Sunday, April 27, 2008

In Which We Look Around

Some photos for you on this Orthodox Easter Sunday.

This is the House of Friendship. My guidebook says it is an example of Eclecticism. No kidding.

Yesterday, we went to visit Novodevichiy Convent. It is a fortified religious institution. The oldest parts were built in 1524. Other buildings were added in the late 17th century by Peter the Great when he decided he needed to get his half-sister out of the way. He deposed her in 1689 and essentially had her locked up here for the rest of her life.

This is a bell tower on the convent grounds. The bottom two layers are occupied by a church.

All these people are standing outside the Church of the Assumption (still within the convent grounds). You can't see him, but an Orthodox priest is working his way through the crowd, splashing holy water over the Easter cakes with what looked like a paintbrush. We saw the altar boy, in his purple and gold finery (over his blue jeans), carrying a red plastic dishpan that apparently held the holy water. His parents made him pose for photos.

Here are worshipers carrying home their baskets of blessed Easter cakes, eggs, and candles.

This is just trouble.

Next door to the convent is Novodevichiy Cemetery. Lots and lots of famous Russian and Soviet writers, composers, scientists, and politicians are buried here.

I love cemeteries. I spent a lot of time in Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires (final resting place of Eva Peron . . . maybe). They tend to be quiet places, with trees and nice places to sit. Plus they say a lot about the culture.

Here some gravemarkers I liked (but I don't know who these people were).

I especially liked Cat Lady.

Now we have some Russians even I know of. For example, below is Nikita Kruschef.

I dunno. Upclose he looks a lot like Don Rickles to me.

Josef Stalin, Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko were all buried beside the Kremlin wall. Boris Yeltsin is not. He's at Novodevichiy.

This abhoration is the new Yeltsin monument, just unveiled this week on the one-year anniversary of his death. According to the Moscow Times, the new monument was created by sculptor Georgy Frangulyan in the form of the Russian tricolor flag, which was reintroduced by Yeltsin.

"It is proper that his tombstone is covered with the Russian state flag -- the tricolor, the national flag of Russia, which was returned by Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin to our history, our country and our people," Putin said.

Channel One news showed Putin appearing to fight back tears as he watched Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Alexy II bless the monument.

Back to the normal people. There were a lot of visitors in the cemetery yesterday, cleaning graves, bringing flowers and other tributes like the ones above. This grave has a small Easter cake, two eggs, and a candle. Very touching.

Between visiting the convent and the cemetery, we stopped for a little lunch at an outdoor cafe. In the shade, it was a little chilly, so Skittles assumed her Hollywood glamour look.

Baboo was more pragmatic.

Finally, a Moment of Moscow. Below is a little medical center that features GYNECOLOGY and DENTISTRY. I can't help but find those an odd combination of specialties in one center.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

In Which I Talk to Strangers

How mortifying.

A very kind fellow, let's call him B, offered, a while ago, to take me shopping. I have only met B once or twice, in dark, smoky expat bars, but I have had something of a correspondence with him over other matters regarding life in Moscow. He's been helpful and has a good reputation.

So I thought nothing of taking him up on his offer, which involved him taking pity on me for having ruined the last of my T-Fal, no-stick, sauté pans.

The plan was for me to meet him in the parking lot of his building around 9:00 a.m. The stores open at 10:00, and Moscow traffic is serious enough that we needed to allow at least an hour to get to the shops (and this was with us going against most of the rush-hour traffic).

Let me flash forward a bit and tell you that the mission was ultimately successful, but that I returned at 3:00.

That's 1500 hours.

Six hours later.

Because of traffic.

But I digress. Back to the parking area behind B's building.

So there I am, loitering by the Dumpster as instructed. I send B an SMS saying I have arrived, and he replies that he will "be right down."

Shortly, I see coming toward me, with purpose, a man of the right age, looking vaguely as I recalled B to look (remember, I only met him once, maybe twice, and that was a while ago).

This B is carrying garbage bags in both hands, as well as a briefcase, and he smiles and nods at me. I fall into step with him saying, "Ah, yes. Never make a trip empty-handed, eh?" He smiles again, and says something, but B is Australian, and I still have trouble sometimes with an Aussie accent.

