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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Through Snow and Fog, from Munich to Prague

26/12/14 Another Travel Day

Waking up the next morning, the first thing I saw was the snow covered ground. Even though we had not had a white Christmas, our boxing day decided it needed to be white. We had to get up and ready to be able to eat breakfast and then check out by 10:00 a.m., which is the common check out time at most hostels and hotels. Our train was scheduled for 12:44, so we decided to head straight to the train station because there was not time to do anything before our travel to the next city started. (I think I said that our last train left at 12:44 too but was late. I was wrong, although that one was late; it actually was scheduled to leave at 2:06. That is why that by the time we got to Munich, the daylight had gone and we did not have time to do much of anything).

This train ride would not be another easy one hour train; it would be six hours long, which meant we needed entertainment and snacks. Kenzy and Ali wanted to buy a deck of cards because none of us had thought to bring them for the trains that we would be taking from city to city. Unfortunately the only playing cards we could find in Munich cost 5 or 6 euros, which was more than they should cost anywhere, so we decided not to buy them there. Instead, Kenzy and I bought more candied nuts, which we proceeded to start eating before we boarded the train.

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(One of the very few pictures of the day, but this is of the slushy snow as we made our way out of Munich)

Over the six hours we spent our time napping for a short while and playing many games that did not require cards. The games included the type where you choose a category such as books, movie titles, song titles, or something else that you can think of many of that subject. Someone starts and whatever letter the title they said ends with, you have think of a title that starts with that letter. You also cannot reuse the same titles and the word “the” does not count in titles. We played this game first with song titles and later book and movie titles.

Another game we played Kenzy said was a German game she learned from her grandmother, although I cannot remember the name in German. We played it in English of course. As many people as you want can play, but each need some way to write information down. Usually this is written on paper, but we used our phones because we did not have paper to write on. There are six categories that are as follows: city, country, river, name, job, animal. One person goes through the alphabet as quickly or as slowly as they want in their head so others cannot hear what letter they are on at any given time. Eventually someone else needs to tell the person going through the alphabet to stop. That person tells everyone the letter they stopped on. At this point someone with a timer starts the clock for a minute and a half and everyone must try to think of something in each of these categories starting with the mentioned letter during that time. After the time is up, a score keeper must write down each person’s name to keep score on a piece of paper. If you get a correct answer in a category that no one else gets, you get twenty points. If someone else picked a different thing for that category and both answers are possibilities, you each get ten points. If you both picked the same thing in that category that is correct, you get five points. If you could not think of anything you get zero points for that category. For example, if “E” was chosen, I could write something like this:

City: Edinburg

Country: Ecuador

River: Euphrates

Name: Eleanor

Job: Entertainer

Animal: Eel

If someone else chose Edinburg for their city too, we would both get five points. If only I chose Edinburg for the city that starts with E, then I get ten points, but someone else could get ten points too if they chose a different city. If nobody else could think of a city that started with E, then I would get twenty points.

The river category is the hardest letter because rivers are not as commonly known as any of the other categories. It is interesting to play though because you can learn something you did not think of from the people around you.

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(In a restaurant we would later eat at)

Eventually we got to Prague and had to find our way to yet another hostel. There had been a slight booking problem, so we were only staying in this hostel for one night and then moving to another hostel the next day. Each time we go to a new city, we go to the information counter at the train station and ask them to point us in the direction of our hostel (what transportation would be the best to use and so on). Ali had led the way in the German cities because her German was the best, but now we were in an Eastern European city. Some of the words in Czech were similar enough to Russian that Kenzy and I could guess what they meant, which meant that some people probably spoke Russian if they did not speak English, but Prague is a very touristy city, so we didn’t encounter much of a problem using English.

