Wednesday, June 29, 2016

You Don't Know What You've Got Til It's Gone: The Neighborhood Edition

Somebody stopped by my house today with a parting gift (which I loved, thanks so much...).  After she left, I read the note she'd attached to the gift, and she seriously brought me to tears with her kind words.

It made me think - I sometimes take the people around me for granted.  Or anyway, I assume they know what I think of them. But really, why don't we take the time to thank the people who help us settle in at each post?  The time flies by so quickly.  We bond hard and then separate fast. And sometimes the people we've been relying on to get us through don't even know it.

So here's a partial list of the neighbors who got me through it.

Beth is one of the first people I met here.  She was throwing a party for newcomers the week after I arrived at post, and I'd heard about it, of course, but I didn't figure she meant to include me, since we'd never met.  My social sponsor and soon-to-be friend Karla assured me that, yes, Beth did mean to include me.  So I went. It was fun, and I met lots of new people.  More importantly, I discovered that Beth was the backbone of the post.  She's always looking out for the new people, always making sure people on their way out have a proper send off. Always smiling, even when she has reason not to be.  Always calling up to see if you want to stop by for tea on a rainy afternoon.  I wish I could be as outgoing and spontaneous as Beth.

Tamara and I arrived within days of each other, and she's the perfect neighbor.  You can be sure if you need a teaspoon of cumin or a can of pumpkin, she'll have it.  She'll laugh till she cries over a smashed watermelon. She'll stop by with a meal if she hears that you're sick.  And she'll swear up and down that no, she didn't hear you fighting with your kids this morning at breakfast. (The walls are thin and she's such a liar...) We've had some fun together, she and I, even when we've only been running errands or trying to find our way back to the Embassy.

Melica got here when we did, too. She's fearless, that woman.  She'll go anywhere, try anything. When I'm tired of being a parent, she'll let me send my kids to her house.  When I'm tired of cooking dinner, she'll invite us for a potluck - and believe me, when you have four kids, you don't get too many invitations that include your entire family. She doesn't stand on ceremony - she'll invite you in even when her house is a mess, and she'll never notice when your house is looking less than sparkly.  Wherever she and her husband go, much laughter ensues.

Lori and I didn't get to know each other until more recently, but she's just the kindest person. She showed up midway through pack out two weeks ago and told me to give her a grocery list.  What an amazing gift that was - at the end of a long day of packing out, there was a pile of fresh food in the refrigerator, no thanks to me.

I met Hilde when I first got here, and our kids have been in and out of each other's houses for the past two years. We don't see each other as often as I'd like, but she's taken one of my kids under her wing and it's nice to know he has a second house to call home when ours isn't working out for him. She's one of those moms who makes the full-time-job-plus-parenting-gig look effortless. Plus which, she makes amazing brownies and she's always willing to share...

I don't see much of Branka, either, but she was one of the first people who asked me on a friend date. We went to lunch together and had a great time.  Why does she have to be so busy?  Oh well.  We'll grab lunch together again in another country, I've no doubt.

Yzo and Isa - it took me a year to learn to tell them apart.  But they basically adopted my daughter.  I think she spent more nights sleeping at their house than at ours.  They always had a hug for me or for my daughters, and when they left post it seemed suddenly a bit less sunny around here.

Mickey has taken in my other daughter.  I'm going to have to make sure Ainsley doesn't attempt to stow away in their luggage, because she much prefers their house to ours.  What's not to like?  Her door seems to be always open for my youngest, any day, any time. She makes homemade spring rolls and noodles rather than sending her home for lunch.  She has a great laugh and a better singing voice.

Rim.  Everybody knows Rim, and Rim knows everybody.  In my next life I want to be as fearlessly outgoing as Rim. Sarah, too.  She always leaves you doubled over, laughing.  (Well, except for when she's giving you a shot in the rear.  But the world needs nurses, so I'll forgive that one transgression.)  Kelly -  I've never met anyone who is quite as much of a friend magnet as Kelly.  She draws you in with her laugh - you can hear her a block away - and then keeps you close because she's so beautiful, in and out. If you ever get a chance to serve at a post with Kelly, you're going to want to do it.  There's nobody else quite like her out there.
Then there are my gym buddies.

Suzie is fierce in the gym, an awesome workout partner.  She's smart and strong and serious. So inspiring on so many levels.

Janet makes me laugh.  When I'm in a bad mood, I seek her out because I know the mood will pass. And she's committed - you can't skip the gym on a Janet day, because you know she'll be there waiting for you.

Alamanda is the strongest woman in the gym.  When I start feeling cocky, thinking I can pick up heavy stuff, I look over at what she's doing and I shut myself right up. If I ever get in a bar fight, I'm bringing her and Areti as my backup.  Those women can throw a kick like nobody's business.

Annabelle is patient and calm and so strong.  Renee curses like a sailor and runs circles around me, even while she's laughing. Tina inspires me to program burpees, just because she hates them so much (yet has gotten so good at them). Peggy sings show tunes and tells slightly off-color jokes while we're swimming. Everything's more fun when she's there.

So many others - some still at post and some long gone. It's been a lonely post for me in some ways.  But when I travel door to door in my mind's eye, I realize I have so many friends here.  More than I can count. More than I can describe in this post. I've gotten sappy enough already.

So pay it forward, my friends.  Go seek out someone who has helped you at post and tell them.  Don't wait until they're leaving.  People need to know when they make a mark on your soul. My soul is feeling happily scuffed up today.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Pack Out

In this small house
Made of brick and stone
Built on laughter
And all our dreams and hopes
In this small house
Together we have grown
Made a family
Made us all a home
   - Michelle Featherstone

We've spent a lot of hours moving from place to place, B and I.  By my calculations, this is our fourteenth move together.  That's a lot of bubble wrap.

