Taking Stock: Why Moscow?

Today is the start of our fourth and final year in Moscow.  The past three years have brought about much change for us as a family, such as any three years in life will do for any family.  We go into our last year at post with Lara, not Penny the dog, two much fatter cats, two much, much taller boys, a shorter-haired Jamie, and without Peter, who heads off to college next week.

Oh…and me not working.  Yes, that’s a big one too.  We have more artwork, a truck (actually, let’s call it what it is – a Mighty Silverado), 5 bicycles and a scooter.  All the boys have added a Padi certification to their resumes and I have added, well, I lost count of how many, new crafts to my repertoire.

The thing is, all of the above would certainly have happened (or could certainly have happened) no matter where we lived in the world.  So, I started thinking about how Moscow itself has changed us, and what our experiences here have done to shape who we are now.

I doubt that there is anyone reading this who does not know what Embassy Moscow has been through in the past year.  Ironically or, perhaps, fittingly, it is just over a year since we found out that the Russian Government ordered us to downsize our mission by firing, or sending home, hundreds of our employees by September 1st.  I’ve written more than once about the resilience and courage of the people who have served, and continue to serve, here.  But I look at our family and see that while resilience and courage are undoubtedly outcomes of the year’s events, so too are others: an appreciation for a strong support system, for a close-knit community, for small pleasures, for routine, for the sheer luck of dodging the bullet.  I see also in my boys a willingness to step up, to have a good work ethic, to show kindness and to be thoughtful, to show patience, and to show initiative.  If you can forgive the clichés, I’ve seen them learn to take things on the chin and roll with the punches, to keep their eyes open, to be aware of their surroundings, and to be vigilant.

Again, you might say that these are lessons that might well have been learned, or qualities that might have developed, anywhere in the world.  And you might be right.  But I prefer to think that living as representatives of the US Government, in a country with whom the US Government does not have a positive relationship, my boys – our family – have again and again had to look past the politics and see the country, see the people of the country (including students with whom they study), and find a way to see the positives and live alongside them.  More so than other places we have lived.  And using those lessons, those characteristics, that resilience, has been the best way to do this.

On the other side, we now have a healthy cynicism, a more natural distrust of the status quo, and an awareness that nothing stays the same.  That change will often be foisted upon you when you least expect it (and here I also think back to telling the boys that we decided to extend our tour here from two to four years).

Why should anyone come to live in Moscow?  People have asked me that many times in the past months.  Why bid on Moscow?  Why apply for a teaching job there?  Why? When you don’t know if you’ll get a visa.  When you don’t know whether you might be unceremoniously sent home.  There is no easy answer to this…but let me try.

First of all, and perhaps most significant, the work is of utmost importance – for diplomats, for their families, and for teachers.  It is in the dedicated, tireless efforts of our officers here (against some of the greatest political odds) that the situation for future diplomats will be made easier, and the relationship between the two governments will become less fractious and more productive.  And before anyone says otherwise, I truly believe that this is a desired outcome not only for the US and Russia, but for Global stability.

It is in the consistent support of families, and their willingness to make sacrifices, that diplomats will be able to do their jobs.  And it is in the provision of the high-quality education currently to be found here at the Anglo-American School that families will be able to sustain that support.  I say this last as the mother of one, and soon-to-be two graduates of AAS High School.

Secondly – Moscow is a GREAT city in which to live.  I thought about trying to list why I love living here, but can I suggest you read my previous posts?  Go back to the beginning, to the very first posts, and read about daily life, the metro, and finding our routines.  Routines which turned out to be surprisingly easy to fall into.  We have regular restaurants where they know our favourite tables.  Anthony is well-known by the early-weekend-morning shift ladies at Billa (the local grocery store) who will (so says he) save him the best pastries and baguettes.  The boys have a regular barber, and we have a regular pet store.  We have regular bike-rides that we take, and regular movie theaters where we can find the latest releases not dubbed into Russian.

Then there are the not-so-regular features of life here.  I have yet to experience winters as cold, as long, or as dark as those here (though I do feel the need to point out that Dublin is on the same line of latitude as Moscow, and as such I probably HAVE experienced winters as dark).  But I feel that life here is lived somehow more intensely because of it.

