Sunday, September 25, 2011

America + 18 percent

Sometimes that's what Moscow feels like.

Prices on most items here include a value-added tax - either 10 or 18 percent, depending.  As diplomats, we are supposed to get that tax back, but it doesn't always happen.  With so many familiar establishments here (IKEA, Starbucks, McDonald's H&M, and the newly arrived GAP and Banana Republic, etc.), the price mark-up is pretty evident.

Today we checked out a new mall near the Embassy.  It's so new that it was nearly empty, at least compared to the other malls around.  It has many stores you know and love as well as a fancy movie theater complete with IMAX and the ritziest food court I've ever seen.  It even has interactive touch-screen directories that give you directions to the store you want, including which elevator or escalator to take.  It's just as nice, though a bit less spendy, than Tyson's II.  This prompted me to remark to Jeremy that, lame as it may be, I thought dinner and a movie at the mall might actually be a fun midwinter's date night.

Today, however, we checked out the installation of giant matryoshka dolls on the mezzanine, and hit H&M, where I bought a couple of reasonably priced, if marked up 18 percent, blouses.

I was a bit disappointed at the matryoshkas, though.  I was hoping to see them look like actual matryoshka dolls - with faces, and in graduated sizes.  The girls enjoyed running and crawling around the mezzanine though.  And as it was spitting rain outside all day, this was a good use of everyone's energy.

Friday, September 23, 2011

How I make my own life more difficult

I have plans.  Lots of plans.  They always seem small, like, I'm going to sew this, or I'm going to cook that.  Sometimes they take a bit more time and energy than I had anticipated.  But that is not the problem. 

The problem is my inability to quit when things get too difficult.  Case in point: I found a recipe for butternut squash gnocchi.  I'd never made gnocchi before, but I recently discovered butternut squash (I think maybe my dad hates it; that tends to explain the omission of a few foods from my childhood diet), and man, is that stuff tasty!  I decided to make it for Natasha's birthday dinner today.  But as the recipe is a bit involved, I had to start yesterday morning.  First you have to roast the squash, then squeeze out the juice, then make the dough.  Then you have to chill the dough.  Then you roll it out into long ropes, cut it, and put the classic gnocchi grooves into it.  Last night around 9:30, as I was rolling out the stupid dough and thinking about everything else I needed to get done before Natasha's birthday, would have been a good time to quit.

But the dough was already made!  All I had to do was roll it out, cut it, and painstakingly press every.single.little.piece into the tines of a fork.  Never mind that I had never had any kind of gnocchi, much less this recipe.  Never mind that I had no idea whether anyone in my family would even like it.  Nor that I still had to finish sewing Natasha's present (more on that below), wrap the presents family had sent and making frosting and frost the cupcakes.  No.  I had started the blasted gnocchi, and I needed to finish them.  It took me an hour and a half.

Well, here they are, uncooked and looking rough since it's not dinnertime yet.  Fingers crossed that my kids and husband like them.

Which brings me to Natasha's gift.  I got it in my head a few months ago that I was going to make her some felt food for her birthday.  And, since I like to complicate everything, I decided this food needed to be made out of wool felt, not the acrylic stuff that you can buy at the craft store.  Wool felt is crazy expensive.  It does feel a bit nicer than acrylic, plus it's not made of recycled Mountain Dew bottles.  I know, good for the environment, but maybe not so much for my kids' health.  Before you jump down my throat - I concede they're probably fine.  I'm just weird like that. 

Anyway.  The combination of wool felt being expensive, my being too cheap to buy felt food patterns (ironic, no?), and my limited artistic abilities, made me terrified to cut into the felt for fear of messing up.  And that meant that I was way behind where I ought to have been, volume-wise, and is the reason I decided I had to make a box for the felt ravioli at 10 p.m. yesterday.  Here's the finished cache.  Minus the pear, apple, pumpkin, cabbage, etc., etc., that I didn't get around to.  Christmas is coming, right?

Of course, N picked up the felt watermelon, tasted it, proclaimed it "kaka" and put it back.  Oh well.  She'll appreciate it later, right?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

At this time two years ago ...

... I was in early labor with Natasha.  My sister was hanging out with me while we waited.  We went to Marshall's where I bought a green dutch oven.  I cooked dinner in it tonight and thought about the anticipation of that day.  When was the baby going to arrive?  Would it be a boy (as I had long thought, so much for mother's intuition)?  What would the baby look like?  I had to wait another 27 hours to find out.

