Thursday, January 29, 2009

How Did It Go?

The short answer is that if I have enough vodka, I can do anything. Including singing badly in front of a friendly crowd. No stage fright, so now I'm invincible. Look out.

Perhaps the funniest moment was early in the set, when the emcee (a fellow expat) invited me and J to the mic to join in on what I was sure was Brown Sugar. . . NO! Worse! After googling lyrics, I realize I was expecting Honky Tony Women.

Anyhow, intro complete, we all inhale and open our mouths. I sing, "I met a gin-soaked bar-room queen in Memphis . . ."

The boys sing, "Mustang Sally . . ."

I don't even know the words to Mustang Sally. Well, I can doo-wop, "Ride, Sally, ride!"

Which is what I did.


To myself.

What followed was a barely passable rendition of Dead Flowers and a caterwauling of Back in the USSR. Then lots of dancing, more drinking, good fun, and an early escape to have me home by midnight.

Note to Self: If you're going to jump around like that, you better Kegel more. Got it? Good.

Hungover, but ebullient (in spite of the fact someone beat me with a baseball bat all night, right? I mean I feel like someone beat me with a ball bat . . .), I even took pity of the poor, sickly Spouse (he now has the same bug Skittles had . . . and she now coughs like a barking seal, but has returned to school), and escorted the children to school in his stead. On the Metro, having dropped the girls off at school, I made a Metro Matron smile!

What I call the "Metro Matrons" are the very Soviet style women who sit in little control booths at the bottom of the escalators. Apparently they can bark orders at you through the PA system, although I have never seen that. But I never tried to eat a piece of pie on a Metro escalator like a less fortunate friend told me he once did. His pie eating resulted in a stern dressing down.

The Metro Matrons are fierce and humorless and very, very serious about their jobs. It has long been my goal to make one of them smile. But rarely am I even able to catch their eyes.

Anyhow, this morning I was approaching the bottom of the escalator when I caught sight of the woman working this particular booth. She was very matronly, broad and buxom, sporting the best big, white, bouffant hairdo this side of Dollywood. In her severe Metro uniform. The whole look just cracked me up, and I smiled.

She caught my eye and smiled back at me! It was a lovely little moment.

I can now leave Moscow.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Forget Gold. Invest in Zucchini!

Just a little look at how crazy food prices can be in Moscow. Maybe my perspective is off because I've been an expat for so long. It is possible that I have 1999 American prices locked in my head and everyone else has moved along except me. If so, please tell me.

But here are some things I bought yesterday at my grocery store. This is not, by any means, the most expensive grocery chain in Moscow. It is what I would call mid-range. I am in the center of town, and things always cost more here. But still. There are much more expensive places to buy food.

Below is the price label on chicken breasts. You can see that they cost 266.90 rubles per kilo, the package weighed slightly more than a kilo (1 kilo = 2.2 pounds), and the price for this package was 270.37. As I type, the exchange rate, which has been very much in flux as of late, is 32.9 rubles = $1US. Let's use 33 rubles to the dollar to make the math easier.

I paid about $8 for a little over two pounds of boneless, skinless, chicken breasts. Not cheap, but within the realm of reasonable, right?

Moving on. Red, yellow, and orange bell peppers are, as I recall, always more expensive than green ones. Below you see that a kilo of "premium" peppers (this one was orange) costs 275.90 rubles/kilo or about $4/pound. I bought one pepper, and it cost $1.54 (51.04 rubles), which seemed okay to me by Moscow standards.

I had seen James Martin's show about Brittany on TV this past weekend. He and a chef friend made a sort of cauliflower and cheddar cheese mash that looked really good. Certainly the classic low-carb answer to mashed potatoes. I thought it would go well with the Parmesan chicken I was planning to make.

I looked at the small heads of cauliflower, but rejected them because they were well over 200 rubles apiece. Like in the 230 ruble range. A head of cauliflower, CAULIFLOWER! costs something like $7. Forget it.

I decided to get zucchini instead. I selected two average-size zucchini. I took them to the woman who works the scale to get them weighed and priced.

Two zucchini . . . a little over a pound of zucchini (700 grams) . . . cost me $8.50. More than the freakin' chicken breasts!

Now, I get 15% off my total bill through a combination of specials the grocery store has been running this month. But still. Four-Dollar Zucchini? What's up with that?

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Metro, Like Elvis, Never Disappoints

So I'm on the metro today, heading to school. The car isn't crowded at all. It is the first stop for this line, so I have a whole bench to myself. Across from me is a young, professional-looking guy with a newspaper.


I hear a sound. I look up.

Dude has just opened a bottle of beer. He's discreetly cranking a brew while he reads his paper. The time: 2:15 p.m.

Only in Moscow.

Shameless Self-Promotion: Wednesday and Thursday nights are regular expat happy hour events at a local joint called Papa's. I have an expat friend here, let's call him J, who, like me, has a rotten birthday date. Mine is New Year's Eve. His is New Year's Day.

Once, a while back, I whined to him about how my birthday never lives up to my (very unrealistic) expectations.

I don't want much. What I want is a gathering where my friends are all there. This is virtually impossible when your birthday is New Year's Eve because everyone is scattered to the far corners of the earth. I want a place, like the bar on Ally McBeal, where everyone knows my name. With a great house band. And where my friends and I, from time to time, get to join the band on stage for a song or two.

In my fantasy, I'm doing just that: singing, with no stage fright (in spite of my exhibitionist qualities, I have terrible stage fright). The Rolling Stones walk in. They play a few songs with the band. And I get to sing with them.

That's all. Not so much to ask.

J, of course, agrees with me. So much so that he takes the idea and runs with it. So now, on Wednesday, J and I will sing Dead Flowers with the band du jour at Papa's. I am also supposed to sing Back in the USSR. We'll see. Not sure if there is enough vodka in all of Russia . . . But this is one of those Life Check List items for me: get up and sing in front of a friendly crowd.

You're welcome to stop in if you're in the neighborhood. The band plays from 9:00 until 11:00.

More Shameless Self-Promotion: I completed a sort of interview about this blog here. You can vote for the blog through that link. Look for the image below once you get there.

I don't know what this is going to get me. It is a little late in the month for me to win Most Votes for January. But it could be fun. Vote often! Tell your friends!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

This Is Normal. Well, Here It Is.

Yes, I know, loyal Beet-nik. Two posts in one day. No, I don't have a million more productive things to do.

I have been trying to get pictures of this for some time now. When it snows, the building maintenance crew goes up on the roof to clean it. Since we are on the top floor, I can hear them up there, tromping around. Sometimes they even access the roof through our stairwell, and I can hear the locked gate squeak when they pull it open.

Most days, all I can see is the occasional shovelful of snow raining down past my windows. Today, I got lucky.

