The Curious Case of our Air Freight

2012 October 13
by Ryan

So when we move we are allotted 450lbs of air freight (UAB – Unaccompanied Air Baggage). The idea behind UAB is that it will arrive relatively soon after you arrive at your new post. Household Effects (HHE) will often take much longer so the UAB is meant to fill the gap. Sometimes things go wrong and HHE arrives first. Sometimes things go very wrong and the UAB goes on a world tour. Ours got caught in the perfect storm.

We arrived in Dar on July 22nd. The mechanisms are supposed to be in place such that when the employee arrives, the new post will send word to the previous post that the employee is in-country and they can forward the UAB. Sadly, this did not happen. After a week of not hearing anything about our UAB I contacted Moscow to find out what happened to it. “We were waiting for clearance from Dar.” “So Dar didn’t tell you I was here?” “No.” Of course not. Thus we experienced our first problem:

1) The new post didn’t tell the old post we had arrived.

Well, I told them I was here and they promptly made shipping arrangements. On July 30th I got a AWB tracker that said our UAB was leaving Moscow on a Lufthansa flight and would be in Dar by August 6th. This is where I noted our second problem:

2) Lufthansa doesn’t fly to Dar es Salaam.

After flying through a couple intermediary airports it was to end up in Nairobi then forwarded to Dar an a non-Lufthansa flight. Ok, I didn’t really care, as it appeared the tracking mechanisms were in place to follow the UAB all the way to Dar.

August 6th came and went. In Dar, the crack shipping/receiving squad (of 4 people) assured me the UAB was on its way. After a couple weeks of no UAB I felt it necessary to stop by the shipping/receiving office no less than 2x/day. On Friday, August 24th they said the UAB would be arriving Monday. On Monday, they said Wednesday. On Wednesday they said they had no idea of where the UAB was and had no record of it existing. Wait … what?! They said there was no way for them to find out where the UAB was as it was not in their tracking software (and if it’s not in the tracking software obviously there is no way to find out where the shipment is. Contacting the person who actually shipped it – while obvious to many of us – was not obvious … or even possible for the F-Team). At this point I took matters into my own hands and was able to find our UAB with one email. This interaction exposed our third problem:

3) The shipping/receiving team in Dar are not independent thinkers.

Unfortunately the story only gets worse. Our UAB, which was supposed to get on a Lufthansa flight, was accidentally put on a British Airways flight. Here is the fourth problem:

4) Despite millions of dollars of tracking and security mechanisms, airlines don’t actually care what is loaded on their planes. Also the freight forwarder is an idiot.

So they figured out the problem in Heathrow and send the UAB back to Moscow right? Wrong. They loaded it onto another plane going to Washington DC – where it sailed through customs and then sat there for 3 weeks. And here we see problem number five:

5) US Customs doesn’t have a problem with a shipment arriving in Washington DC that should have gone to Dar es Salaam (a known terrorist transit country). They also don’t care that no one bothered to pick it up.

After I finally asked where our UAB was, the freight forwarder was able to track it down to Washington DC. Ok, mistakes were made – now let’s get the UAB on the next flight out of Washington to Dar es Salaam. It turns out that is easier said than done. While US Customs doesn’t care what comes in the country, they damn sure care what leaves. Finally the sleeping bureaucratic dragon wakes. The UAB wasn’t going to leave the US until every last piece of customs paperwork was accounted for. The problem is, there was no paperwork because the UAB was never supposed to be in the US to begin with. Wonderful. It took 2 weeks for the freight forwarder to sort through that mess and get the UAB on a flight back to Moscow (because for whatever reason, the UAB had to come back to Moscow first rather than take a more direct flight to Dar). I think we can safely make the following statement for problem number six:

6) The billions of taxpayer dollars that have gone to “strengthening our borders” after 9/11 would have been better spent making a 4 billion gallon fruit smoothie on the moon.

So the freight forwarder called a mulligan and started the process again in Moscow. The baggage went from Moscow to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Nairobi, then sat in Nairobi … for 3 weeks. Why did it sit in Nairobi for 3 weeks? Probably due to problem #2. So again I need to pester the freight forwarder to do the job they were paid to do. Eventually the UAB arrived – a little over 10 weeks after it was shipped. Amazing.

Taxi in Dar

2012 September 10
tags: ,
by Ryan

It takes about 5 months to ship a car to Dar. Basically this means I rely on taxis for most of my transportation. One day I needed to catch a cab home from work. I meander out to the street and loiter around for a taxi to pass by (this method had proven successful before). After about 5 minutes one of the guards came up and asked if I needed a taxi. How very kind of you, yes I do need a taxi. So the guard gets on the phone to call a “taxi”. Five minutes later an unmarked beat-to-hell compact sedan shows up. I leaned in the window to take a look at my “taxi”. The dash was covered in a thick fur. There was a liquid air freshener balanced precariously on the edge of the dash. In the drivers seat was a 12 year old boy. He was sporting a wide grin on his face beckoning me to enter. I did some quick actuarial death calculations in my head and decided I had a better than 50-50 chance of surviving the ride. I negotiated a price (about $3 for a ~4km ride) and hopped in. For a twelve year old – the kid wasn’t a bad driver. We made it back to my place without taking anyone out. No small feat on the roads of Dar es Salaam.

Schiphol Airport

2012 September 10
by Ryan

It was my first flight into Schiphol. It was only a transfer, but it doesn’t take long to get a feel for an airport. We flew in on a KLM 747 from Dulles. Our landing pattern took us north along the Dutch coast before turning around and flying south for our final approach. The view was fantastic. We saw wind generator farms out in the sea, canals and the city of Amsterdam off in the distance. After the plane landed one thing I didn’t see was the airport. If you love sitting on a taxiing plane, then this is the airport for you. I’m not sure where exactly the runway was, but I’d estimate we landed somewhere in Northern France. It took us – no joke – 30 minutes to taxi to the gate. The first 10 minutes was exciting. We watched a continuous stream of fields, houses and canals go by our tiny airplane window. The next 10 minutes was the same scenery, but I began to wonder where we actually were. The final 10 minutes was spent wondering how many illicit drugs were consumed during the runway construction planning meetings.

After our tour across Europe we finally arrived at the gate. We had a couple hours to kill in Schiphol so we looked for the business class lounge (for which I had a pass). The business class lounge was almost, but not quite, on the opposite end of the airport from our flight to Dar es Salaam. Also it was extraordinarily crowded. We finally managed to find a seat to plug in and check email. Katie went to gain access to the business class lounge showers only to find out there was more than an hour wait – not enough time to shower and make our connection. So, she paid 15 euro and took a shower at the airport hotel.

One thing that annoys me about European airports is their insistence of putting security screening at the gate. In America we go through screening then can load up on a variety of tasty liquid refreshments to take with us on the plane. With the screening at the gate you can’t take your beverages with you. Schiphol has embraced this model and consequently there was a large pile of half empty beverages piled on the X-Ray machine at the gate.

Although I didn’t partake, Schiphol does have a McDonalds. This puts it well ahead of Russian airports, which may or may not have a kiosk that sells crab flavored potato chips.

Christmas presents

2011 December 4
by Ryan

In investing they say, “buy what you know”. For me, it’s the same with Christmas presents. For Katie’s present (and also mine), I built us a “Hackintosh”. A Hackintosh is a non-Mac computer with MAC OS loaded onto it. So, for about $300 I was able to buy a motherboard, processor, case, memory, DVD drive and hard drive. I hadn’t built my own computer since college so it was a bit of an adventure.

I put the components together myself and then loaded Mac OS Lion 10.7.2. Doing this saved me several hundred dollars extra that Apple charges to have a picture of an Apple on the side of the computer. Although, I still managed to find an Apple sticker that I slapped on mine – ha! I won’t say it was simple. The Lifehacker post makes it look simple, but it ended up being a bit harder than I expected. The Hackintosh relationship was a love/hate one for a couple weeks until I finally got all the kinks worked out.

One of the people who started the whole Hackintosh movement was Tonymac. His website – – has a forum where, just about every problem I ran into, someone else had the same problem and was solved my someone smarter than me. I had kernel panics, CMOS checksum errors, improper graphics, and a host of other issues. After a couple weeks, all those were sorted out and it work like a charm.

I don’t think Apple likes the Hackintosh community very much, but they should because I’m now buying apps from the App Store which I never would have done before.


