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.
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)
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)
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
Would really Like to do if I have Time
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:
River boat ride (and if you look again at my bucket list, I still have not done it in the winter)
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.