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.

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.