Sunday, March 29, 2015

Double Date

We went to dinner last night with another couple, to Mama Zoya's, a great little Georgian restaurant next to Novodevichy Monastery. (...and order their khachapuri lobiani - so delicious!)

This particular couple has a similar background to ours: university study abroad programs in the Soviet Union, grad school in Russian lang & lit, multiple tours in the Russian-speaking world. They both speak excellent Russian - she's "just a spouse," but probably speaks better Russian than many of the officers here.

Anyway, it was fun just chatting about the myriad ways Russia has changed since we were first here, reminiscing about the olden days.

On the way home we stopped to admire the Monastery. Tragically, there was a fire there a few weeks back, which destroyed part of the structure, but it still looked beautiful in the moonlight. Phone camera pictures don't do it justice.

You can kind of see the burnt-out tower, up there on the left side of the photo.

We were almost back to the Embassy when we happened past a bicycle parade. The whole street in front of the Embassy was shut down as hundreds of bicyclists cycled past in the dark.

The four of us waited for the parade to pass so we could cross the street.  Said the other spouse: "Just when you think you've figured out Russia...."

Bicyclists as far as the eye can see. And then some. 

Friday, March 27, 2015

An Unexpectedly Lovely Morning

Right, so, I haven't exactly been jumping for joy over here, as many of you readers have pointed out to me in emails and Facebook PMs.

I mean, Russia is hard. Even for someone like me, who speaks the language and likes the culture and has done this tour before. It's just hard living somehow.

For starters, there's winter. Winter here is cold and dark and then it gets colder and darker and then, just when you think you've hit the worst of it, everything melts and refreezes so one day you're out in the cold and dark and you step on a sheet of ice and down you go on your ass and you really have to force yourself to get back up and keep limping along instead of just lying there on the frozen dark sidewalk rubbing your severely bruised butt and crying frozen dark icicle tears.

No? Maybe it's just me then.

Everybody hibernates in the winter. Or maybe they don't. Maybe regular people are out ice skating and skiing and marveling at the way the sunlight hits the frost just so as they snowshoe through the forest together. Maybe it's just me inside baking bread and cookies all afternoon.

Either way, I found this winter to be a bit lonely and - truth be told - it's my fault for not putting myself out there and doing stuff.

But now we're on the last weeks of winter. It's still hat-and-glove-cold most days, but the sun! She is shining right now, and I can feel my bones getting more solid and boney as they absorb all of this precious new vitamin D.

There was a month there when the kids got on the school bus when it was still dark. They got back off of the school bus later that afternoon, and the sun had already set. It was a very blah sort of a month for us all. Now there is sunshine, and after school they are scootering and playing catch and falling off of playground equipment. It is so much easier to be cheerful when the sun is shining and you aren't cold down into your bones.

(There is this blog I love to read, Sarah on the Road, because the blogger is an amazing photographer who lives - by choice! and happily! - practically on top of the North Pole. She posts these amazing pictures, and all I can think is, she'd be wearing shorts and a tank top right now in Russia. How she does it is beyond me.)

So today it is cold, but sunny. A neighbor - one of my favorites, actually - asked me to go to Dorogomilovo Market with her and some friends of hers whom I don't know. It seems the friends had never been, so she offered to take them, but wanted my help figuring out the bus route and the Russian stuff.

So we planned to do it today.

But as it turned out, the friends couldn't go, because something came up for them. So it was just me and my neighbor, out for the morning.

I've blogged about Dorogomilovo before.  (Story and pictures here.) It's really just a huge covered market, with different vendors selling fruit, vegetables, homemade cheese and honey, spices, nuts and so on. Technically speaking, it's a chore to go there: you have to wait for the bus, haggle for the goods, dodge the runners with their carts and trolleys. And then you have to lug your purchases back to the bus stop for the trip home.

