Smoke on the water

Moscow has been blessed with sunshine and warmer temps as of late. I’m becoming hopeful that spring will soon be on its way.

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Cross-country trails in Fili Park

I had the chance for a unique Russian experience this weekend when my school organized a trip to the Chaika Outdoor Pool. The pool is heated (28C/82F in the water) and within walking distance of my house.

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Blue skies over Moscow

With a beautiful day ahead of us, our small group headed to the pool. After nearly an hour of bureaucracy, paperwork, and a medical check (’tis the Russian way), we found our lockers and quickly made our way towards the pool entrance. The process would have been pretty tricky without a Russian speaker among us, despite the signs in English.

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A cafe, fitness center, and sauna are all available to visitors of the sports center.

To enter, I had to climb into a small pool and dunk under a carwash-like flap. Popping up outside, the sunshine warmed my face and I made my way into the lap lanes full of swimmers.

Owing to the 5C/40F temperature outside, steam rose off the water and gave the pool a bit of an ethereal feeling. The majority of the swimmers were babushkas, all adorned with swim caps (required), many with black and white flowers sewn on. I made my way into the center lanes and enjoyed the bath water temperatures.

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Moscow City in the background, the pool is just across the bridge from Gorky Park (Park Kultury)

Outdoor pools are definitely a great way to beat the winter slog. Some of you may remember that the Cathedral of Christ the Savior here in Moscow was, for a temporary 50 year period, the largest outdoor swimming pool in the world.

All in all, the Chaika Pool was a very cool experience. I hope to go back, perhaps on a snow day. Here’s hoping we won’t see another of those for a while 😉

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Have a Happy Easter, everyone!
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Amsterdam

International Women’s Day is a national holiday here in Russia. To celebrate, everyone and their mother evacuates the country for a long weekend. Seemed like the perfect excuse to go meet my own mom in Amsterdam!

We marveled at the building facades, particularly the unique gables which adorned each one.

Mom, fearlessly traveling solo to a city foreign to her, arrived almost a day before I did. Impressively, she found the airport train easy to navigate (15 minutes into Centraal Station) and hopped the tram to our hotel without issue. When I popped up 12 hours later, she’d perused the neighborhood park, been to the grocery store (bring your own bags here, folks!), and stocked our room with food to guarantee we would not go hungry anytime soon.

Like Venice, everywhere you turn in Amsterdam is a postcard.

In honor of our special Mother/Daughter Trip, I made a few plans ahead of time. Knowing we would want to wander and not knowing how jet lag might affect her (she was a champ!), I’d made just one plan per day.

For our first outing, I booked us a special lunch at the Restaurant De Kas. De Kas is the Netherland’s top biologique restaurant at the moment and it is easy to see why. Located within a greenhouse in the picturesque Frankendael Park, De Kas boasts a localvore menu that cannot be beat. Monkfish, celeriac puree, and beet salad were on the set menu that day. Our meal was truly exquisite, capped off by the restaurant’s knowledgeable and genial wait staff. We were too busy enjoying each dish to take photos but I hope those below entice.

We loved the greenhouse nursery! Mom was happily surprised to find the meyer lemon trees seen behind us.
Solar panels only enhanced the physical architecture of the space, the bones of which date back to 1926.
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With a channel running past the restaurant, a family of egrets had made their home atop the retired smokestack in the distance.

On our second day, we made our way to the northwestern portion of the city, as I had made reservations at the Anne Frank House. Remembering the lines I’d experienced 12 years prior, I had booked ahead online. Turns out you have to as the house is under renovation. Our tour was as solemn as you might imagine. It was quite sobering to realize that Anne was just the same age as my students are right now. If you see nothing else in Amsterdam, this house and its history are not to be missed.

It wouldn’t be a Pendleton vacation without a boat ride. We hopped aboard a cruiser and floated through Amsterdam’s canals with ease. Peaking into the many houseboats moored throughout the waterways has to be a highlight.
The Tulip Museum was unexpectedly cool. My greatest takeaway was that tulips are not indigenous to Holland – they come by way of Turkey and the Caucasus.

