Tuesday, February 26, 2008

In Which I Get Political

Si, se puede cambiar. It makes me cry.

Then there's this, which just makes me smile!

Por nuestra nacion! Y hasta con plan de salud! Viva Obama!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

In Which I Go Shopping

Today we went out to the Izmaylovsky market. The Spouse had taken me there a year ago when we were visiting Moscow just for fun (before we knew we might move here). It's always interesting and weird to repeat an experience like that, comparing BEFORE and NOW. Such different worlds.

Anyhow, I had some objectives in mind. I had seen some gorgeous ceramics (Uzbek, I thought) on the first visit, but I didn't buy any

1. Because I couldn't decide (I wanted all of them) and
2. I was afraid they would get broken in my luggage.

During the summer when the Spouse was in Moscow so often for work, he went to this market one day and bought me a couple of bowls, feeling that he wasn't sure what I liked (to paraphrase Jake Johanson, "There IS no wrong answer!"). Of course, the bowls were beautiful. And I promptly had them packed with the shipment of household items slated for the US. So I don't have them.

Today I bought two plates, two small bowls (the sort of thing you might use to serve nuts or olives), and two oblong dishes (sort of corn-on-the-cob shaped). Here are the pictures that looked good enough to post, so you have some idea what I am talking about:

Then, my darling husband bought me a hat. I am modeling it here with "flaps up."

And now with "flaps down."

Thursday, February 21, 2008

In Which I Experience a BIG Bang!

Temperature: -6C
Snow: Not much. Honestly, they clean the streets and sidewalks so quickly and regularly. In fact, if it snows in the night, we know it because we can hear the SCRAPE, SCRAPE, SCRAPE of the shovels on the sidewalks.
Number of Requests for Directions on the Street: I haven’t been out yet today. But yesterday a woman asked me if she was heading the right way for the metro, and I knew and said, “DA!” About a week ago a woman corralled me in front of the French school and asked how to get to the Turgenevskaya metro. I knew, but couldn’t say anything specific. (I couldn’t get the word Turgenevskaya out. It’s hard. Say it with me now: Tur gen ev skaya.) So I just pointed. She didn’t believe me and snagged another passer-by who confirmed what I was trying to communicate through mime. When she realized that I did, indeed, know, she was very apologetic and said, “Merci!”

Yesterday was a roller coaster ride with three distinctive parts.

I Take Russian Lessons My first lesson was on Monday. I found Russian Teacher through the wonderful, life-saving, time-sucking http://www.expat.ru/. The short story here is that I think he will work out fine for me. But it’s a difficult language. It is not a language I ever had much interest in learning. However, my time here will clearly be richer if I can be a little more 3-dimensional.

I really am a rank beginner. I don’t even know all the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet yet. But every day I grasp another one or two and then find, to my delight, that I can read, albeit S L O W L Y, another ad on the metro. Tuesday, after staring at a series of ads for a magazine that looks like a Russian version of Newsweek, the words Russian Reporter finally materialized before my eyes.

“Hey! That says Russian Reporter!” I say to Baboo, who looks up from her copy of Turgenev’s Отцы и дети.

“Yeah,” she says. “I know.”

“Well, I just this minute figured it out!” I say proudly.

“Yeah,” she sighs, slightly. “I know.”

So Russian Teacher has his work cut out for him. From 10:00 until noon, Monday and Wednesday. At the end of two hours of struggling yesterday, I am able to read and understand the following:

This is progress, but now I am exhausted.

I Am a Bad Mother He leaves. I eat a little soup, and am considering a nap, when my phone beeps. I have an SMS. From Baboo. Why would Baboo be sending me a text message during the school day when phones are forbidden? Maybe she is sick?

No. I open the message, which reads, Where are you? I am waiting.


Oh, shit. It’s Wednesday! On Wednesday Baboo is done right after lunch (except for the one Wednesday a month when she has no school at all). I have forgotten my child!

I frantically phone Braveheart, who lives a mere ten minutes from the school. Braveheart is on the case, and hurries over to school to collect my child for me. I head over to Braveheart’s, as fast as I can on the icy sidewalks.

Really, one can only move so fast some days. I watch people ahead of me slip at times. Some places are always icy, and I know where those are now. Others can sneak up on you. I finally fell last Friday on my way out the door to a Happy Hour, although it wasn’t a complete SPLAT but a 3-point landing as I put my right hand down first and didn’t end up lying flat on the ground. And, more impressive, several people walking past me PAUSED to see if I was okay.

