Thoughts/Impressions/Terrible Puns from the Motherland

Russia and I have reconciled…

…and now I don’t really want to go home. About 2 weeks ago I suddenly started feeling like someone flipped a switch inside me, and now I’m falling in love with St. Petersburg all over again.

It might be the weather: it’s finally getting warm-ish and I can even go without a coat most days. The weather changes pretty drastically within a day, though, and it still hasn’t gotten nice enough to wear shorts or a dress without tights. But we’re getting there.

It might be that White Nights are starting soon, and the sun is up from 6 a.m. until about 11 p.m. these days. It’s crazy and disorienting, but it makes me feel like I can’t just stay in my room.

It might be that tourist season is starting, and the streets are suddenly much more crowded. It’s not that uncommon now for me to hear English when I’m walking around Nevskii Prospekt. And there are plenty of giant, obnoxious tour groups to make me feel superior for being a local and speaking the language.

But for whatever reason, the city has transformed completely in my eyes. It’s almost like it was when I first got here. Everything seems beautiful and new again. My other friends on the program have noticed and commented on it too; there’s a certain vitality to the city these days. It’s like St. Petersburg has woken up after a really heavy sleep.

Some cool things I’ve done since this newfound love for the city hit me:

-I spent the good part of a day at a really great museum of contemporary Russian art called Erarta (

-I’ve been to the apartment-museums of Mikhail Zoshchenko and Anna Akhmatova, both 20th century Russian writers who lived in St. Petersburg and were persecuted by the Soviet government. Also amazing.

-We had a weekend trip to Pskov and its surrounding areas, including the place where Pushkin is buried, the place where he spent 2 years in exile and wrote some of his most famous works, and one of the holiest monasteries in Russia (famous for being one of the only ones that hasn’t closed at any point during its history, including during the Soviet Union). Here’s a few pictures from where Pushkin spent his time in exile (it’s called Mikhailovskoye):

It’s hard to capture in a few pictures, but it was really one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

-This weekend we celebrated my friend’s 21st birthday. A huge group of us stood on the banks of the Neva and drank champagne and recited toasts in Russian, and we watched the beautiful sky change colors as the sun was setting around 10 p.m. A true study abroad experience.

-Also (I hope this is blog appropriate), I went on my first and probably only date with a Russian, which included him reciting Pushkin to me on the banks of the Neva, going up to the top of St. Isaac’s Cathedral and getting a panoramic view of the whole city, and walking around the park where the Bronze Horseman is. This can be a very romantic city, let me tell you.

-My program had a 19th-century ball for us and some Russian students who study in our department, and we all dressed up in period costume and waltzed, watched some people duel, etc. It was pretty bizarre but also fun. This is what I looked like:

I wish this love for SPb had come back to me a little bit earlier, though, because now I only have 10 days left here. Eeep! I’m going to try to make the most of it. I still have Victory Day (May 9) and a day trip to Peterhof (said to be the Russian Versailles) to look forward to. There will be many parades and fountains in my future.

Russia and I have been having a rough month

Sorry to all my dedicated readers. I know I haven’t written in a while, but I think my honeymoon with Russia is pretty much over and I didn’t want to turn this into a complaint register. I still love Russia, but in the kind of way that you love a sibling who you really care about deep down but on a day to day basis he/she annoys you a lot. Sometimes, walking around the streets of St. Petersburg, I wake up with a jolt and realize I generally don’t know what I’m doing here. I’m here to have adventures, to see another part of the world, to learn about myself and experience personal growth. But did I have to come all the way here to experience those things? I can feel the personal growth happening already, but I just hope studying abroad isn’t beneficial in the same way that surviving an incredibly traumatic and torturous experience is beneficial.

