Tuesday 16 December 2014

All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth...

Well.  Not really.  Although Santa-Baby, whilst we're on the subject, an American smile might be nice...

Christmas is coming, dahlinks, and the goose is getting fat.  (As are the rest of us on all this festive fare and drink.  Not that I care right now, having taken an oath recently to cut out dieting because of the appalling mood it puts me in and the bad example it sets my sons.  Plus, you know, the chocolate.)

Anyway, the end of term is fast approaching, and the seasonal tension is rising.  'Are you Ready?'  That's the question that I seem to hear here there and everywhere when I visit the school to collect the boys at the end of the day.  I smile in a relaxed style and say 'Oh yes.  Just a few presents left to buy.' I'm surprised that my tongue hasn't turned black and fallen out of my head given the amount of times I've trotted out that lie.

Ready?  Am I READY?

Um - no.  Yes, the tree is up, and family and grandparents have been informed of present ideas for the little cherubs.  And Husband and I have had vague conversations about what each of us might like from the other.  But *whispers* really - that's about it.  I would love to say this lack of readiness is a temporary aberration but I cannot tell a(nother) lie - I have previous form in this area.  Pre-kids I actually prided myself on doing all my gift buying on Christmas Eve.  Oh, sweet innocence of youth!  Obviously, now that I have children of my own, that devil-may-care attitude is a distant memory, but I'm not above leaving it until - oh, about now, really - and spending a happy evening going through the internet clicking on whatever is still available in the bargain basement section of the John Lewis 'click & collect' service, particularly when I'm buying stuff to put on the end of the bed on behalf of the big man in red.

Speaking of whom, there's another lie, m'lud.  Boy #1 is 11 and - ostensibly - still believes in Father Christmas.  And Sinterklaas.  And the Tooth Fairy.  And - probably - the Easter Bunny, although we don't need to deal with that issue until April, thank heavens.  Now, I'm not completely naive.  I think we all know that he doesn't REALLY believe in any of them, but is just playing along for the sake of his younger brother and in case admitting any doubt on this matter affects the number of presents he is given.  So he is careful to keep his mouth shut as Boy #2 asks difficult questions (at 8, he's surrounded by friends who are also questioning/unconvinced by the Santa Myth), and when I make my unconvincing replies which normally run along the lines of  'Well, if Santa doesn't put the presents there, who does?'  Boy #1 keeps schtum.

Smart boy.

As for me and my inveterate fibbing about the Potski state of readiness for Christmas (C minus 9 days and counting...  Christ, now I've typed that in black and white I am starting to panic, just a bit), luckily the school corridors are thinning out at pick-up time as the early-leavers sneak out of the country before the final bell rings.  (Just between us, I prefer to think of them as Rats Deserting A Sinking Ship as they leave the rest of us deal with the joy that is the Elementary School end of term party on the last afternoon).  And there are only 2 days of term left, so I don't have to keep the lies up for much longer.  Which is a good thing, really - as I don't want to end up on Santa's naughty list.

Just in case he IS real.  (Because, you know, the chocolate...)

Christmas Shenanigans from Footballer's Knees.

I am blatantly stealing cred from my insanely talented sis, Footballer's Knees, again.  A quick recap; she lives in the UK with her husband Big A, and son J.

Here for your delectation is one of her latest fb missives...

Big A and I are playing the traditional game,'What's behind the Advent calendar door?' As usual, we are days behind, so have a week's worth to open.

'Number 5 - what's it going to be?' I ask, expectantly. 

Big A draws in a breath and sucks his teeth, in the manner of a brown coated hardware shopkeeper, thinking about whether he has 3 mil washers in stock. He's an aficionado of this game and takes it seriously. 'Well, it's early days, so we shouldn't be expecting angels or stars. I'm thinking camel, the ship of the desert...'

'....it's a star.'

Big A shakes his head. What is the world coming to, when a star makes such an early appearance in the game? 'OK then, if that's the way it's going to be, the next one will be an angel.'

Pause. 'It's two kittens, playing with a ball of wool.'

He shakes his head again. Time to play tough. 'In that case, it's definitely an angel next...'

'...it's a woman collecting water from a well.'

Big A stands and shouts. 'What the f@ck? What sort of sh*t is that?'

I cover my ears. 'Ssshh, don't swear in front of the Advent calendar. If you can't play nicely, we won't play at all.'

I hang up the calendar and exit the room, leaving him to untangle the Christmas tree lights alone.

Monday 8 December 2014

Wins and Losses to-date this festive season

Win:  Finding you can still fit into not one but two (count 'em, TWO) of your long slinky dresses so you have a choice for an up-coming festive black tie event.

Loss:  spotting slightly more lumps and bumps marring the slinkiness than you are happy with.

Win:  locating suitable  'streamlining' underwear at the back of your knicker drawer to smooth out the lumps and bumps.

Loss:  deciding to celebrate new svelte appearance with a square or two of chocolate.

Win:  It's dark chocolate, mind.  So, essentially, good for you.

Loss:  In fact, since I'm being so good to myself, why not celebrate with half a pound of cheese as well?  And whilst I'm at it, how about a piece of that banana bread I made for the boys yesterday?  The one with the chocolate chips in?  Well, they probably won't eat it - it's far too healthy - and it would be a shame to waste it...


Win:  Heading off to a friends' house and finding the perfect box of Ferrero Rocher to give them, as a joke.  Your plan is to hand it over to said friend - who just happens to be an Ambassador - and say with a knowing smile 'Monsieur.  With these Ferrero Rocher we are really spoiling you.'  As plans go, it's foolproof.  It's brilliant, with a capital B.

Loss:  It turns out that no-one other than the Brits ever saw that advert.  This person is not a Brit, so you have to explain what on earth you talking about and end up feeling like a complete Brit, with a capital T,

Win: It does, however, give you the opportunity to put the original ad onto your blog so that should a similar situation ever happen in the future (not that you ever expect to be invited back to an Ambassador's residence again, after that performance) you can find it much more easily than you were able to this time around...

(Always the silver lining, me.  Always the silver lining).

Friday 5 December 2014

How to throw a Christmas Bauble Party...

What?  You've never heard of a Christmas Bauble party?  Dahlink!  I just can't imagine... Oh, wait.  That was me two weeks ago.  But then an invitation dropped into my inbox, and on Wednesday this week, I went along and was introduced to this hilarious (new) Christmas tradition.  I had such a good time, I thought I would share it with you, so here's my step by step guide.

1.  Invite a group of probably between 10 - 20 girlfriends over.

2.  Ask your girlfriends to go out and purchase a Christmas bauble for anything from £1 - £10.  (Please note; it does not have to be an actual bauble, but something that can hang on the tree is good.)  Instruct them to wrap their bauble as prettily as possible - so that it can't be seen - and leave it on a table just inside the front door when they arrive, so that no-one knows who has brought which parcel.

3.  Once everyone has arrived, ask them to draw a number from 1 to whatever the final number of people is, and hold onto their ticket.

4.  Get everyone seated, and put the pretty packages in the middle of the room.  Then invite the holder of ticket #1 to choose a parcel.

5.  #1 must open the parcel in full view of everyone in the room, so that all the other guests can see what they've received.

6.  Then #2 is invited to take a parcel.  OR - and this is crucial - they can also choose to 'steal' the bauble that has just been opened by #1.

7.  If #2 chooses to steal #1's bauble, #1 gets to choose another parcel to open.  The contents of which may be stolen yet again, by #3, who#'s turn it will be next.  #3, you see, gets to choose a gift from the table, or to steal either of the bauble's already in the possession of #1 and #2.

8.  And so it goes on, with each subsequent person in the numbered order getting a wider choice of baubles to 'steal' from the other players - or of course they can choose, sight unseen, to take a wrapped one from decreasing number on the table.