Looking back on my blog posts I have been disappointingly neglectful of posting about theater, ballet, opera, concerts, art galleries, tours, walks in beautiful parks.  I’ve focused on the breathtaking winter – skating, frozen lakes, tubing on ice-hills – but neglected to mention the gorgeous springs and summers when the city explodes with color, and it stays light until 10pm (though, admittedly, the 3:30am sunrise is the flip side of the Northern location).  Or the Fall, when the light softens and colors are more muted, and you can feel winter knocking on the door, but you know you can squeeze another day outside before it’s time to light the fire.

The city is hopping with nightlife for those who look for it.  Craft beer hang-outs and pubs spring up with more and more frequency, and there are enough restaurants to satisfy any taste, whether you are a hard-core foodie, or just like to have variety when you eat out with family and friends.

Perhaps my year off might be an opportune time to let you in on more of those hidden gems.

I have some regrets.  I have contemplated roads not travelled, and places not visited; experiences I have not taken and moments that have slipped by unnoticed.  Just like anyone leading this life who suddenly finds themselves with too many missing experiences to cram into the remaining months at post, I am currently making a list that is too long, but to which I will do my best justice.

And this is why Moscow.

 

 

 

 

The Russians Are smiling…For Now

 

Two or three months ago you would never have thought that Russia (Moscow) was about to play host to one of the world’s biggest sporting events.  While most other countries would probably have milked it dry for its potential to attract tourists and sell souvenirs, the only sign that Russia would be host to the FIFA World Cup early this year was the installation of a giant black and white hexagonal-patterned ball on top of the Alpha Bank building not far from the Embassy.  It appeared right after New Year.  And that was it.

Late at night, in homes across the world, hopeful soccer fans sat waiting for hours in the glow of computer screens to acquire the coveted fan IDs, and tickets to matches between as-yet unknown teams.  Life in the Russian winter carried on – clearing the streets of snow, glowering from under winter hats at the cold, expelling foreign diplomats…denying visas…the usual.

As the snow melted, the regular reconstruction of streets after the winter beating began with more than the normal frenzy.  As the orange clad armies swarmed over the city, it was clear that they were tasked with a bit more than the customary pasting of veneer for the upcoming tourist season.  The city got a complete facelift.  Luzhniki and Spartak Stadiums were completely overhauled.  Every billboard, multi-media screen, and inch of advertising wall-space became a venue for World Cup publicity.  In every shop there appeared (finally) official merchandise featuring the Emblem and Mascot of FIFA Russia.  Construction staggered to a halt literally days before the opening ceremony.

About a week before the teams rolled in, Anthony and I went up to check out the Fan Zone.  Against the backdrop of the Moscow University and over-looking Luzhniki Stadium, the merchandise tent, nine giant screens, banks of tables and benches, food kiosks, and charging zones, all seemed ready to take on the hundreds (thousands?) of expected fans.

A chair lift, of all things, was set up to take the more intrepid spectators from the Fan Zone area across the river to the Stadium (not sure I would risk that myself).  Armies of blue-uniformed police, some of them looking like they had graduated High School maybe a week earlier, ran through exercises, clutching maps of security posts and trying but not quite succeeding to look stern –they were just kids learning to brandish batons before they have properly learned to shave.  An army of a different kind wandered the Fan Zone waving giant “high-fives” as you walked by.

As Russia overran Saudi Arabia in their first game, World Cup Fever took firm hold on the city.  Tourists flocked into Moscow  – more tourists than they have probably ever seen at one time – and bemused locals really didn’t know quite what to make of it all, at first.  You’ve all seen the pictures – Mexicans in sombreros crowded in with the French in red, white, and blue wigs, Danes in Viking hats, Argentinians in Messi shirts, and Portuguese wearing Ronaldo’s number 7.  After the first match or two, the Muscovites had no real choice but to surrender their customary reserve and embrace the party atmosphere.

I took a couple of visiting friends out to Red Square last week.  It is a blaze of color and a hive of activity.  You can sign up for 10 minute five-on-five games played out in the shadow of GUM, and try your luck shooting penalties against a “robo-goalie” or play “Fooseball” with the St. Basil’s and the Kremlin as a backdrop.  Security checkpoints at all entrances are permanently backed up, but the police are uncharacteristically jovial with the crowds.

