Touring Around Town

Spring is coming to Moscow! The crocuses are peaking up, the snow is finally melting, and the days are rapidly getting longer. As the colder temps disappear, it’s a great time for touring the city.

Last weekend, I organized a tour with Bridge to Moscow for a group of friends. The tour took us from Patriarch’s Pond (of Master and Margarita fame) to the Gorky House, an Art Nouveau dream residence near Moscow’s Garden Ring.

Built at the turn of the 20th century by Fyodor Schechtel, the Gorky House has been on my bucket list for years.

Commissioned by the wealthy Ryabouchinsky family, the home was gifted to the writer Maxim Gorky by the Russian government in 1931, as a ploy to bring him back from “exile” Sorrento, Italy. Honestly, this house might convince me to leave Capri, too.

Moscow’s treasures never fail to surprise me. Considering the strife of the 20th century, it’s amazing that these gems still remain intact.

I checked another item off my bucket list just yesterday – the Novodevichy Cemetery. The second most famous cemetery in Moscow (Red Square being the first), Novodevichy is the final resting place of over 27,000 former Moscow residents.

Notable entrants include Anton Chekhov and Boris Yeltsin, among many others. Bulgakov and Brezhnev. Gorbachev and Gogol. You name it, they are resting here.

We had a beautiful day for it and our guide (also from Bridge to Moscow), Lena, was a treasure trove of information. Interspersing love stories, military triumphs, and tales of the gulag, she eloquently explained the Russian mindset. Championing contributions of science and the arts, while acknowledging the historic truth (“he did a lot of good for our country but also a lot of terrible things”), she took us on a journey through time.

A interesting note about Khrushchev. It’s said that he despised conceptual modern art and once went head-to-head with Ernst Neizvestny, the famous Russian sculptor, debating its lack of merit. Years later, both the sculptor and Khrushchev’s son were living in New York City and became acquaintances. When Khrushchev died, his son sought out Neizvestny to design his father’s gravestone. Seems that art (and Khrushchev’s son) got the final word.

We toured the cemetery for nearly two hours as the skies turned from bright blue to grey marble. As a chilly snow began to fall, we took our leave. Moscow’s cultural treasures are endlessly engaging and there are so many more to explore. Until next time…

One year later…

An after school forest walk in Park Pokrovskoe-Streshnevo

It’s hard to believe but it has been a full 365 days since my school shut our campus on March 19, 2020. Though today we know that COVID-19 was with us much earlier than we had realized, this anniversary gives me pause. As I took some time today to reflect on the rollercoaster ride of 2020-2021 and write this post, I want to preface all of this by saying how lucky I feel that my friends and family have all remained safe, mostly employed, and fairly even-keeled mentally during this time. This is clearly not the case for so many people effected by this pandemic.

Strictly by the numbers, the last year has brought:

  • 80 days of lockdown in my Moscow compound
  • 11 COVID tests (all negative)
  • 1 antibody test (positive)
  • 4 international flights resulting in 48 days spent alone in quarantine (not counting the cat, she would be offended)
  • 6 weeks of asynchronous teaching via Google Classroom posts
  • 3 months of distance teaching in my Moscow apartment
  • 3 months of hybrid teaching (teaching simultaneously to students online and in my classroom)
  • 2 doses of the Sputnik V vaccine*
  • Hundreds of Marco Polo video messages to friends keeping in touch

Still not sure what to make of any of it except to say that I’ve survived, thanks in huge part to the support of my family, friends, colleagues, and students. The cat has some residual separation anxiety and I’ve gained about 10 lbs. but we’ll both bounce back. Some days are harder than others but, on the whole, I’m choosing to champion the little victories.

I’m very happy to share that my Grade 12 Visual Art students were able to hold their IB Exhibition this past week. The event was a bright spot in an otherwise abnormal school year, appreciated by the whole school community. Sadly, last year we were shut down just two days before my students were meant to mount their show. Above is a video of the event and below a few pictures of the artists and artwork. This was a small but mighty group and the show packed a punch. Very proud of these young women.

