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Archive for December, 2007

Life goes on, to the movies with kids

December 29th, 2007
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My faithful reader will doubtlessly understand the interruption in my posts, for which I am heartily grateful. I have to admit that I have been a bit apathetic over the last few days.

I actually did write a post a couple of days ago, exploring the depths of our encounter with mortality. It turned out a bit too philosophical and psychoanalytical, and after having spent a few hours composing it, I decided to let my inner editor to drop it.

But I realize that we have to move on, with everything in our lives, including this blog. So here is the brief overview of my last few days with the kids, which were largely about movies.

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Chronicles, Movies

Sad Christmas

December 25th, 2007

Natasha’s 17-year-old niece Katya, who has been fighting Hodgkin’s lymphoma for over half a year, has passed away last night in Rostov. We knew that she has not been doing well lately, and one of the main reasons for Natasha’s trip was that she knew she might not get another chance to see her, but still, her death came as a shock. The year ended on the saddest note possible.

 

Katya

This picture is of a couple of years ago – somehow seems fitting…

 
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Family & Friends

Outdoor skating

December 24th, 2007
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Skating pairThree straight days of going out with children culminated in another skating event. Only this time, the girls skated themselves.

There are quite a few public skating rinks erected in various parts of London. They are always very popular and normally sold out ahead of time. Thanks to eBay, Natasha procured a couple of tickets for the rink at Somerset House, on Strand.

It is probably one of the best settings for an outdoor skating, taking up most of the vast inner courtyard of a magnificent palace. The midday drab sky spoils the picture a bit, but when the sun sets, the atmosphere becomes magical…
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Chronicles

Christmas Carols at Royal Albert Hall

December 23rd, 2007
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Today we entertained ourselves with a visit to the Royal Albert Hall for the Carols by Candlelight concert.

I am a Jew by birth and an atheist by conviction, but as an admirer of classical music I am not afraid to admit that there are many masterpieces produced by the western civilization that I can listen to, even when they have clear Christian religious underpinnings. And when said masterpieces are performed with gusto and at a venue as grand as the Royal Albert Hall, it matters none what they themed after; I enjoy and applaud.

My kids enjoy singing more than they enjoy listening. And through their chamber choir participation – and various concerts and plays that British schools engage in at this time of year – they actually know many hymns and carols. (Kimmy recently asked with a touch of incomprehension, What is so important about this baby Jesus that people sing so many songs about him? I certainly lent her some perspective.)

The concert, it turned out, was somewhat participatory. About a dozen numbers were well-known carols (e.g., Good King Wenceslas or Once in Royal David’s City, which you can occasionally hear even on non-religious radiostations in the States) for which the audience was invited to sing along. In the section that we were sitting, the three of us must have been the only people who did not have the lyrics sheets; and I must have been the only person not joining in, as my girls knew enough words to sing along anyway (and someone have given Kimmy an extra sheet at some point). I must say that an opportunity to sing along has been a very positive aspect in Kimmy’s enjoyment of the proceedings. Becky is old enough to be able to appreciate fine art on its own merits, but she did not mind singing as well.

In any case, a performance at the Royal Albert is always a treat.

I know some of my Jewish friends could be appalled by such “forays” into Christianity. Believe me, as soon as I got back home, I fired up Adam Sandler’s Chanukah Song as an antidote. Thanks for the link, Dad!

Chanukah ended a couple of weeks ago, but you can still enjoy.

Art & Culture, Chronicles

Seeing Natasha off

December 22nd, 2007
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Half past two can hardly be called morning, yet we got up at this ungodly hour today, so that I could drive Natasha to Heathrow for her journey to Russia.
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Chronicles

Winter golf

December 20th, 2007
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Winter golf is actually not as bad as it sounds. If the skies are clear and there is no wind, then even freezing temperatures are tolerable. That is, if you wear layers…
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Sports

Twelve months, one sentence at a time

December 19th, 2007
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A meme that I picked up via my favorite bloggers Brian Greenberg and Jason Bennion asks the author to re-post the first sentence of the first blog entry in each of the previous year’s 12 months.

Similar to Brian’s and Jason’s compilations, mine ended up somewhere between esoteric and nonsensical. The fact that my blog tries to adhere to a basic theme actually worked a bit in my favor here, as a common thread was clearly visible throughout the spring (if only I added “from Switzerland” to the first sentence in January, it would even be more noticeable). And even though the entire collection justifiably looks like a bunch of random thoughts, I read it and can clearly see family- and event-oriented narrative.

