Friday, January 29, 2010

Random Humor

This is the toilet paper they use in our high school. The brand? "Mягкий Знак." As anyone who knows Russian can translate for you, the "мягкий знак" (myagkii znak) is this character in the Russian alphabet: "ь", аs opposed to this character, "ъ," the "твёрдый знак" (tvyordii znak). They're not letters; instead they influence how you pronounce the letters before and after them.

Here's where the humor comes in. You just know that some bored geek at the toilet paper factory wet his pants (luckily he works at a toilet paper factory!) the day he came up with this product's name... "Myagkii znak" means "soft sign," as opposed to "tvyordii znak," the "hard sign."

A Russian friend was looking through some photos on my computer and did a double-take when she saw I had pictures of toilet paper... I think that only nerdy Russophile blogger friends can understand why I just had to get a photo and write about it!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Answering Questions: Going to the Doctor

Some of you have asked questions in your comments, but then your profile has no way for me to contact you with an answer (no blog of your own, no email address). I'm going to do my best to answer your questions in the form of a comment within the same entry; so if you ask, do check back!

Right now, though, I'll answer a question about doctors here because it's of larger interest. I don't think Moscow is typical of Russian practices, though, so keep that in mind... Russians I know here tend to take their kids to Children's Clinics, where you might usually see the same doctor, or you might not... When your child is sick, you often can get a house call through such clinics. The prices are VERY low by Western standards and the care is generally good, depending on the clinic.

I went to such a clinic, one of the best in the city, when we first moved here in 2004 and Natalia had an acute ear infection. Natalia was a year and a half and still nursing (I had chosen to start weaning her once she had gotten over the stress of our international move and had a routine established). Nursing was the only thing that seemed to relieve her ear pain, so when she started to shriek in the doctor's office, I discretely nursed her. That's when the doctor literally ripped Natalia's head off my breast and SCREAMED at me for nursing her at that age.

Natalia, and I, were LIVID. While nursing at a year and a half certainly isn't common in the US, it's not unheard of... And our Brooklyn pediatrician said it was endorsed under US guidelines for the first two years... It goes without saying that I never went back to the Russian clinic.

Adults tend to have a doctor they generally see who can also make house calls, or they go to a general clinic. At such clinics lines are generally long... As in all areas of life in Russia, connections and greasing some palms speed up the process.

Because we're foreigners, we have medical insurance that covers Western doctors—so we go to one of the clinics that accept foreign insurance and employ a mixture of foreign and Western-trained Russian doctors. Many Russians also go to our clinic, but it's too expensive for your average Russian.

Another common practice here is to pay for a yearly "membership" at a clinic, where they treat you for pretty much whatever comes up. There are rules, though, and I bet the memberships are a lot like insurance policies—with maximums and excluded procedures.

You Want Me to...WHAT?!

So I went to see our school doctor, also a good friend, since I wasn't responding to the medicine prescribed by my regular doctor at the European Medical Center.

He... surprise, surprise... confirmed that I am, indeed, still sick, and that the Strep throat doesn't seem to have gone away. He scraped my tonsils, removing all kinds of infected white gook. It makes sense to do that! How can all the medicines really work when there's such infected build-up? He cleaned my tonsils when I had Strep in Italy, and I got well within a few days.

This time, though, he wanted to approach things differently. "Hmm... You are really ill, and your immune system is shot... It's time for an untraditional approach; are you up for that?" Well, I DO want to get well... But I instantly remembered our trip to Ukraine in 2006, when our babysitter's husband tried to trick me into taking my chronically-ill kids to a shaman...

So let's just say I was a bit wary.

That's when Peter, the doctor, mentioned "candles." I know that lit candles are somehow used to drain earwax, even though I've never done that, so it seemed somehow feasible... Then he insinuated a different use.

"WHAT?!" I exclaimed, jumping up and back. "You want me to light a candle and stick it WHERE?"

Another day in Moscow, another chuckle for a native-speaker at my expense, and another new word added to my vocabulary. "Свечки" (or "candles") are also suppositories. What a relief! Um, I don't mean that literally...!

