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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From Nuremberg to Munich

23/12/14

In previous posts I apologize, I say I am sorry I could not post, I was sick or there was no internet. I know, oh but I know that you don’t read this, so why do I bother. I write my day down on paper and I see that you are busy and you do not read it. I was told I should write a blog. We will read it, they said, and yet, nothing. I am not offended or hurt, who wants to read the unedited ramblings of a young woman on her travels? Stories told on paper are different, are harder, so now, I write for myself. If these letters on paper bore you, you took too long, now they are for me.

On Tuesday we woke up early enough to make sure all of our belongings were packed up and could still have time for breakfast. Ali and I had been half joking about taking some of the bread with us for the train. I decided at the last minute that I didn’t want to bother, but Ali took a couple of pieces and wrapped them in napkins then slyly slipped them into her bag.

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(Entering the castle grounds)

After placing our luggage safely in the storage room, we proceeded to explore the castle that our hostel was a part of, but the part that we had not yet ventured into. We could only see the outside of it without paying, but, although castles can be really interesting, we decided not to pay to enter it. Perhaps there would be other opportunities for seeing more magnificent castles or areas. I have been in so many tour groups and on so many guided tours at this point that I tend to shy away from them unless they come highly recommended. Some guided tours can be really good, or the place the guided tours take you can be very interesting, but I didn’t think that in a castle such as this that it would be interesting enough to be worth my money.

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(The edge of our castle building from another area of the castle)

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(The castle had some interesting buildings inside the grounds, I think that middle one was a well)

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(The castle had a good view… of rooftops)

We had talked about taking our luggage down the hill with us after exploring the castle, even though we had a little bit of time to kill, so that we wouldn’t have to climb back up the hill. In the end we decided to climb back up the hill, which I was glad about because my luggage becomes very heavy after carrying it for some time, especially since I have Ali’s laptop in addition to my own in my backpack are resting on my shoulders.

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(More pictures of the castle)

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(The castle had a tower. At night a Christmas tree would light up in front of the already illuminated tower).

Instead of going straight back to the Christmas markets where we had spent the last few days, we spent some time wandering in some streets that did not have the markets. Since I still wasn’t feeling particularly well, I was not thrilled by the extra walking, but it was nice to see something other than the market fronts and shiny lights.

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(Double headed eagles, so common in Russia and Germany)

During our wanderings we happened upon a bakery of sorts. Our quest for peppermint had still not been completed but we found candy canes in this bakery. Unfortunately when I tried one, they turned out to be cherry flavored instead of peppermint. So, the quest continued.

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(Leaving the castle grounds)

Around lunch time we headed back to the market to buy something to eat before we headed up the hill to get our luggage so we could catch our train. This was the first train we would get on where we would use our Eurail passes which looked like useless pieces of paper that actually cost about $500 each. We weren’t sure exactly how they would work because people online suggested different methods in terms of their use, but our plan was basically to get on the train, pull out the pass when it was needed and write in the correct information.

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(Looking back at the castle)

Walking from the hostel on the top of a hill down to the train station was probably a 20 minute walk, which was not fun with all of my luggage and not feeling well on top of that. On the way to the train station, Kenzy and I bought some candied nuts again to eat on the train, Ali doesn’t like nuts, but she was happy with her bread. From all of the selections of candied nuts in the Christmas Market, I had only tried the vanilla almonds, but I liked them enough that I figured I did not need to try another kind.

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(A pretty side street spotted on the way down the hill)

This train ride was only supposed to take an hour leaving at 12:45 and arriving at two-ish because it was a high speed train. However it ran at least 40 minutes late so we arrived later than we had planned to. It did not spoil our travel plans that we arrived later than intended because our plan in each city has been to just take each day as it comes. We are traveling for over a month and two of us already experienced being under the weather on this trip, so it is better to take it slowly and enjoy as much as we can within reason. It would really ruin our plans, however, if one of us became too sick to leave their bed.

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(I probably forgot to mention we visited another church. It was large and beautiful of course).

When we arrived at the train station in Munich, it took us a while to find out where to go because of the different information desks for different purposes. When we finally found out, it was at least an hour later. We took two trams to get to our hostel. The actual trip from the train station to our hostel did not take an excessive amount of time because trams move rather quickly from place to place, but it seemed like forever because we were all carrying our luggage.