Whew, sorry for the downer note. I’m just trying to sort out my impressions and thoughts. The main highlight of the past month was my trip to Moscow, Riga, and Tallinn over Spring Break. I wasn’t very impressed by Moscow, and it’s funny how I and most of the students on this program have already developed a very fierce loyalty to St. Petersburg. SPb and Moscow are generally in competition as the two major (and really only) urban centers in the giant landmass that is Russia, and we’ve definitely picked our side. That being said, it was interesting to see a part of Russia that isn’t SPb. Moscow felt much more like an American city; it was taller, busier, more sprawling, and more aggressive. We took an overnight train there and only stayed for 2 1/2 days. I went to the main tourist draws of the city: The Red Square/Kremlin and the Tretyakov Gallery, a museum of Russian art comparable to the Russian Museum here in SPb. Pictures:

After that, 3 friends and I spent the rest of our vacation in the Baltics. We visited Riga (Latvia) and Tallinn (Estonia). It was an amazing experience. I knew next to nothing about either country before visiting, and I was amazed by how beautiful the cities were. The people we met were incredibly friendly (and a million times warmer than Russians in general…although I think Russians are also very friendly when you get past their steely exteriors), there was lots to do, we got to eat out for every meal and stay in 2 great hostels with showers that had water pressure and beds with actual mattresses.

Pictures of Riga:

Pictures of Tallinn:

So anyway, coming home from travel week was hard. I think the part I’m still struggling with most about being here isn’t actually being in Russia. It’s living in a homestay. Part of why travel week was so nice is that I got my independence back for a week. I got to eat when I wanted and go wherever I felt like, I had some time alone, and I didn’t feel like a guest. Most of my friends here have host parents who work, so they get time to themselves in their apartments. Mine are both retired, and as a result I’ve only been alone in the apartment maybe three times since coming here. As a somewhat awkward and anti-social person, I really miss that alone time. I know living with them is doing wonders for my language ability, but they can be very frustrating when I don’t do exactly what they want.

Ergh, sorry tumblr-verse. Just trying to keep this honest. Some things that are still awesome about living here:

-I went to the midnight Orthodox Easter service at Kazanskii Cathedral last weekend. 

Yep, there. It was amazing. There were probably thousands of people inside, holding candles and listening to a choir sing hymns. The church is beautiful, and it was a very surreal night. It was a Saturday night, so the streets were packed full both of religious people going to services and young people heading to the clubs and bars. A good metaphor for Russia as a whole, probably. Plus the whole thing was cast in the weird Northern light that’s hard to describe. It’s unique to this part of the world. I’ll just say that even though it was midnight, the sky didn’t really seem that dark. Which brings me to my next awesome thing…

-White nights are starting soon! We’ve had some terrible weather this week, of course, but when the days are sunny, it’s some of the nicest weather I’ve seen. The sun stays up from 7 a.m. to about 9 p.m., and the days are only getting longer. The urge to skip all my classes and go have picnics/roam the city is getting pretty irresistible.

-I feel like I can actually speak Russian now! I remember being so lost when I got here, but now I can turn on Russian TV and understand almost everything that’s being said. Making friends with Russian students and living in a homestay have helped with this a lot, I’m sure. I still have some trouble interacting with Russian cashiers, waiters, etc., but I no longer live in fear of not being able to make myself understood.

I leave for home in 27 days. In some ways, that’s unthinkable, but in other ways I miss America a lot and I think I’ll be happy to be home. And as much as I struggle here some days, I’m still incredibly happy that I came. I’m excited to see what kind of person I’ll have become by the time I get back.

Another List

I’m having trouble keeping up with blogging when I feel compelled to tell some type of linear narrative. Too much happens here every day for that approach to work well. Yesterday I was Skyping with a friend from home, and he asked me about any random, weird, quintessentially Russian experiences I’ve had. I couldn’t remember them at the time, so I started a list and have been adding to it all day. So this post will be that list.

