Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy New Year / С Новым Годом

Happy birthday to me!

What an auspicious start to my birthday. Piles of dirty dishes and laundry. Squabbling children. The conversation with Alex this morning went like this:
Me: What do you want for breakfast?
A: Muffins
Me: We don't have any defrosted. I'll take some out but they are frozen solid and won't be ready until lunchtime.
Me: So what do you want for breakfast?
A: Muffins
Me: Do you want to try to eat a frozen one?
A: No.
Me: So what do you want for breakfast?
A: Muffins

It got even "better" when, after a lot of screaming and crying actual tears she tells me we have some in the cabinet. Because I love the sound and sight of her screaming and crying so much I'd lie to her about having any defrosted when we had some in the cabinet? I don't think so.

Naptime: Zoltan won't sleep, calls for me every 20 minutes and is hysterically crying because I keep telling him to go to sleep.Finally, I tell him to give me 10 minutes and I'll be back to let him get up. I show him what the clock will look like. I go away and pour a drink. 10 minutes later I dutifully poke my head in and hear that most glorious sound - deep even breathing.

And, I have my one little word (heard about this for the first time last week and already loving it!); I ate some ice cream from the Last Pint of Haagen Dasz; and my birthday roast duck is in the oven. We have plans for tonight that should be fun and the baby monitor seems to be working again after a week of constant interference.

And I live in this beautiful city

And sometimes the kids are like this

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Practice for January holiday

Between our wonderful surprise of Terry getting the 24th off, to the kids not feeling 100% and later having doctor's appointments, the kids and I just spent 6 days together (Terry was there for 4 of them). In between the fighting, chores, cooking, eating and naps, we managed to...

paint toes

work on puzzles
make a popcorn string for the Yolka
  read books
 play with the new train set

Thursday, December 27, 2012


The Russian word Ёлка can mean either a decorated evergreen tree (much like a Christmas tree, but in celebration of New Year) or for a children's event that at some point in time takes place around such tree.

Like last year, we got ourselves a little tree for the house. Unlike last year, we also went to the other kind of  Ёлкa. It was held in a former palace, which is now called unofficially the "Children's Palace" because all the citywide afterschool cultural stuff (dance, instruments, choirs, etc) are held here. It's a pretty sweet deal, nothing like it in the USA, kids get free instruction and it's open to all city kids.

Anyway. We walk in, strip off the millions of layers between the kids and their adorable outfits, everyone changes into their indoor shoes, and we take a few photos in front of the first sparkly flashing tree sitting in the lobby area (after watching a couple of Russians do the same). 

Then upstairs where a couple of ladies are leading the kids in singing and dancing what I can only assume are somewhat traditional New Years songs because Alex knew all the words. The kids, of course, didn't participate but were happy to watch. One of the helpers told another mom that the next room was quieter if she wanted to bring her kid there, so we did too. More trees, this time all white.

Then the performance.  The "seats" at the front were a sea of golden bean bag chairs. 

I was annoyed the one lady refused to let Zoltan sit with Alex, she assured me he would definitely cry unless he was with his parents. We ended up in the first row of proper chairs, and there were some bean bags there too, so it wasn't too bad. We watched ... well I'm not exactly sure what it was. It started with Snegurichka (a.k.a. Snow Maiden. She's Father Frost's granddaughter and helps him with his gift-delivery to good children duties) supposed to meet up with Ded Maroz (a.k.a. Father Frost) but he wasn't there, then she seemed to get imprisoned and there was a mischievous character.... well there was singing and dancing and sparkly costumes and the kids sat still for 45 minutes watching it - not a major feat for Alex who is used to longer performances but I was happily surprised about Zoltan. 

That's Snegurichka and Ded Maroz in the middle there.
  After the show we got let out into a series of rooms with games and things to play with and on. A huge slide that looked like a snake. A little play house like what you might have outside in your yard. A stack of large foam "blocks" like at Gymboree.
 We played for a while but the kids were already tired and hungry so it wasn't more than 30 minutes. Then to collect our presents - big boxes of candy - and home.


We had a party the other night. It was an amazing demonstration of how ingrained some habits have become. Zoltan did a pretty good job of playing on his own most of the night, but right around 7:45pm he came to me and asked me to read him a book. When nothing happened after the book, he asked for another. It was like he knew this was when we read books, then go to bed. He ended up staying up another hour then went to bed without any complaints. He was ready!

Alex was less a slave to her biological needs. However, by 10pm she could barely fight it. Rather than go to bed, though, she lay on the couch with a blanket. Our neighbor's 8 year old decided that looked good and accepted a blanket and the other couch (mind you, that one had been trying to go home to go to bed for at least 1/2 hour!). As the party was a "right after work" thing, by 10pm things were well wound down, with only our neighbors left. Socializing after we leave Post will never be as convenient.

