Последний звонок (Poslednyi Zvonok)The Last Bell

There is a tradition in Russian schools that calls for the ringing of a bell to signal the end of the school year.  It is one that was adopted by the Anglo American School of Moscow, the bell being rung at the end of the closing ceremony each year.   This year I was chosen to ring one of the bells.  It was a poignant moment for me – the school had been such an integral part of our lives here – but it was also the last time I would end a school year as a parent. 

Tonight we ring our own last bell signaling the end of our time in Moscow. 

As I sit here now, the house is very quiet.  With a 2am pick up, I didn’t see the point in trying to sleep.  Peter is up too.  Anthony and Jamie are probably napping somewhere.  The animals can sense something is not as it should be.  I quite envy their total ignorance of the trek ahead of us.  The miserable 15 hours they have ahead of them.  9 suitcases, filled to bursting point, and four backpacks are lined up in the hallway upstairs.  The crates for the pets have paperwork and food taped to them, though they are unlikely to feel like eating in Amsterdam.

Earlier this evening we spent an hour in Uncle Sam’s, bidding our final farewells.  Anthony signed off for us on the wall of those who have passed through. 

We walked out to our favourite Georgian restaurant for dinner, past Krasnopresnenskaya metro, the Zoo, Billa, MVideo, Zoomagazine.  At the restaurant we didn’t even open the menus, just ordered the usual.  And walked back as it started to rain. 

The waiting is the worst.  It’s pouring rain now.  But it’s 97 degrees Fahrenheit in DC. 

A friend of mine recently provided me with the perfect words with which to leave (taken from Kerouac’s On the Road):

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye.  But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”

Reflections on Empty Rooms

I often feel the positive power of social media.  When I post an emotional moment or event on Facebook, WhatsApp, or Vibr, I have so many wise friends and family members who help me to see things in a different way.  If I have a negative perspective about something, or can’t see the up for the down, these words of wisdom break open the clouds and shine light on a difficult situation. 

This has never been more true than in the past couple of days. 

First of all I am reminded that there are so many others around the world going through this – in fact, there have been trucks parked outside too many homes here in the past month.  Families who have just left, and others getting ready to go through their own packing turmoil.  I am not alone, and as more than one friend advised, we have to support each other and recognize that it is okay to mourn this transition.  We have all earned the right to tears – it means that the place we are leaving has made an impact, has imprinted itself on our hearts enough for us to grieve its passing.  The people we have met, the memories we have made, and the experiences we have had here will travel and stay with us always.

To be honest, it really was good to see the boxes loaded onto the truck.  It means that we’ve made it this far, although there is still the scary thought that everything you have left might not fit into the suitcases.  The house may ring empty, there may be bare nails on the walls, and the shelves may be thick with dust, but already I am beginning to imagine where everything will be placed again in our next home. 

I know every single book, every photograph, and every piece of wall art.  I know the origin of every glass, cup, plate, and every ornament from every shelf.  They hold in them the years, months, weeks and days of every home in which we have lived, and people who have touched my life for even a brief time.  Many of them carry my family history, my distant past.  They all represent moments in time that are precious to me.

With the wise words of all my friends now uplifting me, walking around the empty house yesterday felt less hollow and more resonating.  In my mind’s eye I could see the dining room table filled to bursting point when we insisted on a dinner for 16 and everyone had to sit down at the same time because the chairs were so tight.  Or the countless Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners when our family of four or five became suddenly extended to whoever was visiting and whoever needed a table to put their feet under. 

Most memorable are the Thanksgiving dinners when the school was not on holiday and we invited working teachers who had no time to cook – the numbers necessitating a large buffet and people sitting around a roaring fire in the living room eating from plates balanced on their laps.  Then there was the Christmas right after the downsizing when we invited families who were still living out of welcome kits because of visa delays, and welcomed everyone who had volunteered to give up their R&Rs home so that the Embassy could run on a skeleton staff while other families went home for the holidays.  The dining room rang often with raucous toasts and the scraping of chairs, as turkeys were eaten to the bone and we regretted not making more roast potatoes.

The living room hosted craft nights and official receptions, intense meetings and relaxed coffees.  It is where I first hosted the new Ambassador’s wife, and also where I met the wonderful Meryl Streep.  On the mantle I could imagine Anthony’s bell and hear it ring while he called people to attention for a speech or a toast – telling the same joke about his wife being a teacher and hence the school bell…  But I can also hear Christmas Carols and Irish music, soft jazz and loud opera.  All controlled from Anthony’s phone and blasted through a system of Sonos speakers that grew exponentially throughout our time here. 

