Sunday, December 22, 2013

Study Abroad Bucket List

Although I've already been to Russia three times, studying abroad there is going to be a completely different experience. I will be living like a local (or at least trying), I won't have my boyfriend to rely on as a language crutch and I won't be staying with his family like in the past, I will actually have to learn something (including "International Trade and Regional Integration: Legal and Economic Perspectives”- yikes!), and, clearly, it will be for 8 months, not 3 weeks!

So I've put together a list of things I've learned in Russia so far (see previous post) and a little preliminary bucket list of things to do while I'm abroad. I'll try to revisit the bucket list every two months to see how I'm making progress!

1. Attend Luzhitsy Bounty. Every summer there is a festival in the village of Luzhitsy celebrating the heritage and culture of the Votian people- it’s small and local and I think it would be amazing to see a little minority group trying not to blend into Russia completely. For more info, check out this video.  

2. Work this look at least once: the mini skirt/tights/high heeled boots in snow look is pretty popular in Russia 

3. Go South! I suppose if nothing else my proposed research trip to Azerbaijan would count for this, but I really want to go into the Northern Caucasus (the safer parts) or somewhere on the Black Sea, maybe check out Mt Elbrus!

Valley in the Caucasus Mountains

4. Observe an Orthodox fast during Lent. The diet is basically vegan, which you follow along with with increased religious observance (prayer, meditation), an overall heightened consciousness, and more ascetic mentality. I tried this last year and it basically involved eating nothing but black bean burgers and In the Nood (UVA on-Grounds noodle restaurant- I still can’t stand it), total failure. Hopefully it will be easier in Russia, fingers crossed my host mom will be super religious and help me out!

   5. Feed the squirrels in Pavlovsky Park. Listed as the best place in St Petersburg to feed squirrels…sounds fun! (and an easy one to cross off)

   6. Learn Azeri to some extent…probably not very well as most of my concentration will be on Russian of course, but I just can’t waste the opportunity to learn from a native speaker!

Typical dacha "neighborhood"
7. Go to a dacha + banya! This will involve having to befriend someone who has a dacha, so step 1: befriend as many Russians as I can and subtly ascertain the crucial detail.

      8. Visit Kizhi. Kizhi is an island in the center of Lake Onega in the Republic of Karelia in north western Russia. It is famous for the ancient architecture that is mostly wooden structures made without any nails! 
Kizhi Pogost (Churchyard)
9. Kuznechny Market:
one of the best markets in St Petersburg, full of interesting vendors and a great variety of products. Apparently vendors will yell out to you as you walk by!
10. Go to a Zenit FC Game. Petersburg's soccer team, fans get crazy! 

This is not a comprehensive list, so if anyone has any suggestions, throw them at me! I am looking to make the absolute most of my time while in Russia and it is always a good motivator and fighter of home sickness to have a to-do list of fun things to look forward to.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Things I've Learned in St. Petersburg

        After my most recent trip to St. Petersburg, I feel like I need to share some of my experiences with Russia- both good and bad- and what I've taken away from my time there.

I visited St. P briefly in spring 2012 and was too lazy to write about it, then I spent New Year's Eve and the extended holiday season there and started this blog post but was too lazy to finish it, then I spent the better part of this past August there and was, again, too lazy to write about it...but now! Now that I am almost a month from embarking on my 8 month adventure study abroad trip and since I should be studying for my economics exam, it's the perfect time to finally write a blog post!

So I've put together a list of things I've learned in Russia so far to help me conceptualize my time there so far and get pumped for next semester!

Things I've Learned in Russia (so far)
1. You cannot customize fast food orders. Not even "add tomato" or "no onions" and all condiments cost extra. 

2. You cannot get a good American milkshake. (these two are probably the biggest problems I have with Russia, honestly it's much more difficult than you think) 
3. They have an entirely different scale for cold.

but yes, they have summer too!

4. You don't become friends with someone until you've spent a considerable amount of time together and built a deep trust- friendship is serious business. Until then, you're just an acquaintance.

5. Everyday is a holiday...or at least every day within a two week radius of a holiday.

6. Winter is more beautiful than I've ever seen it- and I didn't even see snow until I was in middle school, so I have an above average appreciation of winter to begin with.
St. Isaac's Cathedral

7. Privacy and personal space are not common themes.

8. Racism is real, prevalent, and almost instinctual for some. I've met people with a real belief that different races are biologically different to the point of inferiority.

