This essay article is part of a Narcity Media series. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Narcity Media.

I had been living in Moscow for a few months when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Although some people may dream of living in Paris or Rome, living in the former Soviet Union has always been my dream. I had studied Russian for five years, mostly in private lessons or evening classes after work.

A true nerd, I had even traveled to Kyiv for an intensive two-week language course and was blown away by the beautiful and unique culture of Ukraine and the friendliness of the Ukrainians I had met. I made a plan: I would move to Russia, speak the language very fluently, and then travel to the former Soviet Union, visiting cities like Samarkand and Yerevan. Maybe later I will learn Ukrainian and move to kyiv. If I worked hard enough, I really thought I could do it.

My dream of living in Russia was coming true

When I won a scholarship to live in Moscow for almost a year, I was thrilled. Being American, finding ways to travel to former Soviet countries was not very easy. Finally, I could turn my dream into reality.

I spent weeks in a glow, annoyingly reminding all my friends that dreams do come true. Since I entered the program in the midst of the COVID pandemic, my original departure date has been postponed a few times. I started to worry about not going there at all. When the notice finally came that we were leaving in November, I could hardly believe it. It was too good to be true.

Rebecca Grenham in front of Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.Rebecca Grenham

During my first months in Russia, it was really too good to be true. I spent Christmas and New Years there, watching how the locals celebrated (i.e. massive parties). I’ve traveled to the Arctic Circle, where I’ve fed reindeer, snowmobiled and seen the Northern Lights. I was so excited for the rest of the year when I traveled to St. Petersburg, Tolstoy’s Estate, Kazan, Samarkand and Yerevan and all the other amazing places I had dreamed of.

I was traveling when Russia invaded Ukraine

I guess it’s no surprise that I was on a trip when Putin announced that Russia was invading Ukraine.

My fellowship group was in Altai, a beautiful Russian republic that borders Kazakhstan, China, and Mongolia. As we drove between rolling snow-covered mountains, we barely noticed the scenery, too busy scrolling Twitter to see the latest reports from Kyiv and Kharkiv.

I felt everything: anger, depression, disgust, but above all guilt. There I was, safe, healthy and living my life while friends in Kyiv hid in bomb shelters. It was wrong.

On the last night of the trip, we received a notice from our program that the scholarship had been cancelled. The program organizers put us all on flights to Istanbul the next day since Turkey was one of the only places nearby that had not closed its airspace to Russia. I spent this morning crying alongside the other members of the cohort. The dream was over.

As stressful as it was, I knew I was so privileged

Once back in Moscow, I immediately started packing. My neighbor spotted me and invited me to tea next week, and I just nodded, unable to tell him I was gone. I packed for ages, only taking breaks when crying bothered me. I was so tired that I no longer knew what made me cry: the videos from Ukraine, the end of my stay in Moscow, the guilt.

As stressful as it was, I knew I was so privileged that I really had nothing to cry about. I never feared for my physical safety, I always had a home to go to, and I didn’t even have to make my own travel arrangements. As long as I didn’t lose my passport, it would be fine.

After finally stuffing everything into my bags, I went to the mall to buy my kind landlady, who had insisted on driving me to the airport at 3:30 that morning, a small present. People lined up outside ATMs as cash shortages grew in Moscow. Once I arrived at the mall, I was taken aback by the calm and emptiness, unlike its usual bustle. I regularly came to this mall during my scholarship to buy things to make Moscow feel like home. Now I was leaving, and home had never seemed so far away.

A few hours later, my landlady came to pick me up as promised. I was exhausted – I had barely slept for days and felt like I had squeezed all the tears from my body through my crying spells. When we hugged goodbye, part of me wanted to promise to come back and visit, to stay in touch. Instead, I just thanked her for the ride. If there was one thing I knew, it was that I was in no position to promise anything to anyone at that time.

Someone else from the program was already at the airport. We discussed all the basic stuff, like the weather in our final destinations – she was heading to Berlin, and I was going to Helsinki, Finland, where I had a friend. Our flight was packed, mostly with Russians on their way to Europe. After our separation in Istanbul, I felt lonelier than I had in months, like early COVID loneliness. Too tired to cry, I only sniffled.

I was stricken with loneliness once I succeeded

By the time I arrived in Helsinki, loneliness prevented me even from speaking. Part of me had hoped to travel to Europe after Moscow, make the best of this strange situation and live my old dream as much as possible. When I landed in Helsinki, I realized that all I really wanted was to go home.

I came across a sign on my way out of the airport that said, “Welcome to Finland. Welcome home.” I posted it on Instagram with a note that I had made it out of Russia. Friends from all over responded, noting how happy they were that I was safe. I don’t couldn’t bring myself to answer – think of the Ukrainians, I meant, think of those Russians thrown in jail for protesting the war, I wanted to write.

A welcome sign at Helsinki Airport.A welcome sign at Helsinki Airport.Rebecca Grenham

When I woke up the next day, it took me a few moments to realize where I was and what had happened.

I went for a walk, skating carefully on the icy roads, a skill I had learned in Moscow and realized I would probably quickly lose once I got back to the States, because it’s barely warm enough cold to DC for constant ice and snow. It was surreal to be in a place that felt normal. People spent their day walking their dogs, driving their children to school, buying coffee in the morning. For a while I felt normal too, until I opened my phone. The world was still going to shit, and I was in the suburbs of Helsinki, doing nothing.

My friend and I met in front of a museum. She asked me, naturally, how I was, adding that she knew I probably wasn’t too hot.

“I feel…” I started, trailing off. The tears came back.

She put a hand on my shoulder. “I can’t even imagine. I know you’ll be fine, though.

“Thank you.” That was all I could say.