[Editor’s note: Alexander Anand, our guest writer for this issue, is a National Merit Scholar and a 2012 graduate with dual bachelor’s degrees in Russian and East European studies. Anand will travel to Russia to teach English this year with the support of a Fulbright grant.]

When I stepped off the plane on that rainy first night in St. Petersburg, I had no idea what I was doing. Sure, there had been plenty of prep work while I was still in the States, but it flew out the window when faced with the enormity of what I had gotten myself into. When I had been told that the first few days in-country would be tiring, I had underestimated what was to become the most exhausting and enlightening few weeks of my life to date. The cognitive strain of trying to adapt to an alien social climate was unprecedented in my life up to that point. And … it was absolutely exhilarating.

Of course, my experiences overseas “reshaped my worldview” and “expanded my social consciousness” and all the other psychological effects of being a foreigner in someone else’s country for the first time. Even after spending so much time at OU learning about the history, literature and culture of Russia, my time there was still packed with surprises. For the first time in my life, I had to relearn people’s body language, facial mannerisms and tones of voice. Living in Russia also gave me unexpected insight into the dynamics of power and social interaction in my own country, along with a healthy dose of political skepticism.

But when I returned, I left Russia with something more. A fiancée.

I’ve never really been the sentimental type, so my thoughts on marriage when I left for St. Petersburg were not particularly favorable. I was wholly unprepared for what I was about to face. Within two months of my arrival, I was completely entranced by the charm, wit and grace of Nadia, a woman I’d never have met had I played it safe and stayed in Oklahoma. But this is just the most striking example of a wider trend I experienced: I really connected with my classmates and host family in a way I didn’t expect. Even if it took me five minutes to get out a relatively simple idea, my Russian family and friends were so patient and kind that I never felt like a stranger. Thanks to the Russian tradition of “kitchen talk,” sitting in the kitchen for hours and having thoughtful discussions on social, philosophical and even metaphysical subjects, my host family practically poured their collective knowledge and insight right into my skull.

Just talking to my host family, I got a basic play-by-play of Russian society from about the mid-sixties to the present, including loads of delightfully candid political commentary. I was offered an insider’s perspective on everything from the individual leadership qualities of Soviet leaders to the declining quality of Russian romance novels. Russia’s short list of presidents was a frequent topic of discussion, and my host mother took pride in declaring that St. Petersburg State – or, as she called it, “our university” – was the greatest producer of presidents in Russia, since 66 percent of the three presidents had been educated there.

Had I not studied abroad, my life would be very different, and not for the better. Thanks to my two semesters abroad, I am now going on a Fulbright grant to teach English at a Bashkir school for talented students. I’ll be getting married in the fall, and I have uncovered a connection to the rest of the world I would scarcely have believed existed four years ago.


Some interesting blog posts about FOOD from OU students abroad.

A 4 hour meal in Clermont

Food and hospitality in Russia

I have been living in St. Petersburg for almost two months and am still caught up in the whirlwind of the city and culture. Whenever I leave my apartment in the morning either for class or to meet up with friends I have no idea where I’ll end up that day, and I love it. My life in the past month:

-“Go to the gym. Take vitamins. Make yourself go to a café or grocery store, just go somewhere where there is light. You will feel depressed but you can fight it!” This is the advice I have given to survive Russia’s most dreariest month: November. In November it is cold, and will snow but the snow will not stick so rather than the picturesque image of Petersburg covered in snow, you instead find yourself wading through dirty puddles. Also they day shortens to the extent that it will be dark when I leave for class (around 10am) and dark when I come back (around 5 am). While the days have shorten to that extent yet, whenever I wake up around 7 it looks as if it is midnight. I’m not too worried though, I have already made a playlist to combat the inevitable depression (complete with the Beatles “Here comes the Sun” and Matt & Kim’s “Daylight”). The real challenge will be getting myself to get out of my warm (very, very, very warm) room and be social and explore.

-St. Petersburg is home to it’s fair share of Beatles fans. There is a an art gallery/care/bar in St. Pete’s called Pushkinskaya 10. At Puskinskaya you will find a giant yellow submarine painted on an wall on which fans have written messages to the Beatles, along with their favorite lyrics. There was even a party at a nearby bar celebrating John Lennon’s birthday where a bunch of bands played Beatles songs. Despite the fact that none of the Beatles most well known hits were played the crowd was so excited and joyful during the concert that it didn’t matter whether or not you knew the lyrics, the energy just rubbed off on you.