Here are some things about Russia that I find funny/cute/abnormal/worth mentioning:

  • My first full day here, I went to a 7-Eleven type grocery store and saw a guy walking around the aisles with his pet ferret chilling in his hood. This was not the last time I saw such a thing.
  • The other day I was walking home from the metro and I passed by a drugstore that was inexplicably blaring WHOOMP, THERE IS IT on a loop. And I don’t mean the whole song. I just mean the part where they go, “WHOOMP, THERE IT IS.” On a loop. In a drugstore.
  • Speaking of which, living in Russia is kind of like living in America about 15 years ago. We frequently hear 80s power ballads in cafes. Also lots of American music in da clubs. I’ve heard “Empire State of Mind” (a song about New York) probably 6 times. Other fun American music we’ve heard: Metallica, Rage Against the Machine, Chumbawamba (twice), Weezer.
  • People on public transportation will straight up push you over if you’re in their way. There is pretty much no such thing as politeness on buses. Unless you drop your hat/gloves, which people react to like it’s a national crisis. Typical Russian oscillation between absurd coldness and insensitivity/really friendly and caring gestures.
  • Here is a fun combination specific to Russian homestays: always being late for things because you’re relying on someone else (who doesn’t know all of your plans all of the time) to make you food + having to end every single meal with tea (I’ve tried to pass it up before…my host moms are very insistent on this. It’s really just easier to drink it) = scalding your mouth almost every single day as you try to chug a cup of boiling tea so as to catch your bus and make it to school on time.
  • My host moms are great, though. They’re generally ridiculous. Ex: today they told me they would be home around 7:00 but didn’t get back until about 8:30. They came bursting into my room, asking if I was dying of hunger. Then once we were eating dinner, they scolded me for not making a snack for myself while I was gone. When I told them that I had eaten a kiwi before they got home, they switched right over to sarcastic mode and told me “Oh wow, great job, you’re so brilliant,” etc.
  • General miscommunication/looking like an idiot is an every day thing for me. I realized that for the first 2 weeks I was living here, I was mixing up the words slovo (“word”) and slovar’ (“dictionary”), and was thus frequently saying sentences like “I don’t know the dictionary *some English word*” For some reason no one ever corrected me.
  • Since earlier I promised some freaking out about Russian language, here’s a grammatical fun fact: without going into details about verbal aspect (which probably no one cares about), I’ll just say that almost all verbs in Russian actually come in verb pairs, and pairs of verbs have very close meanings. In Russian, when you’re giving advice, the choice between which verb in the pair you want makes the difference between giving honest, sincere advice and shirking responsibility. So even if you would translate the advice exactly the same in English, using one verb out of the pair means that if your friend follows your advice and it doesn’t work out, it’s not really your fault.
  • A while ago, my friends and I went out to Primorskaya, which is at the end of one of the islands farther from the center of the city, to try to see the Northern Lights (we live in a giant city; it didn’t work). Primorskaya is kind of a sketchy area of SPB, but it definitely has its own weird charm. We went out onto a frozen part of the Bay of Finland, which surrounds the island, and saw a pack of stray dogs roaming around. Also, apparently when this part of the Bay is frozen over, Russians drive their cars out onto it and just go in circles really fast, mostly because it’s dangerous I think.
  • Finally, my favorite fact really belongs to my friend Gabriel. His host family told him that before their current cat, they used to own a cat named Panasonic.

These are all reasons why I love being in Russia. Things are never boring.

Also, I feel like I should include pictures in every post. Here’s another picture of the Winter Palace/Hermitage:

And here’s the Alexander Column, in the middle of Palace Square:

I have a list…

…of things I need to blog about, and it keeps getting longer. I have no idea how to organize it, so maybe I’ll just hit some of the points now and save the rest for later. In case I left you all on the edge of your seats because of the EXTREME CLIFFHANGER from my last post (why could Russian teenagers possibly be dressed up as eggs???), I’ll start there.

Last weekend, we went to a carnival/fair type thing to celebrate the end of Maslenitsa, which is essentially Russian Mardi Gras. Much like with Mardi Gras, you party for a week before you have to give things up for Russian Orthodox Lent (which has another name that I forget). In Russia, the height of partying it up seems to consist of the following things:

  • Eating a million blini, which are like pancakes but thinner and made with more oil. You can eat blini with varen’ye (sort of like jam but with chunks of fruit in it…way better than American jam in my opinion), sour cream, caviar, or pretty much anything.
  • Burning effigies of Mother Winter. Maslenitsa also marks the beginning of spring (you can tell because it’s now warm enough here to snow. I’m not even kidding; in the winter it actually gets too cold to snow). Here is a picture of our effigy, Sonya:

  • Dressing up as ostriches and playing soccer. I have no explanation for this, so here’s a picture:

Yes, the goalie is indeed an egg. Sharing this experience is my new favorite way to explain to Americans that nothing in Russia makes any sense. You just go with it.

BUT I shouldn’t be so quick to perpetuate the stereotype of Russian apathy, because on my way home from this Maslenitsa celebration I came across a political demonstration. It was called “Petersburg for Honest Elections,” and it was pretty amazing to see people rallying for actual democracy and change in Russia. The participants were all supporters of different candidates for President, but they were all opponents of Putin. Here are some highlights:

As an American student abroad, I’m technically not supposed to be hanging around demonstrations like these. So if anyone asks, I wasn’t there.

This is a pretty big moment for Russia politically. Presidential elections are on Sunday, and Putin is running for his 3rd term (if you consider Medvedev to be essentially his puppet, as many people do, it’s kind of like his 4th term). A lot of Russians, with characteristic Russian pessimism, assume that Putin will win through fixing the elections, corruption, etc. Some Russians genuinely support Putin and think that Russia needs a single powerful leader. But a lot of Russians, especially young ones, are tired of the illusion of democracy that has existed in Russia until now and are clamoring for the real thing. So this election has the potential to set a really huge precedent for the country.

Returning to the theme of just “going with it,” I also wanted to share my experience of being a self-proclaimed feminist in Russia. Short version: it’s really frustrating. Although many Russians are very progressive w/r/t certain political issues, w/r/t gender Russia is still extremely conservative. Women here work and everything, but sexism is pervasive in Russian culture and in Russian language (as is the case with most gendered languages, I think). In many of my classes, the goal is to give us a chance to practice our Russian. To give us something to talk about, our teachers often prompt us with controversial questions so that we’ll have opinions and want to say something. Recently in my conversation class, we’ve been talking about gender roles within families. Although I respect my teachers a lot and think they’re really smart, it’s frustrating to hear them say things like “it’s weird for women to make more money than their husbands,” and “all men need to know how to fight, but women don’t because they can just run away.” Having to defend my position in these conversations is even more frustrating because I’m supposed to be doing it in Russian. Usually I just end up saying нет really vehemently, and then I leave the class pretty angry.

Things like that have been a pretty big part of my culture shock in Russia. I’m used to the Kenyon bubble, where most of the people I hang out with are extremely gender-conscious. Since I’m not here permanently, it’s easier to shrug this stuff off after a while and assume that Russians will progress in that area like they’re progressing in others. However, I am pretty worried about the future of Russian gender politics when a few days ago the legislature in St. Petersburg passed a law essentially equating homosexuality with pedophilia:

Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox. So as not to end this post on such a down note, here’s a picture of some Russian babies on a spinny thing from the Maslenitsa carnival. Russian kids are the cutest because they’re always really bundled up.

For next time: my experience teaching English to Russian university students, my trip to the world-famous Mariinsky Theater, probably some hilarious madcap adventures in miscommunication with my host moms.

Picking up where I left off…

I guess I haven’t really mentioned my classes yet. First of all, I study here:

…or at least sort of. This is Smolny Cathedral. I study in the building right behind here. This whole complex, built 1748-1764, was meant to be a convent to house Peter the Great’s daughter, Elizabeth. It was never actually used as a convent because Elizabeth died, but the buildings were used as a school for girls from noble families.

