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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 😉
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
I had been thinking of getting a cat for quite a while. Living as an ex-pat here makes owning a cat quite easy. From housekeepers who can take care of them over vacation to vets who make house calls, I was really out of excuses. So when a litter fell in my lap, I jumped at the chance. Two of her sisters were adopted by friends in my building and we’ve enjoyed leaving them together during the day for playdates. With all their kitten energy, it works out well for everyone.
This spring will be busy with travel and new projects but I am happy for her company and we are getting along just fine 🙂
Moscow has been blessed with sunshine and warmer temps as of late. I’m becoming hopeful that spring will soon be on its way.
I had the chance for a unique Russian experience this weekend when my school organized a trip to the Chaika Outdoor Pool. The pool is heated (28C/82F in the water) and within walking distance of my house.
With a beautiful day ahead of us, our small group headed to the pool. After nearly an hour of bureaucracy, paperwork, and a medical check (’tis the Russian way), we found our lockers and quickly made our way towards the pool entrance. The process would have been pretty tricky without a Russian speaker among us, despite the signs in English.
To enter, I had to climb into a small pool and dunk under a carwash-like flap. Popping up outside, the sunshine warmed my face and I made my way into the lap lanes full of swimmers.
Owing to the 5C/40F temperature outside, steam rose off the water and gave the pool a bit of an ethereal feeling. The majority of the swimmers were babushkas, all adorned with swim caps (required), many with black and white flowers sewn on. I made my way into the center lanes and enjoyed the bath water temperatures.
It’s February in Moscow and the snow is upon us. We’re currently in the middle of a two-day snowstorm, not that you’d know it from all the people out and about. Nothing stops Muscovites, especially not the weather. There is no such thing as a snow day here. This city is clearly not intimidated by winter.
From plows like these:
To shovels like these:
Here’s a little advice for surviving the Russian winter…
Get outside whenever the sun dares to shine – no matter how cold the temperature.
Have the right gear ready – what would I do without my Sorels?
Cultivate a good group of friends – Happy Hours, book clubs, do what you will but always get out and about to socialize. Laughter keeps the grey away.
Use a blue light everyday + take Vitamin D regularly, too.
Hop a plane to the nearest sunshine whenever you have the chance. Professional development in Oman? Sign me up! A long weekend in Cyprus? I’m there! Those kind friends in Dubai? Prepare to find me on your doorstep! (Seriously, Ward and Leslie, any day now!)
In taking my own advice, I embraced a frozen but sunny day last week and walked the half hour through the forest to the metro station.
I am not kidding when I say nobody embraces winter like Muscovites! In the forest I found entire families on cross-country skis, mothers and daughters sharing sleds, and old couples strolling the seemingly endless paths with no particular place to go. And it was 15F out! Everyone is bundled, appreciating the beauty of the forest after a snowfall. It was a gorgeous and peaceful walk, I will give them that.
Another fun winter activity in Moscow is the theater. Ballet, folk dance, musicals – Moscow has it all. I had the chance to take in a show by the Igor Moiseyev Ballet Company recently and it was incredible. Igor was evidently the inventor of something called character dance, close to folk but more exaggerated. The bright colors and spirited dancers certainly lit up the stage. How high they could jump!
Fun tidbit – in Moscow you wear your boots to the theatre and switch into your nice shoes when you arrive. You check your boots and your coat together. The long coat check line after the performance is worth avoiding freezing toes and turned ankles outside!
Another must-do in Moscow this time of year is the Christmas Market down at Red Square. The neon lights of the carousel and the children’s shrieks of laughter light up the night (below and top, outside GUM department store).
Of the many lessons I’ve learned here in Moscow, I think Kerouac captured it well when he said, “While looking for the light, you may suddenly be devoured by the darkness and find the true light.”
The Bolshoi Theatre represents the epitome of Russian ballet culture. When the chance arose to explore the Bolshoi on a behind-the-scenes tour, I eagerly gathered friends and signed up.
