Take a Holiday in Spain

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Time for some fun in the sun

One of the tricks to managing Moscow is to get to sunshine whenever possible. With temps dipping below 30F and light snow falling, it was clearly time for a breather from this northern clime.

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Spain was calling…

I began searching for direct flights from Moscow on SkyScanner. For those who haven’t used it before, SkyScanner finds affordable flight options from your home port. When seeking vacation inspiration, it’s a great place to start.

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Downtown Port de Pollença

Around the same time, I read about a company called VAWAA (Vacation with an Artist) on Artsy.net. The concept was intriguing to me as I strive to make time for my own art practice. Via the VAWAA listings, I found an artist named Cloe who practices the art of Tibetan mandala weaving. She lives on Mallorca, a beautiful Spanish island in the Balearic Sea and – voila – also a SkyScanner deal from Moscow! I contacted VAWAA and booked my flight.

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View from the Formentor overlook – “the meeting place of the winds”

While I didn’t hesitate to book this solo trip, I wanted to ensure I wouldn’t be bored or lonely. I booked a room within a shared apartment on Airbnb. Having done this in Paris last year and really enjoyed the experience, I had confidence in the process. Reading many positive reviews about my hosts took away any qualms I might have had. From a safety standpoint, I knew someone would be keeping an eye out for me. I also kept the vacation short – 5 days in total – so not to go too long without people. Turns out, I needn’t have worried at all.

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A gorgeous Mallorcan sunset from 384m above sea level

My hosts had the loveliest apartment in downtown Port de Pollença. Josep, who grew up in the place, proved a wonderful guide to the local food scene. I spent mornings out on the back porch, watching the sun fall over the terracotta tiled roofs. With weather in the 70s and nary a cloud in sight, I set myself a goal of eating every meal outside. Challenge accepted!

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View from my Airbnb deck

Happily, I arrived at the tail end of tourist season so the crowds had died down. Whereas Ibiza is the party island, Mallorca (also written Majorca) is very popular with the British retiree set and those looking for outdoor adventures.

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The harbor at Port de Pollença

With my mornings free, I explored the Port de Pollença but quickly moved on to local beaches recommended by my host artist. Crystal clear water and exquisite views quickly dissolved my Moscow blues. I spent time sketching from the shoreline and swimming each day.

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My favorite swimming spot – Playa de Sant Joan

Upon Cloe’s recommendation, I avoided the touristy markets of the Port towns and drove inland to the hilltop town of Sineu for the Wednesday market. The artisans did not disappoint and I was treated to a feast for the eyes and ears, with a local band playing in the square.

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Even more intriguing were the back streets of Sineu. Adorable, authentic, and unpretentious, the narrow streets brought back visions of Sienna from my first trip to Italy.

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The gorgeous sunlight cast intricate shadows on the walls of the abutting houses.

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My wandering curiosity satisfied, I made my way over to Cloe’s homestead, perched on the edge of a natural reserve. Olive trees lined the gravel drive and migrating birds danced symphonies in the sky above, en route to Africa for the winter.

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Cloe welcomed me with open arms, showering me with delicious local fare and stories of her years traveling in India and Nepal as we sat out on her back porchway.

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Her studio, filled with rainbows of yarn, inspired me immediately, and I set to meditating on the origin story for my mandala.

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One of Cloe’s recent projects – for a client in Shanghai

Over the course of my time in workshop, I learned 6 different wrapping techniques and created my own mandala which now hangs triumphantly on the wall of my Moscow apartment. We shared our artistic processes, philosophies on artmaking, and advised each other as each afternoon sailed past.

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Yuki the dog kept me company

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Now back in Moscow, I’m feeling rested and energized. I look forward to sharing this process with my students and feel ready for the 7-week home stretch until the winter break. I would love to do another vacation with an artist in the future and highly recommend VAWAA to travelers of all abilities. Exploring a place through the eyes of locals cannot be matched and with artmaking to boot, it was a experience I will never forget.

