Monday 25 March 2013

I am never sick...

... well, not really.  I'm foolishly proud of something that is quite frankly beyond my control; I have no doubt that if I took the metro in the rush hour every morning, or worked in a crowded office, or had a more hectic social life than I do, I would pick up way more bugs.

But at the moment, I am sick.  I blame my children.  Well - why have them if every now and again you can't use them as an excuse for feeling a bit crap when you pick up a touch of some lergy or other?

If I had the energy to find a 'gone fishing' sign to paste into this post, I would, but for now I'll just say that it's nothing serious and I'll be back soon.

And that that is the last time you will hear me say 'I am never sick'.  (Way to jinx yourself, PM).

Wednesday 20 March 2013

The Photo Gallery: Red

This post is for Wk 134 of The Gallery over at Sticky Fingers (click here to see the other entries) and the prompt for this week is 'Red'.

A few days ago I wrote about living as an expat and not taking your children 'off-reservation' often enough.  This photo is proof that we do - occasionally - get around to it.  It was taken on the banks of  Lake Nero at Rostov Velikiy, a town about 5 hours drive north east of Moscow and which is one of the 'Golden Ring' cities.  Well worth checking out if you are planning to venture further than Red Square (which, I have to admit, was my first go-to instinct when looking through my folders for photos suitable for this week's submission).

Tuesday 19 March 2013

There is no such thing as bad weather...

And so the snow continues.  That picture in my last post?  Totally white-washed out of existence, because this being March, Mother Nature is playing with us a bit, the saucy minx.  Friday was all Winter Wonderland, Saturday was +2degC and slush everywhere (practical shoes, people, practical shoes), whilst on Sunday it was -8 again.

Honestly.  I'm guessing the big Mother must be suffering as much from PMT as I am right now, she's so changeable at the moment.  The poor birds are all arriving back from their winter playgrounds and tweeting their little hearts out for about 5 minutes before they hunker down to try and conserve energy in the -11degC dawn (yesterday morning's balmy temperature).

I know, when Spring finally get's off it's backside and deigns to make a proper appearance (because I don't care what you say, Russians,  THIS IS NOT SPRING!), that we will soon have forgotten the snowdrifts stacked up like mini-Everests (except with more dirt in them), and that the daily tussle over snowpants with children bored of wearing them for 5 straight months will soon be just a distant memory.  I know that.

But in the meantime, it's cold, it's dirty, and I'm totally ready to see grass outside the back door again.

Time to trot out one of my totally over-used truisms about living in Russia, I think;

There is no such thing as bad weather; only bad shoes...

Thursday 14 March 2013

Update: Parenting with Love & Logic. Some of it even works...

One week or so on from this post, I'm still trying to introduce the 'Parenting with Love and Logic' principles into the Potski home.  How have we made out?  Well, here are a few things we've achieved;

1.  A (mostly) drama free piano lesson for Boy #2.  (Click here to see details of last week's fiasco) Sure, he did show some reluctance to start the lesson but when I reminded him his pocket money privileges would be cancelled out for a second week running (never mind the cost of his lesson being deducted from his savings once again), he pulled himself together and went in.

Mind you, if I'm honest? What really clinched it was his being put in charge of the alarm clock I put in the room to make sure his lovely - but somewhat over enthusiastic - piano teacher did not follow her usual pattern of over-running the lesson by 20 minutes or more (which it turned out was his main bugbear).  The result was that when the alarm sounded 30 minutes later, he actually said "That was a short lesson!" and was happy to continue for another 5 minutes whilst she went through his homework with him.  Although of course the extra time required resetting the alarm clock - himself -  took almost all of the 5 minutes more he'd agreed to.  (Note to self; dig out an alarm clock that's easier to operate)

It's all about the technology.  Boys and their toys...

2.  A smooth transfer of responsibility - from me to the Boys - for packing completed homework into rucksacks the same evening it's been done.  Yes, I'm still prompting them to put it away (and admittedly their Dutch school homework somehow managed to escape everyone's notice), but the prompt is now less of the 'Put it away now!' and more of the 'Do you think it's a good idea to leave that lying on the table when we're about to have dinner and it could get food or drink on it?' variety.  (Admittedly, this was very much helped by Boy #2's knocking over a full glass water on his 'Non-waterproof, Mama - NON WATERPROOF!' folder only moments after he had told me he would do it later...)

