Hello from the other side

We are four weeks into working from home, three weeks into quarantine, and so far, so good. The weeks are flying by. I’m so thankful for my job, my students, and constant contact with family and friends. My cat continues to be a comfort (she’s in my lap as I write this) and to amuse. This kid is alright.

Some of us are literally climbing the walls 😉

Over the past few weeks, I have watched rumors spread across the internet. For those who notice when Russia makes the news, this isn’t happening. Unfortunately, this is. On a happier, Russian-tastic note, this also happened. I enjoyed this photo series taken at the proper social distance. And artist Yayoi Kusama’s poem about resilience against COVID-19 is beautiful.

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In the past week, Moscow has adopted a QR code pass system. For better or worse, the aim is for people to stay home and minimize public contact. There are considerably less people on the streets, which I can observe from my 8th floor apartment, because I am not leaving my compound. I have read reports of chaos in the metro due to QR pass checks and a lack of safe social distancing. I pray that essential workers are able to get safely where they need to be.

The Moscow digital pass – really doesn’t apply to me as I can still go to the store if needed.

I’ve been making art as a daily practice for the first time in a very long time. Trolling YouTube for relaxing art tutorials, I paint daily in my sketchbook and I’ve become a patron of an art therapist. I try to pick up a brush daily.

My assistant, ever curious, is thrilled to take credit for these daily doodles.

On the work front, Google Classroom is my main portal. I spend time crafting art lessons, breaking directions down into manageable pieces, and aiming for big picture goals (primarily to help my students find artistic outlets for their stress).

The Unsung Hero Project – the kids nominated a community member (in this case, a beloved HS science teacher) as someone who makes their lives a little better each day.

Students in my drawing class pulled off a pretty sweet project this past week. Challenged to mix their colored pencils and photograph their finished squares, they worked collaboratively even as they are scattered around the world. From a shared folder, my wonderful assistant Masha pulled these tiles together using Photoshop.

Like April weather the world over, this week has brought rain, snow, sleet, hail, and lots of sunshine.

For exercise, I’ve been running up and down the 8 flights of stairs in my building. I also walk the perimeter of our parking lot many times each evening. I’m loving that it is staying light until nearly 8pm as we inch closer towards the solstice. This past week was chilly but, in general, we’ve been blessed with more sunshine than I recall from my other spring seasons in Moscow.

On warm days, we enjoy the grass patch outside my door.

I recently saw a quote from Maya Angelou that seems to apply:

“What I know is that it’s going to be better,” she said. “If it’s bad, it might get worse, but I know that it’s going to be better. And you have to know that. There’s a country song out now, which I wish I’d written, that says, ‘Every storm runs out of rain.’

For all of us, I’m just looking forward to that day…

A Dispatch from Moscow

Hello everyone. I hope this post finds you all safe and sound. The impacts of the COVID-19 virus are now being felt across the world and for us here in Moscow, it is no different. I thought I would give you a peak into what life has been like here for the past few weeks.

When I first heard about school closures for friends who work in Macau, Hong Kong, and China, I was surprised but aware that epidemics had caused disruptions like this before. I was in Korea when MERS came to the country, my first real interaction with the societal impact of a virus. It effected us on a much smaller scale with school being made optional for the last two weeks and more masks in public than usual. Thankfully, MERS came to an end right around the end of the school year and I was able to board a plane to the States to begin my summer.

My new assistant on Day 1 of distance learning

Today I am here in Moscow. My school campus is shuttered, I am teaching from my kitchen table. After careful deliberation, I have decided to ride out the storm here at least until the end of the school year. Without going into great detail, my school has taken extraordinary measures to ensure our safety and sanity. We had warning, we watched our friends in Asia bear the initial brunt and, as teachers so often do, they turned their misfortune into teachable moments and shared their wisdom, successes, and failures with us. I sent students home with art supplies, we hosted a mock graduation, and my Grade 12 students cleared out two years of their beautiful artwork – their senior IB art show cancelled. It was a very emotional week.

My seniors on their last day in high school. Despite so much having been taken from them, I was stunned by their maturity and poise. They will be missed!

