Saturday, June 30, 2012

Around the neighborhood

We've been meaning to photograph these windows for 3 years. Enter one gretzy morning with the kids, the magic of just getting them outside (oh how I yearn for a yard!) and we finally got it accomplished. How cool are these?

Better than TV?

Alex liked this one best because it had different colors.

I think Z wants to go for a ride.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Picky Eater

Zoltan is a picky eater. He will clap his hand over his mouth rather that put a new food item into it. Alex will complain about everything and start whining that she doesn't like the food before it has even gotten onto her fork, but in the end she will taste everything and sometimes rarely (hello, chicken corn chowder) actually like it and ask for more.

Dinnertime, understandably, is a bit of a nightmare. We had held for a while that they can have the dinner we cook or they can have the raw chopped veggies we usually have on hand (thank you, nannies!), and that's it. Living outside the USA, though, means that produce purchased on the weekend doesn't last until the end of the week so by Thursday if I don't get to the market we're out of alternatives.  Last night I decided to follow the "experts" and try the "if you don't eat dinner you'll see it again at breakfast" thing, assuming as all the expert assured me that they wouldn't starve themselves and after 16 hours on nothing more than a cup of milk they will indeed eat the food I prepared.

Or not.

I had even enlisted their help in preparing the meal, another piece of advice that is supposed to make them more amenable to eating the resulting creation.

So I went looking for some better advice. It turns out that Zoltan's pickiness is genetically attributed, according to this NYT article. Just ask my mom about the months that went by that all I'd eat was a piece of cheese on a piece of bread - and only at a particular friend's house - and we can see which parent might be that genetic carrier. And I turned out pretty OK culinarily. Eventually.

Even the Mayo Clinic weighs in on how to avoid dinnertime battles and what a parent need and need not worry about. The National Network for Child Care explains that a portion of veggies is a tablespoonful for each year of age; a portion of fruit is generally a half piece. It also turns out that my childrens' love of fruit, a few select veggies, pasta, nuts and yogurt set them up for much healthier eating than the average picky eater. "Hiding" zucchini in their muffins is also apparently not damaging to them and the tablespoons of squash they get from that is probably all they need, serving-size-wise, for good nutrition.

And tonight, when they are eating their plain pasta and apples, I'm going to smile and relax.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Exactly what we've been hoping for

We had hoped to give the children the gift of a second language during our extended tenure in Russia and our very likely return to Russian speaking posts. We're even choosing a place in the DC area to live based on the true Russian detsky sad in the neighborhood. But, as our Russian is still poor and the kids mostly speak English with us, we don't have a good sense of their skills. Enter: this week.

The Russian school year is September 1 - end of May. The preschool is still open June and July, but so sparse that all the grade levels are together in one class and the teachers rotate who's there watching them. Yesterday, a teacher I had never seen before June asked me if I didn't speak any Russian. I said only a little. She asked where Alex learned to speak Russian so well. I said "here." She still looked puzzled, like it wasn't possible.

Today, another teacher told me that Alex's "best friend" today was a little girl from the younger class. She said they were chatting all day (I was excited because I had just learned the word for "chat" yesterday in class!). This little girl has a Russian mom and British dad and I know he speaks to her in English. Naturally, I asked the teacher which language the girls used today ... you guessed it, Russian.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

"Major surgery"

We foolishly encouraged Alex, as a tiny infant, to form her deepest attachment to a stuffed animal of discontinued design. Aarrugh! We learned with Zoltan and made sure we had 2 of his lovey.

In 4.5 years poor Blabla has been washed too many times, flattened out, had her tail pulled and ear pulled out. Worse, her knit has been stretched and torn. She's had some stitches a few times. After the last minor surgery we realized she might not make it to an old enough age that Alex wouldn't need her anymore. We needed drastic intervention.

Enter Zoltan and Alex both growing out of their current sizes at once, so we had a lot of extra "scrap cloth". We let her choose the piece she wanted and Terry used his super magical sewing skills to put a patch on. I'm not being sarcastic here. When he puts in a stitch you're not. getting. it. out. Not great for hems that are supposed to be cut out as the kids grow! Extra bonus that we found some cotton from back during winter when our one nanny made a Santa for the kids, including fluffy beard and mustache. So now Blabla has come back from the brink of anorexia to reasonable health.

Doesn't she look happy?

I think she now looks like she's wearing a cape. Super Blabla!

Why we're still here...

