Thursday, May 31, 2012

Novgorod Day 2: Yuriev Monastery & the Wooden Architecture Museum

Sunday morning we were up, packed, breakfasted and ready to go at 10am.  First stop: Yuriev Monastery.
Natasha showed us an original surviving building from 1119 that was an architectural and acoustical fantasy that modern-day experts couldn't deconstruct, feared it would fall down around them, so reinforced supports with so much brick as to destroy what made it so amazing. Sigh.

Bell Tower at Yuriev Monastery

Alex running through the dandelions

Zoltan with his bouquet

The final stop was the Vitoslavistsky Museum of Folk Wooden Architecture. I loved the irony that the wealthy people who could afford chimneys (there was a tax) were pest-ridden because the poorer "black" houses, so encrusted with soot - inside - couldn't support insect life. Natasha told us we were lucky to come when we did, there is a big festival next week and they were preparing for it.  There were men dressed in some kind of period costumes with eagles and I think I saw a falcon, and plenty of snack and souvenir stalls.  We definitely didn't spend quite enough time there, but it was moving past lunchtime and we assumed dacha season Sunday afternoon traffic would be rough. At least we got the kids some fun things to remember Novgorod - wooden flute/pipes and colored pencils made out of what looks like a large segment of branch.

Wooden church - built without nails

Wooden house typical 200 years ago. Built without metal nails.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Novgorod Day 1: Kremlin and surrounds

Novgorod - "New City" - was new around 859 when it was first referenced in writing. It has a fascinating history unique in Russia as a prosperous republic founded by merchants rather than princes. You can read some snippets here (longer) and here (more abbreviated). A significant degree of its prosperity came from cleverly charging fees for anyone wanting to pass its waterways at a time when river travel was the exclusive way to get around - it is situated where 51 rivers flow into Lake Illman and one river - the Volkhov - flows out.

We drove out Saturday morning, not oppressively early as our tour guide, Natasha*, was meeting us at 2:00pm. A mere 130 miles from Petersburg, we took a solid 3.5 hours to arrive. Terry likes to blame the 3 stops but one of them was only long enough for me to exit the car, look at the busload of passengers waiting for the toilets, and get back in. Traffic and poor roads, I say.

We stayed at the Hotel Volkhov. The Spartan rooms were sufficient for our needs, my only complaint being the lack of room darkening shades in a city that has White Nights. The kids couldn't fall asleep until two hours after being put down to sleep. Otherwise, the place couldn't be more accommodating, having the baby cot in our room within 1/2 hour of our arrival and responding to all our requests promptly. It was a bonus that if not every member of staff spoke English, enough did that we could always find someone who could understand us.  Because of our later than expected arrival, we only had time to grab a quick meal at the hotel before embarking on our tour. The meals were tasty if unique but the garniri were barely edible. Even the kids wouldn't eat the French fries.

Our first day the tour guide took us through the Kremlin, St Sophia's Cathedral, and Yaroslavl's Court. Apparently, St Sophia was meant to be reminiscent of Hagia Sophia in that it was originally dedicated to Holy Wisdom and not some human/saint named Sophia.

Terry and I traded off managing the kids and actually paying attention to Natasha, and it worked pretty well. The Kremlin consists of lots of green space and several buildings, so the kids were able to pick dandelions and run races and there were even points where we were both able to turn our ears to Natasha even as our eyes followed the kids. You can see them above playing in front of the "Monument to the Millennium of Russian Statehood" with St Sophia in the background.

 One tidbit I particularly liked: when alternatives to wood appeared on the "building materials" front, the Church got first say and decided only churches and holy buildings could use stone or brick. Merchants eager to protect their goods from fire ended up adding chapels to their warehouses, there are 7 surviving such buildings on the other side of the river (by Yaroslavl's Court). The tour ended for the day right by Na Torgu souvenir shop, apparently a Novgorod institution and highly recommended to us. I admit I was first overwhelmed by all the unique stuff, after so many matroshkas, Faberge egg replicas and amber jewelry it was like a breath of fresh air. In the end Terry and I couldn't agree on anything so I only got a cheesy spoon rest for the kitchen as I have been whining for one since ours broke a few years ago.

That night we ate at Cafe Le Chocolat, conveniently one block from the hotel and also recommended to us.  Our friends from the Consulate, who were also on this expedition with us, came later and it seems all the good customer service karma got spent on us. They were prompt and informative (getting a bit busy, they didn't get the kids' food out right away but did keep us apprised). In fact, even considering getting the kids' food out first was an impressive move. When Alex spilled her full glass of milk on the table, they appeared and got a clean tablecloth even though we assured them it wasn't a problem for us. Terry's pork loin was tasty (he reports) and my fish, while bland on its own, was just right when topped with the seasoned tomato and cheese that came with it. The kids' chicken nuggets were trying to be too fancy and the kids wouldn't go near it. At least it came with fries.

