Tuesday 17 December 2013

On the 17th Day of Advent...

... I went to the supermarket.

I've written about doing the shopping in Russia before, and won't bore you again with tales of tussles in the vegetable aisle or negotiating pallets of baked beans blocking access to the chocolate fixture (a particular bugbear of mine...).  Actually, I can't bore you with tales of the former - ruckuses over radishes - because actually, times have changed.  Either I am now immune to the hurly burly of an average visit to one of Moscow's larger hypermarkets - which, I am prepared to admit, may be at least partly the case after 4 years here - or (whisper it) the Lesser Spotted Russian Supermarket Shopper has evolved.

Certainly, their natural habitat, The Reasonably Priced Russian Supermarket, has done; I can now buy Cathedral City Cheddar, organic groceries, and reasonably priced French red wine nowadays, none of which I was able to do when we first arrived (and yes, I know there are plenty of good Russian cheeses, but sometimes only proper cheddar will do for your toastie).  I also find that it causes less consternation to the checkout staff when I pack shopping into my own bags these days, but to my shame I can never remember how tell them in Russian that that's what I'm planning.  I usually end up pulling boxes of cereal out of the flimsy pakyets (plastic bags) that the store provides and repacking them into my own tougher bags in a pantomime of inefficiency, before we understand each other on this matter.

Today, however, there was no problem.

Things started out as usual; I greeted the lady at the checkout, and then proceeded to go into my usual dumb foreigner pantomime of showing her I intended to pack the goods myself before I stopped.  Why not just ask her how to say it?

So I launched into my rudimentary Russian.  "Как сказать... *"  How do you say... intending to finish by miming the action of packing the shopping into my own bags  (I told you.  Dumb foreigner).

She interrupted, smiling.  "Where are you from?"

It turned out that this lady was an English teacher, originally from Kyrgyzstan  (and no, you're not seeing things.  There is not an a, e, i, o, or u in that word...).  She had recently arrived in Moscow and was unable to find a job in the profession she'd been trained for.  She told me how she was here with her husband, daughter and son, and had come to find work.  She told me that she missed home and speaking and teaching English, and that working in supermarket was - she hoped - a stop gap until she could find a job in a school.  And then she told me, without rancour or bitterness, that to do so was proving difficult, because she looks Asian.

For her, that is just how life is.  It seems that things here are changing - but not that much.

Merry Christmas.

*  Pronounced: Kak skazat'...

Monday 16 December 2013

On the 16th Day of Advent...

... I met someone who has - gasp - never watched 'The Polar Express'.  I promptly came home, dug it out, and watched it with Boys #1 and #2 after school, and despite the fact that it must be the nth time we've seen it, it did not disappoint.

Just in case there are any more of you out there who have never seen this delight of a movie, here's one of my favourite scenes.

And yes, that is an animated version of Tom Hanks playing The Conductor (one of the 5 roles he plays in this film).


Wednesday 11 December 2013

Things I have learned so far this December...

It's hard to admit it, but I think we may have outgrown The Great Little Trading Company as a hunting ground for Christmas gifts for the Boys.  Sniff...

Acquaintances will blank you if they see you're selling charity Christmas cards they don't want.

Hell really is other people's over-excited, over-hyped, over-excited children...

...and nothing you say will stop those angelic two year old twins turning into devils as they attack the balloon arch over the entrance to the Sinterklaas celebration...

...especially whilst their mother watches indulgently from the sidelines...

...so just chill.  And get over it.

The Dutch Sinterklaas Zwarte Piet tradition is just. Plain. Wrong.  There - I've said it.  And to all those apologists out there, I ask this question; Would you think it a charming Dutch tradition if you were black?

Adding a sledge to the school run mix in the morning makes what was previously a bitterly cold trek in minus 12degC darkness less of a trial, for you and the kids.  (It's still bitterly cold, mind you.  Just a bit more fun.)

Likewise the way home.

Long socks work.  End of.

You can't skimp on price for decent gloves.  Not if you live in Russia in the winter and have Raynaud's Disease, anyway...

Check where your glove warmers are the night before you go cross country skiing for the first time, instead of rushing through the house frantically searching boxes of winter kit whilst simultaneously chivvying the Boys to get ready for school and trying to put on a dark wash.

Thursday 5 December 2013

On the 5th Day of Advent...

... this was my walk home after dropping the Boys at school.

And, most likely, it will look almost identical when I walk them home after picking them up this afternoon...

Tuesday 3 December 2013

On the 3rd Day of Advent...

...I found myself going through some old blog posts, and chanced across this rather lengthy little Christmas-related number.  Reading it took me straight back to life as the mum of a pre-schooler and a toddler when, it seems to me, I was much funnier than I am now.  Perhaps that was the result of the heady cocktail of those days; part the aroma of pure panic (I'm in charge of two small children and How the Hell did THAT happen?), part steamed vegetables, part Calpol, and part nappy...


The Twelve (Interminable) Days of Christmas (December 2007)

So, yesterday was the big day. Now don't be coy - I know you're just desperate to find out how the hottest event in Kensington and Chelsea went down, but fear not, I'm here to pass on the good bits...

I suppose I should explain what on earth I'm talking about. Yes, it was Boy#1's Nursery Christmas Show. For reasons known only to themselves (I think they have a new and slightly over-enthusiastic - no, scratch that - a completely over the top drama teacher. But then again, when aren't they?), the theme this year was 'The 12 Days of Christmas' and each class was required to go up and represent one of the verses. Boy #1 was a piper. Hence the kilt. Yes, you heard me - kilt (just in case you missed that nugget a few posts ago). But frankly, looking at the line-up yesterday, I think we got off lucky.

Verse 1; The partridge looked as if the costume had been ordered from Angels Theatrical Costumiers, it was so professional. Except, of course, the partridge was 3 years old...

Verse 2: 2 turtle doves - bulk standard coat hanger wings. I think the ground-swell of parent opinion was 'compared to the partridge, could do better'.

V3: 3 French Hens. Except it wasn't 3 - it was 9. Dressed in breton t-shirts, berets, strings of onions, and doing a turn singing La Marsellaise...

V4: 20 calling birds. Lots of room for variation with 20, as you can imagine. And not much room on the stage, so for healthy and safety reasons there were actually 2 'hits', so we got the same 'show' - 10 children dressed as robins, dancing to Rocking Robin - twice. Hmmm.

V5: 12 gold rings. Lots of gold lame, probably the easiest option as most mums seemed to have simply made a poncho out of sparkly material. Can't remember the turn they gave as I was struggling with Boy#2 who was trying to make a bid for freedom at this point, scattering raisins as he went...

V6: 16 geese a-laying. Hilarious incident with one little boy who's mum had clearly gone to town with his costume, even giving him a padded stomach for authenticity, hogging the limelight and elbowing all the other children out of his way to give himself centre-stage. He was eventually restrained by the teacher and given a good talking to on the sidelines. Was rather losing the will to live by this stage, to be honest.

V7: 8 swans a-swimming. This provoked naked envy on the faces of all the mummies whose little girls did not form part of the 'swan' tableau, as they arrived dressed in tutu's, twirling a pirouette or two to the famous bit from Swan Lake. Sometimes I'm so glad I have sons...

V8: 11 drummers drumming. This did what it said on the tin. Yes, the power-crazy drama teacher had instructed hapless parents to go out and find a drummer costume for their boys. To their credit they had made a pretty good job - and the imitation beaver-skin headwear had to be seen to be believed. Mind you, this being Kensington & Chelsea I was rather disappointed that there was no real fur on stage...

V9: 8 maids a-milking. Consisted of the girls from Boy #1's class complete with mob caps and sand buckets, singing 'Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary' and crying because they had lost their cow. This segued seamlessly into...

V10: 6 pipers piping. Boy #1 and classmates following an honest-to-goodness Scots piper, bag-pipes wailing, up onto the stage. (All sense of proportion had clearly been lost by the drama teacher when she planned this one). They did a little dance and then tried to help the milk-maids find their cow and followed up with a Scottish reel. Boy #1 was grabbed at this point by one of the girls (who was half a foot taller than him), and they then capered around the stage dancing the reel. Not sure who instigated the choke-hold, him or his partner, but it was a relief for all when the dance finally ended without injury...

V11: 7 ladies dancing. Dressed as flamenco dancers and performing that authentic spanish number - you guessed it - the Macarena. By this stage the audience had been flagging, but this perked them up. Or got them riled - not sure which...

V12 (Thank the lord): 7 Lords a-leaping. Boys dressed as frogs, capering onto the stage, leaping around and then dancing with the flamenco-clad lovelies. I was past caring by now, as were Husband and Boy #2...

All this took around an hour and a half, by which time the audience of eager parents had had enough, stampeding out of the venue before the final hymn was even finished. Never has 'O little town of Bethlehem' been treated so caverlierly outside Midnight Mass...

