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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What Goes Around Comes Back Around

The End of the Semester, Again.

15/05/15

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(End of the semester boat ride)

I would like to say that when I started writing this blog, I did not really know where I was going with it. I like to write and knew that some people close to me said they wanted to read about my travels, but I also knew that when I write I often give a lot of detail. This can be a good thing and a bad thing. A good thing in that those who choose to read my blog get a better picture of what see, or can better understand what I am experiencing, but bad in that each post ends up being a little longer, and then I don’t get around to writing some other posts because I run out of time. That has definitely happened since I started writing this blog, and despite my attempts to try to stay caught up, I still fall behind and have to jump to the next part because I can never catch up. So here I am again, skipping over months of my experience abroad and jumping to the next part of my blog.

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(They fed us little appetizers and champagne)

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(Smolnii in the distance)

My second semester abroad ended on May 15th, but today is actually May 31st. I wanted to write about my last few days in Russia going into my summer travels. Although I have spent most of my time in Russia this year, I have not written a lot about Russia, because that is when I am in class, and tired and out of time.

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(Peter and Paul’s fortress in the distance)

I think first I will give a little bit of background on what I did this last semester in Russia concerning academics, since that is the reason I am abroad in the first place, to study. This last semester in Russia I took five classes again. Usually in the program that I chose to participate in, people only take four classes their second semester in Russia.  I don’t know why my program is set up like that, but I suppose they have their reasons.

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(Inside the boat)

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(Coming to an end)

Before I realized the situation I was in this semester, I decided to pursue that fifth class because the idea of taking any less than 16 credits in one semester seems kind of ridiculous to me (with four classes I would have only been taking 14 credits), but more importantly I thought that more class time exposure to the language would help me in the long run. So, as the semester started I sought out approval from both my study abroad office back home as well as my study abroad program.

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(It is tradition to let all of the balloons go)

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(Even though it is not so great for the creatures of the earth)

At the beginning of the semester, on the first day, we took a placement test so that we could enter into our proper level of Russian. Here is where the situation that I mentioned I had been in, really started. The previous semester about 75 students participated in the program, while this semester only about 30-35 students did due to ongoing troubles between the governments of the United States and Russia that cause American parents to be over protective of their adult children, but that is their call and not mine. The larger program meant that the previous semester there were more levels available for the wider range of students. This second semester the level I should have been placed in, no longer existed, and I was the only one stuck in such a situation. It is true that the capabilities of each student in a class were much more widespread than they had been the previous semester, but they were not really inconvenienced by this. My placement test score fell directly between two levels, so at first I was placed in the lower level because they did not know what to do with me. I tried this out for a week as they instructed us to do if we were unsure of our placement, but the class was too easy for me, because I had already learned this information, so I decided to try out the upper level class. Although it was manageable, it was obvious that my grasp of the Russian language was lower than everyone else in the class. My vocabulary was obviously much weaker than the rest of the class, and my understanding  and ability to use some of the grammar was not as complete. Regardless of these inconveniences, I knew that I could learn something new in this class, which is what I was looking for, so I stuck with it. This meant that on top of having pursued the fifth class and being approved to take it, I was also in a level of Russian that was higher than where I should have been.

The classes I took were Russian Grammar and Conversation, like I had done the previous semester, as well as Advanced Translation, 20th Century Russian Literature, and Russian Civilization. Second semester students took Translation instead of Phonetics, since we had already completed that course the previous semester. Of all the courses, Translation was the hardest. No matter how hard I tried, I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere. I definitely improved, but the class progressed as well.

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After climbing St. Issac’s Cathedral)

On the last day of class – the 15th of May – I had two exams; one in Translation and one in Conversation. I had woken up at about 6 that morning because I couldn’t sleep, and I wanted to study. After the exams we had our closing ceremony, and then our program took us on a boat ride around the rivers that run through St. Petersburg. Boat rides are a very popular tourist attraction in St. Petersburg, and after having spent so long there, I still had not been on one, so it was good to go on one the last opportunity I had. By the time the boat ride was over I was exhausted. I had stressed myself out worrying about the test, which makes me tired, in addition to waking up early when I don’t usually go to bed at a reasonable time during the school year as it is. I returned home (to my homestay, which was really like a home to me) and really just wanted to nap, but because the semester was almost over I decided to spend time with my host mom since I did not know when I would see her again.

My host dad had been gone for quite a while towards the end of the semester because he has to travel for work, and unfortunately could not make it back before I left, so instead of a goodbye dinner with both of them, I had one with just my host mom. It was nice, but also very sad. I had lived with her for so long, that it was really like leaving home and not knowing if and when you could come back, whereas when I left the US it was kind of terrifying, but at the same time I had an end date, a date I would be coming home. (Of course, this date has changed since I was initially supposed to return to the United States after my program ended, but plans change).

