Returning to Kazan’ and Moscow

27/10/14-02/11/14 Russian Travel Week with the program

It appears that all of my previous work that I have been meaning to post has vanished, so I will have to start from the beginning of last week.

Last week we had Russian travel week with our program, but we didn’t fly out until Monday night. On Monday we had the same class schedules that we would every Monday, which was very unfortunate for me, especially since that Monday and the week before was the week of midterm exams. So, on Monday I have four classes from 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. and an hour of transportation in each direction. I also had a midterm in my Russian Conversation class, so by the end of the day I was stressing myself out wondering if I would make it home in time to finish packing last minute accessories before heading to the airport. To top that off, the program refused to return our passports until the last possible minute. As in, they have had them since the program started and continued to hold onto them to get our visa extensions until that Monday, and then informed us that we couldn’t pick them up until the our classes for the day had ended. Many of us have traveled before and are used to holding on to our passports, as well as feeling uncomfortable without them, so the fact that they keep treating us like incompetent children concerning our passports is rather frustrating. I must say this part of the program was not very good planning on CIEE’s part.

I ended up getting to the airport early so I probably didn’t need to worry about having enough time, but I always think that it is better to be safe than sorry.  Many of us students waited around at the airport for at least an hour before any of the program directors made it there themselves.

The flight left at a time close to midnight and landed in Kazan’ very early in the morning, which caused many of us to be tired for the rest of the trip. We probably didn’t get to bed until about 4:00 a.m.

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(A wall in the old Tatar part of the city)

I was very excited to return to Kazan’ since I spent my summer there, but I was very disappointed with the trip. The first day we went on a useless bus tour around the city the first time I was in Kazan’ and went on a bus tour, it was actually interesting, but this time the only parts of the city they really showed us were many different sports complexes. No one is really interested in visiting a foreign city and seeing all of their sports facilities, it is not interesting for us, but that is what the program chose to show to us. For lunch, they brought us to a mall way outside the center of the city, which made me very angry because it stripped every one of the opportunity to try local Tatar cuisine, and me of the opportunity to return to cafes that I had frequented over the summer. The mall had typical chain mall restaurants, and nothing that was what I wanted.

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(Sightseeing at the end of the bus tour)

I remember the one fun part of this bus tour was at one of the sports complexes. We went to the roof of one of the buildings (I have no idea why) and my friend Sophia and I spent our time sliding around on a giant frozen puddle, pretending to ice skate. The tour was so disappointing that we did this to entertain ourselves. Later when my friend asked about the point of the sports facilities part of the tour, she was told that it was part of their culture (since Kazan’ is also the sports capitol of Russia), but I guess we just have different definitions of culturally significant sights to see. By the end of the bus tour I was at the point of walking back to the hotel since I knew the city well enough to do that, but for some reason I ended up sticking it out.

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(Chandelier in the Kul Sharif Mosque)

That night, I took some of my friends to a Tatar café I knew so we could eat dinner. I was glad to hear that they really enjoyed it since Tatarstan and Kazan’ mean a lot to me because of the experience and people I knew there. After dinner we stopped by a small store or a “продукты,” which literally translates to “products,” and I picked up some chak-chak, which is a Tatar dessert. That night I spent time with some of my friends in my hotel room, sharing the chak-chak with them and just enjoying each other’s company.

The next day had a tour of the Kazan’ Kremlin in it. I think the Kremlin is a wonderful place to visit in Kazan’ because it is so beautiful, but the tour was four hours long, and I had already been there. But at least the tour was much better than the tour had been the day before. At lunch time after the tour, I took some of my friends to one of my favorite cafes in Kazan’ that I had frequented with my friends over the summer. I made them try my favorite dishes of Lagman (a sort of noodle soup that isn’t really a soup and isn’t only noodles) and Plov (a rice dish). I had them order Lipioshka with these dishes, which is a common way to eat them. Lipioshka is a naan like bread that is from a different part of the world. The food is very hard to describe if you haven’t seen or had it before.

