The Day of Expiration

17/05/15

On the 17th my Russian visa, which had been extended the previous semester, expired. After something like this you cannot feel physically different, but the mental realization was kind of shocking. Russia, and specifically St. Petersburg, had been my home for so long and for such a significant time in my life, and I was leaving the city behind without a notion of when I would be able to return. Who knows when I will be back? But I promised everyone that I would return, including myself.

I had a few rubles leftover, so I decided to buy a bottle of good vodka (0.5 liters) to take to my friend who I would see in Barcelona. The first night in Barcelona I stayed in a hostel because my friend had another friend visiting her and could not host two people at once.

I arrived in Barcelona at the airport at about 8 am. As I was going through passport control, I was stopped because they asked my for my return flight information. At that point I did not have any flight beyond Barcelona booked, so I could tell them when I was leaving the European Union, but I could not give them documents confirming what I said. Normally this is not a problem when flying into the EU, but there are certain cities that are more interested in such information. We all know the rules concerning travel, so it really should not be a problem, but after getting to know more about Barcelona I understood why. At passport control they took my passport and made me sit off to the side for about 10 minutes, then someone came to talk to me and give my passport back, but I was immediately let through. They did stamp my passport, but it makes me wonder if they put a flag on my passport or something, although I doubt it. I have never broken the law, so they would have no reason to. I don’t know why they needed it for so long, but at least it was returned to me.

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(Coming in for landing)

After entering the luggage carrousel area of the airport and picking up my checked bag, the first thing I did was try to withdraw money because I needed cash for transportation as well as paying for the hostel upon my arrival. There were two ATMs right next to each other, so I tried one a couple times, then the other and was a little worried that they didn’t work. I decided to go online to try to check my bank account to see if there was a problem, but this was easier said than done. My phone had updated a few weeks before and ever since the update it has trouble connecting to free wifi, which has proved to be very frustrating because I have no data plan abroad and internet is pretty important when trying to find your way around another city, much less another country. (But, of course, people managed this before wifi as well)

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(Not the most beautiful area of the coastline)

Finally I did manage to connect to the internet, only to receive an email warning that there was unusual activity on my card. I realized I had forgotten to tell the bank I was traveling after I completed my program in Russia. I had only warned them I would be abroad until May 17th, and then the plan was for me to go home (the plan that had been created before I left the United States in June). I quickly let the bank know that the attempts to use my card were not due to fraud, and then set a travel alert on my bank account to let them know where else I was planning to travel. After I overcame this headache, I was immediately able to withdraw money and move onto the next headache of trying to find my way to the hostel I would be staying at for the night. I had purposely booked a hostel located about a 15 minute walk from where my friend had told me she lived in Barcelona so that I would not have to struggle to get my bags onto additional transportation to get there.

The directions the hostel gave if one wanted to use public transportation and not pay for a taxi required a person to make two transfers on the transportation. First, from bus to metro, and then from metro to tram. I decided before I started my journey that this was a bit excessive, so I went to ask information how to get to the hostel to see if they had another option. It seemed that they did – a transfer simply from one bus to another.

I went on my way (paying the bus driver with a 20 euro note. In Russia he probably would not have let me ride the bus, but I didn’t have anything smaller because I had just withdrawn money) and found myself at the main plaza (sort of a giant roundabout) where I would make a transfer to the next bus. Unfortunately, it was not as easy as the lady at information had described. The plaza had bus stops on every connecting street, so I went around in a circle from street to street, with all of my luggage, checking the bus stops and trying to figure out the map of transportation to see if my bus would be there. (In addition to walking around with my luggage, I was still wearing the jeans and light jacket I had donned the night before when I was headed to the airport in St. Petersburg, so I was very warm). The bus stop I wanted was not there as far as I could tell. In the end I decided to try the metro. I am used to using the metro in Russia. I know the one in St. Petersburg very well, and I can get around on the one in Moscow too, and after traveling on so many in the winter I thought it wouldn’t be a problem for me to take this one. What I found was a mess. The entrances weren’t clear, so I ended up carrying (not rolling) my luggage through a mess of underground passageways, up and down stairs, that were supposed to be “convenient connections.” I did eventually make it to the right area and found my way to the tram. Getting on the tram was pretty straightforward, but after getting off, I got lost again.

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(At the first plaza)

The directions after getting off the tram seemed pretty straightforward. Normally I think I am pretty capable of getting around alone and reading a map, since I have had to do this multiple times without a GPS, but I have to get lost sometimes, otherwise I won’t learn. At the end of the tram was another roundabout that I ended up walking around, with all of my luggage with me as well. I finally did find the correct street I was looking for and made it to the hostel where I would be staying for the night. I walked in the front door and found, as with many European hostels, the hostel was on the second floor, so I had to walk up the stairs with all of my luggage. I don’t like taking multiple trips if I don’t have to, so backpack on my back, 50 pounds in one hand and the carry-on in the other; I made my way up the narrow stairs. They heard me coming as the bag occasionally hit the wall, but I made it.