Of course, even after the last folks left, people were in the building's hallway chatting and petting our new neighbor's amazing dog. I even let Alex out after she was in her Pjs and teeth brushed. If all dogs were like this one, I might fight Terry less on getting one. Transporting them all over the world would probably be the thing that stopped me - thankfully he also hates the idea so the fight for the pet is pretty well deferred til retirement.

Monday, December 24, 2012

It was like her Kryptonite

My daughter is pretty amazing. She can watch the nurse give her a shot (I close my eyes). The other day, when a cart loaded with headless carcases rolled past our path, her question to me was "What is that?" and when I explained they were animals to be cut up for food and judging from their size I thought it might be lamb, she said she thought they looked more like pigs.

She's also a crafty girl. Loves a good project. We thought she'd love the paper making kit we bought for Hanukkah. Oh, wow, was that a mistake.

When we poured the watery pulp into the tray and started working with the screen to get the layer of paper properly flat and squeeze out the extra water, she gagged. Gagged!

So Terry and I moved quickly, and it turned out there was only enough pulp for 2 pages anyway. I'm proud of our creation ... but I don't think we'll be repeating the process for a long, long time.

Friday, December 21, 2012


Last weekend we were finally all healthy enough to go enjoy some winter fun! The hill at Tavrichesky isn't really too big or steep, but it's perfect for the preschooler.
 Zoltan's sock kept slipping down so he made us take off his boot, which always brought the sock with it, and adjust. Several times. I have to put in a pitch for Kamik now, every time his feet were toasty. More than I can say for my Bogs (which have served me well for 3 winters here so far so I don't want to dis them too badly). It was around -20C that day so we had to be pretty bundled.
Do you see the sunrise-y glow on the building there? yeah, it was around 11:30am.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

My kids are super perceptive, except when they aren't

A few weeks ago, Terry trimmed his hair and beard after the kids went to bed. The first thing Alex said to him when she saw him the next morning was "You don't look like you."

This week, I had about 9-10 inches (INCHES!!!) cut off my hair while the kids were in school. I went to each kid's holiday performance, got home, had dinner. Only while talking with Terry about taking a photo of the super short haircut while it was still all cute and styled did Alex finally realize my hair was shorter. This was about 2-3 hours after she first saw me post-haircut.

Yeah, I think we know who's special and who gets taken for granted around here.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Alex's Poem

This is why we wanted to put Alex and Zoltan in a Russian preschool.  Their ability to speak Russian and sound very close to a native is amazing.  Especially to me who is having such a hard time learning this language.  Seeing Alex easily recite a poem in her non-native language is truly wonderful to see.  Zoltan also had a poem for his class' Prazdnik and practice the poem to point that he was very good at it.  Unfortunately he was not interested in performing for an audience.

Wordless Wednesday

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Christmukkah Miracle

I am sitting at #17 on the Consular register.  That slot - according to the shadow register - would be the "oldest" 5.47 on the list. The only possible meaning: I  PASSED RUSSIAN!!!!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

In the spirit of giving ... or not

We have decided the last night of Hanukkah is "donation night".  Instead of giving the kids toys, we handed them the envelopes from the organization Bubby donated to in their names. We talked about doing what we can to make sure every person has enough food to eat, or warm enough clothes, and mentioned a few of the places we've donated to in the recent weeks and the different ways they help people. I reminded Alex of a few weeks ago when we boxed up old toys and clothes and filled the car to the brim to donate them to the IWC Bazaar. We talked about the good feeling we get when we know we've helped someone.

As we talk, her face gets sadder and sadder. Finally, I asked what was wrong.

"I want a present."
"So you aren't sad about all the little children who didn't just get 7 nights of presents?"

I guess 5 is a little young to get it. We'll try again next year.

Thursday, December 13, 2012


Auntie Heather & Uncle Howie's Hanukkah presents arrived in today's mail. This was a bit of a Hanukkah miracle, as tonight the kids got pajamas from mom and dad. Zoltan was handed his package and said without even opening it yet, said "I don't like this one".

I think they may need a lesson in gratitude and appreciation. Maybe spending some time with no toys other than a red pencil and a blue pencil might just be the trick (as a friend's aunt had during the Soviet days).

Monday, December 10, 2012

It's beginning to look a lot like winter ...

We finally got enough snow and some time to get the kids outside playing in it this weekend. Maybe next weekend will bring sledding?

I've got my life back!

The downside to the language exam being over, is that I am 95% sure I didn't pass. I now know what I need to focus on, as well as hoping and praying that if rumors are true that the level I need to pass is about to increase to S-3 from S-2, that it doesn't happen before I re-take the test in June.

I'll report back to confirm when I get the results, which should be somewhere between a week and 3 weeks.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Happy Hanukkah

The first night of Hanukkah went astoundingly well. I made latkes for the first time (fondly remembering the time my husband's sister kindly made them and I was not able to give any advice, not having ever done it myself). The kids were almost as excited for the candle lighting as they were for the presents. They loved the Hanukkah song I sang and wanted to hear it again.

And the presents! Tonight came courtesy of Bubby, whose gifts are the only ones, save ours, that have arrived.

There was even a little something for us ... a gorgeous new sheet & comforter set that was a joy to nap in.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Alex's new favorite colors

So last night Alex announced that she has new favorite colors. Red and green. Being the time of year that it is, and being the Jew that I am (and she is, although she doesn't understand anything about it yet) I hold my breath after asking her why those colors.

The answer: because those are the colors apples are.

That's my girl! Well, that's actually more like Terry's girl, but why quibble.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012


until my language test. It's next week. My Russian teacher today gave me a mock interview, guessing at the types of questions I may get on the Real Thing. After incorrectly conjugating the very first verb I ever learned, then making the same wrong-case mistake with one of the most common words in conversational Russian three times in a row, I have decided this: I need more exercise and meditation, and not necessarily more studying.

And if the exam goes as badly as things went today, I can always hope and pray the removal of the grandfathering clause that lets me get my points at a mere level 2 rather than 3 waits another 6 months, although the rumors are growing that it is imminent.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Gratitude Last

On my last November Gratitude posting, I am grateful to have access to technology in order to send my thoughts and ideas into the world; education to enable me to think about and write about concepts at all, and even better that what I put down is generally legible to other humans; consistent electricity; the freedom to access whatever web sites I like (well sort of, a bunch of USA sites won't let me in with my Russian IP. It's probably better that Target won't let me in overseas, it's bad enough when I'm home); and a warm house to blog from. With November being such a damp, dark, gray and dreary month, it's nice to remind myself of how good it is.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Gratitude #27

Today I am thankful that my dishwasher broke. Sounds counter-intuitive? Read on:  The problem with the dishwasher was a pipe that couldn't be replaced or repaired, so GSO gave us a new (well, sitting in the warehouse, exactly the same as the old) dishwasher. But the new one had one life changing difference - it does not signal the end of a cycle with a blaring wake-me-from-a-dead-sleep beep. As people who routinely fill the machine by the end of the day and need the clean spoons and bowls the next morning, thus requiring a run around bedtime, this difference is blessed. 

Wordless Wednesday

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Gratitude #26

Today I am grateful for how much Alex loves to learn. I'm talking crazy love. The first thing she bought with her first allowance was a math workbook. I can't wait for her to start school next year (and worry a tiny bit about her getting bored). The kids look nothing like me, don't really act like me in most ways, but I think we can all agree this one is all mommy, not a touch of daddy!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Gratitude #25

Our housecleaner comes on Tuesdays. Today, in honor of not having dusted or mopped in 3 years, I am thankful that the wage structure here is such that I can pay my housecleaner a fair wage - in some comparatives a generous wage - and still afford for her to come every week.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Gratitude #24

Today I am grateful for the cabin. As is only natural, it sometimes stings a bit to pay a mortgage on a building that sits empty 360 days a year, give or take depending on how often my in laws actually go and use the place. But, as Terry reminds me, "Have you ever left the cabin feeling stressed or unhappy?" Well, no. And some day we'll live there every day!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Gratitude #23

Today is the IWC Holiday Bazaar! Today I am grateful for the opportunity to give a little something to people who don't have enough. It really puts my concerns in perspective when I know there are people who worry about having a warm place to sleep or enough to eat, and there is an emotional satisfaction of knowing that I'm having a tangible effect in someone's life.

[edited to add: And now that we are home from the Bazaar, I am incredibly thankful that I managed to get the last gingerbread house from the Finnish stall. I've been eyeing them for 3 years, but as I've always managed the USA table I never could get away.]

Friday, November 23, 2012

More on the foreign service child

A conversation that happened this morning:
Zoltan: Daddy went to the store
Me: Right
Z: And we're going to go on the bus, then the taxi, then the airplane
Me: You mean, for pretend?
Z: NO, for real.
Me: Honey, we aren't going on an airplane for real for 3 months
Z: You mean three, then two, then one? Days?
Me: No honey, months not days

Gratitude #22

Today I am thankful for whatever parenting survival instinct that led me to take a deep breath when the kids behaved so awfully I wanted to disown them, and ask quietly if maybe they missed our friend who came to visit and who left yesterday. Who knew a 10 day interaction could make such a strong impression?

Goodbye dear friend!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Gratitude #21

Today I am thankful for ready-made pie crust. Do my pies taste as good? Heck no! Is the difference noticeable enough that it's better to not make the pie at all rather than eat the one with the store-bought crust? Heck no! Do I make more pies when I don't have to futz with my delicious but really delicate homemade recipe? Well, I should ...

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Gratitude #20

In celebration of Thanksgiving Day, I am thankful for the incomprehensible bounty that is mine. I have it all: health; love; security; friendship; intellectual stimulation; opportunities to see and do unique things; financial security enough that we don't fret when the restaurant bill is larger than we'd planned, we take vacations and go to the ballet. When I decided I wanted kids - they appeared (comparatively) easily. When I realized I really wanted to travel the world and not just as a tourist, the State Department had a job perfect for Terry and here we are more than 3 years in Petersburg. Is it all rainbows and unicorns? Of course not. But for today, I can recognize that it's pretty darned good.

And this is a photo I took that Terry actually liked! 

Wordless Wednesday

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Gratitude #19

Today I am thankful for my October Moms. I remember very well the last day of January 2007, planning to get some immunization that day if I wasn't pregnant. The line was very light, so I did some internet searching to see if it was the Real Thing. I ended up on a chat board thing, where among other things people posted photos of how light the line can be and be Real. Also among other things, there were separate conversations for people giving birth the same month. I checked in with the October group and the rest is history.

I've met a few of these women in person, and hope/plan to meet others when our paths cross around the map, but even the ones I only know through photos and regular check-ins online feel as close - or closer - than people I see face-to-face. (Foreign Service bloggers, I know you know exactly what I'm talking about)!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Gratitude #18

Today I am thankful for sunshine. Instant mood booster, holder of vitamin D, makes the flowers grow. Good stuff. We see it too little these days, it's like receiving a wonderful present when it breaks through.

Gratitude #17

Today I am grateful for Garmin. Even when it thinks I live somewhere else, or that I can turn onto that "no turn" road, it is a freeing and empowering tool to people like me, who get lost going in a straight line.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Gratitude #16

Today I am grateful for good health. There's a great line in the book A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to the effect that "A warm man cannot understand a man who is cold." I don't think I got it quite right but it's close. Even major illnesses normally only last a couple of days with me. Of course, it's to the family's best interest because heck, someone has to stay well to get the groceries purchased and the laundry done, but I am so thankful that when any or all of them are down for days or even a week or more, I can't fully understand how that feels :-)

Friday, November 16, 2012

Gratitude #15

Today I am grateful for the woman (because it's been all women so far) who have given me not only instruction, but feedback and - most importantly - encouragement in my quest to learn Russian. It is still a thrill when I rediscover how far I have come and I am so excited to learn more.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Gratitude #14

Today I am grateful for naps. Maybe I'm getting old, maybe I eat too much white flour and sugar, but for whatever reason there are plenty of days that I am so happy to be able to lay my head down for 20 minutes, and the rest of the day is so beautiful afterwards!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Gratitude #13

Today I am grateful for the kids' детски сад (essentially, preschool). Although at times I chafe at some of the cultural differences - extra sweaters, I'm looking at you! - it is such an amazing environment. The teachers genuinely care for my kids. The largest class size I've seen is about 15 kids for 2 teachers. They eat food cooked from scratch that day. When they have dance class, there's a pianist not recorded music (see my previous post about Piter's cultural heritage). Various forms of artists visit the school each month to perform, from musicians to puppet masters to actors. They watch Peppa Pig once in a while in English class and that's the extent of television - in fact there are no TVs in the building, but the teacher sometimes brings in her laptop for class. My kids speak Russian without accent, it is such a joy to listen to them talk!

Wordless Wednesday

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Gratitude #12

Today I am grateful for the amazing arts culture in Russia, specifically Petersburg. I took Alex to see one of the best ballet companies in the world last weekend, and the tickets were about $20 each. We did sit high up, but it's a small venue. We were in the front row of our section, so we didn't have to try to see over other peoples' heads.

Our view of the stage

She was delightful and delighted, as was I. She told me she felt more grown up, accompanying me to a ballet at night, walking and taking the metro - no stroller, and just generally behaving adult-like. She didn't get antsy or bored, although admittedly, it was a "children's ballet" - meaning lots of action, bright colored costumes, and it was relatively short - 2 hours with 1 intermission.

Ready to ballet (yes mom, she's wearing the gold bracelet you gave her years ago)

The coloring only came out during intermission

Zoltan has more ants in his pants, but I have still managed to bring him to the Hermitage Museum several times. Even when we live in the DC area next year, between the expense and the schlep factor we'll rarely go - for comparison, I get Zoltan to the museum with a 40 minute walk, or we can take the bus. Alex and I took the metro to the ballet. It is so accessible! And oh yeah, because State provides our housing we live in the middle of the city and walking distance to a metro (even when walking with the little ones).

Monday, November 12, 2012

Gratitude #11

Today I am overwhelmingly grateful for friendship. A good friend arrives today from the USA for a visit, and although we spend way too little time with each other under normal circumstances - busy lives and a 9 hour time difference being what they are - having days in a row to be together is the best treat and most полезно experience.

