Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"Last Bell" 2010

Today is a very special day in Russia... It's the "Last Bell," the "Последный Звонок." Unlike in the USA, in Russia there are two parts to Graduation. Today is the "Last Day of Classes," and in one month, after all the seniors will have taken their national exams, they'll have their "Graduation."

I wrote about the day before here...

I'll keep today's entry brief, in part because I'm so darn tired! But first of all, just check out what Russians can do with balloons! Such decorations are standard here... I've never seen such chains and configurations in the USA... The balloon below says, "Graduate."

Our school always sets out a "red carpet" for the special day. Students in grades 5 through 10 line up, as do all family members, visiting alumni, and teachers. We then have a ceremony when each senior is congratulated and then walks to the school's gates.

We then take buses to a theater, where we have a VERY involved and neat ceremony. Naturally, there were more balloon decorations...

The ceremony featured tributes by the second and seventh graders, high schoolers, recent alumni, teachers and parents. The second graders were ENCHANTING! They performed little poems about each graduate, while classmates acted them out. They were SO clever and spot on! The seniors LOVED it! The seventh graders were also super... How I love this year's seventh graders... I've worked with them for the past two years, and I will each year I'm here, seeing them through... When those kids graduate, wherever I am, I will be SO proud...

The seniors this year bestowed honorary degrees upon all the teachers, highlighting their strengths... I was honored for being "Patient." Even-headed, calmly reacting to all situations, treating kids fairly and respectfully. Wow. What an honor... If only I truly always felt that way... I try so hard to treat my girls that way, and so often fall tremendously short...

After the ceremony, we all gathered at a popular monument in Moscow for a huge group shot--and I realized that Natalia would be able to see us from our living room window, albeit in the distance! She was so excited when I called home.. She grabbed her binoculars ("Yay!" for the big sister with the Nancy Drew/spy obsession!), and then saw me and a whole bunch of my colleagues waving to her!

On my way home, I passed these seniors from another school—dressed in the much more traditional "Last Bell" attire. Most Russian eleventh graders wear Soviet school uniforms (with the skirts MUCH shorter than they ever would have been prior to 1991) today... With the requisite big white bows in their hair!

Most Russian girls wear SPIKED high heels with their dresses and aprons, creating an awfully bizarre image... We've had an new American teacher this year, a young man, and it was amusing to watch his "Are you kidding me? Their parents and their schools actually encouraged them to dress that way??!" reaction today! It is odd... Like some bizarro Communist p*** movie has taken over the city. When the weather is sunny, Red Square is taken over completely by swarms of students coming for pictures!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Hey, It's Something...

It's that time of year... End of year crunch... "Last Bell" (basically Graduation) tomorrow and exams going on... Not to mention all the meetings I have as a parent!


I offer you... As blogging fodder...

Some cute bunnies for sale on Old Arbat Street.

"For the bunnies... A carrot a picture. "

Sunday, May 23, 2010

"Talia Forgot Her Sweatpants."

Any parent has gotten that call from school... Your kid has forgotten something, and you need to make a quick trip to drop something off. When truly necessary, feasible. Sometimes darn annoying.

The elementary school went away to a former Pioneer Camp again this week... Two nights and two and 1/2 days... For the first time, I wasn't going to be working super late on those days, so I would actually have a chance to relax a bit myself... And then, within hours after their departure, I got the text. The text from Talia's teacher that somehow the warm pants I'd packed hadn't made it to the camp, and she didn't have anything appropriate to wear outside during the unexpectedly cold weather. Kids pack very light for this trip, so there weren't extra pants to borrow.

I could have feigned the inability to get there. I could have forked over $110 to pay someone else to deliver them later that evening. But I really didn't want Natalia to get sick, I didn't want to spend the money, and I've secretly been curious to get a peek at the camp after hearing Katya (and now Natalia) sing it's praises for the past three years... I also figured something blog-worthy would happen... If I hadn't been in a real rush to get back to Moscow by evening, I would have stopped on multiple occasions to take pictures of villages and Krasnogorsk...

In any case, I rushed home after my last class, grabbed Natalia a pair of warm pants, and headed out. Knowing I'd be on dirty/rocky roads for part of the trip, I first stopped to get all my tires checked. Then I drove. And drove. And drove. If our GPS navigator had been working, it would have been a real help...

As it was, I discovered a whole new area of the city, and a whole new region beyond it. The drive there supposedly takes an hour. It did not.

