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