Monday 31 March 2014

How to tell your car was WAY overdue a wash...

Moscow is a mucky city.  Not in the sense of being covered in litter - it isn't, it's admirably tidy - but as far as the dirt is concerned.  The authorities try to keep a handle on it, they really do, with fleets of orange trucks travelling in convey along the streets and spraying water to keep the dust down, but it's a thankless and interminable task.  I suspect that the reasons for this are multiple; pollution, open ground, power stations in the city (although I suppose that falls under pollution), the number of cars on the streets (ah - pollution again), and diesel trucks.  Which is of course, also pollution...

Anyway, keeping your car clean is like Sisyphus's task of rolling a huge boulder uphill only to be forced to watch it roll back down at the end of every day - an endless job.  The car is cleaned, and by the time you get back from your next trip to wherever, it's already looking dirty again.  This is made even more fun by the fact that you are not actually allowed to clean your car on the streets of Moscow (because of - doh - the dirt and pollution it causes), or even in most compounds; you have to take it to a car wash where they dispose of the dirty water in the correct manner.  Whatever that may be*.

Many people still manage to have spic and span motors, but they tend to be those who have drivers to deal with such things.  Their driver takes the car to the moika (Russian for 'car wash') once a week to keep it gleaming when they have to fill a couple of hours between dropping their client off somewhere and collecting him / her again.

We, however, do not have a driver.  Keeping our car clean is pretty much down to me - and frankly, I have better things to do with my time - so our car is, much to my children's embarrassment, usually one of the dustiest ones in the school carpark.

But even I am forced to admit that the cleanliness of the car might deserve to be slightly higher on my list of priorities when, the morning after I finally got it cleaned, Boy #2 (who didn't see it the night before) walked out of the back door to find it parked next to the house and asked "Who's car is that?"

* I have my suspicions that 'the correct manner' may just be down the drains like the rest of us would do, but then I'm cynical like that and of course I have no proof...

Monday 24 March 2014

Today's definition of 'Irony'

It was a beautiful day, today.  The sun was shining and not in Moscow's usual 'bright blue but minus 5degreesC' March kind of way, but in an 'Oh my god it's still March, but it's +18degC and I am TOTALLY wearing the wrong shoes to drop the kids off at school' kind of way.

So I hotfooted it (quite literally) home and changed out of my trusty Timberland knee-high boots and into a pair of ecco bowling shoes.

What I did not do - crucially - was change my thick winter socks.  So a couple of hours later I found myself yomping through the middle of town on a series of errands in shoes that were right for the day, but socks that were rubbing, chafing, generally giving me hell, and most definitely were not right for anything other than deepest darkest Russian winter.

This, dear reader, is a rather lengthy back story to give you some idea of why the following might have happened.

I had just exited one of the most beautiful stations on the Moscow Metro (and for anyone who has visited this city and taken public transport, you'll know that is no small claim) Mayakovskaya, and was walking up the stairs.

In front of me was a living, breathing example of what fellow Moscow blogger Jennifer Eremeeva calls 'The Banana Generation'.  6 foot tall, weighing no more than 8 stone, looking as if it wouldn't take more than a St Tropez gentle breeze to blow her over, this girl was dressed in high Russian style, with her never-ending legs on show in a micro-skirt and vertiginous heels.  And when I say 'vertiginous', I'm not talking about your run of the mill 4" numbers, no;  I am talking about 6" skyscrapers.

To say I was fascinated is an understatement.  These shoes were not designed to be worn in 'real life'.  They were designed to be worn between car and A-list restaurant, or between car and A-list nightspot.  Admittedly, Russians do love their heels - finding an attractive pair of shoes with heels below 3" is an almost impossible task - but 99% of this city's die-hard high heel wearers would normally balk at wearing such weapons of choice on the metro.  And I don't mind admitting that as someone who is not a natural high-heel wearer (in the same way that Victoria Beckham is not a natural bowling shoe wearer), I was impressed.   How the hell was she standing upright in these things?  In fact, never mind, standing up - how was she walking?  And even more importantly; what on earth was she going to do when she reached the stairs that were fast approaching?

Well.  Sadly, I can't tell you how Ms Banana Generation 2014 fared on the stairs.

Because, in a turn of events that will be no surprise to my nearest and dearest, I was so intrigued with watching her teetering along, that I - the flat, sensible shoe wearing one in this story - tripped and fell up the stairs myself.

Oh, the glamour...

Tuesday 18 March 2014

Passport photos and the disappearance of my principles...

I need to renew my passport.  What could be simpler, I hear those of you who live in the UK ask.  Well, many things.  Many, many, many things.  Like...  pushing a camel through the eye of a needle.  Finding your way through the Moscow metro system first time as a new arrival.  Getting your kids to proactively pack their school bags in the morning.  You know the sort of stuff I mean.

