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Back on this side of the globe

My last day in Russia was bittersweet and sentimental — a complete opposite from my first day in Russia. Tanya, Nadya, and I walked around Marsovaya Polya and sat on the grass for a bit before I said my goodbyes. After convincing them that we would see each other again in the future, a friend and I putzed around with a bottle of cheap champagne and watched the bridges rise by Palace Square. My first day in Russia was dark, grey, and absolutely frightening, and I regretted hopping on the plane to St. Petersburg. On my last day, I found myself clinging to the grass, wishing that I didn’t have to go.

My first Russian adventure might be over, but that does not mean that I will never be seeing the onion domes ever again. I will be back soon, and that is a promise.

Until then.

*A big thanks to all of those who have been reading. I’ve been very honored to have your readership.

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Don’t drink and swim

The streets of St. Petersburg have transformed into an outdoor banya, except with no snow to cool down in. And I feel like I’m slowly losing my mind as I stew in a pool sweat and mosquitoes inside a stuffy classroom. Russia’s experiencing one of the worst heatwaves in decades — the locals have rechristened the country as Africa. it’s not terrible, in the sense that it hasn’t reached over 100 (at least, in Petersburg, it hasn’t), but keep in mind that it rarely gets this hot. (In other areas, such as Siberia, Moscow, and southern Russia, it gets over 40 C in the shadows.) But it’s terrible in the sense that Russians escape the heat by swimming…and drinking. Unfortunately, in the reverse order. In the past week, there have been over 200 deaths from drinking and drowning. The heat’s also destroyed an absurd amount of crops. Russia’s in a state of emergency, since the heat wave doesn’t look like it’s about to end.

I would consider this a health crisis — with no end in sight, Russians are still going to take to the beach and arm themselves with alcohol. It’s fun to drink, and it’s even more fun to drink on the beach, so why not? But it’s difficult to gauge how much one is drinking, especially in the tortuous heat. I’m sure that Russians have been drinking and swimming for centuries, but the heat has never been this bad. They just don’t realize how quickly they’re dehydrating and that they’re replenishing themselves with 40 proof alcohol. In June, 1200 people died from drowning, and I can only imagine that the numbers are going to be significantly higher by the end of July.

What’s the solution going to be? Tell Russians to stop drinking? That’s sure as hell not going to happen. Raise the price of vodka again is a possibility, but that would probably just mean that more Russians would turn to good old-fashioned samogon — moonshine. I don’t know. All I know is it’s going to be pretty devastating if the weather doesn’t cool down soon.

Instead of drinking vodka, Russians should just gorge on ice cream. I think it's a good compromise.

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Eurotrip!

First up -- Tallinn

In a couple of days, the spring semester is officially over, everyone is heading back to the US. Well, everyone except me and a friend. Needing a little escape from the Fatherland (Отечество), my friend and I are hopping on a bus and are going to essentially wander around in the Baltic States and parts of Eastern Europe.

On our to-see list:

  • Tallinn, Estonia
  • Riga, Latvia
  • Vilnius, Lithuania
  • Warsaw, Poland
  • Krakow, Poland
  • Lvov, Ukraine (but you have to call it Lviv, or else the little Russians get mad)
  • Kiev, Ukraine

18 days, 5 countries, 7 cities — 1 backpack. I’ll be back June 10. Or at least, that’s what we’re aiming for. We haven’t really planned out how we’re getting from Poland to Ukraine or from Ukraine back to Russia. It might involve hopping in the back of some car. Until then!

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A Moment of Silence for Moscow

This morning, during Rush hour, two female suicide bombers set off bombs in the Moscow metro — at Park Kultury and Lyubyanka (where the FSB headquarters is located). There has been a persistent clash between Russia and the Chechen separatists since the fall of the Soviet Union, and there have been numerous terror attacks on Russia throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s — but things were calming down a bit recently, especially after Shamil Basayev was killed in 2006. There also hasn’t been a terrorist attack in Moscow since 2004. However, Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia have been quite unstable as of last summer, and now there is reawakened fear of the return of suicide bombing as a common scare tactic. What will happen next is left to be seen.

Politics aside, please keep the victims and their families in your thoughts and prayers. This is a terrible tragedy.

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Hellooooooo Culture Shock

I’m surprised that it’s only been a little over a week, and already I’m mad at the Russian way of life. It seems like I can’t do anything right in this country. For example, today, I accidentally smiled at a man, and he sidled up to me and started asking me about China. He wouldn’t leave me alone, even though I stressed the fact that I wasn’t Chinese, that I couldn’t speak a word of the language, and that I hailed from the good ol’ US of A. Earlier today on the bus, I made the mistake of sitting in the ticket lady’s seat, only to get angry stares and an unnecessarily long earful from a vituperative babushka (I thought you all were supposed to be understanding, loving, and matronly. What the hell.) And finally, at dinner, I tried to explain the Vietnam War and the entire peace movement to my host family, and I sounded like a deaf person trying to recite the constitution backwards and three times fast. This intricate language, to put it nicely, sucks.

But, oh ho, have no fear! This week is Maslenitsa, also known as Cheese week. It’s a pagan/Christian, week long holiday that celebrates the end of winter and the oncoming of spring. It’s also the week of sheer debauchery and gluttony before everyone has to sober up for Lent. And if there’s one thing we Americans (in particular, students who go to UW) know how to do very, very well, it’s engaging in extreme acts of alcohol-induced hooliganism, anywhere, anytime, any place. Here’s to easing culture shock in a deep pool of vodka*, bliny, and, of course, techno music. (I will explain the celebration of Maslenitsa later, it’s actually pretty sweet. People eat symbolic pancakes/bliny all week!)

This is Maslenitsa.

*Don’t worry, Mom and Dad, Russia hasn’t turned me into an alcoholic. Yet.

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How did you die? Oh, an icicle fell on my head

St. Petersburg is cold. Really, really cold. And due to the freezing temperatures, there are enormous, monstrosities of icicles that form on the roof tops. Usually, the people cleaning the streets are good about blocking off sections of the sidewalk where there are huge ice blocks just waiting to plummet onto some poor, unsuspecting person. However, they don’t cordon off all dangerous places, so it’s not unusual to hear of someone dying from being literally shishkebabed by ice. A truly Russian death, if I do say so myself.

I’m loving St. Petersburg, I really am. I can walk past Pushkin’s apartment (Moika 12!) or Anna Akhmatova’s apartment or even the famous Bronze Horseman. I can make faces at the people dressed up as Peter and Catherine the Great, and they have to deal with my childish behavior because it’s part of their job. Hell, I can even retrace Raskolnikov’s steps to the pawnbroker if I wanted to (and you know I will because I’m a numero uno dorkus.)

Dork

But having to be careful all the time is starting to grow extremely weary. “Be careful of falling icicles.” “Be careful of buses! It’s slippery outside and they can run you over.” “Be careful of Russian men.” “Be careful while you’re crossing the street – Russian drivers will kill you.” “Be careful, be careful, be careful.

To be honest, it’s been tough getting used to the pace of life here. I never thought I’d have trouble adjusting, but I am. For example, I hand washed my laundry the other day – something that I never had to do before. I failed miserably – my clothes are as hard as bricks. My underwear is as comfortable as sandpapery cardboard and my woolen socks feel like they have needles sewn into them. I have to get used to the fact that there’s no real set bus schedule. I have to get used to the fact that it’s going to take twice as long to get somewhere than it would in America. And, for the love of God, I have to get used to the fact that there is not a single granola bar in this entire, ridiculously vast, 11-freaking-time-zones country (I knew I was in trouble when I tried to look up the word granola in my hefty Russian-English dictionary and couldn’t find it.)

But, for what it is worth, this is the experience of living in another country. I know I may complain a lot, and I know I may describe Russia as a perverse, backwards country. However, historically and culturally, Russia has so much to offer that I need to take advantage of it all. I’m truly glad that I’m here…at least, that’s what I keep telling myself.

*I also need to get used to the fact that Russians have an unhealthy obsession with techno music. They blast it all the time, anytime – from sun up to sun down. Any time, any place, it’s apparently techno music time. It’s like I’m living in a subwoofer.

I don't use a fork to eat anymore.

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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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