Sunday, March 31, 2013

Little Sponges

With their 8th and 4th birthdays drawing closer, Misha and Sebby are drinking in information at an amazing rate. Misha writes and reads (in English and Russian) better than he ever has, and his violin lessons are even starting to translate into some pleasant-sounding music. He loves robots, dinosaurs, ushu, superheroes, and any projects having to do with those themes. Sebby excitedly points out English letters on signs and cereal boxes, reads stories to himself from memory in Russian, and constantly admires nature, whether it's raining or sunny.

Since the weather is becoming mild and inviting, I decided to get a small flower project going this year like we did last year. I thought that all the obstacles - such as Sebby yanking out the new shoots in curiosity - were out of the way now, but I forgot one important fact: we have cats.

I was astonished at the enthusiasm of both Misha and Sebby to plant seeds. When I asked Misha if he wanted to come to the store with me, he said no, but when I clarified that I was going to buy planters, soil, and seeds, he immediately jumped on board. The first thing he did when we arrived home again was fill up two planters with some flower seeds and beans. When I went to pick up Sebby from sadik, I mentioned that he could plant some seeds with us when we got home. He gasped in eager anticipation and got his shoes and coat on much more quickly than normal. While walking, I asked him if he wanted to eat something, and he replied, as if I had no idea how to keep my priorities straight, "No, mom! I'm going to plant flowers!"

Sebby and I planted the third planter, then we set them all on the windowsill. The brothers lovingly sprayed their seeds with the mister. Sebby was quite sure they would start growing immediately. A few hours later, after I had tucked them into bed, Sebby popped into our room exclaiming breathlessly, "My seeds are growing!"

So you can imagine their intense disappointment when, the next morning, they discovered that the cats had tipped over two of the three planters. We spent the next half-hour with the vacuum and dustpan. The one planter that remained was the one with beans, not flowers, and we put it up on a high shelf and forgot about it. However, a week later, we pulled it down and to the boys' delight, little green sprouts were poking out of the dirt. So all is not lost!

Other recent projects include making cornstarch-and-water goop, which was just as fascinating for the boys as it was a huge mess for me.


Big box "legos" to make forts:

More building creations:


Letter games for Sebby: I cut out cardboard squares, which Sebby colored with crayons, and then a wrote lower-case letter on each. The possibilities are many. We spread them out on the floor and he jumps to the sound I say, or he collects the letters as I call them out, or we put them together to create words, or we match them to corresponding pictures. He thinks all of these are the most interesting games, and not work at all.

We also sound out three-letter words together and match it to the pictures we created. He loves this game and he knows an impressive amount of letters and their sounds. Whenever he sees a letter P, he shouts, "Pufferfish!" - thanks to an Ocean-Writers app I have on my iPhone. When you correctly trace the P with your finger, the pufferfish puffs up. He recognizes his own name, plus Misha and Mom. When he sees the letter M, he usually says it's for Misha. When he sees a T, he says it's for Mom (Tammy).

Sebby has also become a master memory player. If you don't believe me, I challenge you to play him. Just don't let him cheat.

Misha practicing Ushu in the park:

Fun with modeling clay, making aliens:

Sebby relaxing in bed with his Tag (talking pen which reads stories and adds funny sound effects) books from Grandma Kate:

Fun times with a cheap and functional plastic train set ($5 plus a battery for each of two trains). Our whole family has spent hours rearranging the tracks, adding Lego props, and experimenting.

Misha has continued his twice-a-week violin lessons, and his teacher compliments him on his progress.

Misha with his teacher, Kulia, focusing on the correct way to hold the violin and the bow.

Sometimes Misha improvises and Sebby dances!

Whenever it rains, Sebby gets a huge thrill from holding the umbrella.

Hanging out with Vladik, Misha's friend.

Covered in Jackrabbit stickers.


In other news, Misha has lost his other front tooth after wrestling with Daddy on the bed!

A present from Grandma and Grandpa: yo-yo kits! First they painted, then put them together and started yo-yo-ing.


 Kid Talk:

To help Sebby manage his yo-yo better, I cut the string slightly shorter. I asked Misha if he wanted me to trim his a bit, and he replied as if it was completely obvious, "No! I'm gonna grow - and be 8!"

Sebby asks me every day when he will be 4, and I always reply, "in the summer." 
Then he asks, "And when will I be five?" 
"After one more year." 
"And then?" 
"And then 6." 
"How come?"
"Because every year you get one year older."
"But when am I gonna get little again?"
That made me laugh because when Misha was 3 and 4, he also assumed that eventually, people would get younger again. I remember several of his comments about him waiting for mommy to get little.

