Thursday, October 7, 2010

What a long strange trip its been

On Tuesday,  I became violently ill in the car. 

Tuesday was supposed to be the day that I explored the Ostozhenka neighborhood for my architecture group and went to lunch in Chistye Prudye for my book club. I had ambitiously hoped to stop by the grocery store for fresh fruit for Abby's lunches. I made it to Krylatsky Hills (Parry's office), asked to use the facilities (went through TWO security checks for the privilege), threw up everything my stomach and proceded to take the metro into town to run one critical errand. No fun on Starry Arbat, having my MakTost from McD's. No lovely lunch. Just march down to my architecture group leader's house, retrieve a two-wheeled shopping trolley's worth of thermoses and haul back to the Smolyenskaya metro as fast as possible.

By the time I arrived in Rosinka, I crawled onto the couch, feeling like death with the addition of an exploding migraine. I don't remember what I did except feel like the inside of a barf bag on a transatlantic flight.

Wednesday, I had another "must do" meeting and a flu shot scheduled at Anglo American. I did what I rarely do and I  took a strong (read: narcotic) painreliever, in a SMALL dose, to get me through the morning. I had to meet three lovely ladies for a meeting at Akademia Cafe by Christ the Savior Cathedral. Did I mention I was in charge? I was now having all the symptoms of the weirdest infection ever--stomach issues, sinus issues, headache, backache, swollen glands, low grade fever. Yet I marched through my meeting, sipping my thyme tea and did a walkthrough the Ostozhenka neighborhood in all its nouveau riche Luzhkovian glory. In the midst of all this, I had some nagging feeling about getting home. How was I planning on getting home? I knew there was a plan but I couldn't recall it. I had scheduled not one, but three trips to the center for this week and I had some memory that this was the day I needed to catch the 3:55PM bus to get home. Or was it?

One of the cool ladies I was working with volunteered to have her driver take me home. She had a sweet late model black Mercedes sedan with a young, eager to please and friendly young man behind the steering wheel. Being half dazed from starvation (At this point, I had been living off crackers, Coca-Cola and white bread for more than 24 hours) and a little whacked from the codeine, I couldn't help but say yes.  Who doesn't like being treated like a princess in a nice car?

I staggered home, day two, took my migraine medicine (no codeine) and started to sort out all my notes for the architecture walk. At 3:45, my cellphone rings. A number I don't recognize. I couldn't figure out who it was until the caller identified himself as my driver, Andre. The fact that I don't recognize my driver's cellphone should be a clue as to what a great relationship I have with my driver. I had totally spaced off that my husband had scheduled my driver to pick me up at the school. I felt horrible but at the same time, I thought that if the only thing I've really done wrong in 3 years is to forget a pick up, he's pretty lucky.

Still, I felt like I was doing a walk of shame to the car today on my way to pick up Lindsey for lunch. He must think I'm really stupid. Of course, I think that my behavior yesterday only affirms what he already thinks. Lindsey and I took an extra long time at lunch today. We filled the car with groceries. Our timing meant we were stuck in the post-school traffic rush. I unapologetically sat in the back, reading Anna Karenina. He didn't offer to help me carry my groceries to the house and I thought "Good riddance. You're getting PAID to help me."

I did eat one meal today that wasn't Coca-Cola and crackers. I had Linguine Goodman and green salad. However, I don't think I can manage more than that. I suspect I may actually have an ulcer, believe it or not because no matter what I eat or what I do, my stomach hurts.

Continuing the theme of the weird week: this morning, I woke up from a nightmare where I dreamed that I had been murdered and had my head cut off. I borrowed another body, sewed the head back on my dead corpse, then tried to confront the people (who looked like middle class housewives) who murdered me and threw me in a dumpster. They didn't recognize me, naturally, because I was in a new body. I woke up just as  the murder investigation was getting underway. This time, the Nestle water delivery man, who had been TOLD not to come until 11AM, showed up at 7:30 (I had been up at 5:30, sent Abby to school at 6:30 and crawled back into bed).  When I showed up at the door bleary eyed in my PJ's, I suspect he got the message that the customer was ticked--when I say 11, I mean 11.Whether I am grateful that he woke me up from a nightmare or cranky because I had a lousy sleep, I can't say.

I still have a headache. I still can't eat normally. I have architecture walk tomorrow and I will take to my couch as soon as I get home.  YES I CAN! I can survive this weird week. I can grow my brain back. I can wrap my brain around the weather forecast that says we'll have snow on Tuesday and we'll be looking at below zero temperatures for the remainder of the week.