How I’m Wasting My Time

2010 November 9
by Ryan
Getting up to Date
I’ve now been in Moscow for a full three months (4 and half for Ryan), and I think people have been wondering what I’ve been doing with “all my spare time,” since I definitely haven’t been writing blogs. I’ve been wondering that too.  I’m still in the list making mood, as it seems to work well when covering a long spans of time and multiple topics rather than a narrative account.
 I’ve been working.  And commuting.  
I’m still going strong as the official assistant to the band director at the international school.  Yes, my job is technically part time, but it feels much more than that both in hours and in physical/mental exertion.  Many weeks I’m working as many as four days a week (all day), and on Thursday mornings I am taking a Russian class which starts at 7:15am.  This means I have to catch the 7:00 am shuttle, which means I have to leave the apt. at 6:15 am (the metro is still packed even at this hour).  In order to leave the house appearing conscious and somewhat presentable, I have to get up at 5:15 am ish.  I get home between 5 and 6 pm.  I don’t love Thursdays.  
My job is pretty good—I work with fantastic people (mostly), and I’m learning to be even more useful with all the band classes, but I am shocked at how busy (and later how completely worn out) I am.  I often go around testing kids and scoring them on various little pieces they play while the band director works with various sections. I have learned about concert pitches and how to know if a kid needs a different reed on a woodwind, how to put together a clarinet, how to adjust a flat or sharp flute, and the importance of tonguing.   I teach music theory. I make out worksheets. I grade papers and enter them into the online system. I have a lunch duty once a week (yes, really).  I field a gazillion questions from kids and parents (some of which I can answer, but most of which I have to refer them to the ever busier director). I work with the 8 beginning 6th grade drummer boys who are, currently, the bane of my existence.  I help kids find “lost” instruments about 5 times a day.  I’ve even started doing a bit of “conducting” with the beginning 6th graders so the director can have more time with individuals. I check up on beginners in other classes who are at different levels. I make seating charts. I am trying to learn names of all 300 plus students, about 40% of whom are Korean (the school is 8% Korean, but not the band). I love, love my Korean students…and they all have lovely names…I feel incredibly guilty that I cannot keep half of them straight.  I have a Sungin, Sung-Yu, Yu-Sung, Yoona, YooSung, Byeungson, Hyunson ,Hyunsoo, Jung, Jiwon, JaeYoung, DaeYoon, DaeYoung, 3  TaeHoon’s (one of whom goes by Tony), Joohna –who goes by “Joann” so then I have to remember both— plus about 70 more…at least). I also have about 4 Russian girls named Elisaveta, two of whom go by “Liza” (prounounced “Leeza”) and the other go by “Liza” (pronounced like “Eliza” –as in Doolittle).  One class has 2 Alina’s and one Polina.  We have several Vladimir’s—some go by “Vlad” and some go by “Vovo.”  Stansislav goes by Stas.  Mateusz goes by Mateo in one class, but the other Mateusz is just plain Mateusz. Michael=Misha, but not always. Etc.    I set up the room like 5 times a day. I help lazy percussionists count measures in the back so they don’t miss their cue. I take attendance. I help set up technology stuff (like a YouTube clip or an mp3) for various classes.  I yell at kids for messing with the timpani. I make a million copies of band music (especially when kids lose it).  I help plan lessons that will keep a 38 minute class of 38 6th or  7th graders engaged and moving forward with 8 different instruments And this is just the beginning. I have to remind myself that I work on the band director’s very busy days (my “off days” are her chill days at school with more planning and far fewer kids).  I have subbed for her on two of her easier days so she could attend meetings, and once I substituted for a 2nd grade teaching assistant (also an incredible amount of energy required.)  I am so, so exhausted after a day of band assisting that I usually feel like I desperately need that day or two off during the week.  It’s sad, but true.  I don’t take any work home, but the work takes much out of me, even more than teaching high school English. Rumor has it that there will be high school English positions available for next school year, and I’m sure after band assisting I will be grateful to return to my familiar vocation, even with the added time and paper load (and I will also welcome getting paid something closer to what my work is worth!).  
Unpacking/Organizing/Party Catering
About a month ago, our HHE (household effects, or about 5,000 lbs worth of our earthly possessions) arrived.  State employees (i.e. Ryan) are allowed to take the day off as the movers deliver all your boxes, so when I got home that evening from work, he had already made a notable dent in the arduous process of unpacking. I had two more days off later that week, so I spent just about every waking second of it unpacking and organizing. (By the way, I was extremely impressed with the packing job.  Everything was well labeled, logically organized, and well packaged.  Nothing broke, and there are only one or two minor things that seem to be missing—it’s likely they got stuck in storage anyway.)  We devoted that entire weekend to finishing up the job (more or less), and I’m proud to say that within less than a week (just as Ryan was taking off to Yekaterinburg for several days), we had made this place look and feel like a real home. Recently we had a little happy hour/apt.warming party for the other embassy folks in our building, and last week we finally had some other neighbor friends over for a  real dinner (i.e.—something fancier than Papa John’s divided between 2 plastic plates and portions of the cardboard pizza box). We still haven’t hung up pictures (the embassy requires that we schedule with them to have our pictures hung – apparently the damage inflicted to walls by do-it-yourself-ers has been enough over the years that the embassy prefers to have their staff hang them. We just haven’t scheduled it yet), but I must say—it looks awfully nice here.  We requested and received another wardrobe for coats and a sleeper sofa for the “man room”—now it can officially double as our guest room.  We haven’t tested the bed yet, but we welcome any visitors to come and give it a review.  If you don’t like it, you can always find a Moscow hotel for $800 a night.   Or, there’s also the air mattress option.
So I joined a choir….because it seemed like a good idea at the time
I somewhat hesitantly joined the Moscow International Choir. It sounds so fancy, doesn’t it?  There were no auditions (though, I’d like to think that I could have jumped that hurdle), and it was advertised as sort of a diverse group of English speaking expats as well as some Russians.  The blurb also said that the working languages of the choir were English and Russian (and they listed English first.) I figured this would provide a productive, meaningful context in which to learn some Russian, but I was assured that I’d be able to follow along.  The conductor, Sergei, is a graduate of the super prestigious Moscow Conservatory, and I’ve always loved singing in choirs—especially quasi professional ones which I haven’t been involved with since college.  One of my biggest regrets of my undergrad years (and there are many) was that I did NOT even audition for the Furman Singers…I know it would have been a major time commitment, but looking back, some of my best memories and best friends were from that music building, even after I dropped the music major. And I love choral music—I love singing in good choirs. I thought it would be super fun and rewarding. So…I thought…here’s my chance while I have all this “spare time.”  
The choir meets every Tuesday night from 7-9:30pm.  It’s a long rehearsal.  There are also practices on Saturday from 11am-2:30pm (even longer—I assume there’s a lunch break though?) but since they are not very strict about attendance, I absolutely refuse to go to the Sat. rehearsal. Saturdays are my time with my cute husband to do other things, like explore the rest of Moscow.  Or take a nap.  Anyway….the rehearsals meet at the Anglican church we’ve been attending (another perk—it meets at one of 3 locations in Moscow I can find without fail), though there’s no direct affiliation with the church. Even though the church is in the center of the city’s historical district (a beautiful location very near the Kremlin) and it is very close to us as the crow flies, it is not very close to any one metro stop, so the commute is s a 45 minute hike for me (about 30 of those minutes are walking to the metro or in the underground connecting passages or on the streets of Moscow at PEAK rush hour. And Rush hour in Moscow makes DC seem quite efficient and civilized).  Once I get to rehearsal, you’d think the confusion would be over, but it’s not.  This choir is a low budget operation, and it seems to be comprised of primarily Russians, most of whom do not speak any English.  Therefore, Sergei’s directions are about 70% Russian, 20% Italian (i.e. musical terms—at least I understand “dulce” and “soprani”) and about 10% broken English.  It’s a good thing I’ve been studying Russian on my own whenever I get a chance, or I would be eternally lost, as opposed to just mostly lost. I understand approximately40- 50% of what’s going on at any given moment. I think most others have the same problem (though I think more because they’re not really music readers as they obviously understand Russian better than me.)  There’s a mean lady who’s the choir manager (I can’t decide if she’s British or Russian—she speaks great English with a British (and maybe slightly Russian?) accent, but her Russian is so good I’m not really sure….).  Occasionally when everyone seems completely bewildered and unable to find the bar number, she yells directions at us in very clear, very angry English and Russian. As far as her temperament, she sort of reminds me of Anne Shirley’s nemesis Katherine Brook in the Anne of Avonlea movie—- see attached photo—–(though, FYI, Miss Brook does not appear in any of the novels):
I get emails from this lady with copious amounts of scanned music attached.  We’re supposed to print it out ourselves, which doesn’t always work considering we’re talking about dozens and dozens of pages in total, I have limited amount of paper and ink at home, and neither Ryan nor I are supposed to print this stuff out at our respective places of employment. Our big piece is Rossini’s Missa Solemnis, and while I thought I could just purchase a real copy of the score, apparently there are not enough to spare…so I had to print off the whole thing (by the way: Missa=Mass=MASSIVE piece of music to print).  We’re also singing about a million Christmas carols and other such ditties….most of which are sounding in rough shape.  Our Christmas concert is in one month.  As the Russians say, “Oy…”
I thought I might make some friends in the choir, but considering the very real language barrier with many members, the lack of social time during rehearsal, and the fact that I hightail it out of there as soon as possible so I can get to bed…it hasn’t really happened.  In fact, it’s really beginning to wear on me, and I pretty much dread going every week.  I’d probably feel differently if I were single—if this were one of few “fun” social outlets I had during the week, but because I do have a really great husband and a cozy apartment and other ways I could spend my time…I think I’m going to tough it out ‘til the Christmas  concert and then call it quits.  Our concerts do supposedly raise money for charity (like the Salvation Army and such), which means that (non-Russian ex-pats…all 7 of us) members actually pay about $75 (2500 rubles) to join the choir to cover payment for the director and accompanist. (So, since I paid this, I’m pretty irked we have to print out all our own music).  Since most of the members are in fact Russian, I can’t imagine they collect much in the way of payment.  But, since I paid my dues, quite literally, I might as well participate a bit longer.  However, this is kind of reminding me of when my parents wouldn’t let me quit my character-building “privilege” of being the girl’s basketball team manager in 8th grade (when I just missed the cut).  
I’ve been cooking in my beautiful kitchen
Now reunited with my beloved cooking equipment, I’m enjoying cooking quite a bit.  Our commissary is impressively stocked for its small 711 size. I do buy the vast majority of our food at either Perekristok (a local chain that I find the most reasonably priced for a decent quality) or the local produce markets and stands.  Gathering food for the week has become much easier and even kind of fun now that I’ve learned ropes.  The more Russian I learn, the more good food I discover there (though it’s often packaged oddly and isn’t labeled in a manner that you’d expect.)  So, we’re definitely not starving.  And I can even find things like Spanish chorizo for a better deal than I ever saw in the states.  The produce at the local street markets is usually quite good and reasonably priced, and when they ring up the price, I understand the quickly mumbled number about 50% of the time (small victories, small victories!)  This is all very good considering how expensive restaurants are in Moscow.  Still, we do treat ourselves about once a week. Today we embodied the ultimate expat’s lack of creativity as we chowed down on some hamburgers at the Moscow Hard Rock Café…but the prices aren’t too bad there…and we’ve heard it’s about the best hamburger in town.  Besides McDonalds of course.  We do have a McDonalds in our neighborhood, and I think I’m proud to say we haven’t been there yet.  But I’m sure we will, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it when that day comes.  
• Miscellany: What I wish I had more time to do
I wish I had more time/opportunity to learn some freakin’ Russian.  I am so willing to put in the effort and time, if I just had more guidance and direction.  I’m appreciative of the morning class offered at school taught by Irina, a really wonderful, patient native speaker who also teaches ESOL to elementary students, but a 45 minute class once a week (at 7:15 am before a very packed and unrelated English speaking day ) just isn’t allowing me to make much progress.  I first attended the school’s “survival Russian” class on a Tuesday morning, and I found it was way too slow and easy for me. These folks were still working on the Cyrillic alphabet at tortoise-like speed, and I had pretty much grasped that before I arrived in Russia.  Amazingly, I found that the “intermediate” class at school was more my level….and this class is comprised of folks who have lived here for at least a year!  Still, we’re just practicing very basic phrases and simple vocabulary. I am learning useful things, but we’re not systematically moving through a text and I’m not getting what I really need/want—GRAMMAR.  I can learn vocabulary and such on my own, but what I really need is assistance on the quite complex Russian grammar and syntax.  If one can’t do that, one isn’t going to be able to get very far at all. Our teacher doesn’t want to “scare” anyone with grammar, but this English teacher wants her to bring it.   Sadly, even though I just work “part time” I cannot take any of the more rigorous embassy Russian classes as they meet on M/W/F during the work day (this would mean I could only attend 50% of the classes…maybe).  Ryan has just started back up with his Russian classes at the embassy, so I’m surrounded by his colleagues/our neighbors who are far more comfortable navigating the language than me, if not completely fluent.  I’m uber jealous, and not just because it’s cool and makes you seem smart because you know a hard language.  I’d just like to feel, you know, competent in my mundane tasks and clued in to world around me.  I think I might be able to take some intense immersion courses this summer (ones that set you up at some babushka’s dacha for a month and force you to learn Russian ….or sink..)…so, we’ll see.  In the meantime, I’ll keep plugging away with my Rosetta Stone and Pimsler and little workbook…which aren’t getting me very far very fast.  Я понимаю Россию не очень хорошо.
I’d like to say that we’ve explored the city…but we haven’t done too much yet.  We’ve walked around a few parks with some impressive sculptures and statues, and we’ve been to exactly one museum.  Many aspects the city are truly beautiful and charming, and we promise we’ll post some pictures soon.  Actually, we decided that for our Christmas gift to ourselves (yes, we’re already one of those couples and we think it’s a great system) we’re going to invest in a fancy camera that might come closer to capturing the grandeur of the sites.  Suggestions?  Canon?  Nikon?  (Basically, any time I suggest we “need” something that is a piece of technology—a gadget, if you will—Ryan is right on board and agrees that we in fact do need it.  I’m currently trying to convince him that we don’t really need a Blu Ray player.
I’ve been figure skating exactly twice.  There’s a very nice indoor rink on the 8th floor of the EuroMall just 3 metro stops away that I still intend to get to more often. I need to polish my skills so I’m in better form for all the outdoor rinks that will start to manifest SOON SOON (I hope) all over the city.  
I did start Tolstoy’s great novel (so I’ve heard) War and Peace.  Like two months ago. I’m on page 100 or so, which means I have only read about 7%. Go me. (I’ve read other things too—mostly fluffy crap though, as my brain is still healing from a summer of Middle English with Geoffrey Chaucer).
Well, there you have it.  This is what Katie at least has been up. Ryan is working hard—much longer hours than he did in DC– so we we’re enjoying our time off more than ever.  He spends a good bit of time tinkering with the complexities of our internet network(s) and entertainment systems, and he remains a fantastic dishwasher and all around great guy.  We miss our friends and family lots—make a skype date and/or get your visas soon!  
 Picture Captions:
#1  Rainbow/View from our window looking Eastward–it was initially the most brillant rainbow I’ve ever seen…but when I grabbed the camera it had faded significantly.  Lots of “rain/sunshine” moments here lately.
#2 Katie at Ismailova–a big market where you can buy lots of Russian artisan crap
#3 On a run–Moscow has beautiful parks of woods–they’re very into their magical forests, of which I’m also a fan.
#4 Old Arbat.  Famous pedestrian touristy street where you can buy the same crap for more money.
#5 Katherine Brook.  See reference to Anne of Avonlea and mean choir lady.