3.  More help laying the table in the mornings.  Also still prompted, but once more along the lines of pointing out that if they take responsibility for doing that, then I can take responsibility for making their school lunch...

4.  Both Boys remembering to put their own lunchbox into their school rucksacks.  On the one hand, I know this seems like a paltry task.  Why should it be something that bothers me, doing it for them?  Well, maybe because I can see this still happening in 2 years time. Or 5. Or when they are 18 years old and heading back to uni with their duffle bag of clean laundry (note to self - start training Boys how to sort colours from whites now...).

Please note: we have some way still to go.  There is plenty of work to be done, not least by me in controlling my inner drill sergeant and putting her back in her box when she tries to take control, instead of  sitting back and letting my sons find out for themselves what happens when they don't take responsibility for themselves.  But today something happened that gave me hope.  At the end of school, whilst waiting with me for his younger brother to finish what he was doing, Boy #1 and I had the following exchange:

Boy #1:  "Do I have to wear my snow pants home, Mum?"

Me (thinking you're just getting over flu, you've got a horrible cough, of COURSE you have to wear your snow pants home): "Not if you don't want to, no. But if you don't, no complaining if you get cold."

Boy #1: "Oh.  OK.  But it is still snowing, right?"

Me: "Yes, it's still snowing."

Boy #1:  "Do you know what temperature it is?"

Me:  "About minus 4 degC."

Boy #1: "Alright."

Puts on his snow pants.

Now.  If only I can get this to work with Boy #2...

Tuesday 12 March 2013

On taking time to smell the local roses as an Expat parent...

Taking blogging to new interactive levels - for me, anyway - I asked on my previous post which of 4 topics I should write about next.  Amazingly, some lovely people replied with their preferences (honest - you can see their comments here), so today's post is all about the guilt some people experience as expat parents, and how they handle it...

Wherever you live, being a parent nowadays can be hard work.  Not only in terms of dealing with children in a world where touch points and references are constantly changing, and when the authoritarian model of parenting many of us grew up with is now being pushed gently to one side in favour of a more authoritative (for which read, 'consulting') model of dealing with our children, but also in terms of being physically demanding as a result of the punishing schedules we create for ourselves and for our children.

Whilst many of us dream of a more 'free-range' approach to bringing up baby - opening the back door and letting kids take responsibility for their own entertainment in non-school based hours - quite often it's simply not practical in a world where traffic is horrific, double-incomes are a financial necessity for the majority of families, and time at home together is so limited.  And even leaving that aside, the pressures and expectations that we put on our ourselves - and our children - are amplified to a level that our parents, 30 or 40 years ago, would find ridiculous.  Not only is there homework to be finished - from a much younger age than I remember at school - but there are the after school activities to be fitted in.  There are the music lessons.  The sports clubs.  The swimming lessons.  The ballet classes.  The art play.  The 'improving' opportunities that we convince ourselves are essential to our child's eventual growth into a well-balanced adult.  And that's just in middle England.

Now, imagine yourselves as an expat living in a culture not your own.  Your family moves from one country to another every 2 - 4 years, putting down roots where you can, ripping them up when you have to move on, and doing all that you can to maintain a sense of equilibrium in a world where the scenery is constantly changing.

It's tough.  And not only because YOU are transient, but because - if you live in the international, expat environment (often the only possibility when you are not planning on making a country your 'forever home' but are merely a guest for a short period of time) - those around you are transient, too.

So, there you are, in Moscow/Beijing/Rio de Janeiro.  As you watch your children saying goodbye to a best friend for the second time in 3 years, you resolve that in spite of everything they will not suffer for your lifestyle choices.  Instead, they will see more, do more, experience more because of them.  They won't have TIME to miss 'home' goddammit - and you are going to make sure of it.  You fill their days with extra activities and their holidays with exotic destinations.  You find the tennis lessons, you get them enrolled on the fencing course, you drive them an hour each way to the football pitch every Saturday morning.  You leave no stone unturned in your quest to support your child's learning opportunities, because there has to be an upside for your kids to this somewhat unorthodox lifestyle you've chosen.

Your golden expat children have golden opportunities and they are ruddy well going to benefit from them, no matter how exhausting your schedule becomes.

