Tuesday, July 3, 2007

To Russia...

It seemed that once we left the ground at Frankfurt, our group turned on the "Russian switch"; up until that point no one had really been speaking any Russian to each other but from that moment on, we were Russian-only, even among ourselves.

Saturday evening, we arrived at Pulkovo. In contrast to last year, we did indeed have a jetway, as opposed to simply stairs on the tarmac, but there were many familiarities. I missed the exhiliration that I had last year when we were approaching the airport, remarking at the incredible changes that had transpired in the last 10-20 years such that it was even possible to be in this strange land with which we had been enemies for so long. This year seemed more routine.

There was the same familiar 4-note chime followed by announcements over the PA system, but in contrast to last year, the line to customs was shorter and the weather more cool. Anna Maslennikova and Julia Vorobiova, some familiar staff from last year, met us at Pulkovo, although this time it was only in Russian. Те же люди, другой язык. My luggage fortunately made it this time, and rather than the rickety van to some archaic, beat-up dormitory, we had a large coach bus taking the group to the "Petro Sport Hotel" which was pretty luxurious by any standard. Keys were not a problem, no one was living in my spot, the bathrooms weren't repulsive, I didn't need to take dysfunctional elevators; it was all so banal in a way. We had phones this year, either from home or purchased for us, and SIM cards waiting as well so we were all able to call each other (more-or-less) as opposed to banging on iron doors, 9 floors away.

We had dinner at the hotel, and breakfast on Sunday morning (a buffet), and after that we had an orientation (in Russian) and then checked out and met our families. Mine is a single woman, on the young side of middle-aged, with a young daughter who is away for the summer in Moscow. We chatted over some wine (in Russian; she doesn't speak English anyway), and then bought some breakfast for me (cereal) and had some dinner (frozen pizza). Trying to understand all the Russian has been very difficult, as I've had very little practice and have (apparently) a small vocabulary. My room is fairly large and comfortable, having been recently remodeled. I have a sofa/bed. One point of amusement for the Russian speaking among you, is that the bathroom's toilet paper (which exists, by the way), is of the brand "Мягкий знак," the logo of which is indeed "ь".

Last year I lived on Vasilievsky Island, where the university is located, about 20 minutes by bus, the stops for which were conveniently across from the dorm and university. This year I live across the Neva on the mainland (well, actually another small island off the mainland). It's about 35 minutes on foot, as unfortunately the only bus route that goes in the right direction is about 15 minutes away from the apartment and 10 minutes away from the university, so it's not worth doing. The first week saw heavy rain, and I didn't have an umbrella, so that was unpleasant.

I go across the Lieutenant Schmidt bridge, which is still being reconstructed (there is a parallel bridge right next to it, which I think is only temporary, as they can't afford to close the bridge entirely). This is the western bridge, which has four large towers, for those went last year. At first this was really difficult since crossing the streets to reach it was treacherous as there is no traffic stop. Now it's less difficult as I can walk across the bridge that the cars are not driving over.

It's been interesting to see the results of the many constructions that were in progress last year, such as the Neva-facing facade of the Hermitage, and some roadwork on the university embankment, which now has a median which one can walk on or stop on when crossing the street.

It's been very busy, as we have Russian classes each day, plus lectures in Russian, plus other cultural programs, but I'll talk all about all that.