Saturday, November 15, 2014

Calculated Risks

When you think about the dangers a diplomat might face abroad, you probably think of places like Benghazi, or Baghdad.

And yes, with such a large part of our workforce serving in unaccompanied posts (places considered too dangerous to take your family) these days, you'd do well to remember that there are diplomats risking their lives in places like that, every day, representing America's interests overseas.

But there are other ways, smaller, less obvious, in which those diplomats - and their families - put their lives on the line, and we got a harsh reminder of that fact earlier this week.

I started to feel unwell last Saturday, the night of the Marine Ball. (No pictures this year, sorry - I don't know my fellow ballgoers well enough to ask if I can plaster their faces on my blog). I think it's because I was sitting under an air conditioning vent in a fairly skimpy dress, but who knows? By Sunday night, I'd lost my voice almost entirely, and so on Monday, I decided to give myself the day off. I put myself to bed with some tea and the last remaining episodes of season one of House of Cards.

I did, however, have to get up to take the dog for his occasional walks. Around noon, I got out of bed to do exactly that, and immediately noticed a nasty stench in the air. I shook my fist in the general direction of the construction site just across the road from my house, assuming they were responsible for the smell, and carried on with my walk.

Back at the house, my cough got worse and my head started to ache pretty badly, so I went right back to bed. It wasn't until late that evening that the voice of one of the Marines came on over the loudspeaker, telling everyone to get inside, close the windows and doors, and turn off the heating units.

It seems that the smell I'd been breathing in earlier was the result of some sort of chemical spill, somewhere in Moscow, but nobody knew exactly what it was, or where it was coming from. The Russian government blamed a specific factory. The factory management insisted all was well. People started nervously cracking Chernobyl jokes.

Well, who knows what it was, or where it came from? My guess is, we'll never learn the truth, but we all spent at least one day, maybe more, breathing in something toxic. Just yesterday, when the Russian government told everyone to stay inside again because of yet another unexplained air emergency, people both at the Embassy and out in the city at large got noticeably jittery. This is our health, after all, and when you can't get the facts, you have no way of knowing if you are at risk of developing some strange illness. You might never know if you're at risk - not until, years down the road, you contract some horrible rare disease and wonder to yourself, did it happen that day?

In my case, of course, I've got three years of Beijing air under my belt. I already gave an ear to Beijing, and it wouldn't be any big surprise if some day it turns out that I, or someone else in my family, or someone close to me, becomes critically ill because of those three years spent breathing Beijing air and eating Beijing food. I was already coughing when the chemicals were reportedly released here in Moscow, so it's not possible to say whether they contributed to this week's illness. But I do think about this stuff, all of the time. All of us serving overseas do. All of us know of "cancer clusters," groups of people who served at the same post at the same time and were all stricken with the same rare disease for no apparent reason. We all know it's possible. We all know it happens. But it's a calculated risk of sorts that we're taking when we move overseas. Sure, nasty stuff can happen to us as a direct result of our service, but does that mean we should all stay home?

Actually, the leading cause of death in the Foreign Service is typically car accidents, both because the roads overseas can be frighteningly bad and because the post-accident trauma care in most countries won't save your life: no lifeline flights, no nearby emergency rooms, no on-site ambulance care. You get in a bad crash overseas, and you may die. It happened to someone we served with in Jordan, a father of two. It happened to someone we served with in Moscow, also a dad. It happened to a mom we served with in Kazakhstan. It happens all the time. We just buckle our seat belts extra tight, say a little prayer, and drive where we need to drive. Most of us make it back safely. Those who don't are mourned worldwide.

I guess this nasty air situation has got me down this week. I worry for my kids, for myself, for my husband. But what to do? We live our lives, we explore our city, and me? I pray pretty much every day that my kids will stay healthy through it all. It's a calculated risk: I know they will grow so much and learn so much from the constant travel we do. Most days, then, I think it's a risk worth taking.

Most days.

Monday, November 3, 2014

In an alternate universe, I am currently running on a beach in California.