The sound of shovels scraping on pavement creeps into our dreams at night. Teams of Central Asians hit the streets as the snow falls and work around the clock to clear sidewalks, parking lots, and, well, roofs.

This morning I could hear the shovels and a small snowplow in back of the building. They also had someone with a bullhorn shouting to, what I finally realized were, the guys on the roof.

These pictures were taken while standing on my stepladder in the kitchen. The glass in our windows is so wavy, I had to use an open window to get decent images. Don't worry: the opening is quite small. No risk of falling out.

Looking at what they were doing, I see that they do not clear the entire roof. The weight of the snow must not be an issue. Or at least not today. What they are doing is clearing the downspouts, probably to prevent icicles.

Icicles are a formidable hazard in Moscow: people are killed by falling icicles every winter. The City has strict ordinances about keeping icicles off eaves. As a result, you often see workers knocking them off the edges of buildings. To protect passersby (from both random falling icicles and snow/ice thrown off the roof by workers), they cordon off the sidewalk in question with what looks like crime scene tape. As I'm sure I've mentioned before, this usually results in forcing pedestrians to walk in the street. This rock-and-a-hard-place is one of the many unique features of Moscow life.

Below: there's more than one guy up there. Here's his snow.

The ladder you see is, indeed, our fire escape.

When I first got to Moscow, I thought these low roof fences were to keep the snow from falling on people. In Vienna, I saw a simpler, more stylized architectural feature that served to hold snow.

Then I realized the fence was to keep YOU from falling off the roof.

Beta vulgaris

Note to self: that's the Latin name for beet.

A Vigilant Reader sent me this link for the evil black radish (Raphanus niger). I especially like the bit about how they "have a strong bitter flavor and are often responsible for bloating." Shudders.

But let us clear our minds of such unpleasant thoughts.

Let's talk about chocolate.

One of the blogs I follow posted this today about a Russian chocolate brand called Alenka. I am familiar with Alenka chocolate and its lovely, very Russian-y packaging. I buy it sometimes. However, because the product name is written in italic, I had no idea what the name of the brand was until this morning when I read the article.

An aside: Don't get me started on the script or italic Cyrillic . . . letters change completely in the switch from block print to this. I can read regular Cyrillic well enough to sound things out. But when it's script . . . and you would be amazed how many menus are . . . I don't even try. But the handy chart below, although cut off, highlights the six most drastic differences.
а б в г д е ё ж з и й к л м н о п р с т у ф х ц ч ш щ ъ ы ь э ю я
а б в г д е ё ж з и й к л м н о п р с т у ф х ц ч ш щ ъ ы ь э ю я
Back to chocolate.

The beaming child's face always reminds me of Baboo as a child.

And, on my very first trip to Moscow, I saw the Alenka advertising on the outside of the main Detsky Mir store. Not knowing about the chocolate, I thought it was an ad for the Russian toy store, and, in any case, was impressed enough by the image to take a picture of it. I remember talking about the irony of how this serene image was on the building right next door to Lubyanka, the former KGB headquarters.

Then, sometime last school year, Baboo told me she needed several of these chocolate bars for a school project. She was very specific, "The ones with the baby on them."

The result came home a few weeks later in the form of a Mother's Day tribute. A very clever art project, too.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

In Which I Am "Beet-en"

I love beets. I truly do. I make a mean beet salad that even beet-o-phobes will eat. I haven't had beets in a while, so when I saw this recipe on The New York Times site, I thought "Yum!"

I buy some beets. They seemed to be on special and were packaged a bit differently. Still, beets are cheap: one of Moscow's few bargains.

The interesting angle in this recipe is that the beets are peeled and diced before roasting. I peeled myself a beet. It looked wrong:

More alarming, it smelled wrong. It smelled . . . earthy and all. But with a familiar piquancy that is decidedly un-beet-like. I couldn't quite put my finger on it . . .

I call The Spouse.

"What's R-E-D-softsign-K-A?" I ask him. "Is it some kind of beet?"

"Um, nooooo," he says, not unkindly. "It's radish."



I can't roast a radish.

"Do you think I can roast them?" I float the idea to The Spouse.

"No." He's pragmatic. "It's a radish."

Internet to the rescue.

I google "radish recipes" and come up with a few salad ideas. Radish and Fennel Salad looks good. I have a bulb of fennel. I even have a new food processor. Slicing veggies extra thin will be a breeze.

This I do.

I take the lid off the processor bowl.

The radish fumes make my eyes water.

I try a slice.

It is thick and woody and HOT. And not in a good way. Like horseradish hot. These are mutant radishes. What, do they come from Chernobyl?

I pick the slices of radish out of the bowl, toss the fennel with olive oil, and stick it in the oven to roast. At least I have a Plan B.

I was going to roast some carrots to go along with the fennel until I opened that package. I think the carrots came from Ukraine, too.

A Star Is Born? Errr, Maybe Not

Just a little preview from my experience with the Russia Today crew yesterday. The show is called Moscow Out, and will air Friday, January 30.

I volunteered to do this. This episode is titled "Moscow in the Cold," and I was the guest. The show has also covered ballet and opera, winter sports, palaces, dating and Valentine's Day, Russian cinema, the local airports, and so on. I don't know how I got matched to this particular topic, but it was fine by me.

The crew picked me up around 1:00 in the afternoon. First, they took me to an ice sculpture park off Prospekt Mira. The funny thing about this place is that, for someone who doesn't really get out all that much, the entrance to the park involves walking through the lobby of a building that also has a restaurant where I sat and had drinks on Saturday night. But on Saturday I had no idea this garden was behind the building. Had never been there before, and now I've been there twice in one week.

Note: I'm wearing The New Coat.

This path featured ice sculptures in an "Around the World" theme. There was an Eiffel Tower, a Leaning Tower of Pisa, Copenhagen's Little Mermaid, the Statue of Liberty . . . that sort of thing.

Then we went over to Patriarch's Pond. I do like this area. And the light became so golden and lovely. This is a completely staged shot of me talking to Martyn, the host of the show. We did it just so I could have a photo.

No Zamboni. Just a guy on a tractor with a plow and a giant brush. But the surface of the pond is smooth enough for skating if you BYO skates.

There will be a YouTube video available once the episode is finished. In the meantime, I found this one which gives you an idea of what the show is like. The list of museums is interesting and there is even a bit about the ice sculpture park that was filmed at night with pretty colored lights. We didn't get to see it that way since we were there during the day.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

I Owe, I Owe, So Off to Pay I Go

Have I explained how one pays bills in Moscow?

I pay bills in one of two places: either at the Post Office (like I did in Slovakia; I pay the house phone bill this way) or at these free standing machines found all over town.

