Thursday, December 25, 2008

Rockollection

Oh, when you let French people pick the music, weird things happen. There is no decent French rock you know. Who was I having this discussion with recently?

Anyhow, at our Christmas Eve dinner last night, I was introduced to Laurent Voulzy.

This is what you get:




Apparently this was a huge hit for this guy.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Santa's Coming Tonight, Tonight!

So sings Sponge Bob, and my children. They are locked in the dining room (the warmest room in the house, even WITH a window open), wrapping my Christmas present. I know it is a DVD of Mama Mia! because I asked for that, and The Spouse tried to get me to wrap it earlier this week. Ha! Yeah. Right. You gotta at least wrap what you givin'.

Tonight, we are going to dinner with some French friends. We are the Perfect Storm of dining partners: three families, six kids. Everyone gets on famously, although one husband always takes off his shoes and socks immediately upon entering the host home. Which is sort of weird. But he is funny and charming, so we forgive him. Last time I hosted a dinner, he and the other French husband corrected our (American) pronunciation of such things as "Oasis," "The Beatles," and "Elvis Presley." Seems we are doing it all wrong.

Anyhow, there is going to be foie gras and jumbo shrimp. I am contributing champagne, and a great green salad, and the Nigella caramel croissant bread pudding. Oh, and tons of cookies and the chocolate peanut butter cups the girls made.

The Hostess sent her husband over on his way home from work this afternoon (December 25 is NOT a holiday in Russia) so he could collect the heavier items. I stood outside our building with a carton of champagne and a tray of cookies. I got a lot of looks from people who, I think, think I was selling something. One little old lady came by and stood nose-to-nose with me.

"What is all this?" she asked.

I thrashed about for some Russian vocabulary and finally confessed, "I speak Russian not very well."

"Ah," but she was still curious.

"Party?" I tried. "Fiesta?"

That seemed to work for her, and she ambled on her way.

Then I spotted a very draggy-ass Ded Moroz coming up the street. Some poor young guy, wearing his Russian Father Frost giddy-up and dragging his bag of presents, his heart JUST. NOT. INTO. IT. Why? Why? Why don't I carry a camera with me always?

I relayed these stories over lunch.

"Mama, you are a magnet for the weird," said Baboo.

Yeah. That may be true. But it all makes for good blog material.

Merry Christmas y'all.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Dee Dum, Dee Dum, Delightful

I awoke to the sound of shovels scraping the sidewalks.

Well, that's what The Spouse said it was.

I said it was Cat-O in another of his lame attempts to bury his waste, which usually involves him scratching at the wicker laundry basket that is next to his cat box.

Lo and behold, there actually is some snow on the ground in Ye Olde Moscow Towne. A pathetic, paltry amount of snow. But there you have it.

For the record, I took these photos at about 10:00 a.m. today. I am not sure that the haziness is so much a result of the polluted and/or snowy Moscow atmosphere as, in fact, a result of my dirty windows. Ho! Ho! Ho!


Monday, December 22, 2008

Makin' Memories

When my brothers, who are both younger than I am, were little, they, like most brothers, called each other evil names. My mother, being a good Unitarian, chided them for this. "There is enough hate in the world," she would say. Like Thumper's mother, she urged us, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."

So they modified their techniques. They called each other "Pal."

"Oh, Pal . . . come here so I can give you a wedgie." "I love you, PAL," before ambushing each other in the living room. This sort of thing.

Pretty soon, they were forbidden to call each other "Pal."

So, of course, it stuck. More than 30 years later, they still call each other "Pal" and "Pal-y." But the tone has softened to something almost resembling affection.

They weren't just snarky with each other. They were snarky with me, too. Especially during the holidays they would say things to me like, "Let's make memories, Sissy. Let's make memories to keep us warm in our golden years."

On paper, it sounds affectionate enough, except it was usually said while holding me in a headlock and farting in my face. But it has become one of those family mantras. Even our spouses will sometimes get a little dreamy-eyed during a particularly warm and cozy family moment and murmur, "Makin' memories . . ."

It was in this spirit that I unclenched my normally anal-retentive grip on my kitchen and allowed the girls to wallow in the tastes, sounds, and smells of Christmas. I let them bake today.

They selected some Christmas CDs. First, it was Al Green Christmas. They allowed it to repeat until I think next year will be too soon to play it again. Skittles especially likes Al's version of "What Christmas Means to Me," which, unfortunately, I cannot find on YouTube. I can find his version of "O Holy Night," which gives me goosebumps. Listen:



Then I gave them the Ally McBeal A Very Ally Christmas CD, but they rejected this in favor of Christmas Classics with Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Nat King Cole, and Louis Armstrong. They especially liked Armstrong's "Cool Yule." Go figure. YouTube says that video is "Not available in my country," so you'll have to look for it yourself.

Anyhow, they made two recipes from Nigella Lawson: a spicy cookie with icing and a sort of peanut butter/chocolate candy. Both are delicious. I gave them some direction, but then I would leave the room and just let them get on with it. They really did all the work. And the washing up.

My kitchen floor is sticky. I will be stepping on candy sprinkles for days. And there is a sort of cement of icing sugar on the counter top. But I think they had a lot of fun together. And, after all, isn't that a big part of Christmas?

Here are the peanut butter sweets:


Here Skittles is icing the cookies.


Notice we are still in pajamas . . . an important part of vacation.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Winter Solstice

Today is the shortest day of the year. Skittles wanted to know how many hours today has, so we had to explain that it still has 24 hours, but the fewest hours of daylight. That made me curious about the actual sunrise/sunset for today, so I looked it up.

Today, December 21, the sun rose at 8:58 a.m. and will set at 3:58 p.m. That is short, but today is actually sunny, so it won't feel as short as some of the overcast days last week.

Yesterday, we went to The Spouse's office party for the children. I put a lot of photos on Facebook, but I know not all Beet Fans use that. So I repeated a few here that were relevant to previous posts or comments.

There was a puppet show. The puppeteers made the set and the puppets. I didn't understand the story at all, but it was wonderful anyhow. They punctuated the tale with folk singing (very Russian-y). The set was quite complex and involved lots of moving parts that enabled them to change where the action took place (inside, outside, in a troika). We saw something similar last year, where the storyteller set up about ten pieces of cardboard on chairs and flipped parts down and open to illustrate the story. There, too, he was the artist as well, and the affect was impressive.


Below, you see me and the children participating in parlor games with Ded Moroz (Father Frost). I'm wearing the Ugly Purse.


Here is a really cool mask Baboo got.


And here are some hats we saw in a market near Red Square. A fellow expat commented that his Russian wife has a fur hat that looks like it has roses on it. I was wondering if it was similar to these?


Everyone has been on their very best behavior in anticipation of Santa. We have been Bad Parents, teasing them that they will receive gifts from head to toe (i.e. books and socks). They remain hopeful, if cynical ("Maybe at least I'll get fuzzy socks.")

Heh! Heh! Heh!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Lucky Number Seven

Lugging my purchases (liter of milk, liter of vodka, laundry soap, chicken breasts, beef, paper towels, carton of eggs, cream cheese, salami, pickles, yogurt drinks, red and orange peppers, broccoli, Diet Coke, tonic water, chicken stock cubes, and five red and green Christmas garlands), I just arrived back home from the grocery store to discover the elevator, which was functioning when I left the building, is not working now that I have returned to the building.

I had to carry my bags up seven, SEVEN! flights of stairs. In the interest of journalistic accuracy, I weighed the heavier bag. It weighed seven kilos.

Oh, and did I mention the cat puked just inside the door while I was gone. So that when I pushed open the door, it dragged over the cat yack. Good thing I just bought more paper towels.

I've been in a bit of a state lately, what with this economic crisis and all. Although, and I say this for the record, I have not personally experienced any inconvenience or change in lifestyle because of it, I have heard about expats and Russians losing their jobs here. The rate of exchange is drifting, slowly toward favorable because the only thing worse than the state of the U.S. dollar right now is confidence in the Russian ruble. But nothing has changed enough to make us rich, and if the ruble crashes it will only make just about everything I buy more expensive because just about everything I buy is imported. Not because I am some sort of snob, either. It's just that Russia produces petroleum and not much else. Okay, vodka.