Next week our entire school will be returning to campus. Thus far, we have been in “hybrid learning” with only half of our student population on campus on a given day. It’s complicated but was starting to become the new normal. Can’t say I’m looking forward to yet another additional change in teaching flow but it’s the direction our school has chosen.

The more I read about mental health stability during this time, the more the word novelty arises. Many of us have turned to routine for stability during these turbulent times. However, as we humans are curious social creatures by nature, experts are encouraging us to change up the routine when possible to refresh our daily perspective.

In this vein, I was able to take a night at the Hotel Savoy over my February break. We are not allowed to travel internationally right now but it did seem necessary to change it up and spend a night in another part of town.

Choosing a hotel I could walk to and avoiding public transport was important to me. I also really wanted to see the lights in Red Square and hadn’t been able to due to temperatures in the negative numbers of Fahrenheit. The Savoy assured me of their safety measures and contactless check-in. I was sold.

The hotel did not disappoint and I even got a blue sky day to enjoy the 45 minute walk from my home to Red Square. After warming up and ordering room service for dinner, I set off to enjoy the lights. Moscow does “lights” particularly well.

Red Square was no exception, especially amid the snow of a recent storm. Though the Christmas market was over, the holiday spirit remained.

As always, there are bright spots. My students continue to bring joy and excitement to each new school day. The sun is staying out longer and rising earlier. We’re holding steadily at 35F after two months of very cold weather. I’m venturing farther from home as weather allows and taking walks with friends often. You may have noticed above that I made the choice to get the Sputnik V vaccine. I have no completed both doses and I’m a week away from “full immunity”. I continue to wear my mask. Moscow remains fully open which I find both intimidating and premature. However, this affords me certain liberties and choices that friends in other countries do not have. Pandemic life continues to be full of starts and stops, ups and downs, pros and cons. As always, I try to appreciate a little beauty amid the madness.

I hope you are all staying safe and getting vaccinated when possible. Wishing you good health and a good week ahead. Please stay in touch – it means a lot.

Home for the Holidays

Wellesley College at sunset

A steady snow is falling here in Moscow on this quiet Saturday morning. My cat sits on her perch above me, here for the company. We are both happy to be reunited after my trip back to the States.

In November, I was surprised to receive clearance to travel from my local US Embassy. I mulled over a trip home for the holidays, trying to determine if I could do it safely during this time of COVID. Having something to look forward to was very enticing as the days grew shorter and the stress at school piled up. In the end, I booked an Airbnb for quarantine in Wellesley, Mass. and scheduled a number of COVID tests before leaving Moscow and after arriving in Boston.

Though I have had COVID, I still don’t take any chances – always masking up and being as cautious as possible, especially around my parents. With the help of my good friend Sarah, I scheduled tests through CVS Pharmacy and Project Beacon, a MA-based initiative providing free COVID tests. Testing in Moscow is much simpler and results faster. I simply showed up at the private test center around the corner from my building, paid $40 (reimbursed by insurance), and had my results by email by 6am the next morning. I tested two weeks in a row to let me know I didn’t have COVID before leaving.

The concourse was nearly empty at Domodedovo Airport on the outskirts of Moscow. I had opted to fly Lufthansa for their solid reputation, hoping to avoid the multitude of cancellations I’d faced last summer on Aeroflot. Check-in and customs were both easy and the group of teachers I was flying with retired to the lounge to wait for our departure to Frankfurt. From there I flew on Boston with absolutely no issues during the trip. It was glorious to skirt the coast of Maine and circle over P-town with the shoreline dressed in new-fallen snow.

No one at Logan Airport collected my PCR test nor the Massachusetts Commonwealth Travel Form I had printed and prepared. My parents met me outside the airport at a distance (not being able to hug is the worst) and dropped me a car to take to my quarantine. They had prepped groceries and supplies, once again, making all of this possible. I’m extremely grateful.

As always, it’s a joy to come back to the States. Life is easier, everyone speaks my language, I have wheels and friends to see. Obviously, this time was different as we were bundling up and talking through masks across driveways. But the chance to do this is a gift. While I was still in quarantine, I did a drive-through lights show, caravaning with my parents on FaceTime in their car. We made it work, which could be the quote which best sums up 2020.

