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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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??
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
The gorgeous sunlight cast intricate shadows on the walls of the abutting houses.
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.
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.
Her studio, filled with rainbows of yarn, inspired me immediately, and I set to meditating on the origin story for my mandala.
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.
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.
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.
My spring break arrived in early April. As Moscow was showing absolutely no signs of spring, I hopped on a plane to Portugal pronto! Having never been to Portugal, I listened to friends tell stories of this calm, friendly oasis in the south of Europe. Amazingly, the rumors were true – incredibly kind people, delicious wine (port), and gorgeous beaches.
I started in Lisbon, a modernizing city still retaining its old world charm. Squares filled with fruit and sangria stands appeared at every turn. Trolley cars rumbled by and sunshine streamed down 24/7.
My friend Anna had flown over from Boston for the trip and we had a fantastic time exploring the sights – botanical gardens, sardine shops, and the Jeronimos Monastery just outside of the downtown. Tilework covered nearly every surface of the town – from cobalt blue floral walls to parks full of wavy stone pathways, Lisbon is a feast for the eyes.
We rented a car and headed up to Sintra, an idealic town only 45 minutes outside Lisbon. Staying in an inn just outside the touristy downtown provided us with a chance to meet some very friendly locals.
Highlights from Sintra included the Pena Palace and Quinta da Regaleira, a meandering acreage replete with tunnels, grottos, and lilacs.
From Sintra we took a day trip to Tomar to see the Convento de Cristo, the original digs of the Knights of Templar. With virtually no crowds, we delighted in this off-the-beaten-path gem. Many hours were spent wandering through the magnificent convent and I took a little time to sketch a bit of the gorgeous architecture.
Next we headed south past Lisbon and into the Algarve. While we went for the hiking, we most enjoyed the views from the ocean cliffs.
Our stay at Très Marias, a gorgeous farm in the middle of nowhere, proved a highlight of the whole trip. Anna had read about the spot years ago in The NY Times and it did not disappoint. Waking up in the valley of poppies was heavenly and we made friends with the resident donkeys.
While we would have loved to see more of the Algarve, my time in Portugal was drawing to a close. After heading back to Lisbon, we made a pilgrimage to the Museo Nacional do Azulejo. Host of a magnificent collection documenting the history of tilework in Portugal, the museum had much to teach us about the Islamic influence on Portuguese design.
A fantastic dinner of tapas capped off our trip. As I headed for the airport, Anna took a train north to Porto, a spot I hear is worth the trip. All the more reason to return to Portugal someday!
All in all, we found the landscape of Portugal to be just as beautiful as the generosity of its people. Affordable, welcoming, and intriguing, Portugal is absolutely worth it.
Back in Moscow, we’ve had a rainy, cold past two weeks, making tennis practice a little challenging. Today, May Day, is the first warm day of the year, bring buds to the trees and hope that the winter is finally over. Much to look forward to in the coming months, most especially a visit from my parents in only a few days! Hope you’re all enjoying spring time, wherever you are. Until next time…