Monday, May 30, 2011


Some of you have been following the Wandering Family around for a while now, and have seen many pictures of our glorious T-land apartment like the one above. It has been a great place, and we love it very much.

There was, however, one minor problem with it - it was very hard to have guests here! The kitchen seen above, you see, was a mere 2 meters wide (6 feet), and though it is plenty long and has plenty of cabinets, it's hard to fit a table into. In fact, just outside the left edge of the above picture is the wall separating the kitchen from the living room, a wall that meant that having more than 4 people sit down to a meal together was impossible.

Obviously, as part of our job revolves around spending time with people, this didn't work very well. We made do by carrying our table into the living room (a complicated process to get around the wall and through the door) each time we had company, but we dreamed of something better.

Enter the Russian term "remont." While it can be translated "remodel," remont can be anything from a new window to a completely redesigned floor plan. Our goal was simply to make our home as guest-friendly as possible, and we wanted to be able to host small gatherings in our home. So, the wall became the obvious target.

You can really see it better in this picture - a mere 15 cm separating our living room from our kitchen. Originally I remember looking at it and wondering if we could turn it into a bar, like you see in the US so often, but after some thought we realized this would be inflexible and probably culturally weird to the people here, so we decided that the whole wall had to go (well, barring 90 cm that we left on the end to hide the refrigerator and allow us to keep the two outlets).

So began a process that ended up being much lengthier than originally planned:

The first task was to take down the old wallpaper from the kitchen walls. This was actually fairly simple with a spray-bottle to wet it down first, but during the process the ceramic stovetop was cracked when a worker slipped and stepped on it. Then, to make matters worse the stove was left unattended with the microwave on top (the obvious thinking being that as the stove was broken, nothing bad could be done).

Of course, that gave the very sneaky Matthew just the chance he needed to slip in and turn the stove on, which hadn't been unplugged yet. Broken or not, the ceramic stovetop heated up enough to start the microwave sitting on top on fire, which we doused with water. Miraculously, though scorched the microwave manages to still work; how, I'm not sure.

But we hadn't even come close to reaching the end of our saga yet. The next thing we did, as seen above, was to cover all our furniture and move out in anticipation of the workmen coming the next day to take down the wall. It turned out to be cheaper to hire someone to come in and do it than to buy the tool it would cost to cut the wall, so we decided to hire it out.

Of course, that was only how it seemed initially. In point of fact, the workmen I had agreed a price with called in the next morning, reporting that they had drunk too much the night before (a holiday) and wouldn't be coming in. Sigh. So, I waited with anticipation the next day for their arrival, only to get a call, 2 hours late, saying that the sum we had agreed on (about $200) wasn't enough, and they wanted to double it. They were still planning on coming, though.

Well, I wasn't going to stand for the obvious blackmail, so I told them that I was no longer interested in their services. Fortunately, the company I had contacted to do the electrical rewiring once the wall was out was there looking over the job, and I asked him if they could do wall removal. It turns out the "electricians" were more "jack-of-all-trades," and for less than the original $200 agreed to add the wall demolition to their tasks.

So, finally, after four days of the family living elsewhere since all the furniture and cabinets were covered and/or taking up bedrooms, work began. I covered the archway leading to the rest of the apartment in plastic to minimize dust penetration, which was basically a futile operation. Dust got everywhere!

This is the wall, mid-demolition. We had helped our coworkers, who lived in an identical apartment, with a similar remodel job a year before, so we knew basically what to expect. However, in contrast to that job, we wanted to go all the way to the ceiling which was interesting.

We were pretty confident that the wall wasn't load-bearing (certain is a shade too strong for our confidence, perhaps), but we did expect to find the wall at least butting up against the floor above us. However, as you can see, what we really found was that it ended a few cm short of the ceiling, and was filled in with a kind of thatch which was then plastered around. Definitely not load-bearing, then, unless the engineer has a lot of faith in the structural support ability of twine.

Anyway, eventually the whole wall came down and we were left with this:

Now came the rewiring job, an interesting task in itself. I knew that the original wiring did not include a ground wire, having wired some of the apartment myself in the bedrooms. I wanted to add a ground wire to at least these two rooms of the apartment, just because it makes me feel all warm and cozy inside to know that something is done right, even if I can't see it.

My native electricians, however, were resistant. Finally, they told me why - "Even if we put in a cable with a ground, there's nothing to attach it to in your circuit box," I was advised. "The building wasn't wired for it when it was built, and there's literally no way we can ground it that way." I was advised, instead, to scrape some paint off the hot water pipe in the bedroom and run a wire to that "if you really want a grounded outlet somewhere." Hmmm.

Of course, the method for replacing the wiring left something to be desired,in my book, seeing as it was just channels cut into the cement wall. The wires were just laid into these channels, and then cemented over. Meaning, of course, that should I ever want to replace any of them we have to gouge the whole thing out again. Again, no alternative, I was told (even when I suggested at least cementing in PVC cable channels or something).

Eventually, a "master" (workman, in Russian) came and completed the final task I was paying other people to do; the plastering over of all the channels and gouges that had been wrought by the electricians. It looked about like this when he left:

At this point, we were clearly on the home stretch. Lots left to be done, though. First was sanding the plaster/cement as smooth as possible for repainting. The hardest part was the ceiling, where only sunglasses kept the dust from getting into my eyes.

The walls eventually looked like this and were ready to start painting:

We decided that the lavender of the previous paint regime was going to be replaced by the more neutral tan. We did both the ceiling and walls this color, and the painting part went by fairly quickly (2 days, I think?).

Bobbie and I took turns being cooped up in the office with the boys, with whoever wasn't with them coming over to keep working on the place. She couldn't do everything, so of course she spent more time with them, but fortunately our coworkers volunteered to watch them for a day or two while we painted, which made things go much quicker. Thanks, D and E!

