Monday 30 April 2012

The secret life of your Fat

It's Monday.  The perfect day to reflect on the rubbish you ate over the weekend, and resolve to do better for at least the next few days.

Like practically every woman I know, I have a complicated relationship with food.  I know what I should eat; fruit, wholegrains, vegetables, healthy but limited carbs, fish, lean meat & poultry etc, and mostly I stick to that but every now and again - as in, every now and again every day - I cave.  I try to keep a sense of perspective about that, telling myself that as long as I follow the 80:20 rule (80% good stuff, 20% indulgence) I'm not doing too badly, and yet, in the last few months a little bit of extra padding has appeared.  Not a lot, admittedly, but it's 2 or 3 kilos that weren't there at the end of last year and which I really don't want to become my new 'normal'. I can hear you scoff from here; "2 or 3 kilos? That's nothing to worry about!" and of course you're right, except...  Well, what happens when I gain the next 2 or 3 kilos?  And the next 2 or 3 after that?  Before you know it an extra stone and a half will have crept on whilst I'm busy trying to reassure myself that as long as I follow the 80:20 rule I don't really have anything to worry about.

So I've been thinking that it's a good time to try and shift back to my preferred 'normal' before the current one settles in for the long haul and starts to invite it's mates, (kilos 4, 5, and 6) over for a visit and before they hold a party to which kilos 7, 8 and 9 turn up and decide to stay as well.

But even losing just 2 or 3 kilos can be a bit of a battle at times.

I was wondering why that might be, and then had a very interesting conversation with a friend of mine who is a nutritionist for the World Bank (because that's an obvious career path, right?) and she told me about some fascinating studies that have been done on Fat recently.  Note the capital letter - you'll understand why I use it in a moment.

We all know that one of the reasons human beings can struggle with their weight is because our lifestyles have evolved more quickly than our bodies.  In fact Slummy Single Mummy just wrote about it today (click here to see her very interesting piece).  To put it simply, our bodies seek to store fat at any opportunity because historically humans did not know where the next meal was coming from.  If there was an opportunity to calorie-load, we were programmed to take it.  There was no question of Neanderthal or early Homo Sapiens Woman looking at bush full of berries and saying "You know, they look great, but I'm still full from yesterday's roasted possum, and I've been feeling a little bloated recently, so I'll pass, thanks all the same..."  No, they would have eaten as much as they could and then taken what they could carry with them. And that was fine, because they probably would have run it off escaping from marauding dinosaurs or boars or sabre toothed tigers or whatever.

Luckily for us, however, marauding boars are thin on the ground these days, and our fridges are stuffed full of berries and roasted possums (well, you get the point), so not only do we not need to do a great deal of escaping, but we know exactly where our next meal is coming from; that big white box humming gently in the corner of the kitchen.  At least - mentally, we do.

Our bodies, though?  Not so much.  We are still programmed to stuff as much as we can into our mouths at the first opportunity, even though we don't actually need to anymore. So we do that, and put on Fat.  And here is where the capital 'F' comes in.  My nutritionist friend told me that when you gain Fat, your body rejoices (again, we all know that), and tries to maintain it.  And it does that because - here's the scary bit, which I didn't know -  Fat can develop a life of it's own.  Your Fat, essentially, is an organ*.  Like your heart, lungs, digestive system, liver, skin etc.  And also like those, it gives out hormones.  Hormones that encourage you to eat at any opportunity, not only because subconsciously your body doesn't know where the next meal is coming from, but because Fat - the sneaky little beggar - wants to ensure it's continued existence.

Your body plays along with this because of it's innate survival instinct and even misses Fat when it's gone.  Once you've had excess Fat, even if you've lost it, your body will seek to regain the status quo it previously enjoyed and felt safe with.  Which is a bit of a kicker when you've worked hard to lose a significant amount of weight and succeeded, but unfortunately is how life is as an un-properly evolved Homo Sapiens in the modern world.

And which may also explain why, having read Slummy Single Mummy's piece, the next post that I read - as it was at the top of my Blog Roll - was all about chocolate, and also why I then googled the name of the store it referred to and added it to my mental 'must do' list for the next time I'm back in London.

Fat, eh? Who knew that it's such an evil mastermind..?

* Fat as an organ is not in itself a bad thing, by the way - click here to see the good stuff it delivers too.

Friday 27 April 2012

Lazy Bloggers unite...

I know, I know.  It's lazy blogging.  But I just saw this and couldn't resist.  So, for those of you who liked Cat Vs Printer, here is....

