Monday, April 25, 2011

I was reading this morning that when you are "stuck" in your writing you should write about the things you are really passionate about, your real muses.
My problem in a way is that I like too many things and have too many muses. I tried to put the on a blank page and group them, which resulted a confusing mess. I think the best way is just to think about it by association, when the one leads to the other and then I tried to select my top 10, because writing about 70-80 subjects it's just not feasible. 
The biggest group, which I generalized as "Art", included love for literature, language,  music, especially created by women edgy poetical rock, paintings, especially Baroque and Modern Realism, indie cinema, home design and portrait photography. In fact I don't think there is any type of art in which I am not, at least remotely interested. 
This is a very interesting realization for a person that spent a third of their life pursuing career in law, though my passion for politics, history and society, second interest group, might explain that part. 
With regards to Art, I blindly chose one subject, and it happens to be "paintings". 
I love a Belgium painter called Eddy Stevens. To the larger public he is pretty unknown, but to me he is like God of visual pleasure. I get goose bumps when I look at some of his mythical feminine creatures. He lives in a farm in the South of France with his wife Sophie, who is also his model. When I was still living in Utrecht I happen to see her in a gallery where his works were exhibit, and that was a very awkward encounter. To me she is a woman from this magic imaginary world, and I did not want to see her in real life. Her beautiful back side is hanging on the living room wall in the past years and raised numerous comments from visitors about the "sexy ass" we stare at every day. I really don't understand this. I was raised with the constant presence of art and naked body in art is just a norm. It never crossed my mind that it could be embarrassing for other people. 
As a child I was a big fan of Peter Paul Rubens. His pale full-figured male and female, chubby-cheeked angels, the grand scope and the historical subjects were so fascinating. One of my favorite is this Venus and Adonis which I love for it's warmth but also the classical myth of the goddess in love, begging the handsome hunter not to go with Cupid standing guiltily on the side. 
I also liked the fact that Rubens was not only a painter, but came from a interesting background, travelled a lot a had a successful career in diplomacy. Of course I only knew him from books. At our first trip together, hubby and I visited Antwerp and went to his museum. One of the happiest days of my life. 
Another big childhood fascination is Appolo Belvedere, on which I had a pretty hard crush. I finally saw him last year in the Vatican, but did not feel the excitement I though I would. I think there is just way too much to see in Rome and was overwhelmed.
Ok, it's getting late. I also realized that I can write about my passion for art for days.  And when I was in Chicago Contemporary Art Museum...., and when I went to the Tretyakov for the first time....., or even when we randomly end up in this Soviet Cosmonauts photo exhibition few days ago while walking the n'hood... It was like breathing endorphins, how great is that! :)
In 2 days the family is embarking to a sunny location to sample what a "family beach holiday" means. I have set my expectation pretty low, just to be able to surprise myself in a positive way. It should work out! :)
Just to link my love for paintings with my other Huge love: for design. This is a photo of the wallpaper we just decorated our bedroom with. You know you've got the best guy in the world, when he agrees to glue wallpaper with you on the first truly sunny day of the year, Easter, with kiddies climbing the ladder, reaching for the glue bucket and screaming for attention. Did we yell a bit? Come on, we are humans. Luckily that was not the only thing we did that day:) 

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Spring in Moscow is different than any notion of Spring I have had over the years. For a start, it's pretty cold. And when I am mean cold, it's freezing with occasional snowstorms breaking in. On the positive side, any ray of sun and especially any temperature rise above 10 °C is so much more appreciated. Over the weekend we made a family trip to Kolomenskoye park, a former royal estate, where the father of Ivan the Terrible built a church hoping for a male heir. We were not the only sun&history admirers there whatsoever. Flocks of families occupied the premises and barricaded the few sunny benches, armed with various types of offspring-carriers, picnic provisions, cameras, sunglasses and even sunscreen. Mind you it was still around 5 °C.

Being beginner level Muscovites, we went completely unprepared, especially from food supplies perspective. Communist-nostalgia type of queues were formed in front of the few establishment, and after a brief deliberation I was promptly installed at the back of the shortest one, in front of the crepe stall. Good fifteen min later, I savored a honey crepe in which honey surprisingly represented at least 70% of the equation. Since I got bad service several times when speaking Russian, I now order only in English with adding an extra word in Russian word here and there to make myself understood. I guess that resulted the surplus of honey in my pancake, and the jam stains that hubby was cleaning from his shoes grunting that next time when he says "naturel"* he really means it.  (*in Dutch means simple, basic) How would I have known? 
After that we headed back to the car, tired from that wild park experience and just to prove that she understands how we all feel, Estelle started her usual boredom cry. 
It was actually pretty nice to be outside for couple of hours, though being reminded of how unlikely it is to find yourself alone in the park on a sunny Spring day. 
The other element, that I have slightly forgotten during the winter, is the air pollution. I am picking up running again and since I don't want to step in the car every time, I have to run on the few of the bridges above Moscow river, each one dominated by heavy traffic. You just smell fumes and nothing else. I can only hope that the health benefits of running are better than the negative effects my lungs will suffer this summer. I am seriously considering running half a marathon. I now run around 10K without significant effort, so I should be able to increase the distances gradually by Sept 11 when is the Moscow marathon. Maybe a full marathon next, who knows :) 
Ok, that's about Spring. I have had it. Can now the Summer please come? 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Few weeks ago hubby came home after a late dinner with his team and told me:
"Do you know what is the dream job for few female colleagues of mine?"
"Expat wife".
We laughed. 
I never thought I would say that few years ago, but now I am very happy to be a "stay-at-home"  (expat) wife, especially with the babies.  Even though we have Masha, I have the priceless opportunity to spend a lot of time with my girls, and I am not tired and overworked when I do so. In a way being a regular "stay-at-home" mom (btw silly term, not really staying at home every day, but let's just use it for lack of a better one)  and stay-at-home expat mom is very similar, but I don't imagine being a stay-at-home mom, while being stay-at-home expat mom I am quite satisfied with. 
The difference for me is that life away from home brings lots of challenges and excitement and in a way creates a whole occupation on it's own. 
For instance when we first moved to Moscow, as second time expats, we learned from a previous mistake and this time put lots of efforts to make a nice home, this time not only for us but also for the girls. We put a reasonable amount of effort in finding the right location. Then, instead of going to Ikea as most people here do for lack of better options, I put my, limited at the time, Russian in good use by going to local furniture stores. It took me about two months to furnish the place, but I am very happy with it. I had to deal with negotiating the price, ordering, deliveries, assembly, handy men. The place didn't even have lights. I remember hanging crystals to some elaborate construction, while trying to entertain the babies and while the handy man Andrey was impatiently waiting for me on a ladder in the middle of the room. Fun times.
Now, 8 months later, there are still a few small details that I want to finish. One of which is this fun decor I just got for the girls room. I am pretty sure I wouldn't have thought about that if I was working full-time. 
Then it comes all the travel. Hubby goes to places for work, we all had to travel for visas a few times, visit family and friends, besides the travel for fun. 
But the biggest difference as an expat wife, is the fact that there is a whole new culture to adopt and that takes a lot of time, effort and especially a lot of patience. We are taking language lessons, went to see the sights, the galleries, the museums, the ballet. Moscow is culturally the most fascinating city I have been in, comparable to New York, and in some ways, in my view, even better. 
But not even talking about the culture, going to the grocery store for the first time was pretty exciting. Auchan, the French chain, incorrectly pronounced "achan" in Russian, is the most popular local mega store. Going there on a Saturday afternoon was like being let alone in a jungle surrounded by hordes of aggressive babushkas desperate to grab the last pack of selyodka right from your hands. We spent 2 hours trying to figure out where is everything and how is it called in Russian. It took me a month to gather motivation to repeat the visit. Now I just shop online because they deliver to your door, and that saves us good 5 hours precious weekend time. 
Coming to a new country also means meeting lots of new people and introduce yourself many times. It's not possible to recreate your social circle from before and I still miss a lot people in NL and Portland. It's about staying in touch, while in the same time investing in new relationships and keep on meeting new people. As an expat you unavoidably get your heart broken. You lose people, places and homes. Of course you gain new ones, but it's a constant process of change, which is tough sometimes. 
Then there are the visitors: friends and family, the colleagues and bosses, sooner or later everyone comes to Moscow and they all end up at our dinner table. I got really skilled in fixing dinners for big groups and quite enjoying it. I can make 4 courses dinner from scratch, for 8 people in less than 4 hours. 
I guess being an expat wife is in a way my dream job too, at least at this stage. It combines the most important things in life for me: spending time with my family, immerse in a new culture, travel, getting to enjoy art and history, building and maintaining relationships, learning new languages, doing some good things for the society. 
I only wonder what would be the potential career path for that position. 

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Today we went to a local orphanage, and what an experience that was.
Thinking about a Russian orphanage one might recall images from a modern-day horror. Children starved in primitive living conditions, daily, even hourly corporal punishment, sexual abuse, dead presence and desperation throughout. Ok, I exaggerate a bit, but you see my point. At the end, this is what we learn from the news. If for some reason Russian orphanages appear on CNN, that's probably because of some terrible tragedy.
Well, tales aside, having no family nowadays is just as dreadful as in Cosettes, Gavrosh, Oliver Twist, Therese Raquin's and various others "classic" orphans or abandoned children/young adults experiences in the previous eras.
Life can be tough for middle class American kids with two loving parents, who can't even leave the house, because things like student depths  and lack of adequate jobs to pay them. What about a child, in Russia, that has no one, but the government taking care of them.
I had ideas about how things were with Russian orphans and they turned out to be completely wrong. I though I had "realistic" picture. I knew things were not as horrible as that one bad example, but it wasn't a very positive one either.
Reality had a date with me in a village about 300 km north of Moscow, where modern day "Cossets and Olivers" live. It was organized by hubby's work. To say that it was all glam out there, it was not. But the truth is, they had pretty much anything one could wish: safe and pretty well maintained living area, a gym, a library, a media room, qualified, energetic and interested teachers, adequate cloths, big yard to run around. Besides those "basics", the biggest revelation was, they were cheerful, genuine, confident kids, as much as teens can be. In the games we played, I learned that they knew about team work and sharing more than lots of "privileged" kids would ever learn, including myself at their age.

It was a gloomy day, the grass was covered with slush, sky was grey, just a typical Russian "Spring". The mood of everyone however, both our visitors group and the kids, were up and warm as summer in the Mediterranean. Sometimes it just works that way.
We were handed some print outs and engaged in something I would describe as running with questionable purpose. The teachers were the judges, "hiding" in one of the buildings and we had to "find" them and perform some singing, clapping, dancing etc for which we got points.
At the start, we were teamed up with the older kids age 14 to 16, but after a few minutes the younger boys and girls woke up from nap and one of them, Katya, grabbed by hand asking if she can join us, to which saying "no" was simply not an option. Not that I tried, but if my hand got free from the firm grip, so that I could clap or so, Katya was patiently waiting for me to finish and then slided her hand right back into mine. Moving experience.
I wish we get to spend more time in the orphanage. I will surely repeat the visit.
I hope for all the kids, and especially the ones that are graduating now, is that they will find their way, which is the hardest thing for a young man or woman no matter the circumstances. Offering them their first job, will probably have the greatest impact on their lives than any other support.

Monday, April 4, 2011

In the beginning going out can be difficult in a new country. I remember that feeling of restrictive mobility from when I first moved countries some 10 years ago. Mostly it's all about the fact that there is no real reason to go out. Going out is overrated I would think and postpone that run/walk/coffee and whatever else I would force myself to do so that I can get some fresh air.In Moscow things are different. The babies want to go out and we go.
We walk several times a week around the Kremlin walls, across the Red square, stroll in GUM when the weather is bad. It's grand and idyllic in the same time. Early morning at the square when almost no one is there, mist is evaporating before your eyes, the colors of the church popping with each ray of sun: it's a spiritual experience when I think of the greatness of Russia and how lucky we are to be here.

But, But...
Going out for a walk to start, is a circus on it's own.
Getting out of the apartment with the stroller is a two persons job, possibly three and maybe even four, but any additional person is a plus.
Moscow is a beautiful, but user unfriendly city, with beautiful, or darn ugly, but one hundred percent user unfriendly doors and elevators. As if every building is designed to be difficult to enter and even more difficult to exit. I am pretty sure it's some sort of conspiracy, trying to control the human flow of in that overpopulated megapolis. Make it very difficult to go out and people might decide to stay in. Who knows maybe it works.
Our building is not an exception with regards to ingress and egress. It needs a strategy, focus and advanced management skills to oversee the following team:

  • One person to take the double stroller out, folded, to unfold it and get it ready and to make sure that its not covered with snow/rain water or did not disappear. For this job you need a technically savvy, physically strong, patient, very flexible person who will have to squeeze a huge stroller trough a small heavy door, which quickly clashes behind your back leaving you outside in extreme weather conditions.
  • One, or ideally two people to dress the babies who understandably will sweat even after 30 seconds in their winter outfits in the apartment where it's about +25 C while outside might be -15 which requires a few layers, hats, mittens and scarfs and what not. For that you need stress-ressitant, quick multy-tasker, with strong biceps and advanced entertaining skills.
  • One person to call the elevator while the child-carrier,s hold the kids waiting and while the stroller man is outside, protecting the stroller from potential stroller collectors. That one person, the elevator-connector, let's call him, has to be an expert in conflict resolution, including advanced negotiation skills, advanced local language skills including but not limited to Moldovan, Ukrainian, Tajiks and several other languages from the former Soviet Union electorate, and advanced kung-phoe and judo skills are a plus. The task might include but is not limited to: yelling upward direction while demanding the construction workers to stop holding the tiny little excuse of a lift to be released from their exclusive use. If the above don't comply, some language and negotiation skills can be applied, and in the worse case scenario, well there it goes your judo training. 
  • On occasion, another strong and stress-resistant person is needed, with perfect Russian and some English, particularly good knowledge of advanced cursing.  That person needs to be able to talk at the elevator operator in case the elevator stops, the twin babies start screaming and the person that answers the elevator "problem-resolution" call tells you something like "We might come in about 40 min if we find an available car. Otherwise I don't know... Bip-bip-bip". WTF?? Pardon my French...
  • Finally you need a door-man to open the heavy user-unfriendly door, while the person, with the strong biceps carries the children out, puts them into the stroller, secures the belts and well.. then everyone can finally go for a walk.

Feeling like going out, anyone?