But when you're with somebody else, it turns into a fun sort of nowhere-else-but-here kind of adventure. And this particular neighbor is someone I've been trying to friend-stalk since we got here. She's super nice, but not so nice that it's cloying. She's been around the world, so she isn't new to this life and I'm not constantly talking her down from the ledge, but she isn't all Pollyanna about the place either - just enough snark to be healthy. And we both have husbands who work too much, who are too good at their jobs, and who are in similar places in the Embassy hierarchy, which means we can complain to each other, or just compare notes, about the relative craziness of our family life.

But we're both so busy! And did I mention it's been cold and dark? So we hardly ever run into each other except when we pass on our way to and from the mailroom.

So it was nice to get to hang out all morning with somebody I know and like and respect, just talking about recipes and schoolwork and summer plans while we got our errands done.

And as an added bonus: we found brussels sprouts! And strawberries! And fresh baby spinach! The Korean vendor even had some flash-fried marinated homemade tofu, which sent me over the moon with happiness. You just know we're going to have some good family dinners coming up.

All in all, it was an unexpectedly lovely morning.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

My reality: on the road

We have a car but we don't really use it. I'm not even sure it starts anymore. It isn't parked anywhere near our house, and by the time I walk to where it is, I might as well have hopped on the metro instead.

Which is what I did today, to get to some appointments out in town.

Here it is: today's commute, in pictures.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015


You can be amazing
You can turn a phrase into a weapon or a drug
You can be the outcast
Or be the backlash of somebody’s lack of love
Or you can start speaking up
Nothing’s gonna hurt you the way that words do
When they settle ‘neath your skin
Kept on the inside and no sunlight
Sometimes a shadow wins
But I wonder what would happen if you

Say what you wanna say
And let the words fall out
Honestly I wanna see you be brave

With what you want to say
And let the words fall out
Honestly I wanna see you be brave
- Sara Barielles

If you believe blogger, this is my 900th published post. 900! That sounds like a lot until you remember that I've been at this blogging thing since 2007.

The thing is, I don't know if I'm going to make it to 1000. And no, this isn't a plea for y'all to come comment on how awesome I am and how I should keep going forever.

It's just...

The internet doesn't seem as friendly as it used to.

When I started, I met all of these really cool people: Kolbi and Jill and Jen and Heather, and so many others there's no way to name them all. We had fun together. We learned from each other, about DS and parenting and life in the big wide world beyond whatever post we were at. There have been pregnancies and deaths, cancer scares and divorces, tigers and tours in Iraq - all sorts of things keeping my blog friends together. Sometimes, we've even gotten to serve together in real life: Connie welcomed me to Amman, while Michele hugged me goodbye on my way out.

So much has happened to me since blog post #1, so much that I processed through blogging about it. Having babies, going deaf, bidding. Of course plenty more has happened that I haven't dared to blog about: losing friends, finding jobs, watching kids suffer through our moves.

There are so many foreign service blogs now. So many parenting blogs. So many people writing about things I can't or won't write about.

There are also people being mean to each other out there, I guess just because they can, and that has me so discouraged, you've no idea.

There is, for example, a Facebook group just for FS people. It has over 5000 members. When it started, it was such a great resource. You could ask any crazy question, and someone out there had your answer. Need help transferring through Shanghai? Shipping a cat to Oman? Getting a medevac approved for that crazy growth on the back of your knee? Finding a sublet in Ougadougou? These people had your answers! But now, I don't even want to ask questions over there - let alone answer them. Because as soon as you ask about iPad apps for kids on long-haul flights, somebody jumps in and tells you you're a bad mom for letting your kids play with computers. You ask about domestic help at a specific post, you get called entitled or lazy. One friend commented on the ugly awful house she was assigned to and the internet tore her a new one - the nerve of her, complaining about free government housing! She was just looking to the group for help, and a small subset of nasty people drove her off. Have a question about allowance for kids? Teflon in your cookware? A difficult HR tech? Be careful: You never know what is going to set the whole internet roaring against you, pitchforks in hand.

