The writing's on the wall. Except, it's not.

>> Tuesday, 23 September 2014

We are considering a move back to the UK within the next year.  Nothing's certain, but in an effort to have all our ducks in a row in case we do relocate, Boys #1 and #2 need to get ready for entrance exams to possible new schools.

This presents any number of challenges, but one of the main ones to exercise my mind at present is teaching them how to write.

Yes, of course they can write; let me explain...

Their current school is very keen on IT, to the extent that Boy #1 in Grade 5 should already have access to his own laptop (he doesn't - but only because we haven't got round to sorting that out yet), and every child aged 7 upwards has access to an iPad in class.  Developing the children's typing skills is seen as being equally - if not more so - important as their being able to write continuously for 20 minutes or more.

Now, I am all about new technology; you're reading this on a blog, after all.  But for some time I've thought that being able to write a side of A4 - definitely for a 10/11 year old - should be a basic skill and one that most children should be able to deliver.  I've thought it, yes - but until this summer I didn't do anything about it.

Cut to the end of the summer term this year, when it suddenly became clear that if we want our Boys to have the chance to enter one of three schools in the area we may move to, they are both going to need to sit entrance exams.  Separate ones, for each school.  And separate papers, for each school.

Which, as I discovered when visiting the schools in June, will not be on a computer.  (Well, of course they won't.)

You might not think this would be much of a problem.  Surely filling in any holes in their learning from having been taught a different curriculum should be the main thing?  Actually, there are fewer holes than you might imagine, but in any case, that's not my prime concern.  Because it doesn't matter how much they learn about paragraphs, punctuation, fractions, long division, or creative writing if they can't actually sit and write about these things for more than 5 minutes at a time.  And until June of this year - when their school holidays started and Evil Mummy stepped in to make sure that they actually just sat. And. Wrote. for longer and longer periods of time, - my two boys were unable to do that.

Writing for extended periods of time takes muscles, you see; something that we adults, used to doing everything online nowadays, tend to forget.  And these muscles are different to the ones we use when tapping away on a keyboard.  And as I discovered in June, Boys #1 and #2 were, until recently, physically incapable of just sitting and writing for more than a few minutes of time without developing muscle fatigue.

So, we've been working on it at home.  But that's not enough, and today I had to go into school and meet both their teachers and explain exactly why it was that some of the online homework they are being set will be coming back in their notebooks - hand-written - from now on.  And I could see, in my separate conversations with them, that the teachers were struggling to understand why this was, so I decided to set it out simply for them.

Here's an abridged version of those two conversations.

Both boys will need to sit entrance exams.  Yes, that they understood.  Both boys will need to sit different exams for up to 3 schools.  Yeeees...  That's three different lots of exams.  Yeees...  Times 3 sets of papers, for each.  Okaaaayyy...  Each paper lasting between 30 minutes and one hour, depending on the school.  Riiiiggght.   (The penny was starting to drop).  So if, as is possible, they sit the exams all in the same week (to avoid our having to fly backwards and forwards and to minimise the amount of time they were out of their current school), they would need to have the muscle strength to sit and write for up to an hour continuously more than 6 times in the same week.

Cue panic in the teachers' eyes as they both realised how far removed that is from what they are currently teaching their class.

And, more than likely, cue a slight change in how they ask my children to deliver their homework.

Boys #1 and #2 will be SO pleased with me...




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Piano man

>> Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Here's a very middle-class statement for you: we had the piano tuned recently - as you do.

Apparently this is a yearly necessity here in Moscow, where the central heating and dry atmosphere play havoc with most wood-based instruments*.  Given that in addition to these problems it was manhandled to a different room - twice - over the summer, left unattended in a houseful of workmen for 6 weeks (more of which another time), and that the humidifier Boy #2's piano teacher recommended we buy to keep it in good condition has been sitting in a cupboard after I used it for a week only to realise it was making everything in the room damp (go figure), my hopes for a speedy visit from the piano tuner were not high.

Natalya** the Piano Teacher had assured me that we should probably expect the tuner to need to stay for at least an hour and a half, perhaps longer, so I told Husband - who was the one due to be in the house at the time - to Be Prepared.

However, the Tuner was in and out in around half an hour, and even passed on to Natalya how impressed he'd been by the state the piano was in (he had been the person who originally tuned it for us after it was delivered a year ago).  She herself was surprised, and wondered why that was.

Oh, that's easy, I told her.  It's because of the heating.  You know how you, Natalya, are always complaining that our house is too cold in the winter? (We keep it at around 20degC; warmer than the 18degC my parents used to set their thermostat to when I was growing up in a draughty and badly-insulated but completely charming mill house, but significantly cooler than the at least 24 - 25degC most Russians favour in winter).  Yes... she answered, perhaps knowing what was coming next.  Well, that's why the piano is in better condition than expected, I continued.  Because it's not subjected to such extremes of temperature.

