Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Nuts and Bolts

Lest you think that Foreign Service life is all tours of UNESCO heritage sites and fancy receptions, allow me to tell you about this week's project, which should serve to convince you that living in a country is an entirely different beast than merely visiting it.

The car is here. The car! It is here!

So, do you think I'm driving all over town?

No, not yet. Maybe not for awhile. Maybe not ever.

Today I spent the better part of the morning with busywork related to getting the car street legal. I found the keys, which was no small feat, considering I'd tucked them away somewhere safe, way back in early June, in another country. I found the car on the compound and took it to get gassed up. Funny story: I chatted with the gas station attendant for 5 minutes while the tank was filling (it's a big tank). Nice guy. When it was finished, he replaced the nozzle, turned to me and said - in Russian - "so, you speak Russian?" Ummm. Yeah. Yeah, I guess I must speak Russian, because these last five minutes, we were talking to each other. In Russian. Am I right?

Next I drove it to the Embassy mechanic's bay, where they have to do some sort of inspection and put on the license plates. But the Russian license plate won't fit on my car, so I had to go to another office to request and pay for some sort of an extender doohickey that will make the plate fit the car. (Important aside: yes, I realize that I am fortunate to have people at the Embassy who can help me navigate these things. Thank you in advance for not emailing me to tell me how very lucky I am.)

After that I went to the bank and took out two zilliondy rubles in order to pay for an official inspection and local liability insurance (we have international coverage, through Clements, in case you were wondering, but we're also required to buy a local policy).

Then I went home and drank a bucket of coffee to get warm. It was cold outside at that gas station!

Next I went to yet another office to make copies of our American driver's licenses and Russian diplomatic cards, both of which are necessary to register the car. But I couldn't turn them in, because I forgot to print out a copy of my Clements insurance policy. Home again, then, to search for the policy and email it to Bart, because do you think my printer is up and running yet? Ha! I could probably plug it in and fire it up, but that would only serve to remind me that I don't have any ink cartridges for it, which would send me on another chase that I simply don't have time for today.

That's okay, though, because I got to drink more coffee and check my email. Which is how I discovered that, congratulations!, the Russian government has decided it will no longer honor U.S. driver licenses and now I need to apply for a Russian one, which means I need to make more copies of more things and pay more money and get more ID photos taken and...

But first I need to get the car to the Moscow inspection place, which I'm told is "not far away, but not easy to find." I will need to do this some time this week or next, after I get the car back from the Embassy mechanic. I will need to do this in Russian. I speak Russian, but I don't speak car, so we'll see how that goes. At this not-far-but-not-findable inspection place, I will pay more money and hopefully remember to bring all of the necessary papers so that the car is finally drivable.

But not drivable by me, if I understand the regulations correctly, unless and until my husband gives me a power of attorney stating that I am allowed to drive his car. You know, the one we chose and bought together. It's considered his car alone here in Russia.

After that, I can go get the driver's license, which I'm told will involve an approximately 4-hour round trip to the Russian version of the DMV (can you even imagine?) and some more money and papers and things and only then will we be allowed to legally drive the car to its parking space in a lot some 15 minutes' walk away from the Embassy, where it will likely sit quietly for 352 days out of the year because, really, when you get right down to it, using the metro here is a helluva lot more convenient than driving, most of the time.

Monday, September 29, 2014


We're getting into the last of the beautiful fall days here in Moscow - everywhere I go people are betting on the "first snow day." I already dread taking the dog out in the morning, but then again, the cold air definitely wakes me up faster than my usual cup of coffee.

This past weekend we took the kids to Novodevichy Monastery and Cemetery, one of the most beautiful places in all of Moscow. Founded in the 1500s, the Monastery is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Back in the day, Russian rulers like Peter the Great used to send their wives and sisters there when they got uppity; the women were forced to take religious vows and had to stay there forever (sort of like Rapunzel, one of the girls noted).