Other Points of Interest:

Boy #1's kilt stayed up. Thankyou, Mother-in-law. Your skills with the needle know no bounds. Really, I mean this; my home ec teacher at school used to just tut and walk past my table as I struggled to make a patchwork cushion, so I am grateful, grateful, grateful, that you were able to step into the breach. 

Just to put my sewing abilities in context, Husband and I once had a huge falling out when he asked me to sew on a button. He was horrified that I refused. I was horrified that he had had the nerve to ask me. Really - if he wanted to ruin a perfectly good coat he could just have let the boys at it with a pair of pinking shears.

I also had a fit of the giggles whilst standing in the queue waiting to be let in to the church where it was all happening. (Oh yes, they couldn't let us in early. I mean, who knows what might have happened? We parents could have ended up throwing pews and everything. Lighting the votive candles, using the holy water, you name it. There is no end to the devilry that could have ensued).  I was having a perfectly normal conversation with the parents of one of Boy #1's classmates when a mutual acquaintance approached us and asked them "Do you like caviar?" Well, that's a conversation stopper if ever I heard one. And more to the point - why wasn't I invited to this apparantly swanky dinner party? Obviously, had she asked me, my answer would have been "only Beluga, sweetie - and of course it does rather depend on which champagne you are serving..."

Monday 2 December 2013

On the Second Day of Advent...

... I went out foraging into the Dark and Scary Forest (aka 'Auchan', a supermarket that everyone here has their own beautiful horror story about) and wrestled the masses at the tills to bring home a Christmas tree.

Except, it's not a Real Tree.

For I have caved, dear reader.  After years of saying 'the real thing, or nothing' I have decided that 'nothing' is just too dreary for words.

Why 'nothing'?  Well, we leave Moscow for 3 weeks over the break, which makes getting a real tree not only impractical but - bearing in mind the Russian 'Christmas' is two weeks after ours, so live trees don't go on sale until just before we leave - inconvenient.  Plus, the fierce heating here destroys all living plants in the winter (at least, the ones that I come into contact with, anyway) and I can just imagine the effect that coming back to the remains of a dessicated tree would have on a family already battling with the post-Christmas blues.  It doesn't bear thinking about, really, so for the last 4 festive seasons we've been Christmas-tree-less.

No more, though; faced with yet another year of trying to make decorations dotted around the house look sparkly rather than sad, today I went out and bought a 150cm high monster (ahem) for Potski Mansions.

I had told the Boys that I would be buying a tree, along with the fact that it would be artificial, but of course that 2nd fact had gone in one ear and straight out the other.  Consequently, when they were presented with a frankly unimpressive box when they got home from school, questions where asked.

"But how did you get it home?"  from Boy #1.  In the car, I replied.  "What, the whole tree?"  "Well - yes.  That is the whole tree, in that box, there."

There was a moment of silence.

"What do you mean, exactly?  The whole tree - in that box?"  Boy #1 couldn't quite believe it.  "Um. Yes.  But don't worry - it will be much bigger once we've put it together."

Boy #2 stepped up.  He held up a hand, calling for calm.  Thank god someone was taking charge...  I watched him as the disbelief on his face began to transform into something else.  Could it be...

"Wait a minute.  Do you mean...  we get to build a tree?  Fantastic!  I'm going to the kitchen to get the scissors so we can unwrap it!"

Yes.  Delight.  That was it.  

He's not known as The Engineer for nothing.

Saturday 30 November 2013

Seriously? There really IS nothing else to get stressed about?

Dear Mildred,

I've never written to an agony aunt before, but I can no longer help myself; I have a Problem.  I'm feeling disconnected and discombobulated because - well - I can hardly bring myself to say this...

It turns out that the Blessed Nigella may have been Living a Lie.  

That dreamlike world she appeared to inhabit, of a home smelling constantly of vanilla shortbread, mulled wine and/or fragrantly spiced made-in-advance casseroles?  It - gasp - doesn't exist.

Instead, it turns out that underneath the cashmere twinsets, splendid bosoms and luxuriant hair Nigella is (oh, the horror!) just like you and I.  Stressed, struggling and paddling like fxck.  Who knew?  I feel so let down, Mildred.  It turns out that my entire template of domestic excellence is built on a sham.  How can I possibly continue to use her recipe for Chocolate Birthday Cake for my impressionable children?  Where now can I turn to, to replace my standby Greek Lamb Casserole recipe at polite dinner parties?  Dear god, what about the Christmas turkey - how will I brine it? The Macaroni Cheese with ham on Boxing Day?  The Pear & Roquefort Salad that is my fail-safe starter?

All of these recipes, gone, Mildred.  Gone to shit.

Because you know, dear Mildred, it's not as if they are just recipe books, or anything like that.  It's not as if they are simply useful indexes that produce food that tastes delicious, end of story.  It's not as if Nigella's ability to create a menu has nothing whatsoever to do with the potential car crash her personal life may resemble.  I mean, there's the merchandise to consider, too.  The serving plates, the crockery, the aprons.  All of it must go to the Bring & Buy, tomorrow, if possible. 

And - oh god - what about the tv programmes?  How will I fill the gap left in the schedule?  Because I couldn't possibly sit and watch her cook now, giving me instruction on how to make a souffle without fuss when I know that the sparkly lights, the shiny utensils, the artfully placed kitsch, are not in Her Real Kitchen but are, in fact, part of a carefully constructed studio set.  You know, a tv studio.  Where ENTERTAINMENT is made.  Not part of her Real Life, at all.

I may never recover from this disappointment.

Yours, weepily

Betrayed of Moscow.

I'm hoping that if you've read this far you'll agree the above letter is ridiculous and have picked up on the fact that whilst I feel sympathy for all those involved in what seems to be a godawful mess, I'm getting a little bored with seeing it rehashed time and again in my timelines on fb and twitter.  You see, I have a confession; I don't really give two hoots about the personal lives of celebrities or the Great and the Good.

There.  I've said it.  My dirty little secret is out in the open.

I don't care about the personal lives of the Royals and their extended family - or at least, not more than I care about anyone else.  I don't give a flying fxck who that actress in whatever film it was is married to.  I don't want to know goes on behind Gordon's / Nigel's / Fanny Craddock's front door, and I'm not interested in seeing what the mother of the bride wore to so & so rugby player's wedding.

As for Nigella, it seems likely that she messed up.  She presented a face to the world that may not have been entirely the one that existed behind closed doors.  (Who would do such a thing, for goodness sake?)  She allegedly let people down.

And guess what - it's none of my business.

Sunday 24 November 2013

Dear Heathrow Terminal 5 Customer Service...

I love Heathrow Terminal 5.  I do.  The open spaces, the tranquil atmosphere (pre-check in, anyway), the cleanliness, the still-bright-as-a-new-penny surfaces everywhere.  Travelling through it should be a pleasure, really it should.

Funnily enough however, (although I can tell you, I'm not laughing that much), it isn't.  Not for the Potski family, anyway.  Long term readers of this site may be aware that both my sons are highly allergic to nuts.  We're fortunate that Boys #1 and #2 don't have atmospheric allergies - which would preclude air travel - but they can't eat or touch nuts and if they do, we have to resort firstly to anti-histamine and secondly, if that doesn't work and their airways start to close up, to epi-pens to give them a shot of adrenaline.  Thankfully, because the Piriton (our anti-histamine of choice) works, I've never had to use the latter, but I carry one with me always, just in case.  I know it's just a matter of time before we need to use it on one or other of my children - we've been lucky so far, but that can't last for ever.

For now, though, I am never - NEVER - without either form of medication in my handbag.  Well - not unless I've just come through Security at Heathrow Terminal 5, anyway.

I think I may have form with the bods who work at Security in this terminal.  I certainly never seem to have the same problem at any other terminal or airport.  At Heathrow T5, however,  I have had the bottle of Piriton in my handbag confiscated no less than 3 times so far.  It's almost as if they're looking out for me as I queue up with my children, juggling bags, coats, rucksacks and sweatshirts whilst trying to maintain some semblance of dignity as I hunt through my pockets for the paper clip I'm currently using to undo the zip on my boots.  (The pull came off.  What can I say?  They're my favourite boots, and no-one notices as long as I remember to take the paper clip out once I've done them up...)

However, it seems as if every time we reach the other side of the x-ray machine, there is one of our trays on the other side of the glass, just out of reach.  So near and yet so far.  My heart sinks - and the Boys look up at me worriedly; they know what's coming next as the person on duty sighs heavily and extracts the battered but still clear plastic bag from the tray, tutting at me disappointedly.  'It's antihistamine for my children' I explain.  'They're highly allergic to nuts.  I've tried to buy it in bottles of 100ml or less, but they don't sell it in that format.'  'I'm sorry madam.  I can't let it through.  The bottle size is 150ml, see?  Those are the rules...'

