The streets are slick with black ice. A huge chunk of frozen snow hangs precariously above our side door. Yesterday, in Saint Petersburg, a six-year-old was killed by a falling icicle. All I can think of is that thin, wet, frozen substance. I’ve got ice on my mind.
Yesterday we took down the Christmas tree and packed up the silver balls hanging from the front window. I folded the tree skirt into a box and felt an overwhelming sense of relief. After two months of celebrating Christmas then Orthodox Christmas, New Years then Russian New Years, we are finally, thankfully, done with the holidays. But winter has only begun to unfurl around me, the air is dry and cold and the city is covered in a thin layer of frost.
We spent our second Christmas in Moscow hosting my parents, exploring the city, and escaping north to a snow-filled St. Petersburg. The days following Christmas an ice storm blanketed the city, followed by a blizzard that closed the biggest airport in Moscow. My parent’s flight was delayed by 24 hours and when I did finally make it out to the airport it was only by luck. I’d hired a car to take me to meet them, but getting there was treacherous. Sliding across the road, the driver crept through traffic and crushing snow, somehow delivering me to the arrival gate only moments after they landed. But as the snow continued to tumble down on us, the airport closed to outbound flights and most arrivals. It took another two hours to get their bags and by the time we were on the road again we moved only at a snail’s pace, often stopped completely because of traffic and mountains of snow blocking the road. It took us another three hours to make it home.
Undeterred by the weather, we spent the week testing our new ice skates at indoor and outdoor rinks. I loved listening to the church bells chime as we danced over the ice at the outdoor rink next to the embassy in the shadow of the Russian White House. At the Conservatory, we watched an evening of amazing opera and after, at a wine-filled dinner, we beamed when the divas came to sit at the table beside us. On New Year’s Eve, Eric and I went to dinner with French diplomats, nibbling on goose and berries before walking over to Red Square to watch the fireworks, snow falling endlessly on our thick coats and hats. On New Year’s Day we returned with the children to a crowded Red Square, this time only to watch the ice skaters while we sipped hot chocolate from a nearby café. That night we invited neighbors over for a glass of wine by the roaring fire.
Other days during our break, I linked arms with my parents while we navigated the slippery walkways at Novodevichy Convent, a world heritage site adjacent to Moscow’s most famous cemetery. In the summer I had admired the elaborate headstones and monuments for deceased famous Russians, but in the winter snow covered all the graves, making even the famous flag sculpture above Yeltsin’s tomb nothing but a mound of white. At times we tried our luck indoors, peeking into the Chekov House Museum after a gourmet lunch at Correas or attending the magnificent Snow Queen on Ice show at an enormous hockey rink. I was sure it was going to be a cheesy Ice Capades-like event but either I’ve been here too long or it really was fantastic; the performance was a cross between Cirque du Soleil and Russian ballet at the Bolshoi. One night, we hired a sitter and the adults hit the town to try the new vodka tasting promotion on the top floor of the Ritz. Overlooking the shiny domes of the Kremlin and the tiny glowing lights adorning GUM Department store, we marveled at the fancy hotel while sipping on too many shots of vodka. Eating the dark bread, pickled garlic, and stinky fish sounded like a good idea at the time, but it did little to help my hangover the next morning.
After a week, my dad returned to California and my mom stayed on, agreeing to babysit so Eric and I could steal away to St. Petersburg for two days. Colder and darker in the north, we watched the city celebrate Russian Christmas while we ate sushi and spent our days peeking into Pushkin’s House, waiting in a massive snowstorm to get into and then walk the hundred rooms of the Russian Museum, having tea at the Literary Café, and strolling outside the Hermitage to an orchestra and light show, all the while snow falling in thick patches onto our coats.
My mom (Nana) has now been gone a week and I’m trying to get back into my routine. The embassy is sponsoring a two-week-long triathlon at the gym and I’ve been training for it with daily (!) workouts. I have two weeks to complete an ironman (26 miles on the treadmill, 115 miles on the bike and 2+miles swim in the pool). My body is rejoicing in the fact that I’m seriously exercising again, but the commitment to getting to the gym every day is quite something. It kills me to have to hire a babysitter just to make it across the street for an hour. And too a new pain in my mouth turned out to be a wisdom tooth coming in. Rather than operate here the embassy recommends my going to London to get the procedure done, especially because it is impacted and touching the nerve and I’ll need to be put under. So that too lies ahead. Nothing like needing to go to another country just to go to the dentist.
Just hours ago, the embassy ice rink was completed, meaning that now we need only walk a few steps to get to our own little rink. I never thought this California girl would own her own pair, but given that we are still well in the clutches of winter, I’m proud of my pink and black skates. Also, my owning skates speaks of what’s to come. . .
We got our next assignment: Eric will be the DCM in Iceland. We’ll be in the states for home leave this summer (hopefully 4-6 weeks where I will finally get the kids and Eric to the Lair) and then we’ll head to Reykjavik sometime in the fall.
Despite promising more snow and ice, I’m thrilled with the assignment. I imagine it will be something like that TV show Northern Exposure, a quirky, isolated but beautiful town. I see myself wearing more fleece, listening to more Bjork. Apparently Iceland has a very literary culture, so hopefully I’ll find greater inspiration for my writing while I continue to plod away at the novels and the kid’s book production company. For now, my head is very much in Moscow, enjoying the thick snow and frost of winter but with one problem: that ridiculous early 90s pop song by Vanilla Ice plays continuously in my head. Now, hopefully, it will get stuck in yours too. Go ahead, sing it: ice, ice baby.