What is very important to know, however, is that each bauble can only be 'stolen' 3 times.  The person who steals it for the 3rd time gets to keep it.

This party is perfect if you have a group of friends who can be relied upon to keep their sense of humour if their new favourite Christmas decoration is stolen from them at the last minute by someone they usually call their bff, if they find themselves opening the booby prize of the most tasteless bauble imaginable, or if they end up as the new owner of the pair of novelty pants that some joker decided to throw into the mix for a laugh.  Which of course didn't happen to anyone I knew...

And that, friends, is how to throw a Christmas Bauble party, and I promise you - you won't regret it.

You're welcome.

Wednesday 26 November 2014

How do you know which movies and electronic games are age-appropriate for your kids?

Please note; this is NOT a sponsored post; just something I thought might come in handy when we're all casting about for ideas for gifts this Christmas...

As an involved / engaged / helicopter (delete as you see fit) parent, I like to understand what it is my children are watching or playing when they're staring at their electronic devices.  However, researching every single online purchase that my children want to make - and properly understanding the plots and techniques etc that various games use - is something that I simply don't have the time (or, if I'm honest, the enthusiasm) to do.

Boy #2 came home from school a couple of weeks back lobbying to be able to download a new game on the ipad.

"Everyone has it, Mum" he told me.  Hmmm.  I had never heard of this game before.  "Define 'everyone'", I said.  "Well, M has it.  And S.  And O."  Okaaay.  All boys with previous form in the area of inappropriate / excessive internet and electronic gaming use, I noted.  I decided to ask Boy #1 if he knew of this game.

He did.  "That is definitely not the right age group for Boy #2"  he pronounced firmly, family policeman that he is (is it just me or do a lot of oldest siblings - myself included - fall into that category?)  "I've seen it and I don't think it's appropriate AT ALL."

'Appropriate'; that lovely multi-tasking word.  The Potski family use it when certain people Talk Too Loudly In Church, when they Scream At The Top Of Their Voice that their socks hurt as we walk too school , when Bottom Conversations become Too Personal, and - increasingly often - when looking into the content of various forms of electronic entertainment.

Boy #2 was sure his older brother was being too cautious.  "It's fine, Mum.  Let's just try it and see..."  We've done that in the past with disastrous results, so I wasn't convinced that in the case it was the best way to go.

Luckily, I didn't need to try the 'suck it and see' method of trial.  Instead, I was able to pass the buck on this decision to an online resource we use frequently, and who's decision is seen as final by my two occasionally biddable children.  Commonsense Media is a site that gives reviews and age ratings for almost any web-sourced content that your children may be interested in, and which - crucially - gives you an instant and easily accessible list of the reasons why those ratings have been awarded.  For example, this is their review of World of War Craft (which they rate as Age 15):

'Parents need to know that this game is incredibly fun to play and spectacular in terms of its beauty and creativity, but it requires adult involvement to be a positive and safe experience for teens. There is violence, some of it bloody, references to alcohol, and occasionally subtle sexual innuendo. Most importantly, parents need to know that this game is conducted online and may involve chatting with unknown players. Also, parents should set time limits for gameplay: With endless exploration and no clearly defined levels, it is easy to get hooked.'

Whereas this is what they have to say about Minecraft (rated Age 8):

'Parents need to know that Minecraft is an open-ended, exploration and creation focused environment. One of the best-selling, independently developed and published video games,Minecraft's official release was in November 2011 following a lengthy beta test phase that attracted millions of players. Players can create items and buildings from scratch using materials they harvest from the world around them. There is no story, but players will encounter aggressive monsters they can fight using swords and bows. Graphics are extremely blocky, and there is no blood or gore, but the creatures can be a bit scary when they moan or appear seemingly out of nowhere. Parents should note that this game has a thriving online community hosted by private, non-moderated servers. This means players could encounter offensive content in the form of profane text messages and suggestively shaped player-created structures, although players don't have to engage in online activity to enjoy the game.'

So back in Potski Mansions, we input the name of the game in question into the CommonSense Media search engine, and sure enough, Boy #1 was correct; this game was rated as Age 12.   Boy #2 (currently aged 8) was disappointed but was willing to toe the party line.


Although there might have been some reprisal-instigated wrestling that ensued when my back was turned, but hey, I can't be an involved / engaged / helicopter parent all the time...



Wednesday 19 November 2014

21st Century Learning

Who can place this quote:

"... your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not that they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."*

I remembered this quote today when I was having a conversation  with a friend and we found ourselves pondering this question: how much screen time do our children get each day?

In fact, how much screen time does YOUR child get each day?

I'm asking this not because I'm trying to make you feel guilty about the kids flopping down in front of the tv the moment they walk through the door at the end of their school day, or to make judgements about the games they may be playing on the ipad, x-box or pc in their room right now.  No, I'm asking this because I suddenly realised during the conversation I mentioned that I don't know the answer to this question myself.

That is because the amount of tv / computer time that my children get at home each day is, in fact, only one piece of the jigsaw; for 8 hours of every weekday during term time my children are not at home.  They are at school, in an educational environment where, more and more, online resources are an integral part of the teaching lexicon.

And that's fine, that's wonderful.  There are now ways for teachers to enhance our children's learning experiences to a degree that was never even dreamt of when we - the pre-Internet generation - were at school.  Want to know about the recent landing on the comet?  It's there in glorious technicolour, tattooed genius engineers and all, at the click of the button.  Need to teach your class the life-cycle of whales or the migratory pattern of puffins?  Instantly accessible, engaging, and entertaining footage is only the correct search engine term away.  Want your class to research the history of the US War of Independence for a project on national autonomy?  Well, there's no need to send them to the school library or ask them to turn to the relevant page of their dry and dusty text book any more, is there?  You just get your pupils to reach for the nearest handy electronic device (be it school or parent supplied), and ask Dr Google (or the school-approved safe content guaranteed equivalent) to provide the relevant information.

And this is great, this is liberating, this is what the internet does brilliantly.

Except.  Scientists frequently tell us that there are limits to the amount of time that a child - with their growing, emerging, fragile brain and all the establishing neural pathways and synapses it consists of - should spend in front of any kind of a screen each day.  Guidelines vary with each new study but that's immaterial since how are we, as parents, expected to gauge what actually is a 'safe' amount of time for our children to spend using a laptop or similar at home when we have no idea how much time they have already spent doing the same thing at school?

Sure, the on-screen content they have been looking at in school may have been 'educational' - but does that actually make any difference?  Does the part of the brain that deals with cognitive development analyse the information that's coming in from the screen in front of it and make a judgement call on whether or not the length of time the child has been looking it is harmful, saying to itself  'Oh, it's about the lifecycle of an amoeba.  That's educational - part of the National Curriculum.  No need to worry about that screwing with the formation of my synapses, then'?

So when he got home from school this afternoon I asked my 11 year old son how much time he had spent in front of the computer today.  He reckoned 45 minutes in his maths lesson, 45 minutes in foreign language, and 30-45 minutes doing research for a current school project.  Unusually there was no writing on computers required for language arts today, so that was it - in school hours.  But add on the approximate 30 minutes he spent online this morning before school catching up on homework, and the 30 minutes doing the same thing this evening, and we are at, let's see, more than 3 hours on the computer today.

And that's without any screen-based game time or watching any tv (because we simply didn't have time for that), so I reckon it's actually a light day.

Which leads me to my ultimate question, I suppose.  Parents are constantly being asked to take responsibility for the amount of electronic input that their children's brains receive, and I'm happy to do that; I want to do that; it's my job.  But is anyone asking schools to factor the same calculations into their lesson plans and to take a similar level of responsibility in safeguarding their pupils' brain development?