But I digress.

Thankfully, my child was not shivering out in the schoolyard all alone when Braveheart arrived. And she was matter-of-fact and even slightly amused by the whole thing.

But I felt awful.

The Big BANG! Then the day took an even more bizarre twist.

A short while later, Braveheart and I are sitting in her kitchen. There was a terrific BOOM! as if someone doing construction had dropped a large piece of something. The whole building shook, and a car alarm began to shriek.The children had been playing on a computer while perched in a large window seat in the front of the apartment. Suddenly they come running into the kitchen, shouting, "Something has happened!"

The building across the street is on fire!

We can see that the windows have all blown out, leaving dangling bits of the wooden frames and shards of glass on the sills. There is an Asian woman, frantic in a second floor window, and what first appears to me to be a body lying below her in the street. But no, it is her belongings. She and some other people in the building with her have begun to throw clothes out onto the street.

A crowd gathers below her, and she climbs out of the window and sits on the sill, as if preparing to jump. The rooms behind her are dark, and she keeps looking back there, and then below at the crowd. Smoke is now pouring over the top of the building, coming from the side we cannot see. As she turns to look behind and below, we can see her head is bleeding. I see what look like couch cushions on the sidewalk now. If they came from her or from someone on the street, I don’t know. But again, she makes as if to jump.

We escort the children away from the front of the house, with promises of SpongeBob and Jetix TV. I take Skittles to judo.

Thankfully, there is fire station right there, and the firefighters are quick to respond. As Skittles and I walk out the front door, we can see someone has placed a ladder below the windows where the woman and other people were perched. This is good. But I can see and smell the smoke the whole walk to judo class.

About two hours later, when I returned with Skittles, the fire was clearly out and the firefighters were winding up their hoses. We pass Braveheart’s concierge.

"Gas," she tells me somberly.

Monday, February 11, 2008

In Which I Attract More Flies With Honey?

I am not doing this on purpose. If I am, indeed, doing anything at all. Maybe the Spouse is right. Maybe it is all in my head.

Today I went to buy honey. In my fairly upscale grocery store, a little jar, 350 grams worth, costs something like 180 rubles. At roughly 25 rubles to the dollar, that’s over $7 for a very small jar. I think I paid something like 5 Euros in Austria, which, at the current rate of exchange, is about the same price. But that was for a bigger container WITH the fancy squeeze-y top, cleverly designed not to get honey all over your kitchen.

I remembered that the little indoor market around the corner has Egg and Honey Lady. So I went over today to see if I could do better.

The answer is a resounding YES. Egg and Honey Lady had a kilo, a KILO! of honey, ladies and gentlemen, for 200 rubles. That’s 1000 grams of honey for not that much more than I paid for 350 grams.

I also wanted to buy pine nuts, but the Nut and Spice Guy hadn’t opened his stall yet. It was before 10:00 a.m., so I figured I was just too early. Pine nuts are also expensive in the grocery store (a tiny package can be over $10), but there are dried fruit and nut vendors all over the city, and often they have better prices and better pine nuts.

I went home, pine nut-less, and puttered around the house for a while. I cooked. I did laundry. I asked Braveheart if she wanted any honey. She said she did.

So I went back to the market after lunch. I got Braveheart a kilo of honey for 160 rubles (this was a thicker, more spread-able consistency than what I bought). By now Nut and Spice Guy was open for business.


The Russians have sales and marketing skills that the Slovaks do not. Suggestive selling. Pointing out the better value. Actually expressing interest in exchanging goods and services for money. I don’t know why, but decades of Socialism have not killed the entrepreneurial spirit here.

I hesitate to say it, but I sometimes wonder if it is an Asian influence. There certainly is, in Moscow, a visible Asian population. All those former Central Asian Soviet Republics, the ‘Stans as we call them, have left high cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes across the Russian landscape.

Maybe I’m guilty of stereotyping. But the Chinese, to my mind anyhow, have always been fabulous merchants. Have you ever known a Chinese grocery or restaurant that wasn’t open ALL THE TIME? No time off for holidays. Those people are in there working. Hard. Mom. Dad. The kids. Grandma. You want it, they got it, and they’ll sell it to you.