You'd think I'd be good at it by now.  But nothing really prepares you for it, for taking your house apart, piece by piece.  Taking pictures off the walls.  Upending junk drawers.  Ruthlessly culling the end-of-year art projects.  Giving away too-small sweaters and shoes. Going through every item you own, one at a time, trying to decide: is this worth keeping?  What does it mean to me?

Every move I try to convince B to toss this one bowl that I hate. But for him, it has a history.  So it moves with us every time.  Every move I try to think of something creative to do with the multiple baggies full of mystery coins that we drag from post to post.  Each time I toss them back in the junk basket, that basket full of things I can't quite bring myself to throw away. All those Christmas cards that I keep in my drawer?  Right before we move, I look through them all and think about the people who sent them.  Then I throw them all in the garbage. I can't quite decide if that's a morbid habit or a sweet tradition.

I've gotten pretty good at the logistics of moving.  Stack all of your artwork together against one wall - when the movers pack it all together, it's easier to unpack and sort at your next post.  Same with your knick knacks: if you gather them from all around the house and put them all in one place for the movers, you're more likely to find them intact at the other end.  Bag and label all of the bedding by family member so you aren't sorting through 47 fitted sheets when you unpack.  Give the kids freezer bags to sort and store their stuff for moving.  That sort of thing, I can do.

But watching all of my possessions disappear under piles of cardboard and bubble?  That I never get used to.  Looking around the empty house is hard too.  It always seems dusty and tired, with nail holes and dirt marks on the walls where pictures once hung, gum wrappers and lego bits on the closet floors.

Anyway.  We're halfway through this pack out.  By tomorrow night the house will be ours-not-ours.

I wrote this article about pack out, years ago, when we lived in Beijing.  It still rings true for me.  Ghosts. Everywhere ghosts.

Sunday, June 19, 2016


I was one of the lucky ones.  I grew up knowing, with 100% certainty, that any time I needed him, anywhere, for any reason at all, my father would show up. If you grow up with a dad like that, you're way ahead of the game from the very beginning.

Santa Barbara, CA, some time last century

I am one of the lucky ones.  I married the same type of guy - the one who shows up and puts in the hard work and puts the needs of his family before his own, every single time. 

Beijing, China, 2009

We are celebrating Father's Day by rushing around frantically (or, in my case, limping around at a snail's pace), trying to get everything ready for the movers. We'll plan a real celebration for another day.  

Saturday, June 18, 2016

It always gets worse before it gets better.

There I was, pack out looming, in incredible pain from a presumably herniated disc.  And it wasn't getting better.  They were giving me the strongest pain pills in the Embassy arsenal, the kind that require multiple signatures and secret codes to obtain from the pharmacy.  And it was hardly making a dent in the pain. My leg cramped up so severely whenever I tried to stand that I'd collapse onto the floor and lay there until it passed.  Then, to make things worse, my whole leg went numb. How you can have blistering muscle cramps and novocaine-caliber numbness at the same time, I've no idea.  But I'm here to tell you it is possible.

The medical staff here arranged for me to get an MRI.  They even sent somebody to pick me up and take me there, because I couldn't walk more than a few steps without collapsing in a heap of pain.

The MRI revealed not one, but two herniated discs, one of which was pressing right into some big important nerve bundle, blah, blah, blah, need more pain pills, please.

That explains why I can't feel my left leg, I suppose.  That nerve is apparently going crazy and sending all sorts of messed up signals down the line.

In an instant, it seems, I went from being a person who can do jumping lunges and pull ups to being a person who can't pull on my own pants. This is not an easy transition for me.  I'm used to being the helper, not the person in need of help.  

This past week, though, I was definitely the person in need of help.  And boy did my neighbors come through.  We had a kids' party scheduled at our house last weekend, and two other moms showed up with enough cookies and brownies that I didn't have to cook anything at all.  Three meals showed up on my doorstep.  One neighbor brought me a bunch of kale from her garden. (I know what you're thinking: kale?  But you can't buy kale here, and I adore it.  So it was an awesome get well gift.)  Some of my clients gave me a massage gift certificate.  Others offered to supervise the pack out for me.  Seriously, people have been so, so helpful, more than I ever could have expected. B has taken up the slack in the house, doing laundry, grocery shopping, and stooping to pick up everything I drop because I can't bend over.

This all started a week ago Thursday.  It is Saturday night as I type this, nine days later, and I'm slowly feeling better. I still can't feel my leg, which seems like a bad thing.  But it isn't cramping up too much as long as I move slowly. I'm nowhere near pain free, but at least the pain is tolerable. And I can actually bend over to retrieve the things I drop, as long as I take my time. I'm off of the high-powered pain killers, which is good because those things made me loopy.

I'm letting go of my visions of an organized pack out.  The air freight went out on Friday, not much thanks to me.  I stretched out on the living room couch while the movers packed up the contents of the dining room, which is where we'd stashed all of our air freight.  Monday and Tuesday are the big packing days - we'll have a crew of 4-5 Russians crawling all over the house, packing up the bulk of our possessions. (The air freight was just a small supplemental shipment of dishes, pots, pans, bedding - all the things you need to get a household up and running.)  Theoretically, I'm supposed to be supervising the pack out, making sure the movers use the right paper and boxes and labels, but we'll see how I'm feeling by then.

If I don't get significantly better by early next week, we will probably re-arrange our flights and I'll leave here early to seek medical help in the States.  I'm hoping to get better and depart as scheduled, along with the rest of the family.  But we're keeping our options open for now.

Only about 12 days to go before we leave Russia for good.  Here's hoping I don't spend them all on the couch!

The air freight, awaiting the packers.

