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Saint Petersburg

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I successfully made a weekend trip 400 miles north to the incredible city of Saint Petersburg.  The city felt about how I had expected and it was encouraging to see that there are personalities to each city in Russia.  I would love to visit some of the cities in the East but there is just not enough time or money at the moment.  I know that a lot of Russians don’t even make it across the Ural Mountains because it is expensive and just really far!  So, I am really happy that I got to see another city in the West and see that it is completely different from Moscow.  I don’t mean to say that I don’t like Moscow, but Moscow is definitely the business city, where people make and spend the big bucks, where the politicians use police lights on top of their cars to slither through traffic, where the quality of fur you wear allows you into a night club, and where you can do or buy anything for money.  Saint Petersburg, while I am sure also possesses the money-hungry citizens, has a feeling of anti-conformism.  It was home of Dostoevsky, Gogol, Nabokov, and Tchaikovsky and if you have ever read or listened to any of their work, you can see mild if not overwhelming cases of depression and longing.  I was only there for three days but to me, the city still has that sense of depression.  The buildings are dark and ornate, the clouds are dense, and the wind from the water (Saint Petersburg is on the Gulf of Finland and the Neva River runs through it) makes you want to bury your face in a blanket as you hurry down the streets.  There are many poets, musicians, and authors who still live in Saint Petersburg because it is still that haven for inspiration.  Unlike in Moscow where every other person I have met has been an economist, banker, or accountant, in Saint Petersburg I met guitar players, photographers, and lyricists.  I have never been really interested in music or art (mostly because I am not good at it), but I am attracted to this type of city and its lifestyle and I can see why it charms so many people.  Before going, I said that it might resemble Prague and yes, I can see that too.  They are both melancholy and historical, intriguing and romantic, and they breed drunk musicians playing in the streets.  I can definitely see myself living in this city (not as a drunk musician playing in the streets) temporarily but I think the lack of Vitamin D shining through the clouds would deter me from purchasing a flat overlooking the Neva. 

As you can imagine, because of their differences in lifestyle and their similarities in history (both have been the capital of Russia), Moscow and Saint Petersburg citizens are at a constant butting of heads.  Nothing serious or literal, but I feel as though I cannot get an impartial response to the question, “Which city is better?”  I want to ask someone who has lived in both places for extended periods of time and who now lives elsewhere because maybe they would be completely unbiased.  But I have not been able to find anyone like this, I have only found people who live in Moscow and have very strong opinions against Saint Petersburg and people who live in Saint Petersburg and have very strong opinions against Moscow.  By the end of my weekend I even found myself thinking, “How can you live in this bone-crushing wind!?” yet it really wasn’t that bad, the sun was shining for most of my time there.  I have also been told that people know immediately when they go to either Moscow or Saint Petersburg if it is the city for them.  The explanation I got from a Saint Petersburg fellow was: “If you spend a night on a roof in Saint Petersburg and you don’t fall in love, then this city is just not for you.” 

Unfortunately, I do not have any photos to share with you.  I have the worst luck with cameras!  I brought my old camera to Russia and of course it broke (I think it is like the first digital camera model ever made so I don’t blame it, it had its glory days) and I have been using a….disposable camera!  It has been quite fun actually, to see the reactions of strangers when I pull out the disposable and ask them to take my picture.  I guess you can say I have gotten over my fear of what people think of me.  And hey, instead of twenty-nine photos at different angles of the same building or fountain, I just have one at the perfect angle (or what has to be the perfect angle because I only have one).  I have one week left in Russia though and only eight photos remain!  I will have to choose wisely.  A lesson on self-restraint.  Again, sorry I don’t have any visuals to share but maybe when I return to the States and go to a CVS, wait one hour, scan the photos that may or may not be developed successfully, and upload them to a computer with internet, I will place them here in the blog. 

One week left in this crazy country, I better get out there.   

Another train adventure!

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Yes, I am headed to Saint Petersburg tonight and I will have another overnight train adventure under my belt.  I am traveling alone this time so I am really glad that I have already been on the train and I know a little bit about how the system works.  I think I have a separate room both there and back (and by separate I mean I share it with three other strangers) so in some ways I’m not getting the full experience but I tried to get a place in the common car and it was actually more expensive.  The entire process of buying the tickets took me about a week to complete.  I could have probably done it in two days but because it is best to leave Moscow late at night and then arrive in St. Petersburg early in the morning, I was confused by the departure and arrival days and times.  Just trust me, it is confusing.  I asked my host to come with me to the railway station, one of nine in Moscow, and I was so glad that I did because we got lost just trying to find the correct building and the ticket window.  I don’t usually ask people for directions when I am lost, both because I like to figure it out for myself and because I am too shy, but my host dad is allllll about it.  Surprisingly, I think I have a better sense of direction than he does.  But I have noticed that with most of the Russians I have been with-they don’t shy away from asking for directions.  Very unlike the stereotypical American male who feels asking for help is a sign of weakness.  I’m not afraid of being seen as “weak” but I am hoping I remember how to get to my train tonight at midnight so I don’t have to ask anyone…mostly because I don’t want to have to ask the typical citizen outside a Russian train station, a stinking and staggering drunk.  We’ll see!  

