Friday, January 25, 2013

That Time I Smoked a Hookah, or Where Have All My Morals Gone?

It would seem that during my time in Russia, I have become a woman of loose morals.

See, before I moved here, I had some general life rules. These included your garden variety rules like "don't do anything you wouldn't want to be blackmailed with," along with long-standing life rules such as: don't eat meat or fish; don't wear fur; don't smoke; don't get naked with your coworkers. Etc.

I'm sorry to say I have failed miserably.

Before we even got to Russia things were starting to go downhill. I purchased Furdinand, my Canada Goose coat with the coyote fur collar, and it was difficult at first, but once the temps dipped below freezing, I realized how wrong I'd been. Fur, my friends, is wonderful. It's soft and luxurious, warm and waterproof, and it comes in so many lovely varieties. Today I spotted two ladies walking ahead of me on my way home, and I started to develop serious fur envy.

At least a dozen small mammals were harmed in the making of this photo.
To be perfectly honest, the only thing keeping me from buying a fur is the cost. $5,000 on a coat I'll wear for one more season is insane. And yes, when I start really thinking about it and remember all the reasons I've always been against fur (the torture of live animals comes to mind), I know I could never actually bite the bullet and buy one. But if someone were to say, give me a fur, I can't promise you I'd turn it down. In fact, I can almost promise you I wouldn't.

Then there's fish. I'm very much against the fishing industry and what it does to our entire ecosystem. In a lot of ways, fishing is even worse than the meat industry. But that same shallow part of me that thinks maybe it's okay for a coyote to die just so I can be warm also decided that killing a trout is a lot less cruel than killing a cow. And so I've started to eat seafood occasionally. I don't even really like it. I just get so sick of the food here, and sometimes I'm so desperate for protein I'll go wild and order things like squid for lunch (albeit on a business lunch menu where there is no veggie option, and most of the time I end up giving it to John because it totally grosses me out). It's shameful, I know, but what can I say? I'm weak.

Last night I was invited out to dinner with some coworkers. We went to a hookah bar. If you know me at all, you know I'm not a smoker. It's terrible for you, it's a nasty habit, and it smells awful, and up until last night I had never taken a puff of anything, legal or otherwise. But now I can say that I have taken two small puffs of a hookah (mojito flavored, for the record), mostly because I felt like a total loser for not doing it. That's right, not only am I a coyote and fish killer, I'm also a total wimp when it comes to peer pressure. I'm also sorry to say that hookah smoke smells just as foul in your hair as cigarette smoke at the end of the night.

My ruin.
Next week I have agreed to go to a banya with my coworker and a few of her friends. Communal nudity is not my thing, even when it's with people I'll never have to see again. But getting beaten with birch branches and slathered in honey by some random Russian dude, wearing nothing but my birthday suit, while my coworker looks on, is crossing all kinds of lines.

At the end of the day, this is Russia. People here wear fur, they eat meat, they smoke hookahs, and they go to the banya, and it's just the way it is. When in Rome, right? I'm trying to tell myself that some rules are made to be broken every now and then. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience (God willing) and I'd rather have a crazy story to tell than look back at this time of my life and say, "Gee, I wish I'd loosened up a little and tried that stupid hookah."

But I'm pretty sure my views on communal nudity aren't going to change any time soon.

Friday, January 18, 2013

2013: The Year of Travel

One of the awesome things about the Foreign Service is the travel. Not just traveling to the place you live, but somehow feeling like, since you live abroad already, you might as well travel all the damn time. Before moving to Russia, a six hour flight felt interminable. Now, a six hour flight sounds like a piece of cake. $500 for a plane ticket used to seem like a total rip-off. Now, it's a bargain. Fortunately, not only does the Foreign Service give you a lot of vacation time (around 20 days a year I think?), but you also get all American holidays and local holidays, which makes for a crap-ton of holidays. And the pay is pretty sweet too.

So, what's on the books for 2013? I'll tell you:
February: Paris and Istanbul
March: Moscow and St. Petersburg
April: not sure, but probably somewhere we can get to from Moscow, since we'll be living there for a month (another story for another time)
May: Amsterdam
June: Cali for John, not sure yet for me
October: Toronto
November: Disney World

And that's just what we know as of right now, mid-January. I plan on getting to Prague at some point, and we'd really like to go to Dubai since it's a direct flight. Thailand, Spain, and Italy are also possibilities. Maybe even Morocco. Who knows? If anyone wants to meet us somewhere, let us know! We are travelin' fools this year! (Did I mention we somehow got United 1K? Yeah, we're taking advantage of that sucker for the brief time it lasts.)