Even with the best of intentions, it's easy to find yourself in this situation.  I know how easy; to a certain extent we're in that space right now.  But asides from the fact that filling children's lives with stimulus - to the extent that they can no longer to entertain  themselves with a box of lego, or a blank pad of paper and a set of pens - is not actually doing them any favours in the long term, where in this constant maelstrom of activity is the chance for them to connect with where they live right now?

Yesterday I bumped into an expat friend who was concerned about some of the things her children had been saying about Russia and Russians.  She felt that there was a lot of negativity being spouted at them from somewhere - she wasn't sure where - and was concerned because when she signed up for the expat lifestyle, that was the absolute last thing she had expected to happen.  She had hoped instead for her children to connect with their environment, to get something positive out of their experience of living in this interesting and engaging country.

But as we spoke about this it became clear to both of us that we were not giving our children the chance to do this.  Unless we - as expat parents - take a breath and pause in our constant efforts to give our kids the best opportunities, and instead simply enjoy where we are living, how can we hope that they will see the best in their current location?

Perhaps, instead of working so frenetically to minimise the number of opportunities that we imagine our kids are missing out on by not being 'home', we could put the breaks on the perpetual motion - just a little.

Then we could  take our kids off-reservation, away from the ever-so-comfortable golden expat cage, into the city centre or out to the countryside, into the museums, art galleries and playgrounds.  Because in years to come, when our children recount tales of their international lifestyle to others who've never visited the places that they temporarily called home, what do we hope they will say?  That in Moscow/Beijing/Rio they perfected their backhand and learned how to play the piano?

Or that the sunsets were amazing, the winters astounding, the people welcoming, and the blinis delicious?

Monday 11 March 2013

Starters for ten...

I'm having one of those days where ideas for blog posts - here and elsewhere - are coming thick and fast.  

Should I write about how living with less is more (based on a prompt from a piece in The New York Times Sunday review)*?  

Should I write about protecting my son from an overenthusiastic music teacher who loves to teach but doesn't appear to understand the limits a 7 year old has after a full day at school?  

Perhaps I should touch on how the musical instruments my sons play are as much a reflection of of my concerns that they be equipped to have something to bring to the the party (quite literally) in the future, rather than of interest on the Boys' parts in playing those specific instruments?

Or, should I write about parenting expat children and how the guilt we parents feel at imposing transient lifestyles on our kids is usually far in excess of that we should feel?

Decisions, decisions...

I think it's a fair assumption that I will instead write about something really important - like chocolate - but at least my intentions are good.

*Thankyou Amanda Surbey for the link on facebook to the original piece

Friday 8 March 2013

Be careful what you wish for; Boys and Reading

I love to read.  Always have, probably always will.  The loss of my Kindle on a plane a couple of weeks back - entirely my fault as I can't even blame the children for distracting me since I was sitting a couple of rows away from them and Husband - has left me bereft (pauses for heavy sigh and moment of quiet).  Or rather it did, until I realised I could download the Kindle app to the ipad and that all the purchases I made to date were stored in the ether - but still, I WANT MY KINDLE BACK, DAMMIT.

Anyway.  Where were we?  Oh yes, I love to read.  Boy #1 also loves to read and is a carbon copy of the bookworm I was at the same age.  By the way Mum; I finally get how frustrating it is to try and get your kids ready for school in the morning with one of them constantly glued to a book.  Boy #2 has, on the other hand, up until recently been more about drawing than reading.  The house is awash with carefully drawn pictures of A380 airplanes complete with the customisations he plans to add to them in the future when he is the engineer in charge of design at Boeing. Things like gardens, tennis courts, swimming pools, extra seats for the Super First Class section he's going to introduce - you know the type of thing.

These signs of his active imagination are great, but I have to admit to have been looking forward to the day when he discovers just how much fun reading can be.

Well, that day has arrived.  But rather than resulting in a calm and peaceful scene of both Boys sitting reading in perfect harmony, we now have another turf war on our hands.  Boy #1, you see loves to read stuff like The Hobbit, Harry Potter and such-like - but he's also partial to the odd comic and illustrated Asterix and TinTin book.

And guess which books are most attractive to a 7 year old brother just discovering the joy of books?

That sitting and reading in perfect harmony?  We'll get there, I'm sure.  Eventually.

Wednesday 6 March 2013

'What matters is deciding to get on...' An open letter to Expats considering moving to Moscow.

