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 😉

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.

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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…

A Dispatch from Moscow

Hello everyone. I hope this post finds you all safe and sound. The impacts of the COVID-19 virus are now being felt across the world and for us here in Moscow, it is no different. I thought I would give you a peak into what life has been like here for the past few weeks.

When I first heard about school closures for friends who work in Macau, Hong Kong, and China, I was surprised but aware that epidemics had caused disruptions like this before. I was in Korea when MERS came to the country, my first real interaction with the societal impact of a virus. It effected us on a much smaller scale with school being made optional for the last two weeks and more masks in public than usual. Thankfully, MERS came to an end right around the end of the school year and I was able to board a plane to the States to begin my summer.

My new assistant on Day 1 of distance learning

Today I am here in Moscow. My school campus is shuttered, I am teaching from my kitchen table. After careful deliberation, I have decided to ride out the storm here at least until the end of the school year. Without going into great detail, my school has taken extraordinary measures to ensure our safety and sanity. We had warning, we watched our friends in Asia bear the initial brunt and, as teachers so often do, they turned their misfortune into teachable moments and shared their wisdom, successes, and failures with us. I sent students home with art supplies, we hosted a mock graduation, and my Grade 12 students cleared out two years of their beautiful artwork – their senior IB art show cancelled. It was a very emotional week.

My seniors on their last day in high school. Despite so much having been taken from them, I was stunned by their maturity and poise. They will be missed!

Given time to prepare, thanks to the school’s forethought and pragmatism, we teachers rapidly shifted into digital learning. Certain subjects lend themselves better than others but, as teachers, we are often asked to go above and beyond, and teachers worldwide have risen to the call. I am blessed with a population which has access to a personal digital device. This is not true for all communities across the world. The vast majority of my students will be fed and safe during this stressful time. Again, this is not true for others. In Oregon, the state has seen a sharp decline in reports of child abuse. This is heartbreaking knowing that it is the mandatory reporting of teachers that brings in so many calls. No one knows our kids like we do. In Paris, the government has put aside thousands of hotel beds for those who call a national domestic violence hotline. People are trapped at home with their abusers. If any of you are in the same position, you can call: 1-800-799-SAFE. We can all do our part to keep an extra ear out for our neighbors during this time.

So what does daily life look like in Moscow? We’ve been told by the government to stay home, mandated to stay in our apartments until April 30. We can leave only for emergencies, to take out the trash, walk the dog, or visit our nearest pharmacy or grocery store. This may seem extreme to some but I am gladly complying. I have had friends who have already experienced the virus and recovered. This virus is no joke. Please – if you are not already doing so – stay home.

I am thankful I still have a job. I have friends across the US who have been furloughed, who are now dealing with unemployment offices that are so overtaxed that once (if) they reach a human, they’re told to call back next week. It’s not pretty, folks. I am 100% aware that I am one of the lucky ones. Work keeps my days on track. It has made the two weeks I’ve taught from home fly by. My community here and in the States is incredible. Everyday I speak with friends over Skype, Zoom, Google Meet, Facebook Messenger, KakaoTalk, Facetime, Marco Polo, Whatsapp, etc. etc. etc. My friends who are abroad are all in the same boat, to varying degrees of isolation. We keep tabs and check in constantly.

A Zoom call uniting Ontario, North Carolina, Qatar, Moscow, Saudi Arabia, and Seoul

I also have an amazing community here in Moscow, in my very building. Without going into detail, I will say I remain extremely well informed by both my school and the US Embassy. I feel safe. I have enough food. There is toilet paper on the grocery shelves (so I am told, I have not been to the store in two weeks).

My cat has proved excellent company. Initially, she resented me interrupting her naps but now we have adjusted. If I leave to walk the staircase a few times (we have no hallways but I’m on the 8th floor), she bounds to greet me upon my return, meowing her hello. Again, I’m extremely thankful.

Moloko humoring a nap interruption

Knowing that my family and friends are taking precautions back home keeps me sane. I’ve done my best to build a healthy daily routine for myself. I’m doing what I’m sure so many of you are doing – cooking, cleaning, exercising, making art, reading, watching The Tonight Show, etc. I have running water, electricity, and heat. I have community. I will be fine.

Please take care of yourselves and drop a line, even if you don’t normally. I would love to hear how you are getting through this and what the situation is like where you are. Or your Netflix recommendations. Or a shared recipe. We will get through this together ❤

My new assistant is such a creeper!