At one point, as I followed the directions given to me by one of the teachers, I ended up on on a dirt path lined by these dachas:

Houses on typical streets where you find dachas are like silverware in college dormitory kitchens: some pieces pilfered from the dining room; some from Walmart; some taken from Mom's nice sterling without her permission... You never know what you'll find, and they certainly don't "match."

Most of them have extensive gardens surrounding them, though. No matter how wealthy the family, the Soviet necessity of growing fruits and vegetables to can for the winter lives on.

I also drove by the store. Yeah. It was closed.

Much to my dismay, I then drove up to this:

A dead-end! Argh! I then called back and got directions from a different friend... And made it there. The trip took two and a half hours. The girls, of course, were underwhelmed to see me, to say the very least. The puzzled looks on their faces said it all! "Why are YOU here?" They clearly think of that camp as their "parent-free" zone and delight in it! No worries, girls... I dropped off the pants and headed back to Moscow as quickly as possible, hoping fiercely I'd make it there in time for evening plans I had made...

Two hours later, I was home... With 40 minutes to spare before two girlfriends came over for the "Happy Birthday" dinner I was throwing for them.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

How to Eat Cotton Candy without Gaining Any Weight

Wasn't that both obvious and easy?

A Reliable Connection

I really love this advertisement for Rostelecom, a phone company...


Friday, May 21, 2010

Данкин Донатс

Here's a good little lesson for people starting to read in Russian... These are the letters that are different when written in Cyrillic...


Just open these cute doors on New Arbat Street, and you're inside...

Yup! Dunkin Donuts! They're back in Russia, after closing shop in 1999 when the ruble tanked and people lost life savings... They opened up again in April. In addition to the standard menu of donuts and munchkins (only a fraction of US offerings), they have salads such as ruccola and shrimp or Caesar... There's also a separate coffee/Coolatta bar.

The interior is SWANKY! What cool seating. And they have free wifi!

After I snapped this picture, I was surprised to realize that a college classmate of mine was seated at a table on the far left! He has been in Moscow even longer than we have and we run into each other occasionally. First year Russian classes seem a lifetime ago...!

I still remember coming to this block of buildings back in 1991... There used to be a foreign grocery store there called "Irish House." I remember using the "for emergencies only" credit card my grandmother had given me to buy orange juice because I NEEDED vitamin C and couldn't get any from any available foods. I never could have imagined the street—or city— the way they look today!

I brought home some pink glazed donuts with sprinkles for the girls. They were THRILLED, as you can see. It's funny, though... They've only ever had donuts a handful of times in their lives. We've only been to Dunkin Donuts in the USA when meeting friends... Just knowing that they're a "taste of home," though, is enough to elevate them to "YAY!" status.

From the Dacha to the Sidewalk to My Table...

I picked up these peonies and bunches of Lily of the Valley walking home from work today. They smell lovely! It's too bad that the temperature inside our apartment is sweltering; they won't last very long...

Thursday, May 20, 2010

More Items for Sale on the Sidewalk

Plastic figurines for the garden...

Herbs and radishes from a dacha garden...

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Not Your Typical Tupperware Lady

(Edited on May 22)

I walked by this lady the other day. You never really know what you'll find on sale on Moscow streets!

(Edited on May 22)

There are actually other American direct-sale products that have been here for over a decade... Amway, Avon and Mary Kay instantly come to mind... How I wish that Creative Memories (scrapbooking) had chosen to expand here when we moved! I was so disappointed to have to give up my business with them (I was a Unit Leader) when we left the USA. As for the Tupperware on sale above, I've seen it in many places here, and it has been here for a while. I'm sure this grandma bought it somewhere else and is simply reselling it.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

A Pouchful of Joy

(Edited on May 22)

We don't order directly through Amazon; we are able to get books shipped to us through the mail pouch at my husband's office. I have other friends, however, who regularly order through Amazon and pay to have their books delivered to them directly via DHL. It's important to keep orders under $100, though--that's how you avoid customs fees and delays.

As for a Kindle, I am a bit wary of how easily they break... Katya isn't exactly the most responsible nine-year-old... She does plan to buy one this summer, though. She has been saving her money and we'll go in on it 50/50 when in the States. She really enjoys borrowing her dad's!

Last Monday when Natalia was so engrossed in her reading, she limited herself to one more chapter so that she would still be able to read the book on the school camping trip this week. I wanted her to charge forward in her reading, not hold herself back because this was the only book she had left in the series—the only series that has ever made her really want to read.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, Katya has created a sleuthing corner devoted to everything Nancy Drew. She has read every book in the series, many which used to be mine, even the modern books. She carries a sleuth kit that she put together based on what she has read. She then discovered the Hardy Boys, in particular the Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew combined stories... But she finished the three I had in Moscow...

