Author: Sol Solntze

Motherhood is another form of culture shock. http://solnushka.wordpress.com/

On naming conventions.

The issue of names have revealed another huge chasm between the way the Star sees things and the world view of the Comet.

In the UK the Star has a name which anyone under forty and not Russian has to say ‘what?’ a few times before they get it (and then they will still mispronounce it). Anyone over forty tends to peg the inspiration fairly accurately to a US spy series from the 1960s. They still say it wrongly though.

This lack of notoriety is just fine by you although you do feel the urge to shout at people about their placement of stress on the wrong syLAble sometimes. What is less fine is that this name, which in Russia used to be acceptably recognisable but relatively uncommon, has, along with a lot of pre-Soviet monikers, suddenly become a lot more popular. In fact, you can barely enter a playground these days without tripping over at least three more boys with the same name. You, who never met another Solnushka until you shared a house with one at Uni, find this quite unsettling. It’s still only in the top 25 or so rather than the top ten, but perhaps, after all, you should have gone with Ignat.

Ah well. Next time.

Anyway. The Star, perhaps because for a long time he had never met anyone with his name, your name, B’s name, or his best friend’s name, would react with astonishment whenever he heard the name of one of his classmates applied to characters on the telly. He found it very hard indeed to grasp the concept that they weren’t referring to the people he knew.

Luckily many of the children at his school have totally bonkers names too, so this didn’t happen too often.

The Star also developed a unique approach to what he called his toys.

Nonsense words.

Often unpronounceable nonsense words. Your absolute favourite was the dinosaur known as Harbel de Nosey, said as though there was a mechisnack on the end of the first word.

These days, he tends to re-purpose actual words. Hopefully he will work through this phase by calling his fish things like Pop and Chop, rather than his first set of twins. But you do rather pity his future children.

You blame the girl at his school called Chardonnay. Or rather, her mother.

The Comet, by contrast, has a fairly normal name in both English and Russian.

There is the occasional bit of confusion over the fact that her Babushka shares it, but by and large it passes unremarked, except that almost everyone can think of a character from literature with the same name, and it is invariably not a particularly pleasant person.

The first person to find a positive role model for the Comet in the form of a famous person of the same name gets a sweetie. So far, it hasn’t happened yet. Bugger.

But the impact this mundanity has had on the Comet is clear to see. Horses are all called Horsey. Zebras are Zebra. Girafes are Girafe. Princesses are all Princessa, baby dolls are My Baby and all unicorns are called Licorn, which is as close as she can get. Very ocassionally she will strecth a point and add a defining adjective, like Big Horsey or Small Horsey or Wombat Horsey (it looks like a wombat. No, really, it does), which is good because you have a lot of horseys lying about the place these days and they are all her favourites.

Or they are called Comet.

Never let it be said your daughter has not inherited anything from you.

Ruthless self-centredness clearly runs in the family.

On Doctor Who. Who? Doctor. Who.

You don’t remember watching Doctor Who all that much as a child. As such. No actual stories come to mind, for example. Well, the stuff about the Daleks, of course. You have a distinct memory that that involved lots of charging around a quarry, which seems unlikely for entities that find stairs difficult. And Cybermen. Cybermen are bloody scary. Also, the Master. His Tardis was a plant? And he had a natty little beard. That sort of thing tends to stick in the mind. As does hiding behind the sofa. Mainly when the Cybermen were on.

But you definitely watched it. The Doctors themselves are firmly wedged in your mind. Your two favourites are, rather inevitably given that you will be *cough cough COUGH CHOKE SPLUTTER* this year, Tom Baker and Peter Davison. You had a signed poster of Tom Baker (with K9, the robotic dog) on your wall for years after he visited your home town sometime when you were an under ten. And as a pre-teen, you definitely had a crush on Peter Davison. Well, who didn’t? Colin Baker was OK, and Sylvester McCoy? Suffered from being the Doctor of your later teens. And deeply uncool. No hope there really. Although Ace wanting to blow stuff up regularly was a hoot.

Anyway. When Doctor Who was resurrected you watched it, not religously, because by then you were completely out of practice at watching things that only came on once a week, but regularly, and you thoroughly enjoyed Torchwood for a while too. Really well done, both of them.

And then you had kids. And sixish is not a good time for someone with small children, and nor is remembering things like, oooh, it’s a Saturday. There’s something I wanted to do today, what was it? Nope, gone.

The problem is that there are only so many shows you can miss in the latest incarnation of Doctor Who before you get utterly lost by the overarching plotline.