Once painting and moulding was done (the moulding was super-interesting; it's just styrofoam that you glue on. Surprisingly easy except the corners!) we had new linoleum to lay. We really missed former flooring salesman David on this part; I accidentally bought really poor quality linoleum (not much of a choice, it was the only one they had where I could match the kitchen and living room) and we struggled to get it really smooth. Still isn't perfect, but we made the best of it.

That was the living room; then came the kitchen:

So, after all that .... I give you "The Completed Apartment!"

As you can see, things are nicely opened up into a great big space. We can move our table around, expand it (we can seat 10 when it's fully opened up), or even slide it away for big gatherings in the room. Just added the curtains today; we've been waiting until it was totally complete before posting up these pictures.

Looking from the living room into the kitchen; the wall stub there on the left used to expand across the whole photo and separate the two rooms.

And looking towards the prokhozhoye (foyer? is that a good translation?) from the balcony door:

We really do feel blessed to enjoy such a wonderful place to live, and even more so now that it's so much more guest-friendly! We hope to have many people over and have lots of chances to grow close to them in the place that he's given us here.

I'll conclude with one of the best things about our apartment, even before the remodeling job: this is the beautiful sunrise from our balcony window this morning!

Thanks so much for thinking of us during this somewhat lengthier-than-expected process. We're back to language and culture study again as of Thursday, and hope to really see some improvements this summer. We've already had a chance to use the "new" place twice to host people, and we're loving it!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Friday, May 6, 2011

T-land Wrestling

So, on May Day, a popular Russian holiday, we heard from friends that there was a big Khuresh (T wrestling) festival down at the stadium. We decided to go check it out.

It turned out to be a pretty big day out! I had been to a minor tournament before, but not one of the big ones so this was a whole new experience. It was a lovely day, though - perfect for being outside.

The day kicked off with a series of dances and performances, the first of which represented T-land's history. Above you can see the dancers representing the Mongols, as they lead their attack on T-land (represented by the white "yurts"). They were followed by the Chinese and Russians, in what had to have been fraught with political symbolism which we were fortunate to not really understand.

Anyway, the T people "won" in the end, and then all danced around what was basically a Maypole. Here's the concluding ceremony as everyone celebrates that T-land retained its culture:

This guy for some reason was chosen as the representative of the T people's resilient victory, coming in on a cart beating a giant drum. All of the announcing was in T and thus we understood little, so I'm admittedly piecing together the story as best I could, but I think we got the gist of it.

Then a proud moment - an acquaintance of ours and good friend of our coworkers', M, was chosen to hoist the T flag. He's a champion wrestler and in fact was participating in the day's main event.

Khuresh is really an interesting sport. Half Western-style wrestling, half sumo, it's about getting your opponent to lose his balance and fall. The ceremony begins with a brief dance, called the Dance of the Eagle, where the wrestler waves his arms high and circles. He will generally then slap his thighs, front and back, and get into position for the match.

The success or failure seems to come down to the hold that each wrestler takes, so it can be quite a cagy affair at first, with lots of circling and slapping the other man's arm down, etc.

Eventually, in most matches, some sort of hold is formed (the only exception being a successful trip, which is rare). If one wrestler has the advantage, he will use his leverage to try to throw his opponent. If they're evenly gripped, it can last a while as both struggle to gain an advantage.

Eventually, one of them gets into a superior position, either by strength or balance, and then tries to throw the other. Whoever touches the ground first with anything other than his foot is out. If both of them fall together, and it isn't clear who touched first, the crowd will shout "Deng!" (meaning "tie") and a draw is declared. Then they start again from the beginning.

Below I managed to get a shot of a throw in progress - you can see that the wrestler nearest to us is going to lose in about half a second, though you might have to click to make it bigger to see it.

Here's a video of a brief match - sometimes they can go on for 5 or 10 minutes, sometimes they're over just this quick:

It was rather a warm day, and the boys got a bit cranky (after all, they didn't seem that interested in the wrestling so it was just a day where they had to sit on some bleachers in the sun all day). Fortunately, Matthew slept a little in the afternoon.

The tournament was a knockout style with 64 entrants, much like the American March Madness college basketball tournament. Whoever won, advanced, and whoever lost was out. Our friend M made it to the final, meaning he won 5 straight matches, but he lost the last one.

Between each round, to give the wrestlers a chance to recover, there were performances of songs and dances. This is a dance which somehow mocked the wrestlers, I think, because it involved some of the same moves, but exaggerated, and the T spectators found it hilarious.

So that was that. I thought I'd put a few pictures up of the boys just for the grandparents, so the rest of you can feel free to go. These are from the continuation of Matthew's birthday celebration. We took the boys to the pay-per-play playground in town, and I think they really enjoyed it.

It's kind of a similar place to a McDonald's Playplace, though a bit bigger and with a little trampoline. Unfortunately, it's way too expensive for us to do regularly ($8 per kid for a half hour!), but it was fun as a special treat to let them play for a half hour on it.

Steven looks longingly at the arcade games, most of which I'm sure he couldn't figure out how to play even if we did let him!

So, that's about it. Thanks for stopping by - if you're wondering what you can keep in mind for us this week, it's remodel week! We've been wanting to take out the wall between our kitchen and living room (so we can have more company over) for a while, so we're finally doing it. Or will be, whenever the contractors actually come.

We had an agreement with one to do it, but then he called and said he couldn't come, and then the next day he wanted more money than he had originally agreed on. Now we're on to contractor #2, which seemed more promising at first but they couldn't come today because the truck that's going to haul away the debris is in the shop. Hopefully next week?

We'll be sure to put up some pictures of the work whenever it's all done. Have a good week!