Sebby sounds more and more like Misha in his speech. He has picked up several phrases that Misha tends to say, such as "actually" and "the coolest." My favorite expression of Misha's now is "Great Heavens" - something I think he picked up from Calvin and Hobbes (Calvin's mom often says this). If we're playing a game and I do something unexpected, Misha always says, "Great Heavens!"

Sebby is a natural observer. One day he asked why Daddy has little nipples and Mommy has big nipples. It was Misha who answered matter-of-factly, "Because, Sebby, you used to drink milk out of those big nipples."

While getting his toenails cut, Sebby said, "You're making me shikotna! (ticklish) You're hurting me with your nokti! (nails)"

At night, after I tuck him in, Sebby often asks, "Can you come for one minutka? (minute)"

Frustrated with his Lego creation, Sebby scolded it, "Chto takoi ni rabotaet! Davai! Rabotai! (Why is this not working! Come on, work!)

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Home Remedies: sheep fat, vodka, honey and more

One of my favorite topics to discuss with my classes is home remedies, so by now I have a considerable collection of their helpful and humorous tips for everything from a common cold to sinusitis to hair loss. While Americans tend to be unhealthily attached to their antibiotics, people in Kyrgyzstan try to find ways around using them unless they are absolutely necessary. When you consider that their health care system here is often lacking in resources and updates, it makes sense for people to be skeptical of doctors. Plus, the more we read about how our immune systems react to bombardments of antibiotics, it seems Kyrgyzstan has the right idea. 

Interestingly, most antibiotics and painkillers -- including Amoxicillin, Augmentin, Omnicef, Codeine -- are available over-the-counter here for between five and ten dollars with no need for a prescription from a doctor. This makes the whole process much simpler and cheaper if you know what you have and how to cure it. Despite the ease and low cost of getting antibiotics, people don't seem to abuse that privilege.

I have had several local people tell me that there are two main causes of illness. In Kyrgyz, "suuk tidi je koz tidi" means Touched by Cold or Touched by the Eye. While this sounds funny to Americans, it is very much accepted here, even by Russian people. 

Cold: People often scold us for drinking cold water, saying that it will make us sick. Even my own children will sometimes repeat back to me what their teachers have told them: don't drink cold water. (I told them that it's ok for them because they're used to it, and now they don't worry anymore.) In the summer, if someone gets a sore throat, they will say, "It's because I ate ice cream." Once Josh complained that his back hurt, and our friend asked him if he had been standing by an open window that might have blown a cold breeze across his back, making him sick. (We tried to stifle our laughter, but she noticed.) I remember when Misha was a newborn, we often had the windows open and the fan on because the late spring and summer were dreadfully hot. However, every time we had a guest come visit us, they were shocked - we were all surely going to get sick from the breeze! Without fail, they would turn off the fan and close all but one window, if we were lucky, and then proceed to wrap Misha up tightly in a blanket.

The Eye: If there seems to be no good explanation for being sick, people will sometimes say it's the evil eye. They say that children are particularly susceptible, which is part of the reason why in Kyrgyz tradition, nobody except close family can see a newborn child for the first 40 days. Sometimes they will give children a bracelet of beads to protect them from the evil eye of others. One of my friends and neighbors here couldn't find a reason for her husband's sickness last year, and in the end, she decided it was someone giving him the Evil Eye through her. The fortune teller she visited confirmed this. People are surprised when I tell them that Americans usually don't believe in the evil eye.

Last month, everyone started getting sick - first Misha, then Sebby, then Josh, one after the other. Just as I thought I had beaten the bugs, I woke up this earlier week with an extremely sore throat and a throbbing ear. Now that I am on the mend, I thought it would be rather timely to write this post. (However, I have to admit that I did take antibiotics. Even the tiniest hope that it could end my sore throat faster was too much of a temptation not to take it! Those Americans. The kids, however, had less of the sore throat and more of the high fever, and they came through it with only tylenol.)

