Sunday, September 21, 2008

In Which I Boast a Little

I am no longer able to make blogger respond to my requests to move photos around. So I'll brag about Skittles first, I guess.  But I am so proud of both of them.

Skittles is positively ebulent about her kids' cooking class. It is the high point of her week. 

Yesterday was the second class, and they made potato salad and bread rolls. She's getting really good with yeast doughs, which is great as I cannot make dough rise to save my life.  But the double-secret bonus, to me, is that she actually tries the foods she makes. 

She announced she wants to be a chef when she grows up. That's fine by me.

This school year, Baboo is in this special intensive-Russian program through her school. Their classroom is in a Russian school (which is, conveniently, just around the corner from the main campus). Two days a week they return to the main campus for lunch* and to use the computers and library. They have daily Russian lessons, and a structured exchange with specific Russian kids from their host school. Those kids have been studying French, and the two groups have time together every week.

*Lunch aside: Lunch at the Russian school is disappointing. Seems every day they get a weiner and a starch: either over-cooked pasta or flavor-free mashed potatos. Plastic cutlery. Baboo now takes a small container of flavored salt in her backpack. Her best friend brings those little salt packets like what you get from a fast food restaurant. 

Needless to say, the days they have lunch at the main campus are much nicer, more diverse, albeit a LOT more expensive.

Russian school lunch: 20 to 50 rubles a day. I don't know why the price varies since the menu doesn't. 

Main campus lunch: 190 rubles a day. Here is a typical lunch at the main campus:

(Choose one)
Assiette de crudités (raw veggie plate) 
Salade de carottes (carrot salad) 
Salade au jambon et fromage (ham and cheese salad) 
Soupe de légumes (vegetable soup) 
(Choose one)
Fricassée de poulet (fried chicken) 
Pain de porc (breaded pork cutlet) 
Poisson cajun (cajun-style fish) 
(Choose one)
Riz doré (yellow rice)
Haricots verts (green beans)
(Choose one)
Yaourt (yogurt) 
Fromage (cheese . . . well, duh!)
(Choose one)
Fruits de saison (seasonal fruits) 
Jus de fruits (fruit juice) 
Pâtisserie (pastry . . . Guess which is more popular in this category?)

Baboo said she and one of her French classmates were sitting on the playground during recess last week, and a group of Russian girls came over and asked them questions. Baboo and friend answered, in their limited Russian, and the Russian girls said, "Oooooo!"

We asked her teacher if she could skip English class. "Well, many of her classmates speak English well," he began.

Um, yeah. But this kid's mother tongue is English, we insisted. He left it with a "We'll see about that."

He's been using Wednesday mornings to give her class assessment tests. Shortly after we had the English-skills conversation, there was a question on an assessment test, asking her to identify the last movement of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. She doesn't know how to say that in French, so she wrote "Ode to Joy."

Suddenly her teacher realized that not only does she know English, but she knows THINGS in English. It really is a working language for her. So she got yanked out of English class and given extra one-on-one time with the Russian teacher.

The other weirdly wonderful thing is that last week the teacher emailed all of the parents a copy of a student's weekly assessment test so that we could use it to see the correct answers. It was not a flawless test, but it was, apparently, the best one. The student's name was whited out, but we recognized the handwriting immediately. 

The Spouse sees the teacher ever morning when he drops Baboo off at school. "She didn't get all the answers right," he said to Teacher. 

"If she didn't get the answer, no one got it," said Teacher. 

Pardon me for being proud . . .

Friday, September 19, 2008

In Which I Am Romanced by the Rouble

Okay, so this week has been fair to good, with moments of amazement.

First and foremost, I found a Pilates instructor. There is a woman in Moscow who puts together the nicest monthly email list of news you can use.  And while I read it religiously, I had never found anything that inspired me to pick up the phone.

But this month there was an ad for a Pilates instructor, offering one-on-one instruction, her place or yours. So I arranged a session. 

