This post is from the blog Around the World in Katie Days by Kate who is studying in Utrecht.

How do you study abroad when you’re an introvert?

This is the question I asked myself over and over when I was preparing to go abroad, and it’s the question I’ve been wondering since I showed up here.

Every study abroad forum says roughly the same thing: “Say yes to everything! Go to all of the parties and events thrown for internationals! Do everything you possibly can! Meet so many people!”

I spent my entire freshman year at OU avoiding this exact thing. I don’t like parties. I don’t like crowded places, especially crowded pubs/bars. I need my alone time, and I need a lot of it.

Also, I hate doing things just because someone told me I had to.

When I’m at home, every evening is basically the same: all four of us sit in four different rooms (unless a really good game show is on). Occasionally, someone will yell at someone else, or I will yell an answer to Jeopardy. When I was living in the dorms, my roommate, Christiana, and I could sit together for hours without ever saying a word. This works for me. I’m not lonely or bored or depressed, nor am I socially stunted. I’m happy to go to things I’m interested in and participate in things I love, as is Christiana, as are the members of my family. That’s just how we introverts work.

I get to Europe, and all of sudden this social interaction is supposed to be attractive to me? If I said yes to everything, I’d be in bars with too-loud music, coughing from the smoke, and politely declining beer (which I don’t drink—another strike!). I’d be miserable.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not sitting alone in my apartment all day. I have lots of friends here, and I’m not crying from homesickness. I’m pretty happy, but I’m not some super cool party person all of a sudden. I’m still me.

So, what do you do if you’re an introvert abroad?

1. Don’t be completely antisocial. I’m friendly to the people in my apartment. I smile at them in the kitchen and halls; I recognize them when I’m not at home. I talk to them when I see them, and I do my fair share of cleaning. This tends to endear you to people.

2. Say yes to the things you can handle. I can’t handle smoky bars, both because I hate them and because I have asthma, so I don’t say yes to those. I don’t like beer, and I don’t want to get drunk, so I don’t say yes to those things. I do say yes to going to clubs where the smoke is manageable, trips to the grocery store with people, to walking to orientation together, to going downtown to the city centre with people. I push my comfort zone sometimes, which I think is important when trying new things, but I know my boundaries and I respect them.

3. Have goals. I like lists. You’ve probably noticed that by now. I especially like to-do lists; I like them so much that I have an app on my MacBook called iProcrastinate. It makes lists for me AND I get to color code them. It’s sort of a dream come true, honestly. I use iProcrastinate to set goals of things I will accomplish each day. For example:

Tuesday—Figure out how to do laundry.

Wednesday—Mail something at the nearest post office. Go to HEMA and buy tape and maybe room or bike decorations. Find the Aldi and buy food.

Thursday—Go to IKEA! Buy a broom and maybe a Swiffer.

Friday—Meet my Dutch mentors.

Saturday—Climb the Domtoren with some of my roommates.

This forces me to, you know, put down the computer and interact with Utrecht. Usually, I do way, way more than I plan. That’s great. Some days, like today, I only accomplish the one thing. Whatever.

I suppose my answer to my question is: you just do it. You stay true to yourself, you do things and see things without abandoning who you are, and you’ll do just fine.

Classes are in full swing here at Universiteit Utrecht. For international students, that meant we attended two orientations during the first week of February. The first orientation was all about paperwork: paperwork for registering with the city, paperwork for canceling our city registration in July, paperwork for this, that, and the other. I memorized my student ID really quickly!


My friend Jinju and I found something familiar in the international office during orientation!

However, we took a break to listen to a Dutch Studies professor talk about Dutch study culture. It was very enlightening to learn how different Dutch universities are from American ones. Here, it would be offensive (and possibly incorrect) to call your professor Dr. _____. You’re expected to call them either Mevrouw (Mrs.)/Meneer (Mr.) Last Name or by their first name. You’re also not supposed to stick around after class to ask questions because it could potentially interfere with other appointments they have–and yes, they would make appointments for ten minutes after class ends.

One of the biggest differences is the grading system. The Dutch grade on a 1-10 scale, with 10 being the highest grade one could achieve and a 5 being the lowest grade you could get to pass. At first glance, this seems very easily translated to the American scale: a 9 or 10 is an A (a 90 or 100), an 8 is a B (80), a 7 is a C (70), and so on. That’s what I thought when I saw it for the first time.

I was so very, very wrong. The professor explained that the Dutch never, ever give 9s or 10s. 10s are reserved for God, and 9s are reserved for the professor. Rarely and begrudgingly, the Dutch will give an 8, but only if the only means of evaluating are multiple-choice tests and you never missed a question. It turns out that a 7, the grade I thought was a C, is actually a very desirable grade and cause for celebration!

