Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Video Blog by B

This picture (of J and Martha at the beach) has nothing to do with anything, I just like it.

Really, this whole post is not really about anything in particular. Nothing exciting is going on in our lives right now except the same old language learning.

Because of that, I thought I would take this opportunity to post some videos of the kids that I have been meaning to post for a while. Some are a couple of months old, and some are really dark, so I apologize, but they're something at least.

The boys are growing up so fast! Steven definitely has a personality and we are trying to shape it the best we can. He is so funny and full of life. Matthew is sprouting up like a weed. This kid eats more food per meal than J does (this is no exaggeration). Apparently, J did the same when he was a baby so maybe Matthew will be the tall one. We will see. Anyway, enjoy the videos:

Saturday, January 10, 2009

What's in a Name?

Would a rose by any other name really smell as sweet?

"Really, honey, come smell this footsweat. It's a lovely fragrance."

OK, so it's New Year's, and as usual that's a big deal here in Russia. I'll get to that in a sec. First, though, I thought some of you might be amused by the story of our conundrum with names here in Russia, and the way in which a cultural misunderstanding can lead to all kinds of confusion.

As most of you know, I grew up in Bolivia. Yes, my parents were both born in Bolivia and I was born and raised in South America, but technically we were still expatriates. Gringos. Yanquis. That means that I have a non-Bolivian name.

However, every expat I knew had a second name, a "Bolivian" name, if you will. My grandfather Wayne became "Guillermo," my father Dan became "Daniel," and my friend Chun Hsien became "Alberto." It's just the way things are done there. Part of adapting to the culture is picking a name that isn't impossible for the natives to pronounce, preferably one close to your real name if possible, and using it.

So, when we arrived here, I assumed we needed to do the same thing. It would be ridiculous not to have a Russian name, I thought. After a look online for Russian names, I decided that "Yefim" was fairly close to my name and that's who I would be. B would become "Suzana," which is her middle name, or close to it, since her real first name sounds quite a bit like the Russian word for "Granny."

Along the way, though, my Russian friends looked at me a bit funny when I introduced myself. "Yefim" was definitely not working, as it's kind of an older name and no one in this generation is actually called that, and fortunately I gave up on that within a week or so. Picture some Japanese guy trying to pass himself off as "Alfred" and you get the idea. After a few months of calling B by her real first name, we started telling people she would be "Suzana," which just confused everyone who already knew her as B.

The kids were even tougher. Steven is actually quite easy, but even calling him "Stepan," the Russian equivalent, gets some funny looks sometimes. The thing is, Russians expect foreigners to have foreign names. It actually confuses them more when we try to fit in by naming our kids something Russian. We didn't really understand this at all when we got here, since I was still operating in my Bolivian framework, and so we have pretty thoroughly confused our friends.

Matthew was even worse, since there really isn't a good Russian equivalent of Matthew (there is the name Matvei, but it hasn't really been used commonly for a few generations). We originally decided to use his middle name ("Alexander," extremely Russian) and call him Sasha, which is the Russian nickname for Alexander. This led to confusion when people would overhear B talking to him in English and calling him Matthew, then switching to Sasha a few seconds later when she talked to them in Russian. Since Russians are actually familiar with the name Matthew (from the actor McConaughey) they didn't understand why we would give up a perfectly good American name to use a name for him that wasn't even really his name, as far as they were concerned.

Really? This is the guy you want to name your son after?

So, now we've had to rethink the whole thing. Soon, we'll be moving to Siberia, where right now no one knows us. I'd really like to avoid the whole confusion out there, so we're trying to learn from our mistakes here. Then again, I really don't want to call our kids anything super-American when we're in public, since that just calls more attention to the fact that we're foreigners. I don't like shouting across the playground in English (also something I've carried over from Bolivia, but I can't seem to make myself just forget this one), and I just can't get past the fact that shouting a name like "Steven!" isn't much different. I know, it's not that big of a deal for the people here, but I just hate to call attention to myself as a foreigner every time we're out if I don't have to; I'd rather do that when I get to actually introduce myself and talk to people one-on-one.

