Sunday, February 22, 2015

Kolomenskoe Estate


This weekend's family death march took us to the Kolomenskoe Estate, south of Moscow proper. It isn't tops on the average tourist list - there are so many other more well-known historic locations around Moscow - but it's definitely worth a visit. 

Tucked into a bend in the Moscow River, Kolomenskoe is home to some cool old buildings, including the Church of the Ascension, which was built in 1532 to commemorate the birth of Ivan the Terrible, whom I'm certain didn't earn his nickname until he was at least two years old. But yeah, he wasn't the nicest guy to ever rule Russia. Probably not the terrible-est, either. The church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, best know for its tent-shaped roof, which was the first of its kind to be built in all of Russia.

When my kids were born, I celebrated with a big cup of coffee or two.  Ivan's dad built this church.

Another church on the grounds. Because Moscow.

Same church, up close.

 Peter the Great's little wooden house was moved here from elsewhere in Russia. It was built in the 1700s, but Kyra and I liked it because we're currently reading the Little House on the Prairie series, and it looked like a bigger version of the log cabin Pa built on the prairie back in the 1800s.

Little House on the Dvina.




Peter became tsar when he was around 10 years old, but what he really loved was shipbuilding and sailing. Hence the anchors.

He was 6'10" tall. Not quite as tall as this statue, but still pretty gigantic, especially back in the day.

One of many oak trees on the estate. The trees in this grove are 400-600 years old, so they've witnessed quite a lot of intrigue. 
So many churches, so little time.

Yes. I do believe that's another church.

The Moscow River, with the southern edge of the city visible in the distance.

Not everyone in the family is tired of snow yet.
This weekend at Kolomenskoe they were celebrating Maslenitsa, which is the Russian version of Fat Tuesday. There were all sorts of kiosks selling blini and other snacks. The girls wanted straw maslenitsa dolls. You're supposed to make a wish and burn the maslenitsa doll, but I don't think we have any plans to set our dolls on fire - they're way too cute!
Maslenitsa dolls.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Wegmans It's Not.

Well. That was crazy.

My last post went a teensy bit viral, and is currently the third-most read post I have on this site - and still climbing.

(My second-most read post, in case you're curious, is here. The most popular post can be found here.)

Then it got picked up by the Huffington Post - go read and like it here, please. And - wonder of wonders! - despite the topic, there are as of this writing NO over-the-top rude comments on the site. Some people disagree, sure. But nobody's gone on the attack, which is... unexpectedly nice. The first time I was published in the Huffington Post (link here), I didn't think the topic was particularly controversial, yet there were some nasty comments.  Or maybe my skin is just thicker, two years on.

Yesterday we decided not to take the kids on a death march. Instead, we went for a walk together, just the two of us. We stopped first at the Yeliseyevsky Gastronom on Tverskaya Ulitsa, not far from Red Square (#14 Tverskaya, near the Pushkinskaya metro station, for anyone interested in checking it out).

Yeliseyevsky Gastronom is a grocery store that's been around forever. It got its start as a palace, back in the 1800s. It was converted into a fancy grocery store before the revolution, and managed to survive both the revolution and Soviet rule, which is amazing, because it is an absolute monument to decadence and, well, see for yourself. This is the inside of the store:


I'm guessing this must have been the ball room when the place was a private palace? It was restored not long ago, chandeliers polished and walls scrubbed free of soot. It is absolutely beautiful on the inside, with not a bottle or a bag or a salami out of place.

And it isn't particularly expensive, either, by Moscow standards. The prices for staples were comparable to other local markets.

The especially exciting news? They sell sushi to go, at pretty decent prices. A pack of cucumber rolls was just 100 rubles - less than $1.50 at yesterday's exchange rate. Salmon rolls were more expensive - around 300 rubles per pack, still only around $4.50. Wasabi, ginger and soy sold separately.

We brought some home for dinner. I made pistachio fried rice, edamame and a salad, and voila! Dinner! Nobody complained.

