My first week in St. Petersburg

05/09/14 – 12/09/14

I arrived in the St. Petersburg on Friday the 5th of September, but it didn’t feel like I was actually here until that following Sunday night. Friday night through Sunday afternoon were spent in a hotel that made us all feel like we were in the United States. There was no delving into the culture or language there, but the program coordinators used this opportunity, while we were all together, for hours of orientation before we met our host families. I don’t remember much of the orientation because it is the third orientation I have attended to get ready for Russia. The orientations have included a lot of the same information, but even though I know it is annoying for me to go through this information over and over again, each city is different, and every orientation will make someone make a better choice as they spend their semester in a Russian city. That person it helps could even be me.

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(Another picture of fireworks from the first night in the hotel)

I remember a few specific pieces of my orientation while staying at the hotel, such as stories of unfortunate situations experienced by past program participants, and the three hour city bus-tour we took on that first Saturday. Being at this orientation was like being freshmen in college again. Everyone was awkwardly meeting as many people as we could so that we would know at least a few familiar faces when the program started. I was lucky because my roommate and I got along right away, but of course, neither of us wanted to know only one other person when the program started, so we spent our time in uncomfortable introductions and awkward conversations just like everyone else.

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(One of the buildings we were shown on the bus tour, I don’t know if they said what the significance of this church was on that tour, but we learned more about it in a later week)

The bus-tour was rather unpleasant for me. I seem often to have trouble with the people I end up sitting next to. In this case I had been standing with my roommate inside the hotel lobby waiting for the bus, but my roommate ran back upstairs to our room to get a coat. I didn’t wait for her when we were called out to the bus, and initially I was sitting alone with some people I sort of knew sitting around me. Much to my displeasure, a guy walked up to where I was seated, said hello to the people around me, asked if he could sit in the seat next to me, and sat down. That part was normal, and expected, it was a new program and everyone was looking for a familiar face to sit near. I like to at least try to be friendly so I went through all the typical questions of where he was from, what school he goes to, if he was studying language or culture (through the program I am doing, there are Russian Language Studies and Russian Area Studies students), and so on. He answered just fine, and it seemed as though our chatter could launch into a more interesting conversation, but I was sadly mistaken. He didn’t even have the manners to return the favor of asking these questions, he just quit talking. Even feigned interest would have been better than what I received. As I continued to sit next to him for an hour until we stopped to take pictures, I grew more and more uncomfortable. He sat the way some guys will, with his knees at an outward angle spreading over more space than they should, and his elbows at his sides, spilling over onto my seat, instead of being kept in his own space. As I scooted closer and closer to the window so that I could have some personal space (yes I know I’m in Russia and they don’t have the same investment in personal space that Americans do, but he is American and could have afforded me that luxury for the last few days I would be able to enjoy it), he spread himself out even further.

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(During the first photo break. The sun was too bright to capture any good images, so this is one of the few pictures I took during that break)

When we exited the bus for a photo break, instead of spending the time taking pictures, I spent the time asking my new friends if they had any open seat near them. The program has about 70 people, and we were all on one bus, so I wasn’t very optimistic. I was lucky, and found there was one open seat on the bus which was also next to a guy (who was larger than the last), but at least this time I had an aisle seat to give myself personal space if I felt the need to. I sat next to him for the rest of the bus tour, and it was a better location than I had originally been in, but it still wasn’t great. At one point he started talking to me about how he already bought a bottle of vodka the night before (our first night in the city) and had met some people who gave him really disgusting sounding food to try. I am supportive of anyone trying new food, but I draw the line in a practical area of what actually has the potential to be appetizing. He had mentioned that the food looked and smelled bad in the first place, but that he decided to try it anyway. He proceeded to tell me that I was lame and boring because I had failed to already get drunk the first night we were there. If someone wants to waste their time in Russia and do that, that’s their own personal choice, but that’s not what I am here to do. I remember deciding after that conversation that although a male figure out on the streets of St. Petersburg could be safer, especially at night; his company was not one I wanted to keep. After learning how reckless of a person he seemed to be (based off of this conversation and other stories he decided I needed to know) I decided he would probably make a situation more dangerous, rather than making it safer.

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(The Church of Spilled Blood – only one of it’s names, I don’t remember the other name. Another church we were shown during this first bus tour)

It is disappointing to me that I spent so much time on this first bus tour letting myself be bothered by the people I was sitting next to, and not enjoying the city, but at least I am here for a while and I will have time to see what I have already been shown. I remember seeing a lot of different buildings from the bus, but they drove us around in circles and seemingly random directions so that afterward I had no idea where anything was.

