Europe Russia Study Abroad

St. Petersburg, Pt 2: Reflecting on Russia

On Wednesday we got some free time in the morning, so my friends and I went to an island in the city and did some souvenir shopping.  Since everything in Russia is so cheap, particularly when compared to Copenhagen, I actually ended up buying a lot more souvenirs than I expected.  In the afternoon, we got to hang out with some Russian students!  Our teacher put us into groups, and my group ended up being four American students and four Russian students.  I ended up talking to a student who was actually from Crimea, and she told me how her Ukranian passport isn’t truly valid anymore and how the time zone in Crimea was changed when they became Russian.  It’s a lot different hearing the ways that it impacted people who lived there beyond what we hear on the news.  Our group ended up going to a modern art exhibit and then we went to one of their apartments for dinner.  Spending time with them made me feel like less of a tourist, and I really appreciated that experience.

The next day we did another tour of the city, but this one was focused on getting away from the touristy spots.  My favorite part of this tour was going to a communal apartment.  It was clear that it had been designed for the nobility, but during communism each apartment was divided and each family would get a room.  There were fifteen people living in the apartment we saw, and they all shared the kitchen and bathroom.  It would be like living in a dorm for the rest of your life.  This was the first point where I really felt that I was in the former Soviet Union.

We also stopped into a special Russian type of bar and learned the “real” way to take a shot, which means breathing out, drinking it all, eating a bit of pickle, and then breathing out.  Oh, and did I mention it was 11 am?

Afterwards we had one more touristy visit, which was going to the Church of Spilt Blood.  It was where Alexander II was assassinated.  It was absolutely gorgeous, both inside and out, and it seemed like the quintessential Russian church with its colorful domes!

A few other thoughts on my week in Russia:

1. The water quality- in St. Petersburg, you can’t drink the water from the tap.  They even recommend making sure to not accidentally swallow the water when brushing your teeth.  Apparently some of the pipes are back from when the city was founded, and they’ve also had problems with parasites.  This is the first place I’ve ever been where the tap water isn’t safe, which made me realize that I was really in Russia.

2. Language barrier- Not only was it the first place with unsafe tap water for me, it was also the first with a real language barrier.  The only places I’ve been to this point are the USA, Canada, and Denmark.  Denmark has a language barrier in theory but I’ve only met one person who didn’t speak almost flawless English.  Russian has a new alphabet and language, and many of them don’t speak English.  Even at the airport I had an experience where the security person was trying to convey that I didn’t need to take off my shoes, but she spoke no English and I spoke no Russian so it took a while to communicate.  This was my first taste of the language barrier and I’m sure it will not be my last, but it was definitely exacerbated by the different alphabet in Russia.

3. Russia as a separate place from Europe- during our Dostoevsky tour our tour guide told us that he “gambled in Europe but not Russia” and I found that distinction very telling.  St. Petersburg, in a lot of ways, does look European, with the facades and the canals; this makes sense considering it was designed to look like the rest of Europe.  Then there are more subtle differences, such as the domed churches and wide open streets, and as you get out from the city center it becomes so different from anywhere I’ve seen with the communist buildings.  Granted, I haven’t been to many European cities, so it might be even more interesting to think about the differences after I’ve seen a few more.

I definitely want to go back to Russia at some point later in my life, to see Moscow and to cross off a real bucket list goal of seeing real Russian ballet.  Nevertheless, I am incredibly happy that I got to go with DIS to St. Petersburg.  They made it easy to get a visa, navigate the city, and experience Russian culture, and they handled all of the logistics.  Even with questionable water quality, cold winds, and difficult interactions with Russian shopkeepers, it was an amazing experience, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Europe Russia Study Abroad

St. Petersburg, Pt 1: Churches, Castles, and Canals

Got back from Санкт-Петербург, Россия yesterday!  For those of you who haven’t been working on reading in that alphabet for the past week, I’m talking about St. Petersburg, Russia.  My core course spent the past six days in the city, which was an incredible experience!  I’m going to split this into two posts, because six days is a long time and I took somewhere around 500 pictures.

Our first couple days were pretty touristy.  We got up at the crack of dawn to go to the airport, which meant we were still able to actually do some sightseeing when we got to the city.  Driving from the airport to our hotel was fascinating: the buildings nearest to the airport looked much more industrial and communist, but as we drove into the city center we could see the architecture change into a more European imperialist style.  For all of our tours, we were given headphones and receivers so that we could hear our professor even if we were behind the group, or in a room full of other tourists, which made it a lot easier to understand what we were seeing.  Our sightseeing tour that first afternoon included going to a Russian Orthodox mass, where they required all women to cover our hair.  Considering I have never really been to any type of religious ceremony, I felt a little out of place as the Russians lit candles, kissed icons, and crossed themselves.  The evening concluded with us taking a walk on Nevsky Prospect, which seems to be the Michigan Avenue of St. Petersburg.

The second day we headed out of the city center to Catherine’s Palace, with was breathtaking.  It was easy to imagine fancy balls and dinner parties among royals taking place there, as many of the rooms were covered in intricate gold leaf designs.  The coolest room was the Amber Room, which had panels of amber across the walls.  Despite originally being looted by Nazis, the room was recreated based on old photographs.  We wandered around the grounds of the palace as well.  A bride and groom were getting pictures done, so our teacher taught us a Russian tradition where you say “bitter” to the couple (it sounded like goy-ka) and they have to kiss.

That night, after a Dostoevsky city walk, our class took the metro!  In Russia, the metro is far enough underground that it can be used as a nuclear bomb shelter.  It’s surprisingly easy to use, since there’s no zone system like in Copenhagen.  For me, using the metro that day was a huge step to feel comfortable in the city, since it’s so important to be able to navigate the place where you are.  I appreciated knowing that I could find my way back to my hotel from anywhere in the city.

Our third day started out with a canal tour, and then we went to the Winter Palace/Hermitage, which, fun fact, has the largest exhibition of artwork in the world.  Sadly, we only got about an hour and a half in the museum because our professor wanted us to go to the Dostoevsky museum that day as well.  The highlight of that day, however, was that we got to go to the opera!  Although as a former dancer I would have preferred to see a Russian ballet, I love to see any performance, and I was thrilled to see Mariinsky Theater.  The part of the theater we were in had just been remodeled, so it was absolutely beautiful and modern.  Although I learned that I’m not a huge opera person, I still had a great time!

Study Abroad

Study Abroad: I’m Even Excited About Paperwork

I got an email today about starting the paperwork for my Russian visa!  Even though I still have about four months until I leave, the visa process will actually require me to be without a passport for some time so it has to be completely done before I leave for Denmark.  Luckily, DIS is going to help me through all the steps.  And despite the extra paperwork, it’s totally worth it to be able to spend a week in St. Petersburg!