Charm and Chocolate Open Preschool Door

Thanks to Moscow's increasingly awful traffic, Vita is, after all, to be consigned to the detsky sad on the doorstep rather than to the international play group that takes 45 minutes to reach.

Naturally we assumed that they would be only too honored to welcome a bright, exotic, bicultural 2-year-old and that we were doing them the favor.

"Mesta net!" (No places!) barked what I took to be an Aeroflot official who had wandered into the wrong building, but who was in fact the kindergarten director with a magnificent Soviet beehive perched on top of her already intimidating bulk. Of course Russian friends laughed. The going rate for "entry-assisting contributions," according to three friends from entirely different parts of Moscow, is $500.

However, we were assured by friends in the school that our woman is not a bribe-taker. My heart sank -- this is why living in Moscow is so exhausting -- what did she want? Maybe a gift of toys for the school? A friend suggested a Marks and Spencer's sweater: She keeps a regular stock for just such occasions. No, said our friends, with this woman everything depends on her mood; she just wants you to be nice to her. So began the long charm and flattery campaign. What a lovely school. How warmly recommended. How beautifully run. What happy-looking children. What delicious smelling kasha ...

In the end, the crunch came on payment day. Our lady was barricaded behind the entrance, caterwauling at all the parents who had failed to pay their monthly fees. She turned to Sasha, whose existence she had previously failed to acknowledge and who had metamorphosed, like a werewolf, into a different person. Maybe his newly bought London attire gave him the air of a man who can pay his bills on time. Suddenly she proclaimed that of course Vita could start as soon as she likes.

After, that is, we obtained all the necessary documents. She produced a list the size of a telephone directory: medical certificates, vaccination certificates, certificates about where she lives, birth certificates and certificates from the Moscow city government ...

And that's the easy bit. Now we're studying the far more complex etiquette of present-giving: flowers first day of term and March 8 for the nanny, the two teachers and the boss; chocolates for the music teacher after the Christmas concert, bath oils for the director's birthday in April and toys for the baby group at New Year's.

This is a serious business -- Italian friends had their perfectly healthy daughter sent home from their kindergarten with a note saying she was too sick to attend for the indefinite future. It took them two weeks to find out that their chocolates were not up to scratch.