Touring around town

The Hotel Ukraine, in all her glory, sits just down the street from my house.

After nearly a month of nothing but grey, drab skies, Moscow has been blessed with a string of sunshine days over the past week! I’ve found that I don’t mind the cold (in the 20s during the the day, about 10 degrees at night) but I can’t live without the sunshine. No amount of my SAD light will replace the feeling¬†a blue sky brings. As a result, I’ve been spending as much time outside as possible, which is great for exploring more of Moscow.

 

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Even a trip to the doctor’s office can feature amazing architectural finds just down the street. The colors just pop against the grey Moscow skies.
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In Russia, Future chooses you ūüėČ

 

My school offers bi-monthly cultural outings to us and I sign up for as many as I can. They often come with English tour guides and offer a really unique opportunity to access parts of Moscow life that are not readily available to foreigners. On the flip side, the touristy nature makes me feel like I’m on a bit of a permanent vacation here in Russia.

The Memorial Museum of Cosmonauts is located in the northeast part of Moscow, near the VDNKh metro stop.

Last weekend a handful of us journeyed to the Memorial Museum of Cosmonauts. I absolutely love outer space, particularly the space program, so I was pretty interested to hear about it from a Russian perspective. Our tour guide was a cosmonaut in training and her passion for the program was evident.

The one that began it all – Sputnik. This is a model as the original burned in the Earth’s atmosphere.

The Moscow Times reports, “At the height of the Soviet Space Program in 1989, over 1 million people were employed in the space sector.”

A wall of all the cosmonauts to have served, two of whom were on their way to the international space station as we toured the museum. Only 4 women have served.
Not sure you could convince me to enter a de-pressurization chamber (at right) dressed in that suit. Both look way too flimsy to support life.
One of the stranger exhibits at the museum featured the stuffed bodies of the first dogs to return from space travel alive, Belka and Strelka. They lived to ripe old ages and were only stuffed A.D. (yikes). A descendant of one of the dogs was gifted to Jacqueline Kennedy during President Kennedy’s term.
Solar panels adoring the outside of the International Space Station model featured on site. It’s truly amazing how space explorers make the most of the space they are allowed.

 

The underside of a landing module, painted bright orange-red to attract the eye of search planes. One such landing in 1987 required cosmonauts to spend a night in the Siberian cold next to their module.

 

 

Another gem of my time in Moscow has been the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. Located in Gorky Park, just one metro stop over from mine, the museum features top notch exhibitions, up to three shows at a time. I haven’t been disappointed by a show yet and this show below was no exception. Featuring work compiled during Eastern European revolutions and independence movements, the show was a fascinating take on the late 1980s/early 1990s, a time I know little about as I wasn’t old enough to remember the events.

 

Printmaking and poster art have played huge roles in Eastern European history, particularly freedom movements as a call to arms of sorts.

My friends and I all appreciated this modern art which really reminded me of the work of Kandinsky, a Russian born painter who became famous as an Abstract Expressionist. It’s not his work but you can see the influence passed down through the decades.

 

 

These days, with sunrise at 8:30am and sunset at 4pm, I could go the whole day without seeing the sun. Luckily, I have big windows in my classroom and enough downtime during the day to sneak a quick walk in the neighboring gated community. I cherish that time, especially on sunny days, but find it just as necessary on the grey ones.

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Moscow has fabulous sewer caps – some of which would make fantastic prints. I keep an eye out when wandering the city and every once in a while spot a cool new one like this guy.

As a result of all this chilly grey weather, Muscovites make their own fun, refusing to stay home. The arts are hugely valued here and I had the chance to experience Moscow opera first hand last Wednesday evening at a performance of Bach’s Coffee Cantata. A slightly bizarre show, this short opera¬†(the best kind of opera) features a full string ensemble and three opera singers who actually brew coffee as part of their act, serving it to the audience as the denouement. The coffee was delish and warmed us up before heading back into the cold Russian night.

