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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Now immersed in Year 2 of my adventures in Russia, I have the chance to access more of Moscow. Gone are the first year struggles to order food or maneuver public transportation. Now is the time to get out and about in the city, especially while the weather holds. Each weekend, I like to challenge myself to visit a new cafe, market, museum, or public park. There is simply so much to see here! Danilovsky Market has been on my list for a while so when a friend suggested the trip, I jumped at the chance.
Seemingly a staple of Moscow indoor food markets, the Vietnamese pho stand did not disappoint. Sitting outside along the boulevard, admiring the autumn leaves, I couldn’t help but think about the many places in the world I’ve shared pho with friends – and how most of those places would never see temperatures in the 50s!
Our bellies full of pho, we wandered the well-organized stalls of the market, running into coworkers from school. You know you’ve made it in a new city when you see friends (or students) out and about!
I never expected to know so much about Russian honey! It’s taken quite seriously here.
A perfect Sunday getaway, I was so impressed with the warmth of the vendors and the quality of their produce. Their pride in their goods is evident and their little extra kindnesses (a free peach here, a taste of pistachio there) have me already looking forward to my next visit.
One of the best parts of living in Europe is being surrounded by the centuries-old architecture. Moscow, for its part, is particularly fond of Art Nouveau, a style that peaked in the late 19th Century. Full of swirls and stained glass, Art Nouveau can be summed up by its calling card, the Tiffany lamp.
Following Peter the Great‘s push towards French aristocratic ways in the 18th Century, Russia came to embrace European style, sending artisans and architects alike to study at schools such as Paris’ Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
It is at this point in art history where we find the Hotel Metropol, nestled in the heart of downtown Moscow. Dignified and imposing, the hotel sits directly outside the walls of Red Square.
The hotel has certainly lived its fair share of history. Since it opening in 1905, the Metropol has housed writers and revolutionaries, from Bernard Shaw to Lenin. Today it stands as a monument to a time just prior to the Russian Revolution, an era of extravagance and artistic strides.
Conceived by Savva Mamontov, patron of the arts – a William Merritt Chase, if you will – the hotel was originally planned as an opera house, a palace to showcase the talents of Moscow and host those from abroad. Though Savva did not manage to hold onto the hotel itself, he is considered the father of this dream. And what a dream it was.
For my part, I had only observed this beautiful building from outside. On an Art Nouveau Tour of Moscow this past spring, I was bitten by the idea to steal away a night at the Metropol. The iron gates beckoned and I couldn’t resist.
This past weekend, my plan came to be. I felt like Eloise at the Plaza as I walked into the gorgeous foyer of the hotel, all gold-encrusted and marble-floored.
As I approached the stunning elevator bank, I had to stop and marvel at the stained glass above and behind, decorating the huge bay windows encircling the Grand Ballroom.
I’ve heard the Metropol described as a living museum, a Russian treasure. To do it justice, I had to spend a few hours wandering the halls, marveling at each new landing. From the stained glass to the rich carpets, the hotel did not disappoint.
From my room I could see both the Bolshoi Theatre and the spires of the Kremlin. I wandered over to GUM Department Store, the former rubber and textile factory turned high-end shopping mall (think Gucci and Prada).
I watched fireworks above Red Square from my window and marveled at the beautiful touches of Art Nouveau dotting my room – from the chandelier to the window latches. I also bathed in the basement pool, enjoying its privacy and quaint atmosphere.
On Sunday morning, my friend Kelsey met me for brunch in the Grand Ballroom. We were both stunned as the hostess drew back the curtain, ushering us into a room which I can categorize as fit for the Titanic only (and built within 7 years of each other, no less).
We feasted on an amazing buffet and tried to take in the real delight – the exquisite glass ceiling above. A harp played in the corner and the scene could not have been more elegant.
Full to the brim and feeling a tad like Harriet the Spy, we explored new wings of the hotel, seeking treasures which appeared at every turn.
At the top of a seemingly abandoned staircase, we turned a corner and nearly jumped out of our socks – a stuffed bear blocked our entrance to a room fit for a duomo.
Bathed in shimmering red wallpaper, with an oculus adorned by a crystal chandelier, we had stumbled upon a room fit for the Tudors.
The whole experience was overwhelming to the senses and I’m still digesting. I’d very much like to return and continue studying as the place surely has more stories to tell. For now, I would highly recommend the Metropol as a stop on anyone’s tour to Moscow – for brunch at the least. Moscow has many more gems to share, no doubt, but I’m left in true awe after 24 hours in this one.
To read more about the extraordinary 110-year history of the Hotel Metropol, click here.