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(The Stairs. There were quite a few).

I had a couple good friends this semester, so my friend Grisha (Gregory), our friend Nastya (who is from St. Petersburg), Max and I decided to spend that evening together climbing to the top of St. Isaac’s Cathedral (where I also had not yet been), because it has a really good view. Afterward, we went up with Max’s friend Dasha and went to a bar for a drink. We talked about staying out all night, (staying at the bars or clubs in St. Petersburg after midnight tend to become an all-night endeavor because the bridges to the islands open at a certain time to let ships pass through, and since many of us lived on islands, we would not have been able to return home) but I had stuff I needed to do in the morning, and they weren’t willing to commit to the whole night – which I had to do if I stayed out past midnight because I lived on an island. After that decision was made, I left the bar in a rush so that I could catch one of the last buses home, almost forgetting that I would not see these friends again for a long time.

Waiting

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I remember when I used to think I didn’t dream. It’s not that I didn’t dream, it’s just that I didn’t remember them because everyone dreams. Now I remember them, but it’s only splinters. Pieces that have broken off from the dream to imbed themselves in my memory, and like splinters are painful; it is often the painful part of my dreams that stay with me. I wake up and I think something terrible has happened that makes me have to get another HIV test. Maybe the paper was wrong again, but this time I am out of time. I can’t get another test and a new certificate. My visa haunts me in my sleep, it sits on the edge of my happiness and claws its way into my dreams. Dreams? No. These are not dreams anymore, they are nightmares.

HIV tests aren’t particularly scary. You have some blood drawn and the blood goes to the lab. The results are given back to you very quickly. One day, two days, three days if it takes a long time, and then you can hand your certificate to the lady at the visa center, you smile and you walk away because everything is finished. You have no more paperwork that is your responsibility. It’s just the waiting. The waiting is the worst. Now that you have carried that responsibility with you for months it is hard to let it go, but you have to. You have to put your trust, like another sheet, inside that stack of documents as you hand them over.

If it did not cost so much I would have processed my visa in five days just so I could avoid the waiting. But now, all I can do is find distractions. What can I do to distract myself now, I wonder. Each new day means I need a new set of distractions, but each new night I am free to think, to worry, and the most dangerous, “what if…” I lay in bed awake for a while and think, and then I fall asleep still thinking. That’s when the nightmares come. There are no more distractions while I am sleeping, and I have to let the worry come that I keep at bay during the day. It comes and usually I don’t remember, but sometimes a piece gets stuck. A splinter. The fear.

People often say, “You must be having the time of your life,” and “You must be so excited to go to St. Petersburg,” but, no I am not. All I can do is wait. I don’t live in the future and I don’t live in the past, but dwell in the present. Presently I am so grateful and happy to be where I am, but on the other side I am waiting. These people, they don’t understand that I have been working for this and waiting for this, and I am sick. I am not sick of waiting, I am sick with waiting, and now that sickness is in my dreams. They are called nightmares.

My friend once told someone I had just been introduced to, “She’s obsessed with Russia.” I knew then that my friend didn’t know me as well as she should.

When you spend so much time and energy working for one goal, when you throw yourself into everything you need to do to reach that point, that goal consumes you. It takes your time and it takes your mind. There are endless applications for scholarships, for programs, to study abroad, and you are always thinking about them. There are meetings with professors, with the Dean, with the people who run the study abroad office, with the people running the program, and you are always worrying about them. There are the complaints, the tears, smiles, feelings of being crushed and uplifted, and they are always with you.

I did not choose an easy path for myself, but I knew what I wanted to do. I remember still, walking into the study abroad office at my school. One of the women who runs the office was telling me about the study abroad website and how to apply. I don’t need this, I thought, applications are usually self-explanatory and straightforward, so why am I here.  I soon found out. “Where do you want to go?” she asked me kindly. Russia, of course Russia, that’s where I have been planning to go for years. She asked what semester I wanted to go. I was confused. Isn’t there an option to study abroad for the whole year? Not in the program to Russia. That echoes in my head, not in the program to Russia. I had to find a way to fulfill my dream of studying abroad for a year, even if it wasn’t part of the school’s typical policy. I had to. How many meetings, conversations, essays, letters of recommendation, professors, how many did it take? I don’t know because I couldn’t count. I spent so much time working on it, that now I talk about it, I think about it, I dream about it, and right now I don’t know how not to. Then someone who I thought new me, called me obsessed.

Think before you use this word please, it does not have good connotations. It is a word that young teenagers use when they are obsessed with a certain band, or obsessed with doing their hair. They use it until they realize what it really means.

This may make me sound like a sad person, or someone who is so worried that they have forgotten how to be happy, but I assure I am not either of those. I am generally a happy person, and I love to live in the present, but right now I am also a waiting person.