I keep following and chatting. "So. How are you? Do you think it's really going to snow tomorrow?"

Finally B stops and looks at me. "Entschuldigen," he says, contritely and in German. "Parlez-vous français?"

Do I speak French? Huh? But you're Aussie? What on earth are you talking about?

The light bulb goes off.

This is not B.

I have no idea who this patient man is. But he is not about to drive me to the Mega Mall this morning.

"You are not B." I say.

He nods. The crazy lady lurking by the Dumpster is finally getting it. He excuses himself.

I am not quite done laughing when he drives past me on his way out of the parking area. He rolls down the car window. "Bye!" he says.

Au revoir.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

In Which Wonders Never Cease

Temperature: About 12C now. There was some sun today, but it has rained this week. A lot. And on Thursday there were even snow flurries. Brrr. We were all depressed about that.

Here is an amazing, true story.

In December, The Spouse lost his wallet. We had been here about a day. It was probably stolen from the inside pocket of his overcoat while we were in a coffee shop.

This was vexing not only because it contained all of his credit cards, but also his newly acquired Slovak driver’s license.

An EU driver’s license is expensive. He paid about 15,000 Slovak crowns or $600 USD for it. But, unlike an American driver’s license, an EU driver’s license is good for life. And it is good in the US, as well as anywhere else in the world. It was the most valuable thing in the wallet (he doesn't keep cash in it).

Fast forward to Friday.

The Spouse was walking to school with Baboo (Skittles was home, sick again, the victim of a rather tenacious tummy bug). A municipal worker, one of the guys who wears a Day-Glo orange jacket and keeps the parks and other public areas clean, called The Spouse by name.

“I have your wallet,” he told an amazed Spouse. (Actually, he said, in Russian, “I have your papers.”)

“How did you know who I was?” The Spouse asked.

“I recognized you from your pictures,” the guy said. “There are pictures of you in the wallet.”

So they arranged that The Spouse would meet the man after work, at 4:00, in another part of the park.

Of course, we decided to give the guy a reward: the bottle of Johnny Walker has been gift-wrapped and gathering dust, lo these many months. And some cash.

Sure enough, we found him at the appointed place. He reached into the pocket of his orange jacket and said, “This is yours . . .”

And it was!

He told us he found the wallet in a trashcan by the Metro. The cards had all spilled out of it, so he carefully picked them all up and put them back in the wallet.

Which he then kept.

For more than four months.

On the off chance he might one day run across the owner.

In a city of more than 10 million people.

Monday, April 14, 2008

In Which I Preach About Why You Gotta Write This Stuff Down

The Spouse found the following two emails I wrote about our time in Argentina. I had totally forgotten these details. Gotta write this shit down!

Okay, so I'm here. The flight was okay, and by that, I mean just okay. The Baboo [who was about 16 months old] did fairly well, but wanted to sleep ON me. And she was extremely vexed by the 45-minute delay and SCREAMED at the gate area until everyone stared at me like I was Cathy Bush (for you non-Floridians, this is the woman who slowly poisoned her child to get attention, which, I confess, in my weaker moments, has crossed my own mind). But she did mostly sleep and was mostly cheerful and mostly sat in her car seat like a champ. I don't know if I could expect much more for her age and this length of flight.

We arrived at something like 8:00 a.m., and I had a car seat and this back pack for her and her carry on and she's in the backpack banging me on the head with her cast [she had broken her arm two days before this trip] while I'm waiting to go through Immigration. At one point, she whomped me really hard, so I, in a very mature move, whomped her back with our passports (over my head and blindly), so she begins to SCREAM again, heads turn, and an airport official suddenly appears, takes my cart o' car seat and giant Laa-Laa, and says, "Come with me." I think, "Great, I'm being taken away for child abuse," but she was taking me instead to the crew line, which had no one in it. A nice treat.

Then, after I have to shove the business men out of the way to gather my luggage, and hoist it, over their empty carts, to my cart because they won't move or help me (I'm still wearing the Baboo in the backpack), I got all the way to the hotel before I remembered that I never collected my stroller. The Spouse volunteered to go by himself at 6:00 in the morning the next day to fetch it, and you can't really use it here anyhow because the sidewalks are all uneven and under repair, but that's another story. Plus you roll over a pile of crap (dog crap, that is) about every 10 yards or so. In this way, the city does resemble Paris.