I found reception at the top. A man was working there at the time when I arrived (in his late 20’s); he took one look at me and understood that I was tired (after staying up all night for the plane ride, and then walking around for a while with my luggage, how could I not be). Unfortunately the beds weren’t ready because they were still cleaning the rooms and changing the sheets, but at least I was able to sit in one place.

As I mentioned before, I was stopped at passport control, so I decided that since I could not sleep, that this would be a good time to start booking the rest of my trip. At this point (one May 17th) I only had my trip figured out until May 26th.

Finally the bed was ready, so the rest of my day was spent taking a long nap. The hostel I stayed at was called “Dream Cube.” The beds were such that we basically slept in our own cubes. The room I was in probably had 6 beds, but each bed had a curtain that shut out the light and separated you from the rest of the people in the room. It was very nice to have these curtains since I wanted to sleep in the middle of the afternoon. The hostel was very comfortable, and I would recommend it if you choose to travel to Barcelona.

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(My shadow in the hot sun with my luggage and light jacket)

When I finally woke up, it was much later. This was my first time staying in a hostel by myself because when I traveled alone in Lithuania, I chose to stay with hosts. People traveling in groups bigger than 2 are intimidating to people who choose to travel alone, because I have been in those groups, and unless you approach others, people won’t bother you. Traveling alone you make your friends along the way and go see sights with people from the hostel if you choose. Since I was only in the Barcelona hostel for one night, the social aspect was not as important, but I ended up speaking with fellow hostel-stayers as well as the man working there, for hours. The man was Catalan – the cultural group that is native to Barcelona. He was very nice, so I did not get the initial experience of the Catalan people that I later understood them to be.

The man working there offered me some of his soup, which I decided to try because I think at this point in the day the only thing I had eaten was a bag of peanuts, and it was also too late to go out and buy groceries, not that I really wanted to because I was only there for one night. It was apparently a traditional Catalan summer soup. It was cold and really good in the heat. Although I am from California and warm weather is usually very normal for me, I was not used to the heat anymore because in Russia it had still been cool enough that I often needed a light jacket, and I had not even been out of Russia for 24 hours at this point.

I did end up meeting some very interesting people at this hostel and really enjoyed my stay. Unfortunately I will not stay in touch with them because it was a brief meeting, and you cannot stay in touch with everyone. One conversation I remember having was with a guy, who I believe was from Chile. He was studying in Holland and traveling with a friend he met there. We had a conversation about South American names and how they tend to use both last names from their parents, as well as remembering a few names back on the father’s side of the family. He said if you did not do this, you would never know that you might be related to someone. This is part of the reason why in films from this area of the world the names are so long, but not the only reason. He mentioned that in these films, often a person would add a religious phrase, which would make their name even longer and sound more complicated or interesting.

We had many interesting conversations, but unfortunately it was too long ago now for me to remember.

Since I had slept earlier I ended up staying up later than most people there, but at least without people to talk to I got some work done.

Munich on Christmas Eve

24/12/14

It was a sunny day with temperatures warmer than what Kenzy and I had been experiencing for a while in St. Petersburg and warmer than Nuremberg had been. We did not hurry to get out of bed, but the fact that breakfast closed at a certain time probably helped motivate us to get up. However, breakfast closed later than usual because it was Christmas Eve, which is considered a holiday, so it was still a late morning. Since the planning for the days in Munich had happened the night before, we already had an idea of what we planned to accomplish that day, but we never try to stick to a specific time schedule unless it includes our train from one city to another, or the breakfast that won’t wait for us to roll out of bed at whatever time we please.

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(I felt the need to take a picture of my shadow to prove and remember that it was actually a sunny day).

When we finally walked out the door to start our day, I decided not to where my long, warm, purple coat because of the difference in temperature, hoping that it would stay how it was and not become any colder or windier. As we got on the tram to take us in the direction of our first destination, we noticed that everything was closed. Christmas Eve is apparently a big holiday in this part of the world, bigger I would say than Christmas itself, unlike in the United States where stores are still open until probably the early afternoon on Christmas Eve for last minute shoppers. However, we did not completely find this out until later. It made sense that some places would be closed the day before Christmas, but how many places would be closed?

The previous day when we arrived in Munich we had also purchased transportation passes that were valid for three days. We left on the fourth day, at which point the passes would be expired, but we would deal with that when the time came because the deal had been for three days. These passes were valid for any form of basic city transportation, so we were able to take a local train over to Dachau because our first plan was to see the Dachau Concentration Camp. Although it is one of the lesser known ones left from World War II, it was the one we were going to come closest to on this trip, and since we had missed out on the Nuremberg Court House where the trials took place and the Nazi parade grounds (which we had wanted and planned to visit) due to transportation costs, we decided this was something we both wanted and needed to do.

