The Start of Our Journey

20/12/14

This initially was written as a continuation of the last blog post, but it became too long.

The next morning I got up at 7:30, showered, ate breakfast and finished packing everything I could not pack the night before. I left my house at 9:00 (my host-parents did not bother to get up to say goodbye, but I left them a box of chocolates and a note) and went to the airport using public transportation. My flight was not until 12:30, but 12:30 is the middle of the day on a Saturday so I did not know how airport traffic would be. I arrived at the airport around 10:30, just in time for check-in to start so I didn’t have to wait around with my luggage. After making it through security, all there was left to do was wait. As I sat and waited in the Pulkovo Airport I worried about my connecting flight. Perhaps I had booked the two flights too close together.

My first flight left ten minutes late and arrived in the Sheremyetevo Airport at 1:40 p.m. and my next flight (I thought) was at 2:30. This left me 50 minutes to make it through the airport, including passport control and security again, from a domestic terminal to an international terminal. Those 50 minutes included the time I would have to wait to leave the plane, which would be at least ten minutes from my position closer to the back then the front. I was able to skip over a few of the rows of seats I would have had to wait behind because while other people were still pulling their coats on, I already had my luggage out of the overhead compartments and was headed down the aisle. As soon as I had enough space to walk, I was literally running through the airport following the signs that told me where to make an international connection.

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(I didn’t take many pictures because we were traveling all day, but I liked these clouds with the sun shining on them).

When I arrived at passport control I was out of breath, but there seemed to be no line so I was able to walk up to one of the desks almost immediately. However, when I got there, the man at the desk seemed to take forever with my passport as though he was confused by some information he was receiving from it. It wasn’t until after I was through passport control that I realized a small line was forming at the security check point. Even though I had already been through security in St. Petersburg, I had to do it again in Moscow because of the rules of domestic and international flights. I remember standing behind a man, being that annoying person who is literally tapping their foot and huffing with impatience often enough to make anyone want to tell you to stop. I made it through security without much problem. I am accustomed to flying enough that I rarely make mistakes going through security, although it is hard to keep track of which countries want your shoes off or on or want you to take your laptop out, but other than that I think that airport security is generally straightforward with similar requirements. (There was one male in my study abroad program this last semester who, as we were preparing for travel week and flight information was being provided for us, said he was usually stopped at the airport for his contact solution because his containers were too big. To this, Liz promptly replied that many of us wear contacts and don’t have a problem, you just have to put it in your checked bag, or use travel sized containers. The stupidity of some people when it comes to these things astounds me sometimes. Airport security is not that hard, even if it is a little bit confusing and intimidating at times).

After I made it through security, I was running again. When I booked the flight, I did not remember booking something with such a short layover. After I found my gate I was dismayed because I thought they had already boarded the flight and closed the gate. It was about 2:05 p.m. when I got there, 5 minutes before the time I thought the gates were supposed to close and I didn’t understand why they had closed early. I spent another few minutes wandering around the terminal in a state of worry and consumed with frustration, looking for an Aeroflot representative who could help me.  They don’t have the information desks in Russia like they do in airport terminals in the United States where you can get in line and ask for help if you need it. Instead I had to find another gate that was going to have an Aeroflot flight. I finally did and told a lady about my problem, explaining in rushed, and probably awful, Russian that the gate had already closed and that I had been on time to my flight, not even knowing if she could help me. At first she told me that my gate was 21, which I told her I knew and explained again that the gate was closed. She looked at my boarding pass again and told me that the 2:30 was the boarding time and not the departure time and the plane had not even started boarding yet. I guess it is better to run through the airport thinking you will be late and be on time then it is to actually be late.

I sat down for a bit and waited and bought (accidently) carbonated water, which is very popular in Russia, because I was so thirsty after running through the airport. As boarding time drew closer, I stood up to move towards the gate and ran into my friend Kenzy, who I would be traveling with. From this leg of the journey we would be together for the rest of the way. We exchanged our stories of our days traveling so far, where I ran through the airport while Kenzy sat in TGI Friday’s and had a sundae (because one of our friends had been talking to her about it before that and it sounded good) while surrounded by ALL of the other Americans in the terminal, also sitting in TGI Friday’s enjoying their lunch.

The plane ride was like any other plane ride with as many comforts and discomforts as one can handle. I think that Aeroflot gives its passengers a bit more space than other airlines and one plus is that they ALWAYS give you food, even if the flight is only an hour long, where as I have flown other airlines like SAS and not eaten all day because they only give you tea and coffee for free. One of the reasons that Aeroflot gives you space and food is because they have a terrible reputation for being an unsafe and generally not very good airline. They have been working for a while (I am not sure how long) to change their reputation, but that takes time and effort, so they have just been trying to make their airline that much better than other airlines. On our 3.5 hour long flight we were offered a full dinner with wine or juice, as well as tea or coffee to drink after if we desired.

