Monday, November 24, 2008

The Military Space Academy and a Nighttime Encounter with a Muzhik

Admittedly, when I first moved into Number 3 Petrovksy Lane, I was a bit unnerved by the columns of uniformed boys marching up and down the street all the time, cadets at the Military Space Academy. With time, however, I’ve grown to appreciate the constant presence of the cadets. For one, I always feel pretty safe walking down Krasny Kursant Street, the main road I walk on to get to the metro, to the gym, and home from my internship. I feel fairly confident that if I needed help, I could turn to a cadet, and he’d help me out – or at least not make the situation worse. And then there’s the always amusing situations that arise when a cadet decides to talk to me (okay, so there’s only been one such situation so far, but who knows what the future holds?). Today I discovered another reason I like living amongst the cadets: the Military Space Academy campus takes up several long blocks of Krasny Kursant Street, and the sidewalks along all those blocks were swept immaculately clean of the snow that’s been falling for the past few days. It was nice to take a break for a couple blocks from skidding over and trudging through the slippery, slushy, half-packed, half-loose snowy mush that covers all the rest of the sidewalks in this city.

On Saturday the streets were still clean; it didn’t start snowing heavily till early Sunday morning. Saturday evening much of our American group and several Russian friends gathered in a club downtown to celebrate the birthdays of Kennon and Andrew (a few pictures here). After a beer, some hearty laughter over Mark’s gift to Andrew (a pair of “stud undies” with a 4-foot long tube for his… well, you know), and a couple dances to the live rockabilly-blues band Forrest Gump, I headed home, arriving at Chkalovskaya metro station around 11:30 or 11:45 PM. Not that late, right? Usually I feel fine on the 10-15 minute walk home from the metro, but for some reason, I felt really uneasy walking home Saturday night. First I had to walk through a group of four guys that eyed me in a disconcerting way, then I walked past another group of them clustered around a beer kiosk. That was all on Chkalovsky Prospekt, and I thought that once I got to Krasny Kursant Street, I’d feel better. But the fun didn’t stop there.

A middle-aged muzhik (i.e. lower-class working fellow, not very educated, reeking of beer, and swearing every other word) approaches me, saying “Devushka, devushka,” to get my attention. He’s right in the middle of my path; I stop about six feet away. He’s been in a fight.

“What?” I say.
“Devushka, do you know how to get to [names some street, but I don’t catch which one]?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “You can get to the metro if you go to the corner and turn left.”
“Don’t you see, they ^%#*@ beat me up, look at my #*!@# eye @#!^&$.”
“So what?” I say, with intonation that says What do you expect me to do about it?
“Can’t you take me there?” he pleads, stepping closer. I can smell stale domestic beer on his breath. His eye does look kind of bad. I back away, into the street. My path to home is now clear, if I need to run. I curse inwardly; there isn’t a damned cadet in sight – I bet they have a curfew or something. I’m wondering if the two guys I passed near the corner were still there, and if they’d come running if I screamed.
“No,” I say.
“Are you afraid?” he asks.
“Yes, I am. Please don’t come any nearer.”
“Can’t you just take me there yourself? Look at my eye &#!@%.” I back away further. “You’re afraid.”
“Of course I’m afraid! I’m sorry, I can’t take you. The metro is right around the corner. I’m sorry, I can’t. I can’t,” I say, and turn towards home. I walk quickly and don’t look back, finally feeling safe again when the heavy steel door to my stairwell locks behind me.

I tell this story not to freak anyone out at home – overall I still feel safe in my neighborhood – but because this encounter got me thinking about the rather horrible position that muzhik was in. It’s possible the whole request for help was a sham intended to get me into a position where he could take advantage of me in some way. But it’s much more likely that he was actually in need of help. He’d clearly been drinking –every muzhik drinks, often starting early in the morning. He’d clearly gotten into a scuffle with someone, and whether it was something he’d started or if he’d gotten mugged or whatever, I have no way of knowing. But there he was, with no one to turn to. To approach another man could get him into a situation worse than the one he’d just gotten out of – you never know what a man here might do if he thinks he can turn a situation to his advantage (I realize that sounds like gross overgeneralization, and perhaps it is, but in Petersburg, at night, I feel like it’s a case of “better safe than sorry,” and I avoid men like the plague). So the muzhik’s alternative is to turn to a woman for help, who, like me, is more likely than not to be afraid of him. It’s entirely possible, perhaps even probable, that he intended me no harm; that he really just needed some help getting to a medical facility or his brother’s house or something like that. But I just couldn’t risk it – just as almost any woman here wouldn’t risk it. And my reaction to his request has got me thinking about how no one trusts anyone anymore – if you’re not свой, “one’s own,” then you’re чужой, “other” – and I’m not going to risk anything to help you. It’s one of the unfortunate realities of living in a large urban area. I hope that muzhik got the help he needed, even without my assistance.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Russian Mindset Stole my Lunch

I used to eat lunch relatively frequently at this vegetarian café I like, Troitsky Most. This café offered two “quick lunch” options: the three-course business lunch for 169 rubles (about $7), or, for 103 rubles (about $4) you could get the “fitness” lunch: the salad of the day, some kind of soup, a grain/pasta dish, and a glass of juice. “Fitness” was a great deal, and wildly popular – just about everyone who went into the café around lunchtime ordered it.

They’ve done away with my fitness lunch.

Further, the fact that they did away with the fitness lunch gave me an insight into the Russian mindset. This is just an idea, so please feel free to argue with me.

I in no way pretend to be a business expert, but it seems to me that if a business has hit on a popular idea, it should do its best to develop and promote that idea – “the people have spoken” and all that. In the case of “fitness,” I think the owners of this café were unhappy with the fact that everyone ordered the 103-ruble lunch instead of the 169-ruble lunch. In America, it seems to me, business owners would look at that and try to do something either to increase sales of the 103-ruble lunch even further, or to make the more expensive lunch more attractive, or perhaps eliminate the less-frequently-ordered 169-ruble lunch. However, in the top-down tradition of Russia, the café has decided to try to force people to order the 169-ruble lunch by simply eliminating the more popular 103-ruble lunch. They’re banking on the fact that people are probably used to going there for lunch and aren’t going to stop just because the cheap lunch is no longer being offered. They’re probably right in that regard, although I’m no longer going to make a special trip all the way to that café anymore; there are cafés closer to school. But I really think their approach to this problem reflects Russia’s long history of strong, centralized power and reform imposed from above that often directly contradicts what the people are saying they want or need. Since this is what people expect to happen, they’ve stopped complaining about such changes and just say, “Well, what can you do?”

Tell me if my idea makes sense or if I sound like a crazy who’s just bitter about losing a cheap vegetarian meal.


Of all the hardships that come with living this far north, one concession that we get is the sunrise. I saw a sunrise this morning that moved me almost to tears. Gold, orange, charcoal-gray clouds glowing pink on their undersides - the entire eastern sky was awash in colors - and not just colors, but light! - that only nature can produce, and most of the world rushed by, not even noticing. I understand now what artists have been trying to capture all this time. I feel very lucky to live in a part of the city where the sunrise is visible for the first leg of my walk to school, and I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to see more sunrises in just the past three months than I have in the rest of my entire life.

Ticket Office

The remnants of Soviet culture in Russia are disappearing more and more quickly as time passes. Neon signs beckon passers-by into high-end clothing stores, sex shops, and sushi bars. Brightly lit supermarkets and hypermarkets (the Russian take on Walmart) are slowly but surely replacing hole-in-the-wall grocery stores, where all the products are behind the counter and you have to talk with at least one and usually three or four surly attendants to get your groceries. Even just since three years ago, you can break a 1000 ruble note at most places without dirty looks from the cashier or needing to open your wallet and show that no, you really don’t have any smaller bills (although they still ask for change to round out the total). Stores are well-stocked. Babushki are still dressed in long, drab coats and clunky boots, but anyone under 55 is always dressed to the nines. Foreign cars fill the streets. And I even saw two separate joggers this morning. However, one place still evokes images of the bygone Soviet state: the railroad ticket office.

I buy my tickets at the main office on Canal Griboedova, not because it’s terribly convenient anymore, but because that’s where I’ve always gone, and I know exactly where it’s located. A 30-foot tall, majestic gate in the shape of an on-coming train opens to the main doors, which opens into a gigantic room. 47 ticket booths, their cashiers safely sealed behind glass windows, line both walls of the room, set into alcoves. Benches for the weary and elderly are set up along the alcoves; train schedules hang on the walls outside the alcoves, arranged according to station.

I went to the ticket office today to exchange my train ticket. I decided to get to Kiev via Moscow, thus completely avoiding Belarus; this will be much cheaper and much less of a hassle than getting a $177 transit visa.

