On joyful crowds

You can’t remember when B heard that Napoleon had once called the English a nation of shopkeepers, but it made him laugh a lot.

He considers it very true. Take (he is wont to say) the average Anglican church service and compare it to the Orthodox one. Orthodox worship goes on and on and on. The Anglican genuflect lasts a scant hour. It wouldn’t do (says B) for the English to have to take too much time off from their family business. Can’t leave the shop unmanned for too long!

You think it is more noticeable whenever the UK tries to do public celebrations.

The British are supposed to have street parties, a la the Victory celebrations at the end of the Second World War. Or at least they are being strongly encouraged to. Community! Neighbourliness! Nostalgia! Very little for the authorities to do except allow residents to close their piddling little street for the day! Although woe betide you if you attempt to close a ‘strategically important location’ aka a High Street. Which is kind of the point.

Beaufort Place, off Roundhay Road, Leeds © Yorkshire Post Newspapers

You hope it does catch on. Certainly it all looks a lot more fun than the times you have toddled along to a central area on a high day and found everybody holidaying in a few small side streets or the pavements only of a busy main road. Given how the British love their personal space, their willingness to try to celebrate by shouting at full volume whilst having their nose in one person’s armpit, their bum gently rubbing against the butt cheeks of somebody else, and warm beer tipped down their collar never ceases to amaze you. It’s not fun, it’s loud, and you are constantly worried that the Star might disappear in the seething mass of humanity, or get pushed under a car.

The most spectacular example of this kind of celebratory fail came when you attended the switching on of the Christmas lights at your local High Street this year. You arrived to find five other spectators crammed up against some railings while commuters pushed past and heavy traffic entirely drowned out the small choir who were perched on a smaller platform placed in the middle of a busy T-junction. You missed the actual countdown, and the minor celebrity who was pushing the button got the name of the area you live in wrong (“Hello Edinburgh! Or Glasgow rather!”). There was a prolonged squirt of artificial snow, but after the Star had been growled at a few times by people tripping over him while trying to get home to their tea when he tried to dance in it, you gave up and went home.

The thing is, you got used to a certain ruthless approach to national holidays back in Moscow. The whole centre of the city would be shut down so that people could take to the streets, listen to music, drink and so on. This has got firmly stuck in your head as the Model for such affairs and every. Single. Time you attend the British version you are taken aback anew at how paltry the affair is.

But of course the mere thought of shutting down large swathes of the capital for something as unimportant as having fun is out of the question. It is already obligatory for the news to run stories about how much business, in pounds sterling, has been lost to the UK’s coffers every bank holiday, and doubtless you will get a double dose of this next month when the UK gets not one but two days off to wave flags for the Queen. And as the Olympics get closer, you are confidently expecting the current trickle of articles about how the disruption will devastate small businesses to increase to a defining roar. Someone in the Conservative party will probably try to blame the next dip in the recession on it, in fact.

This annoys you.

But you were saddened today while watching Vladimir Putin’s reinauguration as President of the Russian Federation by the sight of deserted streets for the entirety of his drive to the Kremlin.

Now you are not anti-Putin. Never have been. Your opinion over the last ten years has been closer to this man’s. Russia in the 90s was a mess. No-one got paid (assuming they had jobs), the ruble collapsed, you were a couple of hundred metres away from a fatal hit not once but twice. Western commentators were calling it an ‘oligarchy’, not a ‘democracy’ because of the influence of the people who had become billionaires off the back of the asset stripping frenzy that went on at the beginning of the decade. Putin and his government brought stability to the country and gained a measure of control over the powerful businessmen. Soon the Western press was calling it a ‘managed democracy’. The country started to work again. 100% of your friends back home have thrived under his time in office. They’ve got jobs, started families, bought property, got promoted, gone on holiday to Egypt every summer, become, in short, fairly distinctively middle class, and that, frankly, wasn’t something you would have put money on back in the day.

