Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Since You Asked

There have been requests for BEFORE and AFTER hairdo photos. So here is BEFORE. Note the No Nonsense Glare over the glasses. I think I was hungry.

And this is AFTER. With Winter Hat Hair and Hillbilly Bra Straps. And a child's arm coming out of my ear.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

In Which I Get Two Cabbage Rolls at 10:00 p.m.

Temperature: -1C
Snow: Negligible. But some of the sidewalks are skating rinks.
Reading: A Spot of Bother. It’s taking me a while to get through this, but I’m really enjoying it.
Number of Requests for Directions on the Street: One so far today. But I knew! And was able to explain. Okay, largely in mime. But I knew!

As part of my Expat Mental Health Maintenance (aka “It’s Cheaper Than Therapy”), the Spouse and I went downstairs on Saturday and made me an appointment at the neighboring salon for color and a cut. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog entries, I went sort of auburn the last few times I had my hair done. And I like it, but because my roots are blonde, it requires more maintenance or I look like I am graying (for all I know I am gray . . . I’ve been coloring it for a few years now. But don’t tell anyone.).

My appointment was for 5:00 p.m., giving me plenty of time before our dinner reservation at Taras Bulba.

The dinner out was a celebration: both the girls scored 10/10 on their respective Russian tests. Skittles identified all the vowels and was lauded for it. “She’s only been here two weeks!” her teacher told the rest of her class. Baboo knew all of the week’s vocabulary. In Cyrillic. I thought some sort of celebration was in order, and they like the Chicken Kiev at this place, which is next to our building.

The salon is neither posh nor high-end. It’s a chain, and it’s very nice, but part of the reason I wanted to go there was that I thought it would be less expensive than one of the places that cater to expats.

So I dutifully appeared at 5:00 with Spouse/Translator. He looked at me and said, “What do you want me to tell her?”

“Well,” I said, “Show her this photo from the summer, and tell her I want to change the color back to something more blonde like this.” I opened a small photo album I brought with me.

“How do you want her to cut it?” he asked.

“I usually tell them to consider the shape of my face and my age and the curliness of my hair and just do what they think works. But leave some bangs because I have to cover the wrinkles on my forehead.”

The Spouse stared at me blankly. “I don’t know how to say that!”

“Oh, c’mon.”

The man can negotiate a contract in Russian. Surely he could improvise here.

I persist, “In Slovakia I would always just say in Slovak ‘I’m an old lady. Please hide old lady thing’ and point at my forehead and then they would laugh . . .”

“STOP!” He cut me off and turned back to the stylist. They spoke at length, and he left.

I did not see him again for FIVE hours.

FIVE HOURS, ladies and gentlemen. Man, she was S L O W. Like molasses in, well, Moscow. I knew I was in trouble when she began one of those foil/color weave procedures and after an hour she had only foil wrapped one row from my crown to the nape of my neck.

Further, I always find sitting in the chair at a hair salon very soporific. I could barely keep my eyes open, and at one point realized I must have dozed off because I twitched violently and snapped my head upright the way you do when you fall asleep on an airplane. Only minus the drooling and snoring. I hope.

Once she rinsed off the weave dye, she came at me with another bowl of color.

As 8:00 approached, I was texting the Spouse, saying “Go ahead. I’ll meet you there.” But by 9:00 I changed that to “Just bring home some cabbage rolls for me, please.”

Skittles, who had a haircut by the same stylist a few weeks ago, said, “You think it’s over, but it never ends. She cuts one hair at a time.”

In the end I did get a natural-looking color and a flattering cut. And two cabbage rolls from Taras Bulba. Oh, but the price? You don’t wanna know. I think they charged me by the hour.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Whole Lotta Love

Temperature: 0C
Snow: I dunno. A couple inches?

The Zeppelin reference doesn't really mean anything other than I've been humming the song, including the guitar riffs, all day (Yeah, it truly dates me, but it's so much more my speed than Can You Feel the Love Tonight, no disrespect meant to Elton John). I got so many lovely emails in response to yesterday's entry, that I started out thinking, in an Early-SNL-Bill-Murray-Lounge-Lizard delivery, "There's a lotta love in the room." That devolved to "Whole. Lotta. Love." Cue Zeppelin II.

So your reward is a lot of photos, taken today, illustrating the Walk to School on a Very Snowy Afternoon and Why I Don't Drive Here. Special bonus for ER: Our Skunky Entryway. Just so you know that public areas in Russian apartment buildings are all disgusting. I will post photos of our apartment once we get the art hung. I promise. So here goes . . .

This is the heated entrance to Trubnaya Metro. See how it is clear of snow, even though it's snowing like crazy and the walkways are all covered in it? I also wondered if the soldier types were going to chastise me for taking photos of a Metro stop. But they didn't pay any attention.

This is Trubnaya Plaza (Place? It just says Pl on my map.). The area behind the yellow barricades is normally parking. The big, steaming machines melt the snow. Note the mountain of snow in the background (in front of the yellow building).

Steaming snow melter. In the background, on the left, with the onion dome tower, is a monastery.

Down the block from the French school. The red and white tape and the red barricade mean that things might fall on you. A story in The Moscow Times this week reported that

The removal of icicles longer than 10 centimeters from buildings is required by law and enforced by the city. Every day, local authorities check no fewer than 1,500 buildings, and fines await those who do not take the appropriate measures to deal with the buildup of ice and snow.

Creative Parking 101. Note the double-parked cars on the left. That's right: the left. The dirty white car is parked. There's no one in it.

More Fun With Parking. These cars are abandoned on the sidewalk.

Typically dirty car. It can't be helped.

Double parking in front of the school (the red, brick building). Often peoples' drivers sit in their cars here and wait to pick up the kids.

In front of school. This isn't particularly noteworthy in terms of traffic. Some of the buildings are cool.

The Garden Ring. Basically the corner in front of our place. One of the reasons I don't drive here.