I use these machines to put credit on my mobile phone. If I do it at any old machine, the machine company takes a commission (maybe 1% . . . I can't remember). But if I do it at the machine in the phone store (which is right next door to my bank . . . very convenient), then the machine does not take a commission. If I have my act together, I do it this way.

Yesterday, The Spouse reminded me that I needed to put more money on our СТРИМ (STREAM) account. As STREAM is our Internet provider, this is important to me. STREAM also provides our local cable, which is important to The Spouse and who was watching Law & Order dubbed in Russian when we had this conversation.

He told me to put 1300 or 1400 rubles on the account.

This morning I went to the grocery store because I had some things to pick up and because there is one of those machines just inside the door.

The machines do not make change, so I needed to buy groceries first. I had three 1000-ruble notes and some small bills (but not enough to deal with the STREAM account). My groceries came to 1032.03 rubles. Apologetically, I handed the clerk two of my 1000-ruble notes.

"Don't you have anything smaller," she asked. "Not even a hundred?"

No, I lied. I did not. My hand to God, this was all I had. I fished out 2 rubles and 3 kopecs for her. I'm not a total asshole. She dealt with it and all was forgiven.

Then, with my three bags of groceries, I went to the machine by the door. Many places in Moscow have double doors because of the cold. At my grocery store, there are two machines in the space between the two sets of doors. So when I enter the Sedmoy, there is a set of automatic doors, and then a very small foyer with the two machines and a DVD vending machine (we think this machine burns copies to order for about 300 rubles or around $10). And a portable heat blaster. Then another set of doors.

I try one machine, but it doesn't seem to handle STREAM. I do this every month, but I can never remember. In the meantime, a guy has stepped in front of the other machine and begun his transaction. The heater is going full out in this tiny space, and I am starting to sweat in my (new, down) coat. Thankfully, he is a pro and finishes quickly.

I stab at the touch screen until I find what I want. But the format seems different this time. I have to chose between two options. I don't remember seeing this before. Shit!

I call The Spouse. I will read the options to him over the phone, and he will help me. Oh. But that means I have to say the words (for some reason I can't send photos from my phone since we moved to Russia . . . this account doesn't let me).

Better start practicing.

While the phone rings, I sound out the words to myself.

Duh-oh! HURRAY FOR COGNATES! It wants to know if I want to identify my account by account number or phone number! I have the account number; I save it in the address book of my mobile. That's what I usually use. I stab at this option with my finger.

The Spouse answers the phone. I can't talk to anyone now! I need to look up the STREAM account in the phone address book.

"IhadaproblembutIsolveditIwillcallyoulater!" I tell him and hang up.

STREAM account number successfully entered, I feed a 1000-ruble note into the machine. The screen reflects this. I feed in 100 rubles. And another 100 rubles. And another 100 rubles.

Damn. The commission seems really high. The Spouse said to put in 1300 rubles, but after the commission the account doesn't have that much.

The heat is getting to me.

I feed in another 100 rubles. Now the account balance says something along the lines of 1320 rubles. I wish someone would come in or out of the store so the damn doors would open and I could get some cooler air.

But what if he said to put 1400 rubles? Rats! I can't remember. I think he said "1400 to be safe." Heck, in that case, another 50 ought to be enough.

I feed in a note.

The screen announces I have 1900 rubles worth of credit.

Shitshitshit! I have just fed in a 500-ruble note instead of a 50-ruble note.

Oh well. It will just sit there in my account until next month. When I have to do this again.

Wanna know a secret? In about an hour, I am going to be interviewed by a Russian TV station for a show about expats in Moscow. I'll post all the details when I get back.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Keeping Up With the Joneses? Keep It to Yourself

Call it hormonal mood swings, but I am apparently fixating on the similarities and differences of my fellow expats' experiences here in a manner that is extremely vexing and offensive to The Spouse. What I call "Looking out my window and making observations" seems to come across as "Hey! How come you're such a lousy provider?"

Certainly not the intent at all. I probably deserve a sound smack.

Take the volatile nature of real estate prices in Moscow. When we arrived here a year ago, at the peak of the pricing bubble, I thought The Spouse negotiated a very reasonable price with an even more reasonable annual increase. In the months since we signed, I have friends here who have had their landlords approach them, in spite of a signed contract, and ask for increases. They've had to pay up or move in many cases. Some have gently referred the landlord to their contract and escaped unscathed. But not all.

Since the economic downturn began in the fall, I've observed the reverse: tenants approaching landlords to ask for a decrease in rents.

Obviously, all of this begs the question "Does anyone here honor a signed contract?"

Yes, people do. But anyone who has lived in Eastern Europe has experienced the signing of a contract followed by the almost immediate disregard for it.

So, on the one hand the contract protects both sides from abuse. On the other, am I being a fool for not playing the "When in Rome Game"?

The Spouse is tired of discussing it.

He also doesn't want to hear me describe anyone else's situation, housing, or benefits package. Again, it never occurred to me that making observations would feel like judgments. I can understand that, and, of course, feel awful about it. But, as the accompanying spouse, I clearly have no idea what it feels like to be the one who brought the family along. Obviously there is a huge sense of responsibility coupled with inevitable (and unnecessary) guilt.

One of the other (many?) weird things about being an expat is that you are often sorted not so much by your socio-economic background as by your native language or passport cover. Yes, at home there are always wealthier neighborhoods and, even, wealthier neighbors. But I always found myself more or less among people who were pretty much on the same page.

Here (and, as I think about it, in all my expat gigs) it is quite easy to mix among the extreme ends of the spectrum. Some folks are here as students, doing the backpacker thing, using Lonely Planet guides to find adventure and stay on budget. At the other end are the company managers who get large and lovely apartments, drivers, and international school tuition all provided courtesy of the employer.

We are somewhere in the middle.

We have a comfortable life.

We are even saving money in the World's Most Expensive City.

But it is impossible not to measure oneself next to other expats. It isn't always even a catty thing (although, I won't lie: sometimes it is). The urge to talk about what I see is irresistible. Sometimes I find an appropriate ear with a girlfriend. But sometimes it seems like the only person I can talk to about this is The Spouse.

Clearly not recommended.

Chalk it up as a lesson learned. Some things are better left unsaid.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

ABBA Redux

I am loathe to revisit ABBA. Somewhere, and I am unable to verify this, I read that record numbers of people received the Momma Mia! DVD for Christmas this year. As delightful as the movie is, I want, more than anything, to stop humming the songs all the time. ABBA, as a concept, has resulted in some pretty good chuckles recently. These I will share with you.

First, I have to explain that in 1977, I was an AFS exchange student to Australia. That summer I remember being forced to listen to a lot of ABBA, which I, in my 17-year-old American snugness, was already way past (this was all long before Muriel's Wedding made ABBA cool again for me).