I'll need to make the store a regular part of my grocery shopping routine, for both the sushi and the ambiance.

The meat counter.



Ceiling detail.
Wegmans it's not. The "Salad Bar" was mostly just 10 different ways to preserve cabbage and carrots.

After we left the store, we headed down Tverskaya toward the Garden Ring, stopping to check out some cool old buildings on the way, and also stopping in at Starbucks because, hello, you can't walk right past a Starbucks when it's cold and snowy outside. Besides, I have to work up my consumption levels for my any-day-now flight to Seattle, where I'll be attempting to keep up with my sister, cup for cup.
Just off Tverskaya Ulitsa. An old court building, perhaps? 


We also passed the very first McDonalds in Moscow. Fond memories for both of us from our college days in Moscow. But no, we didn't stop in. And we didn't take a picture.

Back home along a very circuitous route, and that was our day in Moscow!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Evil and the Good

It’s hard to know what to say in the face of such senseless barbarism as the world witnessed yesterday, when ISIS released that video showing the murder of Jordanian pilot Mu’ath al-Kasasbeh.

As someone who spent 4 years in Jordan, and counts many Jordanians amongst my friends, I found this news particularly heart wrenching.  My newsfeed has been filled with sad posts for the past 24 hours, with friends changing their profile pictures to reflect their support for Jordan, while others busily unfriend people for making hate-filled rants against Muslims.

I am far from the events in the Middle East, but I am feeling the pain of my Jordanian friends all the way up here in Moscow. I never met that pilot, who was just 11 short years older than my eldest child, but I know people who knew him.

Just last week, ISIS murdered a Japanese journalist, who was actually a friend of a friend of a friend.  Such is our life in the Foreign Service: when tragedy strikes, it is seldom about something that is happening “over there.” We have a personal stake in it, either because we served there, because we have friends there now, or because we are personally involved in trying to fix the problem at hand.

Someone once tried to make the argument that I, along with other diplomats and their families, am somehow “out of touch” with America, I guess because we can’t watch American television or attend American sporting events in person.  I think the argument was that we don't interact with everyday Americans and thus cannot be relied upon to make the right decisions for the United States, or to even explain the U.S. to the foreigners we encounter at post.

It was a strange and offensive argument to make. I would argue that my service overseas makes me more of an American, not less. Yes, I am giving up some everyday American things by choosing to live outside of the borders, but the very act of giving them up makes me appreciate them more. It’s sure easier to appreciate the importance of free speech when you live in a country where people are jailed for speaking their minds. It’s easier to defend the idea of democracy when you see first-hand how people can suffer without it. And it’s also – yes, this is true, too! – it’s also easier to see the things that are wrong with the U.S. when you see how people in other countries manage the everyday tasks of working and praying and loving.

I didn’t know much about Islam before moving to the Middle East, and truthfully, even after 4 years there, I am certain that I’ve only scratched the surface of what it means to be Muslim.

But it bothers me to read the anti-Muslim comments that seem to be prevalent back there in the States. I say “seem to be,” because as my friend pointed out, I’m not in the States now, so I can’t say for certain what the average person is thinking and saying about Islam. I can tell you what the media are saying, and I find it profoundly disappointing.

These people who did these horrible things to the Jordanian pilot and the Japanese journalist and so many others, these people don’t represent Islam any more than a “Christian” protester who chooses to picket an abortion clinic or a funeral can be said to represent my religion.

These brutes, with their vicious and twisted misunderstanding of God, represent no real religion, no real faith. They know nothing of God.

I’m not a priest or a preacher or an imam. I won’t ever quote scripture at you to make an argument stick. But I know God. I’ve held a baby, buried a loved one, looked up at the stars on a dark empty night. I’ve cleaned up after a sick child, and held a friend’s hand while she mourned for her lost baby. That’s where God can be found, don’t you think?

Our boab in Jordan, Reda. He was the caretaker who lived in our apartment building, and he was Muslim. He prayed and fasted, as required of his religion, when he wasn’t busy mowing the lawn or washing the cars. Once, late at night, one of my children was hurt and I had to take her to the Emergency Room. He heard her screams, and when I came out of the front door, he was already there, waiting, ready to carry her to the hospital with me. That’s God, right there, don’t you think? He was poor, very poor, but whenever he came back from the bakery, he took a piece of pita bread out of his bag and sat down to share it with my kids. That’s God too, isn’t it? You know what else? He never forgot to wish me Merry Christmas, or Happy Easter. He remembered all of our religious holidays, and honored the days with us.

My boxing instructor in Jordan was Muslim, too. Raed made a living teaching clumsy folk like me to hit and kick and fight. He fasted during the month of Ramadan – no food or water from sun-up til sun-down, for an entire month. But he continued to show up for our classes, sparring with me til we were both covered in a sheen of sweat. I’d take breaks to gulp down water. He’d wait patiently for me to finish. Once I tried to apologize for drinking in front of him, but he was having none of that. “This is my religion, not yours,” he told me. “I need to do this because it makes me stronger. You need to drink your water.” We talked a bit about his fast, neither trying to convince the other of the rightness or wrongness of fasting. He said – and you could see it in his face – that he felt a certain joy in fasting, in taking part in such an important religious rite. I never did understand it. But the joy I saw in his face during Ramadan, as I spent an hour trying unsuccessfully to land a punch on his face? That joy was God, I’m sure of it.

Hiba, sweet Hiba. I never once saw her hair, because she kept it covered, as her religion dictated. But every time I saw her, she smiled and asked about my kids by name.  And when she talked of her family – her strict father, her sister, who had started a chocolate-making business, she glowed with such pride. I always felt happier after talking with Hiba, and that’s God too, I think.

My friend Qais is Muslim, too, and do you know he came to Kyra’s First Communion celebration? She wanted him there, and so he came and celebrated with us. Have you ever been to a religious ceremony for someone not of your religion? Because you might find God there, too.

I can’t fight ISIS. I’m just one person. But I can refuse to acknowledge their claim on Islam. I can refuse to accept their view of God.  I can refuse to admit them into my community of spiritual people. They cannot speak of God to me. They can discuss their views with God himself, directly, if ever they get to meet him.  I pray they do.

In the mean time, all I can really do is focus on my God. Not by proselytizing, not by preaching, and certainly not by telling you What Jesus Would Do. Because my God is just that – all mine, and nothing to do with you.

I think the best way, the only way, I can oppose the cruelty of ISIS and others of their ilk is to honor the people who land in my path each day. To try to find the beautiful in them rather than searching out the flaws. To look for the little ways I can make their world better with each interaction of mine, each and every day. This is not an easy thing to do. It’s easy to settle into a me-centered world and grab the things that come your way instead of sharing what you have with the world, the way Reda carefully split his bread into pieces to be shared with my children.

That’s where God is, I think. God is in the sharing. And I’m not sure I would have learned this lesson so well had I stayed in the U.S. rather than travelling overseas.

To my Jordanian friends, Muslim and Christian alike, I am so sorry for your loss.  That pilot Mu’ath looked so young, so handsome. When I saw that picture of him smiling up from his cockpit, I saw your smile there too, open and friendly and welcoming. Thank you for teaching me that the world is a small place, cruel sometimes, to be sure, but mostly filled with people like you, my Jordanian friends, who smile and love and help each other up, Muslim and Christian alike.



Tuesday, February 3, 2015

And the Universe Laughs

Let this be a lesson for you:

Never be so foolish as to declare, in a public space such as your blog, your intention to write every day.

For it is a certainty that if you do such a thing, the Universe will laugh in your face, and one of your children will wake up the very next day with a stomach bug.

This is okay, though, because the child is big enough to take care of himself while you go to the gym in the morning. Then you can come home to shower, make some breakfast, and sit down in front of your computer to write.

It will be hard to get in the spirit of writing, however, because his stomach will feel better by now, as stomachs do once the school bus has driven off. He will be bored, and he will keep coming in your office asking for some small thing or another.