Just outside the monastery is the cemetery. Anybody who is (or was) anybody in Russia is buried there: famous artists and musicians; writers (Chekov, Bulgakov); WWII heroes; politicians (Yeltsin, Kruschev). I love this cemetery. All of the graves are unique, the grounds are beautiful. There's no way this place isn't haunted, though. There is one tombstone I remember, but I couldn't find it this time around and I can't remember whose it is - it's just a giant hand reaching out from the grave. Very cool. Very spooky.

We're still taking pictures with the camera on my phone, so these pictures don't really do the place justice. If you ever make it to Moscow, you need to spend some time here, to see it for yourself.

On the monastery grounds...

The kids loved this burial plot because it "looks like Yogi." To be sure, it's a pretty big statue.

Final resting place of a WWII hero.

This gentleman was a "pilot/cosmonaut."

Back on the grounds of the Monastery, which also feels haunted to me.
The leaves are changing...

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Disaster? Or opportunity?

I like to cook. And I like to read cookbooks, just for fun. (I got that habit from my mom, I guess.)

I subscribe to various cooking magazines, Cook's Illustrated and Cooking Light chief among them. Truthfully, though, when you're overseas, those magazines are just so much p0rnography sometimes - it's all pictures of things you can't possible make, because you can't find tempeh, or fermented black beans, or habanero chiles, or whatever it is you need to make that delicious-looking dish on the cover.

When I come across a recipe that looks promising, I tear it out of the magazine for safekeeping. I can't possibly keep years' worth of magazines, but I can keep the recipes I want to try. I have a stack of file folders, all carefully labeled (appetizers, soups, breads, main course, desserts....) according to what's inside.

Or, at least, I had a stack of file folders.

Today I decided to make a chocolate chip cake, because damn if it isn't the best dessert out there, and if you're going to have dessert, go big, people. I went to my kitchen bookshelf, my favorite bookshelf in the house, and broke out the file folders for the first time since we got here, looking for the recipe, which I happen to know is in the middle of the dessert file, scribbled by a young Donna Scaramastra on a scrap of lined notebook paper, the other side of which has information pertaining to the bookstore at the University of California. That's how long I've been making this cake.

The file folders were there on the shelf. So were the recipes. But for some reason, the movers must have decided to un-file the recipes. They were all stacked up outside of the folders, which were stacked separately, empty of all contents.

And I had a lot of recipes in those files.

Page after page after page, all jumbled together.

Honestly, I could make this cake without the recipe at this point. But I sat there on the floor and started rifling through the pages, in search of that one small scrap and lamenting the loss of my system more than a little. It seemed like a minor disaster, right there in the moment.

It turned out to be kind of a nice thing, though. In the hour that it took me to find the recipe, I found all sorts of other things I'd forgotten. The mustard greens recipe my friend Sam gave me back in college - can't get mustard greens overseas, so I haven't made it in ages. The chicken curry recipe my Pakistani student gave me at USC - he called his mother in Karachi and asked her to write it down for me because I love curry. The chili recipe from our DCM in Yerevan. The chocolate tarts from the Ambassador's chef in Amman. Bart's grandmother's half moon cookie recipe. The turkey recipe I use every Thanksgiving. My sister's taco soup recipe. My mom's/nona's spaghetti sauce recipe, with my dad's funny comments right on it.

It turned out to be a nice little trip down memory lane. But it was also a good reminder of why I like to cook so much - I like the way my kitchen ties me to the people I love. (I wrote an article on the topic years ago, for the Washington Post - you can read it here if you'd like.)

My kids are old enough to help out in the kitchen sometimes. More than that, they're old enough to remember their own favorites. I love when they ask for specific dishes sometimes, or talk about meals they've had in the past. I like how Ainsley tells people my food is so good because "the secret  ingredient is love." (I told her that, once, in an unsuccessful bid to get her to taste something, and she remembers it still...) I think that, some day when they get together as adults and talk about their crazy old mom, they'll remember the food I used to make for them, both good and bad. I like to think that, anyway.