I was seriously into Wings that summer, and, in fact, could not believe that my mother refused to mail me my copy of Wings Over America while I was Down Under for two months. The nerve of her. How unreasonable. I also recall humming a lot of Leo Sayer (specifically "When I Need You").

My point is, I was living squarely in my glass house. Rolling my eyes whenever my Australian classmates put on an ABBA song. I distinctly remember a much younger girl telling me how she was so moved that ABBA had vowed always and forever to record "only in Australian." Oh, she was going to be a fan for life because of that.

I think I managed not to snort in disbelief while in front of her. I mean, she was sweet and oh, so sincere.

Fast forward to Christmas 2008.

The Spouse and the kids are watching Momma Mia! with the subtitles on.

"This is wrong!" The Spouse says, incredulous. "They have the subtitles wrong on 'Dancing Queen'."

He reports that the DVD says

You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life
See that girl, watch that scene, dig in, the Dancing Queen

Dig in? Dig in? I always thought it was "Dig it! The Dancing Queen." (And I support my position that others heard it this way because when my girlfriend who hosted the Christmas Eve party sent me photos of us singing, she titled the email "Dig it, the Dancing Queens.")

No, no, no, says The Spouse. It's "Diggin' the Dancing Queen."

Much arguing ensued. I mean arguing of a "I don't think I can stay married to this asshole another moment" caliber. Followed by much googling.

Sure enough. Every source I find says "dig in."

Friday, January 16, 2009

Out of the Mouths of Babes

"Do you know why there are no stained glass windows in Russian Orthodox churches?" Skittles asked me as we walked home from school this afternoon.

I had never thought about it, actually. But now that she's mentioned it, I don't recall seeing much stained glass here.

She learned in school that the traditional Russian Orthodox churches felt it was inappropriate to create holy images on something breakable. This is partly why icons have so many layers of paints, says she.

Possibly. What do I know? But it sounds like I'm getting something for my tuition money. But I would love to hear from anyone who has any expertise on this.

Coat Update: It's warm and so incredibly light! I've never owned a down coat before. I can leap tall buildings in a single bound. It's a bird! It's a plane! NO! It's the Expatresse in something that doesn't weigh a ton.

Weather Underground: We were supposed to get a Big Snow yesterday. It did snow, but it hasn't been a big deal. The streets are clean. The sidewalks, however . . . Ugh.

I think the City of Moscow has a policy about not using salt and other chemicals on the streets and sidewalks. In fact, there was an article in the Moscow Times last winter about how the City vowed that they would not use anything that could ruin your shoes. "If your shoes get ruined, bring them to us for a full refund!" they even promised. Yeah. Right. Like I have a lifetime to wait around for that.

Instead there seems to be a policy of using sand, clay, cat litter, and clumps of mud to provide traction on the slick surfaces. This results in the muddy, buttery sea of slush that gets tracked into the farthest reaches of your house even if you remove your boots outside your front door.

Then there is Roof Cleaning/Icicle Hazard. People die every year from falling icicles, so building owners and management are right vigilant about removing snow and ice from roofs. I often hear the building crew tromping around on our roof after a snow. I can see the snow falling past my windows as they shovel it off.

To protect pedestrians while roofs get cleaned, many buildings have barricades made up of what looks like crime scene tape and odd ball fencing. Yes, this forces me to walk away from the building walls, but more often it forces me to walk in the street where I get to play Dodge 'Em with the drivers. Truthfully, the streets are always easier places to walk in terms of ice. But the risk of being sprayed with brown slush (at least) or flat out squished by a car makes it a real rock-and-a-hard-place dilemma.

Easy solution: take the metro! Bonus: today we saw a guy on the metro with a white ferret. The ferret was snuggling in the crook of his arm with far more affection than Cat-O ever shows us. The girls were enchanted.

That's Moscow: derelicts pooping in public one day, exotic pets on the metro the next.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Doesn't That Just Take the Cake?

You may be asking yourself just why a woman with a mink coat needs a new winter coat.

The Spouse asked the same thing.

He bought me a lovely mink coat in 2003 for Christmas or maybe it was my birthday. The dollar was strong against the Slovak crown. I had just finished a Year of Hell (complete with hate mail) as president of the Bratislava International Women's Club. Relatively speaking, it was a bargain. I loved it.

I still love it. However, I did not consider how the style might be more or less effective in different cultures. The coat has a loose, almost "swing" cut. Perfect for dramatic exits from taxis on the steps of the Opera House. Standing around at the Christmas market drinking mulled wine. Make-'Em-Jealous photo opps in front of Parisian Grands Magasins.

Oddly and in spite of the fact that it is fur, it is not designed for daily treks through Moscow streets. First, the loose cut and bell sleeves allow for a certain amount of air flow. The wind blows right up it. Brrrr! I can layer sweaters and fleeces under it. Makes me look like a mink Michelin Man, but I am warm. Second, it doesn't lend itself to having a purse or backpack worn across it: the fur industry people all say this will result in visible wear. Yikes. Finally, while fur can tolerate moisture, it isn't really suited for wet weather. A seriously soggy snow or rainy day with temperatures just above freezing, and this is not the garment. Moscow has a lot of cold and wet days.

I had two other winter coats. But one has a shredded lining. Not only is the hem falling (this I could, if truly forced, fix by hand), but the inside is in ribbons. And on extremely cold days, the sleeves, not as thick as the body of the coat, leave my arms like icicles. But it has great, deep pockets. And a very high neck. And it is stylish. I love this coat.

My other coat was a B.S. (Before Skittles) J.Jill purchase. I have photos of me wearing it while pregnant with her. I was a bigger gal then, so it, too, is too large. But it does support layer-wearing. It is not at all flattering. And the buttons have popped off three, THREE! times this winter alone. But it is a coat. And I can carry Baboo's fencing gear backpack while wearing it.

The Russian women wear such lovely winter coats. Okay. I confess. I wanted a new coat! I bought my ideal coat for Baboo on sale at Detsky Mir last spring: knee-length, down-filled, fur-trimmed. I started looking in a few shops in the city center, but was finding that the adult version ran frighteningly close to $1000. My mink didn't cost that much.

A fellow expatresse suggested I try an enclosed market called Konkovo. It's on the Yellow/6 metro line, about 30 minutes' ride from the center. I went once, by myself, but was so overwhelmed by the choices (and lack of visibly posted prices) that I returned home empty handed. (This weekend we returned to buy a coat for Skittles, and found a kid-sized version of exactly what I was looking for. It is a great coat.)

But there is an economic crisis going on. Even at the market, what I wanted cost a lot of money. And I do have a nice, mink coat. I couldn't justify an equally fancy coat. But the woman I consider my best girlfriend here and I concurred: I needed something. (After all, isn't that what best girlfriends are for?)

