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 🙂

Spot the note Masha left for me 🙂

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 🙂

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 🙂

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.

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 😉

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.

Singles 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