From Zagreb to Seoul

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!).

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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.

 

 

Portugal

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.

Lisbon’s Central Square

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.

Jeronimos Monastery was absolutely stunning.

 

Me snacking on a pasteis de nata, essentially an egg tart. Hot off the grill and oh so delicious!

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.

Our inn served a huge breakfast from which we would pocket supplies for daily picnics.
Our inn served port on this breezeway each evening. In fact, so did every spot we stayed in!

Highlights from Sintra included the Pena Palace and Quinta da Regaleira, a meandering acreage replete with tunnels, grottos, and lilacs.

Pena Palace, in all its glory
I’ve never seen architecture like this – it seemed to be part Scottish fortress, part Aladdin’s castle.

A grotto of the Quinta da Regaleira

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.

Anna looking quite at home on the grounds of Convento de Cristo.

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There was an Indian Jones feel about the place.

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.

The view from the breakfast nook at Tres Marias. The donkey pasture and mountains lay in the background.

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.

Museo Nacional do Azulejo

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!

Yellow light emanated from the street lamps of Lisbon, bathing the city in a warm glow perfect for wandering the cobblestone streets.

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…

Sunset over Moscow – the end of a wonderful journey.

The land of Moomin

I’ve just spent 3 days in Finland – land of Marimekko, minimalist design, and Moomin. If you are not familiar with the hippo-like character of European and Asian fame, here he is:


And also Marimekko, the iconic Finnish brand:


I traveled to Helsinki with 10 members of Cultural Arts, the after school club that I’ve been running for the past two months. Our school is part of a conference that not only recognizes sports but also the arts, bringing together school groups from all over Eastern Europe. We were joined by teams from Estonia, Bosnia, and Bulgaria, to name a few.


We came to Helsinki to celebrate the power of art to bring people together across cultures. 



Many discussions focused on differences and similarities of our various communities. Our group was made up of kiddos from South Korea, the US, Finland, Spain, Poland, and Britain. The other schools were similarly as diverse, bringing great depth to the conversation.


A lot of artmaking ensued and we also traveled to Porvoo, a quaint village outside Helsinki where the artist behind Moomin had a cottage.



A highlight of my time in Helsinki was the Designmuseo. A small but impressive museum celebrating Finnish design innovation, the museum had a lot to offer.


I had never realized the many design inventions to come out of Finland. Fiskars scissors, Aalto chairs, and various bicycles to name a few – enough iconic innovations to forgive them for Angry Birds, I suppose 😉


After three days full days of travel and artmaking, we were united in smiles and exhaustion. We made it back to Moscow safe and sound. Happily, this means that my spring break has begun – Lisbon, here I come! Been dreaming of sunshine and Sintra for quite a while 🙂


Catch you on the flip side!

Thailand

Recently, my friend Beth and I staged a jailbreak from freezing, snowy Moscow and hopped an 8 hour flight to Phuket, Thailand for some Vitamin D and R&R with friends. Get ready for a photo deluge, people – Thailand is just too beautiful!

My good friends from Seoul, Tori and Jeff, are living in Phuket now with their adorable son who I call Little G. As you might note from his swagger in the photo above, G wasted no time in securing Beth under his thumb.

Phuket is a tourist town in the south of Thailand but lucky for us, we were able to stay off the beaten path. Jeff and Tori took us to their favorite hangouts and on our first night, we watched the sunset with our toes in the sand (and G in our laps).

Our second day in Phuket was spent on the idyllic Phang Nga Bay. Tori secured us a longboat and a driver for short change and away we went.

Known for “James Bond Island” (AKA Khao Phing Kan), the bay is littered with fascinating formations made from sedimentary and volcanic rocks. Our driver took us island-hopping and we did a little spelunking, too.

Next our motley crew pulled up on an island, deserted save for a bunch of umbrellas calling our name. The pineapples filled with mai tai didn’t hurt either.

We had the place to ourselves for a good hour before the other boats turned up. The good life never looked so good.

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Our day on the bay was an incredible jumpstart to our time in Thailand. Good times, great friends – just another reason why Thailand is a little piece of heaven on Earth.