In any case, Nut and Spice Guy is Uzbek. He told us so on a previous visit. He’s relatively tall, probably late 30s. Not a head-turner, but there’s nothing wrong with him. He’s just a guy who looks vaguely Asian.

He has that Russian thing about invading personal space, to start with. The market is close quarters anyhow. But I wonder if he is always such a close talker.

And he does like to talk. In Russian. I bought pine nuts and walnuts. He wanted to point out the lovely ceramic platters he also sells (they are really nice). And the cast iron pots for cooking . . . what? I don’t know. Possibly pilaf. I am sure I heard the word pilaf quite a bit.

Figs, perhaps?

Er, I’m not really a fig fan.

This lovely Mixed Fruit and Nut Gift Basket?

Nyet. But thanks.

Then he was going on about “restaurant” and “dom” (which means home or house). Drawing a house shape in the air with his hands and saying “dom” and “pilaf.”

Is he inviting me to his home for pilaf? The idea slowly dawns on me.

First Smiling Guy. Now Nut and Spice Guy. What is it that draws these guys?

It can’t be the blonde hair and blue eyes. There are plenty of blonde-haired, blue-eyed women walking around here.

Is it the American . . . credulousness? Our ability to walk around wide-eyed, smiling at strangers. Should I scowl more?

Egg and Honey Lady, who is coincidentally very Asian looking and who has been watching this transaction, snaps something at him and walks back to her stand in disgust. Sausage Lady, who is directly in front of us, rolls her eyes. I get the distinct impression that they have witnessed this behavior before.

I hold up my left hand and point to my wedding ring.

He is not deterred. “I have four children,” he tells me in Russian.

“I have two,” I counter.

“Yes, yes, I know. Two pretty girls. And a tall husband,” he says.

I guess we do stand out.

So the question is: Are we all invited for pilaf?

I’ll have to take the Spouse with me next time I buy pine nuts.

On a totally unrelated note, I have cooked up a storm today, if I do say so myself. I’m sorry, but the planets have all aligned and dinner tonight rocks.

First, I had some gorgeous pork chops. I heated olive oil in what I call a Dutch oven. I sliced onions in wedges and sautéed them in the olive oil until they started to get golden. I smeared a little Dijon mustard on the pork chops and laid them over the onions. Added two chopped cloves of garlic and about a cup of apple juice. I put the cover on, put the dish in a medium oven, and left it there until the meat was done and golden and the liquid had reduced (about 2 hours perhaps).

Then I took out the meat. I heated the remaining liquid and added about half a glass of white wine. I let it reduce and then whisked in a small spoonful of the mustard and about a half cup of really good, thick, Russian sour cream.

Then I made a salad. I cheated and used chopped cabbage in a bag (I didn’t want a whole head). I grated a peeled Granny Smith apple that had gone to school with Skittles and returned home uneaten for several days. I added crumbled bleu cheese, mandarin orange segments (and the juice I could squeeze out of the orange corpse after peeling and sectioning it . . . no membranes), toasted and chopped walnuts, olive oil, a little balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. I wish I had a pomegranate because those red seeds would look so lovely against the pale cabbage and apple. Next time.

A little rice. Pork chop with the sauce over the rice. Cabbage salad on the side. So delicious.

If I do say so myself.

Friday, February 8, 2008

In Which I Have an Admirer. Or Maybe a Stalker.

I don’t tend to draw much male attention. Well, rarely, anyhow.

And when it does happen that I get the flirting vibe from someone, the Spouse usually suspects it has merely been my imagination. “Oh, if it makes you happy to think so . . .” is his typical response.

There have been some undeniable cases. My trainer, for example, was brazen. He’d just say it: “So, baby. You and me? What about it?”

“Okay,” the Spouse would concede. “That’s pretty clear.”

I always turned Trainer down, cheerfully, claiming I didn’t want to find a new trainer should it go sour. Truth is he’s smart and attractive. And he’s built. Heck, he’s a trainer. But there were so many reasons why anything more than flirting with him in the brightly lit gym in front of lots of other patrons was a very bad idea.

Other times the Spouse has perceived some sort of non-existent spark between me and another man. I found this endearing, actually.

“He was flirting with you! There was chemistry!” he said once about a conversation I had with another father at a school function. “I glared at him until he went away.”