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We toured the Helicon Opera House prior to the performance. Restored since the Soviet Era, the space is elegant and intricate in detail. The performance space was in a small room off of this main hallway.
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Chandelier close up. I couldn’t get enough.
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The entrance to Izmailovo is over the top and ornate – a Russian trend I’m catching onto ūüėČ

With only three weeks left until I fly to Boston for the holidays, it’s time to seek out some fun Moscow¬†tchotchkes to share with the folks back home. Today I journeyed to Izmailovsky Market with a couple ideas in mind. I had some luck now¬†I’m counting the days until break!

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Ingenious coffee-on-the-go stand.
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Catch you next time ūüôā

 

 

Thoughts on the U.S. Election

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The US Embassy sits in the shadow of one of Moscow’s Seven Sisters.

Its been quite a week. I’ve spent some time trying to wrap my head around it and so far reality is evading me. I did not want to write this blogpost. However, we are living history, and being in Moscow at this time is a unique experience. I’ll try to keep¬†this short and sweet.

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Matryoshka dolls at Izmailovo Market, Moscow.

Elections as an ex-pat are atypical as a given. I vote months in advance (by email) and I have the advantage of avoiding the inundation of campaign ads and even web news. This election made headlines even here in Russia, and I was certainly ready for it to be over.

Back in Stockholm, an older man had asked me for directions in Swedish. He was from Finland, with a son¬†living in Sweden, and was on his way to catch a ferry back home. He quickly¬†asked me who I supported in the upcoming election. When he found out I lived in Moscow, he asked me point blank who I thought was more dangerous – Putin or Trump? He had plenty to say. It always surprises me how much people abroad know of politics in the US, while citizens of the US on the whole know seemingly little about other countries’ politics.

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Scenes from Seoul. The first word is “Trump” reads in Hangul.

This election has¬†long been the source of discussion in my classroom and I’ve been impressed with my students’¬†knowledge of the issues at hand. The majority are not of American lineage or citizenship.

Fast forward to Election Day 2016. We’re 8 hours ahead of EST, so I spent my Wednesday morning listening to election results roll in from across the States. The decision¬†was announced mid-morning¬†and my students and I went through the roller coaster ride together – many¬†of them speaking candidly as Grade 7 students are wont to do. Disbelief was the common refrain. There were some tears, some anger. The results were a blow to my core belief system¬†and I found myself still shaking slightly as I arrived home 7 hours later.

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Papers across Russia featured US election results, many on the front page.

As evidenced by¬†Vladimir Putin’s congratulatory telegram (žßĄžßú ?) to Trump, the mood is shifting¬†here Moscow. It was only last month that the relationship between the two countries was¬†so hostile that I thought perhaps I wouldn’t be able¬†to complete my two year contract. Now I¬†have delivery men and some coworkers congratulating me on the election results. Though their words don’t sting as quite much as it did last Wednesday, it turns my stomach every time. I can only wonder what fate holds in store¬†when tensions sour between the two men¬†– and I believe they will.

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Russia’s Unity Day on November 4th included the unveiling of a massive statue dedicated to Vladimir the Great, the Prince of Kiev. Indeed.

There’s certainly much reflecting to be done now that the dust is beginning to settle. The US has certainly been knocked off our high horse – even¬†Urban Dictionary¬†thinks so. And it’s already effecting my friends who are traveling – greeted at¬†Customs with a laugh¬†or sarcastic congratulations when they show an American passport.

For now, I’m taking solace in this performance from Kate McKinnon and donating to organizations that I support, particularly Planned Parenthood. Just yesterday I sent a donation to Planned Parenthood of Hawaii. I remember being shocked by the abject poverty I witnessed¬†during my visit to the Big Island. Inspired by the suggestion of a few female roll models (Nasty Women?), I pledged my donation in honor of a certain VP-elect and had a thank you letter sent to his office at Indiana’s State Capitol. I challenge each of you to think of an organization that will need extra love and support in the coming four years. Please don’t hesitate – it’s time to take responsibility for what we believe in. After all, as Michelle says –¬†“When they go low, we go high”.

