Monday, September 30, 2013

Finding the familiar?

We showed E (in the blue) this sign for a cafe, which has her name on it.  If you don't read Russian, take our word for it.

K (in the pink and orange) is busy looking for "her" letter "K", which is the same in both scripts.

Room with a View

This is the view from the larger room in our hotel.  (The smaller room has the same view, just not as much space to see it from).

This is sunrise, probably 7:45 am

In this second picture, perhaps you can see a lot of trains.  The guest house is near a major train yard which probably serves all four train stations near us.  We hear a lot of trains go by.

What can you get for 30 rubles (a dollar) these days?

One of the first shocks of landing in a new country, of course, are prices.  Exchange rate is approximately 31 or 32 rubles to one dollar, which means most things you buy are three digits or more. (100 Rubles less than $3).

So in the first few weeks, here are a few things we have discovered which cost about 30 rubles, or about $1--

--1 metro ride (30 R if you buy one ride at a time)
(if you buy 60 rides at once, can get the price down as low as 20 rubles per ride)

--1 average ice cream cone (at the ice cream kiosks on the street)
(range 20-35 rubles)

--1 nice but not fancy loaf of bread (usually sold not sliced, though sliced bread is in stores)
(range 20-40 rubles)

--1 package of 8 cookies with chocolate icing (the girls love these so we save them as bribes to keep them walking) (range 27-35 rubles)

--1 pound of bananas (at the fruit kiosks on the street) (about 3 large bananas)

--1 hot dog in biscuit (again, at fast food kiosk on the street)-- they don't have 'hot dog buns' here, but sell the hot dog in something like biscuit dough wrapped around the hot dog before it is cooked
(range 25-35 rubles)

--1 330 ml plastic bottle of drink yoghurt in the grocery store (in convenience kiosks is more)
(range 25-35 rubles)

--2 small size yoghurt cups (this varies widely by brand and how fancy or whipped you get)
(range 20 -45 rubles)

--3 small A5 school notebooks, about 12 pages, no fancy cover (about like small exam blue books in the US, but they are used by school children all the time)

--1 nice gel pen (maybe)

--half a box of herbal tea (cost about 60-70 rubles for a box of 20 packets)

--half liter water bottle (500 ml) or even only 330 ml, sold in convenience shops or kiosks

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Superstores and the Bus

Some urbanites among our readers may understand going shopping on public transit.  We certainly did when we lived in Novosibirsk.  But two years of southern california, where to go half a mile one gets in a car, can make anyone soft.  Here most locals go shopping on the bus.

Near our guesthouse, "just" on the other side of train yards (behind 3 major train stations), is a big box superstore, called in Russian Ashan (Ашан), though the French company name is actually spelled Auchan.  Walmart type prices.  Probably Walmart quality, but when you need goods right away, that actually matters less.  You think you've seen a "superstore"? Super Walmart, Target Greatland?  Think again--the Ashan is at least double in size--and then there's the second floor!

S went to Ashan once and hauled stuff home on the bus.  The photo shows the haul on the second trip to Ashan this week.  The plastic plaid bags (which we call "china bags") were purchased on this trip.

Superstore + public transit = bad idea.

She estimated the load of all the bags (shown here waiting at the bus stop) to be over 20 kilos (more than 40 lbs).  You trying carrying that down the street to the bus stop, hauling it up bus steps (which for some reason are much steeper than regular steps--why?), and then from the bus stop back to the residence.

From S's email to another expat in Moscow, about S's first trip to Ashan:

Yes, I made it to Ashan.  Also made it out of there in one piece.  Its not a store, its an ordeal.  I dont think I have ever seen a store that big.  And do they put the signs announcing the contents of the aisles 20 feet up in the air on purpose to make you feel small?  I still had to walk half the length of the store just to read the signs.  And the store was so big, they had an entire aisle labeled as something I was looking for.  Recommendations to go to Ashan should come with a warning label--not for the faint of heart, or not less than 3 hours, or "abandon hope all ye who enter.". But it only took me two entire times of having my entire order rung up (twice, different kassa) to get out of there, and they accepted my visa card, which not all stores do, so yes, I probably will be going back.  Seriously, the first floor was entirely food, in a space larger than an entire Superwalmart has everything.

And about the follow up trip:

  • So when did I go back?  Saturday.  Some things I needed I didn't get the first time.  Traffic jam of shopping carts.  The main aisle looked like MKAD.  This time it only took 2 hours, but then I tried a different way home, and that took almost 2 more hours (couldnt find the bus stop, bus only came every 15 min on Sat, missed two of them, etc). 