In the family room – the center of the house – I see months of roaring fires and Sunday dinners.  The recliner where I recovered from two hospital stays.  Two cat trees with curled-up sleeping cats, Cosmo’s rolls of fat spilling over the side of his raised platform.  I see rows of winter boots, a coat rack weighted down with a variety of outerwear, and feel the echo of blasting cold air as the door is opened.  I recall a vivid memory in this room from the long, bitter night of the expulsions in April 2018.  All of us sitting around the room, Anthony listing the friends and colleagues who had been given a week to leave by the Russian Government; Jamie broken-hearted at a text from his friend who would not now graduate from AAS.  Peter’s red couch and Jamie’s homework corner.

The empty rooms are very easily filled with the people who occupied and visited them, and the feelings of loss are eased.  A cousin commented that the best part of home is the people who move with you.  Although this will be our first move without kids – our first as empty nesters – I hold this particular truth very close to my heart.  Even though Eilis has not lived with us in any of our last 3 homes, and even though the boys will have new homes in their respective colleges, all of them still “come home” whenever they have or will visit.  Because even 21 years after I left my home in Ireland, I still feel that “going home” is what I do because it is the people who are the true nature of home.  The “things” we pack are only as important as the people and memories with whom they are associated.

Thanks to all my wise family and friends for your thoughts.  My life is richer once again because of your insights and perspective. I hope you all recognized your words when you saw them here.

10 Days To Go

I don’t even know where to start with blog posts these days.  There is a blur of events going around in my head from the weeks and months past.  Since I wrote the post eight months ago about running out of time, I have done a terrible job of chronicling the final months of our journey here in Moscow.  Looking back, it might seem that we’ve done nothing, at a time when to me we seemed to be busier than ever.  Despite my promise back in April to catch up and keep writing, I continue to be intimidated by the task and was unable to climb the blank wall I seemed to have hit.

We were blind-sided so many times in the past six months by events over which we had no control.  Events that disrupted plans and sent us in directions we could not have foreseen.  My surgery and its complications took December and January.  My dad’s illness and sudden death took some of May and all of June, almost but not quite overshadowing Jamie’s High School graduation.  That, however, has been the story of our time here.   Dealing with the unexpected and, often, the tragic.  I don’t mean that to sound negative – it has been a fact of life here and one we have accepted and dealt with in as graceful and dignified a manner as we could muster.

Now we are down to our final 10 days.

I thought a list might be a good idea, and as I started to type I was encouraged by the many ways in which we really did seize opportunities as time and outside events allowed (in no particular order).

Checking boxes:

  • Christmas Tree Ornament Factory
  • Yaroslavl (in the Mighty Silverado)
  • Kazan (on the overnight train)
  • Dog sledding and reindeer farm (everyone except mom)
  • Boat ride in Winter (with ice-breakers)
  • Chocolate factory
  • Ice Sculptures at Victory Park

Ballet, Concerts, and Opera:

  • Nutcracker at the Bolshoi
  • Opera – La Boheme
  • Kafe Kantata
  • Sleeping Beauty
  • Giselle
  • Blue Man Group at Luzhniki Stadium (with Jamie)

Art Exhibits

  • Banksy
  • Frida Kahlo
  • Edmund Munsch
  • Ilya Repin

Visitors

  • John and Diane Yockey
  • Annie, Joe, and Matthew Clyne
  • Karen and Sophia Reimann
  • Orla from Ireland
  • Susan, Noel and Aisling Donnelly (Easter)
  • Mary and Kaan Suphi (Easter)
  • Brian, Caroline, Cormac, and Hannah O’Toole
  • Tommy, Hua Soo, Anna, and Sol Godfrey (for Christmas)
  • Caroline and Sorcha O’Raw, Ca Kelleher and Joanie Rathbone (for graduation)
  • As always, Eilis (for Christmas)

And so many “final times in Moscow”

Marine Ball, Christmas, White and Emerald Balls, St. Patrick’s Day, book club, craft night, drive to school, skating, Tae Kwon Do class, 4th of July.