For a Sore Throat

The best thing for a sore throat, as anyone from almost any culture will tell you, is hot liquids. My students immediately advise hot tea with honey and lemon, or tea with raspberry jam, as raspberries are regarded to have immune-boosting properties. Hot milk with honey and butter stirred in is also a frequent suggestion. Vodka is another popular cure-all for just about everything. Drink a small glass of vodka with hot red pepper to chase away that sore throat. (Vodka with salt, on the other hand, helps an upset stomach, they say.) While that sounds pretty awful to me, I tell my students that my father always drinks whiskey and takes a hot bath when he feels a cold coming on. Other students said they sometimes drink a spoonful of melted sheep fat to coat their throat, or drink a glass of sheep fat mixed with milk. And of course, you can never go wrong with chicken soup.

Garlic is another suggestion I get a lot. Peel a clove of garlic and eat it whole, chewing it as much as you can, until your mouth burns and your eyes water. Swallow it down and your sore throat will disappear. I haven't gone so far as to chew a whole clove, but I do eat big pieces of garlic mixed in with food. From the reading I've done on the internet and from the testimony of my own sister, garlic is indeed an amazing antifungal and antibacterial. Eating garlic is advised as a preventative cure too - when the rest of my family was sick, I was told vehemently by Sebby's preschool cook and many other people, "Eat garlic!"

I love to take heating pads or hot water bottles to bed. You can buy a water bottle here, called a grelka, or a doctor once told me to make my own by heating sand on the stove and filling a pillow case with it. Instead of this, I prefer to fill a sock with rice and then microwave it to the desired temperature. It keeps heat a long time and it's wonderful for ear pain associated with sore throats. It also saved me many times when I had mastitis.

For a Cough

When other mothers hear Sebby coughing, they often advise me to buy sheep fat (from the rump of the sheep), melt it on the stove, and rub it generously over his chest and the bottoms of his feet. My students, being of the younger generation, are less-inclined to bring up the sheep fat unless I ask about it specifically. Sometimes they make a face and tell me that they don't do that, or sometimes they say that their grandmother did it to them when they were young with positive results. Many of them do as I would - simply buy Dr. Mom or Vicks rub to use on the chest (and feet, as I've had many people in America tell me too). Though I have not personally tried using sheep fat, I have been told that it's the way to go. It heats up the body and makes it sweat, so throughout the night, you must change your t-shirt as it soaks through with sweat. I ask my students if you need to take a shower in the morning to get rid of the smell, and they laugh and say yes.

Variations of the chest rub are to use sheep fat mixed with vodka, to use only vodka, to use vinegar, or to use honey. A vodka sponge bath often comes up in my discussions with students, and it also appears in Russian literature, as the character Gregory uses this treatment for his ailments in Brothers Karamazov.  Honey-flour compresses are also used. To relieve milk engorgement pain for new mothers, I was advised to smear myself with a honey-flour mixture before bed. I didn't end up doing it because even the idea of washing it off in the morning was painful.

Baking potatoes and laying them on the chest is another way to fight a cough. Or, you can buy "garchishniki" from any pharmacy. These are little plasters made with mustard seeds in dressing. You heat it up and place it on the chest for a few minutes. The actual seeds never come into contact with the skin, as they can cause burning and blistering. I had never heard of this before, but apparently they were common in old America as well.

Breathing steam is another all-around remedy for cough. First, you boil potatoes, or onions, or water with dried daisies, or just plain water, and then put a blanket over your head as you breathe the steam from a bowl. Alternatively, you can take a hot bath, wrap yourself up in warm clothes, and sweat it out all night.

Dog soup is another recommendation I get for curing a cold. Since there are many Korean restaurants in Bishkek, dog soup is easy to find. I have even tried it once, and I found it to be all right. Dog fat specifically is said to be the best for the lungs.

For Cuts and Scrapes

From the slightest scratch to operative incisions to chicken pox, the topical medicine is the same: zilionka. It's a bright green disinfectant of some kind, which leaves a stains on the skin for several days.  If a child has chicken pox, he will get a dab of zilionka on every single pock. If my kids fall and hurt their knees at school, they will come home with green knees. When Misha was born, it was a good smear of zilionka he got on his bellybutton stump. It's kind of a Soviet obsession. I asked my students if it was iodine, but they said no, they have iodine also, which is the typical red, not green. They can't believe we don't have such a medicine in America.

For Sinusitis

For sinusitis, running warm salt-water through the nasal and sinus cavities has been popular in much of the world before it became popular in America. In addition to using salt water, students say soaking garlic in the water beforehand is beneficial. 

