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. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Patriarch's Ponds

It was a rainy but warmish day here in Moscow today. We took the kids on a short walk to Patriarch's Ponds, which is most famous to us former grad students as one of the important sites in Bulgakov's Master and Margarita. Bart enjoyed doing a dramatic retelling of the part of the story when Berlioz slips under the tram outside the Ponds and gets his head cut off, as the Devil himself predicted. Not my favorite part of the novel, but the kids thought it was pretty cool.

We also took the kids to check out Bulgakov's house museum, around the corner from the Ponds, but it was a bit disappointing, in my opinion. I remember visiting back before it was an official site, in the late 1980s or early 90s, when fans of the book used to break into the stairwell and scribble graffiti referencing the book. Now that was an impressive museum, and every time different. It was cool to see the odd fans of the book slinking in and out of the stairwell. No graffiti in today's official museum, and no ghosts, either.

Still, it's a lovely area of town.

Kids at the pond.

Monument to Ivan Krylov, famous Russian fabulist in the 1700s-1800s.

Fairytale characters from Krylov's books are also represented in the park.

Beautiful walking path around the pond.

And the pond itself....

Here's a little outdoor library that someone installed in the park. Only one book in there today.

Over at Bulgakov's house museum, they had several old typewriters on display. No signage to indicate whether they belonged to the author himself. But they looked cool.
Ainsley hanging with some of the characters from Master and Margarita outside the museum.

Heading back home again in the rain along the Ring Road.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Driving on....

The saga of the car continues.  In order to get a big red diplomatic license plate installed in the plate holder above, I need to jump through a variety of bureaucratic hoops.

Today's hoop was the "technical inspection."

After suffering through several bizarre stress dreams related to the technical inspection and my fear of anything automotive, I decided to hire somebody to help me find the technical inspection place and walk me through the process.

Best money I ever spent.

I mean, I had a blurry copy of a copy of a copy of someone's printout of the google map, so I probably could've found the place on my own, probably maybe. But then what?

I first met Slava-the-driver when I needed a ride out to the school to participate in a race they were hosting shortly after we arrived here. The guards at the school stopped him outside the gate and told him he couldn't go further, but he convinced them to let him drive in, chatting them up in his cheerful Russian until they opened the gate. I was immediately mortified when I realized what he'd done: he'd driven us directly onto the race course, which volunteers were still setting up. Perhaps he was afraid that I wouldn't be able to run the whole course if I had to walk uphill to the starting line? He dropped us off right at the starting line, in full view of the volunteers and early arrivals, before driving off with a cheerful shout - "I hope you get first place!"

So this same Slava met me at 930 this morning, hopped in the passenger seat and immediately started in with his rapid-fire Russian, without even asking if I could understand him. He had me laughing the whole way there, with his descriptions of "crazy Russian drivers" and funny encounters with the police while driving around town. He helpfully pointed out every last bump in the highway, a 12-lane behemoth that is currently being re-paved. I learned lots of new words, like "pothole," "hood" and "gas tank opener doohickey," which, as you can see, I don't even know the name of in English, along with new verb constructions, like "get left" (as opposed to "turn left") and "merge right." It was really hard to focus on driving with all of this new grammar and vocabulary swirling around in my head.

I may have found my way there without him, but his cheerful smile and banter got me through the inspection process in record time. The guards at the inspection place smiled and came over to say hello when they saw him waving out my passenger window, and even the surly-looking inspector dude knew Slava - he got the whole inspection done without once even looking at my car. Easy peasy.

Then it was time to head home, and that's where Slava really earned his money, because you can't go back the way you came. Left turns aren't generally allowed in Moscow, and since I'd gotten to the place with a series of right turns, I would've had to left turn my way back to the highway multiple times - an impossible and quite illegal task, especially for a foreign lady driving around town with no plates on her car. Were it not for Slava, it's entirely possible I'd be halfway to Petersburg right now, still trying to turn around and head east.