Stockholm

The view from my window in Sodermalm.

Many people know Sweden for its famous exports, most notably IKEA and Saab. Perhaps you’ve also heard of Sweden’s penchant for hanging pennants and its simple modern style, if you know a little more about Scandinavian design. Maybe you’ve even tasted elderflower in a cocktail or sampled lingonberry¬†jam (perhaps in an IKEA cafeteria…). Combined with socialist ideals, that¬†about sums up what I knew of Sweden prior to my visit.

Gamla stan – Old Town, Stockholm

What I discovered was a multi-colored city bravely lit against the impending darkness of a Scandinavian winter. I saw no blue sky during my time in Stockholm, but this liberal and intellectual gem of Scandinavia shone brightly nonetheless.

So many bikes! Doesn’t matter the weather, people young and old make use of Stockholm’s copious bike lanes.¬†

Physically, Stockholm is perhaps the smallest capital city I’ve encountered¬†to date. An excellent transit system connects this grouping¬†of islands across a waterway running from¬†Lake M√§laren and the Baltic Sea.

Sunset… 3:30pm.

I stayed on Södermalm, today a trendy island in the south of the city which is chock-full of bike lanes, antique shops, and lamps.

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Blekingegatan – Artist’s Row in Stockholm.

 

I quickly learned that an individual’s¬†lighting choices can say a lot about one’s personality. In¬†the land¬†of the midnight sun¬†to the near constant¬†darkness of a¬†Swedish winter, lighting demands serious attention in this land of extremes. Every cafe I entered featured candles under open flame, casting a cozy warmth over their interiors and bracing against the dry cold outside.

Perennials flood the outdoor markets, begging passersby to bring nature into their homes.

Friendly shopkeepers greeted me with a casual “hej, hej”, which sounds more like “hey, hey” to the American ear. Such a friendly¬†way to be greeted, and with a smile no less! This treatment after Russia and Paris definitely made the American in me feel welcome.

Two antique shop finds. The orange is a local Swedish glass blower and the blue is a traditional Finnish jar.

Sweden is extremely liberal, both politically and personally. A number of shops touted S&M in my hipster neighborhood and locals tell me that all sexual preferences are welcome here.

Part of the artist community at the top of Sodermalm – galleries line the streets below.

My friend Jenna, who has lived in Sweden for nearly 10 years and is married to a Swed, tells me she couldn’t imagine starting a family anywhere else. She and her husband Tomas have two 20 month old girls (the beautiful blondies seen below). They were both¬†given 6 months off per child with full pay. And even now they are still able to take unlimited sick days whenever the girls are ill. Incredible. I asked her how they make it work, knowing that so much of a Swed’s salary is devoted to the high taxes to¬†pay for healthcare, pension, etc. She said simply that there aren’t many additional expenses beyond housing. Daycare is free and only a block from their house. Stockholm’s wonderful transportation system is subsidized. Sweden clearly goes to great lengths to take care of its people. If you’re curious to read more about the Swedish system, here’s more on the Nordic Model.

So great to see Jenna and meet the girls. 20 years of friendship Рwild!

There is a decidedly intellectual air about Stockholm. Art and design are woven into the fabric of everyday life. Wandering the city, I spotted many design firms, each with a unique style of decor and presentation.

Sculpture installation at the Modern Museet.

On a slushy day, I spent an afternoon at the Moderna Museet. Located on a harbor island, the museum houses a great collection of modern art as well as a wing devoted to Swedish architecture and design, known as the ArkDes.

The Russians seem to be following me! A work by Vladimir Tatlin in an exhibit dedicated to Socialist Realism.
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Found a cool architectural card game about design families to share with my Industrious Design classes.

Also while out wandering, I ran across the Nobel Museum in Gamla stan, the Old Town portion of the city.