I keep telling myself that I have 23 days until fall break.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Sunny Side of the Street

Expat Year 4 Goal: Optimism

1. The 2.5 hours it takes to wash my whites gives me time to walk three times or more around Rosinka.

2. Speaking of walking around Rosinka, at least twice a week, I have brand new episodes of "This American Life" and "The Moth" to listen to. Both are free and will not trigger the iTunes lockout that happens to people like me who download outside the continental United States. Bonus.

3. I don't have to stay up late to watch the new fall TV shows. I can find them uploaded, however dubious the legality, and watch them on my computer at my kitchen table while I chop onions. I can check televisionwithoutpity to see if the episodes are worth watching. Less time wasted. Check.

4. The amount of time it takes to get from Rosinka to school is perfect for napping.

5. I'm not losing a sister-friend with Lindsey moving to London, I am gaining a new couch to sleep on when I have the chance to leave Russia.

6. Parry's month of traveling may mean he'll hit Gold Medallion status this year so he can be in the "Sky Team Elite" line at the airport.

7. The discovery that my $15 restaurant cheeseburger was chewy raw in spots has been incentive to save my money. I haven't lost a convenient eat out option, I've become more thrifty. Yay for homecooking!

8. The gray and overcast weather has given me a chance to break out a few cute fall items from my closet. A favorite is a black corduroy A-line skirt from Boden. I may buy it in denim.

9. Going back to the US for Abby's December endocrinology appointment isn't an expensive holiday detour, it's the chance to buy Christmas in person instead of from Amazon.  Also--to pack Rachel and Allyson's bags for their Russia flight. It will save me the stress of sitting in front of the computer, refreshing the Delta flight status website every 15 minutes to make sure that JFK isn't snowed in. Instead, I'll be waiting for mobile phone updates. Much more convenient.

10. Our rent only went up a little this year. The bus fares went up a little. And inflation will only be 10%. I don't eat buckwheat so the fact that every store is sold out of it is okay.

The truth is I have a lot to be grateful for. I am cognizant every day of the randomness of life and the seemingly arbitrary nature of tragedy and trial.  There have been moments in the last 4 months when I felt like I was suffocating slowly from the stress. Now that I have a moment to breathe, I am determined to enjoy my blessings. I have no idea what the future will bring. There is no question that 2010 will go down as the "transition year." I suspect that 2011 will bring transitions as well as we figure out whether we will stay in Russia beyond our contract (ends in August) or whether we return to the US (where?) or whether we stay international.  I have my suspicions, but I'm keeping my cards close until more time passes. In the meantime, I have another expat goal.

Expat Year 4 Goal #2: Live in the moment.

Bring it, Mother Russia.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


From: Heather Jarman (on spring break in Bountiful, Utah)

April 17, 2010

Dear Family:

So instead of putting this up on facebook and boring everyone to death, this is our status.
This morning, I went to check in for our flight and discovered that our flight from JFK to Moscow was cancelled for tomorrow, arriving Monday. The same flight was cancelled for today's flyers. My understanding is the problem isn't that Russian airspace is closed--it is that there isn't enough safe airspace in the adjacent countries for international flights to fly. This could change as the ash is projected to move continually east and Moscow may eventually close. The only flights that seem to be getting into Moscow are from Asia and many of those have substantive delays. I called Delta to rebook--the phone wait was more than an hour so I got in the car and went to the airport.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

What you think about the week after a terorrist attack

Yesterday, my friend Lindsey asked me when I was going to blog again. February was a black hole. March has been a month of long, long days and a lot of mixed feelings--people are excited about moving (not us--we're in Moscow at least until August 2011), my twins--for graduating; Sara is making big life decisions. Parry is traveling, traveling, traveling. He weathered not one, but two airport/airline strikes in two countries. Now the sun is out, the snow is melting and my brain is starting to wake up again.

A dear friend of mine emailed me and asked me how I felt about what happened in Moscow on Monday when two female suicide bombers detonated explosives inside two very busy Moscow metro stations. Instead of writing a separate blog entry, I'm going to copy-paste the email I wrote her in reply. Let me be clear: I have no desire to be a dramatic diva about this. My family is fine. My friends are fine. I don't know of anyone in my acquaintances who was hurt. That being said, I'm a bit mentally shaken, especially as I read a report today that says there are as many as 21 "Black Widow" bombers out there lined up to take their turn attacking Russia. Here's the email:

Hi B:
I've been thinking about how to answer this email for the better part of my waking hours. I didn't want to be glib and say that of course it has rattled me, but the world is a tough place and I'll soldier on. I didn't want to say that I'm fine either because I'm not. I'm not at all but not in the ways I expected. Thank you for asking me not just if I was safe, but how I felt. Thank you for caring. Right now, that means more to me than just about anything that anyone has done for me in a long time.