What's got me worked up are the rumblings I have been hearing about increased crime in Moscow. Again, let me speak clearly into the microphone for the transcript: I have not been a victim of crime in any way here (aside from The Spouse's wallet . . . but he got it back intact), nor have I ever even felt uncomfortable. But I have heard, via the expat forums, stories of apartments being robbed. The occasional mugging. Breaches of security in apartment building lobbies. There was the suggestion that carrying a second, worthless, and basically empty wallet is advised so that should one be mugged, you can hand off the bogus wallet (complete with some business cards of people you don't care for or don't remember meeting and some old loyalty cards from local businesses) while your real wallet remains safely nestled in another pocket.

All well and good if you are a man with a lot of pockets.

But what if you are a woman and feel compelled to carry around a cell phone, metro map and pass, emergency woman supplies, artificial sweetener, lipstick, Advil, a pocket calendar and pen, and a passport with an oversize Russian visa that is neither attached to the passport nor fits in the passport, in addition to the standard wallet contents of bank card, paper money, and coins? I travel light, actually. And I have given up carrying around my pocket Russian-English phrasebook/dictionary.

Oh, and my keys . . . I've explained about the giant set of jailer's keys I am required to carry around, right? I have friends who have a tiny device to open the front door to their building . . . something small and discreet and the size of, oh, a cotton swab tip. . . and one door key. I have seven keys (lucky number seven, again). You can't leave them lose in many coat pockets because they will rip the pocket lining. And make your coat hang askew on your body.

I had been leaving my passport at home, even though we are required to carry them. I figured it was easier to pay a fine than to replace a lost or stolen passport. But now I am also hearing it is more likely that the police, who normally ignore foreigners, could, feeling the economic pinch themselves, be more inclined to ask for papers.

My compromise is to carry mine, but not the children's.

But the purse thing. Oh, the purse thing. I have been wrestling with it. I had a tiny purse on a long strap that I tucked my money and bank card into one day, while carrying everything else (and a big, older wallet) in an old Coach purse. Unwieldy. Especially when I have to dig out the little purse in order to pay for something.

So I ditched the little purse and put everything in the Coach purse. It, too, has a long strap so I can wear it across my body.

But it has been really cold here, and I want to wear my fur coat. A purse across the body and outside the coat will rub off the fur. So I have to wear it under my coat, which pushes the already too-big coat that much farther away from my body, allowing the frigid Moscow wind to blow right up the front of me.

I tried a "purse on a belt" option, but the purse was just big enough that it made me look like I was packing heat under my coat.

So now I am back to a really ugly Nine West purse I bought a few years ago. It is, by design, an across-the-body purse. Black. About as pretty and feminine as bandolier. I look like Pancho Villa. But it has a separate pocket for my phone. And the main pocket is large enough for my wallet, my passport, my pocket calendar, and my keys.

I'm just gonna play fast and loose with the other items.

Taking my chances.

Better not mess with me.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Darkness on the Edge of Town

I've sort of given up on notifying Beet Fans every time I post something because it takes longer to assemble the email than it does to write the blog entry. Not conducive to quick and dirty blogging. You'll have to just check in regularly, I guess. I'll notify when I think of it. Or when guilt wracks me.

It's been dark when the girls leave for school in the morning. But today was the first day it was dark before we got home. Skittles announced, "It's 3:59!" And it was pretty dark. In the next few minutes the street lights came on.

I've had some Fun With Cyrillic moments this week. Also known as Honey, What Did I Buy? Seems the face wash gel I bought is for oily skin, something I no longer have. (I have that charming peri-menopausal wrinkles-with-zits and where-did-that-whisker-come-from? melange). Okay. It can be backup face wash gel.

Then I could not identify what, if any, package held the plastic wrap at the grocery store. I identified the imported $12 attach-it-below-your-cabinets plastic wrap and dispenser combo. But I didn't want a $12 attach-it-below-your-cabinets plastic wrap and dispenser combo. I've been looking all week, but no additional stock. I finally found what I was looking for (plastic wrap on a cardboard tube, no box) at the bigger Sedmoy Continent over by the kids' school. I also found a package of decent toilet paper there. Even The Spouse has commented that some days we are stocked with what looks like paper I must have stolen from a gas station washroom.

The third thing (these events always come in threes) was the fruit dumplings.

Russian cuisine is full of items in dough that are boiled. The fillings range from sweet to savory. The dough comes in myriad shapes. The resulting combinations, and there are many, all have different names. Pelmini. Variniki. Piroshki. Think ravioli, Russian style, garnished with sour cream. The freezer cases of every grocery store are filled with bags and boxes of the things.

I'm up to speed on the savory ones. The girls eat the meat-filled pelmini at least once a week. I can even read what type of meat is inside or if they are "home-style" or "traditional," although I cannot say what those distinctions bring to the product.

A year ago I bought a box of the dessert dumplings. But I never got around to cooking them and eventually, perhaps it was June, I threw them out. Today I bought a replacement. I promised the girls they could have some for dessert.

The box the dumplings came in shows raspberries and blueberries along with the pelmini. So I assumed I had purchased fruit-filled dumplings. After all, the Slovaks have fruit-filled dough balls that are boiled (they can be lumps of lead or sublimely light). Surely there was a Russian equivalent of this Eastern European delicacy.

I cooked them. They were strangely . . . white. I served them. I took a bite.

They were filled with tvarog, which is a cottage cheese type dairy product. It is used in all sorts of dishes (I make a savory spread with it). This was lightly sweetened, and very nice. Just . . . void of fruit.

Ever observant, Skittles says, "Well, it did say 'tvarog' on the box."

The 8 year-old reads better in Russian than I, the Provisionista, do. Sigh.

Wordle Up! The Internet Brings Me Yet Another Way to Waste Time.



One of my fellow bloggers turned me on to Wordle. So I Wordled my blog. Click on the image above, and it will take you to a larger and more legible version. And you can Wordle, too.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Ewww

Another vigilant expat drew my attention to this article in the Moscow Times.

We woke to a dusting of snow on the ground this morning, but, according to the article, it may not be real snow in that it is a result of factory emissions and not precipitation.

Ewww.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Things Can Get Dirty

I don't generally make political comments about Russia, but this story appeared in my hometown paper.

I saw OMOH heavies (the Russian SWAT equivalents) hanging out in a square on Saturday when I walked Skittles to her cooking class. They were mostly smoking cigarettes and taking pictures of each other. They make me smile, ever so slightly, because I am told that the Spanish gays, among others, covet their uniforms and regalia because it is all emblazoned with the acronym OMOH, which looks like HOMO backwards. The H is really an N, but never mind. Anyhow, they arrested 90 on Sunday.

The gay pride people routinely can't get a permit from the mayor's office to have a parade because they are dangerous, but the Movement Against Illegal Immigration was allowed to hold a demonstration on Friday. Then there are stories like this.

Yeah, I know. New York isn't a great place to be Ecuadorean either.

Walking into the Metro yesterday, the rush of air in the doorway blew my hat (not my fur hat) off my head and out the two sets of doors where it was stopped by a kind passerby. It wasn't until I was on the train and had traveled several stops that I looked at my hat and saw how dirty it was. I was cold the rest of the day because I just could not put it back on my head without washing it. Teach me to leave my big fur hat at home on a cold day.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

In Which a Chicken Is Not a Bird, and a Woman Is Not a Person

Well, we have been in Moscow now for a year. According to the children, yesterday was our anniversary. That sure went fast. We celebrated by going to Gorky Park, but you'll have to see the photos on my Facebook page. Uploading photos on this site is too frustrating.

The days now are short, dark, and overcast, making them even shorter and darker. The temperature has been below 0C the past few days, which is a blessing only in that it guarantees no rain. No snow either, but time enough for that. Maybe. I'm starting to wonder if the whole global warming thing is going to screw with my time in Moscow. I can imagine looking back on our time here on day and saying, "Oddly, we never had much snow in Moscow."

I got a piece of mail the other day addressed to Expatresse Nopatr. My full name was in Cyrillic, last name first, then my first name, then "Nopatr."

That cracked us up. I have no patronymic. Well, only because I never gave anyone one. But I could have one.

You may or may not know how this patronymic name thing works, but the Russians use the patronymic, based on the name of their father, as their middle name. It is an official name and is used on official documents. There is a feminine version and a masculine version. For example, if the father is Ivan, the son's patronymic name would be Ivanovich and the daughter's would be Ivanovna. Since my father's name is Larry, my patronymic or middle name would be Lariovna.