And no matter how much I point out that it is accompanied by a prescribed epi-pen so is clearly part of an approved medical procedure, and that it's almost half empty with what is obviously less than 100ml of liquid even in the bottle, they won't be moved.  'Don't worry madam' they say placatingly.  'There's a Boots just over there.  You can replace it straight away.'

Which is, I think you would agree, hardly the point when a) you have a perfectly good partly-used bottle right in front of you,  b) aren't we supposed to be taking care of our resources and c) you're catching a flight with two children so the chances you have an extra few minutes to spare to pop into Boots are quite slim...

So I decided to try and box clever this time.  I went into a pharmacy and bought a 100ml medicine bottle into which I decanted my half bottle of Piriton before going anywhere near the airport.  Then, this morning the Boys and I travelled to Heathrow T5 to head back to Moscow.

This is what happened after we came through the metal detector.

Boy #2:  "Mum - is that our tray over there?  On the belt we can't reach?"

My heart sank.  "Yes, it is.  OK, let's get everything together - Boy #1, can you hold my bag whilst I fish out the paper clip to do my boot up - and go and wait at the end."

We gathered our kit and caboodle and stood at the end of the of the Conveyor Belt of Shame.  I fixed my friendly but firm face on - because I KNEW, for god's sake, that the bottle of Piriton was less than 100ml, the chemist in the pharmacy had told me that - and waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

Finally, just as the technician in charge of the x-ray machine was getting up to come and talk to us, a cross-looking female officer stomped over.

Her:  "Is this your tray, madam?"

Me:  "Yes, it is.  Is the piriton the problem?  Because if it is -"

Her:  "No.  Do you have any electronics in this rucksack?  Because you're really supposed to take them out, you know."

Me:  "I don't think so, no.  Oh wait - it could be my son's DS - would that do it?"

Her, sighing heavily:  "Yes.  May I open the bag?"  She proceeded to unzip the front pocket.

Me:  "Sorry about that.  I thought it was just computers and suchlike.  It's not in the front pocket, by the way, it's -"

Her: "IF you don't mind madam, I will just do my job."

Me:  "Of course.... I was just trying to be helpful and -"

Her:  "We DO have procedure to follow, you know."

Me (at this stage thinking it might be wise to stay quiet about the other DS and my Kindle, both of which had gone through undetected and lay in bags that had escaped the slash and burn approach now being applied to Boy #2's rucksack):  "OK."  After a few moments of prodding around, and checking the little cloth on the stick in her special detector thingy (this is a technical term) she looked at me.

Her:  "Alright."

Me:  "So, is it OK for us to go?"

Her:  "I just need to check this bottle with my supervisor."

Me:  "I thought it was the DS that was the problem?"

Her:  "No, now I need to check to the bottle.  I don't hold out much hope, though."

Me:  "But the bottle size is 100ml."

Her:  "Doesn't say that, though, does it?"

Me:  "That's because I bought an empty bottle from the pharmacy.  It doesn't have a label on it because it had nothing in it when I bought it at Boots in Smalltown, Somerset."

Her:  "It's made of glass.  Boots don't sell un-labelled glass bottles."

Me:  "Actually, they do - when you can't find 100ml bottles anywhere else and they're trying to be helpful..."

She looked at me, eyebrows raised.  "Well, I'll check with the supervisor.  But I don't think he'll say yes."

Two minutes later she returned.  "Sorry madam.  I can't let you take it."

Our departure time was getting closer by now; I should have just left it but as you can imagine, I found it hard to walk away.  "Seriously?  Because this is vital for my sons' well-being and I really thought I'd done it all right this time.  I mean, this will be the fourth time I've had a bottle of Piriton confiscated at Terminal 5."

There is only way to describe the smile she gave me at that point; nasty.  "Well then, next time I suggest you buy a bottle that is clearly labelled '100ml'.  I would think you would have learned that by now.  Don't worry though - you can pick up a new bottle in the Boots just over there..."

Tuesday 12 November 2013

Save energy, save money. Russian vs UK central heating issues…

This is a sponsored post.

It is also a true story… 

When we arrived in Russia 4 years ago, during the coldest winter for a decade, I was amazed by how super-heated the buildings were.  It was cold enough outside to freeze the inside of the lock on our metal front door (sustained lows of -25 degC for a month will do that), but the temperature in the house was always a balmy +23 degC.  Wearing much more than a t-shirt meant you were ridiculously hot, throwing the almost 50 degC temperature difference between indoors and outside into even sharper relief.    And it wasn’t just our home that was like this; almost all Russian buildings were as warm, if not warmer.

In a country where energy is cheap (petrol, for example, costs only 68p per litre here), most Russians will turn up the thermostat in winter rather than put on another layer of clothing.  And that is assuming that they even have a thermostat; in many buildings the heating is centrally controlled and is switched on mid-October, staying that way until the beginning of May.  This puzzled me.  What do Russians do if they feel too warm, I asked my Husband.  His answer was simple.

They open a window.  It might be -25degC outside, but they open a window.

This is all very well but aside from seeming incredibly wasteful, at some point in the next couple of years we will be returning to the UK.  Winters there may be warmer, but buildings are less effectively insulated and – crucially – energy prices are much higher. 

Not only will I have re-educate my children to put on a jumper when they are chilly inside, turn the lights out when they leave a room, and close the back door behind them as they run back in to find their missing backpack / trainers / swim kit when they leave for school in the morning, but we will need to bite the bullet when it comes to paying higher electricity and gas bills.  Anything that helps us as a family to consume less energy will be very helpful, which is why I was interested in E.ON’s current campaign designed to help their customers do exactly that.

As one of the leading energy suppliers to UK customers, E.ON recognises it has a duty to make sure that everyone has all the information they need to work out the best way to help save money and use no more energy than they need. The new E.ON Saving Energy Toolkit will put customers on the road towards running a more fuel-efficient home. If you’re already set up with an online account then you can get access to plenty of useful hints and tips as well as fantastic interactive tools. This includes a comparative feature which allows you to see how green your home is in relation to similar households in your area and charts and graphs which track the breakdown of your energy usage over a set period of time.

Whether it will give advice like ‘stop being such a wimp and just put on another layer’, however, remains to be seen…

Tuesday 5 November 2013

I choose to be happy. (Well, most of the time, anyway)

It's grey here. Grim November has arrived, and hot on it's heels will come the Russian winter. The laundry needs hanging up, there are toys all over the floor, and I have a million jobs to do which - post half-term - can no longer be put off.  The dishwasher in our UK home is broken & needs to be replaced (although god love it, it has just celebrated it's 13th birthday, so I'm not judging), Husband is travelling most weekdays, and it's raining, just in time for the school run on my bike.

On the other hand...

It's not snowing.  The temperature is above freezing.  My family is happy and healthy. We had a great 4 days somewhere sunny and warm last week.  The house is clean.  There is enough food in the fridge, and before I put on my raincoat (in a jaunty colour I have christened 'In-Your-Face-Winter-Orange') I have five minutes to myself, a whole scope of creative projects I can dip into, the Man Booker Prize winner on my kindle, and the whole of NetFlix to explore later this evening.

See what I did there?  It's called (my version of, anyway), CBT*

Because, without wanting to come over all PollyAnna about it, life really is what you make of it.  I learned this not through having a naturally carefree disposition but during 2 years of counselling after I stopped work outside the home following Boy #2's birth - and fell apart.  It took a while but my lovely counsellor slowly showed me how to reprogramme my results-orientated, work-obsessed, what-am-I-if-not-my-job?, brain into one that could turn my mental inclinations around.  It takes self-awareness, that's true, but the feeling of control when you look at what could be quite a shitty situation and decide not to let it bring you down - in fact, to turn it to your advantage and learn from it - is empowering.

Yes, the days in my mental landscape still seem long and grey sometimes.  But I know, when that happens, that it's not forever.  In fact, if I choose, it doesn't even have to be until tomorrow.

Now.  Off through the rain to do that ruddy school run.  Where's my in-your-face-winter orange raincoat gone?

*Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

Tuesday 29 October 2013

Not a sponsored post...

Is it wrong that I'm actually looking forward to seeing this with my kids?  (Check out the cast list before you disagree...)

Monday 28 October 2013

Bless me, father...

... for I have fibbed to my children.

But before you judge too harshly, let me set the scene.  It's the first weekday of half term.  Nevertheless, we had to get up earlier than we would do on a normal school day, as we had some tricky-to-sort-out admin to attend to that required the four of us to get in the car and wrestle with the black heart of Moscow's rush-hour on the MKAD (the Moscow motorway ring road).  You can imagine our delight then, when we arrived at our destination, to find that the offices we needed to go to are closed on a Monday.  Of COURSE they are; this is a municipal office and, like most museums and art galleries, doesn't open that day unless there's a bank holiday somewhere in the week (when all bets are off and who knows what the schedule is).