Her apartment/studio is near what is called the Patriach's Pond. It's about a 40-minute walk from our place, just off the Garden Ring. The pond isn't very big, but it is surrounded by mature trees. Swans and ducks live on the pond. People walk their dogs there. The buildings surrounding it are not especially beautiful. In fact, some are flat out uninspired. But some are nice, and I saw a gallery of tasteful Indian or Southeast Asian artifacts in the ground floor of one. It reminds me very much of neighborhoods in Buenos Aires, in fact.

I believe the area features prominently in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, which, I confess, I own but have not yet read, as it is a rather Faustian satire featuring a talking black cat. Too out there for me, I'm afraid. But there is a Cafe Margarita across the street from the pond, so maybe I will have to sit in there and read the book this winter.

Anyhoo, as I stood in front of Pilates Instructor's building and debated how to work the buzzer panel, the door opened, and out came a tall, blonde young man.

"Oh, are you here to see PI?" he said. 

I introduced myself.

He introduced himself, all the while speaking North American-accented English. 

"Where did you get this accent?" I asked.

"Long story!" he said over his shoulder as he turned and headed for work. "Enjoy!"

As I climbed the stairs to PI's apartment, it occurred to me that her husband's name was familiar somehow, but definately NOT Russian. But by the time I reached her door it slipped my mind.

So PI lets me into the apartment, which is furnished with incredibly beautiful, ornate furniture and decorated with lots of Russian oil paintings. The art is good stuff, and the apartment makes me wonder what her husband does for a living. But while I am noisy, I am also crafty.

"Who's the artist?" I ask, disguising my true question.

"Oh, it all belongs to the landlady," says PI from the kitchen. 

Ah ha! The apartment came furnished!

"So you are not Russian?" I venture.

"Oh, no," she says. "I'm Slovak!"

Ahoj! How funny is that? This also explains the husband's name. He's Slovak, too.

So we proceed to have a Pilates session, which makes me very happy. In Bratislava, I took a class once a week, but, since this was Slovakia, the instruction was in Slovak. I could see what everyone else was doing and copy. And I figured out that the instructor kept saying "Inhale!" and "Exhale!" But now that I have had instruction in English, I can see what a disservice I was doing the technique. 

So that's one good thing from the useful newsletter. The other is that I found Skittles a kids' cooking class in it.

The girls' school offers a variety of after-school activities, but Skittles didn't see anything she really wanted to do this term. Baboo has fencing again, so I was feeling a little bad that Skittles might be short-changed.

The woman teaching the cooking class is an accompanying spouse. Her husband is in the hospitality industry and so was she before they had children. Wanting to do something interesting, she created this small class for kids, and I have to say, she's extremely organized. 

So that's the second good thing.

Then, in my quest to get out more and meet Russians, I agreed to participate in "English conversation." Long story short, I get sent to chat with Russians. No preparation. Just talk.

Yesterday, I went to my first such meeting. The student, let's call him Ivan, manages a business. He was pleasant and, although his English isn't very good yet, he was not shy about talking. He barely let me get a word in edgewise. He clearly lives in a different socio-economic world than do I. He talked about places he had been (Iguazu Falls, California's Pacific Highway, Venice, Rome, Euro Disney, South Africa) and his dacha (complete with a banya, jacuzzi, pool table, table tennis, pond, and patio). The whole thing was rather unremarkable, except for one very strange detail.

In his office, hung on the wall well above eye level, is a photo of his friend and business partner in New York. It was behind me during our chat, and while Ivan referred to it several times in a respectful and deferential manner (as one might refer to a photo of, say, the Dalai Lama), I could see the framed piece, but not the subject.

When I stood to go, I made a point of looking. 

The man in the photo was clearly Russian. But his whole look was a gold chain, Telly Savalas, "Who loves ya, baby?!" style. The photo was autographed. AUTOGRAPHED! It was a page right out of a Gary Shteyngart novel. 

I got the impression, at the end, that Ivan wasn't enamored of me. Something in his farewell gave me the impression that he wasn't going to schedule another chat with me, although I think it had more to do with his skill level than my personality. 