We spent the rest of our time in Phuket taking it in – brunching, siesta-ing, listening to Little G babble on. His smiles have grown along with the rest of him and he’s just so adorable at this age. It was hard to leave!

We spent a night in downtown Phuket, just a 5 minute drive from Phuket International Airport. I honestly didn’t love downtown but staying across from the beach was not a bad deal. Got in some star-gazing in the equatorial sky as we sat eating dinner on the beach.

Phuket’s proximity to the airport made city-hopping very easy. Having traveled Laos and Thailand by bus a number of years ago, I knew I was ready to leave those days behind any take the easy flight. Beth and I hopped an Air Asia flight straight to Chiang Mai, a cozy city to the north of Thailand.

When you travel to Thailand, they say you only have to pay for the plane ticket. Beauties like this one cost a whopping $2.

I loved Chiang Mai when I first visited 6 years ago and I will admit this chill town still has a hold on me. With no beaches to speak of, Chiang Mai is a university town with the old portion surrounded by a moat. Night markets are plentiful and temples dot the hills surrounding the city. Chiangmai is also known for the hillside villages belonging to the Karen people.

We checked into our hotel (Le Charcoa Hotel – cannot recommend this gem more) and wasted no time hiring a car to take us up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. With many steps leading up to the temple, visitors are rewarded with the incredible gold-drenched temple at the top.

Wat is the Thai word for Buddhist temples or monasteries.

No surprise – I can never get enough of the mosaics in SE Asia. This temple is top local attraction and, therefore, kept up extremely well.

It glows, I swear.
Bells are available for purchase and many visitors walk laps around the temple itself in meditative prayer.

Back in Old Town Chiang Mai, we explored the night markets. I was struck by how much this little city has grown in the past six years. Where there once were internet cafes and coconut stands, swanky hotels now stand shoulder to shoulder, ushering in a whole new future for the people of Chiang Mai. There’s two sides to that coin, I suppose. I really enjoyed our time in Chiang Mai, including supporting the mission of Lila Thai Massage to help support the lives of newly released inmates back into mainstream society.

Khao soi, an outrageously delicious curry of egg noodles and Burmese spices is not to be missed in Chiang Mai.

One of the main draws to Chiang Mai was the presence of an elephant rescue called Elephant Nature Park. Beth is a huge lover of animals and, while I’m not normally drawn to animal sanctuaries myself, I’ve found that one of the cool things about traveling with friends is embracing new experiences.

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Beth with one of the park’s older residents – a 72 year old beauty.

 

While at the elephant park, we had the chance to prepare food for the elephants and wash them in the river. Definitely intimidating at first, these gentle giants impressed me with their presence and ability to reform family herds, showing love and affection despite the terrible hardships many have faced.

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Every elephant has a story – some worse than others – but all of them in serious need of tender, loving care.

We chose to stay overnight at the sanctuary, which also provides the opportunity to stay longer if you wish to volunteer. I could hear the elephants occasionally trumpeting in the night, seemingly right below our cabin on raised stilts. It was pretty wild!

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Our experience at the park was not all rainbows and sunshine. While watching these elephants enjoy their breakfast, a screech rang out from across the river. In the shadows, we saw an elephant with a man on its back. With another shriek from the elephant, the man forced him to come to a stop and drop to his knees. The juxtaposition between the care we saw at Elephant Nature Park and this other trekking camp could not have been more startling. One works to help elephants heal, while the other works to break their spirit. Elephant painting programs, any elephant riding whatsoever – chair or no chair – these are all programs that “break” elephants using terrible techniques such as beatings and nails to the ears, etc. After this experience, I can’t stress more the importance of doing your homework before taking an elephant adventure in SE Asia.

Our time at Elephant Nature Park was a truly unique experience, one I will not likely ever forget. This organization is expanding into Cambodia soon and working to fight legislation all over SE Asia that still allows elephants to be used as logging labor. I can only hope they succeed.

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On our last night in Thailand, we set up camp on the same beach down in Phuket. We were treated to a sky show – first of clouds, then of lightning – as a storm made its way across the bay.

Thailand was a fantastic journey full of adventures. I’m so thankful for these wild experiences life has laid out. Once again, Amazing Thailand has lived up to its name and I’m already looking forward to the day I get to return.