Wednesday 26 February 2014

This started out as post about Weetabix and ended as one about the media reporting of Sochi 2014...

.... if you can believe that.  Because after 4 years living in Moscow, this week I finally found plain Weetabix available in my preferred reasonably-priced supermarket (rather than at the rather less reasonably-priced alternatives), and was so excited that I bought 5 packets of the stuff.  

You UK and US based readers may laugh, but healthy breakfast cereal for nut-allergic children can be hard to come by here, so whilst I may have gone just a little over the top, I now have Weetabix that will last us until the summer and - I hope - have encouraged Auchan to continue stocking it.


Of course, I now have no space left for any other cereals in our cupboard, but that's beside the point, I'm sure you'll agree.

Anyway, I planned to write a post on how things are slowly but surely changing in a country which, if you were to take your view of it from what you read in the Western press, is still stuck in the dark ages.  Funnily enough, Weetabix didn't feature in that.  What actually came out was the following rant about the Olympics which, it seems, could no longer be suppressed...

Ah, Russia.  So much has changed in this country, not only in the 22 years since the USSR was dissolved, (because yes, it was that long ago), not just in the 19 years since I first visited (Christ, has it been that long?), and not even in the 4 years since we first moved over here as a family.

From the outside, of course, from the fabled Free West, you might be forgiven for thinking not much - if anything - has evolved.  Russia is apparently still a nation of grey brutalist architecture, a land of snow and ice, inward-looking, jingoistic and uninterested in taking note of progressions taking place elsewhere.  Admittedly, Russia doesn't help itself in this by many of it's political processes and decisions and by being what is still a hard-to-get-to (and indeed, often hard-to-get) destination, making it difficult to obtain visas and having been less welcoming to tourists than it might have.

But leaving that aside, I would put a sizeable share of the blame for Russia's poor image abroad squarely at the door of the Western Meeja, and an experience I had in the 90's has not seemed so far from the tone of what was going on recently in the reporting of the run-up to the Sochi Olympics.  Back then, I believed what I saw on-screen.  The news was the news, right?  If you couldn't trust the news, then...  But one day in 1996, whilst calling Husband in Moscow, from London, I commented on the snow I had just seen behind the BBC reporter as he stood with the Kremlin as a backdrop.  I mention this incident to illustrate how what you see in the press is subject to manipulation in ways you would not imagine; the snowy day I had commented on was in fact a reasonably mild +14degC and the reporter had been standing in front a blue screen.  The producers in London had simply called up their stock-backdrop for Moscow - cold and snowy - without actually checking the reality in Russia.

Sometimes, especially when looking at photographs of culled wild dogs purporting to be taken in Sochi but which can actually be traced to a news story from Kiev three years ago, it seems that not much has changed.

I sat back and watched the media feeding frenzy that preceded the Sochi Olympics with disbelief.  Certainly, from the reports we received from friends and acquaintances who were on the spot, things were not going smoothly in the run-up to the event itself.  Billions of dollars were wasted, disappearing who-knows-where, and the authorities were working up until the last minute to make sure that the facilities were ready.  Individuals from non-ethnic Russian backgrounds were ruthlessly exploited, whilst during the Games themselves, security was incredibly tight (I was going to write 'ridiculously', but when peoples' lives are at stake...), and travel around the venues - particularly out to the ski-hills - was apparently time consuming and difficult.

Gosh, Russia is just so damned different to all the other Olympic venues, isn't it?  I mean, it's just so Russian, boo hiss.  These things would never happen elsewhere.  Only in Russia, right?

Hmmm.  Wasn't it amazing that none of these things happened at previous Olympics?  I mean, we had no problems in the run-up to London 2012, did we?  It's not as if the streets of London were ever made impassable by the extensive network of roadworks, line extensions, or building sites that were worked on until the very last minute.  There were no scare-stories in the UK press about the possibilities of Olympic venues not being ready, or over-spends on the budgets*, were there?  There was no need to put soldiers on the streets to ensure the safety and security of locals and visitors when the company hired to do just that proved unequal to the task, or anything like that.

And there were no suggestions that in Canada in 2010 there was anything other than fair play in the minds of the organising authorities, thank goodness.  There was no difficulty in scheduling track or training time at the venues for visiting countries teams was there?  Heavens, no.

And in China, 2 years before that, wasn't it great that the 2008 Games were being held in a country with such a fantastic human rights record?  There were no missed deadlines or last minute work on the venues there - at least, not that the press ever had the access to, to report.  And there was certainly no slave labour or below-minimum wages in THAT nation, no sirree.  And isn't it great how China at that time allowed individuals of all faiths, persuasions and beliefs to live their lives as they wished?

Now.  I am not for one moment suggesting that all is right with the world here.  Or even that very much is right with the world here.  But the biased, dog-in-the-manger, looking for the downside of everything approach in all forms of media to what was happening in Russia in the few months coming up to Sochi 2014 had to be seen from the inside to be believed.