Sorry, can you pipe down at the back, please?  I know it's Friday and everything but please, pay attention.

Now, here it is...

Cat vs - Oh, for Pete's sake.  Stop rustling the hobnobs packet and slurping your tea.  I can't hear myself think over here.  Are we all settled now?  Are we?  That includes you - yes, you.  Yes, I can see you scribbling down your to-do list on the back of an envelope.

Right.  Here we are:

Cat vs cat vs printer.  If you can be bothered to tear yourself away from your packet of Walkers crisps, that is...

Thursday 26 April 2012

Moscow Spring - blink and you'll miss it

So, following our Easter break in the UK, we've been back in Moscow for 10 days now.  In that period of time Spring has sprung and more or less morphed straight into summer, as evidenced by the following:

  • The temperature has gone from +2degC on our arrival to +21degC yesterday, and is predicted to be +25degC today
  • The snow, which was still lying 10cm thick on the ground when we got back, has entirely disappeared.  This is good, although the accumulated layer of crap* (literally) that is left behind is less so.
  • The grass has gone from 'Oh, I'm so tired, I really can't be bothered, what do you mean it's time to wake up?' to 'Ta Dah! Look at me!  I'm so perky and green!'
  • The birds have started to arrive and are getting busy with it all over the place (makes for some interesting conversations with my youngest about piggy backs)
  • The local version of ladybird are doing much the same thing and are showing scant regard for privacy or safety, choosing mostly to misbehave in the middle of the road which we use to walk to school.  More conversations about piggy-backs ensue, as well as some careful stepping around those who have gone to meet their maker in their pursuit of ecstasy (well, it's one way to go, I suppose).
  • Moscow's restaurants and cafe's are taking over the pavements, albeit with the smarter ones equipping tables with rugs for patrons to wrap around themselves when it gets a little chilly in the evening.
  • Acceptable attire for a walk through the forest has gone from being warm jeans and boots to miniscule shorts and sky-high spiked heels.  Not for me, obviously; I find 6 inch platforms are much more practical when I go out running in the woods on muddy paths**...

* Moscow has a population of 30,000 - 35,000 wild dogs who for some reason refuse to clean up after themselves...
** Ha. Hahahahahaha. Ha. 

Tuesday 24 April 2012

We've all been there. Though maybe not as a cat...

Cannot... resist... Must... embed... clip... on blog...

Via @CaitlinMoran on Twitter this evening

(note; contains swear words.  But they ARE in context.  Honest...)

Monday 23 April 2012

I am grateful for...

This post is the result of a BritMums blogging prompt, in which they suggested we write what we're grateful for.

So here we go: I am grateful for...

My boys, Husband and family
My friends
yadda yadda yadda... the normal stuff we are supposed to be grateful for and of course I am, but but let's cut to the chase...

In no particular order, then:

  • Chocolate. The good stuff, that is.
  • Diet coke
  • Cool white wine on warm summer evenings
  • Cool white wine
  • Butter, sugar, flour, eggs, and whichever genius it was who originally thought; 'Hey! Why not mix them together and turn them into something called - oh, I don't know - cake..?'
  • Cake, generally.  But not Russian cake - sorry.
  • Free range meat & organic vegetables (they really do taste better - and no, we can't generally get them here)
  • Silver sneakers
  • Blister plasters
  • Bling and the self-control not to wear too much of it.  Because of the blisters, obvs.
  • Garlic
  • Toothbrushes & toothpaste
  • Marilyn Moore on the Kings Road in Chelsea
  • Dry cleaners
  • John Lewis (insert heavenly 'LAAA' here)
  • Kindle
  • The fact that my Kindle purchases come out of MY rather than my husband's account
  • A crisply ironed shirt when I haven't had to be the one who ironed it
  • Fresh fish
  • The fact my sons also love fresh fish and will happily sit for a good ten minutes planning our fresh-fish safaris with me as we get excited about forthcoming trips back to the UK
  • The sound of the snow under my cross country skis
  • The fact that the sound of snow under my cross country skis is now a thing of the past until about next January
  • Camomile tea
  • Vodka and champagne.  But not together.  That part of my life is over.
  • South Kensington, generally
  • The expat bubble and the opportunity to step outside it in Russia

And finally;

People who read my wittering blog posts through to the end...

Saturday 21 April 2012

Family Sayings, PM-style

My bloggy mate Expat Mum has published a post sharing her family sayings, so thought I would give you a few of mine.  Because, you know, it's Saturday and why not? (Not a family saying, by the way).