Every now and again I am contacted by people thinking of / planning to move to Moscow.  The questions these people ask are varied and often surprising, but I always try and answer them honestly whilst at the same time being positive about their forthcoming adventure.

Russia is, you see, something of an unknown quantity for most people in 'western' countries.  They don't know much about it, and what they do know is often not very encouraging.  So almost the first thing I write in my response is something along the lines of 'Congratulations on your forthcoming move' - because I'm fairly certain they won't have heard that from many people back home.  

Then I touch on schools (lighten up - especially if you're coming from the UK), traffic (it's hell), bureaucracy (don't ask 'why', just ask 'how'), learning Russian (even a few words will help), and prioritising the family commute over the working partner's travel (something of a bugbear with me since all the families I've known who've left early have been those where the kids have had a 2 hour drive to school whilst the dad - and yes, it IS always the dad in this situation - has a 15 minute journey).

Recently however, I've found myself wanting to include a quote from one of my sons' favourite movies, The Polar Express in these letters. (Can you tell I've been subjected to too much kids tv over the last few years?).  I can't, of course - how trite would that sound? - but here, on the blog, I can say what I please so I'm going to use it...   

I'm paraphrasing, but after the children's adventures are just about finished and our Hero arrives back outside his home, the Conductor's final words to him (apart from 'Merry Christmas!' obviously) are something like "That's the thing about trains; it doesn't matter where they're going.  What matters is deciding to get on..."

That, for me, sums up a successful attitude to coming to live in Moscow.  Who knows where the ride will take you?  It may be where you're expecting - and equally, it may not.  But wherever you end up, if you sign on for the experience with an open mind you will be surprised, entertained, rarely bored and you may just find strengths and skills that you never knew you possessed. 

So.  In the Conductor's words; 'Well. Are you coming?'

Monday 4 March 2013

Parenting, 21st Century Style. I hope.

Sometimes, being a parent is just. plain. exhausting.

Before I even start this post properly, I want to say that most of the time my Boys are a delight.  I look around me, at the issues and problems some other parents face with their kids and think; we haven't done so badly.  No, actually, forget the British understatement; we've done bloody well.  We won the lottery when we were gifted with two such wonderful sons, and I will never - NEVER - forget that.

But.  They are still children.  They are still boys.  They are still extremely normal - along with all that goes with it.  

Recently I've been solo-parenting for most of the working week.  I take my hat off to those who do it full-time and permanently; I've been doing it most Monday-Fridays since August (holidays excepted), and it's hard work.  The smallest fly in the ointment at 7.30 am can alter the tone of an entire day, and to avoid that, I have to admit to have fallen back on trying to be super-organised.  A place for everything, everything in it's place.  Snow boots by the back door, library books always on the same table, school bags packed with homework the night before, school clothes set out the previous evening's bathtime, etc etc.  We're like a well-oiled machine, the Boys and I.

Except, of course, we aren't.  I am.  In my quest for a simpler life, I have to admit to having picked up 90% of the slack on tasks that probably should be responsibilities of my sons.

It makes life smoother, I chose to tell myself.  Sure, I probably shouldn't be the one to pack Boy #1's lunch box into his school bag in the morning - he is 9, after all - but what if he forgets it?  I'm only going to end up having to go back into school with it, an extra journey I can do without.  No, I'll just do whilst he's lying on the sofa snatching a last few minutes with Harry Potter before school;  at least then I know it's done.  And as for Boy #2, what of it if I'm the one to pull his snow pants off the hook for him, lay them out on the floor for him to meander up to when he's finished messing about with lego and slowly pull on whilst the rest of us are waiting at the front door?  Does it really matter who gets them out as long he has them on?  It's minus 10degC out there, after all - he can't go out without them...

But deep down I knew that I wasn't really doing the Boys any favours.  Sure, I was doing myself a favour in the short term - putting my mind at rest that Boy #1 had his lunch, getting Boy #2 to school on time in spite of himself -  but in the longer term, will I still be doing these things for them when they are 11 and 9?  15 and 13?  18 and 16?  It doesn't bear thinking about.  

I can't help thinking that it's time to let go a little.

