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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Nutcracker

After all the planing and the fiasco of getting tickets, the day finally came for us to go to the Nutcracker Ballet.  I was honestly very excited.  Over the past few weeks my friends and I chatted excitedly about it.  Maddie and Elena were excited as well.
We dressed up, taking extra time to put curls in the girls' hair.  We primped and preened.  It was cold outside so we bundled up to meet our friends at the gate.  Of course getting a group of girls together always takes a bit more time than planned but eventually we left the embassy and headed to the metro.  I realized that we were really cutting it tight as we boarded the last train.  When the doors opened in the final station we took off running.  Ten girls and women in high heels and fur coats sprinting through the very busy station.  We had purses and scarves flying behind us as we wove in and out of passengers headed in the other directions.  This particular station was one of the ones with a kazillion exits.  Fortunately I have done this route many times over the past few months and knew exactly which turns to make.  We snaked our way through the tunnels and finally popped up just outside the Kremlin walls.
We threw our purses on the scanner, began unbuttoning coats then took off running over the cobblestone bridge and into the Kremlin Palace for the ballet.  We shoved our things at the coat attendant and ran to the doors just as the lights were beginning to dim.  We had made it just in time.  It was actually a lot of fun having to race and we all arrived in good spirits with no twisted ankles!
I panted in my seat for a good thirty minutes allowing the adrenaline to slow down.  The ballet was absolutely magnificent.  The curtains were painted in iridescent colors, shimmering in the light cast upon the stage.  The dancers floated and spun across the stage without effort.  The story unfolded a bit differently than I was used to.  The little girl I know as Clara is Marie here in Russia.  After having seen the Grand Rapids Ballet perform the Nutcracker many times, I was very pleased to see attractive mice costumes rather than huge paper mache heads swinging around on stage.
I could have watched forever, mesmerized by every movement.
Wishing the evening to go on a bit longer a group of us headed over to Shokolanitza for a cup of their special hot chocolate drink.  Just think of a demitasse cup filled with warm Hershey's syrup and a dainty little spoon.
Seeing the Nutcracker here in Moscow was the best way to usher in the Christmas season.





Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Job

Way back, when I stopped working full time, gave up my business and we moved to the country I made a mental plan to return to work when Damon went to school.  I have always wanted to help out with the kids’ education—just give them a gift from me.  Maybe it’s simply a way to stay involved in their lives.  So I’ve had part time jobs every now and then, but they were always very flexible and tended to be on the creative side of things.
Damon stayed home to go to school when we moved to Moscow so I planned to get a job.  I watched the job postings for family members every week.  I applied and I interviewed.  The first interview was a disaster.  Chad and I were at a conference in Bangkok so I called Moscow via skype.  Jet lagged, I sat in the hallway of the hotel, the only place I could get reliable internet.  The interview itself was odd.  I knew there were about 5 people sitting in a conference room in Moscow, but one person would ask me a question, I would answer, then there was dead silence.  The longer this went on the more uncomfortable I became so that by the end I was babbling nonsense in response to the questions. 
Thus the game began.  In one interview I was told that I needed to start at the absolute bottom of the totem pole and work my way up—because his wife did.  I nailed another interview and thought for sure I was getting the job.  It was a bit devastating to have to contact them because they never bothered to let me know someone else had been hired.  One I knew I was way underqualified for and another could have been interesting.  I walked out of one to be told that I definitely was the best candidate for the job.  Didn’t get it and I don’t know why.
                When I was offered the job I now have, I about fell out of my chair.  I had truly given up hope that I would ever work again.  It really was a blow to my confidence.  It even became a bit comical to learn that no one else interviewed for this job so they had no choice but to offer it to me. But over the year of living here and watching the different offices and dynamics I have learned that a full time job would have been more than I wanted.  One of the offices would have been a very heavy environment.  Another would have had a fair amount of overtime.  I can see that God had my back on this.  He knew the best place for me here at this embassy.   I always trusted Him, but even in trusting, life can become discouraging.  It could have been a miserable two years in Moscow in a job I hated.  But I enjoy my job and am accomplishing many of my goals.  This job hasn’t taken away from time with the family either. 
                I’m in the working world again.  I’ve got 8 more months before we move and I have to make a decision about what type of job I want next.  I have lots of time to add skills to my resume.  You may not hear from me very often because life is busy, but it’s good to have my time filled in a profitable way.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Procuring Ballet Tickets


One of the dreams on my girl's list of things to do in Russia is see the Nutcracker ballet.  We didn't manage to fit it in last Christmas, so I wanted to be sure we didn't miss the opportunity this year.  A few months ago I began checking out theaters and dates and cost.  I quickly ruled out the Bolshoy, although beautiful, I wasn't willing to spend $300+  per ticket.  I also found that because the Russian Christmas doesn't fall until mid January most performances are closer to the new year.  So I hunted until I found one early in December that fit my budget and would help set the Christmas season for us.  I asked Chad if he was interested, but he was fine leaving this as a girl's outing.  So what began as a small family trip to the ballet morphed into a group of high school girls and moms going together.
I sent out invitations and before long I had a nice group put together who would like to go.  I made a trip to the box office and was given a general date of when tickets would go one sale.  I was pleased because I was well ahead of the game.  Not quite feeling comfortable with how things work here I enlisted the help of one of the Russian nurses in Chad's office.  Together we have been checking the website, waiting for sales to open.  She called the box office once a week to see if there was any new information.  She was always told "just keep watching the internet." 
Well this week it seemed that the date was getting too close so I told her I was going to stop by the box office the next day to get a bit more information.  She decided to call just to check up and they told her that indeed the tickets could be purchased at the box office and they actually did not have the complete amount left that I wanted at a certain price point.  We were both stunned.  With all the calls she made it seems that at some point they would have told her that although the tickets were not yet for sale online, they were for sale in the box office.  She then tried to purchase the tickets over the phone with no luck.  She couldn't even get them to set the tickets aside for me to pick up.  We were both frustrated.  "Kris,"  she said, "you better go over there right now.  They are open for two more hours."  She made another quick call to ask if I could use my credit card then I ran out the door and left supper for the girls to figure out.  
I arrived at the box office sweaty and tense.  I waited in line then finally made it to the window.  I handed over the instructions the nurse had written for me in Russian then slid my credit card under the window.  "Nope, I won't take your credit card."  WHAT?  I was speechless.  We argued and argued back and forth.  She would not budge.  I finally convinced her to set aside the tickets with my name on them and I would be back when the box office opened the next day to pay in cash.  
I left dejected.  The air felt heavy and seemed unusually hazy--it fit my mood.  I decided to walk around the Kremlin wall.  I watched the soldiers march in for the changing of the guard at the eternal flame.  I wandered around the corner and just stood there looking at Red Square and Saint Basils.  I really don't make it down here often enough.  Each time I am amazed at the beauty.  Right now it is especially pretty with the early, dark nights that cause the lights to twinkle.  I finally wandered back to the metro station and headed home.
At home the girls and I scraped every ruble together to come up with the cash needed to pick up the tickets.  I was nervous and excited thinking that things were finally coming together!
The box office opened at noon so my goal was to be there a bit early to beat the line.  I got there at 11:45 but there were already 10 or so people in front of me.  Feeling particularly worn out I just stood there waiting for the doors to open.  People came up trying to place themselves in front of me, but fortunately I have gotten pretty comfortable with a jab of my elbow to keep my place in line.  As soon as the doors opened it became complete chaos.  Everyone ran for a window then pushed themselves forward.  I think I proceeded to ram into a few more babushkas, but I was to ornery at that point to care.  I waited and waited only to watch a lady cut in front of me then get on her cell phone to have a lengthy discussion about which tickets to purchase.  A few more people moved forward then just as I was ready to step up to the window the lady on the phone squeezed up to the window cutting me off.  I was ready to scream!  Funny how I had just read in my devotions that morning about being kind to mean people.  Lord, really?  Do I need to learn that lesson today?  So I sighed and let her buy her tickets.  
I moved up to the window and passed yet another note in Russian to the lady.  "You're in the wrong line, your tickets are at the next booth." she said.  Come on, you can reach the tickets from where you are sitting!  Just get them and let me go home!  No, she absolutely could not get the tickets.  She had several conversations with the woman who was in the next booth, but she would not pick up the tickets and sell them at her window.  I looked at the line and stated that I was not waiting again.  So she said I would be next at the window to purchase the tickets.  I squeezed over.  The people in that line had their act together.  They really know how to not let anyone past them and they weren't about to let me get by.  Somehow I managed to make my way to the glass and be close to the window.  I saw the lady in my old booth talking to her colleague about the tickets.  She pointed at me and explained that I was next.  The new lady nodded.  The tickets were right there by her fingertips.  Why oh why couldn't she just pick them up?
So finally the customer who had been being helped at the new window moved aside.  I was ready to jump in but the young lady who was next in line had been watching and she was not going to let me by.  She gave me the evil eye as she elbowed me and stepped forward.  Fortunately the woman behind the window explained that I was next.  The customer was not happy and refused to move.  We stared at each other.  I was very close to sitting down right where I was and having a major meltdown.
Now you have to understand that the widows at the box office are covered in flyers and maps of theater seating.  There is only about a one foot by one foot piece of blank glass to see through when buying your tickets.  So I squatted down and looked sideways through the opening.  Although I couldn't see the ticket woman, I passed my id through the window.  I could just see her pick up the tickets, read my name and count them.  I shoved my $800 in rubles under the window.  She slid the tickets to me and like that I was free.  Thirty seconds at the window was all it took.
It took me the rest of the day to calm down.  I called the nurse to let her know I was successful and she said "Do you see Kris what I have to go through it my own country?"  
Now I am just looking forward to the ballet and a special evening with my girls!
Lady who would not move to let me buy my tickets.  I had to work around her!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

A Whirlwind Trip to the States


I'm sitting in the Detroit airport ready to go home.  By home I mean

Moscow.  In the last fifteen months it really has become that--home.

But being back in Michigan was good--really, really good.
I made this trip specifically to check out colleges with my daughter.
I had no intention on returning to the states during our two year
post, but Maddie is a senior and she has some big decisions to make
that we couldn't simply do using only the internet.  I don't know
where the time went, but here I am enjoying my last days having her
around all the time.  The girls and I were a brew of excitement only a
week ago as we sat in the Moscow airport at the beginning of this
journey.  We were laughing and giggling and talking about all the
things we would do during the week.
It hit me how far away we have been when we arrived in New York and
had a bit of time to grab a snack between flights.  We stopped at a
kiosk and all three of us stood there frozen, staring at the selection
of foods.  Finally Elena whispered "there are so many choices."  That
broke the spell and we began to marvel at all the products available.
The shock didn't stop there.  After arriving in Detroit we went to get
our rental car.  By the time we made it through the line Maddie
exclaimed at how nice everyone was.  Yes, this was in Detroit!
Russians have a reputation for being harsh, stoic people, but I also
think the barrier I create by not speaking their language adds to the
general feeling of isolation from society that we often feel.  My
wonder of America did not stop as I pulled onto the highway.  There
was so little traffic!  I could just sit back and relax as I drove.
Certainly the three lanes in my direction were busy with cars, but
after walking daily along the five lanes in each direction of bumper
to bumper traffic on the ring road just outside the embassy, this
driving was a breeze.  I had forgotten the wonderful feeling of a car
and long stretches of road!



We accomplished everything I had hoped during this trip.  We started
in Lansing with Damon where my parents joined us for the day.  It was
warm (compared to the snowy, frozen land we had left behind) and we
walked around the MSU campus enjoying the pre U of M game atmosphere.
 I happily showed the girls my old dorm room.  We splurged at The
Student Book Store on sweatshirts for all.  My mom graduated from MSU,
Chad's mom, Chad, myself and now Damon is a student.  We have a lot of
family history in this one spot.  The last MSU sweatshirt I owned was
25 years old and is long gone.  We watched the band warm up.  I sat on
the grass with my fingers buried deep in the green blades.  The fall
leaves glimmered like golden coins catching the sunlight.  An autumn
rainbow of colors floated to the ground as the breeze gently tore them
from the branches.  I have missed the red and orange colors of fall.
Moscow falls are beautiful but very yellow.  We followed the band past
Sparty before heading over to visit with a friend at a tailgating
party.  Marching bands are distinctively American.  They are energetic
and full of pomp.  Everything felt right.  The city still fits and
brings back warm memories of happy, carefree days.
I was able to see Damon's room, meet some roommates and friends, go to
church with him and get a little taste of his life at college.  He has
found a wonderful group of people to share his life with.  Now when he
mentions a name or place or activity I will have a little nugget of
information to roll around in my mind and create a picture.
Maddie wants to study American Sign Language and become an
interpreter.  She had the opportunity this week to visit college
classes, meet with academic counselors, shadow an interpreter for a
morning as she interpreted at a high school, and spend a night in a
dorm room.  We are going home confident about studying ASL.  I think
she has narrowed her decision down to two schools and just needs to
sit with the information and experiences for a bit before making a
decision.
We visited family enjoying the life of a house full of kids.  Games
came out and my girls were willingly led to floor where pieces were in
piles.  The air was filled with little voices asking questions and
small hands pulling us in different directions to get us up to speed
on their lives.  It's a busy house but I'm so glad things slowed down
for one night so we could visit.
I grabbed moments here and there to visit with friends.  The easiest
thing turned out to be meeting with a group of women for dinner.  I
only got a few minutes to catch up with each person, but the hugs
spanned the time and distance and will carry me with fond thoughts.
The laughter and spontaneous conversation will ring in my mind for
months to come.
I knew my time to shop would be limited so I came prepared with a
detailed list.  We packed lightly--even packing our carryons inside
the check through luggage so we would have lots of space.  Our first
shopping experience was squeezed between two appointments.  There was
a Walmart across the street so we ran in with my list in hand.   The
first thing that hit me was "All those silly videos about the people
of Walmart are so true."  It was a shock that I am still trying to
erase from my memory.  We did great sticking to "the list" but then we
hit the Christmas aisle.  I think it had just been created because
each item was neatly in its place.  Nothing was strewed about or out
of order.  All the fabulous new designs and products for the season
were too enticing.  The girls and I loaded up on gift tags and bags
with the comment that we would have space to squeeze it into on the
return trip home.  Thus the gluttony of shopping began for me.  I
actually did a marvelous job sticking to my list, but I simply hate to
shop this way.  There was no time to shop for my favorite item or the
best price.  The pile continued to grow uncontrollably and this
morning as I was shoving and weighing and sitting on suitcases it just
felt like my bags were vomiting my glutenous behavior of the week.
Living with a feast or famine mentality when it comes to things is
rough for me.  I want to stay balanced and content, but a one week
trip home throws me completely off kilter.  I was so relieved when the
checkin computer at the airport said I got two suitcases per person.
That was contrary to what I read online, but I was not going to point
that out to the airline.  We gladly checked our overstuffed carryons.
So now I am headed home.  I am exhausted from this whirlwind trip, but
I am deeply satisfied with how every element came together perfectly.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Pisa



Maddie holding the tower.
Damon leaning on the tower.
Elena towering over the tower.

The only reason to travel to Pisa is to see the leaning tower.  There is nothing appealing to the town.  No reason to wander, no museums to explore, not even any charming neighborhoods to enjoy.
I think this was the main thing Elena wanted to go to Italy to see.  She talked about it and anticipated seeing the tower.  
The architecture of the tower is unique.  I didn't see anything else like it during our travels.  The fact that it is leaning only makes for a great excuse to act silly.  We took plenty of time to create funny photos, laugh and just have fun. 


I climbed to the top of the tower with Damon and Elena.  Round and round and round.  At the top I clung to the fence afraid I would slip to my death.  I think it may have been the leaning feeling, but I was sure we were all going to fall off.


Lucca


Sometimes it's good to get off the well beaten path and relax in the country a bit.  Lucca was that town for our family.  Located between Florence and Pisa, Lucca was the perfect stop-off.  A wall designed by Leonardo De Vinci  surrounds the old city.  Streets and alleys twist and turn leading to small plazas.  Restaurants serving pizza or pasta are tucked into little niches along the way.  We relaxed and wandered around.  We even rented tandem bikes and rode on top of the wall.


Tower with trees growing out the top.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Florence

Everything I read led me to believe that Florence would be my favorite city in Italy.  "The cradle of Italian Renaissance."  "One of the most beautiful cities in Europe."  "...dazzling historical past."  Well, it didn't do it for me.  Yes, the historic city center is charming and filled with culture.  But the greater city feels worn out 60's.  It didn't hold the appeal to me that other cities in Italy do.
The Duomo of Santa Maria del Fiore is the amazing church in the city center.  The marble work on the exterior took 120 years to complete.  It may be the only Gothic building in Florence.  I don't know.  In contrast the interior is surprisingly spartan.  The main attraction is the dome.