I am fairly certain that today's forecast for my hometown does not include the words "ice pellets."

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Kremlin! (And Camera!!!)

Guess what, you guys?

There's this neighbor here whom I've never even met.

Well, I'd never met him, anyway, when he rang my doorbell last Sunday morning and handed me a shiny new camera. Turns out he had to make a quick fly-out-on-Thursday-fly-back-on-Friday trip home, and he offered to bring a camera back for us.

Seriously. Somebody I didn't even know told us to ship a camera to his U.S. address so he could hand carry it back to us. How cool is that? I love how people look out for each other overseas, I really do.

He even offered to carry back a ghost costume for Kyra, but by then I was practically finished stitching together her I-flunked-home-ec mystery costume, and I really didn't want to deprive the world of this one of a kind ghost. Story for another day.

Yesterday we broke out the new camera and dragged the kids to the Kremlin, despite the cold and intermittent rain. And do you know? It actually turned out to be fun. The kids behaved, and we got to check out some cool old churches together.

The Kremlin is (partially) open to the public. The President lives there, but it is also home to a museum (the State Armoury; we'll hit that next time), a performance hall (ballet, opera; we'll hit that soon, too), and a whole lot of czar bones in churches (yesterday's destination).

It was cold, but it was mid-30s cold, which seems almost comfortable compared to the 15 degrees of a week ago. Amazing how your perspective can change over time.

Kids at the entrance to the Kremlin. boys.

I'm not sure how one would even hoist those cannonballs into that cannon.
Perhaps that's why it was never used?

Weapons and worship, all in one photo.

Me n' my girls in various stages of enthusiasm.

Church bells.

This one broke before it was ever rung.

Behind the big broken bell.

Just your basic, ordinary door frame.

Awww. So cute. And so cold!

View of Christ the Saviour from the Kremlin wall. We haven't been there yet - so much to do here...

If it seems like I posted a zillion pictures of churches here, well, that's because there are about a zillion churches here. You can stand in the middle of the plaza and do a slow turn to take them all in. The flashes of history are crazy amazing - czars and noblemen and presidents all living and dying on this one small patch of earth, each making new history during his (or her!) short lifetime. They don't let you photograph the interior of the churches, but they are beautiful, with walls of icons, gold crosses, muraled walls and ceilings. In one church there are lines of coffins against every wall, stuffed full of czars and other important folk, some dating as far back as the 1300s. Can you even fathom that?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Language Lessons

My Russian is pretty good. It's not what you'd call great, but I can get done what needs to get done. I can usually find a way to explain myself so that I'm understood, and I can follow most basic conversations, even in spite of my deafness.

I should study more - who shouldn't? - but frankly, I don't have the time. I'm comfortable where I'm at, and there are other more pressing things I need to focus on right now.

There's a lady I run into here on a weekly basis, and we chat in Russian each time. Basic conversation, nothing fancy: the weather, the kids' school, the upcoming weekend, good restaurants.

Last week, as we were finishing up our transaction, she asked me, in Russian, "where did you learn to speak such beautiful Russian?" I demurred, as one does, and said merely that I'd been posted here once before. "No," she shook her head emphatically, "to speak as you do, one must study the language from childhood."

Well, I was flattered, to say the least. I mean, who knew my Russian was so spectacular? I floated around on a cloud of you're-awesome for awhile, basking in the knowledge that I can speak Russian.

And then, a few hours later, I took a couple of the kids to lunch, after which we stopped in at the new Krispy Kreme for some donuts. (Don't judge. I mean, the donuts were right next door to the restaurant. And really, shouldn't I be promoting American businesses overseas???)

The lady behind the counter rang up our purchase, but she didn't give me my receipt.

"Excuse me," I said in my spoken-since-childhood Russian. "I need the receipt."

"I'm sorry?" she asked me.

"The receipt," I repeated, gesturing behind the counter at the cash register. "I'd like my receipt."

"Your... receipt?"

I nodded.

She laughed uncomfortably and looked at her colleague. "I don't understand her," she muttered to the colleague, who looked at me and asked again, "What do you want?"

