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Beaverton Meets Moscow
Life of an Oregonian Expat in Russia

Date: 2007-11-28 17:02
Subject: Scenes from a Mall
Security: Public
Our closest "hypermarket" (the French are too cool to copy us call their huge stores "supermarkets") is at Khimki Mega Mall. Mega is a fairly accurate facsimile of an American mall with the lingerie stores ("Women's Secret" in lieu of "Victoria's Secret"), Gap like clothing stores based out of Finland and Germany, and the Claire's wannabe accessory stores. Like American malls, there is a food court. With the exception of a KFC, a McDonald's and a Sbarro's, none of the fast food resembles anything I feel comfortable eating. I can't tell what it is, but I'm not adventurous enough to find out by experimenting in a mall food court. Odd greasy noodles in mushroom gravy with sausage bits ladled into a eggy pancake and called Chinese. Call me crazy but I'll wait until I get back to America. Whoever opens a P.F. Changs here is going to make a million dollars. Any takers?

Abby and I manage a trip to the mall about every 10 days. This is about as long as I can go without a trip to Auchan, the insane babushka store aka Wall Mart meets Piggly Wiggly meets K-Mart under one leaky roof. Seriously. One day standing in line whilst a snow storm raged outside, snow wafted through the skylight onto the carts parked in line. And no one seemed to care.  My last trip to Mega I visited IKEA to finish furnishing my house. I have 90 assorted boxes and pieces of stuff piled in my living room waiting to be assembled. I do have a couch now so we can watch our 10 year old BBC reruns in a modicum of comfort.

On another recent trip, we decided to swing by McDonald's for sustenance. After four hours fighting the rampaging herds in the grocery store, we're usually dehydrated and starved.  After I managed to bluff my way through an order in very poor Russian, we parked our trays at a nearby table right next to the ice skate rental. Each dlelicious bite of my Royal cheeseburger was a joy. I felt my blood sugar percolate toward normal. I closed my eyes to savor the oily American cheese. And then it started playing: Britney Spears "Baby One More Time."  I'm sitting in Moscow, eating McDonald's listening to Britney in her better days and a pair of Russian teens walks by my table effortlessly singing every lyric. For twenty seconds, I was home. Surreal.

Abby and I laughed.
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Date: 2007-11-16 09:32
Subject: Fear Itself
Security: Public

Sometimes as an expat, I feel like I'm living in a fishbowl. There is the rest of the world--the places and people outside the glass--and then there is here, home, Russia.  Calling Russia "home" may be premature, but considering our house sale closed this week, we no longer HAVE a home in the US. Russia is our "de facto" home if not our emotional home. Home or not, living in a country that scares people is a fascinating experience. 

The level of paranoia in the West about Russia, whether it is residual Cold War mentality or a simple lack of understanding, intrigues me in the sense that this paranoia doesn't seem to exist about the only major remaining Communist power in the world, China. Instead, Russia, which lurches between corrupt capitalism and strongly nationalistic, centralized pseudo-dictatorship inspires such dread that I'm not sure what it is people are afraid of. They certainly aren't afraid of the Chinese who routinely imprison bloggers and activists who speak out against the government or force late term abortions on women who are violating the 1 child law. No one blinks when American companies like Google turn over Chinese nationals to the government for attempting to use the internet to dissent against TPTB in China or when Chinese attempt to express religious ideas and are harassed, jailed, detained by police. My AMERICAN sister in Shanghai can't read my blog because it is censored. LiveJournal is extremely popular in Russia and we even have MTV Russia in all its corrupt, debauched rock-and-roll glory.  Americans freak when the Russians make nice-nice with Iran (hello, we are in the same TIME ZONE as Tehran so do you really want to tick off your neighbors?) but few Americans realize that the ongoing genocide in Darfur is due, in no small part, to the Chinese keeping the present Sudanese government in power so the Chinese can maintain a steady oil supply. When are Brad and Angelina going to start griping about that?

I have a theory. I believe that since the Chinese make Tickle-Me-Elmo dolls that Americans think they are benign. The Chinese feed the insatiable American appetite for cheap Target consumerism and so Americans are willing to modestly avert their eyes to Chinese human rights abuses. China goes bye-bye, there goes the after Thanksgiving cheapskate festival when Americans descend on the mall like locust on Pharoah.

So why is Russian the Big Scary kid on the playground?

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Date: 2007-11-08 07:31
Subject: Wherein JA waxes eloquent about TV
Security: Public

So I have several entries that I've been working on--they're in various states of completion. My usual newsy, cultural blurbs about the quirks of living overseas.