* Natasha was recommended to us by two different sources and in my opinion did an exceptional job of sharing interesting information, giving us the history and the lay of the land, encouraging questions and even engaging the children. I can't recommend her highly enough.

Close encounters with identity theft

I planned to spend part of Sunday evening writing about our recent trip to Veliky Novgorod. Instead, it was entirely derailed by a phone call.

Woman: "Hello? Can I speak with Mr. or Mrs. Poczak? I'm calling from XXX Airlines and wanted to let Zoltan Poczak know his flight tonight is delayed..."
Me: "Zoltan is my 2 year old son, he is definitely not on a flight tonight. Can you tell me what kind of credit card was used?"
Woman [says the type, then the last 4 digits, no match for any of ours. We start freaking out anyway. She asks if she can call back on this phone number? Sure]

I start Googling what to do if your child's identity is stolen, and it turns out I have to send to any of the 3 main credit bureaus (1) a copy of his birth certificate; (2) a copy of his social security card; and (3) a copy of my drivers' license.  Um, if my kids' identity has been stolen, how safe am I going to feel sending through the mail the exact items that would enable anyone to more effectively steal his identity?? Let's not even go into the fact that for me, the absolutely fastest FEDEX-type mail i can use still takes close to a month to get to the USA and the option of certified mail is not available to us (once more, the glamor of a foreign service life).

The same woman calls back later and apologizes that it was a misunderstanding. She said some number was similar - it sounded like she was saying the phone numbers on record were similar so I was incredulous: "You're saying there is a another Zoltan Poczak with a similar phone number?"

So now I am thinking she's part of the scam, somehow, because that is just not possible. We freak out some more, try to find any possible way to do something regarding Z's credit life (on a Sunday) and it finally occurs to me to call the airline and see what I can find out.

The only phone number on the entire site is for reservations and even then the automated system made me demand 3 times to speak to a human before it relented. I sorely regret I never caught the name of the woman who answered the call, because she was pretty awesome. I apologized that I wasn't making a reservation but it was the only phone number, explained the story, and explained I wasn't even sure anymore where the fraud lay - did someone from XXX Airline even call us - but that something sketchy was definitely up. She was able to check on that flight and ... it turns out there is a Zoltan with a similar last name who was indeed booked on that flight. He had a traveling companion, same last name, first name none of ours.

What were the odds?

We'll still pursue things with the credit bureaus because it's still sketchy and how did Zoltan's Frequent Flier number get involved (the only way they could have pulled up our phone number), but now it's less of a panic to do it later this summer when we are actually in the USA and where Fedex or registered/certified mail are all options and all take mere days to reach their destinations.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


What were the odds? Saturday we went to the zoo for the very first time ever even though we have lived here 3 years. Monday when I come home I'm chatting with our nanny about what she and Zoltan did that day. She had taken him to the zoo and was so surprised he seemed to know exactly where everything was, where to enter the buildings (some had entrances to the side almost behind the building - you had to know where to go).  It's been a zoo-tastic week for big Z!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Shashlik season

The parks are open after the April "drying out" and the weather is increasingly sunny and occasionally warm. As a true Petersburgian, I strive to be outdoors every possible reasonable minute while the sun shines and the temperature crosses the freezing threshold. The best way to do that? Shashlik in the park.

Each of the last 2 weeks we have been able to get out to the park once for dinner, good company for us AND the kids and the freshest air in Tsentralny Rayon (the central region of the city).

Bedtime always gets pushed back on these nights, especially when they are too filthy from playing and ice cream to be put to bed as is. I didn't get good shots of the kids during the evening, but here's Zoltan's poor jacket, victim to his inability to eat ice cream from a stick. Lesson learned - next time we try a cone.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Leningrad Zoo

Budapest it ain't, but it wasn't nearly as traumatic and depressing as I had been led to believe.  Some areas are still from the 1900s and it was hard to even look at the animals caged therein (zebra, wildebeest, I am talking about you), but other areas were sufficient for the animals who were clearly content and even happy. It was interesting to watch the tiger tear into the meat-laden raw limb of something. The petting zoo, always a hit, was full of happy goats - as you can see.

The baby polar bear was cute as can be.

We hadn't known there was a small amusement park inside the zoo. Zoltan wanted a turn on one of the rides for his "treat". Alex got cotton candy - her first - and loved it. We hadn't expected to stay so long but it was a good half day's adventure. We wanted to save things like Elagin with its playground for when Alex can take full advantage of it (maybe even throwing her bike in the trunk to ride the trails  - the No Bikes prohibition does not seem to hold true for little kids).

