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.

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In Transit: From Vilnius to Petersburg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Another airplane picture).

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(Coming closer for landing).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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