Saturday, May 9, 2015

Victory Day in Moscow

Today, May 9th, marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe.

Oh, sure, you folks probably grew up thinking it was May 8th. But not here in Russia. Something about, the Germans sent a guy to sign the surrender papers on May 8th, but the guy they sent wasn't high enough up the chain of command for the Russians. The Russians were all, fool me once, because Hitler had already said that the treaty Germany signed way back at the end of World War I didn't count, and Germany hadn't really surrendered back then, because the guy who signed on the dotted line for that surrender was a civilian politician, not an important military commander. So this time, the Russians insisted that the head of Germany's Armed Forces himself personally sign the surrender papers. Which he did, but not until early in the morning of May 9th. Hence the difference in dates.

Anyway. This morning we woke up bright and early to make the long, exhausting, 2-minute trek to the front of the Embassy building to watch the "parade." In quotes because it wasn't quite what you might have pictured in your head just now when I typed parade. There were no marching bands. No baton twirlers. Not a single float made out of flowers. Instead, there were tanks. And trucks bearing missiles. And more tanks. And airplanes. And then a few more tanks. All rolling down the road, just a few hundred yards from my front door.

The ground shook. You could feel the vibrations through the soles of your feet and up into your chest. The tanks kicked up dust and spewed out exhaust. Occasionally someone atop a vehicle would give a cursory wave toward the crowd, which waved back. But it really all seemed more serious than spectacle.

The main parade took place in Red Square itself, but there were no representatives from any western countries in attendance there this year. Given what is going on in Ukraine, that just wasn't going to happen. Anyone from the Embassy who wanted to watch either stood roadside or sat in front of their television sets.

One thing that always surprises me: many Americans don't seem to realize that Russia and the United States fought on the same side in World War II. I think many people my age grew up thinking of Russia as the Evil Empire, and our textbooks didn't go into too much detail about the Soviet Union's work to defeat the Nazis.

For Russians, though, the war was, and is, a big deal. They played a critical role in bringing about the defeat of the Nazis, and they gave so many lives to the effort. Somewhere around 60 million people died during WWII, military and civilian, of whom almost half were Russian. They lost somewhere in the neighborhood of 10-14 million soldiers, depending upon whom you ask, and about that many civilians. (As compared to the 400-450,000 U.S. military and civilians who died because of the war.)

Anyway. That's just an interesting little side note for those of you who may not have been aware of it. It wasn't until after the war that things really started going downhill in U.S.-Russian relations.

Today, though, Russians and Americans all crowded together in front of the Embassy to watch the parade go by. And when the last tank had passed, we Americans turned around and walked back through the front gate of the Embassy, headed for the first sunshiney barbecue of the season, on the other side of that big Embassy wall.

See those planes making the Russian flag up there in the sky?

ICBM, up close and personal. Creepy.


Friday, May 8, 2015


Seven years ago in Beijing, our little surprise baby arrived.

Even now, I catch her telling people she's Chinese, which always throws them off. No, she's not Chinese, but her birth certificate is.

We moved to Jordan shortly after her second birthday, and then to Moscow after her sixth.  If I look away for a second, she'll be off to college somewhere else entirely.

I interviewed her last night, because these days I don't remember anything if it isn't written down.

Her favorite color: pink.

Her favorite animal: bunnies. And also butterflies.

Her favorite tv show: Monster High.

What she wants to be when she grows up: a pop star.

A swimmable mermaid tail - her birthday present from us.

She has a collection of tiaras - it isn't easy to choose which one to wear.

New pink cowboy boots from Nana and Bampa.

Happy 7th to the toughest little girly-girl I know, my own sweet Ainsley.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

What a strange day I've had.

I promised sushi to the birthday girl, and I needed to run out to the ultra-fancy Yeliseevsky Market, on Tverskaya Boulevard near Red Square, in order to keep my promise.

I was in a hurry. Lots to do today! But I didn't check the metro route - I assumed I would remember how to get there - and I got on the wrong train. No big deal. I figured it would only put me back 10 minutes.

