Monday, January 20, 2014

Welcome to Russia! "Because God loves 3..."

So I made it! I am officially in Russia, settling into my new apartment, and beginning to acclimate to my new life. The journey here had some dramatic points so I'll start from the beginning:

So I'll just come out and say it: I suck at packing. I have never gotten it right, even for just weekend trips I struggle! My only excuse here is that I've never had to pack for this long (7.5 months) or this many weather conditions (I'm here for the coldest and warmest parts of the year, lots of ice, snow, and rain). I've also never been compelled to bring school supplies- such as my 2 lb (we weighed it) Russian grammar book.
Yes, yes, I'm basically packed! I affirmed to everyone who asked, which was everyone I talked to for days before I left. And I basically was...I had just hit a natural stopping point as my two suitcases were teetering on the 50 lb mark so I stopped. I left all the rest of the things I wanted to bring in a pile mentally marked for my carry on bag and purse and went to watch movies and do henna with my sister. Then it was midnight the night before I leave, fresh claws (acrylic nails) on, wet henna on my hand, and my left wrist and hand mysteriously bruised, and the struggle begins. I stayed up until 3 am trying to shove everything into my frame pack with one hand, but I was still left with a sizable pile of things I needed but just couldn't fit. Thank goodness for my mom who swooped in and saved the day at 5 am. When I was barely awake, running on the fumes of the adrenaline of fear, she solved my packing woes and got us on the road. 90% of the way to DC we panic, bags are definitely too overweight, so we stopped at Macy's and bought a new suitcase that was lighter and repacked everything in the airport parking lot. Unfortunately, they were still overweight...I ended up (of course) reorganizing and cutting the fat from my luggage on the floor in front of the United check in desk less than an hour before my flight to Chicago left- but we managed it! I had to ditch my gummy vitamins (1 lb), grammar book (2 lb), one of my coats (2.5 lb), and a few other things but I kept all of the essentials. With my 10 lb 'purse' and 35 lb carry on with a broken wheel we said our goodbyes and I hobbled through security.

I made it all the way without the wheel on my carry on popping off completely!

The flight from Stockholm to St Petersburg, let me tell you, scariest of my life...I don't want to freak my dad out so I won't go into too much detail haha but word for the wise: Rossiya is not your friend

Passport Control: The flight before ours was from Kyrgyzstan and of course I get in the shortest line, but I ended up behind about 20 Kyrgyz men, women, and teenagers immigrating to Russia on work visas. Russia has somewhat of an issue with illegal immigration from Central Asia so they checked each person's documents for 5+ minutes and a few even got asked to step aside...uh oh
Anyway, this made me on of the the last people to come through to get my luggage and the whole hall was nearly empty. I had 2 giant bags plus my carry ons so I grabbed a cart and was moving pretty slow and awkwardly. I've been to Russia three times but for the life of me I could not remember if I needed to fill out a customs form even if I wasn't declaring anything! (You have to when you enter the US). I hesitated at the customs gate- terrible mistake. The customs agents (read: evil witches) swooped in! "Passport...Amerikan? Ah, ah, yisss, Amerikan, pleez put bags here"
So I unloaded my cart, sent all my bags through the scanner, and then weighed them...APPARENTLY there is some random customs law saying if you bring more than 50 kg of stuff into the country you have to pay a fee. And APPARENTLY the customs witches decided the fee for the American girl would be 4 Euros per kilo over...that would run me about 70 hell no.
So of course I start arguing with them, but my Russian polite argument vocabulary is sub par so I resorted to stomping around the empty baggage claim hall, shaking my head, and saying Russian phrases like "No, I cannot, I am a student, I have no money, WHY IS THERE A CAT INSIDE THE AIRPORT?? (there seriously was...)"
Thank God Roman turned up then, and the customs witches let him in to translate for me. After about 30 more minutes of angry glares and several incorrectly filled out customs forms Roman was able to talk to the manager who told us that rule doesn't even apply if the belongings are in the country temporarily and for personal use only- well THANK YOU!
So I was let out of airport jail (okay, it was just an old desk in the corner, but it was demeaning) and we finally made it to Roman's house.

After a few blissful days of being fed by Roman's mom, we hauled my bags back into the car and to my host mom's apartment in the city center. When I say city center, I mean it. I haven't taken any pictures myself yet, but this is literally steps from my building:

Russian Museum, Church of the Savior on Blood, Griboedov Canal 

 And I am just around the corner from the beautiful Kazan Cathedral and my university!

Kazan Cathedral
Saint Petersburg State University of Finance and Economics

My host is an older, single woman who is a retired TV editor. I don't quite have the language skills to ask her how she came into this apartment, but this location, the size and amenities (3 bed, 1.5 bath, large kitchen, newly renovated, courtyard with a gate), I think an apartment like this is generally held by very influential or wealthy people. Her name is Tatiana, she has been very kind and welcoming to me. Not exactly the warm mama-bear type, but she has been chatty, interested in me and my life, and very accommodating. My room is huge! Plenty of room for all my stuff (I definitely don't think I overpacked, but I guess we'll have to wait and see what I actually wear/use). I have a double bed; in typical Russian style it is a fold out couch-bed. Not like the pull out beds we have in America, but basically the back of the couch just folds down so the whole thing is flat...and this one is particularly hard. I can't complain, though, it's probably as comfortable as my bed at school!
I will be doing breakfast and lunch on my own, but she makes me dinner. She said right off the bat she's not a cook, and after Roman's mom (she trained as a chef) I guess I have kind of high standards, but dinner wasn't bad! Rice, chicken balls in kind of a cream-breading, black bread, salad, and....forest mushrooms. Yes, that's right. Little brown fungi whose last meal was probably a human head in a glass mason jar suspended in about 3 inches of clear slime. She presented them to me with such excitement, such gusto, picked by a friend of hers in the fall, she said...I couldn't say no. She spooned a dollop of slime and shrooms onto my plate, they oozed across the surface, a string of slime stretching gracefully across the table. I almost couldn't do it...but I did. I buried those little suckers in the chicken balls and swallowed barely chewing. They really didn't taste as putrid as I expected, but I am not eager to repeat that experience anytime soon.
I think it was these little suckers

The other interesting aspect of last night's meal was the vodka! A little more familiar to me than slime fungus, but I wasn't expecting it. At first I tried to refuse, but she looked so crestfallen that we downed three shots " because God loves three"- one to our relationship, one to the city of Saint Petersburg, and one to my future as a diplomat  =)

We don't have wifi installed in the apartment yet (apparently it's coming today but I'm not overly optimistic), so I've walked about 10 minutes to a coffee shop with free Internet. To my right is Kazan Cathedral, dusted with snow, and the famous Nevsky Prospekt is at my back. I ordered a hot chocolate with whipped cream and the descriptions are really true, Russian горячий шоколад (goryachii shokolad) is "thick as mud". It tastes sort of like Hershey's chocolate syrup heated up. It comes in a tiny little tea cup, but it's so rich that's really all you need!

Now I am going to attempt to run some errands. This city is so saturated with shops and restaurants I've barely walked anywhere and I'm already overwhelmed! Wish me luck, my 10 readers, and please comment on the post! And if you made it this far, thanks for your time  ;)


  1. Hey there:) It's so interesting to read your impressions on stuff that is regular for us, Eastern Europeans. I will be in St. Petersburg - and I would love to see you :)

  2. Are you kidding me? Those slimey shrooms are the best and absolutelu delicious. Especially with vodka!

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  4. So proud of you Samantha, I will be keeping up with your exciting adventure as you go. Have fun and be safe <3