Money Monday: My Chains Are Gone!

Shon & I have been married for a little over 6 years now.  Today, for the first time in those 6-something years, we are debt free.

We don’t own any property, I don’t have any designer shoes, our phones are not the latest thing on the market, and our baby doesn’t have an iPad, but we don’t owe anybody any money.

And it feels so darn good.

 

 

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In Case You’re Wondering: on Mommyhood, Blogging, and Motivation

I don’t remember the last time I wrote for this blog. Yes, part of it is simply being tired and busy: now that Little Turtle is on the constant move, the 3 combined hours of his naps are often the only time to get things done – or to get some rest. Mommyhood can be a bit exhausting, and it so happens that other things take prevalence over blogging. Or so I thought.

Then I realized that even though the number of my posts on my personal Russian-language blog (you’ll find the link on About page if you’re interested) has dropped considerably, I still keep writing for it. The reason is simple: I have a real audience there. Some 300 people follow my blog, and it’s  uncommon to write a post and receive no feedback. People comment and then come back to respond to your response to their comment. Every once in awhile, I find a private message from another blogger asking if everything’s alright, since they haven’t heard from me in a couple of weeks. We’ve met several of my blog friends in person (in Atlanta, Charlotte, Tallahassee, and Haague,) and are hoping to meet more. Gosh, the only 2 Christmas cards we received this year are from my blog buddies!

And then there’s this blog. Nearly 2,000 followers & hardly any comments. I get these notifications on my phone: “so-and-so started following your blog” or “so-and-so liked your post,” and I wonder, “Who are these people? What made them press the button?”

Obviously, this is not a for-profit blog or a popularity contest. Still, it’s not a diary either and it would be great to hear from our readers a bit more often. A smiley face is better than nothing.

Shon is pushing me to write more, saying that as a bilingual mother of an infant living in her 3rd country, traveling rather extensively, and pursuing photography after having had to quit interpreting, I have something to say to the world. My argument is: does the world actually care? My motivation to write evaporates when I think of the lack of communication with our supposed readers.

Who are you? Do you actually read us? Do you find this blog interesting/helpful/relatable? What would you like to see us write about? What do you want to see more of? In other words, do you care?

P.S. It is surprising when every now and then we meet someone in Al Ain, and they tell us they read our blog before coming here. It’s always so good to hear!

Scenes from a Russian Winter

A Memoir

Strictly speaking, a memoir is quite different from an autobiography, although the idea is the same.  It’s a truthful retelling of past events.  However, a memoir may roll several events into one, or condense multiple characters into one, or things like that.  Great memoirs, like Elie Wiesel’s Night, can be more powerful and effective than a straight autobiography, which is concerned with getting all the details right.  Memoirs are about impressions and memories.  That’s what I’m doing with this post.  I’m condensing a couple days of time here in Ryazan into a few scenes.  It’s all true, but the organization has been shifted in the interest of creating a better narrative.  I do hope you like it.

Scene One: Prelude.

It is cold.  Extremely cold.  I wear long thermal underwear, top and bottom, a sweater, gloves and scarf as well as a warm Russian ushanka hat.  Jenia’s sacrificed style, in the form of her snappy Guess jacket, for warmth, wearing a baby blue down jacket she bought ages ago.  When we step out the apartment complex’s entrance it’s still so cold that I cringe as the air bites my exposed face.  The sky is clear and blue, the day brilliant and bright.  We walk together, carefully, trying not to slip and fall on the icy and uneven driveway.  Our breaths puff in front of us. It is December 24, Christmas Eve for those in the Western world, and even though it’s after 10:00am and warmer than it was this morning when we rose (a numbing -27c, or -17f), it’s still roughly -21c, or 8 degrees below 0 Fahrenheit.

A few minutes later we’ve arrived at our bus stop.  We are accompanying my mother-in-law to the country house and the bus is the first leg of a multi-leg journey.  The bus has already gone.  It will be some time before the next one.  Instead of loitering there, we walk to an Orthodox Church a quarter mile away.  The walk is stressful, as we are forced to be mindful of every step, and we all slip and slide at least once, although nobody falls this time.  We pose for some pictures in front of the church.  At this point, my legs are starting to feel cold.  Maybe a second pair of long johns would’ve helped.  The cold is invasive.  It tries to work its way around the joints of my clothing.  My toes, despite woolen socks and heavy boots, start to feel cold by the time we figure we’ve spent enough time snapping photos.  Jenia doesn’t like it, but I have a little “soul patch” of facial hair below my lower lip.  By the time we’ve returned to the bus stop, it is covered with ice.