Everyone goes to Florence to see David.  It was hot and we were at a point in the trip where we had seen lots of things.  We walked to the museum only to find a line snaking around the block.  I asked someone how long they had waited and 3 hrs. was the reply.  Not worth it to me.  But it was worth it to stand in the sun for 3 hrs. to Damon and Elena.  So we left them to get some gelato and met again later in the day.  According to them it was totally worth it.  They were in awe of seeing a statue they have heard and read about.  I'm glad they were old enough for me to leave on their own!
The bridge over the river is very pretty and the shopping is nice.  
Goodbye Florence, I don't think I'll be seeing you again.


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Rome

Trains are a lovely way to travel through Italy.  We disembarked from our last boat ride in Venice and simply stepped onto our train.  To save money I had booked tickets on the very slow train.  The phrase "it's not the destination but the journey" comes to mind.  Amazing countryside rolled past my window.  I couldn't bear to pull my eyes away from the view long enough to read my book.  Vineyards melted into mountains.  I spotted a castle perched above a town.  It was almost too much to absorb.
We arrived in Rome and were immediately enchanted.  The city is old in a romantic way.  There does not seem to be a new area built out of context.  Everything is just old, older and oldest.  
Pantheon


Following the Crucifixion
by Michelangelo

Spanish Steps




Rather than stay in hotels during this vacation we used AirB&B for the first time.   This is a website where you rent apartments from individuals.  We found this to be much more economical than hotel rooms with the added benefit of more space.  We loved that we had a kitchen and sometimes a washing machine.  We never felt board of sitting on a bed in a cramped hotel room, rather we were happy to take our time fixing a cup of coffee or enjoying the view from a balcony.  The location of this apartment was amazing.  Right in the middle of the oldest area we could step out the door and walk to anything we wanted.  So we walked and walked and walked in Rome.
The colosseum was the first major site we visited.  To avoid vast crowds, we made it there early in the morning.  It paid off as we were able to hop into a tour group with ease.  Soon we were standing at the rail looking onto the floor where the games used to happen.  Our tour guide was of the mind that rarely did anything horrible, such as death, happen to the contenders in the games.  He claimed that the accounts in history are incorrect.  Any reasonable human being would know it is horrible to watch the slow and agonizing death of another for sport therefore modern belief of Roman atrocities is wrong.  I disagree.  So I didn't get much out of this particular guide's theory of the colosseum.  





We exited the colosseum and entered the Roman Forum.  Ruins of important governmental buildings are here.  Triumphal entries and processions used to snake their way past temples to Roman gods up to Palatine Hill.  This area is one of the oldest with generation after generation adding to the buildings.  Ancient ruins of palaces are continually being excavated giving the area an ancient deserted feel.  Our tour guide for this portion of the trip was excellent.  As we walked the paths he made the steps of the Romans feel alive.  Just as we were breaking up to wander on our own, lightning flashed its wicked spears and thunder shook the ground.  The sky continued to shock with light as it grew dark and rain poured down.  Somehow it seemed somewhat appropriate to stand in such an ancient pagan area and feel as though the sky was being ripped open and crying out.  The umbrellas were of no use.  We were soaked as we sat down to enjoy a hot pasta lunch.
Our Roman Form tour guide had informed us that on Friday evenings during the summer the Vatican museum is open.  Apparently this is a nice time to visit because most people don't know about it.  Of course he had a friend who would be leading a tour...  The Vatican is one area I had not really planned on doing a tour.  I really thought the tour book would give enough explanation to keep me happy.  I am so thankful that Chad jumped at the opportunity because our guide was absolutely amazing.  He spent the first hour talking about Michael Angelo and the Sistine Chapel.  When we got to the Chapel I couldn't do my traditional gazing and appreciating.  I was truly in awe.  I now have so many questions about who Michael Angelo was as a person and artist that I have decided to find some sort of biography and learn more.  Only a good teacher can instill the craving to learn more into his students.



We leisurely toured many other things in Rome, oohing and ahhing over the ancientness of it all.  We loved the Pantheon with its amazing dome.  The Spanish steps were filled with people leisurely basking in the sun and Trevi fountain was disappointingly under construction.   
My favorite day was the day we met Damon's girlfriend.  Our kids haven’t had girlfriends or boyfriends before so this is a whole new thing for us.  The problem is, Damon met her at college — in Michigan.  We don’t live there or visit there often so meeting her seemed like a far off dream.  But I think God saw that little dream and worked things out for me.  She was doing an overseas study program in Europe so we planned our dates around when she could travel to Rome.  It was important and special for me.  We picked her up bright and early then headed to the Catacomb of Priscilla further from the city center.  The tour was short, but such an important part of my history as a Christian.  This old quarry was used for Christian burial in the 2nd - 4th century.  The catacombs had been ransacked over the years, so the tombs were opened and all the fresco paintings long gone.  But there were glimpses that remained for us to imagine what it was once like.  I was surprised, because at the time of use it was not oppressive.  Yes, they are tunnels deep under the ground, but they used to be plastered in white and frescoed.  The paintings showed who was in a burial spot — a father, a child…  The catacombs are run by nuns and the Catholic church seems to hold this as an important part of their heritage, yet in the few remaining frescos of Bible stories they were very different than Catholic art I am used to.  The people did not have golden halos.  There were no saints depicted.  Rather just regular people, Jesus with the disciples or an Old Testament scene.  There was something raw and pure about the painted interpretations of these Bible stories.  They were important and applicable to these early Christians.  The people didn’t worship these saints of old, but rather learned from the stories of their lives.  The oldest known painting of Mary is here.  It was small and again unglorified.  It was simply a depiction of a woman nursing a child.  No halo, no cherubs.  


After breaking up to go in different directions for the afternoon we came back together for a food tour.  I booked through TripAdvisor a company called Gourmetaly.  No one else signed up for our time so we got Francesca all to ourselves.  We had so much fun!  After trying fresh buffalo mozzarella I don’t think I will ever be able to eat a salad with little rubbery white balls on it again.  We tried fresh pasta, salami, pizza and many more things all with explanations as to the history and customs of the food and eating style of Italians.  Ending the day with true gellato was perfect.  We managed to eat gellato about every day of our vacation, but none every quiet measured up to the smooth taste of this little gellato shop.



Friday, July 25, 2014

Venice

I had this wonderful plan to journal each day of our trip to Italy.  That lasted two days.  Now I am looking back on the trip wishing I had written more of my thoughts down.  Nevertheless, I am going to try to remember a few details before the memories are too faded.




Lazy days of wandering the streets filled our time in Venice.  There were a few touristy things that I insisted on, but we were still able sleep in and enjoy the food.  It didn't take us long to find our favorite pizza restaurant and begin trying every flavor of gelato available.


When we stepped into the gondola we were transported back in time.  The gondolier skillfully guided us through the tangle of other gondolas and onto a quiet canal.  We turned corners and wove our way through the water maze.  Eventually we came out at the Grand Canal and joined the mass of tourists on the water.


I was honestly disappointed in San Marco's Square.  I remember from the trip I took here in college, wandering around in the evening.  Musicians played at various outdoor restaurants.  Artists painted portraits of visitors posing in a chair.  It was a lovely atmosphere.  While we were visiting it was just a large plaza.   There seemed nothing distinctive or special about it.  Maybe that's how it is when you revisit a place you have created a special memory for.  It will just never be the same.  


The Doge's Palace is amazing.  The exterior is done in Venetian Gothic.  I love that this city has its style of architecture!  The original palace was built in 810.  Of course none of that palace remains so the palace we see today was built between 1340 - 1442.  Room after room of ceilings painted by Tintoretto and heavily gilded frame work began to become dizzying.  An interior bridge across a narrow canal led us from the splendor of the palace to the insignificance of the prison.  



We visited Saint Mark's Cathedral as well as a handful of other churches.  Each was ornamented with paintings that belong in a museum.
We took the public boat taxi to the island of Murano one day.  Again, there were no glass blowers in the shops showing off their skills as I remembered.  We still enjoyed wandering the stores and examining the intricate figures made of glass.
Venice is a city one falls in love with over and over as the years pass but the city remains frozen in time.