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. wikipedia.com 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: http://school1-kushva.blogspot.com/2011/09/blog-post_21.html

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!

Friday, October 5, 2012


[note: this was written soon after the actual trip to the cabin, but I  had to wait until the photos were edited so that Terry would allow them onto the blog. Hence, the timing will seem off. Yes we are now back in Russia and yes the trip to the cabin was more than a month ago]

As usual, we got a whopping few days at the cabin during this 6 week R and R trip. But we got an important milestone accomplished, and I am so in love with my father in law for making it happen.

The steps to the "front door" used to be a mangled, topply mess of forest with a wooden frame around each "step". In the last year he's leveled and cemented them, except for the topmost step. Here's Zoltan standing in what will be the filled-in last step.

 Here's the kids helping Pop-pop with the cement ...

 and then, most momentously, leaving their handprints forevermore.

I warned Terry when he wrote "9/6/2012" that with as much time as we spend everywhere else in the world we wouldn't remember if it was June 9 or September 6 but he didn't care. So here's the reminder.

It was also nice to be 4 days without internet or TV, and see how much Alex loves going on "adventures" up the hill and how 2 of the 25 1-year-whip apple trees we bought from the PA Game Commission (or something like that) are still alive and how huge the plum tree is (just needs a mate so it can start producing!)

We also found an orchard, Brace Orchard in Dallas, that sells its apples and peaches and makes fresh apple cider 3 times a week. The peaches were tasty but nothing special, apples a bit better than that, but the cider ... we decided it was worth the hour's round trip to get more although in the end we didn't make the trek. Next year we're definitely getting a gallon and finding a way to fit it in the fridge!

The Amazing Brain

I'm learning a bit about learning these days. Recently I read an article about sleep and how our brains use sleepy-time to (among other things) organize the stuff we learned during the day, which is part of why we sometimes have very odd dreams.

I had a very specific example of this just yesterday/today. In our conversation group yesterday, I was introduced to the word for "teenager" (подросток). I used it a dozen times in our conversation and every darned time I had to ask for it to be repeated because my brain just wasn't hanging on to it. It was annoying at the time, but as it obviously isn't a word I need in my normal vocabulary - having just been introduced to it for the first time yesterday - I didn't worry too much about it.

This morning as I'm waking up and my mind is wandering around, what comes to me unhesitatingly?  подросток.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Russian: a step back, then a step forward

Today, I thought I ordered a mushroom blini. The woman was confused when I first spoke, then seemed to know exactly what I was saying after I repeated myself. She then presented me with a salmon blini.

This made me sad and frustrated.

I was ordering a blini for lunch because I was attending a Russian Conversation Group meeting at that cafe. So, I swallowed my hopelessness and proceeded to converse with 3 other ladies about life, children, moving, living abroad etc for two hours almost entirely in Russian. I understood everything everyone else said, and I was able to participate about as hesitantly as simply (vocab-wise) as any of the other non-native speakers. The lady who organizes the meetings corrected my frequent errors, but they were mostly in using the wrong case, not using the wrong word or outlandish grammar. [btw - why is it when my brain knows EXACTLY how to say a word, what case it should be in and even remembers what the ending is for that case/gender/etc I still blurt out the wrong thing?]

The lady who organizes the meeting also explained what happened with my order. No, грибы (mushrooms) doesn't sound anything like лосось (salmon) but sure sounds a lot like рыбы (fish) especially when I inappropriately stressed the first syllable instead of the second. Whew!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Sir Climbs-a-Lot

My mother will be horrified to learn I was laughing so hard while taking these photos I worried they wouldn't come out. Like mama, like son.