– Vyborg
This past weekend a few Russian friends invited a group of friends and myself to Vyborg, a Russian town not far from the Finnish border where there is an old Swedish castle. The train ride there was relatively uneventful, aside from the vendors walking down the aisles selling everything from beer to snowglobes and other trinkets. When we arrived it was cold and drizzly, and thus went to a café/convenience store to wait out the weather and eat. After stopping for lunch (sandwiches, homemade pickles, salo (pig fat), bread), and making many, many toasts we noticed the rain had lessened and decided to make our way through the town. We visited the Swedish Castle, and stopped at a café before catching the next train home. On the train ride back, our Russian friends made their best efforts to teach us some Russian songs. After many attempts and some success, they asked us to return to favor, which ended with two of my friends singing “Back in the USSR” by The Beatles, to the amusement of the few other people on the train.

While the fact that I have lived in Petersburg for almost two months and have not frequented all of the cities landmarks and sites I am finding that being with people is just as valuable and worth while as going to a museum.

Vyborg, RussiaPushkinskaya 10

One month down

One month down! I am probably more proud of myself than I should be for surviving my first month here without getting hit by a car or walking into an open manhole, but oh well. I have settled in and adjusted to life here more or less, but there are still a few things I am getting used to, such as…

1. Always needing exact change. Well this is not something I need to get used to, so much as something I am resisting. I honestly try to give the cashier as close to exact change as possible, but sometimes I can’t. This usually isn’t a huge problem, unless I go the café at my university. So, despite the fact I rely on the trolleybus to get around, I have yet to purchase a bus pass, meaning most of my change goes to the trolleybus (and any remaining change goes the banana vending machine. That’s right, a banana vending machine, that I frequent quite often). As a result, buy the time I make my way to the front of the line to purchase my usual yogurt and piroshok, I am left without small change. Every time I hand the cashier a hundred ruble bill for a 70 rube purchase, she looks at me as if I just killed her puppy.

2. Mayonnaise on salad. It just ain’t right.

3. Mullets. Russia has produced incredible literature, architecture, music and theater. Not even the land of Pushkin is immune to this trend.

4. Mosquitos and wind. I probably should have expected both considering St. Petersburg is located on a march. While I love Oklahoma, I wasn’t expecting the umbrella-breaking wind to follow me to Russia.

5. Getting weird looks when speaking English in public. I am well aware of the Ugly American stereotype of loud, obnoxious, slovenly Americans, but I didn’t expect to get glares or odd looks when I said a few words to a friend in English.

On the other hand, there are hings I have definitely gotten used to:

1. Drinking tea all the time. I get the English own the trademark on being incessant tea drinkers, but I think the Russians could give them a run for their money.

2. Always carrying an umbrella. Always.

Now that the one month marker has come, I feel like I’m finally making the transition from tourist to resident. I feel comfortable here, and can use the transportation and navigate the city without feeling out of place. Everything has happened in the past weeks is just a scattered mess in my head I’m going to explain it all through a hail of bullet points:

* Crime and Punishment walking tour

Whenever anyone asks why I am studying Russian, I usually mention the Cold War and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It is unlikely that I would have read the Brothers K if it wasn’t for a high school reading assignment. Furthermore, the only reason I chose that book was because a classmate of mine (who’s taste in books I trusted) chose to read it (had I known the book was over a thousand pages at that time I might have gone with a different book). After reading the Brothers K, I wanted to read Crime and Punishment. Easier said then done. I bought the book my senior year of high school, started in my freshman year and when I came to Russia was about half way through it. The only explanation I have for my snail-like pace is a preference for non-fiction books which often distracted me from Dostoevsky’s wordy masterpiece. Upon coming to Russia, however, I figured I should probably finish Crime and Punishment, considering the book takes place in St. Petersburg. The walking tour I went on included Raskolnikov’s (the main character) apartment, the scene of the murder.

* Pavlosk and Pieterhof

To be honest, I am not one for palaces, I like walking inside them, but my interest in them is minimal at best. Yes, they are pretty, and historical but I can’t get excited about super old silverware and landscaping.

Pavlosk: Imperial Palace, was a gift from Empress Catherine to her son, Paul I and his wife Maria Feodorovna in celebration of the birth of their son, Alexander (say what you will about aristocrats, but they are not stingy when it comes to gift giving).