A fair, free, and balanced approach by our media.  It's what we expect, or at the very least, hope for.  But are we getting it?

*And no, I am not for a moment suggesting there was anything shady about the money spent on London 2012.  Although the people who compiled the original budgets in order to get backing for the bid back in 2005 might be accused of being just a little optimistic when they pulled out their calculators first time around...

Monday 24 February 2014

You can always rely on your children...

... to say something mildly embarrassing, can't you?

We just returned from a week skiing.  Whilst the high point for me has to be watching my sons tearing down the mountain having the time of their lives, and the low point was realising on the first day, after the first run, that I can no longer keep up with either of them when they have boards strapped to their feet, one of the most disconcerting moments came courtesy of Boy #2.

He and I were heading down the mountain at the end of the afternoon, and found ourselves sharing a gondola with his ski teacher, a mid-20's Belgian who speaks 4 languages fluently.  As you do.  This guy - let's call him Julian (because that's his name) - told me how he spent a few weeks last summer in Moscow, in an attempt to improve his Russian.  (Because the Russians are coming, oh yes indeed.  At least, to the ski fields of the Alps, they are).

He told me how impressed he was with Moscow, and how much fun it is to party there in the summer.  He said how different it is to many places he had visited, and whilst we chatted about this, dropped in the comment that the girls there really go to a lot of trouble with their appearance, more so than he's used to back in western Europe.  He was amazed by the difference between some of the guys in their tracksuit bottoms and laid-back attitudes to clothing, and their girlfriends teetering along on their arms in high heels and - well, you get the picture.

I laughed.  And then, Boy #2 - probably trying to be supportive - said something along the lines of "You dress up when you go out too, don't you Mum?"  Well, yes, I do, I said.  When you're surrounded by people who make an effort, it seems rude not to yourself.  And then, addressing the other little boy from his class that Julian was taking back down the mountain, Boy #2 said  "And you know what type of dresses she wears when she goes out?  Sexy dresses..."

He's 8.  I'm not sure he even knows what the word 'sexy' means (we live in a cable tv-less house, which rather cuts out the opportunities for raunchy r&b type video clips), and he's probably mainly heard it on Psy's Gangnam Style.

Nevertheless, whilst Boy #2 may not know what the word means, Julian The Ski Teacher clearly did - and from the rather non-plussed expression on his face, it was not a word he would have immediately applied to the 47-year-old-no-make-up-wearing-rather-tired-and-a-bit-sweaty-after-a-day-on-the-slopes mother of one of his pupils in front of him...

Monday 10 February 2014

Ice Dipping - could I be THAT stupid twice?

Three years ago I wrote the post below.  Tomorrow, I may repeat the experience and throw myself into the same frozen lake (duck poo on the bottom, and all) again.  Just for, you know, fun.  Husband thinks I'm insane.  He may be right - although of course, this time I plan to be better prepared.

This time, I am taking a flask of hot chocolate.

Ha!  Yes, that will definitely do it...

(Oh, and Heather - I will also take the flipflops again.  Top tip, that one.)

Here's my post from 3 years ago...

This is an e-mail I got on Tuesday night, from a friend who organises a cross-country ski group that meets a couple of times a week near our home.

Hi Ladies
Today was the first day of spring and the forecast is for more sunshine tomorrow!
It is also my birthday and I was hoping to go into the "icy pond" by the lake today but have delayed it until tomorrow and so the plan is to warm up with a ski and then I ( and anyone who would dare join me) will dip. I have ordered some limoncello and so will take it along for you all to enjoy.


I read this and laughed. My friend had been threatening to do exactly this for a while now, but I never really thought she would get round to it. Climb into a frozen lake, in the middle of the day, sober? And then ski home? Was she crazy?

But then, completely unbidden, the thought came to me; 'Why not do this with her? No. No! Don't be an idiot, PM.


am in Russia. I am relatively young, fit and healthy. I would never get the chance to do this in the UK; ski through a forest, take an ice-dip, and ski home again.

So I did what any self-respecting woman would do these days; I asked Twitter. The overall response that came back was unsurprising; what the hell would you want to do something like that for? That should have put an end to it of course. But funnily enough, I found that I didn't like that answer very much ('what's wrong with me?'), so I asked around some more. I asked Heather from Lapland, who encouragingly told me to wear flipflops going into the water (how practical, not something I would have considered myself), and I e-mailed a friend who's lived here for while. Her response?

'My husband did the ice dipping and got double pneumonia shortly after... but otherwise apparently it makes you feel great!'

Definitely not a good idea, then.

But you know what?

Yesterday morning I put my swimsuit on under my ski clothes, skied for an hour, stopped by a frozen lake, got undressed, and my friend and I jumped in.

Well, when I say 'jumped', what I actually mean is that she bravely waded into the water and spent a minute in there, whilst I gingerly climbed in, dipped once, and climbed straight out again (putting my flipflops on as I did so - such a good tip, Heather, thankyou!).

Was it cold? Hell yes. So cold that I lost the ability to speak whilst I was in there. The water smelt, a little, but then since the lake is essentially a large pond it was always going to do that. And I have to say taking my swimsuit off and replacing it with dry underwear whilst standing on a snow drift in -8degC and in full view of the anyone who cared to look was not something I had planned on, but the changing shed by the ice hole was locked so there was nothing else for it (skiing home in a wet bathing suit under my snow pants appealed even less than the thought of flashing a boob as I struggled into my bra under my thermal t-shirt, for some reason...).

But, it was a beautiful day. The sun shone so brightly on the white snow that it was like standing inside a light-bulb. I had worked up some heat during the ski there, so my circulation was buzzing, and admittedly the adrenaline of 'what on earth are you doing?' might have helped bring on a bit of a sweat. And standing on the banks of the lake afterwards, wrapped in towel, wearing a swimsuit and flipflops and nothing else whilst I knocked back a shot or two of limoncello in celebration, I didn't feel the chill at all.

Husband, when I spoke to him later, was amazed; he never thought I would do it. The Russians I've spoken to about having done it have been uniformly confused. Why would I do such a thing? They know I'm not an Orthodox Christian (for whom this is religious cleansing experience), and I'm not a health nut, so clearly the only explanation is that I am certifiably insane.

They may be right.

But as Husband said to me, over the last two years my boundaries of what I will and won't do have expanded considerably*, and whatever else I may feel about Mother Russia, I have to give her a lot of the credit for that.

Ultimately though, my motivation for doing this probably idiotic thing was impulsive; 'Fxck it. I can do it, so I shall. Life is for living.' And if there's one thing that doing that dip made me feel, it was ALIVE.

* extreme waxing, going blonde, bungy jumping and throwing myself out of airplanes are still off the menu, by the way...

Thursday 6 February 2014

The suspense is killing me...

I've posted before about the fact that I'm writing a novel.  The 'Great Work', as I affectionately and optimistically call it, has been in progress for longer than I care to remember, but finally - FINALLY - I am nearing the end (of the first draft, you understand).

Unsurprisingly, when I mention to people that I'm writing a book, their immediate assumption is that it's chick-lit, or something like it.  Shoes, shopping, expat life, Woman in not so severe Crisis, that sort of thing.  However, it's rather different to that.

I am writing what I have been informed is a 'suspense genre' novel, with a protaganist who is a scruffy 30 year old man rather than a willowy 40-something brunette based loosely on myself, or Juliette Binoche.  (Because, you know, in a certain light...)  And rather than doing the sensible thing and putting a plan on paper before I started, I have allowed the story to grow organically.  The characters have taken shape almost by themselves, rather than sticking to any pre-planned format that I created.

It's been an interesting process, not least because I didn't know at the beginning how the story was going to end.  There's just one problem.

I am within a few thousand words of finishing the first draft - and I still don't know how it's going to end.

Like I said, the suspense is killing me...

Saturday 1 February 2014

What it takes for a day of Outdoor Fun, Moscow Styley...

It's been below -20degC for much of the week here, so naturally we are spending a large part of tomorrow outside at a venue a couple of hours from Moscow sledging, troika riding, and huddling round a fire toasting shashlik, hot dogs and marshmallows.

I am looking forward to this.

No, really: I AM.

I do appreciate that for those of you who are based in less chilly climes such activities may sound glamorous and exotic in a Julie Christie in 'Doctor Zhivago' type of way, and to a certain extent you're right.  There will be snow.  There will be ice.  There will even be fur (probably).  I expect that for non-drivers there will vodka, and for the kids hot chocolate. Here's hoping there will also be blue skies and sunshine, and glittery surroundings as the light glances off the frozen forests and meadows around us.  But let me tell you what else there will be...

There will be dainty footwear; think of what rebels in that frozen world on 'The Empire Strikes Back' wore on their feet and you'll be about right.  Actually, that's pretty much how we'll be looking all over.  But a lot more bulky (think 'the StayPuffed' marshmallow man in Ghostbusters), because...

...there will multiple layers of clothes; ski socks, under thermals, under jeans, under thick snow pants.  There will also be thermal tops, sweaters, additional sweaters, under-coats and padded coats.  For the kids there will be balaclavas under their hats - not for the adults, though; we'll just be wearing warm hats, because the men are too tough, and for the ladies, well, have you seen the hat-hair a balaclava gives you?

There will be handwarmers stuffed inside mittens (perfect for those 'I have lobster claws!' impressions we all love.  Oh.  Just me, then?), under which we will be wearing inner gloves.  At least, the kids and the women will be - did I mention the men are (apparently) tough?  Although quite how the shashlik and marshmallows are going to be eaten I'm not sure.  

And there will be sunglasses.  Because not only will these be necessary to deal with the bright sunshine I'm crossing my fingers for, but they add a certain glamour to the waddling penguin look that might otherwise have been missing.  

Plus, they provide a barrier to the frozen air, so can stop your eye-lashes from freezing.

Just saying.