The Spouse collected me, and we drove into town. We spent the rest of that first afternoon looking at apartments and, I must say, this is a very cool town. He really lowered my expectations, but it has lovely architecture in more places than I thought I'd find it.

I also found a very lovely mall already, and lots of adorable kids' clothes.

We have narrowed the apartment search to two, both of which are quite nice and both on Montevideo, the street where the newly elected president is living. So now there are the equivalent of Secret Service guys and police dogs in front of his place!

One apartment is decorated in a sort of SE Asian motif, but not really. It looks out over the Vatican embassy's gardens, which we are told, are lit at night. It has a really nice kitchen and a little porch sort of sunroof place to sit outside and enjoy your paper and coffee. My biggest concern about this is that the windows open into nothing and my mountain goat could learn to climb out and fall -- so we must be vigilant and keep certain windows and doors locked. [This is the apartment we ended up renting.]

The second place is on the first floor (which is really the second floor, over the parking garage), so it has a sort of private garden, which is mostly Astroturf, but some plants, and it would be a good place to store toys and kid stuff. It is newly painted and very charming -- so we'll see.

We are still hot in negotiations trying to get the agents and owners to come down in price, with modest success.

I walked, in the rain, with the stroller and an umbrella, to see this apartment, and I'm here to tell you that you just can't go to the store or the cleaners. I have to put Baboo in the stroller or the backpack and then carry my purchases --we may have to consider using a babysitter more often because I can't do this every time.

I understand you can get groceries delivered, but taking the child out in the rain was bad -- not so much because she minded (it wasn't really cold), but because I got such awful looks from people for doing it. She had removed her new shoes and socks while I was crossing the 9 de Julio (the world's widest street -- I am not making this up. In places, I swear it is 10 lanes in each direction). So her little legs are bare and wet and dangling. Earlier today I had her in the backpack and was walking down the Calle Florida, and some woman stopped to tell me that the water from my umbrella was running onto my child. So that didn't work. Plus she gets heavy in that thing, and, for at least 2 more weeks, she's seriously armed and dangerous with the cast!

Last evening I took her to a little park near our hotel, and we swung on the swings, and she loved that. Plus everyone has a dog -- she thinks that is totally great. We have met lots of cool dogs.

I did take her to see the Casa Rosada this morning. You enter the Plaza de Mayo, and there it is at the end, and all you want to do is sing "I want to tell the people of Argentina . . ." You CAN'T help it. So I walked closer, because the building seemed a bit hazy, and I realize that it is covered with a scrim with the façade painted on it because the actual building is being worked on! What a hoot. So we bought some bird seed and fed the pigeons.

Our hotel room is tiny and very European, but the continental breakfast is included and the staff seem very patient with us and our screaming child.

Everywhere you go you can get empanadas (filled with delicious chicken and other goodies) or these tortas which are filled with spinach or ham and cheese. We haven't had a chance to get adventurous with food because the Baboo really restricts us. We do find highchairs in restaurants -- they just aren't out, but the staff always offers to get us one. I often just use the stroller, though.

The plumbing seems to be part of the family atmosphere here, by which I mean that the bowel habits of all of the guests are common knowledge through a series of echoing pipes and drains. The lady in the next room needs a little more fiber in her diet, and we are tempted to slip a note reading "eat more cabbage" under her door, but don't know how to say cabbage yet in Spanish.

This is more of a meat-lovers sort of place. Even the vegetarian place serves steaks. We try to follow the habit of getting some sort of green vegetable each day. The man upstairs has no trouble getting things to move. Could he be the one with the coffee and the cigarette we see in the bar in the mornings running back up to his room (clutching his free newspaper) as soon as he's finished?

All in all, it does feel European -- you just can't quite figure out what city in Europe. The parks have huge shade trees (I don't know what some of them are), and there are plenty of them. The ice cream is supposed to be really good (I haven't had any yet, if you can believe that). The steaks really are good and cheap. There are sidewalk cafes with officious waiters and napkins fabricated inexplicably of wax paper. They absorb nothing.