You will throw your hands up in frustration and suggest that he take the dog for a walk. This will simultaneously cure his boredom and buy you a few precious minutes.

Until, that is, he returns to the house just moments later, clutching his elbow in pain.  Because yesterday, the day was so warm and sunny that the snow melted. Last night, it froze into a slick sheet of ice covering the lawn. And then snowflakes began falling thickly from the clouds late this morning, covering the ice with an enticing layer of fresh, soft snow.

Yes, this is what will happen when the universe laughs at your fancy plans.

The good news is, our fabulous doctor said that the arm is not necessarily broken, though he can't promise that with 100% certainty. The arm is in a sling; the boy is resting on the couch. Tomorrow, if he still can't bend it, we will venture out to the emergency clinic for an x-ray. For the second time in a week, we will visit this x-ray clinic - but then I haven't even told you x-ray story #1 yet.


Monday, February 2, 2015

Six Months Down

I’ve been slacking on the posting but not on the writing. I haven’t been here as often as I’d like. But the upside is, I’m spending a lot more time writing.

Just not for you guys.

Writing for publication is a hard gig. I can’t really think of any other profession where someone will say to you, “Hey, I think you’re great at this. How about doing it for free?”

But that’s what you face if you want to write. I find plenty of outlets that are happy to take what I write. But not so many of them want to pay for the privilege of publishing my work.

Still. I like writing, and right now, while I’m unemployed, I’m trying to make it a priority. Not a huge priority, mind you. Just a little one.  4 days a week, 1000 words per day. That’s my tiny goal til the end of the school year.

I submitted just 3 articles, to three different publications, in January. Not a lot, especially given that all three were long-shot, probably never gonna hear back types of publications.  But you always start big and work your way down the line. Every so often, you get lucky. Sometimes, just getting a rejection letter is good enough. I’ve been published in some big places, but I have to say, one of my proudest writing moments was when I got a personal rejection letter from a big-name editor at the New York Times, telling me he liked my work even if he wasn’t going to publish that piece. He told me to keep at it.  Fellow writers will understand how very big a deal that was.

Today I am writing at the kids’ school. No, this is not by choice. My two sons wanted to stay up to watch the Super Bowl – it started at 230am Moscow time – and one of them didn’t make the school bus due to his resulting inability to get organized in the morning. Mean mom that I am, I didn’t let him stay home. Instead, I made him pay for our bus and metro tickets – and my lunch when I got to the school.

So now I am here, drinking coffee and waiting for lunch service to start up. And I am writing.

In addition to writing the occasional article, I am working on a book. Yes, I said it out loud. A book! I am writing a book. Now, I don’t know if my little book will ever see the light of your kindle. But my sweet friend Kolbi has assured me that if I write it, she will consider me famous and will come to all of my book readings and sort through the m&ms so I only have to eat the green ones, because isn’t that what famous people get to do, hire m&m sorters?  With a promise like that, I have to at least try to write it.

At any rate, it’s something to do, right? And it the middle of this Moscow winter, I need multiple somethings to do. It’s cold and dark and grey and icy and I have already perfected my whole wheat bread and my cinnamon pretzels and my pizza dough and my pita bread, so it’s time to do something less caloric. Also I am out of flour.

February marks six months in Moscow. We are a quarter of the way through, and we still lovehate it in equal measure. I miss my friends from my last few posts, and I’m finding it difficult to make friends anew. By the time we were 6 months into life in Beijing, I had too many friends to count. Not the formal, stop over for cookies kinds of friends, either – I already had the coveted snort coffee out your nose from laughter friends.

Here, though. Not so much. This past weekend marked the first time in our tour that we were invited to someone else’s house, just because, the whole family, for a bring yourselves, completely casual dinner. Between our kids and theirs, we had barely enough fingers on two hands to count them all. Their baby pulled the donuts off the counter and their dog ate them. Or licked them before the kids ate them. Who knows, but the donuts were gone. My kids played video games with theirs, or dance marathon, according to their ages, while we adults chatted about random Moscow things.