Saint Petersburg was founded by Peter the Great in 1703 and was the capital of Russia in the early 1700’s and from 1732 to 1918.  It is Russia’s second largest city and it’s the cultural center of the nation.  It went through several name changes, from St. Petersburg to Petrograd because it sounded too German during WWI and then to Leningrad when Vladimir Lenin died in the early 1920’s.  I am excited because several people have told me that if you love Prague, you will love Saint Petersburg and I definitely LOVE Prague.  I hope that I can see it all in two and a half days but I’ve been warned that it takes a lot longer.  I already bought a map so at least I know I won’t be spending too much time getting lost.  I am glad I have the opportunity to see another city and one that is a little smaller.  I have almost gotten used to Moscow’s size and personality but being in St. Petersburg will probably feel a little less chaotic and I’m guessing more at my pace.  We’ll see.  Ah, one of my favorite phrases, especially in another language: “we’ll see,” or “увидим”.  It’s so easy to say, easy to use in almost every conversation, and so non-committal.  I thank the exchange student in me for finding the most convenient way to say things in foreign situations.

That probably makes me sound lazy.  Lazy?  Or smart?  Efficient?  Just like the question of whether or not asking for directions is lazy or smart.  I will be lazy and safe with my non-committing answers in conversation and adventurous and courageous with my solo attempt to find my way around St. Petersburg this weekend.  Wish me luck!

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The other day I went to…a place…honestly not all that interesting and I don’t even remember the name of it but the best part was the conversation I had while I walked around the…place.   My hosts insist on speaking mostly English and I guess they do have that right, seeing how I am the English tutor living in their home, but it’s much more beneficial for me if we speak Russian too.  So the other day I finally convinced my host that it would be a “fun and educational exercise” if I spoke Russian and he spoke English and we would correct each other’s mistakes.  Turns out, I am a genius and it was very fun and educational.  It didn’t take long and we were laughing at each other’s mistakes but also explaining the correct grammar or vocabulary.  We were both speaking freely, a mix of English and a mix of Russian, not even thinking about which language we were using, just whatever we thought in our minds, we said out loud.  For me, that was something fairly new-actually saying out loud what I was thinking and having it be that I was thinking in Russian words instead of in English words.  I no longer feel like I need to map out every sentence in my head before I begin speaking, I can just open my mouth and figure out the words as I go.  Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean that my listeners will fully understand me or that I choose the perfect words for each situation, but it’s a step in the right direction.  I can see the same progress in my host, who already had a great command of the English language but I can tell that now he’s more confident about simply saying what he’s thinking instead of trying to construct a thought in his head.  Recognizing my own progression with Russian has motivated me to study the language harder and it has made me excited to spend more time with it.  I am disappointed that I only have two weeks left to do so in this environment because it really is the best way to learn.  Now I just have to think of how I will come back! 

Uh, yeah, I knew that…

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Two days ago my host took me to ВДНХ, which in English is the All-Russian Exhibition Center.  It was originally opened in 1939 as an exhibition of agriculture for the fifteen republics of the Soviet Union.  Each republic, for example today’s Armenia or Belarus, advertised its products, displayed its culture, and represented its people.  The center is one of the most visited cultural and historical areas in Moscow and my host was surprised I hadn’t seen it yet.  After I walked beyond the ferris wheel, miniature ponies, and kebab stands, I was met by the massive fountain called Дружба народнов СССР, which translates to Friendship of the People of the Soviet Union.  It has fifteen golden statues of women representing each of the republics, each dressed a different way and holding a specific item to indicate the republic.

The building says "Союз Советских Социалистических Республик" (USSR)


Всероссийский выставочный центр (overview of ВДНХ)

I realized I really really like this fountain, I kind of became obsessed with it.  I don’t know if it was because it was really warm and the mist felt refreshing or if it was because of the full and complex history that each figure embodied.  It was one of those times when you are standing in such an authentic place that you can imagine just what it looked like during the time in history it was thriving.  I could feel the other nationalities around me, proudly promoting their products and excited to have the opportunity to gather and share their cultures.  In general, the Soviet Union encouraged and commanded unity of all its republics so I think that this occasion to individualize themselves was especially significant.  I don’t know what it is about Soviet history that I am so entranced by.  One of my goals while here was to try to obtain a better idea of what the people of the Soviet Union truly thought of their lives, their leaders, and the rest of the world.  I haven’t quite figured it out and as I suspected, it’s only made me more curious.  I can’t ask enough questions to find an answer.  Two months are just not enough.  

