Sunday, March 30, 2008

In Which I Go to the Circus

So the Spouse comes home the other night. As he enters the elevator, another guy joins him. Russian Dude is carrying two six packs of beer. The Spouse, in a friendly, jovial mood, looks at the beers and says, in Russian, "Cool. I'm coming to your place."

Russian Dude with Beers, not getting the joke, says solemnly, "You can't." And exits at Floor 4.

In a complete change of topic, we went to the circus today. On a whim. Happened to be coming back from the Chaotic and Crazy Big Market Where They Sell Everything. We bought a new latch for the bathroom door (since the original one came apart, rendering Door Latching and Subsequent Toilet Privacy impossible) and a meat grinder. Oh, the possibilities!

Recently, I had noticed a table in our metro stop with a little woman selling circus tickets. I pointed this out to the Spouse on our way to the market. On the way back, she was still there, so we stopped and discovered, to our delight, that we could buy excellent seats for a show that was starting in 40 minutes!

The Spouse ran home and dropped off the meat grinder, while the girls and I indulged in an emergency lunch of Crap Dogs.

Let me tell you. The circus was FAN-TASTIC! I was a little worried that it would involve excessive animal opression. But there were only four animal acts: one involving snakes (how oppressed can boa constrictors be?), one with giant poodles (pul-eaz!), one with acrobats on galloping draft horses (a staple), and the lion tamer. None of the animals looked sad or drugged or otherwise overly unhappy.

There was a live orchestra. And non-scary clowns. Reasonable audience participation, no Russian required. Great ice cream at intermission. A pooping CAMEL in the lobby!

And the human acts. Oh. My. The human acts were remarkable.

First, I can now tell you with confidence where to find all of Moscow's attractive men.

They're performing in the circus.

The closing act involved what Baboo tells me is really called a Russian Swing. There were BIG guys who provided the ballast and the swing propulsion. And there were more normal-looking guys who got thrown into the air by the swings, and who landed after doing heart-stopping flips and turns.

One such fellow, in a silver lamé jumpsuit, landed in front of our section, struck a jaunty pose, and winked. At me. I swear he winked just at me. But the Spouse claims he got winked at too. Whatever. It was a great bit of theater and a total crowd pleaser.

Go! I recommend it highly!

After the circus, the Spouse took the children home while I ran to the grocery store because we were out of wine (yes, it does happen . . . even to us). When I came back into building, I saw another guy waiting for the elevator.

The door opens, and Guy, reeking of beer, says something to me in Russian. I am clueless.

"Seventh floor?" I say in Russian.

Da! This seems to please him.

We enter the elevator together. He pushes the button for Floor 5. I push the button for Floor 7. He waxes eloquently about Sunday afternoons, family, and the simple pleasures in life.

I think.

I notice he is carrying two grocery bags, and one is filled with beer bottles. Ah! A fellow bon vivant?

I pull out my bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and show it to him.

Oh! But now we are kindred spirits. He rambles on a bit longer about the emphemeral nature of life, man's inhumanity to man, I dunno what all. But he's cheerful, and we seem to have some sort of connection here.

The doors open at the 5th floor and he exits.

"Do svidaniya!" he says, weaving ever so slightly. "Have a good evening!"

Same to you.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

In Which I Lose a Weekend

First things first: POUX UPDATE!

Can’t find a one. Nary a nit nor louse. I’m still scratching, but I am also still waiting to hear from Good Dr. Olga on why that might be (a long story involving a rather brusque exam and the announcement “Let’s discuss!” yet I remain unable to reach Dr Olga, and she seems incapable of dialing my telephone number . . .).

This past weekend was a Lost Cause of Children’s Parties. Sigh. The things we do as parents. Saturday was the Fête du Printemps at the school. The theme: L’Epoque Hippies! Costume Contest! Karaoke! Moms Will Be So Kind as to Bring Crêpes!

Yeah, since I can buy them at the grocery store, no problem.

That was two hours of my life I’ll never get back. The Spouse and I and BH’s husband sat against the wall, carp-like, waiting for it all to be over. BH’s husband even refused to eat the crêpes, saying, “Everyone in here has touched them!”

Probably true.

But I was hungry.

Sunday was even worse. Baboo was invited to a birthday party. The time was 1:00 until 6:00. This mother had to be out of her mind!