If you see this you are practically to our place. The black text says Taras Bulba. Looks just like Yul Brynner, doesn't he?

In front of our building. On the door on the left is a series of dials. Turn them to our apartment number, and I will buzz you in!

Once inside, you have the mailboxes on the left, and the elevator/stairs in front of you. Welcoming, isn't it?

And the view of the front door from the elevator.

Lest you think I am in a totally Moscow Bashing Place, let me close with a story.

I was in the Sedmoy (our grocery store) this morning, at the deli/meat counter. The woman serving me was a Tough Russian Broad. Think about those old Wendy's ads: "Svimvear! Evening Vear!" I point at the stuffed peppers (they're good!) and say, in Russian, "This, please."

"NYET!" she barks at me. "We don't have any!"

"But they're . . . right . . . there . . ." I say in a pathetic tone, pointing.

"NYET!" she insists. "Stara!"

The light bulb goes off. Ahhh! They're old! She's not going to screw over the foreign broad. She knows me by now.

I lean over the counter and whisper in Russian, "Thanks!"

She does not smile.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

In Which I Cry Between Park Kul’tury and Biblioteka im Lenina

Temperature: -2C
Snow: Not an issue. Most sidewalks are pretty clean; some are even dry.
Number of requests for directions on the street: Today? Just one. But yesterday I was stopped three times.

I hesitated to write this entry, as I will inevitably sound childish and spoiled and materialistic. I ultimately decided to include it, however, because I know it will serve to measure, in some future time, how far I’ve come.

So here's the truth: I cried on the Metro today.

Logically, I know it is part of the process of adjustment. I remember sitting in front of the mirrored closet doors in our Buenos Aires apartment, crying and looking at my lumpy, pregnant reflection. I hated being there, and more than anything I was hoping someone would see what a dumb idea it was for us to be in Argentina and yank us back to Florida.

I remember shortly after arriving in Bratislava sitting in my car in the Carrefour parking lot, crying on the phone to the Spouse because I was having a lousy day. I also recall a summer day, just a few months later, when I sat on my balcony looking out over the city and thinking, “I don’t have any friends here. That’s okay for now. But I don’t have any friends here.”

And I have described these experiences countless times to other newly-arrived and similarly-blue expats. “One day, a few weeks after you arrive,” I would tell them, “the newness of the place will have worn off, and you will think ‘Oh. My. God. This is where I am.’ And you will be depressed. But usually this moment is the nadir. And one day, not that much later, you will suddenly realize how much you have adjusted to the place. And it won’t be so bad. You might even come to love the place.”

I did. But that's getting ahead.

Here’s what I hope is my nadir.

As much as I currently have zero interest in being social and meeting new people, I forced myself to go two new places.

Last night the Spouse and I attended a wine tasting, sponsored by a local wine vendor. It was okay. The other people talked to us. They were funny, educated, and well traveled. But I didn’t feel that instant Best Friend Vibe. And we hadn’t eaten dinner because I thought there would be more food. Furthermore, the evening, while pleasant, resulted in both of us being up way too late on a School Night.

Tired and cranky (okay, perhaps even just a little hung over), this morning I ventured to a lecture series on Russian culture. A Very Nice Woman I met via an expat forum invited me and even offered to meet me at the nearest Metro stop so we could go together. VNW was delightful. The speaker was interesting. But I couldn’t help measuring myself against the other women in the room.

I know. I know.

But I did it. So sue me. Better yet, whomp me hard enough that I think twice before playing that head game again anytime soon.

Because this is what I thought while I sat there:

This is a very large and very expensive apartment that is tastefully decorated and beautifully furnished by people who clearly have no small children living with them.

If I live to be 100, I will never have a living room that looks like that one.

I cannot say that “everyone else had a driver.” But there were a lot of big, black SUV type cars sitting out on the street with drivers who were reading while their clients sat next to me in the lovely living room. Did I mention it had Oriental carpets?

I no longer have a car. I will not have a driver here. If you know me, you know I’m not shy about spending money. But I cannot justify spending $1000 a month (plus gas) to have someone available to drive me places. Nice as that would be.

My roots are longer than the dyed part of my hair. I have two choices: go to the Expat Salon where they speak English (but charge a fortune) or wait until I get help or learn enough Russian to make an appointment somewhere closer to home.

Yeah. I know. I can take a photo from this summer with me, point, and say, “This, please.” in Russian. But the thought makes me tired. The other women were discussing upcoming appointments at the Expat Salon and, frankly, I was jealous because I don’t see myself ever doing that.

I’m fat, old, and provincial.

Okay, there were women of all ages and sizes there today. But I have a remarkable ability to see only the thin, athletic, pretty ones with the really cool purses. Who are younger than I am.

I’ll never get to a gym again. I don’t have the time now and they are too expensive here.

Yeah, that might not be true either. I was spoiled in Bratislava. And I do a lot more walking here, so it might not matter. But I miss the activity.

So by noon the talk was over, I was back at the Metro, and hungry. I went in the out door. Dead end. I didn’t get yelled at, but I might have. I had to go around the building to the proper entrance.

I forgot that this stop handles two lines, and I went down the escalator to the wrong one. No big deal: just go back up. Except I had to wait for an entire train’s worth of people to get on the escalator in an orderly fashion (walkers on the left, standers on the right). It took a few minutes. And I was getting irrational with hunger now.

I found my line. I found the right platform. I even found a place to stand without feeling like my pocket was surely being picked. And because I was both tired and hungry and insecure, my lip started to quiver, and I started to cry.

On the Metro.

I want grown up furniture and real Oriental carpets and a decent dye job (and maybe even a pedicure although I’ve given up on my hands). While at the same time I hate myself for being materialistic, coveting other people’s things and fitness clubs, and feeling inferior.

