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.

Cramming it in: Tula in Five Hours

Tula, a small city (by Russian standards, at less than half a million people, it is small), was not really on my last-year-in-Moscow bucket list.  Actually, I had never heard of it until Anthony decided we needed to start our “let’s cram as much as we can into our last ten months” with a day trip – any kind of day trip – on Labor Day.  Yaroslavl was his first choice.  It occupies the top slot of the “Ten Places to Drive to in a Day From Moscow” list.  But at 3 and a half hours there and back (not allowing for traffic) it didn’t really qualify, in my books, as a place to “drive to in a day.” Tula, at 2 and a half, was Dublin to Galway distance – a distance I have driven many times to and from in a day – so we piled our bicycles into the mighty Silverado, and launched ourselves due south at around 8:15am.

Tula has – surprise, surprise – a Kremlin, a Cathedral, a river, and a large park or two.  It is also the home of the Samovar, Russian Gingerbread (also known as pryanik), and the first armament factory in Russia, commissioned by Tsar Peter I.  Enough to qualify as a place of interest that might occupy four or five hours.

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Before entering the city, a monument NOT mentioned in the very limited research we had done became our first stop.  We almost sped past it, really, but it seemed worth a look, and there was an easy place to do a U-turn.  It was, in fine Socialist Realism style, a clear celebration of Russian Victory over the enemy at the gate in WWII: a Russian bomber soaring into the sky over a doomed, crashing, Nazi fighter plane.  A monument to the war, with thanks to each of the allies in their own language.  Along the back, an alphabetical list of the names of the fallen from the city.   Well worth a stop.

We arrived into Tula 5 days before the celebration of its 500th birthday.  Parking along the Kremlin was easy to find, so we abandoned ship and took to our bicycles as a way to cover more ground in our limited time.

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The Kremlin was first built five centuries ago and, according to a diorama at the Museum, once housed the entire population inside its walls.  It has been rebuilt, rather than restored, but was definitely looking its Sunday best.

The weapons museum was, unfortunately, closed.  As was the Samovar Museum (to my great disappointment).  The curse of Museum Dark Day Monday.  The history museum was open, though I think this was mostly due to the frantic completion work being done for the aforementioned upcoming city day.  For the entirely reasonable sum of 200 rubles, we wandered three floors and 500 years of Tula Military history.  The top floor reminded me, very much, of the museum at Gallipoli – exhibits showing the minutiae of a soldiers life, the contents of his haversack or desk, alongside the weaponry for which Tula is famous.

Stopping to buy my obligatory fridge magnet, I was a little taken aback at the opportunity to buy a variety of toy weapons.

 

Along one wall of the Kremlin was a row of charming craft shops and cafes.  A gingerbread store where you can buy, decorate, or explore the history of Pryanik – cookies made from honey and spices; a ceramics studio where you can buy pottery, and take classes; a café for apples and apple tea; and (surprisingly) a tourist information center.

The significance of family to the Russians is one of their defining characteristics . This is also evident here.  Outside the Kremlin walls is a playground and a bronze hedgehog statue rubbed shiny by many tiny hands – apparently a gift to the children of Tula by the Mayor’s wife.

After a hurried lunch, we biked our way through the city to find the Central Park.  A BIG mistake (says me, Anthony would disagree).  Fighting our way uphill, along busy streets with rushing, impatient pedestrians, and dusty uneven paths, I have to admit to a decided “this is really not fun” attitude. Anthony admitted that we “probably did not take the most direct route, but it seemed like the fastest on Google maps.”  My irritation and lack of enthusiasm was mollified by the delightfully quiet and extensive Central City Park of Culture and Recreation.  It being a working weekday for citizens of Tula, we had the place practically to ourselves.

Tree-lined bike-paths led past fountains, playgrounds, and cafes.  There was a “Zone of relaxation,” which turned out to be a rectangular stretch of grass  surrounded by a box hedge; an “Avenue of Adventure,”  which was a sorry-looking stretch of kid-sized rides, abandoned now that school had started, a tiny book-swap library, and, of all things, a beach.

We spent a very pleasant hour biking around the park, no rushing pedestrians or dusty construction, in search of the beach.  It took a while, and we had almost given up, but I was pretty determined.  We found exactly what I expected – a Soviet-style man-made “beach” on a man-made lake.  Paddle- and row-boats, lounge beds, and a guard hut from which (presumably) the man-in-charge could yell at rule-breakers through his megaphone without leaving the comfort of his chair.