Peterhof: I actually really enjoyed Peterhof which is really famous for their fountains. Known as the Russian version of Versailles. Peterhof has a lot of incredibly ornate fountains, some are even interactive that will spray you unexpectedly (thus another reason why you should always have an umbrella).


I am still trying to figure out how to write a blog. My favorite form of travel writing is when people write short anecdotes and somehow string them all together, rather than a simple rundown of my daily activities. So, please forgive the sporadic manner that this blog is written in as I am still learning how to write how it.
Classes are going well, my professors are very good, and nice as well. My professor for CMU (a class where we learn how to read the news and all the specific terminology associated with it) is, while friendly, very intimidating and everytime she asks me to say something I turn into a stammering mess to the point where saying my name is an arduous task. My home stay is still going well, I am still trying to figure out the balance to being social and friendly while, still giving my host family their space. My host mom is always quick to offer me tea, cookies, and toast with jam while asking me how my day went.

This past weekend was relaxing and felt like a very idyllic European weekend. When the sun comes out and rain takes a momentary break, it seems that all of Petersburg comes out. This past Sunday, I, along with the rest of Petersburg took advantage of the good weather and finally went to explore the cultural sites of the city. The Church of Spilled Blood is indescribably beautiful on the inside, while I snapped a few photos none do justice to the Church’s interior justice. The Russian Museum is equally impressive.  Like an art museum, multiple trips are necessary in order to appreciate and see everything in the museum and while after an two hours of wandering a lot of paintings start to blend together an artist that stood out was Pavel Filonov (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pavel_Filonov). Other paintings by various artists that struck me were those depicting the Blockade of Leningrad (now St. Petesrburg). During WWII The German army surrounded Leningrad from 1941-1944—this siege resulted in the death of over 1,500,000 Russians. It is strange and surreal to see paintings depicting areas and streets that I see everyday as scenes of horror and destruction, and even more unsettling to know that this occurred only seventy years ago.

Despite living in the city, I manage to run into people I know. After sitting through six hours of classes, I decided to walk around my neighborhood and take advantage of the sunshine. Out of luck, I ended up running into one of my classmates and we went to a thrift store where she volunteers. As with most Russian people I have met, the people who work there are friendly, and happy to have an extra hand sorting out donations. After sorting through a few piles of clothes they offered my friend and I tea, as is in typical in almost every social situation in Russia (Would you like tea, or “хочешь чаю” is a question I am asked daily, and almost always answer with да and an enthusiastic nod). While I spent most of time simply listening to the conversation, it was nice to be able to learn more about the language and culture somewhere other than the classroom or a museum. While I am living in Russia, all of my classes are with other American students, putting the responsibility on the student to go out and get involved.  For me this takes a substantial amount of prodding, but I am hoping to get involved with a few NGO groups here, and volunteer at the thrift store.

I have been in St. Petersburg for a little over two weeks and am constantly amazed and overwhelmed. I was under the impression that moving to Russia would involve escaping the humidity, mosquitoes and wind of Oklahoma. Sadly, this assumption was incredibly inaccurate. Whenever I talked to someone native to St. Petersburg they profess their love for the city the consider to be the best in Russia, but they always lament its location. So far it seems like St. Petersburg is a combination of contradictions. One moment you are cursing the frequent, but unpredictable downpours and erratic bus schedule, the next moment you are standing, speechless and wide-eyed, in front of the Church of Spilled Blood.
Living with a host family has definitely made the transition easier, while there are many awkward moments, I have yet to feel uncomfortable. My home stay family is extremely welcoming and forgiving of my language skills. I often eat breakfast and dinner with host mom (who is a fantastic cook) and we will talk and will watch anything from the news to the Russian version of the «The Bachelor». My host brother speaks a little English and can get by in conversation with him but talking with my host dad is a challenge. Whenever he talks me his voice is kind and he is smiling, however I have no idea what he is saying. Thus my marker for my progress in Russian language is how much of my host dad’s speech I can understand. If the by the end of my year here I can carry on a coherent conversation with my him, I will consider my year here a success. Random fact about my home stay: goal I have for the year is figuring out how my host family’s shower, which seems to have two settings: scalding or freezing. If I turn the nob for the hot water I have approximately 45 seconds before the water is boiling. Or, the water is absolutely freezing, which I feel is preferable at this point. For those of you who are aware of my battles with technology and basic household appliances, other students have also talked about this problem so at least I am not alone in my incapacity to work the shower. Another random note on food: Most of my meals consist of soup, potatoes, toast and cheese, and pierorgi. As a fan of hearty foods I have yet to try anything that I haven’t liked. Also, my host mom makes me toast with a smiley face on it, making a dreary, overcast morning more enjoyable.
Despite the fact that I have been here almost half a month, I have not visited a lot of museums or site (aside from the Hermitage and Valaam Monastery), but instead have been going to class and exploring the streets. Classes are interesting but require a significant amount of attention because they are conducted in Russian language. While most of my classes are language classes, I am taking a politics and history course which are difficult but incredibly interesting. A discussion in particular that sticks out is a discussion regarding how the American people’s image of Russia is largely influenced by the country’s Soviet history. According to my professor, people in Russia think is quite odd considering that Russia was one of the first republics to declare sovereignty from the Soviet Union. While I admit that my image of Russia while growing up was largely shaped by The Hunt for Red October and White Nights, I am learning that the city is a mix of the country’s turbulent history. It is equally possible to stumble upon a statue dedicated to the first head of the KGB as it to find a monument dedicated to Pushkin or Dostoevsky. While the city’s multiple museums, the people’s extensive knowledge about their literature and history are testaments to Russia’s rich culture, consequences of Soviet governance are still visible.
I am not quite sure how to wrap this post up, so I will end with the promise that I try to battle the inevitable laziness that comes with cold, overcast weather and explore the city and will attempt to diligently record my adventures on this blog ☺

Random notes:
-If you wish to earn the stink eye in Russia pay for a eighty ruble purchase with a thousand ruble bill. Exact change is appreciated, if not expected.
-When asking how to get to the Church of Spilled Blood by describing it as “that church with a lot of colors” will not get you far. There are a lot churches, and colorful churches mind you, in Petersburg.

At the Ballet

Russia is known for many things, not the least of which is her ability to produce incredible dancers.  In fact, depending upon who you ask (whether or not they are Russian) it is pretty widely accepted that Russia wrote the book on strong, male principles.  From to Baryshnikov, Russia has gifted the world with talented dancers who have not only excelled at ballet, they improved it.  Yet for the past few decades, the Bolshoi and the Russian Ballet has been sans their usual brilliant star.  Enter Ivan Vasiliev, a 17 year old fresh from Kiev.  Ok, so technically he is not Russian, but over the past four years he has received the best in Russian training and has been adopted as a native.  Sunday night, I was lucky enough to watch his performance in the ballet “Flames of Paris”.  The word ‘phenomenal’ does not do his performance justice.  The man could jump four feet in the air and land without a sound. 

As a child, I took ballet (sometimes against my will) for the better part of eleven years, and I always dreamed I would one day attend a professional ballet in a fancy theatre.  I never fathomed that ballet would be in Moscow, in the Bolshoi, performed by arguably one of the best companies in the world with a male principle that is quickly gaining Baryshnikov-like fame.  And this, my dear friends, is why you study abroad…


I have now been in St Petersburg for almost two months, and after two months of freezing temperatures, slushy snow, and Russian grammar-related headaches, I have reached the point that I think most exchange students can relate to.  The point where this is no longer new and different and exciting.  The point where you miss your family, you miss your car, you miss being able to engage in intelligent conversations.  More than anything, you realize that you miss your way of life.  But before you become either overly concerned or disinterested, fearing this will soon devolve into depressed rantings, allow me a spoiler alert: this is a happy post. 

At first it was difficult to admit to such longings without feeling a bit ethnocentric or even ignorant, but I have realized that this too is part of studying abroad, this too is important, and there is no shame in finding an appreciation for your own culture and way of life.  That is the beauty of study abroad; it enables you to develop a true appreciation and understanding of differing cultures, both foreign and domestic.

Of course, as an exchange student, this process is not always the most enjoyable part of your experience.  At home, it is easy to turn to habitual comforts when you are in a funk, to immeadiately call a friend, visit a favorite retaurant, (or sometimes both simultaneously) to alleviate your melancholy.  Yet when you find yourself far removed from the comforts of home, quite literally a stranger in a strange land, your feelings of isolation are compounded by the fact that you are without your old stand-bys.  You cannot call your friend because it is 3:30 in the morning in the States, and somehow, you have managed to find the one place that Starbucks has not managed to infiltrate.  And suddenly you realize just how much you miss home, and what exactly ‘home’ means. 

I must admit, it wasn’t until I studied abroad in Mexico that I finally began to appreciate what it means to be an American citizen.  And no, I do not mean to suggest that America is superior or that the way of life I am used to living is better than the life I have found abroad.  It is just different.  It is unique.  It is where I feel most comfortable. 