In Russian, bolshoi means big or grand – yet ‘grand’ cannot fully capture all that this building encompasses. Reminiscent of Versailles or the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the Bolshoi Theatre features notes of rich red and gilded gold that I’ve come to equate with Russian elegance. Sanctioned by Catherine the Great in 1776, the Moscow Theatre Company was originally housed in a smaller building along the Neglinka River. After multiple theatres were lost to fire, the troupe relocated in 1856 to the expansive building that you see today.
As our group walked into the orchestra of the main theatre, we were lucky enough to happen upon a practice session of the ballet Giselle. The prima ballerina, dressed down in casual wear and toe shoes, floated across the stage to the sounds of the grand piano set front and center. Abstract set designs including the cosmos and other natural phenomena added to the spectacle.
When my parents visited in May of this year, we had the chance to see a ballet on the Bolshoi’s New Stage, just around the corner. Absolutely gorgeous itself, the New Stage was by far the better choice as the Historic Stage featured an opera that evening (good call, Dad).
Taking in the grandiosity of the venue from below, I was acutely aware of the history of this hollowed concert hall. Moscow itself has changed rapidly in the past 150 years. The one constant among historic drawings is always the Bolshoi Theatre, as seen below.
Swan Lake premiered here in 1877. Nazi bombs fell upon it in 1941. The creation of the USSR was declared from this very stage. For more of the fascinating history of this building – particularly of its usage by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution – you can click here.
With seemingly no bad seat in the house, wealthy Russian families used to purchase a box for the full theatre season. They would then redecorate the box to their liking with purchases of furniture and wallpaper. When the Bolshoi was redone in the rich golds and reds of today’s decor, it’s said that women did not appreciate being upstaged in their elegant theatre attire.
After climbing to the boxes above, we were surprised to find the stage had been quickly reset to allow for a rehearsal of the current opera, The Maid of Pskov. We were treated to a performance by the show’s chorus as we watched from on high.
The building itself is comprised of 13 levels – seven above ground and five below. An exact replica of the Bolshoi stage can be found in the attic above the Historic Stage. Our group snuck in silently and watched no less than 50 dancers practicing for an upcoming production. Many of the dancers were teenagers and children, members of the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet Academy.
Known for pushing the limits of contemporary performance, as well as maintaining the highest standards of historic Russian culture, the Bolshoi is a true Moscow delight. Someday I hope to see a ballet from its seats. For now, I’ll reminisce about my visit as notes of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake drift through my apartment.
The majority of my posts on this blog serve to share unique and wonderful experiences from my life abroad as an ex-pat. But in sharing all the good, perhaps a perspective is formed that all is rosy, life is bliss, and these experiences grow on trees. I have to tell you, and I know my ex-pat friends will agree, this is not always the case. Life throws you just as many curveballs when living abroad – and some truly unique ones at that. This post is about stepping up and trusting instincts, in bad times and in good.
On Thursday morning, I had only just caught a ride to work with two of my good friends when we were sideswiped by an SUV just outside our apartment complex. We were all fine. Sadly, minor car accidents are common here in Moscow. I don’t know if it’s the #norules mentality or poor driving conditions (it was raining when we were hit) but the majority of cars on the road bear the scars of past collisions.
Anyways, the story gets interesting because you’re not allowed to move the cars involved until the police show up. Hence a whole lot of traffic jams. But the police came quickly that day. We called the embassy for a mobile unit to come out and translate but it turns out budget cuts (and *staffing issues*) have led to the cancellation of a mobile unit. Nonplussed, we Google Translated our way through the interaction with four very kind local policeman who made it clear we were not at fault and took great care to make sure we were taken care of. Signing documents in a foreign language you don’t speak = more common than you might think living this life. Thankfully, we were reassured by our own security staff and soon we were on our way.
The next morning I boarded a plane bound for Tallinn, Estonia with my dear friend Peter. Excited to get out of rainy, dreary Moscow and take a trip to cozy Tallinn, I settled into my seat expecting a quick 1.5 hour ride. Moments before we were to taxi away from the gate, I was jolted from my seat by the sounds of someone in distress.
Turning to look only a few rows behind, I was horrified to see my colleague (who was also journeying to Tallinn) in extreme distress. His wife’s stricken face turned to me as I called out to her. The situation was dire and we both knew it. The flight staff was incredible and did everything right – bringing him back to consciousness and helping him stabilize. It was quickly clear to me that my help was needed and I pushed into action, calling for an ambulance and insurance permission.
Once he was stable, we were quickly shuffled off to the airport medical clinic where we spent hours waiting for an ambulance to take him just 15km downtown. The whole ordeal offered a sobering insight into the medical system that we are a part of, full of wonderfully caring people and far too much red tape. Thankfully, he got top rate care at the ex-pat hospital downtown and is today resting comfortably at home. Your health is your wealth, they say, and they’re absolutely right.
Once the situation calmed down, and with my plans sidelined, I knew I would need a little peace to put things in perspective. After a little Korean 순두부 (still my comfort food) and a good night’s rest, Saturday greeted me with the desire to get out and explore. After searching for historic hotels in Moscow, I booked a room at the Petroff Palace for the evening.
Petroff Castle from the front gates, just after the rain.
A former transit stop for tsars traveling from St. Petersburg, the Palace (also known as Petrovsky Castle) is featured in the works of Pushkin. Napoleon himself even stayed there while Moscow was being burned. Destroyed by the French in their retreat from Moscow in 1812, the castle was rebuilt in the 1830s. Turns out that I pass the castle daily on my commute to school but have never noticed it. For more on rich history of the castle and grounds, click here.
The room was stunning and private. I definitely treated myself to room service! The dish in the middle, dumplings in broth is called pelmeni soup. Native to Siberia, this dish is simple, delicious, and served with a dollop of sour cream on top.
The view from my window
Conveniently, the property is nestled within a beautiful park with wooded trails and gorgeous birch trees in bloom – just what the doctor ordered. The sun broke through the clouds just as I arrived and I enjoyed multiple sunbaths in the park during my stay. There’s nothing like time spent in nature to set you right again.
The sun exploded through the trees while rain still fell.
Intrigued by this gorgeous tree, I happened upon this Orthodox church in the park.
I rounded out the weekend with a stop at the ArtPlay Moscow space to see a show on the works of Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel. Though I’m hesitant about the “multimedia-ing” of classic works of art history, this movie blew my mind. Telling the tale of the dawn of civilization (with subtitles in English), the Dutchman’s work came alive on the screens engulfing the entire room – from the Tower of Babel to scenes of the Middle Ages.
The ArtPlay Center features specialty boutique shops, from lighting to antiques to art supplies.
So, to conclude this story, I don’t have any great words of wisdom gleaned from this experience. I can only say that we do the best we can with what is presented us. That’s all we can do.
I’m very thankful to my friends and family who were there for me as I worked to put this experience into perspective. You were all so comforting. Take care, everyone. Be good to each other and to yourselves.
Now immersed in Year 2 of my adventures in Russia, I have the chance to access more of Moscow. Gone are the first year struggles to order food or maneuver public transportation. Now is the time to get out and about in the city, especially while the weather holds. Each weekend, I like to challenge myself to visit a new cafe, market, museum, or public park. There is simply so much to see here! Danilovsky Market has been on my list for a while so when a friend suggested the trip, I jumped at the chance.
Seemingly a staple of Moscow indoor food markets, the Vietnamese pho stand did not disappoint. Sitting outside along the boulevard, admiring the autumn leaves, I couldn’t help but think about the many places in the world I’ve shared pho with friends – and how most of those places would never see temperatures in the 50s!
Our bellies full of pho, we wandered the well-organized stalls of the market, running into coworkers from school. You know you’ve made it in a new city when you see friends (or students) out and about!
I never expected to know so much about Russian honey! It’s taken quite seriously here.
A perfect Sunday getaway, I was so impressed with the warmth of the vendors and the quality of their produce. Their pride in their goods is evident and their little extra kindnesses (a free peach here, a taste of pistachio there) have me already looking forward to my next visit.