Another change is the length of classes. Here, you take four classes in the period from January to June, but you don’t take all four at once. Most people take two classes from Feb. 6 to the beginning of April (the dates vary based on which college you’re in) and two classes from April 23 to June 30.

Classes also meet for much longer than the three hours a week they do in America. My Brazilian Film class meets from 9 to 10:45 on Mondays and from 9 to 1 on Wednesdays; my Dutch Present-day Society class meets for a similar amount of time on Wednesdays and Fridays. That’s a long time to be in class! Luckily, we have at least one five-minute break during each meeting time. Sharp-eyed readers will note that that means no classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I spend those days either studying or recovering from my hours and hours in class!


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

On Labor Day we had a day off class, so we decided to take the day and visit the Lamborghini Factory! It ended up being a fun day, but had quite the rough start. The factory is located in Sant’Agata Bolognese, a tiny town outside of Bologna, which meant two trains and one bus.

Long story short, on the bus there was no sign or announcement indicating which stop was which, we got off at the stop at 10:36, our expected arrival time, and ended up five stops away. Which also happened to be over five kilometers away.

We started walking in the direction we thought we should go, and start to realize we have a long walk ahead of us. From the bus stop information, I know that we are in the wrong town, we have to get to the next one but had no clue how far away it would be. We ended up walking on the side of a two lane highway in the countryside, with huge trucks of hay zooming past us. When I saw a sign saying that Sant’Agata Bolognese was 4 or 5 km away, I knew we were in trouble. Especially since we only had 15 more minutes to make our appointment! We found a small gas station and asked an old man for a number for a taxi. He didn’t speak any English, but I was able to muster up enough Italian (I speak some because of my last trip to Italy, but this is the first time taking any classes.) After a while of searching in the white pages, he finds a number, I call it and arrange for the taxi to come.
Five minutes later, the taxi pulls up and takes us to the Lamborghini factory. Most expensive short taxi ride I’ve been on, but we made it and were only 10 minutes late. I had called ahead and said we were going to be late, and they brought us into the factory to meet the tour once we arrived. It was crazy and awful and stressful, but we made it~

Point A is where we started at, B is where we walked to when we got the taxi, and C was our final destination.

The Factory

Here is a portion my husband Andy’s description of the time at the factory. He loves cars more than I do, and is better able to explain what we saw!

So after arriving a few minutes late, we are rushed through the museum (full of amazing cars explained later) to doors leading outside to the factory entrance. As we walk through the door my eyes are greeted by around 30 beautiful Lamborghini Aventadors and Gallardos parked fresh from assembly… that point I know how this day is going to be. To my momentary displeasure we are rushed into the factory away from the incredible grouping of Bulls. That’s when we enter the factory to see the many stages of Gallardo production. I’m like a fat kid in an all you can eat buffet specializing in sweet treats at this point, my eyes linger on every single aspect of the amazing spectacle in front of me.
First, we are shown the process that the Gallardo is assembled, the engine and various interior pieces are brought in from outside sources. The engines are from Audi (who owns Lamborghini, for those of you that are not obsessed with this brand like myself) and interior from a local upholstery shop. This is an amazing sight but I’m looking for the new bull, the incredible Aventador. As the tour guide finishes talking about the Gallardo production line we walk around a corner and there’s an Aventador resting right there….it is amazing. I’ve loved Lamborghini since I can remember, they’ve always been the insane member of the supercar group, and this new car does not disappoint. From the sharp edges at every corner to the huge center exhaust this car just screams “If you don’t respect me I will kill you”, which of course is the Lamborghini way haha. As the tour guide mentions that we can have a look of course I get up close and personal to observe this piece of art on wheels. Sadly, we are told to move on but it’s on to the Aventador assembly line, woot woot! Oh and by the way, every car is hand assembled; there are no robots in the factory. Which brings me to the awesome part of the Aventador assembly, everything is made in house from the engine to the interior; a new thing for Lamborghini.
As we are walked past the testing booth where they run the car at 200km/h (~124mph) for an hour and a half I saw a Gallardo Tricolore awaiting testing. The Tricolore is a special edition (only 150 being made) that celebrates the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy, which explains the green, red, and white strip running over the top of the car.

We got to see the President of Lamborghini show off the new Aventador in front of some Audi execs.

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.


                Well, followers..Sorry for the lack of updates.I’vebeen busy and a little lazy! Okay, a lot lazy. Oh well, here is more of Spain!


