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.


Bob said...

Great stuff! My "get things done that I don't want to do" music is Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, particularly number three, as done synthetically by Wendy Carlos (nee John)in "Switched on Bach". Cranked up dog running, cat hiding loud. Locks and keys seem to be a running theme. Is crime a problem in Moscow, or is this prediliction cultural? I forgot what Spouse does? Can you fill us in? Keep it coming.

Bob said...

Oh, and congrats on your twentieth. I recently had my twentieth anniversary, but it took me four wives to get there.

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