Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Up, Up, and Away!

Let's hope Bill Gates doesn't make flight control software! :) (Might have to click on that one to read it)

Indeed, the Wandering Family is about to wander its way back across the Atlantic in a few days. It's sad to leave our home here, but we know we'll be back soon, so it's only a temporary separation. And, of course, we'll get to see a lot of you, which is always good. We weren't sure how to get Steven ready for the flight, so I decided to whip him around a bit so he could get used to "flying." He seems to enjoy it, so now we'll see how he does on the actual flight.

So, what have we been up to since our last post? Lots, honestly. We've been busier than usual with getting together with people anyway, and add to that the last-minute must-do's that always accumulate before a long voyage and you have a recipe for tired people!

Not all of it has been hard work, however. Last weekend, the SuperMom group that B attends held a baby shower in her honor! Actually, it was for her and one other lady, but since she didn't show up, it ended up being all about B. Of course, they had the regular teaching and fellowship, but there was a special section where B was the focal point.

I generally try to avoid the SuperMom meetings since they're geared for, well, moms, especially after my first time in attendance ended with a discussion on female health that made me glad I don't speak more Russian than I actually do! However, since there was a party planned, I was especially asked to attend, and once I got there I realized why: so they could humiliate me! We played a game where the father of the baby has to dress and "accessorize" a baby doll blindfolded. You can see the results below; somehow I think we might need to put B in charge of hairstyles. At least they got to laugh, I guess.

Next up was a game in which the various party attenders tried to guess how big B's tummy is. They all took a good look at her, pulled some yarn off a spool, and cut off the amount they thought would just go around the biggest part of the belly. Then, when everyone had done one, I helped B to get an actual measurement, and we then compared our "master" yarn to everyone else's piece. One lady actually managed to eyeball the length to within a centimeter, which I thought was either very lucky or very skilled.

Of course, you can't have a baby shower without some stuff, and they really did give us some wonderful things. Here B shows off Nicole's snowsuit for next year. As for me, I'm just hoping the doctors were right about it being a girl, because if it turns out to be a boy, that is going to be one gay-looking snowsuit! :)

Aside from partying hard, I (J) have also been pursuing getting a medical "spravka" as part of my application for a work permit for the visa we need to get while we're in the US. This might sound like a simple process, but that's only if you have never lived in Russia.

I'll try not to bore you with the details, since I don't have any pictures (it might be considered sliiiightly rude to walk around a doctor's waiting room snapping pictures of all the despondent patients!), but it's an interesting story, so bear with me.

About a week ago, we find out that one of the things necessary for our application is a medical certificate saying that I'm healthy enough to work here. Seems to make sense, so off I (with trusty Larisa, our secretary/translator/general "knows-what's-to-be-done" person) go to the clinic to see what needs to be done. One problem: there is no clinic. They have moved since whenever they gave out their address, so no dice. Not to be deterred, Larisa offers an alternate address and we set off to see about that as an option. Of course, this is all on foot, since we don't own a car and the metro doesn't run that direction.

When we eventually arrived at the second clinic, they advised us that they don't do that particular test, but that a clinic near where we started does, so we head back. We track down that clinic, but are told at the first entrance that "we can't help you." Upon further questioning, it's revealed that they actually can help us, but it's a different department (of the same clinic!) and they eventually point us two doors down. I was trying to imagine working in, say, the toy department at Wal-mart and having a customer ask where the basketballs are, only to reply "We can't help you" since they're over in sporting goods. I don't think it would go over well.

Hopes are dashed at the other department, though, as they explain that they do a different kind of test for foreign work permits, not the one we need, though the lady helpfully points us across the street to the Infectious Diseases Hospital, which is where we need to go (allegedly). An hour later, after wandering around some streets in the vicinity of where she had pointed, we find out that the hospital we're looking for is right across the street from the metro station we originally came from. We go there only to find that they can't help us since we're not registered in their particular area, despite the fact that they're obviously the closest hospital of the kind we need to our address. Oh, and they won't tell us where we actually should go, referring us to a helpful list on the wall that lists, ... them as the assigned hospital for our area.

At this point, we decide to give up for the day - End of Day 1. Information gained: we now know the right kind of hospital to go to, and are armed with a list of phone numbers of the various Infectious Diseases Hospitals all over the city. Time spent: approximately 4 hours.

Seriously, I could go on, and on, and on like this, but you would eventually stop reading. In fact, I'm lucky if you're still reading at this point, and we're only on Day 1. I hate to give away the ending of the saga, but some of you who are going to skip it anyway. It took us 5 similar days, but we did eventually walk away with what for me is a Holy Grail of sorts - my medical spravka! I picked it up this afternoon, so we're very grateful that we were able to get that all done before we left. Now I can leave it with our fearless leaders to actually translate into a work permit that will allow us to be here for the next year.

