Tuesday, December 21, 2010

On the Community Board at Starbucks...

...but not under our tree... Brother and sister, 1 and 1/2 months old...

Isn't he a little clone of Lyalya? Now, if Lyalya were still going around swallowing objects and incurring $1,000 vet bills, it might make sense to have a back-up... But he seems to have learned his lesson last May...

p.s. Nasty Virus Update: Katya now has it. Poor girl is so sick. Her British pal now has it, too; funny how both sets of sisters got it at the exact same time... I'm still not all better, either—but it's that last crucial week of school... Tomorrow is the final day I have to go to meetings and teach. Thursday and Friday are the girls' holiday assemblies and the high school assemblies, but at least I won't have to prepare lessons... Okay, now one day to finish getting ready for our three friends who arrive on Thursday morning!

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Other Birthday Party...

Well, it was quite different from the little party I threw in Natalia's class at school—the kind of birthday we always do. It's a tradition in the girls' school to have classroom birthdays.

Some families then do a party outside of school—but we can't fit more than a few kids in our apartment, and I would never want anyone to feel left out. People often hold such parties at some other venue, but that's not what we grew up with or do now. If the girls had birthdays at the end of the May, then I could see gathering at a park and playing outdoor games—but it's already cool by September and school's in session... In December? Forget it :-) Sure, we could gather to skate, but it's such a busy time of year and you'd end up having to throw in a restaurant stop for everyone, including parents, and, well...

In any case, we had a great time. We met a restaurant on Noviy Arbat, one that was actually there when I lived here in 1991. It was next to the Irish grocery store, the only place I was able to reliably buy boxes of orange juice with my grandmother's credit card when I was getting the jitters from vitamin C deficiency. How times have changed!

There was one area of the restaurant for the kids, and one for the parents. Think small wedding reception or bar mitzvah. Great food, SUPER music, fun for the kids... Since you stay in the same homeroom class, with the same teacher, from 1st-4th grade, the kids and parents all know each other really well. It was nice to hang out.

The chocolate fountain was a huge hit...

Halfway through, we got a BIG surprise. All of the sudden a famous Russian pop singer, Glukoza, walked onto the little stage!

Here's a video of one of the songs she sang:

The kids went nuts and had a blast dancing and singing along with her. She was really super with the kids and they all got her autograph before she left. When she first came out, though, Katya was hanging out at the table with two friends. I told her to come to the dance area, and she grabbed her science book out of her purse—wanting to get the singer's autograph on the title page... That's my K! Pop star and science all mixed together...

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Happy Birthday, Natalia...

Natalia turned 8 a week ago (on December 13th). She had been counting down the days since last January. Seriously. We all got up early so she could open presents before school. This year a huge theme in our house is PRIVACY. They kind of live under their loft beds behind their curtains... I've written about this before, but just to put it into "expat" context, neither girl can get enough of it (privacy), and it's rough sharing a room in a small apartment with one bathroom... They also can never go outside on their own, and we have no relatives on this side of the ocean where they could go for an individual visit.

Appropriately, Natalia's favorite gifts were therefore pretty locking boxes. One looks like a locker, from Katya, and Katya even had decorated it inside... She really made a gesture to be kind... They have been at each other's throats for months, so the reprieve was nice. The other box is like a pretty mini footlocker, and it was even filled with goodies from her best friend.

The big surprise? Heelies. Yeah, I know. Probably super dangerous. But given Moscow weather, where will she ever even wear them than in our apartment?? I get credit for being a cool mom without incurring much risk... She has to use a helmet. She was so, so thankful for everything and loved every bit of her day.

I already posted pics of the cake on Facebook, but here it is again. All the little figures are her favorite things, which I made out of marzipan: batons, soccer, a dog, her cat, a paint palette, ice skates, a dolphin, a plate of homemade cookies (she loves to bake with me), ice skates, a laptop, a banana, a musical note, high heels that sparkle, a top hat and rabbit (she loves to do magic tricks), and a mug of steamed vanilla milk.

For her party at school, I gave each kid a small pack of cloves and a mandarin orange so they could make pomanders. (Ever the teacher, I thought, "Hmmm... Fine motor skills...!") It made the classroom smell delicious! The kids had never heard of them before, so it was something new and fun. I love the designs they came up with—not your typical Victorian fare!

We then played Bingo, with Natalia calling the numbers. Natalia is so funny... She tells things exactly as they are, in a very deadpan way... The kids were ecstatic to play Bingo again; we did it last year, but then I made all the cards myself by drawing things. This year we used my official big metal Bingo wheel with the numbered balls inside. She actually said, "Well, I really don't like this game at all... But you all like it so much, that we're playing it again..." The other kids were like, "Uh, OK, now just CALL THE NUMBERS!"