I'm now on all new meds, including an antibacterial throat spray made with honey (Russians sure love their honey!), immune-system boosters and a different antibiotic. I'll have to miss school tomorrow, a day that was going to be chock-full of appointments and events... Oh, well. The longer I'm out, the easier it is to not fret over it.

I'm just waiting to see some improvement... For those of you who wondered about mono, yes I was tested for it. The "high viral blood count indicating fatigue" is actually what they measure to diagnose mono, and mine wasn't high enough to make a diagnosis—but high enough to be worrisome.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Time Standing Still

Well, it hasn't exactly "stood still," but in some ways it feels as if it has... I spent last week denying I was sick, increasingly weak. I'd been worn down since December (or, well, November), to be honest... (As you regular readers know, I haven't had the energy to post regularly in weeks). Then when both girls got sick as well, it pushed me over the edge. Last Friday Talia had a fever throughout the night and I spent many hours off and on taking care of her. Saturday morning Katya awoke with a high fever, too--accompanied by an achy back and sore neck.

My friend, our school doctor, insisted we go to the hospital immediately to rule out meningitis. Our French family practitioner squeezed all three of us in between patients. Seven hours later, we left with three diagnoses: a virus "méningal" that isn't actually meningitis (Katya); bronchitis (Natalia); and Strep throat/high viral blood count indicating fatigue (me).

Oh, yeah... And throw in a petit mal seizure (Katya) when she panicked about having blood drawn. (She gets reflex anoxic seizures, but only rarely). Ay. It was LOUD as she tried to avoid the needle... A woman I know was waiting in the hallway, seven months pregnant with her first child... Her eyes were WIDE when we finally walked out!

If you look back at the picture of Katya in the bed, you'll see that even the mattresses have "bakhili"! (I've written before the ubiquitous blue plastic covers you have to slip onto your shoes when indoors here).

So... It's now Wednesday, and Natalia & I are still home sick. I made it through the weekend on my own with both kids, and miraculously felt a bit better on Monday morning—but then I crashed again. I've missed work all week (!!); I have no energy and my throat still hurts. I'm going to go see the school doctor; maybe he'll have some new advice. In the meantime, it's SNUGGLE TIME (to quote Natalia) chez Smith.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Road Rage

It has been a really intense week. The piles of snow along the roads have reduced parking by about 40% (in the neighborhoods where I live/work) and have made it harder for cars to slip by one another.

Many two-way roads in the city are effectively one-way since cars park on either side, "removing" one lane; this leads to "Who's gonna back up and get out of the way?" scenarios all the time. Usually such situations are resolved rather quickly and amicably; there's really nothing anyone can do to avoid them, so you simply move and then get on with your day.

Not on Tuesday.

I turned onto a side street in front of our school and this Mercedes came speeding towards me, blinking its lights. It could easily have lost control on the icy road and crashed right into me. It also sped UP as it came towards me. I couldn't back up and get out of its way without backing blindly into oncoming traffic on a busy street.

The Mercedes, however, had four different driveways to choose from, and could easily have let me pass. Which it didn't. The driver was angry before our vehicles were even nose-to-nose. Uh, sorry I couldn't just evaporate once he flashed those lights at me... His gestures were so offensive and mean that I just sat there patiently, conveying that I wasn't going anywhere since I couldn't. I motioned to two places where he could back up and out of the road. I motioned to the speed of oncoming traffic behind me.

He wasn't having any of it. So I pointed at my watch, shrugged to show I'd wait as long as it took, and slowly sipped my coffee, relaxing in the car.

This sent him over the edge. He stormed out of his car, ran over to my window, screamed at me and literally punched my windows. He wanted me to roll down the window, which I obviously would not do. I shouted why I couldn't back up safely and asked him to back up about 12 feet to the driveway behind him.

He realized I was a foreigner, probably American, and started to yell, "Get out of here, American. Get off this road and get out of our country!" He had quite a few other choice things to add. To put this in context, you do NOT swear at women in Russia. It is infinitely more taboo and insulting to use bad language about/to a woman here. (It's worth mentioning, however, the man himself wasn't even ethnically Russian. I think he was from one of the -stan former republics of the USSR.)