But what I really want to talk about is television.

I am not one of those snobs who pretends that the only TV she watches is PBS and CNN. I freely admit that TV is my favorite form of entertainment. (I don't count reading because reading is like breathing to me--a totally separate issue entirely). When I lived in America, I often had the TV on while I worked, usually TLC or the Food Network, but I usually only sat down to physically watch, without distractions, a few shows during any given TV season. Those hours were the rare time when the nattering dialogue in my head ceased. To do lists, worries, frustrations, plans would all go away while I visited "The Office," the Island ("Lost"), the "Battlestar Galactica," the "Gilmore Girls" in Stars Hollow or "The West Wing." 

When I came to Moscow, we would go days without hearing another person speaking English--let alone with an American accent. The first time a cashier at KFC said "Have a nice day" in English to me, I started to cry. In our apartment, our hour of sanity is when the girls and I would gather around our laptop computer and watch an episode of "Everwood." It was one hour when we could forget the clouds of pungent cigarette smoke wafting under our door, the screeching traffic outside, the ongoing struggle of trying to cook meals without usable pans in a cooking space that could barely accommodate a Paris Hilton mini-mutt and the fact that we felt like aliens in a strange place far, far away from home.  We were starved for any cultural touchstones that linked us with home. 

When my dear friend 

bgirlla sent us copies of the fall 2007 pilots, you would have though Christmas arrived early in Russia. We could barely contain our excitement at the previews of  "Pushing Daisies," a script I had read the previous spring and fallen in love with, "Gossip Girl" and "Reaper."  For those brief moments, those TV shows closed the 11 hour time difference and the 6,000 miles that divides us from friends and a country we love. Those few precious hours of television were the cultural "shorthand," the place where "everybody knows your name" that gave precious moments of respite in those long weeks when we had no internet, no telephone and no shipment and knew hardly anyone.

I vividly remember one miserable afternoon as I attempted to prepare dinner--an exercise in futility--and listened to my iPod (which has since died a painful death). The song of choice was "Make Your Own Kind of Music" by Mama Cass, an anthem that was purchased by one of my daughters after it was used in the season 2 opening of "Lost." As I sat there washing dishes so I would have enough dishes to feed my family after I cooked, I started thinking about how I felt like I was on a desert island--an urban one--but a desert island. Everything was so hard--somedays it still is. Cooking, exercising, laundry, shopping, things that I used to do unthinkingly all require so much time and thought. Nothing is mindless. But there was Mama Cass in my ear, reminding me that I should walk up Tverskaya, head held high, ignoring the sneering faces and urban grime, making my own kind of music. If the Losties, Desmond and Juliet could hang out on a desert island and figure out quell the impulse to throw themselves into a volcano out of that stultifying combination of boredom, exhaustion, tedium and frustration, then by golly, I could survive Moscow.


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Date: 2007-11-05 21:19
Subject: Back in the Saddle
Security: Public

Hey there cats and kittens I'm back in the game.  We finally had internet installed a few days before we left for the girls autumn break in Bologna, Italy.  After getting back around midnight last night, I've been playing catch-up today--paying bills, taking care of things in America and talking to my college aged daughter on the phone. Now I just wanted to let my friends know that life has returned somewhat to normal and I will be updating my LJ at least once a week for the immediate future. This doesn't count as an update, just a heads up that I'm no longer on hiatus. I do have a wicked cold, though. I can't just have a cold, I have to have a monster one. Hopefully it doesn't become pneumonia.

Stay tuned and watch this space for more news and views of expat living :)

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Date: 2007-10-08 15:30
Subject: Still Alive
Security: Public

So this isn't as much an entry as it is a telegram from the battlefield telling everyone not to worry because we are presently without regular internet access. I am writing journal entries on my computer and will upload them when said computer can actually connect with the internet again. Amazing how things were before we had the world wide web. Primitive, odd, disonnected...it feels like I'm living in outer space where no one can hear me scream.

Supposedly we will have a visitor from Oregon in 12 days and we will go to Italy to see my sister in 19. Everyone is still functioning and transitioning to our new home. We have been blessed to have neighbors that have fed us and loaned us things like blankets and towels since ours are still in a crate in Holland.

Love you all and talk to you soon.