Chapel

If you look carefully, you’ll see Jenia’s furry collar has iced over where her breath strikes it.

Scene Two: Country House.

The village is tiny.  How many houses are gathered here, a mile from the train tracks?  Maybe 50.  It’s hard to tell when you don’t want to linger in the snow-covered road long enough to even guesstimate.  And I can’t wait to get indoors.  I’m not alone: the ladies have been in an even bigger hurry than me, as we’ve trudged along packed snow paths, through a patch of woods and an expansive meadow, snow squeaking beneath our feet.  We’ve come to the village now, and we walk past fences.  A German shepherd barks.  A man scolds it in Russian.  The dog and I have something in common: he doesn’t seem to understand Russian, for his barking goes on unabated.

Indoors, the little house seems warm.  My tyosha (mother-in-law; our Russian word for the day) cranks up the furnace.  It’s been on, but running very low.  Still, it feels wonderfully warm.  Only after being here for an hour or more do I realize that it was actually mighty chilly when we arrived–it was just a lot warmer than the negative temps outdoors.

Walking

Entering the village, packed snow just a-crunchin’.

Yard

The backyard of the country house is where the gardening goes on during warmer times.

Smoking

Ryazan’s factories belch smoke on the horizon.

Field

The road back to Ryazan–traveled by foot (obviously with some exceptions) to the railway.

Frost Flower

Furry

Jenia keeps her hands warm with some sort of furry mittens.

Scene Three: Catching the Train.

There’s a slight whistle blast from beyond the trees.  “Oh, no, what time is it?”  Says my tyosha.  She finds the time, and says to hurry.  We hurry.  “Run,” says my tyocha from behind me.  I’m in the lead.  So I begin to jog.  I’m carrying a backpack heavy with canned vegetables from the country house’s stores.  Jenia jogs behind me.  “No, run fast, or we’ll miss the train, and another one doesn’t come for two hours.”  So I run.  I can go a lot faster than my 5-months pregnant wife.  “Go ahead,” she says.  “If he sees you trying to make it, he might wait!”  I race out of the trees, and hurry up the treacherous steps, gripping the railing lest my feet slide out from under me.  A conductor is leaning out of the engine watching me.  It’s clear he’s going to wait for us.  The ladies catch up in a second and I offer them my hand as we board.  We plop down on benches and Jenia gasps as she recovers her breath.  An old man across from us watches her with interest–is she okay?  What’s the matter with her?  Asthma?  The car is mostly empty.   Men in heavy coats with fur hats sit here and there, most staring blankly out the windows.  All are old enough to appear grave and dignified.  After it’s clear that my wife is going to make a complete recovery from her rush, I content myself with joining the men in gazing out the dirty windows.  Birches rush past.  There are elevated pipes–gas lines?–that are here and there.  A Lada sits at a crossing waiting for our train to pass.

Train Lada

Engine

Having arrived back in Ryazan, I pause to snap a photograph of the train. The conductor is, again, watching for any passengers rushing to make it in time.

Boarding

This guy, rushing aboard, is blessed, like us, by the willingness of the conductor to keep an eye out.

Crossing

The small railway station where we disembark. To get to the other side, you cross the tracks.

Street

A Ryazan street. This place would be beautiful if the buildings had a coat of paint every now and again.

An Escape

Chapel Detail For Rhiannon

I’m learning to enjoy life in the emirate of Abu Dhabi, even though I find some aspects of the local culture more than a little off-putting.  I’ve discovered that if I keep myself busy with things other than work, which isn’t quite what I expected, I can have a good time.  But, both Jenia and I have been ready to escape for a while.  Where to go?  We toyed with an affordable trip to Thailand, courtesy of Cobone or Groupon.  But we ended up going where we’d planned all along–Russia.

And what an escape it is.  We’ve swapped heat for cold (it was about 80F during the day in Al Ain, and here it’s mostly been around 0F, although we had one day of icy -17).  Instead of wearing sunglasses and shorts, we wear furry hats and thermal underwear.  We’ve swapped the minarets of mosques for the onion domes of Orthodox Churches.  And of course, we’re experiencing another culture, one which neither of us have spent time in for quite a while, even though this is where Jenia’s from.

