Sympathy for the Devil

Trip Start Aug 29, 2010
Trip End Jun 02, 2011

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Flag of Russia  , North-West Russia,
Tuesday, February 8, 2011

First full week of classes and first fully free weekend successfully completed!

In comparing my having a homestay here in St. Petersburg, and having lived in an apartment in Shanghai, I have noticed many pros and cons. I think that when coming into the country with absolutely no language experience, the homestay is definitely beneficial. Otherwise, I would spend all my time sitting in restaurants guessing off of a menu, or being dependent on always going out with others. Additionally, the homestay helps to drive home the fact that you are here to learn the language, and helps you to get quickly acclimated to the culture. Host families have also lived in their neighborhoods for decades, and can point out all the great places to hang out, short cuts, grocery stores, metro stops, etc. But, some of the cons include the isolation, formality, and simple awkwardness of living with total strangers. In Shanghai we all lived in the same apartment complex, so we were constantly hanging out at eachother's places, going out together, or at least passing each other bye. But, with the homestays here, we are miles away from each other, and must get prior permission before having people over to hang out. Moreover, going out can be a little uncomfortable when you have to tell your host mom, "I’m leaving at 9pm, I’m not sure when I’ll be back, don’t wait up!" And then the next morning she asks when you returned home and you have to explain the concept of 3am. I think all of the pros still definitely outweigh the cons, but it is interesting being thrust back into a sort of parental/family situation in the midst of clashing college life. For the most part though, we try to be as polite as possible, and the host moms try to be as understanding as possible. And, Natalia is incredibly nice, and tells amazing stories - so that pro trumps just about everything.

Classes have been fantastic. Russian still makes me want to claw my eyes out, but Civilization, History, and particularly Arts are all incredibly fascinating. Our architecture and paining professor is just as passionate about palaces, castles, The Hermitage, and portraits as the literature professor is about Pushkin. And, the Civilization class, which is operating more like a culture class, has already begun to change the way walk around on a day to day basis - observing all the Russians and guessing about what they’re up to, what they’re thinking about, and what their life story is like. In just being here a week I am already beginning to better understand their seriousness, stoicism, historical acceptance, and complex emotions. Life here is exhausting, purely exhausting – and when you’re riding on the metro knowing that in three minutes you’re going to have to trudge through a snow storm for 20 minutes to go to the grocery store, then walk another half hour to get home (by which time it will probably be dark), all just so that you can eat lunch tomorrow, you’re not grinning like an idiot, and you don’t really feel like engaging anyone in conversation. Additionally, you start to understand the “Russian pessimism” of jokes and sayings such as during the USSR “What could be worse than socialism? Whatever comes after it.” when you begin examining Russian history. These people have had more regime changes, massive revolutions, purges, social upheaval, economic collapse, and complete 180s of what they’ve been told their personal goals, beliefs, aspirations, and behaviors are “supposed to be”  in the last 500 years than anyone can be expected to bounce back from. They have the right to be pessimistic, the right to whine, the right to be outraged. Yet they aren’t. They simply accept what is, focus on dealing with the day to day trials of life, and stoically move on. It is not the way I would choose to live, but I do find it highly admirable and incredibly intriguing. They are a tough, badass, hearty people.

Having had this straight-faced, hyperfocused, quiet way of life sink into me all week long at school, I was bursting at the seams with energy when the weekend rolled around, and it definitely showed. Saturday was our trip to Pavlovsk, an extremely beautiful rural park a half hour train ride outside of St. Petersburg that contains an amazing forest, the old palace and farm of Paul I (1754 – 1801), and a ridiculously awesome sledding hill. First off, riding on a Russian train was awesome, they are exactly like in movies and pictures – a huge outdoor station, old metal cars, fogged up windows, and plain wooden bench seats lining the interior. I was a little afraid that at any moment we were going to crash into another train containing a nuclear bomb, and have to wait for George Clooney to save us all (The Peacemaker). The palace was also incredibly beautiful, containing centuries old sculptures, many drawing made by Paul’s wife, and tons of ornate gifts from Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. Then we headed off to the sledding hill…where at first I gave a serious, “No way, I’m WAY to accident prone to do this”, until I was convinced at length by all the guys to give it a shot – and Nick is in fact an EMT, so were anything to happen, we’d be fine…   We were all sledding on normal paths until we discovered that someone had built a path with a MASSIVE ramp, and immediately became distracted - this thing shot straight into the air, and had a drop behind it of somewhere between 6 and 7 feet. Zack went, and was fine. Nick went, and was fine. Jon went…and was not so fine, he did not land on the sled, but rather on his side on a large embankment of snow - cracking two ribs we later discovered. However, I do not weigh even half as much as Jon, and figured thus would not get as much air, and thus be fine. It was insanely fun, and though I snapped my neck back upon landing, tweaking it rather severely, it will heal in time. After seeing me go, some of the other girls decided to try, but an old man came along and destroyed the ramp with a snow shovel after one of them took a rather nasty plummet through mid-air. But, all of the being cooped up all week and sledding must have seriously released my inner happy mischievous child, because in four hours I got as many “evil grin” and “devil elf” comments as I usually get in as many months - so I’m going to get to work on somehow smiling at people in a less sadistic manner.

Saturday night was just as fantastic. A few of us went bar hopping around Nevsky Prospekt, and I cannot describe to you how immensely beautiful the city is in the hustle and bustle of 1am, in the middle of a snow storm, with the lights of every building and cathedral glowing brightly – it’s an entirely different kind of “night out” experience. Plus, the city is so small that since the metro had closed, and we didn’t want to pay through the nose for a taxi, we all just decided to split up into pairs and walk home. Just picture grabbing blini on Nevsky at 3am, then flipping the collar up on your jacket, tying your scarf around your neck, and marching home for an hour against the massive wind and flurrying snow…along Kazan Cathedral, past The Hermitage, across the Neva, by the docked Aurora, and through the dozens of hundred year old buildings in your neighborhood – you can barely see them because you’re squinting so hard, but is all still just breathtakingly stunning.

Yeah, so that was my weekend…THIS CITY IS AMAZING! Next weekend we visit Novgorod, and hopefully after that I’ll be able to explore my island a little deeper, since the Lonely Planet St. Petersburg guide suggests that it has many things to offer, including: the “Sigmund Freud Museum of Dreams”, several very famous palaces, Peter the Great’s old cabin (considered the “soul of St. Petersburg”), and “Tunnel Club” an old bomb shelter that has been turned into a nightclub.

Hope all is well!

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Mom on

Incredible! Really, seriously incredible! I cannot even begin to imagine being so far away from home and not even being able to communicate...yet, that is. At the rate you're going, you'll be speaking Russian, totally, in a few weeks. You really seem more and more comfortable all the time. I could not possibly be more proud of you. You're my hero. I LOVE YOU! Oh, and, BE CAREFUL! Sheesh!

margaretfielder on

Gracias!!! And, all your photo comments were hysterical! I have no idea what that dog's name is - we've been strictly warned not to approach any canines, though it is very tempting.

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