You think, actually, that he should be proud that people are comfortable enough to look around them now and say, that’s not enough. Corruption, particularly electoral corruption, isn’t what we deserve. And proud that people are confident enough to actually get out there and protest about it.

You were disappointed, though, when you heard that he was going to stand for president again. Of course, he won that election and by and large all sides agree that he did, in fact, win it. There isn’t, really, anyone else to vote for. Whether or not this is actually Putin’s fault is a matter for debate.

Still, while you are irritated by the British habit of sticking to the letter rather than the spirit of the rules at times, and while you are not always particularly fussed by some creative bending of those rules, you are upset at the implication that Putin is so far above the little people he holds sway over that it seems perfectly rational to shut down and shut off the whole of the centre of  the capital city and keep its people out just so that a car can be driven from a to b as part of what everybody hopes will be a reasonably regular ceremony. Not a 60th anniversary, a six year one. A ceremony that should be for the people who chose him, not about the man.

I mean, was that really necessary? No-one is that important. Not even the Queen.

On blogging for the BBC

You are proud to announce that you are now blogging in Russian (*cough* in translation *cough*)  for the BBC World Service. 

Writing something you knew would be translated was an odd experience. Especially translated into Russian. You have read a fair number of Russian-to-English texts in your time and many of them have been quite odd. Translated Russian can be brutally choppy, something you suspect the fact that Russians do commas all wrong* doesn’t help with although it’s probably the fault of having both more flexible word order in sentences and some really dauntingly information-packed adjectival phrases. In addition, any attempt to render slang across the language barrier is invariably a horrible horrible mistake.

As a result you have decided that the two languages are fundamentally incompatible.

So you decided to try to make life easier for your translator by eschewing things like the affected ‘you’ and the hyperbole, the overuse of adverbs, and the ungrammatical subordinate clauses made to do the work of a full sentence that you use on this blog. A bit. Still, you are deeply grateful to the person who translated this, who clearly had the bigger job of the two of you.

This is what you wrote:

I first went to Russia in 1996 intending to stay for six months and have never entirely left. Well, that’s not literally true. Right now I live in the UK, but in a corner of London that will be forever Slavic because my husband is Russian and my two children are, therefore, half Russian.

Why Russia? No reason, particularly, except that I wanted to live abroad for a while after university and had a choice between Russia and India.

I really hate hot weather.

I come from a small town about thirty miles outside of London. The most interesting thing about it is that Lewis Hamilton, the formula one driver is from there. It’s pleasant but not terribly exciting and Moscow was a bit of a shock, made more so by the fact that I didn’t speak a word of Russian before I arrived. I learned to read the alphabet while negotiating my way round the Metro stations.

Moscow, you see, is big. There are big buildings, some tall, some just heavily monolithic. The doors are built for giants. The roads have seventeen million lanes (some of them). Parks are like walks in the country, and as you fly into the airport, you look down on miles and miles and miles and miles of forest. It is very disconcerting to realise that Moscow has been built in one rather large clearing.

In fact what with coming from a small island nation, I never have really managed to comprehend properly how big Russia itself is. You have to show three maps just to get the weather forecast done and even then the distances involved are mind-boggling.

In addition, the history is impressively, and sometimes oppressively, huge, and it was a history that Russia was still very much living through when I arrived almost completely (you will have gathered) unprepared. I may be a historian by training, but I specialised in 18th Century France and Venice.

I survived and refused to leave because I enjoyed finding out everything I didn’t know before I came and because I adore Russian people (and snow). They are warm, helpful, funny, intelligent, determined and practical. Which is why, of course, I married one of them (and miss snow in winter).

In the fullness of time we had children. And at this point, multicultural families often hit problems, not least of which is whose language do you teach them? Or, how do you make sure that they learn both languages? If you don’t want them to, why not? If you do, how well do you want them to speak?