This, by the way, is not where the fib took place.  The Boys were aware we messed up (when I say 'we' I think you understand that I am not talking about 'me' - but no finger pointing, it never helps *cue much polishing of PM's saintly halo*) - and took the situation amazingly well.  Almost as if they were used to it.  Cough.

Then, we decided to make use of our trip by making a visit to the bank on our way home to carry out a transaction, which necessitated a) me to wake up out of my oh-so-attractive dribbling doze in the front seat and b) the boys to stop ribbing each other for long enough to get out of the back seat of the car so that c) Husband could negotiate with the bank clerk on a transaction which, we realised once we got home, was not actually completed.

Still no fibbing.  Some muttered cursing, yes, but no fibbing.

Subsequently, we managed to persuade Boy #2 to practice his Taekwondo routine with his older brother (admittedly, with promises of hot chocolate for the Boys who At Least Tried), play a few rounds of Uno without resorting to fisticuffs, get through some holiday homework, eat some lunch, select some activities for us to do later in the week, speak to the grandparents and check their house was still standing after the storms (it is), and choose which movie to watch later - all without me fibbing to my children.

Boy #2 is now ensconced in the music lesson he loudly complained about when informed it was happening (But it's the HOLIDAYS, Mum!), and as far as I can tell, enjoying it.

But he wouldn't be if I hadn't fibbed.

Boy #1 is supposed to have lessons at the same time, you see.  And here's where I may have muddied the waters a little; I got a text 3 hours ago telling me that Boy #1's teacher was not able to make it.  I knew that Boy #1 was looking forward to his lesson and yet I kept the information to myself and chose not to tell him about the fact that it had been cancelled until after his brother's lesson started.

Why?  Because I simply couldn't face the battle that I knew would ensue if my younger son realised that whilst he was having his lesson, his brother would simply be lying on the sofa reading Harry Potter*.  So, as far as Boy #1 is concerned, the text arrived half an hour ago, after Boy #2's lesson began.

So will my tongue turn black and fall out of my head?  Or am I simply utilising 'smart parenting' in this sin of omission with my younger son?

*This is, in fact, exactly what is happening.  And he doesn't seem too upset, after all...

Friday 11 October 2013

International Day of the Girl - and a question


Did you know that a child born to a literate mother is 50% more likely to survive past the age of 5 years old?*

Did you know that a girl with just one extra year of education can earn 20% more as an adult?*

Did you know that an educated mother is twice as likely to send her own children to school?*

Did you know that a girl with 8 years of education is 4 times less likely to be married as a child?*

Did you know that 14 million girls under 18 will be married this year?  That's 38,000 girls today alone - or, to put another way; 13 girls in the last 30 seconds*.  Some of them will be as young as (or younger than) 11 or 12 years old - and mothers themselves by the time they reach 13.  Always assuming, that is, they survive giving birth.

Because, did you know that the largest cause of death in girls aged 15 - 19 years old, world-wide, is childbirth?*

It's easy, in our privileged parenting world to lose sight of, not know or to ignore the facts above.  We get bogged down in cajoling our own children out of the house on the school run every week-day morning whilst we recite the daily litany of of 'have-you-packed-your-lunchbox-where's-your-school-sweater-and-don't-forget-to-take-your-library-books-back-today', and forget those girls who through factors outside their control are unable to access education.  But they exist, in their millions.  33 millions, to be precise. (There are 33 million fewer girls than boys in primary schools worldwide*).

Today, the International Day of the Girl, I was lucky enough to attend a screening of a new movie 'Girl Rising'.  It presents the stories of 9 girls fighting for their right to education, as told by celebrated writers from their own countries and voiced by well-known actors.  It will leave you with powerful images and most likely, the understanding that unless we face up to the statistics above - and try to change them - nothing will alter and the cycle will simply continue.

So, one more question:

What if a girl's life - the lives of 33 million girls across the world - could be more?

*Statistics from the Girl Rising website

Wednesday 9 October 2013

Hoist by my own petard...

You want to know what's galling?

When you make the following statement to your 7 year old son whilst trying to help him with his homework; "I am 46 years old, Boy #2.  I think I know how to answer questions on using a ruler.  Please try it my way - if it's wrong, I will send your teacher an email to explain it was my fault."

And then, the next day, having to write said email.


Sunday 6 October 2013

Sunday morning snapshot

Husband and I are sitting downstairs; I'm blog gardening, he's indulging in a spot of voyeurism on the London housing market.  Boy #1 is out, and Boy #2 is upstairs beetling around with his lego.  Suddenly, from upstairs:

Boy #2:  "Ow!".

Silence.  Husband and I are used to these outbursts, so we carry on with what we're doing.

Boy #2.  "OW!"

Still, we say nothing.  If he wants us, he knows where we are, right?

Boy #2:  I said, OW!!"

Husband and I look at each other and start to crack up.  (Any child who can say 'I said, OW!' is clearly not in mortal peril.)

Boy #2:  "Did anyone hear me?  I said, OW!!!"

Me, giving in:  "Yes, we heard you.  Are you OK?"

Boy #2  "Yes.  I'm fine.  I just wanted to check you heard me..."

Thursday 3 October 2013

In which I put my hardened cynical self firmly back in her box...

I'm a cynical old bat, and when I saw this posted on fb by someone else fully expected to find it cheesy.  But having watched, I can't resist sharing this.

The dad of the little girl in the clip below writes on his YouTube post:

"She thought she kept hearing fireworks and couldn't sleep, so we sang to keep her mind preoccupied. In the end, nothing competes with fireworks."

Tuesday 1 October 2013

Assimilation - Moscow-style

You know you've adapted to living in Moscow when...

...you walk back after dropping the kids at school, notice a burst water main in the neighbouring compound on your way home and without wasting any time once you get there, put the washing machine on pause.  Why?  Because you know without being told that the water pressure in your home will drop substantially and that even when it's sorted, the next lot of water coming through the tap will be brown and murky - and the wash you currently have on is white.

...you subsequently receive a call from your compound manager and start the conversation by saying 'Good morning A* - did you know the water is off because of the next-door compound's leak?' before she even has the chance to draw breath and inform you that the water is off for 2 hours due to - guess what - a burst water main.

...travelling home in a taxi after a splendid night out you suddenly realise that you're listening to 'Jerusalem' being sung by clear-voiced choristers on the radio, at 2am, on a busy Moscow highway - and that it doesn't seem at all surreal.

...the girl on the other end of the order line for your water bottles drops your call because she can't be bothered to find someone to speak English to you, so you shrug your shoulders and call back using your pidgin Russian to order it.  Then you buy a couple of 5 litre bottles at the supermarket just in case you - yet again - misunderstood the delivery day/time and you don't want to spend the day at home waiting for a drinking water delivery that never comes.

...your children are wearing woolen hats and gloves as they cycle to school - and have been doing so for the entire last week of September.

...what's more, you let them do it without comment (and in fact, are digging around in the glove basket for your own).

...you have already washed the kids ski trousers and jackets ready for the first snow fall.

...you watch the first snow falling (today) and instead of despairing, check that you have wax for your cross country skis and that you can find your glove warmers.

...you find yourself looking at the fur coat and jacket shops without the same levels of disdain that you did when you arrived in Russia 4 years ago.

...you even come up with a rationale for wearing a lambskin shearling coat (FYI; I eat sheep and lamb - why shouldn't I wear them?), although you still can't quite bring yourself to purchase one

...your children no longer ask new kids in their class where they are from, because they know the answer may well be 'Well, I was born in Houston but then we moved to Singapore, before living in Australia and then Amsterdam'.  Instead, they cut out the blather and ask 'Where did you arrive from?'

Thursday 26 September 2013

I'm having a moment...

It's going too fast.

I look at my boys - now 10 and approaching 8 - and I think this almost every day.  What with the whirlwind calendar of school, music lessons, sports fixtures, after school activities, social engagements and just - well - Life, the weeks whiz past and suddenly what was the chaos of the beginning of term at the end of August is now a well-worn routine.  The alarm bell rings on Monday mornings and before I know it, I'm cooking Sunday lunch, without having had a moment to stop and smell the roses in between.

And all the time, my boys are growing up.

A few days ago, in an uncharacteristic fit of organisation, which may or may not have been prompted by the fact that Husband was working from home and inspiring me to show a sense of industry (of the 'Jesus is coming.  Look busy' variety), I cleared out a set of drawers that have probably had the same stacks of papers in since we arrived in Moscow nearly 4 years ago.