Friday, June 10, 2016

In Sickness and In Health

Our pack out begins one week from today, and so I have spent the last three weeks focusing on preparations for that big day.

Getting ready to pack out is no small task in a 3-story house. There are endless piles of welcome kit sheets and towels to be carried up and washed.  Our own bedding for 6 people needs to be carried down, washed, folded, bagged, labeled and then carried back upstairs to the air freight staging area.
Vases to be washed, closets to be purged, papers to be shredded, toys to be sorted.  Up and down the stairs, room-by-room, drawer-by-drawer, until it's time to make dinner.

You don't have to do all of this, of course. You can leave the movers to toss everything together and trust that it'll all get to you mostly intact on the other end.  But that just makes the move-in at the next post more complicated, when you find one snow boot packed in a box with your bottle opener, three partially used candles and a ziplock bag full of random coins.  Oh, and you'll finally find every missing tupperware lid and unmatched sock tucked away in that box, but it won't matter because now, on this side of the globe, their other halves will have disappeared. No, best to do as much sorting and purging as you can before the movers ring the doorbell.

That is how I found myself halfway under a bed awhile ago, trying to pull toys and books and stray candy wrappers out from underneath. My butt was in the air and my shoulders were wedged under the mattress as I twisted to reach those last few legos so I could pack away the bin.  A tiny red lego lay tantalizingly out of reach, but I didn't want to get up and walk around to the other side of the bed for the sake of one small lego.  So I reached harder.

That's when I felt the pop, and I knew I'd done something very not-good to my back.

It's been up and down from there.  I've been in bed some days with a heating pad, but other days, I've felt more or less okay.  Yesterday I taught one class at the gym and worked out with 3 separate clients, and I felt pretty good.  I figured the worst was over.

We had a going away reception to attend last night. It was lovely, except for the fact that while I was sitting there chatting with one of the guests of honor, I felt a searing pain travel from my lower back down to my knee.  It kept getting worse, and the other guests looked at me strangely as I wriggled around in my chair, contorting myself in an effort to find a pain-free way to sit, sweating and gulping in air.

It didn't work. I finally excused myself and hobbled home.

This morning, I couldn't stand up straight.  Trying to walk was agony. One leg was painfully contracted and I could see my leg muscles spasming under the skin, all freaky and alien-like. The ibuprofen I've been taking didn't even make a dent in the pain.

I found out the meaning of those "in sickness and in health" vows B and I took almost 22 years ago.  It turns out he really meant them. He cancelled all of his morning meetings and took me to the doctor.  It's normally just a 5-minute walk away but it took us about 20 minutes to cover the distance, him cracking old lady jokes and me clinging to his shoulders, holding back tears while he half-carried me into the office.

Turns out I've herniated a disc in my back or some such thing. I am now hopped up on pain meds, lying on the couch while my husband waits on me.  Seriously, this hurts.  I've pushed out babies without an epidural so I know from pain.  This is about a 9.5 on the scale o' pain, and the only reason I wouldn't classify it as a 10 is because it's only affecting half of my body.  Pushing out a baby without an epidural, by the way, is about a 9.7. But then at least you get a snuggly little baby at the end of the day.  With this, I'll just get 2 more muscle relaxers.  Which by the way, are they even working?  Because I still can't stand up without lightning bolts of pain shooting down my leg.

So, to recap: T minus 7 days until pack out, and I can't even stand up without doubling over in pain. On the plus side, though, B just made the trek to Starbucks and brought back my favorite drink. I love that man.

I wonder if we had something in our wedding vows about how to handle pack out in a situation like this.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Things I Will Miss

With less than 40 days to go, I am in that space where one is frantic at the thought of how much needs to be done to leave post, and yet - it is still too early to do all that much of it.

I peer in the storage closet and survey the towels (air freight!), the medicines (trash), soap and toothpaste (give to a neighbor), the suitcases (hide so the movers don't pack!).  But none of this can be done yet. I look in my kitchen cupboards and try to think of a recipe that might use the last can of fava beans, the dried garbanzos, the box of long-life tofu.  The piles of paper on my desk clearly need to be sorted: shred or scan?

I make lists: File insurance forms.  Email car salesmen.  Research cell phone plans.  Write final plans for each of my clients.

The list never gets shorter.

The last few weeks pass in a frantic blur of we forgot to and if only we'd....  But also.  Also, one tends to get highly annoyed those last few weeks. Why do we need to apply for exit visas, anyway? Why did they tear down the last remaining vegetable market? The traffic.  Lord help me, the traffic.  I won't miss that at all. I spent 2 hours round trip just driving one of my kids to a party last weekend. That's one way, people.  Fortunately, another parent agreed to manage pick up, because that was already more hours of my life than I cared to give to a Moscow highway traffic jam. And the bureaucracy! Just last weekend, we were informed that the Ministry of Culture plans to charge us almost $700 (plus taxes and duty) just to be allowed to export four clocks that we brought here with us two years ago. That's right: we owned them when we arrived.  Our shipping manifest clearly says so. Three of the four aren't even of Russian origin. And yet.

There are, though,  things I will miss.

My friends M and A will be moving here a few short weeks after we leave (which I guess means I will miss them too, quite literally).  Knowing that they will arrive soon has made me look around with their eyes instead of my own, trying to see what they will see when they arrive. The candy-corn-domes of St. Basil's. The White House lit up at night.  The babushki selling berries by the side of the road. Birch leaves, shiny and green against white bark, with their distinctive papery rustling at the slightest breeze.

I will miss being able to walk out my door and stroll a few short minutes to the metro, or a bus stop, taking me almost anywhere I need to go.  I will miss Dorogomilovo, my local green market, where they know me well enough now to ask if I meant to leave zucchini off my usual list.  I will miss the spice guy there, with his scoops of spices for 25 cents apiece, and the yogurt lady, who sells me homemade yogurt and cheese.