Technology is the future.  It's the way ahead, an inescapable fact of life.  But schools need to work with parents on this whole issue of screen time, because it seems to me that there's a disconnect between what they consider acceptable educational practice and what we at home are expected to allow in terms of safe amounts of access.

*Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park - you can see the fantastic scene where he uses this line here.  Vintage Spielberg.

Wednesday 12 November 2014


Yesterday it was Remembrance Day in the UK (and in various other nations around the world, I know).  I had hoped to take the Boys to see the amazing installation of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London when we were in the UK a week or so ago, but heavy traffic and a late-running doctors' appointment meant we didn't make it. Life, as ever, got in the way.

However, yesterday Boy #2 came home from school to tell me how his teacher (a South African) had shown them footage from Sunday's ceremony at the Cenotaph in Whitehall London, regaling me with his tale as if it related to events from ancient history rather than to commemorate something that happened within still-living memory.

"The ceremony happened at 11 o'clock, Mum."  Do you know why that was, I asked.  He didn't, so I explained about the significance of the 11th Hour of the 11th Day of the 11th Month.  He nodded sombrely.  "They had rows of soldiers, Mum, all saluting" he said in a low voice, as if to emphasise the importance of what he was telling me.  "The Queen laid a wreath, and then a man shouted something, and all the soldiers stamped.  Then, they played a tune on trumpets that didn't have any buttons on the top."

Cornets, I said.  They were called 'cornets'.

And I was momentarily transported back to when I was similar age and listening to the Last Post being played on various chilly November mornings throughout the years.  My sister and I used to march with our Brownie pack (and later, as Girl Guides) along with veterans, civilians, the mayor and town council, the cubs, the boy scouts, the local army, RAF and naval cadets, and so on in a parade through the very small town where I grew up, every year on whichever Sunday fell closest to 11th November.  We walked from the parish church to the town square, where a stone cross embellished with the names of the local men who had fallen in World Wars I and II stood by the doctor's surgery and bus shelter, and each of the organisations represented laid their flag and a wreath on the steps of the memorial.

It seemed to me, at 8 years old standing in my best coat and uniform listening to the 2 minute silence, that the streets were heaving with poppy-wearing people who had come to pay their respects.  I used to catch the bus to school from the memorial every week day and on the days that I wasn't wrapped in my own thoughts I remember marvelling at how short some of the lives commemorated on the stone had been; only 16 or 17 years long, in a couple of cases.  And I especially remember that even at 8, 9, 10 years old I was struck by the horror and the pathos of realising that some family names were repeated - 3, or 4 times in some cases - denoting the fact that multiple members of the same family were commemorated as having died during the same war.  Imagine being their sibling, I thought then.  Imagine being their mother, I think now.

It seems so impossible to us; the white-hot fervour that drove entire families of young men to enlist.  From our relatively safe 21st century existence, I don't think many of us can imagine it.  But then, because 100 years ago - and more recently - they did, I don't have to.

Back in 2014, Boy #2 was still talking to me in the same low, insistent, serious voice.  "And then we heard a poem, Mum.  I can't remember the words, but they were good..."

Did it go; 'They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.'?  I asked.

"Yes!  That was it exactly!"

And I was struck yet again how many key milestones from my childhood are not present in my sons' lives.  There's little of that here, you see.  I'm not saying that the Russians don't venerate and respect their war dead, they absolutely do.  But the key difference is that the calendar date on which they do so is not called 'Remembrance Day' or 'Armistice Day'.  It's called 'Victory Day', and that is the aspect that is publicly celebrated.  It's more about military parades than about standing in silence, so that's what the Boys have known for the last 5 years.

For some reason I rarely went a Remembrance ceremony in the UK once I became an adult.  I can't think why; I suspect that I simply allowed Life to get in the way.  I hope, though, that if we return to the UK perhaps that might change, and my sons will get the chance to appreciate the value of standing in silence for 2 minutes to honour those who have died in their country's service.  In the meantime I'm going to reproduce the relevant stanza of the poem that the Ode to Remembrance is taken from.

Lest I forget.

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon; 'For the Fallen'.

Tuesday 4 November 2014

The curse of Halloween; I'm just going to come right out and say it...

Want to hear a rather unfashionable secret?

Deep breath.

I hate Halloween.

There, I said it.  And if you want to accuse me of being a boring old fuddy duddy, go ahead, I really don't care.  It's not that I hate the Halloween I grew up with, you understand.  No, it's more that I hate the way that we (as in, those of us who didn't grow up in North America) are being shoe-horned, cajoled and emotionally blackmailed, however you want to put it, into the Hallmark-isation of what was previously a low key event on our festive calendars.

As a kid growing up in the UK during the far distant days of the 1970's and 80's (or as Boy #2 so charmingly put it yesterday, 'The Olden Times'), Halloween was celebrated, but slightly differently.  It saw a profusion of pipe cleaner spiders festooned across classroom windows, the exuberant use of black and orange sugar paper, perhaps a small pumpkin Jack o' Lantern at the window, and maybe a school event or a party featuring apple bobbing*, iced ring doughnuts hanging from string**, and teens or adults running a Dark Room*** which you went into to be scared, if you dared.  And if the grown-up running the festivities was particularly imaginative they might turn out the lights, put a candle in the middle of the floor, and in a suitably sepulchral voice tell a story that began 'Once upon a time, in a dark dark room, in a dark dark house....' and so on.

There might - MIGHT - be call to dress up at said party, but generally a black cape with a touch of glitter and a home-made black witch's hat made out of black card, or a white sheet destined for a second life as a duster doing temporary service for Halloween with holes cut for eyes would do the job.

But spending a small fortune on plastic tat to dress your child up as some kind of monster or ghoul, or walking around knocking on strangers' doors begging for sweets?

*Assumes best Lady Grantham stare*

I think not.

However, my point of view on this matter is extremely unfashionable, especially living where we do right now.  'Little America' doesn't begin to cover it when we are talking about October 31st.  So rather than following my instincts and locking the doors before turning the lights off, I grit my teeth, stock up on on enough 'candy' (SWEETS!  They are SWEETS!) to sink a battle ship, and turn my children loose on neighbours who are far more excited about this event than I am and who are generous enough to allow my kids to experience a Halloween more suited to the one the kids take part in in 'E.T.' than the paltry celebrations I grew up with.

This year it was a little more challenging; we had unseasonably cold weather in Moscow on the night it was celebrated (because, you know, half term and all that), and the temperature on the Halloween Trail was a balmy -7degC.  As you can imagine, that rather put paid to some of the more adventurous costumes.  It didn't slow Boy #1 down, mind you.  He disappeared with a couple of friends wearing a viking helmet and brandishing a plastic axe (a very practical nod to dressing up, I thought, what with also needing to wear snow gear due to the freezing temperatures) and turned up blue-lipped and shivering an hour later, clutching a bag of booty and grinning from ear to ear.  

Boy #2?  He's more like me.  I think we made it to 2 houses, where he accumulated a grand total of 4 pieces of candy (Candy? See? They've got me at it now...) before telling me it was just too cold, that he had enough, and anyway, he wasn't interested in the sweets on offer.

"Because, well, none of them are 70% chocolate, mum."

Chip off the old block, that boy.  Now.  Anyone for apple bobbing? No?

This post was inspired by my good bloggie mate over at Talk About York.  Solidarity, sister!

*Apple bobbing: fill a bucket or barrel with water, float apples in the top, and children need to pick them out with their teeth.  And yes, there are germs.  Adds to the excitement, I suppose...

** Iced doughnuts hanging from string, have to be eaten with your hands behind your back.  And why not?

***Dark Room: Take one darkened room, add a number of plates covered with black cloth and invite the children to lift the cloths to put their hands underneath to feel the eyeballs (peeled grapes), intestines (sausages), maggots (chopped up cooked spaghetti).  Such fun!