It was worth it.  Since birth (well, maybe since the end of the colic stage), this child has lit up every room she has entered.  Her laughter is irresistibly contagious.  She is funny and headstrong and full of life. 

Tonight after Z went to bed, Natasha and I drank hot chocolate and read books.  Then I rocked her for about half an hour before bed - a very rare occurrence these days.  And I thought about how, surely, it can't be true that we've had her for two whole years.

We'll be having more of those tomorrow.


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sergiev Posad

So, the jarring realization that we have seen basically nothing of this country spurred us to drive out of town yesterday.  We chose for our destination Sergiev Posad, whose monastery is considered the spiritual heart of Russia.  It is named for St. Sergius of Radonezh, who became Russia's patron saint in the 14th century, and is about 70 kilometers outside of Moscow.  Google Maps, taking into account Moscow's horrendous traffic, cheerfully estimated that the journey would take 15 hours and 25 minutes.  Hmm.  Now that I think about it, actually, Jeremy may have asked for walking directions.  In any case, we made it there, and including the 25 minutes we spent looking for parking near both the monastery and food, the drive took about 2.5 hours.

We did not make our goal to arrive early and leave right around nap time - we actually arrived at Sergiev Posad right at nap time.  So the girls were a bit cranky.  Also, it was pouring rain.  We managed to visit two of the three churches within the monastery walls, drink some water from the spring in the middle of the complex, and do a little shopping before getting a late lunch.  Had Jeremy and I gone without the kids, we would have tried to visit one of the museums, but we were already pushing our luck.

Natasha also had ample opportunity to chase pigeons, which, as you can see, weren't exactly scarce.  St. Paul's has nothing on the Trinity Sergius Lavra.

Then we headed inside to get some shashlik for lunch.  The girls were reasonably well behaved, particularly considering how painfully slow the service was.  But we left the table quite a mess and Natasha had some near-collisions with wait staff carrying heavy trays.

On the way home (which only took about 1.5 hours), we passed some little villages populated with adorable houses like these.

It's definitely a different world from the skyscrapers and fancy cars of Moscow.  We were driving behind a Rolls Royce for several miles before this photo, just a block from the Embassy, was taken.

All in all, a successful venture and a good trial run for future road trips.  We hope to go a little further and get to one or two of the Golden Ring cities before we leave next summer. 

Friday, September 16, 2011

Farmers' Market

I know farmers' markets are a summer thing, but for me, they are inextricably linked to fall.  I don't know why.  I will occasionally stumble upon a market in summer and buy a few things, but it's when the weather gets crisp and slightly overcast and the hats and scarves come out that I start going regularly.  (And then, at the end of October, I lament not having gone sooner - you'd think I would have smartened up by now.)  There's just something about walking around a market, sampling local apples with a cup of steaming coffee in hand.  I guess it's good for my wallet that there are no Starbucks near the market closest to the Embassy, as the chain is even more overpriced in Russia than in the U.S.  Anyone for a $7 Frappuccino?  No?  Me neither.

The double-stroller parade left the Embassy compound mid-morning, and by the time we had made the mile-ish walk to the market, the toddlers had some energy to expend.

We returned home with sweet peppers, potatoes, carrots, Swiss chard, parsnips, basil, cilantro, corn, cucumbers, apples and grapes.  Total cost: about 1.5 times as much as I would have paid at the supermarket (though I could not have found several of these items there).  But it's more fun this way, plus I got some exercise.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Making the most of it with kids

When my inlaws returned home after visiting us this summer, they left behind their Lonely Planet Russia guide.  A few weeks ago, before bed, I began flipping through it.  Man, was that depressing.

We have seen nothing of this enormous, diverse country.  I mean nothing.  We've tried to explore parts of the city every weekend, but after a solid start, band practice and softball games and illnesses began to interfere.  The weather is rapidly getting colder and there is still so much to see!  We did make it up to St. Petersburg over Memorial Day weekend.  I'm glad we did it, but it was hard.  And we were utterly exhausted by the end of it.

There are a number of towns within a three-hour radius of Moscow - the so-called Golden Ring cities.  Had Jeremy and I come here without children, I think we would have seen most of those places by now.  For sure, we would have done the Trans-Siberian Railroad.  I've always wanted to go to Vladivostok (a mere 4,000 miles and eight hours by plane from Moscow).  We would have seen Lake Baikal and perhaps taken a winter vacation to Murmansk, which retains the distinction of being the largest city north of the Arctic Circle.