9. Physical appearance is extremely important, but more for women than men. It's not uncommon to see a young-20s woman in high heels, mini skirt, and flawless makeup with a toddler and a fat, bald husband 3 inches shorter than her (also, I find the commonness of women taller than their husbands, especially in heels, really empowering!)

10. Despite the beautiful models all over the place, and the inability to PUT A TOMATO ON A SANDWICH WITHOUT HAVING TO CALL 2 MANAGERS, there are people in Russia so much like me. People who study, learn, work, wear jeans and don't know how to use eyeshadow, who love watching America's Next Top Model and smile at snowflakes...

In conclusion, there is still so much for me to learn about Russia, so much to explore, and so much to be absolutely thrilled about looking ahead to my next adventure! Also- I love answering questions, so if anyone is curious about Russia or anywhere else I've been, lay it on me))))

Samantha <3

Monday, August 12, 2013



For anyone who didn't already know- I went to Eesti (Estonia) last week! It's about a 2.5 hour drive to the border from St. Petersburg, where I'm staying for most of August, so Roman and I decided to go visit his friend who lives in Tartu. Basically, Estonia is  a small Baltic nation with a population of 1.3 million. The largest city is the capital, Tallinn, followed by Tartu, then Narva on the Russian border. Throughout the 4 days I was in Estonia I tried to write down notes as my thoughts came to me, so I'm just going to publish all of that. I know it's a little long, but I promise you'll learn something and the end is kind of funny   ;)

Having focused on the Russian/Eastern European world for so long in my studies and personal life, it's difficult to put myself in the mindset of the typical American and see their perceptions and stereotypes of this area. To me, "Estonia" brings to mind a pretty varied bundle of ideas, but to an American who has barely heard of the country, the image is probably much more singular. Well, let me try and expand your understandings of this little nugget of a nation. 

First of all, it really is tiny. There are about 1.3 million people in the country, and a big chunk of the population isn't even Estonian. In Narva, the third largest city, the majority of the population is Russian and Tartu, the second largest city, is largely international students. Although it's common to hear Russian on the street and many signs are tri-lingually in Estonian, Russian, and English, Estonia is NOT Russia. Estonia is very much more European than Russian, and being here just solidifies my opinion that Russia is not really Europe. 

In Estonia: the streets are clean, there are lots of disability-accessible  facilities, roads are significantly better than in Russia, people are more open and friendly, architecture is pretty different without Orthodox churches being the dominant feature (Estonia is majority Protestant). Of course, Estonia is part of the European Union and the Eurozone so license plates are European, the currency is Euros, and EU flags pop up here and there. 

I think overall I would categorize Estonia as "pleasant".  Tartu is a pretty pumping place on a Friday night with so many students and a small, concentrated center, but so much of the country is blink-of-an-eye, 50-home farming villages. It's quaint and quiet and calm. The Russian stereotype of Estonians is that they are slow (owing in part to the language with repeated vowels everywhere and extremely long words), and I think it's a pretty fair description. It almost feels like a near-transparent patch that lets itself be saturated by influence from others. It reflects and absorbs, but I'm still trying to find the authentic, unique Estonia that I'm sure is underneath! **I'll note that I am in Estonia in August, part of a short period of warm weather and sunny skies late into the night, which definitely affects peoples' behavior and my perceptions. **

Seems like all the people here effortlessly and arbitrarily switch between Estonian, English, and Russian. Estonia has a huge Russian population. I just saw my Russian friend speak English to an Estonian waitress! 

Traveling makes you more self-aware as much as it makes you more aware of the world. Being in Estonia where so many people speak English (as their second, third, or even fourth language!) has made me more conscious of how my own language sounds coming from others and myself. I've started to pay more attention to the "Americaness" about me as well. Clearly my accent is American, but also the way I dress, walk, wear my hair- even my teeth (or maybe especially my teeth)! I was walking past a group of young Estonian boys and I dropped my sweater but didn't notice. They called after me in English- they may not have known I was American, but they at least suspected I was not Estonian, and either way expected me to understand English.

I'm not sure if it's Russian and Estonian culture or just our choice of restaurants but we are like always alone in restaurants...

There are so many young people in Tartu. I guess because of the university, but I see them staffing the incredibly fun and interesting science center (mom- you've gotta see this place!) and restaurants, playing hacky sack in the park, relaxing on the banks of the (pretty dirty) river, drinking beers and laying on the grass in the city's main square- it's invigorating!

We left Tartu 13 hours ago, waited at the refugee-camp of a border crossing holding station at Piripunkt for 11 hours (with a few trips to McDonalds and the "mall"), and are now finally heading towards the actual border crossing station! I've eaten approximately 30 cherry filled cookies, 2 McDonald's "milk cocktails", a liter of orange juice, listened to what appears to be the same song on repeat on "Europa Plus" radio, just about beat Plants vs Zombies a second time, poured 15 liters of gasoline into our tank with a homemade nozzle (pretty sure my hands will smell like gas forever now), and practiced driving stick shift! What a day...lesson: BOOK YOUR SPOT IN ADVANCE! And even then expect to wait several hours. Or, better yet, cross through Koidula...

Monday, June 17, 2013

Boren Convocation

As most of you probably know, I was awarded a Boren Scholarship to study in Russia next spring and summer! As part of the award, all 115 award winners were flown into DC from around the country for our convocation event this week. Last night we all went out to dinner then for a night tour of the national mall, today was packed full of briefings and meet-and-greets, and tomorrow we all get to meet the congressmen from our states and districts! I wasn't really sure what there was to 'convocate' us on for two days seeing how different all of our programs are, but it's actually been pretty great so far.
Today we had panels mostly relating to our service requirements, program regulations and expectations, funding logistics, safety and security, and what it's like to work for the federal government.
There are 13 Boren scholars going to Russia and it was awesome to make friends who will be in cities from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok! Road trip anyone? =p   I really enjoyed talking about Russian history, culture, film, food, travel experiences, and language frustrations with other people who share such similar goals and experiences and will probably be my competition for jobs when I graduate! Haha
It was also very interesting to hear other scholars' stories of why and how they choose their languages and countries. Even if I don't have a passion for, say, Nepal, it's inspiring to hear my peers just gush about how important the Nepalese watershed is for all of South and Central Asia.
I think a lot of us have similar experiences being tsked at or disapproved of for having passions that not everyone understands and for attempting to specialize in a climate of so many "jack of all trades, master of none"s. It's really so freeing and such a relief to be reassured that I'm not the only one whose family thinks she's crazy and who has taken the leap of faith into the murky waters of turning a passion into a career.

To sum this up I thought I could just share a few inspiring things I was told today by people involved with Boren as alumni (and, thus, national security-related government employees for at least a year), board members, or outside advisors. Here are some of my favorite words of wisdom!
Advice for studying abroad:
- "Spend more time in bars" (don't focus so much on school work that you miss out on authentic life in your host country)
- Don't go to "Spain" (don't have a typical American study abroad experience- go for more than 6 weeks, actually immerse yourself in language and culture)
- Get away from other ex-pats
- Get involved with community service/internships while abroad
- Read the newspaper everyday
- Embrace the awkward moments and use them as learning experiences
- Talk to strangers- retirees in parks, children etc.
- Get lost! Travel, explore, take advantage of your situation

Advice for fear of specializing:
- Don't worry, Russia  is cool
- You're young, plenty of time to broaden your expertise or study other languages
- "Do what you're interested in and a career will develop from that", let yourself flourish
- There are already way too many generalists
- There is ample room to stay in and grow within the field of Russia/Eurasia in the US Gov

Advice for a foreign service-type career:
- Do Boren (check!)
- Be a regional specialist
- Interning and networking is KEY
- Develop your area of expertise, but don't become a one-trick pony
- Get a security clearance as soon as possible
- Be flexible and open-minded when looking for your first job

Well. I hope tomorrow is as interesting as today was! Spicy-bo for reading ;)

*Highlight: The FBI-produced film "Game of Pawns" that tells the true story of an American student in Shanghai, Glenn Duffie Shriver, who was recruited by the Chinese government to infiltrate a U.S. intelligence agency.* 

**Other Highlight: Peace Corps Safety and Security Officer briefing us on safety issues abroad who was incredibly hilarious and coined the term "spicy-bo" (mispronunciation of the Russian word for 'thank you')**

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Finishing What I Started- Helsinki

I was going to combine this post with Russia but I am getting impatient, have a lot of work to do tonight, and really just want to get this up, so here is a brief summary of my experience in Helsinki, Finland!

