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.

My Last Day in the Motherland… For Now

16/05/15

The next morning I woke up at about 8 because I was set to meet a group of people at 11 so that we could all go to the post office and send extra stuff home. This was very important to me as I would not be going home after the program as was the initial plan when I had left the United States 11 months earlier. Instead I would be traveling around Europe again, this time alone, but that meant that I could not bring with me two 50 pound (23 kilo) suitcases, because every time I wanted to check that extra bag, it would cost me an arm and a leg, not to mention the struggle of taking public transportation with those, and then trying to bring them from wherever I was dropped off to the hostel I would be staying at in any given city. It is not realistic to take a taxi to and from the airport in every location, because taxis become pricy, especially for tourists because the drivers like to increase the price when they see you are foreign. I had bought a carry-on suitcase when I went to Kazan’ a few weeks previously because I knew I would need it.

I spent my morning packing up one of the suitcases to send home and logging all of the contents (because you have to write them down during the shipment process, in addition to getting all of the paper items together that I wanted to send home. I ended up with a backpack full of notebooks and textbooks to send, and my suitcase. I think there were only three students who took advantage of the opportunity to send stuff home. Russian post is really slow, so I wouldn’t expect these things to arrive home for about a month, but at least it is not too expensive. It was about 5500 rubles to send home my 16 kilo suitcase and two packages of paper items, each weighing about 4 kilos (maybe about $100, probably a little more, and even though it seemed like a lot, I had to remember that each time I checked that extra bag, it would cost about $75, which would add up quickly). The whole process probably took about 1 ½ to 2 hours to complete because of the paperwork that had to be completed. Today, (about 2 weeks later) one of the packages of books has arrived home. The books do not have tracking numbers, although the suitcase does. I have checked the progress of the suitcase multiple times, but the last entry was when it got accepted through customs and into shipping in St. Petersburg, which also happened about two weeks ago. I can only assume that it is on a ship somewhere out at sea (it is cheaper to ship by land, so this is why it would be at sea and not in the air) on its way to the United States. Perhaps I will stop checking for progress for a week in the hopes that more information shows up the next time I look.

After I turned these items over to the Russian post, I went in search of a few last minute souvenirs even though I had just shipped stuff home to make room and so that my suitcase wouldn’t be overweight. I spent many hours arranging and rearranging the contents of my bag so that everything would fit, but making sure to put the heavier items in my carry-ons. In the end I had one 50 pound bag to check, one carry-on rolling bag and a backpack. When I finally finished packing I hung out with my host mom for the rest of the day and watched Russian television. She called a taxi for me to get to the airport after spending time calling all of her friends and asking if they knew the best taxi company. (A very Russian thing to do. Any time something interesting was on television, or my host mom wanted to tell someone some news, or maybe there was a holiday, she would spend a long time calling up all of her friends to tell them about it or ask whatever question she needed answered). My flight was around four or five in the morning, but I had to leave my host mom early at about one to get to the airport before the bridges went up. By taxi it only took about half an hour to 45 minutes to get to the airport, so I had to wait at the airport all night.

As I was leaving my host mom’s place, she told me that I would always be welcomed back and that if I ever came back to St. Petersburg, to come visit. I did leave her contact information for me, but I have never seen her use a computer. I know my host dad uses one to skype, so perhaps when he returns the information will be more useful.

What Goes Around Comes Back Around

The End of the Semester, Again.

15/05/15

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(End of the semester boat ride)

I would like to say that when I started writing this blog, I did not really know where I was going with it. I like to write and knew that some people close to me said they wanted to read about my travels, but I also knew that when I write I often give a lot of detail. This can be a good thing and a bad thing. A good thing in that those who choose to read my blog get a better picture of what see, or can better understand what I am experiencing, but bad in that each post ends up being a little longer, and then I don’t get around to writing some other posts because I run out of time. That has definitely happened since I started writing this blog, and despite my attempts to try to stay caught up, I still fall behind and have to jump to the next part because I can never catch up. So here I am again, skipping over months of my experience abroad and jumping to the next part of my blog.

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(They fed us little appetizers and champagne)

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(Smolnii in the distance)

My second semester abroad ended on May 15th, but today is actually May 31st. I wanted to write about my last few days in Russia going into my summer travels. Although I have spent most of my time in Russia this year, I have not written a lot about Russia, because that is when I am in class, and tired and out of time.

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(Peter and Paul’s fortress in the distance)

I think first I will give a little bit of background on what I did this last semester in Russia concerning academics, since that is the reason I am abroad in the first place, to study. This last semester in Russia I took five classes again. Usually in the program that I chose to participate in, people only take four classes their second semester in Russia.  I don’t know why my program is set up like that, but I suppose they have their reasons.