Friday, September 27, 2013

Carosels in the Little Squares

This was our children's favorite discovery in the play spaces.  It is rather ingenious.  Four small chairs around a center circle.  The center post (in this case orange) with a wheel, is fixed in place.  The four green chairs (and the small green circle for the feet) are welded to each other but swing freely around the orange post. So children can choose to stand and push someone else around in a circle, but they can also seat themselves and spin themselves around by pulling to one side or other of the fixed central wheel.  Self-generated spin, fun a parent doesn't have to provide.  Fantastic. 

(26 September 2013)

This one in the play space nearest us was in particular was practically frictionless.  Once the children really get up to speed, they went around 10 times without stopping, and wouldve gone more, if someone wasn't dizzy.

 E calls it "carosel" or "merry go round".  Not the way we use the words in the US, but since we don't yet know what it is called in Russian, it's as good as any name for it.  And free. 

And it spins fine even with a "free rider", in this case a little sister who cannot reach the wheel, let alone understand the need to let go :-) 

(27 September 2013)

New Hats

With all our excess baggage, at least five bags of which contained "winter gear," you'd think we didn't need anything else.  But E is two years older and taller than the last time we lived in cold, so she needed some new warm tights.  S finally heard of an inexpensive store to get such things, so Mommy took E and K on an adventure on the bus to a store called "Stock Center."  Dollar store quality, mostly, just larger items ($10 range), everything from hair dye to luggage.  Basically, if it is made in China for cheap, they (might) carry it.  The small corner of children's winter accessories (needed items) was unhelpfully located next to the (cheap) toy aisles (not needed).  Impossible to get the kids to focus on clothes.  But both sections revealed a lot of stuff made cheap in China for the Japanese market.  How these things ends up in Moscow is one of those globalization-of-trade mysteries (but that is another conversation).   Of course, it being Moscow, what should be cheap made-in-China merchandise actually costs more than you might expect.  Cheaper than European imports, but not as cheap as the quality would suggest.

So yes, we ended up with some stockings that looked about right for E.  But since at the playground (see previous post) E decided that the only hats we had were too small for her, Mommy bought E a new hat.  This is E, posing on the street corner with her new hat and scarf combo.  The hat has snowflake detailing, very cute.  It won't stay white very long.

And since K doesn't like hats, when K found a hat she liked, Mommy bought K a new hat too.  (the second child whose other "new" clothes come from attic boxes...).  The pose was K's idea.

The strings on the cap make it look so European (so S thought), but when a Russian lady was helping K stay warm outside, she tied the strings (so much for fashion).

P.S. to this post--once E tried on all the stockings, we discovered one was too small, others okay, others too big, as in try again next year too big.  They all looked the same size in the store, but not all had a size printed on them.   Caveat emptor.  300 Rubles ($10) is the new dollar store price :-(.  ($1 = about 32 Rubles).

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Playing Outside ("Little Squares")

It rained for almost a week after we got here.  We mostly just stayed indoors.  Not very fun, but neither are wet park grounds. Once it stopped raining, we tried playing outside.  

Since we are in temporary housing until we find an apartment, we don't have a school in which to enroll the girls.  So they play in the hotel and in nearby parks.  In big cities in Russia, in between the ubiquitous high rise apartment buildings are play spaces for the kids.  The idea is that you don't have to "go to the park," that is, you put on your coat and go outside and there is a play place right outside your front door, or just behind the building.  In Russian such a play space is called a "detskaya ploshadka" (детская плошадка), or "children's little squares" (in the sense of 'square' not as geometric figure, but as an urban open space, which are often not even square).

Our guesthouse/dormitory is in an area with a series of very nice ploshadki.  We have to cross a busy street (and they have the rule we know from the US of the painted white lines cars yielding to pedestrians, but it must be a new rule, because not everyone obeys it, which is even scarier, to think you are safe and not be.  We just assume we aren't safe, even on the white lines).  But once across the busy street, we have a lot of ploshadki to choose from.  

These images are from the one nearest to the hotel, which we tried first.  This was Thursday 26th of September--note their clothes.  They are not overdressed.  It felt like we had just started winter.  Just above freezing, not even October.  Locals have told us, however, that this is unseasonably chilly, even for Moscow.  

First, here are the girls trying climbing bars.  On the left, E is trying one that looks like a net.  On the right, K is trying one she called "spider web." 

Here, they are trying my nerves, as they ascend to climbing bars far above my head, over who knows what kind of hard surface.  This would never be allowed in the U.S.

Here E and K are trying the swings.  They are metal rods, rather than chain link, connecting the seats to the frame.  

On Friday, A had her first try on the play space (she had been napping the previous trip).  She likes the swings too:

I know, her first day out, and already one mitten is gone.  Pairs of mittens are the bane of a mother's existence...