My local knowledge comes in handy at times.  Knowing that security at the entrance to GUM is relaxed not only allowed us to flit on and off the Square via the multiple entrances, and avoiding the security lines in the process, but to see this usually elegant (and expensive) shopping center also succumb to World Cup madness.  Giant soccer balls adorn the ceilings and float in the signature fountain, which is surrounded by merchandise kiosks (probably selling everything at twice the usual price!).

Wp17

Tourist attractions are barely keeping up with the demand of the constant stream of fans determined to cram in as many of the renowned sites as they can on the off-game days. Closures are random and unannounced, as visiting VIPs demand crowd-free tours.

We paid a second visit to the Fan Zone.  On Father’s Day.  Dragging the boys along for the 25-minute bike ride to enjoy the atmosphere without the crowds, hours before a game would start.  We were pleasantly surprised by the ice-cold drinks and real food.  Although there was no game scheduled while we were there, we were fully entertained by an increasingly loud group of Mexicans warming up to watch the 3pm match against Germany.

Encouraged by what seemed to be a perfectly civil way to experience a game without tickets, Anthony and I returned a week later to watch England destroy Panama, and got caught up in a roaring display of British hooligans from Woking (term used affectionately here) singing and dancing.  Delighted Russian fans crammed in for photo after photo, and the singing increased significantly in volume as the scene played out on the main display screen.

 

Surprisingly and delightfully playing along, the Russians – old and young alike – are immersing themselves in the experience.  No matter who is playing they are out there in the fan zone, at the games, wearing their Russian tri-color flags like super-hero capes, having photos taken with anyone who is willing – and of course, everyone is.

In eleven participating cities around the country, the Russian people are having a blast.  We’re over halfway through the tournament now and their team is still alive and kicking.  Scenes of celebration after the round of 16 match reminded me fondly of Ireland’s first ever qualification to the World cup, in Italy 1990, when they reached the quarter finals.  Right now, we are all trying to see past the politics to a country, a city, and a nation, playing host to the world.

When I was out with my visiting friends last week, I resigned myself to pushing my way onto a crowded metro to get home.  Two stops.  If I stand near the door, I can tolerate the crowds for two stops.  As I got to the first stop, ready to step out of the way to allow people off and on, I felt an irritated elbow in the back, and turned to see an elderly man grousing at me for not getting out of the way fast enough.  Three years living here and I am still a foreigner.  My Russian is not great, but as he pushed past me, knocking me all the way onto the platform, he was probably muttering something along the lines of “stupid foreigners, always in the way.”

The world cup is not, perhaps, for everyone.  Despite being coached on smiling at customers, the metro workers still glower at passing passengers. And I suppose for some of the locals July 15th can’t come soon enough.

But for now…the Russians (well, most of them) are smiling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Month’s Mind

I was reminded this morning, by my dear friend Deb Bernlohr, that it is exactly one month since the untimely departure of our officers and their families from Moscow.  After a month, it’s no longer on the news radar. Life goes on around the world as usual (both good and bad), but the events of April 5th are still very fresh in our minds.  The effects are still a reality both for us here, and for those back in DC.

In the weeks that followed the expulsion, the underlying sadness and irrational, but real, guilt at being left behind was exacerbated by the emptiness of the buildings, the silence in the Embassy concourse, and the half-empty parking lots.  There was an emptiness of spirit, too, that went deeper than what we had felt in September.

I was not prepared for the personal impact on me – the departure of these friends and neighbours.  I am used to departures.  It’s very much a way of life in the Foreign Service.  But I am used to having time to prepare.  I am used to losing one, two, or maybe three friends at a time.  And always with the knowledge that we will also welcome new friends and families.  To lose so many all at once, and with no sense of whether we would be able to fill the gaps, was not within the scope of my previous experience.

Watching their efforts to process what had happened pretty much mirrored my own sense of bewilderment and great sadness at the loss of “my people,” my peers, my overseas family.  There were days, I have to say, when I would find myself fighting back tears at nothing – a morning email, a photo on facebook, walking past a house, a closed office, the dog park, even just coming home after work and realizing that the event I had to go to that evening would have none of those faces there.

