>> Wednesday, 29 June 2011
This post is for Wk 64 of Tara's Gallery (click here to see the other entries). The prompt this week is 'My Weekend'.
My parents live about 6 miles from Glastonbury, where right now the festival is in full swing. I can hear the music - even from inside their house - like the noise of distant thunder. I wonder, what must it be like to live closer? Perhaps the locals relocate for the duration, like families I know of in Notting Hill who decamp during Carnival; what seemed a selling point when they moved, young, free and single, into their cool west London pads rapidly turning into a living nightmare when they found themselves trapped inside their home with buggies and young children for 3 straight days at the end of August every year.
Being an expat can do strange things to a person, I've discovered. This time last year, I attended the end of year 'Ringing of the Bell' ceremony at the Boys' school, and last week I did so again (for yes, believe it or not we have already reached the end of term. Read it and weep, sisters; we have 10 weeks of summer holiday to get through. My joy knows no bounds...).
In case the unobtrusive 'See you a CyberMummy 2011' logo on the top of the right-hand sidebar of this blog hasn't given it away, I'm off to CyberMummy 2011 next weekend. Check out the BritMums blog to find out why...
... teenage humour never changes.
Not long ago I found myself in the unusual position of being driven to the airport by an English-speaking taxi driver. Unusual, because many people here don't speak English and consequently - with my dreadful Russian - I don't get to chat to many Russians outside my normal everyday life. I can negotiate my way through standard tasks of course, but I don't get the chance to have those 'you'll never guess who I had in the back of my cab...' conversations that seem par for the course for many taxi drivers back home.
My dad sent me this* (click on it to increase the size to make it easier to read). It's hilarious if you live somewhere as an expat or indeed interact with people of virtually any nationality other than British. We - the Brits - tend to use our Mother Tongue in what I will (politely) call a very subtle manner, and that can make conversation with us difficult, as a non-British person talking to you often has no idea of the unwritten translation of what we are actually saying.
We tried out a new babysitter this week. Normally our cleaner comes over to look after the Boys for us if we need help; she's good with them, they like her, and she knows where everything is so it's all simple. On this evening, however, I decided to try something different, and asked the 16 year old son of one of our neighbours if he would like to look after the boys for us.
I'm not - as you will see - particularly good at filming.
As a rule, I don't write contentious posts, at least - I don't think I do. The reason for that is simple, and it's not that I don't have any contentious thoughts and opinions. Of course I do, just like everyone else. Normally, however, I keep them to myself and keep the content on this blog 'U' rated, especially since I moved here. Don't rock the boat, keep your head below the parapet, don't -whatever you do - call attention to yourself from parties you would prefer not be looking at what you write. That's my mantra, and whilst it's sometimes stifling I stick to it for the good of my family.
One evening a couple of weeks back, a Russian friend stood in our dining room and looked through the window at Boys #1 and #2 on the terrace outside.
“I like to think of myself as pretty broad-minded” she said. “But I’m really uncomfortable with what I’m seeing right now.”
I knew exactly what she was going to say next. And it wasn’t that my children are badly in need of haircut (which they are), or that they were still up and out of bed at 8pm on a school night. Still, I didn’t want to embarrass her by assuming she fit a lazy cultural stereotype, so I asked what it was that was upsetting her so much.
“They’re in short-sleeved, short-trousered pyjamas! They have no dressing gowns, no socks, and no slippers! Aren’t you worried they will catch cold?”
And there we have it. One of the biggest differences between Western European and Russian styles of parenting; how many layers of clothes the children should wear. I would go so far as to say, in fact, that this is less of a cultural difference and more of a cultural divide, and in my humble opinion, the babushka’s have a great deal to do with this...
Nowhere is this divide more obvious than in the classroom. My sons go to a school with a mix of Russian and international students, and the amount of clothes a child wears can be directly attributed to their parents’ nationalities. Those with one or more Russian parents (or – more crucially – Russian grandparents) are still wearing their snowsuits to school mid-May, whilst the rest of us throw caution to the winds and put the kids’ padded jackets in mothballs substantially earlier (although it has to be said, that this year that moment was somewhat later than it had been in previous springs).