My reward - apart from the sense of achievement that always results in moving annoying piles of paper Out Of The House - was to come across some school photographs taken of the boys when they were 3 and 5 , the autumn before we left London.  They look, quite frankly, adorable.  If I'm honest it was bit of a relief to discover that my memories of them at that age were truer than I had imagined; I can't be the only parent who, when they look back on photos of their babies, is a little disappointed to discover that actually they look pretty much the same as everyone else's babies at that age, with the same rubbed out bald patches from when their birth hair falls out around 2 - 3 months, the same flushed dry cheeks from teething, and the same patches of dribble around their collar, surely?  I mean, Boys #1 and #2 were lovely at that age, of course they were.  Just not the beauties that I imagined them to be at the time, if the photographic evidence is anything to go by...

But here, in the photos I found three days ago, they were practically perfect.  Clear-eyed, healthy, smooth skinned and reach-out-and-touch-me gorgeous.  Their open and trusting smiles for the camera warm my heart.  But time has moved on, and whilst they are still - in my eyes, anyway - heartbreakers in the making, they are growing up.

Boy #1, for example, doesn't need help with his homework anymore, and the fine down of dark hairs on his upper lip is becoming more evident.  He's getting taller, no longer one of the shortest in his class, and is even wearing trousers of the correct size rather than a year younger as he was doing until recently.  He's got a great sense of humour and a strong sense of ethics, is working well in school, and is addicted to reading in all it's forms (but particularly to anything from the 'Percy Jackson' or 'Harry Potter' series, which he will read - and then re-read - in bed, on the sofa, whilst laying the table and walking up and down stairs, given half a chance).  He shows a steely determination to take part in team sports, and has a confidence in his physical abilities that I never did at his age.  He's brave enough to face down bullies and to accept an apology from those who have wronged him, and is generous in his levels of forgiveness.

Boy #2 has a mostly iron-clad personality and a wicked sense of humour.  He's nobody's fool, and will not be forced into doing anything he doesn't want to.  At school he is showing increasing confidence in writing and that maths might be his thing, along with all the signs that in the next few weeks he will become a fully qualified bookworm like his older brother (although admittedly of the Asterix and Obelix variety, for the moment at least).  His love affair with all forms of transport continues, but nowadays instead of reading 'That's Not My Car', we've moved onto books about The Titanic and space travel.  He happily jumps on the trampoline and attends football and taekwondoe sessions with his brother, but when all's said and done he would much rather be upstairs in his room building lego creations.  We recently introduced him to field hockey, and were initially surprised by how much enjoys playing it, until we worked out that the stick provides him with a tool he can master, which fulfills a need in his engineering-inclined mind.

Why am I writing all this down?  Because I write less about the Boys these days - for good, privacy-based reasons - but it occurred to me that before I know it the next 4 years will have passed.  By that time Boy #1 will be 14 and Boy #2 nearly 12, and if the experiences of friends with teenaged boys are anything to go by, our levels of interaction may have changed considerably.  They will certainly need me less, and as much as the prospect of that saddens me, that will be as it should be.

Consequently I want to celebrate who they are now, so that when they need me to be less involved and stand more on the sidelines of their lives rather than to be intricately entangled in them - as they need me to be at the moment - I will be able to look back at what was, and remind myself of how our lives once were.  To remember when Boy #2 was unable to let me say goodbye to him in the school corridor without giving me 3 kisses and a hug, or when Boy #1 would still - just - let me hold his hand when we crossed a busy road.  To listen to echoes of the days when they still wanted me to read them stories at bedtime, or when they would still clamber onto my lap for a cuddle whilst watching Horrible Histories on tv.  To remember when 'Mama's pizza' was still their favourite meal, or when a burgeoning tantrum could be defused with the question 'Do you think your reaction to not being able to find that book/sweater/lego piece might be just a little bit over the top?' And when the sentence, during story time '... and a great big bear bottom sat down on the lid.'* would lead to gales of laughter and hiccups.

There's no doubt about it; it's going too fast.  But oh - what a ride...

*From 'It's the Bear!' by Jez Alborough

Monday 23 September 2013

Dear Weather Gods...

Dear Weather Gods,

on Saturday night when I told a relative newcomer to Moscow that she should wash her kids' snow pants now because from the end of September onwards, you don't know when they might need them, I was joking.


And those light-hearted remarks about how our compound is so pretty in the winter that it looks just like the Wham 'Last Christmas'* video?

Also in jest.  I was not, for one moment, suggesting it would be a good idea to bring on the chill unseasonably early.

So please; stop messing about, bring in the Indian Summer we expect at this time of year, and stop taking the piss.

That is all.

Yours faithfully,


(no kisses.  You don't deserve them).

* I may have watched that particular video whilst 'researching' this post.   And it may have thrown up a couple of questions.  Such as;  Honestly.  How on earth can we NOT have guessed Gorgeous George was gay?  And really; what girl wants a brooch - diamond or not - in her stocking before she's 60?  No wonder she gave it to Andrew...

Friday 20 September 2013

Who needs Bonnie Tyler when you have the Vikings?

Who says education needs to be left to the teachers?  We love Horrible Histories (a BBC-produced series for kids) in this house.  Here's one of the many reasons why...

Soft rock as a means to educate your kids?  Inspired...

(And by the way - if you watch this, apologies for the ear worm that will result.  Don't say you weren't warned).

Thursday 19 September 2013

Look at me...

Look at me.
Here in my lovely Expat Life.
Hot and cold running Help, edgy experiences enriching my outlook.
My children adapting to challenging situations, becoming world citizens, learning new languages.
We holiday in interesting places, and find friends from fascinating lands.
Look at me.
Aren't I lucky?

Look at me.
Here in my lovely Expat Life.
Struggling to make myself understood when buying travel tickets, or when doing the shopping.
Watching, frustrated, whilst workmen make changes to our home that seem unnecessary,
But which I don't have the vocabulary to challenge.
Look at me.
Aren't I lucky?

Look at me.
Here in my lovely Expat Life.
Relegated to the position of observer of what's going on Back Home.
Skyping family or old friends at a get-together I can't reach..
Feeling that my words of comfort to those who suffer are empty without an accompanying embrace.
Look at me.
Aren't I lucky?

Look at me.
Here in my lovely Expat Life.
Blind-sided by the unexpected departure of good friends mid-term..
Hurting for my kids as they say goodbye to a best buddy for the third time in as many years.
Hurting for myself as I do the same.
Look at me.
Aren't I lucky?

Look at me.
Here in my lovely Expat Life.
Picking my child up from the floor when they fall.
Looking worriedly at the corner of the table that their head hit as they came down.
Knowing that the nearest English-speaking ER is an hour and a half away through the traffic.
Look at me.
Aren't I lucky?

Tuesday 10 September 2013

Only when I laugh

And still the Russian classes continue.  I am enjoying them (I am!  I AM!  Can you hear my gritted teeth?), although the contrast between my life and those of my fellow students - mostly in their mid-20's, in Russia temporarily on gap years or looking to extend their skills for their cv - tests the limits of my good humour as I rush off at the end of each session to pick the Boys up from school whilst they merrily head off to a cafe to shoot the breeze and (perhaps) practice their Russian and mug up on their vocabulary for the next day.

In spite of that I have somehow made it as far as the middle of week three with only one weekday off for good behaviour. (I desperately needed supplies from a supermarket unreachable through the heavy weekend traffic, and oh yes, there just might have been a birthday lunch for a friend that I couldn't bring myself to say no to.  In my defence, there was champagne, and everything...)

Consequently, it's been a little quiet on the blogging front, and if I'm honest is likely to remain so for the next week or so.

Real Life is getting in the way right now what with being at classes all day, a travelling husband meaning solo parenting is the norm, a house currently being fitted throughout with pipes for a centralised heating system, a dishwasher that has recently become un-usable since it started giving out nasty electric shocks, the replacement of our kitchen floor lino with something that if possible is even uglier than the original (perhaps the shocks are the dishwasher registering it's protest at having to look at the new floor all day?), the start of the school term and the reintroduction of various after-school activities which need to be slotted into the jigsaw of our family life, homework (mine AND the children's), and Boy #1's imminent 10th birthday party (TEN?  When did that happen?).

So my grey matter is feeling a little spongy, to be frank; I'm put in mind of an old dishcloth that needs a good squeeze to get rid of all the dirty water.

But there is still hope.  It appears that my brain is not completely obsolete; today in Russian class I was asked what I do in my spare time, and was still able to come up with the following:

Что это ,свободное время' Вы говорите?

(What is it, this 'spare time' you speak of?)

I think they got the joke...

Wednesday 4 September 2013

The mirror crack'd...