It turned out to be a nice little break, sitting there on the floor of my kitchen, flipping through recipes. I didn't attempt to sort them out again. Maybe another day. For today, it was enough just to look through them.

The cake is cooling in the fridge, waiting for Bart's return to Moscow. It really is delicious.

Friday, September 19, 2014


A warm(ish) sunny day in Moscow today - here's the view from my street:

 That right there is one of several buildings collectively known as "Stalin's teeth." He had a few of them built around town, back in the day. This one looks right down into my front yard. My phone camera doesn't do it justice - the sun was glinting off the metal top, and the sky was so very blue. It's hard to stay down when the sky looks like that.

It's amazing what a sunny day and a healthy set of lungs will do for your outlook. I'm feeling much more cheerful today, now that I'm crawling out from under my illness and all four kids are (for the moment) healthy.

It also doesn't hurt that the amazing Mrs. P sent these in the mail today:

 (You might remember Mrs. P from this blog post. Everyone needs a Mrs. P in their lives, don't you think?)

So, what did I do with my first healthy day? Why, it was school conference day for the elementary kids, so once again I braved both bus and metro to get the girls to the school - kids are required to participate in the conferences here.

While Ainsley had her conference, Kyra sat in the hallway in her formal school uniform, knitting away on her "secret" project. (She won't tell anyone what it is, only that it is going to be a Christmas present for somebody.) When I came out of the conference, a Russian mom was oohing and ahhing over her knitting skills, and I had to confess that she didn't learn from me - it's all her Nana's doing. A few other women also stopped her to compliment her work - she was absolutely glowing with pride.

Ainsley was excited to show off her part of the display board outside of her classroom. Heck, near as I could tell, Ainsley was excited about every single thing today. I don't even know how many teachers she hugged. Even if she forgot their names, they still got hugs. ("Technology Teacher! Hey! Technology Teacher!" she shouted down the hallway as she chased some random guy down....).

My takeaway from the teacher conferences? My daughters are both brilliant, of course. Prodigies, amazing in every way, just like their mama. Seriously, though, the school is great - every teacher I met impressed me today, and they know my kids well already - always a nice thing. Also? Ainsley is madly in love with her PE teacher. Madly.

And now? It's 5:30 pm already, and although I've been waiting ever so patiently, dinner has not magically appeared in my kitchen. I guess it's up to me.

Happy Friday everyone, wherever you are!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Doing it Right

It's been a rough few days, if I'm being honest.

There are days when you walk around your new post just absolutely kicking ass: finding the stores, making the friends, doing it all right.

But if ever you have one of those days, be forewarned: it's usually followed by a few grim ones, when you just can't catch a break.

First one kid got sick, then another. Then I got sick, too. Kids home from school = no routine. No grocery shopping. No going to the gym. No meeting your writing goals. No leaving the house and having big adventures. Just you, sitting alone in the house, listening to coughing kids and wondering how long it takes to figure it all out. And if you're sick, too? Well, the dog still has to be walked. The dinners made. The laundry washed. All the mundane stuff piles up and threatens to swamp you and that lump in your throat either means you're feeling really sad or you've got walking pneumonia, neither of which is an option you care to dwell on much.

Everyone goes through this, you know, whether healthy or sick. In Beijing, we used to call it the "Ten Day Freakout," because it hit everyone right around the 10 day mark. You could see it on the faces of the newcomers, and you just knew what they were going through. They didn't know it was normal. But we did. If we liked them, we pulled them aside, clued them in, helped them past it, told them our own Ten Day stories. (My brand new neighbors Candace and Tracy got me through my Ten Day Freakout in Beijing, and though we've long since lost touch, I'm still grateful to them for that.)