For more information on Vacationing with an Artist, visit vawaa.com. To see more gorgeous works by Cloe, visit artbycloe.com.

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Bolshoi Beauty

The Bolshoi Theatre represents the epitome of Russian ballet culture. When the chance arose to explore the Bolshoi on a behind-the-scenes tour, I eagerly gathered friends and signed up.

In Russian, bolshoi means big or grand – yet ‘grand’ cannot fully capture all that this building encompasses. Reminiscent of Versailles or the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the Bolshoi Theatre features notes of rich red and gilded gold that I’ve come to equate with Russian elegance. Sanctioned by Catherine the Great in 1776, the Moscow Theatre Company was originally housed in a smaller building along the Neglinka River. After multiple theatres were lost to fire, the troupe relocated in 1856 to the expansive building that you see today.

As our group walked into the orchestra of the main theatre, we were lucky enough to happen upon a practice session of the ballet Giselle. The prima ballerina, dressed down in casual wear and toe shoes, floated across the stage to the sounds of the grand piano set front and center. Abstract set designs including the cosmos and other natural phenomena added to the spectacle.

When my parents visited in May of this year, we had the chance to see a ballet on the Bolshoi’s New Stage, just around the corner. Absolutely gorgeous itself, the New Stage was by far the better choice as the Historic Stage featured an opera that evening (good call, Dad).

Taking in the grandiosity of the venue from below, I was acutely aware of the history of this hollowed concert hall. Moscow itself has changed rapidly in the past 150 years. The one constant among historic drawings is always the Bolshoi Theatre, as seen below.

Swan Lake premiered here in 1877. Nazi bombs fell upon it in 1941. The creation of the USSR was declared from this very stage. For more of the fascinating history of this building – particularly of its usage by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution – you can click here.

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With seemingly no bad seat in the house, wealthy Russian families used to purchase a box for the full theatre season. They would then redecorate the box to their liking with purchases of furniture and wallpaper. When the Bolshoi was redone in the rich golds and reds of today’s decor, it’s said that women did not appreciate being upstaged in their elegant theatre attire.

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The stage floor is famously sloped to provide the audience with the best view of the dancers. The floor is mechanically leveled when foreign ballet companies perform here.

After climbing to the boxes above, we were surprised to find the stage had been quickly reset to allow for a rehearsal of the current opera, The Maid of Pskov. We were treated to a performance by the show’s chorus as we watched from on high.

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The building itself is comprised of 13 levels – seven above ground and five below. An exact replica of the Bolshoi stage can be found in the attic above the Historic Stage. Our group snuck in silently and watched no less than 50 dancers practicing for an upcoming production. Many of the dancers were teenagers and children, members of the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet Academy.

Known for pushing the limits of contemporary performance, as well as maintaining the highest standards of historic Russian culture, the Bolshoi is a true Moscow delight. Someday I hope to see a ballet from its seats. For now, I’ll reminisce about my visit as notes of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake drift through my apartment.

A Night in the Petroff Palace

The majority of my posts on this blog serve to share unique and wonderful experiences from my life abroad as an ex-pat. But in sharing all the good, perhaps a perspective is formed that all is rosy, life is bliss, and these experiences grow on trees. I have to tell you, and I know my ex-pat friends will agree, this is not always the case. Life throws you just as many curveballs when living abroad – and some truly unique ones at that. This post is about stepping up and trusting instincts, in bad times and in good.

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This sign hangs by the copier in our s office.

On Thursday morning, I had only just caught a ride to work with two of my good friends when we were sideswiped by an SUV just outside our apartment complex. We were all fine. Sadly, minor car accidents are common here in Moscow. I don’t know if it’s the #norules mentality or poor driving conditions (it was raining when we were hit) but the majority of cars on the road bear the scars of past collisions.

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Tough start to the school day.