In honor of bid season, and shamelessly stealing the idea of an FS Blogger located in Brussels, here's my Top 10 Best and Worst of St Petersburg. Like this other blogger, I had a bit of trouble finding the "bads" as we are deliberately here for 2 consecutive tours. 4 years. A Foreign Service lifetime.

The good
1.  Ballet
The Mariinsky Ballet Company (previously the Kirov) is well known, but did you know Piter also boasts the Mikhailovsky Ballet? I have seen some Mikhailovsky performances that trump Mariinsky ones, and Mikhailovsky theatre is easily accessible by public transit unlike the Mariinsky. And the Alexandresky theatre hosts Eifman when he's in town. I have probably now seen more ballet in the last 3 years than I had in my lifetime before now!

2. Weather (hear me out!)
Here's my cred: I lived in Singapore with only a ceiling fan. I summered in Delhi when monsoon didn't come to cool things down. The words "only 40 today" have passed my lips. I can do hot.

But here's the thing. You can only take off so much, and A/C can only work so hard. With a hooded down coat and my fleece-lined Timberland boots, with my kids in Lands End snowsuits and Kamik boots, we can use every piece of equipment in the playground for an hour at -30F. I've done it two winters (last winter wasn't that cold). We have no malaria. Mosquito season is short. You can use sandbox toys in the snow. Almost nothing HAS to keep us inside, whereas heat can be dangerous.

3. Hockey
I hate spectator sports. I think a baseball game is a good place to drink beer outside. However ... the European style of hockey isn't as fight-y as the North American kind, and is more based in speed and finesse. It's actually pretty to watch. And the most expensive tickets outside the boxes is approx $25.00 No, I didn't mess up the decimal. Terry went to almost every home game this year and will again next year. Alex loves to go with her daddy (weekend games start around 5pm)

4. Chocolate, Honey, Vodka
Chocolate: I'm a dark chocolate girl, but always hate how American/European dark chocolates have that chalky texture. Somehow the Russians have found a way to keep the bitterness of the flavor but make the texture creamy. I have no idea what I am going to do when we leave here. When we go home on R and R or HL we bring chocolate with us. I am pretty sure this is a major culprit in my gaining weight AFTER losing the baby weight.

Honey: Ironically, our previous post was Malta, whose honey is famed and in all the souvenir stores. Never liked it much. Russians are very serious about their honey. At the fairs and markets you can find honey stalls each boasting a dozen different varieties and each one is different from anything any of the other vendors sell. Our favorite is the white - we still haven't figured out which vegetation is comes from - but it is the one specifically labelled полезно для здоровья детей (good for children's health).

Vodka: I never understood how Russians could just drink vodka without anything else to cut the taste or potency. Now I understand. A good vodka is smooth and has either no taste, or a pleasant taste. It doesn't feel like fire going down. I have a favorite brand I can happily sip.

5. Petersburgians aren't nice, but they are kind. Exactly like in NYC.
Example: I lost my diplomatic ID card during the 10 day New Year holiday. Turns out the woman who found it called the Consulate, after the holiday we connected arranged to meet up so she could return it to me. When my bad Russian made me hesitate at one point while she was telling me how to get to the nearest meto stop to her, she offered to come to my neighborhood.

6. 24-hour energy
In Malta, stores closed around 2pm or maybe 4pm Saturday and didn't reopen until Monday. This is when the weekly grocery list and shopping trip really became ingrained in my family. In Piter the stores and many restaurants open 24 hours and, especially in the White Nights season, the population is too. Just the other night I was going home at 11pm with the sun glinting off Spilled Blood (and me wishing for my camera!) I saw a babushka walking her couldn't-be-more-than-2-year-old grandson in his stroller. Wide awake, of course. Terry's hockey practices are at 9:45pm because that's when they get the ice - and I imagine when the dads can get away.

7. Beauty
This was originally entitled "Museums and Monuments" but then I realized it wasn't broad enough. Museums and palaces of course abound; a brief list includes the Hermitage; Russian Museum (which I prefer to the Hermitage); the palaces of Peterhof, Catherine's Palace, Gatchina, Pavlovsk; Peter and Paul Fortress that happens to house a cathedral and several museums plus a sandy beach right in the middle of the city; the Summer Garden that recently reopened; the Singer Building on Nevsky; the Bronze Horseman; the view from St Isaac's Catherdral or, if you feel a bit lazy, from Mansarda restaurant. Everywhere you look in Petersburg you can find something beautiful, whether it's streetlights glittering off ice in the winter, an old palace that was someone famous' home for a few years, or a park in full summertime bloom and greenery.