From the park we took the direct route back to the truck, piled the bikes back in the back, and headed for our final stop of the day – an up-close and personal look at some very imposing war machinery.  The Tula State Museum of Weapons also houses five floors of exhibits, arranged historically with the earliest years on the bottom floor.  The museum is called “The Helmet Museum” because it is shaped, strangely enough, like a medieval Russian helmet.

A feature of this museum that I liked was an electronic interface for information on each item.  The exhibits were numbered individually, and a pad in front of each case had corresponding numbers with information in both English and Russian. A feature I was a little disconcerted by was the firing range in the basement, where you can try your hand at firing any number of guns and rifles.

You notice our day out in Tula is sorely lacking in culinary experiences.  We grabbed lunch at a reasonable fast-food pizza place, and fortified ourselves with a quick tea-and-cake at the café before venturing into the Weaponry Museum.  We sacrificed our usual hunt for good food in exchange for fitting in as much of Tula as we could, and still make it home for dinner with Jamie.

While not exactly a Metropolis, Tula is clearly proud of its contribution to the history of conflicts in Russia.  It definitely scratched my itch to see somewhere, anywhere, outside of but a reasonable distance from Moscow.

 

 

The Anglo-American School of Moscow: Where the Curriculum is NOT boxed.

I got the title for this post from an article I read the other day about the way US education has become a list of standards, standardized tests, and prescribed curricula.  It goes on to talk about initiatives taken by teachers, surreptitiously and quietly (and often secretly) thinking outside the “box,” to give their students an experience beyond that which is dictated by states, counties, and even the Federal Government.

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My first reaction was to post it on the Anglo-American School (AAS) Facebook page with my gratitude for having spent three years working in a school where nothing is “boxed” and innovation is not only encouraged, but welcomed and celebrated.  My second was to post it on the New Hires Facebook page welcoming them to such a school.  This is my third.

Everyone who has children at AAS has a lot to say about the school.  I notice this.  If you transition in the summer – particularly if you have school-age children – it is the topic of the moment when you meet the community.  Newcomers are reassured by talk of the resources and technology, by the uniform in Elementary School and “uniform” dress-code in the Middle School.  They are relieved by the welcoming and friendly atmosphere, and the accommodations made for the difficulty of transitioning into a new school and new country all at the same time.  Hands are held, literally and figuratively, as new arrivals go through orientation ahead of Open House and the first day.  Home to students from 63 nations around the world, the school administration (some of whom were, this year, new arrivals with new students themselves) understands very well the needs of a frequently transitioning family.

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People whose children already attend the school are very quick to talk it up – the inquiry-based Elementary curriculum, the transition curriculum to Middle School, and the rigorous IB in the High School.  Kids want to hear about skating for PE and sledding in the forest during winter, food choices at the two cafeterias, and the afterschool Penguin Life activities.  Someone posted on our community network that they were looking forward to arriving in Moscow, but that they were vacillating between AAS and ISM (International School of Moscow), and could people please give their thoughts.

Here is some of what they got in response:

“My family and I have been here for one year and have two kids (soon to be 15 and 10) at AAS and we are all very happy with the school”

“I have two at AAS for a second tour and they love it. It’s one of the reasons we decided to come back.”

“We’ve been in Moscow for two years. Our older daughter is going into 6th grade this year and our younger one will be in 4th. They transferred to AAS from the French School last year, and they are very happy there.”

I have a unique perspective myself, having taught in the school for three years, having one graduate from last year, and another 12th grader this year.  We were originally supposed to spend two years here, and then go back to the US for our boys to finish High School.  When we extended, the boys were not altogether happy.  The school singlehandedly turned both of them around.  While mom and dad could talk up the advantages of a small school, of applying for college from overseas, of swimming in a smaller pond, of experiencing life in the “big old world,” the school did more to turn them around by simply validating their feelings and allowing them to come to their own conclusions.  The acknowledgement of what it is to be a transitional student, the development of an identity as a Third Culture Kid (TCK), the small inclusive size, the opportunities for travel, the open-mindedness of the administration, the teachers, and the students – all of these spoke volumes for our boys.  They have competed and traveled for band, cross-country, speech and debate, knowledge bowl, robotics, and Discovery Week, to Sochi, Warsaw, Prague, Ruka, Rome, London, Belgrade, Vilnius, and Zagreb.  Jamie will travel this year to Kiev and Krakow.