Here, I'm the new person. It's been a month, so it isn't quite the ten day freakout, but still. Sometimes, you can't help looking around and thinking everyone else is doing it right, whatever "it" is. You think you're the only one still wandering aimlessly through your days, searching for both your future friends, that tribe of people who is going to carry you through the next few years, and a jar or two of creamy peanut butter, the kind without added high fructose corn syrup. After all, is that too much to ask of a post - friends and a decent sandwich?

I'm a creature of habit, but I've lost all of my habits. I prefer to be busy, too busy to think, too busy to stop. I get up and drop straight into my routines, moving from kitchen to work to gym to store to kitchen to bed. I like to lament my lack of time. I like to be too busy, with too many things to do, things that I know how to do.

It's safe to say I'm not there yet. Oh, I'm busy. Just trying to track down working transformers and decent lettuce gives me plenty to do. Add in a job search and an attempt to organize the house, and I have more than enough to fill my days. But I have no routine yet, and it's the routine that makes me feel like I belong in a place. Friends are nice. A paycheck is lovely. But the routine - the knowing every day what you're supposed to be doing, and how - that's what I really need to find.

Hopefully next week I'll have four kids back in school and a husband back in country and all of the pieces will start falling in place.

Meanwhile, it helps to remember that behind all of those other doors live other people with their own small dramas. Nobody's doing it right, after all. Not here; not anywhere.

Sunday, September 14, 2014


And did I mention my husband left me?

That's right. We arrived in Moscow in mid-August. We moved houses twice before we landed in our "real" house. We accepted our air freight. We accepted our sea freight.

And then, after a few days of unpacking, my husband fled the country.

(To be fair, he did an awful lot of the unpacking himself before he left. But still.)

Then my son got sick, and I got to figure out how to get to his school (and back again) via metro and bus. Then my daughter got sick, but thankfully she was at home when it started; no bus trip for me.

Then the cat and dog arrived from Jordan. Such Foreign Service pets they are - the shipping agent informed me that they would be "overnighting in Dubai." I've never overnighted in Dubai. Perhaps that's why it cost over 5K to get them here?

The note on Yogi's crate. Not sure who wrote it, or why, but in my mind there's a great backstory...

Then Aidan had his birthday sleepover, with 3 new friends. I made a triple batch of pizza dough, a double chocolate layer cake and a double batch of pancakes for breakfast. Oh, and I had to make the syrup, too, because I didn't want to go in search of the bottled stuff (at Moscow prices, no less).

I got sick, too, a few days ago. I'm lying here on the couch, stuffy-nosed and sore-throated, listening to the rain on the windows, dreading the moment when I have to drag myself out to take the dog for another walk. I'm also wondering why I never learned to light a fire in a fireplace myself. 50 degrees and raining: it's fireplace weather today, for sure.

At least, once Bart gets back here, I'll have a really good excuse for why I didn't finish unpacking all of the boxes. And hopefully he'll bring me some "sorry you had to walk the dog all by yourself caramels" when he comes back. (Hint. Hint.)

Saturday, September 13, 2014


He's kind of a miracle baby, that Aidan of ours. I got pregnant with him while still grieving after a horrible, horrible miscarriage. And then, when he was just 6 months old, he got so sick. We curtailed out of Kazakhstan when the State Department "Class 5'ed" him - it doesn't get much worse than that. There was talk of brain damage, disability, death.

But he rallied, our Aidan did. You'd never know today that he had such a rocky start. He's smart and strong and sensitive, with the best laugh I've ever heard in a kid.

He says he wants to be a dentist when he grows up.

I love this kid. Can't believe he's eleven, though.
Kazakhstan, 2004, before he got sick.

Virginia. 2006?
Virginia, 2006.

Lake Placid, 2007.

Beijing, 2008.
First day of kindergarten.
Thailand, 2008.

Beijing, 2009?

Hong Kong, 2010.

Beijing, spring 2010.

Beijing, spring 2010.

Germany, 2011.

Germany, 2011.

Amman, 2014.

Amman, 2014.

Please. Write your own stuff.