8. Housing
We don't have too much to compare to, but the apartments here are surprisingly large and centrally located for such a big city. Yes it is all apartments but they are BIG and on the longest stretches of winter darkness the place never felt too small to contain 2 energetic preschoolers and it is certainly larger than the place we planned to raise children in when we lived in Philly.

9. Transportation
If we wait 3 minutes for a train in rush hour we start complaining - off hours we sometimes have to wait just over 4 minutes. Horrible, awful traffic means it took 45 minutes to go clear across the city. How on EARTH will we survive a DC tour next?

10. Cuisine
We've discovered Central Asian cuisine and Georgian food is a new favorite (although we haven't been to the recommended Uzbek place yet). Restaurants are at worst OK and at best exquisite. 

The bad
1. Apartment living
The lack of a garden is wearing on Terry 3 years into it. The inability to open my door and order the kids outside while I do the "they can't help me with this" part of dinner is also frustrating.

2. Ice (can be deadly!)
Russian attics aren't insulated. Heating is central and most people keep their homes at a comfortable temperature by opening their windows. What does this mean? All the snow on roofs melts and becomes ice. Icicles as large as people can hang off the eaves and threaten those passing by. 2 of the 3 years we've lived here there have been a dozen or more icicle deaths each year - this year was particularly dry.

3. Difficult language
If I gave Spanish the attention I have given Russian, I'd be a solid 3/3 by now. Instead I am optimistically calling myself 1+/1+ and continually frustrated by my own inability to find the word I want, or if finding it being perplexed as to which case or verb form to use. The only good news is I like a challenge and the triumph I feel from small progress is exhilarating.

4. Expense
Nanny post this is most certainly not. We are also improperly COLA'd so we aren't even being made whole. Things that cost $30 in the USA (crockpot, anyone?) are over $100 here. At least it keeps the shopping down.

5. Groceries
To keep a healthy diversity of produce you are either forking over $10 for a small bunch of asparagus (when it is in stock, which is about once a month) or doing a lot of preserving in the 2 summer months that things are in season. The reason I do my zucchini-bread-a-thon in the summer (so far about 120 muffins in the freezer!) is that there is no zucchini about 6 months a year - or anything other than carrots and cabbage - so it gets some different nutrients into my kids. There are some frozen veggies that, even though technically available locally, we still bought from the commissary when we still had commissary access because they tasted like someone bought them at the store, put them in the freezer, then put on a fancy plastic bag to make us think they are professionally processed.

6. Dirt
This isn't just about dirty streets or polluted air, it's ground and water pollution and the fact that we really don't know what harmful chemicals are in our food. Nothing's organically grown here and the water has heavy metals. We buy the imported carrots even though the local ones are the cheapest and, doing the "sustainable thing", we'd normally go for local over organic if given a choice.

7. Darkness
A lot of people have trouble with this one. I used to say that if you worked a 9-5 job in New England you went to work in the dark and came home in the dark so does it matter whether you missed 7h or 3h of light in between? As a partly SAHM, I feel the darkness more strongly. I'm not comfortable having the kids in the park in the morning when it's pitch black. It's also partly Medvedev's fault for cancelling standard time last year - we stayed on daylight savings so the sun came up at 11am. DAWN was 11am, not even full daylight.

8. Driving
OK this one isn't actually a problem for me but I put it in for fairness. Petersburgians drive like Philadelphians. Many Americans aren't happy about driving in Philly. My only issues with Philly involved the supernarrow streets in South Philly, and I haven't encountered those here. Driving the wrong way down a one-way, illegal u-turns, parking on the sidewalk? Par for the course.

9. Burocracy
Every month I have to pay Alex's detsky sad bill at the local bank. It means standing in a sort of line - Russians don't exactly line up, they call out "kto paslaydnie" (who's last?) and then focus on that person. It has to be in cash and I hand the teller the bill, the cash then wait for ... what? I have no idea. Terry lets the internet bills pile up for a few months before paying them because it's the same dealio. Alex is at a private detsky sad because a couple of native Russian speakers have told me the language issue isn't even half the problem with getting a child registered for a public school, it's the red tape.

10. Sushi
I love sushi. Terry stupidly lived in Japan and won't eat it anywhere else now. Every restaurant here serves sushi, whether the restaurant bills itself as, and the rest of the menu is comprised of, Italian, Georgian, French bistro, pub, you get the picture. And all of it is awful. What a tease!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012


It was about 1/2 hour before bedtime, and we heard a rushing noise. "Is that ...?" Yep, huge downpour.  We got the kids in their raincoats and boots and rushed outside. They had a blast stomping in puddles and sticking their boots in the waterfall coming out of the drainpipes.

13 minutes later.

The thing is, we are not usually all that spontaneous and I can be fanatical about bedtime (always reinforced after the havoc that usually occurs when we deviate). But, in the end, they only got to bed 15 minutes late, and without the bath they were to have tonight.

Sometimes you just gotta carpe the diem.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Happy Russian Independence Day!

Today was a Russian holiday, but my Tuesday/Thursday nanny is happy to work holidays. So we took advantage of the fact that I had forgotten to tell her not to come until the week before and then thought it was too short notice.

The morning started great. I woke at 7am (habits die hard) and got in a workout before the family started getting up just before 8am.  The weather was awful, drizzly and gray, so I figured some of the plans I had for the day would have to be scuttled. The initial steps though were still solid so off we went ... to Kupetz Eliseevs. Here's a shot of the confectionery section.

Кондитерские изделия

We got some pastries and hot beverages and sat under the giant pineapple. I got a very yummy hot chocolate, tasting just like a melted chocolate bar but too milky and sweet, I still prefer Guell's the best. Although the meats, cheeses, fish etc are ridiculously expensive - the least expensive cheese cost 1000 rubles per kilogram, or roughly $15/lb - the alcohol was surprisingly close to what it would cost other places and the pastries were also on par.

From Eliseevs we headed over to ROSPHOTO where there were 2 exhibits I wanted to see and thought Terry would like.

The first was One Hundred Years by Danish photographer Keen Heick-Abildhauge - 100 photos of Russians, one from each year of life. Below is the 5 year old, who collects Transformers. In addition to the photographs, each photo included the age, name, and a dream or passion. We were struck by how the dreams were relatively consistent among age ranges, and how the changed over time ("I want to be a policeman/artist/actor" became "I want world peace" and eventually "I want to have family around me")

5 years

The other one was Crown on the Earth, a collection of Japanese photographers' works. Below is a set of photographs superimposed on top of each other to make one composite photo. A couple of these were so clear - so the faces involved had to be so similar - that the effect was quite eerie, especially when next to other images where the different individuals create a very fuzzy image.

After the art, it was time for lunch. Brasserie de Metropole was our destination as it had been recommended and we'd never gone there yet. And it was on the way home and close to the metro.  I hadn't realized it specialized in Belgian style home brews, so Terry was entirely unimpressed with their beers although I really liked his, mine was only OK. The food was pretty good too, we'd probably go back on a night he didn't feel like drinking.

After lunch was a weird time, not really time yet to go home (we'd specifically asked our nanny to stay certain hours then felt bad going home too early) so we did some errands first and came home only a bit early.

Last special treat of the day: buffalo wings. Terry found chicken wings at the store, a friend had sent us the Tabasco Buffalo sauce, and he whipped up blue cheese dressing yesterday (it is supposed to sit overnight).  YUMMY!

Zucchini bread muffin marathon 2012

Zucchini is back to 10 rubles/kilo at the rinok and that means it's time to bake a year's worth of muffins! Last year I got almost 120 into the freezer and they were gone by the new year so this year I'm aiming for 200. With what's already in and what's on the cooling rack, I expect 50 to be in the freezer by tomorrow and when I make more tomorrow night (I have enough shredded zucchini for one more batch) there should be 30 more.

Rather than one horrifyingly long night marathon of baking (and sweltering in the awful heat we had last year), this year I plan to do a few batches this night, one batch that night and extend the "marathon" experience over several weeks. The first two batches have been pleasant even, especially as the weather's been more appropriate for the far northern clime than it has been the last couple of years.

It also means there will be fresh zucchini bread muffins more often this summer. Yay!  I'll report back on the final result when all the baking is said and done.

Monday, June 11, 2012

My big boy

Tonight is Zoltan's inaugural night in the toddler bed. I can hardly believe how easily bedtime went, given that he spent the 1/2 hour before bedtime jumping in and out of the bed, grabbing his big teddy bear, tucking it in, then throwing it into the toy box, etc etc.

Another one of those "foreign service affects my normal life" moments. Did we move him tonight because he was climbing out of the crib, or we're expecting another baby and don't want 2 in cribs, or were we dealing with nighttime potty issues? No, no and Nope. He's happy in the crib, we're happy with him in the crib. BUT ... we'll be in the USA for 5 weeks between R&R and training, and we don't have a crib there for him to sleep in so we figured we needed to make the switch beforehand so it was natural when we disrupted him with 18 hours of travel, 8 time zone differences, and "nowhere" to sleep.

Wish us luck that the easy bedtime translates to easy nights. He often wakes if he doesn't have water with him and tonight he doesn't. The question is will he call for us or go wandering through the apartment?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Elagin 2012

Our inaugural trip to Elagin for the summer finally occurred last weekend. Terry got a small fishing pole for Alex, got some help in purchasing worms, and we decided to take advantage of the absence of rain Sunday to revisit one of our most favorite places in Piter. We had an unfortunately slow start to the morning, so by the time we got there we didn't have as much time as usual to explore the place.

Note #1: Not a lot of fish movement. Alex bored quickly. Zoltan needed constant grabbing to avoid a Trakai repeat, especially as it was chilly today and he hadn't appreciated his dunking when it was sweltering hot outside.

Note #2: One thing I have been noticing lately is that all the enticements for kids - so sucker mom and dad have to pay for X treat or experience - are not break-the-bank expensive. We've developed the rule they each get one treat and it can be pretty much anything. Zoltan was begging for a ride in one of those electric cars and it was only 100 rubles for 5 minutes. When we get our new video card so Terry can edit videos you'll get a shot of him riding around on top of the world. He even gave his sis a ride, and she kindly returned the favor by sharing the ice cream that was her treat with him.

Note #3:  If you've never had сладкий фундук (sweet roasted hazelnuts) go NOW and find some. We got a little cone of almonds and one of hazelnuts, mostly to avoid having to make change, and wow what fabulous serendipity that was.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Goodbye season

Summertime is a time of transition for kids or anyone with kids, and for some of us there lingers the feel that the new year really begins in September (see, we Jews got that one right!). For State Department folks, it is a time to say goodbye, sometimes forever, to people you've come to know over the course of one year, two, or if you're really lucky in timing, three. For people still friends with their elementary school buddies, this seems like a dalliance rather than true friendships. It can't be farther from the truth. We all know our time is short and we often dive into friendships with both feet from the first Hail and Farewell.

Last Friday night our Consul General hosted a farewell party for this season's group of departees. Two of these people parent some of my children's best friends - before this post Alex was 16 months old so the sadness of saying goodbye was solely for myself. Now I get to dread an impending departure date on their behalf as well. Later in the weekend more farewells were said as even those who will continue to live here leave during summertime's "visiting family around the world time". I hate having to get teary over someone who isn't actually leaving for a month!

My mother made me hand write my Bat Mitzvah thank you notes in the week I had before starting summer camp. I think there were 150 or so. In that excruciating exercise, I became a thank you note connoisseur.  Similarly, I am hoping our lifestyle eventually gives us the skill of saying goodbye gracefully.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The cast is off

4 weeks from the date that the cast was put on, we were authorized to remove it. I thought Alex would be thrilled and want to jump in the bouncy castle or hang from some jungle gym.

Shows what I know about kids.

From the moment it was off she started crying it hurt. She asked for a sling (which she had refused to wear since the moment it had been put on the day the cast went on). She carefully held her arm close to her body when she didn't have the sling on.  I mean, except when she was busy with something else, like fishing or playing on the playground. The funniest part was watching her use both arms to walk up the "half-rainbow" at the playground, then pull her arm back into invalid position through the rest of that play structure.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

FSO update - no pressure

There's a change to the language bonus points policy and it's not for the better (in terms of me becoming an FSO). The good news? I'm grandfathered under the old system: assuming I pass the Russian phone test, I will gain an additional 0.4 bonus points (moving my never-getting-hired 5.3 to a which-A-100-class-do-you-want 5.7).  My first impulse was panic. My second more rational thought was "If I don't pass the test during either of 2 shots at it, when I will be studying Russian pretty full time and am already close to or at the 1+ mark now, then I probably don't have the capability to learn languages to the capacity I need to and this isn't the career for me anyway."

More on the new policy here. Wish me luck in December and, if necessary, June 2013. And let's hope for no newer new changes.