I will miss being able to walk down the Arbat, people watching and drinking coffee.  I will miss my kids' teachers, and their school in general. I will miss the vegetarian restaurant over by Patriarchs Ponds, the one I first walked to a year ago with a new friend, B. I will miss M and her husband W, who are the glue of this community, between the movie nights to which they always invite my kids, and the emergency hairstyling they are always willing to provide for special events. I'll miss H and T  and B and A and so many others. I'll miss my clients, the ones who make my days in the gym more fun. I'll miss being able to pick a scraped-up kid up off the sidewalk, dust her off and say, well, let's limp over to the doctor's office and see what they have to say about this.

For now, though, I miss none of this.  For now I am elbow deep in donating old clothes and hunting for the lids to our lego bins.  I'm trying to get the kids interested in my 15-minute drawer challenge, the one where we (okay, I) pick a drawer, set a timer, and clear that sucker out. I have a lead on a decent cell phone plan in the U.S. I'm chatting with car dealers (okay he's doing that, because yawn), narrowing down our car choices. I'm clearing bookshelves and scanning insurance records. I'm getting the whole family medically cleared to leave post, and fitting in one last dental appointment per person. (Yes. It is just as expensive to get a cavity filled in Moscow as it is in the U.S. Cash upfront and pray the insurance kicks in later.)

None of this is particularly fun.  But it's all part of the life we're leading.  You'd think I'd be a pro at it by now.  But with each successive move it gets harder and harder to pack up and move on. It helps to hang on to the things you will miss, to remember that there is a reason, after all, that we do this to ourselves. This is what makes us who we are. Boxes full of things.  Heads full of memories.

We're almost there.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016


With about 60 days to go here at post, I've been busier than ever, trying to get everything done that needs doing.

Everyday life is busy enough, with sports teams and birthday parties and music lessons and everything else that goes with being a parent. We also hosted some visitors for a few weeks, so we got to spend some time showing them our favorite places in and around Moscow.  Oh, and we made another quick trip to St. Pete, where some of us visited the Summer Palace and some of us visited the emergency room.  So that was fun, if a bit scary.

My last little baby celebrated her first Holy Communion here in Moscow just last week. I don't consider myself to be very religious despite the fact that I'm a regular churchgoer.  That said, I always tear up at events like these. There's just something about a baptism, a first communion, or any other important church moment. I always feel my grandparents hovering there - even the ones I never met - and it ties me to my roots somehow, knowing they are there watching over us. I know: it sounds weird.  But there you have it. I believe it to be true.

And she was gorgeous, in a dress made by her Nana:

The weather in Moscow has finally turned warm. The tulips are starting to push up through the earth, and the trees all sprouted leaves one day last week. I woke up at 430 this morning and it was already light out.  Odd how quickly winter turns to spring, despite the fact that it feels unending when you're in the middle of it.

We have plane tickets out of here, and we theoretically have space booked for the cat and dog as well, although I've never once had their travel work out, so fingers crossed there's a first for everything.  We have pack out dates set, though we have yet to start the purging and organizing that need to happen ahead of the day.  We are researching cars and computers and phone contracts so we can hit the ground running when we land in the States.

I suspect I won't be too sad to leave when the time comes.  I didn't make a lot of friends in the past two years, and the ones I did make are mostly leaving around the same time as we are. So there won't be much for me to miss.  But I know the kids are already having a rough time planning their goodbyes, so it'll be an emotional departure.

Less than 60 days to go before the next adventure gets underway. Time to focus...

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Two more articles

Somehow, in the bustle of ordinary life, I forgot to link to these two recent articles of mine:

The first, from Time Magazine, is about depression.

The second, also in Time, discusses the fact that infants understand more than we give them credit for.

Back soon with a real post.

Friday, March 18, 2016

To Catch a Leprechaun

If you know me at all, you know that I am not a holiday mom.

Holidays are just not my thing. I mean, I like them, sure.  But I'm not a mom who does themed birthday parties, or makes green eggs on Dr. Seuss day, or hides an elf on a shelf, or any of those other over-and-above things.

I have no problem with other moms doing those things. You want a Little Mermaid party, complete with mermaid cake topped with fondant fishies? Go for it. Is your elf layout Pinterest worthy? Great. But I lack the creativity - and the patience - to pull off those kinds of things. I know this about myself, so I don't even try to compete on that level.

In our house, even the tooth fairy is a slacker.  She seldom remembers to come the first night the tooth is under the pillow, and she never left a note in her life until the kids starting writing to her and requesting answers.

Santa does pretty well. He actually has different handwriting from mine, so they can tell it's from him and not us.  And he always shows up on time - unless the pouch mail is stuck in the States.

The Easter bunny does a great job around here.  But that's mostly because my husband is in charge of that, jelly bean trail and all.  If it were up to me, they'd get quite a bit less candy in those baskets - and more of it would be the kind of candy I could steal from them while they were away at school.  Seriously, Peeps? Waxy milk chocolate bunnies? And don't even get me started on Cadbury eggs. Disgusting. What's wrong with a simple box of Fran's dark chocolate caramels?

St. Patrick's Day is what I'd consider a Level Three holiday.  I know it exists, but it doesn't require any effort whatsoever on my part. I don't own a single item of green clothing, and I'd never drink a green beer.  It's just another day to me.

Last year, for the first time ever, my kids seemed aware of the holiday. My daughters were a bit disappointed when they came home from school that day because all of their friends were talking about the green cereal and the green milk that they'd had for breakfast, and the frosted green cakes their moms made for dessert.  Why, they wanted to know, didn't we do anything green for St. Patrick's Day? So I quickly put a drop of green food coloring in the bottom of each of their dinner glasses.  At dinner, when I poured sparkling water into the cups, the water fizzed green.  They were delighted with the magic, and so was I - such an easy trick!