“Oh, never cry on the Metro!” Russian Girlfriend in Bratislava counseled me later via SMS. “You’ll attract the wrong kind of people. Or develop sinus infections! When are you coming to visit? I’ll give you a make over. You’ll knock ‘em all dead.”

God, I adore this woman.

“Stop by the office,” said the Spouse. “The Sandwich Guy is still here. You can get a decent, cheap lunch and sit in my office.”

I don’t remember the last time a sandwich tasted that good. I sat there and chewed while he talked on the phone. It was just what I needed.

At the French school I vented to My Favorite French School Mom. “Oh, in our last posting I was insecure for a year!” she confided. “Plus, how do you know these other people are even happy?

Huh. Maybe they’re not. Not that I wish for them to be unhappy.

But she’s right: it’s hard to tell what someone else’s demons are, even when you know that someone well.

So food for thought, a lesson learned, a decent meal, and an early bedtime. As the Spouse pointed out, it will never be harder than this.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

There’s No Business Like SNOW Business

Temperature: -1C
Snow: Yeah, baby! We got snow!

Inclement weather, and how a population copes with it, is one way to characterize that population. I grew up in Central Ohio, for example, where a serious snowfall was a rare thing. Cleveland had the “lake effect,” but Columbus just didn’t get much snow. Even a small amount could result in school closings and general chaos on the roads. My mother, a Minnesotan, used to snort disdainfully at the Ohioans’ inability to cope with snow. Wimps.

In Miami, it was the rain that made life interesting. In the summer, every afternoon, the heat of the sun caused water to evaporate from the Atlantic Ocean on the east coast of Florida. The water droplets formed big, gorgeous clouds, and drifted west, until they hit cooler air or a similar cloud that had formed over the Gulf and drifted east. The point of contact was usually somewhere over my office by the Miami Airport. You could see the storms rolling in over the airport runways.

The other fascinating thing was that these storms were extremely contained. You could be driving south on the Sawgrass Expressway with the top down and not feel a drop of what was POURING onto the northbound lanes. But what amazed me, was although these downpours occurred EVERY day in the summer, Dade Country drivers still freaked out when the pavement got wet. You'd think they had never seen rain before.

So now I’m learning about weather in Moscow. (“She lived in both Miami and Moscow.” I’m sorry, but that sounds exotic, doesn’t it?) And this weekend we got some snow. As it happened, I did not go out until yesterday afternoon when the weather had warmed up some (just below freezing). The streets and parts of the sidewalks were a slushy mess. I say “parts” because Moscow is teeming with people, usually from one of the ‘Stans it seems (Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan . . .). These men and women have beautiful round, flat faces and Oriental eyes, wear day-glo orange jackets, and work like crazy to clean the public thoroughfares.

In the big park we walk through, they sweep off the benches. There is snow on the ground, yet you can sit on a nice, dry bench if you want. They shovel the sidewalks. They chop up the ice. They squeegee.

On a warmer day, the result is that the sidewalks get pretty clean, but the gutters are mountains of dirty snow and oceans of brown, watery slush. I misjudged a step and ended up ankle deep in icy water that seeped through the zipper on my boot.

Today Skittles and I saw a man with a snow shovel with a reeeeeally long handle, leaning over the roof of the KGB building and cleaning snow off the ledges. The sidewalk below him was blocked off, as are all sidewalks featuring excessive dripping, icicle crashing, or roof avalanches, with red and white plastic crime scene tape. Liability? No problem: you have marked the hazard with tape.

But aside from the manpower, there’s great Russian snow technology. Snow blowers? We don’t need no stinkin’ snow blowers. Okay, we got ‘em, but we have so much more.

There’s a brand new Metro stop (Trubnaya) at the end of the park. The entrance to this Metro is not only clean, but also dry. Yesterday afternoon I figured it out. Walking toward it with the sun in my face, I could see the steam rising off the pavers: it’s heated! The walkway into this Metro stop is heated, and since there are steps to go down, this means they will not be slippery and treacherous. How cool is that?

Then there are the Melting Machines. Trubnaya Plaza is a big intersection. It’s so big that people park in the center of one of the cross streets. It’s hard to describe, but think of parking in the grassy median of a boulevard.

Except there is no grass. Only pavement. And now there is no parking.

All the snow that got scraped up off the streets nearby has been deposited in mountains two stories high where the cars normally park. Portable barricades protect the mountains. Earthmovers have replaced the cars. Workers scoop up the snow with the earthmoving equipment and dump it into giant movable heating units. Melting machines. From Canada! It says so on them.

The machines, about the size of what is on the back of a cement mixing truck, steam, and melt the snow into a nasty Slurpee consistency, which then pours out of the heating unit and down into the storm sewer. As the day progresses, a lot of the slush misses its mark and runs down the street, making the gutters at this intersection particularly unpleasant.

That’s when cars flying by plow through the puddles spraying the intersection with grey Icee. Yuck. I'm learning to stand at the corner the way the Russians do: not too close.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Crap Dogs! Life on the Street

Temperature: -4C
Snow: None! What’s up with that?

I was walking back from taking the girls to school and thinking about Moscow street life, what little I’ve seen of it so far, and if that might make interesting reading.

What a Difference Some Sun Makes: Tuesday was sunny, for a switch. In fairness, it is winter here. Columbus, Ohio has short dark days. Even in Miami the days were shorter and the light was different in January. Most places don’t look their best on a cold and gray day.

But, boy, add some sun! This city positively sparkles in the sun. In general, the architecture is pretty. Much of what I see is early 20th century (many buildings have dates on them) and art nouveau-y. Not Gaudiesque, but lots of ornamentation, with curving balconies and decorative tiles and friezes. Colors range from sky blue to apricot to, my very favorite, a persimmon red.

Yes, there is lots of new construction, and the sky is silhouetted with construction cranes. But turn any corner and there’s an Orthodox church with golden onion domes and those exotic crosses wired to the top.