When I went to this office a week or so ago at 3 in the afternoon, there was almost no one there. Today, however, at the exact same time, the place was a zoo. Why? Because you can only buy train tickets 45 days in advance, and New Years now falls into that time period. Everyone is getting their holiday travels in order. Only about a third of the 47 booths were open, and each of them had a line out the door. However, Russian lines do not work the way American lines do; in fact, they’re usually not lines at all. To join a line, you approach the clump of people that look like they’re waiting for the same booth, and ask “Who’s last?” Someone among that clump will raise their hand, and then you say, “I’m behind you.” You are then free to walk away, say, to double check the train schedule, and your place will be saved. Lines are complicated by the fact that many people will reserve places in more than one line (sometimes with the help of a friend), and then just watch to see which line moves faster. So there’s the potential to approach a booth that looks like it doesn’t have many people waiting, but actually end up much farther back in the line than you expected.

Today I approached Booth 47 and asked “Who’s last?” Apathetic eyes stared wearily up at me from the benches; none of them were last. A man in line pointed to the guy behind him, and I said, “You’re last? Okay, I’m behind you.” Suddenly an overweight, huffy woman in her late 50s scurried over from another line and started scolding me, “What do you mean, you’re behind him? I’m behind him, young lady! How dare you try to cut! How could you even think such a thing possible?” She then proceeded to point out the exact order of people in line. I’m like, “Okay, lady, chill out. I did ask who was last. If you are last, then I’ll be behind you.” A woman in the line for booth 45 kept barging in and telling those who approached exactly where they would be in the line, which rather set me on edge, for some reason. I felt like telling her to get her nose out of our business and occupy herself with her own line, but I didn’t say anything.

Choosing a line at the ticket office is further complicated by the cashier’s breaks, which are displayed on a card in her (always a her) window. Every two hours, she gets a ten-minute break, and invariably that break comes exactly when you get to the front of the line. When that happens, there’s nothing to do but wait for ten minutes till she comes back (unless you have a friend in another line who gets to the window faster). Today I lucked out and got to the window just before my cashier’s 4:00 break.

As it turns out, you can’t return a train ticket at booth 47, only at booth 21. So I bought my new tickets first, on the № 55 to Moscow, then on the № 41 to Kiev (I’ll have a 6 hour layover; I’m planning to hit up the Tretyakovsky Gallery). Then I found booth 21, where the cashier was also on a 4:00 break. However, I was first in line, so I wasn’t too worried about waiting. A middle-aged man joined the line behind me; I commiserated as he remorsefully explained that he’d just bought this ticket three hours ago, and now had to change it, and at a 50% loss at that, as he was returning the ticket within 8 hours of departure. Loathe to fight the crush at the regular ticket booths to purchase the ticket he wanted instead, he decided it would be okay to join the line at booth 20, ostensibly reserved for members of the military and disabled persons (later, a woman approached the growing crowd at booth 20 and grumbled loudly, “What, is this how they serve the disabled here, with lines??”).

In all, I spent 1473.1 rubles and 1 hour in lines and got 1227.6 rubles back; the roughly $10 plus time is definitely a better deal than the Belarusian visa. I’m a little bummed that this change means I won’t have any time to see Kiev between my flights and trains, but I won’t have to stay in a hostel either, which is nice. Next Wednesday I’ll be within the 45 day window to buy my return tickets; since we’ve got Thursday and Friday off for Thanksgiving, I’m hoping to get to the ticket office early on Thursday morning to avoid the crowd.

Friday, November 14, 2008


Hooray, I've officially gotten the go ahead on my trip to Georgia from Lena, our program coordinator. She said that other than passport control possibly being rude when they see Georgian stamps in my passport on my way back into Russia, they basically can't do anything. Whew!

Just a few loose ends to wrap up - I have to find out if I need a transit visa to go through Belarus on the train (though we'll probably be asleep as we go pass through) and get a return train ticket. I need to borrow a smaller suitcase from someone; I could probably fill one of my big ones for a three week trip, but I don't want to lug it all over creation by myself. Did that on the way to Middlebury, and it sucked.

Addendum 15/11/2008: So it turns out I need a transit visa to go through Belarus. For a double-entry (there and back), it's $177. Dang it! Still, glad I figured this out now and not a day before leaving; the State Department travel site mentions cases of people getting kicked off the train at the border for not having the proper documents. Cripes!

Oh, yeah, and before I leave, I should probably keep studying, take my finals, and do better on my language tests than I did in August. :)

This is funny:

Odobrenie = approval.
Udobrenie = fertilizer.

