A conversation I've happened to eavesdrop on at a coffee house in Moscow today:
Two young women at a table next to ours, one is blond, the other one dark-haired, both wearing very short skirts, both are quite stunning. The dark-haired one is making a phone call. She is talking to a male, respectfully, using his first name and patronymic.
"I'm having an exam," she says. "Macro-economics. Will you be able to arrange help for me during the exam? Yes, great. Thank you. How much will that cost?"
To me, the crazy thing about this conversation isn't the fact of cheating - nothing surprising about it - but that she was arranging to bribe someone to get a good grade in such a casual way. As if she was ordering a pizza or something.
And here are some notes on the playground encounters we've had in the past two days:
A seriously overweight, dyed blond woman comes up to us at the playground and coos about Marta. Then tells me how she regrets having been a "bad grandmother" to her now-8-year-old granddaughter when the girl was just born: how she'd do anything to avoid babysitting - she was 46 then - and how she craves having a little kid around now.
"But there'll sure be more grandkids," I tell her.
No, she replies, her son is now divorced and has turned into a useless unemployed drunkard, while the daughter-in-law has remarried and couldn't care less about her ex-mother-in-law's belated affection for the kid. Last time they talked on the phone, the girl said she didn't want to see her because she was "bad."
I feel genuinely sorry for the woman, try saying something encouraging, even though I know that the situation is indeed hopeless.
A 7-year-old girl at the playground is scared to walk down the wooden balance beam, so I help her. She climbs up the beam again, and I help her again. On her fifth attempt, she finally learns to walk down by herself. Her mother sits on a bench nearby, watching.
Then the girl needs to use the bathroom, so they ask me to watch after her doll stroller with a doll in it. Marta, of course, starts playing with it right away.
The girl returns, and since I've seen Marta playing with older girls before and they all seemed to enjoy it, I assume that this one will stay around to play, too: she does seem kind of lonely and bored. But the girl appears upset about Marta touching her toys: she keeps taking the doll and the stroller away, nervously removing some sand that has gotten on the doll. She's gentle, but very determined.
When I tell Marta that the girl doesn't seem too eager to play with her, so perhaps it'll be better if she plays with other kids, the girl says, "No, no, I'd like to play." But continues to gently push Marta away.
It annoys me, but I don't want to get anyone upset, so I tell Marta, "Hey, let's go to a cafe!"
Marta says she doesn't want to. The girl says she'd love to go - but her mother is against it.
Marta wants to know why. "Because we don't have much money and mama says we shouldn't be wasting what we have on cafes," the girl explains.
"Veronica, do you have any money?" Marta asks. "Yes, I do have a little," I reply, feeling somewhat uncomfortable, but unable to suppress a grin.
Marta gets up from the sand and tells me she's ready to go.
A young woman sits next to a little boy in the sandbox - both are very dark-haired and dark-eyed, beautiful. The woman looks like the boy's mother, but turns out to be his sister. He is 4 years old, but doesn't talk much. She says it's often hard for him to speak Russian.
I ask what their native language is. Kurdish.
We talk about the language, I tell her about our Kurdish friends in Istanbul, she tells me she has lived in Moscow for about ten years, but knows Turkish because she also used to live in Baku, Azerbaijan (her parents were born in Yerevan, Armenia, though), Marta counts to ten in Turkish for her, she loves it.
She tries to stroke Marta's hair, but Marta is a wild thing and doesn't allow her to. She says she loves "all these Russians" because they are so fair-haired. I tell her that I actually love darker hair much better. We laugh.
We talk about skinheads in Moscow, she says there is a sort of a holiday that they have - sometime in April - when they run around the city, hurting people. Hitler's birthday, I say. But this isn't a good topic for a conversation taking place in a sandbox, so we move on to other things.
She has an older sister, she tells me. Her parents are cousins: "I don't know if you're aware of it, but it's a common thing among us Kurds."
Her little brother's name is Muhammad, and she praises me for the way I pronounce it: "Many people say it in whichever way they like, but you sound as if you know that this is the name of our Prophet."
She tells me that her mother didn't know she was pregnant until she was five months along: "She had a huge bolyachka inside her," - a benign tumor, I assume - "and they didn't see the baby behind it, and then suddenly they saw his, you know, private parts sticking out, and she was so happy, and she cried a lot."
She says that to keep the yet-unborn baby alive, they asked their Turkey-based relatives who were going to Hajj to "do a kurban" - a sacrifice - for him at the grave of the Prophet Muhammad.
"Because, you know, not all of my mother's children have survived," she says.