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(The entrance to Dachau)

From the train we took a bus to the entrance of the camp. We had planned to take a tour, but despite what had been written online, the tour that was supposed to run even on Christmas Eve, was not running. Instead we led ourselves around the camp grounds and took away from it as much as we could from what information was offered on posters placed throughout the area.

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(The building into which we could not go)

From what I have heard about other Nazi Concentration Camps, many of the buildings are still standing and there is almost no need for the imagination to picture what horrors took place there. With Dachau, this was not the case. The grounds left where the camp was located was a field and trees for the most part. There were signs pointing you to where buildings used to stand and what had taken place there while the camp was active, but to really feel the impact of the camp, the imagination was much needed in forming the pictures painted by the words that we read.

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(On The Path of Remembrance)

In reality, we only got to see a very small part of what was left of the camp. There was at least one building left standing that was the entrance to another part of the camp, but the gates were closed firmly in front of it. We stood by the gate for a short while to look through it at the area we could not enter and in that short time a man walked up and asked us brusquely what we wanted, (to which we replied that we were just looking) then informed us that the buildings were closed so we could not enter (which we had deduced from the locked gates), but if we came back tomorrow, they would be open. Open on Christmas. Thus the comment I made about Christmas Eve as opposed to Christmas Day earlier.

Even though so much of the camp was closed, we only saw two or three other people there, so it was nice to try to be able to understand what happened in relative silence. We made our way into an area of the camp called The Path of Remembrance. I thought initially this path would lead to a bus station where we would take the bus back to the train station, but I was very wrong. The path started in the camp area that was open on Christmas Eve, but soon we walked out of that area and next to an area that the sign told us used to be the SS training center for this camp, but now served as offices of some sort for current riot police in the city and could not be entered because it was private property. We thought it odd that these riot police would continue to use buildings with a history as awful as that that comes from World War II and the concentration camps, but they must have had some reason for doing so. The Path of Remembrance led us from sign to sign and finally back to the train station. I don’t remember how many signs there were, but we skipped two of them because we could not find them.

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(I can’t forget to include the Dalmatian at the train station. Usually I think Dalmatians are a rather ugly breed of dog, but this one was beautiful).

I can’t say it was a good first time going to a concentration camp because what is good about a concentration camp, but I do know that in the future I will definitely have to visit others to better understand the horror and pain of these places. I have always had an interest in the history of World War II, but reading about what happened during the war, and visiting the sites where these events occurred as well as being able to couple the information I read about them with the experience of visiting the place, are definitely different experiences.

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(Down at the old town)

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After visiting the concentration camp, our next stop was the old town. In the old town we spent more time seeing sights. Really it was buildings and architecture in this part that caught our interest, as it will continue to in many of the countries we will visit. We could tell that there had been Christmas Markets here since the stalls were still up, but they were all closed and some were in the process of being packed up. Since we had already enjoyed the markets in Nuremberg, we didn’t mind that the markets here were already closed. In every city we go to we seem to find a Starbucks, unintentionally, but we find them. In Nuremberg we found it in the old town. Since it was Christmas Eve we decided we would all treat ourselves to a Starbucks. Kenzy and Ali wanted peppermint mochas on their search for peppermint that Nuremberg had denied them and now Munich. Of course, Starbucks was out of peppermint syrup, so Ali and I ordered white mochas while Kenzy ordered a toffee-nut latte.

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(I have no idea what many of these buildings were)

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(But they were pretty and the sky was blue, so I took pictures)

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(Some of the are obviously churches or clock towers, but others are just buildings with shops renting space in them).

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(Then the clouds started moving in)

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It was a cold and windy day by this time and all indoor seating areas of the Starbucks were full, so we went out by a restaurant (which was closed) and enjoyed our Starbucks being sheltered by the building from the wind. Unfortunately, although I had one or two drinks from Starbucks in St. Petersburg, I had not had a white mocha. Although I love white mochas, the amount of milk in them makes my stomach turn, so I sat there after finishing my Starbucks with pain twisting my insides.

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(Eventually came the adventure of strange things)

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(And just another random and pretty building I wanted to include, but didn’t know where to put it. There will be many of these because I am interested in buildings and architecture and art).

Eventually I convinced myself to get up because I thought walking around might help and at first it was very painful, but the pain subsided as we walked to see more of the old town. We probably stayed out for another hour because it was already getting dark and by the end of that hour my stomach felt almost normal again.

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(I don’t know who this was, but it looked so strange I had to touch it to understand the texture).

On this last hour of exploration of the old town we found a few strange things. The first was a monument to someone; I am not really sure who. The important part of this strange finding was the base of this monument. The base was covered, and I mean completely covered on all four sides, in pictures and other objects of or relating to Michael Jackson. We could not figure out why it was there, but for some reason it was.

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(Here is a picture of the front of the Micheal Jackson… thing).