This year, on the evening of the 16th, A started scrounging around for tape and boxes and scissors.

"I'm making a leprechaun trap,"  she explained.

"Hmmmm..." I replied non-commitally.  I don't even know what a leprechaun trap is.  She cut and glued and taped for a few hours while I got dinner organized and cleaned up afterwards.  Then we all went to bed and I gave the trap exactly zero thoughts.

Until the next morning, that is.

On the morning of the 17th, she ran downstairs to check the trap.  I felt a vague sense of unease as she bolted past me on the stairs.  Leprechaun trap?  Was I supposed to participate in some way in this trapping thing?

She reached the dining room, where her complex pile of boxes sat on the table, untouched by leprechaun hands.  The look of disappointment on her face just about killed me. She had apparently genuinely believed that there was going to be a leprechaun in that box when she woke up. And here I'd thought it was a mere art project. She went off to school in a foul, foul mood.

Later that morning at the gym, I told my friend AG about the morning's trauma.

"No problem," she said.  "My mom used to toss gold glitter around and tell me the leprechauns had made the mess.  You just need to find some glitter and she'll be happy."

So I posted a plea on Facebook - where else would one turn to find glitter at the last moment in Moscow? Within minutes, another friend, MP, replied that she was on her way with glitter and foil shamrocks.

Soon enough, she rang the bell (wearing a perfectly festive green coat because of course she had the right outfit, too), holding a bag of glitter, shamrocks and gold chocolate coins. And she explained to me that the trick to the leprechaun trap is that it doesn't actually catch any leprechauns.  Apparently, her daughters build a trap every year, and every year they awake to discover that once again, the leprechaun has managed to escape the trap.

"You have to destroy the trap," she explained, "so they can see that the leprechaun escaped.  Sprinkle the glitter all around. Then they'll try to figure out how to build a better trap next year."

If there's one thing I'm good at, it's destroying arts n' crafts projects.  You should see me try to make a play dough farm animal.  It's ridiculous how much effort I put into it, when the end result always looks like the same sticky blob propped on 4 smaller leg-shaped blobs.

So I destroyed the trap. I punched a hole in the side, pulled the ladder out, stole the coin and buried the whole thing in glitter.  It looked pretty good when I was done.

When A came home that night and saw the trap, she was overjoyed.  A leprechaun! She'd almost caught a leprechaun! Now she could tell Bobby at school that he was wrong when he said there's no such thing.

The only problem? Well, she reallyreally wanted to write the leprechaun a note.  I explained that it was too late - the day was almost over, and there'd be no more leprechauns for a year.

Dear reader, she wrote it anyway.

What to do? I decided that I could safely ignore the letter because the holiday was practically over.  So I left it on the table and went to bed.

March 18th. Holiday over, with only a bit of disappointment about the fact that the leprechaun didn't write back.  I'm starting to write this blog post about leprechaun traps.  I hear K from the study: "mommy, how do you spell leprechaun?"

I tell her, and go back to making dinner.

A half hour passes.  Suddenly - a bloodcurdling scream from the dining room.  It's A.  I have no idea what has happened, and I run to her in a panic.

A is standing in the middle of the room, shaking and waving a paper at me. "Sally!" she screams.  "She wrote to me! SALLY THE LEPRECHAUN WROTE TO ME!!"

I look at the paper, and sure enough, it's a note, typed in green ink, signed by Sally the leprechaun.  And it's addressed to A.  It wasn't there just an hour ago, but it's there now, no mistaking it.

A reads it aloud, and the detail is astounding.  Sally the leprechaun mentions the fishbowl in A's classroom, tells how clever she thought the trap was, and finishes by writing "tell your cool sister I really loved her leprechaun drawing."

A is thrilled.  K is standing next to her, reading over her shoulder, grinning ear to ear.

"Mom," K whispers in my ear later on, "you know it wasn't really a leprechaun who wrote that letter, right?" She smiles proudly.

Yes, K, I know.  But did you know that your little sister already wrote another note to Sally, asking for a photo?  You'd better get busy.

See that hole? I made it myself. Don't tell A, though. She thinks Sally did it.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Beijing Friends in London

There are a lot of different types of people in the Foreign Service.  Well, duh.  There are loads of types out in the world in general.  But there aren't many other places you could choose to work where you get tossed together so closely with these other types.  You don't get to choose who goes to post with you (if only!), and once you arrive, you have to find your tribe of friends from among the "types" that are already there. There are a few types who show up at every post, and your job is to sort out which of them you want to avoid. Your job is to find your tribe amongst the teeming herd of strangers.

Avoid the Complainer.  Sure, everyone complains sometimes.  But the person who never stops complaining is going to bring you down, hard.  Smile broadly when you see her coming, and refuse to engage, on any topic. The Complainer is related to the Last-Poster, the person who constantly tells you how much better life was at their last post. (Confession:  I've got quite a bit of Last-Poster in me.  What can I say? I'm working on it.) Then there's the Food Critic. She takes great pride in the fact that she only eats local food, to include scorpions, sea urchins, rooster feet or whatever revolting thing may be on the menu in your country, and she looks at you in disdain if you decline to partake. And then have you met the spouse who wants to know where your spouse works before she can decide whether you're worthy of her attention?  Best to avoid her, too.

The worst is when you meet someone you really like, but it turns out she's a Short-Timer.  If she's leaving soon, you'll never break into her orbit because she's already focused on the next place and she doesn't have any desire or need to make new friends.

