Monday 31 October 2011

Where did it all go so wrong?

Yesterday Husband and I decided to exercise our Culture muscles and expose ourselves and The Boys to a little more than Halloween candy and dvd's for a change, and headed off on a trip to The Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in downtown Moscow. We ignored the round the block queues for the Salvador Dali exhibition, and instead joined a much shorter one that gave us access to two exhibitions; Kandinsky and Annie Leibovitz. The former was interesting, although not very extensive, but the latter was amazing.

However, this post is not about the genius of Annie Leibovitz; I'm not an art critic, I wouldn't be able to do her photography justice. This post is about one particular photograph of hers that got my attention among a host of other attention-getting images. I'm not going to reproduce it here - I don't know the copyright laws well enough to feel comfortable that I wouldn't be breaking any of them - but I will describe it to you, and provide a link in the paragraph below.

This photograph was taken in 1993, I believe for Vanity Fair, and shows Cindy Crawford wearing only a boa constrictor. It's an arresting image in it's own right - she was then, and is now, a beautiful woman - but the thing that really stopped me in my tracks was her shape. She looks like a real woman. An amazing, incredible woman, who could charge $10K simply to get out of bed in the morning (allegedly), but still, a real woman. Unlike many of the size 0 models held up as having the shape we should aspire today, she had a shape that I recognise, that women I actually knew, friends of mine, were not so distant from.

Fast-forward to today, when girls as young as 12 and 13 will refuse dessert on the grounds that they are watching their weight, stick-thin models sashay down the catwalks on legs that look as if they would snap if their heel turned the wrong way, and magazines berate celebrities for not losing their baby weight fast enough or for showing a couple of inches of extra flab around their waists on the beach.

In these supposedly emancipated times, when women have more control over their own bodies and destinies than they have had throughout history to date, how did we let this happen? How did we get from Cindy and her ilk - incredible bodies, yes, but not so far removed from our own as to be unrecogniseable - to the size 0 culture of today, in less than 20 years?

Where did it all go so wrong?

Please note; no Boys were corrupted in the making of this post. Neither of them paid much attention to the naked women on view, much preferring to fight each other for space on the seats than to pay close attention to the photos being exhibited. Although Boy #2 did comment on a series of shots of a crying baby, still covered in vernix, that had just been born, saying that it looked very unhappy and as if 'it wasn't having much fun.' See this previous post for my sons' views on childbirth...

Wednesday 26 October 2011

The Gallery: Faces

The prompt for Wk 79 of Tara's Gallery is 'faces'. This being a pseudo-anonymous blog (cue ironic laughter), that one presents me with something of a problem. No names, no pack drill, and - crucially - no identifiable faces. Other than my own, on occasion, but I figure you deserve better than that.

Russia is famously full of beautiful faces. Natalia Vodolononiavonoviifcokeo (or whatever her name is - can you tell I'm behind on my Grazia and Heat reading?), and many other supermodels hail from this land of the gorgeous. I'm not sure why Russia seems to have more than it's fair share of beauty; I suspect it's a combination of genes, eating habits, and the women here ensuring that whatever they have, they make the best of it in a way which isn't necessarily a priority to many of us from elsewhere.

Sure, Western women may not particularly like the way sexuality is used as currency here, and there's certainly a different style of dress and make-up involved, but it's a fact of life that Russian women take more noticeable care of their appearance than many of us elsewhere. Whatever else they may be, they certainly don't feel invisible as they grow older in the way that women often complain about back home.


I am here to tell you, ladies, that there is a counter-culture. Women who wear their experience on their faces rather than smoothing away their wrinkles and blemishes with potions and lotions, perhaps not by choice but all the same, they don't fit the mass-export version of Russian beauty as shown in the meja.

I took this photo outside the Pushkin Museum last spring. This woman is simply sitting, probably on her break (she may well be one of Russia's redoubtable Museum Curators I refer tohere, she certainly has that look about her), enjoying the early May sunshine.

To me she looks formidable; not a bad thing to be in this city. And whatever else she may be, I would say that one thing this face isn't, is invisible.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

When More is more...

It is too early for a Christmas post.

Way, way too early

But a certain retailer (who I won't name because I have a generally good relationship with them and don't want to mess that up) sent me a pr release today listing their 'Top Ten Toys for Christmas', and being of a nosy disposition I took a look.

You know what I noticed?

Whilst the cheapest toy on the list was approximately £11, the average price (their words, not mine) was £55, and the most expensive £109.