The Man Look

This one comes from my mother but is now in family-wide use, and refers to the special talent some of us have (not only men, obviously.  But mostly men, in our family at least) for walking into a room and saying "But I can't find the cereal / mobile phone / remote control..." when the object they're looking for is lying in plain sight - just not, crucially, in the exact spot that they looking at.

Not as green as I'm cabbage-looking

I tend to use this when I'm trying to explain that whilst I may appear foolish, I am indeed smarter than that.  Honest.

Step AWAY from the ---- (insert word of choice, be sure to stress 'away')

Refers to those US cops & robber shows when the police are telling the criminal to 'step AWAY from the vehicle / gun / pile of money on the floor'.  We tend to use it in slightly less serious circumstances, when someone who should know better (Husband, me) is caught with our hands in the biscuit tin / bowl of crisps / chocolate cupboard.  Oh, the glamour of my life knows no bounds...

Which leads me to:

Oh, the glamour of my life knows no bounds...

'Cause we're expats, right?  It's supposed to be glamorous.  Ha!  Generally used in those moments when I find myself unpacking the washing machine for the nth time that day, wiping crzp from my shoe, am stuck in traffic avoiding the eye of the police officer on the side of the road, or am about to plunge into the weigh-your-own fruit and veg aisle at the hypermarket...

What are your sayings?

Friday 20 April 2012

Dealing with childhood eczema; from a parent who's been there...

I am unashamedly recycling a post. To those of you who have been kind enough to stick around reading this blog since August 2009, apologies for that, but after seeing a tweet this morning asking for help in dealing with childhood eczema, I think that what I wrote back then is still of value now, and could be useful for parents dealing with this condition in their children. And the title of this post is a suggestion that Tara at Sticky Fingers made in her comment on the post first time round - so thanks for that, Tara!

August 2009

A while back, a friend of mine suggested I wrote this post after hearing of our experiences with the Boys’ eczema, thinking that others might benefit. I haven’t written it before as I think it might come across as preachy – which I know I can be, especially on this subject as I'm quite passionate about it – so apologies if it does.


If you see a baby or a child with bad eczema, what is your first thought? Is it:

A: What a pity, such a shame, but it won't do any long term damage and I'm sure he/she will grow out of it...

B: Gosh, that looks uncomfortable. I suppose they've tried everything they can to shift it. I wonder if they've tried changing his/her diet?

C: I have a pretty good idea how the parents of this child might improve this situation, but they might not want to hear it. Should I say something, or should I just mind my own business?

Before my sons were born – or rather, before Boy #2 was born - I used to default to answer B. I’m a long-term sufferer of eczema myself, although nowadays you wouldn’t know it, and growing up in the 1970’s and 1980’s there was only one recognised way to deal with it; moisturising and steroid cream, lots of it. Oh, we knew that the latter could have nasty long-term effects, like thinning of the skin etc, but the benefits to me as a crusty-faced 14 year old girl of smooth skin vs resembling what I imagined at the time a leprosy victim looked like, meant that those potential drawbacks were usually ignored.

As often happens, my eczema decreased as I got older, leaving me only with the belief that there must be some way other than steroids to deal with this condition. I convinced myself that what I ate was the key, and tried various different diets throughout my early twenties, but looking back now I think I just grew out of it.

When Boy #1 was born, it turned out that he also suffered from fairly severe eczema. Remembering the scare stories from my youth, I tried everything under the sun rather than bring out the steroids. We went dairy free, we went soy free, he drank goat’s milk formula when he went onto bottles, we went wheat free. We even had him allergy tested at 7 months old, but nothing showed up, not even the nuts and sesame that would nowadays hospitalise him. It didn't help that 'eczema' is a generic term; there are many different things that can cause it, and at the time we had no idea what they might be.

Still he had those persistent patches of eczema that occasionally flared up into something nasty, and which would then necessitate a course of antibiotics and the grudging application of the thinnest layer of hydrocortisone cream imaginable. Basically, he itched, but got by.

Then, Boy #2 was born. He also suffers from eczema, initially even worse than his brother, and after 4 months of skin infections, hospitalisations and a constant round of on-again-off-again courses of antibiotics we discovered that MRSA is particularly fond of children with eczema. Not the best of times, but this last did at least get him treated – finally – by the excellent team of paediatric dermatologists at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital who helped us get a handle on the problem.

And you know what I found out?

