Saturday, March 21, 2020

Impressions of Ukraine

It has been 7 glorious months of peaceful and wintery life in Kyiv. Some immediate and now more long-term impressions for the curious among you:
  • Ukrainians are officially the most suicidal drivers and the worst parkers I have ever seen in my life! I know I have said that about many of the drivers in the places we have lived. Folks, this is IT! Ukraine wins the bad driving Olympics! Driving here brings me to such apoplexy that I end up hurling obscenities of the most startling variety during the majority of the ride. In essence, it boils down to this – if there is more than a 5 cm distance between your car and any other object on the road, another car will somehow, magically and most definitely squeeze in that space. The day a guy entered a one-way street from the opposite direction, (which of course forced me to stop my car for lack of anywhere to go as streets downtown are tiny and definitely not designed with opulent SUVs in mind), calmly parked it in the midst of that, and walked slowly away even though I honked so much, I thought the horn will break, I caved in, backed out and never drove again.
  • Ukrainians love salo, a beautiful ribbon of white pork fat, which appears to be salted or smoked, or both. I have eaten salo in Russia, but the Ukrainian salo is a whole other thing and seemingly has a cult status in the food regimen of locals. It goes down VERY easily with vodka (what else), and each small piece seems to be about 1000 calories each, which is apparently why I like it so much.
  • Kyiv is gorgeous and you can find new places to explore every week.
  • The metro is extremely well connected. And clean. So clean. In your face, New York City!
  • Going back to cars, I have never seen so many vanity plates. They are not vanity plates the way folks do them in the United States – like, the hearse whose plate said “ U R Next,” or the Corvette with the infuriating “Zro Kidz.” No, vanity here is more like AA1111BB. While most of the time such plates in the United States are delightfully dumb, tough to understand, and cost only a bit more than a regular one, getting a vanity plate in Eastern Europe shows status. It tells the rest of the common folk how important the owner is – the more awesome the plate is, the more important and connected that person is. Ukraine is no different. What is shocking here, however, is just how many vanity plates of the “I am very important” kind one sees on a daily basis. To be frank, they kinda seem to be the majority! And then, yesterday, I saw the ultimate plate. It simply said - A0000A. Dang! Who knew that 0000 is a number. I wonder who is THAT important as to say to him or her-self – “Well, this is it. I have achieved it all – wealth, power, influence, sex appeal (I presume). I have bought a new gigantic Mercedes to match all that and plan to park it over the entire sidewalk to block regular humans come near it. And I shall give it the best license plate – a bunch of zeros!!” I seethe with envy.
  • Coffee shops outnumber human beings. There are regular coffeeshops, there are mall coffee stands, there are street kiosk coffee shops, there are the hole in the wall selling coffee places, and then there are back-of-the-van coffee pop-ups. Often, each one within 5 feet of each other. And there are clients for all, all smoking up a storm while they gulp down the bitter brown liquid.
  • The vast majority of Ukrainians speak English! After serving in several countries where that was not a given, it can be such a relief to be able to explain to the hair dresser exactly what you want and not walk out of the salon with head covered in white highlights you never wanted.
  • Manicurists here are amazing!
  • Ukraine is in Europe!!! Which means a lot of easy, fast, cheap travel all over the old continent:    
    • In November, we went to Lithuania for a long weekend
    • Again in November, we went to Berlin for Thanksgiving
    • In December, we went to Spain for the winter holidays (Seville was magical, Gran Canaria – warm, Valencia – filled with bitter oranges!)
    • In January, we went to Warsaw for a long weekend
    • In February, we flew to Northern (!) Italy for a week for ski

And then it all abruptly stopped thanks to the omnipresent corona virus madness.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Four Hands in a Russian Banya and a Botched Russian exit

My time in Russia wouldn’t have been complete without a visit to a “banya” – the Russian equivalent of a sauna/hamam experience, with the added pleasure of jumping in the snow or having freezing water poured over your head in the meantime. Since even in May, the weather was still pretty wintery in Yekaterinburg, a good friend organized а banya outing at the gorgeous Ananyevskie Bani. Along with my fabulous girlfriend IL, I was given a wooden chalet, which consisted of two cozy rooms, and one wet hamam room that led into a dry and frighteningly hot sauna. It all looked a little out of an old Russian tale, which was enhanced by the fact that the woman who met us at the door was dressed like a 19th century peasant (unless, of course, she just had a penchant for heavily embroidered-bouffant style blouses paired with puffed-up skirts). My friend IL had wisely brought a bottle of wine, and after confirming with the period-clad woman that I do indeed want a “parilshtik” – a person to come and whack me with tree branches as part of a traditional banya experience - we proceeded to order from the banya menu delicacies like salted pork fat, pickled vegetables, sausages and black bread. As we settled to chat, drink and eat, the door suddenly opened, and a short, stocky man appeared, completely undressed save for a large cloth enveloping his lower body like a skirt, tucked under his enormous protruding belly. He was carrying a large wooden water bucket, filled with various types of tree branches. He merrily remarked that he was only bringing those to let them soak for 30 mins in cold water – apparently, the treatment was going to include whacking with 5 types of tree branches, birch, oak, fir, eucalyptus and juniper, all gathered at midnight on some obscure religious holiday. Then he cryptically remarked that four hands were better than one and happily disappeared.