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(What can I say, I really like the high ceilings)

When we got to the area of the hostel, it was not hard to find because it was a huge building with international flags painted in circles on the front of it. The outside of the hostel was very nicely painted and the reception area did not seem too bad either. However, when we got to the halls that the rooms were located off of, it was not as well presented, but it was clean enough and we could sleep there, which is what counts.

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(Stained glass and the high ceilings. This church was interesting because inside it had small posters that told how the church was almost completely destroyed during World War II, but members continued to go to services even when it was in ruins and over time the church was slowly rebuilt, but regardless, members still went. That’s faith).

After checking in and finding that they had the most ridiculous system to unlock the door. It took us at least fifteen minutes to unlock the door, by which time Kenzy had already headed back down to the front desk to ask for another demonstration on how to unlock the door. I had unlocked the door accidentally after fiddling with it for a while.

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(Christmas decorations in the church)

When we finally got inside, we had a room with four beds, so because our group is only three people we wondered if they would room another random person with us.

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(I tried to take a picture of the front of the church, but it was too tall).

For the rest of the day (because it was pretty late by this time) we planned sort of what we would do the following days we were there. We also ran to a grocery store we had seen on our way to the hostel because we were in the city around the time of a major holiday and didn’t know when stores would be open.

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(Time to move on to the next city)

Other than that, the day was drawing to a close and Christmas was almost upon us. No other person showed up to take the empty bed that night, but we still had a few nights ahead of us.

A Train and a Pizza Parlor Game

05/11/14 

(The image is one of the only pictures I took that day, and I took it from the train).

On Thursday morning we got up at 6 a.m. to be ready by the time the taxi was scheduled to arrive at 6:30. I had hoped that we would be able to get our stuff together rather quickly and then eat some breakfast, but we ended up having to wait until we boarded the train to eat. The train ride was 5 to 6 hours from Yaroslavl’ to Kovrov, and the first leg of the journey was very enjoyable. Unfortunately as the train carried on along the countryside, it was required to pick up more passengers. At one of the stops, a whole group of Middle-Eastern men boarded the train. It wouldn’t have been so bad, but they were noisy and rambunctious and carried too much luggage with them. There is a weight limit of 33 kilos per person on passenger trains and they seemed to have a lot more. I am speaking of at least 20 men who each had this amount of luggage, they seemed to swarm in and take over the train. One of them thought it would be okay to throw one of his bags on top of my stuff, but even though I was flustered by the sudden influx of people I managed to tell him in Russian that that was not okay with me. I knew my friend and I would be departing the train sooner than they were and I didn’t want to have to dig my bag out. I also think that it is just inconsiderate to think it is okay to put your stuff on top of someone else’s without asking. What if they have something fragile in there?

The conductor did not like them very much either. He yelled at them quite a bit about how they were only allowed to have 33 kilos of luggage and how theirs looked like a lot more. He continued to yell at them as they spoke in their native tongue, telling them to speak only in Russian because it was rude to speak in a different language and he told them that their language was too noisy and not nice to listen too.

On long trips I cannot stay awake on transportation, so I slept most of the time even though it hurt my neck, but at least it helped the time pass. As we drew closer to our station, the same conductor who had been yelling at them men earlier was very kind to us and gave us updates on how soon we would arrive at our station. The cadence of his speech was very awkward and very hard for me to understand but I managed. I was glad to get off of the train and away from all of the noise.

All I had eaten so far was a piece of bread with poppy seeds (which prompted a conversation about Christina and me not being able to pass a drug test, which in turn gave into joking around about poppy seeds being a gateway drug to opium. I tripped over my words and the gateway drug to opium became a gateway drug to oatmeal. We go hard on oatmeal…), so when we got off of the train, we decided to look for a place to eat. We knew Kovrov was small, and initially we had planned to spend the day there walking around and seeing what a small Russian city was like. Unfortunately we did not factor our bags into the equation. We had to carry them around everywhere we went.