The Baboo really makes this sort of travel a completely different experience from our last overseas jaunts as she really likes hotel rooms and doesn't like meeting strangers (even if they are telling her how "hermosa" she is). She gets bored and fried fast and doesn't understand what's going on and throws worldclass tantrums in restaurants and taxis and potential apartments . . . and I can't get away from her. In the past, when travel started to get weary, I'd go sit in a cafe and have a drink and write postcards, but that's not an option here.

We did find Teletubbies (pronounced Tele-Toob-ies, and yes, they dub the cooing too so Tinky Winky is extra annoying now and Dipsy is vaguely malevolent) and there's the Sony channel which features just about any American show you'd want (with the possible exception of Law and Order), so I get small breaks by watching some tv -- and since the English-language shows have Spanish subtitles, it really helps me with my Spanish.

There are some Teletoobie knockoffs in the stores, and they look sort of like the real ones only with an extra chromosome and a prosthetic piece of aluminum foil taped to their middle.

The accent is amazing. Anything with the ll or y or j is pronounced zh, so calle is cazhe. When I say Baboo se cayo de la silla, I have to say cai-zho de la si-zha. Very odd. And even ads use this pronunciation! I find it incredible, but they all do it! It's like hearing small schoolchildren in Australia all speaking with an Australian accent -- incredible!

One constant source of amazement is the traffic. Lanes are marked, but locals tell us that these markings were made by some anal-retentive traffic engineer and the driving public cannot expect to be so restricted. Even when there is nobody on the road, they will straddle the lane markings and zoom hell-for-leather through the darkened streets of the Argentine capital. At red lights, if you are behind someone, and there is room beside him in between the car in front and the guy in the next lane, why, you just go right on up there and when the light turns green things will sort themselves out.

The taxi drivers are all maniacs, but, we observe, in contradistinction to the United States, none of them seem to have been born in Nepal or Oman or Gabon or wherever and none of them are named Singh, although a sort of dark sweatiness seems to be a common element the world over. We were somewhat alarmed and confused when our driver crossed himself and kissed his rosary as he took to the freeway on-ramp. I am serious about this. He really did this as a precursor to merging.

Well, the Baboo calls -- more later. We really like our adventure here and miss you all. Hasta luego.

Some of that is too funny for me to believe that I wrote it. Surely I stole it from something The Spouse wrote to me.

What follows now is from our first Christmas in Argentina, 1999.

We had a lovely evening last night (Christmas Eve or Noche Buena) as one of The Spouse's colleagues invited us to join his family.

This is Alejandro -- he invited us to the BBQ a few weeks ago, and, in fact, is the only one from The Spouse's office to invite us anywhere. His wife is Alejandra (no joke). They both speak English and have four children: the oldest is 15 and the youngest is 3.

They live is a suburb called Acassuso which is positively delightful and very Swiss looking. If we were to ever buy a house here, we'd look for one there, although bank loans for houses here don't seem as generous as at home -- Alejandro said he borrowed $80,000 to put toward this house and paid it off in 2 years! I don't know how much they put down.

Anyhow, he said to come over any time after 3:00 p.m., so we had a car pick us up at 6:00. The 3-year-old met us at the door (Adele), still wet from the pool, and insisted on giving me big hugs and kisses. Then she and the Baboo were off to the garden.

It's a great backyard with a small pool (fenced), a German Shepherd (Kissi), a club house with chairs and everything, a swing, two patio areas, a ping-pong table, two parillas (BBQ pits), and lots of flowers and grass and trees. It's a perfect place for kids. We even saw a hummingbird.

The little girls ran around and played with toys and dolls and the dog. Alejandra brought them ham and cheese sandwiches and deviled eggs filled with paté -- which Baboo gobbled up!

Around 8:00 or 9:00 the rest of the family showed up: Both of Alejandro's parents came, but separately as they are long divorced (but friendly), two sisters and their spouses and kids, and a priest.

One of the brother-in-laws is a vet and had happened to adopt one of Kissi's puppies, and because the puppy was (supposedly) scared of loud noises, they brought him along for a family reunion. He was the fuzziest Shepherd puppy (about 5 months) with funny floppy ears, and he and his mom ran and wrestled and chewed on each other all night. They had a great time.