Thursday 23 October 2014

Big A's Culinary Adventures

This is another post from my sis on fb.  It just made me spit tea all over the keyboard, so wanting to bask in the reflection of her glory (yet again), I have nicked it for your reading pleasure.

A bit of background: my sister (the former blogger known as Footballer's Knees) lives with her husband Big A, and 18 year old son, J.  Once a week she spends the night away from home on business - no prizes for guessing which day that is...

Big A's food baby is hanging around, despite frequent grym visits, so his personal trainer has suggested that he keeps a Food Diary for a week. Here follows my imagining of that diary:

This is the food what I have eaten this week, by Big A:
Dear Diary, tonight we had super noodles and potato waffles and crispy pancakes cos it was Boys Teas. Mmmn, lush, brill. J said he wished we could eat that every night and I said yep but we wouldn't be allowed because of the bad fat. And then we were sad until Defiance came on. Style.
Dear Diary, today the grown up was back so I had to eat boring healthy food, yuck. I said that it made me a bit sick in my mouth and she got cross so I had to stay at the table and miss New Girl.
Dear Diary, tonight it was Lamb Tagine and something called Cush Cush which tasted like tiny ants' brains. Diary, I tried to eat it but it was totally disgusting and I had to keep it in my mouth and then go to the toilet and spit it out. J saw me and I had to pay for his petrol so he wouldn't tell.
DD, tea tonight was so lush, we got a curry. And poppadoms. And naan. And beer. And special rice. I was a bit tired afterwards and I fell asleep in front of Suburgatory and then got told off for farting and laughing at it. Tomorrow we're going out for teas, I wonder what we'll eat?
DD, last night I drank a lot of beer. Today I was quite tired. I ate a bacon sandwich, a grab bag of Wotsits, a Ginster's pasty, roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, treacle tart, a ham sandwich, a bag of Maltesers and a bowl of Cheerios. And an apple. Pie.
The End.

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Inspirational Quotes. Or not...

I love a good inspirational quote.  In fact, I have to admit that there are couple which I have even copied out into the front of my notebook to refer to in times of need.  What would Edmund Burke* say about this, I ask myself as I ponder whether giving the kids shop-bought pizza for the 2nd night running makes me a bad mother.  What would Marcus Aurelius** say?

(Just kidding.)


Is it just me, or are we currently drowning in a sea of facile truisms being spread through the internet by social meeja? Most are so superficial that it seems to me that almost anyone could come up with them.

So, based on some of my own deep and meaningful recent life experiences I've given it a go myself. I've even added extra exclamation marks and the odd emoticon instruction so that you can experience them to their full potential.

(I expect Hallmark to be in touch shortly to discuss royalty fees before they start the presses running on the first of a series of Potty Diaries Inspirational Quotes, coming to you on mugs and greetings cards soon...)

Life is Short; Eat Dessert First.  (OK, I didn't come up with that one myself, and have no idea who did.  It was probably Hallmark, now I come to think of it.  But it is one of my favourites...)

Life:  too short to eat bad chocolate / drink bad wine / eat low fat spread / knit your own pasta (delete as appropriate)

Leave that blocked pore ALONE!  (Insert stop sign)

If you can't leave the blocked pore alone, a good beautician can work wonders!!!

You can never have too many scarves (to hide the damage from the badly handled blocked pore, if nothing else).  Smiley face smiley face

Taking down your kids' trampoline before the temperatures drop below freezing is good use of a spare hour!!

Taking down your kids' trampoline after the temperatures have dropped below freezing will remind you to do it earlier next year!!  (Insert smiley face here)

Freshly varnished nails and taking down your kids' trampoline are mutually exclusive concepts. (insert sad face and advert for intensive treatment hand and nail moisturising lotion)

Do you have any inspirational quotes of your own to add?

And now, the real McCoy...

*"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." (Edmund Burke)

** "Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be.  Be one."  (Marcus Aurelius)

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Writes of passage

Today, I had to do something unexpectedly difficult.

Regular readers may have picked up on the fact that sometime in the next year there's a strong possibility we'll move on from Russia.  In an effort to minimise the fuss when / if that actually happens, I am slowly but surely trying to empty the house of 'stuff' that we won't want to take with us (for which read; pay to move from one country to another), which we have accumulated during the last 5 years.

Mostly, this 'stuff' is associated in some shape or form with the Boys.  Toys, books, outgrown clothes, skates and shoes. You know; all the things that you curse when they stop you closing a cupboard door or the lid of a toy box, or which form an unsightly heap in the corner of your children's bedroom.  Things that you want to pass on that aren't quite good enough to give to friends, but which are too good to just throw out.

There are no Oxfams here, you see.  No handy shops on the high street that will be happy to pass your kids' pre-loved snowpants on to less fortunate children.  Certainly, there are charitable organisations that will do a similar job, but you have to know where they are and then - in this traffic-congested city - get the 'stuff' you want to donate to them delivered.

Catering to an expat population constantly in motion, the Boys' school does a good job of taking some of the strain; there's a thriving exchange for slightly worn unwanted school uniform items, there's a second-hand library where you can sell or replace books that are no longer relevant with ones that your kids might actually read, and there's a yearly 'skate swap' that takes some of the financial pain away, but there are still some things that there just isn't much call for.

Like, dressing up clothes.

My two boys have, in their time, loved dressing up.  Boy #1 is mostly past that now (sadly), but Boy #2 less so - the knights' outfit, the cuddly lion, the Power Ranger and the wizard still surface from time to time.  Unfortunately, however, there were a plethora of other dress-up outfits that whilst still much loved, don't fit anymore.  That'll happen when the label says '4 - 5 years' and your youngest child is going on 9...

So this morning, I took 13 - yes, THIRTEEN - dressing up outfits to the school, for the pre-Halloween costume swap.  As I stood there handing them over one at a time and explaining what they were, I was struck by an almost overpowering impulse to stuff them all back into my blue Ikea hold-all and run away with them.  All of a sudden it seemed as if I was giving away my children's memories rather than just random pieces of material.

I know, I can't keep them.  That would be ridiculous.  I already have a basket containing various small items of clothing that I can't bring myself to part with; a baby-grow, a blanket, that lovely shirt they both wore one after the other when they reached 4 years old, those cute baby socks.  That revolting sweater that was part of Boy #1's school uniform in London, the faded over-sized t-shirt they consecutively wore on beach holidays to keep them out of the sun.

Yes; keeping their dress up clothes as well is out of the question.  And it's certainly not necessary from their point of view; they were completely unconcerned when I suggested we get rid of the Bob the Builder / Fireman Sam outfit (reversible and oh-so-handy), the skeleton, chef, vet and doctor outfits, the 3 sets of pirate garb in varying sizes, the princes cloaks, the fireman kit, and police uniforms still with matching hats.

It's me who has the problem.

I think it's because this is such tangible evidence of the fact that Boys #1 and #2 are growing up.  This morning I felt not as if I was simply handing over brightly coloured pieces of material.  I felt rather that I was saying goodbye to the two small boys who used to race about the house chasing each other with pirate swords, or stopping traffic on the floor of the playroom, or helping me in the kitchen dressed in a floppy chef's hat.  As if I was bidding farewell to the sensation of a small warm hand in mine during the walk home from school, and the feeling of the embrace of a hot sleepy pre-schooler's arms around my neck when they were too tired to walk up the stairs to go to bed.

You would have been proud of me, though.  Instead of snatching it all back and wailing 'I don't want to!  I'm not ready!  Give them back!', I smiled, watched the other mums with kids younger than mine get excited about what we'd donated, and walked on to the next stage.