Once I could join the family bubble, it was all cooking and puzzles and daily walks in the woods. I took none of that time for granted, appreciating every phone call from a friend or opportunity to see a loved one from a distance. After quarantining for two weeks, my brother drove out from Wisconsin, 16 hours straight to avoid exposure. He introduced us to Marley’s Spoon (a food prep delivery service) which we all enjoyed. Cooking together made our meals even more special. It was a quieter holiday but one that I think we all realized was very special. I felt beyond lucky to be spending it my family.

My trip back was (thankfully) just as uneventful, albeit with even less people in the airports. The greatest challenge came in the days prior, attempting to get a negative COVID test completed and returned within 72 hours prior to my touchdown in Moscow. With my flight travel taking 18 hours door-to-door, this left a very close window. I scheduled three tests, not knowing which would work out. In the end, Project Beacon came through once again, proving to be the only service outside a hospital to return results within 24 hours.

My flight from Boston to Frankfurt was perhaps 40% full, although the repatriation flight to Moscow was packed. Airport employees reminded people to re-mask as needed, with more vigor than I observed over the summer. Meals on the plane are all packaged. A loudspeaker announcement requested that we all stay masked when ordering drinks from the stewards. Wet wipes were handed out multiple times throughout the flight. One change since the summer is that we now wait upon arrival at the gate to be called to deplane by segments of rows, promoting more social distancing.

At one point, leaving security in Frankfurt, I turned the corner and encountered a group of about 100 individuals in a corridor, the most people in one place that I saw the whole journey. They were dressed head-to-toe in white hazmat suits, replete with goggles and face shields. I believe they were from China as they led by a guide carrying a Chinese flag. It was a surreal apocalyptic scene and I waded through quickly, not wanting to gawk or dawdle.

Some of you may be wondering how I was able to do this trip, especially considering all the hubbub around my return to Moscow in August on the private charter. Essentially my diplomatic passport and Russian residency card were key in allowing me to make this trip. Also, due to past experience, my choice to avoid Heathrow at the holidays proved never more pertinent (I could have never foretold the variant chaos that unfolded). During my time in Moscow, my dip privilege has been both a blessing and a burden. In this case, it proved the former.

I am so thankful for the mental break this trip provided me during this time of high stress and isolation. I also very much feel for my friends scattered in countries around the world who have not seen their families in over a year, blocked by closed borders which would not allow them to return to their jobs at international schools. My heart is with them.

If nothing else, this time reminds me that nothing can be taken for granted – my health, security, relationships, even the democracy I hold dear. The virus is still very much disrupting daily life here in Moscow and will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future. I continue to teach from home, as I have done since mid-October. My students continue to take it all in stride and give their best. They keep me motivated and remind me how important it is to show up for others, taking it one day at a time. I know this is an extremely difficult time for many and welcome any of you reading this to reach out, especially if you are having a hard time. Send me a message and I will gladly respond. It is so important to reach out and check in, even on those we assume are doing fine. Thank you for reading and I wish you all a healthy start to 2021.

Moscow, January 2021

Going the distance…

For the last month, my school has been engaged in distance learning. Rather I should say that our middle school and high school students have remained at home. Teachers have had to report to school every day, regardless. Elementary has proceeded in hybrid – a story for another time.

Moloko is not thrilled that I am no longer working from home

In distance learning, we continue to employ Google Classroom as our digital learning platform and class meetings are held on Webex. Though I can’t share screenshots which include my students’ faces and names, the Brady Bunch intro below is pretty apropos.

In general, I prefer distance learning at this current time because it keeps kids home safe, it prevents COVID transmission between students and teachers and it means the whole class can stay on the same curriculum (that’s right folks, only one set of lessons to plan).

A Google Classroom post from my Contemporary Art course.