Somewhat puzzled, we nevertheless stripped down to bathing suits and continued to drink and chat. In a few minutes, branch guy came back, again without knocking, but to my shock behind him was an identical semi-nude sweaty guy who, it seemed, was about to take part of the show as well. Somewhat alarmed at that point, I was led into the hot sauna by the boisterous men who really seemed to know what they doing. Both took the opportunity to emphasize several times that bathing suits were optional, and I cheerfully informed them that I was keeping mine on. The sauna was like an inferno. They placed a wreath of branches on the bench, and made me lie down with my face in it. Then, they put a stack of other branches, dripping with icy-cold water, on top of my head, so in fact I felt quite comfortable and the heat did not seem that horrendous anymore. For the next 15 minutes, they proceeded to lightly whack me around with various branches, while frequently changing the cold ones on top of my head. Each time, they changed the type, so I would invariably smell eucalyptus, or birch, or whatever else. It was, in fact, rather glorious.

After all that, feeling a bit dizzy from the heat, they brought me to my feet and led me gingerly outside the sauna into the wet part of the banya. As I sheepishly looked around to see what was next, someone suddenly dumped a bucket of icy cold water on my head, and I nearly passed out. I was so out of breath that before I even managed to start yelling obscenities, another bucket of icy water got poured on my head. Just as I was about to kill someone, the banya men expertly pulled me and made me lie down on a wooden bed. Then a whole bunch of treatments happened, but I was too disoriented to remember them all properly. All I know was that there was spreading of clay, something that felt like peeling, massages with aromatic leaves, spray washing, rinse, repeat. That went on for quite some time and was also rather pleasant. Feeling that I was enjoying all of that too much, the two sadistic men then dragged me back into the hot sauna, and continued with the branch whacking. The whole process took about an hour and in the end, they had to literally carry me into the bed to rest as my blood pressure was all over the place and I could not walk. My skin, however, was glowing and I felt like a newborn. I proclaim banya one of my new most favorite things!

My last month in Russia was an absolute blur of activity. As Son finally finished school and graduated elementary school, I offered to throw him a goodbye sleepover with his best friends, while the Diplomat left for India to see the Inlaws. As a result, five prepubescent boys spent the night in our house, playing soccer, eating pizza and talking nonsense about girls. As far as I could tell, they did not go to sleep until 1 am, and I found one of them asleep upright in a sofa chair – apparently, he “liked to try new things, like sleeping in a sofa chair.” (I also do like to try new things but mine go more along the lines of trying First Class on Emirates, buying my first Christian Louboutins, or very old single malt scotch. I guess we are different.)

The next day, Son and I left Moscow for good - he was coming to stay with me in Yekaterinburg for the last 2 weeks of our time in Russia. For lack of other better options, I put him in an overpriced cooking camp, taught exclusively in Russian – a language he somewhat understands, but still does not exactly speak. Every evening, the parents would come to pick up the budding chefs and we were served dinner cooked by them during the day. To his credit, Son did not complain a single time and seemed to get along with everybody, even if they communicated mostly through monosyllabic sounds and hand gestures.

In the meantime, I hosted my goodbye party, which ended with at sunrise (granted, at that point, the sun in Yekat was rising at 2:30 am), Yekaterinburg hosted its famous Ural Music Night, featuring 80 stages indoors and outdoors all over the city and some 2500 artists (among which yours truly, belting out Country Roads at the opening of the festival with a full scale band behind me!!), and the U.S. Consulate Yekaterinburg hosted its annual Independence Day reception, which lasted 6 hours in high heels and where I hosted part of the program the evening before we left Russia. In between, there were more receptions and dinners and parties and goodbyes, and, oh yes, the packout of all of my belongings.

So, I think you would imagine the extent of my exhaustion when Son and I woke up at 4 am the day after the reception (me having slept a total of 3 hours), zipped our suitcases, shoved Fat Cat in his brand new, garish red carrying case (he was to fly with us in the cabin of the plane for a change), and bid the lovely city of Yekat goodbye. Except that we ended up not leaving. Due to an outrageous mistake by Turkish Airlines, Fat Cat was booked erroneously as a cargo animal, and not a cabin one – the reservation claimed he was almost 20 lbs. Now, the cat is overweight, I am not going to argue. But 20 lbs he ain’t. Despite the fact that I weighed him in front of the ground staff, they said that if the booking said he was 20 lbs, then he WAS 20 lbs, even if he actually was not. And then they denied us boarding. As an alternative, the airline rep suggested we release him in the street. No matter what I said or how much I or Son cried, he was one unmoved Russian man. When I pointed out to him he was very rude, he told me I was impertinent. And so we had to come back to the apartment. I ended up buying new tickets on the omnipresent Aeroflot who seemed to have their s**t together a lot better, and after sleeping most of the day and a hearty steak lunch, Son, Fat Cat and I finally left Russia that same night, to arrive in the welcoming hands of Grandma in Bulgaria the next day.