I am pretty sure most exchange students feel this way at one point or another.  maybe I am wrong.  Regardless, I felt that it would be appropriate to mention for those students looking to study abroad.  No, it is not always sunny beaches and incredible food (unless you are in Italy :).  But you have not failed as an exchange student if you find yourself missing home.  Just try and focus on the good things, appreciate the amusing cultural quirks, and realize that six months goes by extremely quick.   I do not for a moment regret the time I spent in Mexico, and I can guarantee I will feel the same about Peter.

The eighth of March – or as it is known pretty much everywhere except the US, International Women’s Day – turned out to be quite the treat for this wet and slushy week.  In Russia, the 8th of March is like Valentine’s Day on steroids; everywhere you looked, men were running with bouquets of flowers (odd numbered arrangements only: in Russia, even numbered arrangements are only given for funerals), chocolates, hideous balloons, and various other extravagant frivolities.  I was lucky enough to receive an invitation to Anastasia’s for dinner, where her father-in-law prepared an amazing meal.  Unfortunately, I confused the first course with the entire meal and ended up eating WAY TOO MUCH, but the food was so delicious that it was well worth it.  Some of the food was traditional Russian cuisine, but the rest was a delectable mixture of Greek, Taiwanese, and Italian.  Topped with a glass of French wine and some wonderful conversation (in Russian!), the eighth of March has definitely rocketed to the top of my ‘best evenings in Russia’ list.  Of course, now I am really at a loss as to how I will pay back such generous hospitality.  Whoever it was that said Russians were cold, unpleasant people, must never have gotten to really know anyone from this country….I feel that was a convoluted way to say what I wanted to say, but my English is failing me at the moment.  I suppose that is a good thing. 

The rest of the week was rather pleasant.  We have finally reached a consistent 30 + degrees F, which means the city is turning into a Russian Venice as the streets fill with melted snow and the water from busted pipes.  It is a bit of a mess, but encouraging to know that this winter will not last forever.

Oh, and a little side note: I tried my hand at vegan curry the other day, sans recipe, and it turned out quite well.  Thank you globalization.

Also known as Butter Week, Pancake Week or Cheesefare week, I think it can be safely assumed this was not my healthiest experience in Russia.  Масленица is a week-long celebration born of both pagan and Orthodox traditions; on the secular side, the holiday was used to bid adieu to winter and welcome the sun; religiously, the festival takes place the week preceding Orthodox Lent.  Yet regardless of your religious persuasion (which in Russia can be rather diverse), Масленица is best known and loved as the week when every gathering is a chance to make, share and eat wonderfully delicious блины. For those not familiar with this Russian treat, I would describe блины as either an incredibly thin pancake or a thick crepe stuffed with whatever your heart desires, but that really doesn’t do it justice.  All I know is it is by far the most delicious thing this vegan stomach has tasted for a while (and then promptly suffered tremendously for, but it was worth it).  Блины plays an important part in the festival, for according to pagan tradition, the round, golden pancake represents the sun, and by cooking and sharing and enjoying блины, it was believed the sun would be coaxed out of hiding.  Accordingly, during Масленица every day offers a different reason for enjoying блины: one day you are to invite the parents of your husband to dinner, the next of your wife, the next day, the sister of your husband, and so on and so on until everyone is officially stuffed with блины.  The week culminates in “Forgiveness Sunday” during which, in the spirit of Lent, family members and friends confess their sins and beg the forgiveness of those who were wronged.  In this way, Russians feel they can enter Lent with a clean slate (Clean Monday).  Yet Sunday is also known by another name: “Cheesefare Sunday”.  During Lent, Orthodox tradition forbids the consumption of meat, dairy, egg, wine and olive oil, so many take advantage of the week and final day preceding Lent to stock up on the foods they will miss for the following 40 days.  I for one am extremely excited, however, for I will finally be able to request vegan food without having to explain that, no, vegan is not the same as vegetarian (in Russian it is the same word), and no, fish, chicken, goat and caviar are not considered vegan, or even vegetarian for that matter.  Don’t get me wrong, my strange eating habits have been accommodated (for the most part), and, for my part I have learned that travel requires a certain amount of flexibility, but it will be nice to take a break from the rich, sour-cream laden foods that seem to appear at every social gathering.

Apart from a worthwhile week-long stomach-ache,  I found this festival to be quite enjoyable.  Bring on the sun.

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