She ended up LOVING being a leader in the game, and kept stopping to hug me and thank me for the cake and whole birthday. It was sooo worth all the draining effort! Most parents don't bake, so it really means a lot to her to have a homemade original each year. It's nice how the kids look forward to it, too... So often the girls have to play second fiddle to my grading papers, etc... It's nice to have a day when they know it's all about them and having a nice time with our family and their friends...

For favors we gave out bags with some of her favorite things: little magnet ball pairs you can do tricks with; a pack of cotton candy that turns into gum; a small Japanese eraser; and some silly bandz rubber bracelets that feature Americana items (outline of USA, eagle, Statue of Liberty, etc.).

I'll write more tomorrow about a different kind of birthday party we went to last night... We had a great time, but it was sooo different than our little home-grown shindig! Birthdays are such a big deal in Russia (HUGE! HUGE!) and they sure offer fodder for cultural comparisons!

In the meantime, the wicked stomach bug in our home continues... Yesterday was false reprieve... Charlotte, a young American teacher who has been living with us for a month while she apartment hunted, even ended up being admitted to the American hospital and put on an IV drip... Chris was equally sick, but he roughed it out here all day, I'm exhibiting symptoms, too... But I have to have our apartment ready for guests arriving Thursday, do all necessary "end of term" things for school, and get everything ready for Christmas—in addition to the non-stop laundry from everyone's illnesses... (Oh, yeah, and clean, cook, grocery shop and be "Mom," too!)

GOD BLESS a good friend who took the girls along with his own to go skating this afternoon! Natalia now feels kind of sick all over again, though... But no actual yucky activity yet, though—so knock on wood!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Racial Tensions: Update

Nothing has really happened since Wednesday... There are many more officers on the streets, though, particularly at train stations and key subway stops. Teens I know are forbidden from going to the mall with friends, and merchants must definitely be losing out on much-needed business at this crucial time of year!

There's one dark-skinned boy in Katya's class (make that, school—there just is not diversity here like you see in other countries with a culture of immigration... ), and it made me so sad to hear his mom talking about this all... She's afraid he will never get to walk alone outside and be safe here... He's only ten, and yet she's already figuring out how to help him eventually study overseas... He might even go to camp with Katya this summer!

We tossed out the possibility to the kids, and they were so excited! It would be such an eye-opener for him to go somewhere where there are kids from all different bagrounds: African-American, Latino, Asian... And no one really cares!

It's so sad to know that he's only in fourth grade—and it doesn't seem likely that the atmosphere here would have improved that noticeably by the time he's in college...

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Racial Riots in Moscow

It has been a tense week in Moscow... Yesterday the problems really erupted. (You can read about it all in this article from The Moscow News or in this one from The Economist.) I was oblivious to it all, rushing from work to get some items I needed from IKEA, OBI and Auchon before the school holiday assemblies and my guests arrive from the USA. Traffic was really bad, but then again, isn't that now a given in Moscow?

On the way back I noticed it was really bad, so I turned on the news—and I was so surprised to hear about Red Square, Kievskiy, Evropeyskiy Mall and other places being closed down and swarming with OMON soldiers dealing with skinhead rioters... It even spread to Park Kulturiy metro and Frunzenskaya as the rioters ran away from cops at Park Kulturiy—and skinheads had gathered nearby at Luzhniki since many immigrants work at the big market there.

It seemed hard to believe until Katya and I were leaving her school building, and suddenly a Russian man started to beat an Asian immigrant who works as a "dvornik" (think street cleaner, outdoor janitor) in our neighborhood. It was really loud and scary; I grabbed Katya by the coat and we ran to our car. I let a security guard know about it; I hope the man wasn't hurt too badly and that someone came to help...!

Katya wrote about it last night in an email; I'm reprinting her text because I think she did a really good job.

Dear people,

Any one of you probably hasen't heard of this, but you might have. Has any of you heard the news of the Moscow Riot?

This Monday, there was some soccer chapmpionchips. And at the championchips some man named Yegor Sviridov died. I don't know the connection, but some Russians believe it has something to do with racism (the color of your skin). And ever since, there have been some attacks. The people who believed that Yegor Sviridov's death had to do with racism, got together and decided to TRY TO kill ( hurt ) anyone who's not white. And when mom picked me up from school today, right next to my school a fight between one of the weird Russians and an Asian man broke out. But I'm O.K. Some of those Russians surrounded Evropeyski, one of the most widely known malls in Moscow, waiting for immagrints to exit or enter the building. It is so bad, that there are police and soldiers in the bussiest streets. A lot of places were shut down, such as some metro stations and Red Square.

I'm so scared (but interested in the depths of the story),


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Before and After... Wow!

The dining room at an orphange in Voskresyenk, a small town two hours south of Moscow...

Most definitely BEFORE.

(Keep scrolling...)

And what an AFTER!

TA-DAH, n'est-ce pas?