Distance learning has its drawbacks, of course. My students generally don’t enjoy it and this makes them less engaged. They understand the need to stay safe but school is so social for them. They’d rather see some classmates than be stuck at home alone, many of them spread out all over this large city. Another downfall – being glued to my screen(s). Before each lesson, I definitely feel like I’m gearing up for a space launch rather than an art lesson.

I’ve learned a few things along the way. Shared documents/folders/screens help me monitor student progress. Keeping my Webex room locked and waiting to accept students in the digital lobby all at once keeps everyone at ease (’cause no one wants to be solo in a Webex room with their teacher). Webex’s new breakout rooms have improved distance learning for me tenfold, letting me differentiate kids by progress and needs without them knowing it.

And thank god for the great students who make it work AND make you laugh πŸ™‚

Spot the note Masha left for me πŸ™‚

On Monday we will once again return to hybrid learning. For those keeping track we’ve rotated from distance to hybrid to distance to hybrid since August. A number of my students have still not returned to Moscow. Others have left since the COVID numbers have risen. Therefore hybrid will once again require me to plan 2-3 sets of lessons for every class. Although I’m not excited to be heading back to hybrid, I am of course looking forward to seeing my students in person (albeit behind masks). The benefits of in-person teaching cannot be matched digitally, there is no dispute. And distance learning fatigue is real. Both teachers and students are exhausted. It’s hard to fathom that we have three more quarters left in our school year.

A good friend pointed out to me recently that both teachers and students are incredibly resilient. When I think of how far education has to come in such a short time, I’m proud, impressed, and also bewildered. Teaching has evolved in both good and bad ways thanks to COVID-19.

As always, the Arts to help us to express what we’re feeling, to put things in perspective. This past week, I discovered that Stephen Colbert and I share a favorite song, This Year, by The Mountain Goats. How innocent this performance looks back in 2019! But as the song says: I am gonna make it through this year. If it kills me πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚

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…

I’ve always dreamed of the Emerald Isle…

… but I never expected my first time on Irish soil to be on a government-chartered 767 en route to Moscow. As with most aspects of life in the time of COVID, expectations have flown right out the window.

After weeks of grappling with cancelled flights from New York to Moscow (not Aeroflot’s fault – they could only take repatriating Russians), my school scrambled to find an alternative. 88 of us needed to get back to Moscow before the start of school. After bumping the school year back by a week, the school informed us of a charter flight out of DC. I confirmed my intent to be on it and started making travel arrangements.

Our charter on a remote tarmac at Dulles.

Initially hoping to enjoy a long weekend in my old city of residence, my plans were thwarted by a last minute decree by the Russian government that we could not enter the country without a COVID test… completed no more than 72 hours before arrival. I decided to stick around Massachusetts and search for a test, a task which quickly proved futile. Citing “greater need in other parts of the country”, there was absolutely not a rapid test to be found. With nothing that could guarantee that 72 hour window requirement, I was forced to push on with plans to fly to DC the day before the charter. Last minute (ie. two days before), the school found a testing sight in DC who could test us all as drive ups/walk ups. With my father’s help, I made a quick pivot and rented a car for the drive to DC instead. All this to say, there was a lot that went on before we were anywhere near the airport.

Driving down the I-95 corridor took me back to the many times I’d traversed that road during my DC years. I miss that city a lot and I still treasure that I was able to share my love of it with my god kids a few summers back. But this was not a time to leisurely enjoy a drive. Stopping only once (mask on, of course), I drove the 7 hours to make it to my COVID test on time.

Futile attempt at social distancing on the bus to the charter. In the end, we had to share anyways.

Camping out at the Hyatt near Dulles, I spent the night in a hotel run by a skeleton crew. The front desk, which physically was barely recognizable with plexiglass protection and what amounted to a HS football snack bar stacked behind the counter due to a lack of room service, did their best. I caught up with some friends on FaceTime and tried to get some rest, hoping my test results would be waiting in my email upon touchdown in Moscow.

A strange check-in process awaited us at Dulles. We essentially checked in at baggage claim, the barks of dogs echoing through the corridor. Many animals joined us for the flight, flying with embassy families and teachers from our school. More notable were the incredible amount of children along for this ride – the youngest, to my knowledge – 4 months old. None of us were quite sure what was in store, but we knew this was our best shot. Everyone’s faces bore the look of frayed nerves, a look my parents knew probably too well after weeks of me dealing with this unknown exit.