On our last day, we visited the Van Gogh Museum and wandered over 8 miles through the city streets. My advice to future travelers – don’t overbook yourself in Amsterdam as you never know when an adorable little cafe or pub might beckon.

My favorite facade of the trip. I call it the zebra house.
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Another adorable neighborhood is Spiegelgracht. Nothing prettier than lights at dusk along the canal!

To me, Amsterdam has changed a great deal in the past decade. Once grimy and rough around the edges, it seems to have come into its own. Boasting an awesome foodie scene – especially in the De Pijp neighborhood we stayed in – you can find everything from Vietnamese to BBQ to local Dutch spots. But even with all that good food, the thing Amsterdam does best is to welcome visitors and feed the soul. It might just be my favorite European city.

 

Amsterdam proved the perfect backdrop for a long weekend meet up. Mom and I certainly enjoyed our time together – even a massive power outage couldn’t dampen our spirits! As much as I enjoy exploring new cities on my own, there’s nothing quite like sharing the experience with someone who knows you well. Very thankful to have had this special time together and already looking forward to our next meet up… Porto, perhaps??

Anne is a huge fan of the selfies 😉 Love you, Mom!

A Dispatch from Snowy Moscow

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GUM Department Store alight against an inky December sky

It’s February in Moscow and the snow is upon us. We’re currently in the middle of a two-day snowstorm, not that you’d know it from all the people out and about. Nothing stops Muscovites, especially not the weather. There is no such thing as a snow day here. This city is clearly not intimidated by winter.

From plows like these:

To shovels like these:

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Often I see a simpler version with two pieces of wood and a piece of flat metal between.

Here’s a little advice for surviving the Russian winter…

  1. Get outside whenever the sun dares to shine – no matter how cold the temperature.
  2. Have the right gear ready – what would I do without my Sorels?
  3. Cultivate a good group of friends – Happy Hours, book clubs, do what you will but always get out and about to socialize. Laughter keeps the grey away.
  4. Use a blue light everyday + take Vitamin D regularly, too.
  5. Hop a plane to the nearest sunshine whenever you have the chance. Professional development in Oman? Sign me up! A long weekend in Cyprus? I’m there! Those kind friends in Dubai? Prepare to find me on your doorstep! (Seriously, Ward and Leslie, any day now!)

In taking my own advice, I embraced a frozen but sunny day last week and walked the half hour through the forest to the metro station.

I am not kidding when I say nobody embraces winter like Muscovites! In the forest I found entire families on cross-country skis, mothers and daughters sharing sleds, and old couples strolling the seemingly endless paths with no particular place to go. And it was 15F out! Everyone is bundled, appreciating the beauty of the forest after a snowfall. It was a gorgeous and peaceful walk, I will give them that.

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Pokrovskoye-Streshnevo Forest

Another fun winter activity in Moscow is the theater. Ballet, folk dance, musicals – Moscow has it all. I had the chance to take in a show by the Igor Moiseyev Ballet Company recently and it was incredible. Igor was evidently the inventor of something called character dance, close to folk but more exaggerated. The bright colors and spirited dancers certainly lit up the stage. How high they could jump!

Fun tidbit – in Moscow you wear your boots to the theatre and switch into your nice shoes when you arrive. You check your boots and your coat together. The long coat check line after the performance is worth avoiding freezing toes and turned ankles outside!

Another must-do in Moscow this time of year is the Christmas Market down at Red Square. The neon lights of the carousel and the children’s shrieks of laughter light up the night (below and top, outside GUM department store).

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Festivus outside St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square

Of the many lessons I’ve learned here in Moscow, I think Kerouac captured it well when he said, “While looking for the light, you may suddenly be devoured by the darkness and find the true light.”

Take care and stay warm, everyone!

Baku, Azerbaijan

When the opportunity to travel to Azerbaijan arose, I jumped at the chance. I knew very little about the country except that a work by world-renowned architect Zaha Hadid lay within city limits and I was eager to see for myself.