Inspired by a friend who has been a traveler longer than I’ve been alive, I now strive to embrace the art of the layover. Quite simply, if you must have a connecting flight, why not use that opportunity to see a new city for a few hours? Or days even?
That’s exactly what my friend Becky and I decided to do. For years we had talked about taking a trip to Iceland. This summer, we set out to make it happen.
With Becky headed back to Doha, Qatar, and myself heading back to Moscow, Iceland seemed a natural stopping point, especially considering how easy Iceland Air makes the opportunity. Allowing you to extend your layover for up to 7 nights, the company attracts a deluge of travelers from the States. From the moment I stepped onto the plane for the brief 4.5 hour ride from Boston, I knew I wasn’t among my usual international jet set. With a few more demands than normal and seemingly less awareness of travel norms, I was curious to see what this tourist country had in store. But can I really blame anyone for taking advantage? Iceland Air offers direct flights from most major US cities – Boston, New York, Houston, LA, San Fran, Miami, Chicago, etc. Without risking sounding like an ad for Air Iceland, I thought I’d share our experience in country with all of you.
We landed in Iceland and our first challenge was to locate our rental car. Definitely the recommended way to get around, allowing you the ability to set your own touring schedule, renting a car or – even better – a motor home is the cheapest way to transit the island.
We rented from a group called SAD cars (the name should have tipped us off), which were affordable, if run on a bit of a shoestring. Can’t speak ill of them really as they proved great customer service and even dropped me off at my Airbnb on my last night, no charge.
After acquiring the necessities at baggage claim (duty-free alcohol – definitely worth it with prices like these!!, local currency, and a SIM card – in that order), we were ready for action… if only we could fight the jet lag for an entire day. The Dunkies in the airport lobby provided some assistance.
Onward we trekked towards Reykjavik, in our little meep meep car (manual transmission, of course). We paid more for a room in a hostel downtown than I did in NYC but the accommodations were comfortable and we couldn’t argue with the location. Just off the main shopping street, we had our pick of entertainment and that ole backpacker’s standby – the grocery store.
As food is just as pricey as accommodations, we made a habit throughout of eating just one meal out a day. We picnicked the rest with the help of the trusty gas stations across the land. Before you get grossed out, these are not your average Texaco stations. Fresh fruit and sandwiches are available and they’re quite delicious, too. Probably knowing that most visitors are sustaining on such, the country seems to have invested in this area. We certainly made the most of it, enjoying the local SKYR yogurt – hearty enough to stand for a meal all by itself!
Thankfully we made it through our day of jet lag, only to meet up with two of Becky’s coworkers from Qatar for dinner. They’d been traveling around the Nordic countries for the summer and Iceland was their last stop. Sharing what they’d learned (including the need to not speed due to super heavy fines!), we had a great meal and crashed early.
For Day 2 in country, I would highly recommend booking (wayyyyy in advance) the one and only Blue Lagoon! The perfect cure for jet lag and a helluva life experience, the lagoon boasts natural hot springs which keep the water at an even 99F. Replete with a swim up bar AND a swim up face mask station, it’s pretty much heaven on Earth. We lucked out that our only day of rain fell on our Blue Lagoon Day – with the cooler temperatures above, the lagoon gave off an incredible mist that only added to the spirit of the day. An opportunity not to be missed.
In total, we traversed only about 1/6 of Iceland’s Ring Road during our 5 day stay. From Reykjavik past Vik, we saw the sea and the mountains all in one go.
I think the highlight for us both was our last night in which we stayed in a hotel with a view of the Vatnajokull glacier (the one from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, if you’re familiar). Watching the sun setting at 10:30pm with a huge moon already risen on the opposite horizon was simply breathtaking.
Iceland will do that – take your breath away.
After Becky took off for Doha, I had one more little trick up my sleeve. Owing to a lack of direct flights to Moscow from Reykjavik, I extended yet another layover – this time for a 10 hour day out and about in Copenhagen, Denmark.
After an early morning flight in Iceland, I dropped my bag in an airport locker and the extremely convenient train to downtown, arriving at the central station in only 12 minutes.
Having a good friend living in Denmark, I had an in on a number of cool places around the quaint city center. I resolved to walk all of it as I’d been doing a lot of driving throughout Iceland (mixed in with the hiking, of course). The city proved extremely walkable and it’s multitude of cafes and free Wi-fi hotspots made navigating without internet a breeze.
I bypassed the Tivoli Gardens (a stop for another visit) and headed straight for the canal. We Pendletons are always drawn to water and this city on the sound was no exception. I was thrilled by what I found – gorgeous boats tied up in front of touristy restaurants (as well as Hans Christian Anderson’s house, as well).
