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.

IMG_3180

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.