During this flight, the girl sitting next to me decided it would be a good idea to paint her nails. I don’t know why she decided to do this in such close quarters, but that coupled with the young boy kicking the back of my seat made for an unpleasant flight. Coupled with these discomforts was the constant worry that because my connection would have been tight if I hadn’t bothered to run from one terminal to another, I wondered if my luggage would make it on my next flight.

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(The sun setting over the wing of the plane was beautiful)

Kenzy and I were on the same flight, but we were not sitting in the same part of the plane, so when it came time to get off, I was swept along by the rest of the crowd while she was at the back still waiting to get out. As I made my way up to the passport control counter in Germany, the officer asked me if I was traveling alone, so of course I mentioned Kenzy. Then I was asked why we weren’t together, because apparently this was bad, and I tried to explain the situation where we had been sitting in different parts of the plane. Kenzy told me later that she was stuck behind a Russian babushka, who, despite the unidirectional flow of people, asked directions to the luggage pick-up area and was disappointed that she had to go through passport control before getting her luggage. The officer then proceeded to ask why I was acting nervous, which was only because I was hot wearing a full jacket in an airport and worrying about my luggage.

When I did finally make it to the baggage claim area, I found that my bag had indeed not arrived. I waited around for a small amount of time to see if Kenzy would come out, but I thought it would be more efficient if I went ahead and declared my lost bag. When I was finished giving the information needed, I went out and found Kenzy.

From the airport we made our way from one bus to a train station to another bus station. We had flown into Frankfurt because it was less expensive, but that meant we needed to take a bus to Nuremberg. When we arrived at the bus station, we found that the bus was delayed 40 minutes, so we went back into the train station to eat dinner.

We had not been looking around for very long when we found a place that sold burritos. Okay, so they weren’t Mexican burritos, but we had not had burritos since we had been in the United States.

When we went out to the bus stop around the new departure time, it took us a bit of confusion, but we finally found the bus and it actually left exactly 40 minutes late.

We arrived in Nuremberg rather late and had to make our way from the random location the bus dropped us off to where our hostel was located. It was an adventure and a task to complete this in a country where we did not speak the language. The metro was decorated in orange tiles and because the maps were the only empty parts of the walls, many of the homeless people chose these as optimal sitting locations. This meant that we had to find a map with no homeless people below it that we could contemplate until we figured out what to do. The trip from the bus station to the hostel took us probably around an hour since we had trouble figuring out the maps. We ended up in a poorly lit area, wandering down the street we knew the hostel was on. The hostel was called Hotel Moldova, although it was definitely not a hotel.

Kenzy knows a few more words in German than I do, however many people in Germany know at least a little bit of English which is how we had managed to get by up until this point. When we went to check in, we first tried English and then German, but our little bit of German was not enough at this point. Clued in by the name, Hotel Moldova, a Russian flag on the outside of the building and directions in Russian, Kenzy thought to ask if the man at the desk spoke Russian. He did, so we were able to communicate with more ease, although it was odd that we encountered the need to use Russian on our first night in Germany.

We went up to our room and I was introduced to Ali for the first time. She had studied German when she was little and after we told her our experience with the man speaking Russian, Ali commented that she hadn’t thought her German was as rusty as they had made it seem.

Ali’s bag was also lost in transit, so the only complete bag we had was Kenzy’s. Both Ali’s and my bag were supposed to arrive the next day, but I had not been told when the next day mine was supposed to arrive, which was a problem since we were going to another hostel the following night. It also was also problematic because I could not shower or change clothes and I did not have my toothbrush packed with me.

The room was small. Three beds were crammed into it with the sheets, blankets and pillows already in place. Hostels that make the beds for you make me uncomfortable because usually the linens are placed in a clean stack on top of each bed for the users to order themselves. There was a sign on the door that the hostel had become non-smoking earlier that year, but we could still smell stale smoke on the sheets covered up by washing with scented fabric softener or something and perhaps sprayed with another agent to help mask the scent. In one corner was a small television with a DVD player attached. The hostel had no wireless internet and we did not try to turn on the television to see what else it didn’t have to offer. Although I did not particularly like this hostel, we had all made it to the same location with a place to sleep and I could say, with a little bit of adventure, that the trip was officially starting.

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The End of the Semester

19/12/14

Today is actually the 24th that I am writing this. I figure I am already four days into my winter break trip, and the days are flying by so I need to start writing my blog before I fall behind. I know, I know, it’s Christmas Eve, but what better present to give you, than to share my adventures with you because I cannot give you anything else at this point.

I am going to start from the beginning, back when I was still in St. Petersburg.