Perhaps I will find the heart to chronicle some of these experiences in greater detail.  No promises, though.  I find myself dwelling on those we were not able to have – Lake Baikal, Siberia, Faberge, Suzdal, Troika rides, Marinsky Ballet…Swan Lake one more time.

But they are all just reasons to come back.

Not Quite the Final Farewell

The countdown is down to weeks now – exactly four weeks from tomorrow we will leave Moscow.  And, yes, I know I’ve been off the grid lately.  The problem is…or maybe it’s not such a problem…I’ve been trying to live in the moment and enjoy the many experiences that are coming my way.  At the same time I’m moving a kid back from college, graduating another from high School, hosting visitors – twice – and then hightailing it to Ireland when my dad got sick.  Something had to give, and so the blog got pushed farther and farther down the list.  I’m going to do my best to catch you all up as I reflect on our time here before we go.

The Ambassador hosted a farewell for us at Spaso House last night.  It was definitely NOT the final farewell, but school closes this week and it was important to me that I was able to invite my friends and colleagues from AAS.  Hence, the early farewell.  As I looked around the room while we waited for guests to arrive, I recalled my very first event at Spaso house, just two days after we arrived in August 2015.  It was a farewell event for Anthony’s predecessor as Political counselor (Howard), and the only person I knew was his wife (Karla), and I had only met her for the first time the day before.  People were very kind.  I was not left standing alone for long, but I was anything but relaxed because Anthony was working and not able to guide me around…and nobody knew who I was.  In the end, I had a lovely chat with Karla and the wife of the Ambassador at the time, Mariella.  I was not given an opportunity to get to know Karla well, though we remain friends on Facebook, but I developed great affection, and still have great admiration, for Mariella Teft.

Now, four years later, I knew everyone in the room and everyone knew me.  I was pretty stressed beforehand, agonizing about what I was wearing, though just the day before I had joked with Anthony about how I can now get ready for an event in 20 minutes without even thinking about it.  But the sight of the boys in their brand new suits looking more like young men than the teenagers they still are, and with Anthony relaxed and laughing about Jamie’s Vans and fussing with Peter’s tie, and the first guests walking up the stairs, there was just no time to worry whether I should have worn my hair up instead of down.

The order of events was much the same as all the farewells I have been to over the years.  The big difference, of course, was the it was us standing next to the Ambassador as he spoke of Anthony’s exemplary work as Deputy Chief, and kindly spoke of my own activities in the community, the boys’ successes at school, and Eilis’s life in Los Angeles. He even mentioned Lara.  If I had been asked beforehand whether I would say a few words, I would have said a resounding “no.”  Perhaps the Ambassador knew this, and didn’t ask beforehand, but invited me to address the gathering with my own words.  In the end, without thinking too much, I knew that what I wanted to say was very simple.

It is a humbling experience, looking around a room of probably 100 people and knowing that every single face is of one who has shared my life over the past four years. Diplomatic families, teachers and their families, people from my craft groups and book clubs.  Friends, every single one.  As people filed in, there were many more hugs than handshakes.

I wrote a post barely a week after we arrived in Moscow about a Golden Evening, sitting outside Townhouse 11 after a family dinner, Penny the dog relaxed and fed, Anthony and I with full glasses of wine in front of us, after a hectic week of settling in.  We had another of those Golden evenings just this week – and we used that exact phrase to each other.  A rare family dinner on the patio after a hectic week of events and work, Lara the dog relaxed and fed, sitting in the gloaming with a glass of wine, and realizing that we had come full circle – from one Golden evening to another, with so many in between.

I was left with a profound feeling of gratitude for the place in which we live, and the people we have encountered there.

 

Checking Boxes: A Night at the Opera

I know that opera is not everyone’s cup of tea.  Anthony occasionally plays it very loudly on his Sonos speakers, to the annoyance of almost everyone in the house.  I object to the loudness rather than the actual music.  My experience thus far of live opera has been woefully negligible.  A long-ago performance of Aida in Tblisi, Georgia (not so memorable), a choral version of something I went to with Peter for his IB music class (can’t even remember the name) and the first half of The Marriage of Figaro (also for Peter’s IB music; a modern interpretation and we only stayed for the first act because…let’s face it…we had dragged Jamie along with the promise of leaving at the intermission).