No, you want to find people who arrived around the same time you did, who have kids around the same ages as yours, whose spouses work with - but probably not for - your spouse, and who are genuinely excited to be at post, hardships notwithstanding.  As for the rest of it - religious affiliation? political party? hobbies?  - you'll have to work with what you've got. Some of my oldest and best FS friends are what I would describe as "conservative Christian" - pretty much the opposite of me in terms of world view.  And yet we had so much fun together at post, arguing politics as we explored our new city together. They were smart about their views, as I am about mine, so we could discuss big topics in a way I can't with most people. They ended up becoming the godparents to our second child, and we've stayed in touch ever since.

The staying in touch thing?  That's really really hard.  There are always seasonal friends - the ones you bond with at post but then drift away from afterwards, until you can't even quite remember their names.  But if you're lucky, and you work at it, you'll end up making a few lifelong friends every time you move to a new post.

For me, Beijing was the place where I acquired the biggest pile of lifelong friends.  The stars just lined up there: a solid group of people arrived at the same time as I did.  Our spouses all knew each other, our kids all played together, we started Chinese language classes together, we lived just a few doors down from one another.

Then there was the fact that Beijing was a hard place to live. The language, the pollution, the size of the city, the fact of never being able to blend in, of being constantly watched, and photographed, and criticized.  You try learning to drive in a city of almost 12 million people, with multi-lane highways and road signs you can't read. Chances are you'll bond pretty hard with the person who is brave enough to navigate from the passenger seat. That time J and I made a wrong turn and ended up trapped in a closed-off bike lane, driving the minivan about 2 miles an hour behind an old guy on a three-wheeled bike? Well, it was the first time I'd ever tried to drive in downtown Beijing, and the two of us are still laughing about it all these years later.  I made a lifelong friend that day, along with starting a string of traffic tickets.  J's the person who went with me to pay those tickets when the time came, too.

M was new to post - she and I were still getting to know each other that day when she burst into my house, frantic and barefoot, carrying a critically sick baby in her arms. She brought him in and I talked her down as we tried to summon emergency help, together. We don't really talk much about that day, but it's there, between us.

When I brought my baby home from the hospital, S was the one who showed up to rock her so I could get some rest.  She was the one who lined up her kids as babysitters when I needed a break.  And, because she's forgotten more about fashion than I'll ever know, she was the one who helped me navigate the tailors and the fabric stores and the jewelry makers.

When J lost the baby, sweet baby Lily, the rest of us sat with her and held her hand, looking at the tiny newborn pictures and crying with her. When I lost my hearing - a small thing compared to losing a baby - these women brought casseroles for the family while I was on medevac. Later on, when the deaf thing became a part of who I was rather than a medical emergency, these women helped me find ways to make it funny.

So many things about Beijing made it the hardest place I've ever lived.  But having people to share the hardship with? That made it one of the best places I've ever lived.  People always ask me: would you go back there?  I'd go visit, sure.  But to live? Absolutely not.  I feel fortunate to have escaped with most of my health still intact. Also, there's the fact that it wouldn't be the same without my tribe, and I have no interest in starting over without those ladies by my side.

Last week I flew to London, where I met up with M, J and S - three of my closest Beijing friends.  One lives in London now.  Another is elsewhere in Europe. And the third recently moved back to the States from South America.

It's been a long while since we've seen each other.  The last time I saw J was when we hugged goodbye in her driveway in Shunyi, back in 2010. Yet we picked up right where we left off, with laughter and "remember whens?".

We wandered around London, hitting a few major sites like Kensington Palace, Big Ben and Covent Gardens. But mostly what we did was find a cozy table in a pub somewhere, eating (and eating! and eating!), drinking and reminiscing.  We weren't speaking Chinese, but what we were saying surely sounded like a foreign language to everyone within earshot.  Jenny Lou's.  The Nut Hut.  The Dooz. Remember the restaurant with the tiny little plates?  The guy with the x-rated DVD shop? The dead watch batteries? The dead car battery.  Sunny Gold Uggs. The Elvira hairdo.  The bozo tie at the Marine Ball. The ball pit.  Hungry Horse.  The smell of Pinnacle Plaza on a smoggy morning. The seizure. The ambulance ride. That one weird neighbor. Topless Euros at the kiddie pool.

I haven't laughed so hard, or so inappropriately, in a long, long time.

They bring out the best in me, these friends of mine.  S is the same age as me, but she's more like a wise older sister: calm, steady, always there to listen when you need to talk. You will never hear a critical word about anyone come out of her mouth. Steadfast in her faith but never preachy.  She is someone whose path never would've crossed mine in the States. But I am a better person because of her example.  M is a tough woman: fierce, smart and sometimes raunchily inappropriate. It takes a long time to break through that exterior and get her to admit her weaknesses, but once you're in, you're in.  You'll feel as though you've earned that friendship, because she doesn't pass it out to just anyone. J can make anybody laugh. Even when she's wading through the toughest times possible, she's still smiling. She wears all of her emotions on her (always fashionable) sleeve, and she's not afraid to make a fool of herself. She taught me the art of being silly and not giving a damn whether the rest of the world likes it. And me? I am braver, goofier, smarter and kinder than I used to be because these women made me so.

Thank you, my friends.  I'm so lucky that the stars lined up and brought you all to my Chinese doorstep. Let's not wait so long for the next reunion.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Peredelkino Writers' Colony

Take Kutuzovsky Prospect - a ten-lane, traffic-choked boulevard - about 10 miles out of Moscow, hang a left, and you'll find yourself suddenly and unexpectedly in the middle of a forest, surrounded by dachas (Russian summer cottages).

You're in the Peredelkino writers' colony.

I'm not sure how many writers actually live and work there these days, but back in the last century it was home to several famous writers, and that's why we made the short trek out there last weekend.

Our first stop was the Pasternak dacha, home to Boris Pasternak (known to most Americans as the writer of Doctor Zhivago). If you're a fan of Russian literature, you absolutely must make a stop here.