I could spend paragraphs describing the state-of-the-art facility, the pool and playing fields, the tennis courts, library, and ice-rinks, the spacious classrooms, the cafeterias and gyms.  This video says it all in about 2 minutes.

I went up to school on the first day.  I wanted to attend the opening ceremony.  Jamie is a senior and would participate in the parade of flags.  Like his brother last year, he hoped to be assigned either the flag of the United States, or that of Ireland.  Like his brother last year, he was not assigned either.  Peter carried Denmark, and Jamie carried Croatia.  In the end, however, this was not what mattered. In the end, what mattered was this – they were beginning their last year of High School and were being acknowledged as seniors in the school community by this privilege.  That of carrying one of the 63 flags representing each nationality among the student body.

Of the 13 years that each of my children have spent at school, I have been lucky enough to work in the same school for 8 years (Eilis), 6 years (Peter), and 7 years (Jamie).  For the boys, it includes three years at AAS.  This year I am taking a “gap year.”  When I appeared in the hallways on the first day, people made fun of me.  “Can’t stay away, huh?” I’d like to say, for the record, that it is not possible to stay away.  The school is such an integral part of my experience here in Moscow, and I could no more stay away than I could…well…stop knitting.  Anyone who knows me at all knows that this speaks volumes for my attachment to AAS.

And this is just another reason why…Moscow.

 

Taking Stock: Why Moscow?

Today is the start of our fourth and final year in Moscow.  The past three years have brought about much change for us as a family, such as any three years in life will do for any family.  We go into our last year at post with Lara, not Penny the dog, two much fatter cats, two much, much taller boys, a shorter-haired Jamie, and without Peter, who heads off to college next week.

Oh…and me not working.  Yes, that’s a big one too.  We have more artwork, a truck (actually, let’s call it what it is – a Mighty Silverado), 5 bicycles and a scooter.  All the boys have added a Padi certification to their resumes and I have added, well, I lost count of how many, new crafts to my repertoire.

The thing is, all of the above would certainly have happened (or could certainly have happened) no matter where we lived in the world.  So, I started thinking about how Moscow itself has changed us, and what our experiences here have done to shape who we are now.

I doubt that there is anyone reading this who does not know what Embassy Moscow has been through in the past year.  Ironically or, perhaps, fittingly, it is just over a year since we found out that the Russian Government ordered us to downsize our mission by firing, or sending home, hundreds of our employees by September 1st.  I’ve written more than once about the resilience and courage of the people who have served, and continue to serve, here.  But I look at our family and see that while resilience and courage are undoubtedly outcomes of the year’s events, so too are others: an appreciation for a strong support system, for a close-knit community, for small pleasures, for routine, for the sheer luck of dodging the bullet.  I see also in my boys a willingness to step up, to have a good work ethic, to show kindness and to be thoughtful, to show patience, and to show initiative.  If you can forgive the clichés, I’ve seen them learn to take things on the chin and roll with the punches, to keep their eyes open, to be aware of their surroundings, and to be vigilant.

Again, you might say that these are lessons that might well have been learned, or qualities that might have developed, anywhere in the world.  And you might be right.  But I prefer to think that living as representatives of the US Government, in a country with whom the US Government does not have a positive relationship, my boys – our family – have again and again had to look past the politics and see the country, see the people of the country (including students with whom they study), and find a way to see the positives and live alongside them.  More so than other places we have lived.  And using those lessons, those characteristics, that resilience, has been the best way to do this.

On the other side, we now have a healthy cynicism, a more natural distrust of the status quo, and an awareness that nothing stays the same.  That change will often be foisted upon you when you least expect it (and here I also think back to telling the boys that we decided to extend our tour here from two to four years).

Why should anyone come to live in Moscow?  People have asked me that many times in the past months.  Why bid on Moscow?  Why apply for a teaching job there?  Why? When you don’t know if you’ll get a visa.  When you don’t know whether you might be unceremoniously sent home.  There is no easy answer to this…but let me try.

