Melikhovo

It was early Saturday morning when we struck out for Chekhov’s estate, Melikhovo, 75km south of Moscow. We hit a great deal of dacha traffic on the way which delayed us considerably. Just as people from Maine head out to camp and Canadians visit their cottages, Muscovites head to their dachas (pronounced dat-cha). But let’s just say there’s a tad more traffic on a Russian highway than on Mt. Ephraim Road. In Russia, you cannot move a vehicle from the scene of an accident until authorities arrive so you can imagine the back up (hours…days?).

A country home typically situated on a generous plot of land, a dacha provides a refuge from city life. As the Russian pension is quite slim, retirees often turn their dachas into farmland, supplementing their pensions by growing vegetables and raising livestock to either sell or sustain themselves. The dacha traffic gave me time to do some research on Chekhov – the man, myth, and revered legend.

Born in 1860, Anton Chekhov had a difficult childhood plagued by an abusive father and financial instability. As a young man, while studying medicine at university, Chekhov took over financial responsibility for his entire family. To make ends meet, he wrote satirical short stories. After earning his degree as a physician, Chekhov contracted tuberculosis, which plagued him the rest of his life. He continued writing as it was more fruitful than practicing medicine (my how the times have changed…). His story, The Huntsman, was one of the first to gain him literary cred.

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We raked leaves on the grounds in front of Chekhov’s home for a few hours to earn our admission ticket.

 

In 1892, Chekhov acquired Melikhovo with monetary help from his publisher. He soon became a staple of the countryside – helping to build roads, schools, and acting as the local physician. His services were so popular, in fact, that he would raise a flag to denote his availability as local peasants were known to show up on his doorstep as early at 5 o’clock in the morning. A skilled herbalist, Chekhov managed to keep the region rid of cholera as the epidemic swept through Russia in the late 1800s. He composed a number of works while at Melikhovo, including The Seagull. He retained the estate until 1897.

The kitchen adjoining the Chekhov residence. Note the intriguing tea kettle stove.

Finally out in the countryside, I was first struck by the birch trees. There are so many, stacking side by side, their white bark etched like chalk upon the dense forest. The green reads like the fields of Vermont and I felt instantly transported back there.

We spent a few hours raking leaves on the grounds, giving us time to enjoy the crisp autumn weather. The fresh air felt great and the gardens were simply beautiful. We were next treated to tea and hard sushki, which you might remember from the celebration upon our first arrival at school.

After watching a Chekhov play performed, we toured the grounds under the incredible translating efforts by one of my Russian colleagues, Lena. It was then I learned of Chekhov’s great efforts towards the area locals and his role as doctor-in-residence. By the end of the day, we were all tired and ready to pack it in for home. But I couldn’t help taking a minute on the porch to appreciate those blue-grey skies against the lush green grass. Fall in Russia is a gorgeous thing to behold.

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A Russian samovar – literally “self-boil”.

 

 

Keeping up with the Joneses

On Monday evening I had the chance to attend a town hall meeting at the Spaso House in the heart of downtown Moscow. On the agenda – an ex-pat security update and remarks from the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, John Tefft. Positive points of discussion included Russian-American relations (space exploration) while other points were decidedly negative (Ukraine, Syria, etc.). The Ambassador spoke eloquently, encouraged us to vote, and highlighted the importance of on-the-ground diplomacy. This last point seems especially significant. Not to go all Sarah Palin on the US news media, but I can actually see Russia from my living room, and it’s a vastly different story from the sensational cable news coverage.

I could not get enough of this beautiful chandelier. The cobalt evening light through the window complemented so well.

The decor was reminiscent of the US White House, replete with young and eager members of the diplomatic corps. Must be that Neoclassical interior design…

The Ambassador addressing an ex-pat constituent. A number of citizens in attendance have lived in Russia for decades. It was a very interesting congregation.

The Spaso House has served as the home of the US Ambassador since the time of FDR’s presidency, 1933.