To be really polite and respectful, you use a Russian's first name and their patronymic. We shouldn't call Vladimir Putin "Mr. Putin," for example, but, if we want to be polite and correct, should say Vladimir Vladimirovich (his father was also Vladimir).

Russian doesn't have the titles "Mr." or "Mrs." which I find very disturbing as there is no polite way to address a stranger. Nobody says "comrade" anymore, but they haven't come up with an alternative. There is no "sir" or "ma'am" or "miss." Apparently you can say "girl" to women of any age. It's odd, I know.

This blog title comes hand-in-hand with other Russian remarks such as "I thought I saw two people on the road, but it was just a man and his wife." There's a weird mix of sexism and chivalry here. Men will hold doors and offer seats on the metro (sometimes). I have also seen men carrying the purse of their female companion. That looks a little strange to me, and I have seen it quite often, actually. I cannot imagine The Spouse ever carrying my purse for me. I mean, he always offers to carry things if I want, but he would never think to offer to carry my purse, and I would never hand it to him on my own. He can hold it while I go on the roller coaster. But that's it.

I also hear expats relaying stories of Russian women deferring to male colleagues because "He is the man, so he is smarter." I have not experienced anything like that, and, frankly, suspect that in most Russian households the woman runs the show. It is another one of those cultures where the sexes are defined: men are masculine and women are feminine. Why would you want to be otherwise? Given how we Americans sometimes neuter ourselves, especially at work, I don't mind being allowed to be female. It hasn't gotten in my way anyhow. But I'm also not trying to run a board meeting here either. Ask me again after I try that.

As an aside, Miss Russia won the Miss World 2008 competition this weekend. Here is the winning interview. She is adorable.



There was also the Miss Constitution pageant last week, commemorating the 15th anniversary of the post-Soviet constitution. Read all about it here.

In other news, I am on the hunt for a new winter coat. Every coat I have seems to have a problem. The lining is shredding on my favorite coat. It is becoming embarrassing. I have another jacket-type coat I bought from JJill before Youngest Daughter was born. I mean, I have photos of a pregnant me wearing this coat. There was more of me then, and now this coat is too big. The wind blows up it. The good news is I can wear layers with it (always useful) and even wear my purse under my coat. But the shoulder seams hit the middle of my biceps: it really doesn't fit nicely. I have a similar problem with my lovely mink coat: it is too big for me. And sometimes it just isn't appropriate.

I looked at coats in a shop in town the other day, but what I wanted cost between 25,000 rubles to as much as 36,000 rubles (these days, 2,700 rubles = $100 US). I don't want to spend $1,000 for a down-filled winter coat.

That's what I want: something knee-length, water-resistant, down-filled. With a hood. Some fur trim would be nice, but isn't vital.

I got a tip from a woman on the expat forum about a market ("rynok" in Russian) called Konkovo (conveniently at Metro Konkovo, for those of you following along on your Moscow Metro Map). This morning I went to check it out.

All I can say is "Wow."

It goes on and on. All indoors. Shop stall after shop stall of coats, jackets, furs, men's suits, shoes and boots, bras, evening gowns, and those over-the-top Russian women's outfits complete with too much lace, glitter, and bows.

I was too intimidated to venture into any of the shops. While some items I saw did have price tags, many things did not. Clearly, this is a place to bargain, and I am convinced that, without a Russian speaker, I will be lunch meat. Even with The Spouse, we are likely to pay the Foreigner Prices. But I'm sure I will do better with his help.

So we will go back together another time. There are, uncharacteristically, some sales in Moscow already. But Sale Season is traditionally after the New Year. It might pay to hold off until January.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Ho! Ho! Ho! A Study in Contrasts

I received a call last night from Trusted Girlfriend. Her husband had my Christmas tree; was it okay if he dropped it off at 7:45 this morning?

Okay?! That's terrific!

The girls, especially Skittles, have really been into the whole idea of Christmas. Last year was such a wash, what with the move and all happening, and our shipment being delayed. We spent what felt like an eternity in this empty apartment with only an air mattress (that leaked) and a few dishes for us (not even a coffee pot) and bunk beds for the girls and pieces of cardboard to play with. December 25 came. The girls opened a few gifts, and then the Spouse went to work (it isn't a holiday in Russia). By the time Russian Christmas/New Year's came, we had furniture, but it seemed too late and not the right time to be putting up decorations.

I stored the box on the stairs to the building attic. It's locked. The neighbors and we have keys, although technically we aren't supposed to. A few weeks ago, the woman who manages the people who maintain the building came along and, without accusing us of having keys we shouldn't, very nicely but firmly said we had to remove anything we wanted to keep from the stairs as they had to paint.

So the box moved into our bedroom. The cat likes to sleep on top of it, and slash at us with his claws when we walk by. Looks like we'll actually get to open it. Too bad for Cat-O.

I let the tree sit in its box for a while this morning as I harbored some sort of illusion that if I waited a bit, it would be light enough to see what I was doing. Around 10:00 I realized that this was about as light as things were going to get. I was sitting in the dark at the computer, and the rain outside was not about to suddenly stop, heralding blue skies and sunshine.

So I assembled the tree. It was harder than I expected. Here's how it looks right now.


If you follow the Lolcats link on the right of my page, you may be familiar with the "Basement Cat" concept. Here's one. Above you can see that I have my own. He is fascinated by the tree.

Buoyed by my productivity, I even got dressed and went to the grocery store. I filled my cart with eggplant, Parmesan (a real luxury here), avocados, cleaning supplies, milk, granola, grapefruit, wine. All in all, it was about a $100 trip. The clerk didn't put my change in my hand, but set it, coins and bills, on the counter. People often leave the small coins behind as they aren't worth much, and there is sort of a "Got a Penny? Leave a Penny/Need a Penny? Take a Penny" view on the kopecs. I collected my bills, but ignored the coins.

While I was bagging my purchases (the only store here that bags for you is the Why Pay Less? store), I noticed the fellow behind me.

He was grizzled and carried a cane. He didn't exactly look homeless, but he had that worn out look of the street drunks we so often see. He was buying a bottle of vodka, and I realized he was unsure if he had enough money.

I wish I knew more Russian because I would have just leaned over to the clerk and said, "This one's on me." But I couldn't. By the time I even cobbled together a few words in my head, he had pulled out the appropriate bills (all small) and was waiting for his change.

I probably would have only embarassed him.

But I felt awkward and self-conscious carrying my Trader Joe's and Mono Prix reusable bags full of groceries back to my apartment with my Christmas tree waiting.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Here Kitty, Kitty!

Weather in Moscow: +3C, overcast, no snow this week.
Reading: I'm still slogging through Richard Russo's Bridge of Sighs. Not saying it's not worthwhile. It's just so slow to boil.

Had one of those Very Small World experiences last week.

Since before we even moved to Moscow, I have been in touch with the recommended Russian vet for expats: Dr. Yuri and his wife, Valeria. She is not a vet, but since she speaks fluent English, she helps manage the appointments and communications with their foreign clients. He claims to not speak English, but he did enough to follow our conversation while they were here. But I'm getting ahead of the story.

I spoke to Valeria extensively prior to our move, working out details for bringing Cat-O to Moscow. I was even considering bringing the guinea pigs at one point, and she was very helpful about the steps I would need to take. We discussed having her meet us at the airport when we arrived with the cat so as to help shepherd us through Customs. But she decided that I probably would not have any problems, so she armed me with her cell phone numbers and instructions to call her immediately (and then hand my phone to the pesky Customs agent) if the need arose. It did not.

I have referred people to her and her husband over the past year, but we have not spoken since. Until Sunday, we had never met.

About a week ago, it occurred to me that if cats need annual vaccines, it was probably time to schedule Cat-O's. Yes, he's exclusively an indoor cat, but on the chance that I might need to take him out of Russia someday, I thought it would be in my best interest not to allow any gaps in his "coverage." I hate calling people, doctors especially, on their mobiles because inevitably they are in the middle of working. I prefer to send a text message and then arrange a convenient time to actually talk. So I sent Valeria a text message asking if we could arrange an appointment for the cat.

Friday, while I was walking home from school with the children, she called. Yes, house calls are routine and no problem at all. Did I want them to come Saturday or Sunday or Monday?

Anytime was fine by me, so she asked, "What is your address."

I told her. There was a pause. She said, "I'm sorry. Can you tell me your address again?"

Drat, I thought. The street noise, combined with my mangling of the Russian . . . the street name is long (Sadovaya Samotechnaya), and I forget that I always put the stress on the wrong syllable. I say the street and building number again.