I stumbled upon an Ai Wei Wei installation about migrants flocking to the shores of Europe that I’d vaguely remembered was in Copenhagen. I even found an installation by Yoko Ono at the Copenhagen Contemporary on one of the city’s islands!
Super friendly people and a great vibe is how I’ll remember the city. I really look forward to going back someday.
With that, I set a course for the island that is now home – Moscow. It was wonderful to return to my own apartment, seeing friends and students once again. This school year is still in its infancy but it’s amazing how much better Year 2 as an ex-pat can be! Night and day in comparison. Happy to be back and excited to share more journeys with all of you. For now, however, good night and thanks for reading 🙂
So clearly this has been quite a summer for Russia in the US news. If I’ve been lucky enough to see you this summer, I know we’ve discussed it. Thanks to those who listened to me proselytize about the differences between people and their government (more true day-by-day).
I’ve had a wonderful couple of weeks in the States filled with a lot of laughs. My time with these guys above was a particular highlight. I’m thankful to be headed back to Moscow to begin Year 2 shortly.
One thing that has me especially enjoying my time in Moscow is my newfound appreciation for Russian art. It is so rich – in color, in technique, and in history. I like it so much that after arriving back in Boston, I plotted a visit to the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, MA.
Just a quick 1-hour drive from Boston, the museum boasts the largest collection of these Russian art gems outside of, well, Russia.
I was drawn to visit not only by these gorgeous artifacts but also by the opportunity to hear the history behind them from an outsider’s point of view. Happily, the museum didn’t disappoint.
A few things I came to understand:
Icons are to be prayed with, not to
There is an M formation of perspective in a typical icon, which accounts for the distorted perspective seen in the buildings below
The word Iconoclast comes from “image breaker”, or the destructor of icons, which occurred during the Bolshevik Revolution
Orthodoxy was spread to Ethiopia, and some truly beautiful African-influenced icons resulted from this
For those of you interested in a deeper dive, check out this article on icons from Russia Behind the Headlines.
Hope you’ve enjoyed this little Art History lesson. I look forward to sharing more with you as the year unfolds. Cheers, everyone!
Regrettably, we seem to be backsliding into winter here in Moscow. Sure, we’ve had a nice day or two here and there but no great green bloom yet. In fact, it actually snowed on June 1 (#ParisClimateAgreement). This is totally insane considering that we are currently receiving 17.5 hours of daylight as we inch closer and closer to the Summer Solstice. Luckily, I’ve had the chance to seek warm weather elsewhere – traveling to a couple different places in the past month which have more than buoyed my spirits.
Some of you may know that I took on coaching high school tennis this year. I really loved working with high schoolers again and looked forward to picking up my racquet each day after school. Not gonna lie, it brought back some MHS memories (Warriors – TVL Champs!).
As we don’t have any local schools to play against here in Moscow, our season ends in a tournament which is held in a new country each year. This year took us to Zagreb, Croatia, which proved a gorgeous setting for some exciting tennis.
The capital city, Zagreb is very accessible and welcoming. Walking through its lush green parks redeemed our spring-starved souls. The people were so warm and I really enjoyed the chill cafe scene after tourney hours. The kids do homestays during these trips which gives us the evenings to ourselves. Time to recoup on a school overnight – imagine that!
Happily, our team did even better than expected, taking 2nd place overall. It was wonderful to meet coaches from all over Eastern Europe – Warsaw, Prague, and Sofia to name a few. Already looking forward to the tourney next year!
Now I’ve only just arrived home from the second of the two trips. This one was very near and dear to my heart, one I could not pass up. Making maybe my craziest travel journey yet, I flew to Seoul, Korea for the weekend. I went to see my former students graduate and see off old friends who will soon disperse to new schools around the world. Despite the fact that I was only in Seoul for 48 hours, the trip was a no-brainer.
Nothing can beat the people at APIS, many of whom are like family to me. It was so great to be back to my old city for a hot second and it also made me thankful for where I find myself today.
I’m so thankful to have started my time abroad at APIS, where I learned so many life lessons. Wishing my old students good luck on their journey was a gift and I’m so thankful it was possible (thank you to Aeroflot for having a Moscow-Seoul direct!). Back at school in Moscow, we’re in the homestretch with just a few weeks remaining. The kids are off the walls and so are teachers, frankly. It’s time for a breather, to reset for another school year. For me, it’s moments like this one that really put it all into perspective.
The OG troublemakers from Grade 9 Printmaking – we finally got our shot.