Friday, May 16, 2014

things I wish someone had told me: packing

As I unpack from my regional field excursion and re-pack to go home, I find myself tempted to slap myself in the forehead so many times you'd think I were filming a V8 commercial. Why did I pack all of these unnecessary things? Why did I fail to pack all of those necessary things? …and occasionally I give myself a pat on the back instead of a smack on the head, because I accidentally did something right. Hurrah! But anyway, retrospective packing tips… 

  1. If you have a smartphone or iPod touch, there is no reason to bring a dictionary. The app is more convenient when walking around, and if for some reason you need a paper one, chances are good your host family will already have one. Also, books are relatively heavy, and you don't want to bring that dictionary home.
  2. Check with past students of your host family to see if you need a towel. Because buying a towel you don't really need just so you can use it for one semester is not the most fun thing.
  3. You don't need your whole medicine cabinet. Vitamins, ibuprofen, prescriptions? Great, bring those. But honestly, everything else you might need you can easily find in a pharmacy here. And they don't ask for prescriptions usually, even with antibiotics.
  4. If you only want to bring one purse, make sure it matches both of your coats. So that you don't end up spending all spring with a khaki coat and khaki purse.
  5. Bring your own pillowcase. If you do any train travelling, it will save you the worry of lice/skin irritations/strange smells transferred to your hair.
  6. If your duffle bag has a shoulder strap, bring it. If your duffle bag doesn't have a shoulder strap, get one that does. Don't be a hero. You'll thank me when you're lugging your semester's life through Europe's largest airports and the streets of St. Petersburg.
  7. Bring heavy, expendable stuff like shampoo, contact solution, and lined paper. That way your suitcase will be unexpectedly light and roomy on the return trip (so as to accommodate all of the chocolate you will want to bring home).
  8. Don't bring heavy, unexpendable stuff that isn't necessary. Namely, lots of books. My host family has a bookshelf full of English books (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Tolstoy…) which, I'm guessing, past students have brought, not had room/weight allowance for on the return, and left behind.
  9. Russian washing machines do really eat clothes. …But not all of them. Button-downs handle it well. Jeans are okay too. But anything that has natural stretch to it… will stretch. So those nice poly-cotton shirts that fit you really well right now might end up full of pulls and a few sizes larger than you bought them.
  10. If you like tea without caffeine or good coffee that doesn't cost your arm, leg, and firstborn child… bring it with you. That can also act as a nice placeholder in your bag for when you return home.

PS- Chances are good this is the last post from me till I'm back to the States! yay!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

things I wish someone had told me: money

These are money-saving tips. They are also important, and probably most relevant to those studying abroad (although some also to tourists). Some of these I figured out fairly quickly… others took me all semester long, and I’m kicking myself a little for them now.
  1. There is CitiBank in St. Petersburg. And there is not a Bank of America. And withdrawing money has cost me… well… a lot of money. So about 6.5% of what I withdraw, but still. I highly suggest opening a CitiBank account for this purpose.
  2. If you need a free bathroom, look for Столовая Но. 1. This is not the classiest location around, but its dim light, constant cloud of smoke, and over-loud techno remixes of Taylor Swift mean that nobody notices you zipping in to the WC and out again without buying anything. Also, they’re everywhere.
  3. Столовая Но. 1 is also a good resource for free-ish wifi. Just don’t take your Mac laptop there, people will start paying attention to you.
  4. Also good for wifi is the fifth floor of Стокманс. It functions a lot like a classy shopping mall food court… nobody is checking to make sure you bought something, and Macs are acceptable there.
  5. The Mikhailovsky Theater has this thing called “Student Wednesdays.” One Wednesday a month, any seat in the whole place will cost an even 700 rubles (~$20). Even the ones that usually go for 4 times that. Take advantage while you can.
  6. Cheap peanuts do exist. The Продукты behind Kazan Cathedral sells them 220/kg, which is really really good.
  7. A student transport card becomes worth it if you ride the metro/bus about 22 times/month. That means 11 round trips per month. That means, if you take an average of two trips on public transportation/week… a card saves you money. Even if you take less than that, it’s SO convenient and lessens the cost of getting lost/taking 6 different busses to get home.
  8. Stop buying water in stores. Totally unnecessary. A filtering + boiling process will more than clear out the water for you, will save you money, and help you avoid the annoyance of carrying 6-liter jugs home from the grocery store.
  9. You can get calling cards from MegaFone, which puts international calling down to 1.5ish rubles/minute. I didn’t actually do this, since I found it out so late, but my RD said it’s possible.
  10. I don’t care that the cheeseburger in the bistro near the metro only costs 45 rubles. It is, on principle, not worth it. Do not buy food from the bistro near the metro. Find a Продукты and buy yourself something pre-packaged, like a sirok. I repeat: avoid the bistro next to the metro. (This applies mainly to metro stops that are not in center city.)
Heed these. Save money. Spend it on donuts.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