This weekend will require a completely different wardrobe as I’m headed to Anton Chekhov’s Estate, Melikhovo, located approximately 2.5 hours outside of Moscow. It will be my first trip outside the city (this requires some paperwork) and I’m very excited to see another part of Russia. A group of us will help tidy the grounds for winter and then we will be treated to a picnic and tour of Chekhov’s cottage. Having read only one of his plays, The Seagull, I look forward to learning more about the man. Hoping for some sunshine as well!

Autumn in Moscow

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Ms. P’s Grade 6 Advisory #yikes

Rarely do I have a day so filled with fun as well as two adventures that could not be more different from each other. Tuesday began like any other. I hopped the bus to school with my coworkers (commuting with coworkers – definitely a skill I’m working on), but I grabbed my backpack as I headed out the door. My students and I were headed for our first field trip and it promised to be a bonding experience.

We headed for Meshchersky Park, a 45-minute drive from school in fairly heavy traffic (seems there is always traffic in Moscow). A handful of these so-called “panda parks” can be found around the city. These parks are usually found in the woods and feature multiple ropes courses of varying levels of difficulty. The panda part – while never actually explained – comes from the scampering and tree climbing, evidently.

It was surprisingly chilly in the park, a sure sign that autumn is upon us. The leaves are already changing and the grey skies threaten rain interspersed with moments of gorgeous sunlight. We got the run down for the day from our guides. The directions were in Russian, of course, so only about 1/4 of the kids understood and only one adult – good start. I am all too used to this from my time in Korea. Directions? Psshhaw.

My advisory (homeroom) group, 8 kids I see every day, was assigned a fairly difficulty course to begin with. Wobbling over log bridges and zip-lining from tree to tree (only a handful of collisions), the kids showed great determination to test their strength and agility. While calls of “Ms. P!” echoed from tree to tree, I craned my neck to watch them scurry like monkeys, 50 feet in the air.

As we used to say in Korea, “safety third”, and this ropes course was no exception. With my feet planted firmly on the ground, I was called in for pep talks – the kiddo caught in the middle of a rope swing, crying out of frustration/desperation. Not two minutes later, after figuring out his harness wouldn’t let him fall, that same kiddo was swinging rope to rope, singing to himself with glee.

It was a great excursion for all of us – even James, my little Korean bud who, despite having been airlifted down from a course he couldn’t handle, kindly offered me some of his kimbap lunch made by his mother. All in all, an awesome time with a great crew of kids. I feel lucky to have them to watch over.

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Dabbing it out.

Normally a day like that would have put me in bed early, but Tuesday night I had better plans. I hopped on the metro at Kievskaya and headed out for the northeast part of Moscow. Still shocked at how small downtown Moscow is, the requisite six stops flew by and I surfaced in the middle of a beautiful tree-lined square in a posh part of town. Finding my group (a number of older teachers who I don’t know yet), we made our way to the Opera House. Next door to the Opera stood a majestic wooden door, framed by sculptures of baby angels in the surrounding archway.

Entering a door on the third landing, we immediately fell down the rabbit hole. The foyer was lush, owing to its dark wood trim, oriental rugs, and Victorian loveseats. Following the gentle din of voices, we turned to enter an immense studio, bathed in light from its chandeliers. The parquet floor was splattered with oil paint, green and black.

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The airy nature of the studio led us to jealously surmise what incredible natural light must fill the space during the day, shown only in the hint of blue light still visible as the sun set.

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An artist’s workbench holds many secrets.

My eyes immediately flew to the brightly colored works lining the lower walls. Almost comic in their intensity, the paintings contrasted the elegant Victorian walls perfectly, invoking the image of the Paris Salon of 1905.

One of my favorite Art History stories to share involves a band of renegade painters led by Andre Derain and Henri Matisse. The year was 1905 and the annual autumn Salon was on in Paris. Derain and Matisse, having departed from the Impressionists and painted wild new landscapes full of blood red rivers and neon green skies, submitted their works for consideration. The original bohemian wild children of the 20th Century reveled in their shock-and-awe campaign.