Given time to prepare, thanks to the school’s forethought and pragmatism, we teachers rapidly shifted into digital learning. Certain subjects lend themselves better than others but, as teachers, we are often asked to go above and beyond, and teachers worldwide have risen to the call. I am blessed with a population which has access to a personal digital device. This is not true for all communities across the world. The vast majority of my students will be fed and safe during this stressful time. Again, this is not true for others. In Oregon, the state has seen a sharp decline in reports of child abuse. This is heartbreaking knowing that it is the mandatory reporting of teachers that brings in so many calls. No one knows our kids like we do. In Paris, the government has put aside thousands of hotel beds for those who call a national domestic violence hotline. People are trapped at home with their abusers. If any of you are in the same position, you can call: 1-800-799-SAFE. We can all do our part to keep an extra ear out for our neighbors during this time.

So what does daily life look like in Moscow? We’ve been told by the government to stay home, mandated to stay in our apartments until April 30. We can leave only for emergencies, to take out the trash, walk the dog, or visit our nearest pharmacy or grocery store. This may seem extreme to some but I am gladly complying. I have had friends who have already experienced the virus and recovered. This virus is no joke. Please – if you are not already doing so – stay home.

I am thankful I still have a job. I have friends across the US who have been furloughed, who are now dealing with unemployment offices that are so overtaxed that once (if) they reach a human, they’re told to call back next week. It’s not pretty, folks. I am 100% aware that I am one of the lucky ones. Work keeps my days on track. It has made the two weeks I’ve taught from home fly by. My community here and in the States is incredible. Everyday I speak with friends over Skype, Zoom, Google Meet, Facebook Messenger, KakaoTalk, Facetime, Marco Polo, Whatsapp, etc. etc. etc. My friends who are abroad are all in the same boat, to varying degrees of isolation. We keep tabs and check in constantly.

A Zoom call uniting Ontario, North Carolina, Qatar, Moscow, Saudi Arabia, and Seoul

I also have an amazing community here in Moscow, in my very building. Without going into detail, I will say I remain extremely well informed by both my school and the US Embassy. I feel safe. I have enough food. There is toilet paper on the grocery shelves (so I am told, I have not been to the store in two weeks).

My cat has proved excellent company. Initially, she resented me interrupting her naps but now we have adjusted. If I leave to walk the staircase a few times (we have no hallways but I’m on the 8th floor), she bounds to greet me upon my return, meowing her hello. Again, I’m extremely thankful.

Moloko humoring a nap interruption

Knowing that my family and friends are taking precautions back home keeps me sane. I’ve done my best to build a healthy daily routine for myself. I’m doing what I’m sure so many of you are doing – cooking, cleaning, exercising, making art, reading, watching The Tonight Show, etc. I have running water, electricity, and heat. I have community. I will be fine.

Please take care of yourselves and drop a line, even if you don’t normally. I would love to hear how you are getting through this and what the situation is like where you are. Or your Netflix recommendations. Or a shared recipe. We will get through this together ❤

My new assistant is such a creeper!

The city of eight rains and four rays of sunshine

Those 4am don’t-leave-me eyes

Back before things got so messy worldwide, I took a little trip to see my good friends Jeff and Tori and their wonderful family. Friends from Seoul, they left Korea with one kiddo and not four years later are now a family of five! Life has become quite a dance!

We chilled, caught a few sunsets, and even got a minute to watch Parasite (Go SoKo!). Tori, her mom, and I even popped down to Phuket Town for a little getaway.

I hadn’t heard a lot about Phuket Town before I arrived. I had chosen our hotel fairly last minute and figured it would be a nice change of pace to be able to walk and wonder in town.

The first thing I noticed was the facade of the buildings. The majority of the structures were two stories high, featuring a storefront on the ground level and a living space above.

The shutters, columns, and corrugated roofs seemed reminiscent of Hanoi to me, a fusion of Asian and European. Turns out, it’s an architectural style all it’s own called Sino-Portuguese.

As history goes, the Portuguese came to Phuket in the 1500s. Phuket became a booming trade capital, with tin as its major export. Rubber followed shortly thereafter. As they set up shop, the Portuguese hired Chinese workers to build their port town. The result was the style which is still present today, also known as Chinese Baroque.

