Friday, March 28, 2014

Some Good Days in Saint Petersburg

So this blog post doesn't have a special topic, just an update on my life and how I'm doing!

A few people have expressed some concern for me over the situation in Ukraine, and the West and Russia's reactions, but no need to worry! I have not seen anything that made me feel uncomfortable or in any kind of danger and I don't think there will be anything like that in the future. It is highly unlikely that my program would be compromised by this issue so I'm just enjoying being at the center of an interesting political event!

The weather is getting a little bit warmer now so I've been able to walk slowly outside and enjoy the city a little more. I've been discovering lots of adorable cafes and beautiful streets and just soaking in the sunshine.

My Russian classes have been a little...unstable thus far, but yesterday I tried out a new class and I think that's where I'm going to be the rest of the semester! It's actually made for heritage speakers who know almost no grammar and have no writing skills, so it's a different kind of focus, but it will force me to build my vocabulary very quickly because they all know so much!

So I have some pictures and a few stories to share with you guys, check it out!:

Last Saturday I had my first exam in Russia and boy was it interesting. The way my classes work here, if you don't already know, is each class is 1.5 credits and is 4-5 hours a day for 5 or 6 days, then it's over. To have the credits transfer to UVA I have to take two classes and "bundle" them into one UVA-equivalent class- kind of a pain. Since the class is so short, we usually don't really have assignments or quizzes, just participation grade and a final project or exam. The exam isn't on the last day of class, though, it's generally some vague time in the future whenever convenient for the professor. So although I finished my International Economic Law class more than a month ago, I had the exam last Saturday! It was an oral, supposed to last 5-7 minutes per person, but there were like 40 people so it took FOREVER. I was, of course, a tiny bit late and ended up at the very end of the list. Fast forward four hours, we have been reviewing in the hallway the whole time, and of course my voice is the most American and the most obnoxious and it carries. A few people came out of the exam room and said the professor made a comment about being able to hear me! So I tried to turn it down a bit but you I get into the exam room, literally the second to last person, and the professor just looks at me with his red, exhausted eyes and says "I'm not going to ask you any questions. I've heard you in the hallway the last few hours and I know you know the material. 100%, A, get out of here." WUT.
So yeah, I was shocked because that would not happen in America, I was a little bit annoyed because I had waited so long for nothing, and super happy because obviously! I really do know my stuff, though. Seriously, ask me (almost) anything about the basics of international trade and economic law and I'll knock your socks off   =p
Pretty harsh, but I totally understand this comic now!
After the exam I was exhausted and it was late so I just headed home (yes I stopped on the way and got a milkshake, stop judging me!). When I got home I saw my host mom's daughter, Zhenya, her husband whose name I can't remember, and their son Vlad were there! They had just seen a ballet at the Mariinsky and were all fancy laughing and talking. So I sat and talked with them for about an hour and half in Russian. I didn't think much of it until I got into bed that night and realized that 3 months ago I never would have had the confidence to be able to do that! I'm not sure how much my actual grammar and vocabulary have been expanding thus far, but my confidence, familiarity with conversational norms and sentence patterns, and willingness to speak has skyrocketed!

So my apartment building is very typical for the Russian city center, a few apartment blocks that circle a central courtyard (called a "well" in Russian because sometimes the buildings are so tall the light never reaches the ground). The other day I came home from school and one of the few cats who like to hang out in the courtyard was sitting by the dumpster licking himself with pride and right next to him? A big fat juicy dead rat. Yum. Anyway, I'm guessing the cat caught the little guy and had some fun. I took a picture because it was interesting and this woman comes out of the tailor's in the bottom of the building next to mine and starts yelling at me! No idea what she was saying, so of course I just said "I don't speak Russian!" and ran upstairs...oops

I was talking with a Russian friend the other day, and we were talking about the economy, and how Russian income tax rates are higher than American tax rates. I asked him if he felt that he could see his tax dollars at work, and he said "yeah, in the new cars and apartments of the parliament members!" hahaha good one, Russian humor

So tonight Roman's university is having some sort of celebration, fancy-dress-party for the 20th anniversary of his department. He invited me and I am very excited to put on a nice dress and go meet some new people!
Not that he never takes me out, by any means- two weekends ago we went to a Vivaldi concert at Smolny Cathedral, and it was wonderful! I'll be sure to post pictures from tonight)))

On Monday there was a field trip for my Russian Political System class- we went to the Russian Museum of Politics! (not sure if that's the official name...)

Piece of the Berlin Wall

Portrait of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, raked by bayonets of revolutionaries when the State Duma was taken

Russian Constitution and audiobook!

An interesting, large sculpture inside the museum

Rock wall I think memorializing those who died in gulags

Stalin's Death Mask

On Sunday morning SRAS took us on a Dostoevsky walking tour! The weather was appropriately dreary. The tour was pretty interesting, although it turned out I wasn't as excited as I thought I would be to see the places where characters "lived" and where scenes "happened"...because they really didn't happen at all. It was better just to walk through the neighborhoods, pretty well preserved from when Dostoevsky would have seen them, and try to put yourself in his mind, imagine his inspiration.
Apologies for being the worst photographer ever...

House of Raskolnikov

Later on Sunday I did a cooking class through my university! It was kind of pricy and way too many people, but still fun)) My group learned how to make syrniki (sort of cottage cheese patties) and other groups made schi (cabbage soup) and "herring under the fur coat"...ew.
Walking on Nevsky yesterday ran into this great band, tons of people around them. Guy on the guitar was just wailing, totally rocking out, and the guy on the drum was in some kind of trance, really cool, and then there's the guy in the background...older than the rest, kind of in the background, playing basically an Arizona Sweet Tea can full of rice. Not even sure if he was actually in the band or just wanted to be part of the jam session lol

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Things That are Hard to Find/Very Expensive in Russia

I don't want to give anyone the wrong impression- you can find almost anything in Saint Petersburg or Moscow that you can in the United States. One exception is, of course, certain regional foodstuffs (Wisconsin cheese curds, Pennsylvania apple butter, etc.)
I can't vouch for other countries, but there seems to be a wide selection of restaurants and shops specializing in foods from around the world. 

**When I say a food is difficult to find, it usually is available at a big grocery store like Okay or Lenta, but I live in the city center, no car, and I walk to get my groceries from a shop about 30 minutes away. I don't have the big heavy duty plastic carrying bags or rolling bags some people use to carry groceries, so it just isn't practical for me (or many other city-dwellers) to ride the metro way out to a big store just to pick up one or two craving items on a regular basis.**

I would love to hear your thoughts! Is there anything I missed? Anything you'd like to point out from non-US countries? Let me know in the comments below


  • Peanut butter: This tops the list because it is probably the number one thing I hear Americans complaining about. It's really not that difficult to find at most big groceries stores, but it is expensive ($9-10 USD).
  • Salsa: This is another big one, but easy and fun to make at home when ingredients are in season!
  • Hot sauce: Similar to salsa, but worth noting separately that Russians in general are not fans of spicy foods. I had my mom mail me my favorite Texas Pete! (Tabasco is pretty accessible, and Siracha can be found in a few stores).
  • Nutella: I see this in almost every store, but it is surprisingly expensive! ($5-6 USD)
  • Cereal/Granola bars: I have only seen these once, and it was 87 rubles ($2.50 USD) for a Nature Valley bar at a store that carries lots of imported goods
  • Marshmallows: Russians in general don't seem to like marshmallows very much. American-style hot chocolate isn't that popular and I have NEVER seen it served with marshmallows (mini or otherwise). The only marshmallows I've seen were about $3 for a bag of stale, dried out plastic-y goo thank you.
  • Soy milk:A few cafes offer this (The Coffeeshop Company), and once in a while I'll see it at an Indian specialty store or big grocery store, but I think it is not always restocked right away. Almond milk is also almost impossible to find. (I found coconut milk in a specialty shop for $10 a small container, rice milk can be found at some Asian-speciality stores).
  • Ginger ale: Good luck.
  • Poptarts: Not that these were ever a very integral part of my diet, but I have not come across them in Russia. There may be a specialty import store, but likely the selection would be limited and they would be stale. 
  • Good cereal: Cold breakfast cereal with milk is not so popular here, so the options are pretty limited. Nestle dominates this market, largely corn-based flakes, pops (Kosmostars are everywhere) or chocolate balls. There are some "fitness" cereals, but are disgusting (packed with overly sweet dried fruit)...American cereals can be found at Stockman, but can run up to $20 for a box of Fruit Loops!
  • Baking powder: Not hard to find, but worth noting because so far I have only seen it come in tiny little packages.

Not Food

I have much less to write here as I buy food nearly every day and rarely other goods, but I didn't want to leave these things out!

  • Barbie Dolls: This actually sparked my blog post. Today I saw Barbie dolls on sale at a regular toy store for FIFTY DOLLARS. These were not some special edition collectors dolls, just the skinny-box, no change of clothes, beach makes me sad to think that most kids probably won't have the chance to grow up with the most amazing toy everrrr (in my opinion).
  • Nice bedding: Sheets and pillowcases here are pretty expensive compared to Stateside and are almost uniformly scratching and thin. No Egyptian cotton here...
  • American school supplies: They have a lot here, but the basic 3-hole punch folders, binders, spiral notebooks are hard. Also, most notebooks are grid paper, regular horizontal lines can take some digging.
  • English books and magazines: Very expensive.
  • Ovens: Maybe this is unique to me, but I only know two people who have ovens at home here.*Edit: I have confirmed that I am just a weirdo, and most people do in fact have ovens.
  • Big shoes: For both men and women large shoe sizes are hard to find. Much harder for women, especially since most women in Russia wear high heels very frequently, and when you do find a size over a US 9, it usually is a tennis shoe or orthopedic.

I know this list is not extensive, and I'm sure someone will say "actually, you can find x at this store..." but this is a generalized list of my experiences. Feel free to ask me any questions, and thank you for reading!