Interesting, answered Natalya.  You might have something there.

Of course, neither of us mentioned what we both knew was the real reason for the piano's relative tunefulness.  

Outside of his hour-long lessons, Boy #2 does a grand total of 20 minutes practice a week (and even that is an improvement on his previous record).

Of course it wasn't out of tune;  the damn thing hardly ever gets played...


*and, fyi, furniture.  If you're considering moving to Moscow, leave your much-loved antiques and inherited tables etc back home.  Yet another reason why Ikea is the decorative choice of so many expats here...

** Not her real name, which is at least as Russian as that, if not more so

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Am I back? Well, sort of...

>> Friday, 22 August 2014

The holidays are over (for us, anyway), the Potski family are back in Moscow, and Boys #1 and #2 are back in school which, after 9 weeks with them 24/7 is - I have to admit - a bit of relief.

It's not that I don't enjoy spending time with my children, you understand.

Just that it's quite nice have a bit of time myself.

I have a long list of stuff I need to get sorted, not least of which is editing Draft #1 of The Great Work*, and which I have promised myself I will have finished by the end of September.  There's other stuff happening too; planning for the future, putting the pieces in place to make that future possible, and of course, losing the holiday weight.

I know, I know.  You're supposed to lose weight over the summer months, not gain it, but put yourself in my shoes; I live in Moscow.  7 weeks of being away from Russia and the somewhat limited treats available here and then, come the end of June, being thrown into a life where suddenly fresh French bread and croissants are on the table every day for breakfast, delicious Dutch deep fried treats are available as appetisers to accompany all that gorgeous and reasonably priced wine back in the EU, not to mention un-fettered access to Green & Black's salted milk chocolate when we were in the UK...  It was never going to end well, was it?


*Not its' real title, obv...

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No words needed for this one, I think...

>> Tuesday, 15 July 2014

















Oh, and whilst I'm at it, no filter needed on this photo, either...

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Today's definition of 'Embarrassment'...

>> Tuesday, 8 July 2014

We are in the Netherlands at the moment, and both the boys are at (field) hockey camp.

Note:  I put the 'field' there in brackets for readers who might think I was talking about ice (ice) hockey.  I'm not.  Yes, there IS another game using sticks with 'hockey' in the name...

Yesterday, the weather was glorious; 21degC, sunshine, a few clouds; perfect hockey weather, but today we have driving rain.  Undaunted by that, the coaches at the camp have the children outside doing circuits, playing games and practicing.  I shouldn't know that, of course.  I should have dropped the boys off at 9.00am, hung around for a few minutes to let them show off some of their newly acquired skills from yesterday, and then come back to where we're staying to spend the day working on The Novel (first draft now finished - let the hard work begin).  However, as I turned to leave, Boy #1 admitted tearfully that he had forgotten his mouthguard; rather than returning it to its' case in his rucksack at the end of yesterday's session, he had tucked it into his sock (because, duh, where else would you put it?), and then left it on the shelf in their bedroom when he got changed at the end of the day.

When I was playing hockey at school, mouthguards didn't exist.  We just, you know, played.  In fact, at school, we didn't even wear shinguards.   Man, those balls hurt when they hit your ankle bone, I can tell you...  However, time moves on and mouthguards on a hockey pitch are now just as important as helmets are on a ski slope and the kids aren't allowed to play without them, so disregarding my feelings of despair at our nanny state*, I drove the 20 minutes home again to fetch Boy #1's.

Obviously, I couldn't find it.

This necessitated a trip to a sports store to buy a new one which I then took back to the hockey camp where one of his trainers kindly fitted it for him, no doubt doing a much better job than I would have, what with her actually having used one herself and everything.

So yes, on my return to the club I saw the kids outside in the drizzle, playing hockey.  Good for them, I thought, and headed off for the second time.  But that's not why I'm writing this post.  After finally reaching home an hour and a half later than planned I was happily working my way through my inbox (yes, I know I was supposed to be working on The Novel, but displacement activity is All), when the phone rang and the camp supervisor's number popped up.

Oh god.

Which child has taken a ball in the face / broken their leg / been whacked round the head by a stick, I wondered nervously as I answered it.

Neither, as it turned out.  The camp supervisor told me that Boy #2 wanted to talk to me, and put him on the phone.  I readied myself for a tirade of 'I'm wet / it's raining / I want to come home / have you bought me a model boat yet?' and instead heard this:  "I thought you were going to put 3 cookies in my lunchbox.  I only found one.  Did you forget?"