things I wish someone had told me, part 1

ATTENTION PERSPECTIVE ABROAD STUDENTS AND/OR VISITORS. These are important things to know, which I wish I'd known earlier.

  1. The donut cafe on Большая Конюшенная is the best thing ever. Buy yourself three donuts and a cherry juicebox, and your life will be happier.
  2. If you are a girl, bring lots of pairs of tights with you. It will save you headache and your babushka a heart attack.
  3. The Russian Museum is better than the Hermitage, but the Hermitage is free for you with Student ID.
  4. There is absolutely no need to pay 250 rubles for a cup of coffee, ever. Unless you're really attached to Starbucks-the-name-brand. Check Буше or Пироговой Дворик for good coffee/hot chocolate with more reasonable prices and better accompanying foodstuff.
  5. You cannot wait to see things until the weather is good. The weather might never be good. Suck it up and get outside.
  6. That said, count on it being colder in Peterhoff or Pavlovsk than in the city. Go on a really warm day, or wear your parka.
  7. Wear a sleep mask from day 1. It will protect you from some of the weirdness of the WILDLY VARYING daylight-hours in this city (perspective: when I got here, daylight was about 9:45a-5:30p. Now, it's about 5:30a-10:30p.)
  8. Speaking of hours, start thinking in military time now.
  9. Carrying a wallet is unnecessary. Pockets are sufficient for the small change you'll need on an average day, and money there is less likely to get lost (especially if you're wearing women's jeans, because I can barely fit my hand into the pockets).
  10. The best souvenirs are sold at monasteries and underground crosswalks.

More advice coming up soon.

Also, prepare yourselves: I will not be posting between May 9-16, because I will be on a long and treacherous regional field study through the provinces of Russia (read: river cruise without wifi). I may or may not post between the 16th and when I leave, but when I get to the States I'll come back and upload lots of pictures for your viewing pleasure.

Friday, May 2, 2014

things that make me feel totally Russian

Do you ever have those moments? "Wow, that was so Russian of me." Maybe not. But the longer I'm here, the more often I realize, yep, I am beginning to integrate. Adaptation is happening. I don't need to call myself a tourist… except when that helps me get what I want, anyway. So, a few things that make me feel Russian, for your enjoyment: 

  1. seeing representatives of the Communist party march down Nevsky Prospect with a Lenin flag. "Lenin lived. Lenin is alive. Lenin will live." And it was just sort of… normal, to see that. Slightly annoying, because Nevsky Prospect was closed all morning, but the fact that there were Communists and Lenin's face didn't even seem terrifying.
  2. walking everywhere, all the time. It's "spring", which means Russians don't want to take the bus. They don't want to sit in a café. They want to walk. My tutor and I took a walk from Чернышевская to Новочеркасская, which took about 1.5 hours. Yes, it was sunny, but it was also 45 degrees and windy. The next day my other friend wanted to walk around for a few hours, and the weather was exactly the same. I don't entirely get why this is (see last post), but I do it anyway.
  3. getting ice cream from the Продукты stores. There are these little stores peppered around the city… kind of like tiny convenience stores? I'd wager they're about ¼ the size of a 7-11, with about as much food inside, if not more. And ice cream, it's a big deal… just waltz in, hand over your 15 rubles (45 cents), and continue your walk through the city with frozen deliciousness.
  4. bringing my own bags. In Russia, grocery bags do not come free with purchase. You plan for your trip (how much will I buy? will I need to double bag anything?) and bring bags accordingly. I've usually been pretty good about this.
  5. sitting alone in Столовая Но. 1. This is very Russian. You go to this restaurant/cafeteria, get your three different variations of mayonnaise salad, and proceed to sit alone in the dimly-lit, smoke-scented seating area, with nothing to keep you company but your smartphone and the bad techno remixes of American pop music playing over the speakers.
  6. wearing tights. Maybe it's just because this is something I never do in the States but have to do here… but every time I put on those dratted things, I feel legitimately русский.
  7. reading on public transit. So I know most of what you all have heard about the St. Pete metro/busses makes them sound frightening, but for the most part it's fairly normal. And Russians know this, and the vast majority of them prefer not to notice the normality/abnormalities, and they choose to bury themselves in their Kindles/flipbooks. (A flipbook is a small book, wherein each set of pages looks like a single sheet of paper with text, so you can hold it with one hand and grip the metro handrails with the other.) I don't have a convenient way to read with one hand, but when I get my book out I still feel quite Russian.
  8. eating while walking. Just kidding, that's totally American, nobody here does that. Unless it's ice cream.
  9. picnicking with Frisbee. A bunch of girl friends (English, American, and Russian) and I had a picnic on Mars Field. We ate open-faced sandwiches, drank tea (who brings hot tea to a picnic??), and played Frisbee. And it felt very… normal.
  10. eating salad that's half mayonnaise, half dill. And enjoying it. Okay, so my proportions are a leeettle skewed, but not too much. Again: I didn't just accept it, I liked it. Hands down scariest moment of the semester.