Non-Russian teachers of my acquaintance at the school find themselves in the tricky position of needing to speak to their melting students’ carers and request that they be sent to school without their snowsuits and hats at a stage when the rest of the kids in class are already bounding in (often, it has to be admitted, shivering in the chill of the early Spring mornings) in shorts and light-weight jackets.
I get the reason for this caution on the part of Russian parents, I really do. A cold or flu could easily lead to something more threatening, and without the healthcare safety net that many of us from different countries take for granted, this is a possibility any loving parent concerned for their child’s well-being would do almost anything to avoid.
However, times have changed. Access to healthcare has moved on, as has the advice given to parents (in the West, at any rate). Certainly, in the low temperatures of a Russian winter we all – no matter where our country of origin – wrap up our children in layer upon layer and woe-betide the child who steps outside without a hat. But it doesn’t seem so necessary once the temperatures rise (certainly not to the +15 degrees C that it was on the evening that my friend made her pronouncement), and if they live in a warm, clean, secure home, are well fed, and have plenty of excercise.
But getting back to my friend. How to deal with her concerns without causing offence? “I know this is a key issue for many Russians” I said. “But the thing is, the kids are used to this; you can see for yourself, they’re not cold and they’re perfectly happy. And they are never sick.” She looked at me disbelievingly. “Seriously. In the 18 months that we’ve lived here we haven’t – touch wood – had to make a single visit to the doctor.”
Still, she looked doubtful. And then I hit on the one fact that I knew she couldn't dispute, her not having spent much time in the UK recently. Sure, it conformed to yet another lazy cultural stereotype, and isn't really true these days, but it would get us out of this slightly tricky situation without either person offending the other... She might even accept it as good reason for my seeming carelessness with my children’s health.
“And don’t forget, we are British, after all. 15degrees Celscius? For us, this is summer!”
‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an Expat Wife in possession of some spare time, must be in want of a charity to spend it on.’ (With apologies to Jane Austen and to lovers of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ everywhere...)
The Expat Wife in question, of course, is me. And I make no apologies for it; why should I? I work hard every day of the week; to keep the Potski family on an even keel in this demanding city, to maintain my own equilibrium, and to try and earn some jam to put on our bread and butter through my writing & consulting etc. But it’s easy – as an expat – to live life inside a bubble, removed from many people’s reality, and in an effort to escape that I also help out at one local Russian charity and have just taken on a project for Action for Russian Children (ARC) which means I get to visit a number of others.
All of the charities I’m visiting benefit in some way from involvement with ARC, either financially and/or strategically, and it’s a fascinating and humbling opportunity to see a part of life that frankly is not normally on display in Moscow. If you find yourself as the parent of a disabled child here there is less support than in many other countries, and this often means that residential care – shut away from the hubbub of every-day life - is the only viable option for your child. Some of the charities that ARC helps are dedicated to finding a way around this and to keeping such families together. Others, like one I visited last week – Open Art Theatre, a musical theatre group for young people and adults with Down’s Syndrome and mental disability – are more involved in providing opportunities for children and young adults to live their lives in the way that the rest of us take for granted.
I remember how, growing up in the UK in the 1970’s, many people’s expectation of disabled people was that they were in some intrinsic way different from the rest of us. ‘Different’, as in ‘less’. It was only through the tireless campaigning of disabled people, their carers, and their advocates, that they came out of the shadows and into the mainstream of day-to-day life. Life is still different for them because of the many practical challenges that they face, but there are now far fewer people who see them as ‘less’ than their able-bodied counterparts.
From my limited viewpoint up here in Expat-land.Russia however, it’s hard to tell if the same attitudinal changes have taken place in Moscow, so it was refreshing to be able to see Open Art’s adaptation of Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ this week. The performers were passionate about their art, that was easy to see, and the same expectations of excellence were placed upon them as would have been in any amateur dramatic production. It was different, certainly, from a whistles and bells performance that one might see at the Bolshoi Theatre or similar, but it was always going to be that way, and the tragic story of Carmen was played out just as clearly, beautifully, and sympathetically by the 8 performers with Down Syndrome through dance, music and mime as it would have been by able-bodied people.
This was no suprise to me, or to any of the other guests at the performance. And one of the key things that Open Art is trying to achieve is that it will be no surprise to anyone else here in Russia, either.
This post first appeared on my other blog over at The Moscow Times