Thursday, August 16, 2007

Uniquely Russian

For the day we went to the Russian prison, we had hired a bus to take us there. It wasn't too far away, somewhere in the area of Cruiser Aurora, but the coverage of the bus routes isn't really that great (as evidenced by my 35 minute walk to school each morning). But the bus didn't come, and after about an hour of waiting, we started taking gypsy cabs. There were about 20 of us. This in itself was hilarious (well, not at the time; I think we were tired of standing in the sun waiting). So 5 minutes pass; we get one car for 4 people. Another 5 minutes or so, and we get another car. Now there are still about 13 of us left (I know this because I remembered that it was not evenly divisible into car-loads). Eventually a hotel shuttle pulls up (for Pribaltiyskaya, incidentally), and what do you know, he decides to take the rest of us there in the little hotel van, which greatly amused us. Only in Russia!

I forgot to mention what actually prompted our final closing parties the night before the group's flight out. The flight was to leave at about 5:50 in the morning (ouch). But of course, one needs to be at the airport a while before that, let's say around 3 or 4 in the morning (big ouch). That in itself is really tough, but then there's another problem: about half the people on the flight live on Vasilievskiy Island...and the bridges over the Neva are still up at that there would actually be no good way to get to the airport! (Only in Russia). So what we ended up having to do was hire a bus to go to everyone and pick up their luggage, starting in the afternoon, and then all of us would actually meet at a cafe (on the mainland, of course) until it was time to go. Of course, in reality this bus driver too was horribly behind schedule, and so although we were to meet at 11:30, some people didn't make it until well after that. Unfortunately the purse of someone in our group was stolen, which really sucked (but they were not leaving on the flight, so that was one less problem).

Last year in Russia, as I already mentioned, started off with difficulty. One of the reasons for this was the less-than-great bathrooms in the dorms. Well, as one should know, it's foolish to say that there's nothing worse, because sure enough, we were in for a pleasant surprise on the cruise. We opened the bathroom (the foul smell of which was nothing short of incredible), to the left, the sink; the right, the toilet. Well, wait a minute, it seems they forgot the shower. Oh, no they didn't, it's hanging on the wall, attached to the sink, and the shower curtain is in the back by the toilet. That is to say, the entire bathroom was the shower. Efficient, but, well, yeah.

So anyway, I'm having a good time here in Murmansk, with my friend showing me around. It's nice to be in a hotel, with a normal functional bathroom for the first time in about 2 months. The shower at home ("home" being the apartment in St. Petersburg) has a very sketchy water heater which rattles and creaks and decides to stop working at random times; I'm always afraid the thing was going to randomly burst into flames at some point; the large burn mark on the front of it (like that of my outlet in the dorms last year) only increases my confidence. Anyway, when I arrived, my friend asked me if I'd flown here. Nope, I took the train (28 hours). She was in disbelief, and asked if I'd ridden купе (second class). Nope, плацкарт (third/lowest class). Further disbelief. It wasn't too bad, well, relatively speaking. The 30 hour bus ride to and from New Orleans was far worse; whereas I more or less lay down through most of the train ride. Of course, the beds were far too short, and so I would either have my feet hanging off the edge of the bed into the doorway, with people walking into them from time to time (I was on the top bunk), but there was little choice anyway since and there was no room to sit up in the top bunk. They don't have food on the trains, so I brought some things and made myself a sandwich from time to time. A day later, there I was. At the railway station there was no kind of pocket map so I was kind of flustered about what to do, and sort of ambled around outside for a minute, when someone asked me where I wanted to go, and taxied me to the hotel for 100 rubles (like $4). There were maps and guides and things in the hotel, so that was only a temporary problem. So the first day Katya and I walked around, with her showing me around, and of course there is the obligatory Lenin statue on Проспект Ленина ("Lenin street"), the city's main street, and a movie theater named "Родина" (motherland), and she was amused when I guessed these things. There are the obligatory Karl Marx and Komsomol'kaya streets as well. Katya's mother works at a city museum so yesterday we went there, where first Katya guided me around, and then as it was getting close to closing time, her mom gave me a whirlwind tour through some of the rest of it (though of course I understood slightly less at this speed). The city has a population just shy of 400 000, with a great view of the bay, and as it was an important city in WWII there are a lot of monuments, including a large soldier (30 meters or so) on a hill overlooking the bay, as well as various other monuments spread throughout the city. The climate here isn't very well liked, though. As it's above the Arctic Circle, in the summer it's always light (polar days), and in the winter practically always dark (polar nights), and the long summer days and the northern lights just don't make up for the polar nights.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Путешествие (Travels)