She starts to laugh. "That's MY address," she says. "I've lived in that building my entire life."

Turns out, we are neighbors. Not knowing what she or anyone else in her family looks like, I can understand how we might have missed one another. But I cannot believe I have never seen them walking their dogs. Moscow is eerily small.

Below is the little shit (the cat, not the vet) when we first got him. He went by "Oscar" then.

Here he is today, exhausted after a day of driving us insane.

Monday, November 24, 2008

In Which Time Flies

On the one hand, I have absolutely nothing to report. It has snowed a few times in the past week, but nothing more serious than flurries, really. It seems to happen in the late afternoon/early evening, but any accumulation is gone by morning.

Yesterday was practically springlike: a balmy 10C, windy (in fact, I read/heard about signs and bricks crashing down on parked cars/pedestrians . . . the local news was, apparently, urging people to stay indoors). The radiators in our apartment were cold, which was fine while it was 10C. But when the temperature dropped to 0C in just an hour or so, I was starting to get nervous, wondering if the landlords had forgotten to pay something. This is a silly thought, since the heat is centrally managed. But one does wonder . . .

The other concern was the barometric pressure change sent Skittles to bed for a few hours with a sick headache. Since she got reading glasses this summer, the frequency of her headaches has dropped dramatically, which is definately a good thing. But she, like her parents, is still susceptible to dramatic weather changes.

Saturday morning Baboo announced she had an earache. Thankfully, she said this early in the morning, and I was able to get an appointment across the street. This being Moscow, I think I could have just walked into a pharmacy ("apteka") and asked for amoxicilin. But on the off-chance it was not an ear infection . . . and I don't know about dosages . . . it seemed prudent to ask a professional.

So we did. The Spouse took Skittles to her Saturday morning cooking class. I took Baboo to see the doctor. The doctor wrote us a script. I took Baboo back home, and then set out to deal with getting her Rx filled. First, I had to get cash. This meant a trip to the bank, which is across the street (gotta go uuuunder) and a block or so down. Walking out of the bank, I thought about stopping in the pharmacy that is right next door to the bank. But I've never been in that one. They don't know me. Best to stick with a tried and true shop, given my extensive linguistic talents.

So I walk back up the block, go uuuunder the street, continue past our building to find the pharmacy where they know us is CLOSED. The sign on the door lists their hours, and this includes Saturday mornings at 11:00. But, alas, there's no one there.

Okay. I retrace my steps back to the pharmacy by the bank. I step up to the window and greet the clerk. I put my hand in my coat pocket to pull out the prescription.

Shit.

There's nothing in my pocket.

The clerk blinks at me.

I lose the ability to communicate in Russian. "I don't have the prescription!" I mutter.

She continues to stare. As well she should.

I exit the pharmacy, trying to decide if I left the paper on the table by the door at home or did I drop it on the street? It is possible I accidentally pulled it out of my pocket when I put on my gloves as I exited the bank. Do I go all the way home? Or just stop back in the doctor's office and hope she's still there so she can write me a new Rx. If I call the house, will phone-phobic Baboo even answer?

I decide to look in the bank first. No paper.

As I'm, dejectedly, walking back towards our building/the doctor's office, I see it: a folded piece of paper just lying on the sidewalk! Hurray!

Back to the pharmacy. I manage to complete the transaction and, with help from The Spouse, figure out how to dose the Baboo (it was one of those deals where the drug came in a bottle, but as a powder, and we had to add the right amount of water).

Later that afternoon, with the Baboo one resting quietly and The Spouse and Skittles amusing themselves, I went to buy nuts and honey from the guy with a little shop under the street. I manage to procure 300 grams each of almonds, pistachios, and Brazil nuts. I even get the honey I wanted. But I fumbled on the numbers part when he told me what I owed. I got 40 and 80 confused, and handed the guy 550 rubles when he wanted 580. Duh-oh! Figured it out, no harm done, but I just hate that. I know, I know: numbers are tough. But argh.

Yesterday afternoon, I screwed it up again. I went to the grocery store, but as I was leaving, I realized I forgot to get lemons. Grrr. But there, across the street from the Sedmoy Continent grocery store, is the fruit and veggie lady's permanently parked truck/stand.

"Lemons, please," I say. "Two pieces."

She says a number I interpret as 80. I have a 1000-ruble note, a 500-ruble note, and 4 or 5 10-ruble notes. Drat. She's not going to like this. I shuffle through the bills, hoping to show her I'm doing my best here, and offer the 500 rubles.

She shakes her head.

Sigh. Am I going to have to go buy cheese?

She reaches through her window and gently takes two tens. Duh-oh! She wants 18 rubles, not 80.

I shuffle home, muttering and dejected.

The Spouse, however, is more upbeat.

"Look," he says kindly. "We've been here almost a year now. Can you imagine this time last year if I had said to you, 'Go take Baboo to the doctor, get her prescription filled, and then go buy nuts from the guy under the street'?"

He's right. I would have cried. I haven't come very far, but I've come a long way.

I close with a Thanksgiving wish:

May your stuffing be tasty
May your turkey plump,
May your potatoes and gravy
Have never a lump.
May your yams be delicious
And your pies take the prize,
And may your Thanksgiving dinner
Stay off your thighs!

Friday, November 14, 2008

In Which I Suspect Winter Is Icumen In

The weather this week has been as lovely as any I’ve seen since moving to Moscow, dare I say it, almost a year ago. Cloudless, pale, blue skies. Thin, anemic, winter sunlight bathing everything in a golden glow. The temperatures are generally below 5C, but it hasn’t been unpleasant yet. What’s been odd is the length of the shadows at noon. And this is only early November.


But the inevitable is certainly coming. The double doors have started returning at the metro stations. (There are two sets of doors; one is taken down in the warmer months.) Most disconcerting, however, is the arrival of two big (Canadian!) snow-melting machines down at the end of Tsvetnoi Bulvar. I saw them last winter, but I didn’t think they were here when we arrived. I darkly suspect the Moscow version of Indian Summer is over.


Only “bits and bobs” to report as life is just sort of chugging along normally.


First, the Baboo Update. Tuesday afternoon she emerged from school in tears. “Deux garçons dans ma classe m’enervaient!” (I honestly can’t recall, but I think she said it in French, although she usually doesn’t speak French to me. At any rate, what she said was, “Two boys in my class were bothering me!”)


Seems Clément and Valentin dogged her the whole way from school (they have class in another building, but all walk back to the French school together at the end of the day). They stepped on the back of her shoes. They opened her backpack. They played Monkey In the Middle with her thermos. They pulled the belt on her coat.


“You know what this means,” I told her.


“Yeah!” she cried harder. “They. . . like . . . me!”


We found her teacher on the playground and explained the situation. “I’ll call them back to order,” he reassured her.


Fast forward two hours. Lo and behold, Valentin is in her fencing class. First match of the session: Baboo v Valentin.


There is justice in the world. Or at least in fencing class. She whips his funky butt, four points to two. He is overheard telling Tom, “Elle n’est pas nulle!” In other words, she’s something. Youpie!


New topic. Had a serious scare this week. Got a letter from Pani Babka, our 84-year-old neighbor in Bratislava. She's a sweetie and saved my life during the move because I would spend hours at the house dealing with it and forget to eat. Yes, it does happen. One night she found me outside, practically in tears because I was so tired and hungry and stressed. I don't know what I had done with the kids. Playdates, I guess. She dragged me inside and fed me, not just then, but on several occasions. Just real basic stuff, but real comfort food. And always plied me with homemade hootch. Even at breakfast.


Me: "I have to DRIVE!" (Slovakia has zero tolerance)


Her: "It's gentle! It has herbs!"


Anyhoo . . . this summer I sent her a postcard from Mackinac. And this week I open the mailbox and there’s a letter from her. It's all in Slovak (she speaks no English). I scan it, thinking I might get something. I do. I see "Pan Varga" (Mr. Varga, our landlord there), and the words for "windows open," "unusually warm," "plyn" (gas), and "43,000 crowns" (over $2,000). PANIC!


I can only describe that sinking sensation as being sure the top of my head is going to blow clean off. I hadn’t felt this stressed since the move, when every day I was sure I was going to die from a stroke or an aneurysm. Looking back on the move later, I have no idea why I got so worked up: everything went smoothly. But at the time . . . it was all coming back to me now.