Yesterday, Abby called me from school around 9:30AM. She never calls me from school. They had announced what happened during an assembly. She asked me, sounding terrified, if dad had taken the metro today. Without saying it, she was asking if her dad had been in the blast because she knows that Parry takes the metro quite regularly when he's going places during the work day. She knew he was leaving town and she was scared. Of course Parry was fine, but the fact that she, even for a moment, had to question what was going on, was unnerving. It made all of it seem more personal. She's 14. She shouldn't have to worry about her dad getting blown up on the metro.

Last night, I went to one of the expat forums to see what people were saying. The media here gives us nothing but sound bites and the government takes such fanatical control of the story that it is tough to know what really happened. Usually the expat forums have someone who knows something. As I was cruising through the posts, I found a youtube link to footage that someone took inside the Park Kultury metro station from the train opposite the train that was attacked. Apparently the person taking the footage was exiting the station and was filming what could be seen. I have replayed that footage five hundred times in my mind. I don't know why I watched except to see that it was real. It was horrifying. And really, only someone who has been in that metro station and ridden the metro as much as I have can appreciate what insanity it was.

There weren't any screams. The station was silent as a tomb except for the recorded announcement the metro train play at every stop before the doors close. There were bodies on the platform. Smoke. But what horrified me was the stairs.

Park Kultury is an older metro and the stairs are well-worn grey streaked marble instead of escalators. Yes, really marble. Stalin went through a phase where he blew up churches and other bourgeoisie buildings but sacked them of all their valuable building materials beforehand. The Moscow metro is filled with oppulent, slightly rickety fixures in the way that you would expect from Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. Park Kultury reminds me of a shabby government building that has seen better days. It stands out in my metro travels, because you have to walk up the stairs to exit. The last time I was there, it was winter, my shoes were wet and I was worried I would slip and go tumbling down the stairs.

The stairs were covered with bloody footprints. People were trudging up the stairs in silence, tracking blood everywhere. Bright red blood, smudged, dripping--all over. As I watched them walk, I looked at those stairs imagining the times I have walked those exact stairs, bounding up, sometimes two at a time, in a hurry to meet someone. Sara went up and down those stairs three or four times a day for 4 months--her university was on that line. You don't expect someplace you know to look like that.

It occured to me that if I had been on that train, I wouldn't even be able to understand what was happening. I don't speak enough Russian to even know what to say. If I, or my husband, had been injured, how would we have explained who to call or what to do or what was going on? To be trapped in this nightmare and be completely helpless to understand it--to have to go to the hospitals and look at the white boards sitting out outside the entrances, trying to find the names of someone you knew that was missing--how would it be done? I'm in RUSSIA. I don't even know where the Emergency Services Hospital is! I use private medical facilities with European management and glibbly say, "If something bad happens, I'm going to be medivac'ed to Germany or Finland." If I was unconscious on a metro platform, what would happen to me? Would anyone who found my ID even be able to read the English name and information written there? What would happen to Parry? He speaks less Russian than I do. That scares me.

I've spent weeks in the Lubyanka neighborhood, prepping for my architecture presentation. The Lubyanka neighborhood, for the record, is predominantly owned/managed/houses former KGB and now FSB facilities. Walking up Bolyshaya Lubyanka street, beyond the obvious office buildings with the hammer and sickle on them, you wouldn't necessarily guess that some of these rather ordinary 18th century neo-classical apartment buildings are actually FSB owned and once were residences for people like Felix Dzherzhinsky, murderer and KGB founder. We would walk around, joking that we needed to be careful that the FSB/KGB would start to wonder what these foreign ladies were doing poking around all this highly sensitive areas for so many days. Now, as all the FSB drones are pouring through weeks of surveillance footage, trying to find evidence of these terrorists, part of me is wondering if we will show up on that footage, that somehow we are in the narrative--part of the story--and we didn't even know it.

One of my expat friends has lived here forever. Her husband is a the bureau chief of a very prestigious and important journalism outfit. She told me, while we were on our walk through the Lubyanka neighborhood, that if most expats knew half of what went on in this city, we would never leave our houses--and that she marvelled at how naive and innocent we were in assuming that everything as it appeared. The veneer of safety is just that--a venner, she insisted. After yesterday I am filtering what I'm seeing through that lens and I'm wondering if what I see is real--what of my reality is constructed from truth and what is fantasy. I have always prided myself on not being one of those expats who lives in a bubble. I don't romanticize Russia, but I don't villianize her either. I like to think of myself as a realist. I honestly don't know what is real.