At this point two BIG men in suits got out of the car and surrounded me, one leaning over the windshield and one on the passenger side.

I realized I was in way over my head and I called the head of the high school. My first class was about to start, and I asked her to look out her window... Our little spat was now affecting traffic on four streets, with cars backed up in all directions.

I got the help I needed, I got by the man who had to back up (I can only imagine the rate at which his blood was boiling) and I managed--after ten minutes--to find a parking spot... By the time I finally ran into class, I almost burst into tears. I must say, however, that the kids really behaved that day...!

Two days later I watched as one driver jumped out of his car and punched another. The second guy had had the nerve to be in a "right-hand-turn" lane when he planned to go straight. Ah, the gall!

This all started to build up inside me--along with "ARGH!" living-in-Moscow-moments-- and then I kind of "lost it" this morning in a rather unbelievable way... (Don't worry, nothing serious happened as a result). Coming up in another post...

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Year of the...

С годом тигра

... Tiger!

Hmm... In light of our little American sports scandal, how à propos...

I just got this "postcard" from one of my fellow English teachers.

For some reason, Russians are REALLY big into the whole Chinese "year of the __" animal thing. It really shocks them that I don't know what animals my kids and I are. I once looked it up, but I don't remember...

They speak with such conviction about what it means to have been born under the sign of a particular animal, truly believing that it offers some insight into one's character, etc...

I'm often asked about my astrological sign, too, for similar reasons.

I've lost track of how many tigers we've been given over the past few weeks, in the form of key chains, stuffed animals, chocolates, stickers... You can find tigers here in just about any form, including traditional Gzhel porcelain!

OK. I've just been corrected by Katya. OF COURSE she is a dragon, which I OF COURSE should have known. After all, everyone in her class is a dragon... She doesn't, however, have any idea what being a dragon means...

I think it means she's adorable and smart.

Holiday Refections

You can see my mom, the girls and I--along with the State Historical Museum, GUM and part of the Kremlin reflected in that blue ball. Cool, no? (I must confess that I got the idea from a photo I saw in a local newspaper).

This is what the whole tree looks like; it's a the foot of Manezh Square. I have a few more days during which the whole city will still be fully decorated; the girls and I are going to drive around after dark so I can take more pictures. We never quite got around to doing that while my mom was here...

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Russian Houses

It was so white driving to Pushino today that at times everything blurred together. I had a "Dorothy" moment: "Toto, we're sooo not in Moscow anymore..." as we spend along.

I'm used to seeing the huge buildings in Moscow... It seems that everyone lives in apartments... But I love getting outside of the city to see these typical wooden homes... Aren't the windows pretty? Nothing has probably changed here for decades and decades... (Except for the satellite dishes!)

I took these pictures on the way home from Pushino; this is what the street (the main street) looked like. The houses were on both sides of the road.

Pushchino, the Soviet "Science City"

Arriving in town, along "Science Boulevard." Note the skiers!

Today the girls and I went to Pushchino, a city of 20,200 people that's 120 kilometers south of Moscow. It was founded in 1956 as a "Science City" by the Soviet government, a center of scientific research. To this day there are major universities in chemistry, biology and physics there. I know a few people who got their doctorates there, including my boss.

I remember hearing stories back in 1991 about Pushino, about how the KGB was everywhere there to make sure that no secrets were being given away. One of the reasons for creating the city was so that it would be easier to keep an eye on the scientists.

The girls and I drove the two hours to pick up a friend who had spent four days there over New Year's. She was staying with friends of ours, so we had a nice lunch before bundling up her chihuahua and heading home.

