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.

My Last Day in the Motherland… For Now

16/05/15

The next morning I woke up at about 8 because I was set to meet a group of people at 11 so that we could all go to the post office and send extra stuff home. This was very important to me as I would not be going home after the program as was the initial plan when I had left the United States 11 months earlier. Instead I would be traveling around Europe again, this time alone, but that meant that I could not bring with me two 50 pound (23 kilo) suitcases, because every time I wanted to check that extra bag, it would cost me an arm and a leg, not to mention the struggle of taking public transportation with those, and then trying to bring them from wherever I was dropped off to the hostel I would be staying at in any given city. It is not realistic to take a taxi to and from the airport in every location, because taxis become pricy, especially for tourists because the drivers like to increase the price when they see you are foreign. I had bought a carry-on suitcase when I went to Kazan’ a few weeks previously because I knew I would need it.

I spent my morning packing up one of the suitcases to send home and logging all of the contents (because you have to write them down during the shipment process, in addition to getting all of the paper items together that I wanted to send home. I ended up with a backpack full of notebooks and textbooks to send, and my suitcase. I think there were only three students who took advantage of the opportunity to send stuff home. Russian post is really slow, so I wouldn’t expect these things to arrive home for about a month, but at least it is not too expensive. It was about 5500 rubles to send home my 16 kilo suitcase and two packages of paper items, each weighing about 4 kilos (maybe about $100, probably a little more, and even though it seemed like a lot, I had to remember that each time I checked that extra bag, it would cost about $75, which would add up quickly). The whole process probably took about 1 ½ to 2 hours to complete because of the paperwork that had to be completed. Today, (about 2 weeks later) one of the packages of books has arrived home. The books do not have tracking numbers, although the suitcase does. I have checked the progress of the suitcase multiple times, but the last entry was when it got accepted through customs and into shipping in St. Petersburg, which also happened about two weeks ago. I can only assume that it is on a ship somewhere out at sea (it is cheaper to ship by land, so this is why it would be at sea and not in the air) on its way to the United States. Perhaps I will stop checking for progress for a week in the hopes that more information shows up the next time I look.

After I turned these items over to the Russian post, I went in search of a few last minute souvenirs even though I had just shipped stuff home to make room and so that my suitcase wouldn’t be overweight. I spent many hours arranging and rearranging the contents of my bag so that everything would fit, but making sure to put the heavier items in my carry-ons. In the end I had one 50 pound bag to check, one carry-on rolling bag and a backpack. When I finally finished packing I hung out with my host mom for the rest of the day and watched Russian television. She called a taxi for me to get to the airport after spending time calling all of her friends and asking if they knew the best taxi company. (A very Russian thing to do. Any time something interesting was on television, or my host mom wanted to tell someone some news, or maybe there was a holiday, she would spend a long time calling up all of her friends to tell them about it or ask whatever question she needed answered). My flight was around four or five in the morning, but I had to leave my host mom early at about one to get to the airport before the bridges went up. By taxi it only took about half an hour to 45 minutes to get to the airport, so I had to wait at the airport all night.

As I was leaving my host mom’s place, she told me that I would always be welcomed back and that if I ever came back to St. Petersburg, to come visit. I did leave her contact information for me, but I have never seen her use a computer. I know my host dad uses one to skype, so perhaps when he returns the information will be more useful.

In Prague You Should Eat Mexican Food Of Course!

28/12/14 Second Day in Prague

I like to sleep with the window open. I get this from my dad, and from common sense. It is really uncomfortable and unhealthy to sleep in a room with (in this case) four other people with the window closed and the heat on. Many people don’t seem to understand this. They are still caught up in the world where cold air is what gives you colds, so you need to sleep in a sweat box. Instead, it is the sleeping in the sweat box that will make you sick, especially if someone else sleeping in the same enclosed space is already sick. Five people sleeping and breathing for eight hours in one room definitely uses up all of the fresh air, and you start to breathe each other’s air. You can see evidence of the disgustingness and unhealthiness of this situation in the condensation that gathers on the window and the smell that seems to cling to the room after such a night in a heat box. Perhaps you can understand that the heat and moisture is the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. If rooms were not as large as they are with cracks allowing a tiny bit of air to seep into the room, we could suffocate in a situation like that. I know this is bringing it to the extreme, but perhaps you have heard of those people who get caught in a blizzard and have to spend the night in their car. They close their windows all the way because it is cold outside, and instead suffocate in their sleep. It is better to be cold, and that is what blankets are for. Most people don’t seem to understand this, and these Indian men definitely did not. Throughout the night, I listened as I heard one get up and shut the window that I had left cracked open. I am a light sleeper and this movement wakes me up, so, I waited for some time and got up and opened the window again. In the morning when he got up, he shut it again. At this point I let it go because I knew he would get ready and eventually leave the room.