Which is all very well and may - these days - be good value for money, but one thing occurs to me.


Everywhere I look I see news about rising prices, falling wages, the increased cost of living and how we're all supposed to be tightening our belts. Now, I know that Christmas is different. I know that we all want to spoil our little angels at this oh-so-special time of year, and I also know that I will almost definitely spend between £70 and £100 on each of the Boys by the time I include big presents and stockings (or in our case, pillow cases) into the mix.

But this is the issue that I have with the Top 10 list I was sent this week; with only one exception, if I were to buy any of the items which are featured on it I would blow a big part of my Christmas present budget without even blinking. And the thing with young kids? For them, unless they have a specific toy in mind (which, so far, neither of my sons has), the number of presents they get is almost as important as what those presents actually are.

When you're a child, less is not more. More is more.

So I realised that I will not be rushing off to buy the latest must-have toy for a paltry £49.99. Instead, I will be hunting around for less expensive items that my boys will still love, and which will still give great play value, but which will allow me to give them a variety of items and still - crucially - give the Boys the that ripping off the wrapper fest which kids love.

This got me thinking; in these financially tricky times, I can't be the only blogging parent with this philosophy, surely? So why not do a McLinky giving other bloggers the chance to join in the fun and list the Top 3 Christmas Presents under £20 (or thereabouts) that they may give their children this Christmas. If there's enough interest I'll pull together a finite list (crediting whoever came up with the idea, obviously, and linking to their blog if they have one) of what comes up and publish it sometime around mid-November for anyone who's interested.

So here, without further ado, is my current list of Top 3 Christmas Presents under £20:

1. Operation game (available online from £9 - £13.00)
2. Twister game (available online £12 - £14)
3. Junior Scrabble available online from £18 - £20)

What's your list? If you want to join in, either add your list via the comments box or write a post and link to this post here...

Monday 24 October 2011

Waiting for Winter...

So apparently we should expect our first - proper - snow of the season in Moscow this week. In a way, I will be glad to see it; Autumn here can be beautiful - and currently things are considerably brightened up by the all the golden leaves floating around - but even in the occasional sunshine there is the spectre of Winter looming in the background. It's almost like a 'well, we might as well get on with it' feeling - for me, anyway.

Having said that, the Potksi Familiski is far from ready for extreme winter. We have no winter tyres on the car yet, the snow trousers I ordered online for Boy #1 turned out on arrival to be unlined (what the hell is that about?) so need to be returned and replaced, and I've not yet replenished my supplies of chilblain cream...

But I'm going for glass half full today, so on the plus side once it does set in, there are of course far fewer tricky wardrobe choices to be made once it gets to winter proper. As soon as there is a good covering of snow on the ground it's jeans, sturdy boots and duvet coat and no-one (in the expat community, at least) judges you for that when it's -15degC.

Admittedly, the hat hair issue is a problem. A big problem. Or rather, in my case, a 'fine, flat, fly-away wispy can't do anything with it' problem. But I'm lucky in that I am not alone in this, so once more, no judgements are made (by the expat community, at least).

See? Glass half full, that's me...

Note: Whilst typing this post it has started to snow. I may now write a post entitled 'Waiting for that last 3 kilos to drop off' and see if it has a similar effect.

Thursday 20 October 2011

The one that starts off well but degenerates into schoolgirl humour quite rapidly...

I guess I've lived 'an international life', friends-wise, for about 6 years now; pretty much ever since Boy #1 went to day nursery, in fact, and I discovered that he was one of only two British passport-holding children in his group of 16.

It's great to interact and become friends with people from different cultures, I love it (this may account at least in part for my having married a Dutchman), and since moving to Moscow it's become even more the case for me. It's unusual, in fact, for me to be sitting in a group of people with more than one Brit apart from myself nowadays; I ate last Sunday's lunch, for example with one other English woman, two Russians, an American and my Dutch husband. The previous evening had seen me sitting down with Kiwis, Russians, Americans, again one English woman, and two Dutch. The time before that had been Dutch, Korean, Canadian, Kiwis and Russians - and so it goes on.

But there are some conversations that you can only have with other Brits. The Monty Python 'I were brought up in a paper bag & had to lick 'road clean for breakfast' conversation. The 'Hyacinth Bucket' aka 'More tea, vicar?' conversation. And the one I had with an English girlfriend yesterday which went completely over our Russian friend's head, but which had us both cracking up over a reference to a character's beautiful furry muff in one of our children's library books.