I hadn’t noticed any of this subtle power struggle. And I’m afraid I laughed and asked if he was going to pee a circle around me to keep the other wolves at bay. But secretly I thought it was the sweetest thing he had said to me in a long time. Awwww. You’re just a little bit jealous.

But these flirtatious moments, real and imagined, took place during conversations. My point is that these were people who know me. Not some guy who just passed me on the street and whistled. That never happens.

Okay, once it happened.

Once, I was in Spain, walking from a friend’s apartment complex to my hotel. I had been swimming. I was wearing a big hat, sunglasses, an oversized man’s white dress shirt, and my most forgiving, fat-girl shorts. I had on no make up, but was greasy with sunblock.

A handsome young Spaniard on a mo-ped, stopped me and asked, in Spanish, if I wanted a ride. It was one of those classic moments where you look behind you because you are certain that no one is talking to you. But there was no one else on the block.

“Me? You want me to go for a ride? With you?”

Si, si si.

God, I do love Spain.

“No, of course. But thank you! You made my day.”

“He probably just wanted to sell you a timeshare,” said the Spouse.


Maybe. But I prefer to think otherwise.

In Argentina, it is not unusual for men to make comments to women on the street. Called piropos, these can range from obscenity to poetry. In the year and a half when we lived there, I never received a piropo.

“You were pregnant for nine of those months!” Suddenly the Spouse is defending my cause? Okay. Maybe he’s right. But I think I just didn’t fit the Argentine standard of beauty. Even now, according to them, I am morbidly obese.

Moscow may be another story.

About a week ago, I was walking towards the kids’ school, on the sidewalk, on the left side of the street. A big, black SUV-type car slowed down next to me. The window rolls down, and the driver, an okay-looking man about my age, say something to me in Russian.

I raise my eyebrows, confused, but not hostile. “Huh?”

He does not seem to notice that I didn’t understand what he said. Seems he thinks, “Message delivered.” He smiles, and drives on.

Somewhere I read that what a Russian woman interprets as chivalry and flirtation, any other woman would read as condescension and sexual harassment. I text Fabulous Russian Girlfriend and ask if the Russians have their own version of piropos. She replies that Russian men are direct, but doesn’t really answer my question about what the proper response should be to this unsolicited behavior. I don’t want to encourage this, but I don’t want to be nasty either. I've had enough angry Russians yelling at me. And, frankly, it’s kind of cute.

A day or two later, I am standing in front of the school with Braveheart and her husband, waiting for our children to return from their weeklong class trip.

Suddenly, Smiling Man is standing in front of us, speaking to me, in Russian, in a very animated manner. Not hostile or aggressive or anything. He has a sidekick. I don’t recognize him immediately, and at first assume it is another parent, asking a question about the kids, but assuming I speak Russian.

I say, “Parlez-vous français?”

He keeps talking. (Why do Russians do this? Several of us have noticed that the minute you acknowledge that you do not understand a word they are saying, this somehow spurs them to talk even more.)

Now Braveheart gets into the act. “Anglais?” she asks.

“Español?” I offer.

The light bulb goes off in my head. It’s the Smiling Guy from the car! I mime holding the steering wheel and say, “I know you!”

He drops his hands, gives up, and he and his sidekick vanish in the crowd. In the excitement of greeting the children, I forget about the incident.

I should point out, that it is winter in Moscow, and I might as well be wearing a burqa. What he is able to tell about me with my collar zipped up to my chin and my hat pulled down to my nose is anyone’s guess.

Maybe that’s his preferred fetish?

Or maybe he was just trying to tell me, “Hey, lady! You’ve got toilet paper on your shoe!”

Could it be I resemble a long lost relative?

This week I got cruised once (I was on passenger side this time . . . again, I got the window down, but now just a subtle nod of acknowledgement).

Yesterday it was more of a serenade.

Again, walking with Braveheart toward the school, I notice the same car, windows down, and this time with loud, rather romantic music emanating. I can't help but think that this music selection was intentional. Sure enough. It’s Smiling Guy, who gives me a salute and a grin, and goes on down the street.

The procedure for picking up kids is that all the adults (the parents and the drivers who are hired to come pick up the kids) congregate on the side of the school, outside the gated playground. At the appointed hour, the final bell rings, and the children stream into the playground. When they see their designated adult, they come out of the gate and head home together.

I am standing with Skittles and Braveheart, waiting to spot Baboo’s pink coat in the crowd. But standing directly in my line of sight, effectively blocking my view of the playground, is Smiling Guy. He looks at me and smiles. I swear, his sidekicks, and this time there are several, all turn and look at me, too.

Gawd. I'm the Flavor of the Month for the Moscow Drivers' Association?

I look at my shoes and ignore him until he gathers his charges and moves out of the way.

Braveheart has now been witness to a few of these episodes, and confirms it is not my imagination. I wonder what he is planning for Valentine’s Day?

Thursday, February 7, 2008

In Which I Get Around

Temperature: +3C! Go figure.
Snow: Got some accumulation yesterday afternoon (on our way to judo class, of course), but it mostly melted on impact.
Crying Sessions on Metro: Still holding at just the one time. Although I came close yesterday when, while carrying two rather heavy bags, the handle on one broke. In my effort to juggle that one, I dropped the other, spilling magazines all over the floor in front of the door, just as the train pulled into my stop. Of course, no one helped.
Currently Reading: Finally finished A Spot of Bother (recommended). Now have two books for which I cashed in bookclub points. Didn’t think about it, just clicked the mouse, and had them sent to the Spouse’s NYC office, which then forwarded them on to me. They are The Multi-Orgasmic Woman, by Mantak Chia, and Christiane Northrup’s The Wisdom of Menopause. I’m sure Dude in the Mailroom thought this was interesting. Note to self: Just buy these things while you’re home this summer.

Friend Count: I guess I’m up to four now! The cast of characters, in case you're interested include the following:
Very Nice Woman (VNW): Hungarian. Persistent about calling and making me go places. This is important. Replaces my French Friend from Bratislava who used to insist I go places with her.
Luna’s Mom (LM): Fellow American who started her gig here with a series of hysterically funny cultural misunderstandings and pet crises. Well, they were funny to us because she writes about her time here so well and with such incredible observations. Luna is one of the pets.
Braveheart (BH): Scottish. We share the same first name and both have rather curly, reddish hair. She heard me speaking English at school and just introduced herself. Fed me lunch yesterday after I almost melted down on the metro. A friend indeed!
Sisu: Gorgeous Finnish woman whose kids also attend our school. Funny, smart, and leaving at the end of the school year to parts as yet undetermined. But she seems worth hanging out with now in spite of that. And the expat life is always unpredictable: we never thought we’d be in Posony as long as we were. And others get their gigs cut short. You just never know.

But I digress.

Did I mention the car is sold? I am officially and for the first time since I’ve been married without wheels. I’m glad I don’t have the car here. But life is a very different thing when you don’t have one.

The metro here is excellent, and I’ll say more about that in a bit. But what is interesting to me is how I do things differently without a car.

Take clothes, for example. Walking on the slushy, muddy streets wrecks havoc with clothes. The backs of trouser legs are always splashed and spotted with yuck. I’ve been lucky and everything has washed nicely. But Skittles has a pair of pink sweatpants that she adores, and those are permanently stained brown in spots. The point is I tend to wear the same few items because I don’t want to ruin better things.

Provisioning is another. With a car, I would go around town, gathering and delivering items during the day. When you have to carry everything you don’t buy heavy items at the grocery store next to the kids’ school if you can avoid it. But sometimes I just don’t think I’ll have time later to pop over to our store. So Tuesday I ended up carrying two rather heavy grocery bags with things in them like bottles of liquids. It’s hard on the tennis elbow.

Sometimes, once I am home, it’s simply not worth the effort to go back out again either. It’s not like I have to walk up a million flights of stairs. We do have an elevator. But sometimes I think, “Eh. I’ll deal with it tomorrow.”

But my point in writing this entry at all was to talk about the Moscow metro.

When I first came to Moscow, about a year ago and just for fun (“Just for fun? You came to Moscow just for fun?” This brought gales of laughter from some of the mothers at school recently.), the Spouse took me to a market on the metro. I remember being totally reliant on him to lead me around. And then realizing that while on the train, you cannot see signs for the stations. You must LISTEN as they are announced. This, to me, seemed insurmountable.

Fast forward ahead to now. I still cannot read all letters of the Cyrillic alphabet. But as long as I have my English/Russian version of the metro map, I can go anywhere by myself.

There are about 11 lines, which are identified by number and color. I use two lines most often: the red/1 and the grey/9.

I have a multiple ride ticket that I keep in my coat pocket. You can buy a variety of ride combinations. I think this one was 40 rides which is good for 45 days. If I am traveling with the children, I can use this one ticket for our three rides.

Inside the entrance to every metro station are gates. You hold your ticket near a sensor and when the light turns green you walk through. You do not need to show your ticket again, and if it is a single ride ticket, you can even throw it away now.

Most of the time what follows is a very long and very steep escalator. This can be the longest and slowest part of the journey. If you just want to stand, you must stay to the right. If you want to walk, either up or down the escalator steps, you do so on the left. I often walk down, especially when I am alone, because the ride can be as long as 90 seconds. I've timed it.

Once off the escalator, you are usually on or near a central platform. In many cases these are incredibly beautiful spaces. My regular stations are not so beautiful, but they almost always include some public art, and they are clean.

Unlike in Paris, where the trains run in the middle and the passengers wait on either side, here the passengers wait in the middle. This is handy because you don’t need to go through a maze of tunnels to get to the trains going in the opposite direction in case you made a mistake. You just need to read the signs.

This is the only potentially tricky part for me. I have to stand there, calm and zen-like, and study the signs carefully. I have never gotten on the wrong train. Yet. I just look very carefully for the station I want.

If I am slow studying the sign, it doesn’t matter because the trains come so often. During peak travel hours, they are barely a minute apart. The cars are big, and the trains are much longer than in Paris. The doors open automatically at each stop (no buttons to push or levers to flip). The passengers waiting to board stand to the sides and let the passengers who are exiting leave the train. The seats line the sides of the car, which is actually handier than the way they are in Paris (short rows on each side, like a bus or plane, but facing each other. And no one wants to sit next to the windows because then they have to climb over people to exit).

Before the doors close, there is always an announcement that says something like “Attention, the train is leaving the station. Next stop . . .” and then they say the name of the next stop.

Now it has happened that as the next station is being announced, another train has pulled in on the other side, making noise so I couldn’t hear the name of the next station. But most of my commutes are no more than two stops, and I now know where I am.

After exiting the train, there are always escalators and stairs going up. When it is busy, everyone swarms, like penguins, at the base of the escalator, because we must ride up single file, with walkers on the left and standers on the right. There are small glass cabins at the bottom of the escalators, staffed by very Communist looking women, tough broads in unflattering, militaristic uniforms, who maintain order. Hold on to your purse, and mind your wallet. It gets pretty intimate.

Then, depending on the station, you might exit into one of those Malls Under the Street, which means you can emerge on various corners of busy intersections. There are signs, but since I usually have not prepared myself for those words in Cyrillic, my first trips to some places have resulted in my popping up across the street from where I hoped to be. But no matter: the normal people just walking across the street have to use these underpasses anyhow. So I just go back down and stab at it again.

For the trip to the kids’ school, I now know when there is an advantage to being in the front, middle, or back of the train, whether to exit the train and go left or right, and how to navigate the Mall Under the Street so I pop up right where I want to be.

I’ve been all over the city like this. By myself. All without being able to read or speak Russian. If I can do it, anyone can.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Separated at Birth?

A similarity has been suggested . . . I'm not sure this is a good thing . . .

I should also point out that I added a nifty feature over on the upper right hand corner of the blog page, where it says Don't Miss a Thing. If you sign up at the Notify List field, you are more likely to get an email from me notifying you that I updated the blog. But if only five people sign up, I won't use the feature.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

In Which I Vex the Neighbors

We are installing a satellite dish on the roof. We spoke to one of our landlords about it. He said fine. Technically, we should get permission from the City, but landlord said not to unless we get busted.

Monday, while the workers were here, a strange man knocked on my door. Well dressed. Suit. Cashmere overcoat. Violating Fabulous Russian Girlfriend's Second Rule (the First Rule is to go to the hairdressers she recommends!), I opened the door to this stranger. We have double doors, and I could see through the peephole the guy was pulling on the outside door as I was unlocking it. Very odd.

"Hello . . ." I say, looking confused. We stare at each other for a moment. "Can I help you?"

"YOU DON’T SPEAK RUSSIAN?!" he says angrily.

" . . . no . . . I'm sorry," I say very meekly.

"VHY NOT!" he barks.

"Because I've only been here a month . . .” I say, my voice getting smaller and smaller.

Then the light bulb goes off. This is my Russian teacher, who I have not yet met.

I smile a big smile and say, warmly, "ROMAN!" and start to extend my hand, except I realize in the middle of doing this that I am trying to shake hands over the threshold, which, I now know, is a big no-no in Russia.

"Oh, right. The threshold," I say, stepping over it in an exaggerated step.

Now outside my apartment door, I shake his hand and say "Nice to meet you. I'm The Expatresse."

Well, as it turns out, it is NOT Roman the Russian teacher. Angry Man won't tell me his name or title or anything, but in a forceful way tells me, in pretty good English, that I don't have the right papers permitting me to install the dish on the roof.

“Would you like to come in?” I’m thinking the stairwell is no place for a serious discussion. “I’ll make coffee . . . or would you prefer tea?”

“NO!” He looks horrified, and even steps back slightly before continuing to harangue me.

My heart is pounding like crazy, but I just act very polite and respectful and say things like, "Yes, sir" and "Oh dear!" I keep pressing him for a business card because I figure surely I will need to contact him again to show I have the proper paperwork.

I push.

“YOU CAN GET SOME PAPER!” he orders.

No, I want a card or a badge or something to help me figure out who the hell this guy is.

I ask again, politely, "Don't you have a visit card?” This is really confusing to me. “You represent the building? The City? What office?"

He just shakes his head, and finally gets out his wallet and begins fishing for a card. He pulls out a pen, scribbles a number on the back, and announces, “MY MOBILE!” and leaves me standing there, holding the card.

Back in the safety of my apartment with its two sets of locked doors, I look at the card. It is all in English and gives his title as Deputy Minister of what I consider a ministry that is totally unrelated to the issue at hand. It is nothing to do with building codes or labor. Let’s just call it the Ministry of Silly Walks, for lack of a better title. I wonder if it even is his card. I realize it isn't even a mobile phone number, but a land line.

What follows next are a series of conversations involving me, the Spouse, Dieter (the guy who sold us the dish and arranged for the workers), the workers, and Tariq (the landlords’ Man Friday).

Dieter believes the problem is our neighbors, the nice family who has the other apartment on our floor: they must be upset/offended/whatever that we did not ask their permission. Since we don't (yet) have the proper papers from the City, they will call the police if we continue.

Dieter calls me while I am walking home from school with Skittles.

“Go over there tonight! Take them a bottle of something tonight and beg their forgiveness,” he counsels.

But what? And how? If we have committed some sort of faux pas already, I want to get the protocol down for any sort of summit talks.

“Vodka!” he says. “Take them vodka . . . no! Whiskey is better. All Russians already have vodka. Whiskey is good! A nice American whiskey. But don’t spend more than $20.”

“But what am I supposed to come away with?” I ask. “Just their word to back off and a handshake?”

“Right!” he says. “Oh, and take your kids with you."

So Skittles and I stop at the liquor store, and I begin to wonder where Dieter buys his American whiskey because there ain’t nuthin’ in the $20 range. I walk out with a medium sized bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label.

Back at home, Skittles draws the neighbors a nice picture. We wait until about 7:00 p.m., which is quittin' time for most Moscow businesses, and ring their doorbell. Their teenage daughter answers, and says her parents are out until at least 9:00 p.m.

Well, 9:00 p.m. is past bed time for Skittles. But Dieter thinks it’s not too late for a social call. I’m thinking Dieter wants this project finished so Dieter can get paid. I’m not calling on anyone after 9:00 p.m. This is not Spain.

So a few days pass during which both the Spouse and I poll Muscovites and more experienced expats about the scenario. No one we talk to can quite understand why the neighbors would care if we mount a dish on the roof. Further, no one can fathom why they would send the Deputy Minister of Silly Walks to convey their message.

“Russians are direct people,” says Fabulous Russian Girlfriend.

The Spouse proposes we invite them over for drinks this weekend. But how to do it? I rarely see them. I post the etiquette question on a local expat forum:

Should I write a note in a nice card? If so, do I attach it to their door or put it in their mailbox? Or should I lurk and try to catch them when they are home (stress!) I know they go skiing. Do I specify a day, or can I say "Either Saturday or Sunday around 14:00"? Then there’s the question of how much food to provide. My understanding is that the Russians load the table so the guests have a better chance of finding something to their liking. So what? And how much?

Should I have them RSVP? This has International Incident written all over it.

On a trip through the Vienna airport, the Spouse brings me some prosciutto, a favorite of mine that is prohibitively expensive in Moscow. But before I can tear the package open, he suggests I save it for the neighbors. “It would be a nice treat to share, don’t you think?”

Sigh. Yeah. I put it in the fridge.

Meanwhile the discussion on the forum is fast and furious.

Don’t invite them in writing. Do it in person, says one.

Keep it casual so they don’t feel uncomfortable, suggests another.

Then advice starts getting more specific and more useful: Knock on their door, and ask them over for tea. Bring out some vodka or a good whiskey. Wine for the wife. Offer cookies or cakes, but have things like sausage, pickles, and cheese ready if they start drinking. Have something on hand to cook quickly if everyone starts to get too drunk.

Another, extremely useful note comes next: When in Rome, do as the Romans, so try to get Russian pickles, some marinated tomatoes, a nice local cheese. Some cold cuts, but no coppa and parma and bresaola. Splurge on some nice, dark bread. Have a box of good quality chocolates, something to drink, but again not over the top because it might look intimidating. Try SOUTHERN COMFORT whiskey, which my Russian friends just love. Don't make an 'appointment,' but just ring the bell and invite them straight over. Oh, and don't take out their garbage anymore.

So the good news is the charcuterie from Vienna is mine, mine, mine!

Back on the forum, jokes begin to fly about the level of damage I’ve done and the best escape route from our apartment.

I laugh and explain that, to date, the neighbors have said nothing directly to us. No voices have, in fact, been raised. Further, I'm still taking their trash with mine to the dumpster if I'm heading that way . . . I'm a good neighbor and a sport!

There was a resounding chorus of “YOU WHAT?” from the forum members.

“That’s not polite. That’s bizarre! Stop it at once!” they tell me. “You will appear stupid or crazy or both.”

“But we talked about it,” I explain. “They apologized for leaving their bags in the hallway. ‘We make a lot of trash,’ the wife confided. I said I do it too . . . but if I'm going I'll take theirs along . . . we invited each other to borrow a cup of sugar or whatever from time to time.”

Now once I accidentally shut the elevator in their faces. I thought the wife said, "I'll just wait" as the husband was locking the door. I don’t think they have as many locks as we do, but these things do take time. So I let the elevator door close. As she wrestled it open, I realized she had said, "Please wait." I apologized immediately and said something about it being early, not enough coffee, mea culpa, mea culpa.

But neither the Spouse nor I could see them being upset enough by the trash or the elevator incident to dispatch the Angry Man to our door. They have lots of international friends if I understood them correctly. They gave me language school recommendations. It just didn’t make sense.

“But remember when our Slovak neighbor recycled our trash,” the Spouse points out an amusing and horrifying story from our Bratislava days. “Maybe they feel the same way you felt then.”

Good point. The Slovak neighbor was well meaning, but I was mortified. I concede about the trash at least.

So all week I have been slinking in and out of the elevator like a furtive rat, afraid I will see them in passing. I walk right by their bags of trash on my way to the dumpster, even though it rankles my Unitarian heart to do so.

On Friday morning, as I return from taking the kids to school, I see they have pizza boxes in the hall. Pizza boxes with a website on them. In English. For a pizzeria that, maybe, just possibly, delivers!

But I have my hands full and nothing to write with. I figure I can unlock my 34 locks, go inside, set down my things, take off my coat and boots, and go find a pen and paper. I’ve seen these boxes in the hall before, but never could remember the name of the pizza place once I got in the house. But this time! This time, I’m going to write it down.

As I open my front door to go back out in the hall, I see the elevator doors close. It was the neighbors, taking their empty boxes down to the dumpster.


In the meantime, the Spouse has done a bit of sleuthing. Turns out that Angry Man is a neighbor, and is the Deputy Minister of Silly Walks, but he lives another wing of the building.

How he came to know about our dish and why he cares remains a mystery. But our neighbors are not involved in this at all.

That’s a relief.

But what to do with one medium-sized bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label? Neither of us can stand the stuff.