Sunday, October 27, 2013

You Know You're in Russia

---When the air conditioning comes on at church even though it's in the low 50°s outside. The city has turned the heat on, and it will stay on for the duration.

---When you are happy that they have air conditioning in the subway in October.  After all, you are bundled up for near freezing temperatures, which can be sort of stuffy with a million people underground...

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Miracle of the Fitted Sheet

To understand this miracle you have to understand a few background details:

1) Almost no one uses fitted bed sheets.  Many people sleep on convertible couches, which they fold up in the daytime, so a flat sheet is fine, and even on beds most people just tuck in the sheets every day.  The only place we have ever found to sell fitted sheets is IKEA.  Someone must use them because they sell them, but that's the only place we know.

2) It is customary for an owner of an apartment to leave personal possessions in an apartment for rent, rather than putting them in storage.  People have a very high respect for other people's stuff, and assume others' do too, so this generally works.  It is understood you may use what gets left behind, but you cannot get rid of it, only put it out on the balcony.

3) Most bed linens nowadays are garish bright patterns, and any white or solid plain colors sheets or towels are really hard to find (except IKEA).

Now, to the events:

On 15 October, we signed for the new apartment (4 rooms, walking distance to a metro two stops from S's work) and paid 1 month rent and security deposit in the same amount, plus a commission equal to one month rent split by the two real estate agents (theirs and ours).

We spent that night and the next morning struggling to get all our stuff back into suitcases, bags, etc.  That same Ford Transit (and same driver) from the  university came to collect our stuff and us from the guest house to take us to our new apartment across town.

All that night and day as we packed, S worried that we wouldn't have sheets to sleep on.  We brought our own towels, and had some kitchen stuff with us, but no sheets.  The apartment came with a large bed and a twin bed and a couch, not quite enough for our family, but something.  But what to do about sheets?

Missionaries from church met us at the guest house to load the van.  Others met us at the new apartment to help unload the van and get things set up in the apartment.  A good friend of ours from Novosibirsk and four sister missionaries spent hours washing the kitchen and the few kitchen items ("a little bit of this, a little bit of that", not Anatevka, but close), and rinsing out the sheer curtains and hanging them to dry.  A and two young men missionaries disassembled a large wardrobe to move it from one to another, then reassembled it.

While kids ran wild and all this cleaning was going on, S dug through the things left behind in cupboards and on the balconies.  She found a few well worn flat sheets and pillowcases for the twin bed.  But with the state of the kitchen, who knew how clean the linens were, and how do you wash sheets to use that night if it takes 2 days to hang sheets out to dry?

In a cupboard on a balcony, she found a set of sheets and pillowcases for the twin bed that were still in their original package, never used!  And then, at the bottom of this cupboard, still in the sealed package from IKEA, of the size to fit the large bed, a plain white fitted sheet!

Perhaps, you say, it might not seem a miracle to find knocking around an apartment a spare sheet to fit the bed in the apartment.  And yes, there were some old spare linens floating around.  But that someone who used to live exactly here, bought--and never used--a plain white fitted IKEA sheet, just exactly like the kind we would buy ourselves, was nothing short of miraculous.  Think about the chain of events that had to happen months or years before we ever set eyes on that apartment for that brand new plain white fitted sheet to be waiting for us, as if to say, Yes, this Is where you should live.

Kinda gives you goosebumps to find 'your name' on an apartment halfway round the world.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Move

We had to repack everything, so easy task. (Remember those 24 checked bags? Well, stuff expands after being unpacked…).   This is lining up the stuff in the hotel hallway, and that's not all of it.

In the excitement of finding a place and moving, we forgot to tell the nice married couple neighbors on our hall we were leaving, and they came and gave us a farewell gift for the baby (the hat):

We had some elders (missionaries from church) come over and give "service hours" and help with the loading — into the same Ford Transit that picked us up from the airport. At least he didn't get lost this time, at least until we were about three blocks away, then we went around in circles several times before he got it right.

Then it was elders from church helping with the unloading, in countless trips up the elevator.  And then sister missionaries plus a good friend from Novosibirsk helping cleaning: washing down the kitchen, rinsing out the curtains, etc. And then figuring out where to put everything.

Another big task: a big "shkaff", or wardrobe, had to be disassembled and moved from one room to another.  That took Daddy and two elder missionaries the better part of two hours.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

What's 100 rubles worth? (the price of money part 2)

There's an old saying from Soviet times,
"don't have 100 rubles, have 100 friends"
based on the truth that money couldn't buy you what you needed, but enough well-placed connections could get it for you.
In the 1990s, with the surfeit of imported consumer goods and collapse of the internal economy (meaning also job loss and meaningless salaries), we heard the phrase reversed: 
"don't have 100 friends, have 100 rubles."
Today, even the lowest salaries are ones you could live on, but there's a lot more stuff to buy.  Certainly many people value money more than they once did, but maybe not as desperately as before. 
So, what can 100 rubles buy nowadays? (it's about $3)
--1 "shaurma" (rotisserie meat sliced into a flatbread with trimmings) it being Russia, the trimmings are usually shredded cabbage and carrots and a pickle), fast food at a street kiosk
--2 liters of milk at average prices (you can find milk priced at 35 rubles per liter, but that's only a few places)
--one-third of entrance to the zoo (300 rubles), or one zoo map booklet at the entrance
--1 kilogram (2.2 lbs) of expensive grapes (about 90-100) (apples usually are 70-90 rubles a kilo) (this is at the street kiosks, not in stores)
--half kilogram (1 pound) of cheap frozen prepared 'pelmeni' (like tortellini)  (prices range from 70 to 150 rubles per half kilo depending on brand & store) (insta-dinner, boil and eat)
--about 2 small boxes of cold (dry) cereal of (some) domestic brands, or 1 small box of cold cereal of a foreign brand (Nestle, etc)
--package of clothespins at IKEA

--4 (small) rolls of toilet paper of good quality (average quality will be more like 80 rubles), again, depending on the store

--box of juice about 1.5 liters

--1 small bottle (250 ml about) of imported kid shampoo or body wash (again, depending on the store), domestic brands are cheaper (but I haven't found domestic brands which advertise getting rid of tangles...)

--some of the small cheap dollar store type toys (yeah, kid stuff is expensive)

--400 grams (less than a pound) of basic cheese (nothing fancy)

--cheap cutting knife

--basic salt & pepper shaker (they are not very common here)

--1 basic black plastic cooking utensil

--1 jar of "Uncle Ben's sweet & sour sauce" (500 ml)

--300 grams of raw meat (chicken pieces or "farsh" (ground something)

--half a kilo (1 pound) of small cucumbers (what are called 'Persian' cucumbers in California)

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


Knowing that our time in the guesthouse was coming to an end, we decided to explore something very near the guest house:

The Moscow Memorial Museum of Cosmonauts (i.e. Space Museum)

(Russian Website you can copy & paste into and get a machine translation which probably would be hilarious) (For a very brief introduction in English, check here--)

They wanted to charge money to take photos inside, so we didn't, although we saw other people with cameras (so maybe next time).  But this is the approach up to it (the front of the monument):

Near the base of the monument, they have a model of the solar system.  What kid doesn't want to stand on Venus or Saturn?

This is the side of the monument, demonstrating the time period in which it was built, with Lenin in the background encouraging space exploration:

This is the front entrance of the museum, which is approached from the back of the monument:

Entrance price: 200 Rubles for adults (~ $6), children free (common theme at a lot of places).

One thing they don't mention in the wikipedia article:  This museum houses the taxidermy bodies of the first two dogs who came back from space--terriers named Strelka (arrow) and Belka (white).   Very cool.

It's very "international" -- not only with stuff about the International Space Station, but honoring achievements of "Women in Space",  and astronauts from US and other places, not only the Russian ones.

The kids loved it, despite being told all the time "don't touch."  Not much interactive, but very cool pieces of history, right in your face.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Decisions and deadlines

After experiencing the exhaustion of hauling 3 kids to apartment viewings, and after A's extensive research on the website which is as close to a comprehensive real estate listing as Moscow has (that is, not complete, but something), we decided it was time to decide.  That and one of the other realtors asked our realtor whether we were serious or whether they should keep showing the place.