We had been on the easy-payment-plan for gas there . . . like in the US: you pay a flat monthly amount and they settle up with you in August. We had overpaid, but the account was in Varga's name, so the refund check came to him. It was a couple grand, but we told him to keep it in lieu of paying to repaint the place when we moved out (that's negotiable, but usually the tenant leaving pays). He had made some noise, but we even moved out early, and he had a new tenant and could have had no break in income if he had chosen.


I was stressing because I thought there was some issue about us owing more money. I didn't know whether to ruin The Spouse's day by sharing the letter now (I scanned it and could email it). Or wait til he got home from work (at which point it would be too late to deal with it that day). We had had a bit of a tiff that morning . . . and I hadn't spoken to him since . . .


“Are you talking to me?” I decide to call.


“Of course.”


“Are you busy?”


“Not so busy.”


“Do you want to hear something that might be bad news but I can’t tell because I can’t read it but I guess I could get someone else to translate it for me but if it’s bad you will have to hear about it anyhow sooner or later . . .”


“For heaven’s sake! What is it?”


“I think we could owe Varga gas money.”


“Screw Varga,” he tells me.


Long story short, he forwarded Pani Babka’s letter to his former secretary in Slovakia who said the Babka was just gossiping about the tenants who followed us: they had parted with Varga on bad terms and, out of spite, had cranked the heat and opened all the windows and it had been several days before he realized and was now stuck with a big gas bill. She thinks he then realized what good eggs we were.


New topic. At 9:30 this morning, I finally got naked and ready to step in the shower because I had an English conversation date with Hairdresser to the Stars at 11:00. It was then I realized we had NO HOT WATER! I always feel a certain pressure to clean up my act before seeing HTTS because I don't want anyone to see me leaving his salon and think, "THIS is after?"


Moscow famously shuts off the hot water for three weeks in the summer. But I was in the US when our neighborhood's turn came around, so I did not have to invest in lobster pots for heating bath water. Once, more than 20 years ago, I had to wash in Taiwan with no hot water. But it was summer. One teakettle of hot water, cut with cold water, was enough to shampoo, rinse, condition, and rinse my hair while I stood in the bathtub. It took two teakettles' worth this morning, while I bent over the kitchen sink and dripped on the kitchen counter. The water was back later this afternoon. Life in the Big City.


I leave you to ponder winter in Moscow with the words of Ezra Pound:

Winter is icumen in,

Lhude sing Goddamm,

Raineth drop and staineth slop,

And how the wind doth ramm!

Sing: Goddamm.

Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,

An ague hath my ham.

Freezeth river, turneth liver,

Damm you; Sing: Goddamm.

Goddamm, Goddamm, 'tis why I am, Goddamm,

So 'gainst the winter's balm.

Sing goddamm, damm, sing goddamm,

Sing goddamm, sing goddamm, DAMM.


Monday, October 13, 2008

In Which I Buy a Cheese

In Russian class last week, Baboo learned these verbs: "to speak," "to watch," and "to smoke." (Huh?)

They then learned the following dialogue:

"Here's a cigarette."
"Thanks, but I don't smoke."

Okay. I think there is something about the construction that works best in this scenario. But couldn't they save it for Russian 200? They are ten years old, after all. But in the French school, I suppose it's never too soon . . .

On a different topic, I went to the dry cleaners today.

I have been dreading this, and putting it off since last spring. It's never convenient. They will certainly ask me questions. In Russian. Questions like "Name?" and maybe "Address?" I'd rather have my teeth drilled.

But my winter coat is dirty, and, in fact, has been dirty since last spring. In fairness, I did try once, in early September. Alas, the little kiosk that was formerly a dry cleaner is now a shoe repair place. I even walked past another shop this week, only to discover, to my great delight, that this outlet, too, is no longer. I was off the hook.

Then, one day last week, while waiting for the light to change at an intersection near the girls' school, my eyes came into focus on a sign across the street from me. A dry cleaners! Ah ha! But where?

Crossing the street, I realize the dry cleaners is a drop off kiosk inside a small grocery store. How long it has been there is anyone's guess since I am deathly afraid of this grocery store.

It is one of those old Soviet style stores where everything is behind the counter. It is language intensive. You have to talk. Once I went in to buy a Diet Coke and couldn't figure out how to open the cooler, so I just ran away.

Dealing with the dry cleaner is bad enough! But at least this is all I need to deal with inside this store.

So today, on my way to pick up the children (they are done at 3:00), I bring along my winter coat. This is it. I'm going in. At 2:50 p.m., I take a deep breath, girding my loins, as it were, and I enter the grocery store.

Sitting in the dry cleaner booth is a very nice woman. She's one of those Russians with strong Tatar heritage, which means she looks like she could be Japanese. But her name tag says her name is Ludmilla. I'm excited I can even READ her name tag.

"Hello," I say in Russian. "Good day. I'm sorry, but I speak Russian not very well." I'm pulling out everything I've got.

No problem, she reassures me. She has a kind smile. This will be okay.

"This?" I say, producing my coat and putting it on her counter.

"Sure, sure, no problem," she starts looking it over. It has a faux fur collar and cuffs.

"It is synthetic?" she asks.

"Da. Synthetic," I reply. Hey! This is going to be easy.

She gets out a binder, and starts flipping through pages, looking for the correct price for this cleaning job. In my (other) coat, I am starting to sweat. I can feel the drops begin to roll down my sides. I look at the clock. She turns a page. She turns a page. She turns a page.

"Ah!" Her finger lands on a page. She's found it. "The price is 720 rubles."

Since I was expecting something between 500 and 1000, this is pretty much right on target for me.

"Good," I say.

But now she's flipping pages again. She turns some more pages. She runs her finger down the page. I look at the clock and sweat.

"Oh," she has made an adjustment. "710 rubles!" Well, that's better. Whatever. Just give me my receipt so I can get out of here. The clock moves towards 3 o'clock.

She puts the binder away and begins to write the receipt.

"Family name?" she asks.

I show her my visiting card. This is fine. She writes my name on the form.

"Phone?"

I point to my Moscow number on the card. She writes it, slowly, saying each of the ten digits aloud: "zero . . . nine . . . six . . . one."

At this point we are interrupted.

"Pardon me," a woman wants to ask a quick question about price. Out comes the binder again. She turns a page. She turns a page. She turns a page.

Bored now and still sweating profusely, I get 1010 rubles out of my purse, ready to pay my 710 rubles and make the change situation easy.

The interloper has her information and leaves. Ludmilla returns to the receipt process.

She writes in the date of drop off and the date of pick up. She writes what seems to me to be a description of the item. It goes on. And on. And on. From time to time she picks up the coat and examines it, and then writes another paragraph. WHAT IS SHE WRITING? The Great Russian Novel?

She finds a worn spot in the lining. Obviously, this is where I sat, probably while driving. Not good news, as this is only going to get worse. I have no idea where to get the coat relined in Moscow. But okay. Defect noticed and documented. I won't be able to cry foul later when I pick it up.

It is now 3:00 sharp.

She is still writing.

After what seems to me to be another full ten minutes (but was probably more like another 60 seconds), she puts down her pen.

"710 rubles," she says.

I hand her my 1010 rubles. She sets it carefully on the counter and finds her cash box. It is a small, plastic box, like a piece of Tupperware without the lid.

She begins to count out change for me . . . "One hundred . . . two hundred . . . "

She stops. She doesn't have change. She doesn't have 300 rubles to give me. I have some other money, but not something that works with her change box scenario.

I turn towards the cheese counter behind me. Surely this is a common occurrence. Surely the grocery store will make change for her. I raise my eyebrows towards the cheese counter.

As if reading my mind, Ludmilla brightens.

"Why don't you BUY something from the shop so they will give you change."

Please, God, no. Anything but this.

What I want now, is a Diet Coke. But still ouchy from my last attempt to buy one, and dubious that my attempt to purchace a 30-ruble item with a 500-ruble note will be met with smiles and flowers, I reject that idea.

Okay . . .

There's a line in front of the part of the store where they sell vodka. I really can't wait that long.

Cheese counter it is. We WERE out of cheese. I had just used the last of it this very morning, making eggs for The Spouse. I could use cheese. I guess.

I approach the cheese counter. Cheese Lady stands up and eyes me warily. I stab at the glass case with my index finger.

"This . . . cheese . . . please." I smile hopefully.

On her side of the display case Cheese Lady miraculously points to the very cheese I want.

