Monthly Archives: January 2010

Constant Renovation

The new hotel near my apartment

One thing that I have noticed so far in St. Petersburg is that everything is constantly under renovation. And unlike in America, the renovation (known as remont/ремонт in Russian) is not a form of visual pollution – they put up facades to cover up the scaffolding and construction. I did about three double takes walking around St. Petersburg today when I noticed large paintings of yellow buildings covering up the original building – I unfortunately also ran into babushkas when I decided to stop and stare at the facades. I am a rude American, and I don’t mean to be! Please don’t hate me, old Russian babushkas, you are all I have in this country.

However, the constant renovation comes at a cost – the loss of nature and the peace and quiet that comes with it. Tatyana, my host mother, explained how new Russians now have no concept of preserving nature – it is all about building bigger, better, and more impressive buildings, and they will do whatever it takes to construct such a feat. Tatyana smiled sadly as she told me that, a few years ago, she used to wake up to the sounds of the birds in the summer. Now, because they cleared the forest to build a new hotel, all the birds have gone somewhere else. There is no longer any calm and solitude, only busy traffic and business – a complaint that no higher ups will ever give a second thought. Alas, the Russian ambition does not come without a price tag.

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Such great heights

Back in 1703, Peter the Great decided to build a city on a rotten, fetid swamp – “by nature we are fated here to cut a window to Europe,” as Pushkin gracefully paraphrased Peter’s original words (which were not nearly as moving, and were more along the lines of: Here shall be a town.) Thousands of Swedes and Russians died in the process of building a city on an uninhabitable marsh, but ho! a wooden fortress was erected, and St. Petersburg was successfully founded.

Couple of years later (250 some years, I believe), someone invented the St. Petersburg metro. To compensate for the fact that Piter was built on a swamp, most of the stations were built far below the ground (fun fact: the metros also serve as a nice nuclear bomb shelter.) As a faux resident of DC, I’m used to metros and the sweaty, shoving throngs of people that come along with it. But as someone who is deathly, and I emphasize deathly, afraid of heights, I can’t get over the depth and the rapid descent of the escalator into the metro. (For other fellow acrophobians, closing your eyes does not help.) However, after the 3 minute elevator ride, I was surprised to find the metro to be very clean and pleasantly decorated. It didn’t even smell strange, which unfortunately, is not always the situation in the DC metros.

An Ice Memorial for the Siege of Leningrad, located near the Kanal Griboedova Metro Station

It’s only day two, and I’m doing my best to shake the role of the cowardly American tourist. I’ve also realized that after 7 semesters, I don’t know how to say anything in Russian. However, I am not completely down-trodden – I successfully asked a babushka for directions. And while she might have politely laughed at me as I stammered out my request, it’s better than being hopelessly lost.

One of many, many churches. Russians love churches.

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And so it begins

Spotted at 3:35pm: statue of Lenin, along with numerous flags proudly bearing the hammer and scythe (commemorating the end of the Siege of Leningrad, 1944). I am officially in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Missing as of arrival: all of my luggage and my sanity – an ironically fitting welcome to my new home for the next 7 months.

Hilariously unfortunate

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Possibly one of the greatest accomplishments of my life

I deserve a prize

Winter, spring, and summer clothing + accessories + etc. 1 bag. 2 small carry ons.

I’ll be patiently waiting for my medal.

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Дерьмо дерьмо дерьмо…

My days in the United States are slowly (very slowly) dwindling — 11 days until orientation in DC, 13 days until I hop on the never-ending plane ride to Frankfurt, then to St. Petersburg.

This past semester, and especially these past couple of months, I have received a ton of advice from people who have studied there before. Some are obvious: “Don’t walk home alone at night,” and “Don’t speak English in public.” Some a little humorous: “Don’t smile at boys, they’ll think of it as an invitation for sex,” and “Ask a babushka (a grandmother) for help if you need it.” And some downright frightening: “Stay inside on Hitler’s birthday.” Of course, it is always cushioned with the comforting phrase “you will have the time of your life!”

I always put the risk of going to Russia at the back of my head. I console myself — “I’m not stupid, I’ll be fine. Russia might not be the nicest towards her foreigners, per se, but as long as I’m not conspicuously dumb, I’ll be just peachy.” And I was doing great. I was excited, pumped, in fact, until just about yesterday. As I was packing* things for spring and summer (a nice juxtaposition of winter boots and flip flops, heavy winter jacket and shorts), I thumbed through a newly purchased guide book to the recommended packing list. As my luck would have it, my eyes rested on this wonderful, little tidbit: St. Petersburg has been dubbed Russia’s racist murder capital. There it was, in black and white, right before me. I sat down on my half-packed, obscenely large suitcase and put my head on my knees, and I didn’t move for about 30 minutes. What have I gotten myself into? A lump formed in my throat. My spirits instantly became bleaker than an isolation chamber in a Siberian gulag (ok, a bit much.)

I am scared. Of everything. The most mundane fears (what if I don’t like the food?) and real ones (what if I get gunned down?) swirl around in my head, brewing like an imminent hurricane. To put it nicely, my Russian is slightly above mediocre. To put it honestly, my Russian’s god-awful. I have never been outside the United States before. And what, oh what do I do if I don’t like it there? Everything that I have done in college has been geared towards having a potential future with and/or in Russia. What if everything unravels in the next semester?

After having a long pity party on my suitcase, I sat up, figuratively slapped myself across the face, and resumed packing. There’s no point being consumed with those thoughts. I swallowed my fears as best as I could and reassured myself that Russia would be as great as I would make it. I am as ready as I can be. And most importantly, I am not stupid.

Russia's cheerful little Olympic mascot and beloved Soviet cartoon character, Cheburashka

*side note: I was recommended (read: threatened) to only bring one suit case. This is a problem. I am planning on staying there this summer as well, and there is no way in hell I can fit summer clothes along with heavy winter sweaters, and have everything weigh 50 lbs. My suitcase itself is 7 lbs. I will probably have to wrestle my suitcase closed, and pay an exorbitant your-suitcase-is-too-fat-so-help-you-God fee.

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