One part of a day can define the memory of that day…

07/11/14   

It is interesting that the definition of a crowded bus in Russia changes between a big city like St. Petersburg and a smaller city like Vladimir.

I will explain this, but let me tell my story first.

As an introduction, at the beginning of the program during orientation we were told that Russians don’t have the same sense of personal space as people from the United States, and this has proven to be very true. Even when each person is pushed up against the person next to them, more people will try to enter the bus because they don’t want to wait for the next one.

Now I will get to the story.

It was Friday, our second to last day traveling before we returned to our host city. We had planned a trip to a neighboring city called Suzdal’ for the day (which is only about an hour bus ride), but both of us felt ill that morning and changed our plans as we were waiting at the bus stop.

We went back into the center of Vladimir instead and had a calm day first visiting the inside of a church we had gone to the night before, only to discover that it was a poorly put together museum.

We took more pictures of the church with the spire that hid itself in the fog the day before as the air was more clear, and noticed a gathering of people near the church. The people carried red flags with yellow writing and symbols (think the colors of the flag of the Soviet Union). The flags read the initials КПРФ, which I believe stands for the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, one of the very active political parties in Russia. Christina didn’t notice them, so I was glad I did, that way we avoided any unwanted attention from them.

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(A clearer picture of this church)

We moved on to a nearby cafe to rest a little because although we hadn’t done much, we still both weren’t feeling ourselves. I ordered a coffee and a macaroon, while Christina ordered something I had never heard of. It looked like dry oatmeal oats that she simply poured milk over, but I am not sure that this is actually what it was.

As we sat at the cafe I continue to feel worse and more exhausted, so eventually we left and went back to the hostel. We both took a two or three hour nap and I woke up feeling much better, but rather hungry.

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(My coffee was pretty)

We decided to go out of the hostel and look for a place to eat instead of eating the food we had. The map had showed us that there was an Italian place nearby, however the map to this restaurant didn’t take into account the gates and fences that barred our ability to get there. We walked around for about 20 minutes trying to figure out how to get there and after we finally did find the restaurant, it turned out to be closed. We decided to look for another place since the map had shown other restaurants near enough to us, but as we were walking, the street started to look empty. Christina insisted that we keep going because other people were walking on this street so it must lead somewhere. I had a guess of where it lead because of the direction we were headed in, but I wasn’t sure. We ended up on a very dark sidewalk set back from the road next to a bunch of trees in an area that looked like it had a river or a creek, but it was too dark to tell. The only comfort was that it was beautiful, but there were also quite a few pedestrians walking on the same sidewalk.

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(They always seem to arrange napkins in this flowery formation in cafes and restaurants in Russia)

We ended up where I had expected we would, in the city center which we normally took the trolleybus to get to. As we walked along the street looking for a place to eat, we passed the Golden Gate again and saw that it lit up at night. Shortly after that we found a restaurant that looked popular because it had many people inside, so we decided to try it. For me, one way to judge a restaurant on whether the food is good and if it is reasonably priced is by the amount of people in it.

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(The Golden Gate lit up)

The restaurant was split into a few separate areas instead of being one large open room like many restaurants in the United States tend to be. After we had sat down and ordered our food and a glass of wine to accompany it, a young man showed up and was seated near us. He was obviously already intoxicated, and all he ordered was vodka and what looked like a chaser of some sort. A little while later he stumbled over to us uninvited pulled up a chair at our table and promptly sat down. Apparently he became interested because he heard us speaking English. He asked the waitress for a bottle of champagne for us, which I tried to signal her that we did not want it, but he was a big drunk man and we couldn’t really do anything.

He asked us our names, so I told him my name was Masha and that Christina’s was Krysta because it was the first name I thought of. I did most of the talking since Christina didn’t understand much, but we both wanted to get out of there. Christina’s food had already come, but she wasn’t eating it. Her choosing not to eat it wasn’t going to help us get out of there, but she seemed too distressed. After my food came, I told her to eat because I wanted to get the check and leave as soon as we could.