By the time this year is over, I plan on having a whole lot of stamps in my passport. And if we're lucky, Jack will get so used to airplanes he'll actually learn to sleep on them! A girl can dream, right?

Friday, January 11, 2013

My Favorite Day

I've had many wonderful experiences since moving to Russia four and a half months ago, but I'm pretty sure today topped them all. When I found out a month ago that the Consulate staff send a few volunteers to a children's shelter every year for the holidays, I immediately added myself to the list. Naturally, John wanted to come too when I told him about it, and we both thought it would be wonderful to bring Jack if possible. So today, along with three local staff members, we drove to a village outside the city to bring gifts and clothing to the children.

The place we visited isn't an orphanage - it's a halfway house for children who will either go on to orphanages or be returned to their families. There are currently 22 children there, ranging in age from three to sixteen. Most of them stay for a few months, and some of the older children go to vocational schools from there, rather than orphanages. We contributed some of Jack's old toys, a few new clothing items, and I wrapped up some jewelry for the older girls. The Consulate staff and a local school gathered clothing and toys to donate, and each child received a box of chocolates and a stuffed animal from Ded Moroz (Russian Santa).

First, we met with the young children in their playroom. Ded Moroz and Snegurochka (two of the local staff members) entertained the children and handed out toys. Then we had a few minutes to play with the kids before they went down for their naps. I should point out that this facility, though small, was wonderful. I was expecting the day to be difficult, to be honest. I'd seen photos from a different orphanage where many of the children had disabilities and the facilities were poor, but fortunately, that wasn't the case here. The building was a little run down in some places, but it was warm and comfortable. The children all seemed happy and looked healthy. When they went into their room for their naps, I saw a dozen neat little beds all lined up, like something from Snow White's cottage. The only time I felt sad today was when I thought about the fact that these children were either given up by their parents or taken away from them. Looking at these beautiful, sweet boys and girls, it was simply impossible to fathom.

And then there was this little angel:

Irina is the youngest child at the shelter. I was bending down, trying to control Jack (who is nowhere near as well behaved as these children were), when I felt a pair of tiny hands in my hair. For the next ten minutes, Irina played with my hair - braiding it, arranging it over my shoulders, peeking at my face and speaking to me in Russian. I had no idea what she was saying, obviously, but that didn't really matter. It was an unforgettable moment.

After the kids went to sleep, we headed to the local church for a little while. The village is really beautiful - there are a lot of these old, wooden houses in Yekat, but they are rundown and sad-looking. Here, the houses are well-maintained and freshly painted in bright colors. I wished I could get out of the car and take more photos, but unfortunately there wasn't time.

We couldn't go into the church itself, but there was a small building next to it with a room full of beautiful paintings and icons. I'm sorry to say I don't know anything about the history of the church (I spent most of the day having pretty much no idea what was going on - fortunately, I can understand a lot more Russian than I speak, but it's still tough).

After we visited the church, the older children arrived to meet with Ded Moroz and receive their gifts. The older boys seemed to love John. They had all kinds of questions about the United States (and my iPhone - one boy asked if it was a 4, a 4S, or a 5; he was probably disappointed to hear it was just a 4).

Sadly, we only had a little while to talk to the kids, who seemed eager to practice their English. There was a gorgeous little girl who managed to coax Jack out of the corner and he even spoke a little Russian with the kids. I would have been happy to stay there all day, but alas, the kids had to get back to their lessons and we had to get back to the city. Even though we were in the middle of nowhere, it was really nice to be out of Yekaterinburg for a while.

Many of you probably know what's going on with Russia concerning adoptions. Essentially, Russia is ending inter-country adoptions from the United States in response to the Magnitsky Act. This BBC article sums it up pretty well. Here is the State Department's official statement on the matter. This article is also really interesting (read: depressing) - it's a translation of an article by a Russian journalist about the situation. And finally, if you'd like to know how the "Dima Yakovlev Law" came about (and you have eight boxes of tissue handy), I highly recommend this Pulitzer Prize-winning article. Amazing writing that will change how you think.

Today wasn't about politics. It was about sharing our abundance with those less fortunate than we are, about spreading a little joy to children who might not get enough of it, and reminding ourselves (and our child) how lucky we are. I know these kids will scatter to the wind. I'll never know what happens to Irina. And next year, if I get to go back, there will be 22 new faces at the shelter. But I'd like to think we made their lives a little better, even if it was just for one day, because they did so much more than that for us.