Even when you explain this one to a Russian - and let me tell you, trying to do that that can be painful beyond imagining - for some reason they don't find it funny. She was stony-faced.

Sadly, I must admit that this is not my first experience of having to brave these waters; there was also the incident last year when a friend and I were trying to explain the double meaning of 'beaver' to a Russian after she found us wiping the tears away in a particularly undignified manner following our discussion of the fact that there was one living nearby under a bridge. (A mutual male friend of ours - not British - was particularly interested in visiting this beaver on a regular basis and, I'm ashamed to say, this situation was particularly easy double-entendre land for ex-convent girls such as myself.) Our rather hiccupy explanation as to why we were nigh-on hysterical (OK, there might - MIGHT - have been a contributory white wine factor involved in this) fell on extremely stony ground with our Russian acquaintance.

At the time I was confused by this (who wouldn't find references to a beaver funny, surely? Oh. Just us Brits, then?). But then yesterday, after the unsuccessful attempt at explaining the humour in a furry m... the furry m - god, I can hardly even write it - I remembered my trip to the banya last year when it was evident that extreme waxing is something of a patriotic duty in Russia. And suddenly, it all became clear. No wonder the Russians don't get these particular cultural references! The chances are that the only beautiful furry muff's they have ever encountered really are something which you would use to keep your hands warm in, in cold weather...


Wednesday 19 October 2011

In the swim - or not...

I just put together a post for Tara's Gallery this week only to realise, just as I was about to hit publish, that she's had the temerity to take the week off (what, is it half term or something?), so have shelved that post and instead put before you this Mummy dilemma.

Boy #2 has had a nasty cough for the last 3 days. He has no temperature, no runny nose (yet, at any rate), and is perfectly well other than the frankly awful noise he keeps making. So he's ill, but not really ill enough to keep home from school (especially since two thirds of his class are making the same noise). Consequently, I've been sending him in for the last couple of days. I'm not asking for ratification on that; I know my child well enough and he's more than capable of a school day in this state of health. And for those worried about the other children in his class, well I'm afraid the damage was done last week by whichever child brought the virus in with them then...

No, what I'm asking is whether I should have allowed him to join his class swimming lesson today. Generally the rule is; if they're not well enough to swim, then don't bring the child in to school. If they can't swim, they get to sit on a bench with the Teaching Assistant either reading or watching the other kids in the pool; they don't get the chance to stay in the classroom as they would be unsupervised.

I knew this, but still decided this morning that I would not take Boy #2's swimming kit in with us. Whilst he's generally fine, and certainly not ill enough to stay home and miss a day, he does have this cough and it seemed foolish to me to push our luck any further. I mean, we've managed nearly 2 years here without having to visit a doctor, and I'd like to keep it that way if at all possible. Consequently, I spoke to his teacher and the TA when I dropped him off this morning, and offered to go in and sit and read with him by the pool during the lesson.

My children go to an unusual school. Parents are allowed anywhere on the premises at pretty much any time, because we give so much support to the teachers. In fact, the parents' help is actively sought in getting children ready both before and after their swimming lessons (and the amount of time spent drying and styling the little girls' hair by Russian mums panicking about the slight possibility their child might leave the pool area with one wet strand of hair verges on the ridiculous - but that's a subject for another post...). But when I offered to come down and sit with my coughing five year old on the benches by the edge of the pool, thus freeing up the TA to look after what I knew would be at least 4 other children also not swimming for the same reason, I was told no thank-you.

Boy #2 - according to the TA - would have to sit watching the other children swim for 45 minutes. No books or colouring allowed.

This seems to me to be inflexible, unnecessary and also, frankly, to be making a rod for her own back since she's the one who's going to have to deal with probably 4 or 5 bored five year olds. I imagine that this is aimed entirely at making me feel guilty for not following the party line and sending him swimming whatever. And the frustrating thing is that it's not as if we are on record as a hypochondriac family; last school year Boy #2 had only one day off sick, for heaven's sake.

However, I stuck to my guns and for all I know the intransigent TA stuck to hers and made Boy #2 sit without anything to do for 45 minutes.

But what should I have done? Kept him home all day for the sake of avoiding a 45 minute swimming lesson, or sent him in and dealt with the consequences of his being in the water?

What would you have done?

Monday 17 October 2011

Can the Real Potty Mummy please stand up?