I exited at the Tverskaya Station, directly into a mob of people pushing forward. I aimed for the exit I wanted, but it was blocked by soldiers. The next closest exit - also blocked. I pushed along with the crowd and found another exit, still open but ringed by police. As I walked/was pushed up the steps I heard an unholy rumbling and shaking from above.

Once I exited into the sunlight, I realized what was happening. I'd walked right into a rehearsal for Saturday's Victory Day Parade, marking the 70th anniversary of the Nazi surrender during WWII. There were hundreds upon hundreds of people gathered to watch as tanks and trucks and missiles rumbled past. The streets were all blocked, so there was no way I was getting to the store. It was literally 300 feet away, but the sidewalk was completely blocked by policemen. 

I gave up all hope of getting my errands done in time, instead settling in to watch, trying to snap a few decent photos with my phone.

After about 40 minutes, the last tank passed me by, followed by a herd of street cleaners who quickly washed away all signs that the heavy machinery had ever been there. The barriers came down, the crowds dispersed and I found my way to the store, where - wait for it! - they were all out of cucumber sushi. Sigh.

The lady behind the counter was kind of rude about it, too.

"Will you get any later?" I asked.

"I don't know," she replied without looking up.

"Well, do you make it here? Or does it come from somewhere else?"

"Here," she snapped.

"Okay, but, so" (stumbling over my Russian) "do you know when it's usually made?"

"NO," she practically yelled, turning partly away.

"Sorry," I replied, "it's my daughter's birthday, and she wanted sushi, so I just thought I'd ask, but thanks."

No answer from her.

I wandered around the store trying to come up with plan B. Maybe I could make the sushi myself? But I'd need to find all of the ingredients, and did I have time?

Devushka, I heard from behind me.

I turned to see the sushi lady standing next to a man in a black chef coat.

"This is our sushi chef. He says he can make the sushi for your daughter if you want."

I tell you, my jaw hit the floor as I looked at the two of them standing there staring at me.

20 minutes later, I was in the checkout line with a whole pile of fresh sushi. Amazing. I made small talk about the parade with the checkout lady - the nicest checker in all of Moscow, I'm pretty sure. And I made my way back home, happy in the spring sunshine.

But I still had one more stop to make. I wanted strawberries from the fruit lady by the metro station. She asked me, have your parents left yet? Did they enjoy Moscow? And, as I left, tell your daughter I said congratulations! It hit me then: I live here now. When the neighborhood vegetable vendor knows your family, it's a sure bet you've been here awhile.

The cake is baked and heavily sprinkled, thanks to several neighbors who loaned me sprinkles from their supplies. I guess we're almost ready to start our birthday party.

It's been an interesting, happy, oh-so-strange day here in Moscow.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Her First Recital

You may remember that recently I told you the story of my persistent Kyra, who went out and found herself a violin teacher. (Link here if you haven't read it.)

While my parents were here, she had her very first recital. Exciting stuff!

Sadly, her brand new teacher is moving on to a new assignment in a few weeks, so we will be teacherless once again. There is good news, however: a new guy just showed up in our church, a young Colombian kid who is working toward his Master's Degree in music here at the Moscow Conservatory. He has agreed to teach her voice lessons, along with perhaps some violin lessons. He starts this weekend. Fingers crossed it's a good fit!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Living in Moscow - The Pros and Cons

It seems it’s that time of year again, when Foreign Service bloggers turn out in droves to write their “Pros & Cons” posts for the bidding season.  I know at least one other blogger has covered Moscow, but I figured I should add my own post anyway.

Pro: Public Transportation. Moscow’s bus and metro system puts the U.S. to shame. We have multiple metro stations within walking distance, and a ride costs somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 cents, regardless of distance traveled. Metro cars run every few minutes, even on weekends and evenings. No, I do not miss DC’s metro. The bus routes are great too. If the metro can’t get you there, the bus can. (Though admittedly it helps if you speak/read Russian.)

