Saturday, September 29, 2012

In the Land of Silk and Bunnies

I apologize for the lateness of this post. John and I returned from Moscow last night and time got away from me. We had a wonderful time on our quick trip together, which was mostly business, but fortunately a little bit of pleasure too.

For one thing, we got to stay in the most ridiculously opulent hotel ever, the Radisson Royal. I know, I know, Radisson in the US doesn't exactly conjure images of grandeur, but this was no ordinary Radisson. As we finally made our way into the city after a very long drive from the airport, I pointed to an enormous building with gothic spires.

Me to John: "Ooooh, what's that?"

John: "Um, I think that's our hotel."

Me: "No way. That's not a hotel. That's a church or something."

John, pointing to the now very evident neon sign. "Nope, that's our hotel."

Me: "Booyah!"

The Radisson Royal is actually one of Moscow's Seven Sisters. It sits on the Moskva River and was the perfect introduction to Moscow, if you ask me. We weren't inside the hotel for three minutes when I encountered this crystal-encrusted soccer ball.

Tacky: adj. Marked by an obvious lack of style or good taste.
I'd heard rumors that Moscow was ridiculously expensive and fairly gaudy. It's true to some extent, although when you're staying in a big showy five-star hotel, you don't exactly get an accurate picture of an entire city. But on our long walk from the embassy to Red Square, I got a pretty good feel for the place. For one thing, it's enormous and extremely crowded. The variety of people was spectacular, from your babushkas to your six-foot blonde models, plus everything in between. And you've just got to laugh at a place that sells fur coats in the metro station.

But for all that, Moscow as a city was far more beautiful than I anticipated. Our visit to Red Square was disappointingly brief, and the image was somewhat marred by the light display currently set up in the middle of the square, but nevertheless, it was worth the 45-minute walk in heels.

St Basil's Cathedral, plus a lot of ugly cranes.
We met up with friends for dinner at an Uzbek restaurant, which was surprisingly veggie-friendly, then headed out for tea and dessert. (Lunch was Vietnamese, which was surprisingly not veggie-friendly.) But the meal which refused to be outdone was at 10 pm our first night in the hotel. We were hungry and tired and decided to shell out for the appetizer, soup, and dessert buffet. Unfortunately, my soup and app options were slim (there is an abundance of pickled fish in this country), but I made up for it by consuming my weight in dessert.

A caption here would be entirely superfluous.
All in all, it was interesting to catch a glimpse of Foreign Service life in Moscow vs Yekaterinburg. The embassy is enormous and full of people, a far cry from our little consulate here in Yekat. In Moscow, you can drive for miles and miles and never leave the confines of the city, whereas here it just takes a few minutes to find the wilderness of the Urals. We might not be as bright and shiny out here in Siberia, but as everyone keeps reminding me, this is the "real Russia."

And the good news is that whenever I'm ready for an escape from "reality," Moscow is just a short flight away.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Back on the Job

After nearly two full years without a job (or at least one I get paid for), I'm officially back to work.

It's kind of weird to get dressed in "real" clothes in the morning and head out with John to the office. It's also incredibly difficult to say goodbye to Jack, who has been particularly clingy since the nanny started working for us. I understand it's been a very tough transition for him, and it's not easy for me either. But I've gotta say, it's kind of nice to spend at least part of my day around adults.

In the Foreign Service, there are generally a handful of positions available to EFMs (Eligible Family Members - hence the title of this blog). In Yekaterinburg, there were two: CLO coordinator (Community Liaison Office) and a biometrics clerk position (fingerprinting and data entry for visas). I chose the CLO position not so much because of what it offers in this post - since there are only eight Americans here, soon to be nine including me, there's not a ton to do - but for what it means for me in the future. Getting a CLO job at a large post is competitive, and this will give me an advantage if I want to do this further down the road. (In my dream scenario, I'd be working as an author, of course.) I also like the idea of bringing the community together, even if it is a tiny one, and finding out as much as I can about the current Yekaterinburg, since most of the information hasn't been updated in years. That's part of the reason I was so pleasantly surprised when I got here - Yekat has changed a lot recently, mostly for the better.