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(But there were also cool light spheres hanging in the trees)

The next strange thing we happened across was a small shop. The inside of the shop was illuminated even though the shop itself was closed. Inside the shop were pictures drawn and painted of Donald Duck with money. I can’t really explain the pictures, they were all different, but they all followed the same theme of having both Donald Duck and something relating to money. It was so strange, especially since this was a shop and people buy items from shops, but we didn’t know who would buy something so specific, so, why Donald Duck and money?

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(Unfortunately this picture turned out to be a little bit blurry. I had forgotten about it when I was initially writing the post, but I feel the need to include this. I am completely supportive of the idea of creative license and I understand the aesthetic appeal of having more than just a plain, white building, but in what world would anyone or anything want their legs or fins twisted like that? It is very strange to me).

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From this point we soon decided to go back to the hostel and eat dinner. We had bought cans of soup at the grocery store the day before, which was good since it was now closed. When we had first gone up to our room the night before, we noticed a pizza machine on the way up. This was a machine that stated hot pizza could be ready in 15 minutes. We decided that because it was Christmas Eve and because we were just curious about the pizza machine, that we would have pizza around an hour after dinner as our late night snack. The pizza actually wasn’t bad, although it was small (not that we paid much for it), it was just strange that it came from a machine.

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(Oh, and I can’t forget these lit up people that were above a store front).

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.

One part of a day can define the memory of that day…

07/11/14   

It is interesting that the definition of a crowded bus in Russia changes between a big city like St. Petersburg and a smaller city like Vladimir.

I will explain this, but let me tell my story first.

As an introduction, at the beginning of the program during orientation we were told that Russians don’t have the same sense of personal space as people from the United States, and this has proven to be very true. Even when each person is pushed up against the person next to them, more people will try to enter the bus because they don’t want to wait for the next one.

Now I will get to the story.

It was Friday, our second to last day traveling before we returned to our host city. We had planned a trip to a neighboring city called Suzdal’ for the day (which is only about an hour bus ride), but both of us felt ill that morning and changed our plans as we were waiting at the bus stop.

We went back into the center of Vladimir instead and had a calm day first visiting the inside of a church we had gone to the night before, only to discover that it was a poorly put together museum.

We took more pictures of the church with the spire that hid itself in the fog the day before as the air was more clear, and noticed a gathering of people near the church. The people carried red flags with yellow writing and symbols (think the colors of the flag of the Soviet Union). The flags read the initials КПРФ, which I believe stands for the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, one of the very active political parties in Russia. Christina didn’t notice them, so I was glad I did, that way we avoided any unwanted attention from them.

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(A clearer picture of this church)

We moved on to a nearby cafe to rest a little because although we hadn’t done much, we still both weren’t feeling ourselves. I ordered a coffee and a macaroon, while Christina ordered something I had never heard of. It looked like dry oatmeal oats that she simply poured milk over, but I am not sure that this is actually what it was.

As we sat at the cafe I continue to feel worse and more exhausted, so eventually we left and went back to the hostel. We both took a two or three hour nap and I woke up feeling much better, but rather hungry.

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(My coffee was pretty)

We decided to go out of the hostel and look for a place to eat instead of eating the food we had. The map had showed us that there was an Italian place nearby, however the map to this restaurant didn’t take into account the gates and fences that barred our ability to get there. We walked around for about 20 minutes trying to figure out how to get there and after we finally did find the restaurant, it turned out to be closed. We decided to look for another place since the map had shown other restaurants near enough to us, but as we were walking, the street started to look empty. Christina insisted that we keep going because other people were walking on this street so it must lead somewhere. I had a guess of where it lead because of the direction we were headed in, but I wasn’t sure. We ended up on a very dark sidewalk set back from the road next to a bunch of trees in an area that looked like it had a river or a creek, but it was too dark to tell. The only comfort was that it was beautiful, but there were also quite a few pedestrians walking on the same sidewalk.

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(They always seem to arrange napkins in this flowery formation in cafes and restaurants in Russia)

We ended up where I had expected we would, in the city center which we normally took the trolleybus to get to. As we walked along the street looking for a place to eat, we passed the Golden Gate again and saw that it lit up at night. Shortly after that we found a restaurant that looked popular because it had many people inside, so we decided to try it. For me, one way to judge a restaurant on whether the food is good and if it is reasonably priced is by the amount of people in it.

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(The Golden Gate lit up)

The restaurant was split into a few separate areas instead of being one large open room like many restaurants in the United States tend to be. After we had sat down and ordered our food and a glass of wine to accompany it, a young man showed up and was seated near us. He was obviously already intoxicated, and all he ordered was vodka and what looked like a chaser of some sort. A little while later he stumbled over to us uninvited pulled up a chair at our table and promptly sat down. Apparently he became interested because he heard us speaking English. He asked the waitress for a bottle of champagne for us, which I tried to signal her that we did not want it, but he was a big drunk man and we couldn’t really do anything.