Con: Using any form of non-public transportation. We brought a car, but we almost never use it. Most of the time, it’s easier and cheaper to walk/metro. It’s faster, too. By the time I walk to the garage where my car is stored and then fight traffic to get to the school, I could’ve been home and back on the metro. The fact that you can’t turn left in this town doesn’t help, either. You can see your destination ahead, but if it’s on the left side of the road, it’ll take some doing to actually get there. (Note: A friend just turned me on to the Get Taxi app, and I’m actually loving that as an alternative to driving. Turn on your 3G and it’ll figure out your location and send a taxi right to you, usually within minutes.) (Double note: If you choose to live out by the school, you’ll likely need a car. But if you’re in the city or on compound, maybe reconsider bringing a car.)

Pro: Long days of spring and summer. Kids can run around until late in the evening. Adults can stroll down to the Arbat or attend a potluck out on the Embassy green. The weather can be beautiful in the spring and fall. Even the summer is nice, if a bit too humid for my taste.

Con: Winter. This is a huge one to understand if you’re thinking about moving here. It gets cold. And worse than that? It gets dark. You really have to force yourself to leave the house when the sun sets by 4pm and the snow is blowing sideways. I chugged a lot of vitamin D, baked a lot of cookies, and logged some seriously long hours in the gym to get through the winter.

Pro: Compound living. Some people would list this as a con, but I love it. I get to see my husband during the day because his office is literally next door. The kids have free run of the place. We’re right downtown, mere minutes from the Kremlin, the Arbat and other fun places. But on those days when I just want to stay in my American bubble, I can do that with ease.

Con: Community fragmentation. If you’re on the compound, you don’t socialize much with the Pokrovsky folks – they’re so far away, out there by the school! Some of my favorite people live out there, but we almost never see each other. And if I hear one more person make a snide remark about “town house ladies,” I’m going to pull my hair out in frustration. Groups here – as everywhere! – are segmented mostly according to family status, NOT work status. So I tend to hang out with other people who have kids close in age to my own. I also hang with the gym rat crowd and the open-air-market folks. Not because I don’t like the rest of y’all, but because these are the people I see on a day-to-day basis, so they’re the ones I make plans with. But I do hear people complain about Pokrovsky vs Compound, City vs School, etc. So I guess it’s a thing. Whatever. There are so many people here that it’s easy to find a group of like-minded folks with whom to pass the time if you just make the effort.

Pro: Quality of the school. With few exceptions, I’m quite pleased with the school. The teachers are mostly excellent, the facility is gorgeous, the nurse’s office, the cafeteria, the music rooms, the pool…. all are great. The middle school has the world’s best principal, and the MS counselor is beyond wonderful. (I don’t know the ES or HS principals, so I can’t speak to that.) In the ES, where I tend to spend more time, both the classroom teachers and the specialty teachers are terrific.

Con: Distance from the Embassy to the school. Wow, but it’s a pain in the butt to get out to the school some days. It’s 45 minutes to an hour, one way, so it takes some planning to get there. And because I’m so far away, I don’t feel like I’m quite as in touch with what’s going on there as I’d like to be. Particularly on the high school level, where I don’t have connections with the teachers, I’m constantly feeling somewhat out of the loop.  In both Amman and Beijing, we lived very near the schools, and I felt a lot more knowledgeable about my kids’ lives back then.

Pro: Local food. Georgian food is beyond delicious, and there are several great restaurants nearby. The open air vegetable market sells the most amazing strawberries and tomatoes from Azerbaijan.  Russian pickled vegetables are delicious, as, of course, is borsch. There are 3 Starbucks outlets within walking distance – okay, it’s a looong walk, but still. And did I mention Krispy Kreme just came to town? Now, if only I could figure out how to get people to deliver food to the compound…

Con: The work load/ work environment. If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you’ll know that relations between Russia and the west are not so great these days. This doesn’t typically affect me on a day-to-day level as I run around town getting my chores done. But I think – and this is me talking here, not some official USG representative – I think the work environment is hard if you’re an expat or a diplomat. There’s too much work to be done, always. And the person-to-person contacts aren’t always easily made. There seems to be a lot of suspicion on both sides of the fence. So, yay, you’re doing important work for your government while you’re posted here! But, boo, why does everything have to be so difficult? As a spouse, you’ll be frustrated by the fact that you can’t work on the local economy, but there aren’t enough jobs at the Embassy to go around.  I got around this by developing a work-from-home project, which the Embassy approved, but they take a sizeable chunk of my income because, they say, I’m using USG property to earn my income. And that’s all I’m going to say about that particular frustration in this blog post!