                Don’t get me wrong; I liked Madrid, but it was definitely the least favorite city we visited in Spain.  We left San Sebastian bright and early and began our four hour train ride to Madrid. After arriving, we searched forever for our hotel. The directions said it was on San Leonard Street and we could only find San Bernardo Street. We even asked the tourism office (again, our favorite place!) and they didn’t even know. We were freaked that we were going to be staying in some sketch place. Alas, we found it. The “university residence” of Hostel Arti II. I won’t recommend it to any future travelers. First, the man did not understand that we had a reservation and kept saying “no space. No space”. Then, when he finally understood, we got a two bed bedroom when we had three people. It wouldn’t have been a problem except 1) we already paid for three beds, 2) they were twin beds and 3) there wasn’t space for a person on the floor. After spending time figuring out how to say “We have a problem” in Spanish, we just went down there and said “Two for sleep, we are three”. It was interesting. We then were transferred to a nice room (hmmmm yeah…) with two bunk beds and an aisle about the width of my hips. The door, however, was about three times the size of my hips. I am pretty sure our room (I would hardly call it that) used to be a janitor’s closet that was changed into a room.


                Since it was late in the afternoon, we decided to go see a few things close to our place. We first had to find an internet café to see if everything was okay with Klara’s bank and to tell my mom I was alive and well. Klara was very disappointed and upset that her wallet was stolen (obviously) so she was trying everything in her power to change our trip to save money. It ended up being more of a hassle but more on that later. Since we bought our tickets in France with SNCF, it was impossible to change our tickets in Spain (or so we were told) but we “found” and SNCF station in Madrid. First, it said it was in this building right by our hotel (awesome!) and it wasn’t. The woman there told us it was at the airport. A thirty minute metro ride later, we arrived at the airport of Madrid. We found an info desk where a funny woman said “I am metro” (which later became the running joke) and told us to go visit the visitor center. When we got there, there was another funny woman who said “No. SNCF is not Spain. We only are Renfe.” So after an hour and a half of searching for SNCF in Madrid we were told that it was possible to change them in Barcelona and decided to forget about it for the night. Kelli and I didn’t really see the importance or purpose of changing our trains and trip because the money wasn’t that big of a difference and there was only a possibility of getting our money back. Klara understood it though so we vowed to try again in Barcelona. In my opinion, we were already on stop 2 of 3 for our trip, we had it all planned so we may as well have continued. Kelli was in agreement but we still said we would try again. Remember this for my entry in Barecelona.



Back to the sightseeing: We stayed directly across from Plaza d’Espagna. It was this nice square with a fountain, statues, and even two statues of Don Quichotte. Kelli was fascinated by that and she spent minutes trying to explain to me why he was so important to her. It was cool, but I still don’t see the wonderful importance of him. Oh well. When we visited the Tourism Office we got all these maps and I discovered there was a Hard Rock Café. I knew immediately that I had to go to get my mom a shirt. The address was 2 Place Caballos. We took the metro to a place close by and saw some of the modern parts of Madrid. We came across the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu..yes, soccer fans, the REAL MADRID stadium! We took some pictures and continued on, noticing that the addresses we were by were 187, 185, 183 and later, 163, 161. After walking for at least thirty minutes, I realized we were never going to make it there by foot. I was hungry and tired at this point and wanted to take a cab. No one cared much for that idea, but I said I wasn’t going to walk two hours to buy a shirt. Thankfully, after seeing the biggest, most inviting mall ever, they agreed to come with me in the cab. We saw the biggest Spanish flag I have ever seen (okay, and maybe the only one, too) and a cool statue. Turns out, Hard Rock Café was the furthest point from anyway any hidden on a street corner. We went inside and got our shirts and decided to have a nice warm dinner. I had ranch for the first time in three months and our drinks had lots of ice and free refills. You learn to appreciate the small things in life when you don’t have them J Just kidding, but it was a really good meal and my shirt/shot glass collection is quickly growing!


Monday we were set for a full day of getting the best of Madrid. We first visited the Temple de Debod, an old Egyptian temple devoted to gods Amus and Isis which the Egyptian government gave to Spain in 1968. It was cool and gave a nice view of Madrid. Of course the museum was closed on Monday so we couldn’t go in. Next we walked and played through the Jardines de Sabatini. They were very pretty! Lots of trees and shrubs that were cut neatly to make designs, more statues, and, who guessed it, fountains! We continued our streak of spelling the places with our bodies and attempted “Madrid”. Not as easy with only three people, but we succeeded. We continued on to the Royal Palace of Madrid where the line to visit was at least 300 people long, the cost was high, and the building was gorgeous. We opted to just walk around it and peek in through the gates. The line would have taken all day. Across the street from it was the Opera House with a garden in front of it that invited us ever so nicely to visit.


We wanted to visit the actual Tourism Office to book a flamenco show. Enter Plaza Mayor: a huge plaza with shops in every hole and people all over. Street entertainers were in abundance: men with no heads, “statues”, a horrible fat, ugly, Spiderman who did the dumbest things, and some weird sparkly dog/camel. The things people come up with! On to our next destination, we ate gelato in Puerta del Sol, saw more smaller plazas with statues, some churches, The Palace, and the Cibelles Fountains. It was this time that the funny tourist man said “How many fountains do you want to see?” that also became quite the joke of our trip. After discovering there was no show about the fountains (it’s in Barcelona) we headed home for dinner.