If you've totally bored yourself on spravka-talk, feel free to skip a few paragraphs, but I think I would be remiss to completely neglect the actual clinic that eventually did the test, so I'll give you a brief flavor at least. Trust me, there are many more details that I'm compressing so you're not shaking your heads any more than you are now.

When we arrived there, mass chaos reigned. Lines snaked everywhere, none of which seemed to move at any point, and no one seemed to know which one we should be in. We eventually picked the one closest to the entrance, which turned out to be a good decision. When we reached the front of the line, I paid for the tests and was given a sheet of paper with a list of rooms to go to. In front of each room was, you guessed it, another line! I managed to get into several of them at once and sat down to wait my turn.

My favorite was the interview with the psychologist, who, when I advised him that I don't speak Russian fluently, proceeded to stare blankly at the wall for 30 seconds. Just when I was starting to wonder how a "sane" person would respond to such behavior, he asked how to spell my name. I told him, and he almost dolefully wrote it down, together with an annotation that I appeared to be in good mental health. I feel very reassured.

My least favorite test was in "Room 7," into which I went with no idea what to expect. A young lady told me to have a seat and take off my coat. It went downhill from there. This is a family-friendly blog, so I won't go into detail, but suffice it to say I apparently don't have syphilis! The problematic part was answering her questions, since somehow my anatomical vocabulary hasn't extended past "elbow" and "throat" into that tricky area required to respond to syphilis-related questions yet.

Anyway, after many hours of waiting in various lines and being checked for disorders, I eventually got a paper saying that I was done and could come back in a few days when the bloodwork was back for the results. Today turned out to be the day that it was ready, so after a long metro ride, there I was expecting to just show up and get everything handed to me.

Of course, it could never be so easy! I was advised that I had neglected to get the required chest X-ray. To which I replied, through slightly strained teeth, "What chest X-ray?" feeling a bit like this guy quoting the Wedding Singer. Not to worry, I was told, merely go across town to another clinic, wait in line again, get your chest X-rayed, and bring the results back and you can have your spravka. Of course, there were a few more bumps along the way, but I'm very grateful to have this piece of paper in hand now. Thanks to all of you who thought of me along the way; I really appreciated it. I can say with absolute certainty that someone is trying to teach me patience. It's certainly something that, culturally, Russians excel at for the most part, and something I'm trying to catch up to them on.

Anyway, that should about do it. We've had some other things going on (be thinking about a guy named L, not a family member, who we had over the other day; I was able to talk to him about some of those issues in detail) but for the most part are just getting ready to head out on our trip. Our apartment is still a mess, so we've got to get it ready for some of our friends who will be watching it while we're gone, and of course we still have to pack. Fortunately it's just a short trip back this time, and we don't have to pack the kitchen sink.

Well, we haven't had a What Is It?™ in a while, but this week something lent itself to the idea rather well, I thought. This item, easily recognizable to anyone who has spent any time in Russia, forms a critical part of getting a medical certificate of ability to work. Can you figure out what it might be and/or what it's used for?

If so, answer in the comments section and, as always, the point goes to the first person to comment with the correct answer. We've already purchased the prize for the winning commenter, and, since we haven't yet tallied the points, this could be your last chance to get your name on the scoresheet!

That's all we got. We're looking forward to seeing many of you in just a few short days!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

In From the Cold

OK, so I've decided to spare you the view from our window right now, since I've just walked in from a fierce blizzard and it might make you depressed! Or, for those of you with a sadistic streak, it might just make you laugh as you enjoy your wonderful spring weather. Either way, I'm not giving you the chance.

However, I note that it's been well over a week since we last updated, so I figure we're due for something. "What?" is another question altogether, since it's not like we have lots of excitement to report, but frankly, that's more your problem than mine, isn't it? You're the one reading this, after all. But I digress, or at least I would if I had a coherent theme to digress from ...

First up on the agenda - International Women's Day! What? Do I hear some of you complaining that it was a couple of weeks ago (and a few others of you saying "there's a Women's Day?")? Well, you'll have to deal with it, because it's been a while since we posted and we didn't get to it last post.

Yes, there is an International Women's Day. It falls every year on the 8th of March, and it's really, really important here in Russia. Every man is responsible to congratulate every woman (and feminine-looking man, just to be safe) on this day, and also must give either flowers or chocolates to pretty much anyone with two X chromosomes whom he happens to know. B celebrated the holiday by going to a women's conference offered at a local family group and listening to a series of speakers.

I'd love to show you the video of the entrance (they all strolled in on a red carpet to blaring music, applause, and confetti - I kid you not), but B committed the cardinal sin of camera video-recording by holding the camera sideways, and it was all for naught. You'll have to live with the above picture of the proceedings. The best thing about the day might have been all the nice stuff the ladies got; quite a treasure trove!

Anyway, besides language and culture study, we've also had some team meetings, in which we meet with the whole Moscow team and discuss deep and important topics involving our work. Oh, and we also just kick back and eat, but don't tell anyone.

I'd love to show you the other get-together we had with some friends, but we forgot to take a picture. The story is still worth telling, since it's a little humorous. Last weekend, we decided to have a Super Bowl party. Our friend Julie had gotten the game recorded while she was in the US getting her visa, so we invited all our friends over, bought some frozen pizzas and chips, and got all set up to watch the big game in the grand American style (albeit about a month after the actual game).

Once everyone showed up, we gathered around the TV, put the tape in, to ... crickets. Nothing. Somewhere in the recording process, there had been a minor glitch. As in, nothing got recorded. Fortunately, thanks to the miracle of the internet, we all knew the score and no one's life was irreparably damaged, but it was still the only Super Bowl party I've ever attended in which it was impossible to watch the Super Bowl. We played Phase 10 instead, and I think everyone, especially the ladies, agreed that it was probably more fun than the game would have been anyway.

I wasn't kidding about the snow earlier. I attended our small group meeting tonight, and as I walked home from the metro, I was met by one of the more aggressive wind/snow tag-teams we've faced this winter (is it just me, or was spring supposed to start a while back?). I couldn't even see, because every time I opened my eyes, they would fill with snow.

Well, I managed to stagger my way to the house, mumbling something about Lewis maybe being right about the Cosmic Sadist idea, only to find that my wife had a gleam in her eye and was headed outside! What could possibly motivate someone who didn't absolutely need to leave the warmth of the apartment to venture outside?

Insanity. Or, as it's otherwise known, pregnancy. Yes, that's right. Somehow, our poor deluded B has developed a craving for snow. Not just any snow, mind you, but freshly fallen snow, eaten from a bowl. I knew you'd all think I was crazy so I insisted she pose for the above photo. Fortunately, we picked the right city to live in. I mean, if you're going to crave fresh snow, not many places in the world are more conducive to the servicing of that craving than Moscow. He does indeed work in mysterious, mysterious ways. Someday I'd like to ask him about that. :)

And finally, one for the grandparents: the latest cute baby picture of Степан Дж-вич.

I guess I'll leave you with just one suggestion: go over to the "David and Erin" link at the right hand part of the page (or just click here) to read about what our friends east of here are up to. These are some of our potential future teammates, who are currently doing some investigation of the area they live in, and the pictures and descriptions are quite interesting. I especially like the tour of the reindeer-herding area, but you might have to scroll down a few posts to get to that. Anyway, leave them a comment, tell them we sent you, and most importantly, be thinking of them!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Happy Maslenitsa!

Ah, spring. The time when a young man's fancy turns to ... What? What's that you say? It doesn't look like spring? Why, surely you jest. Look in the distance - you can see THE SUN!! We haven't seen it for months, and there it was last week, shining on the snowy park! Spring must have sprung!

So, what have we been up to whilst enjoying all this fine weather? Glad you asked! We'll get to the celebration of Maslenitsa in a bit, but first I should tell you about my trip last week to a local university. One of our friends, Vanya, studies there, and so I took a day off classes to head over to school with him. Fortunately, we attended his English class, where I was the impromptu featured speaker.

The below photo is of me and the professor, who was happy to have a real English speaker in the class for students to query. At first I thought they were an extremely inquisitive lot, wanting to know all kinds of things about me and what I thought about things, but I soon realized they were just trying to postpone the quiz the teacher had promised after I was through!

But now, on to the main theme of our post today: Maslenitsa. Maslenitsa, as you can see from this Wikipedia link, is the Russian equivalent of what we celebrated in Bolivia as Carnaval. The dates are a little off, since the liturgical calendars of Eastern and Western churches differ, but the idea is the same. A fast is about to start, so it's your last chance to party, and in the case here in Russia, eat!

Of course, there are a lot of holdovers from the previous pagan celebration of the arrival of spring, so when you mix all that together, you get Maslenitsa (Ма́сленица). What it means in this day and age is complicated, since the celebration of church holidays was forbidden for 70 years in the Soviet era, so a lot of it seems to be made up on the fly (or old stories from someone's babushka about what this meant or what they did at this time).

The important elements are blini, the Russian crepe/pancake, which is thought to represent the sun, and Kostroma, represented in straw effigy seen below. At the end of the week, Kostroma is burned, though no one seems to know precisely why (has something to do with purifying in some way, but exactly what is being purified is a mystery as far as I can tell). Of course, this particular Kostroma in the photo is "symbolically" burned, whatever that means, since you can't set fires right next to the Kremlin. ;)

All of these photos are from trips down to Red Square to see the celebrations in full swing there at a sort of Maslenitsa fair they've got set up. You can buy blini (see below video for the making of a yummy fish blini - remind you of anything, Aunt Marty?), ...