Posted via email from ryanlyford’s posterous

Belated Frankfurt Blog

2010 November 4
by Ryan

Um….so….we’ve gotten lazy with the blog.  I knew slacking was inevitable, I just didn’t think it would happen this early when TECHNICALLY I only work part time.  I don’t even know where to start.  I’ve missed reporting on about a million worthy topics/events, and it’s November.  I never wrote about Frankfurt. I think I’ll just make a list.  Because it saves me writing time and you reading time.  (By the way, we went to FF because Ryan had two weeks of training there.  When we first arrived in Moscow and I was jobless and freaked out about him leaving me behind all lonely in scary Russia, I decided I might as well take advantage of my flexible schedule and hop on the plane with him to Western Europe and have a lovely holiday.  I thought I’d get to stay in a nice paid-for hotel (see below), and I DID get to eat my heart out with Ryan’s generous per diem money.  Normally Ryan just returns from these trips with a wad of extra cash, but this time I thought I should help him eat  spend it all.  I’m very glad I went as we had a lovely time….and now I am indentured to the school. No more random 2 week vacations during the school year for me. 

Top 10 Favorite things About our Trip to Frankfurt (in no particular order):

1.  Food, Glorious Food.  I had lunch by myself at the farmers market nearly every day, usually   at Teo’s Italian Delicatessen with Teo’s cute son or nephew or young cousin as my server. He was the only one who spoke English.   I tried nearly every sandwich they made. Best panini was probably the marinated eggplant with arugula and pecorino cheese.  I lived the life of Samatha Brown. Naturally, I enjoyed my fair share of schnitzel, streusel, sausage, and sauerkraut, but that goes without saying.  I do love German food, but mostly I love all food in Germany (much of which is not traditionally German, but it is GOOD).

2.  Pedestrian friendliness. I enjoyed my rambles around the city (particularly by the river) every day while Ryan was in class.  No sludge of  cigarette butts, miscellaneous trash, and dog/horse poop (unlike, ahem, Moscow).  Cars actually stop at crosswalks (they don’t in Moscow).  Lots of bikes and cute doggies.  Clean air. Lovely weather.

3.  The Zoo.  Was pretty great. I quite enjoyed my late morning/early afternoon there. I felt like I had gone too long without seeing a giraffe or a flamingo in person, but now I’ve got my fix .  Do you ever feel that way?  I do sometimes.  It’s much, much better than the DC National Zoo…but….you do have to pay 8 euros (for an adult) to get in.  I bet that money contributes to the overall better quality of the zoo. I was honest and did not lie and say I was a student (though I could have gotten away with it) or that I was under 12 (which, I probably couldn’t have gotten away with that one).

4.  Goethe’s House.  Was lovely.  I have never read any of his works, but I now I think I must. I did not realize that he was the inventor of the bildungsroman (a fun term I love teaching high school kids because it’s so fun to say—it means “coming of age” or “identity” novel). It’s pretty much my favorite genre (think Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, Catcher in the Rye, etc), so now I must read something he wrote since, well…I’ve visited his lavish childhood home and saw his puppet theatre.

5. Shopping: Frankfurt has great shopping which is once again very accessible for a pedestrian. Even though Moscow has several H&M’s, Zara’s, and other such stores, the exchange rate for the Euro was looking much better for us there than here.  I stocked up on socks and tights and cute sweater dresses without breaking the bank. I also bought lots of fun exotic spices and such at the farmer’s market and specialty Asian cooking shops. J

6.Day trip to Heidelberg: What a beautiful and quintessentially European old town.  We took a tram up to the Castle where we accidently stumbled on a very nice (free!) concert of baroque music played on early instruments.  The town has one of the largest Christmas markets in the world (not happening in September, obviously), but I did visit a fun shop and bought a requisite wooden tree ornament of the 3 Magi. For dinner we had some kickin Spaezel…and gelato (see #1)  al fresco…as the sun was setting.  It was quite heavenly. 

7. Day trip to the Rhine Valley: Although these commercial group tours are often wrought with frustrations (see bottom list), the Rhine Valley /river itself was one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen. From our three hour boat tour, we saw dozens and dozens of the most archetypical castle-ly castles you could imagine.  These are the kind from which plastic sandcastle molds are inspired, so you know they’re the real deal. 

8. Connecting with Friends I got to hang out with my graduate school friend Maia (she spent the past two summers with me in both Sante Fe and Oxford), and the timing could not have been better as I was able to celebrate her completion of a series of very demanding exams for her degree.  She showed me around Frankfurt and took me to the most darling tea house I’ve ever seen.  Additionally, I got to see my Uncle’s brother Russell and his wife Ute just weeks before their wedding. They have an adorable chocolate lab appropriately named Cadbury. (Ute also has a son, but I didn’t get to meet him—just the puppy.)  

9. Everything’s in English—and Everyone SPEAKS English.  And even if it wasn’t or they didn’t, and even though I technically know much more Russian than German, German is so much easier to figure out than Russian.  Frankfurt is peppered with English speaking tourists. It was just so EASY.  

10.Television at hotel.  Yes, yes, we’ve got Netflix and slingbox here, but all that requires a lot of set up and heavily depends on a good internet signal….lately that hasn’t worked out so well for us.  Just to be able to simply turn on the television and watch anything, even in German, was quite a treat.  I took a liking to some of the German cooking shows. 

Top 5 list of things that were then annoying and are now Funny:

1.  The Hotel Diplomat.  A woefully ironic misnomer…or maybe not…maybe this is really more like the life of a real diplomat. Notice I was careful to compliment them on their television, because this was really all this place had going for it.  Ryan’s per diem normally allows him to stay at Western hotels no matter where he is in the world, but due to both an international car show and international book fair happening at the same time as our trip, all hotels were exponentially jacked up in price.  Hence, our only choice for a place in the heart of the city was this 2 star establishment that normally charges 39 Euro per night.  We paid (or the government paid—your TAX MONEY) close to 200 a night.  Now, I am not a hotel prima donna. I have backpacked around Europe for weeks on end with a very tight budget, and I’ve stayed  (comfortably, happily) in some pretty primitive hostels.  I’ve shared plenty of hall baths with total strangers.  But our bathroom (private though it was), was the worst I’ve ever seen.  It smelled like pee all the time, even after the maids “cleaned” it.  There was only the bath and the handheld sprayer—no shower curtain…no bath plug….so you just had to sit down and do your best.  Or stand (because the tub wasn’t terribly clean) and get water everywhere.  The mattress wasn’t bad, but our pillows were “stuffed” with about 17 cotton balls.  I’m pretty sure nothing had been updated since the early 80’s.  Breakfast wasn’t bad, except that the breakfast room always smelled like sour milk.  Oh well…at least it got me up and out of there fairly early in the day as I did not want to be in there any longer than required.  We paid for internet access, but the first room we stayed in (on the 3rd floor) was too far away from the router.  They eventually switched us to a room on the first floor the second week (the place was booked to the max the first week due to the said events).  I think they changed the sheets sometimes, but I’m not really sure. I really don’t want to think about it—I’m just glad I’m home where I can wash my own.  They usually smelled of cigarette smoke no matter what.  My aunt (who has family in Frankfurt) informed us that we were just a blocks away from one of the red light districts.  We could see that…easily…

2. Rhine Tour Guide’s really bad English did not stop him from telling really bad jokes the entire bus ride back to Frankfurt (or generally talking incessantly).  His finale: First he asked, “Is there anyone younger than 18 on this bus?”  Never a good start.  Then he asked, “Why eez ze flounder zo zeen?”  (It took us a while to figure out that he was asking, “Why is the flounder so thin?” )  The answer?  “Because it had sex with a whale.”  Botta ching.  This is how he intended to earn good tips/reviews?   

3.  No regular café’s with free wifi to be found  I looked everywhere and could find no such thing.  I was sorely disappointed, because I thought I would sit in a café, have a cappuccino and write blogs.  (Okay, I guess I could have written one without internet and then posted it later , but that’s no fun.)  Seeing as I did not love hanging out in the soured milk scented breakfast room or yucky hotel room, I stayed fairly disconnected.  Not a bad thing—but really—Germany?  You’re so technologically advanced!  Where’s your internet?

4. Ryan’s Loud Coworkers with 3 Liter beers at Beer Garden.  Unfortunately this was the event that I invited my British uncle’s  brother Russell (and his now wife Ute, who is German) to attend with us.  They did show up a bit later, and I was pretty mortified to be associated with the American group at the time, great “ambassadors” that they were.  Sheesh.  Ryan was quite entertained by all it—especially by my reactionary embarrassment. 

5. Confusing public transit system. Luckily I rarely had to use it in Frankfurt, but when I did it wasn’t that easy or efficient.    Moscow’s definitely got Germany beat on this one.  The Moscow Metro rocks.

Here is a link to our pictures:

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My Own Little Embassy

2010 September 16
by Ryan

Well, I am sitting at my two star hotel breakfast table in Frankfurt
sipping my Kamile tee (chamomile tea) while I enjoy a vacation from my
new job. I’ve worked for a full three weeks (part time), and then
I’ve taken a two week vacation in Western Europe. Let me tell
you—it’s a hard life I’ve been leading. But anyway, many of you had
questions about my new “job” at the international school, so I thought
I’d write this blog about my job before I tell you more about Moscow
or Frankfurt.
So, if you read my previous blogs you’ll know that although the
school interviewed me (and said they wanted to hire me ) for a high
school English teaching position, but the position fell through at the
last minute when a teacher changed her mind about taking over the PE
position. They assured me they could keep me quite busy substituting
(if I wanted to be), and they really weren’t kidding. They called me
the next day and asked if I’d like to substitute for the band
director’s assistant (which was actually a vacancy). The HR lady
said, “You know, you said you were musical.” Indeed, I did tell them I
played piano and sang occasionally. I reminded her that I did not
play any other instruments or conduct or anything of the sort. She
said that was fine. So, I reported to the school the day before the
students arrived, met the band director, and started my job at helping
her with everything imaginable. What does a band director need help
with? Everything. It’s a crazy job (band director, that is) that I
would never, ever want even if I did know how to play a clarinet.
But, my job is a “fun” and fairly rewarding position. First of all,
it’s only part time. Rather than going in everyday for part of the
day, I only go every other day. The schedule is a bit complicated at
the school, but if you’re familiar with an alternating A/B or 1/2 day
high school schedule, it’s similar. So I only go on “A” days, which
usually means M, W, F one week, and Tues/Thurs the following week.
This is actually what really sold me on the position. It allows me a
bit of time off while I’m still adjusting to life in Moscow, and
eventually, I’d like to start taking regular substitute jobs on the
off days (not only for extra $$, but also to get a taste of regular
classroom environments at the school). And finally, should an English
teaching position become available during this school year, they said
they’re no problem with me switching contracts in the middle of the
year, and in fact, that happens fairly frequently at the school. Good
to know…
The band director is a friendly, energetic, and very gifted woman
originally from Lancaster, PA. Her husband teaches elementary art at
the school, and they have a son in the 4th grade. They’ve only been
in Moscow one year, so she is quite sympathetic to my general
bewilderment. Even though I’m not a band person, I can be helpful in
a variety of capacities. She has five classes, and all five are
different age groups: 6th grade band, 7th grade band, 8th grade band,
high school band, and then a random guitar class. The days I’m with
her she teaches 6th and 7th (the ones she can really use my help
herding around) and high school. The off days for me are her easier
days with more planning time. She’s really trying to build what was
(she said) a fairly weak band program (obviously there is no American
football team at the school). But, due to her recruiting of last
year’s 5th graders, we’ve got over 60 6th graders who are brand new to
band. Joy. She actually worked something out with their other
elective teachers so that we have half of the 6th graders for half of
the 80 minute period, and they switch and we get the other group.
It’s complicated to explain (again, the complicated schedule), but the
idea was that it would be better to have them in band class more
frequently for a shorter amount of time in these beginning years—even
when they learn to play a few notes, their lips won’t be ready for an
hour of rehearsal yet. So yes…good idea…or so she thought, but this
means that in 160 minutes, we’ve seen 4 (still large) groups of 6th
and 7th graders (with no bells to help us with class changes). And
considering we had to spend the first two weeks screening all 60 plus
6th graders for choosing an instrument (and then sold and/or rented
instrument of choice to them…converting dollars to rubles and vice
versa)….well…let’s just say that I’ve come home absolutely worn out
every day that I’ve worked. The 6th graders are beginning to grow on
me a bit more—they are quite malleable and even the really wild,
chatty group is starting to shape up, but my first impression was a
deep urge to run as far away as possible in the other direction.
I really do love the school. I think I’d have a smashing time
teaching high school English there (and my classes would stay around
18 kids!). This band deal really breaks the mold of a normal teaching
position, but I guess I am learning a good bit. I didn’t realize that
there were different reeds for nearly every woodwind, or how often one
must replace them. (It’s funny when a clueless 6th grader asks me if
his reed is clamped on right, and I say, “Sure—looks good to me…but
maybe you should ask Mrs. W_____, just to check.” A lot of my job is
more organizational/secretarial—I make lots of charts of instrument
inventory,etc. These are not always my strongest skills, but I
suppose it’s good to get some practice without having to worry about
other things (like being observed by crazy supervisors who have a
vendetta against certain works of Shakespeare, namely, the more
interesting ones, for no apparent reason). All the faculty and
administrators I’ve met are really lovely, approachable people, and
even though it’s K-12 and one of the larger international schools,
it’s still pretty small and intimate. People remember your name.
I’ve discovered a number major perks to being employed at the school,
even if I don’t yet have my dream job. First and foremost in my list
of needs: the food. The cafeteria at the school is WONDERFUL and
open all day and into the evening. It is quite possibly the best food
I’ve had in Russia (this isn’t saying much, but still) and it’s by far
the cheapest. I can get a large hot meal, a salad, a drink, and
dessert for about $4.00. That’s a good deal anywhere, but do you
realize that that even a modest meal out in Russia is going to cost
you $20.00 at minimum? Groceries are expensive (and sometimes of
dubious quality) as well…so….even if I don’t make much money right
now, I know I’m saving considerably on food. I can grab
breakfast/snack in the morning….tea/fancy coffee drinks/snacks all
day….after school you can literally get a full meal (I’m not!), but
what a good idea for these kids who have sports practice until late,
right? They’ve got a healthy after-school snack right there. You can
even get take out boxes and take home a pizza or chicken curry for
your dinner…..or, if you have a late evening there (like, a band
concert), you can just eat dinner there. Parents are welcome to eat
there as well, and they often do. It’s much more of a community
cafeteria, and that’s sort of nice, on many levels.
As I was relishing my lunch and praising the wonders of the quality
and pricing, several teachers warned me, “Be careful, or you’ll gain
15+ pounds like I did last year.” Ha ha—but, they let me know that
there’s a nice workout room that teachers can use, and there’s even a
trainer guy that does group sessions for teachers every day from 4-5pm
(or, as we now say, 1600-1700). I swear I’m going to start going when
I get back. Really.
My commute to/from school has become a comfortable, worry free ordeal
for me now. I’ve got the metro trek down to a science, and some
mornings I’m able to make the whole process (door to door)in as few as
40 minutes. (Remember that we live in the southern part of the city,
and the school is in the northwestern outskirts). I’m even relaxed
enough to start reading on the long part of the metro ride. The
shuttles that take me from the metro station to the school (and vice
versa in the PM) are frequent, punctual, safely driven, and free. I
am absolutely convinced there is no way I could drive there in much
less time, especially in the afternoons—especially in snow and
negative temperatures. As a result, I think I’m going to become a
full time public transportation commuter. I’ve always liked this
idea, and now for once it’s truly practical. The school does not pay
for the metro, but it’s so cheap compared to the DC metro (like a $1 a
ride), I’m not concerned at all. Actually, I think we’ve decided I
should go ahead and buy the year fare card—it’s about $350 or so, but
(as its title indicates), gives you unlimited metro rides for an
entire year. That’s a pretty great deal. Ryan already has one.
Another perk is that (supposedly) Russian classes for faculty will
start soon (these are optional of course)….either in the morning or
afternoon. I’m really hoping for some afternoon sessions, because I
already have to get up really early to get to school by 7:50—7:30 is
pushing it for me. But, either way, this is great because the classes
offered at the embassy are during the day when I’m working…not to
mention, they are inconveniently at the embassy, which is neither
where I live nor where I work. I mentioned that the school in many
ways is like “its own little embassy,” and someone said that they
really think of it in that way, and the folks who live in Pokrovsky
Hills (the residential community with the beautiful town homes right
by the school) really use it like one. So yes—the school has
everything I need and, unlike the embassy, I feel like and am treated
like I belong there.
After just a few days of “helping,” the band director decided she
would love to officially offer me the official contractual position of
teaching assistant (apparently I’m quite good at making copies after
years of practice), so they school is kindly making it out to start
Sept. 28th through the end of the year. This allowed me to still take
my lovely vacay in Germany without concern of time off.  The
contract is good because being a real TA pays much more than
substituting as the TA, but it does not pay that much more than a
regular teacher substitute job (in fact, I figured out it only pays
about $5 more dollars a day). But, it’s more consistent and
potentially more interesting/helpful/productive. And I get to listen
to 7th graders practice “Can Santa Can Can,” which, right now, is
sounding more like “Can Santa Honk Honk.” Beautiful.

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To Vladivostok and Beyond!

2010 August 28
by Ryan

The flight from Moscow to Vladivostok is roughly the same duration as the flight from Washington DC to Moscow. Russia is big. I was booked on an overnight flight with my favorite airline (sarcasm) – Aeroflot. The flight was on a Boeing 767 so I avoided the Ilyushin-96 which Aeroflot has a few of. I arrived at my gate at Shremyetevo airport about 90 minutes before boarding. The line to board started an hour before the flight was to leave (even though no one was at the gate). Apparently everyone was VERY anxious to get to Vladivostok. Little did they know that their attempt to get to Vladivostok that much sooner was going to fail miserably. When we finally boarded we were greeted by the smell of warm piss – which, during the course of the flight changed to the smell of cold piss. Also, the flight was packed and somehow I managed to get stuck in a middle seat. Great – a middle seat for a 9 hour flight. For the first 3 hours of the flight I'm pretty sure the pilot was deliberately flying through clouds to ensure maximum turbulence. The poor woman sitting in front of me nearly puked then almost passed out. It also made pissing in the toilet very difficult (probably the reason for the persistent smell). Luckily just because the seat belt sign was on didn't mean you couldn't hit the bathroom – because 3 hours is a while to hold it in.

The plane had a (very old) entertainment system in the form of a couple TV's mounted in each section. Airline movies almost always suck and this flight was no exception. One movie was 100% Russian. It had something to do with a magician in medieval times.The only reason I watched any of it was that occasionally a group of court jesters would break into crazy dances out in a field. As far as I could tell the jesters and dancing had nothing to do with the actual plot of the movie. It was like a weird twist on something out of Bollywood. Every time they broke into dance I couldn't help but look up and watch.The second movie was half Russian/half American. It involved a Russian speaking man and his English speaking daughter(?). It was filmed in the US. I knew this from the large number of Ford pick-up trucks in the background of many scenes. It was also probably 10 years old. This I knew because they would occasionally drive past gas stations and the price of gas was $1.32. They showed the same movies going and coming which is the only reason I was able to provide the above analysis of second movie. The third movie was one of Eddie Murphy's recent flops. I completely ignored that one on both flights.

After about 9 hours we were coming into Vladivostok airspace. The movies has ended so the GPS was showing on the TV screens. The time-to-destination dropped to 25 minutes, then 20 minutes, then back up to 25 minutes then 30 minutes, then back to 25 minutes. What the heck? Apparently there was fog in Vladivostok so the plane was circling waiting for it to lift. We circled for 2 hours. Eventually they gave up and diverted the plane to Khabarovsk. When the plane hit the runway in Khabarovsk we almost went into a power slide. If you've seen the movie Air Force One where the 747 is careening around Rammstein AFB – that's not far from what our flight felt like. One they finally got the plane going straight everyone started clapping. There was no clapping from me. Call me conceited, but I only clap when the plane lands at the destination on my ticket.

So now I'm in Khabarovsk. Never heard of Khabarovsk? There's a reason for that. Khabarovsk is another hour (and 700km) north of Vladivostok. It's close enough to the Chinese border that my mobile phone kept switching between Russian and Chinese service providers. You'd think that being a few kilometers from the Chinese border you'd see some Chinese people. Nope – all Russians. Even the Chinese don't want to go to Khabarovsk. There was mass confusion in Khabarovsk. No one, including the airport authorities or Aeroflot knew what to do with a planeload of people who are 700km from there they want to be. There were about 4 "ringleaders" who were particularly upset (they were probably at the front of the boarding line in Moscow). They convinced the woman at the information booth at the airport to come out of her office then promptly pushed their way into the office and started loudly berating her. Gotta love Russians. My Russian language skills aren't very good so I had no idea what was going on. In this instance it wasn't really hurting me. I just watched the crowd and made sure they didn't go anywhere without me. After a couple hours of confusion Aeroflot was able to get a plan put together. They were going to bus everyone into Khabarovsk to a hotel for the afternoon, then bus us back to the airport that night to finish the flight to Vladivostok. It was about 1pm when they got the plan sorted out and the bus back to the airport was set for 7:30pm for a 10pm flight. I figured this out because there was a Russian professor on the flight who spoke English and gave me the low-down.