 Something tells me I'm going to fail the second round of the "Intercultural Development Inventory," because apparently the idea is to move closer to not noticing/absorbing cultural differences. Whoops.

Monday, April 28, 2014

things I still don't understand about Russians

I've been here exactly 3 months. You would think that would be enough time to get accustomed to Russian quirks, but there are still some things/fixations that I just can't get used to… 

  1. tights. This is fresh on my mind, as I spent all of today trying to discreetly tug at the monstrous things, because to appear at a concert without them is just not done. This isn't just a babushka thing: I can count on my fingers the number of bare Russian ankles I've seen, and we've had a good handful of days in the 70s F. Suggested justification: they keep your core warm, so that all of your organs continue to work properly and you can have babies one day. Problem: hose actually doesn't do anything to keep me warm, sorry.
  2. children. Okay, I get that it is important to stay warm in the winter. But it's 70 degrees outside, and you yourself are dressed in normal spring clothes, but your child is wearing a parka and hat with ear flaps. I do not get this. The little guy is the one running in circles around the playground; it's not like he's freezing.
  3. shoes. I heard it phrased well the other day: a Russian will easily go three days without a shower but doesn't dare walk outside with less-than-perfectly-shiny shoes. This is hard, I have found, because the streets here are awful. The nice, shiny, black walking shoes I brought here… are no longer shiny, and don't even look that black, and I don't know how the Russians do it!
  4. cash. A five kopeck coin is approximately equivalent to .14 cents. What is that useful for, tell me? On the other hand, we've got the 5000 ruble bill, which is basically as useless… it's equivalent to about $140. My biggest purchase in my whole time here was 725 rubles, for my metro card. What in the world am I supposed to do with that bill?
  5. the draft. If you have the door and the window open at the same time, you might catch a cold. Even if it's 90 degrees in your room already.
  6. shoes (again). I thought it was bad in the winter… is it really necessary to wear 4 inch heels to class? Explain that to me. Also explain how you don't twist your ankle; these streets aren't exactly even.
  7. exam system. The whole grade is on the exam, more or less. Homework, when it exists, barely factors in. But do I know when my exams are? Not exactly. For instance, one professor told a few students that we have a Politics exam tomorrow, but he said nothing of the sort to half of us, and never told the other students to tell us, and technically we're supposed to have exams next week. (Update: just got a phone call; no exam tomorrow.)
  8. walking. 40 degrees is warm enough for a 2-hour walk along the river bank? sure. I believe you. And you're the one who keeps telling me to close my door so I don't die of the draft.
  9. metro makeouts. I know I've talked about this before, but… isn't it a little uncomfortable to be so demonstrative in the most public place in the city? Just a little? And yet every time I ride the metro, I see couples (young and old alike) acting as if the 2000 people around …aren't.
  10. closed for drying. There are a couple of gardens/parks I've wanted to visit, including the Summer Garden. But they've been closed the entire month of April "for drying." I realize, this isn't about the people at all, but more the system itself… but still. Have you not noticed that it hasn't rained for 3 weeks? And that the forecast shows the first rain on the day the garden is supposed to open, when it is sufficiently "dried"? Okay.

So that's that. I haven't completely learned the Russian psyche yet.