So faced with that deadline, we canceled a viewing we had scheduled, and met up with the realtor we liked and paid down a nonrefundable (gulp) deposit to hold an apartment.

We chose Apartment #4 -- closest to S's work, largest square meters (102 m2), four rooms not three.  Basically, dirty can be cleaned up, and junk can be cordoned off to a balcony or used (but not--and this is important--ever thrown away or removed by the tenant!), but square meters are not adjustable.  So we're better off with the space & we can clean later (famous last words :-) ).

It is located at metro "Voikovskaya," which is north on the green line four stops from its intersection with the brown line, making it two metro stops north of the one called "Aeroport" which is closest to S's work.  (No airport near that metro, not sure how it got the name, unless a shuttle to an airport once ran from there).

Owner lives out of the country, owner's authorized representative out of town and would return to sign a contract "in a week."  So now we have limbo--something chosen, but can't move in.

Knowing that we're going to be paying for four rooms makes the 2 rooms in the guest house feel a lot smaller.


This is the office where S doesn't spend much time yet.  

Label on the door still has someone else's name.  Unclear whether that was the last occupant, or the one before that.  (One colleague has been working since February under someone else's name.)

S chose the right hand desk.  Plugged in her new computer/monitor/printer, after unplugging the old computer/monitor which don't work but are still sitting there taking up space. 

A colleague got a white board in his office mounted on the wall, but evidently that isn't standard and there aren't any more.  

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Apartment Hunting without Kids, part 2

As if shlepping around with 3 kids, 2 adults and a stroller wasn't test enough for this young realtor, we asked her to show us one more apartment--this time immediately across the street from where we were going to church Sunday morning.  We asked if we could see it on Sunday before church (8:30 am).

Apartment #5 (Sun AM0
We left with 3 kids about 7:30 am, long before the sun came up.  Same hour plus to get to church.  A took them to the building and left them in care of our friends, while S met the realtor at the building and got in to see the place, while A joined a bit later.

Everything Ikea.  (More on that later).  Some physical remodel as well, since it was the same kitchen-2 bedroom size we've been seeing everywhere else, but differently configured (on a diagonal).  One long balcony instead of 2 small ones, running continuously from one window to the next.  Red and black, but otherwise very well maintained & furnished without being junky.  In our price range, and right next to a church building.  But more than an hour to work for S.  And honestly, work 5 times a week vs church once sort of won.  Hard to see such a well remodeled place & not take it, but like 90% of the stuff in our price range, JTF (just too far).

Had interesting wallpaper in the entry space of the apartment:

(Totally looks like our sort of space…)

Fall Glory

Everything worth recording always seems to happen on the road to something else.

In a hurry to catch a bus home from church, E and K found Fall.

For a glorious week or so, everything is golden, and then it was gone.  Thank goodness for children, who stop to notice.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Apartment hunting without kids

Because taking three small children on the metro (with a stroller, and a backpack, etc) is not for the faint of heart, we tried our next apartment visit without them.

We made an appointment with realtor #2 (young bright thing with good English).  She was definitely the most professional of the three, responsive to email, text, phone, in touch with us almost every day about listings we sent her or she sent us.

Then what turned out to be a bright, clear Saturday, we took our 3 children to our friends' house, across the city to the east (blue line).  A bit more than an hour on transit.  We have been there every Saturday but one, and the kids love going there.  4 kids, same ages, from America.  Plus new toys.

Then for the first time since coming to Russia, A and S left the three kids and went on our own! on the metro across town (hour plus a different direction) to meet the realtor.

Apartment # 4 (Saturday afternoon)
She met us in her car at the metro stop and drove us the two (long) blocks to an apartment building in the middle of a dozen others.  The kids would like the play space in front, we saw at once.   Ordinary ceilings, but building not too shabby.  Attentive 'concierge' (new word for old job--the lady who watches everyone come in & handles maintenance requests).  4 rooms, not just 3 (i.e. 3 bedrooms!).  100 square meters, livable space (A's first impression).  Just enough "junk" to be annoying and not particularly clean (S's first impression).  Told them we would have to think about it.

Then back over an hour on the metro to our friends, where they had already fed the kids, so we took them home, only 1 hour past their bedtime.

Rare photo of S on transit with K (because S usually wields the camera), but we were all there.  We tried two buses home instead of bus/metro/metro.  Less hassle, fewer stairs, but a lot longer time.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Apartment hunting with kids

After several false starts, we finally got an appointment with a realtor to go see an apartment.  But despite several appeals in the English-language congregation of church, we still don't have a babysitter.  Therefore, any apartment we wanted to both see, involved taking three kids on public transportation.   You try it some time.  Plus, even though our guest house is "conveniently" located near the "circle line" on the metro, everything in Moscow takes an hour.

Apartment #1-- (Tuesday ? evening)
It was a dark stormy night.

Seriously.  Took the metro over an hour (with three kids) walked through rain and mountains of leaves to find a building in the dark, met a middle aged, professional realtor (our side) with the realtor of the owner's side, to go up to an apartment in a building from the 1940s.

High ceilings--back when Stalin was trying to impress people with "new socialism" and 3 meter ceilings.  Very nice neighbors wondering if these lovely children (three children? with that 'are they all yours' tone Russians use for anything more than 2 children) would be their new neighbors.

Apartment seemed to have enough rooms, but they could only show us two at a time, because a very large (threatening) dog was always cordoned off in one of them.  They didn't want to let the children in at all because of it, but the kids didn't stand for waiting in the hall.

The original parquet floor had seen better days, loose tiles revealing dirty concrete in the bathroom.  Owner said he was going to repair the bathroom, but upon further questions, it turned out he meant only repaint the ceiling.  (We were much more worried about a floor a small child would run around on--in the grand scheme of things, good floors are more important for kids than newly painted ceilings.)

Was in our price range, seemed to be a neighborhood of quiet streets and lots of trees and schools.  But after a few minutes, even E said "let's not live here."   At least the very nice professional realtor gave us a ride back to the metro in the rain.

Apartment #2-- (Friday afternoon/evening)
We met the second realtor, a young energetic woman with excellent written and spoken English, on the platform of the metro--the very last stop on the north end of the green line.  We walked with her to an apartment "close" to that metro stop.  It took 15-20 minutes with the stroller & 3 kids.  Russians walk fast, so they probably thought of that as a "ten minute walk" to the metro--or at least advertised it that way ("truth in advertising" :-)).

Small kitchen, some furniture, 2 bedrooms, in our price range.  Clean to the point of sterile, good kitchen/bathroom, except there was not an oven.  Owner who was there to show us was planning to install a dishwasher, but had zero intention of installing an oven.  After spending two years using two lovely convection ovens (thank you Grandma), the thought of having no oven at all was discouraging to say the least.  But it was the _long_ walk back to the metro, past hundreds of commuters picking up "marshrut" (shuttle buses) to their suburbs, which was too much.

Kids were hungry, so we had to stop for fast food blini.  Share the same relation to real blini that fast food shares with real homemade food (i.e. a pale imitation).

We were supposed to visit a second apartment not too far from there (two metro stops), but the woman who had the keys to meet us was stuck in horrible traffic nowhere near anywhere she could park & take the metro & meet us in time, so that got rescheduled.

Apartment #3 -- (same night as #2)
So we went three metro stops, with three tired, still hungry children, and met a second realtor, or at least her young assistant.  We had no idea until later that it wasn't the realtor, that it was her assistant (realtor hadn't warned us, and the assistant wasn't very clear).

We were late because it was another one of those "only 10 minutes from the metro" which can take half an hour with small children.  So we waited with this young assistant-to-a-realtor in quiet clean courtyard of another old Stalin-era building, with nice playground equipment (fortunately not Stalin-era) with no explanation.  Turned out that someone else was seeing the apartment first, and we had to wait til they were done.

VERY lived in.  Family still there.  Woman had to show me what she was taking and what she was leaving behind.  Her two small children, our three, their realtor, our realtor-assistant, lots of (lovely antique) furniture & moving boxes, made for very crowded space.