There's really not much I can say about Helsinki, partly because I was only there for just over a day and partly because there's just not much TO Helsinki.
Now, if you have been to Helsinki and found it enrapturing, enchanting, intriguing, or even just alive- I would love to hear about your experience because we clearly saw a different city.
I found Helsinki to be...
  • Clean
  • Empty
  • Uniform
  • COLD
  • Plain
  • Boring
  • Rigid
  • Pretty 
  • Nice
  • Passive
That being said, I wouldn't say it's a bad place. My experience was just...well, that ^
The three bright spots of the city were:

 The beautiful Orthodox Cathedral                         

                                                                                           The Lutheran Helsinki Cathedral

And this little Nepalese restaurant around the corner from EuroHostel where we stayed that was the best I've ever had!(Nepalese is, to put it simply, kind of a blend between Indian and Chinese cuisines)

Helsinki wasn't a bad place, I just didn't see any vibrancy there. No life, no excitement. There weren't many people out (granted it was really cold), and the few that were walking were not very friendly. Everyone and everything seemed to be that kind of bland, cold, conformist Stepford kind of pretty- but it was pretty))
I think I'm really glad I went to Helsinki, though, because it gave me a city that I don't particularly like. In my opinion a tourist will say every place was "great" or "beautiful", but a real traveler is someone with enough experience and learned discernment to be able to say- "You know what? It just wasn't my kind of city, I didn't like it." and I think at this milestone I am slowly moving up the ladder to true traveler (or, as I like to say, tourista) status!
We hoped on a small bus to St. Petersburg around 6:00 at night and rolled on out of Finland...St. Petersburg is yet to come!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Finishing What I Started- Budapest

So to anyone who followed my blog during my spring trip, maybe you'll like this! Because I am sure that you were all severely disappointed when I abruptly stopped detailing my journey due to my extreme laziness and also lack of easily accessible Internet.

So here we go, a quick run down of the end of my trip so I can say that I finished what I started))

After Vienna, Roman and I spent three days in Budapest, one in Helsinki, and four days in St. Petersburg, Russia. Since my memories aren't as crisp as they were 10 months ago, I'll use some pictures from my Facebook album to help illustrate my story!

This city is very important to Roman because he has a family history there and spent many vacations there as a child. Also, Hungary has a really interesting story of independence and freedom fighting, uses a language that is one of the most isolated in the world, and (although I didn't really see much of the natural landscape) the architecture and environment of the capital is beautiful! 

The picture on the left is a pretty good representation of the typical city street- broad, tree lined, half of the road is pretty much taken up by trolley-bus tracks and you can see all the cables crossing over head. It seems like a pretty public-transportation-driven city, which is great! Especially when you can sneak onto the trolley buses without paying for a ticket...because Hungarian is too difficult to figure out and we were too confused! Poor tourists ;)
The picture on the right! And, more importantly, some buildings pretty indicative of Hungarian architecture, kind of a blend of art-noveau, neo-baroque...yeah, if you want to know more about Budapest's architecture than I do--> Architecture of Budapest

..............we swam at Szechenyi

We went to the park....................


And, maybe most importantly, we had great days sight-seeing and a magical night on Szechenyi Bridge!

Overall, Budapest was great! I really enjoyed my time there, but I'll definitely call it a vacation (although a super cheap, grungy, loosely structured, very brief vacation). I didn't really get a feel for the local culture or atmosphere, I don't think I talked to a single person whom I am sure was Hungarian outside of the tourism/service industry, and I certainly didn't talk to them about what it means or what it's like to be Hungarian or live in Budapest. The "hotel" had a nice breakfast spread which was perhaps indicative of Hungarian dining customs, but other than that it pretty much could have been any large, pleasant, central European city. Next time I will definitely shoot for more of a cultural excursion, get into the underbelly of the city, find out why being Hungarian is different and interesting! I can't wait for the opportunity to really form the character of "Budapest" in my mind rather than just a fond,vague, positive memory.

And then we went to Finland...which I'll discuss along with Rossiya in the next post)