This last round of expulsions has been a particularly hard blow – as it was intended to be.  The legs have been cut from under our community and morale has taken a big hit.  Our American Embassy Community Association has done its bit – providing distractions like Taco Tuesdays, game nights, and Happy Hours.  The Tae Kwon Do, ballet, and hip-hop classes may be smaller, but members are no less eager.  We have four graduating High School students, whose achievements will be celebrated in the coming weeks.  Our numbers have been increased a little by the arrival of our colleagues from St. Petersburg who have been welcomed and absorbed seamlessly into our ranks.  Once again, we stare down adversity and decide to walk tall.

We have now survived two expulsions.  There is very little that can keep this community down for long.  It is a community that could write the book on resilience and being tough, on how to survive separation and loss, on how to roll with the punches.  Across a continent and an ocean, the community continues to thrive and to be a source of support and strength for those who are, and who have been, a part of it.

Back in Washington, some are posting glad news of onward assignments.  Others remain in limbo, their lives on hold, and their future still uncertain.  Those whose families remain here are feeling the effects of prolonged separation – anxiety about their children adding to the stress of finding a new job.

Those of us left behind are doing our best to stay tough and keep the mission going.  We are constantly reminded of the work still to be done, and the need to pick up the pieces, fill the gaps, link arms and close in.  Carry on the work.  For some, it means doing the work of two or three.  For others it means that the ability to prioritize has become a life-saving skill.   For all of us it means that the upcoming transition season will be more poignant than usual.  More than one departing friend said that it would have been much easier to leave if they had hated Moscow.  The truth is, those who live here love the city.  That is also one of the strengths of the mission.

In Ireland, there is a tradition when someone has passed away to have a remembrance one month after their death.  It’s a Requiem Mass, and we call it the “Month’s Mind.”  I’ve known about it all my life, though I had no idea of the origins.  It turns out, not surprisingly, that it is a Catholic tradition of memorial for one who has passed.  I did find some words in “Celebrating a Life Through Liturgy,” however, that rang true for me as I remember the events of exactly one month ago.  “It is celebrated in an atmosphere of … remembrance, of gratitude, and of hope…The pain of loss is not quite as intense now, and the Memorial…helps us to move forward into the future.”

 

 

 

When the Going Gets Tough

This is a long one.  It’s long, but still not long enough to encompass the roller-coaster emotions of the second expulsion of American Diplomats from Russia in eight months.  I could write a book about the heroism I have seen over the past week.  About the resilience and the sheer bloody-mindedness of those of us leading this Foreign Service life.  Maybe I will someday, but for now this is my catharsis.  Written now because it is no longer “world” news.  Written so that you all know the human story behind the politics.  The photo above tells a big part of the story (credit to Charlie Starr for the photo).  Anthony, standing alone on the tarmac this morning (April 5th) watching the plane pull away, carrying 60 American Diplomats and their families away from Moscow.  What it doesn’t show, and you have to imagine, are the amazing people who have his back, as he has theirs.

Things have gotten pretty tough lately here in Moscow…again.  It seems like a lifetime, but it is only a week, since I was sitting reading a text message from Anthony saying “I won’t be home for dinner,” and thinking nothing of it, because he is often not home for dinner these days.  A few hours later the world came crashing down around us.  I was home with Peter, Jamie was out on the compound with friends, when suddenly my phone started to ping with messages from him (so-and-so says they are leaving), and texts from my work friends (are you okay?).  I turned off the movie we were watching and checked into the news, and there it was…Russia expels 60 American diplomats.  As it became clear why Anthony was not home for dinner, it also became clear that this time the impact for us as a family, and for me personally, would be immense.

It’s difficult to describe the shock as the names started rolling in one at a time, through texts and calls.  Neighbors, friends, senior diplomats, bright young officers, families.  Whole sections of the Embassy.  All given 7 days to pack up and leave.  I sat in a neighbor’s house wearing, I’m sure, the same expression of dazed disbelief as everyone around me at the implications for us as a community.

Jamie and Peter stayed pretty strong for their friends – providing shoulders to cry on, and offering support in the way of snacks, company, and probably an occasional silly joke to help lighten the atmosphere.  Then, back home, as the three of us waited for Anthony, I heard Jamie cry out – a text had just come from one of his close friends to say his dad was on the list.  As I held his head in my lap, he sobbed at the unfairness – not just of him losing a friend, but at the way in which our community was about to be torn apart again.

