Wednesday 29 June 2011

The Gallery: Wk 64

This post is for Wk 64 of Tara's Gallery (click here to see the other entries). The prompt this week is 'My Weekend'.

For once my weekend featured very little of the laptop, mainly due to the fact that whilst I was actually at a blogging conference, I was doing precious little blogging. However, I took this shot duing Jay's presentation on photography, and I like the way the keyboard is reflected in the screen. It's faintly disorientating, and to a certain extent (bear with me here) I find that a relevant metaphor for why I started writing things down in the first place.

Struggling to find a sense a self after stopping (paid) work, and driven to distraction by my attempts to potty train my older son who was unwilling to have any truck with this toilet business, I decided that if I could write the experience down, and - crucially - make it funny, it would all seem so much easier and I would have regained some semblance of control. (On the page, at least).

And that was how it worked out. Writing things down became an addictive habit, it helped me to work things through, and eventually, I found that the more relaxed, centred person that I was trying to be in print started to be someone that I also recognised in the mirror.

I enjoyed CyberMummy, although if I'm completely honest I felt that for me it was more about meeting old friends face to face (some for the first time) than about the workshops and the opportunity to interact with brands. And I don't have a grand plan, as so many other bloggers seem to. I certainly have no idea where blogging will take me. I could continue for years, I may stop next week. But one thing I will never feel, whilst it continues to give me the chance to work things through in my mind, is that it has been a waste of my time.

And I suspect that I may always be addicted to using a screen to reflect & focus my thoughts, simply by the act of writing things down.

Sunday 26 June 2011

Glastonbury, London, and squashed sugar bowls

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.

Sure, it's cool to visit Carnival, but to live through it with no respite from the partying? Those who could voted with their feet and went to visit gran and grandad for the weekend, or better yet, took the children to their doting grandparents before hotfooting back to London, safe in the knowledge that little Lucinda could sleep through the night whilst mum and dad recaptured some of their lost youth...

I haven't been at Glastonbury, though. Arriving last week, we brought the Boys down Somerset (no worries they would be kept awake by the dull thud thud thud of the bass after 3 days spent with family looking to cram 6 months-worth of treats in 72 hours exhausted them utterly), and then Husband and I travelled back to London. I went to CyberMummy11 yesterday before I spent the evening celebrating a friend's wedding and then, finding myself with an hour to spare before heading back to green space, wandered around the Summer Exhibition at The Royal Academy this morning.

Here then are some of the things I learned this weekend...

15 flattened silver sugar bowls, suspended in a line 4"above the floor on fine wires, make a rather more beautiful exhibit than you might imagine.

I can still - after 20 years of living there - get lost in London trying to find a tube station in the City.

This is not a good move when you've been wearing your strappy wedges all day.

Always take an umbrella when you go out in London, even if the sky is cloudless when you leave. Either that, or a hair dryer. If you forget both, then resign yourself to rats-tail hair.

Even the best restaurants can give you a little 'extra' with your salad. A little 'extra' that wriggles unobtrusively on your plate, that is...

CyberMummy is a great place to go for inspiration and impetus to finally get around to all those things you've been meaning to do for ages- either blogging, or writing-wise -but haven't yet got round to.

It's also a great place to meet all those people who's blogs you admire, and some who's blogs you haven't yet got around to checking out but have been meaning to do for ages...

But you still won't have the time to properly catch up with most of the people you want to talk to.

And that there were some drinkers in the bar of a certain hotel on The Strand who got rather more information than they bargained for, when they listened in to a group of 10 bloggers swapping stories on Friday night.

Wednesday 22 June 2011

The Gallery; 3 Word Gallery

This post is for Week 63 of Tara's Gallery (click here to see the other entries).

The prompt this week was '3 word gallery', the idea being that the photo we submit can be described in 3 words.

Here are mine:

An extraordinary day.

The fireworks shown above signal the end to a party at which my oldest son took part in a 'Fort Boyard' style treasure hunt (all day) with his face painted as a tiger, where Husband and I dressed up as Ukrainian peasants before he drove Boy #2 around a field on a tractor, where we were treated to an amazing piano recital by a concert pianist, found ourselves on a yacht on a lake watching the sun set at 10.30pm (whilst a friend gave a impromptu water-skiing display), and sat by a fire pit watching the night come in.

And all in celebration of a seven year old's birthday.

Life in Russia; never boring, frequently extraordinary...

Monday 20 June 2011

So long, farewell...

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...).

Now, last year, whilst I enjoyed the ceremony, I have to admit that it all seemed - to my jaundiced British eyes - just a little over the top. Sure, the parade of the flags of pupils' nationalities was amazing in it's diversity. The speeches by the principals were uplifting. The performances by the dance troupes, and choirs, the presentations to notable departing personnel, and the ringing out of the school year - with the final bell rung by the school director and representatives of various communities within the school - were affecting. But I have to admit that it all struck me as a bit, well, excessive. I mean, it's just the end of another school year, right? Why make a fuss? We'll all be back next August, won't we?

But here's yet another sign of how far down this expat road I've come, because of course this year I understand properly that we won't all be back next August. Friends (mine, and the Boys') are leaving, either to return to their country of origin or to move on to the next posting in their expat life, and their departure will leave sizeable holes in our existence. This time last year the same thing happened, of course it did, but we had only been here 6 months at the time. Now we've had another 12 months to build friendships and attachments, so to say that this year's ceremony was emotional for me, as I stood next to a good friend who is leaving soon, was something of an understatement.

I had taken tissues, and was not afraid to use them.

As I left the school building I bumped into someone who had recently moved here from the UK. She made the comment "Wow, it was all a bit 'God bless America', wasn't it?" The interesting thing was that at no stage was America - or God, for that matter - mentioned during the ceremony, and yet I knew exactly what she meant. She was right; this 'goodbye' ritual did seem very American to me - last year.

This year, though, it just seemed... right.

I must be turning into more of a softy than I realised...

Friday 17 June 2011

Busman's holiday..?

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...

(And apparently I'm 'profound'... Who knew?)

Wednesday 15 June 2011

The Gallery; Dads

This post is for Wk 62 of Tara's Gallery. Click here to see the other entries...

I'm lucky enough to have quite young parents. I was born when they were still practically children; my mother was 23, and my father 25. I can't imagine what they would have said had I gone home at either of those ages and announced that I was even setting up home with someone (looking back, I had neither the maturity nor the experience to do so), let alone that I was going to have a baby. However, times were different back in the 1960's, and they married young, as most of their friends did, and got on with family life; within a year of their wedding, I was born.

Now I'm a mum myself, and even though I didn't get around to that until 13 years later than my mother did, the benefits of having younger parents are still paying off, for me. One of them is that they are still hale and hearty, and that despite my sons' increasing size, my father is still able to make memories for them like this one; being wheeled down through the coombe near Gran and Grandad's house in a wheelbarrow...

It doesn't matter where in the world you are...

... teenage humour never changes.

Overheard in the girls loos outside the school cafeteria:

"Hey! Girls! Did you hear about the new movie that's launching? It's called 'Constipation'. Oh - yeah, that's right, you won't have. It hasn't come out yet..."

Monday 13 June 2011

Conversations with a cabby - Russia styley

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.

So when this guy started to chat to me, I was very interested to see where it would go. And I learned some things...

Apparently people in the West (his implied capital letter, not mine) hate the Russians. He was at a loss to explain why, but there you go, it was just the way it was... I suggested that what he saw as 'hate' was in fact total incomprehension of what makes Russians tick by those who have never visited (or indeed, by some who have), since it's impossible to understand this nation's complexities unless you pay very close attention to it's recent history and actually, not many of us do that. Which of course strengthened his impression we don't like them very much still further because, well, why wouldn't you study Russian history?