The metro part of our journey to the hostel was pretty straight forward, but after we exited the metro station and found the tram station we were supposed to use, we did not know which direction we were supposed to go in. We saw a hotel nearby and went inside to ask them for directions. Hotels are very useful for travelers, even those who are not guests at any given one. The receptionists are usually very accommodating and willing to help and hotels either already have the information you need because they host tourists all of the time, or they can look it up for you. The inside of this hotel was done in a more old-fashioned style that was very pleasing to the eye. I remember that there were also some very tempting-looking cookies sitting on a table probably to welcome guests, which we were obviously not invited to enjoy because we were not guests staying at the hotel. The receptionist was very accommodating and pointed us in the correct direction – which was either direction; it just depended on whether we wanted to walk uphill or downhill with all of our luggage in tow. We chose to walk down hill, but when we got off at the top of the hill, there were multiple streets upon which the hill went down, so we found another hotel from which to ask assistance, again.

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(On the way down the hill to the hostel)

When we finally were headed in the correct direction down the hill, we didn’t realize how far up the hill we had come just to walk down the hill. It took us at least fifteen minutes to walk from the area that the tram had dropped us off to find the hostel. The only good part about this walk was noticing the restaurants on the way down the hill, and the view when there was a break in the buildings. Nearing the end of our walk, Kenzy and Ali kept questioning whether or not we had missed the hostel. I had pulled the map up on my GPS back at the train station (a trick I found out back in Kazan’, if the map was already loaded on wifi and you walk away from the wifi and don’t try to fiddle with the map too much, you can still see directions, your location, and your destination’s location), but I knew that a couple times my map had mislead me, yet I still wanted to walk further down the hill to see if we would find the hostel. We did find it pretty quickly after this; it was just getting into the hostel that turned out to be a problem. Most hostels have the front door open for customers, but because this this desk only had a receptionist at it during a few hours of the day, the door remained locked unless someone pressed a button from the inside to allow you to enter. The man on the other end of the speaker who allowed us to enter did not seem to understand that once we entered we could not hear him on the speaker that was outside. Either this or he still wanted to talk to us to let us know that our keys were in a drop box near the desk since no one was at the desk at this time to inform us of this.

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(Also on the way down the hill)

When we got to our room, we met two very nice Indian girls who would be our roommates for the night. We were a little confused at first because we thought the hostel had given one of us and one of the Indian girls a number for the same bed. In fact it turned out that two of us had been booked in one room and one of us in another. There was an extra bed in the 5 bedroom dorm because another friend was supposed to have traveled with the Indian girls, but could not come at the last minute. It shouldn’t really have mattered because it was only for one night, but it was a little disorienting that we had been booked in separate rooms because, although there is a disclaimer that says this can happen if the hostel is booked too full, I have never experienced this happening.

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(Pasta doesn’t make for great pictures, but it was really good)

In the end we all ended up sleeping in the same room because of the girls’ friend who left the extra bed. After we dropped our stuff off, we decided it was time to grab dinner and then head to bed. Because the Czech Republic is in the European Union, some places will accept Euros, but the country has its own currency that most places prefer you to use, so we had to find a place that was willing to accept Euros since we had not yet withdrawn crowns. This place ended up being an Italian place that we had spotted on our way down the hill. We all ordered different pasta dishes, and in the end, a Czech beer. For some reason Czech beers are something that are recommended for people to try, and they are very good, but I guess it is one of the lesser known beer countries unless you live in Europe (maybe now they are becoming more well-known). Dinner over, we went back to the hostel and got ready for bed.

A Russian Morning to You too

21/12/14

(I am sorry for the delay in posting. The combination of me being under the weather and choosing to sleep instead of write at times, combined with the “free wifi” at previous hostels that my computer won’t actually connect to, I seem to have fallen behind. I hope to start posting twice a day, or 3 times every 2 days to try to catch up, but I don’t think these extra posts will be regular, only when I have time to write something extra).