My Russian course continues.  Getting there in time for the 10am start each day is mostly straightforward, but occasionally I find myself too late to catch the mashrutka (local minibus shuttle) that I was aiming for after dropping the boys at school, and so need to wait at the roadside until the next one appears.  This is fine - I usually have plenty of time - and is also a usefully humbling experience as other parents from the school whiz past me in their newly polished, invariably black tinted window'd 4x4's, checking emails or chatting on their iPhones as they sit in the back seat whilst their driver takes the strain of the morning Moscow traffic.

I'm not jealous, surprisingly.  I could be in my own car (slightly more beaten up perhaps, and certainly less polished, but without the added (in)convenience of a driver to pay / deal with / negotiate with / have sitting in the driveway burning petrol to keep warm in the winter and cool in the summer) if I chose, but so far in doing this course I have decided it's infinitely preferable to speed along in the bus lane (in the mashrutka) than it is to deal with the stress of the morning jam and finding somewhere to park myself.

That's why, this morning, I was waiting for the minibus when a Russian neighbour pulled up and very kindly offered me a lift.  I hadn't seen her for a while, so was glad to have the chance to catch up, although I must admit I did wonder if I had made the right choice when, after I climbed into the car, she warned me that would be doing her hair and make up on the journey.

All very well - except, she drives herself.

This however is clearly something she does often as she was able to negotiate the jam-packed junction where 6 lanes become two, complete her morning beauty routine (including curling her hair with a pair of heated tongues), and hold a lively conversation with me, all without breaking her metaphorical stride.

I did find myself offering to hold her handbag at one point so that she didn't have to reach onto the floor of the back seat to reach the mascara and lipstick inside it, but I've lived in Moscow with it's hellish traffic and interesting driving habits for nearly 4 years now, so that wasn't what disconcerted me about this journey.

No, what disconcerted me was when she asked me if I had any work done.  On my face.

(My answer was that no, I haven't, and don't plan to right now but as with so many things in life, I would never say 'never'.  Ask me again in 5 years, and who knows?)

This conversation in itself is not unusual here - lots of women have botox, fillers and such like - but rather the subtext.  As I jumped out at the cross roads of a busy junction to walk the last few meters to the school where I'm having Russian lessons, I was left asking myself the following: was she asking because she wanted to know if I had had work done on my own face?  If so, was she she looking for recommendations?

Or, was she asking because she was trying - not so subtly - to suggest that I should think about it for myself?

Thursday 29 August 2013

Putting on the glitz.

This is a sponsored post.  But I worked really hard to make it entertaining...

Expat life.  It's all g&t's by the pool, drivers collecting you from shopping trips, manicures, pedicures, and glamorous nights out, isn't it?

Isn't it?

Well, no, actually - not for me, anyway.  And not only because - obviously - it's vodka all the way in Russia rather than gin.

One area where I'm afraid I fall very far short of the mark is the 'glamorous nights out' mentioned above.  Certainly, Husband and I do go out, but there's very little of the champagne-swilling, Triple-A-list-celebrities-spotting, dancing 'til dawn events you might imagine.

However, there is one Black Tie evening that I go to each year in Moscow that does require use of a swanky dress - or at least, would, if I ever got my act together in time to have something suitable to wear.  This year will be the fourth that I've attended, and up until now I have worn, as follows:

Year 1:  15 year-old black on-the-knee Karen Millen dress that I just happened to throw in my suitcase when we moved here, and which got pulled out in a panic when Husband proved unable to locate my 'best' dresses on a trip back to our storage facility in London (aka; His Mum's Attic) the weekend before the event.  (For the record, when I went back to the attic myself a couple of months later, I was able to see the suitbag containing said dresses immediately, before I had even switched on the lights.  Definition of a 'man-look', anyone?)

Year 2:  12 year-old long black bias-cut silk Episode dress extracted from the afore-mentioned suitbag on the visit subsequent to the previous year's debacle.

I know.  Very poor performance, especially considering I was surrounded by Russians wearing creations from McQueen, Matthew Williamson, Missoni and the like.  However, I justified my lazy choices by telling myself that a) nobody there had seen me wearing those outfits before, b) my dresses were so old they were practically vintage and c) I could FIT INTO THEM (no small achievement given the two kids and more sedentary lifestyle I had had since their original purchase...)

However, this does not at all excuse:

Year 3:  12 year-old long black bias-cut silk Episode dress.   Again.  Yes.  I am that lazy woman.  Or more to the point, I am that woman who hates-hates-hates to go shopping, and who convinced herself that no-one would notice; the dress was long and black, like so many others.  Change the jewellery and it'll all be fine, right?

However, we are now at Year 4.  And luckily for my 12 year-old long black bias-cut silk Episode dress, which frankly deserves a bit of a lie down (as do I after typing all that out for the 3rd time), on my last day in London before heading back to Moscow, I just happened to be walking past John Lewis on Oxford Street, and just happened to pop in to pick up a tube of moisturiser, whereupon I just happened to be sucked up the escalator to the first floor, and then just happened to be magnetically pulled into the section with long evening dresses.  And then, well I just happened to find myself enamoured of all the silk and satin and pretty colours and reasonable prices and - oh, you can guess the rest.

Reader, I married one.  Or rather, I tried on 5, and just happened to buy one.

And no, I'm not going to describe this one because it's gorgeous and mine all mine (quite apart from the fact that you can buy it on their website... However, since there are 219 dresses shown on the 'Occasion Dresses' page of the John Lewis website, I figure I've got a pretty good chance you won't guess which it is...), so now all I need to do for the rapidly approaching Year 4 event, is a) find a pair of matching shoes, b) ensure I can still fit into the dress in a few weeks' time and c) to avoid the possibility someone else might also turn up in the same dress, not share the John Lewis website address with anyone in the meantime.

Oh.  Wait...

This was a sponsored post - but all opinions are my own, and I paid for the dress myself.

Tuesday 27 August 2013


I started my month-long intensive Russian course yesterday morning.  On Sunday night I had the following conversation with my Husband, who speaks the language fluently.  (Of course.  Ruddy annoying, I can tell you.)  Anyway...

Me:  "The thing I'm really worried about is the cases (fyi, there are 6 of them in Russian, including Accusative, Dative, Genetive and Nominative), because that's what did for me last time when I tried to learn it.  I always hated them, even when I was 14 and trying to learn German at school."

Husband:  "I think you might be overestimating how much you're going to learn on this course.  It's only 4 weeks - you won't even reach that level of difficulty.  Don't worry about it."

Me:  "That's the best news I've had all week."

I arrived at the language centre yesterday morning to find that after my pre-course assessment test, I had been dropped into an existing beginners class - 3 weeks in.

And the very first word that the teacher wrote on the white board?



Wednesday 21 August 2013

Staging my own intervention; 'If it is to be...

... it is up to me.'

Cliched, huh?  That's certainly what I thought 2 years ago when this was trotted out by someone at the Boys' school in a speech made to children and parents at the start of term.  And yet, I heard it again yesterday - from the same person - and it struck a chord.

Expats everywhere will know peers who refuse to engage with their local environment.  They hide away from the reality of where they are living, simply existing from one holiday to the next, and not venturing out to see what lies beyond their temporary front door.

I get that.  I understand that.  We all feel like that sometimes.  And I have to admit, I'm struggling at the moment.  Struggling to regain my equilibrium in a hard-to-live-in city, in a country that I don't know I'll still be living in one year from now, 1500 miles from my family and friends.  

We just returned from a fantastic break with a summer spent taking it slowly, away from the battle of the daily Moscow grind.  Sure, I was still food shopping, cooking and washing, sorting socks, packing and unpacking and repacking every week or so, travelling through airports, train stations and car hire outlets,  fitting in 6 months' worth of dental and doctors appointments, stocking up on any school uniforms, children's shoes and underwear we are likely to need before Christmas, and then working out how the hell to cram it all into our suitcases and stay within the weight limit for the airlines, but ultimately we were on holiday, and somehow that made it all OK.

Now, though, we're back in Moscow and even though the thermometer hit 27degC today, I know that in around 8 short weeks we'll have freewheeled down and be bumping along the bottom of the scale for a short while before we nose-dive below 0degC around mid-November and then don't come up above it again until the middle of April next year.

Add to that the fact that the start of the school year is earlier here than it is back home - we're in the first week of term already - and despite the fact that I'm majorly in denial about the shortness of the summer (wearing every short sleeved dress I own in turn until it's too damn cold not to), I'm already experiencing GroundHog Day type symptoms.


I may have less than one year left in Russia.  That in itself is a scary thought (what - and where - next?), but I refuse to let this year pass in blur of worry and wishing I was somewhere else.  Why live somewhere like this, surrounded by the wonderful people I do, if you don't push yourself out there and experience it all properly?  