This city always teeters on the edge of paranoia. This incident will make that worse--far worse--to the point of making the claustrophobia that I sometimes feel choked by as I'm making my way through the crowds, become smothering. My friend Becky told me once that you don't realize how exhausted Russia makes you until you leave and the weight of it is removed. That weight has grown over the last 24 hours. I worry that the already corrupt and dangerous police force will use the pretense of security to harrass innocent people and demand more bribes. I worry about more check points in the center and travel and fret about making sure every date, stamp and spelling on my official documents is in order 24 hours a day in case I am stopped. Today, I went to the mall because I had to look at something that wasn't my house. I am waaay behind on a lot of things, but being in my head was a bad space. The security guards stopped the car on the way in to search the trunk. That has never happened before. There are security and police everywhere.

I play the degrees of separation game. Parry has an employee who was on the Park Kultury platform. I know Parry. Parry knows him. Two of my church friends, Arteyom and Anastasia, transfer through Park Kultury on their way to home or school every day. Arteyom missed the blast by 10 minutes. Ten minutes is the difference between making or missing a light at a crosswalk or transfering from one metro station to another at a brisk walk or a stroll. You don't think that how fast you walk would make a difference, but in Arteyom's case, it may have made the difference between whether he walked into a death trap or missed it.

I will carry on and be a grown up about this. I'm not going to dramatize this because I wasn't there and I don't know anyone yet who was in the blast. That could change. The red line is one of the busiest in the city. Parry says that all their employees are not accounted for yet--at least as of last night--and they are going through the process. I'm sure it will be fine and that people who were on their way to work just freaked out and went home and couldn't be reached on their phone. The FSB jammed the mobile reception in and around the city in specific places because there was a theory--no idea if it is fact yet--that the bombs were detonated via cellphone. Calling people on mobiles was a disaster for most people in the center yesterday.

But I'm still processing, thinking, wondering. Will Putin decide to go to war with the Chechens again? Will there be another attack? Will it be soon? Will this incident totally freak out my relatives who are already nervous about visiting? I am grateful my family is safe. I am glad that Parry was flying yesterday instead of taking the train--he would have been on and off the metro if he were taking the train. I am grateful that my architecture group is on hiatus until after the easter holidays. I'm grateful my children attend an international diplomatic school that is as good as an embassy when it comes to protection. I wonder how I will feel when I get on the metro next time--Saturday in fact--and whether I will turn up my ipod and zone out to my happy music or whether I will be watchful, vigiliant and paranoid.

I'm watching a lot of cable television. The stupid Russian news keeps playing the same stupid footage over and over again. I'm sure the powers that be are trying to figure out what the narrative and spin is going to be. I'm sure they're trying to find answers. So I've stopped watching the news and I watch Discovery Travel and Living. I watch the trainwreck that is now Jon and Kate Plus Eight and more of Kat Von D than anyone should ever watch. I watch anything that reminds me that somewhere in the world are people who still care very passionately about ridiculous things like how much plastic surgery Heidi Montag has. That is where my head is.

Hopefully somewhere in this ramble you can find something that makes sense.