See for yourself.

January: “Well, we’re back!”

February: “I am changing my football allegiance.”

March: “Well, it was bound to happen and it finally did happen.”

April: “I will only manage to get in a single blog entry in between two vacation trips, so I better write as much about the first one as possible before going onto the second one.”

May: “The latest disruption in my posts was caused by a long-weekend excursion to Paris, which was immediately preceded by another round of problems with the website, which hopefully have now been resolved once and for all (but claimed as their victim the recent Tuscany gallery album, which I am yet to restore).”

June: “We are back from our trip to Amsterdam, and I am happy to report that it was another resounding success.”

July: “The American School in Central London costs around £20K per child per year.”

August: “My British colleagues are happily exclaiming that the summer is finally here.”

September: “A cousin of mine plays clarinet with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.”

October: “Another day, another momentous anniversary to celebrate!”

November: “Apparently, my Halloween lamentations notwithstanding, there is some fun on the occasion that can still be found in England.”

December: “By popular demand, here are two more numbers from Becky’s performance with her choir.”

Is this year really almost over?

Blogging

How I turned out to be bad at driving

December 18th, 2007

It is my turn to practice English driving skills with an instructor. Far be it for me to doubt my ability to pass any exam, but I have to admit: It’s not easy to do things the way one should be doing them in order to pass the English practical driving test.
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That's England

Baltimore? No, really?

December 16th, 2007
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Looking for novel ways to waste my time online (it’s Sunday, it’s fairly cold outside, we are not going out, I’ve already watched two football games, everyone in the family is occupied with something…), I completed this internet test that matches your personality to one of the 24 major US cities. My result? Baltimore.

With apologies to proud Baltimoreans, I was hoping for a more exciting result.
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Idle Amusements

Winter Wonderland in London

December 15th, 2007
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Winter Wonderland Hyde ParkIt turns out that there are German Christmas Markets right under our noses in England. Only a week ago we were touring the real thing, and today we spent time at one in Hyde Park, smack in the center of London.

Actually, as markets go, it was less than impressive, but the Winter Wonderland amusement area erected for the holidays is very lively and enjoyable.
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Chronicles, London & Environs

Requiem to snail mail

December 13th, 2007
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The weather turned decisively cold – every morning now I have to scrape frost off the windshield. No expectations of snow, though. Duh!!!

Over the last few days, I have been reminded how little a part snail mail plays in our lives these days. Not the official paperwork, or some useless spam, but good old paper-based correspondence between friends.

When I first came to America, electronic mail was a novel concept even there, to say nothing of backwaters of the former Soviet Union. I had quite a lot of time on my hands the first several months (welfare does that for you), and literally every day I would produce a hand-written letter either to Natasha, who stayed behind for over a year, or to one of my numerous university friends. Natasha answered daily, the rest of friends rarely if ever… The shortest turnaround for a written response was somewhere around 10 days, and more often than not letters came in bunches: Not a single one for several days, and then three or four one day. I still remember how I cherished every single letter and how receiving them gave me additional boost in writing more and more.

Natasha joined me in the States eventually. The rest of my correspondents answered less and less promptly. We bought a home PC and eventually subscribed to a dial-up ISP. In a fairly short time, electronic mail – later augmented by social networking – has completely replaced poor snail mail as the primary means of penpalmanship (have I just invented this word?).

Now, my kids barely know what it means to write letters.

To be fair, Kimmy is not old enough to be a prolific correspondent anyway, and she actually does write in her hand letters to her best pal in the States. Tessa responds in kind. But writing is clearly still a novel activity to 7-year-olds, so one cannot seriously consider their correspondence as a snail mail revival. Within a year, Kimmy will surely catch up to the idea of having her own email address (which she already does!) and switch to typing on a keyboard (which she already knows how to do quite well).

Becky has one single friend who writes not electronically. Given how much time my own teenager spends online, I am surprised that there is a girl of the same age anywhere who actually likes to write on paper. Receiving letters from her gives Becky an incentive to try her skill as well, and I can only cheer for that.

Me, I write to my favorite high-school teacher in Russia. Once a year, if that often.