Probably what we're going to do is introduce ourselves by our first names, and just use Russian nicknames for our boys. They'll still be Steven and Matthew at home, but at school or on the playground or store they'll be Styopa (which Steven is already very used to) and Matveika (which is the nickname form of Matvei). Our poor friends here in Moscow that met him as Sasha, then Alex, then Matvei, then hear us call him Matthew just shake their heads and laugh at us now, so I'd like to avoid that in our future home at all costs! Thus are the perils of assuming all cultures will react the same way to a given situation.

So, that rabbit trail has gone on quite long enough. On to the New Year's pictures:

New Year's, as I think I've mentioned approximately 1000 times on this blog, is a really big deal here in Russia. It's taken very seriously, and most Russians will get together with their friends, have a big feast, and then go outside and watch some fireworks.

Last year, we made do by getting together with some of the other foreigners in town who weren't invited to a party and ordering a pizza, before going outside to destroy a few things with fireworks of our own (link here for the video if you don't remember how that went).

This year, we had similar plans, not having been invited to any of our friend's dos (American readers thinking "What's a 'do'?). However, at the last minute, our friends Delia and Nadira invited us over to their place, and we just brought along the pile of blini we had been fixing.

It was quite a spread:

Russians say that the way you "meet" or celebrate the New Year is the way you'll spend it; or the richer your New Year's table, the richer your year. Thus, it's important, even if there's only 6 adults, to have enough food to feed China for a month. This is just the food that fit on the table, there was also a huge stack of blini and a roasted chicked to add to this.

It was surprising to me that we didn't actually do a whole lot. We sat at the table, ate, and watched the Russian version of Dick Clark, a New Year's party on TV. It was much funnier than the American program, and we learned lots of interesting things about pop culture. Later our friends lit up these sparklers and put them in fruit to actually ring in the New Year. We then watched Medvedev's brief New Year's address and toasted the New Year. B and I didn't make it too much beyond that since we needed to take the boys home, but the fireworks kept us up until about 2 or so.

The Friday after New Year's my old language helper Andrei invited us to a combination Christmas/New Year's party. It's interesting to see how the family members want to return to a celebration of Christmas being really important, but since it was practically outlawed by the Soviet government, they really have little history of doing so. Nowadays they sort of mix the two together into one holiday, although the population at large cares very little about Christmas.

At any rate, we had a great time at this party. I, in particular, have always been hesitant to join into "worldview-type" discussions in small groups, etc, not wanting my poor language ability to interfere. However, I decided to go out on a limb after we read the Christmas story and told a little story about how a professor of mine had once encouraged me to read a different version of the story. I wasn't sure what he meant until he reminded me that the story about the dragon and the woman in the end of the Book was also about Christmas, told from a different perspective.

I basically challenged the partygoers to read it and see what they thought when they got home, not sure if I was communicating well. I was happily surprised when several of them said they were intrigued and insisted we track down the story and read it then and there. We then had a 20-minute conversation on the section and what it meant and how it should affect our interpretation of Christmas. I loved it! It was one of the only times I have engaged someone other than my language helpers on a deeper theme and communicated well enough to spark a real conversation. Obviously, I'm still a long way from "fluent," whatever that means, but it's encouraging to see signs of real progress.

Anyway, then we played a word game, which I thought would be pointless for me, since any vocabulary exercise difficult enough to be stimulating for a native speaker would probably be well beyond me, but to my surprise I actually was able to contribute. Not enough, as my team lost handily, but still!

Other than that, life is still very good. B found a recipe online for Krispy Kreme doughnuts, so she made those the other day - tremendous!

We got a Christmas package from Bolivia! My parents sent it, and I've been enjoying some home-dried mango. Steven, meanwhile, has loved the little "town" my mother created on a rollup mat, complete with bridge, railroad, and buildings (not shown).

And I think that's about it. It's been pretty cold for Moscow lately, -20° C, so we've been bundling up. Here's B taking the boys for a walk:

Soon we'll be heading out to Siberia to see some real cold, so we'll have to report then what that's like. It looks like we'll be making that trip sometime in earlyish to mid-February, so you can be thinking about that. We did get word that our documents are in the US, fully completed, so they'll be coming back with our friends David and Erin and that means that we should have all the documents we need for the residency application! Please be lifting that up over the next month or two.