It was nice.

I am leaving post next week for a quick trip to the States, just me, no kids or husband, and I am dreading it and looking forward to it in equal measure. I miss my kids when I’m away. I miss my husband. But it will be good to see my family for a few short days.  I’m hopeful that I can convince them to eat sushi and pho for every meal while I am there.

I won’t gloat about all of the fun I am having while I am there, because I will be leaving my husband alone here to handle both his very demanding full-time job AND the care and feeding of 4 small beasts.  But I am nevertheless sure that much fun will be had as we welcome a new member into our family.


Okay, my quiet space in the cafeteria has suddenly been overrun with gawky teens in search of sustenance. It appears that lunch is served. Time for me to pack up my bag and head down the road to the bus stop.  Back to my Moscow reality.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Coolest House in Moscow



Today's family death march took us to the Gorky House Museum, just a 20-minute walk from the Embassy.

The house was built for the Ryabushinsky family back in 1900. They fled the country after the Russian revolution; in 1931, the house was given to Maksim Gorky by Stalin himself. Gorky, for those of you who didn't study Russian literature in college, is one of Russia's most famous authors. For awhile, the Soviets were his biggest fans. But only for awhile. He died in 1936 - rumor has it that Stalin sent him a box of poisoned chocolates.


Designed by Fyodor Shechtel, the art-nouveau house looks a bit like an underwater mansion, with wave patterns on the windows and balconies, green and blue-hued stained glass, and a jellyfish lamp on the central stone-carved staircase. It's really quite amazing. Even more amazing is that the kids all liked it.

Looking up at the jellyfish lamp and the staircase.



Looking down from above at the jellyfish lamp.

One of the many stained glass windows.







I think this column of snakes would give me nightmares if I lived here.



That jellyfish lamp again...

After our tour we continued on to the Arbat, where the kids were rewarded for their good behavior with lunch at Shake Shack. But first: we had to make snow angels.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Varvarka Street


I hereby proclaim that there is no way to see all of Moscow in a 2-year tour. This is our second tour with State, and we were both here (separately) in our pre-State lives. Yet somehow, neither of us had ever been to Varvarka Street before Monday.

Named for St. Barbara, Varvarka Street is said to be the oldest street in all of Moscow. It starts in Kitai Gorod (itself home to the one of the only remaining sections of the ancient city wall), running a short way down to St. Basil's Cathedral and Red Square.

About every 3 steps there is another church on the side of the road: the Church of St. George, the Monastery of the Sign, the Church of St. Barbara, etc., etc. You'll also see the Old English Court if you know where to look - for a short street, it's awfully confusing trying to figure out what's what. We brought our guidebook and read all of the signs along the way, but I'll confess I'm still not sure which church is which.

We did find the house of the Boyar Romanovs. It was built, I believe, around the turn of the 16th century, and the Romanovs lived in it before eventually becoming the rulers of the Russian Empire. It's a cool little museum now, one I had no idea existed until we stumbled across it this week. We were the only visitors in the place.

The ancient wall of Kitai Gorod.


House of the Boyar Romanovs

The Cathedral of the Sign (Znamenskii Monastery)? I think? Different guidebooks call it different things, and I was too busy admiring the mermaid-tail-colored onion domes to look for a sign on the church itself. Beautiful outside - these pictures don't do justice to the colors on the domes. The inside is a bland whitewashed white.


Inside the home. Basement level weapons room. That's the personal flag of the Romanovs.

Stairwell. I mean, obviously.

Detail of the ceiling in the main hall.

The main hall itself.

Not your typical Drexel Heritage.

People must've been shorter back in the day. These doorways were dangerous.

The museum housed a small exhibit to give you a sense of what life was like back then. Hence the shoes.

...and an itty-bitty iron.

Up on the women's floor.

A dowry chest.

A loom.

The finished product.

On the way home we walked through Red Square and back home, stopping on the Old Arbat for coffee. We took this  just inside the main entrance to Red Square.

Please. Write your own stuff.