But renewing your passport as a British citizen from within Russia?  Not simple at. All.

And it's not about the forms, the supporting documentation, the references, or the amount of time the system takes. (Although...  No.  I'm not going there.  Not yet, anyway).  No, the main roadblock to getting a British passport renewed whilst you're living in Russia?  The ruddy photographs, to the point that when I next get back to the UK I will just get a whole load taken and put them away until needed.

Husband assured me it would be no big deal.  He would take me to a friendly photo shop he knew, he said.  Somewhere he always goes for his visa photos etc, he said.  Somewhere they are really helpful, he said.

This is why, on the way to said photo shop, he stopped the car, pointed at a random building at the side of the road, and said "Actually this one's closer.  Let's go here."

Me:  "OK.  Ummm - have you been here before?"

Husband;  "No.  But I'm sure it will be fine."

We walk in.  There is a small unwashed-looking gentleman lounging behind an office desk, surrounded by photographic equipment.  We look at him.  He looks at us.  We all look at each other.


Husband (blinking first and losing face in the process):  "We would like some passport photos, please."

Unwashed gentleman.  "What?"

Husband  "Passport photos.  Of my wife.  Can you help us?"

Unwashed gentleman (yet to crack a smile or welcome us into his store), to me:  "Take off your coat, sit there."

I took off my coat, sat there.  He looked at me, critically.

"Tell her to turn to look to the side*."

Me:  "We don't have to do that for British passports.  We just look straight ahead."

"Tell her to push her hair back."

I push my hair back.


I push it back more.

"No, more!  Behind her ears!  We need to show her ears!"

Me:  "We don't need to show ears in Britain.  We just - oh, for pete's sake." I push my hair back behind my ears.

"Tell her to push her fringe off her forehead."

Me to Husband.  "We don't have to do that in - Can you just tell him to take the frigging photograph?"

Husband laughs.  "Don't get stressed.  Why are you stressed?"

Me:  "Because he's being so rude!  Why is that necessary?  I just want a passport fringe is fine..."  I give up and push my fringe to the side.

He takes the photo.  One photo.  I suppose it would be a waste to press that finger on the button twice.  He looks at the photo on the camera and sighs heavily.  I am clearly not Russia's Next Top Model.  Glumly, he downloads it to the computer.

He then starts messing about with the cursor.

Me:  "What are you doing?"  No answer.  "Husband, what is he doing?"

Husband, barely holding in the mirth.  "Photoshopping your hair, darling.  Apparently it needs work..."

Me:  "He's what?"

Husband, smirking:  "Calm down.  We're in Russia. It's what they do."

Me:  "Well, it's not what they do in England.  We just use the photos of us, as we are.  And if he starts to mess about with my face I'll never get the passport."

Silence, whilst unwashed gentleman - who has ignored me throughout - begins to adjust the photos to the correct size.  I consider my options, then turn to Husband.  "But, since we are in Russia, maybe you could ask him to tighten my jawline whilst he's at it?"**

*Many countries require a slight turn to the head so that they can see half profiles in passports.

**OK.  I didn't ask him to do that.  But god, the temptation...

Tuesday 11 March 2014

Too... much... writing...

... and none of it on here, it seems.

So just to keep things moving, here's a brief excerpt from an ongoing conversation with my younger son.  Boy #2 is, as ever, obsessed with all forms of public transport.  His current passion, following a weekend trip to Karelia (click for link if - like me before our visit - you have no idea where or even what that is), is sleeper trains.

His latest plan is to design the ultimate sleeper train that will run all the way from Britain to New Zealand.  He is undaunted by the existence of such fiddling annoyances as the Pacific Ocean; this train will simply use the underwater tunnels that are to be built for it, which will have the added benefit of allowing the passengers to view the undersea world around them as they travel.

He has already decided on the placement of the restaurant in the train (in the middle, between 2 of the 2nd class carriages, to allow easy access for all), the location of the offices of the company that will operate it (on the train, natch - why run it if you don't get to travel on it?), and the power source (this will be a maglev, it goes without saying).

He has even decided on his customer base (people who want to travel to New Zealand - duh).

It all seemed very well thought out - until I asked him how long this incredible journey would take.  Oh, he answered airily.  About... 16 days?

Hmmm.  Without wanting to quash his enthusiasm, I asked him - gently - what it was that he thought would make people want to travel by the train for 16 days when they could do the journey in less than 2 by plane.  He thought for a moment.  How much would an air ticket to New Zealand cost, he asked me.  I pulled a figure that seemed likely out of thin air - £800.  Well, there you go, he said.  It will be cheaper to travel by this train.


Oh yes.  I think it will probably cost - how much did you say the plane was, Mum?  £800? - I think it will probably cost about £700 to take the train.  Or maybe - £799.

Perhaps it's time to start giving him pocket money in GB£?