Postcards from Russia

Moloko’s perch in my Moscow kitchen
Walking with my friend Tammy around Moscow’s Garden Ring
Fili Park (my favorite) – Established in 1812
Looks quiet but actually full of cross country skiers, families, and dogs in snowsuits
The park runs down to the Moscow River, nearly frozen after a chilly week
A bright but bitter day – perfect for puzzling and sunbathing (or both)
Moloko enjoying an empty fridge on grocery day
Orthodox Christmas keeps the lights up longer at the Red Square Christmas markets
Muscovites out in droves
GUM Department Store aglow
Cinderella lights outside the Bolshoi Theatre
White lights make for bright nights
Warm and cozy – Happy February, everyone!

Dancing on ice

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Saturdays are made for slow starts

As we draw closer to the winter solstice, there is a strange absence of snow on the ground here in Moscow. Not that I’m complaining – the grey weather recently gave me a good excuse to check out the local skating scene.

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The ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating, or the Rostelecom Cup, is an international invitational competition featuring both men’s and women’s singles, pair skating, and ice dance. Our school organized tickets and we sat pretty much as high atop the ice as possible – which made for great views!

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Having never attended a skating competition before, I was thankful that one of my coworkers is a die-hard fan. She explained the sets during the singles’ long program and offered helpful commentary throughout (how many Beatles medleys are too much?). It’s so different to see a skate program from above, rather than the close ups on television. I really admire the athleticism it takes to traverse such a huge rink while performing jumps and technical elements for nearly 4 minutes.

Ssingles was my favorite. American Mariah Bell impressed, earning a third place finish. The winner, Russia’s Alexandra Trusova, completed multiple quad axels to earn her victory and the crowd’s praise. And she’s only 15!

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It was an all afternoon affair and we stayed for nearly 8 hours, truly enjoying the crowd come alive for their hometown skaters and supporting others from across the globe. Just another cool way to spend the winter months in Moscow! Hope I’ll get to experience it again next year.

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Down to snuggle

Moscow Visitors

I feel so lucky to have had visitors during my three years in Moscow. There’s nothing better than showing people you love around your new town. I continue to explore Moscow and having visitors is an awesome excuse to get to all those places I’ve put off or haven’t seen in a while.

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In March, my good friend Katie came for a visit. I’m sure her vacation destination was a bit of surprise to her fellow teachers but she made an amazing effort of it, traveling all the way from Minnesota on her spring break. A strong solo traveler, she took in Moscow while I worked and even trekked to St. Petersburg on her own. For those wondering, seeing both cities is definitely doable within a week.

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A Moscow Metro rite of passage for good luck at Площадь Революции (Ploshchad Revolyutsii)

Highlights of Katie’s visit included a brunch at the Metropol Hotel, touring the Kremlin Armory, and a Georgian feast (see below).

Just a few weeks ago, I hosted my aunt Susan for her first ever visit to Russia. Suz is a wonderful person to travel with and we planned her visit over the Victory Day holidays to get in a little extra time together.

When I was living in Korea, Suz gamely hopped a plane and visited me in Seoul. We went to China together, putting in thousands of steps all over Beijing and Xian. There really is nothing like sharing an incredible trip with someone you love and I’m so thankful to have family who are up for it!

Suz and I on a canal in St. Petersburg

We hopped the SapSan fast train up to St. Petersburg for what’s become a bit of a May tradition for me. We traveled on Victory Day which brought a few road closures but no major issues. The coolest, most powerful sight upon arrival was the Parade of the Immortals, commemorating the over 27 million (MILLION) Soviet soldiers and citizens lost in the Great War (World War II). St. Petersburg itself (as Leningrad) was under siege for over 900 days, the horrendous losses reverberating through the crowd carrying photographs of their loved ones lost. This is not a nation that will ever forget.

The Parade of the Immortals. Participants themselves number in the millions.

The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg

Suz in the Winter Palace, Hermitage Museum

One of the highlights of our trip was seeing my first ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg’s famed ballet stage. Only slightly smaller in size than the Bolshoi, the venue was stunningly gorgeous with supremely gifted dancers and magnificent stage sets. Made for the perfect birthday present – all thanks to my dad.

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Catherine Palace, St. Petersburg

Another highlight from our St. Petersburg was a trip to Catherine Palace, a spot about 30 km outside of town. A summer palace for the tsars, the place is dripping in gold and excess. Each room is more stunning than the last – there is even a grand ballroom which evokes vibes of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.

With the solstice quickly approaching, white nights are coming to St. Pete’s

Back in Moscow, we toured around as much as my school schedule would allow. Something new in the travelsphere is Airbnb Experiences. Many of you may use Airbnb rentals in cities around the world. The website now offers additional experiences at a fraction of the cost of private tours. I found Suz a walking tour of the Kremlin area of Moscow and she had a really nice time with her local Russian guide, Sveta. They traded stories and questions about culture, both in the States and here. I really can’t recommend a chance like this enough, especially for the opportunity to meet someone local. Call it next-level traveling but it truly enriches the experience.