So I'm staging my own intervention.  I've signed myself up for a months' 4 hours a day, 5 days a week Russian course (the straw that broke the camel's back on this one was not being able to understand a telephone operator at the company we buy our drinking water from - not my finest moment after living here nearly 4 years), so that whatever else happens in the next 10 months or so, I may at least be able to make myself understood.

I am going to enjoy this year.  I am.  But like the man said; if it is to be...

Monday 19 August 2013

I wonder...

... will it be different for our children?

I know my parents love me.  They have shown me - and my siblings - that they do, in a million different ways.  The effort that they put in to giving us the right opportunities, the unceasing support, the sacrifices that they made for us; what child who benefited from these and so many other unspoken, unnoticed and un-recorded actions could ever doubt that they were loved?

So I don't, not for a heartbeat.

But parenting, when my parents - themselves products of the austere post World War II years in 1940's, '50's and 60's Britain - was different when they were thrown into it, barely out of their own teenage years, to how it is now.

And one of the things that was different was the frequency of use of the phrase 'I love you'.  Looking back on my childhood, it wasn't something we heard very often.  We knew we were loved, but mum and dad didn't bandy the verbal expression of that fact around.  Our very existence, our lifestyle, how our parents behaved to us, was seen by them to be enough proof of their feelings for us.

I know that my experience may be unusual, but I don't think so.  Back then, 'I love you' was just not something many parents said to their children (or even, I suspect, to each other that often).  It was almost as if by saying it out loud, they might cheapen their emotions, put them on display.  As if they were risking bringing the wrath of the gods down on their heads by using the words.

Thirty years later, however, I don't stint with the verbal expression of my love for my boys - and as far as I can tell, neither do my friends, to their children.

I tell them I love them when I drop them off at school in the morning, and I tell them when I tuck them in at night, and on a myriad occasions in between.  I even manage to shoe-horn it into disagreements sometimes, especially with Boy #2 who has recently begun to state (as I insist on his getting dressed / leaving his lego upstairs whilst he comes downstairs for breakfast / tidying up / doing his homework) that he doesn't like me 'very much at the moment, Mum' - to which my stock answer is 'I can see that.  But I still love you...'  (which of course infuriates him still further...).

So I wonder, by wrapping our kids in this knowledge - this security blanket - that whatever else goes on in their lives we love them: are we changing the way they will view they world?  Will they be better or worse off for our constant assurances?  Will they be more self confident well-rounded individuals as a result, or will we have turned them into egotistical monsters?

It's a rhetorical question, you understand;  I love my kids, and I plan to keep on telling them that.  Because I'm the mum.  And it's my job.

Saturday 17 August 2013


I know that I will get my blogging mojo back soon - previous experiences of losing it have shown me that the best way to get over the non-inspiration hump is simply to sit down and write - but in the short term re-acquainting ourselves with home and Russia in general, along with getting ready for the start of the school term next week (I know!) is sapping my energy a little.  So I'm going to cheat a little, and use the fb posts I've written since our return to Moscow this week to get things started again on The Potty Diaries...  (Apologies to those of you who've already read these.  Needs must, and all that).

So here are some snapshots of life in the Potski household this week...

Wednesday 14th August

There is nothing quite like being greeted back to Russia with the hot water out of action first thing in the morning. This, my friends, is exactly what I was afraid of when The Management announced they were going to remove our water boiler and put us on the communal hot water supply (which they did whilst we were away over the summer break). My Husband is not here right now - of course - but if he were, I doubt I would be able to stop the words 'I told you so' issuing forth...

Friday 16th August

How do you know when Autumn is knocking on the door in Moscow? No, it's not the slight chill in the early morning air. Or the intensified quality of the light. It's not even the fact that the leaves have already started to turn. 

It's when you find yourself standing in front of your wardrobe thinking: "Well OK, the green dress and the pink shoes may not be appropriate for messing about at home all day, but who knows when the next time it will be warm enough to wear them will be?"

Saturday 17th August

My sons are doing a stock-take on the contents of their pocket money folders. Which is all very well, but they're also calling in the I.O.U notes I put in them when I was short of change...

Thursday 15 August 2013

*Clears throat, coughs nervously...*

My blog voice has gone all scratchy from lack of use.  So I will keep it brief, because whilst once I may have thought hoarse voices sexy, now I realise it simply sounds as if you haven't spoken for a while.

Here are a few interesting facts I picked up along the way during my summer hiatus...

  • My sons are growing up, up and away.  Scary but true.  Time to start making good on all those plans for when they don't need me as much, because that day is bearing down on me like an unstoppable train.   (See Talk About York's wonderful post on this very subject here. Warning: tears may follow).
  • It appears that at the grand old age of 46 I am finally grown up enough to wear a bikini without worrying about the wobbly bits.  And I cannot believe that during my 20's, when I had the figure to flaunt, I sweltered in one pieces.  What the hell was I thinking?
  • White wine does not agree with me.  I agree with it, oh yes, but it appears to dislike me intensely. The signs have been there for a while, but I have to say that I ignored them, hoping the situation would improve and the bloating and cramps that followed an evening spent drinking it were just a passing thing.  Sadly, white wine felt differently.  Perhaps it was the slightly higher than normal consumption (cough) over 2 weeks in France, but whatever, it took to kicking me in the stomach if I drank more than 1 glass. Hey ho.  Red it is from now on, then.
  • I am capable of leaving my laptop closed for days on end.  Who knew?
  • Whisper it, but I didn't actually miss blogging as much as I expected to...

Wednesday 31 July 2013

Sunday 14 July 2013

Gone fishing? I should be so lucky...

It's the holiday season.  Well, when I say 'holiday' what I actually mean is the Expat Summer Shuffle which, rather than time lying on a beach with a pina-colada to-hand as you wade through the latest paperback block-buster, is in fact solo-parenting time spent moving from one long-suffering family member or friend to the next, packing, unpacking, repacking, buying extra suitcases to contain the supplies of school uniform and clothes for the kids that you've bought along the way in the UK sales, and of course taking any opportunity you can to squeeze in the odd load of laundry when possible.

It's great to catch up with our nearest and dearest, but this lifestyle is not conducive to writing long posts - or, it seems, looking back on the last week or so on The Potty Diaries, any posts - so please bear with me for the moment whilst the Potski familiski makes their summer progress through Northern Europe.

On the plus side, I have come up with a killer concept for my next novel.  Never mind that I have yet to finish my first, or indeed that the 60K words I have already written require some fairly extensive editing; at least I know what I'm going to be doing next.

You know.  In my spare time...

Thursday 4 July 2013

A top suit. Not to be confused with a top coat..

Due to an unfortunate misunderstanding that a friend (mother to her own boys 1 and 2; B & H) had recently with the landlord of her holiday let, I had the opportunity to overhear today what my sons consider the correct appearance for any kind of landlord...

Boy #1:  "B said, when they checked into the apartment, that the landlord was wearing shorts, a t-shirt and flip flops, so they (B and his younger brother) knew that he couldn't be a proper landlord..."

Boy #2:  "Yes.  Because that is no way for a landlord to dress."

Me (suddenly interested in what was previously only a 2 way conversation between my children):  "So, what do you think a landlord should be wearing?"

Boy #1:  "Well.  They should be handsome.  Smart.  Tidy hair.  With proper shoes."

Boy #2:  "And they should be wearing a top suit."

Me (confused): "A 'top suit'?"

Boy #1  (very definitely):  "Yes.  A top suit."

Me:  "Okaaaay.  What is a 'top suit', exactly?"

Boy #2:  "You know.  Very smart."

Boy #1:  "Yes, with a bow tie.  Oh.  I mean, a toxic-suit.  No, I mean a tuxedo.  A tuxedo..."

So now we know, folks.  If your landlord is not dressed to the nines when he pops by to collect the rent, and is not wearing 'proper' shoes, he is no damn good.  Consider yourselves warned.

Tuesday 2 July 2013

So accidentally cool...

One of my sons is nearly half way through a week of such an IMMENSELY cool sport-related activity that even I - the queen of no sporting ability - get excited about it when I think about it.

Imagine your child getting the chance to spend a week being coached in a sport he likes, but at which he will never be a world beater, by luminaries who's names send grown men into awed revery.  Like, for example, being shown how to ride a bike by Chris Hoy.  Or how to score a goal by David Beckham.  Or how hit a tennis ball by Jimmy Connor.  You get the picture.

Well, we got the opportunity for Boy #? to do something along those lines, for a week.  He jumped at it, so we made it happen.  He's having a great time, hanging out and playing a sport he likes, being coached in how to improve his performance, and being outdoors all day, every day, in top-class facilities.

There's just one thing.

He has no idea how amazing this experience is.