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Andre Derain

Picture, if you will, a chaotic scene of artworks such as the one above stacked six rows in the air. The Salon facilities, housed in the Palais des Beaux-Arts on the Champs-Elysees, were designed in the style of 17th Century French architecture, featuring Greco-Roman finishes and little Italian cherubs, called putti, in the corners.

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An 18th Century Salon but you get the idea…

Upon entering the exhibition, the general public gasped in horror. An abomination! An outrage! Where were the waterlilies of Monet that they had finally accepted as their contemporary art? What were these futuristic eyesores full of color and bold brushstrokes? How horrible, the people remarked, for the paintings, those wild beasties, were scaring the angelic putti! That, my friends, is how the Fauves – the “wild beasties”, got their name.

Back in Alexander Aisenshtat‘s studio, it was immediately apparent that Alexander is himself a modern day Fauve – from the putti above his doorframe to the brash intensity his paintings imbue. Marching to the beat of his own drummer, he takes inspiration from religious Jewish texts, which he plays on a record player in his studio, and creates secular works in bold formation.

While we did have the chance to meet Alexander at the end of the evening, we were first treated to a lecture by his good friend, a scholar of Russian Art History. While the paintings were charming, I have to say that the two featured musicians – a cellist and a violinist – absolutely stole the show.

As my eyes surfed the room during a Bach concerto, the ambiance left me in total awe. I feel so lucky to have an experience like this, not only so soon in my Russian adventure but as a treasured memory of my time here.

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Alexander’s sitting room.

Like so many of my days living and teaching abroad, this day was chock-full of adventures and surprises. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to combine my two loves – teaching and art – and I look forward to the experiences yet to come.

 

Bring in the noise, bring in the goose step

Last Friday night I attended the International Military Music Tattoo in Red Square. For those of you who have never been to a military tattoo, it’s a display of military bands. In this case, the performers hailed from all over the world.

Red Square bathed in light and song.

Having secured tickets through my school, I made my way downtown with another teacher and we took our places at what essentially amounted to the 50-yard line.

St. Basil’s in all its glory.

It was a crystal clear evening in downtown Moscow. The sun was beginning to set as the Kremlin clock tower struck eight. A spotlight hit St. Basil’s and we heard the sounds of the drums beating in the darkness just beyond outer ring of flag poles.

From the grandstands we watched as a huge band took the Square, marching in formation with gleaming brass held aloft, and I knew we were in for a treat.

Honor Guard.

I was blown away by the diversity of the countries featured – from Kazakstan to Italy, the military bands put on one incredible show after another. My favorite was definitely Mongolia, with their red jackets, navy pants, and sparkling gold helmets, displaying their might as the descendants of Genghis Khan. To see all of the countries in their elaborate dress, click here.

Mongolia – my blurry photo doesn’t do them justice but I had to give them their due!

The Scottish Highland dancers were ushered in on the back of antique cars as the men marched in their kilts, the leader wearing his hackle – a clipped feathery plume of a headdress.

The Russians certainly pulled out all the stops, featuring extra long numbers and one with the military band fronted by an electric guitar playing Zeppelin-esque rifts.

Another setting on St. Basil’s Cathedral.

The goose step, of course, was prevalent across the board, as the military is wont to do. The dramatic lighting achieved its goal in transforming the Square into an otherworldly place and many times throughout the night I was completely transfixed.

The Finale featured all of the bands playing and marching in unison.

The light show on St. Basil’s continued to evolve throughout the night until the clock struck ten. At that moment, a major fireworks display erupted behind the Cathedral – one that would put Walt Disney World to shame – providing the denouement to a magical evening.

Candyland!

There seems to be no shortage of cultural opportunities here in Moscow and my school sees to it that we have all the access possible to experience them. I have the unique chance to visit the studio of acclaimed Russian painter Alexander Aizenshtat. A number of informed historical figures will be speaking, including the former Director of the Pushkin Museum and an art historian who specializes in German Expressionism, which greatly influences Alexander’s art. I’m very much looking forward to the night. You can expect a full report 🙂 For now, take care and Пока!