Wednesday, December 25, 2013


Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus in Russia on 25 December….

At least, that's what our children decided when they woke up on Wednesday and found:

Stockings for E and K:
tiny notebook
horse finger puppet (which Santa must have found at IKEA)
small soft teddy bear with a heart (ditto)
puzzle (80 pieces Snow White, 108 pieces Russian village scene)

Stockings for baby A (who is 16 months old this week!):
mini toy animals
same teddy bear & horse finger puppet

Santa had a long way to come, and didn't label any of the bags, so they are all share things:

--Konstruktor set (that's the generic term for building blocks like Legos.  This particular brand was the LQC version, but still cool for kids--we didn't bring any and they had really missed building things)

--Basic wooden train tracks & little trains (Santa likes IKEA here, but these really are the classic wooden train tracks, and the first set for our kids, they love them!)

--cups for dolls (plastic IKEA set of 8)

--Cube puzzle (6 different puzzles glued onto six sides of cubes, they range anywhere from 4 cubes to 12 cubes, this has 9.  they are very common in Russia to teach logical thinking before using jigsaw puzzles--even baby A can't swallow these--tho she certainly tried chewing the corners)
(And the best part, as far as E and K are concerned, the pictures are from My Little Pony!)

--plastic balls for playing "fetch" with baby A (she is our very old golden retriever)

Bread pudding for brunch (was all the oven could muster, and that badly), and sautéed turkey strips, rice and squash (some sautéed, some pureed) for 'dinner' (earlier than usual).

We finished the gingerbread cookies from someone at church from Sunday, and ate through two bags of mandarin oranges.

Another gift from someone at church, a bag of wrapped chocolate candies, we saved until the kids went to bed.

There may be challenges living in Russia, but finding fantastic chocolate (bars and candy boxes and individually wrapped candies) is not one of them.  Yum.

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Our Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve, as we would recognize it, we spent on the tramvai/metro/bus to a store to look at new ovens to replace ours which doesn't work.  On the way, we stopped by the Roman Catholic cathedral to see their Christmas decorations.  Here is the front of the cathedral:

Designed in 1911 (without some of the parapets), it suffered more than most churches the USSR's purge of churches, and stood as an empty brick carcass for almost a hundred years.  It was only restored a few years ago, when the parapets were added.

Here's the front entrance, with some of us trying to figure out how the baby's "chariot" should navigate the stairs.  (Turns out there is a ramp at the side).

Here is the Nativity in the interior (missing baby Jesus by design):

And here are the life-sized statues in the outside Nativity display (again, intentionally missing Jesus):

… Complete with live donkey!

And two goats and at least one sheep.  The donkey refused to budge from his lean-to, but the goats (as usual) were curious…

When is a Holiday not a Holiday? (what is a holiday, anyway?)

We have to ask ourselves this a lot here in Russia.

25 December is an ordinary working day (or rather more than ordinary as people try to cram in more stuff so they can take off earlier on 30 December…) here.

E keeps asking why it isn't Christmas here.  Here's the short version:

Different dates:
--The Russian Orthodox Church (and the Russian Empire) did not adopt the Gregorian calendar when other countries did.  (see the Wikipedia entry--
--The USSR adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1918 (both as a break with the Russian church and the empire), but the Russian Orthodox Church still to this day uses the Julian calendar.  The civil calendar in Russian Federation is still the Gregorian calendar (same as the rest of the world).
--That means that the Russian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on what in the Gregorian calendar is 7 January.

--The USSR in abolishing religion abolished the celebration of Christmas, but knew better than to eliminate presents, parties and so forth.  They decreed that these celebrations would be tied to New Year's instead.  But since that meant bringing on the party a week earlier (from 7 Jan to 1 Jan), the population seems to have accepted it.

--All Russians everywhere celebrate New Years by giving presents, sitting at home eating (and drinking), watching old movies on TV, calling friends wishing them happy new years, etc.

--Children dance around the New Year's Tree (Yolka), which looks a lot like what in the US we call a Christmas tree.  (Not usually stars on top, though).

