29 November, 2007

Flashback #3: Moscow

One slushy gray Spring morning I was on my way to visit a friend for coffee when I stopped dead in my tracks. There in the middle of the litter-strewn sidewalk stood a tiny green piano.

I tapped a few keys-- the pitch was perfect and I wouldn't have been surprised if an entire herd of Muppets had suddenly crowded around me and burst into song.

Knowing this would make a surreal and welcome addition to the meeting with my friend, I decided to take it along with me. My childish glee soon turned sour, however. This piano was made of wood and it was heavy! After a few more steps I impulsively shelved it on the next low windowsill I passed and kept walking.

Suddenly a man with a big fur hat and even bigger automatic weapon stepped out of a doorway in front of me. My stomach sank as I read the brass plate on the wall next to him:

Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran to Russia

Uh oh.

He blocked my path and made himself very large. "WHAT WAS THAT?" he said aggressively and motioned with the gun towards the edge of the piano which was hanging off of the windowsill of his Embassy.

I'd learned a lot of vocabulary in the three months I'd been in Russia, but unfortunately it did not include either of the words "toy" or "piano".

I smiled and tried to look harmless. "Oh that? It's a toy piano." I answered in English.

I twiddled my fingers in the air helpfully.

Blank stare. He was not amused.

I tried again in pidgin Russian: "only piano. Not dangerous!"

Finally I was allowed to retrieve it and show him that it was, in fact, not an explosive device. I plinked out a few hopeful notes and he looked more confused than ever. He shook his head and bustled me on down the road with my suspicious instrument.

And that is the tale of my musical debut and how it almost caused an international incident...

(Move on to Flashback 4:  Moscow)

26 November, 2007

Flashback #2: Turkmenistan

While I was in Moscow I worked for a telecom company which provided satellite connections for Western companies working in remote areas. I managed several different projects in Central Asia. Or didn't manage them, because the rules of the game seemed to be completely out of my hands most of the time. As frustrating as this was, it did provide some very interesting travel opportunities.

By far the weirdest place I ever visited was Turkmenistan. Our client was a British company that was mining gold outside of the capital, Ashgabat. We were only a few kilometers away from the border with Iran, a fact which I found truly awe-inspiring.

The landscape was desolate-- lots of desert and scrub brush. Wild camels wandered along the streets like stray dogs. On our way to the client's site we stopped to get out of the car and stretch-- I felt someone staring at me, turned around and found myself face to face with a baby camel!

The most interesting thing about visiting Turkmenistan, though, was the country's dictator, Saparmurat Niyazov, who was known for his authoritarian ways and eccentric decrees. He renamed himself "Turkmenbashi", the father of the people, and fostered a cult of personality that even rivaled Stalin's.

Wikipedia has a great list of some of his outrageous decrees. Among them:
  • He renamed the days of the week and the months after himself and his mother
  • He proclaimed that the youth of Turkmenistan should chew on bones rather than get gold caps on their teeth (???)
  • Beards were outlawed
  • All hospitals outside of Ashgabat were shut down because he felt that the sick should travel to the capital to be treated
  • Ballet and opera were banned when President Niyazov decided that they were "unnecessary to Turkmen culture"
He also decreed that all public buildings should prominently display his picture. And when I say "prominently" I mean that entire outer walls were dedicated to his portrait. At any given street corner in Ashgabat one was privy to his solemn glare from several different directions.

The streets were a mess and one taxi ride was particularly memorable. The driver was speeding and driving very erratically-- swerving crazily around potholes and driving through red lights. Growing increasingly nervous, I was trying to concentrate on all of Niyazov's different portraits when suddenly the driver slammed on the breaks and we came to a stop. He was cursing under his breath.

"Anything wrong?"


He pulled a pair of glasses out of his pocket. They had thick coke-bottle lenses and one of the arms was broken off. For the rest of the trip he held them up to his eyes with one hand while he steered with the other. Up until that point he had apparently been driving blind...

Once we'd finished our business with the client there was some time to go sightseeing. One of the engineers offered to take us to see some hot springs just outside of the capital. Always up for adventure, my colleague and I agreed.