Once checked in, we were loaded on buses and taken to a remote tarmac to meet our plane. We queued for nearly an hour on the bus as ground crew set up a security check point and stocked the plane with supplies. Would we be fed? Would there be flight attendants? Would we be turned back upon arrival due to COVID results? These questions danced in my mind. I had to delay expectations and not allow myself to do anything but putting one foot in front of the other. To get all that way, after all the weeks of build up, and be turned back would have been – I don’t use this word lightly – devastating.

Refueling Dublin Airport at 3pm – pics or it didn’t happen

They assigned families seats together at check-in. As the plane was about 70% full (it was not just teachers from my school), they were kind enough to give those of traveling alone our own set of two seats (another futile attempt at social distancing in a “germ bullet” ie. plane but whatever, I’ll take it).

Our plane was quite old and carried no entertainment consoles. It did occur to me after Hour 5 of staring out the window and only seeing mountains (not the Atlantic), that they could actually be taking us anywhere. It was an eerie feeling. Yes, it turns out that we did have flight attendants (don’t think a plane can fly without them for safety reasons) and yes, they did feed us two box meals (fairly decent).

We had been told that we would be refueling in Dublin, Ireland. However, aside from the location, we had not been told what plans there included, nor how long we’d be there, or basically anything about procedure for this flight. It was a true “guess we’ll see” scenario and we had to roll with it. It’s worth mentioning that I work with a lot of seasoned travelers (multiple of whom have been to all 7 continents) and everyone was on edge.

We flew 7.5 hours up over Greenland to the Emerald Isle. Though I’ve always wanted to visit, an actual trip I had planned was thwarted by visa issues in Moscow a few summers back. Never technically set foot off the plane so we’ll hold off on claiming that in my country count for now. Our crew disembarked (and seemed to have no idea where we were traveling on to), the plane refueled, and we cooled our heels for 1.5 hours.

Gorgeous sunrise over Eastern Europe

Departing Dublin, we were entering hour 11 of travel (bus + plane + refuel). The captain announced a fairly quick hop to Moscow (3.5 hours), and we were off above the clouds once again, in the land of perpetual sunrise. It was smooth sailing, thankfully, as I don’t think our nerves could have taken it.

Flying low over Moscow – the arch of buildings on the horizon is new Moscow City

We flew into Moscow’s VKO airport, arriving around noon on the day after we departed DC. I’ve never flown so low over the city (planes are banned) and I could actually spot Moscow City (the arch of buildings on the horizon) from my window. My apartment lies a bit behind those buildings, off to the right. Never been so relieved to see the Soviet apartment buildings all stacked in rows.

Upon arrival, two Russian officials came on board to collect our medical papers. There were no test results in my Inbox. No bueno. An announcement told us that they would deplane us in groups of 7-10. Embassy folks earned the right to go first. We were the last and largest group. It took me 2 hours to get off the plane and I was one of the first. They ran us in plush vans to the terminal (we’d parked in the luxury terminal, so they are used to small private jets), and supposedly disinfected the vans in between each group. I have literally no idea how all the kids under the age of 8 didn’t lose their minds but they didn’t. Rockstar world travelers already. Their parents also deserve medals.

After customs, I was met by a kind US Embassy official who directed me to take another COVID test. This one was painless and quick. I walked out of the terminal towards my waiting bags and shuttle buses sent by our school. It was a glorious day, picture perfect skies and temperature. I found a patch of grass and took a breather. The kids ran in circles, delighted to be free and to see their friends after months away (some families left in March). It was a heart-warming sight.

Wonderful to be back in my apartment

Throughout the whole ordeal I had said that I would only believe I’d made it when my key turned the lock to my apartment. It finally happened, 18 hours after leaving DC. I was greeted by my cat who thankfully does not hold grudges. It was very good to be home.