Gratitude #10

Today I am grateful for my favorite "mom blogs". With these ladies who don't feel like strangers, I laugh a lot, I learn a lot, I discover how to be a better mom and I learn to cut myself some slack when I'm not.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Gratitude #9

Today, for Veteran's Day, I am grateful for all the men and women who willing leave behind their families, friends, and safety in order to do their jobs in uncertainty and danger.  Even when I strongly disagree with the decisions made by civilians to put these people in harm's way, I fully understand and appreciate the sacrifices they are making for me.

Thank you.

Gratitude #8

Today I am grateful for the luxury of choice (no, not that choice. I mean, yes I am but it isn't what I am talking about). This week we had one of the best dilemmas - which of two good options should Terry choose for his next post. They each had pros and cons, risks and potential rewards. As we lamented and struggled to find something that made one choice a clear winner over the other, we had to remind ourselves how fortunate we are. In either case, he would have a good job doing interesting work in the general geographic area where we wanted to live.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Gratitude #7

Today I am grateful for the friends who hand down to us their kids' outgrown clothes, and my mother who is desperate to fill the gaps and in fact increase her "market share". They save us thousands of dollars, enable us to get more wear out of perfectly good clothing - thus easing the burden on the earth a little bit, and when we pass the still-good clothes on it's incredibly gratifying to see other little ones being the 3rd or 4th "generation" of favorite items.

On the same note, I am grateful for family handing down similar volumes of perfectly good children's toys that their kids have outgrown. And for the multitude of family members who insist that the kids unwrap something from them during the holiday season. When so many people have so little, we are very cognizant of the riches in our lives.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Gratitude #6

I am grateful for the internet. It's a lifeline to people back home, a way for my kids to see their grandparents more than once a year. In places where I am skeptical of the quality of medical knowledge it lets me double check (reputable sites, like NIH or MayoClinic). When snail mail takes 3-5 weeks to arrive the internet lets me tell people I'm thinking of them when it would be colossally inappropriate to call them (we are now 9 hours ahead of the east coast). I can only imagine what this job, this life was like "back in the day" ... you know, 20 years ago.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Wordless Wednesday

Lynne and I have been kicking around the idea of starting a wordless Wednesday feature.  The idea is two fold.  One get me back on the contributing more since I tend to use the camera more then write, and second help the consistency of the blog.  We tend to go in waves a bit.  I will not promise that the photos will always be new ones taken that day.  We are going into winter in St Petersburg which means I can have as little as 4 hours of sunlight if it ever gets out from behind the clouds.  I will try to post something that represents or is associated with my mood/thoughts of the day.

So here is the first week and next week I promised less words.

Gratitude #5

I am so grateful the election went the way it did. Obama helps people who don't even want him in charge. And how much more he could do if the people who are supposed to work with him didn't have his demise as their #1 goal (rather than, say, doing the work that needs to be done to make America #1 again). I agree with my brother that we would have survived a Romney presidency, but why not thrive rather than survive?

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Winter colds, Russian style

Normally I am pretty Polyanna about our posting here. So many things about Petersburg and Russia suit our temperaments and preferences. In general we're happy.

But, I was reminded recently of what I dislike about the culture here. See, when a Russian child sneezes or coughs, he or she is then kept home for 2-4 weeks, regardless of whether the child has any actual illness (Americans don't consider a cold an actual illness). Or if the child sneezes or coughs a second time.

Alex had the bare outlines of a cold last week. She coughed all week, no other symptoms. I humored her teacher and brought her to the doctor, who saw a bit of nasal drainage that she supposed must be causing the cough because she couldn't find anything else, but absolutely nothing outside the parameters of "It's a cold". She be prescribed/recommended an OTC cough suppressant, which I dutifully brought to school so they could give her the mid-day dose and hopefully keep her cough from bothering other kids during naptime.

Well, Friday I got reamed out by one of the other kids' grandmas for bringing Alex to school. For a Murther Furkin COLD. She doesn't have a runny nose, sneezing, headache, sore throat. No fever, no congestion. Not a damn thing except a pesky cough. Alex also reported that other kids were coughing, admittedly not as bad as her, earlier this week - meaning she wasn't the carrier (She started coughing Sunday, and I had kept her home Monday because I had to keep Zoltan home - he had a bacterial infection and hadn't gotten through enough antibiotics for me to feel good about sending him in, even though he looked and acted the picture of health).

We had a long weekend for a Russian holiday so today was the first day back at school. When I dropped her off the teacher asked how she was doing, I said fine, and she said that's good because the other parents were ready to strangle me. Grrrrrr.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Gratitude #4

November 6
I am grateful for my husband Terry. Not only loving and supportive, not only funny and good hearted, he has taught me so much. We are so comically different in almost every way except, as it turns out, all the ways that actually matter.

But I will say one last time in my own defense, NOT everyone knows about mile markers.

Tver Statues

As Terry never got around to doing anything with his own photos from Tver, I thought I'd post a few of mine. For a small city, there's a lot of sculpture in the various parks. Some of my favorites ...