But it's done, and I'm back at the Embassy getting dinner going. The car still needs one more inspection at some police station somewhere, but I don't think I'm supposed to do that one myself. And then there's the small matter of needing an actual driver's license. I'm still working that one.

Most interesting thing I saw all morning? That would probably be the giant billboard that appeared to have been freshly installed on the road into the city center, big white type on a pale blue background, proudly proclaiming in Russian: "EUROPE WORKS FOR US."  Of course I couldn't take a picture of that while speeding down the gigantic highway, but it did get me thinking. In some ways Russia is the same as it ever was, but in others, it's just so very different than I remember.

Hard to believe we've been here two months already...

Monday, October 6, 2014

Weekend Walks

This past weekend, Bart convinced me to leave my warm house and venture out into the winter wasteland that is Moscow in early October. Seriously - the high was in the mid-40s, and I was FREEZING. How I will survive the coming winter after four long years in the middle east, I have no idea.

How did he convince me to go out, you ask? It wasn't too hard:

Hey, Heather D - you could bid on Moscow!

The Starbucks is about a 25-minute walk from the Embassy (and why, exactly, haven't they built one closer???). We brought Ainsley, who brought her scooter, and the dog, who brought an overwhelming urge to stop and smell every single bump in the ground.

On the way back, we stopped to check out this little playground. You'll find playgrounds like this scattered throughout the apartment blocks across town, though on this particular day an icy rain was falling, so Ainsley was the only kid on the monkey bars.

We happened past this museum, which we've never been in. I guess we'll have to drag all of the kids there some day, maybe bribe them with Starbucks, too. Those are clown-on-unicycle statues up there.

Here's the museum again, this time in the middle distance. I have no idea what the short green and white building in the foreground is, and by this point I was too cold to want to walk across the street to ask. That red building in the back is a Georgian church.

Attached to the church was a little Georgian cafe. Downstairs there was a small seating area; on the main floor a surly waitress served food to go: Georgian lobio (spiced mashed beans with walnuts), pkhali (a sort of hummus-like puree of walnuts, garlic and vegetables) and other little dishes; here you see, from left to right, spinach, bean and beet pkhali). I bought lots. So good.

When we lived in Beijing, I wrote a few things for one of the big guidebook companies. So I know that you're supposed to tell people what they're looking at and why it matters. But, really, all I can say for now is: cool statue. Very tall. And did I mention I ran out of coffee a few blocks back? Let's go home already...

That was our Sunday.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Random Moscow Things

I've been ever-so-busy with a mishmash of things that, while interesting, don't seem to lend themselves easily to a post with a beginning, middle and end. 

But I can give it to you piecemeal! My phone seems to know what I've been up to all week, judging from the pictures I found there today.

We're pretty much unpacked, if you don't count that last pesky box that never seems to get put away. The pictures are hung, the beds are made, the toiletries are strewn across bathroom counters. 

The formal dining room looks nice though, doesn't it? (Probably because we don't eat there...)

We went to Izmailovo today to start our holiday shopping. This is the Disney-esque entrance to the place, a huge outdoor souvenir market. We only lasted about 2 hours before the boys pronounced themselves "freezing cold." Perhaps if they'd listened to us and worn their winter coats instead of their sweatshirt-over-t-shirt combinations?

The metro stations here are often museum pieces. Fancy lighting, mosaics, statues.... and no two stations alike. (Oh and they run constantly. You never have to wait more than a couple of minutes for a train. Another bonus: the men almost always get up for the women and children to sit, and the younger women always give up seats to their elders. Virginia residents take note: You will never see a pregnant lady standing in a Moscow subway, whereas I remember countless times when I, a giant lumbering pregnant lady, stood the whole way from Vienna to central DC without once being offered a seat.) Here's a typical statue in a typical station:

And a painted ceiling in another:

Here's another photo from last week's trip to Novodevichy. It's pretty common to see artists set up shop outside of historical sites in order to paint.