Baku, the capital, is a 3 hour flight from Moscow. Making my way through the visa process was painless and soon I was on my way. Touching down in Baku, we were greeted by cabbies trying to charge us double what we’d been quoted. The manet is the currency, worth roughly 75 cents on the dollar. We checked into a hotel on the Bulvar, a tree-lined boardwalk overlooking the Caspian Sea.

We walked along the bulvar under the cover of an early darkness. With many families about and a healthy police presence (albeit in golf carts), we felt at ease. Enjoying the mild temperatures, we drank in the light show which plays out upon the City of the Winds each night.

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Maiden Tower in the heart of the Old City – 1,000 years old

From the boardwalk, a twinkle of lights could be seen on the horizon. The Land of Fire owes its wealth and (relative) economic health to the natural gas flares that burn across its countryside. At one point half of the world’s oil supply originated here.

The omnipresent oil industry drives Baku’s economy, providing – among other things – the means with which to create a downtown resembling the majority of western European cities. Lush vegetation and impressive fountains belie the senses in this arid, desert region.

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We enjoyed delicious meals in the Old City with rice pilaf, dried apricots, and lamb on the menu

Oil is only the tip of the iceberg, however. Early human history is recorded here, dating back 20,000 years. Once part of Alexander the Great’s Empire, the land changed hands many times over, spending time under the rule of the Turks, the Ottomans, and finally the Shah of Iran.

The region’s more recent past is also clouded with successions and discord. Following Iranian rule, Azerbaijan was forcibly ceded to the Russian Empire in the 1800s along with the rest of the Caucasian territories. After the Bolshevik Revolution, the region briefly entertained democracy before becoming a Soviet state, remaining so until the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Today Azerbaijan is 26 years young, a proud country still finding its footing.

It’s impossible to miss the rich textiles this region has to offer.

 

The origin of the woven textile can be traced back to these lands, though other regional neighbors like to share in the credit.

In this former Soviet state, Russian is spoken by anyone over the age of 20 (and many under). Only recently have schools here begun introducing the Azeri language. English is spoken by many, especially in downtown Baku.

The Azerbaijan Carpet Museum on the Bulvar
The flame detail seen in these rugs is known as buta, or fire in Sanskrit.
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One of Azerbaijan’s rising contemporary stars, Faig Ahmed, has taken weaving to a completely new level
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Featured at the Carpet Museum, this work made me think of the imposition of new industry upon old world practice – a hostile takeover of oil, money, and modernity
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A more positive meeting of the historic and the contemporary

 

“The Sea of Rocks” – the Giris Petroglyphs at Gobustan

Our hosts, the art teachers of the Azerbaijan International School, arranged for us to spend an afternoon at the Gobustan petroglyphs. Etchings found here date back to the Paleolithic Era (20,000 years old) – mind-blowing to see in person.

Driving back to the city, it’s quitting time. People line the sides of the road, hoping for a ride. Are you going my way? We picked up a few hitchers ourselves, women working at the Gobustan Museum who are thrilled for a free 60km ride back to Baku.

As dusk falls, we pass the shoreline. The oil rigs rise out of the ocean like extraterrestrial spaceships. If submarines are villages below water, these must be the same above. There’s no escaping the grip oil has upon this society, no matter where you look.

The dichotomy of architecture in Baku is both curious and uncomfortable. Oil derricks pierce barren desert landscape as far as the eye can see. Pompous Neoclassical domes sit adjacent to Soviet-style welfare housing. Perhaps the only thing that could possibly answer this juxtaposition would be something completely out of this world.

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The Heydar Aliyev Center, constructed in 2007 by the late, great Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid

With dramatic curves and not a right angle in sight, Zaha’s masterpiece is as visually stunning as it is bizarre. The dips and waves of this Caspian seaside masterpiece prove more fantastic in person than could have been anticipated. Gone too soon, her genius lives on.