First of all, and perhaps most significant, the work is of utmost importance – for diplomats, for their families, and for teachers.  It is in the dedicated, tireless efforts of our officers here (against some of the greatest political odds) that the situation for future diplomats will be made easier, and the relationship between the two governments will become less fractious and more productive.  And before anyone says otherwise, I truly believe that this is a desired outcome not only for the US and Russia, but for Global stability.

It is in the consistent support of families, and their willingness to make sacrifices, that diplomats will be able to do their jobs.  And it is in the provision of the high-quality education currently to be found here at the Anglo-American School that families will be able to sustain that support.  I say this last as the mother of one, and soon-to-be two graduates of AAS High School.

Secondly – Moscow is a GREAT city in which to live.  I thought about trying to list why I love living here, but can I suggest you read my previous posts?  Go back to the beginning, to the very first posts, and read about daily life, the metro, and finding our routines.  Routines which turned out to be surprisingly easy to fall into.  We have regular restaurants where they know our favourite tables.  Anthony is well-known by the early-weekend-morning shift ladies at Billa (the local grocery store) who will (so says he) save him the best pastries and baguettes.  The boys have a regular barber, and we have a regular pet store.  We have regular bike-rides that we take, and regular movie theaters where we can find the latest releases not dubbed into Russian.

Then there are the not-so-regular features of life here.  I have yet to experience winters as cold, as long, or as dark as those here (though I do feel the need to point out that Dublin is on the same line of latitude as Moscow, and as such I probably HAVE experienced winters as dark).  But I feel that life here is lived somehow more intensely because of it.

Looking back on my blog posts I have been disappointingly neglectful of posting about theater, ballet, opera, concerts, art galleries, tours, walks in beautiful parks.  I’ve focused on the breathtaking winter – skating, frozen lakes, tubing on ice-hills – but neglected to mention the gorgeous springs and summers when the city explodes with color, and it stays light until 10pm (though, admittedly, the 3:30am sunrise is the flip side of the Northern location).  Or the Fall, when the light softens and colors are more muted, and you can feel winter knocking on the door, but you know you can squeeze another day outside before it’s time to light the fire.

The city is hopping with nightlife for those who look for it.  Craft beer hang-outs and pubs spring up with more and more frequency, and there are enough restaurants to satisfy any taste, whether you are a hard-core foodie, or just like to have variety when you eat out with family and friends.

Perhaps my year off might be an opportune time to let you in on more of those hidden gems.

I have some regrets.  I have contemplated roads not travelled, and places not visited; experiences I have not taken and moments that have slipped by unnoticed.  Just like anyone leading this life who suddenly finds themselves with too many missing experiences to cram into the remaining months at post, I am currently making a list that is too long, but to which I will do my best justice.

And this is why Moscow.

 

 

 

 

The Russians Are smiling…For Now

 

Two or three months ago you would never have thought that Russia (Moscow) was about to play host to one of the world’s biggest sporting events.  While most other countries would probably have milked it dry for its potential to attract tourists and sell souvenirs, the only sign that Russia would be host to the FIFA World Cup early this year was the installation of a giant black and white hexagonal-patterned ball on top of the Alpha Bank building not far from the Embassy.  It appeared right after New Year.  And that was it.

Late at night, in homes across the world, hopeful soccer fans sat waiting for hours in the glow of computer screens to acquire the coveted fan IDs, and tickets to matches between as-yet unknown teams.  Life in the Russian winter carried on – clearing the streets of snow, glowering from under winter hats at the cold, expelling foreign diplomats…denying visas…the usual.

As the snow melted, the regular reconstruction of streets after the winter beating began with more than the normal frenzy.  As the orange clad armies swarmed over the city, it was clear that they were tasked with a bit more than the customary pasting of veneer for the upcoming tourist season.  The city got a complete facelift.  Luzhniki and Spartak Stadiums were completely overhauled.  Every billboard, multi-media screen, and inch of advertising wall-space became a venue for World Cup publicity.  In every shop there appeared (finally) official merchandise featuring the Emblem and Mascot of FIFA Russia.  Construction staggered to a halt literally days before the opening ceremony.

About a week before the teams rolled in, Anthony and I went up to check out the Fan Zone.  Against the backdrop of the Moscow University and over-looking Luzhniki Stadium, the merchandise tent, nine giant screens, banks of tables and benches, food kiosks, and charging zones, all seemed ready to take on the hundreds (thousands?) of expected fans.