By this time the Baboo faded and was put to bed in one of the children's rooms, but Santa showed up and distributed toys and gifts to all assembled.

By the time I returned, Santa was back in his civvies, and it was time for dinner. Which was sort of odd. Some of it was quite delicious and some was positively inedible. There was the following:

1. Slices of very lean ham (almost like a Canadian bacon) with pineapple and a sauce.

2. More deviled eggs with paté

3. Tomatoes filled with a ham mixture (very good) (featured MAYO)

4. A seafood salad with hearts of palm and K-R-A-B (also very good) (featured MAYO)

5. Slices of a beef product covered with a thin layer of MAYO and garnished with capers. Turned out to be, God help me, tongue!

6. A mystery meat in aspic that was served with a pickled onion relish and mustard (presumable to disguise the taste?). All we kept thinking was "50% less rectum!"

7. Octopus. I'm a coward. I refused to even try.

8. Some sort of mystery layered dish that I guess I would describe as a terrine? It involved lots of MAYO. I took a bite, but was convinced I encountered mini marshmallows, so I abandoned that effort.

And of course rolls and champagne and beer and sodas.

Desserts included three or four frozen mousse-type dishes (I recognized strawberry and dulce de leche). I brought a cake that had a base of meringue topped with two different types of chocolate mousse -- of course I bought it, and here, you buy cakes by the kilo. Very odd. But wonderful. There was also another meringue-type dessert that had a dulce de leche sauce. It was very good, too.

And then Alejandro brought out the fireworks! In fact, the whole neighborhood brought out fireworks. It made the whole evening -- with the lovely weather and eating outside -- feel like the 4th of July. He started with sparklers for all the kids, but they were GOOD sparklers that changed color from yellow to red to green to white as they burned down.

Then they shot off rockets. Car alarms were going off and stray rockets were landing in the neighbor's yard and the sky was filled with professional looking fireworks. It was like Beruit. Or Miami. Actually, it was fun, and no one got their eyes put out or their fingers blown off.

We got a ride home from the vet (who was also dropping off the priest) at about 1:30 a.m.

This morning we woke up around 9:00 a.m. and gave the Baboo all her presents to open. She figured it out pretty quickly, and decided this was a good plan.

Then we walked around the corner to the Hyatt and enjoyed their breakfast buffet. Scrambled eggs, bacon, french toast or pancakes, fresh squeezed juice, coffee, fruit, pastries. It was the best Christmas present ever. We may go back for the brunch later . . . well, certainly for New Year's.

Now it's nap time. I've never heard the city quieter. I understand it should stay this way for several more weeks as everyone flees for their summer vacations. it's really nice. And The Spouse soaked his ankle [I have NO idea what this was about] in hot water and hot towels yesterday -- today it is feeling much better. I'm glad he has three days to baby it before he has to walk to work on Monday. He should make a complete recovery.

Hope everyone had a very Merry Christmas! Keep those e-mails coming. It's a treat to hear from you.


The Expatresse

Friday, April 11, 2008

In Which I Celebrate Spring

Temperature: 20C (that’s 70sF, folks!)
Snow: Ha. I got a little sunburned yesterday and again today. The trees are ready to explode into leaf. Tulips are pushing up in the flowerbeds in the parks. I saw daffodils blooming today.
Now Reading: Dare I say it? My How-To Sex Manual is, well, boring. There's lots of discussion of adjusting one's chi, and breathing exercises that are, no doubt, good for anyone. I'm soldering on, but I have, in desperation, read a short story in The New Yorker and last night started Richard Russo's Empire Falls. Both more engaging than the to How-To guide.

I guess it’s spring in Moscow when they take off the double doors at the Metro entrances. I’m not sure why they need to come off. But we don’t need that extra buffer zone from the cold now, that’s for sure.

Wednesday, I was walking through Chistie Prudy park on the way to judo. The pond is no longer frozen in any way. The park was full of people, strolling, drinking beer, sitting on the benches, smoking and chatting, playing hacky-sack, making music, kissing. I passed a young couple that was standing in the middle of the walk, passionately and obliviously kissing.

Today, in the park near Tsventoy Bulvar, there was another couple, sitting under the clown statue (it’s across from the circus!) just PASSIONATELY going at it. They barely came up for air. The girls said, “WOW!”