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Neoclassical meets contemporary design head on

Overall, Baku was fascinating. I can only say positive things about the city. The rich history coupled with the modern atmosphere and the kindness of its people impressed me greatly. I highly recommend a visit to anyone willing to make the journey. No doubt there are many more treasures to behold.

Take a Holiday in Spain

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Time for some fun in the sun

One of the tricks to managing Moscow is to get to sunshine whenever possible. With temps dipping below 30F and light snow falling, it was clearly time for a breather from this northern clime.

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Spain was calling…

I began searching for direct flights from Moscow on SkyScanner. For those who haven’t used it before, SkyScanner finds affordable flight options from your home port. When seeking vacation inspiration, it’s a great place to start.

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Downtown Port de Pollença

Around the same time, I read about a company called VAWAA (Vacation with an Artist) on Artsy.net. The concept was intriguing to me as I strive to make time for my own art practice. Via the VAWAA listings, I found an artist named Cloe who practices the art of Tibetan mandala weaving. She lives on Mallorca, a beautiful Spanish island in the Balearic Sea and – voila – also a SkyScanner deal from Moscow! I contacted VAWAA and booked my flight.

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View from the Formentor overlook – “the meeting place of the winds”

While I didn’t hesitate to book this solo trip, I wanted to ensure I wouldn’t be bored or lonely. I booked a room within a shared apartment on Airbnb. Having done this in Paris last year and really enjoyed the experience, I had confidence in the process. Reading many positive reviews about my hosts took away any qualms I might have had. From a safety standpoint, I knew someone would be keeping an eye out for me. I also kept the vacation short – 5 days in total – so not to go too long without people. Turns out, I needn’t have worried at all.

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A gorgeous Mallorcan sunset from 384m above sea level

My hosts had the loveliest apartment in downtown Port de Pollença. Josep, who grew up in the place, proved a wonderful guide to the local food scene. I spent mornings out on the back porch, watching the sun fall over the terracotta tiled roofs. With weather in the 70s and nary a cloud in sight, I set myself a goal of eating every meal outside. Challenge accepted!

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View from my Airbnb deck

Happily, I arrived at the tail end of tourist season so the crowds had died down. Whereas Ibiza is the party island, Mallorca (also written Majorca) is very popular with the British retiree set and those looking for outdoor adventures.

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The harbor at Port de Pollença

With my mornings free, I explored the Port de Pollença but quickly moved on to local beaches recommended by my host artist. Crystal clear water and exquisite views quickly dissolved my Moscow blues. I spent time sketching from the shoreline and swimming each day.

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My favorite swimming spot – Playa de Sant Joan

Upon Cloe’s recommendation, I avoided the touristy markets of the Port towns and drove inland to the hilltop town of Sineu for the Wednesday market. The artisans did not disappoint and I was treated to a feast for the eyes and ears, with a local band playing in the square.

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Even more intriguing were the back streets of Sineu. Adorable, authentic, and unpretentious, the narrow streets brought back visions of Sienna from my first trip to Italy.

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The gorgeous sunlight cast intricate shadows on the walls of the abutting houses.

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My wandering curiosity satisfied, I made my way over to Cloe’s homestead, perched on the edge of a natural reserve. Olive trees lined the gravel drive and migrating birds danced symphonies in the sky above, en route to Africa for the winter.

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Cloe welcomed me with open arms, showering me with delicious local fare and stories of her years traveling in India and Nepal as we sat out on her back porchway.

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Her studio, filled with rainbows of yarn, inspired me immediately, and I set to meditating on the origin story for my mandala.

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One of Cloe’s recent projects – for a client in Shanghai

Over the course of my time in workshop, I learned 6 different wrapping techniques and created my own mandala which now hangs triumphantly on the wall of my Moscow apartment. We shared our artistic processes, philosophies on artmaking, and advised each other as each afternoon sailed past.