Anyway, it’s still breathtaking to come here every day to study. My schedule is pretty intense; I’m taking 7 classes that all meet once or twice a week for 90 mins each. Most days I’m in class from 10:00-3:30ish, but some days are shorter or longer. 4 of my classes are Russian language specifically (grammar, vocabulary, phonetics, conversation), 2 are electives that I chose (one on on the culture of St. Petersburg and a comparative political science class about the US and Russia), and 1 elective that we all have to take called СМИ (or Smi, the Russian acronym that basically means mass media). All of the classes are taught in Russian. The homework load is much lighter than I’m used to at Kenyon, which usually makes up for the fact that I’m in class for so long.

Other things I’ve done that I’ll have to summarize really quickly because there are too many of them:

-We went to the Hermitage our first week here. For those who don’t know, the Hermitage is the second-largest art museum in the world (after the Louvre). It’s housed in various buildings of Peter the Great’s Winter Palace right on the banks of the Neva River. This is what the entrance hall looks like, to give you an idea:

-The weekend after that we went to Pavlovsk, the former summer residence of Paul I, son of Catherine the Great. It was nice to get out of the city and see some of the countryside. There was a museum inside the Palace and sledding on the grounds, etc. Here is an awkward shot of the Palace:

-Last weekend we went to Novgorod, an ancient imperial capital of Russia built around the 9th century. We saw lots of really old churches and buildings, and went to an open air museum where everything was made out of wood/birchbark (buildings, furniture, hats, shoes…they were even selling some porn made out of birchbark at one of the souvenir stands, I kid you not). Anyway, here is a picture from inside the Yuriev Monastery, built in the 12th century:

And here are some more churches we saw:

Okay, that’s about all the blogging I can handle for now. Still to come: Russian teenagers dressed as eggs, political rallies, things on fire, and definitely more pictures.

A Very Belated First Post

Hello, everyone who is interested in my life in Russia!

I regret not getting this blog started sooner, because now I have 3 weeks’ worth of experiences to share and I don’t know quite where to start. Living in Russia is really not what I expected, and sometimes I still have to remind myself where I am. But I love how beautiful and gloomy the city is, and I love being immersed in this culture. I love the little weird things that throw me off and remind me that I’m not just sitting at home in America (example: today I came home to a tomato in my toilet. I’m really not sure what it was doing there. Russians don’t like throwing things away, so my guess is my host moms tried to flush it for some reason. More on them later) . I love taking all of my classes in Russian and I love the friends I’ve made on the program so far. Most of all, I love how everything is new, how interesting things are happening all around me and I’m always tired and never bored.

So I guess I’ll start at the beginning. I got to Russia on Feb 1 after about 16 hours total travel time (including an 8 hour flight to Frankfurt). I stayed in a hotel for 2 days and had orientation with the other students on my program. On the 3rd, I moved in with my host family. Living with them is one of my favorite parts of the program. They are two 80-year-old vegetarian babushki named Inna and Zoara. Both are survivors of the Leningrad Blockade of WWII. At first, communicating with them was really hard because they speak practically no English. But after getting over the initial frustration, I now really enjoy talking to them in Russian over meals. They’ve both had fascinating lives. And although they tend to get mad at me for random things (i.e. washing my hair every day…they think it will make it fall out and, as they told me, I need to grow my hair long so that boys will like me), they are both really sweet and warm people. They cook really well and definitely overfeed me. And one of them calls me солнышко, a sort of pet name that literally translates to “little sun.”

In addition to getting along with my family really well, I’m also amazingly lucky w/r/t my location. We all got placed fairly close to the center of the city, but I am RIGHT in the middle, on the bank of the Fontanka Canal about a block away from Nevskii Prospekt, the main street of the historic downtown area. I’m also right next to Anichkov Most, a really famous bridge (check it: I can walk almost everywhere on weekends, I’m near a ton of metro stations, and my commute to school is only about 30-40 mins. Plus all the buildings near me are beautiful and old, and I get to see the frozen canal right in front of me when I walk out of my building every morning.

I don’t want this post to get too long, so I think I’ll save the rest for another time. Still to come: descriptions of my classes, cultural experiences, museum visits etc., weird Russian peculiarities, probably some geeking out about Russian language. Also PICTURES! Here is a teaser…me in front of the Church on Spilled Blood: