Sunday, August 30, 2015

Our Estonian Weekend

Right before the school year started again, we took the kids for a long weekend in Estonia and Finland. We chose those 2 countries because they were easy and cheap to get to from here (with a family of six, even the cheapest trip gets pricey, quick.)

I was in Talinn, Estonia, back in 1990, when it was still part of the Soviet Union. But B and the kids had never been, and truthfully, I didn't remember much about it, except that it was freezing in the late fall and there was nothing to eat. The only time we'd ever been in Finland was for our heart wrenching medevac in 2002 - so it's safe to say I didn't remember much about Helsinki, either, except for an ambulance and an operating room.

This post will be mostly pictures. Smiley, happy pictures. Because that's what you're supposed to post when you go on vacation, right? Truth be told, though, it wasn't all smiley. You try dragging four kids around cobblestoned streets and making them pose for pictures every three minutes, the weekend before school starts, when all of their friends are finally back in town after a summer away. See how far you get before the squabbling and the this-is-so-lame starts.

I remember asking my father-in-law once, several years ago, how they managed to drive from New York to Florida in the summertime without killing each other. I mean, did their kids not fight? Did they actually have fun together as a family? How did they do it? He gazed off in the near distance for a few moments before laughing and answering "time erases the bad parts."

So. Time. Eventually I will forget the parts about the squabbling kids and the cranky adults and the broken ATM machines. I will remember only the chocolate truffles and the blue skies and the cafe mochas and the fairytale towers.

Ainsley and Kyra fell in love with the Old City of Tallinn because it reminded them of a fairytale, with its turrets and towers and steeples. The boys were enamored of the hot chocolate at Pierre's, a small cafe and chocolate shop tucked away in a quiet little alley off the main roads.

It really is an impressive little town, with so much more going for it now than back in Soviet times. Restaurants, souvenir shops, sidewalk cafes, loads of tourists... and so much history.

The streets are lined with sidewalk cafes, with just enough room for tourists to stroll past. Very few cars.

The central square, full of doll house buildings.

Pierre's. (Thanks, AG, for the recommendation, or we'd never have found it!) Homemade truffles, cocoa, coffee. We actually went there twice...

There were life-sized dolls all over town. A made it her mission to pose with every last one of them.

Part of the Old City walls.

Totally fake smiles. I forced them to stand there smiling or risk losing the hot cocoa I'd promised them.

This church. The Cathedral of St. Mary. So beautiful, inside and out. Plus you can climb to the top and look out over the whole city and the Gulf of Finland.

View from the top of St. Mary's.

The inside walls of St. Mary's are decorated with medieval coats of arms.

Here's a view from one of the scenic overlooks in the Old City.

Alexander Nevsky Church

Stay tuned for more soon...

Friday, August 28, 2015

One Year Down

I'm a sucker for anniversaries.

In the Foreign Service, life is measured in small snippets: one more week until the bid list is due, two more months 'til we learn where we're going next, one day left before packout starts, been at post 3 weeks already! That's how we measure our Foreign Service lives. Sure, Christmas and birthdays and the Fourth of July all have special significance for us. But for us, the little personal anniversaries and milestones are important, too, as we break our lives into "before" and "after." Before I moved to Jordan. After I started Chinese classes. The day I got my Russian drivers license. After that medevac.

So of course I noticed when I hit the halfway point in my Moscow tour earlier this month. No flowers, no cake, but it was an anniversary nonetheless.

The one year mark, for me, is when I finally settle in a bit. Yes, it takes me that long to really start feeling a sense of belonging. For me, seeing that summertime flood of glaze-eyed new people wandering the hallways makes me realize - I belong here. I'm not one of those new people anymore. Not at this post, anyway.

I went to Back to School Night this week. I didn't go last year, because I had no way of getting there and back again, and I didn't know anyone whom I could ask for a ride. But this year, I knew how to get there - it's a few metro stops and a bus ride away. I saw some people I knew in the hallways. And somebody offered me a ride home, so on the way back I packed into a minivan with a bunch of other parents, all of whom I knew, some of whom I can actually call my friends. We chatted and compared notes about the teachers as one parent weaved in and out of Moscow traffic, speeding along down a road I've traveled many times these past twelve months.

I guess it's really been a year.

I had to go out in search of soccer cleats the next night. After dinner, A and I walked to Sportsmaster. (For those of you bidding on Moscow, it's a sporting goods chain with several locations around town, one just down the road from the Embassy. They have just about everything you could need, from ice skates to boxing gloves to goggles. So different from Moscow in 1991!)

It was dark out at 830 as A and I walked there. Ordinary Russians hurried down the street, anxious to get home to dinner, perhaps, or on their way out like us. Women holding hands, guys on cell phones, a couple of kids riding scooters through the underground perekhods. Moscow at night is lit up: street signs and flashing ambulance lights and billboards all blocking the view of the stars.

It's pretty, and it's busy, and A and I knew exactly where we were going, out there in the dark. We walked to the store, found the shoe section, chatted up the sales guy about cleats for turf versus cleats for grass, picked up some other gear, tested out the punching bags, and lined up with the rest of the customers to pay.

I was feeling good - I live here. I know what I'm doing. I handed the lady my Sportsmaster customer card, she rang us up, I paid. Then she asked me something in Russian, but I didn't hear her. "Shto?" I asked, and she repeated herself. This time I heard, but I didn't understand what she was asking. Something about a gift. Maybe I had earned a gift with my purchase? Or I would next time? Or were the shoes a gift? Definitely something about a gift, anyway. She repeated herself a third time, but when she saw the quizzical look on my face, she laughed good-naturedly and said "don't worry about it," as she handed over my packages.

So you see, it still isn't home. Or rather, it is home, but it doesn't always make sense.

This is the best and the worst of the Foreign Service. It is so frustrating to walk around in your world, knowing that half of what is happening around you is going right over your head. And yet - back home, a trip to the sporting goods store is just that: you walk in, you pay, you leave. Kind of boring, no? Here, every time I go out, I get a little adrenaline rush as I try to take in what's happening around me. Are those two women over there arguing, or are they just asking directions? Is that man drunk, or sick, or both? Why is that guy following me, and should I be worried? Did I just get on the wrong bus?

One year in, and still all these questions.

The kids are back in school, and I am putting my school year routine back together. It's quite mundane, really. Gym, work, write, shop, cook, kids come home, dinner, bed, repeat. But I'm creature of habit, so I like the mundane: Sunday is pizza night, m&ms are best separated by color, the dog needs a walk before lunch.  These things I take as fact. So, for me anyway, being one year in means I've found my stride. I've found a routine that works for me, and I'm happy.

It also means the bid list is due. Because this time next year, I'll be somewhere else entirely, starting over again.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

This is why I've been away for so long.

Seems like a good reason, right?

But the book is finished at last! At least the kindle version is. Hard copy to come, maybe, possibly, hopefully.

You can download it here.

Please do download it. And then read it and review it on amazon, or otherwise pass the word, if you wouldn't mind.

Thanks to all of my friends who helped me to make this happen.

And now: a nap.
Please. Write your own stuff.