Sunday, February 28, 2010

First Day in Homestay

Getting There
The heaps of snow are finally beginning to thaw due to the "warm front" (20s-30s degrees Fahrenheit), which means that despite the more pleasant weather, the streets are not covered in grimy, gray slush. As usual, people pretend that the elements do not exist and continue to invent make-shift solutions, such as a wooden boards to walk the plank over icy/watery lakes on the sidewalks.

When the cab driver saw my large suitcase, she exclaimed, "Oh! What a nightmare!" Somehow, we got my three pieces of luggage in the trunk and drove off to my new home about two miles away from the university. A few minutes later we arrived near Ploshad Mushestva and I attempted to direct her to Apartment #22. In Russia, the apartment buildings are nightmares. Built mainly during the Krushev era, they are run-down, stained, and crumbly pieces of Soviet architecture. Nevertheless, the homes inside are often quite comfortable (by Russian standards).

We struggled to find a way to approach my new home due to the side streets covered in snow. My driver even attempted to drive through a children's park on the sidewalk; however, the delineation between sidewalks and streets are often overlapping, a fact incomprehensible to foreigners. We have lived here a month, yet we still are shocked when cars suddenly veer off the main path to park or get closer to a storefront. Plus, there are no designated parking spaces, let alone parking meters (in Chicago that would save hundreds of dollars).

After some swearing, getting stuck in the snow, and feeling like I was on the brink of having to lug three heavy suitcases through the snow to the apartment, the driver found #22 and exclaimed, "Hurrah!" My hostess mother was waiting expectantly outside the entrance door.

Just another example of how a simple task in the US takes 2-3x more effort in Russia.

Settling In
My hostess mother is a lively, expressive Russian woman with dark hair, dark eyes, and perpetually purple-lipsticked lips. When we went to dinner here the other night, she explained that she loved to swim, work, and go on vacations. She has even been to Chicago and Milwaukee before, although she explained that Milwaukee was too small of a city for her; she likes lots of people all the time. She speaks minimal English, but I had asked her not to speak any to me in order to learn the maximum amount during the next couple of months.

As she helped me carry my luggage from the elevator ("lift"), she did not seem to understand that the suitcases have wheels. Instead, the semi-plump, shorter woman hurled my suitcases from one side of the threshold to another, all the while wearing her stockings (you must take off your shoes upon entering a Russian home, which is highly contradictory to Dad's policy of wearing shoes in the house).

Tea Party
After unpacking, my hostess prepared some tea for me. However, this "tea" she offered actually included bread, cheese, butter, cookies, and candy...oh, and tea. As usual, she does not eat with us because she complains that she gained 20 kilograms (44 pounds) in the past three years, and she does not want to look like a fat babushka.


1. My Room
As in the dormitory, the beds also double as couches. At first, I thought that it was just the Soviet-era dorms that utilized these couch-beds, but now I realize that it is a uniquely Russian type of furniture. For instance, the bed in my very nice room most closely resembles a lip couch. No joke. It can also fold out to a double bed, but I would rather have the extra space in the room with the wardrobe, three chairs, night stand, and standing piano. Yes, for some reason I have a piano in my room.

2. Water Security
For the past month, we have bought huge 1/2 liter bottles of water to last roughly a week since we cannot drink the tap water. Of course, we may boil the metallic water to get rid of the parasites, but the taste never really goes away.

In contrast, here my host mom has a sink in the kitchen with both water for washing dishes and filtered water ("clean water"). Little as it may seem, this is a huge surprise and delight since I will no longer have to walk 1/2 mile to get a heavy bottle of water every week. Oh, by the way, when bought in bulk, water is less expensive than vodka, particularly now when the President Medvedev is attempting to eradicate alcoholism from if others have not already tried.

3. Homestay
I will be living with a 50-some-year-old woman named Margarita (Rita) and her 25-year old son, Maksim. During the pre-homestay dinner, my roommate and I were unsure as to whether Maksim lived with her because he does not have a separate room from her, but sleeps on the other couch-bed in the family room-like room. He almost is never here, although I do not know what he does. He may be a dentist, but I really have no idea. I just met him some ten minutes ago.

