Wednesday, June 20, 2007


I'm Mark, though I imagine you already know who I am. I'm a recent Stony Brook graduate, about to embark on a trip to Russia and Europe, which will probably span several months. I'll figure I'll give some background:

Our story starts in Fall of 2004, when I took an introductory Russian class. No, I don't have any Russian heritage, and no, I don't really know why I wanted to take Russian. I guess part of it is because I was always into James Bond/spy/action movies, and part of it was wanting to study a language that doesn't use the latin alphabet (I took several years of Spanish) and I always was interested in the weird-looking alphabet (specifically the Я and И which are so often used here for no reason, e.g. TETЯIS - I'll save you the trouble, they're "ya" and "i").

The next semester (Spring 2005) I couldn't continue because of scheduling, but I was satisfied with my little bit of knowledge. In the Spring, someone came into one of my classes and was talking about a study abroad program in Russia for the summer. I was intrigued, but I couldn't see myself actually doing it. I was not much of a traveller (Disney World was mostly it, though I also went to Washington state to visit family one time) and couldn't picture myself going through with such a crazy thing.

Well, fast-forward to the following Spring (2006): my friend Kim is bugging me in computer architecture (just kidding...), but then mentions a study abroad program for Linguistics (her minor) which she really wants to do, which is none other than the program in St. Petersburg I had decided against the previous year. She eventually talks me into at least talking to the professor who runs it (John Bailyn) and filling out the forms. A funny thing happened, though-once I started taking the steps to prepare for it, the inertia of not doing it turned into inertia of inevitably doing it, so once I started filling in the forms, I was pretty much committed. Microsoft had taken an interest in each of us, and Kim started having second thoughts, but I said I was going to Russia regardless of what happened (so Microsoft was postponed to the following year - we'll get to that another day).

So off we went, and the first day or two really sucked! Kim and I took British Airways and had a stopover in London Heathrow. I had a sinus infection, so the flight was miserable and I couldn't sleep. The flight from JFK (a night flight) left late, and so our leisurely 1:15 layover turned into them madly bussing us to the other terminal. We were very worried we'd miss our layover since we didn't have contact info for the person who was to meet us at the airport in Russia. Fortunately we made the flight, so we get to St. Petersburg (now the following afternoon), and of course there is no luggage. Our attempts to handle this situation ourselves didn't meet with success. After probably an hour of waiting/asking for help/etc, we went out and met Katya, who was meeting us, and had her help us out.

(Now, I had been warned of this possibility and told to pack accordingly, such that I could live with only my carry-on luggage if necessary. I thought I packed well enough, but then discovered silly little things that I'd missed, e.g. a toothbrush and toothpaste.)

So we are taken to the dorms where we will be staying. We wait around a while for the lady who takes care of the keys and linens. (I wish I'd known there were linens, as I wasted an entire suitcase on bedding, a pillow, and so on.) My room is on the 18th (top) floor, and I meet my roommate Blake, a fellow participant from Stony Brook. However, it seems the Russian student in my spot hasn't really moved out yet. His stuff is all over the bed, and I can't get a key because he still has it. Terrific. This means I pretty much can't go anywhere without being locked out. Of course at this point, all I want to do is sleep, as I've been up for about 36 hours I think, am still sick, and without my luggage. All the participants' rooms are scattered throughout the building; Kim ended up on the 9th floor. I have no way of contacting anyone short of banging on doors, not that I can leave my room alone since I can't lock or unlock it. The facilities themselves were not what I was used to either, specifically the bathroom, and in the "kitchen," our "suitemates"--actually a family--have taken over the fridge with their food. All-in-all I felt isolated and quite miserable.

The next day at orientation, the director on the Russian side of things, Anna Maslenikova, reassured all of us quite effectively by enumerating all the stuff we were all feeling and assuring us it would pass. The luggage arrived that day too, so that made things better as well. The rest of the month was fantastic, and most of us became great friends. Over this past New Year's, four of us (strangers before the program) went on a vacation to Prague. Over Spring Break, several of us went on a trip to New Orleans to volunteer.

I continued studying Russian in the year following the trip, and had thoughts of going back on the same program. I asked Professor Bailyn about my options, and he told me of another program sponsored by the government that he would be running this year, so I applied to that instead, and was accepted. This program spans a month and a half, and I decided that while there I wanted to visit some of the people I'd met at the program the previous year, so after the program ends I will continue to travel through Russia a bit until the visa expires. I also decided to travel through Europe while I'm "in the neighborhood" so I actually have no idea when I'll be back, but figure around October or so.

So that's most of the backstory!

Word of the day: Россия (Rossiya - Russia)

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