It was a neat little house. Pasternak lived there in the 1950s -  he died there in 1960 and was buried in a cemetery just down the road. The house was left pretty much just as it looked when he died, right down to the ancient (still working) refrigerator and an old Soviet tube television set. 

He has kind of a sad little history.  He was announced as the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 - there is a photograph in the dining room showing him as he received the news and was giving a toast - but he was forced by the Soviet government to turn down the prize. He fell in love and began a relationship with Olga Ivinskaya while he was married to Zinaida Pasternak (his second wife).  The guide talked of their great love for one another but that, quite frankly, depressed me a little bit.  I mean, nobody mentioned the wife, who was stuck with him until he died even though he was in love with somebody else.  His lover spent quite a few years in a prison camp because of her relationship with him - the government saw her as a way to get to him.

All quite depressing really.

But the house was beautiful.  Quiet, simple, unadorned.  When we visit the house-museums of Russian writers, I always like to see the desks where the writers worked, just to get a sense of their personalities.  His office was austere, but I liked it.

The view of the dacha from the main road.

... and up close.

The office where Pasternak worked.

Soviet tube television.  Our guide said she'd had one of these as a girl.  Apparently you fill up the glass front with water to make the image on the screen appear bigger.

Pasternak's death mask.

Smiling.  They survived the tour, with all of the talk of Soviet repression, and prison camps, and awards turned down, and cancer, and death.

Next stop:  the dacha of children's writer Kornei Chukovsky, just down the road. Now this place was seriously cool.

All Russians know Kornei Chukovsky from childhood.  I guess he's sort of their version of Dr. Seuss.  There were bunches of kids at his dacha, taking tours and running around on the grounds.  The vibe was totally different from Pasternak's place.  It wasn't pristine and quiet.  It was a bit chaotic, eclectic, books everywhere, children's toys, fun decorations. 

That's the shoe tree behind the kids, in front of the dacha. The idea of the shoe tree comes from one of Chukovsky's famous stories. As I recall, it's a tree upon which grow shoes, not fruit.

Shoe tree up close.

Running in the yard behind the house.

A lamp in his office, painted with images from his stories.

Chukovsky's work space.

"What's that?" A wanted to know.  "A telephone? But? How does it work?"

From there we went to the nearby church complex housing the Patriarch's dacha for some tea and a quick look around.

And finally, we stopped at the cemetery next to the church, where both Pasternak and Chukovsky are buried. It was quiet - we were the only visitors, perhaps because everyone else knew the paths were covered in slick sheets of ice. Really treacherous in places.

Pasternak's simple tombstone, which is said to change in appearance as the light changes during the day.  His wife is buried to the right. No idea where his mistress ended up.
...up close.

Tombstones for Chukovsky and his wife.  One of their daughters, Lydia, herself a famous writer, is buried right next to them.

Monday, February 22, 2016

St. Petersburg weekend

The kids had a week off of school. (Again! They are forever getting holidays over here...) All of their friends were planning to spend the week touring exotic places like Thailand, Prague and Morocco.  We are in save-for-the-states mode, so we're not going anywhere that fancy any time soon.  We decided that a quick trip to St. Petersburg would be more in the financial realm of possibility, and so, two days ahead of the holiday, we swung into action and bought train tickets.

The Sapsan train is great.  It's a high-speed train, hitting speeds over 200 km/hr, so it only takes 4 hours to get to St. Pete from here. It's clean, it's comfy, it's easy - so much better than the overnight trains we used to take all those years ago - and it costs a bit over $100 per person.

B has some friends in St. Pete, and when we told them where we were planning to stay, one of them said, "No, no. let me make the reservations for you. I know a place." And that is how we ended up forking over about $450 dollars for one night in a two-bedroom suite at the Astoria, a 5-star hotel directly across the street from St. Isaac's Cathedral.

Okay, so $450 isn't cheap.  But we would have needed 2 separate rooms at the other hotel, which was perfectly serviceable, if a bit less conveniently located. So we were already planning on spending around $250 over there, plus cab fare to get around town.  We decided to splurge, because when will get a chance to do this again? And it was just one night after all.

Well, perhaps because it's slow season for tourists over here and the hotel wasn't full, or perhaps because B's friend is more well-connected that we know, we showed up at the hotel to discover that we'd been upgraded.  Same price, but they put us in the presidential suite.

You guys.  I've been in exactly one hotel room ever that was fancier than this (the Mandarin Oriental in San Francisco, if you must know, for a business trip, when I was also upgraded to some crazy fancy suite because of how much money my company was spending to be there one week long ago).  The room was beautiful. Correction: the rooms were beautiful. An entry hall, a dining area, a sitting room, and two bedrooms, each with an amazing view of the city below.

K feeling posh as she admires the fruit platter and chocolates in one (yes, one) of the living areas between the bedrooms.

The view from my bedroom in our suite. St. Isaac's, the fourth largest cathedral in the world and the largest orthodox cathedral anywhere.

More to the point, the hotel staff were awesome.  Seriously awesome.  When they did the turndown service in the evening, they left milk and cookies for each of the kids, plus little stuffed dogs on all of their pillows.  They were so kind to the girls, bringing them chocolates and chatting with them as we waited for our ride back to the train station the second day.

Totally worth the splurge.  Except I wish we'd stayed long enough to try out their spa.  It was definitely different from the living accommodations in my old dorm, just a few minute's walk down the road.

So anyway.  Stay in the Astoria if you get a chance. You will love it.  On to our trip, though.

We left our bags and ventured out. ("Why can't we just stay in the hotel, mom? Pleeeease??")