Because that's what mums do.

(Mind you, god knows what I'm going to do with 13 swap tickets.  I would say there is every chance that come Saturday, when the swap actually takes place, I may actually find myself buying half of the costumes back...)

Tuesday 7 October 2014

Today's 'Through The Looking Glass' moment is brought to you courtesy of...

... Auchan supermarket.

When I first began to visit Russia in the mid 1990's there was what seemed to me to be an antiquated payment system in place in many retail outlets.  It worked as follows:

1.  The customer selected their item.

2.  They would inform the shop assistant of their choice (it was usually stored out of reach, often behind glass).

3.  The shop assistant would then remove the item from the shelf but instead of taking payment and handing over the purchase, they would put it to one side, hand-write a sales ticket, and send the customer to the caisse (or payment till).  Often this would be on the other side of the shop floor.

4.  The customer would take their ticket to the caisse, where they paid and were given a receipt as proof of purchase.

5.  They would then return with proof of purchase to the original desk where they had selected  their item.

6.  At this point they would present the new receipt to the shop assistant, and only then would they take possession of their purchase.

Now it may be that this is a system in wide-spread global use, but in my life up until that point I had never encountered it outside of the UK tv series 'Are You Being Served?'.  (A sitcom about an outdated department store).

Consequently I was somewhat relieved when we moved to Moscow at the beginning of 2010 to find that this system had mostly been abandoned and paying for goods was now a lot more straightforward.

Today, however, I wondered as if I might have fallen through a crack in the time/space continuum (yes, I HAVE been watching the new series of 'Dr Who') when I encountered this at Auchan.

There are still cashiers (and queues, which I suppose is not suprising since both staff and customers are like rabbits in headlights when faced with this new system), who run all the items through the till as usual.  However, payment is made by taking the receipt that the cashier gives you to a machine sited a few metres behind the till, scanning the receipt, and paying the machine directly.  Once you've done that, the machine prints out another receipt, which you need to scan to get through a security gate (complete with security guard) to exit the till area.

Tell me, please, that time isn't slipping backwards?

Now, for persevering through that bit of a moan, here's your reward: an excerpt from the episode 'Are You Being Served' where the staff are learning to ballroom dance.  I particularly liked Captain Peacock's and Mr Humphrey's demonstration with the fishtail....

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Trying to say something without actually saying it...

This post has been simmering away on the edges of my blog-consciousness for a couple of weeks now.  I couldn't ignore it any more...

'Number 10 Downing Street was besieged today by middle class shoppers aggrieved at the lack of palatable fresh milk, green vegetables, and imported meat and dairy products available in supermarkets since the government imposed sanctions on products sourced from the other side of the English Channel.

Handbags and umbrellas were raised in the air as a sign of solidarity by ladies of a certain age protesting about the impossibility of obtaining basic staples such as green beans, broccoli, and bagged salads, and Marks & Spencers reported a rush of customers fighting in the aisles to buy up the last stocks of Parma ham.

In answer to the widespread criticism of the government bans, David Cameron was reported as saying "I know it's hard to work out what to feed your growing families, but I think all our citizens will agree that this is an important step in establishing our position as a proud and independent nation, and one that is unencumbered by the obligations placed upon us by untrammelled access to the decadent products sourced from Abroad.  Like, Danish bacon.  Or Finnish milk.  Or French cheese.  French cheese in particular is an evil that our pure and unsullied national consciousness can do without."

Looking stern and and composed in his bowler hat as he walked his British Bulldog to the park, he continued.  "Join me, Citizens, in embracing a return to Blitz Spirit and to our venerable history of a national cuisine of meat and two veg, and lumpy custard with apple crumble.  Let us shun the evil olive oil-led culinary revolution that resulted in our current indebtedness to those who criticise our annexation of the Dordogne - where after all, we are only trying to safeguard the livelihood of those Britons who have made their life there and who are being forced to speak French - FRENCH - whenever they need to carry out the smallest domestic task - and reject these continental fripperies that have made our once proud nation weak."

Leaders of the protest remain unimpressed by Mr Cameron's fighting talk, and vowed to continue their occupation of Whitehall until the aisles of the local Waitrose are once again fully stocked with artisan soft cheeses and French Golden Delicious...'

Clearly, the paragraphs above are entirely fabricated.  It would be totally ridiculous; no British government would do this to their voters; there would be uproar and their time in power would be numbered - probably in days, not weeks - because we, the all-powerful consumer, the engine that keeps the British economy moving, would not stand for it.

But I don't live in the UK.  I live in Russia.

And guess what's happening, right here, right now, today and for the foreseeable future?

The difference is, the local population just put up with it.  Blitz Spirit?  With all due respect - and I say this as patriotic British woman, proud of my roots and my country - Britain might talk about Blitz Spirit, but the Russians wrote the book on it.  Although, if I'm honest, it's less about pulling together, and more about keeping your head below the parapet, but that's a subject for another post (probably when I'm not living in this location).

The average Russian is stoic in the extreme; within living memory most family histories contain more hardship and terror than you or I could possibly imagine.  The current difficulties they are facing are as nothing compared to what gets talked about - or not talked about - around the table at family celebrations.  And it doesn't matter who is imposing the conditions that lead to these difficulties, whether it's foreign governments or their own administration; despite the hope of various other nations, at present they won't stand up and force change from within because, given the history - recent and otherwise - of what happens to those who have done so, no-one wants to single themself out.  And I don't blame them.  Would you?

And this, in my almost certainly less-than-objective opinion, is why this current face-off between the West and the East is not going to end well.  Someone has to step up, be the bigger person, and say 'enough of this.'  Enough sanctions, enough tit-for-tats, enough sabre-rattling; it's not working.

Please, let's be grown ups about this.  Somebody has to.

Tuesday 23 September 2014

The writing's on the wall. Except, it's not.

We are considering a move back to the UK within the next year.  Nothing's certain, but in an effort to have all our ducks in a row in case we do relocate, Boys #1 and #2 need to get ready for entrance exams to possible new schools.

This presents any number of challenges, but one of the main ones to exercise my mind at present is teaching them how to write.

Yes, of course they can write; let me explain...

Their current school is very keen on IT, to the extent that Boy #1 in Grade 5 should already have access to his own laptop (he doesn't - but only because we haven't got round to sorting that out yet), and every child aged 7 upwards has access to an iPad in class.  Developing the children's typing skills is seen as being equally - if not more so - important as their being able to write continuously for 20 minutes or more.

Now, I am all about new technology; you're reading this on a blog, after all.  But for some time I've thought that being able to write a side of A4 - definitely for a 10/11 year old - should be a basic skill and one that most children should be able to deliver.  I've thought it, yes - but until this summer I didn't do anything about it.

Cut to the end of the summer term this year, when it suddenly became clear that if we want our Boys to have the chance to enter one of three schools in the area we may move to, they are both going to need to sit entrance exams.  Separate ones, for each school.  And separate papers, for each school.

Which, as I discovered when visiting the schools in June, will not be on a computer.  (Well, of course they won't.)

You might not think this would be much of a problem.  Surely filling in any holes in their learning from having been taught a different curriculum should be the main thing?  Actually, there are fewer holes than you might imagine, but in any case, that's not my prime concern.  Because it doesn't matter how much they learn about paragraphs, punctuation, fractions, long division, or creative writing if they can't actually sit and write about these things for more than 5 minutes at a time.  And until June of this year - when their school holidays started and Evil Mummy stepped in to make sure that they actually just sat. And. Wrote. for longer and longer periods of time, - my two boys were unable to do that.