The reason that people of his (and my) generation in Russia don't speak very good English is simple, he told me. (Bearing in mind that we were having this conversation in the very language he claimed to be bad at, I begged to differ, but he - in the way of all taxi drivers, everywhere - knew better). It all comes down to the fact that when he and his peers were at school in the 1970's and 1980's, they were told by their teachers not to worry if their English grades weren't high. Or indeed, if they didn't learn it at all. Why? Well, because very soon, the rest of the world would be speaking Russian... (No, really)

All the 'bad' Russians have left Russia and now live in - you guessed it - London. The UK government welcomes all the criminals who have ripped Russia off with open arms because they bring such vast sums of money with them.

I did suggest at this point that whilst the British immigration policy may be - ahem - a little 'forgiving' for those who have money, I found it hard to be believe that ALL the 'bad' Russians had now left, for the UK or anywhere else, since day-to-day life over here would suggest that there are still plenty of baddies to go around. He didn't agree. Although our respective definitions of 'bad' may be somewhat different, based on the next point he made...

The anti-corruption drive within the Militia (the traffic police) is nonsense, he told me (I brightened up at this point, thinking that finally we might have a point we could agree upon. But no...) All the rules and regulations that meant a motorist breaking the law now has to go to the station or ultimately to court to sort it out are just wasting everybody's time. No, it's far better just to bite the bullet, and hand over your cash on the side of the road. What happens to the money after that point really isn't any of his concern.

Russian schools are going to the dogs. He was particularly concerned that his son was not getting enough homework (let me tell you, Russian school is all about rote-learning; they work those kids hard...), because he worried that his grades might not be high enough for him to join the profession he (the dad) had picked out for him. I wondered what profession that might be. Oh, the government, of course. If you want to make real money in this town, that's where you need to go...

At this point we reached the airport. And then I spent the next 30 minutes trying to explain to Boys #1 and #2 that no, England is not full of baddies with Russian/UK passports. That's only St John's Wood and Knightsbridge...

Please note: in my usual disclaimer, this post is based upon a conversation with one isolated person, is not representative of Russian attitudes as a whole and - of course - I am not in any way suggesting that there are corrupt organisations in Russia; I am reporting the views of one isolated individual...

Friday 10 June 2011

English for the non-Brit...

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.

So in the interests of spreading light-heartedness and furthering British/non-British communication, I forwarded the picture above to a number of my friends here in Moscow.

They thought it was hilarious - but then one or two of them started to pay attention to what I was saying. One morning this week I bumped into a friend (a Canadian) who said to me "I loved that English -Eu translation you sent out. But I have to admit that when we all had dinner yesterday evening and you said to someone 'That's - interesting...' I nearly lost it..."



* I would credit it if I knew where it came from originally.

Thursday 9 June 2011

Say what you mean (or pay the price...)

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.

It didn't work out quite to plan.

Don't get me wrong; he was courteous, kind, left no mess, and did not empty the fridge or drain the vodka bottle. The boys loved having him there, and strutted about the place with mysteriously deepened voices, no-nonsense attitudes, plastic hammers in their pyjama waste-bands (metaphorically speaking only in the case of Boy #1), and bid me goodbye with matter-of-fact 'haven't you gone yet?' expressions.

I left their new babysitter proving more than a match for Boy #1's encyclopeadic knowledge of Star Wars (this morning's Star Wars Mastermind Tournament at breakfast featured the question "Who was the "Chosen One', Mama?" and then a lively debate about whether it was Anakin or Luke. I favoured the former but Boy #1 reasoned that because Anakin failed to live up to his billing it was Luke who properly fitted that description. Ah well. He may be right; of such important issues are a 7 year old boy's world made...). He helped in the creation of their latest Lego creation (Star Wars, obviously),and then when the time was right, got their teeth brushed and put them to bed.


Except... Well, when anyone asks me what time my sons go to bed, I invariably answer "7.30pm, or thereabouts" but as any mother knows, '7.30pm' can just as easily mean 7.45pm, and as Boy #1 gets older it can even mean 8.00pm. Oh, who am I kidding? It's almost always closer to 8.00pm than 7.30, and the Boys have become used to that.