Tuesday our first stop was the Real Madrid Stadium. Eat your heart out soccer fans! I toured it all, and even kissed Cristano Ronaldo! Okay, not a “real” kiss but still! This stadium was way cool! You start off with a view from one of the highest points of the stadium to get a full view. Very neat! Then, you continue on through the museum. I’ll just say this: The Real Madrid club is not shy about their greatness, history, or any of the accomplishments. I mean, they have a right to be, but I have never seen it so blatantly stated. Every other sentence was “Take a good look at these 9 trophies: It is the only time they will ever be in the same room” or “The best club ever in history”. The museum was really interesting though. It talked about the accomplishments of the club, both in soccer and basketball, the history and the changes of the uniform and crest, the awards, the best players in the history, trophies, pictures, philanthropy things, and lots more. It took us forever to go through it! After the museum part we got to go around the field and visit the “box” seats which were practically recliners. We got to go on the field (somewhat) and sit in the most comfortable bleachers for the players ever; again, like recliners! Then we toured the Visitor locker room (we couldn’t do the Real Madrid one because of “privacy”) and it had a huge shower, hot tub, and all sorts of goodies. We saw the press room and got to sit on the stage being “interviewed”. The store finished off our tour where they have even more Real Madrid things than OU. Hello, Real Madrid luggage. Get on that Sooners! Just kidding, please don’t.



After three hours in the stadium, we went to the Plaza de Toros where they have bullfights. I was excited to visit it, but of course the entrance hours were 1:30-3:30 and it was 4:30. We had a late lunch and decided on what else to see. Madrid has a “Tour d’Espange” which I thought would be really cool! I imagined an Eiffel Tower type thing, but not in that much glory. Well, not any glory is what we got. It was a huge disappointment and, in my opinion, was a satellite tower. Why it was on the map of “things to see” still confuses me. After that letdown, we headed back towards Puerta del Sol to see our flamenco dance, but cut through the Jardines del Buen Retiro. They. Were. Beautiful. A huge semi-circular moment thing that looked across a manmade “lake” was the perfect spot to soak in the park and the sights. We then we to the flamenco show. I pictured just a man and a woman, with all this emotion and big, flow-y dresses, all passionate and cool. Not what I got, but I didn’t walk away disappointed. It was at a theatre and so we got more of a show. It was still wonderful! The dancers’ legs more SO fast and their upper bodies stay completely still. It was a little over an hour of pure entertainment and amazement at how they do some of the stuff. There were flow-y dresses, fans, and the noise clapper things, great dances, and a very good performance!


Overall, Madrid was a very fun city, but, like I said, not my favorite place. It was very commercialized. There was a Starbucks about every corner (surprisingly, I refrained and drank normal coffee from Jamaica Café instead J) a TGI Fridays, McDonald’s and Burger King next to the Starbucks, and just not a pretty city. I mean, it was pretty, but it wasn’t as beautiful as I imagined. Maybe it was that it was a bustly, busy, go, go, go city that I wasn’t fond of. I’m not sure, but I found San Sebastian and Barcelona better. I would visit Madrid again, but for now I have my fill!


I also learned from Madrid that maps are harder to read than you think. Somehow, I (of all people) got stuck navigating and guess who doesn’t know north/south/east/west in Oklahoma, let alone Spain?! Yep, Moi! There’s some French for ya! We survived but sometimes I am sure we took the world’s longest ways. Also, three girls can be as opinionated or as un-opinionated as we want to be, same with decisive and indecisive. No one wanted to say what they wanted to eat for lunch, what to do next, or to walk or take the metro.  I was even making decisions (big surprise, huh?!) but I didn’t want to decide everything! I know it was the fatigue, stress of being in a new place and such that made it irritate me, but it would get so frustrating! I didn’t want to be rude and decide everything, but with two almost mutes it was necessary.


Thanks to Klara, who comes from the Czech Republic, I am not only learning French, but Czech as well! Okay, “learning” may be a bit of a strong word, but I am trying and definitely helping Klara get some abs by laughing so much. I can say “I am American”, “hello”, “I love you” “Goodbye”, “He/She is Czech/French/American”, “They are Czech/French/American”, “roller skates”, “thirsty” and some words I probably shouldn’t type J. I later learned to count to five and the different sounds the accents make, but that was Toulouse and I don’t have much practice with those. Don’t ask me to say it because I want to perfect all my skills before presenting them to the world.

 I cannot figure out how to get the pictures on this blog without messing up what I’ve already written. I know, I’m not very technologically advanced! Anyway, you can look at the pictures here:

As you can see, Madrid was quite the learning experience!




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.

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…

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.

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