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(Kul Sharif Mosque inside of the Kazan’ Kremlin)

After lunch we wondered around the city and returned to the Peter and Paul Cathedral so that my friends could see it. While we were there we ventured into the bottom part of the church, which I had not seen before, so it was interesting for me. When we left the church, we wandered into some souvenir shops to look around, but shortly after we had to go our separate ways because other people had prior commitments. I had plans to meet with my friends Laison and Alfia, whom I had met over the summer, for dinner. We had a very nice dinner, making fun of a group of guys who were getting drunk on the other side of the restaurant, and just enjoying one another’s company.  They had a class to get to and I had had a long day that was not yet complete so I decided to take a quick nap before I left to go visit my host mom.

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(One of my favorite buildings in Kazan’, I believe it is the center of agriculture. In the archway – you can’t see it here – is a tree that holds up the arch that was designed after the Lord of the Rings came out)

At my host mom’s house, she fed me second dinner – homemade manti – I don’t normally like manti but my host mom knows I like it when it is homemade. It was nice to be able to catch up with her, and just talk about everything relevant and irrelevant like we used to, and paint our nails together.

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(A wedding palace)

The last day we went to the Raifa Monestary (which I had already been to when I was in Kazan’ before, and didn’t care to see again). I did enjoy it more this time than the last time, although I think that was in part because we didn’t spend as long there as I had the last time. In addition, it is always enjoyable to see the same place at a different time of year.

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(On the way to my host mom’s house I always see the entrance to the Kremlin)

After Raifa, we had some free time before we had to go to the train. We walked around the rinok and bought scarves and other items like food that would be useful on a 12 hour train ride. In the end we wore ourselves out from walking so much, which was good because we had no choice but to sit or lay day for most of the 12 hours on the train.

I have done this 12 hour train ride from Kazan’ to Moscow before, but this time CIEE decided to give us private compartments. I was in a compartment with my friends Sophia, Helen and Lacy and we ended up watching a cartoon movie about a half-white zebra named Cumba. I have never heard of this movie before, but it kept us entertained for a while and made us practice our Russian in an offhand way since the movie was in Russian.

Eventually we all went to bed, although it was so hot that I couldn’t sleep well at all which didn’t bode well for the schedule the next day. Helen and I tried for about half an hour to open the window in hour compartment, but it wouldn’t open, so we finally gave up and tried to sleep. In the morning (after I had finally fallen asleep) we were all unpleasantly awakened by a Russian lady going from compartment to compartment, violently opening the doors and saying “доброе утро” unnecessarily loudly.

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(Some buildings we stopped to take pictures of during the bus-tour in Moscow)

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(During the same stop but in another direction. I was probably too tired to listen to what these buildings actually were)

Our schedule for the day (Halloween by the way) was of course a bus tour of the city. Our tour guides tour went something along the lines of “on the right you will see *insert a building or a monument,* on the left you will see…” and so on. So, since I was already tired, I promptly fell asleep until we had to get out of the bus to see something. One place we did get to see that I enjoyed was Swan Lake, the lake where the ballet was composed. But other than that, it was not very interesting.

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(Looking across Swan Lake)

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(A row of ducks in Swan Lake)

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(They were pretty, so I took quite a few pictures of them)

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(The lake had a thin layer of ice over most of it, but here the ducks seemed to have found a place to swim)

Later in the day I took a nap because I was just too tired to do anything else (such as wander around the city), but at night I wanted to do something for Halloween. Some friends invited me to go out in the city with them for the night, but after my experience with taxis in Berlin I didn’t want to risk staying out so late that I would have to pay for a taxi to get back after the public transportation stopped running, so I declined. Instead I watched a horror movie with some other friends and tried to go to bed at a reasonable time.

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(The entrance to Red Square. Our tour guide made sure we knew that it was translated incorrectly into English because the word for “red” in Russian can sometimes mean “beautiful,” and this is suppoed to be Beautiful Square)

On November first we went to the Moscow Kremlin. I had already been to the Kremlin last time I was in Moscow, but this time we had a tour of the Armory, which I hadn’t been to before. The Armory, although it didn’t have much armor in it, was very beautiful. It has a collection of gifts from royalty of other countries to the tsars of Russia, as well as a lot of old coronation attire, crowns, and ornate carriages from the tsars. The rest of the time in the Kremlin we spent walking around the grounds, and then visited one church in Cathedral Square.