But of course our 16 year old babysitter, eager to do the right thing and follow my instructions to the letter had them in bed with lights out by 7.30pm. I was, of course, delighted.

Not quite so delighted the next morning though when they both work up at 6.15am, an hour before I normally wake them, on a day when in fact we were in no rush and I had planned a lie-in until 7.30...

I believe the expression is 'hoist by your own petard'. And next time I will say what I mean; "7.45pm (but 8 at a push...)"

Tuesday 7 June 2011

Life here can be wonderful, too...

I'm not - as you will see - particularly good at filming.

I don't have a steady hand, or much patience when small boys talk over the top of birdsong I'm trying to record. I haven't even worked out how to edit my footage to take out references to dandelions and exasperated 'shush!''es. But even so, I hope you enjoy the first half (at least) of this short film where the only action is from the clouds, the wind, the not-so-distant traffic, a bird singing it's heart out, and two small boys talking about picking flowers...

(Would this count as my first ever vlog, do you reckon? No. Thought not...)

MY Tipping Point

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.

Funny though; it's the unexpected stories which can be the ones that cause you to reach the tipping point.

In this instance, it's The Case of the Killer Cucumbers*. Forgive me; I am not mocking the hundreds of people who are currently suffering from E.Coli or the families of those who have died, it's just that - as you'll see - the way it's been handled here (and by 'here' I'm hoping you'll understand I am referring to my current place of residence without actually naming it) - is so farcical as to require a ridiculous title.

The outright ban of all fresh produce from the EC that is currently in force here is a complete nonsense, and it appears that the local populace know it. Nevertheless, it will remain in force for the moment. Why? Because this situation ticks so many boxes.

It panders to the fear that many people here have of 'Elsewhere'. ('We TOLD you they were all out to get us!' Don't mock; this a widely-held view about other nations, born of 70 years of paranoia-inducing propaganda). It allows the government to throw it's weight around on the world stage (as if it needs another opportunity), in an arena that is being watched closely by potential voters still making their mind up about who to support in future elections. It gives the government levers to use in attaining their own ends in various on-going negotiations with the EC (did somebody mention Visas? Not me...).

And it gives local suppliers the opportunity to reap the rewards of a market temporarily free of European competition. Funny how the decision to put the ban in place was taken by a government minister who just happens to have substantial interests in a company that holds the lion-share of the market in locally-grown fresh produce, isn't it?

But it's none of those things that have driven me to write a post I may well take down after I've given it considered thought. I mean, things like this happen all the time, all over the world, as my husband will no doubt tell me (as he asks me to delete this); this is not a country alone in such situations.

No, what makes me really mad about this is that of all the local people I've spoken to (and admittedly, I haven't stood on a street corner with a clipboard, but there are limits to what even I will do for my blog), every single person knows all - ALL - of the above about the way their country works. And, whilst they may regret it, and wish that things didn't work that way, not one of them really expects anything different.

They throw up their hands, smile apologetically, and say "It's just the way things work, here."

And that's what makes me mad. Because they deserve better.

*And I know, it's probably not cucumbers that are the root of th problem...

Monday 6 June 2011

How warm is too warm? It's all relative...

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!”

Friday 3 June 2011

Doin' it for the kids...

‘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

Wednesday 1 June 2011

The Gallery: 'I'm grateful for...'

This post is for Week 60 of Tara's Gallery (click here to see the other great entries), and the prompt this week was 'I'm grateful for...'

I'm grateful for so many things, my family being chief amongst those, but I'm not going to change the habit of the last 4 years and show you photos of them. Instead, I'm going to say that I'm grateful - chiefly to my husband - for giving me the chance to come to Moscow as a residential tourist and to be in the position to take photographs like these...

(I'm also grateful that the weather has improved sufficiently for me to be able to take these in the sunshine...)