The next morning we woke up and packed up since we had to check out by 10:00 a.m. When we finally made it downstairs to check out, we decided it would be ideal to ask about the two bags that were supposed to come into the airport that day. Kenzy and I talked to the man at the desk in Russian while Ali waited nearby. Another man showed up who also spoke Russian and, although the bags had not yet arrived, we ended up having a very friendly conversation with them about Kenzy and me studying Russian in St. Petersburg, which prompted one of the men to pull out his phone with the comment that St. Petersburg was very beautiful and look, he had pictures.

This conversation led to the exchange of numbers and other needed information in case the bags did show up, but in such a way that these men were willing to work with us and call us if anything did arrive.

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(First glimpse walking into the Christmas Markets)

It was not a particularly cold day, especially when carrying luggage around, but gray clouds covered the whole sky making pictures difficult. The first thing we did was make our way across town to the next hostel. We had to stop at a central metro station for a while in order to orient ourselves, but moved on to the hostel after that. This hostel Kenzy had mentioned that she and Ali had been planning to stay in it for a while. It was located in part of a castle (what was once the location of the Imperial Stables, but had been turned into an international hostel) that was central to Nuremberg in what used to be a militarily strategic location, which meant it was on top of a hill. Since Kenzy was the only one who had her bag at the time, she experienced the full impact of the hill. Ali and I only carried what we had used as carry-ons on the plane. Even without the bags to carry up the hill, it was not a small hill. Once we made it inside, a snappy German man immediately informed us that we could not check in until 3:00 p.m., which we did not care about, we just wanted a luggage storage room so that we could set our stuff down and actually enjoy our first day in Nuremberg.

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(First glimpse of the castle)

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(There were horse drawn carriages giving people tours of Nuremberg, pulled by some of the biggest horses I have ever seen).

After we were granted a storage room, Ali called the airport where her luggage was supposed to come from and I tried to call the number I had been given by Aeroflot representatives. Throughout the day we tried this number quite a few times and never had any luck with someone picking up the phone. I tried that and other airport numbers enough times that I ran through the money that Kenzy had put on her Russian phone should something like this occur. I used her phone because I did not have mine with me.

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(We came back down to the markets to find them more crowded, but not as crowded as they would become).

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(Different parts of the market had different names, this was the children’s section, but good food belongs to everyone, so we visited it).

We spent our day wandering around the markets and trying some food here and there, but since we couldn’t try everything in one day we spent some time scoping out what we might want to try in the following days. I had woken up feeling a little under the weather and with that on top of the worry of not having my luggage returned to me I just felt like the day was dragging by despite how much I tried to enjoy it. At one point we stopped by Starbucks to ask for free water and take a break from walking around, but we were on our feet for the majority of the day. Even when eating, we would buy street food and eat it wherever we happened to be.

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(In the children’s area)

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(There were lots of children)

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(and things for them to do)

Although we spent most of our time in the markets there was the occasional wandering into non-market areas. One that I remember particularly well was a bridge over a small river. I seem to like scenes with water, tree branches and birds or ducks on gray days; I think they are rather picturesque, as cliché as that term is. What was before me in that river was exactly that type of scene.

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(The ducks in the river were either black or white, no in-between)

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At the end of the day we had potato soup served to us in a bread bowl on a napkin, that we also ate standing up. It was very good, but, although I enjoy bread bowls, I always wish there was less bread and more soup because I never eat all of the bread anyway. Regardless, the soup was very good on a cool night, even though it had pieces of bacon in it which I don’t like.

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(As the day got darker, the markets started lighting up)

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(The light shining through reflective objects)

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(You could better see the Christmas decorations)

After eating dinner we walked back up the long hill to the hostel to check in. When we checked in we asked if we could barrow their phone to make a local phone call and they said yes, but once it was past 8:00. When we got up to the room, there were six beds, two of which had already been taken. There were two Asian girls who had basically taken over the room. They had done laundry and hung their clothes on hangers in any available area in addition to taking a roll of toilet paper from the bathroom for their own personal use. It was a little bit odd, but not the end of the world.

We headed back down to the front desk at 8:00 and made the necessary calls to the airport again, which was, again, useless. This time we also called the men at Hotel Moldova, which required me to talk on the phone in Russian.

