Monday, September 3, 2007

Reflections on Russia

So, after ten weeks in Russia, it was finally time to leave. What a journey it was! Not long ago, I couldn't see myself going to the other side of the world (on a whim, pretty much), especially not to Russia, this strange and unfamiliar place, but of course now I don't regret it for a second (I did for a day). Indeed, last year's trip was my first time abroad. Who could have guessed where it would take me and how many people I'd meet? I met many friends last year in St. Petersburg both from Russia and Europe, as well as the other Stony Brook students whom I met there. After last year's trip, I ended up going to Prague (and Dresden) for New Year's with Alex, Anna and Michelle, who I'd met in St. Petersburg - although Alex didn't quite make it to Germany, but rather Ustí nad Labem, courtesy of forgetting his passport. Then in the spring, I went to New Orleans with Michelle, Anna, and Jenna, as Jenna was one of the main organizers of the trip.

And then, I was able to go back this year, and I was reunited, although briefly, with many of the Russian friends I'd met, though this time conversing mainly in Russian, which had earlier been impossible. I also made several dozen new friends, from the US and from Russia (and beyond). I saw familiar sights in St. Petersburg, many of which had changed in the interim - completing repairs or starting them, perhaps (like the Hermitage) - or even while I was there (like the Lieutenant Schmidt Bridge, which had finished its reconstruction and reopened during my months there). Bus and metro fare had increased by 2 rubles, to 14, and the cheap McDonald's ice cream cones had as well, to 8 rubles. Other things hadn't changed - and other repairs looked like they hadn't made any progress at all. Of course, I also saw many new sights in St. Petersburg (and beyond), and took a few thousand more pictures.

Even more, after the program in St. Petersburg, I traveled around on the Russian railroad (and a single Aeroflot flight, whose plane did not spontaneously lose its wings and drop out of the sky) on my own, spending a cumulative 72 hours / 3 days on the trains, with a new adventure and some new acquaintances almost every time. I traveled to five cities - St. Petersburg, Murmansk, Arkhangelsk, Moscow, and Smolensk - out of the seven I had originally planned (I didn't make it to Vladimir or Nizhniy Novgorod), not including the cruise, which took me additionally to Petrozavodsk, Kizhi, Valaam, and a little village (Svyrstroy). I had grand plans for traveling through Europe on the railroad, hoping to see Kiev, Budapest, Bratislava, Vienna, Munich, Rome, Barcelona, Madrid, and Seville (and whatever else on the way). Although that didn't quite come to fruition, I will still see about half of that (albeit mainly by plane): Kiev, Rome, Vienna, Barcelona, and Bilbao.

I'll miss the simplicity of life in Russia - the gypsy cabs (ie. any passing car) always at your disposal, the low-cost ice cream (and low-cost everything, basically). I won't miss the crooked cops nor the lack of street signs at corners. Nor the strangely ubiquitous mullet. It was very exciting and rewarding this year to actually be able to communicate in Russian (however rudimentary it might have been). And even though I still can't explain my reasons for studying to those who ask (as Natasha pointed out in Moscow, "nobody asks why you're studying English"), I certainly can't complain about the results. I'll be back, one way or another, but for now - счастливо, Россия!

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