Writing for extended periods of time takes muscles, you see; something that we adults, used to doing everything online nowadays, tend to forget.  And these muscles are different to the ones we use when tapping away on a keyboard.  And as I discovered in June, Boys #1 and #2 were, until recently, physically incapable of just sitting and writing for more than a few minutes of time without developing muscle fatigue.

So, we've been working on it at home.  But that's not enough, and today I had to go into school and meet both their teachers and explain exactly why it was that some of the online homework they are being set will be coming back in their notebooks - hand-written - from now on.  And I could see, in my separate conversations with them, that the teachers were struggling to understand why this was, so I decided to set it out simply for them.

Here's an abridged version of those two conversations.

Both boys will need to sit entrance exams.  Yes, that they understood.  Both boys will need to sit different exams for up to 3 schools.  Yeeees...  That's three different lots of exams.  Yeees...  Times 3 sets of papers, for each.  Okaaaayyy...  Each paper lasting between 30 minutes and one hour, depending on the school.  Riiiiggght.   (The penny was starting to drop).  So if, as is possible, they sit the exams all in the same week (to avoid our having to fly backwards and forwards and to minimise the amount of time they were out of their current school), they would need to have the muscle strength to sit and write for up to an hour continuously more than 6 times in the same week.

Cue panic in the teachers' eyes as they both realised how far removed that is from what they are currently teaching their class.

And, more than likely, cue a slight change in how they ask my children to deliver their homework.

Boys #1 and #2 will be SO pleased with me...

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Piano man

Here's a very middle-class statement for you: we had the piano tuned recently - as you do.

Apparently this is a yearly necessity here in Moscow, where the central heating and dry atmosphere play havoc with most wood-based instruments*.  Given that in addition to these problems it was manhandled to a different room - twice - over the summer, left unattended in a houseful of workmen for 6 weeks (more of which another time), and that the humidifier Boy #2's piano teacher recommended we buy to keep it in good condition has been sitting in a cupboard after I used it for a week only to realise it was making everything in the room damp (go figure), my hopes for a speedy visit from the piano tuner were not high.

Natalya** the Piano Teacher had assured me that we should probably expect the tuner to need to stay for at least an hour and a half, perhaps longer, so I told Husband - who was the one due to be in the house at the time - to Be Prepared.

However, the Tuner was in and out in around half an hour, and even passed on to Natalya how impressed he'd been by the state the piano was in (he had been the person who originally tuned it for us after it was delivered a year ago).  She herself was surprised, and wondered why that was.

Oh, that's easy, I told her.  It's because of the heating.  You know how you, Natalya, are always complaining that our house is too cold in the winter? (We keep it at around 20degC; warmer than the 18degC my parents used to set their thermostat to when I was growing up in a draughty and badly-insulated but completely charming mill house, but significantly cooler than the at least 24 - 25degC most Russians favour in winter).  Yes... she answered, perhaps knowing what was coming next.  Well, that's why the piano is in better condition than expected, I continued.  Because it's not subjected to such extremes of temperature.

Interesting, answered Natalya.  You might have something there.

Of course, neither of us mentioned what we both knew was the real reason for the piano's relative tunefulness.  

Outside of his hour-long lessons, Boy #2 does a grand total of 20 minutes practice a week (and even that is an improvement on his previous record).

Of course it wasn't out of tune;  the damn thing hardly ever gets played...

*and, fyi, furniture.  If you're considering moving to Moscow, leave your much-loved antiques and inherited tables etc back home.  Yet another reason why Ikea is the decorative choice of so many expats here...

** Not her real name, which is at least as Russian as that, if not more so

Friday 22 August 2014

Am I back? Well, sort of...

The holidays are over (for us, anyway), the Potski family are back in Moscow, and Boys #1 and #2 are back in school which, after 9 weeks with them 24/7 is - I have to admit - a bit of relief.

It's not that I don't enjoy spending time with my children, you understand.

Just that it's quite nice have a bit of time myself.

I have a long list of stuff I need to get sorted, not least of which is editing Draft #1 of The Great Work*, and which I have promised myself I will have finished by the end of September.  There's other stuff happening too; planning for the future, putting the pieces in place to make that future possible, and of course, losing the holiday weight.

I know, I know.  You're supposed to lose weight over the summer months, not gain it, but put yourself in my shoes; I live in Moscow.  7 weeks of being away from Russia and the somewhat limited treats available here and then, come the end of June, being thrown into a life where suddenly fresh French bread and croissants are on the table every day for breakfast, delicious Dutch deep fried treats are available as appetisers to accompany all that gorgeous and reasonably priced wine back in the EU, not to mention un-fettered access to Green & Black's salted milk chocolate when we were in the UK...  It was never going to end well, was it?

*Not its' real title, obv...

Tuesday 8 July 2014

Today's definition of 'Embarrassment'...

We are in the Netherlands at the moment, and both the boys are at (field) hockey camp.

Note:  I put the 'field' there in brackets for readers who might think I was talking about ice (ice) hockey.  I'm not.  Yes, there IS another game using sticks with 'hockey' in the name...

Yesterday, the weather was glorious; 21degC, sunshine, a few clouds; perfect hockey weather, but today we have driving rain.  Undaunted by that, the coaches at the camp have the children outside doing circuits, playing games and practicing.  I shouldn't know that, of course.  I should have dropped the boys off at 9.00am, hung around for a few minutes to let them show off some of their newly acquired skills from yesterday, and then come back to where we're staying to spend the day working on The Novel (first draft now finished - let the hard work begin).  However, as I turned to leave, Boy #1 admitted tearfully that he had forgotten his mouthguard; rather than returning it to its' case in his rucksack at the end of yesterday's session, he had tucked it into his sock (because, duh, where else would you put it?), and then left it on the shelf in their bedroom when he got changed at the end of the day.

When I was playing hockey at school, mouthguards didn't exist.  We just, you know, played.  In fact, at school, we didn't even wear shinguards.   Man, those balls hurt when they hit your ankle bone, I can tell you...  However, time moves on and mouthguards on a hockey pitch are now just as important as helmets are on a ski slope and the kids aren't allowed to play without them, so disregarding my feelings of despair at our nanny state*, I drove the 20 minutes home again to fetch Boy #1's.

Obviously, I couldn't find it.

This necessitated a trip to a sports store to buy a new one which I then took back to the hockey camp where one of his trainers kindly fitted it for him, no doubt doing a much better job than I would have, what with her actually having used one herself and everything.

So yes, on my return to the club I saw the kids outside in the drizzle, playing hockey.  Good for them, I thought, and headed off for the second time.  But that's not why I'm writing this post.  After finally reaching home an hour and a half later than planned I was happily working my way through my inbox (yes, I know I was supposed to be working on The Novel, but displacement activity is All), when the phone rang and the camp supervisor's number popped up.

Oh god.

Which child has taken a ball in the face / broken their leg / been whacked round the head by a stick, I wondered nervously as I answered it.

Neither, as it turned out.  The camp supervisor told me that Boy #2 wanted to talk to me, and put him on the phone.  I readied myself for a tirade of 'I'm wet / it's raining / I want to come home / have you bought me a model boat yet?' and instead heard this:  "I thought you were going to put 3 cookies in my lunchbox.  I only found one.  Did you forget?"

I'm not sure who was more embarrassed: the camp supervisor for calling me (she hadn't known what Boy #2's question was going to be and thought it was probably something VERY important), or me, for raising a child for whom a shortfall in the number of cookies in his lunchbox was so distressing.

*Yes, I KNOW I would be singing a different song if the Boys came home missing a tooth because they weren't wearing a mouthguard.  Say it with me; mouthguards are a good thing.  It's just that, well...

Wednesday 11 June 2014

Are you an expat who needs a new UK passport next year? Apply now...