"You want the WHOLE thing?" She is incredulous. The crazy American woman is buying an entire package of cheese. It must weigh . . . a whole 500 grams! (That's roughly a pound, for you non-metric types. And while I am digressing, I will confess that, in the interest of artistic integrity, I fished the wrapping out of the garbage can, where it was already buried beneath the children's uneatten penne, so as to make this entry just that much more real for you. I care that much.)

"Da. Whole thing," I tell Cheese Lady.

She snorts. "Well, it's your rubles . . . "

Huh?

She weighs the cheese. It costs 249 rubles. I have a 500. I set that on the counter and say "I have nine . . ." as I start to count out nine rubles.

"FORGET THE NINE!" she barks. Okay, okay! Sheesh. I collect my cheese and my change.

So the rest is boring. I took back my 1000-ruble note and gave Ludmilla a 500-ruble note and two 100-ruble notes. She still had the ten-ruble note on the counter. She finished writing War and Peace on the receipt. Without the coat, but now armed with a cheese, I was not that late to collect the children.

P.S. I stopped at the liquor store on the way home. To get, you know, vodka.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

In Which I Boast a Little

I am no longer able to make blogger respond to my requests to move photos around. So I'll brag about Skittles first, I guess.  But I am so proud of both of them.

Skittles is positively ebulent about her kids' cooking class. It is the high point of her week. 

Yesterday was the second class, and they made potato salad and bread rolls. She's getting really good with yeast doughs, which is great as I cannot make dough rise to save my life.  But the double-secret bonus, to me, is that she actually tries the foods she makes. 

She announced she wants to be a chef when she grows up. That's fine by me.


This school year, Baboo is in this special intensive-Russian program through her school. Their classroom is in a Russian school (which is, conveniently, just around the corner from the main campus). Two days a week they return to the main campus for lunch* and to use the computers and library. They have daily Russian lessons, and a structured exchange with specific Russian kids from their host school. Those kids have been studying French, and the two groups have time together every week.

*Lunch aside: Lunch at the Russian school is disappointing. Seems every day they get a weiner and a starch: either over-cooked pasta or flavor-free mashed potatos. Plastic cutlery. Baboo now takes a small container of flavored salt in her backpack. Her best friend brings those little salt packets like what you get from a fast food restaurant. 

Needless to say, the days they have lunch at the main campus are much nicer, more diverse, albeit a LOT more expensive.

Russian school lunch: 20 to 50 rubles a day. I don't know why the price varies since the menu doesn't. 

Main campus lunch: 190 rubles a day. Here is a typical lunch at the main campus:

**********
(Choose one)
 
Assiette de crudités (raw veggie plate) 
Salade de carottes (carrot salad) 
Salade au jambon et fromage (ham and cheese salad) 
***** 
Soupe de légumes (vegetable soup) 
*****
(Choose one)
 
Fricassée de poulet (fried chicken) 
Pain de porc (breaded pork cutlet) 
Poisson cajun (cajun-style fish) 
***** 
(Choose one)
Riz doré (yellow rice)
 
Haricots verts (green beans)
*****
(Choose one)
 
Yaourt (yogurt) 
Fromage (cheese . . . well, duh!)
*****
(Choose one)
 
Fruits de saison (seasonal fruits) 
Jus de fruits (fruit juice) 
Pâtisserie (pastry . . . Guess which is more popular in this category?)

Baboo said she and one of her French classmates were sitting on the playground during recess last week, and a group of Russian girls came over and asked them questions. Baboo and friend answered, in their limited Russian, and the Russian girls said, "Oooooo!"

We asked her teacher if she could skip English class. "Well, many of her classmates speak English well," he began.

Um, yeah. But this kid's mother tongue is English, we insisted. He left it with a "We'll see about that."

He's been using Wednesday mornings to give her class assessment tests. Shortly after we had the English-skills conversation, there was a question on an assessment test, asking her to identify the last movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. She doesn't know how to say that in French, so she wrote "Ode to Joy."

Suddenly her teacher realized that not only does she know English, but she knows THINGS in English. It really is a working language for her. So she got yanked out of English class and given extra one-on-one time with the Russian teacher.

The other weirdly wonderful thing is that last week the teacher emailed all of the parents a copy of a student's weekly assessment test so that we could use it to see the correct answers. It was not a flawless test, but it was, apparently, the best one. The student's name was whited out, but we recognized the handwriting immediately. 

The Spouse sees the teacher ever morning when he drops Baboo off at school. "She didn't get all the answers right," he said to Teacher. 

"If she didn't get the answer, no one got it," said Teacher. 

Pardon me for being proud . . .

Friday, September 19, 2008

In Which I Am Romanced by the Rouble

Okay, so this week has been fair to good, with moments of amazement.

First and foremost, I found a Pilates instructor. There is a woman in Moscow who puts together the nicest monthly email list of news you can use.  And while I read it religiously, I had never found anything that inspired me to pick up the phone.

But this month there was an ad for a Pilates instructor, offering one-on-one instruction, her place or yours. So I arranged a session. 

Her apartment/studio is near what is called the Patriach's Pond. It's about a 40-minute walk from our place, just off the Garden Ring. The pond isn't very big, but it is surrounded by mature trees. Swans and ducks live on the pond. People walk their dogs there. The buildings surrounding it are not especially beautiful. In fact, some are flat out uninspired. But some are nice, and I saw a gallery of tasteful Indian or Southeast Asian artifacts in the ground floor of one. It reminds me very much of neighborhoods in Buenos Aires, in fact.

I believe the area features prominently in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, which, I confess, I own but have not yet read, as it is a rather Faustian satire featuring a talking black cat. Too out there for me, I'm afraid. But there is a Cafe Margarita across the street from the pond, so maybe I will have to sit in there and read the book this winter.

Anyhoo, as I stood in front of Pilates Instructor's building and debated how to work the buzzer panel, the door opened, and out came a tall, blonde young man.

"Oh, are you here to see PI?" he said. 

I introduced myself.

He introduced himself, all the while speaking North American-accented English. 

"Where did you get this accent?" I asked.

"Long story!" he said over his shoulder as he turned and headed for work. "Enjoy!"

As I climbed the stairs to PI's apartment, it occurred to me that her husband's name was familiar somehow, but definately NOT Russian. But by the time I reached her door it slipped my mind.

So PI lets me into the apartment, which is furnished with incredibly beautiful, ornate furniture and decorated with lots of Russian oil paintings. The art is good stuff, and the apartment makes me wonder what her husband does for a living. But while I am noisy, I am also crafty.

"Who's the artist?" I ask, disguising my true question.

"Oh, it all belongs to the landlady," says PI from the kitchen. 

Ah ha! The apartment came furnished!

"So you are not Russian?" I venture.

"Oh, no," she says. "I'm Slovak!"

Ahoj! How funny is that? This also explains the husband's name. He's Slovak, too.

So we proceed to have a Pilates session, which makes me very happy. In Bratislava, I took a class once a week, but, since this was Slovakia, the instruction was in Slovak. I could see what everyone else was doing and copy. And I figured out that the instructor kept saying "Inhale!" and "Exhale!" But now that I have had instruction in English, I can see what a disservice I was doing the technique. 

So that's one good thing from the useful newsletter. The other is that I found Skittles a kids' cooking class in it.

The girls' school offers a variety of after-school activities, but Skittles didn't see anything she really wanted to do this term. Baboo has fencing again, so I was feeling a little bad that Skittles might be short-changed.

The woman teaching the cooking class is an accompanying spouse. Her husband is in the hospitality industry and so was she before they had children. Wanting to do something interesting, she created this small class for kids, and I have to say, she's extremely organized. 

So that's the second good thing.

Then, in my quest to get out more and meet Russians, I agreed to participate in "English conversation." Long story short, I get sent to chat with Russians. No preparation. Just talk.

Yesterday, I went to my first such meeting. The student, let's call him Ivan, manages a business. He was pleasant and, although his English isn't very good yet, he was not shy about talking. He barely let me get a word in edgewise. He clearly lives in a different socio-economic world than do I. He talked about places he had been (Iguazu Falls, California's Pacific Highway, Venice, Rome, Euro Disney, South Africa) and his dacha (complete with a banya, jacuzzi, pool table, table tennis, pond, and patio). The whole thing was rather unremarkable, except for one very strange detail.