So, they herded everyone out to 3 buses which looked like they belonged in Pakistan or India. I half expected to see chicken or a goat when I got on the bus. By this time I was pretty exhausted and was ready to sleep so the condition of the bus didn't really bother me. They put us all up at a "5 Star Hotel" (according to their literature). By my estimation this must have been on a scale of 100. They gave us a meal voucher for lunch and dinner at the "7 Star Restaurant" (also on a scale of 100). The room had an old-school rotary phone, a small bathroom where the whole room was the shower, toilet and sink and two twin beds. Luckily one of the twin beds had tiger sheets so I could sleep comfortably. I laid down and took a nice 3 hour nap (sleeping though lunch). I woke up and headed to the restaurant to use my dinner voucher. The restaurant had pre-made meals for all the Aeroflot guests. The main course was, for all practical purposes, a fish pancake. I took one bite and no more. I ate some of the rice on the side and headed down the street to see if there was anything better. About 2 blocks away was a mall that looked like a spaceship. On the top floor was a Baskin Robbins so I completed my dinner with a waffle cone and 2 scoops of ice cream (which was had for 50% cheaper than the Baskin Robbins in Moscow). I wasn't able to stay long as I needed to get back to the hotel to catch the bus back to the airport.

Since they bussed us back to the airport at 7:30pm and the flight didn't leave until 10pm, everyone had some time to kill. I wandered into a small souvenir shop to check out the postcards. I was curious to see if there were any cultural attractions in Khabarovsk that maybe I was unaware of. On the cover of a pack of Khabarovsk postcards was a large communist style concrete building that looks like most any concrete building anywhere in Russia. Nope – I didn't miss anything. We finally got back on the plane and flew to Vladivostok (thankfully uneventfully). I finally arrived at my hotel at 12:30am, 29 hours after starting my journey in Moscow.

Vladivostok is situated on an inlet of the Pacific Ocean. It's the headquarters for the Russian Pacific Fleet and, until 1992 was a closed city – only accessible to Russians. Interestingly my great-grandfather (who was in the US Navy) was in Vladivostok in 1917(?) for a winter after the fleet was frozen in. Luckily, I didn't see anyone running around that looked like my great-grandfather as that would have been awkward. My hotel in Vladivostok was the Hotel Hyundai. As is obvious from the title, it's a Korean hotel (Vladivostok is only a 2 hour flight from Seoul). It is also one of the few Western-style (i.e. nice) hotels in the city.
One of the first things to strike me about Vladivostok were the vehicles. I would challenge you to find another city outside Japan with a higher percentage of Toyota's. I would say at least 90% of the cars were Toyota's. The other 10% were Honda, Suzuki and Subaru. I don't recall seeing any Ladas or other Russian vehicles. The Toyota's were a mix of every Toyota in the catalog – most of them I had never seen or even heard of. Almost all the cars were right-hand-drive. They still drove on the right, but since the cars were imported from Japan the steering wheel was on the wrong side for the direction of traffic. Most of the cars were 4-wheel drive. In fact, many of the "cars" were Toyota Land Cruisers. The cars were 4-wheel drive because Vladivostok is all hills – many of them pretty steep. Of course that didn't stop the women from wearing 4" heels everywhere.

The whole trip had great weather – sunny and 80 degrees. The first night I was there I walked down to the boardwalk and had a good pizza at an Italian restaurant. It would have been perfect except for an annoying group of Hare Krishna's singing the same crappy song over and over again for 2 straight hours. No wonder no one wants to join your dirty hippie group. Near the restaurant was a beach with a very prominently displayed "No Swimming" sign. It probably said that because Vladivostok doesn't have any sewage treatment – everything just dumps into the ocean. It obviously wasn't very meaningful because the water was packed with swimmers. In fact there was a whole industry of inflatable tube rentals, etc. that were operating in spite of the "No Swimming" restriction. One of the small businesses was quite interesting. They would put someone (usually a child) in a plastic ball, inflate it and then seal the ball with duct tape so water wouldn't get in. The person would then run around like a hamster. As far as I could tell, the child would then continue until they got tired or passed out from lack of oxygen. At this point the ball is pulled back in (it's on a long string) and opened up to prevent too much brain damage to the occupant. Once revived the occupant can then decide if he/she wants to pay for another go.

The Vladivostok boardwalk is also the only place in Russia where it is illegal to drink beer. Everywhere else in Russia you can drink beer wherever you want – the street, a park, work (although not mine). The Vladivostok boardwalk is alcohol-free and, unlike the rules at the beach, seemed to be followed. I was pondering the non-drinking situation when a small car drives along the boardwalk (yes, occasionally a car would drive along it – I don't know if this was legal or not, but it happened nonetheless) with a monkey in the backseat. At first I thought it was a dog, then I saw it had a face … and was looking at me. I can't have a beer but that guy can have a monkey! Anyway, after hanging out on the boardwalk for a while I walked around town – but not too long as the hills are intense. I was sweating my arse off after about 5 blocks. The Hotel Hyundai had a Skybar on the 12th (top) floor where I could drink overpriced Japanese beer with the view of the city and not have to huff up and down hills. The final night I was there I went to a (surprisingly) good Indian restaurant. It was the first Indian I had since moving to Russia and it was delicious. It was run by real Indians (who also spoke English). That restaurant will be high on my list the next time I'm in Vladivostok (assuming it stays in business).

The next morning I got a ride to the airport for my 10:20am flight back to Moscow. For a city of only 500,000 they decided to put the airport far away from the city. It took us nearly an hour to get out there – although the roads were in pretty bad shape. The hills around downtown probably have something to do with it, but there was definitely some flat space closer to the city. The airport is small – about half the size of the Greenville-Spartanburg Airport (for my SC readers). The main airline there is Vladivostok Air (which you can fly to Khabarovsk if you want!). Aeroflot has two flights a day from Moscow to Vladivostok. We found out (too late) that the earlier flight is an old 767. The later flight is a brand new Airbus A330 with video screens on the back of every seat. We chose poorly in both directions and took the same crappy 767 back to Moscow. Luckily the piss smell was gone. The same 3 crappy movies were showing on the trip back which didn't matter since I slept through half the flight anyway. Luckily there were no fiascoes getting back to Moscow. However, as a final farewell,Aeroflot decided to park next to an aerial walkway but not actually use it. Despite being 15 feet from the walkway, we had to take the stairs  out of the plane and huff it through the rain to a bus which drove us to another terminal.  Unfortunately I left 80 degrees and sun in Vladivostok for 55 degrees and rain in Moscow. Oh well, it's still better than 100 degrees and smoke.


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Katie’s Epic Week (Sans Husband) Opus 1 No. 1

2010 August 27
by Ryan
So even though we’re posted in Moscow, Ryan actually has to travel
quite a bit for his job. There are few in his position (which is why
we’re always going to be posted in large cities/big embassies—many
advantages to this), but it also means that his skillz are frequently
in demand at the all the smaller consulates out in the boondocks.
He’s already been to St. Petersburg , and this Monday he took off for
Vladivostok. To give you an idea of just how far away this is, it is
shorter distance from D.C. to Moscow than it is from Moscow to
Vladivostok. Yep. You got that right. He’s by the Pacific Ocean.
He’s 7 hours ahead of ME in Moscow (that would be 15 hours ahead of
EST). He’s 50 freakin miles from the border of North Korea. I’m sure
Ryan will have his own blog stories when he returns tomorrow—when I
checked in on him on Tuesday, he had not yet made it to Vlad.—in fact,
he wasn’t quite sure where he was. Apparently some dense fog (not
smoke?) prevented them from landing in Vlad., so Aeroflot landed them
in some little town in the middle of nowhere Siberia probably and put
them up in what he described as a really, really crappy hotel. I am
not sad I didn’t go with him. Really.
However, I had been fairly anxious about being alone this week —having
only been in Moscow for two weeks, I was already pretty culture
shell-shocked even with Ryan around (who, no matter where he is, lets
it all roll off him like water off a duck’s back). Of course he’s
been here much longer—and,unlike me, his job has involved, you know,
actually preparing for all that we’re encountering (not to mention his
3 or 4 months of Russian classes that I did not have the privilege of
taking). He has his regular job and schedule—he’s content with Bagel
Bites from the commissary. I have not and am not. That first week,
it was a major accomplishment for me to buy a few pieces of fruit at
an open market without Ryan, well, doing it all the hard work for me.
Even counting money was difficult at first—it’s still very much a cash
based culture (we can rarely use credit cards), and $1 = 30 rubles.
Things are really expensive here—(i.e. lots of dollars—multiply by
30….when you’re pricing you have to divide by 30…it can be
overwhelming). I know a calculator is an obvious solution, but I think
it’s more emotional than that. I don’t like feeling out of control at
the grocery store, but you find yourself not realizing just how much
you’re spending on the most basic , normally cheap staples).
Thankfully, I quickly learned how to take the metro from our apt.
building to the American Embassy—it’s really quite easy, and so the
first two weeks I really stuck between our cocoon of a shiny new
apartment and “little America” at the embassy compound—even that world
is a new culture largely unfamiliar to me, but at least they speak
English. Well, most of them. The real Moscow that lies in between
and all around my little American hubs is a fairly intimidating,
chaotic, and at first unfriendly place that still makes me a little
nervous—in a healthy cautious sort of way. But this week, without
diplomat husband, I’ve had to face Monster Moscow on my own.
Here was my original plan: to watch as many BBC period dramas as
possible on Netflix on Demand. Another advantage to being married to
your local Security Engineering Officer is that we are most definitely
hooked up with a most excellent wireless entertainment system (even
now before our larger shipment has come). Not only did he figure out
a VPN address for us (this tricks the internet into thinking we’re
actually in New York instead of Moscow—hence we can stream Netflix on
Demand, Hulu, Pandora, etc), but he convinced his parents to purchase
and set up a Slingbox for their cable, allowing us to watch their
cable here. Don’t ask me how it works, but they fact that I STILL
can watch my favorite Food Network stars when I’m homesick and out of
dinner ideas=fantastic. So…..I was pretty pumped for a week of
vegging out. And doing Rosetta Stone Russian. While essentially
avoiding Russia. It can be stressful out there when all you know is
“The cat is on the table” or “ Hello. My name is Katie. How are
Ryan and I met for lunch at the embassy on Monday. He left for the
airport straight from there after lunch. He had some papers for me to
sign and needed me to get some black and white photos made for my
driver’s license to submit some preliminary paperwork (apparently
getting my DL is going to involve an entire afternoon some Wednesday
in a few weeks). He handed me some other forms (which included my
shot record) and informed me that I needed to report to the Med Unit
for the official briefing at 3 pm on Wednesday. Cool. I figured that
would inspire me to go to the gym (also in embassy) and provide just a
bit of structure to week of vegging. He left, and I went to the
embassy salon (yes, we have a salon—employed by an “English speking”
staff, so they advertise). They don’t really speak or spek much
English…but I got a decent hair trim for a “Moscow decent price.” (
I am learning that one’s standards for many aspects of life become
increasingly relative when abroad). I thought about working out
while I was there, but, as I always say, why ruin a good hair day?
They don’t come that often…clearly I’ve got a lot of mullet sporting
Russians to impress. I went home…very excited about starting
Masterpiece Theatre’s version of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and
, and perfunctorily checked my email. I had one from the totally awesome world-renowned
international school for most of Moscow’s English speaking (or
speking) diplomat’s kids. And rich Russian kids. And some Koreans. HR
lady asked if I was still interested in substituting and/or teaching—I
responded by eagerly with a big yes—and at the time was actually
grateful that they contacted me simply because it saved me the trouble
of doing so myself. I could continue in my lazy passivity. She
responded to me immediately saying that they had a pretty urgent need
for a long term sub for middle school humanities (combo English and
Social Studies)….it would last through the first quarter at LEAST.
Hmmm….middle schoolers. Of course I said yes. They wanted to
interview me ASAP. Of course I said yes.
We’ve known for a long time that the school is kind of in the far suburbs of
Moscow (as opposed to the embassy and especially our apt—which is in
the heart of the city). There’s actually a lovely community of
beautiful, spacious town homes that it is literally on the same
property as the school—we could have lived there, with all the
British, Canadian, and American dip families who have 2.5 kids and a
dog . That’s where most families with school aged kids prefer to
live…but many people in our DINK stage of life have expressed feeling
Pleasantville/Suburbia creepy vibes (actually, I doubt I’d mind that
as much as some people. I am pretty turned on by large fields of green
grass, especially when they are maintained by someone else). The real
deal breaker was that it would be an awful commute to the embassy for
Ryan, and because he’s often “on call” and has to get there ASAP at
all hours, it just wouldn’t work. Still…when Ryan and I took a long
metro ride and long walk through the woods to school and I realized
that we could have lived in this beautiful recluse by the woods (I’m
sure it’s gorgeous in the snow), anda lovely view the city in the
distance….on the same campus as my likely place of employment…well….I
might have been slightly envious of these people. I’m kind of hoping
one of these families might adopt me for weeks when Ryan’s gone.
As it stood, the middle school principal wanted to interview me at
4pm on Wednesday. Of course, I had only one solitary scheduled event
for the week entire week, and she has to suggest the same day and time
for the interview (or close enough to where both would be utterly
impossible). I hesitated about what to do—I knew the Med brief was
important so I would know what to do in case of emergency, (it is NOT,
in fact, to dial 911, by the way) as well as how to order
prescriptions online through insurance which DPO or APO address to
use, where to go to the dentist/eye doctor,recognizing sketchy Russian
over the counter drugs and other things to avoid…but….at the same
time…here was a coveted job opportunity. I did not want to miss it.
Of course Ryan was up in the air at the time I got this email. I have
been able to text him and email him, but I can’t always get quick
responses due to time difference and his work schedule. The school
told me to go to my Med briefing and rescheduled my interview for
Thursday at 4pm. Next item of business—how the heck to get there.
The metro only takes you so far. Actually, you can technically walk
there from a few metro stops, but it’s a 25-30 minute schlep through
the woods—totally fun on a sunny Saturday with your husband when you
have nothing else to do—not ideal before a job interview. And not
like I could possibly figure out the winding path myself—Ryan was
using his Iphone GPS map, of course. We do not yet have our car (it
should arrive in a week or two—knock on wood…not that I could have
possibly driven there on my own at this point), and although AAS’s
website instructed one to take the marshrutnoye taxi #12 or #462 from
the Sokol metro, the HR lady instructed me to NOT take this as the
embassy does not recommend this…and that she doesn’t either.
(Actually, Ryan and I took one from the school back to the metro last
Saturday, and while it did the job, I can see why the AE might not put
them on approved lists of public transportation. If you’re curious as
to what these marshrutnoye taxis are, Wikipedia them). Rather, she
suggested I take a regular taxi from the embassy (which would cost me
between 300-500 rubles). She said that I should NOT take a regular
taxi from the Sokol metro (the closest station from the school) as
taxi drivers know the demand and purposely jack up the prices to AAS.
I was terrified. True confessions: I have never called, hailed, or
in any way procured a taxi by myself. Even when I arrived at the bus
station in Oxford this summer and needed a taxi to Lincoln College, I
connived an Oxford student with a mobile to call one for me. I don’t
mind taking them, paying them, or telling them where to go (in
English, that is), but I have a real phobia of tracking one down.
Actually, in Russia I have a fear of all the aforementioned parts of
the process. (Oh, that’s right…nyeh pawnee my-oo parooskee—I don’t
understand Russian). In such a situation, I am always worried I’m
going to be charged like 30,000 rubles by some mafia guy, or I get a
driver who doesn’t know where the school is….or who doesn’t
understand the English name of the school…all these things. ( I know,
I know –I could have written the address on a piece of a paper…but I’d
have to write in Cyrillic to guarantee taxi driver would
understand….and what if I get a Georgian driver who doesn’t even
speak/read Russian? Crazier things have happened.) But I assured HR
lady that I would “figure it out” somehow. I texted Ryan in a panic
and he told me to contact the CLO. The CLO, or “Community Liason
Office” is supposed to be available to help pathetic family members
like me do things like find taxis. I keep forgetting they exist.
(*Cough* Probably because they’re fairly useless—and never returned my
several phone calls made in DC about teaching jobs *COUGH). Ryan
encouraged me to introduce myself to them the first day he took me to
the embassy, but I was exhausted, grumpy, and vulnerable and just
didn’t feel like it. Gaaaaawsh. I genuinely did go by the CLO the
other week when running various errands…no one was ever around.
Government workers. Typical. At any rate, I was planning on going to
see the CLO before my Med Briefing on Wednesday at 3pm.
Lady from HR had emailed me bright and early Wednesday morning with
yet another plan—there are nice, dependable school  sanctioned shuttles
which run between Sokol (metro stop, remember?) and the school several
times a day—but only in the early morning and mid-late afternoon,
obviously. She said she could reschedule my interview with the middle
school principal and the high school principal (what??) for 9am
Thursday morning, allowing me to take the safe, free, and direct
shuttles from Sokol to school. She even said she could arrange for a
driver to take me back to the embassy compound at 10 am (because she
still thought I lived there), but that was fine—I can always take the
metro from there. Now….to get to Sokol.
See the metro map below? I know you probably can’t see all the
details (though, you could google it online if you really have nothing
better to do), but, as you can see, it’s vast. We live very close to
the Dobreynskaya metro on the Circle Line (in a leather brown color).
Do you see it? Now, I had to get to Sokol (on the dark green
line—extending North of the City. Just like all underground systems,
there are various lines, and at certain stations, these lines
intersect. Unlike other systems I’m familiar with (namely DC ), the
Moscow lines do not share rails at any given point (I don’t think).
Rather, if you want to change lines (let’s say, for example, you are
on the circle line, and want to get to the dark green line like I
did), you have to take the circle line one stop (counterclockwise) to
Paveletsky, and then you have to take a long underground pathway
(called a “perehod”) to access the other line. (“Perehod” is also an
underground walkway that allows you to “cross the
street”underground—very useful considering Moscow weather and crazy
drivers. I actually like this system because it takes a lot of the
confusion out of the metro. Wherever you are, if there are trains on
either side of you, it’s the same line just going in opposite
directions. There is no real danger (like in DC) of jumping on what
you think is the blue line and 3 stops later you realize it’s the
yellow line (and that you’ve majorly delayed yourself). However,
several of the Moscow metro’s perehod’s are currently closed for
construction/remodeling (who knows?) for the time being. Ryan and I
ran into this problem on Saturday when we went out to the school, so
we had to back track and do an entirely different route (plus, we
weren’t going to Sokol—we were going to the Oktyabrskoe metro to walk
(so decided Ryan and his iphone). Apparently he knew that the perehod
connecting Belgrusaya from the brown circle line to the green line
was closed as well, but I wasn’t thinking about this when did my test
run onWednesday. I left the house about 12:30 pm (I know, I haven’t
been getting up and at ‘em very quickly these days when I don’t have
to) and went ahead and packed my bag for the gym and got my
documentation for the Med briefing at the 3 (at Embassy). I took the
circle line to Belorusskaya in order to change lines to the dark
green, but of course, the perehod was closed. There was a big metal
box completely engulfing the staircase with a big poster that said
(among other Russian words that were mysterious to me): “Zagreet.”
That would be “closed.” Crappity. (Actually I just learned that
“bleen” is the Russian equivalent of darn or crap—like “blini.” I
learned that another variation of this word is the worst of the worst
Russian wordy dirds. ) So..I my only option was the take the circle
line all the way back to Paveletsky (another 20 minutes), take the
perehod, and then take the dark green line all 9 stops or whatever to
Sokol. I thought the metro would be relatively empty at 2pm on a
weekday—especially going out so far of the city. Not a chance. In
fact, the metro is always packed—at 7 am, at 11am, 3pm, 12:30 am…it
doesn’t appear to be any worse at “rush hour” than any other time.
Moscow never sleeps, and the metro keeps them running at least 20
hours a day. Sometimes the metro is really hot even when the
temperature is very pleasant (or -30) outside. Russians have a much
smaller “box” of personal space than Americans, and the protocol is to
cram up against other people (even if the car isn’t that crowded) in
order to make as much space for others as possible. Even if a seat is
available, I almost prefer to stand, just because I have a higher
chance of not having anyone’s hips/side touch me. However…I am
starting to get over this. Along with the b. o. But you rarely have
to wait more than 30 seconds on a train to come, and it moves. And
it’s cheap.
I finally arrived at Sokol around 2 pm. Thankfully, the HR lady gave me explicit instructions
of which way to exit the metro(there are often may options which can put you out at various
streets—so if you don’t really know your way around, a wrong choicecan really mess you up—Ryan and I have often had this problem). Iknew to go right, right, and right and to find the Maxima Pizza
restaurant, because the white Toyota van (with Dip plates) would pull
up right by it. Got it. I was supposed to catch the 8:30am shuttle
the next morning. HR suggested getting there at 8:15 just in case a
long line of staff had queued up (it’s first come first serve so long
as you’ve got your embassy or school badge). This metro journey had
taken me an hour and half. Crappity. Obviously if I had done it
right the first time, it wouldn’t have taken me nearly as long, but I
didn’t have a really accurate way of knowing. Plus, I couldn’t go directly home at
this point, because I had to get back to embassy for my Med briefing.
And because I could not take the perehod at Belorusskaya, I had to go
the most indirect way imaginable (all the way back to Paveletskaya ,
through the perehod, and back on the circle line for 5 more stops). I
had heard the woman running the Med brief has no patience for
tardiness, so I was a bit anxious. I arrived at the Med Unit 15
minutes early, just in time to fill out a bunch of paperwork. I can
never remember my blood type. Afterwards, I did work out at the gym
and ran two miles on the treadmill without stopping or walking. I
was pretty proud of myself. Mostly I was trying to wear down my nerves
so I would calm down and sleep well for my very early morning.
Last Friday at the CLO icecream social Ryan introduced to Logan and
Molly, a really nice couple about my age whose apt. building is right
behind ours. They’ve been here about a year and half and are leaving
for Tanzania sometime in late Winter. Knowing I would be on my own
this week, they had kindly invited me over for dinner that evening.
(By the way, another skill I’ve worked on this week is my ability to
operate Ryan’s old Blackberry, which is now mine. Now that a handful
of people like Logan and Molly know my #, it is useful if I can
actually send texts back. Until now I’ve avoided cell phones which did
anything more than receive calls from or calls other people). She
texted me that their place was called “Dom 5” (House 5), but I still
wasn’t really sure which one that was. There are several apt.
buildings behind ours (think Crystal City). So, I called her and told
her I was approaching a gate near them, and she said to keep on
walking and she’d meet me down there. I saw an open gate (where cars
can enter), so I just walked right in. Naturally, a small old man
emerged from the guard gate and start going hysterical in Russian.
Oops. So…I backed out. He seemed to be signaling me to take another
pedestrian gate (which was closed). I rang the doorbell-like button,
but nothing happened. He was still going on and on, and I was smiling
stupidly. I was just thinking how my linguistic ignorance is
sometimes a blessing to my self esteem. I could tell the general
message: “No, crazy stupid woman—you can’t go in that way,” which, had
this been in my native tongue and culture, I’d be quite offended and
possibly verbally defensive. But, I found it all funny. I didn’t
even try stop his diatribe—just smiled. After he paused, I calmly
said “Ne pawneemyoo pa rooske.” Even more frustrated, he began
gesticulating wildly, pointing to his phone, pointing to the apt.
buildings, fake calling …I got it…he was telling me to call my friend