It really didn’t seem right not to give it a fair chance, especially here in the city of high culture.  To maximise the chances of a successful experience we settled on one of the biggies.  La Bohème on the Bolshoi New Stage – a smaller but equally spectacular venue than the historic stage, for which we didn’t have to mortgage the house to buy the tickets and agreed that it would not be the end of the world to leave at the intermission.  We also decided not to eat dinner beforehand – mostly because it was a weekday and the chance of Anthony getting away on time for a 5pm reservation was zero, but also because the theater experience here should include the Buffet (my Russian language teacher corrected me most indignantly when I called it the “Bar”).  A beautifully appointed wood-paneled room where you can enjoy a range of beverages from tea and coffee to expensive champagne and whisky, accompanied by a variety of open-faced sandwiches and expensive desserts.

The people I encounter have been so much a part of my experiences here in Moscow, and this was no exception.  Sharing our banquette table at the buffet were two ladies who had clearly been theater-going friends for a long time.  Not only by their early arrival, but by the expert way in which they conveyed three glasses of champagne and two plates of snacks through the growing crowd.  We made room for a third friend who arrived late (and with more champagne) and were treated to much expressive nodding of thanks, and some very animated chatter.

Our seats in the dress circle gave us an excellent view over the general proceedings and we took them early so as to have an opportunity to take in the beauty of the theater.

The opera itself was, in a word, spectacular.  Everything from the orchestra and soloists to the costumes and scenery simply took my breath away, if you’ll forgive the cliché.  There is always a guarantee of excellence at the Bolshoi, but I did not expect to be so captivated.  Even without understanding the words, the story was revealed clearly in the emotion and passion of the music and the eloquence of the artistes.  There was no question of us leaving at the intermission, and by the end I was feeling a little bit like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman (yes, there might have been a few tears).

At the intermission we saw our three lovely friends again, where they spotted us standing awkwardly with our drinks and insisted on making room at their table for us to squeeze in beside them.  As the bell rang to signal the end of the intermission, they waved their hands in vigorous denial, insisting that there was plenty of time to finish drinks.  They were delightful, and as so often happens when we are out and about, our interaction with them served to reinforce our love of Russian people and the way in which they embrace their city and its rich culture.  Back in our seats we spotted them across and one level up from us and could not resist taking a photo.  That’s them – in the front row, to the left of the lady on the phone.

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At the end of the evening was the usual (if always dignified and polite) scrum to pick up coats and fight your way out of the theater into the Moscow night.

My heart was completely won over by this wonderful experience.  Perhaps it might even make me more tolerant of occasional loud opera via Sonos in the house.

Back to the Writing Board

I lost my writing mojo back in December – actually I lost my reading, knitting, sewing, sleeping mojos too – when I had back surgery at the European Medical Center (EMC) to stabilize my L3/4 joint with an artificial disk and a ridiculous titanium construction held in place with four scary-looking screws.

Recovery has been slow and complicated.  A rare but high-risk spinal fluid leak and infection landed me back in the hospital 6 weeks after the initial surgery.  While I received the best possible care from the hospital and my team of surgeons, it was a bit scary for a while.  The advocacy and support of our own medical team here at the embassy, my #1 cheerleader (Anthony), and the support of family and friends here and far away got me through what turned out to be a pretty stressful and worrying two months.

For the two months since then, I have been working under the very watchful eye of the Head of Rehabilitation at the EMC.  He worked with me on pain management before my surgery and the other day, during a physical therapy training, commented on how pleased he is with the way I am moving compared with my pre-surgery struggles.  Sometimes I need that reminder – how every movement, every step, everything I did was painful.  I have my active life back.

I had two personal goals – to return to Tae kwon Do class (in whatever limited capacity I was able), and to skate one time before the winter was over.  When Peter was home from college, we got to Gorky Park (my favourite skating venue) right before the skating trails were dismantled for the Spring.

I have to admit to feeling most pleased at being able to participate in my last Tae Kwon Do tournament.  Having earned our black belts here in Moscow, it was a big part of life for me (and, to a lesser extent, the boys) here.  The adults in my events were the same adults I’d competed against every year.  One or two had earned their black belts with me.  All of us with some kind of injury or another at one time or another, commiserating and, occasionally, sharing survival tips!  I was very glad to be able to show up.