Anyways, the story gets interesting because you’re not allowed to move the cars involved until the police show up. Hence a whole lot of traffic jams. But the police came quickly that day. We called the embassy for a mobile unit to come out and translate but it turns out budget cuts (and *staffing issues*) have led to the cancellation of a mobile unit. Nonplussed, we Google Translated our way through the interaction with four very kind local policeman who made it clear we were not at fault and took great care to make sure we were taken care of. Signing documents in a foreign language you don’t speak = more common than you might think living this life. Thankfully, we were reassured by our own security staff and soon we were on our way.

The next morning I boarded a plane bound for Tallinn, Estonia with my dear friend Peter. Excited to get out of rainy, dreary Moscow and take a trip to cozy Tallinn, I settled into my seat expecting a quick 1.5 hour ride. Moments before we were to taxi away from the gate, I was jolted from my seat by the sounds of someone in distress.

Turning to look only a few rows behind, I was horrified to see my colleague (who was also journeying to Tallinn) in extreme distress. His wife’s stricken face turned to me as I called out to her. The situation was dire and we both knew it. The flight staff was incredible and did everything right – bringing him back to consciousness and helping him stabilize. It was quickly clear to me that my help was needed and I pushed into action, calling for an ambulance and insurance permission.

Once he was stable, we were quickly shuffled off to the airport medical clinic where we spent hours waiting for an ambulance to take him just 15km downtown. The whole ordeal offered a sobering insight into the medical system that we are a part of, full of wonderfully caring people and far too much red tape. Thankfully, he got top rate care at the ex-pat hospital downtown and is today resting comfortably at home. Your health is your wealth, they say, and they’re absolutely right.

Once the situation calmed down, and with my plans sidelined, I knew I would need a little peace to put things in perspective. After a little Korean 순두부 (still my comfort food) and a good night’s rest, Saturday greeted me with the desire to get out and explore. After searching for historic hotels in Moscow, I booked a room at the Petroff Palace for the evening.

Petroff Castle from the front gates, just after the rain.

A former transit stop for tsars traveling from St. Petersburg, the Palace (also known as Petrovsky Castle) is featured in the works of Pushkin. Napoleon himself even stayed there while Moscow was being burned. Destroyed by the French in their retreat from Moscow in 1812, the castle was rebuilt in the 1830s. Turns out that I pass the castle daily on my commute to school but have never noticed it. For more on rich history of the castle and grounds, click here.

 

The room was stunning and private. I definitely treated myself to room service! The dish in the middle, dumplings in broth is called pelmeni soup. Native to Siberia, this dish is simple, delicious, and served with a dollop of sour cream on top.

 

The view from my window

Stunning.

Conveniently, the property is nestled within a beautiful park with wooded trails and gorgeous birch trees in bloom – just what the doctor ordered. The sun broke through the clouds just as I arrived and I enjoyed multiple sunbaths in the park during my stay. There’s nothing like time spent in nature to set you right again.

 

The sun exploded through the trees while rain still fell.

 

Intrigued by this gorgeous tree, I happened upon this Orthodox church in the park.

I rounded out the weekend with a stop at the ArtPlay Moscow space to see a show on the works of Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel. Though I’m hesitant about the “multimedia-ing” of classic works of art history, this movie blew my mind. Telling the tale of the dawn of civilization (with subtitles in English), the Dutchman’s work came alive on the screens engulfing the entire room – from the Tower of Babel to scenes of the Middle Ages.

The ArtPlay Center features specialty boutique shops, from lighting to antiques to art supplies.

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The Tower of Babel, Pieter Bruegel, 1653

So, to conclude this story, I don’t have any great words of wisdom gleaned from this experience. I can only say that we do the best we can with what is presented us. That’s all we can do.

I’m very thankful to my friends and family who were there for me as I worked to put this experience into perspective. You were all so comforting. Take care, everyone. Be good to each other and to yourselves.