We drove for a couple of hours out into the middle of nowhere. The engineer led us to a cave and we went inside. Once our eyes adjusted to the dark we saw a large pool of water. There was a single electric lamp on one side of the cave which didn't do much to cut through the gloomy darkness. Bats hung from the ceiling above and the air was thick with steam and the heavy smell of sulphur.

My colleague and I stripped down to our bathing suits and jumped in. The water was bathtub temperature and very murky. I held my breath and let myself sink down as far as I dared but I couldn't touch the bottom.

Strangely the engineer refused to join us, but preferred instead to hang out at the cave's entrance and smoke.

The water temperature was pleasant but the sulphurous smell became overbearing after a while and the atmosphere was just plain creepy. My colleague and I climbed out, dried off and put our clothes back on in silence.

We exited the cave and were climbing back into the car when a rickety, rusted-out old bus pulled up and a dozen locals piled out. They were dressed in colorful, ratty garments and were a pretty ragtag bunch.

"Who are they?" I asked our guide.

"Oh them."

And then he told me that this particular hot spring is famous throughout the country. That its warm sulphur waters supposedly have healing properties and that people with otherwise incurable skin diseases were bussed in to bathe here in as a last resort for a cure...

It took weeks before I was convinced that I hadn't contracted leprosy...

(Move on to Flashback #3:  Moscow)

25 November, 2007

Try telling THAT to a guidance counsellor!

B was waxing philisophical on our walk to school.

You know, all this time I thought I wanted to be a pilot when I grow up. But now I think I want to be a veterinarian.

Cool! Why? Because you like to help animals?

No. There are just too many buttons to push in a cockpit.

24 November, 2007

Cruel twist of fate.

We are celebrating Thanksgiving today with an American neighbor. We've been planning menus for a couple of days and I've spent the last couple of hours cooking: pumpkin crisp, baked Parmesan tomatoes, roasted sweet potatoes, and of course, the obligatory stuffing.

Our friend has baked a ham and is putting the finishing touches on garlic green beans, homemade apple pie and buttery mashed potatoes.

My mouth should be watering at all the delicious smells. It's definitely watering, but not for the usual reasons.

I didn't feel well when I got up this morning and am starting to feel very bad. T minus 25 minutes til showdown but I'm realizing that I've probably picked up the virulent stomach virus that's being passed around at school and kindergarten.

And I'm thinking that instead of spending my afternoon giving thanks at the table that it's more likely that I'll be spending it hanging over the toilet...

21 November, 2007

Russia #1: Life in the bubble

As a journalism student at UF I took a couple of years of Russian-- not out of any great interest in the Soviet Union, but basically to fill a language requirement.

In 1991 the Russian department offered summer classes at Moscow State for a ridiculously low price. So I could either stay in Gainesville running my ass off in my hum-drum waitressing job or go have an adventure in a foreign country for less money. It was basically a no-brainer, a default decision that changed the course of my life.

That trip, from beginning to end was a surreal experience. We lived in huge, rat-infested dorms which were crawling with roaches that devoured anything left out uncovered, including Advil! We grew used to having insects scurry over us as we slept-- one day in class my ear started itching and I pulled out a half a spider!

The organizers left us to our own devices where meals were concerned. There was no food provided and we never did find a reliable source. The cafeteria was hit or miss-- aside from one meal which consisted solely of tomatoes I don't remember ever being able to eat there. We subsisted on a diet of ice cream, vodka, brown bread and the occasional khachapuri in dimly lit, smoky Georgian cafes.

During a very memorable outing in Leningrad we got caught in a riot. We were out enjoying the White Nights when we came upon a rowdy group of inebriated sailors. They started causing trouble so we crossed the street to avoid them. Suddenly a paddy wagon screeched to a halt in front of us. Anyone who had any sense at all started running. We stayed rooted to the spot.

The police were brutal and indescriminant. I watched in morbid fascination as an innocent bystander near me got clubbed and collapsed; his briefcase and glasses skittered to the curb, carried along by the momentum of his fall. A woman in a flowered dress panicked and ran past only to be beaten and then engulfed in the stampede of wild-eyed frightened people.

I remember that summer in superlatives. The USSR was imploding, the atmosphere was electric and we were experiencing history in the making. I felt alive in the midst of all the chaos.

I was also intrigued by the romantic literary idea of the dark Russian soul and wanted to experience life there first-hand. When I returned to Florida I changed my major to Russian and upon graduation I sold everything and went back to Moscow. I had no job and no real plans-- just a strange feeling that I needed to be there and that everything would work out fine.

In the end I spent more than three and a half years in Russia. I led a life of extremes; swinging wildly between states of elation and despair. I had interesting jobs, traveled to bizarre locales and met and married my husband. But I was also witness to a kidnapping at gunpoint, had a baby left in my stairwell and became accustomed to the sound of gunfire and the occasional dead body lying in the street.

We lived nextdoor to a mafia gangster who assured us that he'd "taken care" of whoever kept setting our mailboxes on fire. (it never happened again.) Our car got stolen and then returned, and we actually laughed when a colleague accidentally fired off his gun in the office.

One day several men with machine guns stormed into a restaurant we ate at regularly. They opened fire, killing two people and wounding several others. If it hadn't been for a cold that had kept me in bed that particular day we would probably have been there and could easily have become one of the casualties.

It often seemed as if human life had very little worth in the Russia I knew.

M and I were driving down a small side street one evening when six men with machine guns suddenly stepped out of the shadows in front of our car. Their faces were covered by ski-masks and they were dressed in fatigues. They yanked M out of the car at gunpoint and demanded to see his papers. He couldn't understand them and I pleaded for them to let him go. When they figured out that we were not whoever they were seeking they let us go. We were silent on the way home-- if they had killed us there would have been no witnesses.

I suppose it's not surprising that that kind of atmosphere can have a corruptive effect on the soul. We lived in a temporary suspension of ethics safeguarded by our foreignness and the naive belief that we were invincible. I smuggled telecom equipment across borders (and got caught!), bribed government officials and laundered money for the insanely corrupt company for which I worked. I came and went on dodgy visas and got held at the border on more than one occasion, a situation which could usually be remedied by tears and US Dollars surreptitiously folded into passports or other documents.

When M was offered a job in Brussels in 1996 we jumped at the opportunity. The violence and sheer aggressive nature of the city was starting to wear us down. We had alternately loved and hated our time there and agreed that it was time to leave the surreal bubble in which we were living. I am astounded now when I look back at how recklessly, how carelessly we lived.

As soon as we left Russia I reclaimed my integrity and common sense.

It seems strange to recall these experiences so many years later. Although they may sound incredible these stories are not exaggerated and there's plenty more where they came from.

This might become good blogging fodder to spice up the bourgeois content I've been churning out lately. Sorry that this post ended up running so long-- this has opened up a floodgate of memories for me! More (shorter!) stories to come...

(Move on to Flashback #2:  Turkmenistan)

20 November, 2007

Ladies and Gentlemen! Presenting: Blog Ness Betsy!

My blogging muse seems to be taking a sabbatical, so I was very relieved when Jen offered to put together a list of interview questions for me. And here, without further ado:

1. What is the easiest/hardest thing about living in Germany?

The easiest thing about living near Stuttgart is staying fit. We chose a house near a nature reserve so that we can spend a lot of time outdoors. The area is also very hilly, and we live about a mile out of town. I try to walk everywhere and get a relatively good workout most days just through doing errands and school runs.

The biggest hurdle has definitely been learning the language. I've got no shortage of posts about embarrassing language gaffes I've made, especially in the beginning. And as someone who is rather articulate in English and Dutch it was hard to be reduced to grunts and sign language in order to get even rudimentary ideas across.

I've been taking intensive language lessons for about a year now and am really enjoying them. I've always wanted to have a chance to jump into a foreign language head first and am savoring the opportunity. most of the time... ;-)

2. You've written some absolutely hysterical pieces on clutzy/embarrassing moments - what was your number one of all time?

The worst, absolute WORST moment of my life?

Was when a kindly male colleague informed me that the hem of my skirt was tucked up into my pantyhose, effectively displaying my underwear (and posterior) for the world to see.

Suddenly it all made sense: The honking, the shouting and the waving from passersby while I had been walking to work that morning...

3. Of all the places that you've lived, where was your favorite and why?

You know, I think that this one will probably end up being my favorite.

We're building up a great social network and I am involved at the kids' school. I volunteer at the kindergarten and have made some friends through German lessons. That and it's beautiful here-- the rolling hills, woods and verdant fields really speak to me.

4. How did you and your husband meet?

14 years ago I was living in Moscow and went back to Florida to visit friends. M was doing a month-long roadtrip through the States and we happened to be staying in the same house for a couple of days.

I liked him immediately-- enough so that when he and his friends left to go camping down in south Florida I tagged along for two days.

After returning to our respective countries we wrote each other a lot of letters. He came to visit me three months later and that was it. I remember thinking "This is how life should be."

M moved over to Moscow 6 months later and we got married a couple of years after that.

Several of my friends were astounded and even a little dismayed at how quickly we became serious. I was never one to fall in love easily and they wondered how trustworthy M was-- he did, after all live a thousand kilometers away, and those Dutch are just so LIBERAL, don't you know! ;-)

But this was one of those serendipitous occasions that have a happy ending. A summer love that actually lasted! Even after this much time I still think he's the bee's knees. He's my best friend and our meeting stands out as one of the best things that's ever happened to me!

18 November, 2007


M and I watched Little Children with a friend last night. The film was great but left me with a creepy feeling afterwards, so I was a little jumpy when I went downstairs to go to bed.

I was sliding under the covers when suddenly raucous, maniacal laughter erupted from underneath my pillow.

Once I'd peeled myself off of the ceiling, a search revealed a little plastic device that previously resided inside an odious stuffed animal the kids got from Oma one year. When you press a button it laughs uproariously.

At least someone's laughing, because my children certainly won't be when they're turned out in the snow to do hard manual labor...

17 November, 2007

Difficult subjects

I had to have that talk with the boys yesterday. The talk every parent dreads. (or at least the one I've been dreading.) The talk that starts off with an innocent question and ends with the obligatory:

"You're always welcome to come to me with any questions you might have, but it's probably best if you don't bring this up in any casual conversation with the neighbors..."

I had to tell them about Hitler.

It was unavoidable-- our little village was leveled by allied air raids toward the end of the war and they came across a picture of the destruction in a local newspaper.

Try finding an easy way to explain to a 6 and 8 year old why Americans would want to drop bombs on our village and completely raze it. Try simplifying Hitler's rise to power, the polarization of the world and the death camps.

My grandmother was a Hungarian Jew and had family who died in those camps. And when I studied in St. Petersburg I lived with a lovely old woman who had survived the siege of Leningrad. A fact I didn't know until one day I was hungry and unwittingly said "I'm starving!" and she lashed out with "Don't you EVER say that again! You have no idea what starving is!"

I gave S and B the basic facts as best I could and told them: "This is nothing that you have to worry about. It is not something that will affect your everyday lives. But it is important that we are all aware that this can happen so that we can make sure our leaders are kept in check and do not abuse their power."

Then came the hardest question of all: "So this isn't something that could ever happen again?"

And unfortunately there's no happy ending answer for that one, is there?

Compared to this the birds and the bees is going to be a cakewalk!

13 November, 2007

Oh yeahhhhhhhh

Usually I end the day with my dignity intact. Today, however, was not one of those days.

I was walking to school and realized too late that two workmen sitting in a parked van had overheard me singing.

And not just any old song, but one from Kool and the Gang...

to my dog.

And I was replacing some of the words with her name....

That would have already been bad enough, but I was also channeling Cheb Tarik.

Shit. I might have to move out of this neighborhood. That or wear a false moustache from now on whenever I leave the house.

12 November, 2007

What a blessing!

Today S read an endearing poem entitled "Ich bin froh, dass ich bin, wie ich bin". (I am happy that I am how I am)

The protagonist is feeling insecure and is thinking about other forms he might like to assume: a tree; a bird; a cloud. But after thinking about each alternative he comes to the conclusion that he'd actually rather be the way he is.

Of course at the end there were the mandatory questions to check reading comprehension-- "What would you like to be?", "What wouldn't you like to be?"

The last question was: "Are you also happy to be the way you are?"

S answered:

"ja, sogar sehr" (yes, very much so)

I've had a warm, happy feeling for the rest of the day! :-)

07 November, 2007

Need a laugh?

Schmutzie often makes me chuckle, but this post had me laughing cackling hysterically! Who else would start a list of random facts about herself with a mangy cat muse and end on this hilarious note:

I took to blowdrying my hair in grade five in an effort to feather the sides. My hair was fine and board straight, so it never worked, but I did manage to over-blow enough one day that all the skin on my left ear began to peel.

Two days later while the ear was still healing, a girl ran by me in the hallway at school, and her scarf's fringe caught on my pierced earring. I had to run along after her as fast as I could just to keep from having my earlobe ripped through, and being unaware of my predicament, she thought I was chasing her and screamed for help. She kept screaming at her friend, She's crazy! Make her stop!.

A teacher finally caught up with me and pushed me against a wall to stop me. What is wrong with you?! she snapped at me. I cried and cupped my palm around my blistered and now bleeding left ear...

Schmutzie, I think I love you...

He likes the squeal factor

Day three after our little bushwhacker got whacked by a bush. His eye is healing but it still looks horrendous! My own eyes still start to water every time I look at him.

He's getting a lot of attention at school and said it's fun to see people shudder when they see him.


06 November, 2007

Brotherly love

I was a little shocked when I entered the livingroom this afternoon. B was standing there, naked from the waist up and S stood behind him rubbing his face all over B's back.

??? Um, guys? What are you doing?

S smiled: Oh nothing. I just put too much moisturizer on my face and thought B could use what wasn't soaking in...

05 November, 2007

Metta meditation

Dear Uncle Ruud:

This is how I will always remember you: bright, vibrant and full of life.

At this very moment cancer is ravaging your body. Every breath could be your last-- a tragedy for us all but even more so for your new wife and her daughter.

I think about you often these days-- and try to place your imminent passing into the context of a faith that speaks so clearly to me. But it is one thing to read and understand texts on a generic level and yet quite another to absorb them through to the marrow: the pain and indignity and scope of your suffering right now leave me breathless.

There are several sound reasons for you to hang on to those tenuous threads of life, but I can also imagine an ever increasing urge to let go.

I keep thinking about a powerful passage from the Tibetan Book of the Dead:
Remember the clear light, the pure clear light from which everything in the universe comes, to which everything in the universe returns... The bright shining light of your own nature. It is deathless... No matter where or how far you wander, the light is only a split second, a half a breath away...
You were always such a kind, helpful and cheerful person-- I doubt you have any Buddhist leanings, but for what it's worth you have certainly amassed good karma! (Which should please whoever happens to be on guard at your pearly gates when you get there.)

I sincerely hope that the remainder of your transition goes more peacefully.

May you be free from danger. May you be peaceful. May you live and pass with ease.

04 November, 2007

Stick-y eyes

Remember this?!

This time it was S who had a run-in with stick. He was crashing through some bushes in a friend's yard when a branch whipped back and hit him in the eye.

We took him to see an opthalmologist who was on call at a local eye center. He got lucky-- Germany is very well organized for off-hour emergencies. That, and the branch missed his cornea by a couple of millimeters.

I hope we've had our quota for eye injuries for a while...

03 November, 2007

Need a laugh?

This guy's name is Kaluuri Vaanil, and I'm thinking he takes himself a bit too seriously. What a CHEESEBALL! (But at least he's a funny cheeseball!)

That and I'm afraid the song is starting to grow on me... :-)