So... I got on Amazon and ordered them both some books, hoping they might make it here in time for the school trip. And they did! Amazon ships to Moscow via DHL and the shipping isn't as outrageous as you'd fear—but we're able to occasionally get books included in the mail pouch through Chris's office, so we've never had anything shipped to us directly.

Having lived here in 1991, when the only way I could communicate with "The West" was to wait in long lines at the Central Telegraph Office and send a fax—or pre-order an international phone call I couldn't afford, I still can't quite grasp how the internet has drastically changed the lives of everyone, both Russians and expats. There wasn't any internet access where we were staying in the countryside last week for me to have used my computer —but I was able to access Amazon through my phone and place the order that way!

It was like Christmas morning here last night! Little do the girls know that I hid a few of the books from them, saving them for the next flight to the USA and for Katya's three-week trip with school in June...

Sleepover Camp


Katya is beyond excited about going to sleepover camp this summer. I just ordered her footlocker yesterday and now it's rather "real"! What a dose of "being an American kid" culture she'll get!

She'll be attending the same camp my mother and grandfather went to for years.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Seeing Green

(Edited on May 22)

It's that time of year again... Unfortunately, am I ever feeling it! Pollen is everywhere, accumulating until surfaces turn lime green...

White tufts of dogwood pollen (pukh) are also starting to fly through the air. UGH.

I'm almost over my current sinus infection and plan to stay on Claritin indefinitely... Every season there's something I'm allergic to here...

(Edited on May 22)

The pollen on the ground isn't dogwood pollen... There has, however, been a little bit of dogwood pollen blowing on a few occasions. We probably won't be attacked by the blizzards of pukh for another two weeks...

Saturday, May 15, 2010

"Respect Me!"

I wrote yesterday about the messages that popped up on cars to celebrate Victory Day... Yes, it's true that bumper stickers simply don't exist here—but I neglected to mention that the annoying suction-cup "Baby On Board" signs do. They're mainly sold by a British baby/children's store called Mothercare, and also bear their logo. (I don't mean to bash Mothercare; it's a great shop! It is, however, rather expensive for most of the Russian population. Think "Right Start" in the USA, without any sales at all and at European prices).

My guess is that most people see the signs and think, "Idiot! How much did you pay for that piece of plastic in that expensive store?" Half of those signs are also in English, meaning that a good chunk of Russian drivers don't even understand what they say!

I mean, seriously. Do those signs have any purpose in any country? Aren't you careful not to hit any car, since doing so could also put your own life in danger? Do they really accomplish anything other than distract you because you a.) read the sign, and b.) perhaps peek to see if you can spot the child?

That being said, you can imagine how well THIS sign is going over in Russia.

I. Kid. You. Not.

"Respect Me."


Personally, I wanted to walk over to this car and KICK it... But darn, I was wearing some beautiful heels...

I mean, really... Could you do anything worse to give women drivers a bad name? It's rough enough in this macho society to be a woman behind the wheel... To then put a RED DANGER SIGN on your car acknowledging that you need extra care is like shooting yourself in the foot.

A foot wearing a high heel.

Friday, May 14, 2010

"Bumper Stickers" à la Russe

Russians don't "do" bumper stickers. They don't even exist. The few I have seen were brought back from other countries, and they are RARE. I can only imagine Russians' reactions to "My Child Was Student of the Month at --- School"; "University of ---"; or various political stickers when they travel in the USA... That must be some real culture shock!

This is why it was SO noticeable last week when messages started popping up on people's cars in anticipation of Victory Day. This was the most popular version:

It says, "Спасибо Деду за победу!," which translates as "Thanks, Grandpa, for the victory!" It rhymes in Russian: "Spasibo Dyedoo za pabyedoo."

Another message I saw a lot was simply, "На Берлин," which, thanks to one wonderful anonymous reader, I learned translates as, "To Berlin"—mimicking the phrase "на гору," which is "to the mountain"—with an understanding of significant difficulties, obstacles and hardships. Thanks so much for that correction, dear reader! I wondered about that one, since "в Берлин" would have been the more grammatical choice to mean "To Berlin!"