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(Inside the boat)

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(Coming to an end)

Before I realized the situation I was in this semester, I decided to pursue that fifth class because the idea of taking any less than 16 credits in one semester seems kind of ridiculous to me (with four classes I would have only been taking 14 credits), but more importantly I thought that more class time exposure to the language would help me in the long run. So, as the semester started I sought out approval from both my study abroad office back home as well as my study abroad program.

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(It is tradition to let all of the balloons go)

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(Even though it is not so great for the creatures of the earth)

At the beginning of the semester, on the first day, we took a placement test so that we could enter into our proper level of Russian. Here is where the situation that I mentioned I had been in, really started. The previous semester about 75 students participated in the program, while this semester only about 30-35 students did due to ongoing troubles between the governments of the United States and Russia that cause American parents to be over protective of their adult children, but that is their call and not mine. The larger program meant that the previous semester there were more levels available for the wider range of students. This second semester the level I should have been placed in, no longer existed, and I was the only one stuck in such a situation. It is true that the capabilities of each student in a class were much more widespread than they had been the previous semester, but they were not really inconvenienced by this. My placement test score fell directly between two levels, so at first I was placed in the lower level because they did not know what to do with me. I tried this out for a week as they instructed us to do if we were unsure of our placement, but the class was too easy for me, because I had already learned this information, so I decided to try out the upper level class. Although it was manageable, it was obvious that my grasp of the Russian language was lower than everyone else in the class. My vocabulary was obviously much weaker than the rest of the class, and my understanding  and ability to use some of the grammar was not as complete. Regardless of these inconveniences, I knew that I could learn something new in this class, which is what I was looking for, so I stuck with it. This meant that on top of having pursued the fifth class and being approved to take it, I was also in a level of Russian that was higher than where I should have been.

The classes I took were Russian Grammar and Conversation, like I had done the previous semester, as well as Advanced Translation, 20th Century Russian Literature, and Russian Civilization. Second semester students took Translation instead of Phonetics, since we had already completed that course the previous semester. Of all the courses, Translation was the hardest. No matter how hard I tried, I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere. I definitely improved, but the class progressed as well.

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After climbing St. Issac’s Cathedral)

On the last day of class – the 15th of May – I had two exams; one in Translation and one in Conversation. I had woken up at about 6 that morning because I couldn’t sleep, and I wanted to study. After the exams we had our closing ceremony, and then our program took us on a boat ride around the rivers that run through St. Petersburg. Boat rides are a very popular tourist attraction in St. Petersburg, and after having spent so long there, I still had not been on one, so it was good to go on one the last opportunity I had. By the time the boat ride was over I was exhausted. I had stressed myself out worrying about the test, which makes me tired, in addition to waking up early when I don’t usually go to bed at a reasonable time during the school year as it is. I returned home (to my homestay, which was really like a home to me) and really just wanted to nap, but because the semester was almost over I decided to spend time with my host mom since I did not know when I would see her again.

My host dad had been gone for quite a while towards the end of the semester because he has to travel for work, and unfortunately could not make it back before I left, so instead of a goodbye dinner with both of them, I had one with just my host mom. It was nice, but also very sad. I had lived with her for so long, that it was really like leaving home and not knowing if and when you could come back, whereas when I left the US it was kind of terrifying, but at the same time I had an end date, a date I would be coming home. (Of course, this date has changed since I was initially supposed to return to the United States after my program ended, but plans change).

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(The Stairs. There were quite a few).

I had a couple good friends this semester, so my friend Grisha (Gregory), our friend Nastya (who is from St. Petersburg), Max and I decided to spend that evening together climbing to the top of St. Isaac’s Cathedral (where I also had not yet been), because it has a really good view. Afterward, we went up with Max’s friend Dasha and went to a bar for a drink. We talked about staying out all night, (staying at the bars or clubs in St. Petersburg after midnight tend to become an all-night endeavor because the bridges to the islands open at a certain time to let ships pass through, and since many of us lived on islands, we would not have been able to return home) but I had stuff I needed to do in the morning, and they weren’t willing to commit to the whole night – which I had to do if I stayed out past midnight because I lived on an island. After that decision was made, I left the bar in a rush so that I could catch one of the last buses home, almost forgetting that I would not see these friends again for a long time.

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.

The End of the Semester

19/12/14

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

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

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

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(The salad)

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

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(My venison)

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

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(Pretty lights on my way home)

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

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.