There’s a small hill on the way to school: we get to go down it on the way home. And on Tuesday, with the rare sunshine, suddenly I could see church domes and other lovely buildings all along the horizon. I never saw them before. Today was back to cloudy and overcast, and I looked again: yes, they were still there, but they didn’t pop.

Pardon Me, Ma’am: It is surely a Russian, or a Moscow thing, but people ask one another for directions on the street all the time. They especially seem to like asking me for directions. I must not be cultivating my Gangsta Bitch look. Honestly, I get asked almost every day. Mostly it’s women, but a dorky college-aged boy asked me once.

Sometimes I do have my map in my coat pocket, and I have whipped it out before and looked up the street in question. Sometimes I say, “I don’t know,” in Slovak. But mostly I say, in very apologetic English, “I’m so sorry . . .”

The other day I was standing in front of the French school, when an older woman (yeah, yeah, I’m no spring chicken any more, but she really was OLD) asked me something.

“I’m sorry . . .” I started to say. But she wasn’t buying my lousy excuses. She kept asking me, and I had no idea what she was even talking about. Finally, I pointed at the school and said, “FRENCH SCHOOL!” But that didn’t seem to be what she wanted to know. She continued on down the street, muttering.

Speaking of Old: The other day the Spouse and I went to Stream, our cable and Internet access provider. I sat there, sweating, in my hat and coat and extra sweater layers, watching Snoop Doggy Dog sneer and slime on a flat screen TV that was located above the desk of the 18-year-old boy who was helping us.

Okay, I’m not a hug fan of urban genres, but I have a particular revulsion for Snoop. I cannot, for the life of me, figure out who would find his ex-pimp ass in any way attractive. But music videos, like Naked and Funny, are compelling. Snoop is followed by some gorgeous former Pussycat Girl whose song I actually like.

The Spouse is locked in mortal combat with The Boy, who has no interest in understanding that the hardware Stream sold us does not match the manual that came in the box, nor the information on the Stream website. The Boy does not care, but eventually, reluctantly, prints something off the Double Secret Stream Staff Only website, and, sighing, hands it to the Spouse. I think this was only because the Spouse wore him down, showing no signs of leaving until he had an answer.

But all of this is taking place in rapid fire Russian, so I tune out. I look around the room, at the other 18 year olds serving customers, at the music videos on the TV, at the Spouse, and suddenly I come to the horrifying conclusion that I AM OLD. I am old enough to be the mother of every employee in this room.

It is a sobering thought.

There is a lull in the Spouse’s battle while The Boy goes to retrieve something from the printer.

“We’re old,” I say.

“Yeah.” The Spouse is merely resigned. “I know.”

Crap Dogs: I have mentioned that Moscow streets are filled with kiosks. The main streets have vendors offering everything from roasted chickens (avoid), pirated DVDs (the Spouse, who knows better, bought a copy of Bee Movie, that not only wasn’t in English, it isn’t even in Russian), ice cream, newspapers and magazines, Nescafe, and, my personal favorite, Pasta La Vista. Who would buy pasta to go?

The residential side streets have a different type of kiosk. These are usually permanently parked trucks from which vendors sell fruits and vegetables, and sometimes meats. We have a fruit and veg truck right in front of the Sedmoy. I made the Spouse introduce me to the woman inside and tell her “This is my wife. She doesn’t speak any Russian, just some Slovak. Please be nice to her.” Which he did!

The woman laughed kindly, and said she speaks some Polish. And she has remembered me.

But my very favorite street vendor is the Star Dogs chain. I have not yet eaten a Star Dog. But what endears me to them is that, in Cyrillic, “star” looks like “crap.” See below. It makes me laugh.

Friday, January 11, 2008

In Which I'm Bold, Bold as Love

Temperature: a balmy –3C as I write this, but it was COLD walking home from school this morning! I had to take my fingers out of the fingers of my gloves and curl them into my palms to thaw them and stop them from hurting. The Moscow Times reported yesterday that, this winter, 352 people have suffered from frostbite and, since Nov 1, 75 people in Moscow have died of hypothermia. Five Moscow residents froze to death on Sunday alone when temperatures reached a low of –20C. Global warming, my ass!
Snow: Just a dusting

Friends have been asking me what I’m doing. Here’s what I did the past two days.

Yesterday the girls went back to school. Baboo goes to the Lycee Dumas, which we can walk to from our house (takes 30 minutes).

Skittles’ class is in what is called “the French building” which is on the other side of the Moscow River. The French embassy owns it, and part is administrative, embassy-type offices, I think. They seem to have added on the top two floors, creating classrooms and a gymnasium. This is why there is no cafeteria in her school, and she needs to bring a packed lunch every day. But it’s not an additional hardship, as I used to pack a snack or goûter for them both in Bratislava.

An aside: Perhaps you have seen those stories in the New York Times where they show a fabulous five-course menu and then torture you by explaining that this is what Parisian Public School Neuf offered in their cafeteria last Wednesday. Well, it’s true. The Bratislava French school shares its facilities with a Slovak school and, therefore, works with Slovak lunch budgets and menus. Baboo called it the “crap-a-teria.” A classmate’s family went to visit the French school in Vienna once, and they all wept as they described the lunch they had there that day.

Moules!” the mother sobbed, and I nodded sympathetically. “We had moules! And cheese course! Just 60 kilometers from here!” Mussels and Camembert do speak to the French.

On a happy note, Baboo reports that her lunch yesterday was divine, and she only ate a ham and cheese omelet out of the full five-course offering. Today she enjoyed steak hache, mashed potatoes, sliced tomatoes, and strawberry yogurt for dessert. Not so gourmet.

But I digress. The point is that the Spouse walked Baboo to her school yesterday, before proceeding on to work.

Skittles and I walked to the Metro (15 minutes as she has short legs), went 4 stops, and then walked another six or seven minutes to her school. Then I reversed the whole thing and returned home. We left the house around 7:40, and I walked back in the door around 9:00, but that was because I stuck around the school a bit to make sure she got settled.