In the end I had to call the man at Hotel Moldova about 3 or 4 times because the baggage hadn’t come in. During one of these calls it sounded like he had called the airport for me and had inquired about when my luggage would arrive. Either that or the airport called him so that he knew what to tell me. Finally he told me to call him back at ten and the luggage was in. At the time when I went down to make the ten o’clock phone call, Ali came down as well in order to call the airport again to see where her bag was. Her bag had already arrived at the hostel, which we found when we got down to the front desk. Kenzy was kind enough to venture all the way across Nuremberg with me to keep me company while I collected it, which I appreciated very much since it was dark and Hotel Moldova is not located in the best area. It took about 24 hours for the people who work for the Frankfurt airport to make the 3 or 4 hour trip that Kenzy and I made the night before to drop off my bag. I was just glad I got it back all in one piece and that the Russian men had been so accommodating and helpful throughout the process.

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(On the way back up the hill, we stopped to take pictures)

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(Really only as an excuse to take a break though, although the lit-up buildings were pretty)

On the way back I got to experience what it was like to travel with the luggage and later climb the hill with it. On the way up the hill I started singing Keep Holding On by Avril Lavigne. Specifically the part that goes, So far away, I wish you were here… in direct reference to the location of the hostel at the top of the hill and me at the bottom of the hill with a heavy bag. At this point Kenzy joined in and, although we didn’t realize we knew so many of the lyrics, we sang a good portion of the song as we climbed up the hill.

The Start of Our Journey

20/12/14

This initially was written as a continuation of the last blog post, but it became too long.

The next morning I got up at 7:30, showered, ate breakfast and finished packing everything I could not pack the night before. I left my house at 9:00 (my host-parents did not bother to get up to say goodbye, but I left them a box of chocolates and a note) and went to the airport using public transportation. My flight was not until 12:30, but 12:30 is the middle of the day on a Saturday so I did not know how airport traffic would be. I arrived at the airport around 10:30, just in time for check-in to start so I didn’t have to wait around with my luggage. After making it through security, all there was left to do was wait. As I sat and waited in the Pulkovo Airport I worried about my connecting flight. Perhaps I had booked the two flights too close together.

My first flight left ten minutes late and arrived in the Sheremyetevo Airport at 1:40 p.m. and my next flight (I thought) was at 2:30. This left me 50 minutes to make it through the airport, including passport control and security again, from a domestic terminal to an international terminal. Those 50 minutes included the time I would have to wait to leave the plane, which would be at least ten minutes from my position closer to the back then the front. I was able to skip over a few of the rows of seats I would have had to wait behind because while other people were still pulling their coats on, I already had my luggage out of the overhead compartments and was headed down the aisle. As soon as I had enough space to walk, I was literally running through the airport following the signs that told me where to make an international connection.

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(I didn’t take many pictures because we were traveling all day, but I liked these clouds with the sun shining on them).

When I arrived at passport control I was out of breath, but there seemed to be no line so I was able to walk up to one of the desks almost immediately. However, when I got there, the man at the desk seemed to take forever with my passport as though he was confused by some information he was receiving from it. It wasn’t until after I was through passport control that I realized a small line was forming at the security check point. Even though I had already been through security in St. Petersburg, I had to do it again in Moscow because of the rules of domestic and international flights. I remember standing behind a man, being that annoying person who is literally tapping their foot and huffing with impatience often enough to make anyone want to tell you to stop. I made it through security without much problem. I am accustomed to flying enough that I rarely make mistakes going through security, although it is hard to keep track of which countries want your shoes off or on or want you to take your laptop out, but other than that I think that airport security is generally straightforward with similar requirements. (There was one male in my study abroad program this last semester who, as we were preparing for travel week and flight information was being provided for us, said he was usually stopped at the airport for his contact solution because his containers were too big. To this, Liz promptly replied that many of us wear contacts and don’t have a problem, you just have to put it in your checked bag, or use travel sized containers. The stupidity of some people when it comes to these things astounds me sometimes. Airport security is not that hard, even if it is a little bit confusing and intimidating at times).