So how did this magic happen? On Sunday Katya and I went with some of my students and volunteers with the organization "Maria's Children" to paint a mural at the orphanage and to simply spend time with the kids. They do this kind of activity throughout the year as one of the many ways the organization helps children in need. The other volunteers were amazing and they're a close-knit group. They were like SWAT team, organized down to the last detail, swooping in and pulling off the whole event. Some of the volunteers, mainly in their late teens-twenties, themselves grew up in orphanages and received help through Maria's Children. THAT is inspiring.

After unloading all our supplies, we "checked out" the walls and interacted a bit with the kids as they finished their lunch. There were only 23 kids out of the 71 who live there year round; the others were away in the forest at a "dom otdikha." (Think something like a very basic scout/YMCA facility where you actually stay in a big building—and usually in an area surrounded by forests).

It's really sad that only 10 of those children are actually orphans; the rest are there because either their parents didn't want them, or because their parents' rights were revoked because of neglect, abuse, etc. As a result, most of the kids there cling to the hope that they're only in an orphanage temporarily, and that their mother or father are coming soon... I couldn't help but wonder, what about the aunts? Uncles? Grandparents? Family friends? I just can't fathom that many kids being simply unwanted.

That being said, I was very impressed by the director of the orphanage/school who greeted us. She's clearly a woman who give her heart and soul to these kids, striving to create a better future for them. She's making a difference; some kids from this orphanage are moving on to brighter futures. They are challenged academically and athletically.

The building probably hasn't changed much in 60 years; as the director said, any repairs/improvements must be done with their own hands since they have no money...

That's why these murals will make such a difference in cheering the children up. Those who helped us to create them will be so proud whenever they're in that room; those who are away and will discover them as a surprise will feel special that someone cared enough to come and create them. I'm glad we painted the dining room; they're in there five times a day! Perhaps that will be five more times to smile?

We started off with some pencil sketches. Ruslan, the leading artist in the group, works magic with a pencil and brush... At first the children just watched him, a bit in shock. As one boy kept saying, "Нельзя!!" It's forbidden! You can't draw on the wall!

It didn't take long, however, for him to join in...

As he painted, he chanted to himself in a sing-song voice, "I'm breaking a schoooool rule... And nooooobody can punish me...!" It was so funny!

We then dug in with the paint, encouraging the children to join us. I'm up on the ladder.

Meanwhile, another mural was underway. On the opposite wall, children were busy painting planets, little by little.

They then filled in the cosmos with sponges and paint....

And we all enjoyed a MUCH-awaited snack. After 2 1/2 hours in the car and our time painting, we were so hungry!

It was then time to play with the younger children; they're not able to paint for hours on end. I brought my parachute to play games with them and it was a big hit! No one had ever seen one before, so people were quite curious.

This little girl, Yulia, was so afraid at first... But then she wouldn't get off! To make her feel more comfortable, I told her the parachute was the ocean with soft, nice waves... And she could swim in it as long as she wanted, feeling the water against her body... The other children then helped to create gentle ripples in the parachute and Yulia was filled with glee. She visibly relaxed and had such a good time...

Playing with parachutes can be tiring, so we took a break to play some communicative games—telephone and "associations." As you can see, Katya was our resident photographer throughout.

Look at these sweet ten-year-old boys who just wanted to be cuddled... Vasya, the boy on my right, didn't want to leave my side. He was SO sweet and so happy...

After about an hour and a half of play, we stopped to check on the murals—and look what we found!

The actual painting up-close is FANTASTIC. I hope it will help the children to imagine what the future could hold. Meanwhile, the kids realized we would be leaving soon—and they conscientiously soaked up every last drop of affection.

This little boy fell in love with my student... She was pretty happy, too!

Here we all were at the end. The children were so thankful to have received little stuffed "Coca Cola" polar bears that had been donated. Even the ten-year-old boys held them in a way that shows they will cherish them:

Yulia, the sweet little girl who "went swimming" on the parachute, actually cried when she saw the owl and she tried to run away from it. I then picked her up and told her how the owl was name "Anochka" (sweet Anya), and that she was there to make sure the children were OK—that they always have enough to eat, that they know they're special, and that... they eat their vegetables. I asked her to then find as many ladybugs as she could in the tree leaves, and there were four (I painted them). I told her there were four ladybugs because Yulia herself is four—and it's proof that the owl, the ladybugs and all the butterflies around the tree are her friends.

She soaked it all up and was BEAMING by the end. It was just grand!

We also had to be a bit creative in talking with cooks, convincing them that they aren't now wicked "Baba Yaga" witches—instead they are kind cooks who have come to rescue the orphans form a terrible fate at her hands. Even the cooks "ate it up"!

We then got stuck in almost five hours of traffic on the way home... So what a LONG day... But, really, what a great one. If you're in Moscow and want to join us some time, friend "maria's children" on facebook for the schedule of excursions. You can also call the studio directly to become involved in any number of ways!

p.s. I just ordered a parachute online for Maria's Children to keep... Friends are coming from Michigan to visit us next week and they'll bring it. The kids will be so happy!

p.p.s. Thanks to Oksana Yushko for some of these wonderful pictures!