Girlfriend then appeared at school one day wearing a very simple version of what I had been hunting: knee-length and down-filled, but with no ornamentation at all. She'd found it at GUM, marked down to 1999 rubles (as I type, the ruble is trading at 31.5 to the dollar).

Since school ends early on Wednesdays, yesterday I took the girls along with me as fashion consultants, and headed for GUM. (GUM is now a posh mall in Red Square. Many expats assume that the upscale nature of the shops means GUM is priced out of their league. But the truth is there are bargains to be had at GUM. And not just during sale season. Read about it here, and see their website here.)

Normally, Wednesday is the day the girls and I have lunch out. But I bribed them with слойки (sloyki, plural of sloyka, are sweet and savory filled pastries available at street kiosks all over Moscow. This guy has some good photos and descriptions.)

In the end, I never made it to GUM. I ended up at Oxotny Ryad (Охотний Ряд). It's another big mall that is almost entirely underground in the park outside the Kremlin. There is an eponymous metro stop there, and I had once entered the mall by mistake, but had never really seen anything. When the girls and I exited the metro, I thought "What the heck. Let's see what's in this mall."

What followed was one of those moments where a piece of the geographic puzzle fell into place with a loud CLUNK. I had a completely different, and erroneous, idea of where and what that mall was. The poor girls had to suffer being dragged around with me while I searched, in vain, for the Sedmoy Kontinent grocery store (long story . . . my Sedmoy had no chickens in the morning, and I was bound and determined to have roast chicken for dinner). But they did reap some rewards when we found the kids' department at Zara (sort of a Spanish version of The Gap or The Limited): lots of nice kid items at normal prices.

I found a branch of the same shop where Girlfriend bought her coat. Found the exact same coat even. But it only came in brown (the color she had) and a size too small for me. We looked in lots of other shops, and finally I found a knee-length, down-filled, plain black coat that fits me for 2495 rubles.

The girls were tired and cranky. Chicken-less, we headed for home. On our way, we were walking down some steps leading under a busy street. The steps were clean (but not dry), and Baboo slipped and landed on her behind with a crash.

"I HATE MOSCOW! Why do we have to live in this stupid city," she sobbed. "A year is plenty."

Stupid Moscow!

Skittles and I comforted her. Skittles suggested that if Baboo had been walking right foot-left foot instead of left foot-right foot, the tragedy might have been averted. A flurry of flailing, swatting arms ensued. (This has been a long-running joke at our house, and Baboo just wasn't in a joking place right then.)

This underpass puts one out in front of the Lenin Library (or Lemon Library, as Skittles first understood it). While Baboo and I were trying to make light of the fall situation, Skittles suddenly announced, "Don't look in the park if you don't want to see something BAD!"

Well, of course we looked.

A man was pooping.

"Hey!" I told Baboo. "How often do you get to see someone pooping in public? This is the icing on the cake of your day."

She was not amused.

"Look," I said, summarizing the uniqueness of her day. "Maybe Moscow isn't so bad. I mean, today you had lunch at a слойка stand, you fell on your ass, and then you got to see a guy pooping in the park! Where else in the world can you do that?"

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Beet . . . Beet . . . Beet

I don't have anything monumental to write about, especially when compared to yesterday's Fun With Fertility. Just some updates and little odds and ends.

Other than confirming that I am not 48 years old and expecting, yesterday I was extremely productive and took down the Christmas tree. I loathe that project, and The Spouse even waxed contrite later as he realized that in the 20+ years we have been married, I usually opt for tooth drilling or cat box cleaning or drain snaking . . . anything to avoid taking down the tree and putting the ornaments away.

But the advantage to having offspring (aside from their original purpose: picking up dog poops from the backyard), is that I can assign them tasks, and they do them with relative alacrity. I made them take the ornaments off the tree on Monday, so all I really had to do was take the tree apart and replace it in its box.

But oh, how I procrastinated. I kept trying to psyche myself up:

"It will take less than an hour."

"Oh, you will feel so good when this is done."

"Let me put on a movie for you." (I did actually start to watch Momma Mia, in Sing-Along Mode, but a power surge turned it off, and I viewed this as a sign from the Universe that we have, all of us, had about as much Momma Mia as any one generation needs.)

"C'mon . . . here . . . we . . . go!"

Eventually I did do it, and now the living room has completely returned to normal.

New Topic: Vodka Revisited
At the suggestion of another expatresse, I tried a Russian vodka called Green Mark (Зеленая марка). Waitrose (a UK grocery chain) calls it "a premium quality vodka at an every day price." I think I paid about 150 rubles ($5) for a half liter, this price putting it squarely in the Bargain Bin. It's okay. Certainly much better than the dreaded Smirnoff. But no competition for the Beluga (our preference) or Imperia.

In related vodka news, I noticed this discussion of a Slovak vodka. Seems a bit pricey, but might be fun to try when I'm in the US this summer.

New Topic: Dee Dum, Dee Dum, Delightful
It's a skating rink outside. The temperatures have been warm-ish, so the slush has melted. A nice sunny day yesterday, combined with lots of other pedestrians, has rendered the sidewalks, and even the walkways in the parks, as smooth as mirrors. It is impossible to get any momentum going, so add an additional five to ten minutes to your journey. Not only do you not want to slip and fall, neither does anyone else: so they will inevitably end up in front of you, inching forward at an even slower pace.

New Topic: Valenki
I saw this article in the New York Times about valenki (валенки), which are traditional Russian felt boots. Here is a link to some photos of valenki.

I sent an email to the designer and received a reply! I have the address and want to go next week and see what I can see. It doesn't seem that valenki are really designed for wear on city streets, although I have seen them combined with a rubber sole. What I don't get is the supposed health benefits. But I shall venture over there and report back. Maybe valenki are the answer to Moscow's icy streets.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

I Bought a Home Pregnancy Test

I'll warn you now: I have altered the subtitle of this blog. I am bellying up to The Change, my friends, and I'm feeling talkative. If you are faint of heart, go check out I Can Has Cheezburger.

All my life I have been highly predictable. Give me a holiday or a honeymoon: I get my period. Once, on a two-week beach vacation in Spain, I arrived in the midst of a period, it ended, and before we left for home, I got it again.

But most of the time I just had normal cycles. Not even 28 days. In fact, the two times I went longer than 28 days resulted in Baboo and Skittles.

About 7 years ago, I had my tubes tied. I'm north of 40, I have two lovely children: it was time to shut down the factory.

Fast forward to last year. While at the office of the doctor who performed the surgery, I mentioned that it was now Day 37.

"What method of birth control are you using?" he asked.

"Um . . . you tied my tubes." Doesn't he have notes?