Someone was happy to see me

For now, I am teaching from my apartment as our school is engaged in two weeks of distance learning. Those on the charter flight are under two weeks of self-isolation. I can take a walk before 9am, go to the grocery store, but generally am confined to home. No matter as I have so much to do to get my classes off the ground. It doesn’t even feel like confinement since it’s just a relief to be back.

Last night my friends and neighbors held a socially distanced jam session to celebrate the end of the first week of school.

I’m back where I should be and we’re just going to have to see how this school year/2020/pandemic unfolds. I hope you’re all doing well and taking care of yourself and others. I remain frustrated by the insane pressure of this back-to-school situation and it’s effect upon students, teachers, parents, etc. This pandemic is not something that was caused by these students but now they must learn a completely new way to get an education. Teachers are killing themselves to make it work.

This pandemic and it’s far-reaching grasp is the result of human beings not do the right thing and not practicing social distancing to make this virus go away. For those who say it’s not possible without a vaccine, it is. Look at Denmark, look at Vietnam, look at South Korea. Look around the world at what responsible governments and their citizens have done. I pray for my country. I’m praying for Russia. I’m praying for our world. Let us unite our collective brainpower to fight this war. We don’t have to live like this indefinitely. Please stay home, do not socialize in groups, and think of others. Shut. It. Down.

A different kind of home leave

I’m extremely grateful to be writing this entry from my childhood home in Massachusetts. As I sit here with my mom and dad, reflecting on the last month, I carry the knowledge that I am extremely lucky to have this time with them.

Throughout the COVID spring (praying there will only be one spring of COVID), I wavered back and forth on whether I should attempt to make the trip to the States for the summer. My greatest concern was keeping my family safe and not transporting the virus back to them.

Blue skies over Moscow as lockdown abruptly lifts on the day I depart

On the first of June, I received a voicemail from SwissAir, informing me that my flight in late June had been cancelled. Having planned to wait for that flight, the disappointment I felt pushed me to act. Though there has been a single flight out of Moscow to JFK once a week for all of lockdown, Aeroflot only posts these one at a time. Occasionally they would just be rumors that colleagues of mine would have to chase down at the Aeroflot office in Moscow in person. Thankful to have outlasted the initial evacuation stress many experienced, I felt it was time to get out of dodge. I booked my ticket for the following Tuesday and started getting things in order.

Though not an actual requirement for any US state, a two week quarantine was the only way I felt comfortable returning to my folks. Given the “germ bullet” I flew in on from Moscow, I needed a separate space to wait out the COVID timeline. After a few false starts with Airbnb (through no fault of theirs, their policies were awesome), my dad secured me a spot in an available apartment belonging to a childhood neighbor. It was an incredible gift, given the potential cost and coordination effort I was facing. Logistics solved, I lined up the cat sitter and airport transport. The hardest part about my departure was leaving this one…

Thankful for the weekly proof-of-life photos from my wonderful cat sitter, though this one is from the archives ❀

After 80 days in strict lockdown (observed by my close friends but not all in Moscow), I was more nervous than I think I’ve ever been when heading to the airport. And that includes moving to two countries, sight unseen.

The airport had an eerie vibe – everyone slightly on edge – save for the employees checking temperatures at the door. With only two international flights flying out that day, I got in a big line wearing my mask and gloves. No one was standing 6 feet apart.

Everyone seemed to have more patience than usual. I cruised to my gate and found a set of chairs far away from other passengers. Slowly the corridor filled, though only one blini (Russian crepe) stand was open for business.

Wearing my upteenth mask of the day

I needn’t have distanced because it all went to hell when the boarding line formed. Crazy pat-downs and a person in every seat. This was a coveted flight for those lucky enough to be able to enter the States right now. The captain came on the loudspeaker every three hours to remind us to change our masks. I deferred the food and drink offered having packed my own.

Landing without incident at JFK, I transferred terminals alone via the AirTrain. Kind of creepy to be solo on a rail car devoid of a human driver. I sat waiting for my flight to Boston amidst a couple in full hazmat gear and a few college students. There might have been 18 of us on a flight for 50. The terminal was empty except for the Hudson News which will one day surely survive the Apocalypse.