--Presents are brought by Grandpa Frost (Ded Moroz), and his helper Snegurochka (Snow Maiden, in blue)

--If children want presents from Grandpa Frost, when they see him (school parties, New Years' events, etc) they usually have to recite a poem or perform something.

--Since the collapse of the USSR, the Russian Federation officially celebrates Russian Orthodox Christmas, and increasingly in a big way.  It's becoming very "trendy" to go to church for (Orthodox) Christmas (7 January), and very popular to wish people a good Christmas.

(but it still sounds odd to hear people say "For New Year's and Christmas" instead of the other way around)

--Everyone everywhere has official days off for all the days Jan 1 through Jan 8.  Exceptions include some (but not all) retail establishments, some (but not all) museums, concert halls, etc.  (People have to have _something_ to do for 8 days besides drink….)

So, this leads us back to the rather metaphysical opening.  What is a holiday, anyway?

Is it simply the day everyone has off from work?

Is it the day your own religion tells you to take a break from work?  (even if that is different from your host country?)

Is Christmas a day to be more religious?  (i.e., is it like a Sunday?)  If everything is closed, you don't ask whether you wish to shop on Christmas or not.  But when everyone else is working and shopping, do you make a conscious decision not to?

More anon...

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmastime (sort of)

From S:

It's hard to feel like it's Christmas already when the days between now and Jan 1 are officially working days.  I will give an exam on 23 Dec and turns in grades on 27 Dec, but I am trying to keep grading from ruining Christmas.

We also still didn't get a replacement oven (we have been negotiating with the landlord over price they will pay for).  (We hope to get one this week.)  But no baking yet.

Imagine, for a moment, Christmas without baking.

Finally I realized that the fun part is the making, so today I whipped up homemade play dough (salt/flour/oil, the usual) and tossed in some cinnamon.   The cinnamon really removes the salt or doughy smell which play dough often has plus adds a nice Christmasy smell.

E and K had a lot of fun using our Christmas cookie cutters (which we brought with us from America).  Nearly fooled A at first when he saw them.  We are leaving the results out to dry, in hopes that they will harden in time to bedeck our tree.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Merry Christmas Photo

Many of you readers would normally get a Christmas card from us.  But the mail is pretty challenging here, so we are posting our Christmas photo on FB and here. Enjoy our best wishes for Christmas and the New Year: health, happiness, and the love of family…

And yes, those are the Christmas dresses we made 2! years ago for E and K (A's got finished over the summer), and the matching doll dresses (K's dress is on her favorite stuffed dog…)

The photo is in front of the backdrop for a nativity play at church, we're sitting in front of the stable and the donkey and sheep.

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Monday, December 16, 2013

O Tannenbaum...

Real tree or fake tree?

We've always gotten a real tree before.  This year was our first fake tree.  They are cheaper than real trees.  Plus we wanted a tree a bit sooner than some, since Russians want a tree from 31 December to 8 January, so they aren't likely to put up a real tree in mid December.

Here are some attempts to find a tree.  This first batch were the selection at the big box store "AshanCiti" (mini Auchan):

That trip cost an hour each way and lots of hassle, but these batch were ultimately rejected (too short, too scrawny, etc).

Then on a special-purpose trip to the "Mega" shopping mall we looked at a wide range of stores.  First, the selection in the mega-Ashan store was wide, but still not great looking (LQC for Moscow prices).  Then a children's store had the following variant:

There was a display in the food court by a specialty company, and there were some really nice trees, again, for really "nice" prices.  But after seeing good fake trees, it's hard to go back…

Finally we checked out a store called Obi, which turns out to be a very useful big box store like Home Depot, and like Home Depot, had an entire garden center, where there were a wide range of cut real trees, trees in pots, and fake trees and all the trimmings.