He asked us our names, so I told him my name was Masha and that Christina’s was Krysta because it was the first name I thought of. I did most of the talking since Christina didn’t understand much, but we both wanted to get out of there. Christina’s food had already come, but she wasn’t eating it. Her choosing not to eat it wasn’t going to help us get out of there, but she seemed too distressed. After my food came, I told her to eat because I wanted to get the check and leave as soon as we could.

The champagne came and the guy (I never asked his name) made us stand up to toast. After we sat, he proceeded to ask us about American politics since the midterm elections had just happened and Republicans had gained the majority in both houses. I have no interest in getting into a discussion about American politics with a Russian much less a drunken Russian man, so I told him that we were more interested in international politics and didn’t know much about what’s going on in the United States since we were not there, so we can’t say anything about it. He kept trying to ask, but it was lucky in this instance that he was intoxicated because I didn’t have to say much to get off of the subject. After some time he wanted to have a cigarette break with us, but neither of us smoke or have ever smoked. We had to tell him this over and over again because he kept trying to get us to come with him even to keep him company, but apart from not liking cigarette smoke, we had no interest in going out of the crowded restaurant with him. As he was getting up to leave, he asked one of the people at another table in the room if they wanted to smoke with him, but they declined as well. His presence was making everyone’s experience unpleasant.

Finally he left and as soon as he did we asked for the check. Christina was still eating, but we wanted to ask for it at a time when the guy wasn’t in the room. I also moved his chair back to the proper table, but it didn’t do much to prevent him from joining us again.

When he returned, he picked up my glass of champagne and drank it in one gulp. The champagne wasn’t bad, but I didn’t want it so I didn’t really care. He pulled his chair back up and brought his vodka with him this time. He was already very drunk, having knocked over one of the champagne glasses, but I guess he wanted to take more shots. I kept having to move the glasses and the bottle further and further back from him as he became drunker and started having less precise motor control of his movements.

He was very caught up on my name because I had told him it was Masha. He didn’t understand why I had a Russian name and wasn’t Russian. He kept asking me to explain it, but I just asked him why I shouldn’t have a Russian name.

When he got tired of asking about my name, he picked up Christina’s hand and kissed it, at which point she told him she had a boyfriend. He took this as information that both of us had boyfriends, which I don’t, but he proceeded to ask their names. Christina’s boyfriend’s name is very American and he could not understand it, so he moved on to me. I scrambled around for a guy’s name and told him that my boyfriend’s name is Tyler, which was the name of my first boyfriend. I made sure to say the name in a very American way, instead of Russianizing it. Luckily with how drunk he was he didn’t notice my delay as I tried to think of a name.

After Christina scrambled to finish her dinner, I told him we were going to use the bathroom. We did go to the bathroom, but there we talked about what our next plan of action should be. Christina had been messaging her boyfriend, who said that we should either take a taxi back to the hostel so he couldn’t follow us, or we could tell the waitress or manager he made us uncomfortable. I thought this would be great advice for the United States, but we were in another country where things don’t work quite the same. The chances of a taxi being nearby were not very high and I thought that it would be unnecessary to take a taxi. As to the advice about telling the manager or waitress, I don’t know the word for manager in Russian, although I do know how to tell them that he scared us. I had also been measuring their physical states in my head. The guy who had been talking to us obviously had some muscle on him; he was not a small man and just because he was drunk did not mean that that muscle wouldn’t be used. The only male staff member I had seen in the restaurant was very scrawny and the rest were small females. I decided our best option would be to get our coats from the coat check and slip out.

We did just that and it worked. We speed walked to the bus stop, but there was no sign of him following us. Even though we didn’t see him we wanted to get out of the area. Even if he had followed us I don’t know if he would have been able to keep up because he was so drunk that he was knocking things over and stumbling around, however I know that a really determined drunk person can accomplish a lot so it was good that we didn’t have to take any chances. As we got on the bus, I realized that it was more crowded then I had seen a bus in one of these smaller cities, but compared to crowded busses in St. Petersburg, there was definitely enough room on it for 10 or 15 more people. We got on the bus, but it seemed that other people who had been waiting for the same bus decided it was too crowded, so they continued to wait.

When we got back to the hostel I told Christina that I thought he had been married and was probably a relatively new husband who isn’t enjoying marriage. He was wearing a gold band on his ring finger on his right hand. I think I have mentioned before that Russian’s wear wedding rings on their right hand because there is an artery or vein or something that runs from your heart to that finger.

We were both very disappointed about this experience because it could have been a very good meal and an enjoyable dinner, but instead it had all been ruined by a drunk man.

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.

In Transit: From Vilnius to Petersburg

On September 4th, I started my long journey to St. Petersburg. The trip really should not have taken that long, but I like to have everything be complicated and take a long time. Not really, but my previous decision to get my visa in Berlin resulted in the trip being much longer than it could have been.