But today I had a new victim. I figured out that this student, let's call him Ivan, owns a salon in a posh new mall not far from my house. I mean, the salon has his name on it. So I was totally surprised when a very young man walked into the salon and turned to greet me. I figured out he must be 30, but because he is extremely lithe and stylish, he looks 23. 

"I have three salons in Moscow," he said modestly. 

"But you're too young!" I blurt out.

"Maybe for you!" he replied with an impish wink. 

("Did you take this opportunity to teach him the word 'MILF'," asked a cynical Spouse.)

Actually, this Ivan was a complete delight. Yes, if he is to be believed, his client list is a Who's Who of world celebrities. But he dropped names in such a charming and modest way. Miuccia Prada is a bundle of nervous energy, I learned, for example. Name a designer, Ivan has either studied under them or worked with them.

He said he was married with children, but I just put on my Fag Hag hat. I mean, he's a hairdresser and his favorite musicians are Tina Turner, Elton John, and Madonna. He's gotta be bi, at least, right? Not that there's anything wrong with it. I thought he had great energy, and I think we hit it off.

Sadly, our session was cut short when a client arrived early. He sent staff to give her coffee, but that only bought us a few more minutes before he clearly felt obliged to go deal with her.

"See you Monday?" he asked hopefully, as he walked me out.

I dunno. I'll have to talk to Central Booking.

So I guess this makes me English-for-Hire. I've become seduced by the romance of the rouble.  I bet the reference is lost on many. I wanted to post the source, but the embedding has been disabled. So I'll just provide this link instead. Oh, and the "women" in the clip? They're Welsh. Don't ask me why.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

In Which I Rock with More Old Dudes

Last month it was Alice Cooper. 

Last night I went to see Queen + Paul Rodgers.

Yeah, I know. Queen without Freddie Mercury is like . . . I dunno. Fill in the blanks.

But Paul Rodgers came from Bad Company, so, in a way, it was like getting two concerts for the price of one (and at Moscow prices, a bargain is a good thing). Yeah, sometimes he seemed a little overwhelmed by the rest of the band when they were playing the Queen stuff. But when he sang the new songs or the Bad Company songs . . . he rocked. 

If you go to YouTube, you can find clips of them doing the same show last week in Kharkov, Ukraine. Their website says

Playing an awareness-raising outdoor concert in Kharkov’s Freedom Square, the second largest square in Europe, at the event supported by Queens’ own HIV AIDS charity, The Mercury Phoenix Trust, and organized by the Elena Franchuk ANTIAIDS Foundation, the show by Queen + Paul Rodgers attracted more than 350,000 to see the overture concert for its 33-city tour of Europe and immediately entered the record books as the biggest charity event devoted to the fight against AIDS in the Ukraine.

Which is cool. Our crowd was, obviously, not this big. But the feel was the same. Except, perhaps, when they did We Are the Champions. There was something vaguely unsettling about thousands of Russians singing "We are the champions . . . ." It kind of creeped me out. 

What else was, well, different, was what they sold at the concert. No black t-shirts. No booze. (What? In Russia!) It was like we were going to see the circus instead of a serious rock and roll band. I saw a guy eating a Dove bar. You could buy Russian flags and cowboy hats and light-up devil horns. 

But no beer. I didn't want any beer. But I wanted them to sell the beer.

I'll leave you with a clip of my favorite number, a song I am sure I haven't heard since the last time I played my Night at the Opera LP:

You rock on, Roger Taylor!

And Brian May just looked so . . . blissed out. Like he was having the time of his life. And, yeah, he made us sing too. For Freddie.

And finally, this is what I paid my money for. Turn it up.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

In Which I Become a Pariah

Just in case you were thinking, "Gee, my friend the Expatresse could make a pretty penny with some English conversation gigs," I want you to understand me when I tell you


You may have been wondering, just how, exactly, Russian-US relations have changed, cooled even, since the Georgian thing. Well, your answer is right here.

Yeah. That's right. Leprosy testing. 

Oh, and I'm gonna rush to assume the lithotomy position right now so I can chat with some elitny oligarch. 


When I mentioned this to a Russian woman I know, she laughed and laughed.

