Home for the Holidays

Wellesley College at sunset

A steady snow is falling here in Moscow on this quiet Saturday morning. My cat sits on her perch above me, here for the company. We are both happy to be reunited after my trip back to the States.

In November, I was surprised to receive clearance to travel from my local US Embassy. I mulled over a trip home for the holidays, trying to determine if I could do it safely during this time of COVID. Having something to look forward to was very enticing as the days grew shorter and the stress at school piled up. In the end, I booked an Airbnb for quarantine in Wellesley, Mass. and scheduled a number of COVID tests before leaving Moscow and after arriving in Boston.

Though I have had COVID, I still don’t take any chances – always masking up and being as cautious as possible, especially around my parents. With the help of my good friend Sarah, I scheduled tests through CVS Pharmacy and Project Beacon, a MA-based initiative providing free COVID tests. Testing in Moscow is much simpler and results faster. I simply showed up at the private test center around the corner from my building, paid $40 (reimbursed by insurance), and had my results by email by 6am the next morning. I tested two weeks in a row to let me know I didn’t have COVID before leaving.

The concourse was nearly empty at Domodedovo Airport on the outskirts of Moscow. I had opted to fly Lufthansa for their solid reputation, hoping to avoid the multitude of cancellations I’d faced last summer on Aeroflot. Check-in and customs were both easy and the group of teachers I was flying with retired to the lounge to wait for our departure to Frankfurt. From there I flew on Boston with absolutely no issues during the trip. It was glorious to skirt the coast of Maine and circle over P-town with the shoreline dressed in new-fallen snow.

No one at Logan Airport collected my PCR test nor the Massachusetts Commonwealth Travel Form I had printed and prepared. My parents met me outside the airport at a distance (not being able to hug is the worst) and dropped me a car to take to my quarantine. They had prepped groceries and supplies, once again, making all of this possible. I’m extremely grateful.

As always, it’s a joy to come back to the States. Life is easier, everyone speaks my language, I have wheels and friends to see. Obviously, this time was different as we were bundling up and talking through masks across driveways. But the chance to do this is a gift. While I was still in quarantine, I did a drive-through lights show, caravaning with my parents on FaceTime in their car. We made it work, which could be the quote which best sums up 2020.

Once I could join the family bubble, it was all cooking and puzzles and daily walks in the woods. I took none of that time for granted, appreciating every phone call from a friend or opportunity to see a loved one from a distance. After quarantining for two weeks, my brother drove out from Wisconsin, 16 hours straight to avoid exposure. He introduced us to Marley’s Spoon (a food prep delivery service) which we all enjoyed. Cooking together made our meals even more special. It was a quieter holiday but one that I think we all realized was very special. I felt beyond lucky to be spending it my family.

My trip back was (thankfully) just as uneventful, albeit with even less people in the airports. The greatest challenge came in the days prior, attempting to get a negative COVID test completed and returned within 72 hours prior to my touchdown in Moscow. With my flight travel taking 18 hours door-to-door, this left a very close window. I scheduled three tests, not knowing which would work out. In the end, Project Beacon came through once again, proving to be the only service outside a hospital to return results within 24 hours.

My flight from Boston to Frankfurt was perhaps 40% full, although the repatriation flight to Moscow was packed. Airport employees reminded people to re-mask as needed, with more vigor than I observed over the summer. Meals on the plane are all packaged. A loudspeaker announcement requested that we all stay masked when ordering drinks from the stewards. Wet wipes were handed out multiple times throughout the flight. One change since the summer is that we now wait upon arrival at the gate to be called to deplane by segments of rows, promoting more social distancing.

At one point, leaving security in Frankfurt, I turned the corner and encountered a group of about 100 individuals in a corridor, the most people in one place that I saw the whole journey. They were dressed head-to-toe in white hazmat suits, replete with goggles and face shields. I believe they were from China as they led by a guide carrying a Chinese flag. It was a surreal apocalyptic scene and I waded through quickly, not wanting to gawk or dawdle.

Some of you may be wondering how I was able to do this trip, especially considering all the hubbub around my return to Moscow in August on the private charter. Essentially my diplomatic passport and Russian residency card were key in allowing me to make this trip. Also, due to past experience, my choice to avoid Heathrow at the holidays proved never more pertinent (I could have never foretold the variant chaos that unfolded). During my time in Moscow, my dip privilege has been both a blessing and a burden. In this case, it proved the former.

I am so thankful for the mental break this trip provided me during this time of high stress and isolation. I also very much feel for my friends scattered in countries around the world who have not seen their families in over a year, blocked by closed borders which would not allow them to return to their jobs at international schools. My heart is with them.

If nothing else, this time reminds me that nothing can be taken for granted – my health, security, relationships, even the democracy I hold dear. The virus is still very much disrupting daily life here in Moscow and will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future. I continue to teach from home, as I have done since mid-October. My students continue to take it all in stride and give their best. They keep me motivated and remind me how important it is to show up for others, taking it one day at a time. I know this is an extremely difficult time for many and welcome any of you reading this to reach out, especially if you are having a hard time. Send me a message and I will gladly respond. It is so important to reach out and check in, even on those we assume are doing fine. Thank you for reading and I wish you all a healthy start to 2021.

Moscow, January 2021