A virtually empty JFK terminal

Flying over Boston Harbor, I breathed easy for the first time in nearly 12 hours. My parents met me outside in the taxi stand and we maintained 10 foot distance, which was hard but just a relief to see them healthy and safe. Leaving the keys in the spare car for me, they headed home and I drove out to my quarantine apartment.

Flying into Logan at sunset

The journey was not too taxing and I am thankful for that. I’m also extremely grateful for my ability to return to my host country in August (as of now, despite flight complications). I also did not get sick on the journey. My folks and I spent two weeks meeting up at a distance at local parks and sometimes for an hour or two in their backyard. I spent two resting weeks in Canton, Mass., adjusting from jet lag and appreciating a soft-landing back into the States.

Freedom realized in a walk around Kendrick Pond in Needham

Despite what it going on in other parts of the country, I’ve been super impressed with the majority of folks wearing masks and taking necessary precautions. My friends teaching in Asia will be heading back to school properly in the fall, with their host countries having adhered to common sense and made choices for the betterment of society as a whole. I only pray our country can get it together during this politically divisive time.

Worth the effort to get to hug my mom

We are an incredible country, the most culturally diverse in the world. It is what makes us strong, what makes us special. For now I am holding my loved ones close and taking nothing for granted. I hope you are all taking care, wherever this note finds you. Be safe. We’re all just doing the best we can.

Stoney Brook Audubon in Norfolk, MA

Mental Health PSA:

Alongside the obvious physical threat of COVID-19, mental health challenges loom large. Massachusetts has set up a help line for those in need of support. There is no shame in getting help – in fact, it is the strong ones who admit they need it.

The lockdown begins to lift…

Moscow is in bloom and Moloko is enjoying her perch.

Hello everyone. It has been while! Not entirely sure where the last month has gone. The days both creep and fly by. I’d guess that many of you feel the same. I hope you’re all doing ok out there, taking care of yourself and each other.

I am presently here in Moscow. School has wrapped for the summer. I’m watching countries around the world begin to reopen. My friend’s life in Denmark is nearly back to normal. Teacher friends in Asia are beginning to return to the classroom. I’m making plans to head back to Boston shortly, with a voluntary quarantine upon arrival.

In Russian: Start/Finish. A hand-drawn racetrack in the park. Echoes of Groundhog’s Day.

What have I been up to? Well, it’s certainly not earth-shattering but I’m getting by just fine. I’ve learned to make focaccia bread (I can now pass ‘Go’ and collect $100 quarantine bucks). There is always a puzzle in progress on my kitchen table. I’ve done virtual art dates with friends across the world and in my building, all of us painting or crafting and chatting about our days. I’m working on my own COVID art series, adding my doodles to my students’ splatter paintings created on our last day before lockdown.

Early on, a coworker shared this article which comes to mind when the days start to blend together – “Your Only Goal Is to Arrive“. For those of us not on the front lines (praise them all), doing our part by continuing to stay home, this is our contribution.

My cat is still taking quarantine extremely hard. Clearly. She continues to be a great comfort. Her sister comes around for playdates which are both amusing and distracting.

Lockdown in Moscow has meant many, many hours spent walking the perimeter of my compound parking lot. I’m thankful to have a lot, to be safe within it, and for moments of beauty like this.

Moscow is beginning to ease the lockdown. There is a color coded map to denote which day of the week each residential building is allowed to walk freely within a 2km radius.

Despite this elaborate plan, my building was not given a color…

Some stores are starting to open. I can definitely hear more traffic out my window. Unfortunately, rates of infection are still quite high. I am increasingly curious what this will all mean for school in the fall. So much remains day-to-day.

Playgrounds are still roped off, though this isn’t always observed.

For now, I have a newfound appreciation for freedom of movement and my own privilege (more to come in a future post). I am so thankful for technology and the ability to keep up with family and friends on a daily basis. Hope I’ll soon be writing from the Boston area. Take care and stay safe!

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 πŸ˜‰

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.

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…