Wednesday, May 28, 2008

In Which I Am a Prude

The following links annoy me because my reaction to them renders me a prude. ME!

These are typical Russian high school students celebrating graduation with the traditional costumes and rituals.

Here is another page on the same blog.

And here is the link I first found, which set me off on the quest to figure out what, exactly, is going on here. I am told that no one wears these French maid costumes to school anymore, but that this was the school uniform during the communist era. Now they are retro-cool. And, I am told, only available in sex shops. Duh-oh.

Monday, May 26, 2008

In Which We Receive Gifts From Heaven

First, my Fabulous Russian Girlfriend in Bloodyslava came though with a website for rainboots. Imagine this statement in a Russian accent, a la Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle, "VHY NOBODY THERE IS HELPING YOU? YOU GOOGLE, YOU FIND BOOTS! FIRST PAGE!"

I love her. She always comes through. And she never pays retail.

Then, there appeared, mysteriously, a new cat box. The kind with a lid. In my front yard. It was rained on and sort of muddy. But there it sat, beckoning.

I took it home, washed it, and now it lives in the bathroom part of our bathroom (as opposed to the toilet part). Everyone is much happier, because, you see, there are FIVE people in this house and, inevitably, one of them is in the toilet at any given time. The shorter, furrier one, always seems to be using the loo in the morning when the taller, less furry ones need to get ready to go to work/school. And he looks so indignant, "Ex-cuse me! Um, I was pooping!"

The other news isn't news. It's just me moaning. One of my girlfriends/regular blogfans recently complained that while my blog entries are all educational and stuff, they lack that certain je ne sais quoi when I don't whine. Although she probably said "whinge."

First, I felt a major cold coming on starting on Friday, no doubt as a result of the soaking I experienced on Thursday. (Having seen what I have just written, I do now truly believe I have been in Eastern Europe too long.) By Saturday, I was cross and feeling lousy.

I was walking to the grocery store while The Spouse took the kids to a birthday party (because I wasn't feeling well). I see a guy looking up at a building, so I look up, too, in case there was something interesting going on up there. But, alas, no, there isn't, and I look down in time to see I'm about to step in a dip, so I adjust, last minute, and landed on a very small spot of mud (thank God it wasn't dogshit). Slipped just a tiny bit, but my neck went SPROING!!!!! I almost cried in the grocery store as I could not look down towards my feet (which, usually, is the direction a lot of the food is in your grocery store). Put the rice sock and hotwater bottle to work. Drank some wine. Moaned a lot. I don't have my full range of motion back now but at least the spasming has stopped. I can look down now, but can't look all the way up. That's progress.

The cold is progressing, but I still feel lousy today. I canceled Russian. Then I was complaining to The Spouse and any girlfriend who would listen (really, I have been a terrible complainer these past few days) about how my kidneys hurt, my hip bones even ache . . . now it occurs to me that it could possibly be my period. I'm 47 years old, and I still don't recognize the symptoms. Duh-oh!

The only other big news is that I ordered sausages from Warren's Sausages. I was expecting the delivery guy later this evening. But the phone rings and it's Sausage Delivery Guy saying "I'm here!"

So I run down to the front door to let him in. And while I am in the elevator, it stops. And goes just a little. Then stops. Then goes just a little. Then stops.

I have no idea what floor I'm on or between or whatever. I don't see a keyhole in the door to help me jamb it open. I do have my mobile phone (Sausage Delivery Guy is gonna start to wonder what happened to me, I think, so I'll just call him back . . .), except mobile phones don't get a signal in our elevator. The elevator might also protect one from nuclear attack and kryptonite.

I'm starting to cry (which, with the cold, ain't gonna be pretty) and stab at buttons. I'm not happy about being trapped in the elevator, but more importantly, I want those sausages! There is a button labeled alarm, and I poke at it, but nothing happens (that is, I don't hear an alarm). Suddenly a disembodied voice says, "WHAHwhahwhahwha-ha?" and the elevator, now at the first floor, opens.

I don't know yet how to say in Russian, "I am trapped in the elevator." Note to self: ask Russian teacher on Wednesday.

The sausages are in the freezer.

I'm taking the stairs.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Moscow Does Not Believe in Rainboots

Temperature: 11C, and rain, rain, rain. It has been raining cats and dogs since Wednesday, and it is forecast to continue through the weekend. It’s cold in the house: I’m wearing two shirts and a hooded sweatshirt as I type this.

Spoiler alert: this lousy weather coupled with the inconvenience of having to be out in it make me very cranky. I cannot promise I can discuss this rationally. Text will certainly contain profanity.

I have, for some time now, been on the hunt for appropriate wet weather gear, including footwear, for all of us. I found some cute and stylish Wellington-type boots, but at $100-$150 a pair, and up.