When Anthony finally got home he read the list to me, and I had pretty much the same reaction as Jamie as I heard name after name of friends and colleagues with whom we had shared dinners, sundowners, and tables at official events; craft nights, trivia nights, taco nights and happy hours at Uncle Sam’s.  I was gut-punched.  People who had supported each other through personal crises, birthdays, college acceptances, game and race wins, illnesses, everyday grumbles and celebrations.  Worse still were the families torn apart – one spouse expelled, the other not, with children still at school.

Together, Anthony and I considered the the loss.  60 of the finest officers and their families.  Two of the spouses were teachers at the school and one a school nurse.  When the number was tallied, dozens of kids at the school and probably the same number again of kids under 4.  Dozens of pets.

Following closely on the heels of this realization was the staggering enormity of the task ahead for a community that would not be allowed time to grieve, but would have to pull together to get everyone packed out on time.

In the past week I have watched this community rise above a terrible situation and give more than they might have thought possible; working tirelessly to surround those who are leaving with a blanket of love, support, and whatever help they might need at any moment of the day.  Many departing diplomats were still trying to do their jobs while they completed paperwork, sorted their household goods, got their pets ready, explained things to their children.  Completed a list of tasks in a week that we usually spread over months.

The rest of us cooked food.  We arranged play times to get little ones out from under the chaos, and provided some normalcy in a situation for which none of us had a frame of reference.  We were making it up as we went along.  We walked dogs (to the point of exhaustion when needed).  We sent our teenagers to carry bags and boxes to the free tables and donation bins.  We made sure there was an Easter Egg hunt.

Last Sunday at Easter Mass we had 3 Baptisms, 8 First Communions, and one Confirmation.  Many of them in borrowed suits or dresses, but all of them ready to step up two months early to celebrate the sacraments for which they had been preparing since September.  Because some of them would not be here in 2 months.

Much too soon, we gathered at our house last night to wish our departing friends “fair winds and following seas” (always the naval reference).  Although some would go home to finish packing, still had emails to check, still had offices to clear out, it was clear that some of the burden had lifted, and shoulders were a little less slumped.  They had achieved the impossible, and now all that was left was to walk away.  Yet even as I say that, I am reminded that this is not all that is left.  The next mountain – that of finding an onward assignment (with good schools, with jobs for tandem couples, with decent health support, with career opportunities) is now in front of all of them.  And for many of them is also the challenge of how their kids will complete the current school year.

This morning the compound stirred earlier than usual for most.  At 4am, I walked outside to see labeled suitcases stacked outside too many homes.  Pet carriers stood ready.  People moved around in the early morning, breath freezing in the nighttime temperatures – some with purpose, firing off orders through walkie-talkies, some waiting anxiously for the trucks to come, trying to get dogs to pee one last time before the long flight, or locate tape to secure documents to animal crates.  I walked past, greeting everyone: “how are you?” “hanging in there” “did you get any sleep?” “not much” the most common exchanges.  The homes with little ones traveling were obvious by the way travel cots, strollers, and car seats took the places of checked suitcases.  So many suitcases.  So many people.

Once the baggage was loaded, reluctant pets were (unceremoniously) crammed into travel crates and lifted onto the too small truck – did nobody tell them there were dozens of animals?  Golden retriever sisters, Anyushka and Lili, still puppies, embarking on an unexpected (unwanted) adventure, but at least they were together.  Mr. Elvis, our compound celebrity yorkie, trotting around in his own daze, but glad to be allowed on the bus with his owner.  Military officers appearing in dress uniforms almost undid whatever composure I had left.

Then came the buses and the most difficult part of the morning.  No matter how successful anyone had been at holding it together until then, the final moments were just too much.  Hugs and tears and determined whispers NOT to say goodbye, but “until the next time” and “until the summer.”  Many entreaties to keep the heart of the community beating, to keep moving forward with the work, not to let this get us down.

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Credit to Kevin Lee for the photo

And then they were gone.  And the rest of us dispersed reluctantly to pick up the pieces of our day.