I looked at the map and decided it was no big deal to get there by Metro. It was a long way, but not that hard to find.

I was wrong.

I suspected we might arrive late to the party when I left our house at 12:30. I expected we would arrive by 1:30 at the latest. I never expected we would get there after 2:00, and this after wandering around a jungle of similar-looking high-rises, finding Building 14/2, Building 14A, Building 14/4, but not Building 14/3. My friends in Slovakia will know what I mean when I use the word Petržalka.

And 2:00 p.m. is a long time from breakfast. Being extra hungry and frustrated makes me weepy.

This resulted in a long mental list of questions for Russian Teacher.

When we finally did find the party, I asked the mom, who only spoke French, and with an African accent, the fastest way to get back to the Metro.

“Oh, that’s too FAR!” She was horrified. “Just go outside and take the little bus . . .” and she began to describe the bus stop.

Except that would require knowing where I wanted to get off and recognizing it without having ever been there before.

And possibly speaking Russian.

And having cash in my pocket for a ticket (which I didn’t have at that exact moment).

She very kindly tried to press 50 rubles on me and even recruited her oldest son to escort me to the bus.

But Skittles and I fled when she wasn’t looking. We found the Metro, got cash, put credit on my phone, called The Spouse, and arranged to meet him at Pizza Hut.

And got BH to bring Baboo home when she returned to collect her daughter from the party. By car.

Today, Thursday, life is a bit more cheery.

First, BH lured me back into the one shop I know in Moscow. It’s a little Italian clothing boutique near the school. So far I’ve bought two sweaters and a skirt there, all inexpensive and a bit disposable, but fun enough. Today I found a down-filled jacket, quite stylish, for the equivalent of $60 US.

So I bought it.

And I wore it to the market.

Where the Spice and Nut Guy did not hit on me (he was not there and all his colleague said was, “Where are you from?”).

The Butcher did, however.

I think.

What is it with these guys inviting me over?

I think he was attempting to lure me with foie gras (good try). There was much discussion of “dom” (Russian for home) and the Russian word for “husband” and an “away” gesture. And much good-natured laughing.

Nothing like new clothes and a jovial Russian guy with two gold teeth to cheer a girl up.

Friday, March 14, 2008

In Which I'm Moody, Cheer Up, and Then Crash Again

Call it Whinge Entry, Part 2.

Call it Post-Vacation-First-Day-Back-to-Reality blahs.

Call it the moon. Okay, that’s a euphemism for I'm having one of my existential angst days . . . where I am convinced life would be fuller and more meaningful if only I lived ANYWHERE else. A theory that is groundless and which I cannot, for one minute, prove.

Cleaning house always does this to me, however. I mutter about my Master's degree and how the Women’s Movement lied to me while I scrub the toilet. Today, it was while vacuuming cookie crumbs (COOKIE CRUMBS?!) from under the kids' bunk bed. I thought the deal was that I get an education and that gets me a Get Out of Jail Free card on menial tasks. Or the right to pay some OTHER poor woman to do them for me, I guess.

Okay, we all have to work. Lots of cool things (the pyramids, most of the Loire Valley) were the result of a lot of people doing menial and tedious tasks.
1932 Soviet poster dedicated to the 8th of March holiday. The text reads: "8th of March is the day of the rebellion of the working women against kitchen slavery" and "Down with the oppression and narrow-mindedness of household work!"

And it’s not like I gave up my career doing heart transplants or something equally sexy to come here. I was always the first to say, “Eh” about my passion for work. As early as college, I was career-resistant, and, in fact, ran screaming from the Graphic Design program because they wanted us to consider every classroom assignment as if it were a real job, while I just wanted to study design elements and make pretty things.

Since I wrote as well as I drew, I ran all the way to the English Department, where no one ever expected I would get a job in the private sector, of all things.

But what about the moon? The hormones are definitely rampaging. I AM the PMS Posterchild today. It’s only Day 18, and my breasts are so out of control I'm sleeping in a bra. I hate to simplify life with "Oh, it's my hormones . . . " but I truly believe that this is often the case. When I feel like ripping someone's neck open with my teeth, it usually happens that my period begins a few hours later. I can be blindingly oblivious to all the signs . . .

Russian Lessons. How do you write the letters? Some of them, like the D, I just don't know where to start. At least when you learn Chinese, they show you the strokes for the characters. I spend all my time trying to make the Cyrillic look pretty and get distracted from the actual learning.

I have a CD that accompanies one of my books. Right now they are just teaching sounds, and that = alphabet and helps me a little. I finally got down that y = oo. The restaurant called MY MY is pronounced moo moo. It is a steakhouse.

How to say “Hello” in Russian. The word is Здравствуйте, written zdrastveetie so an English speaker can read it. Who wants to learn Russian when this is “Hello”?

Just mumble, says my friend LM.

But better still is TD’s suggestion, “Say ‘does your ass fit cha’.”

Hmmm. Sort of like saying “Nice driveway” for the Russian toast, “Na zdorovje.”

The House at Poux Corner. Oh, humiliation lurks around every corner when you are an expat.

And today started out so well, with smiles from people on the street and a general feeling of well being upon seeing women friends at school. Just starting to feel like maybe, just maybe, there's a place for me here.

All this in SPITE of the poux epidemic at school, which may or may not be an issue. (Poux is French for lice. Are you scratching now? I am.) BH thought maybe her kids had nits. So she treated and notified me. I looked and thought maybe Baboo had nits. Maybe not. But definitely no lice.

Wednesdays and Thursdays are very long days with after school activities. Skittles has judo on Wednesdays, which ends at 5:30. Baboo has fencing on Thursdays, which ends at 6:00. In class yesterday we finally received her outfit (she looks so cool in it!) and her weapon. I was loath to take an unsheathed sword on the Metro as I didn't want to be hassled about it (the coach mentioned we should put it in a case, which I have, but didn’t have it with me).

So we walked home. I had already walked to school and back in the morning. Now I'm finishing a second lap. It's 30 min each way, and if I do more than two legs in a given day, I get really tired.

It's also drizzling. And I'm carrying all this fencing clothing, a bag with groceries, as well as my purse, which at least is small. I'm wearing the Dog Fur Hat. I'm hot. And I need one of those fine-toothed combs and possibly a stronger concoction than what I sprayed on everyone's head last night.

One of the larger and more reputable pharmacy chains here is called 36.6, which is the metric equivalent of 98.6F. Clever, eh? So I swing by the 36.6 near my house, kids in tow.

Suddenly I am barraged with orders in Russian. A manager type is yelling at me.

I draw a blank. And because I am hot, and tired, and carrying all these things, I cut her off saying "I'M SORRY I DON'T SPEAK RUSSIAN."

As I shouted back at her the light bulb went off. Duh-oh! The bags! I can't carry all this stuff into the store. I make a dramatic show of setting them all at her feet. She shakes her head.

Double Duh-oh! Stupid me. There are lockers by the entrance, but I hadn't seen them.

"OH! Klusch!" I say. A key! (I don’t know the word for locker.) She nods; relieved I am finally getting it.

I return to the entrance, kids in tow, and Baboo says, "Didn't you see these? I saw them."

And I lost it. I just lost it.


Heads turn. Calmly, Baboo says, "Huh. Yeah. You’re right."

So now, my head held high, I have to march to the back where the pharmacist is. I show her the paper where I have carefully written the name of the product I seek, in English and Cyrillic.

"Nyet," she says, practically sneering.

Aw, man . . . c'mon.

I point to the drawing I have done of a comb, with the words comb and insect written next to it in my best Cyrillic.

This she has. She shows me a product. Now it gets complicated because I already have a product. She can't understand my question about which product is stronger. But she has Colleague Guy. I hear her ask him if he speaks any English. He shakes his head, sadly.

"Espanol? Francais?" I try.

Spanish. Da. He speaks some.

What follows is a L O N G moment when I try to remember how to say, "I have" in Spanish. I used The Spouse’s trick of counting to ten in Spanish first, just to change gears. Finally, after the little hourglass has spun on my hard drive for what felt like forever, I was able to produce the words "Tengo ParaPlus . . . que es mas fuerte?"

Cervantes is whirling like a lathe, I know. But they sold me a product, complete with a little nit comb. I bought a box for me and a box for BH.

So last night I show The Spouse the package insert. “Apply entire contents to child’s head . . .” he translates. “Let sit ten minutes, rinse, and comb.”

Entire contents, eh? One bottle per kids, you say?

This means a return trip to 36.6 within 24 hours.


P.S. I did return to 36.6 this morning, but a miracle and a shift change seem to have occurred, as I was not barred entrance. Today’s Clerk even asked if I had a 36.6 Loyalty Discount Card.

Um, no, but can I have an application pazhalsta? I’ll be back.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

In Which I Consider Home

Temperature: +3C! Columbus, Ohio is colder today.
Snow: Streets are clean but there is some. Again, I hear Columbus, Ohio has 14 inches.
What I Am Reading: Just finished Diplomatic Baggage: The Adventures of a Trailing Spouse, which was charming. Now reading Random Acts of Heroic Love, which takes place between Budapest and Krakow (I know! Do the math!) and Siberia. It’s not bad.

The kids had two weeks of school holiday, so I booked us a flight to Bratislava.

Yeah. I know.

I never thought, in a million years, that I would consider Bratislava a vacation destination.

But as the plane circled over Burgenland in preparation for landing in Vienna, I thought, “Home!” and even got a little weepy. Sometimes I think it’s not Slovakia I miss as much as Austria.

The trip was easy and reasonably priced. I booked us on FlyNiki, and the girls and I traveled to Vienna for about $600. The hardest part, and it wasn’t that hard, was getting from our house to the airport. We walked out of our apartment to the Metro. We went one stop and changed lines. Then we went three stops and switched to the Airport Express train. Train tickets for the three of us were about $15. No traffic. Just 50 minutes directly from the train station to the airport. A lot cheaper and faster than taking a taxi.

My Wonderful Russian Girlfriend was waiting at the airport in Vienna and drove us to Bratislava. My Russian cell phone did not work outside the Russian Federation, so I swapped my Russian SIM card for my Slovak one. BINGO! I have a working cell phone. The nearest ATM = credit on phone. I’m in touch, baby.

The next week was a blur of visits with people who were so happy to see me. Thursday was a prime example. Skittles had an extended sleepover with a friend, so Baboo and I went to see my wonderful friend, Jarmila, for lunch. She says, “Oh, you’re not driving, are you!” and opens a bottle of wine at 11:30 in the a.m. We ate lunch, and then lounged in the sunshine beside her goldfish pond, drinking wine and talking while Baboo ran around, chased the various house dogs, and played dress up. I am sure there was a second bottle of wine and time in the sauna, but I can't say for sure.

Then we went to visit Wonderful Russian Girlfriend who said, “Oh, you’re not driving, are you!” and opened a bottle of champagne.

I swear, I had only one, tiny glass before her husband came home from work and announced, “This bottle is empty!” before opening a second bottle. By the end of dinner, I was holding a hand over one eye so I could focus. Collapsed into bed before repeating the same thing again for the next six days.

It was so easy being in Bratislava. I know where everything is. I can call a taxi and say where I want the car to meet me. On Monday, we had lunch with Pani Babka, my former neighbor. We stopped at Orchidea, my favorite flower shop, to buy her a hostess gift. As I handed my selection to the clerk, she said, “Is this for your home? Or is it a gift?” In Slovak. And I understood EVERY WORD. (The Spouse later asked me if ten years ago I ever imagined, in my wildest dreams, that ten years in the future I would understand when someone asked me, in Slovak, “Is this for your home? Or is it a gift?” Um, no.)

All of which caused me to feel adrift. Talking to the Spouse on the phone one day, I whined about how I no longer belonged in Bratislava, yet I hadn’t quite made Moscow home.

“But when we lived in Bratislava, you always said you didn’t belong there either!” The Spouse was incredulous.

Oh. Yeah. I remember saying that.

I also remember moving, in 1988, from Athens, Ohio, the small college town where I spend eight happy years, to Columbus, Ohio, where I grew up and had family. In spite of much stronger links to Columbus, I remember feeling homesick for Athens, a town only 75 miles away.

Additionally, I remember a friend telling me about her mother’s funeral. The woman had lived in a Cleveland suburb for her entire life. The church was filled to capacity, with many people crowded outside, waiting for a chance to pay their respects. I was impressed with this: having roots, a place in the community. This woman was loved and missed when she passed away.

I could never have a funeral like hers, if only because my friends are scattered around the world.

When I mentioned this in Bratislava, my friends there raised an eyebrow at my gloomy outlook. “Do you really spend time considering your funeral?” they asked.

Um, no. Not really. Since, frankly, when my funeral takes place I won’t really care, will I? But it is an interesting thought: roots versus adventure. Is one more valuable than the other? I don’t know.