We walked and walked and walked some more, down the canals, past my old dormitory and on into Starbucks, because it was seriously cold and I needed tea! Then on to the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood, and then still further, to a vegetarian restaurant that we discovered the last time we went to St. Pete.  There was a serious lot of walking involved.

Kids at the beginning of our walk, in front of St. Isaac's.  Still smiling.

A, in front of Kazanskii Sobor, trying to recover from the massive meltdown she had when I wouldn't buy her a gold coin in Starbucks. Seriously, kid. Isn't cocoa enough?

Made it to the Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood. K isn't in the picture because by now she was angry about some random thing. Isn't traveling with kids fun?

Us. Happy.

After an early dinner, we walked back along the canals to the Faberge Museum. We didn't get tickets in advance because somebody didn't get her act together to buy them before they sold out.  I'm not going to say whose fault that was, but let me say in her defense that she had an appointment to get her hair cut for the first time in months and she figured she could buy the tickets when she got back from the appointment but apparently the museum is super popular so it sold out by mid-morning but her hair looks great so it all worked out in the end.

(Unless you count the fact that we had to stand in line for an hour to buy tickets to get in. Bygones.)

The museum is not big - it takes longer to buy tickets than it does to walk through it.  But it is so worth a visit.  They have a collection of jeweled Faberge eggs, which were made for Tsars Alexander and Nicholas before the Russian Revolution. The museum also houses dishes, silver and other interesting items. And the building itself, the Shuvalov Palace, is amazing - a pre-revolutionary mansion that was beautifully preserved. 

The next day, we walked to the (mercifully much closer) Central Naval Museum.  We'd never been before, but it was recommended to us by some colleagues at the Consulate.  And it was great. We spent the whole morning there and could have stayed longer.  All of the kids were riveted.  The museum houses Peter the Great's own boat - the first boat of the Russian Navy.  It continues on through the centuries, exhibiting weaponry and uniforms from Peter the Great's time up through modern times. It was a huge space, with multiple galleries.  If you ever get a chance to go, do it. But note that there is no signage is English.  If you don't speak Russian, you'll be guessing at what you're looking at.  It's tricky even if you do speak Russian - some of technical language in the displays was a bit beyond my reach.

Peter the Great's boat.

There were huge figureheads from ancient boats displayed along the walls of the main hall. Creepy and cool.

That's it. We ran out of time and trotted back to our hotel to pick up our luggage and catch a cab to the train station. While we waited for the cab, the hotel staff served us mint tea and fancy little cookies on china from the Imperial Porcelain Factory.

Four-plus hours later, we were back to reality here in Moscow. No more fancy china.  No more homemade chocolates.  Just grilled cheese, veggies and a pile of laundry before bedtime.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

If you don't have anything nice to say...

Yes, I know, I've been unusually quiet over here.

But like your mother told you: if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.

And I have nothing nice to say about the dark cold days of winter here in Moscow.

I saw the sun maybe twice in January? Even then it was so low in the sky as to be nearly invisible, nothing more than a watery greyish orb trying to poke through the cloud cover just above the grey and beige rooftops.

Now, there are people who say all of this cold and dark doesn't bother them.

I am not one of those people.

There aren't enough vitamin D pills in the world to stop me from sinking into - well, not depression exactly. More like malaise. I wander the world, tired and grumpy and sad, eating every bit of sugar and fat that comes my way. Which of course only makes me tired-er and grumpier.

The only thing that cheers me up is working out hard. But there are only so many hours a day you can spend in the gym. Eventually you have to get out of the weight room and go to the grocery store, where the Doritos call to you from across the twilight expanse of shelves.

The kids get on the school bus in the dark.

The kids get off the school bus - at 4pm! - in the dark.

It is always either dark or getting dark. Dusk. Darkish. Twilight. Bleak.

But then, within a matter of days in February, the world starts shifting on its axis and the days grow longer with a speed that doesn't seem possible.  One day it is dark when you leave the house in the morning to go to the gym. The next day - you can see the sky.

And then, today, there was this:

The view from my living room: the Russian White House.

Blue skies! Sunshine! Granted, it was 19 degrees Fahrenheit this morning, so it's no Hawaii, but still - it's a literal light at the end of my Moscow tunnel.

And suddenly I am feeling healthy and hopeful.

It's a wakeup call for me, though.

All winter, my husband has been trying to get me to leave the house and go on adventures with him.  I've been coming up with every excuse I can muster to not leave the house, much to his chagrin. (What can I say? He's a New Yorker. I'm from Los Angeles. We're practically not even the same species.)

It's time to give up the excuses and get outside. We only have 19 more weekends left in Moscow.  19 weekends to see the last places on our list, or to re-visit our favorites. That's not a lot of time at all, especially when you consider that a large chunk of that time has to be spent preparing to leave: enrolling in new schools, organizing home leave, figuring out how to ship the pets, culling our belongings so we're within weight...

It hasn't been all Dorito dust and sadness around here! We took a great - if too-quick - trip to Petersburg last weekend, so I'll try to get those pictures up shortly. We've taken a few trips around town (my husband lures me outdoors with the promise of coffee or lunch I don't have to make myself...). We've had some fun movie nights and game nights with the kids. The girls and I are slowly making our way through the Little House series of books.

(And may I say it's a whole different experience reading those books as an adult? As a child, I loved reading about her adventures. As a parent, I'm horrified by how close they came to dying, so many times. As a wife, I'm amazed at the bottomless levels of patience Laura's mom had. And as a person living in Moscow during the winter, I realize I have absolutely no reason to ever complain about being cold or tired when I read about the things they had to do to survive that long winter.)

So that's it: our 2016 so far. I'm heading outside to turn my face up at the sun for awhile.  Enjoy your day, wherever you are. I hope you have some sunshine too.

Please. Write your own stuff.