Inspired by today's story in The Times and on the BBC of claims by the UK Passport Office that there is 'no backlog in processing applications', here's a little tale of what has been occupying me for the last 3 months; applying for and waiting for a new passport.

Passports are important if you're an expat.  Not only do you - obviously - need one if you are travelling, but here in Russia you need one to carry out practically any transaction where you are using a card to pay, whenever you are driving a car, if you want to use the bureau de change, whenever you visit an office building or an embassy, if you are required to show id by a police or security officer, if you want an official service of any kind, and so on.  Basically, you have to carry it with you 24/7.  Of course you can take a photocopy with you and show that instead, but often that won't cut it and you'll be refused entry or whatever service you're requesting.

So yes, having a working passport is important here, and I needed a new one for this year's residency visa.  It should have been a piece of cake.  But - oh foolish me - I decided to apply for my new passport remotely, via the British Consulate here in Moscow.  We'd done it twice before, when the Boys' passports needed renewing, and in each case it took 3 weeks - definitely manageable.  Or so I thought.  What I didn't know was that applications from outside the UK, instead of being handled in a centre in Frankfurt Germany, which is where they had previously been processed (and which was where my sons' new passports were produced in the past), are now all being sent to a centre in the UK.  To save costs.

I'm guessing you can see where this is going.

Week 1.  I take my application into the Moscow British Consulate.  They accept the application and tell me it will leave in the diplomatic bag and go straight to the processing centre in the UK.  It could take up to 6 weeks for my new passport to reach me, they inform me, but I've allowed for that - and more - and since I'm allowed to keep my old passport (without the corners being clipped), I'm not too bothered.  They also inform me that at any point over the next couple of weeks, my passport will be electronically cancelled, so I shouldn't travel until my new documents arrive.  Also not a problem - I was expecting this and have allowed for that too.

I subsequently discover that the passport leaves the Consulate and arrives at the UK Passport Office in Liverpool only 3 days later, where it goes straight to the Examiner, which is where all the facts are checked and the application is processed.  And this is where the fun begins.

I sit tight for the next 3 weeks to give the process time, until...

Week 4.  I know it's early, but since my sons' applications were returned to me within that time frame (the most recent one being only 18 months ago) I decide to call the UK Passport Office to check on my applications' progress.  They inform me resignedly that I should leave it another week as the application hasn't yet hit the electronic registering system.

Week 5.  I call back.  The application has been registered, which is when I discover that the British Consulate has done me proud in speedily submitting my application.  I also discover that the Passport Office has not done, well, anything really.  Nothing has happened to my application since they received it (it was probably in that boardroom The Times was talking about, at the bottom of an archive box).  They suggest I call back next week when there should be more news.

Week 6.  I call back.  No progress.

Week 7.  I call again.  No progress.  The advice centre puts me through to a second department - the Progress Section - where I am told that no, there has been no progress with my application.  But they will check with the Examiners's office, and someone will call me back within 72 hours.

Week 8.  No call, and no progress - see Week 7, rinse and repeat, with the added fun of a conversation where I am told that the Passport Office is still within their required guidelines because the website warns an application can take at least 6 weeks to process.  I point out that since there is no end-date stated on the website, they could take 2 years and still be within their guidelines.  I can hear the metaphorical shrug on the end of the phone because, well, what am I going to do about it?

(On each occasion I followed the prompts on the automated ansaphone system and was put on hold for at least 20 minutes.  Bear in mind, I was calling a UK number from Moscow, Russia.  And no, you can't track international applications electronically - you have to use the call centre.  Thank god for Skype).

Week 9.  No progress.  Our visa runs out in 4 weeks time, so I decide to cancel my application and book an appointment at the office in London to do it in person.  The person on the advice line tells me that if I do, I will lose the £160 I have already paid, and will not get it back.  I mentally add that amount to the cost of the telephone calls (at this stage, about £60), the cost of the return flight, and the £135 I will have to pay to get the same day service at the Victoria Passport Office, but decide that in light of our looming visa deadline, I will have to suck it up.

I make an appointment in the UK.  The first one available is in 2 weeks time, so I go with that and start looking at flights, before calling to cancel my application.

I am then informed that I cannot cancel my application over the phone.  I have to put it in writing, and no, an email or a fax won't do; it has to be a written letter - giving reasons for the cancellation - through the post.  I point out that since I'm in Russia with a famously bad postal system, it could take a letter 2 weeks to reach them, but they won't budge.  So I write them the letter, print it out, sign it, scan it in, and email it to my parents in the UK who print it out again and send it next day delivery to the Passport Office on my behalf.

Week 10.  I chase via the two teams - advice line and Progress Section - in the UK. I am told someone will call me back within 72 hours - at which point I mention that I've been told that twice before and never heard anything.  24 hours later I get an email with a scanned in copy of a signed letter informing me that my letter has been received but that if I want, my application can be processed the next day. (Do I want?  Um, yes...)  However, to do this, I should give them a UK address if I want it sent out quickly.  I write back saying well then, in that case please don't cancel the application (again via a printed out, signed and then scanned-in letter emailed to my parents, who print it out again, and send it via next day delivery), and ask them to send the new passport to my parent's address in the UK.

Week 11.  I receive another letter via email telling me that now I need to send them an explanation of why the address I have requested the passport be sent to (my parents') is different to the one on my original application.  At this point I refrain from writing back in printed capitals BECAUSE I APPLIED IN MOSCOW AND YOU JUST ASKED ME FOR A UK ADDRESS, STUPID!' and write much the same thing but without the capital letters, the 'STUPID', or the exclamation mark.  Thankfully, I am informed that at this stage they will accept an email from me so I don't have to go through the printing out, signing, scanning etc nonsense yet again.

And then I hear nothing.  After 2 days I call the number on the letter and after holding for 1 hour (from Russia - watch those costs build up...), I finally get through to the right person.  He has received my letter and will print the passport the next day but how do I want to receive it; to my parents, or to the British Consulate in the diplomatic bag?  Bearing in mind that if it goes to my parents I can't actually travel to collect it (due to that annoying little fact they have cancelled the passport I do have, so won't be allowed back into the UK), and that if they send it to me via DHL or similar it might be with me in 5 days, but it might also take 3 weeks (as a delivery sent to us did recently), I decide it's probably best to go with the diplomatic bag option.  This is on Wednesday.  The bag arrives once a week at the Moscow consulate, on a Tuesday, so I figure that should allow the passport enough time to be sent within the UK and still arrive in Russia for Tuesday Week 12.

Tuesday Week 12.  There is no passport for me in this week's diplomatic bag.  The very helpful lady at the consulate - who knows our timings - is practically in tears when she calls to tell me.  I, on the other hand, have run out of tears by this stage.  We make an appointment for first thing Wednesday the following week for me to collect it, and I resign myself to a last minute panic.  Our visas run out Friday of the following week, which bearing in mind there is a 2 day bank holiday on the Thursday and Friday, gives us one day to process our new visas.

Tuesday Week 13.  My passport has arrived - yippee.  I rush in to collect it, and we tear over to the correct agency to get the visas processed on the last day possible.  Except, we find out the next day that it isn't - possible.  There is not enough time.  Consequently, we now need to leave the country at our own expense, fly back to the UK to get tourist visas and - oh, I'm just sick of the whole bloody thing.

And you know what?  I know of at least 5 other expat families in my circle of acquaintances alone who are going through similar problems - not just in Russia, but elsewhere too.

Excuse me then if I say that any suggestion the UK Passport Office is not experiencing a backlog in applications is a load of shit.

Wednesday 4 June 2014

In the presence of greatness...

My sister (the former blogger known as Footballer's Knees who now confines her brilliance to outpourings on fb) is - undoubtedly, indisputably and without question - a genius.  Don't believe me?  Read this...