For Hair and Skin

I went to a birthday party last year in which all the mothers sat around and swore that the best way to get your hair to grow faster and thicker was to rub spicey hot peppers onto your scalp. Many of my students confirm this. For shiny hair, they also recommend honey or kefir, the unsweetened liquid yogurt. Apparently this is quite popular, enough so that the banya (bathhouse) I go to has to put up signs asking people to not use milk-based or strong-smelling products (like garlic) in the steam room. 

Honey, kefir, and oatmeal are also used to make skin smooth and beautiful. When the boys had itchy rashes last month that accompanied their virus, I gave them an oatmeal bath because oatmeal is supposed to be soothing and hydrating. A much-appreciated tip from the internet recommended putting the oatmeal in a sock and tying it shut before adding it to the bath. This lets the "oatmeal juice" seep into the water without making a monstrous mess. 

Sebby enjoyed sitting in his oatmeal bath and painting. (Note to Nara: This great tub paint is easy to make! A big squirt of shampoo plus a spoonful of cornstarch and a drop of food coloring. Make it thin and use with a brush, or make it thick and use like finger paint.)

Misha shows off his rash with dramatic emphasis.

For Stress

For stressful situations, people here sometimes mention valerianka. Even in children's books, when a disaster happens, the mother whispers, "I must go and get my valerianka!" before dashing off to her bedroom. It turns out that it has an English translation, valerian, which is a plant with trumpet flowers which grows in Europe and Asia. According to, "Valerian is believed to have been used since at least the time of ancient Greece and Rome. It was used as a folk remedy for a variety of conditions such as sleeping problems, digestive complaints, nervousness, trembling, tension headaches and heart palpitations."

For cats, it acts not as a sedative but as a stimulant, something like catnip!

If you don't have any valerian on you, don't worry - there's always vodka.

What kind of home remedies have worked for you?

будь здоров!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Happy Women's Day

International Women's Day, though largely unknown in America, is a big enough deal here to earn everyone a three-day weekend. Both boys had their third-quarter concerts, featuring songs dedicated to their mothers, grandmothers, and female classmates for the holiday. That meant dressing up all spiffy - here's Sebby in Daddy's bow tie, ready to take cards and chocolates to his teachers.

Misha looked adorable in his new haircut, tie, and gaping tooth hole. When the photographer snapped his photo, the photographer asked him to close his mouth!

Here's Misha in his classroom just before heading down to the performance room. Upon seeing me standing in the doorway, his face lit up.

Misha recited his poem, which was a cute one:

Temno, mne svetlo (It's dark, for me it's light.)
Zamarozit, mne teplo (It's cold, for me it's warm)
Yesli mama riadom (If mama is nearby)
Smotrit nejnem vzgladom. (Watching with her gentle gaze.)

Quite true. I remember when I was little, every night I'd ask my mom to sleep with me, and she'd stay on sitting on my bed for a few minutes. When Misha was younger, he asked the same thing, and now it's Sebby, asking in his sweet voice, "Mama, can you stay with me always?" and hugging me tight.

Sebby proudly recited his poem about inviting the girl students to a partner dance, then danced away happily with Adela.

Don't you love it how kids keep waving at their parents in the audience?

For Women's Day itself (March 8), I met up with lovely women Saule and Anara for some pizza. The kids (Misha, Sebby, and Alihan) played in the jungle-gym play place, gobbled pizza, and had a duel with what were once beautiful roses for the ladies.

With Saule

With my boys

With Saule and Anara

Traditionally, Women's Day brings bad weather, as was the case this year. Even though just two days prior we were riding bikes and scooters and basking in the presence of spring, the weather quickly changed to rain and then snow. But at least we got to make one final (maybe) snowman.

 I guess it's now obvious that the boys have no currently-fitting, non-galosh footwear.

Sebby is a bit disappointed that he can't go as fast on his scooter as Misha can go on his bike, but Misha is so good about riding slowly for Sebby, looping back, and letting Sebby decide what path to take. And when Sebby falls down in his attempts to go too fast, Misha consoles him:

And then the snow:

But it's warming up again nicely now!

Of course, somewhere in there, after February ended but before March began, was my birthday, for which I made a lovely chocolate cake with a chocolate-pudding style frosting. We sampled the frosting, and then without waiting to dig out candles, dug right into the cake. Yum!

Misha gave me a card which I thought was a birthday card, and then I realized it was a card reminding me not to forget his birthday and telling me that he would like a chocolate brownie cake. Ha! That sounds like something out of Calvin and Hobbes

I promised to keep up on the gap-tooth photos, so here are some more of Misha: