GROWING PAINS: Family Life in Russia: Sharing Bruises, Barks

My March 8th gift from my older daughter, Sasha, was a black eye, of which she is inordinately proud.

Every day, as one half of my face grows blacker and more swollen, she drags me, cringing, around all the classrooms to show her mates how all those karate lessons paid off. If the truth be told, it was just an accident caused by a head-on collision we had during a snowball fight at school. But having a beautiful shiner like mine is a novel experience - the last one I received was when my brother hit me with a cricket bat 30 odd years ago.

I don't so much mind the gawping wonder of Sasha's school friends, but I do find it extremely embarrassing when I go outside and am taken for an alkogolichka who has probably just surfaced from a trash can in search of bottles. People edge away from me in shop queues and on buses and pull their children sharply aside.

What makes the situation infinitely worse is that my husband, Kolya, was recently involved in a car crash and is also looking fairly battered, so when we go out together en famille there are hissed intakes of breath from passers-by. In England, I would at least be pitied as a battered wife, but it never enters anyone's mind here that I'm a battered mother. Perhaps I should set up a support group.

I've been offered various treatments to ease the pain and humiliation, from ice to goose fat, but so far I'm still as purple as a Moscow sunset.

On the subject of home cures, my son Bobby has a barking cough that my baby sitter is treating with cabbage leaves. As you no doubt know, cabbage is a substitute for those agonizingly painful pepper or mustard plasters that are applied to the back and chest during the throes of a cough or cold. (Incidentally, Kolya frequently succumbs to this indignation, which just goes to show, as Dostoevsky so rightly said, that Russians want to suffer.) Bobby was fine with the cabbage, however. In fact, when I came in the next morning, I found him plucking the withered leaves out of his pajama top and eating them.

A vodka-rub was the next thing on the agenda for him, followed by vacuuming the apartment to get rid of allergy-inducing dust. Warm milk and butter, and a vodka compress (why does Russian society seem to hinge on alcohol?) were tried but unfortunately failed, and in the end I admitted defeat and trotted off with him to the British Embassy Clinic, where he was diagnosed with upper respiratory infection and given boring old antibiotics.

Anyway, tomorrow I'm leaving you lot to your sub-zero temperatures and slushy snow and am flying off to the sun, sea and sand of Egypt. Which, come to think of it, is probably exactly what the doctor ordered for hacking coughs and black eyes.