Tuesday 30 October 2012

Be careful what you wish for - weather-wise, at least...

For the last couple of weeks, as the daytime temperature in Moscow has vacillated somewhere between 6 and 12 degreesC and the final few leaves have clung stubbornly to the trees, I've been thinking about writing a post entitled 'Winter? Bring it on...' or some other such nonsense.

It was going to be all about how I don't particularly enjoy Autumn and Spring here in Moscow.  Sure, the beginning of the former and the end of the latter are pretty and have their own charm, but on the whole the trees are bare, the grass is beginning to thin out showing the bare earth beneath, and everything is just so unremittingly... dreary.  Plus, there are those difficult wardrobe choices.  Heavy sweaters, or layers?  Duvet coat to roast in, or sassy jacket to shiver in?  Hell, you never even know which shoes to wear - boots, which will feel so heavy by the end of the day but keep out the rain, or late summer sneakers, which aren't quite so full-on but will result in cold feet? - or indeed what the changeable weather is going to bring.  No, I thought to myself, once Winter properly bites, life is much simpler; it's cold, get on with it.

Well, Winter has bitten - at least by British standards.  We had proper snow - about 15cm of it - on the car when we woke up on Sunday morning, followed by freezing rain throughout the day (such lovely conditions in which to see Red Square, as we did with some friends who are visiting us at the moment), and since then the temperature has hovered around 0degC.  We have unearthed the boys' snow pants; found, lost, and found again their hats, gloves and scarves; and I'm sitting here looking out of the window as a mixture of hail, snow and sleet falls on the crusting of ice on the roads and pavements.

And as it's not even November yet, this is the warmest it's likely to get until some time next April.  In fact, before too long, 0degC is going to seem like some impossibly tropical temperature as we shiver down in the minus teens and below.

Bring on Winter?  What the hell was I thinking?

Monday 29 October 2012

Apologies for absence...

Notice how the frequency of my posts has fallen over the last few days?

It's the result of a perfect storm of visitors and school half term.

See you soon...

PM x

Friday 26 October 2012

It seemed like a good idea at the time...

So I've committed to showing some of my photos at a very low key art fair in a couple of weeks time.  You know - the type where people might actually pay money to buy pictures that I've taken.  I must be bonkers, putting myself on the line like this but I suppose it's one way of keeping myself entertained...

Interesting how having that kind of deadline can focus the mind on just how few images you actually have in your portfolio - so yesterday I went out and took some more.  I still don't have enough - but it's a start.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Thoughts running through my head...

... on discovering a grey hair in one eyebrow this morning.

  • Is that what I think it is?
  • What the...?
  • No, I mean, what the...?
  • You have got to be kidding.
  • Where did that come from?  It wasn't there yesterday - was it?  Or has it been there all week, all grey and wiry in plain view and - oh, the horror - everyone else has noticed but nobody has wanted to tell me?
  • I'm too young for this shxt.
  • Should I pull it out? *Reaches for the tweezers*
  • Should I leave it?  *Puts the tweezers back down*
  • Blink.  Breathe.  Take another look.
  • Shxt.  It's still there.
  • I'm going to pull it out.
  • No, wait!  If I pull it out, will 2 grow back in it's place? 
  • I don't care.  If I leave it, it will just get longer and longer and take over my face.
  • OK, I know that doesn't happen with my other eyebrow hairs but this is new, this is alien.  I have no idea how this blighter might behave.
  • I'm going to pull it out.
  • But - is that sensible?
  • I mean, am I going to pull out all the other grey / white hairs as they appear?  Because if I do, eventually I will be left with no eyebrows at all...
*Pause for reflection*.
  • Get a grip, woman.  It's one eyebrow hair.  
  • I could dye it...
  • No, don't be ridiculous.  Dye all my eyebrows for the sake of one grey hair?  I don't dye the hair on my head and there is a lot more than one grey hair in there...
  • Yes, but this is different. Somehow.
  • Pull it, pull it, pull it!
  • There.  Doesn't that feel better?
  • Stop checking, woman!  It's gone.  The sneaky little...

Tell me, blogosphere - at what stage should I give up the fight?  And how do you deal with this particular indignity of aging?

Tuesday 16 October 2012

Reality checks...

I'm sitting here listening to Lily Allen sing 'Oh my God I can't believe it... I've never been this far away from home' and sympathising.

For various reasons, I'm feeling quite a long way from home myself right now.