I'm not sure who was more embarrassed: the camp supervisor for calling me (she hadn't known what Boy #2's question was going to be and thought it was probably something VERY important), or me, for raising a child for whom a shortfall in the number of cookies in his lunchbox was so distressing.


*Yes, I KNOW I would be singing a different song if the Boys came home missing a tooth because they weren't wearing a mouthguard.  Say it with me; mouthguards are a good thing.  It's just that, well...

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Are you an expat who needs a new UK passport next year? Apply now...

>> Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Inspired by today's story in The Times and on the BBC of claims by the UK Passport Office that there is 'no backlog in processing applications', here's a little tale of what has been occupying me for the last 3 months; applying for and waiting for a new passport.

Passports are important if you're an expat.  Not only do you - obviously - need one if you are travelling, but here in Russia you need one to carry out practically any transaction where you are using a card to pay, whenever you are driving a car, if you want to use the bureau de change, whenever you visit an office building or an embassy, if you are required to show id by a police or security officer, if you want an official service of any kind, and so on.  Basically, you have to carry it with you 24/7.  Of course you can take a photocopy with you and show that instead, but often that won't cut it and you'll be refused entry or whatever service you're requesting.

So yes, having a working passport is important here, and I needed a new one for this year's residency visa.  It should have been a piece of cake.  But - oh foolish me - I decided to apply for my new passport remotely, via the British Consulate here in Moscow.  We'd done it twice before, when the Boys' passports needed renewing, and in each case it took 3 weeks - definitely manageable.  Or so I thought.  What I didn't know was that applications from outside the UK, instead of being handled in a centre in Frankfurt Germany, which is where they had previously been processed (and which was where my sons' new passports were produced in the past), are now all being sent to a centre in the UK.  To save costs.

I'm guessing you can see where this is going.


Week 1.  I take my application into the Moscow British Consulate.  They accept the application and tell me it will leave in the diplomatic bag and go straight to the processing centre in the UK.  It could take up to 6 weeks for my new passport to reach me, they inform me, but I've allowed for that - and more - and since I'm allowed to keep my old passport (without the corners being clipped), I'm not too bothered.  They also inform me that at any point over the next couple of weeks, my passport will be electronically cancelled, so I shouldn't travel until my new documents arrive.  Also not a problem - I was expecting this and have allowed for that too.

I subsequently discover that the passport leaves the Consulate and arrives at the UK Passport Office in Liverpool only 3 days later, where it goes straight to the Examiner, which is where all the facts are checked and the application is processed.  And this is where the fun begins.

I sit tight for the next 3 weeks to give the process time, until...

Week 4.  I know it's early, but since my sons' applications were returned to me within that time frame (the most recent one being only 18 months ago) I decide to call the UK Passport Office to check on my applications' progress.  They inform me resignedly that I should leave it another week as the application hasn't yet hit the electronic registering system.

Week 5.  I call back.  The application has been registered, which is when I discover that the British Consulate has done me proud in speedily submitting my application.  I also discover that the Passport Office has not done, well, anything really.  Nothing has happened to my application since they received it (it was probably in that boardroom The Times was talking about, at the bottom of an archive box).  They suggest I call back next week when there should be more news.

Week 6.  I call back.  No progress.

Week 7.  I call again.  No progress.  The advice centre puts me through to a second department - the Progress Section - where I am told that no, there has been no progress with my application.  But they will check with the Examiners's office, and someone will call me back within 72 hours.

Week 8.  No call, and no progress - see Week 7, rinse and repeat, with the added fun of a conversation where I am told that the Passport Office is still within their required guidelines because the website warns an application can take at least 6 weeks to process.  I point out that since there is no end-date stated on the website, they could take 2 years and still be within their guidelines.  I can hear the metaphorical shrug on the end of the phone because, well, what am I going to do about it?

(On each occasion I followed the prompts on the automated ansaphone system and was put on hold for at least 20 minutes.  Bear in mind, I was calling a UK number from Moscow, Russia.  And no, you can't track international applications electronically - you have to use the call centre.  Thank god for Skype).

Week 9.  No progress.  Our visa runs out in 4 weeks time, so I decide to cancel my application and book an appointment at the office in London to do it in person.  The person on the advice line tells me that if I do, I will lose the £160 I have already paid, and will not get it back.  I mentally add that amount to the cost of the telephone calls (at this stage, about £60), the cost of the return flight, and the £135 I will have to pay to get the same day service at the Victoria Passport Office, but decide that in light of our looming visa deadline, I will have to suck it up.

I make an appointment in the UK.  The first one available is in 2 weeks time, so I go with that and start looking at flights, before calling to cancel my application.