You can learn a lot about a family from their stuff.  Besides the obvious kids, also very religious (had a traditional 'red corner' with icons and candles), and cases and cases and cases of books.  Very good 'vibe' about the family and the space.  Felt like a piece of Russian history.

But too small to be practical, so off we went again, into the dark, to take 3 very tired kids on the metro for an hour to get back to the guesthouse about 2 hours after their nominal bedtime.  At least it wasn't raining.

Продолжение следует ('prodolzhenie sleduet…')
[-- 'continuation to follow']

Transport in Moscow: Metro, pt 1: Metro Map

Because everything we do revolves around getting there, and because (almost always) getting there involves the metro, we thought we would include this handy guide to the Moscow metro.

Anyone familiar with reading subway maps will understand when we explain that most of the radial lines actually go out more "straight" than than can be squashed into this box (except for the blue line on the west, which actually does turn & head north). Also, only the solid lines are currently operational. The others are unde construction or planned.

You don't have to read Russian to see it's more like spaghetti than straight lines :-)

Our guest house is on the orange line, on the north side as it crosses out of the brown circle line, in between that pair of stops and the next one out.

We have been going to church down the green line, about halfway between 4 and 5 stops 'below' where it emerges from the brown circle line.

S's work is on the green line 2 stops 'above' where it emerges from the circle line.  Our friends live east on the dark blue line, 3 stops beyond the circle.

Yeah, it's crazy, and everything takes AT LEAST an hour.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Apartment hunting

Moscow is one of the more expensive cities in the world; prices here range from similar to Newport Beach, CA on the low end to Central Park East, Manhattan, NY on the more expensive side. That's what happens when you have a population of 14 million, with more billionaires than any other city in the world, and a housing shortage that still hasn't caught up from the collapse of the USSR. Needless to say, finding an apartment in our price range which is large enough for a family of five is going to be a challenge.

Some people are telling us to look for a two room apartment (not two bedrooms, two rooms…) which is way to much like just continuing to stay in the guesthouse, but paying for the privilege. Not really a viable long-term option. There will be tradeoffs between size, amenities, quality of repair, commute, and of course, price. Wish us luck!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Not really sightseeing, part 2

Still no time to just stop and see things.  S had to go run an (ultimately futile) errand for work, and got a couple of snaps along the way.

The first one is a banner on the side of a building under repair.  A play on the name of the famous composer of Nutcracker and Swan Lake, it tells what it sells:

Chai and Kofskii

This next one shows bicycles for rent, in a central city promenade along a pond.

This one is another example, if inelegantly captured, of the jarring contrast which is Moscow:

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Feed the birds...

..tuppence a bag, or about that.  We saved bits of bread for those ubiquitous urban dwellers, pidgeons.  

But first, the "carousel."  Between K in pink and E in pink, A is the one in blue and grey today.  Yes, she has a huge wardrobe.  Not all of it easy to tell she's a girl.

Nor is a puffy snowsuit all that easy to walk in.

Though she got the hang of it enough to go exploring, ignoring for the moment the birds scavenging the bread crumbs E and K were tossing out.

Here are all three watching the birds.  This is the "little square" nearest our hotel.

Crusts of bread: 10 cents (plus some crumbs in the hotel room).  Smiles on their faces: priceless. 

What's wrong with this picture?

Anyone who has small children or has ever used a pack n play, can you spot what is wrong in this picture?

Our youngest, A, who is 13 months old (almost exactly) at the time of this photo, figured out how to fold up the bottom board of her play yard and sit on the stretchy canvas like material underneath.  

As you can see, she is pretty proud of herself for having figured this out....

We didn't get a photo of her standing up this way.  I was sure her little feet would punch holes right through the fabric base of the borrowed playpen.

A' is our mischievous one, great at getting into things the other two never thought of.  Just when we thought we were safe, because the older two were good about leaving things alone when we told them.

Nothing like a 1 year old pixie to keep you on your toes.

Especially living in two rooms with 30 bags.

What finally stopped her was when we took a hotel blanket wrapped in a sheet and folded it at the bottom of her playpen, making a nice soft 5-6 inch "mattress" in the bottom.

That must be what she had wanted all along.