Steroid creams have evolved. They are no longer as aggressive as they used to be, and nowhere near as harmful.

Now I freely admit to being a touchy-feely middle class parent. If there is a way of dealing with a problem without resorting to drugs, I will take it. If I feel a headache coming on, I’ll drink more water rather than take a pain killer, and if I feel bloated I’ll reach for the organic remedy rather than a pack of laxatives. But I’ve tried that approach to my children’s eczema, and it doesn’t work. This is one time when, as a parent, I had to forget about all the alternative therapies I automatically drifted towards.

It’s natural in today’s less intrusively-inclined culture not to want to put chemical substances on your children’s skins, and instead to change their diets, or to take them to chiropractors, cranial osteopaths, kinesiologists etc (all of which I put my hand up to, by the way) but believe me, I’m now a convert to the conventional medicine route in this situation. As a fantastic consultant once told me, a little bit of steroid cream and a rigourous moisturising regime as prescribed by someone who knows what they are talking about is a great deal better than dealing with the fallout of not treating eczema properly, and early.

Having seen my baby hooked up to an iv which delivered two different types of antibiotics because the skin cultures that had been taken from the infected area wouldn’t be back from the lab for 5 days – 5 days that we couldn’t afford to wait in treating our son - I have to agree.

However, therein lies the rub. ‘Someone who knows what they are talking about’ can be very hard to find. After the last six years of caring for my two eczema-prone sons, I know that in reality it’s practically impossible. I would even hazard a guess that I know more about the condition than most GP’s – and certainly most health visitors. And that’s not to blow my own trumpet, but simply to highlight how poorly informed they often are.

To look at my sons now, you wouldn’t notice they had eczema. Paradoxically, my younger son – who has been treated almost from the start in a much more aggressive steroid-slap-happy manner than his older sibling – is the one who now has much better skin. You can draw your own conclusions from that.

So, whilst I know that every child is different, and the root causes of this condition can be any one of a number of things, here is the checklist that we use and which I hand out to friends and family who find themselves at their wits’ end trying to sort out their child’s eczema.

1. If your child’s eczema is not simply the type that manifests itself as an occasional flare-up which can be treated with prescribed hydrocortisone, get your child referred to a paedriatric dermatology team as soon as possible. Some hospitals will have better teams than others I know, but all of them will be better equipped to deal with this than your local GP or health visitor.

2. Whilst you’re waiting for this appointment, you will no doubt find different ways of coping. We follow this routine;
a) Moisturising morning and night, even the eczema free zones. We use Cetraben lotion twice a day; I was told by a very experienced eczema nurse ‘this stuff is magic’, and compared to the others on offer out there I couldn’t agree more.
b) Our boys have a bath every day, rain or shine. It’s often said that children with eczema should only be bathed once a week, but this may not necessarily be the case. In fact, of the serious sufferers that I know, almost all of them have been prescribed daily baths by a dermatology consultant.
c) Before they get in we cover them with a mild anti-bacterial lotion; we use Dermol 500, and this replaces the need for soap.
d) We use a capful of fragrance-free Oilatum or similar in the warm water.
e) We wipe off the Dermol 500 with a clean flannel in the bath.
f) No soap, and once a week or so, the gentlest shampoo we can find. When we do wash their hair, we rinse them off with clean water from a shower attachment as they get out of the bath to avoid the shampoo staying on their skin.
g) After drying off, we moisturise all over as detailed in point a.

3. This is our routine only, but whatever you do, when you get your appointment with the consultant make sure to tell him exactly what you’ve been doing as they may wish to try something completely different.

Finally, as unfashionable as it may be to say it in today’s increasingly alternative therapy-keen society, whilst the routine I’ve listed above has improved our children’s skin immeasurably, it’s been using the prescribed drugs – the dreaded steroids - that has really made the difference.

Sometimes, the drugs do work.

Note: Oilatum Fragrance Free, Dermol 500 and Cetraben Lotion are all available over the counter from your pharamcist or on prescription from your doctor. I would recommend the latter; a large tub/bottle of each will set you back between £9 - £11, and will only last around 3 - 4 weeks (although I do have 2 children...).

Thursday 19 April 2012

Things I never imagined I would say at dinner time... Or; Chow Time at the OK Corral...