I never thought I would be 'that' mum; the one who stands on the edge of a football pitch in all weather, shouting support at her children. Well, let's face; sporting prowess does not run in my family, and whilst Husband's is a little more athletic than mine, the signs from the first few years of the Boys' lives were that sports were not going to be that high on their list of priorities.


Saturday morning found me standing on the edge of a football pitch somewhere in Moscow, shouting encouragement to Boy #1, and bringing on the team snacks and drinks as required. Which in itself is something of a shocker, but when you factor in the weather - a measly +2degC and snowing, for goodness' sake - I do rather wonder what the hell is happening to me...

Admittedly, the snow was mixed in with intermittent rain and sleet, for light relief, but it is still only the middle of October...

Friday 14 October 2011

That's ENOUGH!

I am slightly exercised about something. No, dammit, I am extremely exercised. I'm living in Russia, for goodness' sake and yet every day I am confronted with the creeping Amercianisation of my children. Hang on - move to Moscow, and have my kids become American? Ummm - no offence to any Americans reading this blog, but that's not quite what I was hoping for.

No. It has to stop.

I realised that yesterday evening during dinner. I had spent the previous hour, following school pick-up, correcting their pronounciation yet again. I had gone from cheerful remonstrations of "No darling, it's not 'kindergarDen' it's 'kindergarTen' ", through "No sweetheart, it's not 'scooDer', it's scooTer' ", to an increasingly tight lipped "It's not 'caint', it's 'caahnt' " and others I won't bore you with.

So when Boy #1 picked up his fork, held it back to front in his right hand and started to spoon his rice and casserole into his mouth, followed by a cack-handed attempt to cut his sausage into smaller pieces before transferring his fork back into his right hand and repeating the process, I snapped.

I don't know why, but it seems to be peculiarly representative of the difference between America and Europe, that way of eating. In the past I've watched Americans eat that way on film and wondered to myself; is that for real? Do they really go to all the trouble of cutting up their meat etc (fork held straight up in the air, knife used like a saw), before discarding one of their utensils, bending low over the table and then shovelling food straight into their mouths with their forks?

Well, based on what I see at the school - and now at my own dinner table - some of them do.

This of course begs the question; should I even care? Am I being a ridiculous snob for bothering which way my sons eat? Well, the answer to that is mixed. Of course, I am a ridiculous snob in many matters - I'm happy to admit that - and this is most definitely one of them. But pretentions to grandeur aside, this bothers me on a practical level as well; at some point - and it may well be within the next 12 months - the Potski Familiski will be leaving Russia, and it's extremely unlikely that our next destination will be the US. We will most likely move back to the UK, where eating like that in the school lunch hall, for example, will get you singled out for unwanted attention which would hardly help what seasoned expats refer to mysteriously as 'the transition'.

I know, I'm probably worrying too much. But I care enough to - last night - make it clear to my boys that whilst eating at home or in company (they can of course do what they like in the school cafeteria), they will eat the way we do back in the UK.

Fork in left hand, knife in right, napkin on their laps, casserole all down their shirtfronts and rice liberally scattered all over the floor.

Call me nothing, if not realistic.

What do you think? Would you bother to teach your children how to eat the 'correct' way (whatever that may be)?

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Gone Writing...

A while back I posted about starting to write a book. It's been a little 'stop/go' since then, if I'm honest. After an inital burst of enthusiasm, and a lot of thinking, Real Life started to get in the way and it's only now - that an event here in Moscow which I was doing some work for is done and dusted - that I've actually sat down and started to have a proper go at My Masterpiece.

It's such an interesting process. I should come clean here, and say that I haven't had 'The Big Idea' burning away on the back of the stove for years now. There was no blinding flash of inspiration where I sat up in bed in the middle of the night and shouted 'Eureka! I've got it!', no, nothing that impressive.

When I started writing I knew only two things, in fact. I knew what the location for the opening page of the book would be, and based on a fascinating piece of family history that a friend shared with me about a few months ago, I had an inkling that it would involve a search of some kind. And that was it. That was all I had to go on.

If I'm honest, I thought this book would be about me, or someone like me. Some slightly more mature version of chick-lit perhaps; lighter on the bags and shoes than some of the offerings out there, heavier on the international travel (so far, so Potski Mumski), but essentially something that I knew.