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On that Saturday evening, after dinner, we were supposed to receive our simcards for Russian phone plans. Some people had phones they had unlocked and wanted to see the simcard would work, but the rest of the people were being taken to a store to buy the cheapest phone they could find to use while they are here. I used one of these phones while I was in Kazan’ because they were provided by my program, but I know I will be in Russia for a while, and anything I can avoid buying, I will. So, I brought a phone from home. They phone hadn’t been unlocked yet, but, since I couldn’t call internationally and didn’t have internet at my homestay, my mother had contacted the phone company while I was in Kazan’ with phone information and they had given me information to unlock it once I had a foreign simcard. Apparently with iPhones, one unlocks the phone before putting the simcard in, but that wasn’t the case with this phone. I bring this up because I remember someone standing near me, arguing with me that I was supposed to have the phone unlocked before putting the simcard in, and that I became very frustrated repeating that it wasn’t an iPhone and why was he arguing with me if I had instructions from the phone company about how to unlock it. As I have continued in the program, I have found that this is how his personality is. He has to be right, or if it’s not a conversation to be right or wrong in, he has to insert his opinion wherever he can.

The simcards we were given are attached to very basic plans. In most countries, there are no phone contracts binding the purchaser to a company for a couple of years. Here, they have machines that look like ATM machines. After we received a simcard, we had to go to these machines to put money on our phones. It costs 300 rubles to activate the card, which is about 10 dollars, and then that money is used to pay for texts and calls. When the phone runs out of money, more can be added when it is needed, but there are no monthly payments. Since there were 70 of us who all had to activate our phone plans, the machine in the hotel ran out if money. The program coordinators assured us that there was a machine at the institute, but when we got there on Monday, of course it was broken.

On Sunday, before we met our host families, we had one more session of orientation. The orientation didn’t seem like it had quite ended, but  it appeared as though some of the host families had arrive early because they were excited to meet us.

When I went to Kazan’ over the summer, we only had an online orientation. As soon as I left the airport, I was driven to the residence where I was to stay. In this way, after hours of traveling from the other side of the world, I had no time or energy to build up nerves when I went to meet my family. I was dragged through a dinner in a state of travel exhaustion (I don’t know why traveling makes me tired, all there is to do is rest. Perhaps it is the stress that accompanies it), and I vaguely remembered being very uncomfortable speaking Russian but trying to struggle through a few sentences anyway.
I am telling about my experience meeting my host family in Kazan’ as a contrast to meeting my family in St. Petersburg. Since we had a weekend in a hotel before we met our host families, we had the opportunity to adjust to the time (although, since I was in Lithuania before I went there, I was only an hour behind) and to start anticipating the meeting of our host families. I remember as the program coordinators were walking around with the papers of the families that had already arrived, I felt my heart start beating faster as I waited to be handed a paper that told me my host family was waiting for me. We hadn’t even been allowed to know the names of our host families until we arrived in St. Petersburg that Friday, so it was very soon after learning their names that we had to meet them.

In the car on the way to where my host parents live, my new host-mother seemed to call everyone she knew and tell them that I had arrived. She probably didn’t call very many people, but having just met her it seemed like a lot to me.

I wrote in a previous post about the amount of luggage I have been carrying around (thankfully it now will sit in one place for a few months). When we arrived at the apartment building where my host parents live, I of course was not allowed to carry either of my suitcases upstairs. I am very thankful for the help when I get it, especially when I have been traveling for a while, but this is my luggage to carry around, and it is sort of awkward when other people insist on helping. I am the one who brought this much stuff (although I had to since I didn’t go home in between the summer and fall programs). The part that makes it even more uncomfortable for me is that while I have been abroad, the top handle on one of my suitcases broke, so I always pick it up from the side handle whenever it needs to be lifted, but other people obviously don’t know to do this.

The first night I was there, they had a huge dinner set out on the table. All of the typical dishes that appear at a Russian meal were included, such as salad, soup and bread, but the table was full of food. There was barely room to set the dishes that we would actually eat from. Of course this was a welcome dinner, and I knew I wouldn’t be eating dinners like this every night, but it was nice of them to start with that. My host mom served me champagne (I had the choice of champagne, wine and vodka, and I had class the next morning), I chose champagne.

In the United States it is typical to toast maybe only once or twice while sitting at the table with people. Otherwise it is common to just slowly sip a glass of wine independently from what other people are doing.  In Russia, it is very strange for anyone to drink alcohol alone, especially a female. We were told that when people drink with their friends, the reason is always to be social. It is common to cheer before every drink taken from a glass. Russian toasts are also different. In the United States it is common for people to clink their glasses and say something like, “cheers,” or, “to friendship,” but in Russia this won’t work. Toasts can be as long or short as they want to be, but they are often more meaningful than the short statements said in the United States.

These are how the toasts went the first night there. At first I didn’t have another drink to drink with my food, so I had to wait every time until my host mom decided it was time for another toast to take a sip of my champagne. Thankfully they eventually offered me another drink, which I didn’t hesitate to accept. Russian women, especially mothers, like to be good hostesses and make sure people are well fed. By the end of the dinner I had no interest even in drinking a cup of tea. I almost never refuse tea, but in this instance I decided it was better to wait until the next day to drink tea.