Since we've been without a CLO for at least six years here, I have a bit of a challenge facing me. I'm starting from scratch with a newsletter, updating post reports with the most up-to-date info I can provide, and doing my own research into schools and childcare options, since there wasn't any information available to me when I found out we were coming here, and it's very important to me as a parent. I'm also going to try to get some activities started, but there's a fine line between providing people with options, and making people feel pressured to hang out together, even if they don't want to. I'm curious what other CLOs at small posts have to say on the matter. If you're out there, let me know!

Mostly, though, I'm excited to be doing something productive with my time. And the good news is it's only 20 hours a week, so I still have plenty of time to write. Sure, my office is in the emergency exit hallway, but as I told Sarah, I literally had a broom closet for an office once, so things could be worse. I also get to go to Moscow next week with John for training, which means two flights without Jack. I picture myself reading a magazine for two blissful uninterrupted hours. (What can I say, I like to dream big, people. I wouldn't be surprised if I take a nap in there somewhere, too.) And the fact that I get to spend more time with John every day, walking to work and getting lunch in the cafeteria together? Well, that's just the icing on the cake.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Playing the Tourist

I suppose, technically, I AM a tourist here in Yekaterinburg, considering I've only been here 2.5 weeks. But for some reason, when you know you're going to live somewhere for a while, it's harder to justify shelling out for a tour guide. Fortunately, my parents are here, which has given me a great excuse to hire someone who speaks English to tell me what the hell I'm looking at when I walk down the street.

On Wednesday, the nanny took us to the Yekaterinburg museum, which is quite nice actually. Unfortunately, I was chasing after Jack while the nanny translated for my parents, so I missed a lot of the history of the city (along with the 3-D movie!). I plan on going back at some point so I can get up to speed. On the bright side, there's a theater museum upstairs, and I got to check out some of the beautiful costumes used in stage productions.

Jackie plays the role of the black knight.

They also had some amazing puppets on display. I wish I'd had more time to look at them, because they were truly impressive.

Isn't she fabulous??
On Thursday, we went on a guided tour of the Church on the Blood, probably Yekaterinburg's most famous site. It was built in 2003 to commemorate the Romanov family, who were murdered there in 1918. Since then, the Romanovs have all been made martyrs, and members of the Russian Orthodox church go there to pray and repent. I found it fascinating that most of the iconography was made recently at a nearby convent, although there are a few old icons and relics there. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to photograph the inside, but the outside is beautiful as well.

The Church on the Blood
Afterward, we traveled to Ganina Yama, the site where the bodies of the Romanovs were thrown into a mine shaft. There are seven churches there, one for each member of the royal family. It's actually a working monastery, so once again, we couldn't take photographs inside the churches, but as you can see, the outside more than made up for it.

One of the seven churches at Ganina Yama.
Today we went on another trip with our lovely English-speaking tour guide. We visited the village of Sysert, where the author Pavel Bazhov lived as a child. He is known for his fairy tales, which are all based on the folklore of the Ural mountains. As a writer I found this utterly fascinating, so I ordered an English translation of his most famous book, The Malachite Casket. I don't have it yet but I promise to fill you in once it comes.

The inner courtyard of Bazhov's childhood home.
After a brief lunch where I managed to thaw slightly, we headed into the woods for a hike up to Talc Lake, which is actually a flooded talc mine. The Ural Mountains are rich with many different kinds of metals and minerals, and Bazhov's tales are as much about the mining people of the region as they are about fairy stories (or so I've been told).

Chillin' (literally) at Talc Lake.
Of course, having spent some time in that forest, it's not hard to see why Bazhov was so inspired to record the region's folktales.

One of the many mushrooms we saw (this one was NOT edible).
Another view of Talc Lake.

One side will make you grow smaller...
Unfortunately, Daddy took a bite of that mushroom and shrank to the size of a shrew. We haven't seen him since.

Just kidding. Those lovely women actually found that in the forest. Apparently it's edible, if you're inclined to eat twenty-pound mushrooms.