The next day we woke up to the unpleasant sound of one of our Indian roommate’s alarm clocks going off at about 7:00 a.m. Needless to say we weren’t happy about this, especially since it didn’t seem to be pressing that he get up. He continued to lie in bed for a while after the alarm went off, and then proceeded to start getting ready at about 7:30 a.m. His time getting ready included spending about an hour in the bathroom, 45 minutes of which was spent in the shower and the rest of which was spent doing who knows what.  After He was done showering and getting ready, it was probably about nine. He proceeded to dawdle around, lying on his bed, playing on his phone, until about 10:30 or 11:00 when he finally left. So, why did his alarm need to go off at 7:00? He seemed as though he was waiting for us to get up so he could talk to us or something, (we continued to pretend to be asleep because after such a performance in the morning, we did not have any interest in talking to him) but he and his roommate finally left for the day.

Because Ali wasn’t feeling well, and I woke up feeling under the weather again we decided to take the morning slowly. This hostel did not serve breakfast for a price we were willing to pay (especially since they had already made us pay to rent sheets, except Kenzy who had decided it would be convenient to carry around a hostel sheet), so the only time commitment we had was to try to go on a free walking tour of Prague at about 2:00 p.m. that started out in the square we had been in yesterday. We did not know exactly how these walking tours worked, so we figured we could just show up about 10 minutes before it started and join in.

We arrived at the square probably around two hours before the tour started and wandered around buying and eating food, and enjoying browsing the various souvenirs offered in the stands before we went on a two hour long walking tour. We then went over to where the tour was meeting about ten minutes before it started as we had planned, and found that the tours indeed did have restrictions. The tour guides could only take up to 40 people on one tour. You could make reservations online to ensure your place in the tour and it would not cost anything, or you could show up earlier, but we did not know how much earlier. We didn’t get to go on the tour that day because it had filled up, so we decided to make a reservation for the next day just to be safe. We had heard good reviews about these tours, and did not want to miss out, especially since it was free.

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(The strange silver statue that would be mentioned on the tour the next day as well).

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(The prohibition themed restaurant)

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(A closer picture for a better idea of what it looked like)

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(The district with the prettier buildings)

Since our plan to spend our day going on a walking tour had not worked out, we decided to wander from the square in a different direction than the bridge had been in so that we could see something new. We did see many new things, such as a prohibition café, and a strange silver statue. We also found the edge of the Jewish Quarter and a Franz Kafka statue that stood in front of it. The stores in this area all seemed to be higher end designer-brand stores, but this meant that the buildings they were located in were beautiful. We decided it would be worth walking a little bit further into this area to see some of the buildings, and then head to an early dinner. However, it was still very early by the time we were finished exploring this area of the city, so we decided to find a bar and get a Czech beer since their beer is very good. This helped us waste about a half hour of time, at which point we decided 4:30 was late enough for dinner.

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(I really liked the tree in front of this building)

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(A Jewish synagogue)

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(Franze Kafka Statue on the edge of the Jewish Quarter)

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(Less zoomed in)

We had found someone’s travel blog that said the best Mexican food in all of Europe, was in Prague at a restaurant called Las Adelitas, so of course we had to go. We have all been abroad in Europe for months now and, although each country has its own cuisine, the flavors in Europe are very mild compared to other parts of the world, and we missed serious flavors. In addition, we are also all from the West Coast of the United States, where cuisine is heavily influenced by any country that uses strong spices, but especially easy to find is food and flavors that have come up from Mexico and that we all love. We grew up with this food.

Our early dinner was at this Mexican restaurant, Las Adelitas, which we had found the day before so that we would know where to go. Since this cuisine is so important to us, we decided to make this a big dinner and ended up spending more than we might normally spend on a meal. Thankfully Eastern Europe is cheaper than other parts, so it was not as expensive as it could have been.