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Suz picked the perfect time of year to be in Moscow – not too hot but no more snow!

As I look forward to two more years here in Moscow, consider this an open invitation! This city is constantly evolving and updating, and certainly has a past worthy of any history buff’s time. You never know – you might wake up to find this goober waiting to greet you 😉

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Those black hills

Hello, everyone. Just back from my spring break trip to Montenegro and Croatia, two gorgeous countries, both formerly part of Yugoslavia. The trip fell upon me by happenstance – my friend wanted to see Dubrovnik and no matter how we sliced it, we couldn’t get there without 7+ hours of driving or connecting flights. These days my patience for airplane connections is rather low, especially when it comes to a break from school. Thankfully, Katie had the presence of mind to look at a map of the region… and we were off to Tivat, Montenegro!

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Never seen the sky quite so cerulean blue – the Bay of Kotor

We were elated to touchdown at little Tivat Airport to sunny skies and 70F weather. Though this glorious weather didn’t last all week, it certainly cemented our appreciation for the gorgeous fjord that is the Bay of Kotor. This tiny country, half the size of Wales, packs a stunning aesthetic punch.

A few things to know before you go – Montenegro means “black mountain”. This ruggedly handsome country is a combination of deep water and soaring sky, with jagged mountain ridges uniting the two. Wedged in between Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, and Albania, Montenegro is one of the world’s youngest countries, born in 2006 (only senior to Kosovo and South Sudan). The majority of the population is Orthodox Christian, which played a role in the regional factions that led to the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

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A fjord is a narrow surrounded by steep sides or cliffs created by a glacier which came in from the ocean.

As we drove along the fjord, orange trees and wisteria dotted the waterfront properties. Mountain streams came crashing into the fjord, producing churning water that could surely be harnessed for natural power. Rocky crags jutted out over the single lane highways, hemmed in only by flimsy-looking netting.

All visitors to Montenegro have 24 hours to register with the police. If you stay at a hotel or Airbnb, your host will often do this for you. Euros are the currency here, though it is not an EU country. It is, however, a travel destination for Russians as no visa is required here. The same is true for Americans.

We began our stay at the Boutique Hotel Casa del Mare Aurora, a hidden gem that I cannot recommend highly enough. Another accidental finding, this spot proved perfect for two teachers to unwind and acquaint ourselves with local customs.

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Doesn’t take long to defrost after a Russian winter!

The hotel featured a gorgeous deck over the water where locals and hotel guests would congregate each afternoon. Whether we fancied an Aperol spritz or a glass of Vranac (the delicious local specialty of a Cabernet Sauvignon and a rich, dark-berried Syrah), the sommelier had us covered. Definitely the best hotel breakfast buffet I’ve ever encountered, and the kindest staff to boot.

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Vacation official

Looking to explore (and find an ATM), we made our way to Perast, a town along the Bay of Kotor featuring stunning views and two churches on man-made islands just off-shore.

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The lake looked as smooth as an oil painting

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Sister cats in Perast on a casual Sunday morning

After a few days of rest, we ventured into Kotor, an ancient town which was ruled by both the Byzantines and Venetians at one point throughout history. Dating back to 300BC, the red-roof city charms many a cruise-ship visitor (ships do dock here regularly).

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The view from our hotel balcony

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Old Town has its charms once you escape the tourist shops

From the road, the medieval walls of Old Town hide the adorable town within, and the cliffs above the city do well to mask the church and fortress which cast a watchful eye over the little town.

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We walked the 700 steps up to the Church of Our Lady of Remedy. We opted not to climb all 1500 steps as it was beginning to mist and the steps were slippery!

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Exploring more of the local area, we first drove down to Budva and then inland to the edge of Lovcen National Park. Having opted for digital-free navigation, we noticed a road sign indicating Kotor was accessible without retracing our steps. Little did we know we would end up on the Serpentine Road!

We began at 880m above sea level (that’s 2,200 feet or a half mile).  Down and down the switchbacks I drove, encountering few cars (thankfully) but a horse and multiple cattle along the way. The views were extraordinary, like walking on the wing of an airplane.

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Mountains beyond mountains

Renting a car was pivotal for exploring Montenegro but we opted to take a bus to Dubrovnik, knowing that the majority of the ride would be spent traversing the circumference of the Bay of Kotor. We wanted to enjoy the view without stress (those pesky crags!).

I’m going to pause the story here as I have to go pack another bag (don’t tell my cat!). Headed to meet some art teachers at the NuArt Festival in Aberdeen this weekend. Look for a Croatia blog post forthwith!

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A well-deserved cheers to Montenegro

Prague

Life has been a little busy but in February, my mom and I were able to meet up for a week in the gorgeous city of Prague. Touted as one of Europe’s most enchanting cities, Prague’s position as the capital of Bohemia invites the folklore and mystique for which this city is known. From Art Nouveau architecture to a skyline dotted with church spires, it is easy to see why people from all corners of the globe fall in love so quickly.