This guy is part of an entire walkway strewn with statues. It's just a couple of blocks from the Institute where I studied.
 This threesome is just past the bridge I crossed every day, on the side of the river where my host family lived.
Kalinin is EVERYWHERE. It was fun when I went to the Academy Theatre with my host mother and she showed me the frescoes on the wall of the great hall (where people hung out during intermission) and there he was, with the farmers, the workers, the students, the construction workers building the Theatre, etc etc
Blue skies for Lenin!
 This is a monument in honor of victims of repression.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Gratitude #3

November 5

I am so grateful for my kids. I joke about Terry talking me into it, and he sort of did, but they are so amazing and I am just not the same person I was 5 years ago - for the better in every way.

Gratitude #2, once again late

For November 3 and 4

I am grateful to have consistent electricity. This is not only driven home by Hurricane Sandy, but also from having the experience of living in places where it is not consistent.

I am grateful to have traveled places and had experiences way outside my comfort zone and enable me to look back at my own country with open eyes, appreciating the good and seeing other ways to approach the bad (ah, if only someone would appoint me Benevolent Dictator).

Friday, November 2, 2012

Liquidators Monument

It seemed random enough, in Tver there is a monument to the liquidators of the Chernobyl disaster. Then I went to see it, and it turns out more than 2500 people from Tver went to Chernobyl to help with the cleanup. Hence, the monument.

On the way to the monument I saw a strikingly colored building that i first thought was a church and then realized was the mosque. It was pretty so I took some photos. 

The little park the Liquidators monument is in is right next to the mosque.

As I walked toward the monument I could see an older man sitting on a bench right in front of it but didn't think much of it. I read the notice about the monument - handily in English and Russian, and I took some photos. The man started speaking to me. He asked if it was interesting to me and if I understood what it was for. I said yes, and then he told me he had been one of the liquidators. He said lots of other stuff I didn't understand. I asked about his health after being there and he said it was ok then something about his friends so I imagine some of them didn't come out of it so well. he then showed me something, it was clearly an official document, had his name and photo and it was in a case like we would use for ID or Russians use for their passports but it was just the 2 cards/pieces of paper, one on each side. When I got to an internet place and looked up Liquidators of Chernobyl, Wikipedia helpfully explained that special certificates were given to 600,000 workers who helped with the cleanup, so I imagine this is what he showed me.

 The gentleman then offered for me to take a photo of him with the monument so I did.

A month of thanks

Over the years I've seen friends do a "gratitude posting" every day for the month of November in honor of Thanksgiving. I've always thought it was a cool idea but never quite got around to doing it. So this is the year, albeit a teensy bit late ... so today I'll do 2.

1. I'm thankful for modern medicine. I have a headache right now, which sucks, but it isn't a migraine, which would suck a lot more.

2. I am thankful for the State Department perk of receiving US Mail while overseas. It means I can order my Tylenol Sinus online and not have to worry about the efficacy or veracity of Russian alternatives. Because, quite frankly, nothing in the world horrifies me more than vomit and being sure that my medicine will prevent that is critically important to me. (if the connection isn't obvious, for me at least the way a migraine works is awful head pain so bad I can neither sit still nor walk around, followed by vomiting, then I start to feel better)

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

3-year-old reasoning

When I picked the kids up at school today they wanted to play outside for a bit before going home. Alex got to the one swing first. We have a rule in the house "if you want to be first you have to be fast" so he had to wait his turn. He started crying that he wanted to get on the swing first.

I tried to convince him to play on something else. No go. I asked if he wanted to stand there and cry until it was his turn. He said "Yes". I repeated the question, assuming he was joking. Nope. He again answered in the affirmative. And proceeded to stand there and cry until it was his turn.

More on learning Russian

As mentioned before, I went to Tver to learn Russian. I had 2 reasons to leave my family for 2 weeks and take this trip: 1) to push me over the 1+* hump I have been riding on for too long and 2) strengthen my political Russian vocabulary and idiom for the purpose of passing the Russian language test that lies between me and becoming an FSO.

The format of the program was this: I had two sessions each day, of two hours each, one on one with an instructor. Class was 6 days each week. They gave homework. In 12 days I went to 2 plays, 2 museum tours, and one Philharmonic performance. In each case I was accompanied by a Russian speaker, whether a teacher or my host mother.