I'll leave you with Matthew's first sledding experience, and his rather nonchalant reaction:

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Christmas Sickness (a blog by B)

Well, Christmas has come and gone and I'm just now getting around to posting this. Don't worry, there is a very good reason for this delay. I'll get back to you with the reason as soon as I can think of one.

I guess for one, we have been very busy with parties, eating, presents, family, friends, and of course puking. Yep, you read correctly - puking. We had plans for friends coming over Christmas Eve and then on Christmas day. Unfortunately, Tuesday night Steven decided that the walls in his room were too plain and needed a little decorating.

Around 10:00pm I heard him making some weird noises. When I went in to investigate, he had added several pieces of undigested food not only to the wall, but all over the mattress, pillow, his clothing, and even poor Puppy (the stuffed animal he sleeps with).

Once I stuck my head out of the window for some fresh air in order not to puke myself, Jesse and I proceeded to clean up. Thinking this was a one time deal, we went back to bed just to hear him throwing up again 30 min later. So, once again, we cleaned up and I decided I would sleep with him in case this throwing up continued. Good call. It went on all night. Neither of us got any sleep and by the time Jesse woke up the next morning we were both exhausted.

Jesse took over the morning shift as I tried to get some sleep. Luckily, Steven stopped throwing up but just lay around all day not wanting to do anything (this was Christmas Eve). That evening, we had a few friends over for supper which was a good distraction. By the time Christmas morning came Steven was back to normal and raring to go for the presents. That morning we had a Christmas brunch that included blueberry muffins, eggs, biscuits, gravy, bacon, hashbrowns, and juice. It was only lacking grits (which I ended up getting for Christmas thanks to my family).

Later that afternoon we skyped my family and opened gifts. It felt like they were there with us. Skype is the best invention ever!

After the gifts were opened, the boys crashed and Jesse and I lay around like slugs. It was a great Christmas. Then on Friday, we had our team Christmas party at TGI Fridays.

We had such a good time and I even got to wear my red boots that my sisters sent me last year. My feet suffered greatly but at least I looked good (hahahaha). The food was wonderful and I enjoyed every bite.

Unfortunately, it is not as good coming back up. Yep, that's right - Friday evening it was my turn to throw up. That night was spent hugging the toilet (and not because I needed to be comforted). I was glad at least I was the only sick one in the family. Right? Wrong.

When I fed Matthew early Saturday morning, he started throwing up and crying because he wasn't feeling good. I was so glad I had a strong, healthy husband to take care of the kids so I could get some rest. Right? WRONG AGAIN! Saturday morning I woke up to Jesse throwing up. So, here we were. Steven going mad because he still wasn't feeling good and he had not been out of the apartment in 5 days, another child who wanted to be held all the time because it hurt his tummy to lay down, me who could barely walk, and a husband who was throwing up and stumbling back to the bed. Times like these make me wonder "Is it worth it"? Being here with no family to help out, not able to give my kids lots and lots of toys, going without the comforts I am used to?

With much debate, :) I've decided that it is. No matter what we go through, anything is better than what he went through for us. There is always someone worse off than me. So, as I talked to him I thanked him for what we did have. A wonderful family with two beautiful sons, a beautiful apartment, food, clothing, friends and family. When I'm tempted to give up or start complaining, he always seems to remind me to look around. What I see are people with so much less than me. Old women standing on corners in rags begging because they can't work, men stumbling in their drunkenness and hopelessness, people living in a hole in the ground so as not to freeze in the winter, people lost in their desperate search for something, and they don't even know what it is. Like every big city in the world, Moscow has its share of hurting people.

Even if I don't have anything else (no food, clothing, friends, family, shelter, love), if I die alone with nothing to my name, I still have him. I think of what my life will be like after I die. Then everything I have (or don't have) here seems unimportant and insufficient. I am privileged to know him. If nothing else, I will always have that and that is all I need.

Sorry to go off like that. Sometimes I get overwhelmed with how much I have been given! Anyway, Saturday I called a friend who so graciously came over to take care of the kids so Jesse and I could rest. By Sunday, we were all feeling much better and by Monday, back to normal. So, all in all, we had a great (yet challenging) Christmas. I will wait to write about New Years in the next post which will be soon so keep checking. Until then, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Enjoy the photos!

A Russian Christmas decoration:

Jesse reading the Christmas story:

Just some cute pictures: