Keeping up with the Joneses

On Monday evening I had the chance to attend a town hall meeting at the Spaso House in the heart of downtown Moscow. On the agenda – an ex-pat security update and remarks from the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, John Tefft. Positive points of discussion included Russian-American relations (space exploration) while other points were decidedly negative (Ukraine, Syria, etc.). The Ambassador spoke eloquently, encouraged us to vote, and highlighted the importance of on-the-ground diplomacy. This last point seems especially significant. Not to go all Sarah Palin on the US news media, but I can actually see Russia from my living room, and it’s a vastly different story from the sensational cable news coverage.

I could not get enough of this beautiful chandelier. The cobalt evening light through the window complemented so well.

The decor was reminiscent of the US White House, replete with young and eager members of the diplomatic corps. Must be that Neoclassical interior design…

The Ambassador addressing an ex-pat constituent. A number of citizens in attendance have lived in Russia for decades. It was a very interesting congregation.

The Spaso House has served as the home of the US Ambassador since the time of FDR’s presidency, 1933.

This weekend will require a completely different wardrobe as I’m headed to Anton Chekhov’s Estate, Melikhovo, located approximately 2.5 hours outside of Moscow. It will be my first trip outside the city (this requires some paperwork) and I’m very excited to see another part of Russia. A group of us will help tidy the grounds for winter and then we will be treated to a picnic and tour of Chekhov’s cottage. Having read only one of his plays, The Seagull, I look forward to learning more about the man. Hoping for some sunshine as well!


Autumn in Moscow

Ms. P’s Grade 6 Advisory #yikes

Rarely do I have a day so filled with fun as well as two adventures that could not be more different from each other. Tuesday began like any other. I hopped the bus to school with my coworkers (commuting with coworkers – definitely a skill I’m working on), but I grabbed my backpack as I headed out the door. My students and I were headed for our first field trip and it promised to be a bonding experience.

We headed for Meshchersky Park, a 45-minute drive from school in fairly heavy traffic (seems there is always traffic in Moscow). A handful of these so-called “panda parks” can be found around the city. These parks are usually found in the woods and feature multiple ropes courses of varying levels of difficulty. The panda part – while never actually explained – comes from the scampering and tree climbing, evidently.

It was surprisingly chilly in the park, a sure sign that autumn is upon us. The leaves are already changing and the grey skies threaten rain interspersed with moments of gorgeous sunlight. We got the run down for the day from our guides. The directions were in Russian, of course, so only about 1/4 of the kids understood and only one adult – good start. I am all too used to this from my time in Korea. Directions? Psshhaw.

My advisory (homeroom) group, 8 kids I see every day, was assigned a fairly difficulty course to begin with. Wobbling over log bridges and zip-lining from tree to tree (only a handful of collisions), the kids showed great determination to test their strength and agility. While calls of “Ms. P!” echoed from tree to tree, I craned my neck to watch them scurry like monkeys, 50 feet in the air.

As we used to say in Korea, “safety third”, and this ropes course was no exception. With my feet planted firmly on the ground, I was called in for pep talks – the kiddo caught in the middle of a rope swing, crying out of frustration/desperation. Not two minutes later, after figuring out his harness wouldn’t let him fall, that same kiddo was swinging rope to rope, singing to himself with glee.

It was a great excursion for all of us – even James, my little Korean bud who, despite having been airlifted down from a course he couldn’t handle, kindly offered me some of his kimbap lunch made by his mother. All in all, an awesome time with a great crew of kids. I feel lucky to have them to watch over.

Dabbing it out.

Normally a day like that would have put me in bed early, but Tuesday night I had better plans. I hopped on the metro at Kievskaya and headed out for the northeast part of Moscow. Still shocked at how small downtown Moscow is, the requisite six stops flew by and I surfaced in the middle of a beautiful tree-lined square in a posh part of town. Finding my group (a number of older teachers who I don’t know yet), we made our way to the Opera House. Next door to the Opera stood a majestic wooden door, framed by sculptures of baby angels in the surrounding archway.

Entering a door on the third landing, we immediately fell down the rabbit hole. The foyer was lush, owing to its dark wood trim, oriental rugs, and Victorian loveseats. Following the gentle din of voices, we turned to enter an immense studio, bathed in light from its chandeliers. The parquet floor was splattered with oil paint, green and black.


The airy nature of the studio led us to jealously surmise what incredible natural light must fill the space during the day, shown only in the hint of blue light still visible as the sun set.

An artist’s workbench holds many secrets.

My eyes immediately flew to the brightly colored works lining the lower walls. Almost comic in their intensity, the paintings contrasted the elegant Victorian walls perfectly, invoking the image of the Paris Salon of 1905.

One of my favorite Art History stories to share involves a band of renegade painters led by Andre Derain and Henri Matisse. The year was 1905 and the annual autumn Salon was on in Paris. Derain and Matisse, having departed from the Impressionists and painted wild new landscapes full of blood red rivers and neon green skies, submitted their works for consideration. The original bohemian wild children of the 20th Century reveled in their shock-and-awe campaign.

Andre Derain

Picture, if you will, a chaotic scene of artworks such as the one above stacked six rows in the air. The Salon facilities, housed in the Palais des Beaux-Arts on the Champs-Elysees, were designed in the style of 17th Century French architecture, featuring Greco-Roman finishes and little Italian cherubs, called putti, in the corners.

An 18th Century Salon but you get the idea…

Upon entering the exhibition, the general public gasped in horror. An abomination! An outrage! Where were the waterlilies of Monet that they had finally accepted as their contemporary art? What were these futuristic eyesores full of color and bold brushstrokes? How horrible, the people remarked, for the paintings, those wild beasties, were scaring the angelic putti! That, my friends, is how the Fauves – the “wild beasties”, got their name.

Back in Alexander Aisenshtat‘s studio, it was immediately apparent that Alexander is himself a modern day Fauve – from the putti above his doorframe to the brash intensity his paintings imbue. Marching to the beat of his own drummer, he takes inspiration from religious Jewish texts, which he plays on a record player in his studio, and creates secular works in bold formation.

While we did have the chance to meet Alexander at the end of the evening, we were first treated to a lecture by his good friend, a scholar of Russian Art History. While the paintings were charming, I have to say that the two featured musicians – a cellist and a violinist – absolutely stole the show.

As my eyes surfed the room during a Bach concerto, the ambiance left me in total awe. I feel so lucky to have an experience like this, not only so soon in my Russian adventure but as a treasured memory of my time here.

Alexander’s sitting room.

Like so many of my days living and teaching abroad, this day was chock-full of adventures and surprises. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to combine my two loves – teaching and art – and I look forward to the experiences yet to come.


August, die she must

привет from Moscow where it’s 60 degrees and sunny. Things here are settling into a rhythm, punctuated by new adventures and daily surprises. A good friend wrote that she was enjoying the pictures of Moscow, which she hadn’t had a good visual reference for previously. I felt much the same way before arriving and the subtle beauty of this urban landscape continues to delight.

The view from my classroom balcony after the rain featuring the high school street mural.

The weather here in Moscow is always a topic of conversation. Before it gets really cold, I’m planning to enjoy this beautiful autumn as much as possible. We’ve had quite a bit of rain these past few weeks and this town is so gorgeous after a rainstorm. I’ve mentioned the vivid clouds before and my evening bus commute is repeatedly blessed with these gorgeous views.

Highland skies.
The view from my living room as the rain starts to tap on the windowpane.

As for the air, it is so refreshing to be in a cleaner air environment. I certainly didn’t have it as bad as friends in Shanghai but there’s nothing like clean air to do a body good.

I awoke to a text alerting me to high winds ~ we were out all day and managed not to blow away 🙂

This weekend flew by but I did have time to explore each day. On Saturday, my friend Caitlin and I checked out Pushkin’s apartment down on the Arbat. For two art teachers, seeing the pomp and circumstance of 19th Century Russian interior design was pretty exciting. It’s so nice to have another art teacher from Seoul here with me.

My friend Tori takes the cake on the first package I’ve received here in Moscow. I was so touched that she included two of my former homes – Korea and Vermont. Now I can enjoy nights cooking Korean food and dreaming of enjoying tteokbokki with Emm in Sindang.

On Sunday, my school organized an outing for us newbies at Izmailovo Market. Chock full of trinkets and stalls, the market was a fun starting point for our day out. The market comes to my school in December so be prepared for plenty of KGB flasks and t-shirts fronting images of Putin riding a bear in your Christmas stockings this year.


I found the khokhloma charming. It’s a wonderful traditional Russian handicraft and no two works are alike. Click here for a great video on the artisans behind the scenes.

Next up – the Folk Flea Market in the courtyard of the Moscow Museum of Art. A true flea market, the silver plated pieces glittered in the sun as a Russian duo sang Elvis Presley numbers in the background. I remain surprised at how many staples of western culture, particularly that from the States, are seen here in Russia.


Beautiful day for a flea market.


The meringues looked incredible but we managed to resist.

In the homestretch of the week, I’m looking forward to the Kremlin Military Tattoo in Red Square on Friday night. Russians really seem to love their fireworks so it’s sure to be quite a display. Pictures to follow…

Back in the saddle again

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Fresh off the plane, with my new coworkers Ellen and Shin.

At the end of my first week of school, I can honestly say that my new role suits. I’ve a great bunch of middle schoolers under my charge and an awesome schedule to boot. Morning classes are just one of the perks (why is art always left to the afternoon???). The kids seem really receptive and it’s just fun to be guiding a group in making art once again.

Back at Gorky Park to check out the Garage, a museum of modern and contemporary art.

Tuesday was our first day of school and the school held an Opening Ceremony at the end of the school day, replete with a bell-ringing to usher in the new school year. Perhaps most notable was the Ceremony of Flags, in which the flags representing the home countries of all students are paraded in. The list was read for a good 10 minutes – our students must represent over 65 nationalities. I wish I knew the actual number but I can tell you that in just one of my classes, of the 17 students enrolled, 13 are from different countries. The countries vary from Italy to Oman. What that kind of diversity can do if channeled properly is pretty awesome for a teacher who gets to live it.

The chair on the left was fashioned out of foam to look as if it is clay ~ functional and comfortable.

I shared this video with some of you when I first accepted my new job but if you’d like to see what my campus look like and hear a little about the school, feel free to take a look. The Flag Ceremony I refer to can be seen around 0:45. Clearly it’s marketing but I will say that it has thus far lived up to the hype.

Neon art a la Bruce Nauman.

There is another much more serious difference between my old school in Seoul and this new one in Moscow. It’s something I feel very strongly influences the entire culture of the school. If it’s absent, good luck making any strides. If it’s present, the opportunities are endless. I’m talking about sleep.

Digitally printed photograph of paint – though you’d never know it.

Never did I realize how important sleep was until I moved to Asia. You know how people say New York City is the city that never sleeps? Well, I think they could insert Seoul if they really wanted to be honest. When I first moved to Seoul, I had myself half-convinced that sleep wasn’t necessary, getting by on 5 hours a night. Not only did I burn out, I feel like I actually became a zombie. Part of it was a natural high of living in a new, exciting place. Part of it was the fact that those around me didn’t sleep much. In fact, they bragged about how little sleep they got.

Thrilled to discover that the Garage holds summer film screenings on its roof. The list includes a number of my favorites and I hope to get to one before the season ends this week.

To pull an all-nighter was a badge of honor for many. Some of my students told me their parents would encourage them to stay awake until the wee hours of the morning if they wanted to prove their dedication to their studies. My kids would email me about assignments at 3, 4, 5am in the morning. Korean coworkers regularly went to midnight movies with their spouses, bringing their children who would quickly pass out and sleep, and enjoying a date night (or morning?). It was surprising to see families with young children out playing in the park as I walked home at 11pm. Sure, it was the Land of the Morning Calm, but perhaps mornings were the only time anyone found to sleep.

While it’s only been a week here in Moscow, I see the evidence of the positive effects of sleep on my students’ faces. They’re more engaged, emotionally and physically, and it seems they’re able to be kids, pure and simple. It makes me so happy to know the majority of these kids are allowed to go home after school, eat dinner, and go to sleep at a (fairly) reasonable time. There are exceptions, of course – and video gaming to contend with these days – but boy does it make a difference to me as a teacher.

As I sign off at the end of fulfilling first week, I’m again thankful for this opportunity that I’ve been given and excited to go exploring once again in my new city. I’ll leave you with a quote from the Bohemian-Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. He had the following to say, translated from his native German.

Ah, the knowledge of impermanence
that haunts our days
is their very fragrance.

I think he was onto something.