Wow, did I learn a lot. Both literally and conceptually. Some important takeaways:
- For me, learning a word or phrase and then putting it into immediate use is key to retention.
- My two teachers were both wonderful. The one I'd say helped me a bit more did a great job of speaking Russian the entire time, and in absolutely desperation would open the dictionary to show me a word but did not herself use English.
- The above point is important because the more I spoke English - whether it was phone calls home, spending time with a fellow American or using it in class - the harder the Russian seemed to be.
- Four hours of class time does not sound like much. However, it translated to an additional minimum of 2 hours,often 3 of review, homework, and cleaning up my notes. For the purpose of comprehension I also would take my notes from each day's theme and craft a 1 page summary/presentation that I went through the next day with my teacher. I also napped every day and am not in the least ashamed to admit that. It was exhausting.
- I know as much Russian grammar as I need to know until I start reaching for a much higher level than I have or plan to attain at any time prior to a 4-6 month stint at FSI. More than any other thing, I need to speak Russian. Just speak. Right now my biggest pitfall is the "deer in headlights" reaction. I really flubbed some level 0 conversation by overthinking the reply or just panicking.
- After 2 weeks away my language skills really have improved. The time just doesn't sound significant enough to have the impact that it did, but that is the joy of immersion. I spent entire days without speaking or hearing a single word of English until evening, when I'd call home.

* 1+ is the way my prior-to-Tver language ability would be scored by the system used by various language testing/rating organizations, most relevantly FSI. The score I need is a 2. Doesn't sound far apart, but the truth is it's probably 200-300 hours of learning between the two levels ... or something like that. Don't quote me.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Mommy reality

I am so ready to go home and hold my babies! Before kids, I scoffed when I heard about women who'd never spent a night away from their 5 year olds, or similar stories. Now I get it. 2 weeks is a long time, let's hope if all goes according to plan and I make it into the FS that the Powers That Be make my assignment such that the family stays together, I don't know how well I would handle a several-months separation!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Russian Banya

Last week there was another American here with whom I went to most of the cultural programs (aka museums and theatre) that the language program arranged. She told me that she was planning to try banya for her second time and did I want to come too?

For those who don't know about banya, it is a quintessential Russian experience. The uncle of my house mother told me he never goes to "apteka" (the pharmacy) because he goes to banya, i.e. it's good for your health. For men, banya traditionally also involves vodka and singing songs but apparently for women that's "nilzya" (not permitted). Here's the other thing - banya involves both group nudity and being beaten with birch branches (venik. explains a bit under Banya. I am currently unable to link) Neither of which are particularly interesting to me.

But, I am currently immersing myself in Russian language and culture, and can such immersion be completed without a trip to banya?

Saturday after class, the other American and I decided yes, we're doing this. Our plan was to stop by my place to drop off what I didn't need, pick up what I did need, and then we'd head to the banya next door to her place.

When we got to my place, my house mother was there. We told her our plan and asked what we absolutely needed. She loaned us the towels and shower shoes and we started packing up. Then her uncle came home and started giving his advice. This place is better than that place, the one you want to go to uses machine created steam but this other place uses real water-poured-on-stones. You have to go there. He even insisted on calling to make sure they were open, rather than his neice, because he's the professional and we're only amateurs.

They determine the place is open, and open for women (sometimes it's different days) and off we go. A good quote from our departure when they were all worried about us in the dark on our own "You may be a mama at home but here he's the papa."

We find our way without too much trouble, luckily our bus came very soon after we got to the bus stop. At the banya, we buy our tickets and I buy my venik (apparently, when the other American went to banya the first time, she and her friends befriended some babushkas and the older ladies beat the girls with their own).

There's one other woman there when we walk in. The setup is one large room with benches and hooks for your stuff, it's roughly normal temp; the next room is what I'll call the "wet room", it is warm enough to be naked and has rows of stone benches, a whole bunch of basins like what you'd wash your hand washables in,  a few open showers, and a bunch of drains in the floor; and the third room is the banya - think something sauna-ish, almost painfully hot, dark, wooden benches etc.

Trying not to look too stalkerish, I mean the woman was naked, we watched what that one other woman was doing out of the corner of our eyes. First we soak the venik. The advice we had gotten, literally, ranged from cold water, to warm, to hot. We went with cool - filled one of the basins with water then stuck the venig in it. When the other woman went into another room, I casually put my hand on the side of her basin. Definitely warm-to-hot. We add hot water to our basin. Time to head into the banya.

It is almost hard to breathe, so hot in there. The woman said she had just poured the water onto the hot stones so we didn't need to. She also admonished us for not having hats and said we'd be too hot without them (?!?) We had a watch so we could see how long we were there. After 7 minutes sweat poured from both of us and we decided it was time to head out for a breather.  Back in the wet room we splashed water on ourselves to cool off a bit and drank some water.  Then, back to the banya. This time we stayed 10 minutes. After our 2nd trip out, we decided it was time for the venik. By this time there were several other women there, so we walked into the banya, held up the venig, and asked "shto delaet?" (what to do with this?) One of the ladies took the thing, explained how to stand and then proceeded to beat me with the hot, wet birch branches. It's more massagey that it sounds. Then she had me beat the other American. This is probably the most surreal part of the entire experience.