It's been lovely exploring this fascinating region for the past few days, and I'm thrilled to say there's far more to see. So if you're contemplating a visit, I PROMISE we'll keep you busy. There's cross-country skiing and dog sledding in the winter, horse-back riding and fishing in the summer, and something like twenty theaters, thirty museums, and so far at least five good restaurants in the city itself (give us time - we're just getting started on eating our way through the next two years). And I haven't even gotten started on the shopping.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Embracing the Awkward

Well folks, we've made it through almost two weeks here in Yekaterinburg, and as the title of this post suggests, it's gotten a bit...awkward.

It started with the children's performance I mentioned last week. See, I didn't realize John was sort of the guest of honor. But when we arrived at the theater, we were escorted into a separate room where all kinds of treats, along with highly breakable crystal glasses and porcelain cups, were laid out on a table. Since everyone around me was speaking Russian, I smiled and nodded and said spasiba repeatedly like an idiot, without the slightest idea of what the hell was going on (I think it's safe to say this is going to be the status quo for the next two years). I just assumed there was someone way more important coming, so I smacked Jack's hand away every time he tried to eat a cookie or touch anything. Eventually we were taken down to the theater, where it quickly became clear that everyone had been waiting for us to take our seats. And then the show began.

This had to be one of the most...unusual performances I've ever witnessed. Don't get me wrong - the orchestra was absolutely phenomenal. But this was a tribute to American film scores, Russian style. So before the songs were played, previews (as in movie trailers dubbed in Russian) for various American films were shown - Indiana Jones, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Lord of the Rings, etc. They also threw in what appeared to be a montage of video game animation for reasons unknown. But like I said, the music was wonderful, and hey, it's not every day you get to see a Russian dressed up as Jack Sparrow.

We'd been told that John would speak about forty minutes into the program, but after an hour had gone by (Jack was squirming around in my lap for most of this), intermission started and we were escorted back to our private room. By now I'd figured out that no one else was coming, so I let Jack have some of the candied fruit. Then he smacked his head on the table and gave himself a black eye, just ten minutes before John was supposed to give his speech (and take Jack with him).

After the program started again and a few more songs were played, the host (who also doubled as Indiana Jones) came down and handed John a microphone. Jack was dangling off his arm the entire time, but John pulled through beautifully and delivered his short speech (the program was being sponsored by the consulate, and John was there as the representative).

Photo credit: Consulate General of the U.S., Yekaterinburg

We had originally been told we could leave after intermission (not because we wouldn't enjoy the show, but because we had a tired and cranky two-year-old with us), but it quickly became apparent that we couldn't leave without offending about 1,800 Russians. Fortunately, the girls choir performed at the end, and Jack enjoyed watching the little girls singing, at least when he wasn't lying on his back in the middle of the aisle.

As far as representing America that day, Jack didn't exactly do our country proud.

After one more quick stop in the reception room, John and I hightailed it out of there before Jack could bring down an entire tower of tea cups and saucers. We felt like morons wheeling Jack through the lobby of the symphony hall in his stroller, because we were literally the only people who BROUGHT a stroller. (Anyone in the theater who might have missed the giant spotlight on us earlier would have quickly realized who the Americans were.) Jack looked rather smug, however, as roped off pathways were opened up for the little prince in his chariot.

Since last Friday, I've found myself in all kinds of awkward situations. Like at the grocery store, when the woman behind the counter asked me for smaller change because I'd handed her a 1000 ruble note for a bill of 800 rubles (apparently Russians are weird about change, but I didn't know any of this until later, when I asked John about it). Or on the tram today, when the woman who collects the fare went on and on at me in Russian, even when I told her I didn't speak Russian, in Russian, multiple times. Or at a different grocery store, when I didn't realize you had to weigh your produce ahead of time and the woman behind the counter had to do it for me.

So far no one has seemed too pissed off at me for being the clueless foreigner, but I'm not exactly getting a lot of sympathy either. I'm really looking forward to this weekend, when my resident translator will be home from work, and I can fall back on my newly acquired skill set of smiling and nodding and saying spasiba repeatedly like an idiot.