Some other small victories:
  • noting that Skazka Dom, a fairytale museum/experience, it literally next door to the zoo entrance. We're saving that one for a rainy or wintry day as it's indoors, but our friends' kids absolutely loved it and we weren't sure where it was.
  • Being able to ask completely grammatically correctly where was the entrance to the zoo, and understanding that the family we asked wanted to know the same thing as the entrance they just passed wasn't yet open.
  • Also being able to answer completely correctly directions to the only cotton candy stall actually serving cotton candy when a lady saw Alex eating hers.

Thursday, May 17, 2012


I am supremely new to "foreign service blogging" as a community. In fact, I am pretty sure my readership is still entirely made up of family. I haven't even put up the standard FS blogger disclaimer because my mom knows I have no official capacity to say anything about anything. I am also pretty new at actually talking about thoughts and opinions on my blog, previously sticking to travelogues and the cute things the kids say and do.

But here's the thing. This is a "Foreign Service blog" anyway. No matter who hears it, thinks it, or believes it. No matter if there isn't a single actual or potential member of the Foreign Service who reads it, has ever read it, or has even heard of it. When one member of the family becomes paid by the US Government to be in the Foreign Service, everyone else is immediately recruited.  What my children and I say and do is being watched (and not just in the spy thriller way). I bite my tongue when, in the USA, I wouldn't. We're not just along for the ride, we are part of it.

One source of frustration for me has always been meeting FS people, either paid or family, who are surprised by some facet of our life that is easily discovered through any of many online or print resources. As an academic at heart, I research everything thoroughly. The more important the issue, the more important is having full access to all relevant facts.

There is a theme here. There is a reason I'm ranting about this in a post entitled Nipple. Gimme a minute.

The #1 reason FSO/FSS leave the Foreign Service is family issues. It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to train and security clear each person. It's really in everyone's interest to be sure that person intends to stay. If the spouse is unhappy, and said Officer/Specialist still likes said spouse, that staying is less likely.

Blogs are one of the very best ways to learn about the real nitty gritty of FS life. You have hundreds of people writing about their actual daily life. Living "on the economy" is very different from living somewhere as part of the FS community. It matters to know what it's like. It matters to enter an A-100 class with every literate family member having some sense of what's coming up. Because what happens to the Officer/Specialist happens to the family. We get separated and employees go to places where they will be shot at. We DON'T get separated and family members come down with dread diseases, risk kidnapping and muggings on a scale not one USA city can match, or our parents die while we're still on the flight back to be with them during their last days.

One member of our community, one of the earliest and best Foreign Service Bloggers, was recently removed from the blogroll State uses as a recruitment tool. Jen Dinoia's story is here and here. The gist is, receiving the diagnosis of breast cancer while your husband is on an unaccompanied tour is too personal and not FS enough. One specific example of inappropriate content was her mention of "nipple cozies". The odd thing is that the story itself, how DOS let her husband curtail from an AIP assignment, found him a job in DC to be with her throughout the ordeal, and MED working to find a suitable onward assignment the entire family could go to, is a great recruitment tool - a story of how State put families first.

Here's some more bloggers who are writing about this in solidarity with Jen, much more eloquently that I have.

Here's from Life After Jerusalem: What makes a blog an FS blog?
And Connie at Whale Ears and Other Wonderings: Not FS Enough
And Sadie Abroad: Nippletastic: A Rant for FS Bloggers
And Noble Glomads: Don't tell us who is relevant to us
And The Wandering Drays: "Nipped in the blog"
And Well That was Different: It's the Little Things
Four Globetrotters: Nipples, Nipples, Everywhere
dp's Blog gives us: I guess I'm not as important as I once assumed

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Alex is too clever

So, Alex broke her arm about a week ago. Since then things have been interesting:

- Since the break she has been asking for help getting dressed. Especially getting shirts over the cast, I had assumed she needed assistance. Last week was a holiday Monday through Wednesday, then Thursday was her doctor's checkup so her first day of school was Friday, and I picked her up before naptime. Monday was her first full day back. She loves gym class, and it's the last class of the day so I made sure to get to school before class as I knew she couldn't participate. Imagine my surprise when I got to school and found her all dressed and ready for gym!  I asked the teacher if she was able to participate and she started laughing. No, of course not. What happened was that when all the other kids got changed for gym, Alex just got herself changed too. Little sneak!

But wait, it gets better.

