So I’ve decided I need to start posting twice a week.  So much has happened this week that I am sure I will neglect something. 

The week started quite splendidly with an incredible jazz concert.  If you are a jazz fan, check out Igor Butman.  He is a saxophone player who is revered in Russia, and for good reason.  Three+ hours of inspiring improvisation was not nearly enough. 

Spoiler Alert:  Butman has asked me to sing with him in Moscow in the coming months. I am stoked!

Tuesday’s concert was contrasted by an interesting rendition of the classic Russian fairy-tale, Snegurochka.  While the performers were quite talented, I must admit I was not a huge fan of the director’s interpretation of the show.  All the same, the spectacle was enjoyable and the venue was the breathtaking Mariinsky Theatre, so no complaints.  Hands down the most enjoyable part of the evening was reconnecting with my friend Anastasia, a former OU exchange student from Siberia.  In true Russian fashion, she made sure my every wish was met, providing the tickets, the transportation, the snacks and the explanation for the evening’s entertainment. 

Already at a loss for how to repay such kindness, Stasia then extended me an invitation to the country side “to experience the way Russians enjoy winter”.  Of course, within minutes of donning my cross country skis I made a class fool of myself by falling on my bum.  Yet an hour and a half and a bruised tail-bone later, we we decided we simply could not waste the opportunity to tube down the mountain (and by we I mean Stasia and by mountain, I mean mountain).  Needless to say, I had a BLAST.  And when we finally returned, snow-covered and exhausted to her father-in-law’s warm car, we were greeted by a delicious hot tea and traditional Russian snacks.  All in all, it was quite an incredible day.  I must say though, I am finding it harder and harder to figure out just how to repay the generous (and sometimes overwhelming) hospitality of my Russian friends.  Hopefully this will soon be resolved

-20 F

Yes, that is right, -20, and yes, I am well aware of the fact that Oklahoma has enjoyed a pleasant 70 F for the past few days.  Luckily, I have found an enjoyable alternative to the outdoor activities I so love.  In the past few days, I have spent my evenings warming both my body and spirit around our small kitchen table with some of the most interesting individuals I have yet encountered in Russia.  The stories which have been shared have ranged from comedic to heartbreaking, and though I listen more than I speak, I have come to realize that there are some topics which transcend cultural and linguistic boundaries. 

With this particular group, it is music.  Jazz music, to be precise.  My host mother is actually a well-known jazz singer in St Petersburg, and though her English is not fantastic and my Russian is worse, we have spent hours in the past week sharing our love and appreciation for the one thing that unites us regardless of our myriad differences.  She tells me of her childhood in a family of musicians, of the persecution and the hunger.  She tells me how she would listen to American jazz in secret, but that any attempt to emulate the soulful, gritty vocals was prohibited.  With each song we share, each experience we relate, I realize that this, the simple act of connecting, is more important than a trip to the museum or local tourist destination.  I look across the table at a woman who has lived through a history and accumulated scars I will never fully comprehend, and yet I see in her eyes that on some level, we understand each other perfectly.  If only the whole world could sit around the kitchen table and listen to jazz…

Today was my first solo excursion through the slushy streets of St Pete, and I must say it did not disappoint.  The first thing you learn when striking it out alone, whether at home or abroad, is to mind your surroundings, but in Petersburg, minding my surroundings has proven essential.  Now before I inadvertently insult the kind people of St Pete, allow me to clarify that not for a moment have I felt threatened, insulted, ostracized, taken advantage of or snubbed.  In fact, in the past few days, numerous strangers have gone completely out of their way to show me kindness, understanding, and the way to the /train station/ ticket window/ metro/ bank/ produce store.  So far, the only thing that has inspired fear on the streets of St Pete is the 10 ft long, unimaginably heavy stalactite of ice that seems to be perpetually about the fall from the eves of every building.  Of course, once you accept that your gravestone may just read “crushed by an icicle”, you learn to maintain a healthy awareness and go about your life

I would like to take a minute to list all of the ways in which people have been incredibly nice to me in the past 48 hours.  Let’s see, Dmitry, my airport greeter, spent the better half of his day to make sure that I arrived at my host family’s house safely, and refused to let me pay for the taxi.  Lena and Nonna, who greeted me with huge smiles and hugs alike, helped me with my every need, and gave me space to think, breathe, and decompress.  Over the past two days, Lena has gone out of her way to show me around town, providing me with the perfect amount of assistance while respecting my independence and judgment, all the while suffering through my terrible attempts to converse.  Nonna has the patience of a saint, and responds to my every attempt at Russian grammar with encouragement and polite correction.  The women at the international office are as sweet as can be, and I have no doubt I will be well taken care of. 