Imagine my surprise then, when I started tapping away and discovered this book - my book - is not about me at all. How very dare my subconscious?!! My protaganist jumped from my fingers straight onto the keys, almost fully formed. I know his name (for yes, it's a guy - go figure!), I know what he looks like, I know his shortcomings, I know what stage of life he's at. I know his family, I know his girlfriend. Hell, I can even visualise the colour of his rucksack and the scuffs on his shoes.

And I know he's at a crossroads and that there is something which must be resolved before he decides which route to take. I even have a fair idea of how he's going to get there.

And the more I write, the clearer this all becomes to me. It's incredible - and I love doing it.

Whether this work of art (for which read amateur drivel) will ever see the light of day anywhere other than on my laptop is questionable. And it's all taking rather longer to get going than I thought it would. Seventy thousand is a LOT of words, people. A lot. And I'm nowhere near that total yet, mainly because I can't stop myself re-reading and then editing the previous days' work before I start on the next, but I'm hoping I'll move on from what is probably a classic beginner's mistake shortly and just write more fluidly.

In the meantime, though, please excuse me if I am a little distracted...

Saturday 8 October 2011

A conversation with my sons about childbirth...

The question came out of nowhere as I was driving - late - to Boy #1's football fixture this morning.

"Mum, how do babies get out?"

We didn't actually have a car crash as I wondered how to answer my older son's query, but that was mainly because it was early and most Russians are far too sensible to be on the road before 10 o'clock on a Saturday morning.

I decided to bite the bullet. "Well, ladies have a special hole between their legs, and the baby comes out through there. Mostly."

Silence whilst this was digested. Then, in a very sceptical tone of voice; "Reeeeeaaaaallly?"

"Yes, really."

"How big is the hole?"

"Well, normally it's very small. It has to stretch - a lot - for the baby to get out."

There was a sharp intake of breath. "That must hurt very much."

I laughed ruefully, wondering if I might actually be managing to educate a male in how amazing women are, that they can bear the pain of childbirth. "It most certainly does."

Then; "Wow. Those poor babies."

"Yeah" piped up Boy #2. "Those poor babies..."

Dear Lord. Give me strength.

Friday 7 October 2011

Older siblings rule OK

Blogging isn't all about humour and rants, you know. OK, more often that not, on The Potty Diaries it is, but just for a change here's a classic 'mummy blogger' post...

My sons are normally excellent sleepers, closing their eyes only moments after the lights go out and not opening them again until about 10 minutes after I ask them to get out of bed (well, you can't have everything). However, yesterday evening Boy #2 did not want to go to sleep. It was 8.10pm and having been in bed for all of 40 minutes (oh, alright, if I'm honest, 15...) he was still bouncing about like a tightly wound yo-yo. I could hear him across the landing as I was folding the laundry (oh, the glamour of the expat wife's life), and I could also hear Boy #1 becoming increasingly exasperated as he did want to go to sleep.

Suddenly, it all went quiet. I left it for a moment, and then picked up a faint murmuring coming from the Boys' bedroom. Intrigued, I crept quietly towards their open door and stood silently outside to find out what was going on.

Boy #1 was gently singing his brother to sleep.

At the end of the (made-up) song, Boy #2 heaved a happy sigh, rolled over, and nothing more was heard from either one of them until the morning.

I don't mind telling you; I was heaving a few happy sighs myself...

Tuesday 4 October 2011

The Gallery: Colour

This post is for Week 77 of The Gallery over at Sticky Fingers, and the prompt for this week's photo is 'colour'.

Which is ironic, because at the moment in Moscow you can have (to paraphrase Henry Ford's famous saying) any colour you like, as long as it's grey...

Moody enough for you?


OK. Having looked at the fabulous photos over at The Gallery now, I'm feeling a little out of things on the colour front, so I've found a summer photo from our holiday in Croatia just to lighten things up a bit...

Ode to Traffic: a Haiku

I tangled with the traffic this morning (something of a recurring theme on this blog, I fear), and on returning home read an email from a friend containing a number of haiku's lamenting the shortfalls of computer technology. So I was inspired to write my own. No prizes for guessing the subject matter...

Oh Moscow traffic jam
You are never ending
Sprawling down highways
Like some lazy teen
Too indolent to move

New bus lanes
Add to the chaos
And all but the buses and the ambulances
Are locked
In your choking embrace

With the exception obviously
Of the blue buckets*
To whom normal rules
Do not apply...

With apologies to all the more experienced haiku writers and their fans out there who no doubt can point out a million mistakes in format etc.

*Non Muscovite readers should click here for an explanation of what a 'blue bucket' actually is...