Those were the biggies.  Little did I know at the time that I would have to create other goals.  To knit again.  To finish a book.  To get out of a chair without help.  To write again.  The last one has taken me the longest.  Partly because other things took priority – being able to walk, to climb stairs, to get in the pool, to sit, to sleep all night.  Then, as my recovery progressed, my days filled with other things.  Finally, I simply became overwhelmed by the sheer volume of experiences to write, that I backed away from it altogether.

Well, I think the thing to do is to take the advice of a writer friend of mine and just start somewhere and see where it goes from there.  I feel the need to apologise in advance.  Things may not come in any logical order.  I’ll be regressing to things I did pre-surgery at the same time as I am writing about things happening right now.

Having shared my life in Moscow with the world for almost four years, the last stretch seems to be more about making sure the experiences don’t slip away before I leave.  3 months now and counting…

So that it will not be Forgotten

It’s one year after the events of April 5th 2018.  I spent most of yesterday wanting to put something in writing, but felt at a loss for the right words.  So much was expressed back then, by so many.  In the past weeks, social media memories provided a constant stream of “last moments” that at the time we did not know were the last.  In the end, it seems, a simple acknowledgement might be enough.

April 5th 2018

Early morning

One week after being announced as Personae Non Gratis by the Russian Government, 60 of our friends and colleagues and their families boarded three buses and rolled out of the compound gates just as dawn lit the sky with a new day.

April 5th 2019

One year later, many of those who left that morning called in on social media with greetings, memories, and a “where are you now?” check-in.  They are as far afield as Abu Dhabi, Bankok, Ottawa, Stockholm, Niamey, Paraguay, Riyadh, New Delhi, Washington D.C.  Or as close as Stockholm, London, Belgrade, Pristina, Kiev, Yerevan, Tashkent.

Some moved on last summer in the natural way of things for the Foreign Service.  Some are still here in Moscow – many (including us) preparing for departure during the coming transition season.

The officers and families who left St. Petersburg after the closure of the Consulate have become so much a part of our community here in Moscow that their marking of the one-year anniversary of the day their flag was taken down took me somewhat by surprise.  But, of course, they remember and commemorate.

Those who have since joined the community – new officers and their families – have taken up the baton with the same fierce determination to make the mission strong, and to carry on the work.  Empty offices and quiet hallways have become the norm.

The dozens of American who were forced to go home in the eight months from September to April may be scattered now.  But the feeling remains that the threads of our lives will forever be tangled together by the events of 2017 and 2018.   No matter how far away we may be in years to come – both in time and location – we will always have September 2017 and April 2018 in common.  We will likely always take a moment to recall the loss.

Sunrise to Sunset and a Porcelain Factory in Between

Driving out of Moscow on early winter mornings, you are often treated to one of nature’s most dazzling shows – a late winter sunrise.  As light creeps up over the horizon, the sun will follow, catching the clouds of steam rising from the city factories and painting them in shades of yellow and orange.  It’s impossible to capture in a photograph, as the light changes every second.  Add in the darkened buildings on the skyline, and you have a reason worth getting out and about early.

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Anthony and I seem to spend a lot of time in the Mighty Silverado these days as I work my way somewhat methodically through my “List of Things to do Before we Leave.”  The Porcelain Factory in Gzhel was our destination a couple of weeks ago – taking advantage of an Embassy day off for Veterans’ Day.  By doing a little research, I found out that the factory would accept visitors for private tours, and with a fluent Russian speaker on hand, it was easy to arrange.

I am always delighted by the pride Russians take in handcrafting – it is very much a part of their history and who they are as a people.  We were shown around this small factory by a lady who had encyclopedic knowledge of the area.  Gzhel has historically produced the best clay in Russia – apparently even the Imperial China Factories come to Gzhel for their clay.  She was very proud of this and you can see the history of the clay (from the crudest ceramic bowls to the most delicate china) and the development of the creative process (including some very eccentric designers) in the tiny factory museum. My favourite piece was one created by one these designers with his self-portrait in the center of samples of all his creations.

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The walk around the factory floors, however, was what I had come for.  Starting with a lesson on the operation of enormous ovens (standing cold and unattended today), we made our way from floor to floor, each one representing a different step in the process.

Perhaps because it was just the two of us, she allowed me to take photos, to touch the molds, to peer into the shelves of glazed but unfired pieces.  We passed by rows of bowls, plates, vases, ranks of soldiers and flocks of birds – all the distinct pink color of the white underglaze, waiting to be fired.