Russia is a capricious host; most of the time I feel reasonably assimilated but now and again, just when I've dropped my guard, she throws in a curve ball to remind me that I'm not in Kansas anymore*.

This morning, for example, I was driving on a busy road and - ironically - just congratulating myself on how well I was negotiating the famously aggressive traffic, when some (expletive deleted) in a shiny black merc swerved out from behind me into the lane I was pulling into, missing me by centimetres.  He then pulled the same trick on two cars in front of me before repeating the process back across the highway as he drove into the bus lane to disappear into the distance with, thank god, no harm done.

I dearly hope that he was also accompanied by sound of shutters clicking on some of the newly installed Moscow bus lane cameras that should charge him 3000r (approx $100 or £60) a pop for the pleasure of using the traffic-free lane, but something tells me that that sort of money won't mean too much for this driver. Such is life in this city.

I've also been struggling recently with another reality check that often slaps me in the face when I'm not expecting it; the casual racism displayed by far too many of Moscows' residents, many of them highly educated and who should ruddy well know better. This is top of mind after a couple of incidents over the weekend, hence this outburst.  I should probably keep it to myself but after all, this is my blog and I need to say this somewhere: how the hell, Russia, do you ever expect to be treated they way you want to be by countries in Western Europe when you persist in treating people of any colour except white as somehow 'less', and as objects of suspicion if not outright derision?  Sometimes, living in this country is like watching a playback of some of the worst parts of 1970's Britain.

There is racism everywhere to varying degrees, I know that, and the racism here is based on the fear and ignorance of a previously mainly homogonous society adapting to a more global outlook, but that doesn't make it any more acceptable.  It's manifestations and the stupidity it is based upon, along with those who exploit that, makes me angry.  Actually, it makes me spitting mad, whilst of course the people who are on the receiving end of this kind of behaviour are far more dignified about it than I am, rising above it and simply getting on with their lives.

*Obviously a reference to Dorothy's words to Toto on her arrival in Oz.  But you knew that...

Thursday 11 October 2012

When your children still think you can do ANYTHING...

The Boys' school has a used book fair on at the moment.  The basic premise is that the children comb through the shelves to find books they don't want anymore, and take them into school where they exchange  them for 'book bucks', which they can then swap for - you guessed it - more books.

So - an opportunity to rid ourselves of books that are too young a reader-age, and to get new books more appropriate to the Boys into the bargain?  Fantastic.

Obviously, we forgot all about it.

This necessitated a last minute rifle through the shelves and some hard decisions about which titles we loved too much to give away, even if they were way too young for the Boys these days.  At the final count we managed a total of 20 books to swap - many of which, it has to be said, had been acquired at previous book fairs and which I was only too happy to see go (Transformers or Pokemon, anyone?).

The Boys were delighted; this gave each of them a total of 10 book bucks to spend.  The only problem was that, having left it to the last minute, a lot of the best books had already gone and so the selection to choose from was somewhat thinner than they might have liked.  This meant that when he had chosen the books he wanted, Boy #2 still had one book buck left over.  He decided that rather than saving it for the next fair, he would - dear heart - spend it on me.

This is why, when I collected him from school the day before yesterday, he made me a gift of this book.

I like to think of it as evidence of his lofty ambition for me.

Monday 8 October 2012

Competitive sport is important. But let's keep a sense of proportion, please...

My sons have been playing in a competitive football league for the last couple of months, Boy#2 for the first time in his life like most of  his team-mates.

The nearly-over season hasn't been a complete washout - but neither has it been what you might called an unqualified success.  If you count 'success' as actually winning games, that is...  However it has been fun, and not just for the Boys, as it gives parents the chance to catch up on the sidelines.

There's no such thing as a 'drop your kids at the match and pop off to do a couple of errands' opportunity here in Moscow, mainly because even if you were able to tear yourself from your little cherub's side, the ground is so far from home - and the traffic so unpredictable - that if you tried to go anywhere else during the hour the children have on-pitch, you would actually end up collecting them as darkness fell at least 5 hours later.  Not really worth it if even if you do have a hard-core caffeine habit and are desperate for a coffee in Starbucks half a mile down the road; the chances are too great your caffeine hit will result in being caught in the mother of all jams on your way back.

So, the parents usually stay and shout their support to the 6 and 7 year olds buzzing around the pitch like a swarm of bees, and it has to be said that some nationalities of parent are more vociferous and aggressive in this than others.  Yes, American and French expat dads - I'm looking at you.  Listening to many of them, you would think that their children were trying out for some top-flight football academy rather than simply enjoying a run around on a Saturday morning.  Having said that, I'm afraid that even we more retiring nations can give our noisier peers a run for their money on occasion.  I give you Exhibit A.