Exhibits highlighting the work of Nobel winners, past and present.

I spent a few hours geeking out over exhibits on the Higgs Boson (I have a fascination with¬†CERN from my time in Switzerland) and Alfred Nobel‘s original experiments during his childhood time in St. Petersburg.

Salmon (lax) is¬†always on the menu along with creme fraiche. I had lunch at Ostermalms Saluhall on the recommendation of my friends Devi and Derek – definitely an awesome spot for enjoying Stockholm’s tastiest treats.

On my final night in Stockholm, I had the chance to visit Skogskyrkogarden¬†with the whole family. A special cemetery on the outskirts of Stockholm, Sweds from all over flock to Skogskyrkogarden to honor their loved ones on All Saints’ Day. I was really lucky that my trip overlapped with this year’s¬†celebration.

A wide open expanse of land, the cemetary is designed to bring peace to the mourners through unity with nature.

As the website states, “All Saints‚Äô Day is a day of dignity and reflection. The custom of lighting candles on family graves is still widely practiced, and anyone passing a cemetery in Sweden this weekend is met by some beautiful scenes.”

Modest graves dot the forest floor. Loved ones come to spend time remembering their loved ones.

This visit seemed to only scratch the surface of what Stockholm had to offer.¬†I certainly learned a thing or two about how to make the best of living in a dark, Northern land. On the whole, I came to appreciate Sweden’s love of the light and their strength of spirit. I would love to return in the summer at the Solstice – an incredible time of year, I’m told, full of¬†outdoor parties and celebration. For now, hej d√•, Stockholm! Thank you for your warm hospitality.

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Time for a little R&R

After a few busy weeks away, I’m happy to be back with you all. Life in Moscow has picked up, both at school and at home and I’m thankful for the change. As I mentioned last time, I did get to see the Bolshoi dancers perform at school and they were wonderful. They danced numbers both classical and contemporary (which I must say I enjoyed most). I look forward to seeing them in the actual Bolshoi Theatre sometime this spring. An extravagant must-do in Moscow, but definitely worth the expense.

I can hardly believe it but I’ve completed the first quarter of my school year! It has both flown and dragged, as all years do, but I still have my wits still intact and I’ve learned a lot. Thank you to all of you who supported me through it. Couldn’t have done it without you! And now, as icing on the cake, fall break has arrived!

In addition to my goal to move closer to family and friends, one of the main reasons I chose to live in a chilly land with a *dubious* reputation was to be able to travel more and with ease, especially in Europe. Given a week off to enjoy a change of scenery, I didn’t hesitate in hatching a plan.

First stop on the agenda – Paris! There simply something about the buzz of the city that I can’t get enough of – the culture, the architecture, the food… Though I’ve been to the City of Light a few times, it always keeps me coming back for more.

I hopped off the plane at Charles de Gaulle primed and ready to explore. When I left Moscow it was 3 degrees and snowing. No coat needed in Paris, I’m happy to report! 

As I was on my own for this leg of the journey, I opted for a cheaper Airbnb homestay. My hosts, Anne and Pablo, were incredible. We bonded over tea and mutual stories of ex-pat life in Asia (they in Singapore, myself in Korea) and our mutual appreciation for their neighborhood in Paris, Republique.


(This building is where I stayed in a charming little room on the 6th floor)

I had never been to Republique on any of my prior trips and I’m so happy that my Airbnb choice led me there. A cozy neighborhood, full of patisseries, card shops, and markets, I took to the area immediately. Highlights included the local tapas bar and the taco shop on the corner. 


(For the record I took nearly 3/4 of this meal home to share!)

Come to think of it, I have to throw in the Lebanese take-out spot which was so delicious and whose owners were so friendly to me. 


In fact, nearly everyone was friendly. Despite Paris’ reputation, I had people offer me directions on the street many times, waiters doting on me with a smile, and passersby step to make way.  I’m truly happy to say that Paris doesn’t intimidate me anymore. Trying a little French goes a long way, I found. Always lead with “s’il vous plait”.