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(A view of Moscow State University from the grounds of the Kremlin – the white building in the back)

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(One cathedral in Cathedral Square)

After the Kremlin, we went to eat at an Italian restaurant because we had eaten breakfast at about nine, and did not eat lunch until around four. They don’t seem to understand the concept of “lunchtime” and that people get hungry. The lunch was very reasonably priced for Moscow, and it was very good, probably because we were all so hungry. I had a seafood pasta dish. I love seafood, and I really wanted it at the time even though we weren’t close to the sea so it definitely wasn’t as fresh as it could have been, but I still enjoyed it. To accompany my meal, my friend and I shared an appetizer (it came after the meal, so I don’t think Russians quite understand the idea of appetizers) it was a sort of cheesy bread but much better since I don’t really like cheesy bread. It was more spiced than cheesy, which is probably why I enjoyed it but I probably shouldn’t have been eating bread and pasta in the first place due to my minor gluten intolerance.

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(The Bolshoi Theatre, I took a picture because it was on the way somewhere)

After returning to the hotel, my friend Christina came to Helen’s and my room and hung out with us. We had a very fun time talking about whatever subject seemed to come up before we decided to wander around Moscow at night and find a club. We ended up walking a lot because Moscow is big so the nightlife is very spread out, needless to say I didn’t enjoy going out in Moscow as much as I did in Kazan’ or St. Petersburg, where you don’t have to walk a mile to find the next bar or club. In the end we ended up taking a gypsy cab back to the hotel (an unregistered cab. They are very common in Russia, but I would never take one alone).

The next morning we had to pack everything up because it was our last day in Moscow and we had to check out of the hotel by 11:00 a.m. Unfortunately, as I was getting ready, my back went out and I still had to finish packing and I had an excursion to go on even though it hurt to walk, much less breathe. We went to a history museum, but I don’t remember anything in particular because I didn’t have a very enjoyable time walking around with a hurt back.

After the excursion, Christina and I immediately returned to the vicinity of the hotel and got something to eat. I promptly fell asleep on the couch for about an hour before we decided it was time to catch our train for the next week’s journey.

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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.

My Host-Mom in Kazan’

Aygul’

The name does not translate now, but in Russian her name looks like this: Айгуль. Aygul’ was my host-mom in Kazan’, although she is not very old so maybe she was more like a host sister, or a host cousin, I don’t know. Aygul’ is Tatar. (Kazan’ is the capitol of the Republic of Tatarstan in Russia). She said that when she was young, she only knew the Tatar language until she was three, and then she started learning Russian. Now she knows Russian better than she knows Tatar. She told me a bit about the Tatar language and that it is similar to English because adjectives and nouns don’t really have genders. However, I think that is the extent of their similarities. In the Tatar language, my host mom says they change the meaning of a sentence not by changing the ends of adjectives and verbs for cases, but by adding prepositions on the end. So if you had a sentence that you wanted to say something about undoing something, you would have a preposition for doing, and then another one for undoing that would change the meaning of the sentence.

Aygul’ also studies English and Arabic. She is doing very well with her English I must say, I used to help her with her English homework while I was there. She said that in Russia if you want a good job, you need to know English as well as a language from the Middle East, and that is why she is studying these languages. She told me a bit about the Arabic language. Apparently for every letter of the alphabet there are four ways to write it, and how you write it depends on where it is located in the word. For example, a letter written at the beginning of the word will be written differently from the same letter located close to the end of the word. Aygul’ said that she wants to move somewhere warmer someday, and that is another reason she is learning Arabic.