The champagne came and the guy (I never asked his name) made us stand up to toast. After we sat, he proceeded to ask us about American politics since the midterm elections had just happened and Republicans had gained the majority in both houses. I have no interest in getting into a discussion about American politics with a Russian much less a drunken Russian man, so I told him that we were more interested in international politics and didn’t know much about what’s going on in the United States since we were not there, so we can’t say anything about it. He kept trying to ask, but it was lucky in this instance that he was intoxicated because I didn’t have to say much to get off of the subject. After some time he wanted to have a cigarette break with us, but neither of us smoke or have ever smoked. We had to tell him this over and over again because he kept trying to get us to come with him even to keep him company, but apart from not liking cigarette smoke, we had no interest in going out of the crowded restaurant with him. As he was getting up to leave, he asked one of the people at another table in the room if they wanted to smoke with him, but they declined as well. His presence was making everyone’s experience unpleasant.

Finally he left and as soon as he did we asked for the check. Christina was still eating, but we wanted to ask for it at a time when the guy wasn’t in the room. I also moved his chair back to the proper table, but it didn’t do much to prevent him from joining us again.

When he returned, he picked up my glass of champagne and drank it in one gulp. The champagne wasn’t bad, but I didn’t want it so I didn’t really care. He pulled his chair back up and brought his vodka with him this time. He was already very drunk, having knocked over one of the champagne glasses, but I guess he wanted to take more shots. I kept having to move the glasses and the bottle further and further back from him as he became drunker and started having less precise motor control of his movements.

He was very caught up on my name because I had told him it was Masha. He didn’t understand why I had a Russian name and wasn’t Russian. He kept asking me to explain it, but I just asked him why I shouldn’t have a Russian name.

When he got tired of asking about my name, he picked up Christina’s hand and kissed it, at which point she told him she had a boyfriend. He took this as information that both of us had boyfriends, which I don’t, but he proceeded to ask their names. Christina’s boyfriend’s name is very American and he could not understand it, so he moved on to me. I scrambled around for a guy’s name and told him that my boyfriend’s name is Tyler, which was the name of my first boyfriend. I made sure to say the name in a very American way, instead of Russianizing it. Luckily with how drunk he was he didn’t notice my delay as I tried to think of a name.

After Christina scrambled to finish her dinner, I told him we were going to use the bathroom. We did go to the bathroom, but there we talked about what our next plan of action should be. Christina had been messaging her boyfriend, who said that we should either take a taxi back to the hostel so he couldn’t follow us, or we could tell the waitress or manager he made us uncomfortable. I thought this would be great advice for the United States, but we were in another country where things don’t work quite the same. The chances of a taxi being nearby were not very high and I thought that it would be unnecessary to take a taxi. As to the advice about telling the manager or waitress, I don’t know the word for manager in Russian, although I do know how to tell them that he scared us. I had also been measuring their physical states in my head. The guy who had been talking to us obviously had some muscle on him; he was not a small man and just because he was drunk did not mean that that muscle wouldn’t be used. The only male staff member I had seen in the restaurant was very scrawny and the rest were small females. I decided our best option would be to get our coats from the coat check and slip out.

We did just that and it worked. We speed walked to the bus stop, but there was no sign of him following us. Even though we didn’t see him we wanted to get out of the area. Even if he had followed us I don’t know if he would have been able to keep up because he was so drunk that he was knocking things over and stumbling around, however I know that a really determined drunk person can accomplish a lot so it was good that we didn’t have to take any chances. As we got on the bus, I realized that it was more crowded then I had seen a bus in one of these smaller cities, but compared to crowded busses in St. Petersburg, there was definitely enough room on it for 10 or 15 more people. We got on the bus, but it seemed that other people who had been waiting for the same bus decided it was too crowded, so they continued to wait.

When we got back to the hostel I told Christina that I thought he had been married and was probably a relatively new husband who isn’t enjoying marriage. He was wearing a gold band on his ring finger on his right hand. I think I have mentioned before that Russian’s wear wedding rings on their right hand because there is an artery or vein or something that runs from your heart to that finger.

We were both very disappointed about this experience because it could have been a very good meal and an enjoyable dinner, but instead it had all been ruined by a drunk man.

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In Transit: From Vilnius to Petersburg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Another airplane picture).

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(Coming closer for landing).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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