She explained the painstaking process of turning clay into white figures and vessels; from white clay to the traditional blue and white porcelain for which the region is rightly famous.

The painting rooms were my favourite.  Ladies hunched over tables lined with rows of statues, bowls, cups, and other ornaments, waiting in rows along the shelves above them.

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The skill in their hands was a sight to behold – right in front of us they replicated the same flower or ornamental leaf on every piece.

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Faces on porcelain pigs were painted by looking into a mirror – one cheeky face grinning at us while we watched another brought to life with just a few skilled strokes of a brush.

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At one table a fresh-faced Snow Princess waited patiently, a long dark braid flowing down her back, but an air of being not-quite-finished-yet about her, while her sisters waited behind her for their turn.

For the final step, the master glazer was not even wearing gloves as she dipped each painted piece into a bath of clear glaze, which would then be fired to allow the painted decorations and features to appear blue through the white.

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And then it was my turn.  A one-on-one master class where I would be taught the painting techniques and allowed to paint a piece of my own.  The pleasure was in the learning process.  Practicing the swirls of petals and tiny fine lines of facial features. I chose a matryoshka doll.  My efforts at bringing her to life were somewhat shaky, but my teacher seemed to think I did well for a first-timer.

Meanwhile, back in the truck, Anthony had found us a place to get some shashlik for lunch and, more importantly, a place to load the bed of the truck with firewood.  Winter is, after all, on its way.

In Moscow, we hit the city at the perfect time to see the sunset – bathing the Kremlin and golden domes of the cathedrals in an orange glow, and once again treating us to one of nature’s finest lightshows.

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Running out of Time: Carpe Diem!

Eight months and counting…

Once upon a time it seemed like we had all the time in the world here, and now I am panicking at how little time I have left to do it all and see it all.  When I first arrived, I was so blasé about having time.  I remember a conversation in my first winter here with Moon, one of my colleagues at work, about how pathetically few museums we had been to, and we made a sort of pact to try to go to one a month.  I remember listing all the places I wanted to see in my head and anticipating (when we extended our tour to 4 years) that there was plenty of time.  When my year off began, I was filled with enthusiasm and optimism about checking things off the list.

Somehow, life just got in the way.  A 10-hour work day turned weekends into precious family time.  Skeleton staffing and political instability dominated and changed everyone’s priorities. Cancelled weekend trips and health issues ate into the past couple of “months off.”

I am also in that “this is the last time we will see this” phase.  Our last fall here – the patio furniture has already been stored away and the bicycles (well, except Anthony’s who will bike like a crazy guy in all weathers) are tagged and handed over to facilities for storage.  Our last Halloween – everyone said we had the “best house” but I think the mulled wine and hot chocolate with marshmallows gave us the edge.  We are approaching our last Thanksgiving and our last winter.  The last Moscow Marine Ball is next week, and don’t even start me on the last Irish White Ball and St. Patrick’s Day.

Don’t read me wrong – I have not exactly been sitting around twiddling my thumbs.  Even a quick look at my blog and photos tells me a story of seized opportunities and unimagined experiences.  I consider myself to have been incredibly lucky here and the purpose of this post is not to be melancholy.  It’s to look at my remaining time and do a little realistic planning.  I’m going to borrow a strategy from my other (teaching) life and take a “must do; want to do but might take a bit of strategic planning; would really like to do if I have time” approach.  With the list in front of me, the likelihood of checking it off is greater.  The likelihood of regrets might be a little less.

Must do

Nutcracker Ballet at the Bolshoi (this has been on my list since before I even got here)
Other Ballets – Jewels and Giselle.
Swan Lake just one more time because it really is my favourite
At least one opera
The Philharmonic (yes, ashamed to say we have not yet been)
Tretyakov museum (we went briefly in our first year and it was a “how long will 6 teenagers spend in here before they decide they have “checked the box and now are hungry” visit)
Cosmonaut Museum
Tolstoy’s Estate
Pushkin’s Home
Dog Sledding and Reindeer Farm
River boat ride in the winter
The Porcelain Factory at Gzhel
The Christmas Ornament factory (yep – running out of time on this one, I know)
Troika Ride
Cities on the Golden Ring – Suzdal, Vladimir, Yarloslavl (to name just a few I haven’t seen)
St. Petersburg one more time (I have not yet seen the Fabergé museum or ballet at the Marinsky, and have barely skimmed the Hermitage)
Anywhere North of the Arctic Circle

Want to do but might take some strategic planning

Lake Baikal, preferably in the winter
Murmansk – hopefully to see the Northern Lights
Vladivostok – it’s the farthest point East that we would go
Trans-Siberian Railroad – any part of it and maybe we could combine with the above
Arkhangelsk

Would really Like to do if I have Time

Kaliningrad
Sochi when it is not raining
Lake Baikal in the spring/summer

And now – a word to all our friends and family out there who also thought they had all the time in the world when we extended to 4 years.  We have eight months, and although it might not seem logical (or possible, if you are of a scientific nature) the countdown is moving way faster than it did in those first three years.  Believe me, I know.  So, for your benefit I want to do two things.  First of all, I want to say that we have had visitors spend as little as 36 hours (two teenage boys who came determined never to sit down and to get very little sleep), and as long as soon-to-be 10 days (nice going Tom Godfrey and family).  We even had/will have repeat visitors (Go Caroline, Eilís, Joanie and Susan!).  Most people spend 3-5 full days here.  In 3 days you can see all the key sights, and even get some sleep and enjoy a couple of relaxing meals.  In 5 days you can add in one or two of the next level experiences and maybe a drive out of the city to one of the farther-flung places-to-do-in-a-day.  In a week you can do an overnight trip to St. Petersburg on the Sapsan (fastest speed 270kph and station to station in 4 hours).

Second of all I want to tell you all the things I have happily done with every single visitor, and because I love these quintessential Moscow experiences so much I have done them many times on my own or with local friends.  Moscow experiences that I NEVER tire of sharing.  At this point, I’m a pretty good tour guide myself, and if you are here over a weekend you can add in Anthony – fluent Russian Speaker who gets the best bargains at the market.

I’m happy to go again and again to:

Red Square
St. Basil’s
Kremlin tour
River boat ride (and if you look again at my bucket list, I still have not done it in the winter)
Metro tour
Izmailovo market
Gorky Park – fountains in the summer, skating in the winter (and if you don’t skate you can walk the high-rise boardwalks and watch the skaters)
Walking in our neighbourhood along the river
Novodevichy Convent, park, cemetery
Biking along the river (again not in the winter unless you are Anthony Godfrey)
Museums and galleries (too many to mention)
Concerts, ballets, opera (again too many to mention)
Restaurants  – where do I start?

Well…it’s almost winter, I hear you say, and you don’t like the cold.  Well, not many people like the cold, but let me tell you that nobody does cold weather better that the Russians.  All of the sights can be enjoyed at any time of year and winter here is something really special – I say this NOT with tongue in cheek.  There is no predicting what there will be to enjoy outside.  Heated out-door markets.  Ice-slides at Red Square.  Countless ice-rinks.  Tubing and ice-sculptures at Victory Park.  The city lights up and it is hard to tell the day from the night (mostly because there is not much day, so they really illuminate the nights).  Photos just don’t do it justice.

Spring and early summer are spectacular, though admittedly it is hard to predict when spring will actually begin.  That’s when the city shakes off the memories of the long, cold winter and the same army of city employees who were out shoveling snow are out planting a blaze of color.  Again, it’s hard to tell day from night, but that’s because there is not too much night…

Do I have a favourite time of year?  I have favourites for each time of year.  In the spring and summer it’s probably the same as any other city – the clear blue skies, sloughing off of the winter months, an occasional drop in temperature with even a snowfall (so you don’t get too complacent), the appearance of color and green.  Walks along the river, sitting outside, fountains, and trees.

The autumn comes fast.  Blink and you miss the changing colors, softening of the light, carpets of leaves (because they rake them almost as fast as they fall), and that perfect temperature outside when a sweater and boots is enough.  The first drop below zero, the warning that you really should pull out that winter gear, but then you get another reprieve (like today) when a hat is too much and gloves not really necessary, and the long weekend means the carpet of yellow on green will be there for a few more days.

But the winters here have captured my senses like nowhere else I have ever lived.  Cold like I have never known.  Cold that freezes the hairs inside your nose and your tears as they run down your cheeks.  Cold that catches your breath and numbs your face.  Cold that puffy coats, Kamik boots, and fur-lined hoods were made to withstand, but still don’t quite hack it if you stay out longer than…well…too long.  Crunchy footfalls.  Six-sided snowflakes on your coat.  Breathtaking scenery and crisp, clean air.

Snow on the ground for months at a time.  Snow that piles up in drifts and into which anything left on the ground (balls, scooters, trash, dog-poop) disappears, freezes, and reappears in a sludgy mess when the big melt finally comes in April…or May.  Snow that piles up in mountains along the streets and is magically whisked away by an army of snowploughs, trucks, frontloaders, and snow-removing machines for which I don’t know the names – all working constantly to keep the city in business while winter rages on incessantly.

And then you go inside, light a fire, and admire it all from the inside.

There you have it.  The same question I keep answering in many of my latest Blog posts.  Why Moscow? Because we are still here.  Because I guarantee you will not regret visiting, and you might just regret it if you don’t.

Dog Society at Novodevichy

Human society has been pretty disheartening in the last while.  In order to keep in touch with news from home and around the world, I spend an hour or more every morning clicking here and there on the well-known news sources, occasionally digging deeper on a story or two, but that with greater reluctance lately.  I’m not going to waste my space with a list.  It’s been difficult to find news that brings a smile.

But before I had a chance to open my laptop this morning, Anthony had made me a cup of tea and a slice of toast, told me to drink up and get dressed, and come for a walk to Novodevichy Park with Lara.  In the face of such enthusiasm and determination (and having already scrolled through the depressing breaking news on my phone), what could I do but…eat up, drink up, and get dressed (in something warmer than a sweatshirt).

With Lara barely containing herself in the back of the Silverado (this is a routine walk for her) as we arrived, the sun well up in the sky, and the quietness of the park evident despite its proximity to the river embankment, I was glad I had grabbed the camera on the way out.  I could tell the soft light through the trees would present opportunities for that often-elusive perfect fall photo.

A quick tour-guide overview: Novodevichy is a convent built in what is known as the Moscow Baroque style – with the traditional onion domes – and is a World heritage Site.  The UNESCO website can give you more information.  (https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1097).

The Cemetery is one of the most-visited sites outside the Kremlin and is the final resting place for the likes of Anton Chekov, Nikita Krushchev, and Boris Yeltsin. It also has a replica of the “Make Way for Ducklings” sculpture, originally found in Boston. It is a ten-minute drive, and about a 20 minute bike-ride from home.

However, to the dogs of Moscow and their owners, the historical significance of the Convent pales in comparison to the significance and popularity of the park.  Walking past (and trying to ignore) the mess the crows were making of uncollected trash, we made our way to the pond and the path around it. A destination for fishermen, joggers, or even just those seeking a place for a quiet sit, the park with its as-yet-unoccupied playground and wooded copses provides an early-morning meeting-place and playground for dogs.

Some don’t want to play.  Some are too old to play.  Some play too rough.  Lara’s best buddy, apparently, is a Beagle, easily spotted through the trees trying to play nice with a very large, very barky German Shepherd.  Beagle seemed very pleased to see Lara, as did his owner.  Barky German Shepherd was returned to his leash, though by the way he hung around watching somewhat wistfully (I thought) the owner wished he would play more nicely with others.

Dog interaction is straightforward.  Off-leash, if they are going to get along, they will sniff a little, give a little bark (of invitation) and off they go running around in crazy circles, tongues hanging out, and ears (in Lara’s case) flapping in pure delight.  If they are not going to get along, this also becomes evident very quickly as one will assert dominance by barking loudly and bearing down.  As in the case of barky German Shepherd.

As I watched this morning, I saw many owners, with dogs on leashes, stop on the paths near enough to watch but far enough away that it was clear they were not sure if their dogs would play nicely enough to join in.  Others (mostly joggers), had their own agenda, but slowed down enough to let their dogs and Lara sniff in greeting before jogging on their way.  One owner saw that Lara was clearly friendly, and allowed his dog off the leash, encouraging him to go and say hello.  His dog was more interested in marking his territory on a tree than running in crazy circles to play, and Lara quickly lost interest, preferring instead to chew a stick thrown for her by Anthony.

On the way out, we saw the Old Lady Dog, shuffling along behind her owner, not stopping to socialize today…feeling a bit grumpy, maybe.

Not me.  A little dog society on a beautiful autumn morning, in a beautiful place.  Maybe having captured that almost-perfect autumn photo.  Just the thing to restore some of my faith in the world.