The night of the 19th, some good friends, who I had met over this last semester, and I went out for a rather fancy goodbye meal at a restaurant called “Gogol,” named after the famous Ukrainian writer. The whole restaurant was set up in the theme of a flat from the 19th century, with each room having a different theme. Pieces from his stories were also pulled into the restaurant as added decoration. The menu was even in the form of a book and although we used the English version where the translation did not hold the same charm, the waitress explained that often customers would keep the menu during the meal just to read it from cover to cover. We ate in the dining room I think, but there was also a library as well as some other rooms. The meal included a variety of dishes, differing slightly for every person. We started with drinks, splitting a large bottle of water (because you have to pay for water in Russia) and ordering some of their homemade, flavored vodka to try. The two flavors of vodka we tried were something like raspberry and buckthorn. I don’t remember completely now because it was five days ago and so much has happened since then. I definitely liked the raspberry one better, but most people preferred the buckthorn. For our first course, many of us ordered salads. It was actual dark green leaves, sort of like a spring mix (hard to come by in Russia for a salad from my experience), with some sort of cheese, tomato and a smoked meet of some sort that they said they smoked in the kitchen of the restaurant. The meat on the salad was something new, but it was actually very good and very worth it. Other first courses that were ordered included borscht and pelmeni. For the main course most of the people in attendance decided on a dish called Chicken Kiev, which I, not being a very fond of chicken, had never tried. I had the opportunity to try a bite from one of my friend’s plates and I can see where other people might enjoy it, but it is definitely not a dish I will order for myself. Another one of my friends ordered Beef Stroganoff, which I also got to try. It was actually pretty good and, of course, dill was used in the dish. Personally, I ordered venison with apples and some sort of sauce (I don’t recall what it was) that was very good and purple. My meal was delicious, although not everyone enjoyed their meals as much. I was too full for dessert so I did not order anything, but among my friends such dishes as chocolate cake with sorbet, strawberry soup and another kind of sorbet from something none of us had ever tried.

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(The salad)

I mentioned dill was in the beef stroganoff, accompanied by the phrase “of course.” It is common knowledge, at least from my point of view, that foreigners, who spend enough time in Russia, realize that Russian’s put dill on everything. For example, one of our program directors, Liz, told us a story about when she made a grilled cheese sandwich and let some of her Russian friends try it. It had been after a long time of just having Russian food and she finally made a grilled cheese sandwich and was so excited to have something familiar and share it with her Russian friends. They tried it and agreed that it was good, but said, “Liz, this is good, but you know what would make it so much better? Dill!” Her reaction was of course immediate disappointment and sadness that her friends would want to taint something like a grilled cheese sandwich with dill.

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(My venison)

Back to my story on Friday night. I over think things and get anxious about what needs to be done sometimes and I had not packed for the impending journey that started the next day, so as the meal went on and it got later, I enjoyed every bit of it, but I started feeling the need to get home. I did not want to rush my friends, but I knew I needed to leave so that I could pack and have some peace of mind before I left my current home (in St. Petersburg) for another adventure. The bill came out to 10,000 rubles for 7 people, which was maybe $170 at the time. Definitely a bit above the price range I would normally pay for a meal.

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(Pretty lights on my way home)

That night while all of my friends spent their last night out enjoying each other’s company, I stayed in and packed. I wasn’t concerned about saying goodbye to my host-parents because I know I will be staying with them again come spring semester. They had company over on my last night in St. Petersburg for that semester anyway, so obviously they weren’t concerned. However, once they found out that I had finished finals (5 finals in 2 days), which I had actually finished the day before, my host mom quickly went and got something. It turned out to be a small bag of socks and underwear, which she presented to me in front of her guests. I did not quite understand, but she said it was some sort of tradition to give these gifts when someone finishes finals. I have tried to look it up online with no luck, so maybe it is a joke? When I have better internet I will message my host-mom in Kazan’ since she speaks English too, to ask her if she knows, although she is Tatar, so we will see.

Now It’s a Memory

08/11/14

I am entering finals week, but have been pretty much swamped since I returned from travel week. Despite my intentions to keep up with my blog, I obviously have not managed, but I will keep trying to post something interesting every now and then. In the meantime, I had started writing about the Sturday we left to return to St. Petersburg, so let me see if I can finish it in any sort of interesting manner.

Our last day of vacation was Saturday because we wanted to have a day back in St. Petersburg to recuperate. Since we hadn’t gone to Suzdal’ the day before, we decided to go that day, even though it was risky because our train left at 6:50 p.m. We woke up earlier than usual to try to give ourselves more time in Suzdal’ since it would take an hour to get there and an hour to get back on the bus.

Even after making sure we woke up earlier than usual, we didn’t make it to the bus station until about 10:45 a.m. which allowed us time to buy our tickets for the 11 o’clock bus since the busses left every half hour.