After I made it through security, I was running again. When I booked the flight, I did not remember booking something with such a short layover. After I found my gate I was dismayed because I thought they had already boarded the flight and closed the gate. It was about 2:05 p.m. when I got there, 5 minutes before the time I thought the gates were supposed to close and I didn’t understand why they had closed early. I spent another few minutes wandering around the terminal in a state of worry and consumed with frustration, looking for an Aeroflot representative who could help me.  They don’t have the information desks in Russia like they do in airport terminals in the United States where you can get in line and ask for help if you need it. Instead I had to find another gate that was going to have an Aeroflot flight. I finally did and told a lady about my problem, explaining in rushed, and probably awful, Russian that the gate had already closed and that I had been on time to my flight, not even knowing if she could help me. At first she told me that my gate was 21, which I told her I knew and explained again that the gate was closed. She looked at my boarding pass again and told me that the 2:30 was the boarding time and not the departure time and the plane had not even started boarding yet. I guess it is better to run through the airport thinking you will be late and be on time then it is to actually be late.

I sat down for a bit and waited and bought (accidently) carbonated water, which is very popular in Russia, because I was so thirsty after running through the airport. As boarding time drew closer, I stood up to move towards the gate and ran into my friend Kenzy, who I would be traveling with. From this leg of the journey we would be together for the rest of the way. We exchanged our stories of our days traveling so far, where I ran through the airport while Kenzy sat in TGI Friday’s and had a sundae (because one of our friends had been talking to her about it before that and it sounded good) while surrounded by ALL of the other Americans in the terminal, also sitting in TGI Friday’s enjoying their lunch.

The plane ride was like any other plane ride with as many comforts and discomforts as one can handle. I think that Aeroflot gives its passengers a bit more space than other airlines and one plus is that they ALWAYS give you food, even if the flight is only an hour long, where as I have flown other airlines like SAS and not eaten all day because they only give you tea and coffee for free. One of the reasons that Aeroflot gives you space and food is because they have a terrible reputation for being an unsafe and generally not very good airline. They have been working for a while (I am not sure how long) to change their reputation, but that takes time and effort, so they have just been trying to make their airline that much better than other airlines. On our 3.5 hour long flight we were offered a full dinner with wine or juice, as well as tea or coffee to drink after if we desired.

During this flight, the girl sitting next to me decided it would be a good idea to paint her nails. I don’t know why she decided to do this in such close quarters, but that coupled with the young boy kicking the back of my seat made for an unpleasant flight. Coupled with these discomforts was the constant worry that because my connection would have been tight if I hadn’t bothered to run from one terminal to another, I wondered if my luggage would make it on my next flight.

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(The sun setting over the wing of the plane was beautiful)

Kenzy and I were on the same flight, but we were not sitting in the same part of the plane, so when it came time to get off, I was swept along by the rest of the crowd while she was at the back still waiting to get out. As I made my way up to the passport control counter in Germany, the officer asked me if I was traveling alone, so of course I mentioned Kenzy. Then I was asked why we weren’t together, because apparently this was bad, and I tried to explain the situation where we had been sitting in different parts of the plane. Kenzy told me later that she was stuck behind a Russian babushka, who, despite the unidirectional flow of people, asked directions to the luggage pick-up area and was disappointed that she had to go through passport control before getting her luggage. The officer then proceeded to ask why I was acting nervous, which was only because I was hot wearing a full jacket in an airport and worrying about my luggage.

When I did finally make it to the baggage claim area, I found that my bag had indeed not arrived. I waited around for a small amount of time to see if Kenzy would come out, but I thought it would be more efficient if I went ahead and declared my lost bag. When I was finished giving the information needed, I went out and found Kenzy.