It’s a bit of a cliché, and infinitely ironic, that this morning dawned bright and sunny, snow melting fast, grass appearing from underneath – sad and dirty, but faintly green where the sun touched it.  Freezing middle-of-the-night temperatures giving way to a daytime high of +6 C (a balmy 43 F). Spring finally fighting its way past the Moscow winter.  If not quite hope, then at least not despair.

I remember sitting with some friends this past New Year’s Eve.  One of them had her mom visiting, and we were looking back on the year (as you do) and remembering the events of the previous months.  She asked me to use four words to say something about the events of September as we looked to a new year ahead.

I said “We are still here.”

And guess what? We are still here.  The collective “we”.  The American “we.”  You have all seen the news.  Our 60 Diplomats went home today.  The photo in the Washington Post is not fake news.

Capture

What you cannot see on the left of the surreptitiously-taken photo is the crowd waving them off.  The 60 who have just left may be some of the finest, but so are those left behind.  They have already proven themselves in the way they performed the miracle of getting everyone away.  Together.  On the same flight.  With all of their pets.  With all of their household goods and cars following closely behind.  There are not too many people who can truly appreciate the sheer audacity of this achievement.  If you do, and even if you can only imagine it, then you know the caliber of the people who are left behind.  We are going nowhere.

We have closed one of our Consulates.  Anthony traveled to St. Petersburg last weekend to pack up and lock up the mission there.  To take down the flag, allow every staff member to touch it, and to present it to the departing Consul General.  But we are going nowhere.

Those who are being forced to leave may be devastated, but they are demonstrating remarkable resilience and strength.  I just got a photo of their landing at Shannon airport for a breather, a chance to release their pets before the trans-Atlantic crossing, and maybe a pint of the black stuff.

There is no pretense in their courage as they play the hand they have been dealt with dignity and efficiency.  They can move forward, and rely on those of us left behind to stay strong.

Those of us left behind will stay tough and keep the mission going.  Last week we rallied around our friends and did what we could to help them meet the deadline for departure.  Next week, the halls of a building emptied of some of the finest people I have the privilege of knowing, will be walked by some of the finest people I have the privilege of knowing.  And we will pick up the pieces, carry on the work, and continue to live here in this sometimes gloomy, but ever vibrant and enigmatic city.

I leave you with an Irish blessing for both sets of people:

Go n-éirí an mbóthar leat

Go mbeadh an ghaoth i gcónaí ar do chúl

Agus go dtí go gcomhlíonfaimid arís

D’fhéadfá Dia a shealbhú i bpilmeán a láimh

 

(May the road rise up with you

May the wind be always at your back

And until we meet again

May God hold you in the palm of his hand)

 

 

Russians in Winter

I love Russian people.  Nothing fazes them – not weather, not politics, not traffic, not construction.  It seems that a centuries-long history of dealing with a myriad of adversities has left them with the kind of stoicism that can look any obstacle in the face and laugh at it.  Well…not exactly laugh.  They are not really the laughing kind, to be honest.  It’s more of a “stare it down” kind of face-off.  An “is that all you’ve got?” kind of response.  When we’ve only had 6 minutes of sunshine the whole of December, that’s just a shrug of the shoulder and a “What do you expect? It’s Russia.” kind of look.

The photo above this post was taken from my classroom window last week.  A Russian winter sunrise, spectacular in its glorious welcome to the day.  Last weekend we finally started having the kind of winter weather that one would expect in Moscow.  Steady snowfall, below freezing temperatures, and of course the grey skies to go with them.  My gut reaction surprised me a little.  I wanted to go out.  I wanted to wrap up in all that winter gear I’ve been hoarding, to go to the forest by the school, bring the dog, and just walk in the snow, breathing clean air and being outside.  Anthony needed no asking to pull out the Mighty Silverado, piling me and the dog inside for a (short) road trip in the snow.

 

 

I really hadn’t thought that we might be crazy to be going out in minus 10 temperatures for a walk.  It was clear, however, as we made our way into the forest, that we were simply just…well…being natives.  It was like O’Connell Street (Oxford street, 42nd Street, put in any lively street in your favourite city) on a Saturday night.  The Russians were out.  Older couples sporting a range of furs that were clearly for this purpose – strolling out on a Sunday afternoon in winter.