But with a not-quite-1-year-old and a not-quite-2-year-old, I think the most we can hope for right now is a day trip or two to the Golden Ring.  Our kids are still both in diapers.  Z hates riding in the car and screams and complains for most of the short drives we take now.  Moscow traffic is notoriously awful: What should be a three-hour journey routinely takes five - and those extra two hours are usually spent crawling at snail's pace to the city limits.  Also, it will soon be quite cold, meaning outdoor sightseeing will have to be limited to an hour or so at a time (again, for the sake of the kids).  And while we could try the Trans-Siberian railroad, let's be honest with ourselves about how much fun it would really be, to be trapped inside a metal closet for an entire week with two stir-crazy babies.

The expat life is definitely different with little ones.  I've talked to my mom friends here and they're in the same boat.  Some have traveled more than others, but for the most part we're all city-bound.  Nevertheless, I feel like a wimp.  Like diapers and nap times have killed my motivation to explore and experience.  What happened to the girl who got detained for snapping an illicit photograph of the Tashkent subway (pre-blog)?  Who boarded a sputtering motorboat captained by a monk to visit a remote island in Alaska?

Where is that girl?

So, for those of you more seasoned in the parenting department, please share your experiences.  Inspire me with tales of exotic travels aided by strollers and diaper bags.  Or tell me I'm doing great and gently explain the limitations of family exploration.  Either way, I want to hear from you.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Not-a-fail day

Do you ever have days where you feel like you just failed at that day? Where, though nothing earth-shatteringly horrible happened, you feel like you completely wasted an opportunity to do good things, better yourself and enjoy life?

I have had a lot of days like that over the last month.  A lot.  Days where I am short with people, I gossip too much, my kids eat frozen meatballs and vareniki (vegetable dumplings) for dinner again, I lose my temper when the toddler squeezes her very expensive eczema lotion all over the floor, my baby wails in her crib for 30 minutes until we both cry uncle on nap time, we don't make it outside the compound walls because I'm feeling too lazy to take advantage of the fact that we live in a foreign country, we spend the entire afternoon watching television, and I haven't done a single thing to promote creativity or education or even nutrition all day, and really, why am I staying home when the nanny obviously does a much better job of raising my children than I do??

You know.  Days like that.

Yesterday, however, was a good day.

In the morning, I bought a week's worth of groceries (minus the local veggies I had picked up at the farmer's market on Friday) for a meticulously planned-out weekly meal plan AND spent less than usual.  Score one point for organization and nutrition.

When I got home from the grocery store, we piled into the truck and drove 40 minutes to Tsaritsyno, an old estate that is now a lovely park with a lake and cute little bridges and a lovely fountain. (On the way there, I started knitting a fall hat for the baby.  Score one for saving money and becoming
reacquainted with my knitting needles - it's been awhile).  Tsaritsyno is host to one of the honey festivals around Moscow this time of year.  We walked through, taste-tested honey until our heads ached from all the sugar, and bought a couple varieties.  One is supposed to be very good for respiratory infections.  The other tastes like brown sugar.  Score one for experiencing the local flavor - both literally and figuratively.

Then we walked around the estate for a bit.  The girls loved the fountain and we loved watching them enjoy it.  Score one for quality family time.

We managed to keep both kids from falling asleep on the drive home, so when we arrived, they went down for a nap and I started working on dinner: slow-roasted duck with buttered noodles, sauteed swiss chard (thank you, farmer's market, for still being open in September) and parsnips fried in duck fat.  Oh my goodness, it was tasty.  N helped me spin the chard dry and checked on the duck roasting in the oven.  Z ate some chard and N at some of the parsnips, though neither was particularly into the duck.  Score one for vegetables and vitamins.  And for a new jar of duck fat in my fridge.  And for bones in the freezer to be made into duck stock.  Oh my goodness.

Then Jeremy took the kids out to play while I cleaned up (our dishwasher has been broken for over a week now - I am hoping our replacement comes on Monday).  After they went to bed, we watched reruns of Bones, drank a pot of chai and I continued knitting the hat.  I hope to complete it the early part of next week.  Score one for productivity and a relaxing evening.

Here's to more good days.