I had to meet the Spouse at Baboo’s school at 12:30 to deal with some administrative issues. This meant I was playing Beat The Clock trying to get anything done.

First, I went to the little indoor market, bought meat, and stood there like a good sport while the guy asked me if I was sure I didn’t want a nice piece of liver to go with that. He thought it was hysterical the first time I was there when, after lots of charades, I realized that what he was offering, which is, in fact, the same word in Slovak, was liver. Eeew. I was possibly a bit dramatic in my response, but he thought it was a laugh-riot. So now he makes sure to ask every time.

When I got home I couldn’t get the speakers to work on the computer, so I had to bother the Spouse at work. Problem solved, I fired up Yahoo! Music Jukebox, and dropped all the John Mayer I had onto the play list.

Now I’m bold, bold as love. His cover of the Hendrix number has replaced AC/DC’s Shook Me All Night Long as the song I play in order to steel myself before I have to do something I’m really not looking forward to. It’s loud. It’s upbeat. It has a great air guitar solo. It makes me sing along, and, that makes me happy.

Music cranked, I did the dishes, vacuumed the entire apartment, washed and changed the cat box, cleaned the bathroom, and took out the garbage. Suddenly it was noon and time to go, and I hadn’t even gotten a load of laundry in (and we have European Laundry Facilities, which means allotting two hours to wash a load and an additional two hours to partially dry and completely wrinkle it). But it was time to go to school.

There we did our thing, collected Baboo (Wednesdays are short days), and then the Spouse accompanied us on the metro to his stop and walked us through connecting to another line, which I had not done there before and preferred to do the first time with an Experienced Local Guide. Reading metro signs in Cyrillic sometimes takes more mental RAM than I have available.

Baboo and I found Skittles, and all three of us returned home.

Then the Spouse called to say he was going to Copenhagen later that night, but would stop home first. This meant I didn’t have time to be brilliant about dinner (meat purchases notwithstanding). So I made leek and potato soup with the last of the Pani Babka Slovak klobasa. It was pretty darn good, if I do say so.

Another aside: Did I mention that this was our Twentieth Anniversary? In my cynical moments, I like to say that all I got for this meaningful occasion was my period (fitting, since that was how I spent our honeymoon and most vacations since). But the truth is I got (thanks to emergency duty-free shopping on the Denmark trip) a B I G bottle of Dolce & Gabbana's The One and a generous sized bottle of Prada's Milano (both eau de parfum and not eau de toilette, merci beaucoup!) plus, and this was the pièce de résistance, I got a wireless LAN network adapter! Internet access! Oh, and I also got a nice three-bedroom house in Ohio. So don’t pay me no never mind.

He came home, ate, packed, and blew on out, leaving me with a new issue of The New Yorker. I read every word. Who says diamonds are a girl’s best friend? Fell asleep early and cursed at 6:00 when the alarm went off.

Today, in contrast, I feel like I actually accomplished things.

I say this as if I were a survivor of a mutilating car accident who has struggled through rehab and is now able to walk and dial a phone again. But sometimes these small achievements in a foreign country feel that momentous. I joke that I am staving off Alzheimer’s by doing new things all the time.

God, I hope so.

Today was a big deal because I found a way to simplify my day. Yesterday we learned that there is a navette, or shuttle, that runs between the two schools. It is a privately operated business to which I gratefully forked over 4900 rubles for a month of rides (this after we all bought 60-ride metro passes, but no matter: I’m sure we will ride the metro). The deal is that I deliver Skittles to Baboo’s school in the morning, and this nice couple with a big white van drives her and several other kids to their building. Oh, and they deliver her back to Baboo’s school in the afternoon. Brilliant! And solves the problem of what to do on days the Spouse is out of town.

So Spouse-less, the three of us went out the door this morning at 7:30. Deposited Skittles on the navette (she was worried until other kids, kids she knew, showed up). Delivered Baboo to the schoolyard where she found a classmate. Walked home. Made coffee and eggs. Read the John Updike story in The New Yorker.

At 10:30 I walked across the street to the bank and arranged for euros, which I need to pay the school for Class Transplantée . . ., or White Week (seeing that it’s Russia) as opposed to what we called Green Week in Slovakia. Then headed off to find the art supply store to buy the girls some missing school supplies.

But I went down the wrong street. No problem. I’ll stop in this Indian-looking shop because I am on the hunt for a neti pot (Don’t ask. If you know what it is, you’ll understand why I want one and, perhaps, already be over the yuck factor. I seriously think it is the answer to my headaches here). No dice on the neti pot, but I did find cheaper and better-looking pine nuts, incense, and bongs.

My mistake meant a L O N G walk around the block. I found the art supply store and everything I needed except a new padlock for Baboo’s locker and scissors (what kind of art supply store doesn’t sell scissors?). Purchases selected by pointing and miming, but that got the job done.

Back at the Garden Ring, on my way to the Communist-Era Hardware Store, I remembered the Mall of the Underpass.

Bratislava had a few of these, but much smaller. The biggest one, near the Istropolis, had a bar and, I’m told, an AIDS awareness and needle exchange facility for the hookers who work nearby.

In Moscow, at some of the big and treacherous-for-pedestrian intersections, all foot traffic is routed below the street, into these subterranean shopping malls.

Some of them are very simple: the one nearest to us has only one vendor: a woman who sets up a table with Czech crystal and hangs pajamas and bathrobes from a line along the wall. If my apartment weren’t as warm as a blast furnace, I would buy her clothes because they look warm and snuggly.

Some of them are almost elegant: there is one near Red Square with high-end designer shops and upscale grocery stores.