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We started our dinner off with margaritas because we were at a Mexican restaurant and really had no choice. Kenzy and I ordered the mango margaritas (they probably had about 10-15 different flavors for margaritas) which came recommended by our waiter. They arrived with a fresh slice of mango in them and were very good. Ali decided she would rather have a strawberry margarita, but after exchanging tastes of each, she wished she had ordered a mango one as well, but enjoyed her strawberry one anyway.

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(Mexican food and Margaritas at Las Adelitas)

One of my favorite things to order in the United States at certain kinds of restaurants, even though it is not strictly Mexican, it is Mexican influenced, are nachos. I don’t mean the cheap tortilla chips with the fake nacho cheese (although I do guiltily like those too), I mean the nachos that are piled with beans, cheese, greens, salsa, sour cream, and so on. Looking at the menu in this restaurant because it had been so long since I had either, I could not decide between the enchiladas and the nachos. In the end we all split the nachos (which were big enough to be a full meal themselves) and I ordered the enchiladas. They had three different kinds of enchiladas (separated by the types of sauces). One had green sauce, another had red, and the last had mole (accent on the e) sauce. I wanted to try all of them because I am indecisive when it comes to food because I want to try everything, but thankfully one of the options was to order a plate with each of these on it. I really enjoyed the enchiladas with green and red sauce, because I am a salsa person, but the mole sauce was a little bit too sweet for me to completely enjoy on an enchilada. Regardless, they were all delicious, and this place was very good as promised. Finally I decided I wanted to try a Mexican beer in comparison to the Czech beer because they had Mexican beers at this restaurant. (The time and food intake between these drinks was enough that I was trying these drinks to enjoy them, not to experience any sort of chemical change).

We probably spent about 2-3 hours eating this meal, and decided to head back to the hostel and our lovely roommates at the end of it.

Even When You Encounter Something Unpleasant, Enjoy Yourself

27/12/14 First Full Day In Prague

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(On our way to the next hostel, the sun was shining)

I had written a couple more posts from winter break that I have not gotten around to posting, so now I am going to try.

In the morning we had breakfast with the Indian girls, who would be staying in this hostel for a few nights, and parted ways (this was the first breakfast we had eaten that had anything hot. There were scrambled eggs and beans here).

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(Also on the way to the next hostel, you can see a few stands of Christmas Markets here)

Our hostel bookings in a few locations, such as Prague, got a little mixed up causing us to have one night booked in one hostel and the rest booked in another. Walking down the hill in the morning to catch the tram at the bottom, we realized how close it was to come from this direction to get to the hostel, but that wouldn’t matter anymore because we did not have any reason to return to this hostel. Instead we went across town to another, larger hostel, and immediately wished our stay in Prague had all been in the first hostel that we stayed in. This hostel was called A and O Hostel Hotel, or something of the sort, and apparently has about six different locations. We did not feel the need to check in yet, we just wanted to drop our stuff off in their luggage storage rooms so that we would not have to carry it around as we spent the day out in the city.

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(A picture of Czech money)

The first thing we did in Prague out in the city was withdraw money of course. For some reason I decided it would be ideal if one person withdrew all of the Czech crowns so that the other two of us could pay them back in Euros. I don’t remember my reasoning at the time, but it made sense then and seemed to work out at the end of Prague. Kenzy decided she would withdraw money, and we headed into the main square, where all of the tourists go. Even though Munich had already started cleaning up their Christmas markets when we were there, Prague’s were up, and they were in full swing. It was okay with us that Munich had already shut their markets down because we had spent so many days wandering the markets of Nuremberg, but it was nice that Prague still had markets open because it offered a different selection of food and other items to look at then the ones that had been available in Nuremberg. Whereas Nuremberg has many markets seemingly all over the city, Prague only had a few concentrated in one square, which was a nice contrast to the overwhelming amount available in Nuremberg.

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(The first treat we ate from the markets. It was very good)

The day was beautiful, cloudy and a bit chilly, but no precipitation to get in our way. Old cars took tourists on rides around the city, and the smell of food wafted from nearby stands. We had no particular plan for the day as we walked up to the square. We immediately found a dessert a friend who had been to Prague described to us and suggested we try. It was dough that was wrapped around a thick metal rod and turned over coals. After it came off of the metal rod, it was rolled in cinnamon and sugar and handed to the waiting customer. It was good to eat on a cold day as the cold froze our fingers while we held them out of our pockets or our gloves while consuming the treat in front of us. Kenzy and I felt almost at home, we were back in Eastern Europe, things were cheaper again and not run on the Euro, and the language had some similar words to what we had spent our last semester studying.