to come down. I had already taken care of this, of course, but I did
not know how to tell him this. I was trying to think back to my
Rosetta Stone lessons—I had at one point indentified the word for
“friend,” but I couldn’t remember it…I knew the word for telephone
(telefonae—not too hard)…but even if I knew these too, I could not
express to him that “I’ve already done this—I’m just waiting.” So, I
said all I knew that seemed relevant which was “Zhaneshena (woman—and
I pointed to apt. building)” and “hareshow” (which means, “good, fine,
okay, sure,etc”). Thankfully, Molly manifested about this time, said
something quickly to the guard in Russian..and we were fine. He
looked baffled. Molly explained to me that if I got off our elevator
at the 2nd level (something we’d never done) we could access the
courtyard that connects our two buildings and not have to deal with
the guard. Also, apparently we can get an access card that gets us in
these gates, but you have to go meet with someone at some
office—something I will definitely not be doing on my own. Or without
a translator. But good to know. I do not think Ryan knew this.
Although they seemed very nice from the get go, I knew immediately
when I walked into L and M’s apt. that I would really like them.
Their place is not as nice, new, and spacious as ours, but it’s
comfortable and cozy, and clearly emphasized their value of things
that Ryan and I value respectively. Their kitchen is large with an
awesome view of the Kremlin (they had requested a large kitchen) with
all sorts of food going on—brats and potato wedges broiling in the
oven, a fantastic looking salad being assembled, a big red kitchen aid
mixer..and things were not perfect and neat. It looked like they
lived there and cooked there. Their living room is stuffed with lots
of books (and cookbooks) that I approved of and Logan’s X-box, Rock
band accoutrements, the Wii, and other electronic toys. Their walls
are a motley mix of random stuff from their travels. I like people
who live like this—it looks like us. They had also invited a new FS
officer named Sophie (she’s single) who lives on the 4th floor of our
building—she just arrived a week ago (also seems about my age) and is
really nice and fun. I really enjoyed getting to know all of them and
am so glad they’re close by (especially when Ryan takes off on trips
for weeks at a time). But I sort of knew this would happen—I knew
that I’d have a great time and want to stay late talking and laughing
(after spending a lot of time alooooone), and that I’d be super sleep
deprived for my interview. Molly had made some dairy-free super
intense chocolate espresso gelato for dessert. It looked so good..I
knew this would deadly to a good night’s sleep as I am very sensitive
to caffeine. But she assured me it only had a little espresso…and so I
had one small scoop (and drank another glass of wine hoping it might
counteract the caffeine). About 10 o clock I started saying I
probably needed to go home…and Sophie and I finally left at midnight
(more my fault than hers).
We tried to go back the way I should have come (through the terrace
and through the second floor back entrance), but neither of our codes
would open the door. She swore it worked fine the other day. I
totally believe her. Russia…..) So, we had to walk all the way
around and to the street level. By the time I got back to my apt. it
was 12:30. It occurred to me that I should probably look over the
curriculum/benchmarks for middle school humanities (posted on the
school’s website) once more before going to my interview and feigning
any expertise on 7th graders (let me assure you—I got nothin). And I
finally went to bed. About 1:15am. I did not sleep. At all. I’m
not a good sleeper anyway—it’s extremely difficult for me to get to
sleep if just the slightest things are altered from my good sleep
hygiene routine and schedule. But sometimes the life I want to live
(and should) interrupts it quite frequently. Even if I had factored
out the late night social event (always gets me very wired), the
caffeine (however small a dose), and the fact that I’d fallen into a
stay-up-late sleep late schedule, I’m sure my racing thoughts about
other things would have kept me up anyway. I kept rehearsing the
metro trip in my head. Every other time I had been to the metro at
Dobreninskaya we always take the 1 line going clockwise (this has
become autopilot by now), and I HAD to remember to take the other
direction, then get off after just one stop, take the perehod, and
switch to the green line. Take it to Sokol, take the right exit, turn
right…wait for shuttle by the Maxima Pizza place. It’s really not
that hard, but it’s all so new to me and I was really worried I would
forget or something. Having not had time to take this correct route
the whole way through on Wednesday, I still didn’t really know how
long it would take. I was allowing for an hour and a half, even though
it was probably more like 40 minutes. If I missed that 8:30am
shuttle, I would have no idea how to get there. I did have the
school’s number in my Blackberry (that I had finally kind of figured
out), but it was charging by the computer in the man room. I put a
sticky note on my mirror so I wouldn’t forget my phone (because I
often do). So I kept rehearsing it over and over in my head. I
hadn’t even thought about possible interview questions and how I
might answer them. I didn’t have room in my brain to worry about this
at this point. Honestly, the situation sounded like if I wanted the
job I could have it—because they needed a warm body (preferably a
highly qualified one like me) and fast. I started worrying about the
long commute that would become daily and even earlier
starting…well…on Friday, potentially. I started worrying that,
despite my “qualifications” I really do not know how to effectively
handle middle schoolers while teaching them anything of value
appropriate to their age. That I tend to hate young adult
literature…that I’d rather be reading Dostoevsky with high schoolers,
that I had read about these week long field trips that middle
schoolers take in September to places like Sochi—I assumed I’d be
required to chaperone, and honestly, that kind of sounded like hell. I
realized I’d have to give up the trip to Frankfurt with Ryan in a few
weeks even though we had already purchased the nonrefundable $600
ticket. I thought about how I probably wouldn’t be able to take any
Russian classes any time soon, and I was kind of sad about that. And
I hoped my pant suit pants still fit after a summer of British food
(was glad I thought to pack my suit in our UAB). I had not thought to
try them on again. I think I went to sleep….sort of…around 5am. Both
alarms (I was slightly paranoid I would never wake) went off at 6am.
I finally got up about 6:20, not even bothering to hit any snooze
buttons. I was that exhausted. A shower helped, though I realized my
eyes were too glossy for contacts—that was fine. I figured I’d look
smarter in my glasses anyway. I tried to eat a piece of toast, but
could get down one bite without feeling a bit queasy. I made some hot
green tea in a Styrofoam cup with a plastic lid (leftover from a
coffee house reading I did with my students last year—another good
thing to pack in UAB). The pant suit fit well enough. I was too lazy
to iron a blouse on Wednesday, so I wore one of my favorite blue silk
ones that wasn’t too wrinkled. However, I remembered as I put it on
that, even though it fits fine, one of the buttons near the bust likes
to come undone (I think because of the slippery material—it just slips
out) which can sometimes make for an embarrassing situation. So I
buttoned up my suit jacket, (it was a little cool out that early
anyway) and tried not to worry about it. I left the house at 7:10
looking pretty good for one hour of sleep. Not too bad.
The metro trip was successfully uneventful insofar as connection
making. I did not trip on the escalator in my low heels, though I
don’t think I’ll ever brave the stilettos that most Russian women do
for all occasions. The only slight “delay” involved an abandoned beer
bottle. At one point during my ride on the green line, we made a
stop, some folks boarded, as did a rolling, rogue empty beer bottle
(at 7:20 am, mind you). It just rolled on in. But then it rolled
back, ending up aligning itself dead on the door threshold. I knew
this would be a problem. I was sitting down about 8 feet away. Several
Moscovites were standing right by it. They were staring at it. They
did nothing. So, of course, when the doors closed, ours would not.
It’s just like when your cat lines itself with the descending garage
door. But the metro doesn’t go until the doors are closed. Unlike the
rest of these people, I actually wanted to get going. I gestured
towards the bottle, and just as I got up to get it myself, someone
kicked it out of the way. I sat back down, and the bottle rolled
towards my feet. I stopped it with my cute black heel. I did not want
an empty bottle rolling around the car floor, possibly breaking,
possibly tripping someone (like me, or a little babushka), and I did
not want it to get stuck in the door and no one do anything about it.
So, much to everyone’s bewilderment, I held the bottle with my feet
for the duration of my ride as I sipped my tea in the Sytrofoam cup
with a lid and checked my Blackberry for the time. They all stared at
me at first—what’s this weird American dressed all smartly doing
holding someone else’s trash with her feet? Give a hoot, Russians!
(All the parks here are just terribly littered—it’s really sad. It
makes me look forward the snow burying it all). When we finally
stopped at Sokol, I picked up the empty beer bottle and took it with
me. I scanned the metro for a trashcan, but couldn’t find one. So, I
took the escalor up, empty Styrofoam cup in left hand, empty glass
beer bottle in the other. This made me feel slightly
self-conscious—it was only 7:45 am, but then I realized I was the only
one who would find this odd, embarrassing, or shameful. I did indeed
find a trashcan near the Maxima Pizza place—this is a good thing,
because I really didn’t want to walk into my interview with an empty
beer bottle…at least not that early in the morning.
I saw some Russian speaking ladies line up near the spot where I
thought the shuttle would come. Hmm..I was expecting maybe some
English speakers. But, within the next 10 minutes, a white Toyota
minibus with Dip plates pulled up (I was really glad I didn’t have to
wait for the 8:30 trip). They all boarded, and I grabbed my badge,
showed it to the driver (though no one else did) and asked, “Shkoola”?
Dah. The shuttle is pleasant, well driven 5 minutes to the school. I
was at the front door at 8am sharp. 50 minute door to door trip. Not
terrible. And it only cost me about $1. I walked in the front
office and quickly found a pretty redhead who turned out to be HR lady (actually, she reminds me of Laurie Parsons, except that she’s
from Texas. ) I apologized for being really early (which she
assured me was not a problem), and she sat me down on a couch in the
office for a minute or two. About 10 seconds later, the director of
the school (I recognized his picture from the
internet), knew exactly who I was. He’s extremely nice and also has
a faint Southern drawl. And guess what he wanted to talk to me
about—Bread Loaf. He spent a summer at BL Juneau campus. Get out.
He wanted to hear all about my graduation and congratulated for me for
such a “tremendous accomplishment” and told me that one English
teacher is a BL graduate, and another one just started the program
this summer. Finally….someone cares and understands and doesn’t make
fun of my fake Sugar Loaf Mountain degree! And I only had to move to
Moscow. He explained to me a “change” in situation. He said that they
were originally considering me for a middle school humanities long
term position (unfortunately a teacher has a pituary gland tumor or
something, so they think he’ll be fine, but needs to take a quarter
off for treatment). But, they already found a replacement (??
Internally). However, there was a possible full time high school
English position available—for the entire year. Was I interested?
HECK YES. I was quite honest and said, “Wow, I am so glad I don’t
have to pretend to know what to do with 6th graders.” Maybe I
shouldn’t have said that, but somehow I felt like it would be okay.
Erica showed me the restroom and little lounge and asked me if I’d
like tea, coffee, or water. They had a huge selection of white and
herbal teas and an electric kettle with water already boiling. I
choose the mango white tea, and she gave me (a real) mug. I was
already sold on this place. She took me to her office and said we
could just chat a big before  the high school principal
made her way down. I don’t know if this was really “part of the
interview,” but it really just felt like talking to a friend. She
wanted to know where I was from, where I had taught before—she printed
off a copy of my resume since I don’t have a printer with me yet…she
told me about how she met her Russian husband on an exchange program
in high school and then met him later on in college. HS principal is
equally awesome. She told me the skinny: that she thought they were
fully staffed, but that they really needed a PE teacher and have a
fairly “shallow pool” of applicants, and that one of their English
teachers (who is an excellent coach already and apparently possesses a
great “gym” presence) just yesterday….offered to be the PE teacher.
But wasn’t 100% yet. Therefore, they’d need another English teacher.
And so we had a great interview—I won’t go into all of it (boring
English teacher interview questions-but really good questions), but I
felt so at ease and as if I had already won them over too. I thought I
was going to potentially have a combination of 9th, 10th and IB 11th
graders. Hard work for sure, but awesome, awesome. And I’d have
smaller classes and more prep time. And then Erica went over some
salary and benefits. Wow….the Lyfords would have been SET. I was
pumped. At the end of the interview HS principal told me that, basically,
if the job is available…so long as there weren’t any issues with
reference checking (I was not worried), I had the job. Wow.
They even arranged for one of their drivers to drive me back to
embassy at after my interview (actually, they thought I lived on the
compound—I think had they know n where I lived, they would have had
him drive me home, but I said it was fine and I’d just stop by the
commissary or something and take the metro home). He dropped me off
at a gate I had never been to before (it’s a big compound), so after
some hesitant wandering, I finally figured out where I was. I bought
some ibuprofen and a hot bagel with cream cheese at the commissary (I
had taken my last packed painkiller recently—our big stock is in our
big HHE shipment) and sat down in cafeteria to take a breather. I
kind of enjoyed moseying around the embassy in my suit—I looked like I
worked there, not like a 2nd class citizen unemployed spouse. Plus, I
was about to get a way better job than most of them, anyway. So I
thought to myself.
The principal  told me she would let me know one way or the other within 24
hours. I was exhausted, and really excited. I tried to take a nap
but I couldn’t. So I took a long bubble bath and read some of a
book—our hot water finally runs fairly clear (instead of dark rust
orange), so for the time being I can take one without concern of
becoming even dirtier. I remembered that Logan and Molly had
convinced Sophie and me to go to the DCM’s party thing at his
townhouse (the DCM is the guy who is next in line to the ambassador—I
met him last week, and he’s very nice. He’s also chairman of the
board at this school and just MAY have put in a good word for me at the
school.) They said that invitations were sent to newcomers, but it’s
really for everyone and their spouses (who is new)…but that the food
and drink was plentiful and excellent. And free. And Logan, Molly,
and Sophie were going too. I was skeptical, but they said they were
sure Ryan was sent an invite and just didn’t know it or didn’t respond
because he’d be gone. So…I figured…..sure. At least I would know nice
people there. I dressed sort of nice casual (I didn’t know the
attire, but I wasn’t going to wear my suit. ) It sounded pretty
chill—5:30pm at the man’s house. So, I wandered around the embassy
and found Townhouse # 1, but it seemed so quiet. I didn’t see any
movement or shadows through the curtains. There was no flag or
balloon or greeter….I felt strange about knocking on the door…not
being invited, technically..I was just too chicken. Since the
ambassador is out of town somewhere (??), this man is, for all intents
and purposes, the acting ambassador. I’m sure his butler would have
opened the door. But…I just didn’t knock. I did text Molly and let
her know I was self consciously hanging out in his front yard…I asked
if they were there….but I didn’t hear back right away. I was getting
I saw Ryan’s coworker David. (It’s amazing that with over 1000
employees-plus family members-you really do start to see the same
people over and over. Just like high school). I said hello and asked
him if he knew about this DCM shindig. He confirmed that I was indeed
near his house, but he did not know about the party. He expressed no
opinion one way or the other about whether or not I should knock and
see. Just then, my phone rang. I was just sure it was Molly telling me
to come on in the party. But it was the principal who sadly informed me her
English teacher decided not to be the PE teacher…therefore, no
position. She truly sounded as bummed out as me (of course, she loses
me AND a PE teacher and school starts Tuesday!). But she let me know
how impressed she was with our interview and would love, love me to be
“part of their team”—that they would have ample opportunity for me to
short term sub as often as I wanted ($110 a day—not bad), and that
they would contact me as soon as something more long term came along.
And she said—“and if you want, you should go and enjoy Frankfurt with
your husband.” 
Just then, David’s wife Kelly came out the door, sweaty from the
gym, she said, “hey—we were going to go out get pizza near our place.
Wanna come?” They had actually invited us over for dinner a week ago,
but Kelly was sick (sinus infection from the great smokiness, she
thinks). Sure I did. So they drove me to their place (a very cool
location about a mile from the embassy—but, really, really crappy
apartment. Ryan and I REALLY lucked out. And they reminded us of
that as well. ) They’re also really nice, and I enjoyed playing with
their scruffy cat, Speedy and drinking my new favorite (and only
favorite) beer called Redds. It’s Polish and tastes like cider. But
since it’s really beer, you look cooler drinking it. Apparently Kelly
is also quite the foodie and loves to cook, so over good pizza a nice,
new, and “reasonable for Moscow” priced place, she told me all about a
huge open and closed market near their place that has the absolute
freshest and best local food. Although people tell you to avoid meat,
fish, and cheese at these places because they may have not been
refrigerated for many hours, her guidebooks and other people tell her
this place really is ok (especially if you go in the morning), because
they’ve literally just slaughtered the cow or brought out the cheese.
And they sell other stuff like laundry detergent and canned goods for
half the price of the grocery store. They walked me through the place
when they escorted me to the metro. Hopefully I can convince Ryan it
will be a worthy cultural experience so he can help me carry bags on
the metro. 
So, that was my week. I went from knowing almost no one to making
quite a few friends—I was fed several times, I went to the grocery
store by myself, I found the school by myself, I almost a teaching
job…twice, I am on the school’s short list of go-to subs/teachers, and I have
only watched one movie. I’d say it was a pretty good week.