The big one near us has a long line of kiosks and shops, mostly of the Stick-Your-Head-In-The-Tiny-Window-And-Tell-Them-What-You-Want variety. These usually sell freshly baked pastries, cigarettes, drugstore type items such as shampoo and stockings, or CDs. But some of them actually have a door, and you can walk inside.

This is where I found the Nice Korean Lady.

I didn’t realize she was Asian, first, because there are enough Tartar type Ruskies wandering around, that slanted eyes are extremely common, and second, because I didn’t even look at her until after the transaction was completed. I spied the scissors I wanted (inside a glass case, of course), pointed, and boldly said (as I had been coached by the Spouse), “This, please,” in Russian.

As I paid, the woman said, in Russian, “You’re not from here, are you?” and I looked at her and thought “And neither are you!” She was all smiles and kept saying, in Russian, “Happy New Year!” and “It’s cold to you here, isn’t it!” So now we are Best Friends Forever.

I didn’t think to look in other shops down there for the padlock, but I did see Land of Light Bulbs and stored that info away for a future date.

The Communist-Era Hardware Store also has everything behind glass. It’s like a fluorescently lit museum. You admire the products, and then you go to the window and tell the (usually cranky) clerk what you want. In the Spouse’s experience, this has been followed with “We don’t have that,” and then you have to insist, “Yes, you do . . .” and show them, at which point they will sigh and reluctantly sell you the item.

I squeezed myself past a woman looking at tea pots (the aisle is very narrow . . . in fact, this shop really has only one), identified that, indeed, they do sell locks, and tried to figure out from the price tag how I might say the word lock (which looked to me as though it might be 3AMOK in Cyrillic). Girding my loins for what was certainly going to be humiliating, I went over to the window, got out my keys, and said, in Slovak, “May I buy . . .” and gestured the thing a key might possibly go into.

Luck was with me today, my friends, for the clerk was cranky, but not unkind.

“Zah-mok?” she said.

Eureka! I had actually read the Cyrillic correctly! I was busy high-five-ing myself when she said, in Russian, “We don’t have that.”

“Ah, but you do!” I abandoned all attempts at Russian and cheerfully produced a mélange of German (?!) and English.

“Ja, ja! You do,” I said, gesturing to her to Follow Me!

My boldness paid off. She conceded without a fight and actually brought two, TWO! small padlocks back over to the cash window for me to select from. I thanked her profusely; she graciously accepted, and even smiled. I now have TWO new best friends!

But my day is not done. Oh, far from it.

I cut through the Children’s Park (which is really, very nice . . . low fecal factor, maintained playground equipment, mature trees, clean and roller-blade friendly pathways, abundant and emptied trash containers) to the Seventh Continent Grocery Store (known in our house as “The Sedmoy,” which is Russian for “seventh”).

They have a Discount Card Deal: cough up a relatively large amount of money, and you, too, can be the proud holder of a Seventh Continent Discount Card. You know, the card they always ask if you have before beginning to ring up your purchases.

Before New Year’s, I was in Sedmoy behind a group of (probably gay) American men who were shopping for Russian Christmas Dinner. I mean they were discussing side dishes and potato options. In the checkout line, they ended up behind me, so as I was bagging my groceries, I heard the clerk ask them in Russian, “Do you have the discount card?”


“I’m sorry,” one of the Nice (Probably Gay) American Men replied in English.

“Do. You. Have. The. Discount. Card.” Seriously, her Russian could not have been clearer. This realization frightened me.

Suddenly finding myself as Senior Russian Speaker to the Anglo Crowd, I tipped my hand, revealing that I had, indeed, understood the Great Potato Debate. I leaned over the plastic Sedmoy bags and said, in a stage whisper, “She wants to know if you have the discount card.”

He and I locked eyes for a moment, and he knew that I knew that he didn’t know what she had said but that I did know.

But I digress. Today I actually bought my own Sedmoy Discount Card. I sussed out the clerks on duty today, identified the one who always smiles at me kindly, in a I Feel Your Foreign Ass Pain way, and got in her line. The Spouse had conveniently requested and filled out the Sedmoy Discount Card Form for me a few days ago. I handed her my completed form and the required relatively large amount of money. She gave me my very own Sedmoy Discount Card, good for ten percent of all purchases in 2008. I then boldly got back in line with a basket of groceries and enjoyed 67 rubles and 40 kopecs off my purchase price. So there.

The only other newsworthy item was that at 2:15 I was back in front of Baboo’s school to collect Skittles, who, unfortunately, arrives there an hour before Baboo is done. In what may become a Regular Event, Skittles and I went over to find the flagship branch of Detsky Mir (Children’s World).

Detsky Mir is incredible enough to merit an entire blog entry to itself: four-stories of clothes, toys, shoes, vintage wooden escalators with attendants to keep order (just like in the metro!), sports equipment, ice skating costumes, sewing notions, virtually anything you have ever seen hawked on the Home Shopping channels, and school supplies. There’s a carousel! And ice cream! Right next door to the former KGB headquarters! Oh, the incongruity! But it’s too much to describe in this already long-winded entry.

Okay, I’ll tell you about the ice cream. Having become a regular fan of Naked and Funny, I was tempted to boldly rap on the freezer case with my rubles because our Ice Cream Vendor Lady was asleep. But I wasn’t in the mood to see her top fly off.

Luckily, she opened an eye. The freezer case had four or five flavors of ice cream, already conveniently scooped onto what I would call wide-mouthed sugar cones. Skittles and I picked Chocolate Chip, I held up two fingers, and Ice Cream Vendor Lady wrapped paper napkins around two cones and handed them to us in exchange for 50 rubles (about $2). The serving, compared to an Argentine or Slovak single scoop, was ample. The ice cream? Delicious. In fact, if Skittles had eaten hers faster, I would have sprung for a second round.

But we were on the clock: back we went to collect Baboo and begin the Long March home. So that I could run to the Sedmoy one more time (can you believe it: I forgot to get butter), cook dinner, and type these words for you.