Families pulling sleds in all shapes and sizes.  Cross-country skiing, running, walking, pushing strollers with pumped up wheels.  Whole families rosy-cheeked and laughing (sorry for the cliché, but there is no other way to describe what was essentially a modern-day version of a winter scene from an 18th Century painting).

Lara the Golden had the time of her life.  As many of you will know, snow is her favourite weather.  She and every other dog we met, bounding around to the entertainment of everyone watching them.  The forest was a fairytale scene of snow-laden pines and quintessential Russian Birch trees, their bark peeling in classic picturesque curls and their fragile branches bending under the weight of recent snowfall.  Someone even remembered the birds with a little snow-covered feeder.

This was clearly a day out for the kids.  Stretches of forest inclines had been turned into natural sledding hills, with kids of all ages trying out a variety of sleds – from tiny saucers to complex double-runner rigs with seats – anything that would slide downhill was fair game, really.  Bundled up like Michelin men, tumbling off, screeching with delight, phone cameras working overtime to record the moment.  And donkey rides when they were done.  And dad to pull you home.

I want to finish with a personal story about one of my own favourite Russians.

I went yesterday to a clinic with my Russian TA (teaching assistant).  I’ve been having problems with my back and she simply wanted to help; no amount of “I’ll be fine, don’t worry, I can deal” was going to put her off taking me in hand and making sure I was okay.  Meeting me at the clinic to introduce me to her acupuncturist, translating everything from registration to the consultation.  Waiting for me to have my treatment and then making sure I knew how to pay.  This is quite typical of Russians.  The caricature Babushka admonishing you for not having enough clothing on your baby outside and then lecturing you on the correct way to swaddle so that not a single breath of icy air can cause the direst of illnesses, is really just someone who genuinely wants to help and sees it as her duty (right?) to interfere for your own good.  The tightly-wrapped shawl, thick boots, and layered dress of the babushka may now be elegant, booted, fur-clad, and silver-blond, but the sentiment remains the same.  If you seem to have no clue how to look after yourself, they are going to tell you or, better still, do it for you.  And Irina, if you are reading this, you know I write this with the warmest heart and deepest gratitude for your help and concern.

 

 

 

Waiting for Winter

Winter has been a little slow in coming this year.  Not that I am complaining, but this is my third winter in Moscow, and I am as ready as a person possibly can be for the onslaught.  At the beginning of December, after weeks of rain and mud, the temperatures finally dropped enough for the first real snowfall.  Comments on Facebook ranged from the “finally…a real Moscow winter” to “…and so it begins…” illustrating the wide range of feelings amongst my friends, many of us with too-recent memories of the eight-month-long winter of 2016-17.  But following the greyness of the preceding weeks, and the constant rain, it was a picturesque relief.  Hats, gloves, and scarves made their first appearances, and I readied myself for weeks of scraping ice in frigid early mornings before being able to drive to work.

After barely a week of light snowfall, temperatures crept up again and snow turned to dirty ice, and then, once again, to rain.  Rain, and grey, sodden skies…a steady, constant misting that seeps into your bones and keeps your head down and shoulders hunched.  Even the seasoned winter-haters were longing for the wintry white that would lift the grey pallor from the city.

Around our house, every closet is full to bursting with winter wear.  Crates of accessories, closets full of coats, racks of boots.  If it’s a winter outdoor clothing item, we have it in spades!  In answer to Facebook’s “Good morning Anne.  Are you ready for the snow today in Moscow?” I can reply a resounding “YES!”  I have acquired (and worn) more winter outerwear in the past two years than I have needed in probably the past 30 years of my life.  There is no reason for anyone to be cold outside.

Bring it on, I say.

And it’s not just me.  Out on the streets the Muscovites are ready too.  Every car has its studded tires.  Snowplows were lined up and ready to go when the first snow appeared all those weeks ago.  Mothers and Babushkas clearly have this inner clock that has nothing to do with temperature or weather.  Every child is already bundled up in boots and puffy coats; scarves tied so tightly that the most skilled sailor would have trouble undoing the knots; hats pulled down to meet the scarf, leaving the minimum of facial exposure to the frozen elements.  Except that the elements have not been so frozen lately, which leaves me feeling very sorry for the kids beaten into winter-outerwear-submission by every caring adult.