And what do you know, I type up the letter in MS Word, print it out, and the only four letters that come out from under the actual pen is my name signed at the bottom…

Op-Ed

Worth a thousand words

December 11th, 2007

 
 

Becky modeling

Photography

Back from Köln

December 10th, 2007

The road to Cologne was the longest – distance-wise – of any of our weekend trips so far, but even the driving rain that followed us for over 200 kilometers on the way back did little to dampen our enjoyment of this little adventure.

CologneThe theme of the trip was Christmas Markets in Germany.

We have read in many travel publications that German markets are unlike anywhere in Europe during Christmas. Because we knew that we had limited time, and our research suggested that Köln hosted several different markets all by itself, we decided to eschew touring different places, and instead concentrate on just one city.

The trip turned out almost perfect.
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Travel

More than active

December 6th, 2007

The period of heightened activity continued this week, further distancing us from the rash statement of generic boredom along the path blazed last week and weekend.

Wednesday, specifically, turned out to be quite a busy day for Natasha.

She first got kids out of school in the middle of the day to take them to a performance of Sound of Music. There was too good a deal for tickets on eBay to pass.

Since the movie happens to be a favorite for both of the girls, the play went quite well with them. Kimmy sang along throughout the performance, Becky was more reserved in her admiration but enjoyed it nonetheless. Despite the fact that for a mid-week matinee presentation a number of parts were played by understudies, the cast was very talented, according to Natasha.

During the intermission, Kimmy and Natasha were engaged in a conversation by a lady who overheard and could not reconcile their different English accents. Convinced at first that Kimmy was English and surprised that Natasha was of Russian descent (You speak such great English! Most Russians that I know can barely say a word!), the woman was finally persuaded that they were Americans residing in England. She inquired of Kimmy as to how she liked England. Kimmy made a face as only she can and replied: England is stra-a-ange!

That sentiment has been partially supported earlier that same day, when Natasha arrived at Kimmy’s school and was subjected to a third-degree interrogation about the reasons for taking her out of classes. I have mentioned in passing in this post that unauthorized absences from school are looked at unfavourably here. The state has a final say of what is authorized, not the parent. Since we took Kimmy from school for parts of three different days over the last week and a half, the administration smelled a pattern… The fact that Kimmy’s own teacher has expressed on many occasions that she is well ahead of most of her class in almost every subject does not count. Parent’s right to make a decision for the child does not exist conceptually. Ridiculous!!!

Little they know that Kimmy will not be in school at all on Friday… But I wonder if we are in for a conflict when we request authorization to have her skip entire weeks of school at a time for our planned trips to Swiss Alps and then the US. With Becky’s and Kimmy’s term breaks not being in sync this coming spring, we have long decided that Kimmy is going to be missing school time (which is free, in her case) as opposed to Becky (whom we pay an eye-watering amount to educate). Obviously, – but nonetheless funnily, – Becky’s school has a completely lax attitude towards missed classes. As long as the fees are not overdue…

Anyhow, at the conclusion of the musical, Natasha rushed the kids home, so that she could turn around and return to London for a friend’s birthday celebration, where I joined her straight from office. The event was held at a nice Greek restaurant, in a small and convivial company. Many different topics were discussed, a good number of bottles of wine fulfilled their purpose, and the food was pretty good too. If Pasha sends us any pictures, I’ll post them at a later date.

This suddenly intensive social schedule is going to be capped off with the weekend trip to Cologne. You will not hear me complaining :p

Children, Chronicles

Separated by common language

December 4th, 2007

Differences in English language as spoken by the British and the Americans is a long overdue topic for an expatriate blog. Today, I am finally getting around for a primer.

This isn’t about the obvious difference in pronunciation. True, understanding spoken English on British Isles takes considerable training and unwavering focus for someone whose ear is used to the American version. But that is only a part of the problem. The other part of it is that while you may recognize certain words, they turn out to mean something rather different. Plus, there are words which provoke no recognition from you when you hear them for the first time; yet, they mean things that are quite commonplace.
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That's England

Weekend visits

December 3rd, 2007
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We continued to disprove my earlier statement regarding diminished activity by making visits to friends over the weekend.
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Chronicles, Family & Friends

Choir (cont.)

December 2nd, 2007
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By popular demand, here are two more numbers from Becky’s performance with her choir.

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Children, Family Videos, Music