I remember when I first arrived in Kazan’ at Aygul’s house, and I was tired, the first thing she taught me was Russian slang. I am sure my professor would have been thrilled had she known. One conversation I had with Aygul’ either over tea or at the dinner table was about stereotypes. One stereotype that Russians know about themselves is that bears walk around on the streets in Russia. Of course this is not something that actually happens. The Russian’s response to this is that they don’t have streets for the bears to walk around on. The bears just walk. It is really hard to keep streets in good condition in Russia. When I was there for two months in the summer, I saw the fastest road construction I have ever seen in my life. I mean I know our road workers dawdle around in the United States, but this was ridiculous. The workers try to get everything done in the summer because the winter is too cold and the ground is too frozen to accomplish anything. The joke that Russia doesn’t have roads for the bears to walk on has an element of truth in it. The roads used to be just areas of dirt that cars would drive on. When I was studying in Kazan’ I went with my host mom to her parents’ house on other side of Tatarstan, and on the way we passed by some road construction. The cars drove around all over these dirt hills to avoid the road construction because at the time there was no road to drive on.

Another interesting thing that can be seen when driving on the roads in Russia outside of the city, that my host mom pointed out to me are the trees. On the sides of roads in Russia, (probably in other countries too) they plant a row of trees on each side of the road because the tall trees help prevent the wind from blowing the snow onto the road, since their winters get really snowy. I will study abroad in St. Petersburg this coming year, and my host mom said that I should come visit her because St. Petersburg doesn’t have real Russian winters. The city of St. Petersburg is built on a swamp, and it is right by some water, so the winter is more wet than snowy. Apparently in Kazan it gets colder and snowier than St. Petersburg even though it is further south, probably because Kazan’ is not located by water (although it does have a few rivers).

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I did a few activities with my host mom that I believe were unique from activities that other people in the program had access to. One weekend my host mom took me to her parents’ house as I already mentioned. I know some of my friends got to go to their family’s Dachas. Aygul’ doesn’t have a Dacha, but I think going to her parents’ house was more interesting for me. Her mother has a garden, and in this garden I had the opportunity to try three berries I had never had before, at least in their original berry form. The first berries I tried were gooseberries. They are sort of an almost transparent light-green berry with bright green veins in them. Most people don’t like them because they are a bit sour, but the once I had were very good. The second berries I tried were currents. Currents come in red, black and white, and I had the opportunity to try the red and the black ones. In the garden they grew the black ones and used them to make jam. I tried the red ones because their neighbor grew them close enough to the fence that Aygul’ was able to pick some for me to try. Apparently the red ones are more popular than the black, but I liked the black better. Both tasted strange to me since I had not had them before. Currents are very popular in Russia because they are easy to grow, and I believe cheap to buy. In addition, people like to use the berries to make compote. Compote is a juice that is made by boiling berries in water to extract their juices, and adding sugar (or not) to taste. I believe most people just grow them at their Dachas. The third berry I tried I did not like at all. I don’t know what it was called because the name did not sound familiar, even when translated to English. I just know that it was small and red and grew on a tree. My host mom’s mother makes jam from these berries, and it is actually very difficult because each one has a small pit. The jam is also very health for you (or maybe the berries are, and the jam is too as a result) and has many vitamins in it. I had the chance to try the jam too, and although I did not mind the flavor, I could not stand the small when the container was sitting open on the table while I was trying to enjoy my tea.

(If you don’t know, a Dacha is a sort of Russian summer home. Usually families will spend some weekends there in the summer when the weather is nice. I heard from my friends who visited their family’s dachas that most of the time spent there is in the garden, so it is not the most interesting place to be. The name Dacha comes from the Russian verb dat’, which means to give. These houses were given this name because the pieces of land that are used for Dachas were gifted to families from the government during the Soviet period).

At Aygul’s parent’s house I had the occasion to try Russian Banya for the first time. Her parents have a private Banya, so it was a very nice first experience. It is their version of a sauna. Usually people do it naked, but I chose to wear a swimsuit for my first try. Let me say first, when I have been in saunas before, I absolutely hate them. You can barely breathe, and all you do is sweat while you sit on a bench that someone definitely sweated on before you. Banya is different. Part of the Banya experience is to hit each other with wet branches that have been placed over very hot stones. You do it quickly so as not to burn the other person of course and there is also a technique to it. I remember sometimes the branch would be used to sprinkle water over me, and other times water would just be dumped over me. I don’t know how to use the branches in Russian Banya properly, my host mom did it for me, and it was thoroughly enjoyable.

Another thing I did when I stayed with Aygul’s Parents, was to visit a Russian forest with them. We went with the intention of picking wild strawberries to make jam with, but in the place we ended up the berries were picked clean. Instead we sat under a tree on a blanket as it began to rain, and ate slices of a melon that they brought with them. The forest was so beautiful. I didn’t bring my camera with me there, but I don’t think a camera could have captured its beauty.

The weekend before I went with my host mom to her parents’ house, some of her friends came over to her flat and we sewed dolls. It has been a while since I have sewn that much by hand because usually I only sew when I am at home, so I was definitely a bit rusty and slow. My host mom said that we would make this doll together and it could be one of my souvenirs from Kazan’. My host mom had me choose the hair color from a few different balls of yarn. My options were orange, bright pink and coral. My host mom hand a ball of blonde colored yarn sitting right next to her, but she did not offer it to me as an option for hair. I was very confused why my doll could not have natural colored hair. In the end I chose the coral colored yarn, and it actually looks okay. My doll travels with me, but I have not named her yet. When I do, I will give her a Tatar name since I made her in Tatarstan.

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Ice Cream and Rinoks

If you go in the summer to Russia or another country that is usually very cold, like Lithuania where I am now, they have ice cream stands everywhere. In my personal opinion it is always the season for ice cream, but I have heard from a reliable source that these stands are only around in the summer. I guess when it gets as cold as it does in Russia they don’t want a cold desert in winter. I always like hot food and hot coffee in summer and the opposite in winter. Regardless, today I decided I would see if they had any interesting ice cream flavors because I remember when I went to Ireland I found honeycomb ice cream. Well, luckily for me, they did have interesting flavors. Flavors like kiwi, watermelon, mango, blueberry, and so on. Some of these flavors you can find in the United States but, if you see watermelon or kiwi it would probably be a sorbet and not actual ice cream

Right now I am sitting at a park writing this blog post on my phone. I don’t know if anyone remembers when they used to have merry-go-rounds, tire swings and other play-structures at parks that used to be more fun than what they have now because now they are considered too dangerous so the structures have all been removed from the parks in the United States. It is always the things that children have the most fun with that they consider too dangerous. Children need to learn safety on their own somehow; we can’t keep them in sterile boxes. In Lithuania they still have these merry-go-rounds, and I am very jealous. I wish I was still a child so I could go play on them. I am also glad to see that this park is full; there are children and their parents everywhere spending time and enjoying the outdoors. In my opinion, this is how childhood should be. Too often in the United States today I see a parent hand a crying child their phone or their iPad to play with. When I see this, I think what a pity it is that these children are missing out on the rest of the world from such a young age.

As I sit in the park, I am sitting near an elderly woman who is speaking on the phone. She is speaking in Russian but it sounds strange to me and it is a little hard for me to understand because she has a Lithuanian accent. It is interesting being in this country right now, because the older generations usually speak only Russian and Lithuanian as a result of the Soviet Union. The younger generations speak Lithuanian and English. Some of them occasionally speak Russian, and many of them understand it even if they don’t speak it. Either way, I can speak in English to the younger people, and practice my Russian with the older.