Yesterday, it being my first official day of vacation, I “volunteered” to take Lara out for several of her many daily outings.  A tortuous foray involving a churned-up mud bath with deep gouges in the soft, rain-drenched turf.  Throwing a ball only to have it returned to you covered not only in dog saliva, but an assortment of leaves, dirt, pebbles, and pine needles.  Forcibly preventing her from charging inside before her over-sized paws have had at least the worst of the mud wiped off, thus minimizing the indoor clean-up.  The sky felt like it was on top of my head.

But the temperatures were dropping, and I could feel the promised change in the weather.

At about 5:00pm it started to snow.  It was a light, powdery snowfall that was not altogether convincing, though it covered the grass with a layer of white frosting.  Throughout the evening, sitting by the fire, I found myself glancing out the window to make sure it was still falling.  Unexpectedly and childishly delighted to see that it was.  This morning, like a kid longing for that first snow-day, pulling up the blind and hoping for a world covered in white.

Looking ahead, I see lower temperatures and more snow.  Just in time for my LA girl to arrive for Christmas.  Looks like it is time to unpack the crates and bins, and welcome winter.

At the Kitchen Table

On my recent visit home, I became very fixated on the natural way in which we sit down in the kitchen, at the kitchen table, on kitchen chairs.   To the point where, as I arrived to visit each house, I held my breath to see where we would all gather, determined not to lead the way and contrive the situation just to prove my point.  So certain I was that it would happen, I just let the situations unfold…and without exception, it happened exactly as I predicted.

Not surprisingly, this led to a consideration of just how much happens at the kitchen table.  How much it is the center of the Irish home.

That, in turn, made me realize how long it is since I’ve had a kitchen table, how much I miss having a kitchen table.

I counted the kitchen tables.  The total was eight.  I sat at eight kitchen tables.

Scratched and worn

Shiny and new

Dressed in tablecloths

Or a map of the world

Halloween-ready

Polished and smooth as glass

Oval, rectangular, short…or long enough for a dinner party of twenty

With place mats and coasters

Teapots and tea-cosies

Knitting

Pumpkins and homework

Wineglasses and candles

Salt cellars and napkins

And the obvious…food and drink

Even more profound was the activity around, on, and sometimes under the tables.  The interactions, the emotions, the constant flow of words and stories and questions; offers of tea, food, wine…and how are you?…and how is everyone doing?

Success stories

Failure and try again stories

Celebrations and hopes for the future

Health stories

The passage of time

Reconnection

The in-laws and grandparents who are recovering

Those who are not

Alzheimer’s and nursing homes

Migrating nieces and nephews

Babies born and expected

What’s going on with the deck

The hedgehog living under the shed

New hobbies found, and old ones rediscovered

The delights and the stresses of migrating back home

Planning a spring trip to Moscow

Politics

New projects

Jokes

And cancer treatment

Thanksgiving dinner; Halloween cakes; endless tea and toast; carving pumpkins; cramped family dinners; breakfast comings and goings; late night chamomile; feeding the dog illicit scraps

Laughing; teasing; questioning; regretting; remembering; reassuring; hugging; comforting

Fitting everyone around the table because that’s how it should be.

Sometimes trying not to cry because you know if you do you might not be able to stop

When I moved to Moscow, one of the attractions of the location was its proximity to home…home, that is, for me.  Ireland.  Dublin. My family and friends.  Flights are less expensive, though the travel is no less arduous (no direct flights mean more travel time, more security checks, earlier starts and later arrivals).  Still, I think nothing of hopping home for a visit over a long weekend; for a birthday, a Confirmation, just needing a touch of family, of simplicity in a life of complexity.  Just a weekend or, if I’m lucky, five days during a school break.

When I get back here, I say the same thing to everyone who asks how it was: “…too short…”  Too short to do much more than catch up in a flurry of visits – often three different locations in one day.  Too short…just too short.

And I regret the kitchen tables I missed.  The words left unspoken.  The stories untold.  You know who you are.

But every moment is precious.  Every word exchanged fills my heart and feeds my soul.  At the kitchen table.