While in Paris, I was blessed with three days of blue sky and sun. Never have I appreciated the sun so much before in my life! No need for my S.A.D. light here (a daily practice in Moscow)!


Clearly in need of a vacation, on my first night I managed to sleep through the daylight savings change in France, only to realize it 12 hours later. Luckily I was staying down the street from one of the best bakeries in all of Paris (Le Pain et les Idees) and I stopped in for a chocolate croissant on my way to the metro. 


One special opportunity that I had pre-booked was a ticket to see Versailles. A bucket list item for me, Versailles did not disappoint. 


The coolest part for me was the Mesdames’ Apartments. I had downloaded the app prior to my visit and the audio commentary was an awesome supplement to all the velvet and gold overwhelming the rooms.

I had arrived early to beat the crowds. As I walked back towards the metro. the trees still had a late morning fog threading through them.


To totally juxtapose my Versailles experience, I took the metro back to town (RER C line, 40 minutes to city center) and headed for the Left Bank. Having never explored the left bank beyond Shakespeare & Co., I followed my directions as far as I could to the Place d’Italie. It was there that no less than three people helped guide me through the 13th Arrondissement to the tiny corner where I was to meet my street art tour group. I suspect they really enjoyed seeing a tourist off the beaten path and I was so thankful!

A new Airbnb offering is to connect travelers with local tours of the homegrown variety. When a tour of street art of the Left Bank street popped up, organized by a group of photographers, art historians, and street artists, I jumped at the chance. 



My guide was in her late 30s, a true aficionado of the Parisian urban art scene who had guided at the Louvre for over a decade in a previous life. I really enjoyed my fellow group members, one from Glasgow and two from Italy on Erasmus exchange. 


We jumped right in as the 13th is the center of the diverse street art scene in Paris. Before long, I’d been introduced to the pioneers of the scene and was familiar enough with their M.O. to identify their work on sight. 

The tour also greatly expanded my understanding of street art – graffiti being popular but also paste-ups, stencils, chalking, 3D installation, etc. I’ve always appreciated this form of expression but I looked at it through new eyes as my guide spoke of her belief that street art will come to be recognized as a major period in Art History. I can understand why she thinks so.


My favorite artist was Seth, who works to depict children for various social causes but never shows their face.



The tour wound through the neighborhoods of the 13th, whose mayor is a HUGE supporter of the arts, until it concluded in one of the coolest works for me – my first Shepard Fairey mural (and my 2nd and my 3rd!). Some of you may recognize Fairey as the artist behind the iconic Obama “HOPE” poster.



Also a social activist, part of the mayor’s mission is to allow the tenants choose their mural from three designs, giving them ownership and pride in their otherwise everyday housing project. It’s an incredibly inspiring mission and I really applaud the local mayor for making this happen.

After that incredible first day in Paris, I took it easy the next. Paris is so wonderful in that you don’t even need a map to wander – between metro stops and bus stops, you’re bound to find your way and see some pretty cool neighborhoods along the way.


In setting out, my only goal was to make it to the Pompidou, a revered modern and contemporary art museum known as much for its impressive collection as its outer facade, designed by Renzo Piano of Isabella Stewart Gardner expansion fame.


Having missed the Pompidou on two previous visits, the lines did nothing to deter me (it was a bank holiday in Paris). The galleries were full of my favorites from Matisse to Jasper Johns to Joan Mitchell.


I spent a great afternoon wandering around the museum, inside and out, and took in an incredible view over Paris.


On my final morning in Paris, I struck out for the Ile de St. Louis in the middle of the Seine. A tip from a coworker led me to a bench in a quiet park on the far end of the island. 


Bound and determined to soak up as much sun as possible, I let it rain down. I had such a great few days in Paris and now feel recharged to take on the next 6 weeks until the holiday break.

However, it’s not time to head back to Moscow just yet… God morgan, Stockholm!