I got up earlier than usual Thursday morning to finish packing. I didn’t have much packing left to do because I had done most of it the day before, but I would rather have extra time to get to the bus station than not enough. I did end up having extra time. I sat around for at least an hour working on the previous blog post I wrote before I left the apartment. I didn’t finish it, in part because I didn’t have time, but I also figured I could finish it when I was sitting on the bus somewhere between 2:45 P.M. Lithuanian time, and 6:00 A.M. Berlin time. I was wrong.

My journey from Lithuania to Berlin started out with me carrying two 50 pound (23 Kilo) suitcases down a few flights of stairs in a floor length skirt with a backpack on my back and a bag on my right shoulder stuffed as full as it could be with a mix of objects that included books. I took the suitcases down the stairs one at a time for each flight of stairs because the stairway was too narrow. I think that when people see me with these two big red suitcases and my two carry-ons they must wonder how I manage. The only answer is practice. The suitcases are the same size and the same kind so I don’t have to deal with the awkwardness of dragging two different sizes of suitcases around. They also both have four wheels on the bottom so I can drag them in one hand across hard floors and hold something else in my other hand. (This, of course, doesn’t work well on carpet, and doesn’t work at all on some other surfaces, but usually airports usually have solid floors).

There are some ridiculous situations I have been in to get from one place to another with all of my luggage, and this was one of them because after I made it down the stairs, I had to drag the suitcases to a bus stop. Even carrying two suitcases, I would rather take the harder journey on public transportation with people giving me weird looks, than pay the ridiculous price for a taxi. I would be glad later that I didn’t waste money on a taxi this time around. One of the things that keeps me going in these uncomfortable situations is that usually when I do something slightly strange like this, I am not traveling where a lot of people know me. Even if I come back in a few years, or even a few months, these people will never recognize me. The other thing that helps me move forward is that I have a set goal in mind, and all I am doing is trying to get to a certain location. I do not concentrate on anything else until I have made it from point A to point B with all of my luggage. My brain is telling me to go, go, go, until I have made it where I know I need to be.

At the bus stop I had to wait a while for the next trolleybus that I needed to come by because I missed one right as I was walking up. There was another number I could have taken, but every time I saw it, it was packed with people. I left a little bit early just in case, so I didn’t mind waiting because I knew it wasn’t going to make me late.

When the bus finally did arrive, I struggled a little bit getting the suitcases on because apart from them being heavy, one of the top handles broke on one of them, and made it difficult to lift. A guy dragged one up for me, which I was thankful for because bus doors don’t wait for people. My host, Tautvydas, told me the night before that if the bus was crowded I should buy two tickets because people might get mad about the space the luggage takes up. I did this and time stamped both of the tickets because the bus was a bit crowded. Thankfully there was room for me to sit down so that I could have more solid control over my rolling luggage. The bus got more crowded during the half hour ride I was on it, and I had to strain to keep my suitcases from rolling into people as the bus quickly started and stopped. It sounds like a really uncomfortable situation, and it was, but I kept reminding myself that it was cheaper than a taxi ride.

I did finally make it to the bus station just in time to stand in line to check in and put my luggage under the bus. This long bus ride was more comfortable than the short one, but it was a lot longer, so minor irritations grew as time progressed. My seat was an aisle seat. I like window seats because people don’t feel like they can put their hand on the arm of your seat as they walk by, or the back of your chair where they end up pulling on your hair because your head is obviously right there, but I survived.

The first irritation was the man next to me. He kept doing that thing where he spread his legs, as many men do, and took up more than his own room. I don’t put up with this because first, it is not fair, I paid for my seat too, and second, I am taller than the average girl so I need my room on my seat. I think I was taller than he was. Eventually he told me (in Russian) that there was a way to move the seats apart to give each of us more space. He still took up a lot of room, but at least it was tolerable.

The second irritation was the guy sitting behind me. Every time the bus stopped, he got out to smoke. I couldn’t turn my head to the side to try to sleep because then I would smell it. I had to keep my head completely straight forward so that I would minimize the amount of time I breathed the scent in. It wasn’t just the smell of a typical smoker because that I can deal with, he reeked of the smell of smoke so strongly that I made sure to hold my breath when he walked by. He also put his hand on the back of my chair and pulled my hair every time he sat down.

The third thing that irritated me was the man sitting in front of me. The bus trip started at 2:45 in the afternoon. For the whole bus ride, he had his chair leaned all the way back, cutting off my leg room, and forcing me to lean my chair back towards the smoker behind me so that I would have room. It also made it so that I could not work on my blog, or anything else, at all. The seats in these busses lean back much further than the seats in a plane, so I don’t think I ever need to complain about people leaning back their seats in a plane again.