From the airport we made our way from one bus to a train station to another bus station. We had flown into Frankfurt because it was less expensive, but that meant we needed to take a bus to Nuremberg. When we arrived at the bus station, we found that the bus was delayed 40 minutes, so we went back into the train station to eat dinner.

We had not been looking around for very long when we found a place that sold burritos. Okay, so they weren’t Mexican burritos, but we had not had burritos since we had been in the United States.

When we went out to the bus stop around the new departure time, it took us a bit of confusion, but we finally found the bus and it actually left exactly 40 minutes late.

We arrived in Nuremberg rather late and had to make our way from the random location the bus dropped us off to where our hostel was located. It was an adventure and a task to complete this in a country where we did not speak the language. The metro was decorated in orange tiles and because the maps were the only empty parts of the walls, many of the homeless people chose these as optimal sitting locations. This meant that we had to find a map with no homeless people below it that we could contemplate until we figured out what to do. The trip from the bus station to the hostel took us probably around an hour since we had trouble figuring out the maps. We ended up in a poorly lit area, wandering down the street we knew the hostel was on. The hostel was called Hotel Moldova, although it was definitely not a hotel.

Kenzy knows a few more words in German than I do, however many people in Germany know at least a little bit of English which is how we had managed to get by up until this point. When we went to check in, we first tried English and then German, but our little bit of German was not enough at this point. Clued in by the name, Hotel Moldova, a Russian flag on the outside of the building and directions in Russian, Kenzy thought to ask if the man at the desk spoke Russian. He did, so we were able to communicate with more ease, although it was odd that we encountered the need to use Russian on our first night in Germany.

We went up to our room and I was introduced to Ali for the first time. She had studied German when she was little and after we told her our experience with the man speaking Russian, Ali commented that she hadn’t thought her German was as rusty as they had made it seem.

Ali’s bag was also lost in transit, so the only complete bag we had was Kenzy’s. Both Ali’s and my bag were supposed to arrive the next day, but I had not been told when the next day mine was supposed to arrive, which was a problem since we were going to another hostel the following night. It also was also problematic because I could not shower or change clothes and I did not have my toothbrush packed with me.

The room was small. Three beds were crammed into it with the sheets, blankets and pillows already in place. Hostels that make the beds for you make me uncomfortable because usually the linens are placed in a clean stack on top of each bed for the users to order themselves. There was a sign on the door that the hostel had become non-smoking earlier that year, but we could still smell stale smoke on the sheets covered up by washing with scented fabric softener or something and perhaps sprayed with another agent to help mask the scent. In one corner was a small television with a DVD player attached. The hostel had no wireless internet and we did not try to turn on the television to see what else it didn’t have to offer. Although I did not particularly like this hostel, we had all made it to the same location with a place to sleep and I could say, with a little bit of adventure, that the trip was officially starting.

It Wasn’t So Straightforward

06/11/14

When I arrived in Vladimir the night before, the first thing I noticed were the hills. St. Petersburg is a very flat city and since we had only traveled to other flat cities from there, I hadn’t realized that I missed uneven terrain.

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(Another example of poor understanding of painting buildings)

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(But they also have beautiful buildings – the blue one on the corner)

Christina and I had a late morning. Unfortunately the lady below me snored very loudly so I could not sleep well. I listened to rock music to drown out all of the noise she made and although that worked, I also know music interrupts peoples’ circadian rhythms when they are trying to sleep, so perhaps it wasn’t the best answer to my problems. That morning again we realized we didn’t have food for breakfast, so we decided to go in search of a café for brunch.