For once it came in handy that cars get filthy so quickly in Moscow! A lot of people wrote patriotic messages in the grime on theirs. Others used masking tape to spell out messages on their car windows.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Rouge Terror

Coco Chanel "Rouge" lipstick juxtaposed with Lubyanka, the notorious headquarters (and prison... direct route to Siberian gulags or disappearance...) of the KGB/FSB. Not exactly what Stalin had in mind when thinking of "Communist Red."

That's. Just. Not. Right.

Or maybe it absolutely is.


I killed some time today that I didn't really have redoing the blog... I desperately needed a break from things I should have been doing for work...

If found some fantastic Russia-themed scrapbooking supplies that I used to make my header at this site: scrapyourtrip.com.

When I get a chance, I'll do something with the background. (I'm looking for a textured white linen background). It was way too busy having a pattern on both sides of the blog once I added the colorful header; that's why I removed it.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Captured by Baba Yaga!

I just downloaded the pictures from my digital camera... Hee haw! This one is awesome!!! The girls are in Baba Yaga's "house" at Lesniye Dali, where we spent two days over the holiday weekend.

I found some other good pictures from our time there and updated my post from May 9th.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Great Patriotic Songs: "The Cranes" (Журавли)

Sunday morning (Victory Day, May 9th), the girls and I watched part of the parade on Red Square on television. It was incredible to see American soldiers taking part!

Even more surprising was when the military bands played songs, and my kids knew some of the words! How I wish I had captured that on film! (The batteries in my video camera were dead and I couldn't change them in time).

Later in the evening, I watched the broadcast of the gala concert at Luzhniki Stadium with my friends in their room, while their girls and mine played in ours. The concert was incredible... There's a reason every single Russian knows ALL THOSE SONGS. Karaoke? Guaranteed that many of the songs will be patriotic... Celebrations? These songs will be trotted out again... The Russian equivalent of "American Idol"? There will be part of the competition dedicated to these songs...

Not only were there songs popular during the war, but there are also all the movies with beautiful and inspirational lyrics that came afterwards. The song above falls into the latter category; it's called "The Cranes" and it's from the movie "The Cranes are Flying" from 1956. (You can get it here from Amazon). When it came on during the concert, my friend instantly said, "Ohh!" because it's one of her favorites. That, and my girls' singing earlier in the morning, prompted me to start a new "series" on my blog, one in which I'll feature various patriotic songs that every Russophile should know.

Here you can see the song performed by the group "Serebro" with English subtitles:

By Mark Bernes

Мне кажется порою, что солдаты
С кровавых не пришедшие полей,
Не в землю нашу полегли когда-то,
А превратились в белых журавлей.

Они до сей поры с времен тех дальних
Летят и подают нам голоса.
Не потому ль так часто и печально
Мы замолкаем глядя в небеса?

Летит, летит по небу клин усталый,
Летит в тумане на исходе дня.
И в том строю есть промежуток малый -
Быть может это место для меня.

Настанет день и журавлиной стаей
Я поплыву в такой же сизой мгле.
Из-под небес по-птичьи окликая
Всех вас, кого оставил на земле.

Мне кажется порою, что солдаты
С кровавых не пришедшие полей,
Не в землю нашу полегли когда-то,
А превратились в белых журавле

I found this translation into English by Boris Anisimov:

Sometimes it seems to me each fallen soldier
That never came back home from fields of gore
In fact did never perish, as they told you,
But turned into a crane as white as snow
And ever since those days in their due season
We've seen them soaring high across the sky
With distant voices giving us a reason
To stand in tears and watch them flying by
A wedge of cranes is fading in the distance
So far away I can no longer see
When I run out of days of my existence
I hope those cranes will find a gap for me
That I may soar above my pain and anguish
And join their ranks as many years ago
Recalling all their names in my new language
And names of those whom I have left below.
Sometimes it seems to me each fallen soldier
That never came back home from fields of gore
In fact did never perish, as they told you,
But turned into a crane as white as snow.

Here are two other noteworthy performances of the song, first by Dmitri Khvorostovsky. (Look how he makes the veterans cry!)