After the program’s end (today, essentially), I will continue to travel around, visiting friends and visiting places of interest. This was really difficult to plan, and once I started digging into planning, at times I just wanted to give up entirely and come home. There are two main issues that make this scheduling difficult. The first is that I plan to travel by train for all of this. When traveling by airplane, one can pretty much take for granted that one can find a flight on any given day to any given place, and get there that same day; this simplifies booking hotels, especially since you can take care of it all online in one step. On the other hand, the train doesn’t necessarily go where you want when you want, and one might not need a hotel depending on the train schedule or the length of the trip, and I can’t just book it all together online (though fortunately, I found train schedules online, which was the biggest step. The second issue is that my visa expires on September 1st. This means I can’t stay as long as I’d like in many places, and coupled with the train issue, makes it very complicated, since, if one is staying in a place for a few days (e.g. 4 or 5), it doesn’t really matter if the arrival or departure is at 8 AM or 8 PM, whereas, because in some places I was planning to stay only one day, there is a big difference between arriving at 8 AM and leaving at 8 PM, as opposed to, for example, arriving at 1 PM and leaving at 3 PM.

My first destination is Murmansk, followed by Arkhangelsk, and then back to St. Petersburg for a few days. One friend from St. Petersburg (Katya Uskova, our friend from last year) was going to be returning from her dacha on the 19th, and another from the US that was with me last year (Tanya) was going to be in St. Petersburg from the 13th to the 24th (which of course meant she would be arriving just as I’d be leaving) and I of course wanted to see both of them. With this in mind, I figured I’d go to Murmansk (about a 28 hour train ride from St. Petersburg) from the 13th to the 16th (visiting a friend I’d met last year at the New York Institute, Katya Shevchuk) and then take the train to Arkhangelsk on the 17th, and leave the 18th to come back the 19th (another day-long train ride). Coincidentally, it turns out that the first Katya was going to be returning from the suburbs of Arkhangelsk, and so if I took that train we would both end up on it. This more-or-less cemented the schedule.

There is no direct train between Murmansk and Arkhangelsk (Murmansk in on a peninsula, and Arkhangelsk is across the sea), so when I tried to actually buy the tickets, it became clear that this wasn’t going to work, because I’d need to transfer at Vologda, and the trip between these two would actually take a full two days, and so I would get into Arkhangelsk just in time to leave again. I looked for a plane ticket on Expedia/Travelocity/etc, but it was $400 (one-way, remember) and connected in St. Petersburg, which bothered me on principle. I was beginning to think I’d scrap Arkhangelsk (which I’d wanted to visit for no good reason), but then I saw on the map in class that there was a ferry between them (which I figured might be the case) but when I started asking about actually getting tickets, it was apparent that there was no way to be sure about doing that, and of course I couldn’t take that chance. But, finally, I found through another site a direct flight between them for about $220, which wasn’t that bad, and was only 2 hours, as opposed to 50, so I decided we were back in the game after all, but the issue was that I couldn’t buy it directly at the site (in the normal sense, of paying online and getting an e-ticket) so I had to go to an office of theirs in the Angleterre hotel (next to Astoria, by St. Isaac’s), so at long last I finally cemented this, and consequently bought the train tickets to Murmansk and from Arkhangelsk and reserved hotels in both cities (since I obviously couldn’t do this knew where I was actually going and how long). Note the length and complexity of this process, which covers less than a week of travel to two other cities. I still had two weeks and four other cities to plan. The final outcome of this is:

8/13 train from St. Petersburg to Murmansk
8/14 arrive in Murmansk
8/17 fly to Arkhangelsk
8/18 train from Arkhangelsk to St. Petersburg
8/19 arrive in St. Petersburg

I planned to stay in St. Petersburg until the 23rd, at which point I’d head down to Moscow for a few days, until the 27th, followed by, in no particular order, Smolensk, Vladimir, and Nizhny Novgorod. The reasoning behind Moscow is obvious, although I will be meeting some friends there from last year, including Lidia, who is from Italy but will happen to be there in this timeframe, as well as another student I met last year, Natasha Ivlieva, and also Irina Kazanina, the sister of Nina Kazanina who taught at the New York Institute both last year and this year. Each Sunday, Polly Gannon (another staff member at St. Petersburg University, who teaches at the New York Institute but has also been part of our program this year) is at Café Zoom with whoever wants to meet her, and I decided to go there after my phone got stolen as I was feeling pretty down, and both of them were there along with Blake and invited me to visit. I’m visiting Smolensk for no good reason, just as Arkhangelsk, and Vladimir and Nizhny Novgorod were recommended to me. Smolensk, Moscow, Vladimir, and Nizhny Novgorod are all in a line from west to east, so I figured I’d try to take day trips between them. This posed similar issues to the first set, in that schedules are really important when one is only in a place for a day. I thought about it a lot and then decided it’d really be a lot easier to eliminate one of the latter two cities (Vladimir/Nizhny Novgorod) and spend one night in each of the remaining, taking a day to travel between them via Moscow. This worked out and so the schedule is:

8/23 train from St. Petersburg to Moscow
8/23 arrive in Moscow
8/27 train from Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod
8/29 train from Nizhny Novgorod to Moscow
8/29 train from Moscow to Smolensk

Now the question was when and where to actually exit the country. The original plan was Kiev, Ukraine, but Minsk, Belarus is right next to Smolensk, so I thought about that but quickly learned that I’d need a visa for that, and moreover, Belarus is kind of unfriendly right now (a clue was the list of places from which you don’t need a visa: North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Cuba, etc). This meant I’d need to go through Moscow, so the schedule became:

8/31 train from Smolensk to Moscow
8/31 train from Moscow to Kiev
9/1 arrive Kiev

And thus is planned the entirety of the Russia trip. Of course, it would be too easy to say everything is all tied up in a bow; before we left on our cruise I tried to take care of all of the remaining train tickets and hotel reservations. The train tickets were fine; I happened to find a cashier right near the Gostiniy Dvor metro station and it all worked out fine, which was great. As for the hotels, it started much more simply since I could do everything online, but I ran into a snag with Smolensk, namely that none of the sites I tried acknowledged its existence. I figure I’ll take care of that at one of the travel places I worked with along the way here (for the Murmansk/Arkhangelsk train/plane tickets I used two different places) once I come back to St. Petersburg. A more serious snag came up on the cruise; in spite of the fact that I told my credit card company when and where I’d be traveling (in general terms, obviously), they decided to block my charges when I started booking the hotels. Fortunately the Murmansk/Arkhangelsk reservations went through (as I’m writing this, I am realizing exactly how incredibly fortunate that is), but the St. Petersburg and Moscow reservations were blocked until I cleared them. I worried that the reservations would be canceled when the charges were denied, and wondered what would happen when they cleared the charges through, and sure enough when I checked the status of these bookings, they were canceled, so hopefully this works out without my being charged twice. On the other hand, I decided to ask my “host mom” as it were, if I could pay some more and stay there for those few days, and she said fine, so that’s one fewer hotel and a lot less money spent.