The last major irritation was that someone had broken the television and headphone jack for my seat. I don’t need to watch television or movies, but for a bus ride this long, it is nice to have the entertainment. I ended up listening to the story The Kite Runner because I had it on my iPod. I don’t have music on my iPod, so this was the best I could do. I haven’t finished the story yet, and I think I fell asleep during part of it, but what I heard of it definitely did not have me on the edge of my seat wanting to hear more. The beginning section was probably the most interesting part. It served to drown out the noise of the guys snoring around me though, so at least the next part of the story was useful for something.

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(This is as the sun is setting somewhere in Poland. The window of the bus obviously wasn’t very clean since there are fingerprints in the middle of the picture. I was not seated next to the window so this was a really awkward picture to take).

We arrived at the Shoenfeld Airport somewhere around 6:00 A.M. Berlin time. This was my stop so I got off with all of my luggage. From here it should have been a straight shot to St. Petersburg after getting to the airport, with a layover in Stockholm, but it was not. I spent half an hour trying to figure out what to do and where to go because the signs weren’t clear and my flight didn’t show up on the departures board. Eventually I felt that something was wrong, and I looked at my flight itinerary more closely to try to figure out what it was. I noticed the airport code did not look correct for this airport, so I decided it was time to ask the airport information counter. At first he told me where to go for international flights, but I asked him to look at the airport code and he said that I was at the wrong airport. He said there were taxis outside and that it would cost about 55 Euros to ride from the Shoenfeld to the Teger airport. I didn’t have another option, so I took his advice and used a taxi.

When we got to the Teger airport, the final price was a little over 57 Euros. I tried to hand the taxi driver my debit card, but he said he only took cash. I have never encountered a taxi from an airport that only takes cash. That is really outdated and ridiculous. The taxi driver basically walked me to an ATM machine inside the airport so that I could withdraw money to pay him. I don’t understand why you have to tip taxi drivers, they already charge too much. I withdrew 60 Euros from the ATM machine, and gave it to him after I got my luggage. Maybe the tip was smaller than it should have been, but I felt he didn’t deserve any tip.

Not only was the taxi outdated, but the two airports I have been to in Berlin were outdated. It took me a while to find the right terminal for my flight, and it turned out to be in a completely different building than the one I was dropped off at. It was a building near the one at which I was dropped off, so that walk wasn’t too far.

Whenever checking in to an international flight, the instructions always say to arrive at least two hours in advance. I do this just to be safe, but the few times I have flown internationally, I have never found it necessary. The flight does not go up on the departures board until about two hours before departure, but the check in doesn’t open until about one hour before the plane is schedule to take off. By the time I actually check in, pay for my extra bag and get through security, there is about a 20 minute wait in the actual terminal and I am already boarding the plane. When I fly domestically I always have a longer wait than 20 minutes because they always let me check in much earlier, so I have longer to wait around.

This time as I was checking in and explained that I had two bags, I encountered another shortcoming of this Berlin airport. At every airport where I have checked an extra bag, they tell me, “You have to pay for that,” as if I don’t know.  I know, I check, and recheck the luggage allotments for every airline I take to make sure I have the information right. Again, I tried to hand the lady my debit card, and again there was no card machine, they only took cash, in an international terminal. Can I just focus on this for a minute to emphasize how ridiculous this was? In Russian airports they give you a slip of paper and you go over to another counter to pay for your extra bag, but you can still use a card. In airports in the United States, you pay at whatever counter you are already at, they all have card machines. If by some chance one doesn’t have a card scanner, the next counter over will. Even in domestic terminals. It is especially important in international terminals to have card readers because, as someone traveling in a foreign country, I always carry around cash, but as I am getting ready to leave that country I try to make sure I don’t have any cash left because I know I will no longer need that currency. So why would I have cash at the airport, and who carries that much cash with them on a daily basis anyway? (Maybe in Europe they do, I really don’t know, but in the United States most people just use their credit or debit cards).

Again, the price was 60 Euros or a steep 85 dollars. It sounded wrong to me from what I had seen online, but what can I do. I had to walk back to the other building because they didn’t have an ATM in the building I was in.

I finally made it through the luggage check-in and through security (they made me take out my laptop at this airport like they do in American airports [this reminds me on a related note of airport security, I learned while I was getting ready to leave Kazan’ this summer that airport regulations in the United States now require people to have charged electronic devices when they go through security, it seems like a strange requirement to me]), and eventually the flight left. Nothing on this flight was too eventful, so I finally got the opportunity to rest, except that I was really hungry. I hadn’t eaten all day, and I am used to even the shortest flights offering a small bag of peanuts or pretzels, but this airline only offered free tea and coffee.

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(A picture from the plane on the way to Sweden).

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(Another airplane picture).

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(Coming closer for landing).

As the plane landed at the airport in Stockholm, I was thankful to see that the terminal I would be leaving from didn’t look to be too far from the terminal at which the plane arrived. I was right, but it was confusing to find the next gate. I was thankful I didn’t have to exit, and then reenter security like I had to in the Moscow airport when I was flying to Kazan’. I found that the passport control counters were located in the middle of the hallway separating one terminal in half for international and domestic flights. After going through the passport control part of the security process I assumed that I was done with security in Stockholm until my passport was checked before I boarded the plane to St. Petersburg. Instead, upon entering the terminal, I found that all of the seating areas for the departure gates were located behind walls of glass that rant the length of the terminal on both sides, only interrupted by columns separating gates and glass doors through which to enter. The glass doors for my gate were closed tightly when I arrived, and remained so for about twenty minutes while the passengers for the upcoming flight gathered awkwardly in the deserted hallway. I remember standing near a girl with curly blonde hair who was clearly speaking with an American-English accent to someone speaking with a Russian accent. I found out later that the blonde girl would be my program. When the door for my gate opened, airport security checked the Russian visas and passports at the glass door. In the end, the passengers of the flight, including myself, had the opportunity to sit down for about five minutes before it was time to board the plane. It made me wonder what the point of having a seating area in that terminal was at all.

At this point I think the lack of food was getting to me. When I got on the plane, a French lady was sitting in my seat because she thought it was her seat. That is understandable; I fly often so I understand the strange seating pictures that go above the seats, but I really don’t think they are difficult to figure out. I guess she didn’t, so I politely asked her to move. She willingly moved, but the whole plane ride she was elbowing me as she ate her sandwich or leaning into my personal space to see out the window. Most of the time I kept the window shade down because the sun was shining directly into my eyes. While I kept my window shade most of the way down, she was bobbing up and down next to me trying to see out of the window of the set of seats in front of us, or out of the small slit in my window that I chose to leave open. Every time I lifted it, her head would be right next to mine, craning to see anything. The windows were filthy so she should have realized there was nothing to see after her first opportunity to see out of them. I wonder if flights help bring out the worst in people because they have to sit so long in cramped seats, and not everyone gets a window seat. Either that, or after a summer in Kazan’, I am still not used to the lack of personal space that is common in Russia and some European countries

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(This picture is to illustrate how filthy the windows on this plane actual were, there really was not much I could see).

Over the period of these two flights I had two cups of coffee and a cup of tea because I wanted something; unfortunately caffeine can be very harsh on an empty stomach, so by the end of the day my hands were shaking slightly.

When I made it to passport control in Russia, all I found was a mass of people that took up the huge room, filling it from one side to the other, and I was at the back. I walked a little bit along the back of the crowd to see if there were any shorter lines, but they all looked about the same so I picked one. While I waited for 45 minutes to get my passport and visa scrutinized and stamped, I ended up temporarily befriending the people I was standing in line next to. I don’t remember how I started talking to them, but I figured out that they spoke English. They were three students from Ghana – two boys and a girl – who were studying medicine in St. Petersburg. They were a few years older than I was, and one of the guys said that he had been coming to Russia for about five years to study, and that this was his last year. It was good to have some people to talk to as I stood in line, otherwise I don’t know how I could have waited for 45 minutes as the clock ticked past the 5:00 P.M. deadline that I was supposed to be in Russia for my program to pick me up. In the end, we stood in two very short lines next to each other at passport control and joked about who would make it through first. I made it through first, and I, unfortunately, haven’t seen them since then.

I think the easiest part of my whole trip for me was getting my luggage after I made it to the luggage carrousel. Both 50 pound bags came out right after I found the correct carrousel, and I was through the green gate looking around for some sign that said CIEE. There was none. I walked around for about half an hour, tired and hungry and ready to give up because I didn’t want to deal with anymore transportation. Taxi drivers kept asking me if I wanted a ride, and I politely turned them down, but in my head I was yelling at them to leave me alone.

The CIEE program made a group on Facebook, and during the time I was walking around in the airport I found Wifi and was going to send an email to see if there was someone there to pick me up, although I didn’t know who to email. Someone else in the program posted that she was still in the luggage area with four other people in the program and they hopped someone from the program was still waiting, but one of the girls didn’t get her luggage. I saw this post and replied that I was there and looking around, but that I didn’t see anyone waiting. We had a whole conversation on Facebook before I found someone from CIEE. The representative told me she had been keeping up with the conversation, and I wondered why she didn’t say anything since I was obviously lost and looking for some representative, and the girls on the other side wanted a reply, but I guess I will never know.

In the end I made it to the hotel and ran up to my room to shower. I was confused when I first walked in because there were two beds, but the television only read a welcome with my name on it so I assumed I didn’t have a roommate. As a result of that misinformation, and me being in a hurry, I wasn’t very careful where I put my stuff. Over dinner with some other students in my program, I learned that they too thought they didn’t have a roommate but that their roommates had shown up in a later group of people.

When I returned to the room, I found another set of luggage confirming that I did, in fact, have a roommate. Her name was Helen. The two nights we were in the hotel, Helen and I became friends, and that friendship has become stronger as it lasts into the program.

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(The first night in the hotel there were fireworks outside of our window, I think in celebration of a wedding).