of the Year

I took these pictures on the way back from getting some work done on our car. It really stinks that the steering started acting up on the day of our first snowstorm. I called immediately this morning, cleared my schedule after my last class, and got an appointment... Then the snow started falling. And falling!!!

The driving was so rough heading home that it took me two hours to drive what should have taken half an hour. That's not so odd for Moscow, but it was "Gosh, I'm gonna puke from adrenaline overload" hard.

It culminated in this "little" bottleneck. STANDSTILL, with '80s Russian pop music blaring from tin cars' thin doors. When I got out of my car to take this video, two guys shouted, "Hey, send that to Luzhkov!" and started clapping. That's the mayor... I bet his inbox is filled with all kinds of cheery greetings...!

I was lucky to get "spit out" from the eye of the storm by having some random guy leave his car to direct traffic for a bit--aggressively. I can only imagine how long others were stuck there in a angry stand-off!

What a long day. And then at 11:30 p.m., I began entering all of today's grades into the online grade book in order to meet the deadline for tomorrow's 10th grade parent/teacher conferences... (Wifi at the car dealership wasn't working).

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Вебкинз в России!

Webkinz are now in Russia! This is the official site. I discovered them the other day at Dyetsky Mir, the main children's store in Russia. I was surprised that they're only 400 rubles; that's $13.33, pretty much what they cost in America!

Anyone can play in Russian; you just choose Russian from the language menu. This could be a great way for older adopted children from here to maintain their native tongue.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Puppet Show: You've Been Warned...

Dear Mommy,

Merry Christmas. Today you are invited to the puppet show A SUPER CHRISTMAS. Be at the _______________ at ________. Please bring the ticket that my producer (Natalia) gave you. And also bring $10.00 to pay for the show. You will need to pay $5.00 for each picture. Most of the photography money will go to charity.

Love Katya and Natalia

I found this document on my laptop this morning. Guess I'd better go break my piggy bank to cover those fees. Too bad Katya doesn't yet realize that we rarely pay full price for anything in this family. But if ALL the proceeds go to charity, I won't be too hard on her...

Wow. How her brain works!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

AGAIN. Yeah. Again.

There's a reason I haven't blogged in a week...

This next video isn't from three weeks ago. It's from Monday. Here you see a post-operative Lyalya, so happy to be reunited with Katya, and so eager to suck on her ear... Much to the amusement of all the staff at the veterinary clinic!

It has been a hard week. He swallowed a woven cord cufflink last week, regurgitating one of the two balls and the adjoining cord. That other ball? Almost killed him. Ergo repeat surgery. At least this time I caught it quickly, and he didn't have any punctured organs or organ failure.

He came through just great... But it's all bittersweet, shrouded by worry that he might do this again... And then, well... We can't keep operating on him every three weeks... ANY ADVICE? Even if we're super vigilant, he will find something to swallow if he wants to...

He's certainly the darling of the veterinary hospital, though. Every time I visited him, he smelled strongly of different perfumes around the neck. Our little lover boy got LOTS of loving from the doctors and assistants there...

Today I got to bring him home, and Katya had decorated the entire department beforehand! Posters are EVERYWHERE! Hmm. There was some discussion about whether or not he reads English or Russian. Hmm. Of course he reads...

Katya's plea breaks my heart...

He's now recovering just fine, thank you...

Natalia even tried to make a video for him and then she sang him a song...