Love those upstairs windows ❤
Little alters and offerings to relatives adorn the doorways of homes all around Phuket Town.
Chinese Temples adorn the town and were especially well-dressed due to Lunar New Year.
The view from my hotel room

Our hotel turned out to be the most beautiful gem of all. The Woo Gallery & Boutique Hotel makes it feel like you are sleeping in an art gallery. Essentially, we were, as the front of the building boasts an in-home museum full of trinkets collected by the owner’s father-in-law. The home has been in their family for three generations, with their ancestors coming from China to make their fortunes in the mining industry.

When the present owners took the space back from renters, they undertook a multi-year renovation from top to bottom. The female proprietor designed every aspect of the space herself, researching historic tiles, woods, and glass to bring to life the glorious vision you see today.

Collections of pottery and artifacts from far reaching cities like Penang, Singapore, Shanghai, and Delhi enrich the space, adding to it’s unique ambiance. We were lucky enough to have a private tour of the rooms and collections. All three of us left awestruck and inspired.

I spent the last few nights at a B&B run by a Finnish couple, close to Jeff & Tori’s place. Night swimming beneath the palm trees was magical and I tried to soak it in, knowing that this might be my last opportunity to travel for a while.

Twirling under the lights with Garvey

On my last night in town, Tori and the kids took me to a restaurant run by a friend of theirs called Artisan. Another gem, it was the perfect send-off from Thailand, capped off by time hanging out with Garvey under the lanterns. Thailand is truly a special place made infinitely more wonderful by dear friends.

Postcards from Russia

Moloko’s perch in my Moscow kitchen
Walking with my friend Tammy around Moscow’s Garden Ring
Fili Park (my favorite) – Established in 1812
Looks quiet but actually full of cross country skiers, families, and dogs in snowsuits
The park runs down to the Moscow River, nearly frozen after a chilly week
A bright but bitter day – perfect for puzzling and sunbathing (or both)
Moloko enjoying an empty fridge on grocery day
Orthodox Christmas keeps the lights up longer at the Red Square Christmas markets
Muscovites out in droves
GUM Department Store aglow
Cinderella lights outside the Bolshoi Theatre
White lights make for bright nights
Warm and cozy – Happy February, everyone!

The Christmas Markets: Frankfurt

Happy 2020, folks!

Back in September I began researching flights home for the Christmas holiday. With no direct flights from Moscow to Boston, I generally avoid crazy busy airports like Heathrow and Charles de Galle. I’ve been impressed with Lufthansa lately and noticed the chance to have a long layover in Frankfurt on my way to Boston.

Moloko in Moscow

After calling the airline (something I’ve only recently realized merits great results), I was able to extend my layover to two nights at a minimal fee. My plan was hatched and I started researching Frankfurt’s Christmas markets.

Moscow lights

I’ve visited a few Christmas markets during my time in Russia. Red Square itself boasts a small market next to GUM, the department store dripping in white lights.

GUM Department Store in Moscow

Last year I took a long weekend in Riga, Latvia, and wandered around its multiple markets. The year before I stopped in Zurich for a night to enjoy the markets there.

Riga

Zurich

Frankfurt proved the best of the lot thus far. Essentially one huge market stretching from the waterfront of the River Main through Römerberg Square and up to Hauptwache Plaza, the market spanned nearly a half kilometer.

Frankfurt

While some markets tend to be weighed down by products brought in from China, I’m always keen to find arts and crafts created in a style or technique unique to that region.

Römerberg Square

Food vendors sold treats (the Berlin jelly donut of JFK fame, for one), carousels turned in the squares, and crafts from all over the world dotted the stalls (Peru the farthest spot).

Rained out on the Friday evening I arrived, I made a plan to arrive first thing Saturday morning. As December 22 marked the last day of the Frankfurt Market, crowds were even larger than normal.

The waterfront

The Frankfurt waterfront proved far more charming than expected. Perhaps it was the first sun I had seen in weeks or it’s similarity to Boston’s Charles River but I absolutely loved walking the bike path from my hotel to the market. Wood ducks played in puddles left from the storm and the locals were out in droves – running, biking, enjoying the unusually warm December weather.