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(A church in the square that we saw as we were eating our cinnamon-sugar covered treats)

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(A picture of a street in Prague, in the bottom right you can see one of the cars that one drive people on tours around the city)

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(An important church that we would be told about on our walking tour)

Eventually the dessert came to an end and we had to keep moving to stay warm, so we moved further out in the square and saw what we could and bought real lunch food from the market. Kenzy and I got chicken kebabs on a baguette while Ali opted for a bratwurst on a bun. It is sad that the mustard they have at these markets out on the square is better than the majority of the mustard people in the United States choose to spread over their food, but there is something to be said for quality over quantity and vice versa in the United States.

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(One side of the Astronomical Clock Tower)

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(In the middle of the Christmas Markets was a huge Christmas Tree)

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(Also in the square, a monument we would be told about on the walking tour as well)

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(The Astronomical Clock)

Most of our day was spent wandering around and enjoying the sites (and occasionally stepping inside where we could to warm up again). We saw an important church (which I will picture, but discuss in a later post), an important astronomical clock tower, and an important bridge. We wouldn’t know the complete importance of these places we had seen until we went on our guided tour a few days later.

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(The view from the bridge of the castle)

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(Another view from the bridge)

When it came time for dinner, we headed back to the hostel. Instead of immediately eating dinner, Ali and I took a nap while Kenzy headed to a nearby store to by dinner for herself and Ali.

In the half hour to an hour that Kenzy was gone and Ali and I were napping, two more people arrived in our room. They were two Indian guys who looked to be about our age, but dislike was almost immediately established from Ali’s and my point of view because even though we were obviously lying in bed with our eyes closed, they decided it was acceptable to try to strike up a conversation with us. Relations did not improve because they continued to be inconsiderate from then on. I remember them saying that first night that they liked to see European cities better at night because they look better. This I don’t understand in any circumstance because a European city will look like any other city at night. They all have lights, and will create a picture of a dark landscape with twinkling spots of light, The light may be in differing configurations, but this is not unique. Maybe going up to a particular building at night that is lit up is a unique experience, but in those cases I like to see the building in the day and at night.

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(Walking off of the other side of the bridge)

After Kenzy had returned with food and the two Indian guys had left to go see the city at night, we decided it was time to eat dinner. We knew the hostel had a guest kitchen, but we didn’t realize how poorly thought out much of what the hostel had to offer, was.

We went down to the guest kitchen and found it was locked, so Kenzy went up to reception to ask them to unlock it. She received a very unprofessional and rude reply that there was only one key to the guest kitchen and someone had taken it so they could not possibly open the kitchen for us because you need the key. Of course they had a master key that opened all of the doors in the hostel, the lady was “busy” flirting with some guys who had come to the bar (they had a bar at the reception desk) and couldn’t possibly spare a second to come down and open the kitchen for us. She also refused to lend us the key even if we promised to bring it right back because we are hooligans of course and would probably use it to go where we shouldn’t. When Kenzy came back and recounted her dealings with the woman at the desk, Ali, who hadn’t been feeling well, had had enough. She went up to reception too, and I don’t know exactly what happened between the lady at reception and her, but words were traded (some cursing that the person working at the desk unprofessionally brought into the conversation) with some indication that the kitchen would be unlocked once reception stopped being so busy.

With this information, we decided to all go up to the reception area and sit looking expectantly in their direction so that they could not forget us. Once reception was clear we finally got the hostel workers to agree to open the door. Here I ask, what is the point of having a guest kitchen if you keep it locked? All proper hostels have a kitchen for the people staying there to use, with dishes provided. People who stay in hostels need and want those dishes and that kitchen available. Usually hostel goers are traveling and want to have the option of making their own food , but are not going to steal anything because that’s not hostel culture and it is too heavy to carry dishes around.

Obviously this was not a proper hostel.

After dinner, we went back up to our room to get ready for bed. Eventually the Indian guys came back and were equally as irritating as they had been before. (I think that along with some of us not feeling well and being tired from traveling, there was a bit of culture clash in the manners and etiquette department. Usually I am okay adjusting to a new culture, but the new culture I was adjusting to here was the Czech culture since I was in the Czech Republic).

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.