  • For the last time, it is not a race.
  • And that is not a gun.
  • It's a test tube containing a mechanised bug.
  • I know you know that.
  • No, it is not a gun in disguise.
  • Stop pointing the gun at your brother.
  • No, I know it's not a gun.
  • Because you keep using it as one.
  • But I know it's not a gun.
  • Just because your brother is pointing a gun - sorry, hex bug in a test tube - at you, doesn't mean you can do the same thing back.
  • I know it's not a gun.
  • It's like having dinner during 'Shoot out at the OK Corral' here.
  • No, it's not a real place.
  • It's the name of a black and white film.
  • Yes, they did make black and white films once.
  • Really.
  • A very very very very long time ago.
  • No, I was not alive then.
  • And I did not live in a corral.
  • Because a corral is a place you keep horses.
  • And OK was the name of the ranch, not a ranking of how good it was.
  • A ranch is a farm in America, where cowboys work.
  • And 'The OK Corral' was where they had a famous gun fight - or at least, there was a film about it.
  • Put the gun down.
  • No, I know it's not a gun...

Repeat to fade...

With apologies to Millenium Mum who was the supreme master of this blogging genre in her 'Things I have said...' posts. She stopped blogging some time ago, but I still miss her lists.

Tuesday 17 April 2012

Getting irate about being ripped off; today it's the car hire companies...

I'm not a campaigning sort of a person. Yes, I put my name to lots of petitions, and from time to time support campaigns on Twitter and here, on The Potty Diaries, but overall I don't usually use 'my' space on the internet as a platform to push for change.

But something has caught my attention and it's really got my goat, so I want to try and start a conversation about it. It's nothing earth-shattering, but it is unfair and I find it intensely annoying that the average consumer is being screwed over by a group of companies who think that they can get away with something just because they're all doing it.

What is it?

Car seats.

To be precise, car hire companies and booster seats - and the shocking way that parents of children under 12 are ripped off.

If you don't have children under the age of 12 (or over the height of 135 cm, whichever comes first - see here for full UK government guidelines) this may not be something you're concerned about, in which case click away now, because I am going to have a good old-fashioned rant on this subject.

We are a family that travels. Even when we visit 'home' we are not the sort of expats who are lucky enough to arrive back in our country of origin to a car that's been mothballed during our absence; if we want to be mobile and able to visit family and friends in difficult to reach places in the UK, we have to hire a car. And, with two children well under both the height and age limits for car booster seats in the UK, we need booster seats for them to sit on.

All well and good. But where to get them from?

Essentially there are 3 options.

1. Take booster seats with us

Increasingly we do this, but it's not always practical if we are only going for a short trip (family emergencies, surprise visits etc). Even when it is, in today's world of ever-decreasing baggage allowances I'm not sure how much longer we're going to be able to keep it up. And when you're away for more than a week or so and unsure what the weather might hold for you - welcome to Britain in Summer! - you need clothes to cover every eventuality, so finding the space for two booster seats - even the less bulky kind - isn't easy. Of course, there are companies that help with this (the excellent inflatable Bubblebum and Trunki's BoostaPak are two that spring to mind), but not everybody is in the position to spend the money involved, especially if you have two or more children, and even these options take space.

2. Buy a booster seat when we reach our destination

Because that's every holiday-maker's dream, isn't it, to pick up their hire car and then head straight for the nearest B&Q / Mothercare / Halfords to pick up booster seats for their children so they can safely drive on to their destination? And then of course, what to do with them when your trip is over? Leave them with the car you've hired (hardly 'reduce, reuse and recyle' if you do that every time you make a trip), or try to cram it into your already over-stuffed suitcase along with the dirty laundry? *

Which leaves us with...

3. Hire a booster seat from your car hire company

If you book your car hire online, as most of us do, the option to book car seats - and the cost of doing so - will not show up until you confirm your booking. For some reason - I can't imagine why - the quotation with which you are hooked into a car hire deal won't give you the opportunity to see the price of a car seat. Whisper it softly, but perhaps this is because if you have two or more children, the price is so ridiculous that they don't want you to know what it is in advance.

Hiring a booster seat from the mainstream car hire companies in the UK will cost you a minimum of £4 a day, and a maximum of £9 a day, per booster seat. So say you hire booster seats for a week for two children under 12 years old, that will cost you £56 at best, and £126 at worst. Obviously you're not going to spend that money, especially when the car itself is yours for the week at around £130.**

Instead then, you are forced either to take your own booster seat, or to purchase one at the nearest shop selling them once you've collected the car, and then possibly leaving it in your hire car when you return it. I mean, why not, since you may only have paid £10 for it at Halfords or similar? (I can tell you why not, actually; I am damned if I'm going to give these companies another car seat to add to their inventory for them to then make a clear profit on when they use it for the next hapless consumer with young children).

So here's my question; why don't Europcar, Hertz, Avis, Alamo, Budget, Sixt, Thrifty, Dollar, National and the rest, many of whom make noises about making consumer's lives easier and being family friendly, and safety conscious, to boot, (boom boom) do something about this?

They wouldn't have to give booster seats away for free - heaven forbid. They could take a deposit to the value of the seat against it's clean and useable return (and those of us who have used their in-house models know that 'clean' is not something always guaranteed even when you pay the hefty hire charge). Hell, I don't want not to pay for a service; they could even keep some deposit at the end of the hire period - £5, perhaps - to cover the cost to them of buying new booster seats every 4 hires or so. As if.

As I said at the start of this post, there are far more important issues in the world out there than this right now. But to me this is just another example of consumers being ripped off by suppliers for no good reason other than that the suppliers can get away with it. And whilst that is inherently part of a market economy, I resent that they are making use of my parental wish - and legal obligation - to keep my children safe on the roads, to do so.

What do you think?

*Of course, if you're flying to meet up with family, there's always the option of persuading long-suffering relatives to meet you at the airport with a booster seat you have left with them. Except... that's always assuming they live close enough to do it, and that they will also be happy to accompany you back there on the way to connect with your return flight too. Even the most doting grannies and grandads are going to find that one loses it's attraction soon enough.

** The hire price for a small 5 door car based on a quote received yesterday for 1 week in July 2012

Monday 16 April 2012

You don't bring me flowers, anymore...

Many, many years ago, back in the mid-1990’s when I first visited Moscow, I was struck by the number of florist stands in evidence. Although things have changed in Britain on this front now, back then there might have been one ‘proper’ florist on most UK high streets, along with a green grocer selling tulips or daffs depending on the season. There was rarely more than that unless you counted the sad looking carnations piled into buckets on garage fore-courts – and I don’t. Or didn’t, back then.

In 1995 Moscow however, there were tsveti (flower) kiosks on every corner and outside every metro station; tiny admittedly, but still there, a beacon of colour and cheerfulness amongst what seemed at the time to be rather a lot of grey. I was touched by the number of girls on dates who proudly carried a single flower for the evening, if perhaps a little puzzled that more substantial bouquets weren’t much in evidence. If anything, however, I imagined the reason for this would be the sheer inconvenience of carrying a bunch of flowers around with you; yes, they’re lovely to look at, but have you ever tried to get one home undamaged on the metro?

Ah, the sweet innocence of youth. Fast-forward 15 years to 2010 and it was my first International Women’s Day (or March 8th) in Russia. Like any good wife I made it clear to Husband that flowers were expected – no, mandatory – on this day of days, and so, not wanting to disillusion me quite so soon after we arrived here, he delivered. A very lovely bouquet it was, too, and out interest, I asked him what it cost. When he told me the penny finally dropped; the reason those girls walked around holding a single rose as if it was worth it’s weight in gold? Well, it more or less was.

On learning this, I promptly announced that whilst I loved flowers, I preferred trips ‘home’ more, so we’ve not had so many flowers adorning our house here in Moscow over the last couple of years. I’m guessing that the reason they are so expensive is due to the cost of shipping them in from warmer climes / Dutch hot-houses, although Russian friends of mine disagree, muttering darkly about middle-men and greed. Whatever the reason for it, I hadn’t realised how much I missed having that splash of colour around the place, especially during the colder months, until this weekend when we had some friends over for dinner and one of them brought us the most beautiful bunch of tulips.

So, whilst looking at them nodding cheerfully at me over my lap top screen as I write this post and they take over our dining room table (did you know that tulips continue to grow once cut?) I wondered if, in these credit-crunched times, flowers really are so much more expensive here than back in the UK. I decided to do a little comparative price research; a bunch of 15 tulips from our local tsveti stand , versus what people are paying for the same back in the UK; in which country would they cost more?

The verdict?

Let’s just say that whenever we eventually move 'home', I’m not sure Husband will be bringing me many more bunches of flowers than he does now...

This post was first published on my other blog, 'Diaries of a Moscow Mum' over at The Moscow Times Online.

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Having your Russian cake and eating it too.

We've just been staying with my parents, and as an Easter gift I took not only a set of decorated wooden eggs, but a Russian Easter Cake for my mother.

A word about Russian patisserie; it looks great. It's all pretty and squirly and sparkly and mouthwatering; in short, a feast for the eye. There's just one problem; it tastes - well, honestly? Rubbish. Dry, bland, boring. To a family that likes cake, majorly disappointing, in other words. We discovered this over two years ago when, shortly after we moved to Moscow, we bought a birthday cake for Boy #2 and cut through the crisp, glossy dark chocolate shell on the outside to find what was essentially a big marshmallow (but without a marshmallow's redeeming feature - yumminess) inside.

So when I handed the Easter cake over to my mother, I warned her that it was 'for display purposes only' and that she could eat it at her peril.

Of course, that's what she tried to do (she is my mother, after all), but after one bite gave up in disgust at the sawdust-like contents. Later that day both my sister and Boy #1 were with me when Mum mentioned that she had tried the cake and didn't like it. Unsurprised, I reminded her that Russian cakes are all style and no substance and this (I pause here to wipe a proud tear from my eye) is what my son then said.

"You see, Gran, Russian cakes are a bit like girls. Just because they look all pretty on the outside, it doesn't mean that that's how they are inside. A girl might look beautiful but that doesn't mean she's a nice person inside. How a person or a cake looks doesn't really mean you can tell what they're actually like."

I looked at my sister. My sister looked at me. And I only just managed to avoid high-kicking across the room and saying 'My work here is done'...

Friday 6 April 2012

Appropriate compliments from your children

Yesterday morning, after some proper venting of the lungs from yours truly, I had the following conversation with my sons.

"I can't believe I have to lose it with you two before you take any notice of me. And when I'm so perfect as well."

Boy #2's head came up from where he was paying close attention to some lego contraption. "What?"

"Don't say 'what', say 'I beg your pardon.' And I said, I wish I didn't have to shout for you two to pay any attention to what I'm asking you to do. Especially when I'm the world's best mother."

"Yeees." Boy #2 nodded his head.

On a roll, I thought I would push it a bit further. "And when I'm so wonderful, and beautiful, and generally gorgeous, as well..."

"Yes" he agreed, straight-faced. "You are."

Boy #1 poked his head around the edge of the door. "And don't you think that she's really hot too, Boy #2?"

Hmm. Being called 'hot' by my son? Not OK. But how to explain what is - and what isn't - an appropriate compliment for a son to give his mother when he's 8 years old, wants to make her feel good, and is not yet (thank god) tuned in to the double meaning of words? 'Beautiful' - fine. 'Pretty' - also fine. 'Hot'? Is not.

I got around it by suggesting that 'hot' is the sort of thing you might say about a girl you wanted to marry and have a family with (not that the two have to go hand in hand of course, but it is the model they know), but that it wasn't the sort of thing to say to your mum. Unless, of course, you are talking about her looking a little flustered...

But how would you have dealt with it?

Thursday 5 April 2012

Money Money Money Money - can we change the record, please?

Recently, I have been thinking about Money. More precisely, Money and Stay At Home Mums – of which I am one.

I want to start by saying that I do not for a moment regret putting my career on hold / consigning 18 years of valuable experience to the dustbin (delete as appropriate) when I made the choice 5 years ago to take a break from full-time paid employment. It has given me the chance to spend some fantastic time with my children, and it made our family’s decision to up sticks and move temporarily to Russia so much simpler.


I hate, hate, HATE not earning my 'own' money. And it’s really starting to get me down.

In these recession-laden times our family is, like most, counting the pennies. Like most with one stay-at-home partner, we have those breakfast-time conversations, the ones that start with ‘You know that x amount which is supposed to last us all month? Well, I know it’s only such and such a date, but I need some more...’, which then move on to ‘And no, I’m not spending it all on chocolate and lattes’, stopping briefly at ‘When was the last time YOU did the supermarket shop?’, and which finish up with ‘So can you transfer some more to my account before you leave for work?’, all before your other half has even opened his mouth to say ‘Yes, sure, let me get straight to it.

You see, the problem with this arrangement – the one where my husband goes out to a place of employment and is paid a salary, whilst I do the more domestic-based tasks, which involve - amongst other things - spending the money, is not his attitude; it’s mine.

I find it really difficult to actually bring myself to discuss any shortfall in funds in a timely manner. For some reason, whilst logically I know that what Husband earns is as a result of our joint efforts and so consequently should qualify as our salary rather than his, it seems that deep down in a basement somewhere in my subconscious, I don’t really believe that. How else to account for the way that I put off discussing the fact that I require additional cash – and put it off, and put it off – until, like some recalcitrant teenager holding their hand out as they leave for school, I need it not next week, not tomorrow, but now-RIGHT-NOW? Not the most mature approach, I think you’ll agree.

For those of you who are thinking ‘Why not just go out and get a job?’ believe me, I've considered it - from every angle. Unfortunately, leaving aside any concerns I might have about the standard of childcare available here (over my dead body), living where we do the cost of a nanny/housekeeper to do all the jobs that I wouldn’t be able to if I were working outside the home would just about cancel out any financial gains I might make. It simply doesn’t make any sense.

So I scrape together what I can through the blog, freelancing and copy editing and so on but frankly, it isn’t much (not even enough to get taxed on) and seems to disappear the moment it hits my bank account.

Something has to change, whether it’s my getting more savvy at marketing my particular skill-set (writing, blogging, marketing, and hunting down suppliers of decent cheddar and chocolate in Moscow), or finally finishing the novel currently lurking at the bottom of list of priorities and selling it for a six-figure sum to the publishing houses all avidly waiting for me to send it off to them.

Hmm. Not a big ask, surely. Or perhaps I should just buy cheaper cheese and chocolate...?

Wednesday 4 April 2012

The Gallery; At Peace

This post is for Wk 97 of Tara's Gallery - click here to see all the other entries.

I went to Izmailova Market* this morning, fully intending to take pictures that illustrate - to me, at least - that whilst Moscow is many things, 'at peace' (this week's prompt) is not the first condition to spring to mind.

I took some too, but when I was downloading them to my computer I came across the photograph below, taken one morning this week when I rushed out of the house with split second timing for the school run as usual, to find my sons had drawn this in the snow for me, unprompted. And for one moment, in amongst the hurly burly of our daily life, I was at peace.

*Izmailova Market is a good place to head for souvenirs, small gifts, army surplus, and kitsch of almost any description but most especially matrushka dolls, and seasonal decorations like these...

Monday 2 April 2012

A Life Less Ordinary

So as Spring sets in (finally! Hurrah!) we’re reaching that time of year again in expat-family-land; the time when friends on rotation announce matter of factly that their 2/3/4 year contract in Russia is coming to an end and that when the end of the school year arrives, they will be packing their bags and braving the journey around MKAD (the Moscow equivalent to the M25) to the airport for the last time.

Some of them are delighted to be sharing this news; they feel that they can’t shake the dust of this city from their shoes soon enough. The long winters, the traffic, the bureaucracy, the language, the traffic, the expense, the long winters, the traffic; it’s all too much and they can’t wait to move somewhere more comfortable / warmer / more user-friendly / just more like home. Or, indeed, to move Home.

I’m pleased that these people are getting what they want, but a little sorry they didn’t enjoy their time here more. They may have made the best of it that they could, but these unwilling residents rarely open themselves up to all that the city has to offer, preferring instead to stay within their safety zone and limit their exposure to the lows of Moscow living as much as possible. Problem is, if you limit your exposure to the lows, you’re unlikely to get the chance to feel the highs, either.

For other expats on rotation however, leaving Russia is a wrench. This country can get under your skin in a surprisingly short amount of time. Mundane tasks like buying your travel ticket take on an added dimension when you’re doing it in the glamorously dingy (yes, a contradiction in terms I know, but somehow it works) Moscow Metro. Trudging through the underpass from one side of Tverskaya to the other, past the tiny underground kiosks selling everything from stockings to cigarette lighters, from fur hats to chocolate bars – all within a 100 meter stretch - should be a chore but only serves to remind them that, wow; they’re in Moscow. Wrapping up properly against the minus 15degC chill in the winter somehow seems – to them - much more bearable than rushing out into a +2degC morning back home wearing only a raincoat. Even battling the rush hour here can seem more of an adventure than it does elsewhere.

Life may not be comfortable as an expat in Moscow – especially when you first arrive – but it’s certainly an adventure, and before they know it, many expats have become a person living ‘a life less ordinary’ – or at least, a life less ordinary than the one they left back home – and that can be addictive.

I freely admit to falling into the latter camp and know that when my time comes to move on from here, as it will eventually, I also will be left with a sense of unfinished business and a sense of nostalgia for the rush that living in this city can give you. So saying goodbye to friends is bittersweet; I hate to see them go, but at the same time it’s a useful reminder to make the most of the opportunities here before we, too, have to return to a life more ordinary...

This post first appeared on my other blog, 'Diaries of a Moscow Mum' at The Moscow Times Online.