On our way out of the exhibition center, we visited the Memorial Museum of Astronautics.  This type of museum isn’t all that interesting to me (science, yuck) but I learned something very important!  Now, I can vividly remember constructing a model of the solar system when I was in fourth grade and of course everyone knows that Neil Armstrong took the first step on the moon, but does everyone know that a Russian was the first human in outer space?   (Does everyone already know that?  I guess it’s possible, I kind of stop listening when I’m being told anything that has to do with science so maybe I missed it back in fourth grade.)  For anyone who didn’t know, in 1961 Yuri Gargarin orbited Earth and became the first human being in space.  Yay, Russia!  And we all know that Russians were the first to have a satellite in orbit and we all know that satellite was Sputnik.  I always thought the name “Sputnik” sounded really cool and would be a neat name for a dog or something but I learned something here too: “sputnik” means “satellite”.  Did everyone else know that too?  The fact that the very first satellite in space, something the Russians were/are SO proud of and the Americans were so defeated/scared by, was not given a really creative and mysteriously Russian name but was simply named Satellite…that is just disappointing and actually a bit comical.  (I’m going to feel fairly stupid if everyone else in America already knew these tidbits of info but I will also feel less pathetic because at least my own misinformation wasn’t a nation-wide fail.)  

The Russian government is well-known for keeping secrets and twisting the facts of history but yesterday I was hit right in the face with the ironic fact that America too, has its way of keeping things quiet.  Each day I am here, the differences I see between our two nations amaze me but even more enlightening and surprising are the similarities that I am discovering.  

Religion in Russia is Not Dead!

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Despite the thousands of gorgeous churches in Moscow, the immense amount of time and effort that went in to constructing the beautiful architecture, and the impressive gold and silver that make up the intricate figurines at the pulpits, I have had a hard time finding any remnants of religion in Russia.  

I noticed this in the Czech Republic so I was not very surprised when I found it to be the same here.  I almost forgot about religion’s place in Russia altogether until I learned its contemporary role.  Orthodox Christianity is the original and largest religion in Russia and according to the Holy Trinity, God has instructed His Rooskie followers to only do things in three’s.  It is best to drink with three people and to have at least three drinks per person.  If you have only two people, you should find another who will join you.  If you begin one drink, you definitely need at least two more because one is pointless and after two you might as well make it three so you can show your love and gratitude to God.  Well, that is the extent of “three’s” that I have been taught thus far.  

I’m not sure religion should be at all connected to something that has caused millions of tragic deaths in a country but in some ways it is reassuring that the country has not completely forgotten its religious roots….maybe?  

Hа здоровье!






English Switch: On

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One of the main reasons I am in Moscow is to improve my Russian and being surrounded by Russian has been both challenging and exciting.  I have tried to speak as much as possible or at least eavesdrop on people’s’ conversations on the metro, in restaurants, and in parks.  This has been an excellent addition to my homemade language lessons this summer, but after four weeks I’m really craving English without a Russian accent.  I love the Russian accent of course but recently my ears have been tuning themselves in to conversations that sound a little more like English and a little less like something from an American-made Soviet film.  I decided I didn’t want to go as far as tracking down the usual hangout for English-speaking Westerners like an Irish pub, I just hoped I would come across them on the street, maybe they would recognize me as American and ask me to help them out.  I inspected every human for flip-flops, baseball caps, North Face, college t-shirts, tennis shoes, and yes, rounder middles but came up with nothing.  As I walked around the center of the city, I was surprised to hear very few people speaking English and I basically gave up the search for expats.  As soon as I threw in the towel, my prayers were answered and I overheard someone shout from a restaurant entryway, “Jordan, let’s get a beer with the others!”  So many things about this moment made me stop dead in my tracks and stare at the girl in the doorway.  Most importantly was her accent, which was not Russian but a bit more to the West-German!  The next was “beer,” which always tastes good after a long, hot day in the city.  And the last, “others”!  What?  There are more of you?!?!  Yes!!  I secretly followed them about ten steps behind into the building and watched them sit down at a long table with about five other people.  They looked like quite a motley crew and I couldn’t tell what language they were speaking so I decided it would be less creepy if I went the bar to order a drink and tried to decipher the language from there.  It only took about thirty more seconds and I heard someone shout “YES”!  I turned around and caught “Jordan” telling a story in English.  It was about an adventure he and his girlfriend had just been on the previous night when they took a taxi from the center to their hostel.  (At this point I didn’t care if I was very clearly eavesdropping because one-all Russians have a knack for obviously staring and two-I was determined to enter their group and find out more about them.  I think I was probably gravitating closer and closer to their table without even noticing my feet were moving).  I managed to introduce myself as a fellow English speaker and visitor to the city of Moscow and they immediately welcomed me.  More people showed up as the evening went on and more English was spoken, I even found a couple of native speakers from England.  It turned out to be a bi-weekly meeting of people from all over the world who happen to be in a certain city at the same time.  They connect over the internet to find and share information about traveling; transportation, hostels, museums, restaurants, everything you need when you’re new in a city or just passing through for a few hours.  I met people from Germany, Brazil, London, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Uzbekistan, and of course Russia.  Everyone had fascinating travel experiences to share and helpful advice about visiting their home countries.  Hearing English spoken in so many accents was surprisingly harmonious.  