Other Frankfurt attractions…

The Palmengarten

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Greenhouses full of botanical gardens

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Grounds to walk and enjoy

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The perfect antidote to market crowds

Schirn Kunsthalle

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I stumbled upon a phenomenal retrospective of Lee Krasner

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Known to many as Jackson Pollock’s wife, Lee was a great deal more

Bauernmarkt Konstablerwache

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Apple wine, or apfelwein, is a Frankfurt must

My Frankfurt layover proved the perfect kick off to the holiday season. Have any of you visited a Christmas market in Europe? Suggestions welcome!

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Frohe Weihnachten!

Dancing on ice

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Saturdays are made for slow starts

As we draw closer to the winter solstice, there is a strange absence of snow on the ground here in Moscow. Not that I’m complaining – the grey weather recently gave me a good excuse to check out the local skating scene.

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The ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating, or the Rostelecom Cup, is an international invitational competition featuring both men’s and women’s singles, pair skating, and ice dance. Our school organized tickets and we sat pretty much as high atop the ice as possible – which made for great views!

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Having never attended a skating competition before, I was thankful that one of my coworkers is a die-hard fan. She explained the sets during the singles’ long program and offered helpful commentary throughout (how many Beatles medleys are too much?). It’s so different to see a skate program from above, rather than the close ups on television. I really admire the athleticism it takes to traverse such a huge rink while performing jumps and technical elements for nearly 4 minutes.

Ssingles was my favorite. American Mariah Bell impressed, earning a third place finish. The winner, Russia’s Alexandra Trusova, completed multiple quad axels to earn her victory and the crowd’s praise. And she’s only 15!

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It was an all afternoon affair and we stayed for nearly 8 hours, truly enjoying the crowd come alive for their hometown skaters and supporting others from across the globe. Just another cool way to spend the winter months in Moscow! Hope I’ll get to experience it again next year.

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Down to snuggle

The Golden Country

When my parents and I first decided to meet up in Europe over my fall break, they asked me what country would be best. I didn’t hesitate to recommend Portugal, what with its seafood, wine, and friendly residents. With Lisbon a direct flight from both Moscow and Boston, I knew it would suit us just fine. My only request was that our good friends Charlie and Deb join as well. They were game and we started planning.

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Between 1400-1600, Portugal underwent an “Age of Discovery”. Prosperous and seafaring, the country sent sailing fleets to all corners of the globe, captained by household names such as Ferdinand Magellan and Vasco da Gama. “By 1560, Portugal’s global empire had peaked. Tiny-but-filthy-rich Portugal claimed (though they didn’t actually occupy) the entire coastline of Africa, Arabia, India, the Philippines, and south China – a continuous stretch from Lisbon to Macao – plus Brazil.” This practice of international exploration yielded exotic spices, agricultural practice, and (horrendously) the beginnings of the slave trade.

Though I’d spent a few days in Lisbon in 2017, I’d missed the chance to go north to Porto, a city that has elicited only smiles and good words from friends and fellow travelers. We decided to start our journey there.

Porto

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The city of bridges, as it as known, Porto lies at the mouth of a river which runs over a mountain range and into the Douro Valley (the valley of gold), the fertile bed of the port wine industry. Taylor, Calem, and Ferreira all have lodges along the river. With a recommendation from a good friend, we made our way to Graham’s.

Graham’s Port Lodge

Featuring gorgeous hilltop view at the city across the river, Graham’s proved a great starting point in our quest to learn about the history of port. We toured it’s cellars featuring a library of vintage wines (the only wine that can appreciate with age!), some of which were over 150 years old. The atmosphere was perfect and we enjoyed a walk down to the waterfront after our port flight.

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São Bento Railway Station

You will seriously earn your steps on the streets of Porto. Staying higher atop the hill, I tried to devise a winding walk that featured mostly downhills. Our first stop was the Sao Bento Railway Station which features over 20,000 hand-painted tiles. The stained glass was gorgeous, too.