Next time: Remind me to explain how the metro works, getting asked directions all the time, and sidewalk hazards.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

In Which I Finally Write About All the Little Stuff I Forgot to Mention

Temperature: -12C
Snow: Just a dusting

On Schools: School resumes tomorrow. That is, the girls officially begin school in the Moscow French schools. This is sort of inconvenient because they will each be on a separate campus, and these are not walking distance from each other, but a metro ride with a line change. From our house, it is an easy metro ride to Skittles’ school (one stop beyond the Spouse’s office) and a reasonable walk (30 minutes) to Baboo’s. The Spouse will generally take Skittles, and I will take Baboo.

This works because his office doesn’t officially start until 10:00 a.m. I thought this was because they are lawyers and need to have more in common with London, but apparently it is just Moscow. I was looking at an editing job the other day and the hours were posted as 10:00 until 19:00. In a town were I suspect many couples are both working, this makes sense, although then one needs a sitter or a nanny to collect kids after school, feed, and process them.

Hot and Cold: It’s been sunny and clear here lately, but I think the lack of cloud cover results in colder temperatures. It’s –12C today (about 20F). But in our house I am wearing short sleeves and have bare feet.

Moscow, and, in fact, all of Russia I believe, still heats itself as if heat were cheap and plentiful (clearly, it is). We don’t even have a thermostat in our apartment. There is no line item for heat: it’s included in the rent. In a throwback to socialist times, heat is organized at some central location. Based on something arbitrary, most likely the calendar, a switch gets flicked somewhere and, like in the dorms at my college, we all get heat, ready or not.

Each room has radiators; some more than others. The windows are all double, but leak like sieves (no matter when you’re not paying for heat, I suppose). This results in our bedroom being comfortable (two windows, one door, only one radiator), but the girls’ room is an oven (three windows and three radiators). We often open one of the upper windows in their room, although the traffic on the street below is rather noisy. I guess we could use the AC (this is what the landlords suggested), but that just seems so . . . not green.

Naked and Funny: We have only local Russian programming at the moment. The Spouse is thrilled. He can watch the Russian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, movies, news, and other shows, and he can turn on Russian closed captions, so he can read along, in a sort of mangled non-Cyrillic script. He gets a lot from it, and the subtitles actually do give me a clue sometimes.

The past two nights he’s watched movies in the evening, and they have been decently written, produced, and acted from where I sit. He has to give me summaries of the action, but it has not been unpleasant sitting through these.

What’s funny is a program titled Naked and Funny, that airs nightly at 11:30 for about 90 minutes (I say “about” because here shows start and end abruptly and with no recognizable pattern, at least not one I can figure out yet). Naked and Funny is a prank type show, along the lines of those Just for Laughs shows you see on airplanes with the added feature of lots and lots of gratuitous nudity. Standard pranks generally involve putting some attractive and large breasted woman in a public place, encouraging blue-collar men to ogle her, and then pointing out the hidden camera. If a wife or girlfriend accompanies the man, she inevitable pulls him away, urges him to cover his eyes, or whomps the naked woman.

Further, they seem to have shot most episodes of Naked and Funny at the Number Sixteen Furniture Factory out in the boondocks. Dentistry has not yet arrived. Fashions are . . . retro. And I can’t shake the feeling that Greater Moscow gets a big old belly laugh out of watching their hick cousins out in the county fall for these tricks.

Prank: Croupier spins roulette wheel in casino, but WHOOPS! Her top flies off. Oh, dear.

Prank: Nurse prepares to do something to patient, but spills some dark staining liquid on her white dress. Never mind, she gestures to patient, who is usually somehow trapped in his chair. She whips off the dress, stands there in only her thong and high heels, while patient gasps. “I’ll be right with you!” she gestures as if this is nothing, nothing at all.

Prank: On some God-awful rocky beach, an innocent young woman goes into a changing booth (itself a strange box on legs, stuck in the middle of the beach). When she emerges, a row of men is sitting there on wooden chairs holding up cards that rate the size of her breasts. She hits them.

Prank: A variation on the one above. A topless young woman is sunbathing on the same dreadful beach. When she opens her eyes, she realizes that the same row of men from above is seated along side her towel. They rate her or applaud her. She usually shrieks and tries to flee, covering her bare breasts. However, when they point out the hidden camera, she inevitably drops her arms and smiles, sheepishly, for the camera.

Prank: Man approaches ice cream vendor in a kiosk. Her back is to him. He raps on the freezer case top with his ruble coins to get her attention. When she turns to serve him, WHOOPS! She’s topless! If a wife or girlfriend accompanies him, she inevitable pulls him away, urges him to cover his eyes, or whomps the naked woman.

You get the idea. It’s like a fiery car crash on a busy highway: you know you should not look, but you cannot look away. Oh, and the advertising during this show: it’s all phone sex, “enhancing” herbs and devices, and weight loss products.

Security: I have a key ring like a jailer to get into my domicile. No more cute little party purse with room only for a lipstick, cab fare, and house key for me. First there is a stick type key for opening the front door of the building (I also have a traditional key for the back door). Our apartment has two layers of doors. The first layer requires three keys, two of which look like what one might use to wind a grandfather clock. Once I open this layer of doors, there is a second, simple set of doors that only requires two different keys. Oh, and there’s an alarm keypad between the doors. And the security camera above the outermost door.

If this weren’t Moscow, your ice cream would melt while you work through your keys to open your door and put away your groceries. More likely, in my vivid imagination, is that the axe-wielding murderer will strike me down in front of my door, because I panicked, dropped my keys, lost my place, and had to start all over again.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

In Which I Describe Cabin What?

Temperature: -10C
Snow: None, but some windows are frosted over.

I realized this morning that we are still on Bratislava time. That is, we never adjusted to the two hour time difference between Moscow and Bratislava. The main reason for that, I believe, is the incredible lack of daylight. The apartment is equipped with curtains that effectively block out all light, but even with the curtains open, Baby It’s Dark Outside!