I also found this touching rendition by a Ukrainian girl in her country's "Ukraine Has Talent" television competition:

If you're curious about the movie, here is the description of it at amazon.com:

"Mikhail Kalatozov's luscious portrait of love and loss during World War II stars almond-eyed beauty Tatyana Samojlova and handsome Aleksei Batalov as moony-eyed young lovers whose innocent romance is shattered by war. When the idealistic boy volunteers for service, his draft-dodging cousin steals the despondent girl by brute force, yet she never gives up on her true love, even when he's reported dead. Kalatozov's patriotic paean to fallen soldiers and home-front heroes is an undeniably sentimental melodrama suffused with lush images and lyrical sequences, a kind of cinematic poetry unseen in Soviet cinema since the experimentation and optimism of the silent days. Produced during the "thaw" following Stalin's repressive reign, it won the Palme d'Or prize at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival and set Kalatozov on the road to more ambitious expressions of Soviet idealism in the modern world, culminating in his masterpiece, I Am Cuba. --Sean Axmaker"

Here is the trailer from the movie:

Here are the first ten minutes of the film with English subtitles. I love the opening scenes along the Frunzenskaya Embankment; my girls love to ride their scooters there when we make trips to Gorky Park.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Out of Town for Victory Day

(Written on 5/12, but posted on 5/9, since that's when this occurred).

Saturday morning the girls and I packed up the car and headed out to Lesniye Dali, a "дом отдыха" outside of Moscow. Gosh, just how do I translate that? It's not a hotel... It's not quite a resort... It's not really a village...

How about this... It's an enclosed (i.e. gated, private) "camp" in the woods where you stay in rooms that have a mini kitchen and bathroom. There are at least seven buildings with rooms, plus a main building with more sparse rooms and a Soviet-style dining room. On the grounds you'll find: a neat playground; great paths for roller skating and biking; sports areas; a tennis court; a beach along the river bank; an area with horses; and a ski area (not sure if it actually works).

They loved the swings under the tall pines.

This rope swing is the coolest! Both girls love it!

Hanging out in Baba Yaga's house at the playground...

You can go there year-round and it's the perfect get-away from Moscow, while not actually being all that far since it's at at the very end of Rublyovka (the snazzy road that Russia's most wealthy call home). Here's a link to the place; click on the arrows beneath the photo to see more.

The place is very Soviet in feel, which is fun. It's not fancy at all, but just fine! Think really nice Girl Scout camp plus motel. Staying there used to be a perk reserved for top people in the Soviet government; now anyone can pretty much pay to go. (There is, however, still the main building where government workers stay for a fraction of what others pay). Many people go there a few, a few weeks, or even months during the summer.

Friends of ours were there for the weekend, and they suggested we join them. I'm so glad we did! We NEEDED a break.

Sunday was great there... We spent Victory Day FAR, FAR from the crowds in Moscow, enjoying the distant sounds of fireworks instead of the actual displays. At lunch there was free "gruel" typical during wartime: buckwheat kasha with meat and carrots. It was actually pretty darn tasty; Natalia gladly ate it up. It was certainly MUCH tastier than what poor Soviets subsisted on then...

There was also a little band playing music while people lounged around outside. Wish I'd brought my camera along! (Many thanks to my friend for taking this picture at lunch with her phone!)

One highlight of the weekend? Natalia now seems on the path to loving reading!!! It has been a rough road... She seems determined to reject anything her sister excels at or loves. Reading has been one of those things this past year... But now she's really enjoying the books based on the "Wizards of Waverly Place" series on Disney. Hardly "literature." But I'll take whatever I can get... !

Another highlight of the weekend for both girls was rollerblading! As ridiculous as it sounds, they had only skated indoors during the past two years. Either we were in the USA during nice weather, or they were thrilled to scooter... In any case, they hadn't skated in a long time, and Natalia is now HOOKED. Katya was so afraid for most of her first time out, but she ended up feeling rather proud, too.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Happy Victory Day, One Day Early

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

The flowers in the Alexandrovsky Gardens outside of the Kremlin are BEAUTIFUL this year. The gardens have been closed all week so that they'll be spotless during the May 9th festivities. Dignitaries from all over the world will be there for the huge parade that ends at Red Square.

I'll do a post about Victory Day when I get back; right now, though, I'm hurrying to get out the door with the girls for a day and a half outside of the city. In the meantime, here's a link to last year's post on Victory Day when Rachael, Cecelia, Jack and Katya from alwayswanted4.blogspot.com came to visit us last year for the holiday!

Before I leave, however, here are some more pictures of the gardens. Every walkway has been swept, ever single blade of grass is trimmed just right!

The rows of flowers are arranged to look like a St. George ribbon, the ubiquitous symbol of respect for those who fought in Word War II (or The Great Patriotic War, as Russians call it).
You can read more about the ribbon here. Russians are REALLY into growing flowers to look like pictures.

This year the tulips are GORGEOUS!

It's too bad that only the groundskeepers and soldiers got to enjoy the garden this week!