I’m having a bad day.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Your Facebook updates and posts now postpone,
Bring out the tweezers and the bleach with care,
For on my chin I found an enormous white hair.
Let the bikini orders and spray tans be cancelled,
The foot spa and pedicure kit dismantled,
Book that long appointment with the beauty specialist,
And the extra time with the behavioural therapist
For my bikini line is bound North, my youth gone West,
My cleavage moved South with my sagging breast,
My skin, my hair have had their final swan song,
I thought that youth would last forever: I was wrong.
The efforts are not needed now: give up on each one;
Pack up the diet books and unlock Big Al’s gun,
Pour away the miso soup and bring out the gin,
For nothing now can bring back my smooth and hairless chin.

P.S. I may have borrowed a little from WH Auden.

Note:  those unfamiliar with WH Auden but who have seen 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' may know the poem from that movie.  And whilst I've included a link to the right scene, I don't recommend you click on it unless you fancy inducing a maudlin mood...)

Friday 30 May 2014

When practice doesn't make perfect...

... but is it's own reward.

Hands up who out there has children who are not particularly sporty?

Yes, that's me, right at the front of the room, waving my arm in the air in the slightly embarrassed manner of a parent who would love her children to be superstars on the sports field but who knows that genetically, they haven't been dealt the strongest of decks.

If Husband is reading this he will no doubt be throwing up his hands in horror at my defeatist attitude, but even he - supportive of me and all my failings as he is - can't deny that what I say is true.  I am not a natural sports person, being a bit crap at anything that involves motion faster than - well, a walk, really.  But.  I am married to a man who's family are much better at this stuff than I am, and with whom I am in complete agreement that some form of regular physical exercise - and I don't mean walking to the library - is essential for the growth of a healthy child.  At least whilst they're still at an age that we can push them into it, anyway.

Consequently, Boys #1 and #2 take part in a couple of extra curricular physical activities over and above the excellent programme provided by their school, one of which - TaeKwonDo - requires their attendance in the early evening twice a week, come rain or shine.

Boy #1, biddable first child that he is, is fine with this.  He enjoys it, more or less buys into it, and participates with enthusiasm. He even practices from time to time.   Boy #2?  Well, not so much.  We have frequent arguments about whether he is, or isn't, going to go to class.  (He is going to go.  He knows that, I know that, and sometimes the neighbours know that too - especially in the warm weather with the windows open).  I have tried one strategy after another to get him out of the door on time, only hitting on the most effective by mistake in the last couple of months (more on what that is in a moment*).  Why do I bother, you might ask?  Is getting him to take part in a TKD session (that's what we call it in type, by the way, we seasoned TaeKwonDo parents - TKD.  Get me...) really that beneficial?  Is it worth all the angst?

The short answer is yes.  Not only is it great discipline which trains him listen to and follow the instructions of the teacher whilst also giving him a chance to run around and burn off energy in a sports hall in a country which for 5 months of the year is too cold to spend much time outside (I'm tough on my boys but not 'No you can't come back in you've only been outside in -18degC for 25 minutes' tough), but the fitness regime it encourages is fantastic.  And crucially, once Boy #2 actually gets to the class, he loves it.  And that, at the close, is the clincher.  If he hated it whilst he was there then I wouldn't make him go.  Probably.  But he doesn't.  He finishes the sessions, bright eyed, bushy tailed and happy he's been.

However, what he won't do in between sessions is practice.  According to him - whenever I ask him if it might not be a good idea to run through his moves - it doesn't make any difference; he's not going to be any good.

Something seems to be changing, though.  He knew he had a belt test this evening and was prepared to practice at least a little.  So he did.  Admittedly, it was very last minute.  And if I'm honest, there were still ragged patches in the 'form' he needed to run through.  But he did it - and it did the trick.

Boy #1 put in a stellar performance and made it from orange to green belt, and Boy #2, despite one or two mistakes, graduated from yellow to orange belt - when most of his class didn't - and was delighted.  So delighted in fact that he even turned to me when the grading was over and said "Thankyou!  Thankyou for making me practice!!!"

He meant it, too.

Now.  I wonder if we can try this approach with his piano lessons...?

*That strategy?  It's a little known practice - in this household, anyway - called 'Mum making dessert'.  Namely, pancakes.  Whoever eats the pancakes is committing to go to taekwondo.  Simple!

Tuesday 27 May 2014

Falling down that internet rabbit hole called fb...

... is often nothing but a great big fat waste of time.

But sometimes, it leads you to discover something wonderful.


Friday 16 May 2014

Let them eat cake...

Boy #2 left home on Sunday afternoon.

This happened following an argument about how much lunch needed to be eaten to qualify for a piece of cake for dessert.  On being told that it was more than he had consumed, he announced that he wasn't hungry for pudding anyway, so didn't need the cake thankyou very much.

Five minutes later, of course, when what was left on his plate had been tipped into the bin, he changed his mind - but the damage had been done.  There WAS no more lunch for him to eat to qualify for the cake.

Oh dear.

What followed was one of those classic parenting moments that you see happening but are powerless to stop if you have any hope of showing a consistent approach to discipline.  We were treated to a downward spiral of disbelief and outrage that he was being treated so much more unfairly than his older brother, lots of railing against the fact that we are always, ALWAYS, so strict with him, and then, when none of this changed the fact that no cake had magically materialised on the table in front of him, horror that we were going to carry through.

So, after stamping upstairs, slamming his bedroom door a few times, and throwing himself around a bit, my 8 year old son packed a rucksack with 2 pairs each of socks, pants (underwear), and t-shirts, a spare pair of trousers, and a spare pair of trainers, put it on his back, and cycled off up the road*.

And we let him go.

Friends tell me that they too did this sort of stuff around his age, and I know for sure that my sis did, but crucially, I never did - so this was very hard for me to let happen.

However, Husband - from the sofa, where he appeared a great deal more sanguine and relaxed about the whole experience than I was, mainly due to the fact that he too had hoisted his backpack on his shoulder at about 8 - told me I had to step back and let Boy #2 make his protest.  Although he did agree that a phone call to the guards on the gates to make sure they didn't let our son 'out' onto the streets would be a good a idea.

Of course, Boy #2 never got that far.  He cycled about 100m up the road, thought better of it, doubled back and went and hid in a hedge for around 15 minutes.  Then he got back on his bike and cycled around the house a couple of times.  Then, he abandoned his bike, and snuck around on foot for a bit longer.

Finally, he reappeared at the back door, where I met him and welcomed him home, before he proceeded to empty his rucksack to show me just how well he had packed for himself.  I congratulated him and commented that perhaps the next time we go away he could do the same thing, he agreed, and then we kissed, made up, and he took his supplies back up to his bedroom.  His Big Adventure (as my sister in law called it through her tears of laughter) had lasted about 30 minutes.

And then, an hour later, he could be found sitting at the kitchen table eating the cake that I gave him.

Bugger.  So much for consistency.

* For the record, I would like to state that we live in a gated compound with between 30 and 40 houses.  There was nowhere for him to go, other than the playground.  Not that that made it any easier to watch him leave...

Monday 28 April 2014

Allergy Awareness Week

It's Allergy Awareness Week in the UK at the moment, where it is estimated that up to 21 million adults and children suffer from at least one type of allergy.

Take this test and see how much you know - increasing your awareness of what allergies are and what they can do could save someone's life.  Or at the very least, it might save them a trip to hospital (as once happened to us when my son ate birthday cake we were assured had no nuts in it.  It didn't - but what the friend who had made it had forgotten was that she had put walnuts in the icing...)

Saturday 26 April 2014

Gosh, it's grey in Moscow...

April 25th, 2014.  Anzac Day wreath laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier outside the Kremlin, Moscow