In his office, hung on the wall well above eye level, is a photo of his friend and business partner in New York. It was behind me during our chat, and while Ivan referred to it several times in a respectful and deferential manner (as one might refer to a photo of, say, the Dalai Lama), I could see the framed piece, but not the subject.

When I stood to go, I made a point of looking. 

The man in the photo was clearly Russian. But his whole look was a gold chain, Telly Savalas, "Who loves ya, baby?!" style. The photo was autographed. AUTOGRAPHED! It was a page right out of a Gary Shteyngart novel. 

I got the impression, at the end, that Ivan wasn't enamored of me. Something in his farewell gave me the impression that he wasn't going to schedule another chat with me, although I think it had more to do with his skill level than my personality. 

But today I had a new victim. I figured out that this student, let's call him Ivan, owns a salon in a posh new mall not far from my house. I mean, the salon has his name on it. So I was totally surprised when a very young man walked into the salon and turned to greet me. I figured out he must be 30, but because he is extremely lithe and stylish, he looks 23. 

"I have three salons in Moscow," he said modestly. 

"But you're too young!" I blurt out.

"Maybe for you!" he replied with an impish wink. 

("Did you take this opportunity to teach him the word 'MILF'," asked a cynical Spouse.)

Actually, this Ivan was a complete delight. Yes, if he is to be believed, his client list is a Who's Who of world celebrities. But he dropped names in such a charming and modest way. Miuccia Prada is a bundle of nervous energy, I learned, for example. Name a designer, Ivan has either studied under them or worked with them.

He said he was married with children, but I just put on my Fag Hag hat. I mean, he's a hairdresser and his favorite musicians are Tina Turner, Elton John, and Madonna. He's gotta be bi, at least, right? Not that there's anything wrong with it. I thought he had great energy, and I think we hit it off.

Sadly, our session was cut short when a client arrived early. He sent staff to give her coffee, but that only bought us a few more minutes before he clearly felt obliged to go deal with her.

"See you Monday?" he asked hopefully, as he walked me out.

I dunno. I'll have to talk to Central Booking.

So I guess this makes me English-for-Hire. I've become seduced by the romance of the rouble.  I bet the reference is lost on many. I wanted to post the source, but the embedding has been disabled. So I'll just provide this link instead. Oh, and the "women" in the clip? They're Welsh. Don't ask me why.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

In Which I Rock with More Old Dudes

Last month it was Alice Cooper. 

Last night I went to see Queen + Paul Rodgers.

Yeah, I know. Queen without Freddie Mercury is like . . . I dunno. Fill in the blanks.

But Paul Rodgers came from Bad Company, so, in a way, it was like getting two concerts for the price of one (and at Moscow prices, a bargain is a good thing). Yeah, sometimes he seemed a little overwhelmed by the rest of the band when they were playing the Queen stuff. But when he sang the new songs or the Bad Company songs . . . he rocked. 

If you go to YouTube, you can find clips of them doing the same show last week in Kharkov, Ukraine. Their website says

Playing an awareness-raising outdoor concert in Kharkov’s Freedom Square, the second largest square in Europe, at the event supported by Queens’ own HIV AIDS charity, The Mercury Phoenix Trust, and organized by the Elena Franchuk ANTIAIDS Foundation, the show by Queen + Paul Rodgers attracted more than 350,000 to see the overture concert for its 33-city tour of Europe and immediately entered the record books as the biggest charity event devoted to the fight against AIDS in the Ukraine.

Which is cool. Our crowd was, obviously, not this big. But the feel was the same. Except, perhaps, when they did We Are the Champions. There was something vaguely unsettling about thousands of Russians singing "We are the champions . . . ." It kind of creeped me out. 

What else was, well, different, was what they sold at the concert. No black t-shirts. No booze. (What? In Russia!) It was like we were going to see the circus instead of a serious rock and roll band. I saw a guy eating a Dove bar. You could buy Russian flags and cowboy hats and light-up devil horns. 

But no beer. I didn't want any beer. But I wanted them to sell the beer.

I'll leave you with a clip of my favorite number, a song I am sure I haven't heard since the last time I played my Night at the Opera LP:



You rock on, Roger Taylor!

And Brian May just looked so . . . blissed out. Like he was having the time of his life. And, yeah, he made us sing too. For Freddie.



And finally, this is what I paid my money for. Turn it up.



Thursday, September 11, 2008

In Which I Become a Pariah

Just in case you were thinking, "Gee, my friend the Expatresse could make a pretty penny with some English conversation gigs," I want you to understand me when I tell you

NOT BLOODY LIKELY.

You may have been wondering, just how, exactly, Russian-US relations have changed, cooled even, since the Georgian thing. Well, your answer is right here.

Yeah. That's right. Leprosy testing. 

Oh, and I'm gonna rush to assume the lithotomy position right now so I can chat with some elitny oligarch. 

Pul-eaz.

When I mentioned this to a Russian woman I know, she laughed and laughed.

"My dear," she said (you'll have to imagine the thick Russian accent). "Don't pay attention to anything Russian government does!" 

Uh huh.


Monday, September 8, 2008

In Which I Re-Enter the Fray

Temperature: Over 80F! And humid. My hair is out of control.

I've been back over a week now and have been thinking about what stands out to me as quintessentially Moscow. Being new to a place brings the odd differences sharply into focus, Being away two whole months brings reminders screaming into view.

So what am I struck by here?

The gorgeous golden egg yolks.
American eggs disappointed me. I shopped at Trader Joe's all summer. At the Giant Eagle, I bought Eggland's Best. But nothing rose above a pale anemic yellow. The eggs here are fantastic.

All tap water, all the time.
My American house, which we refer to as 910 because this is the street address, has typical "older home" water pressure. If you flush, you have to wait before you turn on the shower. Don't wash dishes immediately after you put in a load of laundry. Oh! And you can cook with and drink the water at 910, too.

Here in my Moscow digs, there is a never-ending flow of hot water. Cold water too. If someone flushes, no problem! But you don't want to drink it. Today, I heard a rumor that in the winter, whatever passes as the Moscow Water Works adds antifreeze to the mix. This seems unlikely. But it might also explain why my skin when so wacka-wacka last winter.

I love the smell of vodka in the morning.
Man, oh man. Moscow has more drunks than Kelleys Island. 

I was on the Metro last Friday at 10:45 in the morning. Well-Dressed Dude sitting next to me reeks of Ruski Standart. Well, I don't know that it wasn't Stoli or even Absolute. But, Dude! It's not just for breakfast!?

This is not a rare occurance in Moscowtown, I assure you. I often see people dressed for the office, but smelling strongly of vodka. Walking under the Garden Ring this morning, I passed a step full of empty beer bottles. Okay, maybe they were from yesterday, and the cleaning crew hadn't gotten there yet. But, emerging on the other side, I saw a very drunk young man, staggering and leaning against parked cars in a "Ohhhhhh! I don't feel so good!" sort of way. 

The weather was nice this weekend and brought everyone out to the parks. On a walk to a friend's house Saturday night (this was at 7:30 in the evening), the four of us stared in amazement as a young man sitting on the end of a park bench, turned around to face the back of the bench, puked a liquid beer puke, turned to face front again, and continued texting a message on his phone. Didn't miss a beat.

On the way home that same night, we came across a young man who had just passed out on the sidewalk. A small crowd had gathered. Someone poked him with the toe of their shoe. The Spouse leaned in, had a look, and declared, "He's breathing." The crowd grew bored and wandered off. So did we.

Today, the Drunk Count on the walk home from school was eight: five passed out on benches, mouths agape, and two bleary-eyed souls treating the head injury of a third who looked as though he had fallen down and cracked his eyebrow. Or gotten in a fight. They had a styptic pencil.

Bitchin' public transportation: aka You're Not in Cowtown Anymore.
The Metro is an incredible thing. The moment I walked in on my first trip since returning, I smelled that dusty, metallic smell that is the Metro (when it is not overwhelmed with B.O. and alcohol). Quite simply: the Metro rocks.

The Spouse saw a documentary about it recently on Russian TV. The drivers are all men: the job is too technical and requires more precision than women can manage, or so they reported on the program. Drivers arrive at some undisclosed Metro check-in location the night before their shifts begin. The Spouse assumed that this was to ensure they have a proper night's sleep and a good breakfast before the rigors of their work day begin. I assumed this was to ensure they are SOBER before the rigors of their work day begin. They are awakened gently and served a hearty breakfast. Probably kasha and vodka.