He got a funny look on his face, handed me a test kit, and sent me down the hall while remarking, "It's probably nothing, but anything can happen."

Not reassuring, his words. And they've stuck with me.

When the Christmas holidays neared this year, I prepared myself for another vacation marred by menses. Oddly, I got this lingering, annoying cold instead. So the poor Spouse not only didn't get any, I couldn't even . . . Well, let me just say it's such a small thing, isn't it? It doesn't take very long if your heart is in it. And it makes them so happy.

But you have to be able to breathe.

My mother-in-law is probably reading this, so enuff said. You get the picture.

I have no symptoms of pregnancy nor PMS. Zip. Zilch. Nada. But I don't recall how I felt the first few weeks of pregnancy. Pretty normal, I think (until morning sickness set in). I think I had Giant Boobs, however. And PMS usually = Giant Boobs. Moodiness. A marked lack of patience with stupidity. The overwhelming urge to kill someone.

So while standing in line at the grocery store yesterday, I saw, next to the condoms and the breath mints, packages of home pregnancy tests. It was Day 37. The test was only 85 rubles (under $3US these days).

So I bought one. Call it an impulse purchase.

But I couldn't read the instructions. I even looked on the Internet, and while I found, in English, how to interpret the results, I couldn't see if there was anything special I needed to know about the test.

I showed it to The Spouse. Once his eyes returned to normal size, he dutifully set about reading the instructions to me. Turns out they were, in alternating lines, in Russian (which he could read) and Kazakh (which he could not . . . welcome to my world, dude).

Good thing, too, because I thought this was a quick and tidy process. Nyet. This test involves a stick that has to be dipped to a certain depth.


That necessitates collection.

Yeah, yeah, I know. The stuff is sterile. But still. What on earth was I going to use to hold the appropriate amount?

Before you get too worried, you should know that I found some disposable plastic cups in a cupboard. Whew. That problem solved. But my toilet is in a separate room from my bathroom. I don't have what the military would call the ability to make a surgical strike. This just isn't the best format for this type of test, okay? Get the other kind. Even if it costs more than 85 rubles.

In the end, I was able to have a shower, disinfect any contaminated surfaces, and read the results.

You guessed it: not pregnant.

I suppose if I had paid more attention to the clues, I would have known before even taking the test. Yesterday afternoon was a perfect storm of annoyances, and I found my blood pressure rising with each additional vexation.

First, I received, as a gift, the Mother of All Food Processors. Long story, but it is fantastic. The Gift Giver, in her efforts to be thorough, and assure Recipient Satisfaction, had made the shop clerks check, twice, that all the parts were in the box. A key part . . . no, the key part is missing. She'll track it down for me, but I was so excited about my treat which I had known was coming since before Christmas. So now I have to wait a little longer. Harrumph.

The same Gift Giver had included a really nice bouquet of flowers. All of this was part of an elaborate thank you for some volunteer work I do. Flowers are expensive in Moscow, and I was delighted to have some in the house for once.

So was the cat.

Like a man possessed, he was after that bouquet. I put it on the piano. He climbed up. I put it on a bookcase (that is, more or less, blocked by the drying laundry . . . yeah, my living room is very Russian-y). He leapt over to get at it. I even set the container on the floor so he could smell and rub to his heart's content, but all he really wanted to do was chew on the leaves. No amount of yelling or startling noises could dissuade him. Finally, as I was leaving to go get the children from school, I shut the vase of flowers in the dining room. The door doesn't have any sort of latch, but I wedged it closed with a doorstop.

When I returned home, I found the door had been forced open, and the vase was lying on its side on the dining room table. Nothing was broken, but the water was soaked into the place mats and lying in puddles on the wooden tabletop.

Then, poor Baboo inadvertently brushed up against a car while walking home. Her winter coat was covered in слякоть (say SLY-ah-kot. Great word, eh? Exactly the sound of your boot as you pull it from muck). Okay. It's washable. I had just washed her coat, but no matter.

As my blood pressure began to spike, I thought I detected, ever so slightly, a hint of a back ache, the very sensation that usually heralds my period.

All the signs are there.

I can just wait, I guess.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Splish! Splash! SLOP!

Moscow is at its most hideous today. The temperature hovers right at freezing. The sidewalks are a sea of slippery, brown slush not deep enough to even cover my boots, but wet enough to cling to them and be tracked in the house, be splashed up the backs of my calves as I walk, and to give cover to legitimate patches of ice, lurking below the unattractive glaze . . . waiting for the unsuspecting pedestrian to become lulled into a false sense of security ("It's too cold for ice today!") and wipe out with a landing in the wet, shit-colored sludge.

Yes, temperature-wise the world is right pleasant. Last night I even went out without my hat. But the temp comes at a price. It isn't just the unattractive state of affairs. The temperature rose yesterday from -12C to 0C during the course of the day, twisting the sinus cavities on the left side of my face into a torture device straight out of the Spanish Inquisition.

Yeah, I know: nothing is more fun to talk about than one's medical problems and nothing, with the exception of another person's dreams, is less interesting to hear about (while certainly the most over-heard conversation in restaurants).

So I'll spare you the details other than to say that I have always believed that the most intense pain is said to come from kidney stones. I don't know how this could have been much worse. I seriously wished I could have driven a spike into my head because that would have felt better. I was so restless and fidgety with the pain, that I finally ended up in the kitchen, sitting on one of those big plastic storage boxes, with a hot water bottle sandwiched between my hands and my face, while rocking like a mental patient. The drugs finally kicked in, and I was left with a buzzy after-glow.

Which was just the right state of mind to soak up a little Russian culture!

It's called Судебные Страсти or Judicial Passions. Think People's Court in Russian. If you can read Russian, here is the link to the episode we watched last night. If you can't, I'll give you some highlights.

The shows lasts an hour, and each episode features four cases. I cannot say for certain that the show is completely scripted, but I had reason to suspect it is not a reality show. Instead of the avuncular Judge Wopner (showing my age here . . . just googled the show and found the comely Judge Marilyn Milian now presiding), Russian viewers get the devil-may-care Judge Nikolai Pavlovich Burdelov. (See for yourself here). Judge Burdelov doesn't suffer fools and dishes out justice every 15 minutes with a BAM! from his gavel.

Two of the four cases yesterday were especially Russian-y. In the first, the plaintiff complained that the Ded Moroz (Father Frost) she hired for her Christmas festivities ruined the affair by arriving drunk. She even supplied video evidence (much to the horror of defendant) of a very impaired Ded Moroz staggering off a bus and proceeding to urinate against the side of the vehicle (the cheesy quality of the video is what convinced me this was all pure entertainment).