Last week I went to a seminar that used 'Parenting with Love and Logic' as a tool to help us do that.  It's an interesting book that has as one of it's central tenets the fact that unless we give children the opportunities to make choices - including, occasionally, the wrong ones - and to try, succeed and sometimes fail all on their own merits, we are not allowing them to 'own' their choices, to develop confidence in themselves, and are not giving them the best start in life.  

The writers of the book argue that those of us who are helicopter parents (not me), or drill sergeants (regrettably, sometimes me) are not helping our children become healthy successfully functioning adults in the way that we would be able to do if we adopted more of a consultation approach.  If we would stand back, and let our children do the thinking.  Yes, we should give them firm rules and guidelines, guidance when required or when they ask for it, and a safe and always loving structure from within which to do that, but we should let our children make their own informed decisions and deal with the consequences (excepting, of course, when they put themselves in life-threatening situations).  Essentially, the book suggests that if we can help children learn to rely on and trust their own inner voice from a relatively young age - by not deafening them with our instructions and commands from outside - then they will be better equipped to rely on and trust their own sense of self-worth when they get older.  When we won't be there to give advice or to suggest that perhaps climbing into the car driven by their friend who's sunk 5 pints of lager at a party might not be such a good idea.

For example...  So, Boy #1 might forget his lunch.  He'll probably only do it once.  And Boy #2 might get cold when he sets foot outside.  You can be damn sure he'll rush into his snow pants the next time I ask.  Right?

It's an interesting theory.  Today was the day that I started to put it into practice.  

Boy #1 was ill and had to stay home (the best laid plans, and all that), but other than that we had a good start without quite as much moaning and complaining I usually get from Boy #2 ('Love & Logic approach to getting into the snow pants; 'Oh look, it's -9.5degC this morning.  Do you want to put your snow pants on inside, Boy #2, or in the car?  If you're going to take your time that's fine but then you will need to put them on the car...' Unsurprisingly inside - and putting them on quickly - was chosen).  

But then we crashed and burned spectacularly after school.  

Boy #2 has piano lessons almost immediately after school on Mondays.  He loves them - once I can get him into the room.  Unfortunately, that part - the getting him into the room - is the tricky bit.  Today was no exception as he raced upstairs the moment we got home and started working on a complicated lego creation.  I wasn't too concerned; we'd discussed the fact it was piano today both in school and on the way home, he knew his teacher was coming.  Everything - I thought - would be fine.

Ha.  Ha ha ha.

There was no piano lesson.  I had to send the teacher away without having actually taught a single note.    On the plus side, Boy #2 has now learned that in that situation I WILL take the cost the of the wasted lesson out of his savings and that the lego he wanted to play with WILL stay on the top shelf until next week. He has also learned that not showing age-appropriate behaviour will result in no tv for the rest of the day.  This is the one that REALLY hit home, of course.  

I also managed to stay calm, collected, and sympathetic through the subsequent 'You're not being fair's', the 'I don't like you very much today's' and so on - and most importantly, not to give in and to hold my nerve despite repeated pleading.

But I feel terrible for the poor teacher who came all the way over to us despite the fact that her car was in the garage for repairs; using the tram, bus and minibus to get here.  I feel a hot wave of shame when I think about it, to be honest.  That a child of mine would be so spoilt as to do that to a highly qualified teacher who, quite frankly, did not have to add him to her already over-crowded schedule when I begged her to do so last September.  I have to admit that stings. I think she understood.  She certainly told me she did - but that's not the point.

However, as I wrote to my husband earlier when I wanted to fill him in and be sure we were singing from the same hymn book when he called to speak to the children this evening, this is not about me.  I wrote;

'Am trying a new approach - out of that book I'm reading - where we make these issues their problems rather than ours.  For example, the cancellation of the lesson is his problem. The apology he will need to give her is his problem.  The cost of the wasted lesson is his problem.  Not being allowed to play with the lego that prompted this - f0r a week - is his problem.  We can genuinely sympathise with how that makes him feel - that's a shame - but we don't give in. These are his problems and he must deal with the consequences.'

Watch this space to see how it pans out...

Friday 1 March 2013

Give a little bit...

Putting these up here seems to be becoming a bit of a habit; this is a video that both Christine Mosler and Jo Beaufoix shared on facebook, and which cheered me up on this raw and snowy morning in Moscow.


(And can I just say - 16 days, and still no Diet Coke.  Despite featuring the clip above...)