Then comes the downside. We head back out to the wet room and I am seeing darkness and stars - preclude to a blackout. I sit and try to come back to life, it isn't happening, I stumble into the cooler locker room and eventually all is well again. During the episode I started to panic, what on earth will happen if I do actually pass out? We were alerted the banya was pretty open so we only brought our ID, banya-stuff, and a bit of money. No phones, credit cards, or anything useful in an emergency.

I chalk up the lightheadedness episode to my low blood pressure, as one of the alleged benefits of banya is how it makes the blood vessels expand and constrict (because they need exercise too?)

After I recover, it's time to shower and get ready to leave. One of the women showering next to us had "oil for banya" she let us try, smelled really nice. Some women make a day of it, with a full panoply of beauty products, oils and lotions and exfoliators and more. We saw fruit and bottles of water in the locker room. Assuming the doc clears me to do this again, I just might go some time in Piter. After all, I already have my venik!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Tver, and my fatal flaw

Anyone who knows me knows that I have, in fact, managed to get lost going in a straight line. Maps are my lifeline and I use landmarks to advantage.

My host family - a woman and her uncle who share a home - live in this area of a jumble of apartment buildings off anything you'd call an actual road.

When I arrived in Tver, the director of my program met me at the train station and drove my to my host family. I remembered a gate I had to lift my suitcase over and the front door wasn't far from there. I didn't remember anything else about the building, the "street" or the route. Knowing my weakness, I asked the uncle, my first night, to point out on the map where we were. He put a dot in a part of this (on the map) random open area without any streets. I didn't think to ask for the address.

The next morning, my host mother walked me to the building where I had my classes. She was running late and rushed. We also took a shortcut through the random building-filled area rather than walk along the street. I didn't think to pay attention to where we were until about 2 minutes into our walk. Doesn't sound like much does it? Well ...

On the way home everything went just fine at first. I made my way without hitch to a location that was about 2 minutes' walk from the apartment. Then everything went to hell. I kept trying to find a building that had a gate like I remembered. Then I went to the closest approximation to the spot my host uncle drew on the map and didn't see anything familiar. The short story is I was lost for about 30 minutes, then I called the director of the program and she told me the address and gave me some directions that were useless because it had a different starting point from where I thought she was talking about. I spent another 50 minutes being lost and towards the end really fighting off the strong desire to start bawling like a baby. I called the director again, this time I was on a main street so I gave her my address and she picked me up. When she dropped me off I realized I had stood in front of that very building at least a dozen times while lost.

There were several downsides to this experience.
1. My mood was 100% foul
2. I lost 1.5 hours of study and review time that I really needed
3. I got massive blisters on each pinky toe, even though the boots I was wearing are ones I have travelled all around the world with and they have often been my only footwear for several days of touristing without any trouble.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


A few weeks ago Terry left me alone with sick kids and went gallvanting in Tver. Or something like that :)  Now it's my turn.

For some background, Tver is a small city about 2h my train outside Moscow (4h or so by car, there's a lot of traffic in and around Moscow). State has a relationship with a language school here and we, both employees and spouses, can come for 1-2 weeks for language immersion. If you choose a host family, as Terry and I both did (ended up being the same family!) it is a near total immersion.

The one downside is there's no internet @ "home" so I'm not online as much. Maybe that isn't actually a downside ...

Anyway, more to come!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Happy #5

Dear Alex,

You're 5 years old today! It's a big accomplishment, all your years now fill a hand. You're going to start doing chores and learning to cut with the sharp knife. You'll start "real" school this year, where there's no more play time or nap time, just learning all day. I think you'll like it more than you seem to like the idea right now. We'll move to a new country this year, which is something you've lived through before but not your brother, who I think will be looking to you to determine whether this is something to mourn or look forward to.

You are a beautiful girl. If this keeps up, your looks coupled with your reserve will make most think that you're a snob. Friends worth the name will look past your face and see your intellect, cleverness, big heart, and sharp eyes. I hope your three favorites at school continue to treat you well, but as your wisdom grows I hope you also notice that when some kids are mean to you, it's because they are seeking your attention by any means necessary. It's a bit like when mommy's holding Zoltan and you want some of that.

Five years ago everything I knew about myself was transformed. You have brought me so much joy (and while we're being honest here, a decent amount of pain too!). I'm so looking forward to the next 5 ...


Tuesday, October 9, 2012


From the web sites I was invited to check out for examples, поделки (podeliki) appears to be an art form of making sculpture from everyday objects. For example, I saw a a toy car made from Heineken cans.

This coming week the detsky sad is having an "exhibition" and have asked parents to work with their child on a sculpture using fruit and/or veg.  Here's a link to a site where we got the idea for Zoltan's car:

The thing is, 99% of the поделки experience is slicing, carving or cutting, none of which are things we let the 4 year old do and certainly not the 2 year old!  So, they added the paint touches at the end. I know, you are probably expecting more from an adult-created piece. Terry faults me for making him do it because we all know he's the artistic one :)

Zoltan's car
 Alex's kiwi bird ... made from a kiwi!