As much as I love being completely surrounded by Russia-the food, language, soviet buildings, street signs, and Eastern European clothes, it is still comforting to find people who don’t completely fit that mold.  I think that this dose of English came at the perfect time and now I feel rejuvenated and motivated to once again submerge myself in RUSSIA.  

Working to Improve my Sense of Direction

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I decided to start this week with walking explorations throughout the city.  My sense of direction has never been anything to brag about so by this point in my life I have realized that it is my responsibility to teach myself where I am and what is around me.  I have found that the best way to do this is to walk the streets, make decisions about right or left, and then retrace on a map where I have been.  An even smarter way of doing this is to have a map with you in case you make the wrong decisions about right or left but after two weeks in the Moscow, I still had not bought a map.  It made me cringe to think of myself stopping in the middle of a busy sidewalk, frantically searching in my bag, unfolding a map three feet tall and two feet wide, being bumped from every angle by experienced Muscovites, then clumsily trying to fold the map back to its original form, only to then begin walking and realize I did not memorize the street names I’m looking for.  So, I held off on buying a map until I was forced to surrender because the blisters on my feet would not retreat even after a refreshing пиво break.  I was adamant about avoiding the hazardous fold-out design though so I found a nice booklet with metro, street, and historical site information.  

Fortunately, I did most of my walking before the map purchase.  I got off at a metro station near the center and hoped to find a specific old, touristy street called Arbat.  I had walked on it before but I was not alone therefore I didn’t pay much attention to street signs and directions (I can see my dad and brothers shaking their heads at this).  I did get to Arbat Street but I walked in the opposite direction I should have and although it was physically healthy to walk for hours, I did not see what I had wanted.  I missed out on the touristy shops, cobblestone road, delicious restaurants, and street musicians and instead found myself walking along the first of the three “ring roads” of Moscow.  I saw a lot of sidewalk construction, five-lane roads in each direction, minimal pedestrian cross walks, my favorite communist-style buildings, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs building, which was actually pretty neat.  

One of the "Seven Sisters"

Between 1947 and 1953 seven skyscrapers like this one were built in the “Stalinist” style-baroque, gothic, and somewhat resembling the technology used in American skyscrapers at that time.  

I finally spotted someone crossing the street so I took advantage of the very rare pedestrian cross walk and I followed him because it looked like he knew where he was going.  That could have meant he was walking to his flat farther away from the center and from where I wanted to be but my common sense was kicking in and I realized I needed to get off the industrial street I was then on.  And it worked!  I recognized the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour and I could sense I was near the Moscow River so I was feeling accomplished.  The Cathedral of Christ the Saviour is the tallest cathedral in Europe and wow, it really is a breathtaking sight.


The next day I was determined to find a new book.  Some might scold me for wanting a book in English instead of Russian but I don’t care because my brain would completely fry itself if I tried to read a book of any substance in Russian.  I would rather read the celebrated literature of Pushkin and Dostoevsky in English than read adventures about baby farm animals in Russian.  I also really don’t want to sit in a cafe surrounded by intelligent, multilingual people and pull out a Russian version of Pippi Longstocking.  As much as my time in Moscow is about improving my Russian, it is also about learning Russian culture and history and the Russians are very proud (as they should be) of their prominent authors and poets.  

After I found my new reading and writing materials, I began my journey home.  I again felt a bit out-of-place when the only things I walked by were gas stations, parking lots, and drunks hanging out under trees.  I stumbled upon a fruit, vegetable, and meat market where all I had to do was blindly stare at the piles of fresh fruit and I had a bag full of pears in my hand within seconds.  Maybe they could see on my face that the only thing in the world I wanted at that moment was a revitalizing piece of fruit.  

Now I am taking a few days off from the walking tours and giving my feet time to heal.  And maybe I will study my new map a bit more diligently…


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