Sit down before I go

Dogsledding, March 2017

The Russian people have a saying: ‘Посидеть на дорожку’, or ‘to sit down for the trip‘. The phrase originates from the tradition of taking a moment to reflect upon, and literally sit down before, a journey.

Here, at the end of my five years in Moscow, I took a moment to reflect on what this journey has meant to me – my travels, my students and friends, a place representing both lockdown and incredible privilege.

Reflecting also reminds me that life is about who you spend it with ❤

Thank you to those who traveled to see me here or elsewhere abroad. For those who weren’t able to visit – you were with me in spirit and I felt your support throughout these last five years. I hope our paths will cross again soon in the States or elsewhere. Now it’s time to pack my bags and prepare to chase the sun across the Atlantic on the solstice. До свидания, Москва.

“Well, there it is. It’s about what we went for. We found, as we had suspected, that the Russian people are people, and, as with other people, that they are very nice. The ones we met had a hatred of war, they wanted all the same things all people want – good lives, increased comfort, security, and peace.”

– John Steinbeck, A Russian Journal, 1947

Home for the Holidays

Wellesley College at sunset

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moscow, January 2021

A different kind of home leave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wearing my upteenth mask of the day

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

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

A virtually empty JFK terminal

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

Flying into Logan at sunset

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

Freedom realized in a walk around Kendrick Pond in Needham

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

Worth the effort to get to hug my mom

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

Stoney Brook Audubon in Norfolk, MA

Mental Health PSA:

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