Russian culture, like the country itself, has an outward coldness that is shocking to the first-time visitor.  Most passersby on the sidewalk aren’t friendly at all, and make no effort to be.  Store clerks don’t give you the time of day, unless you seek them out and ask them something.  Their idea of customer service is a bit different from what we’re used to in the West, and certainly differs drastically from the fawning attention you get as a customer in the UAE.  Compound these things with sidewalks and parking lots which are hardly ever cleared of slippery and dangerous ice and snow, and you have a place that’s not very welcoming.  At least, that’s how it seems until you are invited into someone’s home–then things are entirely different.  Apartments are snug and warm, and rarely will you find more gracious hosts.  You’ll be fed delicious home-cooked meals and tea–which is an excuse to eat still more food, in the form of sweets.

Of course the best part of being here is spending time with family, which is something we haven’t done since moving to the UAE months ago.  We’ve enjoyed a white Christmas (although, interestingly, the Russians don’t celebrate Christmas on December 25, but rather on January 7, which is when the holiday falls according to the Russian Orthodox calendar) and we’re sure enjoying this change from the desert.  It’s a nice escape.

Church

It was -27C on this morning, and warmed up to -21 by the  time we had the photo taken.

It was -27C on this morning, and warmed up to -21 by the time we had the photo taken.

Food Friday: Arabian Cuisine

I should have taken photos.  But I didn’t.

Last night a teacher friend and I went to a student’s camel farm.  His family’s farm, really.  I’ll post about the whole experience shortly.  For now, let me just describe the meal.

At the end of the evening, we were treated to a true Emirati meal.  Everyone (all male, of course) gathered around a mat on the floor where there was a feast spread out before us: there was a huge platter that took two men to carry in, loaded with biryani spiced rice, and atop the bed of rice, there sat a freshly roasted goat or sheep, or some mystery animal.  Spread out around the edges of the mat were numerous plates with hummus, freshly prepared flat bread, roasted and fresh veggies, various other meats, and so forth.

All the kandora-clad folks settled down, not cross-legged (“Women only sit like that,” one of the boys told us, “Men sit like this.”), but with one leg tucked under and to the side, and the other knee up, foot flat on the ground.  My friend Pj and I were seated next to the elder man of the household, the grandfather, which must have been an honor.  We waited to sit down until after the old man did and he invited us to.  Everything was eaten with the hands.  Or rather, basically with the right hand.  That includes rice.  “You want yogurt on rice?”  We were asked.  “Sure.”  They poured plain yogurt on the rice, or rather, on portions of the rice.  Then the challenge: eat rice with no utensils.  I made a mess.  The yogurt helped the rice stick together, but I’m not well practiced at this whole thing, and I had to scoot closer to the mat.  The old man, whose name I was never told, cut some slices of meat and set it before me (on top of a ton of other stuff, of course).  I made a gesture of declining and thanks, but the signal seemed to go either ignored or not understood.  Everyone ate, other than the initial exchanges I mentioned, in complete silence.  The father of my student grabbed the skull from the butchered beast and ripped the jaw off from it, and removed the tongue.  That exposed the brain, and he placed the skull in front of me and gestured for me and Pj to try it.  “Good,” he said.  We both declined.  I feel positive I’d have declined even if I were not vegetarian.  Eventually I told them that I did not eat meat, and then there was a sort of look of relief on their faces, and the old man passed me a whole tomato, and presented me with half of a raw onion.  I laughed, and they seemed to be entirely okay with me not trying the mysterious meat after that.  Once, when I cracked open a can of 7-up, I noticed a young man across from me kind of murmur something to the guy at his side.  He was indicating my drink.  I noticed I was holding it in my left hand, and watching his face, I switched it to the other hand, and he grinned a little and gave me an approving look.

When folks were done, they just sort of disappeared from the, er, not table.  My students weren’t in the room, as I guess there wasn’t space at the…rug…for them.  After enough people had eaten their fill and migrated out, the father called, and in came a new batch, this time consisting entirely of youth.  Pj and I finished our food and headed out to the living room, but the first stop was to wash our hands.

At the sinks, we looked at each other and just grinned.  “That was incredibly awkward,” I said.  “I know,” he replied.  “And yet it was incredibly cool.”

The hummus was delicious.  The bread, fresh and good.  The veggies, both roasted and otherwise, tasty.  When I managed to get the rice into my mouth, it was good.  I left quite stuffed, and despite feeling more than a little out of my element, I think that I got to be a part of something I’d have never even witnessed, were it not for my students.