After our 6 weeks of lessons and lectures, we had a week-long cruise through the Russian north (well, more north than St. Petersburg). This was a great ending to our program, though it’s tough to believe that in less than a day we’ll all be going our separate ways. We had a stop every day:

Мандроги / Mandrogi: this was the first place we stopped, and was pretty disappointing as it is essentially a fake country village solely existing the benefit of tourists. Anna Maslennikova dubbed it a “tourist trap.” One of the first things we saw when disembarking was a large tent, on which was written “Mandrogi: Welcome to Show.” It was just sad. It was good that we got this out of the way first, as it paled compared to all the other stops, but we were worried the rest would be more of the same.

Петрозаводск / Petrozavodsk: a small city, which was nice to see since St. Petersburg is fairly unique with all of its excessive palaces and cultural places. Petrozavodsk had a lot of gift sculptures (from other countries), and halfway through our guided tour we wondered if that was all we were going to see. After that was free time, and I went on a very long exploration through the city, which I can barely begin to recount, but all I can say is that I’m glad I have a good sense of direction (in spite of any counterexamples you may have).

Кижи / Kizhi: an island with an old monastery (not sure if it’s exactly a monastery) with a wooden church that is unmistakably traditional Russian styled. We took a boat ride to some adjacent islands and saw some other interesting places.

Свирьстрой / Cvir’stroy: a Russian derevnya (village) which was also interesting to see in contrast to the cities. A Russian guy had cut his head open while swimming but his friends were on the other side of the lake, so we helped him back to the boat.

Валаам / Valaam: more islands and monasteries, but very different from Kizhi (the first part of the excursion was about a 7 km hike).

This was a great trip, and it was very interesting to see all of these places which are obviously very different than St. Petersburg, which was the only place I’d been in Russia up to this point. Tonight is a farewell party, and then the program is over; it’s tough to believe that the 7 weeks have already come and gone. Another interesting aspect of this program, as opposed to most of what I’ve done so far, is that we are from all over the country; most students from Stony Brook live within an hour or two of it, so last year after our study abroad program, most of us were still able to hang out all the time during the rest of the summer, but that will obviously not be the case this time. Another interesting thing: duck, duck, _____. In Minnesota, it’s not “goose,” but “grey duck.” Вот.


Our classes ended Friday, August 3rd, culminating in a large test on all that we’d covered over the 6 weeks of lessons, and then a nice dinner at a Georgian restaurant that evening with all the students and teachers. For me, it only sets in that I’m leaving when I see advertisements for things in the future, which would be impossible to attend even if I wanted to. It’s tough to measure the amount of progress I’ve made along the way, or to say how much I’ve learned; our classes were not the usual style of following through a textbook, learning vocabulary and constructions along the way, but rather we had a different theme each week (first impressions of Russia, problems of youth, university studies, economics, healthcare, and external politics) and each of eight different sections reflected these themes. Each day we had two ninety minute classes.

Mondays were страноведение (country studies), in which the teacher would more-or-less lecture on these topics as they pertained to Russia, and чтение (reading). Tuesdays were phonetics, in which we sang songs that went over some sort of phonetic feature. These songs were great, and we all had them stuck in our heads, but at the same time I feel like it just resulted in repeating the wrong pronunciations as opposed to really nailing how to make the sounds, some of which are notoriously difficult for English speakers and really give away one’s accent, for example ы (a vowel between I and U) and ль (soft L), which were really tough until I learned tricks, each of which took all of 5 minutes and made a huge difference. R still throws me off a lot though, since it takes some time for me to start trilling the R, so доброе утро (dobroe utro) and природа (priroda) feel clumsy to me.

Also on Tuesday was grammar, which got off to a rough start but was really useful once it was fine-tuned with our feedback. There were many things we learned which I thought I already knew, which was startling because it often meant I was doing it wrong all along (for example, “why/because” is distinct from “for what purpose/in order to” although I’d been using the same for both).

On Wednesdays we had културология (culture studies) where we talked in more general terms (as opposed to strictly Russia) about the week’s theme in a more interactive way, as well as разговор (conversation) in which we learned useful conversational constructions and prepared monologues from texts for homework. This was useful, but I wish we could have had more dialog amongst ourselves with aid from the teacher on what we were doing wrong / how it would be more naturally conveyed in Russian. We were supposed to talk to each other only in Russian at all times (though that often broke down after a few days) but often it felt like it wasn’t really helping if we understood each other because of the equivalent English, whereas in real Russian it would be conveyed entirely differently.

Thursdays we had письмо (writing), which was often helpful for exactly the reason I just wrote about for conversation, which was that it was very useful for our writings to be corrected because there were many things that might sound fine in English but were either bad or ungrammatical in Russian. The second half was another instance of разговор.

Finally, Fridays we had аудирование (listening), in which we would prepare for a video segment by building up phrases that would be used, so we could practice speaking and listening to them, followed by actually watching the segment and taking a short test. I didn’t feel like this approach really helped too much, but it’s tough to say because overall my listening greatly improved, but it’s unclear what helped the most. Following this was another grammar class.

Because of the relatively few grammar classes, it felt like progress was slow (in that, the other classes were not necessarily teaching anything new per se but rather either practice or correction). It especially felt like I was making little progress each time I tried in vain to understand one of the lectures in Russian that followed the classes, or of course the incident with the police, but then a funny thing happened. At first it was that I could understand some of the lectures, which I thought was because the speaker was speaking unusually slowly or clearly (as was occasionally the case when we were spoken to in Russian by the staff). But then I noticed that I better understood others, too, such as people’s conversations on the street, or announcements, and so forth. The first week we had films, introduced by Timur (who had done so last year at the New York Institute), but the second, third, and fourth weeks were the New York Institute, and so these films resumed the fifth week of the program. It was amazing to experience the difference between that first week, in which I could barely understand what he said, and the fifth week, when I could follow almost all of what he said (although the films would have been really hard without subtitles). It was as though the entire country had flipped on the “enunciation switch” and that everyone else had changed how they spoke (which of course is silly), and as frustrating as it was until that point, so rewarding was it to finally feel progress. It wasn’t gradual, but more like a leap to the next level, and so until that point it was hopelessly frustrating to converse or transact anything because I could usually convey what I wanted, but would rarely understand what was said back to me. I definitely considered it easier to speak than to understand, because I could use what I knew, whereas what was coming back to me could be anything, and I had no control over it. Now I feel the reverse most of the time, as I feel less confident in the correctness of what I am saying but am finally able to understand much of what is said back to me. Of course, I’m not saying that now I can always understand what’s going on, or what people are saying to me, but it’s much better than it was and I can now at least get the gist most of the time, unless it’s a subject where I have a very bad vocabulary and most of the key words are lost on me. It’s also amazing as I realize all the words and phrases I’ve learned, which is not that surprising, but even so, I didn’t study any vocabulary per se, but I’ve still gained a lot by things that come up often; once I look them up, they just end up reinforcing themselves by use rather than self-repetition. It’s a shame that all this started coming about for me just towards the end of the program, but as I have three more weeks in Russia, there will certainly be plenty more opportunity for practice and hopefully progress.

By the way, Part 2

Some other things we did through the program that I forgot:

- Tour of some of the metro stops; we were able to take pictures, which is usually not allowed for some reason (which the guide couldn’t explain; in Moscow you can)

- Blues concert on a boat trip through the Neva

Other random things:

I also saw the white Lexus with expired New York license plates again, which I’d seen last year. In addition there were some Massachusetts plates hanging around together. Weird.

One time I was walking in the rain, and two dogs started following me for a while, with one of them hanging out under my umbrella, until I got to the bus stop.

Speaking of umbrellas, I hear the song (now it’s raining more than ever, …) or one of its apparently innumerable derivatives far too often.

The poplar pollen has started flying through the streets again now that the rain has stopped and the weather has gotten warmer.

The times, they are a changing:

Most of our group in on facebook, and we befriended each other before the trip. When we met in person, many of us already recognized each other.

Among the souvenirs I’ve seen are magnets which represent a cameraphone taking a picture of some sort of monument (some kind of monument which would normally be the magnet)

I sometimes see jet skis cruising in the canals

There are a lot of damn car alarms near where I live, and the same one is almost always going off.