We spent the next 4 days on the Bulgarian coast, eating our weight’s worth in an all-inclusive resort in Nessebar, and resting and roasting on the beach. (Fat Cat stayed with my uncle, in case you wonder. He is really making the rounds.) A day after we came back, I left the child and the expensive cat with Grandma in Bulgaria and flew to Washington, DC where the Diplomat had already arrived a week ago to start training for our next assignment in Ukraine. I saw him for one hot minute and the next day, I left again for a week-long State Department training meant to prepare me for life in a dangerous country. Having conquered that, at the end of the week I returned to DC and we left that same night for a quick romantic getaway since it was our 16th wedding anniversary. The next 4 days were spent having dinners with friends, last minute shopping, and getting very sick. Exactly 12 days after I had arrived in the United States, and 3 weeks after leaving Russia, I hopped on a plane again to fly to my final destination - Kyiv. You think I was exhausted? Oh, you bet. Not to mention the piercing throat pain, cough and low-grade fever. Welcome to Ukraine!

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

The Russian Roadtrip – Vodka and Churches Part 1

Last month, we took a long-planned road trip through the so-called Golden Ring of Russia – a circle of about 650 km in total, starting in Moscow and going north-east, dotted with beautiful old Russian towns, featuring the obligatory gorgeous onion-domed church or seven, typically organized in so-called Kremlins. (Generally, a Kremlin is a major fortified complex found in the center of a typical old Russian town; the most famous one is, of course, in Moscow, and houses the Russian government, among other things). When I say long-planned, I mean I have been talking about it forever and we decided to go on it three days before the actual trip, which always means great prep work. We also decided to travel during the biggest holiday weekend in Russia – the May 9th holidays (anniversary of Victory Day of the Second World War) – which made the task of finding hotels and navigating the traffic of Russians leaving Moscow to go to their dachas for the long weekend that much more exciting.

Undaunted, we were on the road by 9 am on a warm Thursday morning, headed to our first stop on the Ring – Sergiev Posad.  Without much dramatic traffic, we made the 90 km trip in about 2 hours, and set about to explore the city’s Kremlin. Given the holiday, the entire downtown was closed down, all, and I mean ALL, kids were dressed in military attire, adults were carrying flowers and portraits of older relatives who appeared to have died in the war, random groups of people were gathering in the corners singing patriotic songs, and the overall atmosphere was very festive if somewhat somber. To understand just how much this holiday means to Russians, you need to know that they don’t call the war World War II; rather, they refer to it as the War for the Fatherland. Any town worth its salt has a formal demonstration and a procession, and, apparently, throughout the day, there were 10 million (yes, TEN) people who attended and walked in such processions across the entire country.
Sergiev Posad’s Kremlin was as if it came from a postcard or the pages of an old Russian storybook. It had the gold-covered, onion-domed pristine church, the frescoes, the blooming trees, the white-washed seminary and busy-looking, all-clad in black, scuttling about young priests, clutching various important books and discussing theology over simple soup in the refectory. There were also the ubiquitous hordes of Chinese tourists who took picture of EVERYTHING, including of each other taking pictures. 

After we soaked-in the beautiful architecture, we left for our next destination – Pereslav-Zaleskyy. The exact opposite of Sergiev Posad, the tiny town featured an old Kremlin with somewhat crumbling but picturesque buildings and a lovely garden. After a half-hour walk and a deep theosophical discussion with the Diplomat about the differences between atheism and agnosticism (during which no agreement was reached), we continued to the last stop for the day – Rostov Velikiy.

Rostov was my favorite on this trip and has the most beautiful Kremlin on the entire route. First, we dropped by the stunning Spaso-Yakovlevsky monastery on the banks of the Nero lake, where I had to wear a headscarf and drank some holy water, which tasted funny and I had to go to the bathroom immediately (if very blessed, of course). After that detour we ended up at the Kremlin around 5 pm, which ensured that we were pretty much the only people there to enjoy the gorgeous architecture in the balmy warmth of the sunset, surrounded by the quiet of the early evening. Son declared he was not feeling well (he drank some holy water too) and stayed in car, which further enhanced the peace and quiet of the walk through the centuries-old utterly enchanting Kremlin complex.

Filled with awe and hunger, we headed to our hastily booked “home for guests” perched on the banks of the lake. Since it was already 10 pm, we went to grab a quick bite. That turned out to be a bit of a daunting task given that we were, well, in the middle of not very much. Our only option consisted of a simple café/restaurant with nice outdoor seating with not much lighting, where several groups of happy folks appeared to have been celebrating Victory Day for a week. So, imagine everyone’s utter shock when we pulled in our giant SUV featuring a shiny red diplomatic license plate, and parked it in front of everyone. All conversation abruptly ceased and all gaze focused on us. At that point, someone pointed out importantly and quite loudly that we were apparently American (he had already managed to decipher the license plate symbols on his phone), and then inexplicably greeted the Diplomat with a hearty “As-Salaam-Alaikum.” We sat down next to them, and soon a key bilateral conversation ensued, ensuring friendship and cross-cultural exchange, enhanced by several offers of vodka shots. I ordered the only wine there was, a particularly horrid red varietal of unknown origin – the price for the bottle was $6, so you make your own conclusions. After a mediocre meal but a lovely discussion on various engaging themes varying from politics to the merits of a sink incinerator, it was time to go back. I offered the rest of the wine to the merrymakers, who happily accepted it but then insisted that we take a bottle of vodka in exchange.

Ipatiev Monastery
The next morning, we continued on to the next couple of pretty towns – Yaroslavl and Kostroma. The Yaroslavl Kremlin was rather large and well preserved, and hence as usual besieged by tourists. We used the bathrooms, took a quick gander to see the church, and went out to the neighboring Uspenskiy Cathedral Church, which featured stunning 16th century frescoes. Next – Kostroma, where we strolled through the stunning Ipatiev monastery complex located on the banks of the Volga River. There, I almost caused an international scandal when I remarked to the Diplomat that there was a group of elderly German tourists visiting. Suddenly, their young and overly zealous Russian group leader jumped and yelled at me in heavily accented English, “If you have a problem with Germans, you have a problem with me!” Utterly stunned, I asked him what exactly his problem was to which he responded that he was joking. We clearly had different definitions of humor.

Tune in tomorrow for Part 2...

Friday, February 8, 2019

How I became a Silver member on Aeroflot in 4 months

The past 5 months can only be summarized with one word – incessant travel. As you know, the Diplomat and Son are currently in Moscow where Son attends school, and I work in Yekaterinburg and fly to see them virtually every weekend. That, or we all travel somewhere else together instead.

For example, in October, we met in St. Petersburg. It was all wonderful and very pretty, except that it rained the entire time we were there. It made for a very soggy experience and we would have to come back in order to actually enjoy the visit.

In November, we all went to India to see the In-Laws in Chennai. It was largely an uneventful visit used to spend time with family and eat good home-cooked food, walk the dusty streets and even snag a few cocktails in the bars that have recently cropped up all over the city. We did go to see the new apartment, which the In-Laws have bought in the city in a luxury high-rise building with a swimming pool and gym, and so much more. The catch – the building is still being built. Thus, we arrived at the construction site, very strong wind causing piles of sand to fly all over us, and not only were we allowed to walk all over the place but were in fact ushered into a shaky (and tiny) construction elevator, whose doors were held together by a rope. Along with my rising terror, we slowly went up to the 15th or so floor, and gingerly got out to step on a wiggly thin wooden bridge and onto the unfinished floor. Going down was even ricketier and hair-rising, if that was even possible.

And then for the Christmas holidays, we went back to Bulgaria to visit Mom, and see friends and family. Then the Diplomat and I left Son with Mom, and flew to Madrid to drink sherry and eat tapas. Everywhere we travel, I always try to find places frequented by locals only. That is how we ended up in La Venencia on Calle de Echegaray. This lovely old-fashioned bar serves only sherry, the happy hour (1-3 pm) choice of Madrilenos. They don't allow photography inside, otherwise you would see the moldy high ceilings, the accounts written in chalk on the wooden counter. It is ridiculously cheap and tips are not allowed. People have to stand up at the bar and actually talk to each other! After three food and drink-filled days there, we flew over to the Canary Islands, where we met the New Year in the balmy 75 degree weather of Gran Canaria.

A few days later, happy and slightly sunburned, we came back to Bulgaria, picked up Mom and Son, and went up to ski in the snow-drowned resort of Borovetz. While Son re-learned how to ski in lessons, and Mom hiked around the slopes, the Diplomat and I enjoyed the immaculate slopes, stopping for the occasional strong drink to fight the crazy cold. After an exhausting 3 weeks of vacation, we went back in Russia, ready to go back to school and work.

And then, a mere 2 week later, I went to Paris for a long girls’ weekend away with some fabulous friends from Brazil. The trip started with an overly talkative taxi driver from the airport, who did not speak more than 5 words of English (and me – the same in French), but upon hearing that I had arrived from Russia, assumed that I was Russian and did not stop praising Putin for the next 30 minutes. Because of the language barrier, it was not 100% clear what exactly the driver was talking about but then he suddenly pulled out a video on his phone, showing the Russian president singing “Blueberry Hills” at some event, and proceeded to loudly sing along with the video. Once it was over, he simply added in his terrible English – “Macron is shit. Putin – real man!”

 The whole three days in Paris remain a blur to me, with dinners soaked in endless bottles of champagne, dancing until 5 am in secret underground clubs, shopping fabulous French dresses in the (governmentally mandated!) post-Christmas sales, and the icing on the cake – a visit to the Crazy Horse cabaret. Now, we have all heard and even seen on TV scenes from Moulin Rouge – pretty ladies in skimpy clothing, dancing frivolously in sexy unison on the stage. The Crazy Horse – a whole different level of skimpy, mostly expressed in a circular bandaid of sorts on the crotch area. Yup, there was a whole lot of naked that night. A fitting end to an incredible weekend.

After all the money spent on clothes, I decided to be a good girl and take the train back to Charles de Gaulle airport rather than pay for a taxi. After reading extensively on which train to take to where, I took my small hand suitcase and walked decisively to the metro. It did not start well (and did not continue well, for that matter) – the ticket machine refused to take any of my credit cards and I did not have a dime of cash. Cursing, I had to get out and go into another entrance where I found an actual agent and my credit card worked. I managed to make it to Chatelet from where I was supposed to take the B train to the airport. First I got on the wrong side of the tracks. Up and down a few escalators, and I was at the right place finally. Then I carefully read the signs to make sure I am getting on the right train. And then I got on the wrong train. 15 mins into the completely wrong direction, I managed to get off, change the side (yup, a bunch of escalators up and down again), and eventually get a train back to Chatelet. Change sides again and finally got on the right train. At this point, I realized that I am going to miss my plane. Highly uncharacteristically for me, I had left 3 hours earlier (I was planning to do some final damage at the duty free), so there was a glimmer of hope. I spent the next 35 minutes glued to the map of my phone, watching the small blue dot on it showing how excruciatingly slow the train was moving. Once at the airport, I cut every single line, begged and pleaded with everyone to let me go first and made it barely breathing at the gate, 10 minutes after boarding was supposed to begin. And then it turned out that nothing had even started there. Oh well. It gave me a few minutes to actually start breathing again. The rest of the trip back was uneventful.