Thus you stopped watching altogether. Except at Christmas, which was fun. As a result you have only the haziest idea about who River Song is. No, please don’t attempt to explain. It sounds complicated.

Today, however, Twitter informed you that there would be a new Doctor Who series starting in the evening. And you idly thought you might get around to watching that. Later. On iPlayer. After the kids were in bed and when was it again? 6.15. Hmmm. 6.15. Bedtime’s not until 7. The Star is… nearly five. Surely nearly five is old enough for Doctor Who. Sure, he had nightmares after watching half of the Emperor’s New Groove*, but hey. It’s all in a good cause.

So you watched it. Together. The Star was initially a bit dubious about the fact that there were no animals involved, but he was soon resigned to the fact that you were not going to let him watch another sodding nature programme and did what he always does when he sees other people’s attention drifting from the centre of the universe and he wants to drag it back in what he has learnt is a socially acceptable way. He peppered you with questions. ‘Who’s that, Mama? What’s that, Mama? Who’s THAT? What’s THAT?’ and ‘Why?’ are things which you hope he will start asking less as the series goes on a bit. Especially as there were a number of points that confused you too. You are clearly going to have to do a bit of surreptitious googling. But the four-handed interchange between Matt Smith, the Star, you and Jenna-Louise Coleman as the Doctor was introducing himself at the door of a suburban semi was in itself worth the price of the admission. And it was a lot of fun having fresh eyes on an old favourite. You like reading the Star Winnie-the-Pooh for much the same reason.

And the Star did indeed hide behind the sofa, which was delightful. It is also interesting as you wouldn’t have thought that existential fear of technological progress was something inherently fearful for a four year old. But you were firm about the fact that the Doctor always saves the day, and the fact that he did, and more than once in 45 minutes seems to have done the trick.

Certainly there have been no wails from upstairs since.

Although the promise of tomorrow’s coming chocolatefest might have some kind of reassuring properties too.

*’Maaaaaamaaaaaaaaa! Aaaaaaaaargh! I’ve been turned into a llama! Aaaaaaaaaaargh! Maaaaaaaamaaaaaaa!’ Don’t mock. We all have our phobias.

On learning to read in two languages

I have a new post up on the Foreigners blog for the BBC Russian Service. All about the Star learning to read. Or not. Although I can see a bit of light at the end of the tunnel now. Still, it’s a slog.

Here’s the original:

My son got a certificate from his (British) school last week for good work in learning the (English) alphabet. Actually, it wasn’t for good work as such, it was for good effort, which is clearly not the same thing. The truth of the matter is that my four and a half year old son is finding the basics of reading and writing heavy going.

 

I blame the parents. Specifically I blame our desire for him to be nearly equally bilingual in Russian and English every step of the way. This means the poor boy is learning his Russian letters at the same time as all the English ones.

 

First problem. The Russian and English alphabets are, of course, different, so that means that for more or less the same sound, my son often has two learn two symbols. ‘f’ for instance and ‘ф’. But in my opinion it’s made harder when the alphabets are not different enough.  The Russian ‘с’ for example looks like a letter in the English alphabet, but has a totally different sound. Worse still are the near misses such as the English capital letter ‘N’, which looks confusingly like the Russian ‘И’, but again, bears no relation to the sound. Even the ones which are, at first glance, the same, such as ‘a/а’ are misleading. An English ‘a’ sound is often not much like a Russian one.

 

Second problem. I understand that the drive towards basic literacy begins more at six or seven in Russia. In the UK most of my son’s peers have been at it for at least a year already, and more if they happen to have been born in a month early on in the academic year like October. It isn’t compulsory (yet) for children to start their formal learning at three, but the UK provides fifteen hours of free nursery a week from that age specifically to try to make sure that kids get a head start on this kind of thing, so it is popular.

 

We did not send our son to these classes. They clashed with his Russian playgroup. No, he was not allowed to only go three mornings rather than the five mornings he was offered. That would have messed up the school’s attendance statistics. We had to make a choice about whether to tip the balance of English/Russian input almost completely over to English or try to maintain a more Russian environment for a little while longer. We chose the Russian.

 

Of course I could, I suppose, have started with the alphabet at home but the third problem is that my son is a summer baby, and it simply did not occur to me he needed to at three years old, the age he was until shortly before he started British school. Plus, see above about the English/ Russian balance. I was rather hoping that we could leave most of the formal English language instruction to the formal British education system. Do you think I am making guilty excuses here? Maybe. Let’s move on.

 

Fourth problem. This year, my son does not go in for half days, but for the full British school day of 8.45 to 3pm. Five days a week. I understand that most Russian children finish at 1pm. This seems much more civilised, albeit difficult if you have two parents who work (what happens then, by the way?). So let’s say we get home at half four (we often stop off in the park on the way home), and then cooking and eating takes until half five. My son’s bedtime is seven. That doesn’t leave very much time for both the Russian and English homework he has, and frankly, it’s not just the lack of time. After six hours in school I feel my son deserves a break, although to be fair they spend a lot of time just playing at the school. But basically, my son spent the first term exhausted, and this was not helped by the fact that he was attending Russian school on a Saturday too. Now that we have added two after school activities (judo and music classes in Russian in case you are interested), that squeezes us even more. When, I wonder, are we supposed to flash the flash cards and read the books they keep sending home? I mostly do the English side of things over breakfast. Babushka fits in the Russian work before dinner. On Sundays we have a rest and my son finally gets to watch some TV.

 

Fifth problem. It took me a while to work out that my son was quite so far behind with his English letters because experiencing school in two cultures has allowed me to once again notice the difference between the Russian and British characters. My son’s Russian teacher forthrightly pointed out his backwardness in colouring in neatly in the first lesson he ever had with her. It took us two weeks of battling with his lack of interest in anything involving manual dexterity, but he now seems to be on track there. In fact, his teacher told me how pleased she was with his improvement only last week.

 

The British teachers have been more… circumspect. In fact, I only found out by accident that he was in the bottom group for reading/ letter learning. What they mainly seemed concerned about when he started was his initial reluctance to put his hand up before answering a question. Don’t get me wrong – there has been plenty of encouragement to the homework, to read, to play with the letter cards they sent home, but no particular sense of urgency. A bit of urgency and a little bit less politeness would have been helpful, or maybe I have just been living with a Russian man for too long.

 

Maybe they don’t feel any, of course. But I do. Still, past experience of the bilingual journey is that if you grit your teeth, hang in there, and keep at it, it all works out in the end. I do hope it’s true here too.

 

On the Queen’s Knickers.

The Queen’s Knickers is an excellent name for a play, or, in fact, a book (by Nicholas Allan), which is where it all started originally. You know that it is an excellent name, because when you told the Star that’s what he was going to the theatre to see, he repeated it a few times to himself and went off to translate it for Babushka. And then every now and again would pop up out of the blue with the name, having presumably found something else to amuse himself with about it.

The Queen’s Knickers is actually part of the Imagine Children’s Festival at the Southbank Centre this half term. You were offered free tickets for it, which you were delighted to accept. The Southbank Centre is, after all, fabulous even when you aren’t going inside. It looks like a multi-storey car park, all grey concrete and levels, but it’s amazing how much fun can be had going up and down the steps to see what’s round this or that corner, playing on the street furniture and the concrete, astrograssed and whitewashed play equipment, watching the skateboarders down by the river and so on, and that’s when the place isn’t swarming with under tens. You always get a bit lost when you go there, and you always come across something that’s worth the ten extra minutes trying to figure out which way Waterloo is. They outdid themselves during the Olympics, with an entire beach full of coloured sand down by the Thames. But even now you were quite convinced that the Star wouldn’t want to disappear inside to see something as tame as a play.

Imagine Festival

You needn’t have worried. That name sucked him in.

The Queen’s Knickers is a two-woman play about the national crisis that occurs when the Queen’s entire collection of specially designed underwear goes missing. There is much business with pants large and small, frilly and plain, patterned, multicoloured and the frankly weird. There are songs (about knickers). There is dancing (with knickers). There is dressing up (in knickers). There are quick changes and a vast array of characters. There is an amusing riff on Chinese whispers, which even made B crack a smile, and which the Star was quoting on the way home. There are puppets, there is audience interaction, there are puns, and best of all there is a special appearance from a very important personage indeed (go on, guess who), which the Star was very impressed by. There is a message, and one which not only justifies what could otherwise be seen as a truly impressive amount of genuflecting towards the monarchy, but which is also a slightly more interesting insight into the human condition than you usually get in improving entertainments aimed at kids (or perhaps it is just one you approve of).  And for the four year olds, who don’t care about that, there is more risqué knicker action to finish off with.

Some of the less exciting knickers.

Some of the less exciting knickers.

There was also more concrete inside the auditorium. You took a photo.

I love concrete.

I love concrete.

Anyway. It was fun. The Star, who was decidedly squirmy before you started, got into the story and his wiggling became shifts to get a better view. And when it was over you asked him if he liked it.

‘It was so funny my head nearly fell off,’ he said.

This, you feel, is about as high praise as any play is going to get.

You didn’t get to many of the other events at the Festival because you and B were distracted by the Real Food Market. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. However, as they have some live baby animals for the children to pet there, this was not a problem for the animal obsessed Star, who spent a happy half hour trying to feed straw to the lambs, piglets and calves.

Good. Now you have an excuse to go back later in the week.

Disclaimer: So I didn’t get paid for this, but I did get complementary tickets to the play from the Southbank Centre.

On musical madness

Sol Solntze:

This is genuinely fascinating. Thanks to Multilingual Mama for bringing this to my attention!

Sol.

Originally posted on Multilingual Mama:

Prisecolinensinenciousol, a parody by Adriano Celentano for the Italian TV programme Mileluci is sung entirely in gibberish designed to sound like American English.

Confession: having not read the description when I first watched this, I spent ages trying to figure out what he was saying. D’oh.

View original

On putting children to bed

You have a confession to make. You are still putting your son to sleep. You lie next to him for ten minutes while he strokes your eyebrows and gently tugs on your nose and then he drops off. If he is really having trouble descending into the land of nod, he licks his finger first. The resulting sensation isn’t one you wouldn’t be in a hurry to recommend that other people to experience, but it seems to do the trick so hey. Sorted.

What, other people’s children do not find eyebrow stroking the perfect soother? How odd. It’s been the Star’s preferred comfort rag since he was quite small. At least he has stopped assuaging his nervousness at meeting new people* by stroking their eyebrows now, which was a phase he went though at around two and a half. There were lots of startled toddlers in Saaaaf Laaandaaan in those days, I can tell you. He’s also got the message that Papa is not keen, and that Mama would prefer not to have her nose pulled when she is trying to do up shoelaces, which is all progress too.

You do not quite know how this started, but you can probably say it had something to do with your failure to give the Star a dummy. Mind you, the Comet also never got a dummy but she does not try to smooth down any parts of your face in order to calm herself down.

No, she twiddles her hair. What there is of it. Had you known how long it would take to grow, you would never have let your husband shave it off just after her first birthday.**

She also fiddles with her own eyelashes.

Now that really is weird.

But then when you were a kid, you slept with your old cot blanket over your covers proper. And you called it your ‘sucking quilt’.

And you didn’t give it up until you were in double figures at least.

Wonder what happened to it.

*No sniggering at the back there. The Star does get nervous. He just shows it in funny ways.

**If anyone is thinking there’s a story here, there is. But not a very interesting one.

On Pancake Day 2013

You went a bit overboard on pancake day this year. Six am saw you up and making a breakfast of a stack quick and dirty blini (use self raising flour, don’t bother beating the eggwhites), albeit only because your daughter had woken you up early. Upside? The Star got to take chocolate spread covered crepes to school in his lunchbox, which is one of his favourite things to do. Downside? You did the school run with a smudge of chocolate on your forehead.

Ah well.

Anyway, then you started to think about lunch. Had to be pancakes really. That was what you had promised B. But what to put in them? It turns out that blini are and excellent way to use up all the things you have hanging about in the fridge. Who knew? Not to mention the fact that sorting out 42 different fillings neatly got you out of doing the cleaning.

Here are the savoury ones.

Top left to bottom right: mushrooms in cream, cheddar, spinach, ricotta cheese, leeks, bacon, ham, smoked salmon, brie and goats cheese. Not all at once.

Top left to bottom right: mushrooms in cream, cheddar, spinach, ricotta cheese, leeks, bacon, ham, smoked salmon, brie and goats cheese. Not all at once.

Here are what your family actually prefers. You, on the other hand, like jam and sour cream. Or real cream if you have it, which you did for breakfast this morning, thanks.

That there on the left is condensed milk. No really, try it.

That there on the left is condensed milk. No really, try it.

And here are a few of the 167 pancakes you cooked. Only a few because you all ate the rest. You had them for tea too.

Mmmmmmmmmmm.

Mmmmmmmmmmm.

The good news is in precisely a month you get to do it all again, but more so, for Maslenitsa, or Russian Orthodox Pancake Week.

Yes, their Lent/ Easter is a month behind the Western Christian Church’s one this year. No that isn’t going to be weird at all.