While I’m all about cute footwear, I am not convinced that Wellies are what one puts on for a 30-minute walk on concrete. Puttering in the garden? Sure. But not for a hike. Am I wrong?

Yesterday, the Spouse called upon arriving at his office. He left the house wearing a raincoat. I think he even had an umbrella with him. But Moscow’s streets and sidewalks are veritable lakes and rivers. His shoes and socks were soaked. He took them off, but his office is now unheated (no one has heat in Moscow anymore. Not until next winter . . .). Cold, bare feet were not helping increase his productivity. He eventually ratted around in a box and found a spare pair of socks and appropriate shoes.

He was lucky.

Armed with this knowledge, I left the house yesterday in reasonable shoes. I meant to wear my winter boots, but people! It’s the end of May. The sun is now in Gemini, for Pete’s sake. Winter boots are not what springs to mind.

A lake forms in front of our building door when it rains. I exited the building, realized the lake surface indicated that it was raining, again, and had to go back up to the seventh floor to get an umbrella.

Sheltered under my umbrella and wearing a raincoat, I thought I was well prepared. But nothing prepared me for the rivers of water on our street. The street runs downhill from our house to the corner. This makes leaving the house a sprightly, energetic experience (down hill), while returning home is just uphill enough to be punishing after a long day or a trek from school carrying a kid’s fencing gear.

Combine a downhill grade with a heavy rain and the result is rivers of water. On the International Scale of River Difficulty, I’d rate Moscow at Class III: Whitewater, medium waves, maybe a 3-5 foot drop, but not much considerable danger. May require significant maneuvering.

You think I’m joking. But here’s the truth: one can either maneuver with an umbrella against throngs of other pedestrians, many also carrying umbrellas and playing a sort of urban Chicken Game (Let’s See Who Yields First! aka It’s Only Fun Until Someone Loses an Eye!) or one can elect to walk in the less densely populated but profoundly muddier park. Our park has sandy pathways that, when it rains, turn into something resembling the battlefields of the Dordogne

But never mind. My shoes are already squishing before I even reach the park. Even my socks are now completely wet. My pant legs are soaked and clinging to my shins. It’s 2:15 in the afternoon, I’m heading to school to pick up the girls, and then I get to hang out while Baboo has her fencing class. My ETA for home and clean, dry feet: 7:00 p.m.

Adding insult to injury, as I turn the corner and head up Rozhdestvenskiy Bul’var, the sidewalk is covered in one of those construction site walkways, the kind designed to protect pedestrians from falling debris, misplaced steel beams, errant welding sparks. But in some sort of practical joke, all of the rainwater rushing down that hill has somehow been channeled into the walkway. I am ankle deep in cold, dirty water and cursing.

Another amusing feature of Moscow architecture are the building downspouts. Here’s a picture of a typical downspout on the street near the French school.

Note how the downspout ends right about knee level. On an especially rainy day, the collected water comes shooting out of this pipe with a great deal of force, ricochets off the pavement, and splashes the hapless expat. Some design flaw at all building eaves results in water spraying over the top of the gutters that line the roof edge. Each occurrence of a downspout means a shower for one’s knees, but also a vigorous dousing from above.

I wish I had photos of the Muscovites’ footwear. You’ll have to believe me when I tell you I saw high heels (some even with open toes) and elegant men’s dress shoes. Lots of tennis shoes or "trainers,” if you will. All of them wet. But nary a boot. At the girls’ school every kid, every single kid, was wearing tennis shoes. A few of Skittles’ friends arrived wearing Wellies. When I asked the mothers, “Where did you buy those?” the answer was unanimous: Paris.

A Russian acquaintance confirmed what I was beginning to suspect. Never mind the weather, she told me. The Muscovite credo is “Just Be Gorgeous.” Translated: You won’t find rainboots here. Not easily.

I know I promised profanity in this entry. But an afternoon of wet feet and not-warm-enough layers has either lowered my resistance or coincided with a virus incubation period. In any event, I am today a muted version of myself: throat sore, nasal passages on fire, eyes heavy. I’ve sneezed three times while working on this paragraph. I feel too shitty to swear, that’s how bad I feel.

Oh, and the weather outlook? More of the same. Except colder. Until, say, about next Thursday. When the forecast is for warmer temperatures. And continuing rain.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

In Which I See Moscow's Best and Worst

Temperature: 8C, but the heat is OFF, baby! And, for many people in Moscow, so is the hot water. Weird, I know, but starting in May, the city of Moscow turns off the water, in a rotating schedule, for every building, for three weeks, so the pipes can be maintained. (See a story in the Moscow Times here.) For some poor souls, the fun has already begun (and it’s chilly now without the central heat). Luckily for us, our water doesn't go off until July 22, and by then I will be in my ancestral village, secure in my dacha, with plenty of hot and cold running water. And a dishwasher.