We arrived in Suzdal’ a little before 12 p.m. and had the option of paying a few extra rubles to the bus driver to be driven into the city center, which we decided to do. The first thing I remember as we started from the bus station to the center of the city, was a small field that seemed to take forever to pass in the bus, which made it seem longer than it actually was. Directly after the field we started passing a residential area that seemed very colorful. The one house that stuck in my mind was lavender. I don’t remember details; I just remember the color because it seemed so odd at the time.

Suzdal’ is a small, but very touristy city. In the main part of the city, there is a row of tables set up under small canopies (to keep the rain out since this was obviously a rainy time of year) each hosting a variety of souvenirs ranging from your typical magnets and mugs, to more traditionally cultural related pieces such as head scarves or woven shoes that peasants used to wear. A few yards in front of these tables facing in (to create a sort of walkway where you can buy something on both sides) are people selling the most delicious looking honeys and jams as well as fruits and vegetables. I remember being very tempted to buy honey then because it looked so delicious and I love honey, but I didn’t because my host parents feed me so much that when would I have time to eat it when I returned anyway?

I can’t say that there is anything about Suzdal’ that particularly struck me at this point, it was really a place of beauty, fun to enjoy without pushing ourselves to seek out whatever fabulous cultural experience the place had to offer. The cultural experience was in going to Suzdal’, and experiencing what a touristy city in Russia is really like. (I am not counting Moscow and St. Petersburg in the experience of a touristy city because although they are big cities that attract tourists, it is really not their sole purpose.

One place my friend and I went was out behind the row of buildings that seemed to stand in front of us. It was a bit foggy that day as it had been in Vladimir, but behind the buildings was a cliff that looked out over a small valley with a village of beautiful wooden houses by a small stream. On the other side of the cliff was a group of churches rising out of the mist, all with their own style or color of domes.

Eventually we decided it was time to get lunch because we would have too head back to Vladimir to catch our train soon, so we found a café. I ordered a pasta dish with a white cream sauce and seafood in it. Even though the seafood wasn’t bad, the undercooked noodles smothered in such a heavy sauce just did not make the meal appetizing. However, despite my disappointment with the meal, my friend and I decided this was a good place to ask about a specific drink they only make in Suzdal’. Reading online, it looked as though the version of it sold on the street was either not genuine, or maybe not of a good quality. It advised people to ask their tour guide where to buy it, but obviously we did not have one, so we asked the waitress at the café. She proceeded to ask someone else who asked someone else, but finally we got an answer.

Walking around the building we had already been in we went to the back where there was only mud for a path and nothing particularly noticeable. In the back of the building was a room with ladies behind a counter displaying many different types of Medavuha (the drink in question). I wondered at first why there would be a random room in the back of a large building to sell something sought out by tourists. But as my friend and I walked in to the room, there was noise coming from a doorway. To our right was a sort of old-fashioned banquet hall with people dressed up in older styles of clothing thoroughly enjoying themselves, and probably drinking Medavuha.

I bought a bottle for my host parents and Christina and I bought a bottle to share. After that we walked back to the bus station (better enjoying the colorful houses on the way, although I did not find the lavender house, but the field was not as long as I had imagined it to be).

After we arrived back in Vladimir, it was a whirlwind to catch a bus, make it back to the area of the hostel, buy food to eat on the train, go to the hostel, carry all of our stuff back to the bus station, and make it to the train station. Of course after making it to the train station came the ordeal of trying to figure out the electronic tickets again. I feel sorry I rushed poor Christina, but you can’t be late to something like a train. It doesn’t work.

We did get to the train station in enough time, which is good, and we didn’t have to wait around for too long before we boarded.

On the train we both had the top bunks of our compartments, and unfortunately it was very hot again. The only way to cool down enough was to lay down as still as possible in whatever clothing we brought with us that would give us the most room to breathe (a skirt, a baggy shirt, whatever). We shared the compartment with two older women, of course one of the snored horribly. After one of the women left, a Chinese man took her place (they give each new passenger a new set of sheets and pillow cases). He also snored. I think I eventually fell asleep, but it was definitely hard to stay asleep.

09/11/14

We arrived back in St. Petersburg about 11 hours later (at 5:40 a.m.). The public transportation does not start until 6:00, but while waiting for the people before us to get off of the train and then wading through the masses going in and going out, by the time we made it out of the train station, the transportation had started.

When I arrived back at my homestay at around 6:30 or 6:45, my host mom got up to welcome me back and offered me tea. (Which I gladly took because in such a hot train, Christina and I did not have enough water to stay properly hydrated). Then she promptly went back to bed.

That Sunday I don’t know exactly what I did but I definitely tried to study since I hadn’t done much of that over break, despite my intentions. That day of recuperating concluded my trip to the lesser-known cities of Russia.