But, you may reply, those are the people who have been paid to tolerate your Russian and to make sure that you are happy and safe.  While I cannot dispute this point, I will counter it with the equal number of complete strangers who have contributed to my happiness in the past two days.  There was the photographer at the photo center, who bent the rules to allow me a second picture when my first somehow managed to resemble a mug shot more than a visa photo.  There was the young student who gladly gave me directions to the train station, the random guy at the train station who took 45 minutes of his time to find the ticket office for me and make sure that I was taken care of.  There was Igor, the international relations student I met on the way to catch my train who offered to show me around the city and introduce me to more Russian students of international relations in St Pete.  There was the kind young woman in my train car that stopped her work to explain to me how to set up my bed (which is rather necessary on the 10 hour overnight to Moscow).  And then there was Aleksey. 

Overhearing my predicament at the ticket counter, Aleksey offered his services as my ticket broker, gladly translating my broken Russian to the ticket lady, and her perfect Russian in his broken English.  After twenty minutes, we managed to secure a (rather expensive) round trip ticket to Moscow.  What struck me the most however was not the kindness of one stranger, but the patience and compassionate curiosity of the numerous people standing in line.  I have to say, I do not know that people would take so kindly in the States to a twenty minute delay caused by a foreigner who can barely speak the language.  By the end of our transaction, the entirety of the line had squished in around us, but as I looked at their faces, I saw no sign of anger, exasperation, or attempt to intimidate, but simple, pleasant curiosity.  Aleksey, however, was not curious, he was ecstatic.  He was not only able to help someone in need, but found an excellent English tutor in the process.  For the next two hours, we conversed, I in broken Russian, he in broken English.  Aleksey proved to be a critical teacher, insisting that I repeat a word until I could pronounce it correctly, and, at Aleksey’s insistence, “with confidences”.  Yet Aleksey did much more than drill my Russian for free, he opened my eyes to a part of Russia I thought had died with Stalin.  Aleksey lives in a commune and not the American counter-culture version where residents choose the commune lifestyle as a social statement.  In Russia, there is nothing romantic about commune life.  Aleksey lives in a unit with five other families, many of which he either does not know or wishes he did not. They all share one common toilet, one bath and one kitchen.  Aleksey rents one tiny room which houses his every worldly possession, which does not include the kindle I insisted upon for this trip, the travel computer, the camera, the special yoga mat, or the $200 snow boots.  Aleksey does not even have a proper bed.  Down the hall his mother inhabits a similar room.  In one room she has managed to create a dining room, living room, bedroom, and makeshift kitchen.  And of course, as Aleksey brought me home at dinner time, she insists that I eat her meal.  Now I vaguely remember reading something about the persistence of Russian hospitality, but nothing in my grammar book prepared me for this.  Politely, I attempted to refuse, averse to the idea of wolfing down his mother’s dinner, and yet she appeared quite offended when I attempted to refuse.  So I stayed.  And I ate.  And I learned a valuable lesson: sometimes it is those with the least to give that derive the most pleasure from the giving.

I have realized in the past week that my exchange to Mexico was a cake walk in comparison to this, which is why I think this experience will be all the more enriching.  For my exchange to Mexico, I’d studied Spanish for 7 years, was familiar with the culture, and spent the duration of my stay with the family of my best friend, who, consequently, founded the city in which I resided.  Between the maid, the cook and the private pool, I could hardly say that my living situation was challenging.  Yet while it may seem ridiculous to bemoan such a situation, it was actually rather crippling.  Having spent so long studying the language and culture, I was terrified to make a mistake.  In addition, many people in Mexico spoke English, and if they didn’t, they saw my presence as an excellent reason to practice.  As a result, my potential for improvement was never fully realized.  Yet perhaps that was what I needed at the time, for while my Spanish did not improve by leaps and bounds, my ethnocentricities were laid bare, exposing both my cultural and personal inhibitions.