A chair lift, of all things, was set up to take the more intrepid spectators from the Fan Zone area across the river to the Stadium (not sure I would risk that myself).  Armies of blue-uniformed police, some of them looking like they had graduated High School maybe a week earlier, ran through exercises, clutching maps of security posts and trying but not quite succeeding to look stern –they were just kids learning to brandish batons before they have properly learned to shave.  An army of a different kind wandered the Fan Zone waving giant “high-fives” as you walked by.

As Russia overran Saudi Arabia in their first game, World Cup Fever took firm hold on the city.  Tourists flocked into Moscow  – more tourists than they have probably ever seen at one time – and bemused locals really didn’t know quite what to make of it all, at first.  You’ve all seen the pictures – Mexicans in sombreros crowded in with the French in red, white, and blue wigs, Danes in Viking hats, Argentinians in Messi shirts, and Portuguese wearing Ronaldo’s number 7.  After the first match or two, the Muscovites had no real choice but to surrender their customary reserve and embrace the party atmosphere.

I took a couple of visiting friends out to Red Square last week.  It is a blaze of color and a hive of activity.  You can sign up for 10 minute five-on-five games played out in the shadow of GUM, and try your luck shooting penalties against a “robo-goalie” or play “Fooseball” with the St. Basil’s and the Kremlin as a backdrop.  Security checkpoints at all entrances are permanently backed up, but the police are uncharacteristically jovial with the crowds.

My local knowledge comes in handy at times.  Knowing that security at the entrance to GUM is relaxed not only allowed us to flit on and off the Square via the multiple entrances, and avoiding the security lines in the process, but to see this usually elegant (and expensive) shopping center also succumb to World Cup madness.  Giant soccer balls adorn the ceilings and float in the signature fountain, which is surrounded by merchandise kiosks (probably selling everything at twice the usual price!).

Wp17

Tourist attractions are barely keeping up with the demand of the constant stream of fans determined to cram in as many of the renowned sites as they can on the off-game days. Closures are random and unannounced, as visiting VIPs demand crowd-free tours.

We paid a second visit to the Fan Zone.  On Father’s Day.  Dragging the boys along for the 25-minute bike ride to enjoy the atmosphere without the crowds, hours before a game would start.  We were pleasantly surprised by the ice-cold drinks and real food.  Although there was no game scheduled while we were there, we were fully entertained by an increasingly loud group of Mexicans warming up to watch the 3pm match against Germany.

Encouraged by what seemed to be a perfectly civil way to experience a game without tickets, Anthony and I returned a week later to watch England destroy Panama, and got caught up in a roaring display of British hooligans from Woking (term used affectionately here) singing and dancing.  Delighted Russian fans crammed in for photo after photo, and the singing increased significantly in volume as the scene played out on the main display screen.

 

Surprisingly and delightfully playing along, the Russians – old and young alike – are immersing themselves in the experience.  No matter who is playing they are out there in the fan zone, at the games, wearing their Russian tri-color flags like super-hero capes, having photos taken with anyone who is willing – and of course, everyone is.

In eleven participating cities around the country, the Russian people are having a blast.  We’re over halfway through the tournament now and their team is still alive and kicking.  Scenes of celebration after the round of 16 match reminded me fondly of Ireland’s first ever qualification to the World cup, in Italy 1990, when they reached the quarter finals.  Right now, we are all trying to see past the politics to a country, a city, and a nation, playing host to the world.

When I was out with my visiting friends last week, I resigned myself to pushing my way onto a crowded metro to get home.  Two stops.  If I stand near the door, I can tolerate the crowds for two stops.  As I got to the first stop, ready to step out of the way to allow people off and on, I felt an irritated elbow in the back, and turned to see an elderly man grousing at me for not getting out of the way fast enough.  Three years living here and I am still a foreigner.  My Russian is not great, but as he pushed past me, knocking me all the way onto the platform, he was probably muttering something along the lines of “stupid foreigners, always in the way.”

The world cup is not, perhaps, for everyone.  Despite being coached on smiling at customers, the metro workers still glower at passing passengers. And I suppose for some of the locals July 15th can’t come soon enough.

But for now…the Russians (well, most of them) are smiling.