Our decision, when our son was born in 2008 and reaffirmed when my daughter joined us this year, was that we wanted them to be as balanced bilingual speakers as possible, which means that we wanted them to speak (and read, and write) both English and Russian equally well. This presents some challenges again, especially as we live outside of Russia. I do a lot of the childcare and my Russian is brutal and largely ungrammatical (but with a really good vocabulary relating to potty training, weaning and childhood illnesses).

So I will be writing about how my husband and I, with a lot of help from their Russian babushka, are trying to bring those children up bilingually and with a sound bi-cultural understanding of both Britain and Russia as well.

At the moment this seems to involve me watching a lot of Soviet-era cartoons and having my Russian grammar and vocabulary corrected by a three year old.

*Or is it the English speakers?

On Mothers Day.

For the last three years you have been trying to get B to recognise Mothers Day.

It’s not going well.

He just doesn’t feel it. Russians don’t celebrate it at all. They have Women’s Day, which in principle you prefer to both Mothers Day and Valentine’s Day as it is somewhat less specific to certain stereotypical roles women are supposed to play in their lives and considerably more inclusive to all women in general. Who should, after all, be worshipped at least once a year.

Although you’d prefer all three times.

Of course, the irritating thing about Women’s Day in Russia is that lately it is apparently impossible to mention it without sourly drawing attention to the discrepancy between its intended status as a celebration of feminism, and the fact that feminism in Russia is a dirty word and that this is just an excuse to throw the downtrodden female masses in the Former Soviet Union a paltry sop in the form of a limp bunch of flowers in lieu of any actual appreciation of their rightful place as equal and valued members of society.

If you were in a feisty mood, you would find it almost impossible to resist the temptation to point out in return that taking mother out for lunch is also something of a paltry sop for taking her for granted the rest of the year in a society with doesn’t even have the decency to be honest about the second class status that women still hold. Because otherwise, why would the bulk of childcare, cleaning and career suicide still be left to the female half of the parenting partnership? Why wouldn’t this holiday have become ‘Parents Day’ a long time ago?**

Plus you do wonder if anyone who thinks the female masses are downtrodden in Russia has ever actually met any Russian women. Stronger-minded ladies are few and far between. Although they do dress well.

However, you are not in a feisty mood. Or even a pensive mood.  You can get irritated with Mothers Day on ideological grounds, but it’s never bothered you on a personal level, not when you were childless, not even when you were unwillingly childless. You tended not to connect the dots. Mothers Day was a day for presenting your own mother with a homemade scribble and a bunch of daffodils with a beam of benevolent affection, and for turning up at Granny’s with the annual pot plant.

It didn’t have anything to do with you.

But when you realised that you were about to qualify, you spotted an opportunity, as a down trodden female mass, to wangle a bit of a lie in. Well, what you are aiming for is breakfast in bed, actually. Lounging around in bed. A bit of light bathing, with the door shut, and a book. Someone else doing the cooking and wiping the Star’s snotty nose. Someone else stuffing the suddenly eight armed toddler into clothes in preparation for a walk. Someone else answering the question ‘where going?’* about yourself, himself, the ladybird, the lady on the street, your neighbour, the pigeon, the worm, the man getting off the bus, the man getting on the bus, the other pigeon, the other lady bird, the other lady on the street, the rook, the crisp packet, the boat, your neighbour again, the water in his bath and Papa after he has said good night.

For a day.

Of course, a card on a grubby bit of paper that makes you look like a demented female dinosaur is also absolutely indispensable.

However, this year you got a framed black and white photograph of what you are reasonably sure is a late eighties Lotus formula one car, with a dedication from someone whose signature you can’t quite make out (yet) to someone called ‘Q’, which B found at a car boot sale and has been hoarding for the occasion.

As presents in general go, this is pretty up there on your list.

As Mothers Day presents go, it really needs work.

But you felt entirely unable to complain as April 3rd – Mothers Day 2011 – coincided rather unfortunately with B’s birthday.

You made him a cake. Of course.

What do you get the Soviet medal enthusiast who has everything for his birthday?

You make him a Soviet Order of the Patriotic War, Class I cake, of course.

And this is what it's modelled on.

You will say this. You will never laugh at Cake Wrecks again. How people, even professional people, get the icing onto the sponge in one piece and without getting it covered in either powdered icing sugar or jam is beyond you.

Fun though.

*’Why?’ will be a relief.

**Well, card sales on Fathers Day would take a bit of a hit perhaps.

On pissing on trees.

The Star appears to be pretty much potty trained.

This has either taken a couple of weeks or over six months, depending on how you calculate it.

He’s been using a potty at home quite happily since the summer. Since, in fact, being locked in a room for a week with a small boy his own age who was quite happy to wee to order in a glorified chamber pot.

Recently, you’ve even managed to get him to do so despite wearing pants and trousers, which probably relieved guests’ sensibilities somewhat. There’s nothing quite like being greeted at the front door by a small boy waving his pipiska. Although having the Star shout ‘Kaka! Kaka! Kaka! Kaka! Kaka!’ loudly in your ear when the time comes is always a bit alarming.

However, you recently decided it was time to take the show on the road.

This is partly because you will soon have a new entity whose bottom will need 24 hour wiping in the house and partly because this summer, the Star will be returning to Russia.

If it was embarrassing to be the mother of the only two year old in Moscow still in nappies, imagine the horror with which a pampers wearing three year old would be greeted.

So armed only with his potty and a spare change of clothes, you have been sailing boldly into the great outdoors for three weeks now.

The first problem you had was that the Star has always decided himself when he wants to sit on the garshok. The idea of listening to your suggestions about when he might want to try a preventative widdle fell on extremely stoney ground.

He also stopped telling you when he needed to go, preferring instead to hold it as long as possible, presumably in the hope that Mama would stop this nonsense and put the nappy back on, or that you would arrive back home where emptying himself was safe and comfortable.

Needless to say this led to accidents.

Including one day where, when his Russian playgroup went on a trip to a nearby park, you found him, plaintive and disconsolate, behind a tree in extremely wet trousers and shoes and surrounded by a large and muddy puddle.

You hugged him and took him back indoors, changed him and had a quiet chat, and he agreed that in future he would go to the toilet when Mama thought it was necessary.

Which he has been doing.

Next you learned to dispense with the potty.

This was as simple as leaving him with his Papa in the Great Outdoors for an afternoon. Real Men do it standing up, Papa declared, and apparently the Star agreed.

The next time you found yourself in the vicinity of a tree with a Star who was overdue to pass water, therefore, you coyly suggested that you both go and say hello to that oak over there. Just like he did with Papa the day before.

The Star looked at  you with scorn.

‘Not say hello. Me piss on tree,’ he declared firmly, and proceeded to lean obligingly forward (‘Not piss on shoes!’) and allow Mama to arrange his apparatus appropriately. Yes, in answer to a fascinated friend of yours who has only girls, you do have to teach boys to hold their own penises.

He will also stand on the toilet seat and send a stream of wee in the general direction of the bowl in public toilets, although you both have to improve your aim a bit there.

Or perhaps not, she says, contemplating some of the males of her acquaintance.

But the attentive reader will have noticed that so far you have only been talking about emptying the Star’s bladder. And it is true that pooing in public is not going quite so well. You are managing fine in some ways because the Star generally manages to defecate at home. Unfortunately, on the rare occasions he doesn’t, he simply dumps in his pants, which leads to protracted cleaning up sessions in baby change facilities and the smell of shit following your pushchair for the rest of the day, because no matter how many plastic bags you smother the poo smeared trousers in, it is still quite quite penetrating.

You suspect that only when you forget to take spare clothes with you and the Star is forced to travel across the capital in squishy, smelly underpants will he see the wisdom of shouting ‘Kaka! Kaka! Kaka! Kaka! Kaka! Kaka! Kaka!’ on the street with the same enthusiasm he shows at home.

When it will be time to stock up on those little bags that dog owners carry around with them everywhere.

On the problem with cakes.

Cakes cause a certain amount of dissension in your house.

This comes to a head every birthday, when your MiL and you husband look on in mild bemusement as you wrestle with the latest offering on the altar of declaring your love through home cooking. Why bother? They have learned not to ask.

For in Russia they are not great cake makers. This is not, however, to say that they do not have great cakes. They do. There they are, all lined up in dedicated deli counters in any food shop larger than a kiosk. Here is a picture of your favourite. It doesn’t look that impressive, but that is because you were unable to wait to take the photograph and it is in the middle of being demolished. Yes, it is essentially meringue held together with cream and nuts. Mmmmmmmmmmmm.

Cream. Mmmmmmmmmmmmm.

Of course, when you were visiting a few years ago, there seemed to be experimentation with healthy versions of the classics. Healthy cream does not taste nice. Luckily, that madness had passed by the time you arrived in Moscow this summer and it was back to business as usual with the spun sugar, the cream and the elegant fruit toppings. And more meringue.

So Russians definitely eat cake. A lot of cake. Particularly as Russians actually do afternoon tea. And elevennses. Office birthdays were also particularly spectacular, although as a hostess you always appreciated the habit guests had of turning up with large square boxes full of gooey goodness. These days you tend to get wine, vodka and chocolates instead and it’s just not the mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Chocolates. Really really good chocolates. Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Where was I?

Anyway.

You found out why Russians don’t bake when you decided to make B a Russian classic for his last birthday, Bird’s Milk Cake.

It tasted a lot better than it looked.

It took six hours.

Admittedly, at least one of those hours was because you had run out of condensed milk and had to stop and make your own, which you highly recommend by the way as it keeps forever and tastes much better than the stuff in tins.

Still, that’s practically five hours longer than you would expect to spent on an undecorated British cake (although it was very very good).

Russian cakes are, in your opinion, meant to be constructed by professionals under controlled conditions. By contrast, most British classics are meant to be made at home. And for this reason, you very rarely buy shop-bought cakes in the UK, and wouldn’t dream of it for properly special occasions. Why bother? Well, you can do it better and with a surprisingly small amount of effort.

Well, except for the whole decoration aspect. Since you are completely without any crafting skills whatsoever, you do approach the summer months with trepidation due to the fact that you now have to regularly produce themed birthday cakes for your son… and, oh no! Soon you will be doing it for your daughter too. You really did not think this having more children thing through.

Here, for example, is the practice cake for B’s birthday a couple of years ago.

And here is the Star’s second birthday cake. Yes, that is three times the recommended dosage of food colouring in that butter icing in a vain attempt to make it red rather than pink.

Mmmmmmm. Sugar!

(Incidently, you learned a very important parenting lesson as a result of this cake.

Do not save the birthday cake as a surprise for the end of a hard day’s partying.

You whipped it out of its cupboard to very satisfying cries of the Star’s delight.

Cries which swiftly turned to screams when, ten minutes and many candles later, you whipped it away again… in order to brutally hack it apart).

But in the end the problem with the cakes you make is not the reckless use of electricity involved in the baking time, nor the assault on aesthetic standards caused by your decorating skills.

No, the problem is that B just doesn’t really like British cakes at all. Oh he eats them if you put raisins in, but he’s not enthusiastic. And he considers the great British sponge in particular to be one big waste of good eggs, sugar and butter.

This initially came as something of a surprise to you.

Because to your palette Russian sponges, well, Russian sponges taste stale*.

And in one of those misunderstandings that only occur when two cultures collide, you smugly and quite patronisingly assumed that all that when B had a real sponge, he would fall to his knees, mouth foaming in ecstasy and declare he had seen the light. You still find it difficult to believe that B actually prefers the (substandard) taste he grew up with. But he does, and that’s all there is to it.

The Bird’s Milk Cake helped you realise why. The ‘cake’ part of the recipe is made with flour, eggs, sugar and so on… and no raising agent. The flour is plain. There’s no baking powder. Nothing. One recipe you came across called it a biscuit. And it was certainly very flat. And a bit stale tasting.

So your advice to any British person visiting Moscow is stay away from the sponges* and stick to anything essentially held together with cream and meringue.

And if serving cake to a Russian, make muffins. This is the recipe you used, and which inspired this post.

Because B ate them. All. In one day. And demanded more. You have branched out from cranberries and done blueberry muffins and even banana ones. Add cinnamon. Leave out the orange peel.

Galling that the bloody things are actually American though.

*Except the Prague Cake, which is chocolaty and lovely. Although still not terribly light or fluffy. Western versions of the recipe add baking powder.

On snow days.

Last night it snowed in London and when you got out on the street in the morning there it all still was, not melting, not blowing away in a powdery haze, not turned into snow coloured ice, crumping under your feet and looking fabulous.

The Star loved it.

He didn’t last year. Last year he found walking in it difficult and couldn’t understand why his hands kept getting cold. This year he jumped up and down in it, he ran through it, he shuffled through it, he rolled in it and he consented to put his gloves on after due consideration of Mama’s contention that it would keep his hands warm so he could continue scraping all the snow off the parked cars you passed.

About 45 minutes is his limit though, so it was good that you reached his Russian playgroup about then. After two hours and lunch, he was fortified enough to go and tackle the surprisingly pristine expanses of white in Hyde Park.

Hyde park is excellent for running around in circles on virgin snow and snowball fights. You won. This year.

You also found some students making a snowman in front of the Albert Memorial, so you helped. You were impressed by the serious attention to technique displayed, although they were students from the Royal College of Art so it wasn’t that surprising. Plus they were hoping to get a picture in the newspaper accompanied by a slogan protesting the upcoming raising of student fees and such. Much punning on the words ‘snow’ (‘It’s snow joke’) and ‘white’ (‘It’s not white’) was planned. Everybody keep an eye out for the weather pages of the national press tomorrow.

Sadly you couldn’t stay for the denouement as the Star was getting tired and cold again, so you tucked him up in his pushchair with a tupperware box of grapes and sauntered onwards, past a miniature snowman and an impressively tall one which topped twice your height and had a mohican stick hairstyle.

It wasn’t the end of the snow-filled fun though. The Star obligingly slept while you trotted happily round some clothes shops, waking up only when you got off the bus near your house. You took him to the river. The Star became concerned about the leaves he could see drowning in snow and spent a happy twenty minutes rescuing them.

You got home just as the ground started to feel suspiciously icy, secure in the knowledge that you and the Star were thoroughly snowed out. Given that you will wake up tomorrow to find the snow either gone, slushy, frozen, disturbingly yellow or, probably, most of the above, this means you have extracted as much joy from the situation as you can. Until your one alloted snow day next year or you move back to Moscow.

You call that a job well done.

Except that you forgot your camera.

On you shall not smoke.

Gosh but a lot of people smoke here*.

What’s particularly startling is the number of young women who smoke. And even more noticeable, the number of mothers of small children. And this from a woman who, back in the UK, lives where the tracksuited-scraped-back-hair look is not an uncommon mummy look.

But it was when you were sitting in a restaurant and one of your party lit up that you really felt out of place. Good lord, you thought. People used to do this in the UK. You used to do this. In the UK. Within the last five years. And yet it felt wrong wrong wrong.

How quickly we can become re-educated.

And yet now you are back in a smoking culture, you could see yourself taking it up again, something which hasn’t crossed your mind since you gave it up and They banned smoking practically everywhere in the UK**.

Of course, then you remember how much you really hated it towards the end. Let’s hold onto that.

*Or rather, in Russia. See What I did on my Holidays Part 1.

**In, you would like to point out, that order.