On the one hand this freaks me out a little.  It's like training at Anfield and treating it like the local rec, or knocking a few balls about at Wimbledon and acting as if it's your back garden.  It's as if you're treating Lawrence Dallaglio like your dad showing you how to score a try, or back-chatting Freddie Flintoff - showing you how to bowl a cricket ball - like you would a visiting uncle.  It's just.  Plain.  Wrong.

But on the other, I'm quite glad my son has no idea how cool this opportunity is.  He just gets to hang out with the other kids in his class, enjoying the experience, with no thought of being intimidated by who the coach is or the location he's standing in.  Mainly because - if I'm honest - as an expat with limited exposure to sports events on tv,  he has no idea of who the coach is, or the historical significance of the location he's standing in.  This situation would be impossible to achieve if we lived in the UK given the exposure afforded to this sport, but due to the fact that whilst we like it we cherry pick the games we watch, and then add to that the fact that where we live most of those games aren't screened at times we would be interested in, his opportunities to soak up background knowledge about this sport are thin on the ground.  The result is a child who is simply there this week to learn and have fun, rather than to impress his heroes.

Husband, who was here for the first day of this activity, is delighted by how good a time Boy #? is having, and more than a little envious of the opportunity (as is every other man we've mentioned it to).  He told me that he would never even have considered doing this at our son's age.  He would have been too scared; his exact words were 'I wouldn't have dared...'

But there's time enough for hero-worship in our son's future.  For now, here he is:  Daring.  Making us proud, doing the things we never got the opportunity to do, taking them in his stride, just getting on with it.  Learning from it, enjoying it, and not wasting time worrying what anyone else thinks of his choices or performance.

And actually, now I think about it, that in itself may just be the coolest part of the whole experience...

Saturday 29 June 2013

Food for thought...

The weather today in Moscow is 31degC and sunny.

The weather today in London is (max) 21degC - but at the moment, is 12degC.

I'm getting on a plane and flying from the former to the latter.

Better leave my warm weather gear here, then.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

Things I learned at BritMums 2013...

The BritMums Live! team did an amazing job.

After 6 years, I still have a lot to learn about blogging.

Standing up to read one of your posts aloud in front of 400 people is just about as intimidating as it gets.

I am a rhubarb, according to the stylists from TKMaxx.  Not an apple, pear, or strawberry (yes, you really can be strawberry-shaped - who knew?), but a rhubarb.  So THAT's where I've been going wrong stylistically all these years...

A lot of bloggers have book ideas.  A lot.

Meeting online friends face to face is rarely a disappointment.

Travelling without the kids is... pretty much bliss, actually.

But sitting on the tarmac for 4 hours at Moscow's Domodedovo airport whilst the hydraulic system on the plane is being fixed still stinks.

Arrive at Heathrow T5 after midnight and you will experience the spooky situation where they actually start to turn the lights off in the baggage hall.

Driving through the centre of London after 1am in the morning, looking at all the revellers out there, is a pretty good reminder of how darn old you are.

But glancing out of the hotel window at 6am on a Saturday morning (damn that jet lag) to see clubbers making their way home through the drizzle makes you realise that being ancient really isn't that bad.

Thursday 20 June 2013

Why Blogging is like Fight Club. No, really.

It's probably going to be quiet on The Potty Diaries this weekend.  I'm heading off to the UK for a weekend of talking about blogging rather than actually blogging, at BritMums Live!

This will make a refreshing change from my usual m.o. which - when speaking to 'real' people - is to treat blogging like Fight Club.  Remember?  First rule about Fight Club; Never speak about Fight Club.  Second rule about Fight Club?  Never speak about Fight Club.  So it generally is with blogging and me.

It's not that I'm ashamed of my blog, you understand - rather the opposite.  I'm proud of it, would shout about it from the roof tops if I could.  It's more that a) it's supposed to be anonymous  and b) very often when you tell people who don't blog that you do - if you tell them - they immediately make assumptions about you.

These are, in no particular order:

1.  You have no friends.  This is surprising because the majority of bloggers I've met face to face are some of the most gregarious and engaging people I know.  Frankly, given the opportunity, we rarely shut up.

2.  You have too much time on your hands.  That's why this morning, I'm squeezing writing a blog post in between dropping my kids at school, going into the city to pick up my new visa, sorting the house into some semblance of order, making a cake for the troops to eat whilst I'm gone - got to remind them of the benefits of having me around, obviously - doing the laundry, packing for my weekend away, and getting to the airport on time to make my flight later on.

3.  In a direct contradiction with 2. , that the housework never gets done  This may be true.  I couldn't possibly comment apart from to say, thank god for our cleaner.

4.  You must be short of things to write about, so they can expect to see themselves featured in glorious prose.  Some people are even surprised when they discover that this isn't the case...  I can only say here that since I can barely remember the content of conversations I had with my own family the day after - no, a couple of hours after - they take place, I am quite pleased that I'm able to fool other people into entirely the wrong impression about the strength of my short term memory.

5.  You must be making a fortune.  Ha!

So, anyway; I'm off to London now to talk about blogging to my heart's content for a couple of days.  And then I will return - hopefully with fewer bruises than Brad Pitt and Edward Norton sported after their weekends of Fight Club excess - to settle back into my day to day existence and undercover blogging once again...

If you have a blog, and tell people about it, do you have anything to add to this list?  And if you don't tell people, why not?


Monday 17 June 2013

End of term madness, meets BritMums Live!, meets Good Enough Mothering...

I am all for giving children the opportunity to make their voices heard within the school environment.  One of the worst things I remember about being a child was the feeling that your voice didn't really count for anything; adults got to make all the decisions, big and small, so the fact that the Boys' school has a Student Council seems like a Good Thing to me.  No, really, it does.  Just as long as my sons realise that they live in a benevolently authoritative establishment at home.

That means, by the way, that I will listen to their points of view and accommodate them where possible but - when all is said and done - what I / Husband says goes.  Especially on the big issues.  Like, rice or pasta for dinner.  Or whether that crust is going to be eaten up or not (we can discuss 'not' - but then there won't be dessert afterwards...)

Anyway.  The Student Council.  It had decreed that today was Celebrity Day.  (We won't get into a discussion of whether celebrity is something to be applauded here, I think.  I mean, obviously it's not, not really, but when everyone else is participating it seems to be more than a little curmudgeonly to lecture your children on why you are not going to help them pull together a costume when all their friends are dressing up as famous football players or pop princesses).

But let's put Celebrity Day in context.  We are in the last week of term here (do I hear a sharp intake of breath from UK based readers?).  So, you know, I have a question. Whose bright* idea was it to schedule it for this week? (*Add expletives as you see fit).  Because yes, come next Monday my two little darlings will be home all day, every day, until the end of August.

*sighs deeply*

*pulls self together*


So, bearing that in mind, much as I love my sons and am looking forward to spending un-timetabled weeks with them in the very near future, I have to admit that there are just one or two teensy little things I would like to get sorted before that happens.

  • Like, finish the copy-editing job I was just sent.  
  • Like, finish my novel - a ridiculous dream which is close enough to touch, but not quite - or, in the absence of that, re-read it and come up with an elevator pitch on it's theme.  You know; 'Oh, my novel?  Well, it's sort of Tolkien meets Chekhov meets Maggie O'Farrell...' (It's not, by the way.  Totally different, in fact.  But you get what I'm talking about).  
  • Like, gird my loins (as in, work out what the hell to wear) for BritMums Live! this weekend, prepare myself for the workshop and the keynote reading I'll be doing at it, remember to pack my glasses for the opticians appointment I'm squeezing in during my 60 hour whirlwind visit to London, write a shopping list for the same (sleep?  Who needs sleep?), and also batten down the hatches here so that Husband has sufficient supplies (aka pizza and crisps) during my absence.

It's not surprising then that Celebrity Day slipped my mind until Boys #1 and #2 reminded me of it just before their bedtime yesterday evening.  Cue mild panic followed by frantic thinking and creative problem solving.

But, we triumphed.  Well - sort of.  Boy #1 strode into school complete with long brown shorts, white shirt, blue sweater and comma-quiff (courtesy of my Aveda wax) as TinTin, and Boy #2 negotiated the corridors in a dark blue t-shirt tucked into slightly-too short but suitably snug tracksuit bottoms, and wearing his brother's black ski helmet bearing the legend 'Hamilton' written in felt-tip pen on a sticky label across the front of it.

I did spend a few moments last night considering the possibility of covering Boy #2 all over with sponsorship labels so he could look a little closer to the real thing but once I googled a few images and realised that a) we didn't have a yellow flame-retardent jumpsuit to stick them on and b) I would be up all night printing them, it would be much simpler to tell him he was wearing Lewis Hamilton's training kit instead.  (They keep the many-labelled racing kit for race occasions only, didn't you know?)

At the end of term, there was a limit, I decided.  In this instance, Good Enough mothering would have to be good enough...