I had been curious about the city and it was fun to get out of Moscow. The city is located along the embankment of the Oka River and is an odd mixture of ugly Krushchev cement block construction and beautiful fields and forests. You can see how carefully it was planned out below, even if you don't read Russian; the grey buildings on one side of town are all scientific and the other areas are residential, divided into four mini-neighborhoods:

Here's an example of a research building:

This is what the river looks like in September:

From our friends' home, we could see for miles. Beneath us there were kids sledding and people cross-country skiing. I could see how it could be a really great place to live back when there wasn't a brain drain of intellectuals to the USA and overseas. The kids and I are looking forward to heading back there in warmer months!

Happy New Year! С Новым Годом!

My mother had us all in stitches while she was here over her inability to pronounce "Snegurochka." How I wish I had a recording of all the various mutations she uttered of what Russians call Grandfather Frost's granddaughter ! Chechnorushka, Chichnyaogozhka, Shishkarochka...

I couldn't resist these sparklers in the grocery store when I saw that they had Snegurochka on the packet...

Earlier in the day we went to the Moscow Circus to see their special New Year's show. It was a lot of fun and we really enjoyed it. Who knew you could train porcupines? There were also reindeer, arctic foxes and a breakdancing seal... Not your usual circus fare!

It's too bad that the Moscow fireworks lasted LITERALLY all night long; my poor mother didn't get ANY sleep before heading back to America... The fireworks are still going strong tonight. Russians never miss an excuse to party.

When I think of the police in New York, it's often with real longing... FORGET ever calling in a noise complaint here... NOTHING would happen as a result and you could possible end up creating headaches for yourself that would be worse than those caused by some excess noise...

I think my mom now "gets it," though, about why my kids react with a "Yeah? So what?" attitude whenever July 4th fireworks are mentioned by anyone in CT. We've had enough...


On the way back from the airport today, the kids and I had a really good time talking. For once there was NO traffic, so there wasn't much stress, either. We literally flew to and from Sheremetyevo in 1/5th of the usual time. It was actually bizarre to see normally bumper-to-bumper main roads basically empty.

I kept hoping to find a bite to eat, and we even stopped at Mega Mall Himki with the intention of having lunch at IKEA before seeing the new Princess and the Frog movie. That's when I discovered that Moscow, yes, the whole city, is basically closed until 2 p.m. on New Year's Day. Good to know.

In any case, back to that chat... Natalia had made a New Year's wish that "the world would never die" and I hadn't quite known what she meant. She then explained that she hoped the whole world would be end up in Heaven, never truly dying. She really loves her Children's Bible and talked about her wish for quite a while. It was really nice to have that quiet, loving time with my girls after such a hectic month!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Skating on Red Square

Tuesday we went skating on Red Square, at probably the most amazing rink in the world. For the past few years, a rink has been erected there and it's extremely popular. You enter through GUM, the famous department store, where we posed by this big skate. It's decorated in the logos of Bosco Cilieghi, the company that designs and sells the Russian Olympic Team clothing. It's gorgeous, but MAN is it expensive! Almost $400 for a warm-up jacket?!

Here's Katya with Cheburashka, the Olympic mascot. The first time I came to Russia, in 1991, I worked as a translator for the author who invented Cheburashka. It boggles my mind to think of how much Moscow has changed since then!

My mom had a really great time, even though she didn't join us on the ice.

The setting is truly spectacular. It's surreal to twirl by Lenin's mausoleum, though. If he only knew...

We could have skated for an hour, but I thought some of the men on the ice might have had too much to drink beforehand... They were going very fast and I got nervous for the girls' safety. To top it all off, some teen girls then lit up a pack of sparklers as they skated! Sure, let's add sharp metal objects that are on fire to the mix! We'll go back some other time, first thing in the morning.

Red Square was actually closed for some reason, but I managed to get a few pictures from the edge of the rink. I love how this picture shows how happy the girls and my mom were!

She's now flying over the Atlantic Ocean, headed home...

A New Year Brings New Bloggers

Katya and Natalia have joined the blogosphere, writing their own blogs on my blogger account. I don't want them to have email accounts yet, but I agreed to let them write their own entries with my approval. This will be good practice for them; Natalia already picked up some pointers about punctuation!

They are SO excited to share their take on growing up in Moscow.

Their header designs are still in flux, but this is what they have come up with so far.