I woke up today about 8:15. Soon we will be all back to work and school and by 8:15, I shall have deposited Baboo at her school and be walking back home. Today, at 8:15, the sky was just beginning to lighten. It is a beautiful, clear, cloudless day, so the sun is brighter than normal.

By 3:30 p.m. it is solidly dusk. You start to feel like evening is upon you, and you go about your Evening Type Tasks and all sorts of time passes, and then you look at the clock and see that it is not even 6:00 p.m. In other words, not that late, but it feels like bedtime even though you haven’t yet had dinner.

A few years ago we went to the Isle of Mull, in Scotland, in June. Mull is roughly the same latitude as Moscow. It never seemed to get dark. At 11:00 p.m., the sky looked like 8:00 p.m. in Ohio in August. We had to close shutters and drapes to sleep. There was no need to turn on a light in the bathroom in the middle of the night because the window was right there, and you could read a book by the light that came in it from outside.

I’m told Moscow in the summer will be the same.

When the apartment was still in Indoor Camping mode, Skittles named it Cabin What? I think that was short for what one might abbreviate as WTF. We really didn’t have much here. The irony was, or is, that in supervising the packing up and moving of our already culled and purged Bratislava digs, I was feeling overly materialistic. “Who needs so many things?” I asked myself and several friends. We discussed the physical and psychological clutter of materialism, we resolved to embrace more monastic, Zen-like lifestyles, and, frankly, I was feeling all superior about my ability to Live with Less.

When the movers came to pack up the house on Letna Street, the girls, cat, and I moved, along with our suitcases, into a 35 m2 apartment in the center of Bratislava. We stayed there for two weeks. It seemed like good practice for our new, smaller, 110 m2 Moscow apartment.

In preparation for our arrival, the Spouse furnished the Moscow place with some essentials. It seemed unnecessary to buy too much because

1. We are now Zen monks and can make do with the sound of one hand clapping, and
2. Our stuff was due to arrive in two or three days. Okay, we knew the movers were lying, but we expected a week of austerity, at most.

This is what the Spouse bought:

1. A bunk bed for the girls, with mattresses and sheets. (I sent towels, pillows, and some blankets along with him in his suitcases a few times as he commuted back and forth between Bratislava and Moscow).
2. 4 plates, 2 coffee mugs, 4 bowls, 4 glasses (actually, he got 5 glasses as we needed one for bacon grease . . . we eat a lot of bacon).
3. 4 knives, 4 forks, 4 spoons
4. One set of knives: big knife, paring knife, bread knife
5. One heavy skillet
6. One set of three cooking pots, assorted sizes, with lids
7. Paper products: paper towels, toilet paper, tissues
8. Soap: dish soap, shampoo, laundry soap, shower gel
9. One cat box, cat gravel, poop scoop
10. One inflatable bed

And this is all we had, other than the clothes (and a corkscrew) in our six suitcases. This was fine for two or three days, even a week.

But we arrived on December 14, and the shipment did not arrive until December 30.

I’m all for Simplifying My Life, but here is what I started to miss:

1. Chairs. We had nothing to sit on. I used to sit on the kitchen counter and read in the afternoons.
2. Real coffee. We had instant coffee, but no coffee pot (it was in the shipment). The 7 Continents grocery store had French press pots just like ours, but they cost 1200 rubles (more than $50!).
3. A cutting board, a strainer, a dish drainer. Before the cat arrived, the Spouse used the new and pristine cat box for these tasks. After he arrived, the cat appropriated the cat box for his own use.
4. Okay, real wine glasses. I’m not Italian enough to drink my wine from an orange juice glass. It felt strange. Obviously, I soldiered through, but I was happy to open the box of real glasses, wine and otherwise.

The inflatable bed developed a slow leak. We used to add more air each night. With two bodies on it, there was a certain loft. But if the Spouse got up first in the morning, I would sink almost to the floor. While the inflatable bed was a lifesaver, and the most logical solution (it’s both modestly priced and easy to store), and beat the alternative of sleeping on the floor, it got old.

So the shipment finally arrived (this was a long and ugly story involving regret that we used the moving company we did, the exchange of many sharply worded emails, and a personal resolution never to use anyone but AGS ever again). We got word late in the afternoon on December 30. The girls and I were at an office-sponsored children’s holiday party (a wonderful, magical, incredible experience which I will have to describe another time), when the Spouse called to say that the movers would begin delivery in two hours.

So home we raced.

Of course, none of the things I really wanted (primarily our bed!) came that afternoon, but by the following day everything, including the piano, was off the trucks and up the seven flights of stairs and even mostly unwrapped. We have spent the three days since unpacking and organizing the kitchen, unpacking and organizing the closet (aka the Lieutenant’s Room . . . a throw back from when three single adults and one couple with a baby shared our apartment during the socialist period), and unpacking and organizing all the books.

Only the living room remains to be dealt with. It includes boxes of CDs and DVDs, and also what was our office (including the real computer). But we think we can handle that today. I’ve been cooking in my kitchen, we have been eating like civilized people in our dining room at our dining room table, and we’ve been sleeping on a proper bed.

Some things are better than in our last Bratislava house: the closet/Lieutenant’s Room is actually easier to use than the big walk-in, customized one we had on Letna Street. The kitchen has a big, American-sized oven and a matching refrigerator. It does not have a dishwasher, which eats into my counter space because you have to clear a space for the towel or dish drainer (which finally emerged, like a phoenix from the ashes, from a box late last night) . . . space you would otherwise use to work or to stack dirty dishes before putting them into a dishwasher.

But we have unlimited heat and hot water, high ceilings with crown molding, beautifully marked places for hanging light fixtures/chandeliers, and these funny parquet floors that are charming, if uneven. The apartment feels like something Parisian, and more and more it is feeling like home.