It isn't just Facebook. There's a blogger out there, an anonymous blogger, who is actually a good writer with lots of interesting things to say - she's quite possibly one of my favorite FS bloggers. Not long ago, though, she posted a mini diatribe on internet safety. Her point was valid: be careful of what you post, because you can't be sure who is reading. But the way she said it - she painted spouses as bored and lonely little housewives with too much time on our hands (if only!), blogging without thought of potential consequences, thereby putting our families at risk in all sorts of unspecified ways. We're not all stupid, we spouses who blog.  Some of us are more safety conscious than others, but we're none of us idiots.

I made a very conscious decision to blog under my real name, back when I started. I didn't believe I could stay anonymous even if I tried. I also decided - actively decided - not to password-protect my blog. This wasn't the decision of a vacuous, attention-seeking spouse. It was a conscious, weigh-all-the-risks-first kind of decision. And with every post I write, I think again: is this safe? Is it interesting? Is this something I want my coworkers and friends to know about my family? I have lots of unfinished posts because I think before I post.

Diplopundit just published a piece about the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, who decided to withdraw from the twittersphere because of harsh criticism and personal attacks, related to one specific tweet, but clearly part of a larger pattern. There are so many stories about women - mostly women - who are viciously attacked because they dare to post opinions about controversial topics online. This isn't a foreign service problem. It's an internet problem, but it's slowly seeping into our small corner of the net.

The dialogue just doesn't seem nice anymore. It isn't friendly. It isn't fun.

And then there's the kids. You probably know that I started this blog as a way to keep the grandparents up-to-date on their grandkids. Lately, though, when I have something I want them to know or see, I email it instead. The kids are getting old enough to want and deserve privacy, and I have to respect that. I posted a cute - or so I thought - picture of Ainsley awhile back, and she was furious with me. She hated the picture and demanded that I take it down. Demanded. When your 6-year-old doesn't like what you're posting, you need to proceed with caution.

All this is not to say that I'm done here. I'm not. I love having this little parcel of real estate over here on the internet. I like to flip back through it and remember the time when? So much has happened that I would've forgotten about if I hadn't posted it here. So many adventures. So many odd little moments.

So I'm trying to figure out how to keep going. I still don't want to password protect this whole blog, and blogger isn't set up to password protect specific posts - it's all or nothing. But I need to step back, to make it less personal, without losing the whole point of why I started in the first place. I don't want to turn it into a cat blog. Do they still use that term, cat blog? That's what we used to call the boring blogs, where you just dear diaried your way through your day without a thought to the story arc or the language. Those blogs drive me nuts, especially when they are written by foreign service people, who ought to be having all sorts of crazy adventures across this globe of ours, and shouldn't need to resort to the generic, the humdrum, the stale.

Some of my favorite bloggers quit the game: Afghan Plan, and Daring Adventure, and Four Globetrotters. These guys were funny and opinionated and smart. I am honored to know them all on Facebook. Heck, I even served with one of them in real life. I've had lunch with another. The third eludes me still, but not for long - I'll meet her someday, I'm sure of it. But I miss their presence in the blogosphere.

How do you make it work? How do you say what you want to say without worrying about the repercussions? How do you make people be nicer to each other? Surely everybody reading this now has an online presence of some sort. Is it real, your online persona? Or are you faking it?

Tell me, I really want to know.  What's the next step?

Saturday, March 14, 2015

On Parenting the Stubborn (and Musical) Child

I had to meet with the RMO/P at post once, a few years back. (RMO/P is State Department speak for psychiatrist.)

The reason for the meeting was somewhat inconsequential. I needed somebody in the medical office to sign off on a form in order to update a medical clearance for one of the kids, and for some reason the RMO/P was deemed the person most qualified for the task.

I brought the kid in and the three of us talked for a couple of minutes before she dismissed the kid to the waiting room so we could figure out what to do with the form. During the course of our conversation, I mentioned that it was difficult sometimes, being a mom to four children, all of whom were stubborn, with independent streaks a mile wide. I speculated that perhaps it was genetic, and laughed that my husband said it came from my side of the family.

Well, she said, not laughing herself, that isn't genetics. That's a fault in your parenting.