There you go – my Moscow pros and cons, for all of you potential bidders. This is our second time here as USG employees, and I can tell you that there is so much to see and do around town that we still haven’t seen it all. It isn’t really possible to get bored here. Cold, yes. Confused and frustrated, definitely. But bored? Never.

See you next year?

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The View From Here

Because we didn't get around to taking these photos while my parents were here, and I promised I'd do it for them, here ya go: the view from the sidewalk in front of our house:

And from the side of the compound, here's the Russian White House. That's the Radisson in the background, on the other bank of the Moscow River.

As much as I hate winter, I love spring. Right now the sky is clear and bright, with the evening light hitting the windows just so. Of course, a few hours ago, the sky was black, with thunder rolling past. So who knows what the next hour will bring? I'm just trying to enjoy the long days and cool air while they last.

The Petersburg blog posts, they never end.

Are you just completely tired of hearing about my St. Petersburg trip?

Yeah, I didn't think so.

So here you go: the final (I think) installment of the Chronicles of St. Petersburg, 2015 edition.

We went to see the Bronze Horseman on our last day and then headed over to the Petropavlovsk fortress, stopping to check out a few random sites along the way.

The Bronze Horseman is the nickname for a statue of Peter the Great gazing out on the Neva River. It got its name from a famous Pushkin poem in which the statue comes to life and chases a guy around town.

The Horseman is just behind St. Isaac's Cathedral, so of course Ainsley had to stop and pose.

From there we drove past/stopped at a few random churches and apartments downtown, just because. I really liked this church, but can't for the life of me remember what it's called. I stopped keeping track of church names at around church #237.

We stopped for a family photo on the opposite side of the Neva.  That's St. Isaac's again, way back there on the other side of the river. The steps we're on in the photo lead directly into the water. 

For reasons I can't immediately recall, there is an Egyptian statue on the river bank.

Ainsley carefully dipped her fingers in the water before glancing up the statue and remembering our family trip down the Nile River a few years back. She recalled that there were crocodiles in that river. And for some reason she decided there were likely to be crocodiles in this river as well. She didn't touch the water again, and she's been obsessing about crocodiles ever since. 

(Just a few days ago, she had a nightmare that a crocodile bit off her foot. The next morning, she was standing next to her bed, shakily telling me the story of her dream, when our cat, who unbeknownst to us was hiding under the bed at the time, reached out and bit her on the foot. Who says cats don't have a sense of humor? Needless to say, I'm pretty sure the neighbors called the police, she was screaming so loudly.)

From there we headed over to the Petropavlovsk (Peter and Paul) Fortress, the original fortress protecting the city, dating back to the early 1700s. We got there just in time to hear them fire off the noon cannon, which, fortunately, the guide warned us about in advance, because otherwise my RSO/Baghdad-survivor of a husband might not have handled it so well. That thing was loud and earth shattering from up close. My poor sad deaf ear was ringing for an hour afterwards.

This church was built right in the center of the fortress. It is famous as the final burial place of all Russian tsars. Unless you ask my daughters. They will tell you it is the place where Anastasia was buried - if you press them, they might mention some other graves. 

Here, inside the church, are the grave markers for Tsar Nicholas' family. Anastasia's marker is on the back wall, far right. Two family members have yet to be buried there - apparently forensic testing is ongoing? - but the others are all there.

Emperor Alexander Alexandrovich's tombstone:

Peter the Great's bones are under here:

From there we went straight back to the train station and caught the afternoon train to Moscow. We were home before bedtime.

The girls were still chattering about Anastasia as they got ready for bed. One of them finally asked me "what did she look like in real life?" So we googled her.  And this is the first image that came up, from wikepedia:

I am sad to report that after a steady diet of Disney, the girls were disappointed to discover that Anastasia didn't look like a princess at all. Why is she dressed so... normal?, they asked. And, why isn't she wearing a crown? 

Still, though. They are already asking when we can go back to Petersburg.

I'm wondering the same thing.

Please. Write your own stuff.