I have been in Lithuania for almost a week now, and have had some time to observe this culture versus American culture or Russian culture. I know in Russia, people like to get married young. They get married right out of college and start a family. Friday is wedding day in Russia. I remember the first Friday I was there; I was walking around with my peer tutor for about an hour and a half. In that hour and a half I counted seven weddings. The following Fridays I decided not to count. After getting married, the women stay at home and cook and clean, and the men go off to work. People only seek a higher education (past our equivalent of undergraduate education I believe) if they are interested in becoming a teacher. Since many young people rush into marriage, there is also a very high divorce rate. People will then remarry to someone else who has a family from before as well, thus creating a sort of mess. In the United States, people are waiting until they are older and older to get married and start a family because people are caught up in their jobs and education. Another factor that I will mention that contributes to having late families, but I won’t discuss due to its controversial tendencies, is women in the work place and how having a child impacts their job positions. In Lithuania, I understand that in the city people tend to wait a bit to get married. They finish their education, maybe start some work and then decide to get married. However, I was told that in the country, people tend to have marriage patterns more like Russia. They get married right out of school, and the woman immediately goes home to work and start a family. I wonder how true this is though since today is Friday, and as I was walking around the streets I definitely spotted a few sets of brides and grooms. Perhaps they kept the regular day for weddings, and just get married at a slightly older age. If this is the case, it’s interesting to see how the Lithuanian culture has broken away from the Soviet Union over the past 25 year. It has been 25 years this year I believe since Lithuania regained its independence. They will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the human chain that ran from Lithuania through Latvia and to Estonia that was created at the end of the Soviet Union, with a bike race and some other festivities. I am glad I will be here for that.

Earlier today, I was walking up a street in Vilnius that I have walked through a few times now. The street splits in two and in the middle there is a sort if triangle of land. Usually this is empty with maybe only some chairs and canopies for people who want to sit outside restaurants and eat. Today the triangle had a sort of festival. It was like a Lithuanian version of a Renaissance Fair, but on a much smaller scale. The people at the shops were dressed up in costume, and everything looked hand made. One booth had food that I considered eating for lunch, but there was a group of rambunctious travelers that would not move out of the way of the sign so I could read it.

I returned to this area with the Lithuanian Renaissance Fair, and in the few hours I had been exploring other parts of the city, the festival had grown to cover some streets. If it is there again next weekend, or even tomorrow, perhaps I will return and examine their goods more closely. I am reluctant to buy anything from a place like this, because the products sold are often overpriced, or not really useful. I definitely want to buy some souvenirs in Lithuania, but I barely have more space in my luggage to carry much else. I am luck that my flight to St. Petersburg allows suitcases to be 23 kilos, instead of just 20 because this will allow me to have a little extra room for the souvenirs I intend to buy.

Again, I spent time individually drifting around the streets of Vilnius, and I stumbled upon a Russian Rinok. Rinok is a word in Russian that sort of means farmer’s market, but it is actually an open air market that we don’t have anything like in the United States. That is why I call it a rinok, and not a farmer’s market. When I was studying in Kazan’, the two guys who were in my class and I would often go to a rinok during our breaks because there was one right next to the institute where we studied. The rinok there and the one I found here are only partially open air. The majority of the paraphernalia that is being sold is sold inside. In a rinok you can find anything from clothes to butchered meat and raw fish to sweets and honey and other more practical items you might need to live. The first room in the rinok in Kazan’ was the meat room, and in the summer this is awful. I hated this room, not because of the sight; it doesn’t bother me to look at raw cuts of meat. The smell of raw meat sitting in a hot room in the summer, though, was one of the worst smells I have ever encountered. As I walked through this room with Hank and Peter, I would always hold my breath. Whenever Peter walked in front (it was not wide enough to walk side by side) he liked to dawdle a bit as I was trying to hold my breath to not smell the meat. We would go through the meat room, to the rinok almost every day so the guys could buy water, and just for an excuse to walk around in the middle of a four hour lesson. Sometimes we would go there for lunch because they had a very good Central Asian Cafe, and thankfully by the end of the program we would usually walk in through one of the side entrances, and avoid the meat room altogether. In Kazan’, most of the stands at the rinok were run by people from Central Asia. Here, in Vilnius, I say the rinok is Russian because as I was walking through it, all I heard were people speaking in Russian. No Lithuanian. Probably because it is a Russian thing, so that’s where all of the Russians in Vilnius do their shopping. It would have been exactly like being back in Kazan’ if Hank and Peter had been there with me. The only thing I bought in there was a chocolate bar from a vending machine (there were no vending machines in the rinok in Kazan’).