Rita explained how she didn't want her son to get married anytime soon because she doesn't want to be a grandmother and she doesn't want him and his new wife to live with her. In Russia, newlyweds often do not have sufficient funds to rent their own apartments, so they live with one of their parent's for a number of years, even if they have children. Rita adamantly stated that she would hate this, although even now in Russia, it is extremely common.

In comparison to my expectations, Rita's apartment is extremely clean, well-furnished, and comfortable. She recently remodeled the whole place, including new cabinets and floors in the kitchen, new doors in the bathroom, and a new front door ("the most beautiful door in the complex"). I felt even safer when given the keys to the half-foot thick door: 1 top lock turned 1 time, 1 bottom lock turned 3 times. Nothing like when Kori's potential host mom said that she had been robbed a number of times.

Oh, I also have an enclosed balcony from which I can see half of the city, as we are on the 12th floor. So far, it has been a strange, yet comfortable, transition, and I hope that my Russian will improve significantly by living in a more complete immersion experience.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Point B is where I currently live in St. Petersburg, which is actually conveniently located on the campus of St. Petersburg State Polytechnic University. Point A is 2 metro stops or 1.5 miles walking away, where I may be living with my hostess mother (хозайка) beginning this weekend. Please notice the Gary-like clouds next to the two points.

Although I am nervous about meeting my хозайка and moving out of a much more comfortable living situation, I know that I did not come to Russia to be comfortable, but to learn how to live as native Russians do, meaning that I will not have the convenience of simply walking from one building to the next indoors every morning on the way to class, nor will I have the luxuries of the current dorm--three sinks (a treat for most Russian families)!

After the nightmare that was my roommate's experience with her proposed хозайка, I am excited to live more simply with the added benefits of complete language immersion rather than live more comfortably with the subtracted setbacks of speaking English with my roommates. I just hope that she does not have too many cats.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

QUIZ: Who and how many presidents are there in Russia?

Theoretical Answer: one - Dmitri Medvedev

"Yes, we have Vladimir Putin and...oh, hmm, Uhhh...I have forgotten his name...oh yes! Dmitri Medvedev. He is our president."

At the Museum of Russian Political History yesterday afternoon, our guide stumbled over naming the current president of the Russian Federation when attempting to explain the current political regime. This apparent forgetfulness did not embarrass her, let alone phase her presentation. Rather, she continued to describe the current conditions, which more adequately resemble a tsarist state than a post-communist, democratizing nation.

Diplomatic Answer: two - Dmitri Medvedev & Vladimir Putin

"It is a total joke on Putin's part. If anything, we have two presidents. But really just one leader: Putin."

Last Friday my roommate and I participated in a conversation hour with native Russian students in their English language class. We were the first ones to arrive in the classroom, so we decided to sit in the far right corner as to not disturb the class. Immediately, the teacher asked us to introduce ourselves, much to the students' shock that 1) we were Americans, and 2) that we were native speakers of English.

The level of proficiency ranged from beginner (6 months to 1 year) to ten years and more. They asked some interesting questions, and seemed very interested in Las Vegas because of the movie "The Hangover." Needless to say, I was speaking with three boys, aged 18 to 20. As with most other Russians, they cannot pronounce my real name because there is no female variant of "Daniel" in Russian, so I introduce myself as "Liza," the Russian name derived from "Elizabeth" that I have used for the last three years.

However, each Russian I have initially introduced myself to as "Danielle" wants to call me as such, even if they literally cannot make the "yuh" sound. Here is an example:

Igor: "Do you have another name, Danielle LoVallo?"
Me: "What do you mean? Like a nickname?"
Igor: "No, no. Aleksandr have another name, more shotter- Sasha."
Me: "Yes, nickname."
Igor: "So should you tell me please, how I can name you?" [This is a literal, direct translation of the Russian rendition of "What is your name?"]
Me: "Danielle."
Igor: "My brother's name is Daniel!"
Me: "Yes, like that, only I have the girls' name, pronounced dan - YELL."
Igor: "Oh, I am so sorry. Okay."
Me: "No problem!"
Igor: "Okay then dan yell I'm glad to get acquainted with you!"

Practical Answer: one - Vladimir Putin

"I think that Medvedev will not run for office again, and that Putin will be the new president. It is no secret that it is the plan."