The defendant claimed that the bus suffered various delays, stranding him, his lovely assistant (Ded Moroz is always accompanied by Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden), and the bus driver for more than three hours in the cold. The bus, said the defendant, was in such condition that he could tell it had been "written off as scrap immediately after the victory over Nazi Germany." He claimed the driver provided the vodka in spite of his repeated requests for tea (after all, he and his partner can live six months off of the money they earn over the holidays; they would not jeopardise this income by behaving unprofessionally).

The plaintiff even produced the bus driver to help her cause. Long story short, the driver confirms that the bus was in a sorry state (he had asked the plaintiff to finance repairs to no avail), and that the cold conditions on the bus while he tinkered under the hood certainly necessitated a few "drops to lift the tone." In fact, he has the liquor in question with him in the court room, and offers the Judge a taste of his mother-in-law's special recipe. It is 78 proof.

Judge Burdelov wisely finds in favor of the plaintiff.

But what I found so funny was the Jeraboam of bootleg hooch on the bus does not merit even the bat of an eyelash. Neither does the offer to sample to brew in court.

Second case. Manager of a theme restaurant wants an employee to pay for damages done to a costume worn for work. There is much discussion of the size of the changing facilities, the train schedule, and whether or not the defendant merely liked the costume and wanted to wear it home that night. The defendant claims that the costume provoked a sexual attack by strangers on the street. The damage indeed occurred, but it was not her fault.

Judge Burdelov finds in favor of the plaintiff, but, as I predicted, awards her only 10 percent of what she had been seeking as the defendant earns so little.

The custom-made costume is by the plaintiff's side during the proceedings. She holds it up from time to time to point out where it was stained. But never does she, the defendant, nor the judge ever comment of the fact that the costume is a sleazy dress featuring fake bare boobs.

BAM! Next case.

The Spouse and I must be the only people in Russia who found those details remarkable.

Judicial Passions airs daily at 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. on DTV.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Domestic . . . Bliss?

The cat has no idea how good he has it.

I passed a lovely street cat yesterday. Out in the cold, on the snowy Moscow streets. A nice fluffy cat with a poofy tail.

Our cat has started being really naughty. First, he got into the closet where we keep the fur hats. I usually am very careful to keep this closed, as I am afraid he will eat the fur.

Here he is: busted.

Then, yesterday, there was this nonsense:

His hat trick was pulling an entire roll of toilet paper off the cardboard center in the night. I didn't have a chance to take a picture as The Spouse already neatly folded it.

This is on top of his usual antics involving the bathtub. He loves the bathtub. He doesn't even run away when you turn on the tap, although the shower does drive him out. For now.

I have never known a cat to play Tag the way he does either. He will lurk somewhere and then leap out and gently tag you before running away. Clearly he wants to be chased. It is very funny.

On another domestic topic, yesterday The Spouse and I celebrated our 21st wedding anniversary. Can you believe that? I think he was traveling for business last year, so somehow this year, although it is not such a milestone number (other than the fact that our marriage is now legally old enough to buy a beer), it seems somehow . . . sweeter?

We didn't really do much. The plan, initially, had been to get a sitter and have a really nice meal out. But The Dreaded Cold made the idea of paying Economic-Crisis-Notwithstanding-Inflated-Moscow-Restaurant-Prices seem like an even bigger waste of money.

In the end, we sent the children to school and went to the Starlite Diner where we had Cobb salads. I had really been craving a Cobb salad and Starlite does them well. With 1000 Island dressing even. There is one down the street from us, so we soldiered out in the -12C weather and had a nice lunch. It was just what I wanted.

We've also had sort of a Film Festival since Christmas, as I got several movies. Last night we saw Aldomovar's Bad Education (which, although I knew something about it, was not at all what I expected). Over the past week we have also watched Pan's Labyrinth (grim, and I did not like it as much as director Guillermo del Toro's earlier The Devil's Backbone), The Motorcycle Diaries (another opportunity to look at the very lovely and talented Gael Garcia Bernal), and The Darjeeling Limited (probably my favorite and the most typical of my kind of movie). However, all are worth watching.

Finally, I have received much good advice about vodka after my last post. I think I might have to write about bacon in Moscow next. Got lots to say about bacon. Really.

Friday, January 9, 2009

A Lesson and Lecture on Vodka

I am cautiously optimistic that I may have turned the corner on this cold. But I've been living with it so long now (two weeks) that not only am I scared to make any sweeping statements like "Today, I'm actually feeling better!" but if I never smell eucalyptus again, it will be too soon.

One of my virtual friends whispered in my ear that vodka might be the answer. I have been drinking vodka medicinally since Cornwall. Which is how we came to conduct this little experiment yesterday.

When I arrived in Moscow, we were fans of vodka, but not what I would call serious vodka drinkers nor vodkaphiles.

That quickly changed.

There is something about Moscow--maybe the short, dark days, maybe the effort required just to slog through one's daily routine--that lends itself, nay begs for vodka.

I let my wine club membership expire and began stocking the freezer.

At first I went high-end: Russki Standart Platinum. In the US, even premium vodkas top out, pricewise, around $35. But a quick check on the Sedmoi Continent website puts a liter of this vodka at 1019 rubles . . . well, I stand corrected. At 29 rubles to the dollar, tells me my liter of Russki Standart Platinum now costs $34.95. Perhaps the thesis of this entire blog entry is now flawed. And that's a good thing.

Let me explain.

There is, after all, an economic crisis. And we have been putting away shameless amounts of vodka. So I decided to economize. I started buying another, cheaper, Russian brand called РУССКИЙ ЛЁД or "Russian Ice" (which, up until I asked The Spouse to help me type it, I had been reading as РУССКИЙ МЁД or "Russian Honey." Hey, it would be a good name for a vodka!). Nothing wrong with this vodka: it tasted nice and was cheaper.

But for weeks I was haunted by the Smirnoff display.

There it was: right by the meat counter. A half liter for 127 rubles. Smirnoff is decent vodka, right? I mean, if a bartender mixed me a vodka and tonic with Smirnoff, I wouldn't object. It's not top shelf, but it's drinkable, right? Vodka, by definition, is a neutral spirit. Without a distinctive taste. Right?


Oh, how wrong.

Yeah, it's probably fine in a mixed drink. But Russian style (chilled in the freezer and drunk neat), it's about as pleasant as drinking antifreeze.

Our Russki Standart and Russian Ice experiences taught us that Russian vodka was smooth and velvety. A happy, mellow buzz. And, if drunk in relative moderation, it brings few, if any, negative side effects the following morning.

I had just half a shot of the Smirnoff. With ice. And I could not choke it down.

I'm spoiled.

Good thing the ruble is dropping like lead: I can go back to the Russki Standart Platinum with little (or less) guilty pleasure.

Now, those of you reading this on the North American continent may lament, "But I cannot find Russki Standart!"