... get yourself a nice shashlik or sausage with bread ...

... or watch some traditional dances on the stage. I found these to be fascinating, and though I managed to miss the part where they did the squat-and-leg-thrust dance that was made so famous by Bugs Bunny, I did get a good bit of some of the traditional dances. Here's one for your enjoyment - the Russian answer to "Newsies," if you will.

Oddly, though we've been down to Red Square on several occasions, we'd never been at night, so we took the chance to wander around and see what it looks like. St. Basil's in particular looks really nice lit up, although it had rained (see? Rain! I told you spring was here!) earlier and thus washed all the snow off:

The whole square actually looks pretty sharp. This is the Historical Museum, with a skating rink set up in front of it. You can actually skate right there on Red Square, which might have been fun had one of us not been pregnant and the other a person who despises the art of ice skating (well, not actually the art itself so much as the resulting ankle pain, but you get the idea).

Of course, we've managed to do more than just celebrate Maslenitsa since we last posted. We also managed to weasel out of a day of classes to have our teacher come over for a "culture event," in which she showed Bobbie and our friend Julie how to make borshch and blini. Here J enjoys the fruit of all that labor, with a nice hot bowl of borshch with a dollop of smetana (sour cream), and a lavash (a sort of round bread).

This is B celebrating her first successful blin. The video we showed you above makes it look easy, but you have to remember they have a nice flat griddle designed for blini production. It's much more difficult to flip them without destroying them in a frying pan until you understand the trick, so it's worth the celebration.

Oh, and before I forget, I need to make the following announcement: the Wandering Family will be returning to the US for the birth of baby Nicole! We had hoped that things would work out so that we would be able to be here for her birth, but it doesn't seem that we will have time to get all the documentation that would be necessary arranged between the time when she's due and our visas expire. Short version is that we're planning to fly back to NC at the end of March, and return here at the beginning of July, which should give us enough time to get all the visas arranged post-birth for our return. If you're in North Carolina (or within reasonable driving distance) and would like to arrange for us to come visit you, we'd love to, so just email us and if possible we'll get together.

For the rest of our friends scattered around the country, I'm sorry but it doesn't look like we'll have time to see you this trip. We'll be sure to make the effort to do some more travelling next time, but 8 months pregnant is not the time to schedule an extensive road trip!

Last but not least, of course, we have numerous grandparents, other relatives, and various and sundry "leeches-who-only-care-about-our-son" who also read this blog, so if you're one of those, this obligatory cute picture of Steven is just for you. :)

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Much Ado About Nothing - a Blog by B

Well, we have been busy with a lot of little things that add up to, well, being busy. I guess I could start by telling you about our trip to TGIFridays. My sisters gave us money for Christmas and instructed us to go out on a nice date since we haven't had one since August. This was a huge blessing since I (B) desperately needed some time away from Steven. Don't get me wrong, I love him but sometimes I wonder "What were we thinking?" Come on moms, I know you have thought this before, right?

Anyway, our friend Julie offered to babysit Steven (thanks!) so we set the date for Monday, February 25th. Since J usually only sees me in jeans and a T-shirt, I thought I would dress up nice and even let my hair down (the boots are also from my sisters).

We spent about 2 1/2 hours at TGI Fridays (remember speedy customer service is NOT priority here). I had a steak and J had fajitas. Let's just say I have never had a such a good steak! It was definitely a good change from spaghetti and omelettes (I've been lazy recently and haven't been spending a lot of time cooking). We got home around 9:00, where Steven was already in bed, made milkshakes, and watched a movie together. It was perfect.

The rest of the week wasn't filled with much except the same old language study. J did have a opportunity to attend a class with one of our Russian friends but I'll let him tell you more about that in another post. As for me and my pregnancy, I'm doing OK but the morning sickness, tiredness, and lack of energy has returned. It's not as bad a it was in the beginning but it is still not pleasant to go through. I'm also starting to have hot flashes.

It has been getting warmer here but the heat is still on (it's one of those you can't control individually). This makes it quite warm in the apartment so I usually end up freezing Jesse out by opening up the windows during the night since that is usually when the hot flashes are the worst. It's still cold outside but it's bearable. Actually, it's quite nasty to walk in since all the snow is turning into slush. It's hard to avoid all the huge water puddles. Then it freezes at night making it very slippery and even harder to walk on. So, we try not to venture out too much. It's odd to say so, but I think it's actual easier to deal with Moscow winters when it's colder out! Here's a shot of our local park, which has mostly been transformed into some kind of slushy lake.

Well, that is about it. I'll leave you with a cute video of Steven. He does have his cute moments, like here where he seems to be taking his "praise" in a chrsmtic direction! :)