"My dear," she said (you'll have to imagine the thick Russian accent). "Don't pay attention to anything Russian government does!" 

Uh huh.

Monday, September 8, 2008

In Which I Re-Enter the Fray

Temperature: Over 80F! And humid. My hair is out of control.

I've been back over a week now and have been thinking about what stands out to me as quintessentially Moscow. Being new to a place brings the odd differences sharply into focus, Being away two whole months brings reminders screaming into view.

So what am I struck by here?

The gorgeous golden egg yolks.
American eggs disappointed me. I shopped at Trader Joe's all summer. At the Giant Eagle, I bought Eggland's Best. But nothing rose above a pale anemic yellow. The eggs here are fantastic.

All tap water, all the time.
My American house, which we refer to as 910 because this is the street address, has typical "older home" water pressure. If you flush, you have to wait before you turn on the shower. Don't wash dishes immediately after you put in a load of laundry. Oh! And you can cook with and drink the water at 910, too.

Here in my Moscow digs, there is a never-ending flow of hot water. Cold water too. If someone flushes, no problem! But you don't want to drink it. Today, I heard a rumor that in the winter, whatever passes as the Moscow Water Works adds antifreeze to the mix. This seems unlikely. But it might also explain why my skin when so wacka-wacka last winter.

I love the smell of vodka in the morning.
Man, oh man. Moscow has more drunks than Kelleys Island. 

I was on the Metro last Friday at 10:45 in the morning. Well-Dressed Dude sitting next to me reeks of Ruski Standart. Well, I don't know that it wasn't Stoli or even Absolute. But, Dude! It's not just for breakfast!?

This is not a rare occurance in Moscowtown, I assure you. I often see people dressed for the office, but smelling strongly of vodka. Walking under the Garden Ring this morning, I passed a step full of empty beer bottles. Okay, maybe they were from yesterday, and the cleaning crew hadn't gotten there yet. But, emerging on the other side, I saw a very drunk young man, staggering and leaning against parked cars in a "Ohhhhhh! I don't feel so good!" sort of way. 

The weather was nice this weekend and brought everyone out to the parks. On a walk to a friend's house Saturday night (this was at 7:30 in the evening), the four of us stared in amazement as a young man sitting on the end of a park bench, turned around to face the back of the bench, puked a liquid beer puke, turned to face front again, and continued texting a message on his phone. Didn't miss a beat.

On the way home that same night, we came across a young man who had just passed out on the sidewalk. A small crowd had gathered. Someone poked him with the toe of their shoe. The Spouse leaned in, had a look, and declared, "He's breathing." The crowd grew bored and wandered off. So did we.

Today, the Drunk Count on the walk home from school was eight: five passed out on benches, mouths agape, and two bleary-eyed souls treating the head injury of a third who looked as though he had fallen down and cracked his eyebrow. Or gotten in a fight. They had a styptic pencil.

Bitchin' public transportation: aka You're Not in Cowtown Anymore.
The Metro is an incredible thing. The moment I walked in on my first trip since returning, I smelled that dusty, metallic smell that is the Metro (when it is not overwhelmed with B.O. and alcohol). Quite simply: the Metro rocks.

The Spouse saw a documentary about it recently on Russian TV. The drivers are all men: the job is too technical and requires more precision than women can manage, or so they reported on the program. Drivers arrive at some undisclosed Metro check-in location the night before their shifts begin. The Spouse assumed that this was to ensure they have a proper night's sleep and a good breakfast before the rigors of their work day begin. I assumed this was to ensure they are SOBER before the rigors of their work day begin. They are awakened gently and served a hearty breakfast. Probably kasha and vodka.

I got shoved OUT of the Metro on that vodka-soaked ride last Friday. When I got on, the car was quite full. I was travelling several stops. At the first stop, the doors opened, and EVERYONE tried to exit. At first I was able to sort of turn and collapse my spine so that the wave of humanity just washed over me. But eventually the wave became a tsunami, and I was pushed into the passengers waiting to enter. The woman I landed on was understanding. "It's probably safer out here!" is how I translated her good-natured reaction. When we finally all got (back) on the train, she gave me a conspiratorial thumbs up. I laughed. She probably thought I had been drinking my breakfast.