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At the Ballet

2010 August 15
tags: ,
by Ryan

Today marks one week in Moscow for Katie (who’s writing this). Last
night I had my first taste of Russian high culture at the ballet and
then with my first stroll through Red Square. As soon as Ryan arrived
here about 6 weeks ago, I started getting newsletters from the AECA
(The American Embassy Community Association), which, among other
things, often gets groups tickets to various events and offers them to
us for a good rate. So, I let Ryan know almost a month ago that I
wanted to see Sleeping Beauty—Tchaikovsky’s rarely performed ballet
(though the music has remained quite popular). Way back in July, I
assumed this silly Russian heat wave would have passed, and at the
time the forest fires and toxic smog were not yet an issue. At any
rate, yesterday (Saturday) was actually the clearest and coolest day
I’ve seen here—we could actually see patches of blue sky, and the
temp. only reached the high 80’s: a dramatic improvement from the high
90’s or low 100’s. Still, it had not occurred to me until we received
warnings from the Embassy that the theatre itself would not be air
conditioned. They advised taking bottled water and purchasing one of
the reasonably priced lady’s fans sold at the theatre. We did both,
and we also felt we needed some ice cream during intermission. (While
nearly everything in Moscow is exorbitantly priced, cultural events,
plastic hand fans, and ice cream sold at intermission is a DEAL).
While the heat wasn’t very pleasant, after a week of acclamation to
generally unpleasantness whenever I am outside of our apt (and
sometimes when in it), it wasn’t so bad. Especially when they turned
off the lights. The theatre itself was small with hard wood floors.
Most of the seats were on the floor level—there were several
balconies, but not much seating available in them. The crowd was on
the younger side—many folks our age…a few young mothers with their
very young daughters who were dressed in pink leotards with skirts
(yes, I was slightly jealous and wished I had such an outfit). I
believe the performing company was the Moscow Youth Ballet (or
something like that), and the dancers all looked fairly young—probably
late teens and early twenties. I’m not really sure at what age ballet
dancers typically “peak,” but I think it’s generally older than most
gymnasts or figure skaters (so long as they continue to maintain like
3% body fat). But, snob that I am, I could also tell they were not
the most skilled dancers in the world (though maybe they will be in a
few years). ( Back in college, I actually saw the real adult Moscow
Ballet Company perform Swan Lake at the Peace Center in Greenville,
SC—now that was exquisite. This was not quite that caliber.) Still,
for performing under hot lights in 88 degrees (probably 95 degrees for
them), they were pretty outstanding. The orchestra was live,
carefully hidden in a completely inconspicuous orchestra pit, and the
music was quite good. The story was—well….not as intriguing as the
Disney version (the only other one I knew to compare). I’ve found the
“plot” of a ballet becomes fairly secondary to opportunities to show
off skillz…probably 75% of the “action” involved all the various
fairies and courtiers showing off their arabesques for the king and
queen—the Prince never battled the evil Wizard (a man in this
version—not that badass Maleficent evil fairy in the Disney
version)…and Rose (or Aurora?? There was no program—not like we could
have read it anyway…) was only a sleeping beauty for about 60 seconds
of stage time before the Prince managed to find her. Whatever. It
was all very lovely, and if you go to the ballet for good story,
you’ll always be disappointed. Read a book or watch a movie for that.
Go to the ballet for lovely music, lovely dancing, and pretty sparkly
costumes. And men in ridiculous tights and other apparatus. Ryan
expressed discomfort with their “immodesty.”
I’d really like to take some ballet lessons. I’m on the lookout for
some around here. I think it would make me a better figure skater and
a generally less clumsy person. I never took dance lessons as a kid
(seeing as clogging was about the only option in our neck of the
woods), but it’s not too late, right? Ballet slippers are only $12.50
(online, anyway), and a wood floor is much easier to find than ice.
And less expensive. In fact, there is much unoccupied wooden floor
space in our apartment. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? I’ll get
a job one of these days—I promise. 

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