2020 was going to be our year of new adventures. At 51 and 53, Olivier and I had decided to leave Moscow, where we’d lived for more than 10 years together, and we were going to travel the world for 6 months or more with no other plans for our future.
We just wanted to drift for a while, see some of our favourite places and people, visit some new places, and then, only after we’d exhausted ourselves on the road, would we decide what to do next.
Maybe a little irresponsible, but we’d been working as language teachers for more than 10 years and we were tired.
Well, I was tired.
So, near the end of 2019 we sat down and made some plans. We didn’t want to make too many strict plans, but we did want to have some idea of the first few months.
Olivier’s work contract was a fixed term one, so we decided to leave Russia at the end of his (then) current contract. Besides, I wanted to experience on more Russian winter before we left.
His final working day was going to be 6th April, 2020.
So I planned to resign from my job and to finish on that day, too.
Some of you already know what we had planned, but for those who don’t, here’s what we decided.
We would leave Russia on 13th April, 2020 and fly to Brussels to spend a few days with friends.
Then take a train to Paris, to spend some time with friends and also to leave some things in storage with friends there. After 10 years in Russia we had accumulated a lot of things, and really wanted to keep some of them but couldn’t take them with us.
From Paris we were going to Bangkok for a couple of weeks. One week was going to be spent in Bangkok, and the other week in a beautiful little town called Kanchanaburi, where we’ve been before and where we were going to spend time by the pool doing nothing but eat amazing food and relax.
After Bangkok, off to Vietnam. A 3 month visa there would allow us to stay long enough to spend time visiting the country and getting to know it better, and not just rushing through it. We’ve been to Vietnam before and absolutely love it.
So, these plans took us up to about August, and we were going to visit family and friends in Australia at this point and then back to Asia for a while, but we weren’t going to fix any dates or places because we don’t like to plan to far into the future.
However, from leaving Russia to the middle of our Vietnam visit, we booked and paid for flights and accommodation. We were ready for our new adventure!
Now, you may know that I absolutely love winter in Russia! Even though I lived in Moscow and the winters aren’t extremely cold there, I love nothing more than to get all rugged up with hats, scarves, gloves and winter boots and head out to the cold, feeling the snow fall on my face as I go to the metro, or to the shop, or just for a walk.
So I was really, really, looking forward to my last winter in Russia.
We had a pretty cold summer in Moscow in 2019. The coldest on record, apparently. Therefore I was hoping that the cold trend would continue and winter would be one of the best.
I was expecting huge snowfalls and lots of rugging up. I was looking forward to wearing my favourite winter hat.
I was spectacularly disappointed.
One of the warmest winters on record. Almost zero snowfall. Temperatures didn’t get down to the minus 20 and lower that I was expecting and wanting. I’m not even sure if it got down to minus 10.
I didn’t get the opportunity to wear my favourite hat for the last time. I say for the last time because I knew I wouldn’t need it in Asia or Australia, and I wasn’t sure when I would be in a place with such cold winters again.
A huge disappointment for our last winter in Russia.
Resigning from Work
On 6th March I gave my one month’s notice at work. My final working day would be 6th April, like Olivier’s final working day. Then we would spend our last week in Moscow moving out of our flat and saying goodbye to friends.
It would be a very sad time, we had made many, many wonderful and dear friends here in the time we’ve called Moscow our home.
Leaving them was going to be one of the most difficult things to do.
But, I resigned, and started to be less enthusiastic about going to work every day (sorry students, if you’re reading this). Actually, a few of my students had finished their courses so I didn’t have a lot of lessons for the last couple of months.
Which meant that I didn’t have a lot of money coming in, which wasn’t good considering we were not going to be working for the foreseeable future.
But, that’s how it was and I was starting to get excited about leaving, despite the sadness that went along with it.
We have a lot of good friends in a city called Nizhny Novgorod, which is about 400km east of Moscow. We’d been introduced to this city by some friends in a band who we met back in 2010, after having seen them in concert at the end of 2009, not long after moving to Moscow together.
Over the years we’ve been there too many times to count. We had great parties with friends and often left Nizhny (as it’s affectionately called) on a Sunday morning feeling a lot worse than we did on our arrival the day before.
One thing that we decided we must do before leaving was to visit Nizhny and our friends one last time.
This we did on 13th to 15th March, 2020.
And, although for various reasons we didn’t see a lot of friends that weekend, we did manage to have a couple of great evenings with some very, very much loved people who have been in our lives for more than 10 years.
We still had one month before we were due to leave Moscow, and we had a lot more parties and things planned to do during that time.
The brutal shock
And then, on Tuesday, 17th March, out of the blue, completely unexpected, Olivier received an email from his school/employer. His contract was terminated immediately. He was told to leave Russia before Saturday 21st March. He was to come to the school to pick up his final pay on Thursday or Friday.
He wasn’t the only teacher who was sent this email.
We couldn’t believe it! Of course, we understood that there was a problem happening with the dreaded Corona Virus. We knew that the school was going to have less and less students, and that they would possibly have less and less need for all their teachers.
However, it was a shock for which we were unprepared.
I then had to resign effective immediately to my own employer, for which I was very sorry.
My school/employer had been wonderful since I had started there 2 years before and I was very sorry to let them down, as there were students expecting to be taught by me until 6th April. Plus they had their own problems with dwindling student numbers.
Although it wasn’t my decision, I felt guilty for leaving like that.
We were living in a two room flat, with all our ‘things’ accumulated over the previous 10½ years. We’d started getting rid of stuff already, but we still basically had a full flat that we had to now empty into 2 suitcases in the 2 or 3 days following.
Fortunately the flat was furnished, so we didn’t have to worry about moving anything big out.
I told our landlady that we had to go immediately and asked her to meet us at the flat on Saturday to hand back the keys. She’s been a great landlady for over 6 years and we’ve been really happy living in her flat.
We started throwing a lot of things out. There’s a kind of a system in Russia, that if you leave stuff next to the bin, somebody might decide that they want it so they take it. It’s like recycling I guess.
So we recycled a lot of clothes and other things from our flat. Time was so short that we had to ruthlessly throw out things that we’d planned to keep.
We were no longer going to Paris to leave some things in storage.
But where were we going?
A lot of the world was closed or closing at this time, so we were kind of limited with where we could go. France was open to Olivier but closed to me, and I didn’t want to go there anyway if I had a choice. Australia was open to me but closed to Olivier unless I had a special approval from the Australian Immigration Department based on the fact that he is my husband. I’ve applied for this document but it had no chance of being delivered to me before taking a flight from Moscow on Saturday 21st March.
Someone suggested we go to Laos, as it’s close to where we had actually planned on going (Vietnam, which required visa and we didn’t have any) and it’s quite a cheap place to live.
Remember that Olivier and I are French and Australian, so everything I was checking I had to check twice, once for each of us. We did look at some other places, but some of them I couldn’t get into and Olivier could.
So we booked, and paid for, a flight via Bangkok to Laos, and booked a hotel in Laos, just before midnight on 17th March.
We would leave Moscow late on the night of the 21st, and get into Bangkok, and then Laos, the following day.
We would have to enter Thailand and collect our luggage, and then check-in for Laos. It wasn’t a connecting flight.
I checked and the visa exempt system for Thailand was still available for both of us.
We had no intention of being separated.
So we were off to Bangkok! Except as the next day progressed, more news came out and Thailand were changing their rules of entry and if you didn’t get in before 21st March at midnight you would be subject to new rules, including a test showing you were Corona Virus free.
As we weren’t going to have the benefit of staying in a transit area, and had to go through passport control to get our luggage, we decided that it would probably be a bad idea to go to Laos after all.
We weren’t guaranteed to get there, or even to be allowed to board the plane in Moscow.
On Wednesday, 18th, I went to my school and picked up my final pay and said goodbye to my boss. I cried the whole time I was in there. I signed God knows how many documents and I’m sure there are dried salty tears on most of them.
I found out that after working in Russia since 2007, this last company I worked for was the only one which made me ‘legal’ and I actually have a Russian ‘work book’ – which is an official record of where you work and how long etc. It’s about the size of a passport. It’s a very important book for Russians because without it you can’t prove your work experience to potential employers. Every Russian has one, and must have one.
My other employers never gave me this book when I left them, so I don’t know if they ever created one for me or not. Probably not.
On Wednesday night, 18th March we were visited by one of our very good friends, Denis. He was devastated at the turn of events and came to see us for a last drink and to talk about the situation in the world.
We had a great time and spent a lot of time reminiscing about the past years we’ve known each other.
We made some progress in emptying the flat, but not nearly enough – there was stuff everywhere and it was impossible to decide what to take in our suitcases and what to give away or put in the bin.
Thursday 19th March
Olivier went into his school to get his final pay. This is what I can’t write about right now.
Olivier’s French colleagues came to see us in the evening on Thursday evening. Their task was to take anything that wasn’t nailed down, not counting the furniture. It was fun – just like Christmas for them and a big relief to know that not everything was going to the bin.
My favourite winter coats were given to a lovely woman who looked gorgeous in them. I only hope that next winter will be cold enough for her to wear them.
I don’t even remember what stuff we gave to our French friends that evening. I do know that some of them left in taxis because they couldn’t carry everything.
It made me realise, too, that we accumulate far too many things in our life. I don’t consider myself to be a ‘consumer’, but the amount of things I have just removed from my life is incredible.
Like a lot of other people these days, I vow to be more attentive to what I have in my life and to only buy what’s essential. With the exception of perfume.
Friday 20th March
We got up early because we still had a lot of stuff in the flat and things everywhere. Still couldn’t decide what to pack and because we have no scales we couldn’t weigh our suitcases to know if we could take more or not.
Olivier went to see a couple of his students who asked to see him to say goodbye. So off he went into the centre while I stayed home and tried to organise myself, and clear out more stuff.
While he was out I was checking things about Thailand and saw that they had changed the rules and from midnight on 21st March, passengers coming into Thailand had to have insurance for a certain amount, plus a certificate from a doctor stating that they had been tested, what test it actually was, and the result.
I didn’t know what to do because I knew right then that we couldn’t go to Laos after all. We didn’t have insurance and what insurance company would cover anybody asking for insurance right now?
I contacted a friend who’s a doctor in Moscow and she said that it would be impossible to get the test done in time for the next day.
We couldn’t go to Laos, via Thailand. We just lost $1000 USD because of course the flights were not changeable or refundable.
Olivier was still out with his students so I spent some time checking which countries were still open for both of us. They had to be countries where we didn’t need a visa.
I found a few countries in Eastern Europe still open, and started checking flights. Slovakia, Romania, Moldova, and Montenegro were all still open.
I checked Romania first and found a direct flight which left Moscow at 9.15pm on Saturday, the next day.
When Olivier came home we talked about the Asia situation and he agreed that we couldn’t go there. There was too much risk of not being allowed to board the plane or being denied entry in Bangkok and being deported (where to, I can’t imagine).
So, we went ahead and bought the flight to Bucharest, Romania. A place that neither of us had ever been to and knew nothing about.
We had been hoping to catch up with another group of friends, and had received a message that they would come on Friday night, but nothing had been confirmed so we continued emptying the flat and cleaning it. The landlady was coming the next day at 1pm for the keys and everything had to be ready for her.
As we were quietly packing and sorting stuff (yes, I told you we had a LOT of stuff in this flat!), someone rang the doorbell.
It was a group of friends, about 6 or 7 of them, with drinks, food, and a very good mood!
We had a huge party! We drank, we ate, we laughed, we cried, we talked about old times, we went to the shop for more drink, we fought (that was me and a couple of others), we got over it, we took photos and made videos.
Then more people came. Then left. Then more people came.
Our friends gave us a wonderful final party in our flat. The last ones left at about 6am.
We went to bed and set the alarms for 9.30am. One French friend was coming at 10am to get the last of the stuff, and the landlady was coming at 1pm for the keys.
The place was a bit of a mess. Naturally.
Saturday 21st March
With the alarms ringing at 9.30 we got up and got straight into it. Taking the last things to the bin, getting things together for our friend Michael to take, as he was coming for one more load. And trying to get the smell of ‘party’ out of the air.
I’m not sure we were very successful on that last point.
Finally the time came. We handed back the keys. The landlady handed us back some money because we left the flat before we had planned and we had paid in advance.
We had a suitcase each, and a backpack each, and that’s all.
We had one last party to get through before we left. After talking to another friend, Oleg, we decided to meet in a local café and say goodbye. Oleg is the singer in the rockabilly band, Alligators, and we have grown to love them all as well as their music.
This was to be the most difficult goodbye of them all.
Oleg had been in touch with the other guys, and after sitting in the café for a while, they came to us and joined us at the table. One by one they came. From different locations in Moscow, at different times. But they all stayed until we had to leave for the airport at 5pm.
We ate, we drank, we heard Russian stories and got even more education on Russian language and history. We got presents. We cried (well, I did – it comes easily to me).
There are no words to say how much it meant to us that they came to see us one more time before we left. They have lives, families, and other things to do. And they came to spend our last hours and minutes with us.
And all too soon it was time to go.
Lots more tears, some group photos, and then I found myself waving goodbye out the back window of Denis’ car at the Alligator family. So, so sad to say goodbye and to see them getting smaller and smaller as Denis drove us away.
The drive to the airport was uneventful. There wasn’t much traffic.
One last goodbye, to our good friend Denis, and we were just the two of us ready for, well, we weren’t really sure what was waiting for us at the end of our flight to Bucharest.
We checked in. Our suitcases were ridiculously underweight – mine was 18kg and Olivier’s 17kg. I started thinking about the other 5kg I could have packed into it. The things that I had thrown out or given away because I thought I couldn’t fit them into my suitcase.
I gave away a lot of things that I was just dying to keep but realised that I couldn’t keep everything. I will try not to regret letting them go, they’re only things.
And then it was a 3 hour wait in the airport. For once it was quiet, due to the current situation.
More tears were shed, we drank some tea and ate a little. Then we waited for boarding, not knowing what on earth waited for us at the other end of our almost 3 hour flight to Bucharest.
And tomorrow, I’ll let you know what’s happened since our arrival, and what we think might happen now that we’re here. We had a very difficult arrival and uncertainty is in the air.
PS. I’ve tried to keep things accurate, but I’m exhausted so I might have made some mistakes about times. I’ll correct any mistakes when I find them.
Next – Bucharest – our arrival!