A fault. In my parenting.

I still carry that scar with me. Whenever my kids argue, or talk back, I find myself remembering that phrase and wondering, what am I doing wrong? I see friends with children who are constantly saying yes, mommy, always aiming to please, and I admit I sometimes feel a small stab of jealousy when I see those people-pleasing kids.

Because my children are not people pleasers. They are mini debate specialists, always wanting to know why and how and isn't there a better way? This is incredibly frustrating when it's a simple matter of who needs to clear the table after dinner, or who takes the first bath at night. We all want to raise our kids to ask the big questions, to point out injustices in the world around them, to defend the underdog. But also? We want kids who respond to our own requests and demands without debate. Save the arguments for the classroom, kiddo, because in this house, I'd prefer to be the dictator.

I've only slowly come to terms with the fact that I don't have any people pleasers under my roof. And while that RMO/P may have been partly right when she said this had to do with my parenting style, I think it is also partly genetic. From the time they could crawl, my kids all crawled toward what they wanted to see, and no amount of distracting with shiny toys could get them to turn away from their goals.

I've decided to see this as a long-term positive, even though, in the short term, it is some times exasperatingly negative. Long term: I'm raising kids who think independently, who won't be swayed by what others think they should do, who set goals and pursue them. (Short term: gahhh! Why don't they set the goals I want for them? Why don't they just do what I say? Why??)

There are days, though, as they slowly mature, when the positive side of this stubborn streak shines through.

Kyra is my musical child. She loves singing and dancing and making noise of all kinds, much to her brothers' chagrin. When we moved here, I promised to sign her up for voice lessons, but months of searching for a teacher led nowhere. She was disappointed, but in the turmoil of everyday life, of making friends and memorizing her multiplication tables, she mostly forgot about my promise.

Then, about a month ago, she started talking about learning to play the violin. Bart has a violin - apparently he was quite a good violinist, back in high school - so we thought she could mess around with that one, but when we took it down off the shelf for her, we discovered that it had broken in the move from Baghdad to Moscow. I wasn't eager to buy a new one, nor did I have time to research violin teachers, so I sort of ignored her chatter about violins.

Until this week.

Apparently she decided not to wait around for her slacker parents to solve her problem for her. She came home from school on Wednesday and announced that she would be starting violin lessons on Friday. "I found a teacher," she said. "She lives here on the compound, so I knocked on her door and told her I want to take lessons. I'll be going every Friday at 5, so I need a violin the day after tomorrow."

And that was that. She even negotiated the price of the lessons. The future teacher emailed me to confirm that the plan was acceptable. ("In all my years of teaching, that was a first for me," she said. Apparently kids don't just knock on her door asking to study the violin.)

Now all that we needed was a violin. I emailed her classroom teacher, who emailed the music teacher, who emailed the school's strings coordinator, who called me directly to report that she would happily meet with Kyra and set her up with a properly sized rental violin before Friday.

And so it happened that my stubborn independent sparkly small daughter had her first violin lesson yesterday.

I can only hope that her stubborn determination to learn sticks with her for those first few difficult months of lessons, and on into the future, for every endeavor she undertakes.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Cars. Cars. And more cars.

 The boys went on a father-son outing while I stayed home to cook, clean and generally work my fingers to the bone. Or take a nap. It's hard to remember which, exactly, but it was definitely one or the other.

Anyway, since I wasn't, technically speaking, with them at the museum that day, it's hard for me to get really descriptive here. Let's just say it was a car museum. Full of cars. And other automotive detritus. Apparently it was quite cool. You should go there. The end.

And look - pictures of my adorable boys! With cars. Obviously.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The light at the end of the tunnel

October 2014. Outside temperature mid-40s.

I bundle up in a heavy coat, gloves and hat. I curse the cold.


March 2015. Outside temperature mid-40s.

I unzip my coat, turn my face toward the sun, stuff the gloves in my pocket and marvel at the warmth of an almost-spring day.

I think it possible that I may survive the winter after all.
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