Oh, but you can.

I found it last summer in my ancestral village. If a dicey liquor store on the edges of the scariest inner city neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio carries Russky Standart, surely it can be readily found.

But maybe dicey liquor stores on the edges of the scariest inner city neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio are just the place to buy good Russian vodka. I went there because my younger brother suggested it.

"Where can I buy vodka?" I asked, dropping my suitcases in the living room. Although I had arrived at the Moscow airport three hours before my flight, I spent so long standing around in lines to check-in that I hadn't had time to stop in duty-free.

"You know over there by the dirty Krogers?" he said. "Next to the check cashing place? Right on Alum Creek? There's a Russian liquor store there."

I knew the place. It was on a frontier of sorts.

"You'll be the only white chick in there!" he shouted after me.

He was right. Just me and the clerk.

The parking lot held vehicles like Oldsmobile Delta 88s and late model Lincoln Continentals. I wasn't exactly blending in here in my dad's Prius.

Inside was Russian-y indeed: products all behind the counter. I looked at the vodka options, but I didn't see Russki Standart. The store clerk was very big, very bald, and sporting a visibly gold tooth. Rather than seeming threatening, he seemed vaguely familiar.

"I'm looking for Russian vodka," I told him. "Do you have Russki Standart?"

His eyes narrowed. He reached under the counter. "I have Russki Standart," he said with a strong accent. And he put two bottles of vodka on the counter in front of me.

Neither bottles resembled what I had seen in Moscow, but the words "Russki Standart" were imprinted in the glass of both. They were the same price, about $30 for a liter.

"I'll take that one," I said, pointing at the bottle labelled "Imperia." (I learned, only today, that Imperia is the high-end Russki Standart product.)

He put it in a brown paper bag for me and took my money.

"Спасибо," I said. He raised a single eyebrow.

I leaned over the counter conspiratorially, and asked, "Are you Russian?"

"I'm American now!" he seemed defensive.

But of course.

"До свидания," I said, putting my brown paper bag under my arm.

"До свидания," he replied.

For an interesting review of 11 vodkas, you can read this article on Slate.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

In Which I Examine the Road to Hell

The children returned to school this morning.

In a show of solidarity, I accompanied them and The Spouse on the trek through the dark and snowy streets of Moscow. The plan: drop off the girls, have a nice breakfast with The Spouse, and then take advantage of a Child-Free Day.

So. Are we having sex like crazed weasels in every room in the house? Finally visiting Lenin's Tomb or the Pushkin Museum?


The Spouse is watching Russian soap operas while I continue to blow the part of my brain once responsible for the ability to do long division out through my chapped and raw nostrils.

There is no other way to say this: I have the MOTHER of all colds.

I no longer fear Hell.

"I'm sorry," I snuffled to The Spouse once we returned to our apartment. We did have breakfast out (which I could not taste) and provisioned. "I had every intention of going out and exploring something new in Moscow. But it's just too fucking hard."

I have friends who used to live in Moscow who are rolling their eyes as they read this, I know. But it is difficult enough to weigh yourself down with layers of clothing, penguin-shuffle across the icy sidewalks, and sweat in the Metro. Add to that the fact every cough reminds me that I need to do more Kegel exercises . . . well, I think that already qualifies as "Too Much Information," don't you?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Gack! Snort! Cough!

The Cold From Hell is now solidly in its second week. It started with a sore throat on December 29, 2008. I have spent the days since trying every over-the-counter concoction sold in Boots, as well as what I had in my Drug Arsenal here at home. Yeah, even vodka. I am in Russia, after all.

Thankfully, the children don't go back to school until tomorrow, so there was no reason to go out and about in the -12C weather today. Today I slept until after 2:00 p.m. and let The Spouse and The Offspring fend for themselves.

The whole week is a holiday here in the Russian Federation. Orthodox Christmas is January 7 (today). I get the impression it is celebrated quietly as it is a religious holiday. The devout go to church. New Year's Eve is party time when the Russians exchange gifts and celebrate with friends and family.

As in all countries, the Russian government determines what are official holidays. This New Year's/Christmas holiday extends from Wednesday, December 31, 2008 until Thursday, January 8, 2009. (I don't know why the French school resumes on Thursday . . . I expect there will be a lot of empty seats in school this week.) That makes Friday, January 9 a work day. But no one is going to want to work on Friday, so the Russians have swapped Friday for Sunday, January 11.

That's right.

Sunday, January 11 is officially a work day here in the Russian Federation.

This happens a few times a year. Usually people use the work day as a chance to clean up their desks or other low-key tasks. But it definitely feels strange to us.

The Spouse is using a vacation day for Sunday, so he doesn't have to go back to the office until Monday, January 12.

Odd, isn't it?

Odder still is that on Friday, January 9, The Spouse and I will have been married 21 years. That's longer than just about anyone we know.

Monday, January 5, 2009


Temperature in Moscow: -12C
Currently Reading: Inkheart. Great fun. I highly recommend it. I finished Twilight this morning, which was also fun (vampires, teenage lust . . . what's not to like?).

I was sitting in the airplane on the way back from England, and the guy in front of me was reading a Russian magazine. The title was ВОЯЖ, which means voyage. Sound it out if you can read Cyrillic. But it looked like BORK to me. If I had known this word when I started this blog, I would have called the blog BORK.

I got the DVD of Mamma Mia for Christmas, but I haven't watched my copy. I doubt I ever will, actually. We didn't have time before we went to England. There, the children watched it and listened to the soundtrack non-stop. It got to be so much a part of the fabric of the week that we began to play a game: What ABBA Song Are You Currently Humming?

It was a riot. We'd be sitting at a meal, and I would ask, "What song are you humming?" We'd go around the table:

"Dancing Queen."

"Money, Money, Money."

"Super Trouper."

Sometimes there was an odd one like "Voulez-Vous."

Often it was "Lay All Your Love On Me."

I recommend it as a game. But now I think I can't watch my movie.

It was one of my Christmas presents. I asked for it. I also asked for a purse-size calendar book. The Spouse, dutifully, tried to buy me one. It's a little big for the purse I'm currently carrying. But worse, it has no dates written in. I mean, you have to write the date at the top of each page. Makes it very difficult to determine if I am free on February 21. He had no idea when he bought it as the little book was shrink wrapped. He was as vexed as I was.

He made up for it with a lovely birthday present, however. We were in Cornwall, England. He went into St. Ives (Yeah, that St. Ives. As in "As I was going to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives . . .) without me one day. St. Ives is an artists' colony with lots of galleries and shops. He found this necklace, which, after I went to St. Ives and looked in a lot of the shops, seemed to me to be the very item I would have bought for myself. It has Cornish granite (I was always a rock hound) and a freshwater pearl.

I like it.