A few meters farther on I saw two young guys sitting on a bench. One was wearing a black t-shirt that said, “It’s MILLER Time.” They were drinking Guiness.

The warmer weather seems to be making everyone friendlier. This week, I have had several of what might loosely be called “Russian Conversations.”

First, was when I ventured into a shoe repair shop. Well, “shop” is too generous a term. This place is the size of a doublewide Port-a-Potty. It’s right in front of my Metro, but it’s so small, I have been walking by it for months and never noticed it.

I stopped by the other day to ask about a shoe of Baboo’s. All the way there I practiced saying to myself “I don’t speak Russian.” When I stuck my head in the door and said, “Hello,” imagine my surprise to see TWO guys sitting in there, eating lunch.

“Hello,” I say in Russian. “I don’t speak Russian.”

“What do you speak,” says Shoe Repair Guy in Russian.

“English,” I say in Russian. “French. Spanish . . . ”

I show him the shoe.

“He no work,” I say in Russian.

Shoe Repair Guy looks at the shoe, and sets about repairing it.

“SOCHI!” says Shoe Repair Guy’s lunch buddy, nose-to-nose with me.

“Huh?” I say.

“The Russian Winter Olympics in 2014,” says Shoe Repair Guy in accentless English.

Huh? Where’d you learn to say that? And why is your friend shouting “SOCHI!” at me?

By now the shoe is fixed. Shoe Repair Guy refuses any money. I walk on.

Yesterday was Thursday, which means I have to lug a gym bag with Baboo’s fencing equipment over to school, as well as her sword (or “fleuret”) which I carry about town in a green fleuret carrying bag. It doesn’t look like a sword, but it does look odd.

As I pass a street cleaner, he starts to ask me what I’m carrying.

“Oh, I don’t speak Russian,” I say in Russian.

“Nevermind,” he says back in Russian. “Whatcha got there?” I’m only guessing at the exact translation because this part of the conversation was strictly contextual.

“I don’t know . . . how you say . . .,” I reply in Russian and mime a classic “En garde!” position.

“Oh! Fencing!” he says in Russian. I recognize the word when I hear him say it. “The sword. Is it yours?”

“No . . .” I know I will butcher the word for daughter, so I just say “Children.”

“Huh,” he says in Russian. “That’s interesting. Bye!”

As I walked into the Sedmoy (grocery store) near Baboo’s school this afternoon, I spotted a fluffy, brown street dog, standing in front of the doors, looking in like he was waiting for someone. People walked around him as they entered the store, but he stayed near his spot. Just waiting.

The street dogs make me sad. Now that the weather is warmer, they have moved out of the Metro and tend to sleep in the sun, on the grass, undisturbed, in the parks. They are not thin as a group, but often sort of dirty. Many of them have collars. They don’t bother anyone (except my expat friend . . . she is chased by marauding packs when she tries to walk her dog), and I never see anyone bothering them either.

Sometimes I buy envelopes of wet dog food and put them in my purse, in case I see a dog I think I can give it to.

Cat food is on my grocery list today, so while I’m buying two boxes of Poo-Stink Reducing Cat Food, I pick up an envelop of dog food. But I have to wait for a babushka wearing a black headscarf to get out of my way before I can approach the pet food display.

I make my purchases and walk back outside. The dog is nowhere to be seen. I look up and down the street. No dog.

I turn the corner to return to the French School. And there is the dog. And the babushka. She’s opening her own envelopes of dog food and putting it on the sidewalk where the dog is politely eating it. I approach, and set down my grocery bags. The babushka sees me and comes over with one of her envelopes.

“Would you help me open this, please?” she asks in Russian. She’s having trouble getting the package to tear. Her hands are somewhat arthritic looking.

“Of course,” I don’t even try to speak Russian. I hand her MY package of dog food and take hers. She smiles. I open her package, and she squeezes it out on the ground, where the dog gratefully eats it.

We’re in a pretty posh neighborhood, but this woman is not posh. She’s dressed all in black, with practical shoes and thick support stockings. She’s a pensioner. She probably shouldn’t be spending her limited rubles on food for street dogs.

But that dog and I are glad she did.