So we spent more than we meant to, probably more than we should have (but less than elsewhere);

We left the store with a fake tree in a box.  Now, how to get it home, on public transportation, with 3 kids, a stroller and some groceries:

Friday, December 13, 2013

Baby no more

Our youngest daughter A was just barely one year old when we left for Moscow.  She is only 15 months old now, but somehow seems older.  Maybe it's because she wears size 2T clothes.  Maybe it's because she imitates her older sisters.  Here she is enjoying the furniture we bought at IKEA (which Daddy hammered together):

5 December 2013

Of course, sometimes she enjoys IKEA furniture in non-standard ways:

13 December 2013

Friday, December 6, 2013

Metro Dobrininskaya

There are lots of challenges to life in Moscow.  Public transportation is not one of them.  A single ride on the subway costs 30 Rubles (just less than $1), but that single ride is from any metro station to any other metro station; all the transfers from one subway train to another subway train are free.  Children before age 7 are free.  Subway is really the most efficient way to get around the city.  In theory a car traveling the speed limit travels faster than a train when accounting for the train stops, but no car in Moscow ever gets far going that fast because of the traffic jams, all day long.

Every location inside Moscow is listed by name of metro stop and how to get there from the metro (walking or bus/tramvai).  So we live walking distance from metro Voikovskaya, S work is walking distance from metro Aeroport (two stops away).  Ar was teaching at Moscow State University, over a dozen stops and one transfer away.  The medical center assigned to us by our insurance is pretty far from where we live, but only a short walk from Metro Dobrininskaya (on the brown or circle line)  If we live about 11 o'clock (on the circle), then it is about 5 o'clock.

Some metro stations are very ornate.  Some have their own buildings as entrances, other entrances are built inside other buildings.  They are kept remarkably clean (for public transportation), swept regularly, and because everyone uses the metro, there are far fewer crazy people hanging around.

Metro Dobrininskaya has its own building as an entrance, with high ceilings and ornate mosaics on one wall, as in the following pictures.  They are installed on the wall you see as you first enter, overwhelming in scale:

These mosaics are standard Soviet praise of socialist heroes.  One looks like he was up in space, another about the war more generally. 

Arranged in a set of three, or triptych, with those red chandeliers hanging in front of them, they look for all the world like Russian Orthodox icons.  

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


Near us is a large park, where most of the appeal is trees and paths.  But there are some play places, and  in another corner, a space we discovered recently designed for larger kids:

We thought it might work for sliding, and here is K trying, but there wasn't enough snow left.  It melts away fast around here (at least compared to Siberia):

E and K thought it would be great with more snow, but A wasn't so sure:

Using these little plastic 'sit on' sliding toys, these small ramps work fine.  they are too small for genuine sleds.  But genuine sleds also need more snow.

P.S. (15 December) As A said recently, we see more people carrying sleds than actually using them.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Transport in Moscow: Tramvai (Streetcar)

Two buildings away from our apartment building run streetcar tracks, along which run 3 recently restored or reassigned tramvai routes.  So this is a typical streetcar in Moscow.  Some are older, some newer, but all work on this basic design. What looks like spider legs coming out of the roof connect to the electrical wires hanging above the track, which powers the tramvai.  

This shows the door which one enters.  The closed inner door is to the driver's seat.  There is a tiny hand hole to reach in cash to buy a ticket if you are desperate, but they really discourage buying from the driver.  To speed up boarding the tramvai, you are expected to buy tickets at ticket booths and automatic machines which are mostly at major intersections.  Then once you board the tramvai, to move into the main cabin, you slide your mag stripe ticket or swipe your electronic card at an automatic reader, which opens for one person an otherwise closed turnstile.

In general, we find tramvais very convenient to our house, each line runs not more than 10 minute intervals, so with even a couple of options you know you never wait long.

Major drawback to tramvai riding.  Look at this (stranger) getting off the tramvai:

Notice how steep the steps are?  There are only three steps to get up or down a platform about chest height.  This means the steps are very steep.  The first step is higher than K's waist.  Try lifting up an umbrella stroller with a child in it up to your chest.  Only A can lift the double stroller into the tramvai. 

Transport in Moscow: Metro, part 2: Going Down

Just a few shots of public transportation, with which we have become intimately acquainted here in Moscow.

Escalators going down (in this case coming up) into the subway, two different stations.

E counts the light posts.  They are at least 10 feet apart.  She counted one near our guest house which had 17.  She says the most she ever counted on one escalator is 21.

But this is what E loves to do most of all on the metro: