Monthly Archives: November 2020

Russia Article

I always really enjoyed reading Erika’s writing. Yes, I’m so totally biased but in all honesty, I did think she was a great writer. I told her many times that one thing that I thought that made her stand apart was her ability to be thorough in very short articles. Some reporters get lost in the weeds in their stories. Some assume that the reader is current on the story’s situation. But when Erika wrote, she found ways to keep the reader current and I never came away from one of her stories thinking “What is this about?”

There were a few stories that she wrote that she was proud of, and I hope to share others here too. I recently thought of this one again. Her last article from Russia. It’s about her time there and having to close down the bureau as she was the last Moscow Bureau Chief for the Baltimore Sun. The Sun didn’t run this article, but Jim Romenesko did. Here it is, written December 18, 2007 and sent to her Baltimore Sun colleagues:

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I am leaving Russia for good in the morning, and so is the Sun. I had hoped the piece that follows would be the last out of Moscow. Unfortunately, the paper did not find a place for it in its pages. I wanted to share it with all of you anyway, especially since some of our former colleagues, once posted here, contributed to it.

By Erika Niedowski

MOSCOW — This is a sad story.

Sad because it will be the last in the Baltimore Sun to carry a dateline from Moscow, where for nearly 55 years, the newspaper has posted a full-time correspondent to chronicle the goings-on in a nation spanning 11 time zones and a tenth of the earth’s land mass.

By the time you read this, I will have found a new home for the library that takes up a full wall of the Sun’s sixth-floor office not far from the Kremlin. I will have taken down the hanging maps, including one showing areas off-limits to foreigners during Soviet times. I will have turned out the lights, locked the door and closed a chapter on a kind of journalism this paper has been doing since 1887: the kind where foreign places like Russia and China and the Middle East are made familiar and, if we correspondents do our jobs right, what goes on in them, germane.

The Sun opened its bureau here in 1954, at least according to a document I pulled from the file cabinets and the memory of Tony Barbieri, a former Moscow correspondent and one-time Sun managing editor. It was then a grim, grey city in a state led by Communist Party Chief Nikita Krushchev, locked in an ideological war with the United States. It is still, at times, a grim, grey city, though now full of neon casino lights, restaurants that charge $10 for a French press and a tendency for excess that would, were he alive, send Lenin straight to the grave (or at least the mausoleum).

The Sun, the second American newspaper in Moscow after the New York Times, was in business here for the launch of Sputnik and the Cuban missile crisis; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; Mikhail Gorbachev’s ground-breaking perestroika reforms; the collapse of the Soviet Union and the election of Russia’s first democratically president, Boris N. Yeltsin; the free-wheeling chaos of Russia’s early experiment with capitalism in the 1990s; and the succession of Vladimir Putin and the resurgence of a country awash in oil wealth.

But this place is much more than the news inside the paper’s pages. This place has touched me and, I would venture, everyone that sat in this seat before me.

There is a saying: The more time you spend in Russia, the less you understand it. I still marvel at the contradictions: how Russians are at once sticklers for rules and adept flaunters of them. They will uncomplainingly stand in three separate lines to select, pay for and pick up an ice cream, yet they drive on the sidewalks and embrace a casual recklessness with such vigor that it’s actually driving life expectancy down.

They admire strength and a strong hand — witness Putin’s popularity — but believe that their own fate is beyond their control. They love things vast and colossal, but speak in a language filled with dimunitives. They can seem dismissive and cold on the surface, but are generous and warm to the core. In 2005, I interviewed a mother in the North Caucasus after her son was wounded by police who had accused him of taking part in a violent anti-government raid. At the end, she handed me — a complete stranger 30 minutes earlier — an entire watermelon, as a sign of thanks and respect.

Russia has taught me that Americans are uptight and overanxious, that I roll my eyes too often, that patience really is a virtue. Despite opposition talk of mass protests against Putin and an increasingly centralized state, I can’t envision a revolution here; the unwavering hardiness and endurance that have seen Russians through centuries of turmoil and unspeakable suffering are the very qualities that all but ensure they will not rise up.

Russian ingenuity, borne of necessity in Soviet times when stores were empty and even something as seemingly disposable as a ball point pen would be repaired, is unrivaled. Russians can improvise a fix to any problem. Scott Shane, the newspaper’s Moscow correspondent from 1988 to 1991, told me the paper’s old Ford Crown Victoria once got a new exhaust system fashioned wholly out of welded pipes. The job cost him just two blank audio cassettes, which were incredibly hard to get at the time.

Russia is not for the thin-skinned. The answer to everything practically before you finish asking is nyet, which only if you are patient enough to try again (and again) actually often means, “Well, go ahead.” I spent three months fighting officials’ repeated refusal to allow me inside Russia’s last big piano factory for a harmless feature, which made me wonder whether there were some kind of state secrets to be found inside.

More than once I was dressed down at the all-but mandatory coat check for not having a hook inside my jacket, which requires the scowling attendant to go to the trouble of using a hanger. A friend visiting recently from Maryland had his jacket outright rejected for lack of a hook, even though there was one there. Only after my husband Chris dug it out did the woman “helping” him smile.

I asked my predecessors, some of whom worked in Moscow when it truly was a hardship post, what they remembered of their time; their memories were too many to record here. Dean Mills, the Sun’s Moscow correspondent from 1969 to 1972 and now dean of the University of Missouri Journalism School, recalled the day the U.S. embassy lifted the ban on correspondents’ access to food products — at least to the point of allowing them a spot of milk. The operation had to be carried out in “secret,”ť so Mills’ assigned driver shuttled him to the embassy to get the contraband, hiding it in the trunk for the trip home. The housekeeper put it in the refrigerator. “But none of us,” Mills explained, “said a word to each other about the milk and where it came from.”

Stephen Nordlinger, the Sun’s correspondent in Moscow from 1965 to 1967, told me he and his wife Marjorie were the first Americans to wed in the Soviet Union. The ceremony took place at the Palace of Weddings and ended with a simple question: “Do you marry freely and with love?” They both replied, “Da.”

Antero Pietila, Moscow correspondent from 1983 to 1988, noted the first time he checked in to a hotel in the far Russian North with a reservation slip from the Diplomatic Service Administration. He was greeted by a woman who proclaimed: “Thank God you are here, THEY had already asked about you.”

Barbieri, who worked in Moscow from 1979 to 1984, recalled meeting dissidents across the street from the newspaper’s office outside the famous Puppet Theater. The spot provided a perfect pretext for avoiding the attention of the KGB: Parents and children gathered at the top of the hour to raise their eyes to the spectacle of the mechanical cuckoo clock, filled with fairy tale characters, which still chimes to this day.

Barbieri also recalled the inevitable scolding whenever he ventured outside in cold weather without a hat, by all manner of babushki, whom he aptly described as “Moscow’s version of high school hallway monitors for whom no infraction was too small to be noted.” The same old women would reprimand anyone of child-bearing age who rested her rear on a stone wall, warning it would make them infertile (I have been told this on numerous occasions).

Cleaning out the Sun office recently I found an old, wrinkled tie at the bottom of a box of outdated maps; a few shell casings from God knows where; and a string of black-and-white photos of a much younger Pietila. I looked for a while at a framed picture on my wall, here when I arrived 2 years ago: It contains a now-yellowed page from the Sun, displaying headshots of the correspondents the paper had in its overseas bureaus at the time, including Moscow, what was then Peking, Mexico City, Jerusalem and London. Next to each photo is a caricature of some landmark there, like the onion domes, for the Soviet Union.

At the top, the paper says: “The Sun Never Sets On The World.”

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Alisha Pina, Erika and Ian Donnis reporting from Providence City Hall.
Photo from Ian Donnis’ Twitter Stream

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Thanksgivings Together

I just thought I’d use this as a chance to post more pictures of Erika, using those from each of our Thanksgivings together. I’ll also do this in reverse chronological order, starting with last year, and ending with the fun stories of our first two years together for Thanksgiving.

Last year, like many others as you’ll see, we spent it at Erika’s parents’ house in Marshfield. We were fortunate that Violet and her parents were there with us too.

Thanksgiving 2019

2018 was similar, as we spent that one with Erika’s family as well. Around the table is Erika’s brother in law, Don, her sister Nancy, her mother Marion, her father Ray, her niece Violet and then some random guy they let join them.

Thanksgiving 2018

But for that photo, Erika was the photographer and of course we need to see her in one too! So cheers!

Cheers to 2018 Thanksgiving with Erika!

In 2017, we were also at Erika’s parents’ house. I think I was designated the official photographer, which I seemed to have messed up the lighting.

Thanksgiving 2017

Because it appears in 2016, I handled the duties somewhat better.

Thanksgiving 2016

I don’t see a group photo for 2015, but I have this one of Erika’s mom Marion and the great turkey she made for us.

Turkey and Marion 2015

Erika’s father’s (Ray) birthday is around Thanksgiving time so we’d often celebrate it when we’d be together for Thanksgiving. Marion is legendary for her multi-layer cake, which she made for the birthday celebration.

Ray and Birthday Cake 2015

But again, we can’t let a year go by without a picture of Erika too. Here we are, Thanksgiving 2015.

Thanksgiving 2015

2015 was the first year that I went to have Thanksgiving with Erika’s family. In 2014, Erika was still working at the Associated Press and someone needed to work on the holidays. Erika had to work Thanksgiving, so here she is on Thanksgiving day, 2014, as I waited for her to finish up her shift so we could go home and have our dinner.

Thanksgiving at Work, 2014

I think we just had a quiet Thanksgiving dinner at Erika’s apartment that night. I actually can’t remember it, unfortunately. It’s also possible that we thought we’d be starting a tradition and went out to a restaurant somewhere. Neither of us seemed to take any additional pictures that day, but I do see that two days later, we headed off for our California vacation where we followed the Bruins up and down the west coast and where the great black and white photo of her in the airport came from. That picture is pinned to my Twitter feed.

But there was one more Thanksgiving together, in 2013. Thanksgiving day was November 28th and our first date was November 11th. So there was some awkwardness, at least from me, about whether in the span of just 16 days, we’d spend a holiday together. It wasn’t something we talked about until very late. My manager at work always opened his home to people who were going to be alone for Thanksgiving, so I’d actually accepted an offer to attend there when finally about a week before, I brought up the subject of Thanksgiving and what Erika would be doing. She had to work! She’d be working the desk at the AP. She said that normally she’d go to her parents’ house in Marshfield, but had to work until at least 5 pm. So I asked, want to have dinner together after work? She agreed, I cancelled my invitation with my manager and Erika and I went out for dinner. Not very many places were open or available, so we actually ended up at Andrea’s on Thayer St. Yep, a Greek restaurant for Thanksgiving. This was our first one together.

Every one of these is great memories of and with her.

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Tonight’s Mood

I miss the look of surrender in your eyes
The way your soft brown hair would fall
I miss the power of your kiss when we made love
Oh but baby most of all
I miss my friend

The one my heart and soul confided in
The one I felt the safest with
The one who knew just what to say to make me laugh again
And let the light back in
I miss my friend

I miss the colors that you brought into my life
Your golden smile, those blue-green eyes
I miss your gentle voice in lonely times like now
Saying it’ll be alright
I miss my friend

The one my heart and soul confided in
The one I felt the safest with
The one who knew just what to say to make me laugh again
And let the light back in
I miss my friend

I miss those times
I miss those nights
I even miss our silly fights
The making up
The morning talks
And those late afternoon walks
I miss my friend

The one my heart and soul confided in
The one I felt the safest with
The one who knew just what to say to make me laugh again
And let the light back in
I miss my friend
I miss my friend
I miss my friend
I miss my friend

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Bad Dreams

I didn’t want to tweet this out, as it pushes it into people’s timelines. You’re reading this because you came here voluntarily. Thank you for that. But I just felt the need to tell someone about this and didn’t know who to tell.

I let our dog Jaro sleep in the bed for part of the night. She starts the night in her own bed, but usually midway through the night, she gets into the bed with me and often leans on me while she sleeps. When Erika was here, she would also often lean on me, or put her arm on me at night while we slept. She’d say it helped her to sleep better. So when Jaro leans on me, it feels similar. Also, Jaro snores. Erika snored. We used to joke that some nights I couldn’t tell who was snoring, Jaro or Erika, as they sound very similar.

Early this morning, I was in that “just waking up” phase where I was still really out of it, but not asleep any more and could hear the snoring and feel the weight on me. I had an instant thought of “Oh, I had this awful realistic nightmare that Erika had died, but fortunately it was only a dream.” I had those feelings you get when waking from a nightmare where the fear from it is still there, but subsiding as you are realizing that it was only a dream and not real. However in this case, that realization was the opposite. No, that weight I feel on me is not Erika’s arm, that’s Jaro’s head leaning on me. That snoring is not Erika, that’s Jaro. And that wasn’t a nightmare, it’s real.

It was a reverse feeling. The feeling of waking up to a never-ending nightmare.

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Seven Years

November 11th would have been the seventh year that Erika and I had been together. I was recently going through some of the drawers in our house and found the pile of cards that she had kept. She kept all the birthday, anniversary and Valentine’s Day cards that we’d given each other. One stuck out for me. It was this one, one that she gave me for our second year together, in 2015. There are multiple things going on here:

One of the things that we had together was how I could make her laugh. I really like puns and dad jokes. She thought they were kinda corny and usually, not as funny as I did. Early on, there was one joke that I told her a few times, but didn’t remember that I’d told it to her and she’d seem to get a little exasperated that I’d already told her. So one day I thought it’d be funny to just keep telling it to her over and over again, (“A horse walks into a bar and the bartender says, hey buddy, why the long face?”) and I would add on to it “Get it” and make this hand motion miming a horse’s long face and she’d just say over and over again “Yes, I get it!” and for some reason, all of that would make me laugh, really hard. Seeing me laugh this hard was the thing that then made Erika laugh. The joke itself wasn’t funny to her, but the fact that I was laughing at myself was really funny to her. I remember doing this multiple times when both of us would end up in tears from laughter. The laughing just compounded. I’d laugh at her feigned exasperation (and the joke), which made her laugh, and then I’d think it was really funny that she was laughing at me, making me laugh harder. And then it’d continue. So she thought herself to be pretty witty with the pun on the card and then the addition of “get it??”

But then I read the inside of the card and realized that our beginning was as special to her as it was to me. Here’s what she wrote on the second anniversary:

Her writing wasn’t always the most legible, so it says:
“Boo,
I guess we have a job interview in Boston + a Bruins game to thank for us coming together! I love you so much. Thank you for a happy, happy two years and for everything you do to take care of me + make me feel loved and special.
To many more!
Love,
Squeaks”

Yeah, she called me Boo and she was Squeaks. The reasons this meant so much to me is that when we first got together, neither of us felt like we were doing really well. Both were coming out of relationships that had us down. I tried my best to do anything I could for her, be there for her any time she needed and to always make her feel special. Reading this card reminds me that I was doing just that. I just wish that “many more” wasn’t only five more. I wish it’d been fifty more. Happy anniversary, Squeaks.

As for her mentioning the Bruins game and job interview, here’s a little more background on that:

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About Erika

It’s been a little more than five weeks since Erika passed, so I’ve had time to reflect and really think about my little bit of time with her. As I flip through pictures of her, each has its own memories. One thing that I noticed is that she and I didn’t record very many videos. I think in our seven years, there are fewer than five videos of her, and one of those is 2 seconds long and seemingly an accident where someone meant to take a photo but hit the video button. I wish there were more.

But one thing that I did want to write about is all the things that I really loved about her. The big risk that I take in writing this is how many things I’ll forget to include. These are in no particular order. None of them are any more important to me than the others.

She really was so beautiful. Her bright blue eyes. Dark curly hair. Perfect smile. As I look back through all our photos, I keep having to stop scrolling and just look at her.

Another thing was just how comfortable she was in being herself. While being feminine, she hated dressing up, never wore makeup, didn’t color her hair, didn’t even own a pair of high heeled shoes and maybe painted her fingernails once. And even then was likely with her niece Violet. I remember early on, she asked if I cared that she didn’t dress up, and I told her definitely not. I wanted her to always be comfortable with herself, and that’s exactly what she did, hoodies, t-shirts, sweatpants, jeans and sneakers ruled the day for her. On days when she might have had to dress up for work, at 5:01 pm she’d say she was going to put on her “comfies”, meaning her comfortable clothes, lie down on the couch and often be under at least one cat.

Erika was extremely driven, while at the same time knowing how to relax. Erika was a woman who literally moved halfway around the world to become the Baltimore Sun’s Bureau Chief in Moscow, Russia. She wrote a story about Josie King that earned her a finalist’s spot with the Pulitzers (I still think she should have won). And when she felt her time in the Baltimore/DC area was done, she moved to Rhode Island to work with the Associated Press. And then when she knew she could do more for the world, she gave up her highly successful career in journalism to attend Tufts University and earn her Masters in Public Policy.

As driven as she was, she also knew how to relax. One of the best examples is a maxim that she lived by: “Why stand when you can sit, why sit when you can lie down.” Part of our daily routine was that she would come into the kitchen while I was making dinner and often, she’d lie on the floor. It didn’t seem the most comfortable, but it made her happy.


Erika was also the best at taking naps. We’d often say that if napping were an Olympic sport, she would be the gold medalist. We frequently planned our weekend schedule around her nap schedule. I didn’t mind because naps made her so happy. I could tell when she was getting close to her nap time. She might be reading on the couch and could see her eyes getting heavy. Even on vacations, she’d nap virtually every day, except one. There wasn’t anything special about that one day, she’d just say that she was “caught up” on her rest, and didn’t need a nap that day. But the next day, back to napping.


We also had a thing where she would often be the second one to get out of bed for the day. Usually after I’d walked the dog and started the coffee, she would come downstairs. After a quick celebration (yes, we celebrated her getting out of bed each day), I’d say “Good job waking up, now go rest.” and she’d go lie down on the couch. All of this is really an illustration of just how driven she was, but that she also knew how to slow down when needed.

Erika was also just so damn smart. She was the person who I could always bounce ideas off of and she would always give great feedback. I’d think my idea was rock solid, nothing could possibly be wrong with it and then she’d just start asking questions, ones that made sense, other things to think about. She also would often say she didn’t know what she was doing at her job. That everyone else was so much smarter than her, but then I’d see her getting invited to be a subject matter expert on conference panels, I’d hear her on her work calls and hear her explaining things. And of course her ability to easily write or edit. Anything I ever wrote would always go through her as an editor. I kinda wish these blog posts could be edited by her too, but then again, if she could edit them, I wouldn’t be writing them.

Erika at Work – Frequently on Phone Calls

She also had such a big heart for others. She was always looking out for the under-appreciated and those who didn’t get noticed. We were fortunate that Erika attended an Undoing Racism workshop which eventually opened our eyes to our own internal racist beliefs and helped us to challenge much of what we know. We worked on that together. We challenged each other many times in many ways and that really helped both of us. I could not have done that without her.

When there was something she was interested in, she just went ahead and did it. She had been riding her bicycle long distances since high school. She learned how to do welding and built herself a bicycle out of some scraps. She re-learned how to skate and then to play hockey.

She learned how to identify frog noises, she learned about Mason bees and how they are good plant pollinators and got a hive for our backyard. She got us a bat house for the yard, as she was really interested in bats. Sometimes our interests overlapped and sometimes they didn’t. And that was ok. We both really enjoyed doing nothing during our vacations. Most times, we’d just go somewhere, usually Prudence Island, and do nothing together. I loved that we could just be together, do nothing and be happy.

And there was the Bruins. Our first date was at a Bruins game on November 11, 2013. The Bruins beat the Lightning. We also went to the Stanley Cup Final Game 7 together. We went to many others, both in Boston and in other cities. We did a whole vacation where we followed the Bruins up and down the west coast. It seems the last game she and I attended together was December 23rd, 2019 vs. the Washington Capitals.

It’s interesting that the Caps were the last team we saw together as they were probably our second favorite team. We even went to a Caps playoff game together in Washington one year.

We had a lot of interesting times at hockey games. From the time she was almost too nervous to meet Liam Fitzgerald, aka Fist Bump Kid.

Or when we saw “The Guy from Chicago”, Conor McGregor, as Erika referred to him. She didn’t really know who he was but had heard that he’d been in Chicago earlier in the day, which happened to be St. Patrick’s Day.

There were just so many things to love about Erika. Another thing is she was an incredible role model for my daughter. While I wouldn’t say they were very close, they did get along really well and I know McKenna looked up to Erika. Erika was a smart, strong woman who took no BS from anyone. Erika was a board member for Girls Rock Rhode Island, and was a huge supporter of the organization. It was through this affiliation that McKenna got to attend the Girls Rock camps and also learn a lot about herself. The three of us had lots of serious family discussions but Erika also never took herself too seriously and could have fun with McKenna too, including this time when we were playing the Exploding Kittens game, and the expansion pack which came with the Cone of Shame.

I also loved the times when the three of us just hung out together, having fun.

One story that I liked to remind Erika of was way back when we were first dating, this might have been in the first month or so. I was asking her about “the holidays” and what she thought of them. She said she wasn’t a fan and always looked forward to them just being over. I remember this as it was one of the first times we’d gone ice skating together and we were at the downtown Providence rink. I just looked at her and said “I’m going to get you to like Christmas.” She actually rolled her eyes at me and said, with a slight sarcastic tone “okay…” After a few together, I think I was successful, and I’d remind her of that conversation. She agreed, she enjoyed the holidays together as we started making our own traditions, like tagging our tree each year:

Like I said at the beginning, I’m sure I’m forgetting many of the things that I loved about her. So many little things. How she’d get in the way in the kitchen when I made dinner. How she’d snore herself awake at night and insist on telling me that she snored herself awake, her love of her cats, especially Yukos and Red Bull, how much she loved seeing Paws, the Paw Sox mascot visit her every Valentine’s Day, her passion for doing so much and her passion for doing nothing.

Before I met her, I really didn’t believe in soul mates. I didn’t think it were possible that there is one perfect person for me. She proved me wrong. She was the perfect one for me, she was my everything.

This is literally the last photo we took together.

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