Miss you back,

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

I don't really hate Russia

I have a love/hate relationship with it. I love the rich, diverse history behind this complex country. I love that every day, Moscow surprises me. Not always a good surprise, but surprise keeps me on my toes. I love that my children are exposed to real world issues and have a diverse peer group that, for better or for worse, has forced them to be world citizens at a young age. I love that living here has forced me to simplify my life. Logistics here are too hard to live a complicated life. I love that living here is keeping me far, far away from the politic trainwrecks in the US. I avoid the nightly tantrums of the pundits, thank heavens. However, right now I hate Russia more than I love it. I have never thrived in dark, cold winter days, either here or in Portland. I'm not picking on Moscow exclusively. I'm not a winter gal. I think one of the aspects of living here that makes it hard is that very few people actually understand my life. I remember visiting the US after my first year in Russia and feeling like I didn't belong anymore. I can't recall exacty what set me off, but I remember an epic rant about how I felt like a circus freak with people "ooing" and "ahhing" about the oddities of my daily life from maifia neighbors to traffic horror stories (3 hours to go 20 kilometers was a favorite). I felt like I was being asked to put on a little skit telling people about all the stuff we do that is weird, alien, exotic and scary. I felt like a performing monkey on a leash with a little pillbox hat on my head. I am not a performance artist or a guest on an NPR podcast. This is my *life.* This is my normal, like it or not, and it is hard that most of the people that are closest to me don't get that. In more than two years, I have only had four visitors, two family members (in-laws) and two friends. I love talking to my two friends who visited me because I DON'T HAVE TO EXPLAIN ANYTHING. They get the punchlines. My daughters ask me from time to time if it hurts my feelings that no one wants to visit us. I tell them no, truthfully, because this is not what I call a warm, welcoming tourist destination. Russia is a tough nut to crack--an expensive one at that. You pay a lot of money to come here and are often treated badly once you arrive (unless, of course, you have me to run interference for you). Sheremeteyvo airport alone is enough to send some people running for cover--I know it was for me the first time I arrived there in 110F August heatwave with aggresive taxi drivers, cigarette smoke, and concrete--one of my first impressions of Russia was all the concrete. I understand why people are scared or intimidated at the prospect of a Russia trip. This is a big, misunderstood, messy country that is teetering on the brink of totalitarianism on any given day. I get that people wouldn't want to visit here when you can say, look at fairy tale castles in Germany or contemplate history on the beaches of Crete or Malaga or eat culinary delights in Italy. Besides, Russian food is terrible. That being said, I miss being understood. I realized this when my brother called me on Monday night. He is my first blood relative to visit me here. And he didn't even come to visit me--he came on a business trip. The fact that I'm here is a bonus. He told me about his bizarro taxi ride from the airport (not even Sheremeteyvo--the civilized airport, Domededevo), the awful traffic, the buzz in the air--the hint of an oppressive feeling that people, particularly from the West, sense when they visit Moscow. My German friend (formerly from the East) tells me that East Germany used to feel like this. She didn't realize this feeling wasn't everywhere until she visited the West. I get so used to it that I often don't notice it until I land in the airport of another country and psychic weight lifts from my shoulders. I felt a lump in my throat that felt vaguely like desperation as I talked to him. I was making a connection. He gets it. I didn't realize how hungry I was for that connection until I heard him talking about his Moscow experiences. Tonight, we will take the metro into town to meet him for dinner. We are going to Starlite Diner, the place we expats go when we want to pretend for five minutes that we aren't in Russia. We will take him to Red Square so he can have proof that he *was* in Russia and then we will wave goodbye. And maybe I will hate Russia a little less tomorrow.

Monday, January 25, 2010


These are the times that try men's souls. And women's. And children's and everyone else who lives in a northern climate during the winter. We aren't as bad as Helsinki. But Helsinki has wonderful grocery stores, movies in English and that hardy Scandinavian outdoorsy spirit. They also have one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Moving on.... Our skies primarily come in three colors: grey, dark grey, and black. From time to time, we get blue with the caveat that the suun rarely lasts longer than six hours, cutting across the corner of the sky, tantalizing us with promise of natural vitamin D and warmth. The warmth is an illusion. The vitamin D? Last year, my vitamin D levels were at 17. Optimal is around 32. For an asthmatic like myself, temperatures below 15F make any outside activity difficult. The closer the temperature gets to 0F, the greater my chances for a serious asthma attack. This leaves me with yoga and the treadmill as my primary forms of excercise. Also, walking up and down the stairs works too. There is only so much time you can spend indoors exercising and sitting and checking facebook before you start to go a little wacko. I spend probably a half an hour a day on Expedia pricing plane tickets and hotel rooms to get me out of Dodge whenever possible. I muse on the merits of various laundry detergents (!) and get excited by the prospect of three year old reruns of "What Not to Wear" on Discovery Travel and Living. I spend days fantasizing about fresh produce. A few years ago, I went to a farmer's market in Orvieto, Italy. The fresh tomatoes tasted like sugar candy. Those ruby orbs taunt me like the mirage of water torments a man crawling through the desert. Blood oranges, roasted turnips, spinach salad, peaches, raspberries, big old Yukon Gold potatoes.... The good news is that my architecture group starts up again this Friday and we're going to the Tretyakov Gallery to study Russian Orthodox iconography. Also, my brother should be visiting us next week--also positive. Once January is over, I will feel like we've turned a corner and the count down to spring can realistically start. Soon we will be celebrating Maslenitsa (pancake week) and before you know it, winter break in Greece. After that, it will be International Women's Day and I'll be on my way to the UK for a few days. In the meantime, it is the short term stuff that makes me crazy. Like how to get through today's piles of laundry and floors that need washing and refrigerator that needs cleaning without starting to go a little stir crazy and cooped up. Enough with the cold! Enough with the grey! Enough with the musings on laundry detergent!

Saturday, January 16, 2010

the eagles live the heart of the matter

The inspiration for the title of my post. Hated the Don Henley album version, but this acoustic one moves me every time I hear it.