Monday evening around or after dinner time she started complaining that her leg hurt. Like with her arm, there's no outward sign of anything wrong, no swelling, discoloration, she can wriggle her foot and toes. Nobody had witnessed anything that could have caused it and Alex kept saying she didn't remember what she did or when it started. Suspicious. We put her to bed.

The next morning she keeps it up. VERY consistent. Continually refusing to put any weight on her leg, complaining it hurts to much, etc. I tell her we'll have to go to the doctor and get an x-ray on her leg if it hurts so much. I call the Consulate doctor at 8:30am to ask what to do. In the end, the Consulate doctor says she'd be more comfortable if the same doctor who did the last x-rays did these and he didn't work until 6pm so we'd have to have the appointment then. Alex says she doesn't hurt when she just sits, only when she puts weight on the foot. I tell the nanny to get her to the park, she can stay in the stroller if she hurts. My nanny offers to bring us to a regular (public) clinic and we can get an x-ray for 200 rubles. I say it's OK, we'll wait til 6pm. She suggests we bandage the leg for more support. I find an Ace bandage (talk about being prepared!) and we wrap it up. Alex is now willing to put a teensy bit of weight on her leg and says it helps a little. I head out to work, only 1/2 hour late.

A couple of hours later my nanny texts me "We are in the playground. Alex forgets about her leg." One hour later "I took off the elastic, Alex complains it's too tight, now she is walking around the house normal."

That little bugger. But wait, it gets even better.

I come home at night and she's on the floor playing with something. When the nanny leaves she gets up and STARTS LIMPING.

She's only 4. How will we survive her teenage years?

Victory Day

May 8 commemorates the day that WWII ended in Europe. As the capitulation document was signed after midnight Moscow time, May 9 is Victory Day in Russia.

In St Petersburg, there is a memorial ceremony on May 8 at Piskaryovskoye Memorial Cemetery. This is the cemetery where about 420,000 civilians and 50,000 soldiers of the Leningrad Front were buried in 186 mass graves.

At this memorial ceremony the full panoply of military, religious and diplomatic representatives are present and all members of the diplomatic corps lay wreaths. As it would be unseemly for the Consul General to carry his own wreath, volunteers are needed to carry it. Terry and I both volunteered and we both got the job.

We'd never been to the cemetery before, and it was of course one of those days that makes death all the more poignant - clear, sunny, warm in the sun and cool in the shade. Trees were starting to bud and some green leaves promised flowers to come. The ceremony was solemn and emotionally moving, very simple and of course we didn't really understand much of it. Our attention was largely focused on not dropping the wreath, which was not overwhelmingly heavy but awkward to carry. I am happy to say it made its way to its final resting place intact.

Then comes the surreal part. One of the honorary consuls general (a Russian) invited all the other diplomats to his car for a drink. Note I don't think it was quite noon yet, or maybe just on the other side. When we arrived we found a table set up with vodka, wine and zakuski (appetizers/snack, such as blini, pickles, tea-type sandwiches). There were many toasts that Terry and I are happily insignificant enough that nobody cared whether we drank or not, so we each got away with nursing a glass of wine.

Basically, we tailgated the memorial service. Woot woot to Russia!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Happy Mother's Day

It's now the tail end of Mother's Day.  This is how I celebrated it, thanks to the hilarious and fabulous ladies at Rants from Mommyland:

1.I donated to World Birth Aid ( in my mother's name. This was her Mother's Day gift. I promise she didn't get shafted, she got a great gift that lets her shove her adorable grandchildren in anyone's face at anytime - a brag/charm bracelet with their photos.

The organization does one thing, make and distribute Clean Birth Kits to mothers without access to proper sanitation to avoid post-birth infection, which often leads to death. A whopping 1 in 13 women in sub-Saharan Africa die post-childbirth due to complications during and after childbirth. For comparison, in industrialized nations that number is 1 in 4,100.

2.I signed up to give another momma the Mother's Day she was due. A bunch of the other Rants readers made super awesome gift boxes full of personalized stationary, or bath salts and lip gloss, or thoughtful handwritten cards giving encouragement.  Me? I live overseas and mail takes a month to hit the States. I had a week to organize and deliver something. So ... Starbucks gift card from me. With a Twitter-sized card allotment, so I couldn't say much more than Happy Mother's Day. But, she'll get it and hopefully she'll get it as I called myself her Mother Pucker which only makes sense if you know about the Mother Pucker project.  And now you can read all about it.

3. Terry made waffles for breakfast, Alex put on a sock with a heart on it because she loves me, I got to go to Ikea and buy stuff I wanted that Terry very much didn't want and he didn't argue with me at all, and I got a nap.  I got hyacinth plants for International Women's Day and a handmade card from Alex back then so I can't really complain about Mother's Day. It was everything I wanted or needed.