Friday, April 4, 2008

In Which I Finally Get Some Kul-Chah! (in spite of my best efforts)

Temperature: 13/14C (55F?) All this week the skies have been a gorgeous blue. Today is overcast, but it is warmer. The girls have started wearing something other than their winter coats to school. But I’m told that in Moscow Spring = RAIN! and that rain boots are the order of the day. Perhaps at Detsky Mir . . .

I confess: I’ve been a bit . . . reclusive. Okay, a LOT reclusive. For all my big talk about how “Oh, I love big cities, the energy, the life . . .” Moscow is exhausting sometimes. And Moscow in the winter can be just too much work. Especially when you live like a New Yorker (without a car). Not that I want a car here . . . but still. Sometimes going out is more than I can cope with.

And in the winter, when the days were dark and short, it was comforting to nest at home, curled up with a book, the crossword puzzle, a bowl of potato soup, a glass of wine.

Now, suddenly, however, spring is upon us. The days begin early and last, already, almost until 9:00 p.m. The sky has been blue. The air breezy.

I start to consider that I might want to see something of Moscow.

For I tell you: I have seen none of it. I’ve been here since December, and I haven’t even set foot inside the Kremlin walls. Horrors! It’s true. I walk by it from time to time (and it IS impressive and beautiful and very, very exotic and cool). But I haven’t gotten my ass up off the couch and down to the ticket booth.

I know. For shame!

For some reason, VNW persists in trying to lure me out. Last week she asked if I wanted to go to a little lecture/demo on blinis.

Yes, actually. This is something I would like to do.

Except that I was, for once, already booked.

Baboo’s class had an outing to the Tretyakov Gallery (“the national treasury of Russian fine art and one of the greatest museums in the world,” says its website), and they needed some mothers to help shepherd the children through the Metro. So I signed up figuring this would get me into this much-talked-about art museum.

The point of the class trip, as best I could tell, was to see paintings illustrating events they had learned about in Russian History class. In fact, the Russian History teacher was the one responsible for the trip. She’s Russian, but speaks French, and, since this IS the French School, the presentation was in French. Between her soft voice, rapid-fire French, and the acoustics in the museum, I got virtually nothing of what she said.

Oh, I got that some rich guy named Tretyakov started the museum with his private collection of art. But that was about it. I tuned out. Well, from time to time, I picked up the big laminated cards in the galleries and tried to read about the work I was supposed to be appreciating. But it was sort of lost on me.

I did like the building façade and a portrait of a glowering Ivan the Terrible. But History Teacher didn’t even point out Ivan to the kids.

In conclusion: YAWN. I was under whelmed.

Fast forward to yesterday.

One of the women I classify as Girlfriend Material is J, one of the French moms. She’s smart and funny and interacts with her kids much the way I do. Recently she's made some friendly overtures (inviting me over for coffee, etc), and I was tickled.

I learned that she has been having some dental work done at a French medical center across the street from us. (There’s a whole other blog entry in this, probably, involving how I, after weeks of procrastinating, finally stopped in one day after school. Armed with my Children As French Interpretters, I learned that the receptionist, like much of the staff there, speaks lovely English. Hurray! We now have appointments for dental check ups! But I digress.) So I told her to stop by after her appointment, if she felt up to it, for some coffee and a chat.

This she did, although the anesthesia limited her ability to talk much and left her wary of eating or drinking anything. So imagine my horror, after a few minutes in my living room, when she proposes, “What shall we do? Shall we go out?”

What? Go OUT? Are you crazy? I don’t go out. That's work.

Sigh. Okay.

Months ago, I had read, in one of the local English-language newspapers, about some funky house near us that had belonged to an eccentric artist-type. VNW had even sent me something later about a rare opportunity to tour the place (or maybe it was take a tour in ENGLISH). Anyhow, I propose this as a destination. Maybe we can get in, maybe we can’t. But it was someplace to walk, not that far from here, on a pretty spring day.

So we set off. We find the house with no trouble. It is a charming wooden house that was designed by an artist (painter, sculptor, theater designer, architect) named Viktor Vasnetsov (1848-1926). The city of Moscow has grown and modernized all around it, so there, in the midst of grim high-rise apartment buildings, is this adorable timber house with green roofs.