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Date: 2007-09-27 15:35
Subject: Update on the way
Security: Public
Hi all:

It's been a crazy week. Good crazy, not bad crazy. We're supposed to move into our home in Rosinka a week from Saturday. I say "supposed to" because this is Russia and anything can happen. We're waiting to find out if our shipment has cleared customs (it is here, in the country, but customs is its own special animal). We go to IKEA next Wednesday to buy all the furniture in our house. I went to Auchan today to buy all our cleaning and house supplies--laundry detergent, toilet paper etc. and next Friday I buy our small appliances like the iron, blender, toaster etc. 

Abby is doing extremely well in school--97% percent on her pre-algebra midterm. We have good days and bad days homeschooling. The bad days aren't bad, they're just tedious or long. It will be nice to be able to break things up with walks, bowling, swimming and the other activities at Rosinka.

I would say more but today is just crazy and I have a regular, long update with all kinds of fund anecdotes that I've been working on as I've had access to the computer. Time to run. Just wanted to let everyone know that we're okay :)
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Date: 2007-09-18 14:59
Subject: this n' that
Security: Public

For finishing the Avon Breast Cancer walk this past weekend, Congrats to bgirlla! (I would do one of those nifty LJ links, but the scripting software is doing some weirdo things). For being the bride and the birthday girl, congrats to tbelle!  I hope pookha has a terrific trip to Europe (hello, Oktoberfest) and that all the rest of you are happy.

Since the twins aren't home from school for an hour and Abby has given up trying to play "Ciao! Bella" for the day, I thought I would update. This past weekend was definitely an improvement. Yes, the hubby is in London, enjoying English speakers, huge numbers of books and Indian curry, but before he left, we had our fair share of adventures.


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Date: 2007-09-12 09:01
Subject: Still Here
Security: Public
After my last entry, I'm sure all of you are wondering whether I've been hauled off to the psych ward or collapsed on the loveseat in my small, cold living room into a catatonic state. The answer is no, I'm still here and finding ways to be more resilient. Whenever I think I'm going to collapse or lose my mind over my three small pans and my cooking/preparation space that's smaller than the kitchenette we had at the Marriott Residence Inn, I picture my pioneer ancestors, huddled around the fire with their ONE cooking pot, trying to feed their families on whatever they could hunt, pick or carry in their wagons. 

One moment of triumph last week is when I figured out how to make pancakes. This may not seem like a big deal, but when you realize I have no bowls, no measuring cups and a frying pan that's smaller than a dinner plate, it changes perspectives a bit. The pancake making desperation came after two hours of searching guide books and the internet for somewhere to go to dinner for Parry, Abby and I. The girls were babysitting and we thought, "Gee, let's go out." Except there are three challenges with dining out in Moscow (if you don't want fast food):

1) Access--without a car, we are on foot or a combination of metro and foot.  It needs to be in a safe neighborhood that is close enough to the metro that we can walk.

2) Cost-Abby and went to Hard Rock last week. We SHARED a plate of chicken nachos and a piece of chocolate chip cookie pie w/ice cream. We each had a soda. The bill was $40. Did I mention that the nachos were burned on one side? And all the toppings coagulated into a gooey heap of cheese in the middle? But we were so STARVED for familiar food that we scarfed them down gleefully. The only bargains in Moscow are a few ethnic places (and you need to know where to go and what to order because hey, I don't have Uzbek food everyday) and the chain fast food places that sell blinnis (crepe like pancakes filed with meat, caviar, cheese), sausages/hotdogs or Italian (I would not buy a pocket lasagna from a squat woman with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth with a half an inch of ash building up that's working in a hut the size of a drive-up cofee booth).

3) Atmosphere--On Saturday night in Moscow, there is no "family" type place to go. It isn't like you can pop into Chili's or Red Robin. Every place is a bar--alcohol, smoking--and here they take their recreation seriously. They eat, drink, celebrate with gusto. Which is great if you don't have an 11 year-old who just wants to eat her quesadila without a table of drunk, loudmouth Euro scenesters with pointy leather shoes next to you, disrupting the meal or blowing their cigarette smoke in your face.  Seriously--all the Hollywood people who are whining about California's indoor/outdoor clean air laws should come live in Moscow because they can smoke anywhere, anytime AND have all the Evian water they want without the Health Patrol lecturing them about a second-hand smoke.  My family? Most of us (except Parry) are asthmatic so there is that minor complication when it comes to smoking. But I digress.

So I found a recipe for pancakes on Allrecipes.com and figured out how to make them by using proportions, not exact measurements. They turned out lovely and I've added another item to my list of food that I can make using my three small pans.

There are good things about Moscow. The Metro is amazing. You can get on at almost any time of the day or night and go from one end of the city to the other quickly and relatively safely. And clean? There are patrols of workers who spend half the night scraping stickers ads for punk bands off the escalator lights so the place is immaculate. They sweep the cigarette butts out of every crevice.

They have instant raspberry flavored oatmeal at the grocery store--with real pieces of deydrated raspberry in it.

They know how to make bread--their yeast breads are amazing. We had a chocolate-filled donuts that rivaled anything we ever had in America.

You can load minutes on your cellphone at these kiosks with ATM-like machines, 24 hours a day. 

Concerts and performances are cheap (except international rock concerts like Gwen Stefani).  Excellent Boloshoi tickets are only about $30-40 per ticket. The top tickets in the whole place are around $100, not starting at $100 like in the US. 

And last but not least, they still have toilets that flush with gusto. Unencumbered by the sissy low-flow wimpy, politically correct toilets that plague parts of the Western world, you can count on a Russian toilet to do its job with muscle. 

Those are my thoughts for today. Maybe we will get lucky and "Top Dog" on Animal Planet will be replaced with Animal Cops: Houston SPCA again. That's about as exciting as television gets around--because I don't count a Russian-dubbed version of  "The Two Towers" as exciting. More like...surreal. Which is my life, in a nutshell, these days.
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Date: 2007-09-05 12:42
Subject: (no subject)
Security: Public
Tags:moscow, russia
Shoot the Tuba Player
There are bad days and then there are bad days. When you grow up in America and the frame of reference you have for coping with bad days is to indulge in a favorite vice i.e. ice cream, television, going to bed early/late, skipping work to go to the movies, going out with a best friend, a favorite restaurant etc. There isn’t the luxury of taking this course of action when you live away from everything that you know and find familiar. You have no friends. You have no stuff. Things that you are used to having as part of your everyday life cease to exist: comfortable pillows, non-educational television, DVD rentals, ice cubes, dryers, Mexican food, Costco etc.
I’ve taken a few days off from writing because I needed to stop being mad about this last weekend. Now that I’m no longer seething with bitterness and resentment, I can actually chuckle about it a little. But it is a bitter chuckle. One tinged with cynicism and a little anger. At least I’m not seething with frustration as I was a few days ago. Someday it will be funny.
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Date: 2007-08-30 14:49
Subject: Life on the extreme
Security: Public
This has been a week of contrasts.

On Tuesday, I had Back to School Night at the Anglo-American School of Moscow. You know the school in "The Princess Diaries" movie? The school that when I saw it, my first reaction was, "Right. Hollywood school." Well that's the girls school. Really. Sherbet colored halls. A cafeteria with a crepe bar. 18 kids in a class being considered "large." Swimming for PE with a hard core Aussie chick who could save a 400 pound man and still make you a cup of tea when she was done.  The decor, the smiley principal, the soothing couches in the spacious lounge area--all of them feel like something from a movie set. They have not one, but two theaters--the larger one reminded me, no lie, of a cross between the ArcLight and the DGA theaters in LA. Except with all the gadgetry necessary for putting on plays like catwalks and multi-million dollar tech resources.

There are three classes of people at AAS. The rich people (which could include some expats, but a lot of them are rich Russians), the expats and the embassy people. The rich people are easy to identify with their Parisian couture or their $3000 Armani suits and their gorgeous shoes.  The expats look a little tired, a little less polished but have more snazz than the embassy people who look and behave like career bureaucrats. Though all of Ally and Rachel's teachers were impressive (motivated, passionate, serious), my favorite was their math teacher, Mr. Caskie from Scotland whose eyes are not entirely visible through his coke bottle glasses. He would fit right in at Hogwarts. I found it funny that Rachel's American history teacher is British. Should be nice to know how those across the pond saw our little revolution. The curriculum is impressive--serious literature in the English class, primary sources, classics in social studies and lit--even Ally's dance teacher was a professional ballet dancer for 15 years. I had a shivery moment when, on my way to the big parent meeting, I saw the banners for each of the graduating classes of AAS in recent years including their class picture. Each senior class has a formal portrait taken in front of St. Basil's Cathedral. Ally and Rachel are going to be there in three years, I thought. This is why we're here.

On the other hand is grocery shopping at Auchan. 

Auchan is a French store. Except it feels more like what would happen if East German athletes on steroids designed Wall-Mart and asked gypsies to run it. I can hear the French planning it now. Zay weel want lots and lots of tings. Zay weel want zee clothes and zee shoes and zee olive oil. Then a heavy sigh, laden with French ennui. But zay will not appreciate us. Phoeey on zee ungrateful Les Russes et expatrie. I spit on zem. We will show zem. Heh. And then they sign the whole thing over to a consortium of gypsy families who haven't quite hit the crime family big leagues but who see Auchan as the first step on the road to dealing narcotics to miserable expatriate housewives. First they make them crazy shopping, and then they give them a happy pill pick-me up. It's all a conspiracy.

 Babushkas ramming unsuspecting shoppers with their carts. Bargain hunting houswives throwing clothing over their shoulders as they sort through the bins. 200 brands of shampoo, all in Russian. 100 check-out lines (I don't exaggerate). Clerks shoving carts loaded with boxes steamrolling past you. Half empty boxes. Aisles overrun with carts and people cursing in Russian. Of course, most of Russian sounds like cursing when you don't understand it. An aggrieved fish monger surrounded by four 50 foot, open, Costco deli sized counters overflowing with fish that smell like you're standing on a dock. A bitter produce woman shouting for the next person to queue up and weigh their veges already can't you see there are twenty other people in line? Phooey to you.

 Dairy products in about 15 languages. Did you know the Finns are nice to their cows? I didn't know that. Apparently the Russians are not nice to their cows and they pump them full of all kinds of bad hormones. Much like the Chinese. What is it about communists and former communists chemically abusing their livestock? So we buy Finnish dairy products. Because they, like California, have happy cows. The Scandanavians are definitely the granolas of Europe. It's all happy whole grain cereal and happy cows. Their products look clean and have lovely, airy pictures of meadows and rivers on them. Russian products? Loud logos, cartoons, and Cyrillic cursive looping all over the place. Bright red. Bright blue. Or absolutely plain and severe. Like Comrade Rice or Comrade Flour. It's like Putin products meeting Lenin products in the grocery store. (Which sounds suspiciously like the beginning of a joke. Putin walked into Auchan to get a few things before the TsSKA Moscow basketball game and who should he run into? Lenin! "Comrade Lenin," he says....) 

I have never been overstimulated by a store until today. IKEA comes close. But this makes an IKEA opening look like a child's birthday party.  Imagine what would happen if someone moved a farmer's market, a Costco, a K-Mart, and a Walgreens into one building, stacked the shelves to the ceiling and then let in 1000 + people. This is a weekday. On Saturdays, apparently the 100 check-out lines are 2 hours long. HOW CAN YOU HAVE 100 check-out lines with 2 HOUR WAITS? Isn't there like a fire marshall standing there with a counter sending people away at that point?

But in the midst of all this mayhem (somewhere, the French are laughing. I'm sure of it. 'Auchan" is probably a hit reality show in Paris and this is a Truman Show like set we're shopping in), I met my fairy godmother. Rather, I met Carolyn. Carolyn is a woman from church who just magically appeared at back to school night and magically appeared in the frozen food section at Auchan when I was about to have a nervous breakdown. The lights. The noise. The rampaging babuskhas. And then, fairy dust trailing behind her, I saw Carolyn. She is a dumpling of a woman with reddish-brown hair, stocky arms and legs and hails from Canada. She is married to a career expat--her last home was in Damascus, Syria. In the midst of the madness, Carolyn takes me on this calm walking tour of this insane asylum they call Russian capitalism, describing her favorite products in her lilting, soprano tones. "And this cheese is so creamy. Melts like a dream. Delightful with crackers." You would have thought we were at a junior league meeting.

When it came time to check-out, our driver Oleg met me at my check-out stand and helped me pack groceries and order the cashier around. He is a traditional Russian male who is offended by the notion of women being burdened with 50 pounds of groceries. Later in the car, he explains.  It is a mehn's job. You see it bozers me that these Muslim women--zay shop alone and carry big bags. Mehn should help. And then he lapses into a 20 minute silence as Abby snores, exhausted by Auchan, and I try futilely to read the billboards and building signs. We then talked about cars which led to a revealing conversation about Russia's values and future. Russia doz not build televisions, cars, DVDs. Rockets, missiles, spaceships. The army gets money and zay build tanks. Government won't care until all the gold, gas and oil is gone from holes in zeh ground and zen Russia will build cars zat are not poison and schools and televisions.. Maybe the average Russians and average Americans have more in common than we think. 

I'm still convinced that somewhere, the French are laughing at our expense. This is revenge for "Freedom Fries."  And Auchan proves beyond a doubt that the French, to quote the West Wing's Toby Ziegler, are the guys who go to 7-11 to get Satan's cigarettes.

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my journal
November 2007