But I digress.

The spring school holidays are over, and classes resumed this week. Wednesdays means judo and also finding something to do with myself during the 90-minute class. Usually I take my Russian books along and do my homework then, but yesterday I decided I wanted to see how two parts of Moscow fit together.

You know how it is when you move someplace new. You learn a part of the city. Then you learn a different part, under totally different circumstances. Then, one day, you discover that these two parts are not so distinct after all and are, in fact, even adjoining.

Some French moms had introduced me to the Volkonski bakery (also known as Kayser, after the French baker, Eric Kayser, I assume) This is a stone’s throw from the Kitai Gorod metro (4/2 Maroseika Ul., for those in the neighborhood). Later, I realized it is also a spitting distance from the French school. A dangerous discovery, what with my 30th high school reunion coming up in early July and me with a great red dress to fit into.

Anyhow, I recently figured out that Skittles’ judo class is, essentially, a few blocks from the bakery. So I thought I’d drag Baboo along with me while I went to check this out since we had 90 minutes to kill.

Indeed, it is not that far from judo. Ker-plunk! That is the sound of a piece of the puzzle falling into place. But since I have the reunion on my mind, I was loath to enter a French bakery with more than an hour to kill. So instead we went into the Ile de Beauté across the street.

Now the Spouse has long said that my “home planet” is “the cosmetic counter at any major department store.” Drop me anywhere in Paris, and I can correctly point toward the big Sephora on the Champs-Élysées. Yeah. I’m serious. Try me next time. Well, this place is bigger than that Sephora. Three, count ‘em, THREE vast floors, each one the size of that entire Paris Sephora.

I only saw one and a half floors. And I only bought some Oil of Olay products because, frankly, it was all I will ever be able to afford in there. But, oh, a girl can dream, can’t she?

Then, walking back to judo, we saw, across the street, one of those incredible gastronoms that only seem to exist in Moscow. These are the places where food is presented as if it were precious jewels in Tiffany’s. I didn’t dare go in this place (I have no idea what the name was . . . it only seemed to say something about WHY PAY LESS? on the sign.), but Baboo and I pressed our noses to the windows and drooled, Homer Simpson-style, at the gorgeous Lindt chocolates, and the barrels of olives, and the purple and white striped eggplant, and the pizza bar, and PEOPLE WERE IN THERE BUYING STUFF, but now that I think about it, there weren’t many of them.

The nightmare part of the day came a few minutes later. We had collected Skittles and were walking home through Chistye Prudy park, when we came upon two men having a fight on the grassy island in the center. One was clearly drunk. The other, sporting an angry Mohawk, was much younger. Mohawk Guy was still on his feet, and was kicking Drunk Guy as we passed, his boots making sickening thuds as they connected with the fallen man’s face.

This all took place in front of a large group of people (Moscow's parks are full in the afternoons, now that the weather is nicer). Many were sitting on a park bench, ring-side, as it were, just watching.

Poor Skittles was very upset. “THERE’S BLOOD!” she said, and made a nervous, clenched jaw face all the way to the metro. We speculated about how we had no idea if the man being beaten somehow deserved it. Perhaps Mohawk Guy was actually a hero.

“He looked mean,” said Skittles, and I didn’t tell her so, but I agreed. I spent the evening feeling guilty that I had not tried to interfere, and then imagining the nightmare scenarios if I had. I fell asleep trying to reassure myself that my first obligation was to my children.

But it was difficult to forget the sound of boot leather on jawbone.

Monday, May 5, 2008

In Which We Attend a Dress Rehearsal

Friday, May 9, is Victory Day in Russia. It commemorates the Allied victory over Nazi Germany and those who died during World War II. The Russians lay flowers and wreaths on wartime graves on this day, and veterans come out into the streets wearing their military orders and medals. During the Soviet era, a military parade was always held in Moscow to celebrate the day, but, for some reason, this has not occurred since the breakup of the USSR.

Until this year.

So there have been several dress rehearsals with all the military vehicles including tanks, missiles, and jets, being dusted off and driven down or flown over the main streets in the center of town.

We have friends who live on the parade route, so this morning the girls and I went over to have breakfast and watch the drill. We got to see the whole thing twice: once as the procession headed down Tverskaya to Red Square, and then again as it all returned to the depot. In between, a brigade of street cleaning trucks came through and washed off the streets.

From our friends' kitchen window, we couldn't see the jets and bombers. But on Friday we will watch the whole thing from the street and should see them then. Below is a banner and a sign announcing the May 9 festivities.

So we started from our friends' fifth floor apartment. The noise was terrific, and we could feel the vibrations through the building.

Big missiles.

BIGGER missiles!

And then they cleaned up.

Then we went down to the street and watched again as they came back from Red Square.

The city workers look on. Everyone was taking photos with cameras and phones.

We made a sport out of getting the soldiers to wave to us. Many of them did.

Then they cleaned up again.

All the street cleaning trucks had been waiting at the corner.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

In Which We Drag a Guest to Visit Kremlins

Kremlin means fortress or castle in Russian. Usually it is a walled compound with buildings inside. As a kid growing up in the Cold War, I always thought the word kremlin was like "White House" or "10 Downing Street," that is, the one building that housed the Soviet government. I was probably married before I realized that the Moscow Kremlin was the seat of government, but it was also the set of buildings where the USSR (and now Russia) carried out the government's business, and that this plot of ground also included many churches.

My point is that there is more than one kremlin in Russia. My very dear friend, DB, visited us last week. One of the places I took him was the Izmaylovo market to shop for souvenirs. While we got everything he wanted, I was surprised to see most of the vendors' booths were deserted. Perhaps this is a seasonal market.

But next to the market is a kremlin. The main entrance is below.

This complex is all constructed out of wood, and none of it seems to be more than about ten years old. The enclosing walls contain little shops, although the ones I saw didn't have much that is different than what one normally finds in the market next door.

The reason we went into this kremlin was that someone had told us that there would be an Easter Bell Ringing event. There seemed to be lots of things going on, but when I am the Senior Russian Speaker in a group, we sometimes have to guess at what is happening.

When we entered the kremlin, the ground was covered with these shiny ribbons and confetti.

Skittles gathered up quite an armload of the stuff.

While we were sitting on our bench, waiting for the bell ringing to start, some children dressed in traditional costumes paraded by. They were actually part of the bell ringing event, and a big group of them performed some songs and dances.

There were three sets of bells: two were in towers like this one.

And one was on the ground. I'd say about ten different bell-ringers performed, and while it was interesting, we saw about eight more than anyone really needs.

Here DB and Skittles are matryoska dolls.

The next day we went to see The Kremlin. Believe it or not, although we have lived in Moscow since mid-December, this was the first time the kids and I had been inside the Kremlin. I find I am not alone, however. We met a nice Dutch woman in the ticket line who was in the same boat. And last night a friend told us that his Russian friends say that if you rush to see all of Moscow in the first few weeks, then you will have nothing left to look forward to. Maybe.

The picture below is taken from the bridge leading into the Kremlin. The modern white and black building in the background is actually a construction/renovation project. When it is finished later this year, the Spouse will have an office there.

The photo below was is taken just inside the Kremlin entrance. The oddly modern building on the left of the photo is the State Kremlin Palace, which was only built in 1961 (I am older!). Originally built for Communist Party congresses, now it's used for cultural events.

Behind the gang is the Trinity Tower. My guide book says that Napoleon marched triumphantly through this gate in 1812, although he left Moscow defeated shortly after.

We bought tickets to the "Architectural Square" which gave us access to the churches, but not all of them were open, and sometimes all we could visit was a part of the church that functioned as a museum. The State Armoury required a separate ticket, and we'll have to do that on another day.

The church below is the Cathedral of the Assumption. Unfortunately, no one is allowed to take pictures inside the churches, so you'll just have to take my word for it when I say it was really ornate and lovely inside.

This is the Tsar Cannon. It was cast in 1586 and weighs 40 tons. I don't know the blonde chick, nor do I know how they got the gigantic cannon balls behind her into the cannon.

In the photo below, the bigger church on the left is the Cathedral of the Archangel, where many of the tsars are buried. We also got to hear an a cappella group singing hymns. They were remarkable, and their voices floated in the space. Gave me goosebumps.

The smaller church on the right is the Cathedral of the Annunciation, but we didn't get to go in it.

Lots of onion domes.

This is the Tsar Bell, the largest bell in the world.

Outside the Kremlin is Red Square. If you look at my earliest posts from Moscow, you can see that I have, indeed, already been here before. But here are some new photos. Below is the Red Army Museum. The ornate star is there because May 1 was Labor Day and May 9 is Victory Day. For May 9 there will be a a military parade, complete with tanks, for the first time since the breakup of the Soviet Union. The metro stop outside Red Square has lots of reinforcing pillars temporarily installed in the walkways to support the weight of the tanks on the street above during the parade. Seats inside Red Square are a VIP ticket-only event, but we have friends who live along the parade route, and we have been invited to watch from their apartment.

Below is GUM department store. In December, there was a huge ice skating rink in front of it.

Newlyweds traditionally have their pictures taken in Red Square and then go around the corner and lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

DB in front of St. Basil's. He is not a newlywed.

The tired crowd trudges back across Red Square, towards the Red Army Museum and home.

On the metro, tired but happy.