This is a favorite. Here's the view from one of our bedroom windows last night. That's the Russian White House right there.

I went on an adventure with a new friend last week. We happened past this cool building, where all of the weddings and deaths in town are registered. I actually had a better photo, but somehow the "email" button is right next to the "delete" icon in my phone's photo app. Sigh....

I saw this little old couple in the Metro today. They were shuffling along together, holding hands the entire time. So cute. Hope I'm still holding hands at that age...

Fall is here. Walk out my front door. Look up. Snap picture. Here it is:

And that's it for now. Happy fall everyone.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Nuts and Bolts

Lest you think that Foreign Service life is all tours of UNESCO heritage sites and fancy receptions, allow me to tell you about this week's project, which should serve to convince you that living in a country is an entirely different beast than merely visiting it.

The car is here. The car! It is here!

So, do you think I'm driving all over town?

No, not yet. Maybe not for awhile. Maybe not ever.

Today I spent the better part of the morning with busywork related to getting the car street legal. I found the keys, which was no small feat, considering I'd tucked them away somewhere safe, way back in early June, in another country. I found the car on the compound and took it to get gassed up. Funny story: I chatted with the gas station attendant for 5 minutes while the tank was filling (it's a big tank). Nice guy. When it was finished, he replaced the nozzle, turned to me and said - in Russian - "so, you speak Russian?" Ummm. Yeah. Yeah, I guess I must speak Russian, because these last five minutes, we were talking to each other. In Russian. Am I right?

Next I drove it to the Embassy mechanic's bay, where they have to do some sort of inspection and put on the license plates. But the Russian license plate won't fit on my car, so I had to go to another office to request and pay for some sort of an extender doohickey that will make the plate fit the car. (Important aside: yes, I realize that I am fortunate to have people at the Embassy who can help me navigate these things. Thank you in advance for not emailing me to tell me how very lucky I am.)

After that I went to the bank and took out two zilliondy rubles in order to pay for an official inspection and local liability insurance (we have international coverage, through Clements, in case you were wondering, but we're also required to buy a local policy).

Then I went home and drank a bucket of coffee to get warm. It was cold outside at that gas station!

Next I went to yet another office to make copies of our American driver's licenses and Russian diplomatic cards, both of which are necessary to register the car. But I couldn't turn them in, because I forgot to print out a copy of my Clements insurance policy. Home again, then, to search for the policy and email it to Bart, because do you think my printer is up and running yet? Ha! I could probably plug it in and fire it up, but that would only serve to remind me that I don't have any ink cartridges for it, which would send me on another chase that I simply don't have time for today.

That's okay, though, because I got to drink more coffee and check my email. Which is how I discovered that, congratulations!, the Russian government has decided it will no longer honor U.S. driver licenses and now I need to apply for a Russian one, which means I need to make more copies of more things and pay more money and get more ID photos taken and...

But first I need to get the car to the Moscow inspection place, which I'm told is "not far away, but not easy to find." I will need to do this some time this week or next, after I get the car back from the Embassy mechanic. I will need to do this in Russian. I speak Russian, but I don't speak car, so we'll see how that goes. At this not-far-but-not-findable inspection place, I will pay more money and hopefully remember to bring all of the necessary papers so that the car is finally drivable.

But not drivable by me, if I understand the regulations correctly, unless and until my husband gives me a power of attorney stating that I am allowed to drive his car. You know, the one we chose and bought together. It's considered his car alone here in Russia.

After that, I can go get the driver's license, which I'm told will involve an approximately 4-hour round trip to the Russian version of the DMV (can you even imagine?) and some more money and papers and things and only then will we be allowed to legally drive the car to its parking space in a lot some 15 minutes' walk away from the Embassy, where it will likely sit quietly for 352 days out of the year because, really, when you get right down to it, using the metro here is a helluva lot more convenient than driving, most of the time.
Please. Write your own stuff.