"The receipt!" I said. I pointed at the cash register, at the tape protruding from the top. "I want one of these."

"Ooooohhhhh," said the first woman, "of course." She handed me my receipt, and I headed home, shaking my head at the confusion.

It wasn't until I was halfway home that I realized - I hadn't been asking for the receipt at all. I'd been asking for the recipe. I guess she thought I was hoping to get the actual Krispy Kreme recipe. Which, why would anyone want that? Once you see how much sugar and fat goes into every bite, I can't imagine you'd want to eat another very soon.

But yes. There are times when I walk around thinking, I've got this. And then there are those times when I can't even handle a simple junk food transaction. There's nothing quite like living in a foreign language bubble to poke a few holes in one's ego. For every moment of pride, I'm rewarded with hours of embarrassment. (And maybe even a delicious donut. Or two. Totally worth the humiliation, wouldn't you say?)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Brrrrr again (maybe I'll just use that title from now until April).

Good morning from Moscow, where according to news reports, we are experiencing the coldest October on record since 1982.

Sure, it's sunny and beautiful outside:

But how can go you outside when you open up your phone and it tells you this?

I'm not worried, though - you can see that the high today will be a balmy 23 degrees Fahrenheit, so I'm sure I'll be fine.  And by Sunday, when it's supposed to be 35, I'll likely be running around town in a tank top and shorts.

It doesn't help that I have friends all over the middle east right now, letting me know the current temperatures in Amman, in Abu Dhabi, in Muscat, in Riyadh. Apparently they all think I need to know that they are sweating buckets in the blistering sweltering punishing desert heat. That doesn't help me, people! Stop telling me about how the water in your swimming pool is a chilly 78 degrees right now or I'll unfriend you, swear I will. I'm looking at you, Mr. I-know-what-you-mean-I-was-walking-in-Swefiyeh-last-night-and-it-was-in-the-50s-boy-was-I-ever-cold. You're not being helpful.

You know what is helpful? This:

I've been having trouble baking here - seems the baking powder at the commissary might be to blame for the fact that my bran muffins and quick breads all taste like the inside of a tin can. So my lovely parents sent me some aluminum-free baking powder - and a gigantic Costco bag of chocolate chips.  Thanks, mom and dad! Today seems like a baking sort of a day to me, wouldn't you agree?

Maybe if I sit on the floor next to my oven with my eyes closed while the cookies bake, I can pretend I'm poolside at the Dead Sea.

Monday, October 20, 2014


It is only October 20th. And yet this is what we woke up to today:

The view from my living room window this morning.

Okay, so technically, this isn't what it looked like when we woke up. When we woke up at 6am, it was still pitch black outside. This photo was taken shortly after 9am, when the sun finally came up enough to see.

So, right, it appears that I'm going to be a bit colder here this winter than I was last winter in Amman.

I've been joking (sort of) with everyone I run into at the Embassy that I'm going to stock up on butter and chocolate chips and go hibernate in my house until April or so. Really, I think I'll only need to hibernate for a week or so before I adjust. It'll take a few good days of baking and eating and reading and shivering at the window before I finally feel ready to go out and experience winter. Although, truth be told, I think winter is more fun to experience in, oh, I don't know, let's say... December, maybe?  Because October is still meant for apple cider and pumpkins and maybe a fleece jacket or a little cotton cardigan sweater and zip-up leather boots. It is not supposed to be about down jackets and scarves and clonking snow boots.

And yet, here we are. Ainsley came home from school this afternoon and told me that the teacher said she absolutely must wear snow pants to school tomorrow or she cannot go out at recess (emphasis Ainsley's). Now, I can hear a judgey neighbor or two already firing up Facebook to make fun of stupid unprepared moms such as myself, but truly, I did not understand that snow pants are required clothing for the school day. I always thought snow pants were for building snowmen on the weekends. So, true confession here: Ainsley has no snow pants. Kyra has a pair: some hand-me-downs from a friend in Jordan (thanks Sarah!). But not Ainsley. So it looks as though I'll need to break my self-imposed hibernation plan tomorrow already, in order to go out in search of some school-appropriate snow pants for my youngest.

I am from Los Angeles, you know, and in Los Angeles we do on occasion admire snow in the mountaintops that ring the city. But we don't actually, you know, live in it, on a daily basis, because that would be ridiculous. So I don't really understand how snow boots and snow pants and mittens are supposed to work. My friend JennD taught me how to tie a scarf properly in Beijing not too many years ago. When it snowed there, the kids threw on whatever warm clothes they had and went outside until hot cocoa time. There were no mandated school snow pants. There was just, dress warm, come in when you're too cold and we'll make cocoa together!

So this will take some getting used to.

I spent my day roasting tomatoes and garlic for soup, and baking homemade granola, and folding warm laundry. Quite domestic of me. Tomorrow, though. Tomorrow I will venture out in search of tiny snow pants, and if I'm lucky, I'll even figure out how to convert the European sizes to American so I don't have to return them on Wednesday.

I will conquer winter. I managed it well enough the last time we lived here in Moscow, and I did it again in Armenia, in China, and even in Kazakhstan, where snow regularly dropped from the sky at the rate of a foot a day, landing on my twisty, hilly driveway in impossibly heavy drifts in need of shoveling. And there I was, with my locally bought 100%-wooden shovel, flipping snow off the driveway with ease while building an impressive set of biceps. So I know I can do this.

It's just. Couldn't we have had a bit more time to enjoy autumn first?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Behind the Scenes at the Bolshoi

The Embassy was closed today, but the school was open. Love those U.S. holidays overseas!

Bart and I took advantage of this rare empty day and joined a bunch of people from the Embassy for a behind-the-scenes tour of the Bolshoi Theater. Today I was really regretting not having a real camera. I suppose it's time to figure out how to get a new one. (It isn't just the cost - it's also trying to figure out how to get one delivered. The pouch doesn't allow lithium batteries or glass, both of which a camera has. Heck, the pouch just rejected my prescription medicine. I'm sorta frustrated with the pouch right now, but not as frustrated as I am with my lack of camera...)

Anyway. We got a few decent pictures.  And now it's time to start plotting how to get tickets to a ballet some time soon. It won't be easy. Not only do they cost in the neighborhood of $300 per ticket, but they sell out months in advance. Bart scored tickets for my birthday last time we lived here. But now we have to find 6 tickets somehow!

Looking up at the facade.

The Emperor used to sit up there. Now it's the President's box.

This was apparently Stalin's favorite place to sit, just above the orchestra pit overlooking the stage.

Even the signage is fancy.

The chandelier in the center is decorated with over 25,000 crystals. Down below you can see the stage crew hard at work.

Looking up at the same chandelier from the main floor.

The lobby.

A wall detail.

Me, in one of the rooms the Emperors used to hang out in.

Here's a peek at the costume shop, where there were too many sewing stations to count.

Some of last season's costumes.

We even got to go up on the rehearsal stage. After all those years of dance classes, I can finally say I was on stage at the Bolshoi!

Looking down into the orchestra pit.

The view from on stage.

Aside: Once, when I was still in college (and studying 3 different types of dance in addition to Russian), I was asked to translate for a donor fundraising event when a group of famous Russian dancers (not from the Bolshoi!) came to town. It was a terrific opportunity - not only did I attend the fancy fundraiser, but I got to sit in on the dress rehearsals and watch real dancers in action.  At the fundraiser, though, I was appalled by the rudeness of the dancers, who were, as a group, total jerks. It was very difficult to translate some of their surly remarks. I was sorely disappointed to discover how awful they were, almost to a person. The orchestra folks, on the other hand, were awesome. A few of us translators pulled an all-nighter with them back at their hotel, just hanging out, drinking, talking, telling funny theater stories. I thought of that today, for the first time in a long time, when I looked into that orchestra pit. And it really was so amazing to get to stand on the stage, looking down at all of the taped "X"s marking up the floor. 

Please. Write your own stuff.