As we started our walk towards the street that ran straight outside of the train station, Christina’s wallet fell out of her pocket. Luckily she was able to pick it up and put it back in her pocket, but I thought for a moment that maybe she should move it if it fell out once because it might fall out again. Unfortunately I didn’t say anything. We continued to walk down the street and as we came to the end of the block and decided to turn around because we were not seeing anything more promising than what we had already seen, Christina realized her wallet had fallen out of her pocket again. We quickly retraced our steps again to see if it had been left on the ground (although I realized then that we didn’t check the corner we had just been standing on) but we didn’t find it. Christina started to become more and more agitated, which I understand, but I couldn’t deal with it because I hadn’t eaten. I asked her what was in the wallet, and after realizing that it was about 1500 rubles and her driver’s license, I agreed that it was unfortunate but that we needed to move on.

We went to a pizza place to eat because Christina said she still had other money. It was interesting to eat in Kovrov because it seemed as though they didn’t often run into people who speak English. We ordered a pizza to split (smaller than the regular size found in the United States). None of their pizzas looked normal exactly, but it was good to me since I was hungry. It is also hard to go wrong with pizza. We ordered cocktails with our pizza as sort of a comfort drink to Christina for losing her wallet (I think she was more upset about losing the actual wallet than the stuff inside it, but in general it not fun to lose things, especially personal items).

I remember part of the way through the meal she got a phone call from an unknown number and we both agreed that she shouldn’t answer it because how could someone get her Russian phone number? Since she didn’t pick up, they texted her a few minutes later, but her phone can’t read Cyrillic leaving the message to just be a bunch of boxes on the screen. I told her to forward the message to me to see if my phone could read it, and it could. Someone had been very kind and written to her in Russian that they found documents with the name Christina on them. She immediately called the number back, but the person didn’t answer. On the second try, a male voice answered, but Christina had trouble understanding him so she handed the phone to me. It was very hard to understand him because there was a lot of background noise and a woman talking too, but I got across where we were and what we were near and it was decided that they would meet near the train station. After hanging up, we waited for a bit to see if the man would call back when he got near the station, but eventually I sent Christina outside because I didn’t want her to miss this opportunity.

In the mean time I waited. I finished my portion of the pizza, but I felt like I couldn’t just sit there, so I ordered another drink which I made sure to drink very slowly. Christina returned probably after about 20 minutes with a huge smile on her face. All of the money and her license were still in the wallet. We looked in her wallet and speculated how the man had gotten her number, but the only thing I could find was a business card that had the numbers of program coordinators for our program back in St. Petersburg. He would have had to call one of those numbers first before being able to get Christina’s.

Christina ordered another drink in celebration instead of consolation this time. As we sat there, I found out that the man who had brought Christina her wallet was actually a young man. I thought it would have been an old couple, but it turns out that Russian’s are just nice people. Not that I thought they weren’t before, but they have helped us every step of the way on this journey.

Christina ordered a salad to conclude our meal, and we enjoyed seeing how long we could stay at the restaurant. The waiters and waitresses did not seem to become irritated with us, probably because we kept ordering new things. In the end the bill was smaller than a meal for two without drinks would be in St. Petersburg. When we decided it was finally time to leave the restaurant, I only had a 5000 ruble note, which is a really frustrating piece of money to have. It is sort of like a $100 bill; no one wants to accept it and no one wants to give you change for it. I decided to pay with it to see what would happen and have Christina pay me back later. The bill was less than 100 rubles for the two of us, but the change I got back was all in 100 ruble notes. There are two possibilities for the reasons behind this. Either the waiter just wanted to give me a hard time, or the restaurant genuinely did not have bigger notes, which I somehow don’t believe.

For the rest of the time in Kovrov we sat in the train station waiting.

The train ride to Vladimir was very short; it took only about 30 minutes. Before we left, we had looked up what transportation would take us from the train station to the hostel so we thought we were ready. As we sat at the bus stop outside the station in the cold watching bus after bus go by with the time, Christina started getting frustrated again. In the end we decided it would be good if she went back inside and looked up the transportation again. It turned out that a bus that had already passed us multiple times was the one we needed to take and we had been waiting for the wrong number the whole time, but at least we figured it out before the public transportation stopped running for the night.

To add a dark alley to a long day, it turned out the hostel was located in a small building in between apartment buildings, on a poorly lit side road. But, again, we made it safely and that is what matters.

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.