The great American picnic?

Not long ago, my daughter, Velvet, was in a horse show at the Timiryazevsky Horse Riding school, in the leafy outskirts: one of Moscow's more serious equestrian schools, a little rump-sprung to be sure, but delightfully free of the expensively mounted daughters of the oligarchy. Because it was a Sunday, and a perfect early summer day, we exceeded the usual quorum of spectator,: i.e., my Russian mother-in-law and myself. The dads, who never show up in record numbers, had achieved critical mass, including Velvet's Dad, HRH (a.k.a. my "Handsome Russian Husband.") We were also able to entice some friends to join us with the promise of a picnic.
Velvet's horse obsession is enduring, and is turning me into a professional Pony Mom, a genius divided into two species: the guided missiles, former show jumpers themselves, who know everything, care, and should have climbed out of their jodhpurs about a decade ago; and the clueless but supportive types who have large vehicles, and keep the Peanut Butter & Fluff sandwiches flowing throughout the long, hot, bug-infested summer.

I fall into the latter category.

If you take clueless/supportive thing seriously, you need a cooler, kept constantly filled with ice and cold beverages to keep you going. But on this lovely Sunday morning, it wasn't abject boredom that threatened, but the intense scrutiny of our fellow spectators. Dee Dee, a newly arrived American, spread blankets on the grass, and then sat on them to unpack the picnic basket, while her husband slathered their two sons with sun cream. Tancy, a tough American corporate cookie who arrived in Moscow in 1991 with a fax machine and a couple of pencils, filled plastic tumblers to the brim with ice from the cooler. All around us, other families gathered to watch their adolescent female offspring pop horses over fences, but soon all eyes were on us.

"Why is everyone looking at us?" asked Dee Dee.

Tancy proffered a soda, hissing amidst a veritable fjord of ice to my mother-in-law, who recoiled, shaking her head. "Oh dear..." said Tancy, clocking stares from a gaggle of older Russian women as Dee Dee gave each of her children a tumbler of iced juice, "Seems the Great American Tailgate is not going over very well."

"Nor the Great British Picnic Rug," I agreed. My father-in-law moved his arms wildly like windshield wipers saying "Nyet, nyet!" as I indicated a spot on the blanket in what I had hoped was an inviting manner.

Tancy and I knew what was wrong. As far as our fellow spectators were concerned, we might as well have plopped down on a bed of nails, pulled out syringes and shot up Dee Dee's kids with heroin.

Russians and Americans have so much in common - but not when it comes to ideas of what is healthy or hazardous. We shake our heads from the self-righteous shade of a Turkish beach umbrella, as Russians lie down, face up, for a SPF free, sun-worshiping marathon, interrupted only by a short break to ignore the message on the cigarette packet that "SMOKING KILLS!" Lung cancer, Russians counter, is actually caused by ice in drinks, just as breezes and air-conditioning are begging for an incurable ailment even Dr. House could not crack. The unfiltered rays of the sun contain life-giving vitamins, and, as any turbo-charged Babushka in Russia will inform you, sitting on the ground decays your internal and reproductive organs.

Tancy and I poured out the remaining ice from the cooler on to the grass, to the horror of all around. It was clearly time to go home.

Jennifer Eremeeva, a longtime resident of Moscow, is currently at work on her first book.

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