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Livraria Lello Bookshop

I could not visit Porto without seeing the bookshop which had inspired Hogwarts. Author JK Rowling taught ESL in Porto from 1991-1993 and often stopped into this bookshop. From the art nouveau staircase and dark wood finishes, it is not hard to picture sliding staircases and talking portraits. Neither the lines nor the masses could detract from the magic inside.

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On the Water

With a group of five, moving from place to place could be a bit of a challenge. We opted for a hop-on/hop-off bus tour which took us to the outskirts of town. As we drove along the water, we let our stomachs choose our next stop – a fishing hamlet with river views. Fresh cod, hake, and salmon were on offer and paired with cabbage and potatoes made for our most delicious meal yet. The atmosphere came replete with a Portuguese mother directing all the action from the window above. We joked that our meal was probably still swimming that morning and I suspect we were right.

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Ribeira

Charlie and Deb had read up on the Ribeira, an area down on the riverbank. Once a dodgy area, the neighborhood is now a fantastic spot for restaurants and music. We opted for a boat ride under the famous Porto bridges but I could easily see returning to Ribeira the next time I’m in town.

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Sé Cathedral

I could have called this post “Stairs, stairs, and more stairs” or “Just 10 more minutes walking”. Though we didn’t plan this stop well on our walk down to the riverfront, I would recommend the Cathedral for it’s beautiful tiles and gilded alters. Beautiful views over the city made the climb worth it.

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Lisbon

A quick and easy 3-hour train ride found us back in Lisbon, the City of Light. Unlike it’s French counterpart of the same nickname, Lisbon is bathed in golden light after dark, in gorgeous contrast to a typical blue velvet night sky. I had a few nights to myself on either end of the trip and I’ll say at no point did I feel unsafe taking in the streets after dark.

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A cardamom pastry – second only to the famous Pasteis de Nata which we ate daily

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Lapa

I spent my first two nights in the charmingly local neighborhood of Lapa. I’m told it’s a hub for Lisbon intellectuals – artists and writers abound. If you’re seeking an actual oasis just beyond the street, look no further than this supremely charming garden and private backyard suite. Two of the nicest hosts I’ve stayed with, to boot.

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Basílica da Estrela, Lapa

Cervejaria Ramiro

We certainly earned our steps back in Lisbon as well. One of our major treks included a very early bird dinner at Ramiro, a seafood house made famous by Anthony Bourdain during a visit back in 2012. This place surely did not disappoint with crab, shrimp, and clams as tasty as I’ve ever experienced on the shores of Maine and Cape Cod.

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Ascensor do Lavra & Jardim do Torel

Lisbon is known for it’s funiculars (ascensor) and we took a lesser known one to the Jardim do Torel lookout. With 270 degree views of the whole city, it was a perfectly quiet spot to watch the sun go down behind one of Lisbon’s many hills. The graffitied cable car was a charming way to travel.

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I love this photo of the crew – Dad and Charlie have been best friends since Grade 8 and Deb not long after. My mom is the newest member, having met these guys when she was only 18. It was really special getting to spend time with them all together.

Jerónimos Monastery, Belem

Our last day found us in Belem, a small town just down the river from Lisbon. The monastery was well worth the 10 euro entrance fee and left us marveling at the architectural flare throughout. We enjoyed pasteis de nata in the park and took the slow boat back to Lisbon, which was a perfect choice.

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Largo do Carmo & Bellalisa Elevador

Deb had the idea to return to a square we had spied the night before called Largo do Carmo. With quaint tables and umbrellas, we enjoyed our drinks next to the ruins of a convent. There is a famous elevator in Lisbon which has lines for days (literally) but with a little help from a guide, we realized that the Bellalisa Elevador Restaurant would make a perfect spot to cap off our trip together. The drinks were flowing and seafood was top notch. Before we knew it, it was time for the crew to fly back to Boston.

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Gulbenkian Museum

On recommendation from a train seat mate, I spent my last day in Lisbon visiting the Gulbenkian Museum. Soaking up the sunshine in the museum’s gardens and the Turkish artwork inside proved the perfect send-off. I look forward to my chance to return again and will look back at this special trip with fond memories.

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