The noise, noise, NOISE!
I had forgotten how noisy the city is. When the girls and I are walking home from school, it is very difficult to carry on a conversation over the noise of the traffic. Yet, there is a city behind the City: in the courtyards and alleys and sidestreets, all is calm.

The City that never sleeps.
Friday was a small farewell for my friend who owns Luna the Dog. Her husband's job is taking them to Armenia. I emerged from the restaurant about 11:30 p.m., and proceded to walk home. I'm rarely out this late, so I was blown away by the incredible number of people out on the street, not just in front of the restaurant (which is a pedestrian zone), but the whole way home. Every kiosk, from Crap Dogs to Crunchy Potato, was open. But the most surprising thing was all the flower vendors. 

Who needs flowers at midnight? 

Muscovites, apparently.

Monday, September 1, 2008

In Which We Return, Triumphant

Temperature: It was 8C this morning. That’s about 45F. It IS Labor Day, right?

Snow: Um, none yet. But I did wear my winter boots yesterday. In August.

We’re back. I am looking forward to the first day of school tomorrow, and a coffee and Bitch Session with Favorite Girlfriend. She spent her summer in Paris.

I know Paris, and Moscow is far superior. In Moscow, the prices are lower, the buildings are tidier, there are the cutest little boat rides on the river. And the language is so much prettier and more approachable. The people are civilized, and you can sit in a cute little bistro and get wine in little carafes. But in Paris, it's just cold and heartless old bag ladies and getting shoved around in the Metro. Today, I went to the store to get school supplies. Everybody waited in line and the cashier smiled when we got to the front. She wished me a nice day.

I can imagine shopping for schools supplies in Paris . . . ugly, dirty Paris, where the crowds would just push past me to get where they are going, knocking me into the shelves and making my daughters cry. Looking at me like I just shit myself when they hear me speaking English with The Spouse, and the cashier not even looking up from the cash register. People would try to push in front of us, and the people behind us would try to push us, too. On the Metro, some drunk guy who was plastered at 11:00 in the morning on a Sunday would sneeze a huge sneeze onto the back of my head, and I would move, in tears, to stand near the door next to yet another vodka-soaked, middle-aged creep and the fat lady with the bag who would practically knock my school supply bag out of my hand to get to a seat. Like I was going to steal her seat. Fat old cow. Screw you, lady. I hope somebody peed on that seat.

And then going to the Septieme Continent in Paris, which I remember well. There, they don't have any herbs except dill dill dill dill and packages of parsley with dill. Oh, and some olive oil that they wanted $50 for. $50 for olive oil. What? Are these olive trees that Christ prayed amongst or something? Why in God's name would you need to pay $50 for olive oil?

I remember one freezing Sunday in August trying to buy a light bulb from a kiosk in one of those underground passages, and the prices were not at all what they were showing in the window, and the sales lady just sighed and barked at me and The Spouse. And I never would even have to go to such lengths to buy light bulbs under the street from this nasty old bitch if they only had light bulbs at the Septieme Continent, but NOOOOOOO, you have to buy everything in Paris from some underground passage where people pee.

This is why The Spouse and I just love Moscow, and we were discussing this just today while I was taking a shower to wash my hair as soon as we got home from school supply shopping.

I am sure Favorite Girlfriend and her husband are happy to be back in civilization and away from the gray, cold, drunkenness of French failure that is Paris.

You know I’m joking. Right?

Yesterday was actually a disaster on oh, so many levels. The School Supply Shopping Outing I mention above, was, relatively, a bright spot.

The day started off on the wrong foot when I opened one eye as The Spouse left the bedroom at 8:00 a.m. only to open the other eye almost THREE HOURS LATER at 11:00 a.m. Cursed jetlag! Now the day is half shot. And, not only that, but The Spouse is trapped in the dining room with a dead battery in his laptop because the babysitter has slept over on the couch, rendering him loathe to enter the living room and retrieve the cord that enables him to plug the laptop into the wall.

We have a Very Late Breakfast, the sitter leaves, and we venture out to hunt up a few school supplies. Our first stop, one of those underground passages, is fruitless as the shop in which I once bought scissors and highlighting pens is no more. But we get a replacement light bulb, which I then drop.

No problem. It’s fluorescent. We’ll venture over to House of Books, on one of those Arbat streets (I always get Old Arbat and New Arbat mixed up). House of Books has a rather large office/school supply department.

Oh, but the best laid plans can go awry. Hubris overtakes us as in a Greek tragedy. The Metro is busy enough that, on the escalator, a phalanx of Muscovites separates Baboo and me from The Spouse and Skittles. We emerge at the top of the escalator. No Spouse. No Skittles. Nevermind.

Forgetting the First Rule of Separation in the Metro (“STAY PUT! WE WILL COME BACK FOR YOU!”), determined not to let Moscow get the best of me, I soldier on, Baboo in tow.

But I forget where I am going, take a wrong turn, and find myself outside on the street in front of the Lenin Library. This is not right, I proclaim, and, paying for two more Metro rides, Baboo and I reenter the Metro.

Although this is a Metro station with which I have a lot of experience, it is the ONLY point on the entire Moscow Metro where FOUR lines and FOUR stations converge. Two of the lines, the Light Blue/3 and the Dark Blue/4, share two, count ‘em TWO stop names. So although I find what turns out to be the right platform, I am discombobulated enough that I watch the train enter and leave the station twice, just to make sure it is the one I want (the one I want does not continue in the same direction, but pulls in, and then backs out).

I try calling The Spouse, but he either does not have his phone or he is deep enough in the Metro that he is not receiving a signal. I have the money and the Metro pass. He has the shopping list. I know where the bookstore is. I figure he has gone on ahead, and I will find him there, shopping basket full, waiting for me to pay for what he and Skittles have gathered.

Nope. Baboo and I are wandering around in the bookstore when my phone rings. It’s The Spouse. He and Skittles went to his office as he decided they needed a phone.

What else do you need to know? He met us. We used machetes to slash our way through the throngs of fellow shoppers. People looked at me like I just shit myself when they heard me speaking English to the girls, and the cashier didn't even look up from her cash register, but sighed deeply, typed the amount due on her calculator, and showed us that like we were idiots because she mumbled the total and we couldn’t hear her. On the Metro, some drunk guy sneezed a huge sneeze onto the back of Baboo’s head, and a fat lady practically knocked my school supply bag out of my hand to beat Skittles to a seat.

Then, later, in a bizarre epilogue, The Spouse e-mailed a document to his experts in the Office Copy Center and asked for six copies. When he picked them up at 8:00 p.m. last night, the document had printed badly but Copy Center Guy didn't notice, so The Spouse had him do it again, which took 90 minutes. At 9:30 p.m., The Spouse exited into arctic temperatures and rain to walk home. He got almost to our house when he met some drunk. We live just on the other side of the Garden Ring on which there are nine lanes of traffic in each direction and no gardens. So he goes into the underground passage to get to the other side, and in there is a guy absolutely trashed and staggering, and he says to The Spouse in Russian, "Oh, so we find ourselves alone here."

The Spouse just stares in incredulity, wondering if he understood correctly, and Dude says again, "So we're alone." Now, The Spouse hasn't had his shower today because nobody sneezed on the back of his head, and he hasn't shaved. He claims he didn’t look at all like anything anyone would want to be alone with, and just thought, “Oh, God, I am about to get raped right here in the underground passage, 100 meters from my own front door while police cars with sirens race above on the "Garden" Ring with no more important task other than to make sure some VIP doesn't have to wait for red lights.”

Fortunately, The Spouse looked tall and big in his parka from the Moscow Summer Collection and was able to speed walk past Dude telling him in English that “I don't understand,” and, mercifully, Dude went the other direction, shouting the whole way in idiomatic vagrant-ese.

Ah! Moscow. Queen of the Russian Land.

It’s good to be back.