I got shoved OUT of the Metro on that vodka-soaked ride last Friday. When I got on, the car was quite full. I was travelling several stops. At the first stop, the doors opened, and EVERYONE tried to exit. At first I was able to sort of turn and collapse my spine so that the wave of humanity just washed over me. But eventually the wave became a tsunami, and I was pushed into the passengers waiting to enter. The woman I landed on was understanding. "It's probably safer out here!" is how I translated her good-natured reaction. When we finally all got (back) on the train, she gave me a conspiratorial thumbs up. I laughed. She probably thought I had been drinking my breakfast.

The noise, noise, NOISE!
I had forgotten how noisy the city is. When the girls and I are walking home from school, it is very difficult to carry on a conversation over the noise of the traffic. Yet, there is a city behind the City: in the courtyards and alleys and sidestreets, all is calm.

The City that never sleeps.
Friday was a small farewell for my friend who owns Luna the Dog. Her husband's job is taking them to Armenia. I emerged from the restaurant about 11:30 p.m., and proceded to walk home. I'm rarely out this late, so I was blown away by the incredible number of people out on the street, not just in front of the restaurant (which is a pedestrian zone), but the whole way home. Every kiosk, from Crap Dogs to Crunchy Potato, was open. But the most surprising thing was all the flower vendors. 

Who needs flowers at midnight? 

Muscovites, apparently.

Monday, September 1, 2008

In Which We Return, Triumphant

Temperature: It was 8C this morning. That’s about 45F. It IS Labor Day, right?

Snow: Um, none yet. But I did wear my winter boots yesterday. In August.


We’re back. I am looking forward to the first day of school tomorrow, and a coffee and Bitch Session with Favorite Girlfriend. She spent her summer in Paris.


I know Paris, and Moscow is far superior. In Moscow, the prices are lower, the buildings are tidier, there are the cutest little boat rides on the river. And the language is so much prettier and more approachable. The people are civilized, and you can sit in a cute little bistro and get wine in little carafes. But in Paris, it's just cold and heartless old bag ladies and getting shoved around in the Metro. Today, I went to the store to get school supplies. Everybody waited in line and the cashier smiled when we got to the front. She wished me a nice day.


I can imagine shopping for schools supplies in Paris . . . ugly, dirty Paris, where the crowds would just push past me to get where they are going, knocking me into the shelves and making my daughters cry. Looking at me like I just shit myself when they hear me speaking English with The Spouse, and the cashier not even looking up from the cash register. People would try to push in front of us, and the people behind us would try to push us, too. On the Metro, some drunk guy who was plastered at 11:00 in the morning on a Sunday would sneeze a huge sneeze onto the back of my head, and I would move, in tears, to stand near the door next to yet another vodka-soaked, middle-aged creep and the fat lady with the bag who would practically knock my school supply bag out of my hand to get to a seat. Like I was going to steal her seat. Fat old cow. Screw you, lady. I hope somebody peed on that seat.


And then going to the Septieme Continent in Paris, which I remember well. There, they don't have any herbs except dill dill dill dill and packages of parsley with dill. Oh, and some olive oil that they wanted $50 for. $50 for olive oil. What? Are these olive trees that Christ prayed amongst or something? Why in God's name would you need to pay $50 for olive oil?


I remember one freezing Sunday in August trying to buy a light bulb from a kiosk in one of those underground passages, and the prices were not at all what they were showing in the window, and the sales lady just sighed and barked at me and The Spouse. And I never would even have to go to such lengths to buy light bulbs under the street from this nasty old bitch if they only had light bulbs at the Septieme Continent, but NOOOOOOO, you have to buy everything in Paris from some underground passage where people pee.


This is why The Spouse and I just love Moscow, and we were discussing this just today while I was taking a shower to wash my hair as soon as we got home from school supply shopping.


I am sure Favorite Girlfriend and her husband are happy to be back in civilization and away from the gray, cold, drunkenness of French failure that is Paris.


You know I’m joking. Right?


Yesterday was actually a disaster on oh, so many levels. The School Supply Shopping Outing I mention above, was, relatively, a bright spot.


The day started off on the wrong foot when I opened one eye as The Spouse left the bedroom at 8:00 a.m. only to open the other eye almost THREE HOURS LATER at 11:00 a.m. Cursed jetlag! Now the day is half shot. And, not only that, but The Spouse is trapped in the dining room with a dead battery in his laptop because the babysitter has slept over on the couch, rendering him loathe to enter the living room and retrieve the cord that enables him to plug the laptop into the wall.


We have a Very Late Breakfast, the sitter leaves, and we venture out to hunt up a few school supplies. Our first stop, one of those underground passages, is fruitless as the shop in which I once bought scissors and highlighting pens is no more. But we get a replacement light bulb, which I then drop.


No problem. It’s fluorescent. We’ll venture over to House of Books, on one of those Arbat streets (I always get Old Arbat and New Arbat mixed up). House of Books has a rather large office/school supply department.


Oh, but the best laid plans can go awry. Hubris overtakes us as in a Greek tragedy. The Metro is busy enough that, on the escalator, a phalanx of Muscovites separates Baboo and me from The Spouse and Skittles. We emerge at the top of the escalator. No Spouse. No Skittles. Nevermind.


Forgetting the First Rule of Separation in the Metro (“STAY PUT! WE WILL COME BACK FOR YOU!”), determined not to let Moscow get the best of me, I soldier on, Baboo in tow.


But I forget where I am going, take a wrong turn, and find myself outside on the street in front of the Lenin Library. This is not right, I proclaim, and, paying for two more Metro rides, Baboo and I reenter the Metro.


Although this is a Metro station with which I have a lot of experience, it is the ONLY point on the entire Moscow Metro where FOUR lines and FOUR stations converge. Two of the lines, the Light Blue/3 and the Dark Blue/4, share two, count ‘em TWO stop names. So although I find what turns out to be the right platform, I am discombobulated enough that I watch the train enter and leave the station twice, just to make sure it is the one I want (the one I want does not continue in the same direction, but pulls in, and then backs out).


I try calling The Spouse, but he either does not have his phone or he is deep enough in the Metro that he is not receiving a signal. I have the money and the Metro pass. He has the shopping list. I know where the bookstore is. I figure he has gone on ahead, and I will find him there, shopping basket full, waiting for me to pay for what he and Skittles have gathered.


Nope. Baboo and I are wandering around in the bookstore when my phone rings. It’s The Spouse. He and Skittles went to his office as he decided they needed a phone.


What else do you need to know? He met us. We used machetes to slash our way through the throngs of fellow shoppers. People looked at me like I just shit myself when they heard me speaking English to the girls, and the cashier didn't even look up from her cash register, but sighed deeply, typed the amount due on her calculator, and showed us that like we were idiots because she mumbled the total and we couldn’t hear her. On the Metro, some drunk guy sneezed a huge sneeze onto the back of Baboo’s head, and a fat lady practically knocked my school supply bag out of my hand to beat Skittles to a seat.


Then, later, in a bizarre epilogue, The Spouse e-mailed a document to his experts in the Office Copy Center and asked for six copies. When he picked them up at 8:00 p.m. last night, the document had printed badly but Copy Center Guy didn't notice, so The Spouse had him do it again, which took 90 minutes. At 9:30 p.m., The Spouse exited into arctic temperatures and rain to walk home. He got almost to our house when he met some drunk. We live just on the other side of the Garden Ring on which there are nine lanes of traffic in each direction and no gardens. So he goes into the underground passage to get to the other side, and in there is a guy absolutely trashed and staggering, and he says to The Spouse in Russian, "Oh, so we find ourselves alone here."


The Spouse just stares in incredulity, wondering if he understood correctly, and Dude says again, "So we're alone." Now, The Spouse hasn't had his shower today because nobody sneezed on the back of his head, and he hasn't shaved. He claims he didn’t look at all like anything anyone would want to be alone with, and just thought, “Oh, God, I am about to get raped right here in the underground passage, 100 meters from my own front door while police cars with sirens race above on the "Garden" Ring with no more important task other than to make sure some VIP doesn't have to wait for red lights.”


Fortunately, The Spouse looked tall and big in his parka from the Moscow Summer Collection and was able to speed walk past Dude telling him in English that “I don't understand,” and, mercifully, Dude went the other direction, shouting the whole way in idiomatic vagrant-ese.


Ah! Moscow. Queen of the Russian Land.


It’s good to be back.