Now some further impressions of life in Russia:

  1. Russians are obsessed with wrapping their suitcases in plastic wrap – you have all seen those packing machines at the airport. They wrap them small and big, they wrap even hand luggage, boxes, gym bags, and backpacks! I will never understand why.
  2. Russians know cold and do not joke about heating. Every inside space here is aggressively heated – whether it’s the mall, the opera house, a museum, airplane, hospital – it’s hot, hot, hot.
  3. Russians do not jaywalk. Ever. This is the most (unnecessarily) disciplined pedestrian society. It may be -20F, there may not be a car in 10 km sight, but no one (apart from me) would even think to set foot on the street until the lights change.
  4. Everyone drinks everything warm (see point 2 above). That includes warm water in restaurants, and, sadly, warm white wine. When I demand cold beverages, I am given distrustful looks.
  5. Every restaurant offers hookahs and Russians smoke them everywhere, including expensive Japanese restaurants and the corner coffeeshops. There is no escaping them – anywhere you go, in any city, you are destined to eat your dinner and watch everyone around you enveloped in thick, sweetish smoke.

The Russia adventure continues.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

A visit to the opera, a fashion show, a boxing match and the circus - just a normal week in Russia

So far, life in Russia has been an unexpected whirlwind of foreign receptions and travel. While there are only a handful of foreign missions represented in Yekaterinburg, all of them decided to have their national day (or equivalent) celebrations in the past two months, which made for a very fun if hectic life. At the same time, I fly to Moscow almost every weekend both for work and to see the Diplomat, Son and Fat Cat (collectively,  the “Bachelor Pad”), which certainly adds to the dynamic routine. But once the receptions were over, I finally had the chance to soak in a little of the rich cultural life Russia has to offer. In the span of one week, I managed to watch Swan Lake in the Yekaterinburg Opera, attend a boxing match, a runway show during Yekaterinburg’s Fashion Week (front row seat!!) and go to the Moscow Circus, all four of which were fabulous!

I love the opera and so to my delight, the Yekat opera house is very close to my house, and the tickets are not very expensive. So, for my first visit there, I decided to treat myself to the type of seat I always thought fancy since it was too expensive anywhere else I have been. And so, I bought a ticket in a side box on the ground floor for a grand total of $17, feeling quite smug about myself. Once I arrived there, I discovered that I am not able to see ⅓ of the stage and the seating was old wooden chairs. Next time - plush orchestra seats it is. The ballet was great except for Prince Siegfried who was a bit on the heavy side and every time he landed after a jump, the crystal chandeliers shook gently. 

The next night, I went to watch boxing - after a string of local boxers, came the star fight of the night between a Russian and an American boxer. After a pretty intense 10 rounds, the American ended up winning. My loud cheers were met with icy stares from folks around me.

A couple of days later, I got invited to the annual Yekaterinburg Fashion Show, where I was treated to a front row seat. I have to say that some of the designers were quite amazing, and I am currently working with one of them to get some of her clothes.

The cultural week ended appropriately with an astonishing show at the Great Moscow State Circus, where for three straight hours we were all mesmerized by incredible acrobats and animal acts. The show was called “The Center of the Universe” and was centered along the theme of the recent World Cup. There is a reason the Russian circus is a legend - they even had a black bear walking on a tightrope on its hands. The week ended with a splendid dinner in an Italian restaurant behind the Red Square.

First impressions after two months in Russia:

1.      Russians are obsessed with coat check (called “garderob”). They check their coats obsessively in restaurants, museums, stores, shopping malls, even supermarkets. If you don’t check your coat, they will chase you and force you to check it. They will get scandalized if you refuse and go sulk in the garderob section.
2.      Russians smoke more than Bulgarians. I did not think it was possible but apparently it is. They particularly enjoy smoking in their cars with the windows closed, so that they can really soak in the smoke.
  1. Taxi drivers are suicidal (i.e., they think they are really good drivers). I especially love riding in a taxi in which the driver has just smoked, so I can enjoy both the saturated cigarette smell at a neck-breaking speed.
4.      I am yet to see a Russian woman with naturally curly hair. Thus, hairdressers have no idea how to style a person with such hair (e.g., me). The first time I went to a salon and asked for a blowout with large curls, the hairdresser spent 10 minutes oohing and aahing about my hair texture, and was clearly puzzled as to what to do with it. After emphasizing several times that I do not my hair ironed straight and looking limp, she did precisely that, leaving me to look like a sad spaniel with dangling ears. My second time, this time in Moscow, fared no better. I am afraid to try again.
5.      Doing manicure is a 2.5-hr (minimum!) affair, during which the “master” will tell you sternly what is classy and what is not (what I wanted was apparently NOT), and will proceed to do just that. Take it or leave it.
6.      Massages are fabulous and cheap.
7.      Hats are a religion - even if it is well above 0, everyone will wear a hat.
8.      This is a smoked salmon paradise - my local supermarket smokes its own and there are about 15 different varieties. I am addicted!  
9.      Public transportation in Moscow is a dream.
10.  Service in restaurants while incredibly polite, takes hours. Do not go to a restaurant hungry. Also, make sure you do NOT order all the food at the same time, or you will end up eating the main course first, then perhaps an appetizer and then possibly a soup.
11.  Russian women go to the gym in the most surprising outfits (albeit not all of them surprise in a good way).
12.  Russian people are truly very, very nice people.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

How (not) to Move to Russia in a Week

Once we came back from Europe, the move-planning machine went into overdrive. We spent about a week waiting for the final approvals of our travel, and you’d think we would prepare ourselves better for it in the meantime. We didn’t. So, when the approvals finally came through, we were left with about 10 days or so to call the movers, sort out our possessions, buy plane tickets, figure out how to transport Son from Bulgaria (where he was still hanging out with Grandma) to Russia, rent our house, change our residency to Florida, and well, move to Russia. Suffice it to say, it did not all go super smoothly.

For starters, the move itself was a nightmare logistically. The Diplomat and Son were actually moving to Moscow so that Son can go to school there, and I was going to Yekaterinburg (about 2 hr plane ride further towards Siberia) because my assignment was there. That meant that we were going to be packed separately by two different companies on two separate days. In addition, all of our furniture had to go to deep storage (generally, the State Department provides us with furniture overseas and there is no place for our own stuff) and that was to be done by a third company. And then there was the car and the cat. So, on a Friday morning, I called the State Department Travel & Transportation coordinator and boldly scheduled the three consecutive packouts on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday the following week. And then we would fly out to Russia on the following Monday. We spent the weekend splitting up the household (“you get the circular colander, I get the rectangular; you get the fancy plates, I get the grater” and so on), sorting out clothing into air shipment (to arrive within 2 weeks) and ship shipment (to arrive… no one knows when), and showing the messy house to potential renters.

And just when you thought this was not complicated and exhausting enough, I got this idea that we needed to change our Virginia residence since we were not going to be VA residents anymore. Since we own a house in Florida, I decided that we can try and switch our residence there. As we had two days before the packout hell would begin, I figured that we might try our luck and go get driving licenses and establish domicile in the state of Mickey Mouse. We flew in very late on Sunday night, got up around 9 am, drove to the DMV at 9:30 am, and walked out of there at 10 am as proud owners of shiny new driving licenses and registered FL voters. From there we drove to the Courthouse, where we filed an official affidavit of domicile. That took 7 minutes. Everywhere we went, the customer service was courteous, jovial and efficient. Also, my license photo was amazing, which is always a plus. I know we chose the right state – in Virginia, this process would have taken 11 months and 3 days. Left with all this time on our hands (I had planned a whole two days to achieve this), we decided that it was wiser to try and fly earlier home on standby to continue to sort out through our life possessions. We were home by 10 am on Tuesday. All in all, I would say that were the 35 of the most efficient hours in my life.

And so, on Wednesday, the final madness began with a snappy crew of 5 Romanian movers who were fast, efficient and dead serious. In the meantime, the Diplomat took Fat Cat (who is still very much alive, thank you very much) to the vet. You see, in order to export a cat overseas, one needs to 1) take the cat to the vet to make sure it is healthy, 2) get said cat vaccinated for rabies (and probably some other useless stuff depending on the country), 3) get the vet to sign a health certificate, and then 4) either drive 2 hours to Richmond or spend a boatload of money Fedex-ing that certificate to the U.S. Department of Agriculture where it would get signed by some other certified someone and sent back to you with a pre-paid overnight Fedex for even more money ($75 per package to be precise). The whole process is utterly incomprehensible to me – how exactly is the USDA adding value here is beyond me but airlines refuse to board the cat as cargo without that piece of paper. The trick is that the cat has to leave the country within 5 days of its exam (hence the crazy expensive overnight mail). Despite the silly logistics, this could have been a fairly simple matter of just throwing money at everyone and getting it done, except that once the vet pocketed the $350 for the exam and the vaccine, she also produced an alternative Russia-specific form, which said that Russia requires the rabies vaccine to be one more than 20 days in advance of travel (SOMEONE, and I am not saying who but it wasn’t me, did not pay attention to the instructions we were sent way in advance). As you can figure out, we were about 5 days before travel. Uselessly, the next day I drove down to Richmond with my super friend M to try and convince the USDA to sign the form anyway. Which they did not despite my earnest pleading – the lady behind the counter literally looked at the form, then at me and curtly said, “No” and then disappeared not to be seen again. Crestfallen, we drove back. Fat Cat would not fly with us. Thankfully, Super M agreed to host Fat Cat for the following 2 weeks and coordinate with a cat shipper to send the portly animal to us in the end.

Then we hit the next snag, again due to a rookie oversight. Our recently purchased car could not be shipped without a copy of the title, which in the great state of VA is electronic. You’d think that means simply that you can go to the DMV and they would print you a copy. Such silly (logical) thoughts. No. What that means is that you make a request to get a copy, and then it takes an undisclosed time for the DMV to send it to you. And if this wasn’t enough, God help you if you bought the car through a lender. In that case, it is the LENDER who has to request the title. It took our lender a week, a WEEK to do that. So, the car would also not be traveling to Russia right away – our gracious neighbor S agreed to wait for the title to arrive and turn the car over to the movers once that happened. One more reason to be relieved not to be a VA resident anymore.

So, in the end, we left the United States with stuffed 3 suitcases but without Son, Fat Cat, and the car, relying on Grandma, Super M and Neighbor S to bring/send those to us. At least we found a lovely couple to rent the house and even managed to have a few goodbye gatherings.

In the following weeks, we slowly gathered the scattered family in Russia. Grandma brought Son a week later just in time for the school sleepover; Fat Cat flew on time and has been steadily spreading his hair all over our governmentally-provided furniture for the past month; and the ship carrying the car just docked in Antwerp (when it actually gets to us is anybody’s guess, of course). Now we wait for the rest of our belongings to join us – hopefully some time before next year.

Monday, September 3, 2018


It has been an eventful summer, to put it mildly. In late June, I bid goodbye to my job in the Bureau of Consular Affairs in DC, and embarked on a month-long vacation with the Diplomat and Son. If you would kindly remember, our next assignment was supposed to be Ukraine, starting in the summer of 2019. This next year we were going to study Russian and soak up more of that special Arlington culture while Son finished elementary school here. The Diplomat had the whole year planned out – the man loves to go to class. He was going to study diligently during the day, and play as much golf and tennis as was decent in the evenings and the weekends. That idyllic plan all came crashing down when I was offered a one-year assignment in Yekaterinburg, Russia to fill a staffing gap, before we go to Ukraine. I am a typical Foreign Service officer – dangle a shiny, exotic post with tons of hardship and I will end up saying yes. Which I did with the Diplomat’s blessing – I convinced him to come and study Russian in Russia instead.

That little change of plans put a major spoke in our vacation wheels. We were supposed to cash in all of our accumulated vacation time and spend close to two months in Europe and India, seeing family, friends and some good, old European churches. We had spent over 3 days in total on the phone with American Airlines, cashing in on a ton of frequent flyer miles to do that and were feeling particularly proud of ourselves achieving an almost cash-free flight experience. With this new situation, we cut our decadent vacation plans in half, canceled all those hard-won tickets (which cost us a pretty penny), attempted to re-book (with zero success) and ended up buying a whole set of new tickets, some of which made for a very interesting journey back.

We landed in Sofia on a bright July morning, ate Grandma’s delicious home food, and a day later, the Diplomat and Son left for a 5-day India visit. And while they battled crippling jet-lag there, I devoted myself to endless restaurant nights with my family, my friends, and my middle and high-school classmates, which helped tremendously with that problem. When they came back, after one more satiating dinner with the family, we headed to sunny Palermo in the pastoral Italian island of Sicily. We spent two days roaming the streets of the old city, and nature must have really liked us because instead of the typical 40+ degrees scorching summer weather, we had very pleasant, mild sunshine both days. After arriving late in the evening, we went in search of a place to have dinner, fully mindful that it was 11 pm. You know, living in Arlington slowly and cruelly conditions you to accept the reality that everything shuts down at 10:30 pm every week night, something that my inner New Yorker could never come to terms with. But this was Europe and my hopes were high. Sure enough, after roaming the quiet neighborhood for 7 minutes or so, we found the most romantic little restaurant, which served us perfect pasta, immaculate Apperol spritzes, homemade lemonade for Son, and delightful conversation with the server in perfect English. Ah, Europe….

We spent the next day sightseeing old town (went in at least 3 churches!). Palermo is beautiful, and among the classic tourist places like Ballarò Market, the Plazzo dei Normani, and the Quattro Canti (a gorgeous Baroque intersection of two main streets, which used to separate the 4 districts of Renaissance Palermo), I strongly recommend you go to the little visited San Nicolo di Bari all’Albergheria Tower, from where you will see spectacular views of the city. I also strongly recommend this site, which offered great free walking tours of the city:

That night we decided to try and have dinner in a decidedly non-tourist place (which is not easy in a city full of tourists and restaurants catering to them). On the recommendation of a very hip-looking young lady from a bar we had some more Apperol spritzes (hip = very ripped jeans and vividly purple hair), we headed over to a most amazing restaurant called Ferro di Cavallo. With the risk of ruining a good thing for the locals, I will tell you that that was the best restaurant we ate in our entire 10 day trip in Sicily. We arrived there around 9 pm, starving and impatient to sit down. We found a very lively establishment located on a side street, with both outside and indoor seating. In front of it was a loud crowd of about 50 people, all apparently waiting for a table while laughing, screaming at each other (but in mellifluous Italian, so it was ok) and gesticulating wildly. Somewhat disheartened, I asked the astonishingly energetic and profusely sweating portly host what the wait time for a table for 3 was, and was told 1.5 hrs! 
The free goods
About to take my disgruntled and hangry troops somewhere else, we were stopped by a muscular server who came out with a giant tray of enormous fried shrimp and to the loud ovations of the waiting crowd, placed it on a table right outside the restaurant entrance. Another friendly server came out with a platter of fried calamari and two bottles of Prosecco, glistening with water sweat in the intense evening heat. Apparently, these were free provisions for those brave enough to wait for a table, and to my utter amazement and delight, they kept being replenished every 10 minutes or so. We decided to wait. Finally, we sat down to a most incredible dinner with authentic Palermian food, which, including the bottle of wine, cost us a grand total of 35 Euros. Yup, 35 Euros…

Gorgeous Ragusa
The following day we made our way back to the airport and rented a tiny car – I had booked an Italian Fiat something (when in Rome, right?), but to our utter disappointment, we were handed a Ford Fiesta. Oh well – American car it is. After driving four hours through the somewhat barren-looking, sun-scorched Sicilian countryside, we ended up in the small town of Modica, where we had rented a gorgeous villa (or, “a mansion” according to Son) with a few friends. We spent a week alternating days of sunbathing at the decadent pool, drinking wine and Prosecco all day long, exploring Modica and its restaurants and churches at night, with trips to neighboring Siracusa (boring cathedral, fabulous ancient back streets), Noto (famous for its almond-milk granita – go to Caffé Sicilia for the best), the beach at Santa Maria del Focallo and Ragusa 
Baroque Modica
(incredible Baroque architecture). On our last day, sated with impressions, food, wine and good company, we headed towards Taormina to see the famous ancient Greek amphitheater. While the said amphitheater and the city itself are breathtaking (Taormina is located rather precariously on a steep cliff), we were taken aback by the hordes of tourists and the restaurants, coffee, icecream, and souvenir shops catering to them stuffing the ancient tiny, cobble-stoned streets and totally ruining the overall atmosphere. I guess we had gotten used to the much calmer and less-visited towns of Southern Sicily and this tourist hell was just not cutting it for us.

The Etna funicular
Our next stop was Mt. Etna (of course), and upon realizing that the funicular taking you to the top of the volcano closes at 4:30 pm, the Diplomat stepped on the gas of the Fiesta and made it through the hairpin roads from Taormina in record time. After paying a whooping $150 for the pleasure, we managed to catch the last cable car up the volcano. This is probably a good time to mention that I have a pretty severe fear of heights, which makes trips like that particularly enjoyable. $75 a person will only buy you a trip to the middle of the volcano, and there we were, a few minutes later, walking through the blackish dust of the mountain, staring at the various dead craters from prior eruptions. The change in temperature from the coast (38°C or 100F) to the top (22°C or 71F) was quite striking and very welcome after the swelter of Taormina’s amphitheater. Since we caught the last car up, we had only 10 minutes to enjoy the view and had to get back. 

Our last stop for the day was the ancient port city of Catania, where thanks to an insightful expose on the city in the Wizz Air inflight magazine (yes, I read those!), we finally had fried street seafood at the unassuming hole in the wall called Scirocco Sicilian Fish Lab. I highly recommend grabbing a paper funnel stuffed with fried goodness, a small bottle of Prosecco, and sitting to eat them at the Fontana dell’Elefante at the Piazza del Duomo next door. That evening, exhausted and happy, we boarded a very late Wizz Air from Catania to Sofia. Feeling that we had not rested enough, we decided to spend a couple of days in the Bulgarian spa town of Velingrad. For two days there, the Diplomat, Son and Grandma and I soaked ourselves in the various mineral pools of the hotel, dashed in and out of the steam saunas and continued to eat great food, after which we returned back to Sofia for a final few of days of meeting friends and family, which even included a club-hopping night until 2 am, much to the Diplomat’s fatigued horror.

Leaving Son behind with Grandma, the Diplomat and I embarked on a complicated (but cheaper) route back to DC. From Sofia, we took Ryan Air to Berlin, where we spent a night at a cozy airport hotel (booked with random credit card points). Despite all warnings in the media and by Grandma, Ran Air was great and on time, and did not lose our luggage – what more can one want for a $49 flight. The next morning, we flew on Iceland’s Wow Air to Reykjavik where we had a solid 7 hour layover. Another new-ish cheap airline, Wow Air is comfy, pleasant and well, yes, cheap.

Always excited to see new lands, we decided to explore the remote city, starting with a distressingly expensive dip in the famous Blue Lagoon. Turns out, however, if you are ready to part with your hard-earned 55 Euros a head, you need to book your exotic swim months in advance as it gets booked long before you land there. And so, faced with the disappointing reality, we decided to take the bus downtown and see the city instead. What we did not count on was just how long it would take despite our 7 hrs there. We had to store our hand luggage, but the only place to do so was a 10 minute windy walk outside of the airport. Then we waited for the bus, and once on it, waited for the bus to fill up and leave. 40 mins later we were in the city, which effectively left us with exactly 45 mins to see it and hop back on the bus to the airport. It was enough – Reykjavik is not exactly a sprawling megapolis. I’d like to come back one day, rent a car and drive thorough the country which looked really beautiful. From Reykjavik, we flew to New York, landed at midnight and rented a car, which the Diplomat valiantly drove until 2 am when we passed out in a lovely Days Inn somewhere in the wilderness of New Jersey. The next morning, one free “continental breakfast” later (I’d like to know which weirdo continent serves that food), we were back on the road and made it back home in Arlington by 11 am that morning. What followed were two frantic weeks of preparing to leave for Russia and packing out all of our possessions – for more on that disaster, tune in next week!