My time in Mexico taught me not to fear benign mistakes, for I will never improve if I refuse to open my mouth.  Thankfully, everyone here seems to understand.

 So I continue to blunder my way through, and through my blunders, I have already made decided headway.  Perhaps that is one of the reasons study abroad is such a valuable experience.  It is simultaneously humbling and empowering.  It challenges your every preconception and stretches your boundaries to the point of breaking and yet, if you can let go, if you can learn to embrace flexibility you find the return is invaluable.

I am happy to report that I have arrived in St Petersburg and have had quite the 24 hours. I now realize that despite the two months I spent in the country last summer, I was not quite prepared for the Russian way of life. The building I am living in is charming, in a hodgepodge, eclectic sort of way. The toilet stands alone in a tiny room at the end of the hall, and you must cross the rest of the house to reach the tub where you can wash your hands. The apartment is small and Stalinesque, but cozy all the same, and every spare bit of wall space is covered with the most beautiful artwork. It reminds me of a hostel I stayed in while traveling Colombia, minus some of the more interesting roommates and the 90+ degree weather. The shower and I have already had words… a bit bi-polar that one. I must admit, the abrupt rush of ice cold water just as you have managed to soap up can prove a bit unpleasant, but there are worse things in life. I have discovered that if I close my eyes and imagine that I am showering in a fresh spring, or that I haven’t showered for months, it isn’t quite so bad. I do however have the nicest room in the house and want for nothing. I have no complaints when it comes to the people I have met either; my host family is as sweet and patient as can be. They speak to me only in Russian (as I requested) and even though they can speak English quite well, they allow me to work through what it is I wish to say, and then correct my mistakes. I spent probably close to five hours today at the kitchen table with my Russian dictionary, my notes from class, and my notebook, writing down every useful phrase I came across. I swear my Russian has already improved. Yet if I were to pinpoint my proudest accomplishment thus far it would have to be that I survived my first walking excursion through the streets of wintery St Petersburg. I am happy to report that the weeks that went into finding the right boots were worth every agonizing moment. I ended up with Sorel boots and super thick sheep-skin liners which make me look a bit like a fire-fighter and stand out terribly from the chic stilettos preferred by Russian women, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. As my ice-walking skills pale in comparison, I would much rather slosh through the snow, slush and ice with my utilitarian man-boots, yak tracks and warm toes than try to master the art of digging the heel of your stiletto into the ice for traction. Sometimes it’s nice to be a foreigner. All in all, I have to say I do believe this is going to be a wonderful experience. I think it took the extent of my international travels to prepare for this particular study abroad experience, but I am now confident and independent enough to approach this opportunity with open arms. Signing off from snowy St Pete, this is Megan. Спакойной ночи!

Anything I have said in the past about the beauty of this city is no longer valid.  Today I saw just how beautiful this place truly is, with the first tru glimpse of spring.  I walked the streets with no hat, my jacket left open, and the sun shining upon my face as I strolled.  The snow that I had grown so accustomed to melted away, and I was able to get my glimpse of the city without this ever present footprint of nature.  I stood on a bridge over the Fontanka near my apartment and watched for the first time as the river flowed, rather than standing still in a sheet of white snow and ice.

And this morning, as all this beauty surrounded me, her opposite showed her hideous head.  There is not much I can say that can do justice to the loss caused by the great injustice committed in this country today.  Today, as the people of Moscow carried about on this, otherwise perfect, day, two bombs were ignited in two stations of the Moscow metro system.  Roughly forty people lost their lives this morning as I stood on that bridge.  Countless others were injured.  And injury from a bomb I can only imagine is just as horrific.  Molten shrapnel and flame flying through such a confined space is one of the closest glimpses of hell I think any human can witness.

I don’t know what else I can say.  It was on my mind as I rode the subway to and from the school today.  Even the beautiful sights around me could not push the thoughts from my mind.  The senseless violence seems to know no borders.  Everywhere there is someone attempting to rectify some past injustice by perpetuating a new one.

Here is a work of Russia’s greatest poet, and a translation.  I think it is appropriate.  It is beautiful, as the day was, yet holds a serious message of loss and yearning.

Не пой, красавица, при мне

Ты песен Грузии печальной:
Напоминают мне оне
Другую жизнь и берег дальный.

Увы! напоминают мне
Твои жестокие напевы
И степь, и ночь — и при луне
Черты далекой, бедной девы.

Я призрак милый, роковой,
Тебя увидев, забываю;
Но ты поешь — и предо мной
Его я вновь воображаю.

Не пой, красавица, при мне
Ты песен Грузии печальной:
Напоминают мне оне
Другую жизнь и берег дальный.


Oh, Beauty, merciful be to me –
Songs of doleful Georgia sing not:
The sounds of such a sorrowful glee
Remind my life and the love I’ve got.

Alas! Heart-hurting songs of yours
Bring visions of steppe and tender night,
Your hurting songs revive my moans
For the poor girl under the moon light.

This dear image, fateful, bright,
I can’t help losing on seeing you,
But it appears in my mind
When hums of yours I’m listening to.

Oh, Beauty, merciful be to me –
Songs of doleful Georgia sing not:
The sounds of such a sorrowful glee
Remind my life and the love I’ve got.

Гуд-бай, Америка – о!
Где я не был никогда,
Прощай навсегда,
Возьми, банджо, сыграй мне на прощанье

Last night I spent the evening with some friends in a cafe/club next to my apartment listening to a Russian band play covers and a few songs of their own. My new roommate, Aleksey, and I sang the words we knew at the top of our lungs and beat the table like a cheap drum as girls danced in the middle of the room. Yesterday was their day. International Women’s Day apparently is a global holiday, although it is not celebrated in the States. It’s nice to know that women are appreciated here. Someone asked me if we don’t celebrate this holiday because Americans don’t love women. After I finished laughing I assured them that is not the case.

But, much has happened in between the holiday of Men when I last wrote and the holiday Women that was yesterday. To begin with, I have moved from the apartment in which I was first living. The price there was astronomical, so I took the advice of the Russian proverb that translates, “I don’t have 100 rubles, but I have 100 friends” (It rhymes in Russian) and I asked around until I found a new place. I now live in a Communal flat, with a strange assortment of neighbors, but overall I love the change of pace from the last residence. Half of my neighbors are musicians, and upon my arrival they promptly tried to get me to drink vodka and play American songs on the guitar. I obliged them the songs.

The next day I went with my new roommate Aleksey to IKEA. It’s identical to the ones everywhere else except for the alphabet they are using.  I ended up buying a couch/bed which fits nicely in the corner, but gave me the best night’s sleep I’ve had since I arrived.  A good purchase, I think.  Anyways, after the IKEA day, I went to a friend’s party and again was asked to oblige them with American and Irish songs.  There were several musicians, so we all ended up playing many songs, or bits we knew and sing together.  It was a lot of fun.

Music and parties are certainly not the only thing I have been spending my time doing here though.  Of course there is the academic aspect, and almost every day I am in Nevsky Institute studying, or perhaps better to say sitting in a class trying to understand what is going on.  The classes are interesting, or at least what I understand them to be is interesting to me.  The nicest part about being in the school though is that I have made quite a few new friends, and while they are far more often in class, as my schedule is lighter, I can usually find someone to converse with during the day.  I can’t express enough how warm the hospitality is here.  Over the past several days I’ve met people by chance who just were so happy to meet a foreigner who was interested in their culture and language.  It’s nice too that they don’t all think I’m a spy.  I’ve been in that situation before.

The downside of all the Russian speaking however, is that I can tell my English has taken a toll.  For one class period a week I teach a conversational class to four students, who in my opinion are close to native speakers.  I found myself struggling to correctly phrase whatever sentences we were working on at the time while they ran circles around me.  My own mother commented that my word order is a bit off, although she seemed excited that this comes from me thinking in the language here.    I think it also comes from the fact that emails in English are completed underlined with red squiggly lines, so I try not to doubt myself.

Overrall though, I’m still loving my time here in Piter.  The company, the conversation, the food, the music, even the weather has become agreeable.  (It’s been above freezing the past few days).  I’m amazed at how quickly the time is flying by here, and a little sad to think this little adventure will come to an end soon.

Well, Russia continues to offer nothing short of a fascinating life. St. Petersburg is undeniably beautiful, a fact I do not think I can stress too much. Despite the fact that the city is only slightly older than America, the amount of culture, history, and architechture that has been amassed in this area in that short amount of time is tremendous.