Monday, March 10, 2014

International Women's Day and a Trip to Gatchina!

March 8 was International Women's Day! A wonderful holiday celebrated largely in the former USSR and parts of Asia and Africa. Women get flowers, candies, smiles, and wished "с праздником" (literally: with holiday) all day long! There are also lots of big parties, concerts, special television broadcasts, and even movies revolving around the holiday released strategically to cash in on the celebration. This year Women's Day fell on a Saturday, and in true Russian style this means I had a five day weekend! Friday- Tuesday no classes! Unfortunately, I made this exciting discovery too late...while my American friends are jetting off on their spring breaks to Ecuador, Colorado, Puerto Rico, and Revelstoke and my better-planning friends here are exploring places like Sweden, Finland, and Paris to name a few, I decided to go to...Ukraine! Haha just kidding I stayed home and watched TV and baked banana bread...
I really wanted to go south- I have a dream to explore all the places in the Caucasus and on the Black Sea that I've read about in Lermontov and Pushkin and Tolstoy, but Sochi is kind of off-limits right now with the Paralympics still going, the Black Sea is all ensconced in the Crimea kerfuffle (not sure if there are actually any visible effects on the Russian coast right now), and I didn't want to spend an arm and a leg. I was left with few options at short notice, as Russia is vast, winter is cold, and I didn't have a huge desire to travel by myself and didn't think I could find a partner willing to go to Voronezh or Nizhny Novogorod* at such short notice...

On Friday I went to the Russian Museum on a trip organized by my university (but not free -_-). I had visited the museum before but this time I thought I would take advantage of having a guide- although she didn't really reveal any great secrets of the art and only took us on a brief circle of the most famous exhibits, and, again, I THOUGHT it would be free...but also, my host mom was raving about the new temporary exhibit of traditional women's costumes.
So I fell in love again with Ivan Aivazovsky's moonlit seascapes and thought the women's costumes exhibit was pretty good, although small. The Russian Museum of Ethnography right next door is basically full of national costume exhibits from all across the former USSR and have a much more detailed and extensive collection- it is my favorite museum in Saint Petersburg and I would recommend it all day long!
"Moonlight 1849", my favorite!

On Saturday, Roman and I took a little road trip to the small town of Gatchina. One of the many day-trip worthy sites around SpB (Pavlovsk, Pskov, Peterhof, Kronstadt, Staraya Ladoga), Gatchina is home to an impressive palace built by Paul I, a giant park, and more! (Actually not much more...)
The palace was excellent, very unusual architecture style for the time, and we basically had it to ourselves, the weather wasn't good and we got there right when they opened. Entrance for students is only 100 rubles (~$3.50). There were some parts that have not yet been refurbished after bombings in WWII, and we were completely alone in some of the rooms and it felt so real, so full of history and fate and it was wonderful! There is also a passage to the church- still holding services, a collection of East Asian art (we couldn't really figure out why), a children's play room, and a mini-tour every half hour of the secret tunnels under the palace!
The Palace
Storage/Escape Tunnel Under the Palace!

It was too cold to enjoy the park, so after the palace we stopped at KFC for a quick lunch (healthy and culturally significant, I know...) then did a little exploring. We had read online that somewhere in the area were some natural geysers and decided to check them out! Unfortunately, although we had several sets of directions, it was pretty much impossible to find the geysers! We drove a bit to a neighboring village, Korpikova, which is largely dachas and barely inhabited in the winter. The roads are old and not maintained, but we braved them! We tried to "turn right at the old bridge", "go straight past the wooden building", you know, real clear directions like that, and eventually stopped to ask a man who was filling up jugs of water from a pipe in the frozen over river, but he had no clue what we were talking about...We drove around some more, really interesting "real" village Russia, and eventually found a parking place near the edge of a forest that vaguely matched the description we had. Thankfully another couple came trudging out of the woods just as we arrived, laden with jugs of spring water. They explained that close by there was a small lake with another water pipe and they actually knew about the geysers! (And the man wished me с праздником!) But apparently the
geysers were a good hour's walk through knee deep mud and not very good until April or instead we just went to the little lake. It was lovely, and we got a jug of ice cold fresh water to take home with us! (Note the shoe covers we stole from the palace to protect our shoes from the mud!)
We drove home through a series of Soviet villages. I will DEFINITELY be back in the spring or summer to take pictures, it was fascinating. Villages with names like "Bolshevik", identical Krushchev blocks of apartments that made us wonder if we were driving in circles, abandoned and rotting was like stepping 50 years back in time.

Anyway, sorry for being so long winded but my Women's Day was amazing! I definitely recommend a Gatchina day trip if you're in the area.
On Sunday I took advantage of Roman being the only person I know with an oven and we made a yummy vegan banana cake! (Would have been cupcakes but we didn't have a pan). I think this is going to be my go-to breakfast for the rest of Lent, so easy to make and actually good!
My plan now is to develop a series of to-go travel plans so that next time an opportunity presents itself I can jump on it! Any suggestions?

Thanks for reading!

*Neither the most exciting destinations