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(A random brick church we found on our wanderings)

We picked the café because it said it had a vegan option on the menu, which I was really looking forward to. When we actually looked at the menu we couldn’t find the vegan food, which was very disappointing, but I suppose I could have asked. At the café we both ordered blini and fruit, the blini was very good, but the waitress forgot about the fruit. When we reminded her, she apologized, but proceeded to only bring fruit for one person. We decided to share that fruit instead of asking again for more fruit, so although the situation worked out, but it was still very frustrating. To make the situation more unsatisfying, the waitress of course heard that we had accents and tried to speak to us in English instead. I guess this was her way of trying to be kind and make it easier for us, but I am here to learn Russian so I want to talk to the waitress and order my food in Russian, I don’t want her to talk to me in English. This caused me to later go on a rant to Christina (in Russian) of what I would say to someone if the try to speak to me in English at a restaurant again because I am tired of people always trying to speak to me in English when I am trying to practice my Russian. I said I would tell the waitress or waiter that I am trying to learn Russian and if they don’t speak to me in Russian and let me practice than I will go find a different restaurant at which to eat.

When we left the café, we spent the day wandering where we pleased in order to see the city, but making sure we saw a few key churches and other pieces that were important to Vladimir. The day started out misty, but as it went on, it turned into fog so that our wanderings were smothered in a pool of milky obscurity.

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(The Golden Gate)

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(The church off to the left of the gate)

The first place we went was to something called the “Golden Gate,” which we actually happened on by accident shortly after leaving the café. Only the top was gold, so I am still mystified as to why it was called the Golden Gate, but places don’t always have logical names. The gate was located in the middle of the street, and there didn’t seem to be a way to actually walk up to it since I didn’t see any crosswalks leading up to it, but I also felt that if I were able to walk up to it, I don’t know what I would do there because it was really just something to look at. Next to the Golden Gate was an unattractive dirt mound that we assumed served as an observation deck, so we took the opportunity and went up there. It gave a view of the side of the Golden Gate and the road below, so I didn’t really understand the point of it. The one building it did give a good view of was a brick church off to the left of the gate.

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(A church near the stone cherries and observation deck)

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(Looking out from the observation deck)

After some more wandering and finding another observation deck (upon which we found a large sculpture of stone cherries that I did not get a picture of because there was always a crowd around it), Christina and I approached this brick church to go inside. Inside it turned out to be a museum we had read about that we decided we would be interested in seeing if we found it, but that we didn’t want to specifically seek it out. I guess we found it. I am glad we found it too because it had some beautiful pieces inside. The museum was of lacquered boxes, embroidery and glass. There weren’t very many embroidered pieces in the museum, but I was okay with that because I had seen more beautiful embroidery in Lithuania. We were allowed to take pictures anywhere in the museum, but it was very hard to take pictures of the glass work because the displays had lighting that continuously changed. We probably spent half an hour in the museum, and it was beautiful but the tour groups made the experience very frustrating because it was a small museum trying to fit too many people.

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(Some examples of lacquered boxes at the museum)

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(This one reminded me of Swan Lake)

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(Some examples of the glass work follow)

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(It was very hard to take pictures of the glass because of the changing lighting and the mirrors placed behind the pieces)

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(Trying to not be in the picture here, but the mirrors make it difficult)

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By the end of the daylight hours, Vladimir became so foggy that we could not see the top of a church we visited clearly, and we could not see anything beyond another sightseeing platform we visited. We finished visiting all of the areas that we wanted to for the day and decided that trying to see anything at night would be almost useless because the fog was too thick.

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(A monument, I am not sure what to, but it had a different person on all three sides)

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(Notice as the pictures get progressively foggier)

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(We could only see clearly the objects that were within a few yards of us)

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(It made taking pictures very difficult – this is a church)

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(The front spire of the church after they lit it up for the night, the inside of this church was poorly lit, but very beautiful)

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(This is a different church. We went inside of this church the next day and it turned out to be a very poorly constructed museum)

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(The same church from a distance)

For dinner we went to a Russian restaurant that apparently brews its own beer. The menu was a bit confusing because it had the beer list as a list of dishes that apparently were supposed to go with the beer. In the end I ended up with a plate of shrimp off of this menu. I enjoyed the shrimp except that they still had everything on, so for each one I had to go through the same process of taking their shells off and it got very tiring towards the end.

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.