We venture in, passing crowds of Russian school children. We find the cranky babushka type manning the ticket desk.

“TOUR-RRRISTS?” she barks.

“Nyet!” I tell her.

The prices for tourists are higher, and, yes, still reasonable. But I want her to know that I know that I don’t have to pay that higher price.

“Give me your visa!” I tell J. And we whip out our passports and demonstrate that we are residents, not tourists.

Hrumph. She sells us two tickets.

The security guard, a rather stern-looking young woman in a military-style uniform, turns out to be a real softie. She shows us the coatroom and toilets, as well as the rather obscure entrance to the artist’s living quarters.


Adorable. Delightful. Charming. This place is a little jewel. His art is rather fantastic, I suppose, with lots of material drawn from fairy tales. Flying carpets. Snow queens. Baba Yaga. Russian knights on horseback surveying the steppes or the Urals or something. A sort of Pre-Raphaelite Russian Fairy Tale style.

Upstairs is a large room that must have been his studio. And this is filled with huge canvases. Front and center is my favorite: Sleeping Beauty (although, alas, I could not find a decent reproduction on the internet). It’s the scene in the fairy tale where she, and everyone in the kingdom, falls fast asleep, including the bear, the rabbit, the fox, the peacock. It’s wonderful.

On the stairs, is a print of Ivan the Terrible.

Waaaaait a minute. I’ve seen an oil painting of this very Ivan the Terrible. In the Tretyakov Gallery.

I go home and google Vasnetsov.

Turns out not only did he paint the version of Ivan the Terrible I had seen the week before, but also many of the other paintings I had seen the week before. Upon seeing them again on-line, I remember that I rather liked those paintings, too.

Oh, and he designed the façade of the Tretyakov Gallery. Remember the photo of it in my last entry?

So now I am feeling as though the Universe has been really trying, for two weeks now, to get my attention about old Viktor Vasnetsov.

Sometimes I really have to be hit over the head before I get the message.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

In Which I Show Signs I Can Read!

I guess I must confess that I have made SOME progress in Russian. Or at least in decoding Cyrillic.

Here are some signs I can read:

This one says "Big Ben." And the word below that says "school."

One of my personal favorites. This is a coffee house chain called . . . are you ready? "Coffee House." Except the way it is transliterated in Russian, it looks like it should be pronounced "Coffee Chaos." But if you say that to a Russian speaker, they don't get it. Meanwhile, the Spouse and I crack up every time we see one. They are as ubiquitous as Starbucks.

The sign below with strawberries on it says "BLINI."

This ad literally says (at least as I interpret it) "30 days without paying Internet." That is "Internet: Free for 30 Days" if you sign up for STREAM! You can see the word for "Stream," right? СТРИМ! = STREAM!

The brown sign says "Art Club Nostalgia."

This yellow sign says


Here's an easy one.

This one says "Bankomat [that's European for ATM] 24 Hours." But those of us who live here say "24 Yucca." It's wrong, we know. But we can't help it.

Another freebie: TOILET. You first? Really. Go ahead. I'm fine.

Finally, you can see that this movie stars Michael Caine and Jude Law. Sound it out . . .

Now some buildings I like . . .

This is the Tea-Coffee Store. It was built in honor of the Chinese ambassador's visit to Moscow in 1896. It is one street over from Baboo's school. I haven't gone in yet, but I have pressed my nose to the window.

I have two shots of this one. The yellow building to the right is where Skittles has judo.

I think it is just an apartment building. But I love all the wonderful animals.

This building leans backwards. A lot.

And this one is down the street. I have no idea what it is.

This tower is part of what was, for a while, the tallest church tower in Moscow. But it got struck by lightning and part of the very top was destroyed.

I stuck my nose in a courtyard and found this. That red is my favorite color.

This is the park at Chistie Prudy, which means "Clean Pond." Apparently there used to be a slaughterhouse in this neighborhood and the butchers used to throw the offal into the lake. In 1703, some prince had it cleaned up and named it. It's a lovely area.

This is the Tretyakovskaya Gallery. Last Friday I accompanied Baboo's class when they went to look at paintings that illustrated the Russian history they have been studying. That was a yawn. But there is a Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit there that I am going back to check out this Friday.

Here is the Baboo-One with some of her classmates.