I am then informed that I cannot cancel my application over the phone.  I have to put it in writing, and no, an email or a fax won't do; it has to be a written letter - giving reasons for the cancellation - through the post.  I point out that since I'm in Russia with a famously bad postal system, it could take a letter 2 weeks to reach them, but they won't budge.  So I write them the letter, print it out, sign it, scan it in, and email it to my parents in the UK who print it out again and send it next day delivery to the Passport Office on my behalf.

Week 10.  I chase via the two teams - advice line and Progress Section - in the UK. I am told someone will call me back within 72 hours - at which point I mention that I've been told that twice before and never heard anything.  24 hours later I get an email with a scanned in copy of a signed letter informing me that my letter has been received but that if I want, my application can be processed the next day. (Do I want?  Um, yes...)  However, to do this, I should give them a UK address if I want it sent out quickly.  I write back saying well then, in that case please don't cancel the application (again via a printed out, signed and then scanned-in letter emailed to my parents, who print it out again, and send it via next day delivery), and ask them to send the new passport to my parent's address in the UK.

Week 11.  I receive another letter via email telling me that now I need to send them an explanation of why the address I have requested the passport be sent to (my parents') is different to the one on my original application.  At this point I refrain from writing back in printed capitals BECAUSE I APPLIED IN MOSCOW AND YOU JUST ASKED ME FOR A UK ADDRESS, STUPID!' and write much the same thing but without the capital letters, the 'STUPID', or the exclamation mark.  Thankfully, I am informed that at this stage they will accept an email from me so I don't have to go through the printing out, signing, scanning etc nonsense yet again.

And then I hear nothing.  After 2 days I call the number on the letter and after holding for 1 hour (from Russia - watch those costs build up...), I finally get through to the right person.  He has received my letter and will print the passport the next day but how do I want to receive it; to my parents, or to the British Consulate in the diplomatic bag?  Bearing in mind that if it goes to my parents I can't actually travel to collect it (due to that annoying little fact they have cancelled the passport I do have, so won't be allowed back into the UK), and that if they send it to me via DHL or similar it might be with me in 5 days, but it might also take 3 weeks (as a delivery sent to us did recently), I decide it's probably best to go with the diplomatic bag option.  This is on Wednesday.  The bag arrives once a week at the Moscow consulate, on a Tuesday, so I figure that should allow the passport enough time to be sent within the UK and still arrive in Russia for Tuesday Week 12.

Tuesday Week 12.  There is no passport for me in this week's diplomatic bag.  The very helpful lady at the consulate - who knows our timings - is practically in tears when she calls to tell me.  I, on the other hand, have run out of tears by this stage.  We make an appointment for first thing Wednesday the following week for me to collect it, and I resign myself to a last minute panic.  Our visas run out Friday of the following week, which bearing in mind there is a 2 day bank holiday on the Thursday and Friday, gives us one day to process our new visas.

Tuesday Week 13.  My passport has arrived - yippee.  I rush in to collect it, and we tear over to the correct agency to get the visas processed on the last day possible.  Except, we find out the next day that it isn't - possible.  There is not enough time.  Consequently, we now need to leave the country at our own expense, fly back to the UK to get tourist visas and - oh, I'm just sick of the whole bloody thing.

And you know what?  I know of at least 5 other expat families in my circle of acquaintances alone who are going through similar problems - not just in Russia, but elsewhere too.

Excuse me then if I say that any suggestion the UK Passport Office is not experiencing a backlog in applications is a load of shit.







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In the presence of greatness...

>> Wednesday, 4 June 2014

My sister (the former blogger known as Footballer's Knees who now confines her brilliance to outpourings on fb) is - undoubtedly, indisputably and without question - a genius.  Don't believe me?  Read this...

I’m having a bad day.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Your Facebook updates and posts now postpone,
Bring out the tweezers and the bleach with care,
For on my chin I found an enormous white hair.
Let the bikini orders and spray tans be cancelled,
The foot spa and pedicure kit dismantled,
Book that long appointment with the beauty specialist,
And the extra time with the behavioural therapist
For my bikini line is bound North, my youth gone West,
My cleavage moved South with my sagging breast,
My skin, my hair have had their final swan song,
I thought that youth would last forever: I was wrong.
The efforts are not needed now: give up on each one;
Pack up the diet books and unlock Big Al’s gun,
Pour away the miso soup and bring out the gin,
For nothing now can bring back my smooth and hairless chin.

P.S. I may have borrowed a little from WH Auden.

Note:  those unfamiliar with WH Auden but who have seen 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' may know the poem from that movie.  And whilst I've included a link to the right scene, I don't recommend you click on it unless you fancy inducing a maudlin mood...)

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