To begin with, St. Petersburg, or “Piter” as it is known by the locals, is set upon the mouth of the river Neva. The city is littered with old bridges, each with it’s own character and unique style. Although the temperature here has dropped significantly since I arrived, from around freezing to -20 Celsius, walking through the city has proven to be a great way to pass the time. Argueably, meeting with friends in a warm cafe afterwards may be a slightly better way to do so.

On my strolls through the snow beaten, ice covered streets of the old Russian capital, the “Venice of the North,” I have seen a number of grandiose cathedrals and palaces that rival those of France and Italy. It seems to me that everyone in the Romanov family, not just the tsars were owners of luxurious housing that make the White house look like servants quarters.

Piter is also amazingly resilient despite the bonechilling weather that would hold any American city I’ve been to hostage. Although the snow piles relentlessly upon the sidewalks, I’ve discovered many Russians simply sleep in in order to avoid trudging through the chemical mix of the acidic salt and dirty snow, as they know there will be someone to shovel it away each morning. And even last night, as I walked through the blizzard to a nearby cafe to watch the Olympics, the streets were suprisingly full.

This city has undergone so much, and after reading more about the history of Piter, especially during the Second World War, the ability of the people here to endure whatever natural or man made force that is thrust at them amazes me.

Patriotism, especially from that war was rampant yesterday, on a holiday entitled “Defender of the Fatherland Day”. Essentially, it is a holiday for men. As I walked to the store to buy a text book, I watched an impromptu parade of cars, not just of civilians, but of police and the military too, which drove down the main street, Nevsky Prospekt, with Russian flags of all sorts flying from the back windows. Sirens and horns filled the air and the lamposts and walls were all emblazened with slogans, flags, and placards for the holiday. It was truly a spectacle to see.

My friends didn’t warn me about kasha.  Kasha is the Russian version of grits, and just as flavorless without butter.  Almost every day it is the staple of my breakfast.  Otherwise though, the food here is excellent.  St. Petersburg has a chain of restaurants called “Teremok”  that serve “blini” which are thin pancakes, much like crepes.  I tried one the other day filled with red caviar, cheese, and potatoes.  It was delicious and I washed it down with a glass of “Kvas” which is a drink made from bread and water.  I’m sure it’s not for everyone, but I like it very much.

This week in Russia is called “Maslenitsa”.  It’s a holiday festival marking the end of winter.  Although, the irony of the situation doesn’t escape me, that as we celebrated today outside by burning an effigy of winter, winter fought back with heavy snowfall. 

And so is usually the story here.  Snow, snow, and a bit more snow.  It’s beautiful of course to see the white lining on the many sights here, but it’s discouraging having to trudge through snow that has accumulated on the street since you walked on it an hour before when it was clear. 

As for housing, I live with an old Russian woman named Nina and her dog, name Lyulyu.  Nina is very nice and loves to chat, although my Russian is still very limited and often times fails to propel the conversation forward.  But, what is very nice is that I live just outside the center of the city, in a place called “Petrogradskaya Ostrov”.  From my apartment it’s five minutes to the subway, fifteen to the university, and ten to the nearby attractions at the Petropavelskaya Krepost’ which is an old fort where all of the Romanovs are entombed.    Next to it stands a beautiful mosque that when it was built surpassed all the others in “Europe”.  Europe is a delicate phrase here, especially as Russia is simultaneously European and not, but fully Eurasian.

I’ve also visited a few of the many cathedrals here and the other sites.  There is so much to see.  The Hermitage is, of course, quite beautiful, and stands right across the river, which is frozen solid, from the fort.  It’s a strange thought though, thinking that walking by this Winter Palace so casually as people do now only a hundred years ago would have seemed impossible.  But then again, this country has certainly seen many changes in that century…

I’m often hesitant to talk too much about a trip in advance. Call me superstitious. But, today my visa arrived in the mail. Glancing over the shiny tag and the dual alphabets spelling out my trip, I’m finally beginning to be overcome by the surreal nature of what I am doing. Finally, it is really happening. I am going to live for months in a foreign land, across an ocean and on the far end of the European continent. I’m going to have to learn to say “чего” instead of “huh” and to endure the endless sea of the bureaucratic Russian system… And I simply can’t wait!

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