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.

From Russia with Love

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St. Basil’s Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow.

Timing is everything. As I awoke Monday, the day of my flight to Moscow, word that Delta had grounded all flights worldwide gave me a bit of pause. Though I never fly Delta, of course my school had booked me on Delta for both legs of the journey. As luck would have it, I made it to Moscow only three hours behind schedule. Pretty done with JFK Terminal B but no complaints. Many new coworkers had it much worse. One even made the news. In general, I was shocked at the ease of the 9 hour flight from NYC to Moscow.

When I touched down in Moscow, my principal, our HR rep, and a number of other teachers were there to greet me. I couldn’t have felt more welcome and relieved. I also made a quick friend in the Middle School PE teacher, Shin, who knows my good friend Ryan Williams from APIS. Shin, it turns out, knows EVERYBODY, but that’s a story for a different day. There are a lot of connections among these seasoned international teachers. I am probably the youngest and definitely the least experienced abroad so it’s pretty cool hearing all of their stories. It would take a lot to rattle this group.

First impressions of Russia – some very interesting hair styles (designs buzzed into the hair of Russian males) and the airport was no Incheon, but the country’s deep history was immediately apparent. On the way to my new apartment, we passed sculptures marking Hitler’s eastern-most advancement in WWII, the location of the Battle of Moscow. We were also introduced to the Seven Sisters, a collection of buildings commissioned by Stalin made distinct by their “communist gothic” style. One the sisters, the historic Hotel Ukraine, sits just across the street from my apartment building. It is now a Radisson.

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The Hotel Ukraine, one of the Seven Sisters.

More impressive is the White House, which lies just down the street from where I now live. It’s used in the same way as the US White House, with the President spending the majority of his time there.

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The view from my balcony. That’s the Hotel Ukraine to the right and the White House just beyond. Moscow’s modern business district is to the left.

My first days in Moscow have been very calm and measured. My location in the city makes it very easy to get around and I’m finding myself quicker to explore than I initially was in Seoul. Remembering the days when I wouldn’t walk farther than eyeshot of Brownstone… Dinner in Red Square and an IKEA run were the big ticket items so far.

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Red Square, St. Basil’s Cathedral behind me.

I’m sure you can understand that much of this experience includes me comparing my life in Seoul to my new life here in Moscow. It helps to contextualize the major jump I’m making and it seems pretty interesting, culturally. Alongside the comparison below, I’ve added photos from my grocery store run as I always find the shopping experience unique, country to country.

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The 24 hour grocery store across from my house, translates as the Russian letters for “A” and “B”.

Similarities between Seoul and Moscow…

  • Both have fast and reliable metros. Moscows are works of art featuring mosaics and beautiful lighting fixtures. They are also very deep underground.
  • The everyday passerby on the street probably doesn’t speak English, or enough to feel comfortable sharing.
  • Both are walkable cities – though I’m much more central than I was in Seoul. No one lives in Nowon… 😦

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Fish are plentiful here in Russia. They even get their own counter. A fillet of salmon costs roughly 5USD.

  • I’ve landed in another clearly supportive community – though my school is huge in size, the housing communities are very close – coworkers in mine threw us a dinner the first night we arrived so we could meet everyone.
  • There’s a coffee (кофе) shop right down the street, next to my school bus stop. This one takes the cake over Dunkies SoKo due to its offering of cold brew and the fact that it is randomly located within a dry cleaners.
  • One downside in common is the amount of people who smoke 😦
  • Shopkeepers are very willing to help, especially when they determine you don’t speak the language. I’ve found the Russian people to be very friendly off the bat.

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Korean peeps beware, cheese is no longer scarce… There is also a separate cheese counter for “fresh cheeses”. Mmmmm.

Differences…

  • Moscow has the distinct feeling of a European city. The riverfront apartments near my house could be found along the Seine in Paris. The bike paths are quite beautiful, something I enjoyed in Seoul as well.
  • This one is heartbreaking – there’s little to no recycling here. I can’t believe it. I’m already planning to bring my basic recycling to school where they do their best. It’s almost unfathomable in this day and age.
  • I received a SIM card and internet access at home immediately, making life so much easier. While it took a month in Korea, this change makes an incredible difference in ease of assimilation.

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I’m definitely living in a European country – from the magazines to the ease of eating at restaurants, life is different here. But I still miss Korea!

  • My apartment is much more spacious. I’m turning the dining room into an art studio. I have an oven in my kitchen. My den will be cozy in the winter. And my bedroom has a door (not a loft!). Ironically, I have less storage space than in Seoul. The Koreans for the win on that one.
  • This one is a big deal – I’m rarely stared at on the street or the bus. People mistake me for a local, asking directions on the street. This is probably the greatest change from my time in Korea as there was absolutely no way anyone would ever mistake me for a native. It’s really quite freeing, I must say.
  • I live on an 8-lane road. No frogger here, See&Me people. The traffic never stops so I’m getting used to the din. With windows closed, it’s thankfully quite quiet in my place.
  • The grocery store (AB Mart) across the street is open 24/7. This means no Sunday texts, “Is Homeplus open?” and sadly no need for this brilliant website any longer.

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That honey has my name on it 🙂

  • The Porsche dealership down the block is decidedly different from the Hagye offerings… Also, when I see a Ralph Lauren store, it’s actually a Ralph Lauren store! Not that our old favorite, Abercrombie/J. Crew/whatever behind Induk University wasn’t a classic.
  • The alphabet is challenging in different ways from hangul. It is tempting to try and read Russian words as if they are English. But when P = R and H = N you won’t get very far. Fast forward to me on my nightly walk/study session, reading street signs. I got one tonight! Аэрофло́т, the Russian airline, known as Aeroflot in English. Quizing myself on store signs is helping. The history of the Cyrillic script is fascinating and I’ll definitely be sharing more in the future.

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The Cyrillic alphabet, my current homework.

Tomorrow I’ll get to see my school and classroom for the first time. My school seems to be of the mind that they will ask a lot of us as teachers so they take care of pretty much everything else in our daily lives, from running a bus service that I will take to work in the morning directly from my building to paying our bills to maintaining a housing staff to do everything from install curtains to deliver furniture. They are treating me exceptionally well and I’m really thrilled to be here. More local pictures to come after I explore this weekend so stay tuned…

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One more of St. Basil’s for the road.