As a parting shot, K said hello to the statue of a yellow and blue owl:

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Old and New

We are staying in a "guesthouse" (extended stay hotel) owned by S's university.  Near this guesthouse, was an old cathedral, dating back at least 200 years.  In the background is a standard Soviet style high rise apartment building.  Not one we are staying in, but very typical of its period (probably 1980s).

Comment by S, the sociologist (if you find lectures boring, you can skip this part)

When we lived in Russia before, we were in Novosibirsk, which was started as a settlement only in 1893, that is barely 24 years before the October Revolution of 1917.  There were hardly any buildings in Novosibirsk built more than fifty or sixty years ago; it is an entirely "Soviet" city, as many cities in Russia are.  Before the Revolution, most people lived in villages.  The Soviet authorities decreed the building of factories, to catch up to the Western countries in industrial production, and with factories come cities.  So the landscape in Novosibirsk is almost entirely "modernist" architecture of the 1950s and 1960s up to the present.  ("Post modern" architecture by 2010 was starting to appear in Novosibirsk, but only just fragments.)

So our first few days here, it has been very disconcerting to see the modernist Soviet styles (and there are several) standing cheek by jowl with buildings from the 19th century and even older.  Though a lot of Moscow's "face" was remade to "show" the world the "new Soviet nation," a lot of old things remain, and Moscow is in fact very "un-Soviet" in its layout and visual appearance.   A map of Moscow shows it to be typical of European cities founded in the early middle ages, the "hub and spoke" pattern: a center core surrounded by city walls, and radial lines streaming out of the core in various directions.  This hub and spoke pattern also is illustrated in the numerous major train stations, each one with trains heading off in unique directions (the train stations being named for the city at the end of that direction).  This pattern was continued in the three major airports, which originally specialized in flights to particular directions.

In short, Moscow is full of these juxtapositions of old and new, especially toward the city center (which we are not).  Farther from the center, the Soviet modernist styles prevail.  But more about that later.

Not really sightseeing

We haven't had much time for sightseeing, what with figuring out where are grocery stores, how to get to church on the metro, and S having meetings at work.  Not much work going on, just formalities like getting visas registered and a LOT of paperwork.  But on the way to open up a bank account (all salaries are paid directly to an ATM card, sort of like direct deposit, only not...) S did go by this old building in a central part of Moscow.  It's a pre-revolutionary building (ie 19th century), not really sure what, but it is not maintained very well.

And of course, like other buildings of its epoch, it has an official "Pushkin slept here" sign:

Vending machines

... are nothing new, but they can be put to surprising uses.  We went into a grocery store with two adults and 3 children (always a recipe for disaster!) but even with the chaos of shopping with children not confined to the security of shopping carts, we had to take a picture of this vending machine:

by Acuvue selling contact lenses!

Saturday, September 21, 2013


The girls were so excited to go and see brand new exciting things in our new city.  RAIN!  To someone who only remembers SoCal weather, rain is pretty exciting.  Truth be told, though, Dora and Barbie umbrellas are the best part...

The little one didn't find anything fun about rain, but then she didn't get new boots and umbrella...

Friday, September 20, 2013

Arriving 19 September 13

Flight uneventful.  First challenge--getting 24 checked bags plus three kids, two strollers and numerous carry-ons, from baggage claim, through customs and outside where a driver from the university was expected to meet us.

But, with enough time, patience and lots of ferrying, it was accomplished, and the driver met us, and had the same challenge of ferrying the bags, one cart at a time, from where he met us way out to the parking garage which was as close as he could pull a car.  Not just a car, a Ford Transit, which fit all the bags and the 5 of us below the window level.

Then it was over two hours in Moscow traffic (and we are certain the driver didn't know the most direct route either) from the airport to the Russian-style hotel operated by the university as a hostel for its students and guests.

Our new friend JP, also teaching at S's university, met us with a pack n play for the baby and helped us haul the bags up the elevator.  Even a large elevator has to take a lot of trips for that many bags.

At 9:40 pm when everything was unloaded and in the room, we thought about buying food in the hotel's little cafe, but when it was supposed to be open until 10 pm, the kitchen was long closed. Welcome (back) to Russia.

The kids were all still wide awake, so at 9:50 pm  we took all 3 children to the nearby 24-hr mini market for some basic groceries.  Baby S in the stroller grabbed something shiny and knocked over a small jar of jam, which of course shattered on the floor.  The security guard made us pay for it.

And they didn't take our credit card, so we used up most of the Rubles we brought with us from previous trips.

All safe and in bed about 10:30 pm.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


September 18th. 3 vehicles, 24 checked bags, and $2000+ in excess baggage fees. On our way to Moscow for S's new job.

K was excited about Grandma's present -- a Trunki (ride on toy suitcase)