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Deep blue skies and daily sunshine spoiled us during our week in town.

Prague has no shortage of gorgeous doors

Prague’s Jewish Quarter (also known as Josefov) dates back to the early 20th century when the area was remodeled to resemble Paris. The streets are quiet after lunch as people shutter their shops to head home for a rest.

Prague is a walkable city, with trams running up and down all major avenues. The metro system is fantastic – you can take it end-to-end for under $1. Before Mom arrived, I took a morning wandering the streets, checking out sights such as the kinetic head of Franz Kafta, as seen below (if only he knew).

 

Perhaps the most enchanting (and touristed) part of the city is the Old Town Square. Mom and I spent time over a few days here, admiring the astronomical clock, the amazing friezes on the buildings.

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Old Town Square

The food scene in Prague is fantastic. I would highly encourage visitors to Prague check out Sansho, featured in The Bib Gourmand – a Michelin Guide for the common (wo)man. Though I stumbled upon it by happenstance, I was treated to a meal that I would consider one of the best I’ve ever had. The exceptionally welcoming chef really made the whole experience and I cannot recommend the restaurant more. Do make a reservation!

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The gorgeous blue velvet night sky above Prague.

I also took Mom to Field, a Michelin rated farm-to-table restaurant in the Jewish Quarter. Dry ice poured from below this delicious dessert.

The best way to see Prague is by pounding the pavement. Taking in the Prague Castle, the Charles Bridge, and the Old Town was a thorough full day adventure.

A view of the city from the Charles Bridge.

The John Lennon Wall, a constantly evolving work of street art and graffiti which welcomes anyone to partake.

We capped off our first big day out in the city with an evening boat tour on the Vltava River. The sun slipped down behind Prague Castle as we got underway, making a rainbow as it mixed with the river below. A warm glow arose from the city lit by street lamps which mirrored dancing bits of marigold light onto the water’s surface.

Another must-do in Prague has to be the Mucha Museum. Featuring the work of Renaissance man (in ideals, not decades) Alphonse Mucha, the museum narrates Mucha’s incredible contributions to art history. A friend of Gauguin and Rodin, Mucha created art during the Belle Époque, Europe’s “Golden Age”. Born in what was then the Austrian Empire, Mucha studied art in Vienna and Munich before setting up shop in Paris where he became famous for his posters touting the actress Sarah Bernhardt. Delving into lithography and screen printing, Mucha participated in the 1900 World’s Fair and even screen the first films by the Lumiere Brothers in his Paris studio.

Considered the “Father of the Arc”, Mucha is today known as the most famous painter of the Art Nouveau, however it was his undying patriotism for his country of Czechoslovakia which struck me most. After returning from a tour of America in 1910, Mucha began his Slav Epic. The project, which would grow to amass 20 huge canvases over an 18 year period, would become his love letter to his land. His daughter Jaroslava served as a model with Mucha pioneering the use of photography and artistic direction in capturing the epic scenes. When the country attained freedom in 1918, Mucha designed the stamps and banknotes. Alphonse believed that education was the way to raise the ethical standard of a nation and he championed freedom for education throughout his later years.

Alongside Princess Hyacinth, completed by Alphonse Mucha in 1911.

Mom and I also managed to take a day trip to Český Krumlov, a magical town approximately 3 hours driving from Prague. On the recommendation of my friend Katerina (who played travel agent and local guide for this journey), we booked the RegioJet intercity bus, leaving while the fog was still rising. Our journey took us past fields of poppy seeds and deer farms, across the gorgeous Czech landscape.

Once there, we walked the castle walls, taking in the views of the fairytale town below. Enjoy a good Czech pilsner on a picture-perfect sunny Czech day was a highlight of the whole trip for me and we took a few hours to wander the adorable town together.

Back in Prague, we took in more of the city sights. It was lovely to stay in one place for so long with no pressure to see everything. We also took an amazing tour of the city which highlighted the Velvet Revolution of 1989. The tour was given by a wonderful local with a passion for history and his 60-year-old Trabant, a car which made its way to Prague in 1989 as its owners fled East Germany. To read more about that moment in history – which is so wild that it can’t possibly have been made up – check out this New York Times article from that time.

Prague such an exceptional city, filled to the brim with art and culture. My mom and I took in concerts, enjoy the local fare, and explore antique stores while wandering along the city’s cobblestone streets. Among the gems, I spotted this gorgeous Art Deco piece from the 1920s, which Mom purchased for me as a reminder of our trip together. Here, it sits upon my windowsill in Moscow, capturing the colors and angles of that beautiful Bohemian city to which I hope to return.