A Staycation in Moscow

The tail end of Autumn in Moscow

Thankfully, Quarter 1 of the school year has come to a close. We ended with a full week of distance learning due to infections within our school community and the rising rates here in Moscow. I’m relieved to have made it to break, more necessary this year than in the past. The break is a welcome reprieve to step away from my computer screen and clear my head.

Someone is already in a stay-cation state of mind

So much talk these days is about unknowns but one “known” is that US citizens living in Moscow are not allowed to leave the city limits except by automobile. No planes or trains for us at this time. While some friends chose to rent dachas (cabins outside the city limits – some with heat, some without), others opted to hunker down, catch up on sleep, and de-stress. I planned something small each day to get out and about in the city while avoiding crowds and public transportation.

Starting off on a cultural note, I opted to spend a few hours on Saturday taking a walking tour of Prechistenka Street and the alleyways surrounding the popular Arbat pedestrian street. This area is known for its immense city estates featuring diverse architecture, from Art Nouveau to avant-garde.

I have taken a few tours via Bridge to Moscow in the past and found their excursions to be thoughtful, laid back, and full of information. Ivan, our guide, was a mathematician with a passion for history passed down from his architect grandfather.

The tour flowed easily from talk about the impact of President Nixon’s momentous visit to Moscow in 1972 – major road reconstruction and architectural discoveries from the 16th century – to homes gifted to the Decembrists to the inspiration for Lenin’s tomb (Disney’s Sleeping Beauty). We also learned a great deal about the architect Konstantin Melinkov, a contemporary of Frank Lloyd Wright, similar in their creative genius.

We ended our tour near the graffiti tribute wall to the (in)famous singer Viktor Tsoi and his song Khochu Peremen. The title roughly translates to “We are awaiting change” which seems particularly poignant given politics these days, from Belarus to the States.

On Monday I opted for an overnight stay in a fun area of the city, just off Pyatnitskaya Street. I booked a hotel room on the cheap (the ruble has fallen considerably against the dollar) and set out to walk the 3 miles to my hotel, avoiding public transport. My walk took me through Red Square and past Lenin’s Tomb, St. Basil’s, and the Kremlin walls.

The neighborhood surrounding Novokuznetskaya Station is a warm and inviting. From the world-famous Tretyakov Gallery to newly-minted craft brew pubs, there is something for everyone. The area still retains it’s history, with Orthodox Cathedrals nestled up against glass office buildings along the cobble stone sidewalks.

The entrance to the State Tretyakov Gallery – containing a massive collection of major works of art from Russia and around the world

Of course, given the COVID situation, I opted to play it safe and just wander around outdoors. To my knowledge, I was the only guest at the small N-Hotel (clean, cheap, excellent location). I saw more masks on the streets this week (thankfully) and wore mine the entire time I was outside my hotel room.

The colorful view from my hotel balcony

I hit up only one restaurant and purposely went very early. The Mardi Gras Brasserie featured both Belgian beer and a delicious moules frites, a favorite of both my grandfather and myself. Considering this was originally meant to be my week exploring Belgium, I felt spirited away to a little pub in Bruges, if only for a moment.

After dinner, I wandered the streets along the banks of the Москва River, crossing over to the little island which divides the Kremlin from the south side of the city. The view of St. Basil’s alongside GUM Department Store lit up like a Christmas tree was a warm, welcome sight. I am thankful for sidewalks clear of snow as the temperature in Moscow continues to fall.

Like all vacation weeks, this one seems to be flying by. As a teacher at an international school, so much of life is centered around the school, it’s dealings, and the school community. The time away from school has been particularly redeeming for both sanity and a little fun. I feel grateful to have a city that is uniquely engaging, whether inside or out.

These goobers urge all of you in the US to please go vote 🙂

Starting a school year in a pandemic

School has been back in session since the end of August and it has been a quite a ride. We completed two weeks of distance learning to allow the teachers on the charter plane to properly quarantine. Hybrid learning immediately kicked into high gear. A new word in the educational lexicon, “hybrid” can cover any number of sins. Generally it describes a school with only 50% of students physically in school with 50% learning at home. My school has required us to teach this way simultaneously, in real time. The kids switch off every other day. Teachers are on campus 100% of the time.

Like thousands of teachers across the country, I scrambled to prepare take-home packets of art supplies for my students. I sent purchase lists to those abroad (I am teaching students in 5+ time zones, including one in Texas). There is only so much one can send home, even with an extremely generous budget to work with. I can’t send home acrylic paints, oil paints, massive canvases for IB diploma students.

A student cobbled together her first stretcher.

For all five of my courses, I plan and carry out at least two separate curriculums (one for in school and one for at home). Additionally, I have to send separate directions to those students abroad who do not get to attend school in person. I also have to make a video recording of every single class, download it, and post it. If you can’t follow this math (understandable), I have to plan somewhere between double to three times the lessons of a normal school year. It has been, quite simply, exhausting.

Of course, it’s not all bad. Hybrid has allowed me to see my students again, which I love. I have had access to my supplies and classroom. The kids have been particularly patient but I just wonder how long they can keep it up and what the lasting impact will be. I hope for resilience, worry about other consequences.

So what about safety? Every morning I grab my mask(s) of the day and paper daily pass which asks me questions like, have you been exposed to someone who has had COVID symptoms in the last 24 hours? Every individual who enters the school is required to turn this pass in at a station outside the school doors where security guards also take our temperature.

A mere fraction of my mask collection, many made by friends.

Once on campus, I am required to wear my mask 24/7. I sit behind plexiglass which surrounds my desk. Plexiglass also divides student tables so all of my students could fit into my classroom according to the regulations.

The Art Department was granted two sterilizers per classroom. These machines employ UV rays to decontaminate shared supplies in three minutes flat.

Since it is still unconfirmed if the virus is transferable on surfaces, this makes supply-heavy classes like art and science lab challenging. Students drop their supplies in the sterilizer as they exit the room. At the end of every class, I distribute wipes and students also wipe down their desks and chairs.

A few days ago, my school announced our upcoming return to distance learning. With cases rising in Moscow (yesterday we set a COVID world record with 12,200+ cases in one day) and a positive COVID case on campus, this is the necessary next step. As I was a close contact of the COVID case, I had to leave campus a day early and finish a 14 day quarantine. I’m due for another COVID test tomorrow (my third in as many months) but have no symptoms and feel fine. I tested positive for antibodies back in June so I do not anticipate a recurrence. For the record, I was an asymptomatic case.

All this to say, this first quarter of the school year has been like no other. Amidst all the stress and anxiety there have also been unexpected moments of grace and beauty. I try to hold onto these. When technology is unyielding, I take a deep breath. I feel like a first year teacher all over again. My family and friends have provided incredible support. Moloko provides the comic relief and is probably the most happy to have me teaching from home again.

In closing, I’m sending out love and support to teachers everywhere, fighting the good fight. We were not trained for this but, as always, we rise to the challenge and roll with it. On to the next…