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Yuki the dog kept me company

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Now back in Moscow, I’m feeling rested and energized. I look forward to sharing this process with my students and feel ready for the 7-week home stretch until the winter break. I would love to do another vacation with an artist in the future and highly recommend VAWAA to travelers of all abilities. Exploring a place through the eyes of locals cannot be matched and with artmaking to boot, it was a experience I will never forget.

For more information on Vacationing with an Artist, visit vawaa.com. To see more gorgeous works by Cloe, visit artbycloe.com.

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Bolshoi Beauty

The Bolshoi Theatre represents the epitome of Russian ballet culture. When the chance arose to explore the Bolshoi on a behind-the-scenes tour, I eagerly gathered friends and signed up.

In Russian, bolshoi means big or grand – yet ‘grand’ cannot fully capture all that this building encompasses. Reminiscent of Versailles or the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the Bolshoi Theatre features notes of rich red and gilded gold that I’ve come to equate with Russian elegance. Sanctioned by Catherine the Great in 1776, the Moscow Theatre Company was originally housed in a smaller building along the Neglinka River. After multiple theatres were lost to fire, the troupe relocated in 1856 to the expansive building that you see today.

As our group walked into the orchestra of the main theatre, we were lucky enough to happen upon a practice session of the ballet Giselle. The prima ballerina, dressed down in casual wear and toe shoes, floated across the stage to the sounds of the grand piano set front and center. Abstract set designs including the cosmos and other natural phenomena added to the spectacle.

When my parents visited in May of this year, we had the chance to see a ballet on the Bolshoi’s New Stage, just around the corner. Absolutely gorgeous itself, the New Stage was by far the better choice as the Historic Stage featured an opera that evening (good call, Dad).

Taking in the grandiosity of the venue from below, I was acutely aware of the history of this hollowed concert hall. Moscow itself has changed rapidly in the past 150 years. The one constant among historic drawings is always the Bolshoi Theatre, as seen below.

Swan Lake premiered here in 1877. Nazi bombs fell upon it in 1941. The creation of the USSR was declared from this very stage. For more of the fascinating history of this building – particularly of its usage by the Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution – you can click here.

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With seemingly no bad seat in the house, wealthy Russian families used to purchase a box for the full theatre season. They would then redecorate the box to their liking with purchases of furniture and wallpaper. When the Bolshoi was redone in the rich golds and reds of today’s decor, it’s said that women did not appreciate being upstaged in their elegant theatre attire.

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The stage floor is famously sloped to provide the audience with the best view of the dancers. The floor is mechanically leveled when foreign ballet companies perform here.

After climbing to the boxes above, we were surprised to find the stage had been quickly reset to allow for a rehearsal of the current opera, The Maid of Pskov. We were treated to a performance by the show’s chorus as we watched from on high.

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The building itself is comprised of 13 levels – seven above ground and five below. An exact replica of the Bolshoi stage can be found in the attic above the Historic Stage. Our group snuck in silently and watched no less than 50 dancers practicing for an upcoming production. Many of the dancers were teenagers and children, members of the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet Academy.

Known for pushing the limits of contemporary performance, as well as maintaining the highest standards of historic Russian culture, the Bolshoi is a true Moscow delight. Someday I hope to see a ballet from its seats. For now, I’ll reminisce about my visit as notes of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake drift through my apartment.

A Night in the Petroff Palace

The majority of my posts on this blog serve to share unique and wonderful experiences from my life abroad as an ex-pat. But in sharing all the good, perhaps a perspective is formed that all is rosy, life is bliss, and these experiences grow on trees. I have to tell you, and I know my ex-pat friends will agree, this is not always the case. Life throws you just as many curveballs when living abroad – and some truly unique ones at that. This post is about stepping up and trusting instincts, in bad times and in good.

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This sign hangs by the copier in our s office.

On Thursday morning, I had only just caught a ride to work with two of my good friends when we were sideswiped by an SUV just outside our apartment complex. We were all fine. Sadly, minor car accidents are common here in Moscow. I don’t know if it’s the #norules mentality or poor driving conditions (it was raining when we were hit) but the majority of cars on the road bear the scars of past collisions.

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Tough start to the school day.

Anyways, the story gets interesting because you’re not allowed to move the cars involved until the police show up. Hence a whole lot of traffic jams. But the police came quickly that day. We called the embassy for a mobile unit to come out and translate but it turns out budget cuts (and *staffing issues*) have led to the cancellation of a mobile unit. Nonplussed, we Google Translated our way through the interaction with four very kind local policeman who made it clear we were not at fault and took great care to make sure we were taken care of. Signing documents in a foreign language you don’t speak = more common than you might think living this life. Thankfully, we were reassured by our own security staff and soon we were on our way.

The next morning I boarded a plane bound for Tallinn, Estonia with my dear friend Peter. Excited to get out of rainy, dreary Moscow and take a trip to cozy Tallinn, I settled into my seat expecting a quick 1.5 hour ride. Moments before we were to taxi away from the gate, I was jolted from my seat by the sounds of someone in distress.

Turning to look only a few rows behind, I was horrified to see my colleague (who was also journeying to Tallinn) in extreme distress. His wife’s stricken face turned to me as I called out to her. The situation was dire and we both knew it. The flight staff was incredible and did everything right – bringing him back to consciousness and helping him stabilize. It was quickly clear to me that my help was needed and I pushed into action, calling for an ambulance and insurance permission.

Once he was stable, we were quickly shuffled off to the airport medical clinic where we spent hours waiting for an ambulance to take him just 15km downtown. The whole ordeal offered a sobering insight into the medical system that we are a part of, full of wonderfully caring people and far too much red tape. Thankfully, he got top rate care at the ex-pat hospital downtown and is today resting comfortably at home. Your health is your wealth, they say, and they’re absolutely right.

Once the situation calmed down, and with my plans sidelined, I knew I would need a little peace to put things in perspective. After a little Korean 순두부 (still my comfort food) and a good night’s rest, Saturday greeted me with the desire to get out and explore. After searching for historic hotels in Moscow, I booked a room at the Petroff Palace for the evening.

Petroff Castle from the front gates, just after the rain.

A former transit stop for tsars traveling from St. Petersburg, the Palace (also known as Petrovsky Castle) is featured in the works of Pushkin. Napoleon himself even stayed there while Moscow was being burned. Destroyed by the French in their retreat from Moscow in 1812, the castle was rebuilt in the 1830s. Turns out that I pass the castle daily on my commute to school but have never noticed it. For more on rich history of the castle and grounds, click here.

 

The room was stunning and private. I definitely treated myself to room service! The dish in the middle, dumplings in broth is called pelmeni soup. Native to Siberia, this dish is simple, delicious, and served with a dollop of sour cream on top.

 

The view from my window

Stunning.

Conveniently, the property is nestled within a beautiful park with wooded trails and gorgeous birch trees in bloom – just what the doctor ordered. The sun broke through the clouds just as I arrived and I enjoyed multiple sunbaths in the park during my stay. There’s nothing like time spent in nature to set you right again.

 

The sun exploded through the trees while rain still fell.

 

Intrigued by this gorgeous tree, I happened upon this Orthodox church in the park.

I rounded out the weekend with a stop at the ArtPlay Moscow space to see a show on the works of Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel. Though I’m hesitant about the “multimedia-ing” of classic works of art history, this movie blew my mind. Telling the tale of the dawn of civilization (with subtitles in English), the Dutchman’s work came alive on the screens engulfing the entire room – from the Tower of Babel to scenes of the Middle Ages.

The ArtPlay Center features specialty boutique shops, from lighting to antiques to art supplies.

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The Tower of Babel, Pieter Bruegel, 1653

So, to conclude this story, I don’t have any great words of wisdom gleaned from this experience. I can only say that we do the best we can with what is presented us. That’s all we can do.

I’m very thankful to my friends and family who were there for me as I worked to put this experience into perspective. You were all so comforting. Take care, everyone. Be good to each other and to yourselves.