The next morning, after breakfast, my host dad took me to my institute. There is one trolleybus that runs directly from where I am staying to near enough to where the institute is located, for me to walk. There are others that run close enough to walk if I want to walk for 40 minutes, which I wouldn’t mind, but as it is, it takes me an hour to get to the institute by trolleybus on a good day. I have to get up at 7:30 in the morning to make it to my 10:00 classes on time. I am a morning person, so I don’t mind getting up early, but since I live in an apartment with thin walls, and the bathroom and shower room are located down the hall, I can’t really get up earlier than 7:30 because I don’t want to wake my host parents up.

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(Some friends and I stopped by a park on one of the first days because we wanted to see it while it was still green)

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(Another picture from the park)

As I have continued to use this trolleybus and other forms of transportation in St. Petersburg, I have found that this trolleybus, unfortunately, runs on a very irregular schedule. I have waited for it for 40 minutes sometimes (after class, I wouldn’t have time to wait this long in the morning). In the morning, I leave my apartment around 8:30 so that I have time to wait, but if the trolleybus I want still doesn’t come, I take the other one that passes through the same bus station because it shows up more frequently, and then have to make a transfer to another trolleybus when I am halfway to the institute. One of the reasons I am willing to wait so long for this one trolleybus is because public transportation in Russia does not work the same as it does where I live. Every time I make a transfer (for example, from one bus to another, or from the metro to a bus) I have to pay separately for each new leg of the journey, and even though one ride on a bus does not cost much, riding public transportation every day at least twice a day quickly adds up.

On the first day at the institute, I don’t think we actually had any classes. We had a meeting, although, the meeting was not very important and the only purpose it served was as an introduction to the institute and to introduce some of the people who work with CIEE who we had not met before. After the meeting, we were all ushered into various rooms to take our placement tests. I remember sitting there, trying to at least make an educated guess concerning the questions I didn’t know, and the people taking the test around me, talking. I was too distracted, so for a while I just sat there with my test open, waiting for people to finish so they would leave. This of course meant that it took me longer to finish my test, but I never like to rush through tests, if I read each question carefully, I am less likely to make unnecessary mistakes.

That first morning before I left for the institute, my host parents wrote down which metro line I should use, what stop the apartment is closest to and which forms of transportation will take me from the metro to the apartment since I live all the way out on the edge of the island and the metro doesn’t actually go there. Of course I forgot about it during the whirlwind of that first day. After the test they rushed us through a short tour of the institute and on to a metro station to buy transportation cards and activate phones for those who had not yet been able to. By the time we finished with all of the necessary activities, we were all very hungry so we went to a Georgian food café. (In Russia, places with food are not called “restaurants” unless they are really fancy and expensive. I have made the mistake of telling my host mom I was at a restaurant with friends, when it would have been considered a café by Russian standards).

I decided to take the metro that day because we were too far from where my bus was for me to walk back to it. I got off at the wrong metro stop of course, and walked around for at least half an hour trying to figure out what my next step was. I had decided to get off at this metro station because google maps told me there was a bus stop not far from there, but I couldn’t seem to find it. Although I was tired and frustrated by getting lost on the first real day in the city, the experience has continued to help me orient myself whenever I venture into this area of the city because the area where I got lost is on a very well-known and popular street. I told my host parents that I had gotten lost because I forgot about the paper they gave me, so my host mom decided she would take the metro with me the next day so I could see how it worked. I was pretty sure I had it figured out by then, but she insisted and I couldn’t refuse.

That night, one of the program coordinators texted us with the groups we had tested into. Even with the group information, we were confused because the levels were named in the opposite order than they would be in the United States, and the program coordinators did not tell us the equivalents of the class levels in terms of universities at home.

Tuesday was our first day of classes, but I only had one class that day because we started language classes the first week and electives were introduced in the second week. The whole first week had a completely irregular schedule, so none of us knew what the full class load would be like until a couple of weeks into the program. I was unpleasantly surprised to find out that my second friend from the bus tour had tested into the same level that I did. On Wednesday we didn’t have class because only electives take place on Wednesdays. As the week progressed and we attended our various language classes, the class of 9 people was able to hear the various levels of effort put into properly pronouncing Russian words. (Those of us in the language program are split up into groups of about 10 people. Within those groups we take Grammar, Conversation and Phonetics classes together, so I rotate to these three classes within that group of 9 students). My friend from the bus probably has the worst pronunciation of Russian I have ever heard. He sounds like he is trying to speak Russian with an American-English accent, so it is very difficult to understand him. I know my pronunciation isn’t perfect, but I do try to put some effort into it, and improve. He doesn’t even try to improve.

The first week was filled with fumbling around in a new city, getting adjusted to one and a half hour long classes, and figuring out who one wants to spend their time with outside of classes. Although I was in Russia over the summer, my experience this first week was still very disorienting. St. Petersburg is a very different city than Kazan’, which means it has the potential to hold vastly different experiences. I am looking forward to these experiences, and I will try my hardest to keep my blog updated as I enter into another busy program.

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2 thoughts on “My first week in St. Petersburg

  1. This is really interesting, about meeting your host family and using public transportation and about your classes. I’m grateful to have such a window into your experiences.

    Like

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