Yesterday morning, I was standing with a couple of other mothers from the British Isles watching our sons losing their match.  Again.  We were of course trying to lift their spirits, shouting support (I do recall at one moment suggesting to Boy#2 that he face the ball rather than chatting to a fellow player - that's what we're working with in the Potski Family, I'm afraid).  The son of one of the women I was standing with was in goal, so we had stationed ourselves near the posts to gee him up - which seemed like an excellent idea at the time.

Until the moment when the ball careered across the pitch towards the little boy - and the goal.  At which point, his excited mum, somewhat carried away by the moment and desperate to save him from the ignominy of letting in another goal, ran onto the pitch and - well, sort of helped the ball on it's way, off the pitch.  By, um, kicking it.


To say she was embarrassed when she realised what she'd done is an understatement.  To say that the other mum & I nearly wet ourselves laughing is another.  But you know what topped off the whole experience for me? The look on the faces of the group of dads supporting the opposing team when they realised that they couldn't actually make that much of a fuss about it without appearing to be complete plonkers; not only were their team already winning handsomely but we were, after all, watching a game for 6 and 7 year old children...

Friday 5 October 2012

Security guards, talons, and a Boy's imagination

If your children attend at an expat school in Russia, there are certain things that one needs to take as a given.  The mix of nationalities, for one.  The yearly changeover of students and staff (between 20% and 30% move on at the end of every year), for another.  And the ever-present Oxrana (pronounced ochrana - with 'ch' as in 'loch' and which means 'security guards').

I thought that the Boys didn't really pay much attention to the security guys; sure, they are always there at the boundaries, demanding to see our passes, opening the gates and barriers and waving us through, but overall they are an affable team, especially if you take the time to smile and wish them good morning and good afternoon when you see them.  You would be surprised how many parents don't - but that's a subject for another post...

Yesterday, however, changed that.  It was an inset day so there was no school, but there was an after-school activity the Boys were attending which meant we needed to enter the premises at around 6pm.

As we reached the main gate, one of the Oxrana approached the car.  The premises were closed today, he said unsmilingly.  No entry.  Ah, but I countered.  We have Taekwondo to go to - at which point he happily waved us through.

Boy #2 was amazed.  "He KNOWS about Taekwondo?  How does he know about Taekwondo?"

Before I could answer, his brother jumped in.  "The security guys know everything.  They know all.  They are constantly watching, constantly circling, like hawks, above us."

There was a moments silence.  The Boy #1 concluded; "At night, when they sleep, they dream of being hawks, and they sharpen their talons in the darkness..."

It appears I'm not the only one in the family with an imagination.  And I will make doubly sure I continue to say good morning to them from now on...

Tuesday 2 October 2012

Blogging; What's changed in 5 years?

The lovely Iota over at 'The Iota Quota' wrote last week about the changes she's seen in blogging over the five years she's been doing it and invited some 'bloggers who've been around a while' to share their thoughts on this one.

That's nice, I thought.  Until I realised I was on the list.  'Been around a while'? How very dare you, Iota;  I am but a spring chicken.  Surely I only started blogging in the last year or so?  Except... I was definitely blogging before we came to Russia, and that's nearly 3 years ago.  And I was blogging before Boy #1 started school - and that's 4 years ago.  And in fact, I was blogging when Boy #2 hit 18 months old which is - oh, dammit.  More than 5 years ago.

OK, you've got me.  I am an old, venerable, and be-whiskered blogger.  Pass me the tweezers, somebody, but in the meantime, what's changed in 5 years?  I'm guessing you're not going to just accept it if I write: 'What Iota said'?  (Because honestly, she covers more or less everything I would have written, it's just that she puts it better.)  Let's see...

You'll have to bear with me - because I'm so old and be-whiskered, my memory is not what it used to be...

Posts have got shorter, I think.  I'm not sure if we've got better at saying what we want to and then stopping (one of the best pieces of advice I've ever read about writing), or if instead that those of us who have been doing this for a while have worked through our issues (on our blogs, obviously) and now find our urge to share less compelling.  Or maybe it's just that I self-edit on the blogs I read; there are so many more out there than there than there used to be (look at that - I just seamlessly segued into my next point - that's because I'm such an experienced blogger, donchaknow...) that if I'm to have any hope of keeping up with them all I have to select them carefully.

There seem to be less 'car-crash' blogs out there.  By which I mean, blogs that contain such dreadful situations for the writer that you can't bear to look away.  Whilst this may also be down to that pesky self-editing on my reader list, I actually think that some of the people who did this now use Twitter and FaceBook etc to share their pain, and the others - well, they worked it through on their blog.  (I always say that blogging is the cheapest form of therapy I ever found).  But perhaps it's also that people are getting wise to the fact that once they put something 'out there' on the internet, like it or not it's there for good - so they decide not to publish.

Which leads me onto the fact that there appear to be fewer 'anonymous' blogs out there.  Once upon a time we (and I include myself in this) naively believed such a thing was really possible.  As if.  Nowadays though, I think many of us have faced up to the fact that if you blog more than once a twice, you are probably going to have to 'fess up to it for a number of reasons, such as;

  • People want to know just what it is you're up to when you spend all your time tip-tapping away on the lap-top. 
  • They now know about blogs (it's no longer seen as the underground activity of choice for nerds who never go out - no, really, it isn't!) so if they get the merest hint that you have one, they want to know all about it
  • If you refuse to tell them which yours is, they have also become more savvy on google to find you, blast it.
  • Blogging can lead to proper, paid employment.  Even - gasp - outside the home, with coffee breaks and everything, so it's no longer uncool to include it on your cv.
  • It can lead to fun opportunities and to great friendships (mind you, that hasn't changed - it was always that way)
  • If you've been doing it for a while you develop a sense of pride in your accomplishments, and if you're a normal human being and not a saint the urge to shout 'Look what I did!'- especially when you reach some significant number like, say, 1000 posts (cough) - can become overwhelming.  Blogging becomes not just something you have to admit to, but something that that you want to talk about.

I could go on but obviously, being so venerable and everything I have lost my train of thought.  Also, I realise that to carry on any longer totally negates my point about posts nowadays being short, so I will take that piece of advice I mentioned earlier and now that I've said what I wanted to, I will stop.

Monday 1 October 2012

On looking forward...

I think I saw my future today.  Well, one possible version of it, at any rate.

At the consulate this morning to collect some documents, I was in line behind a young couple with a little boy of only a few weeks old.  The father was British, the mother was Russian, and they were there to apply for a passport for their baby.  When they reached the head of the very short line, the mother went to sit down and feed the baby, whilst the father had the following exchange with the lady on the desk.

"I'm here to apply for a passport for my son."  There was an expectant pause.  Which went on.  And on.  Finally, the clerk asked for the paperwork, at which point the father stood there a little longer before fishing it out of a plastic bag and handing it over.  From then on, all went smoothly.

I'm not quite sure what the (probably sleep-deprived and no doubt exhausted) new father had been expecting to happen on making his initial announcement, but remembering something of the extraordinary sense of pride a first-time parent feels in their offspring, I suspect he was waiting for the clerk to offer him her most heart-felt congratulations on the safe arrival of his no doubt brilliant child.  Perhaps, even, the popping of champagne corks and party poppers wouldn't be out of the question?

Needless to say, it was not forthcoming.  This lady probably deals with 5 - 10 such applications a day and was unimpressed.

You may be wondering why I think this little exchange could be a snapshot of my future.  Well, it's not - not directly.  But as I sat there watching this couple going through a key rite of passage for their baby son, it suddenly occurred to me that somewhere, probably back in the UK, there is a grandmother for whom this morning's events will be hugely important.  That this little boy getting a passport will mean she gets to see more of him growing up.  That she probably feels she's missing so much of his growing up already, and that when her son makes a call to her at some point over the next few days and tells her the passport application is in process, a heavy weight will lift from her shoulders and she'll start to make plans for their visit 'home'.

Last summer a good friend mentioned to me in passing that she wants to be back in her country of origin before her children are teenagers.  She feels that getting them back 'home' at that age is her best defence against her sons and daughters marrying people who will pull them not just one or two hours away from the family home, but a four or five hour flight away.  She wants the opportunity to be a part of her children's lives as they raise their own families, in the far off distant future.

This hadn't occurred to me before, but what she said stayed with me.  And when I saw a young family this morning who may or may not choose to make their home in Russia rather than back in the UK, it occurred to me that in years to come I might be that woman with sons who have married far from home, waiting for confirmation from them that being a part of my grandchildren's lives just got a little easier.

It sent something of cold chill through me, I have to admit.