Another student in conversation hour described the political climate in Russia: 1) Many people do not listen to the semi-independent radio station that discusses (aka argues) politics, and 2) Many people do not seem to mind that Russia is not a truly democratic state. According to my perceptions, people stop asking difficult questions because life itself is already too difficult; therefore, what Westerners would regard as fundamental rights to question the logic and reason of the government, Russians may disregard any such pointless argumentation in favor of simply being able to survive.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"You will be fumigated at 10am tomorrow."

Quote #1: After reading and singing a love song by the Russian version of Frank Sinatra, our professor asked us if our hearts knew how to love. When one guy said that he was not sure, she asked the rest of us if we believed him. "Do you believe him? How can he not know if he can love? Do you believe him? Oh, psh psh. You believe him because you are Americans. We are Russians here; we love the truth."

St. Catherine's Catholic Church / Католическая церковь Святой Екатерины

Tonight we attended St. Catherine's for the Russian language version of Ash Wednesday. Aside from the fact that three of the four presiding priests mumbled the little Russian I could understand, it was a beautiful service within a beautiful church marking the beginning of Post, the forty-day journey back to the cross before the Resurrection of Jesus on Easter.

"Whereas Western Churches hold Easter sunrise services, in Russian Orthodox Church Easter services last all through Saturday night. The congregation gathers in the church or cathedral on Saturday evening and takes part in an Easter vigil commemorating the buried Christ. Orthodox churches in Russia have an inner sanctuary away from the reach of worshipers, and only to the access of the priest. On this day, the door is closed till midnight but at the stroke of midnight, the priest opens the door and comes out saying "Christ is risen! Christ is risen! Christ is risen!" and after hours of silent anticipation, the worshippers rely back “He is risen indeed!"

(from a website about Russian traditions)

In Russian Catholic Churches, the dry, gray ashes are also sprinkled on the top of your head rather than drawn onto your forehead. Communion is taken without hands and is even dipped in the wine for you before being put on your tongue.

Quote #2: "There is a lot of corruption in the education system to get into university. For example, if you were my children...well, not my children...but my students, and I had you for eleven years in school, then when you took the exam [one chance only per year] to get into university, I would want to help you! So now they remove the students and put them in another school so the teacher won't help them cheat. There is a lot of cheating."

2. Paper Towels vs. Toilet Paper & Doing Laundry in Russia

Quote #3: "And here, across from the Neva River, is the KGB building. [Someone tries to say in class that they thought it was the FSB now.] No, no. it just changed its name. It's still right there. Same building, same place; different name. Oh, here. Let me see your map. Hmm...well, they didn't put it on the tourist map, but believe me, it's there."

As with many other things here, everything is the same, but very, very different. The yokes of the eggs here are more yellowish than golden-orange. The sour cream ("smetana") is at least a quarter fat. The butter ("masla") is more like the consistency of our bricks of cream cheese, but greasy and also probably more than a quarter fat. And when you buy a seemingly obvious package of toilet paper (the 4-roll kind), it somehow turns out to be two, not four rolls...of paper towels. For some reason, Russians use paper towels with the same height and width as two toilet paper rolls stacked on top of each other. But, as my roommate said, I guess now we have two multi-purpose rolls of paper.

We were fumigated today. Apparently, other students have had bugs ranging from bed bugs to roaches. We have no experiences of anything that horrifying...yet. Thankfully we were in class during this time, but we feared during our mid-day break that we'd return to puddles of chemicals haphazardly seeping into the floorboards or that we'd have to open the windows in our room to air out the toxic molecules in the air.

Surprisingly, the room hardly seemed to be chemically-altered in any way (I'm sure Mike could explain more scientifically, of course), so I decided to finally do laundry--a feat for which I needed enough energy. Here are the qualifications for doing laundry in the dormitory/hostel:
  • Bring your own detergent. They only really sell powder here, by the way. None of this modern (and efficient, and economical, and so on) liquid-y junk.
  • Stock up on 5 ruble coins, which are worth almost as little as kopecks, which are basically less valuable than a grain of salt. The machine mysteriously only takes 5 ruble coins.
  • Remain in the laundry room for the entire length of the excursion. Washers and dryers sporadically turn themselves off, or worse--someone takes out your clothes and puts them wet on the dirty table.
  • The dryer only goes for 32 minutes, but if you quickly insert another 30 rubles, then it can go for an hour. I do not know why it does not go for 64 minutes instead. Don't ask why, just accept -- the motto of living in Russia.
  • Do not close the door to the washer before you have inserted your clothes. It locks and will not open for the next 40 minutes, even if there is nothing being washed in there other than the rusting metal inside. It basically just shakes and swirls around laughing at you for the entire wash period. I did this on my first try, and even tried so hard to pry open the door that soapy water spilled out. Whoops.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Safety Part II: Trans-Siberian Railroad

The Trans-Siberian Railroad stretches across two continents, twelve regions, and eighty-seven cities. After seeing the movie "Trans-Siberian" with Mike, I vowed to never take the (in)famous railway. Instead, I found the safest version possible: a virtual tour of the Russian landmass generated by the teamwork of Google and Russian Railways.

Russian version:

You can choose the music that you are going to listen to on the miles of scenery into the vast Siberian plains, from Tolstoy's War and Peace to the balalaika ("Russian small guitar). The internet connection here, of course, is too slow to generate the high-speed frames, but I hope you check it out and let me know how it looks!

Safety Part I: Food

Please read

According to this report, food inspectors in Russia and other government officials are so corrupt that they have implemented a new solution: get rid of all of the food inspectors so that they cannot solicit brides from the local supermarkets or grocery stores. Again, my roommates and I looked at each other in fear with two things on our minds: 1) WTF and 2) What are we going to eat?

Although we have lived here for less than one month, we have come to accept the irrational/rational divide in Russia. This phenomenon reflects the "culture shock" of different values, ways of thinking, and ways of life. In the US, what may be standard and unconsciously accepted as good practice is either revolutionary or repulsive in Russia, and vice versa. For instance, at certain intervals during the day, the state public library opens all of its windows and floods the library with freezing, frigid air in order to "sanitize" the rooms since, of course, everyone knows that cold air kills all the germs in the air.

We experienced a similar (ir)rational occurrence in class today. Our professor is convinced that if the heater in the room is on, then we will fall asleep. I had to convince her that no, we will not fall asleep, but our heads will not be able to work if we are frozen! She reluctantly allowed me to plug in the rectangular metal heater, and blamed the heat for our grammar mistakes for the rest of the session.

Food insecurity throughout the world is a global threat; however, usually this crisis is the result of food scarcity, not the government banishing all inspectors because of the high level of criminal bribery. With my very Americanized mind, I have to ask if there is a better way. But for Russians, this is the better way.

I confirm what I was thinking this morning: From birth, we are slowly dying, but in Russia, we are slowly dying more quickly.

Only in Russia, only in Russia.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Suffering / Cтрадaниe

"Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness."

Russians love winter. If the sun shines too brightly and the snow starts melting anytime between November and April, Russians get bitter. According to one of my professors, the ideal winter weather is about -10 degrees Celsius, or 14 degrees Fahrenheit. For a typical St. Petersburg winter, that is on the "warmer" side. Nevertheless, when we stepped outside this afternoon at the peak of sunshine hours, the "ideal" weather had dropped to -15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit). At that temperature, your nose freezes and you stop realizing that your body is literally rejecting the cold by dripping snot-water. Pleasant.

Although I do not fully agree with Dostoevsky's proverb, I understand its truth among the people ("naroda"). As one professor explained, "Many people in the West are opposed to wearing fur. I understand that it is not good for the animals and all, but we are cold here. We need to survive." In Russia, fur is not only a status symbol donned by babushkas with flowery and frilly scarves; it is a matter of style. The typical young Russian woman wears a mix of impractical ("fashionable") and practical:

1) Fur coat (or equivalently warm down, knee-length coat)
2) Thick cinch belt strapped around the coat exterior to highlight the waist amidst the puffery
3) Black tights (literally like pantie hose, or a little warmer like leggings)
4) Tall, black spike-heeled boots (not insulated)
5) Mid-sized leather-like bag, worn in elbow crevice
6) Short skirt or sweater dress (even in negative degree weather)

In addition, the following characteristics are commonly seen:

1) Inordinate amount of makeup (dark eyeshadow, lipstick, caked-on foundation)
2) Laser-cut bangs that go straight across forehead
3) A variation of colored hair dye: a) blonde, b) an array of mismatched highlights, or c) blue-black

Not surprisingly, the American students--both female and male--stand out like black sheep, or rather--according to the Russian version--like "white crows" (among black crows).

Lastly, according to The Moscow Times, "No one suffered more from Soviet oppression than the Russians themselves." So no, the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation and not one in the same.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Traditions / Традиции

1. Invitation as a Guest to a Russian home

Last night my roommate and I ventured to an acquaintance's home for a welcoming dinner through a distant connection--her boyfriend's mother went to university in Ukraine (during the USSR) with this woman, who lives and works in St. Petersburg and was more than generous to have us over!

For more than four hours, we only spoke Russian to the mother, her 16-year old son who is learning English, and her sister-in-law's family of a husband and one son who is around the same age. For Russia, the hostess's family situation is characteristic of the current demographics: widowed, with one or no children. After all, the average lifespan for males in Russia is a mere 59 years old.

The family toasted to us a good four times with the most delicious vodka I have ever tasted--a very high quality blend of vodka and blackberry infusion. In addition, we had the Russian version of cheesecake, soup, bread, fruit, Russian candy, chocolate, and so on. A true feast!

Nevertheless, being invited as a guest into a Russian's home is exactly as Nachalo described during our first year of Russian: 1) take off your shoes, 2) you are given slippers (tuflie), 3) do not shake hands over a threshold, 4) drink to the bottom during every toasted shot, and 5) keep accepting food after pretending to reject a number of times. All in all, it was an incredibly rewarding experience with some surprisingly friendly Russians!

2. Maslenitsa / Мaсленица

Maslenitsa most closely resembles the Western Christian tradition of Mardis Gras or Carnivale, but it lasts a week instead of just one day. It is an ancient Slavic festival that marks the end of the winter (untrue this year) and the coming of spring. Thus, our group went on an excursion to Zelenogorskoe ("Green City") about an hour away from the city center to enjoy the blini (similar to crepes) and the Gulf of Finland.

Not surprisingly, the warmest we were during the entire trip was standing in the sun on the frozen solid Gulf of Finland. But I came prepared with the hand and foot warmers that Mike got me for my birthday!

The last day of the week-long festival is called "Forgiveness Sunday," in which Russians flock to the local Orthodox Church and prostrate themselves before one another asking for forgiveness for their sins. According to Igor, the son from the dinner last night, it is expected that you will respond "God will forgive you." After this, the great fast of Lent ("Post") before Easter ("Pascha") beings. For devout Orthodox Christians, this means no meat and dairy products, fish, wine and oil.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Quote #1:
"In mainland Russia, we have more than a dozen bordering countries. Of course we would like to have only two neighbors like the United States, but we do not. Better yet, none. Then we could finally be alone."

From this post on, I will be relaying the various clever and amusing quotes from my professors this semester at St. Petersburg State Polytechnic University. Whether in Russia or in English, their mannerisms and expressions reflect so much of the "mysterious Russian soul," a completely different way of approaching the world and the daily struggles of life.

Quote #2: "We will open the window [even though it is freezing cold outside] because life is a struggle. Before lunch, life is a struggle due to hunger. After lunch, life is a struggle due to sleepiness."

Walking over the threshold from outside a metro station to inside, you are immediately transferred from an ice box to an inferno. Yet, somehow people maintain their composure and do not automatically start sweating or taking off the various winter accessories: gloves, hats, scarves, etc. Also, it is an informal tradition to stare at the people going up the escalator when you are going down, and vice versa. Of course, no one smiles during this eye-dance.

The cafeteria serves a mix of mystery meat, delicious bread puffs, and bony fish. For instance, when eating the "chicken cutlet" (kurnaya kotleta), I meticulously inspect for white little balls that taste like what I imagine cartilage to taste like. Understandably, most Russians eat quickly and eat a small amount. Maybe it is to scarf down the cartilage-balls before tasting them under your teeth and on your tongue. In contrast, the bread roll baked with a slice of Russian cheese inside is delicious. My roommates and I have vowed to only buy these bread creations and soup from now on, lest we want to pick out bones, cartilage, or worse--unknowns.

Quote #3: "When you search the Internet for St. Petersburg, you will find one in Florida and one in Russia. I always tell people, if you hate the sun, come to St. Petersburg, Russia. In St. Petersburg, Florida, they get sun 362 days per year. Here, people crawl from anywhere to see the sun because they are so deprived."

As my fellow students (comrades?) and I have already discussed, being in Russia is really much easier than we expected. Of course, we are living in a much safer and more luxurious complex than many people in Russia, and we are going to the second best university in St. Petersburg. Nevertheless, we all ache for some peanut butter.

Quote #4: "Global warming will have dire effects on Russia, especially in the northern Arctic region where the permafrost will melt and force the nomads and animals to evacuate. Even the bears will either drown or have to turn into some sort of seals to survive."

He also mentioned that these bears are extremely clever and beautiful.

Quote #5: "Have you all been reading the news while you are here, or are you just going to be isolated for four months until you can emerge from Russia with all sorts of surprises?"

Following this remark, I went back to my room and immediately began reading the news. Truly, we have felt out of the loop of what is going on in the rest of the world, let alone in our hometowns and universities!

Quote #6: "Rasputin was a red neck from Siberia. He was supposedly a priest, but priests were supposed to be literate, and Rasputin was semi-illiterate. He was a stain on the Russian aristocracy and on the Orthodox Church."

Tomorrow we are going to the infamous Museum of Erotica, a legitimate museum of history and psychology that boasts hundreds of specimens preserved in clear jars...including this red neck's allegedly preserved member. Maybe we should bring some little white bags, the ones like they provide on airlines for vomiting. I will be sure to report back afterwards!

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

First Impressions and Observations: Part III

The Weather

The cold.

It is not any colder than a normal winter in Chicago or elsewhere in the midwestern United States, but there is definitely an air of abnormality about the current temperatures, which range from low teens to mid-twenties (Fahrenheit). It seems that everyone else does not particularly mind the cold even if their faces constantly have a half-frown. I have gotten relatively good at trying to look like a Russian by mastering this demeanor. I would wear my ushanka ("hat") with the Soviet star on it around just as the militsiya ("police") and others wear, but the Americans already stand out like sore thumbs and I really do not want to draw any particular attention to myself as a token foreigner wearing a token Russian hat.

The darkness.
The sun only shines about seven hours per day despite the constant dusk that inhabits the city during the winter months (November to March/April). Every little second of sunshine that we see is a leap of joy, and I feel like I am almost transported to another country.

The snow.
The snow is beautiful when glistening in the shadow of the city lights. Tonight we were walking back to the metro station on Nevsky Prospekt when we stopped like deer in headlights at a beautiful church, stuck between new high-rise expensive clothing stores and other souvenir stores. It had a few simple lights showing off its magnificent features, but it was enough to renew my thankfulness for the beauty that architects and officials devoted to building exquisite houses of God, as well as gratefulness that the Soviets did not use it for a potato silo as another magnificent church in the city was!

If you lit a lighter in the air, you may be able to set fire. A thick combination of cigarette smoke, diesel gas, transportation fumes, and factory smoke overwhelms me every time I walk outside, although I am unfortunately getting used to breathing in Gary-like air.

First Impressions and Observations: Part II

The -isms


For the first day of razgavor ("conversation") class, we reviewed the vocabulary and phrases for describing our family, relationships, occupation, and so on. When we came to the differentiated verbs for "to get married" and "to be married" for men and women, our professor explained the difference, which I already understood and have thought a lot about:

If you are a man, then "to get married" literally means "to take a wife."
If you are a woman, then "to get married" literally means "to stand behind your husband."

Consequentially, she asked us what we thought about the two concepts. Unfortunately, I was the first person that she called on. I answered, in Russian, "In America, I do not like this concept." She then responded with a hint of irritability and superiority, "Well, in America, all women are such feminists." Continuing, she explained that it is supposed to mean that the man is a "steel wall, protecting his woman from harm and others. He is supposed to be strong, big, and manly. The woman should stand behind while he defends her."

She then promptly asked the other students (all four left) what they thought. The two other female students responded that they either "sort of" or "kind of" liked the concept, while the two male students were flustered in their responses. One said, "Well, I think the man should be responsible of course, but…well, I don't know." The other described how the woman can stand as well. Both ways, it seemed that she was reiterating the concept above: "In five or ten years you will understand such a thing." I did not mention that I would be getting married in a year.

Our second professor in grammatika ("grammar") discussed many things, ending with a short question and answer session with her. I asked her a typical question, "Do you like St. Petersburg or Moscow better?" Many Russian are very fond of their home city and have strong views on the other city. Somewhat rivals, Moscow and St. Petersburg are two drastically different cities with different accents, cultures, mentalities, and so on. Nevertheless, she answered as the previous sentence described, but continued explaining that there are "many problems in St. Petersburg, such as the migrant workers who come with their different traditions, language, religion, and way of life." Quickly she became visibly uncomfortable talking about the issue, and shrugged a bit when she admitted, "Oh, I do not know. I do not know. I know that they are here to work, but I just…oh, I do not know. I do not feel so okay with it. I do not like it." She also explained how, of course, every country as expansive and diverse as Russia has similar programs with demographics and migration. "Like in the US, you have Mexicans. Or in Europe, there are Arabs." It was an extremely interesting topic of conversation for our first class!

First Impressions and Observations

The Culture

Yes, vodka is cheaper than water here. Beer is also relatively cheap at about 30 roubles or $1 per can, which is usually half a liter. You cannot buy hard liquor between the hours of 11:00pm and 7:00am, probably for some very good reasons, but it is still not uncommon to see youngsters and middle-aged men alike drinking beers on the walk home from work.

The water here is a metallic, brownish-green, toxic mixture of chemicals, pollution, residue, and bacteria. It is totally undrinkable lest you want to be sitting on the toilet for days on end. In that case, no antibiotics will be able to cure you of temporary confinement, nor will the already shaky toilets respond kindly. They are quite finicky and choose when they want to flush completely.

The water can be drunk after it has been boiled for at lest five minutes consecutively, although it still contains a distinct taste of rust and mildew. I don't know how many years of our lives we are going to lose collectively from living in Russia for these few months, but we are thirsty and do not want to keep paying for bottled water. Living in Chicago, I love the taste of tap water, even if it possibly is as dirty and unhealthy as in Peter. It is even better when Mischa gets me one of the sippies with just a hint of Gatorade and some ice in it!

The directors scared us to death during our orientation about gypsies congregating outside metro stations and other known tourist-heavy areas in the city. We were told that some groups ambush foreigners and in a matter of seconds, take everything that you own. Although we did not discuss this until several days later, the other students and I (or comrades, I should say) independently pictured the cloud of smoke that develops when Tom and Jerry (cat and mouse) are fighting with each other for a few seconds until the cloud dissolves, and one or both of them are scratched and barren.

We asked the students who were here last semester if they had even come in contact with such "gypsies," most frequently the slang word used to collectively refer to Roma people. They reassured us that nothing even remotely resembled what our directors described, and that they had never seen or heard of anything like that happening in St. Petersburg.

Metro etiquette.
Apparently, chivalry is not dead in Russia…in some cases. While on the metro this afternoon, a young man got up from his seat in order to let an older Russian woman sit down. However, there were two older Russian women that had just entered the train car, and they were being polite with one another of who should sit down in that seat. After hearing for a few seconds, I got up from my seat to stand with the my suitemates. It seemed like I had almost passed as a Russian!

A few stops later, I heard a babushka giving another young man a tongue lashing who was sitting down while an older, fur-clad woman was holding on to the steel railing. He promptly, but begrudgingly got up, and gave his seat to the other old woman. They did not say anything to each other, and everyone acted as if the episode had never occurred before. It was just as we had learned in Nachalo, our first Russian book at Georgetown!

Several people on the trip have commented on how we either see tall, slender, trendy women with long hair, tons of makeup, and carefully-chosen outfits…or short, stout, old fashioned women with short hair, wrinkles for makeup, and bundles of fur. There seem to be no women between the ages of thirty-five and sixty except one of our professors who is the only thin middle-aged (?) woman that we have seen thus far. For some reason, it seems that Russian women age all at once, and do not age well at all. While young, the women are smoking and drinking heavily, often showing off their super shiny black, high-heeled boots with similar black patent leather big handbags that they lounge on their forearms while strutting down the avenues.

Young and old women alike also possess the remarkable talent of not slipping in the snow. Ever. They must have snow picks on the bottom of their shoes or something like that since us Americans look like idiots flailing our arms while trying to keep up with the face-paced streets.