Good idea not to get these words confused - it could lead to awkwardness. Ha.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Regular Life Update

Life continues to hum along here in Petersburg. It appears I’ve lucked out two trips in a row; this fall has been unseasonably warm. Last week the temperature hovered around freezing for a couple days, but then it warmed up again; other than that little dip in temperature, it’s been consistently around 6-10 degrees Celsius since the beginning of October. It has continued to get darker, however (global warming can’t help with that one). Yesterday and today I noticed especially that I’m now leaving the apartment at 8:30 or 8:45 in pre-dawn gloom – not completely dark, but not light either. It’s that time of day when it’s really hard to see, because your eyes don’t know whether to adjust to light or dark. Sunset is currently around 4:30.

I’ve got about a month of classes left this semester. I’m surprised at how quickly the fall semester has flown by. I seem to remember fall of 2005 dragging on for ages and ages, which was probably related to me not understanding much going on around me all the time. It’s been an easier adjustment this time. I don’t feel like I’m making leaps and bounds in my language gain, which is a little discouraging, but all the same, there is definitely improvement. This week and next week I have tests in all of my classes, which sure is a lot of fun. I’m feeling a bit more prepared this time around; last time I took all my tests right after missing two days of class from being sick, and I was definitely not ready.

I’ve got my trip to Georgia over winter break all booked up, although I do have to talk to my program coordinator tomorrow to double-check that it’s really, really okay for me to go. I’ll be taking the train to Kiev, Ukraine, spending the night in a hostel, and flying from Kiev to Batumi the next day. I’ll do the same in reverse on the way back. I sure hope she doesn’t say “no” now, as I have all my tickets already except for one (my train ticket back from Kiev; as train tickets can only be purchased 45 days in advance, I have to wait till the end of November). I’m hoping that by going through Ukraine I can avoid any potential problems at the border, particularly on the way back (knock on wood).

In more banal news, Kira and I went to a jewelry expo on Sunday, and I bought a lovely pair of pearl earrings and a ring to match. There was so much to look at and choose from, it was hard to narrow it down, but I’m happy with what I decided on. Then yesterday I bought the pair of jeans I’ve been eyeing for a couple weeks. I bought the size that fit me three weeks ago when I tried them on, and discovered upon donning them again that I’ve managed to gain significantly around my middle in the interval, despite my efforts at the gym. Nothing like a pair of Russian jeans (made in China) to give a girl a weight complex. I’ve decided that part of my overeating problem stems from the fact that my stomach (the digestive organ itself) is all stretched out from eating so much all the time, so I eat more than I need to before getting full. I’m making an effort to shrink it back down again to a reasonable size by only eating little bits at a time, and eating really slowly.

Today was my friend Nadya’s birthday. She invited several of her friends to Café Zoom (been there before – love the atmosphere). I saw my old acquaintance Katya for the first time since I got here; she didn’t know that I was in Piter, and she was so surprised to see me that she didn’t calm down for about ten minutes. We all played a pretty fun game in which each person composes a line in a poem, but can only see two of the lines written previously. Kind of like mad libs. We ended up with eight or so pretty funny poems. Other than the game, conversation was a little stilted; it was one of those parties where the only person in common is the birthday girl, and no one else knows each other. But I had a good time, and made plans to get together with Katya and Nadya on Saturday.

To end somewhat randomly, here’s a funny quote from phonetics class a couple weeks ago, right after our week-long break, that shows what a few months in Russia does to people:

Olga Valentinovna: Well, the first day back from break is always tough, but don’t worry, soon we’ll all… (pause)

Students, in unison: Die?

Olga Valentinovna: (Laughs) Good grief, I was going to say “rest over winter break.”

Feeling guilt, but doing nothing

The poor and disabled of Russia have a rough life, to put it mildly. Retirees receive laughable pensions, and as a result of the economic turmoil in the 90s after the fall of the Soviet Union, many of them have nothing saved – their savings simply turned into nothing. Babushki with no one left to take care of them – those unfortunate enough to outlive their loved ones – often take to the streets to beg. A whole line of them stands outside Vladimirski Cathedral; more hardcore babushki kneel on a piece of cardboard, bowing to the earth and praying all day on the frozen sidewalks as the world hurries by. Veterans missing arms and legs in various degrees – in one case, both legs at the hip and both arms below the elbow – also line the sidewalks and metro tunnels.

More able-bodied people looking to earn some money take to selling things in the metro. Lugging a gym bag full of good, the vendor enters at one end of a metro car and gives a loud spiel proclaiming the advantages of buying whatever products they’re selling – usually road maps, pens, passport covers, DVDs and the like. They then slowly walk the length of the car, and if anyone wants to buy something, they flag the vendor down. At the station, the vendor runs to the next car and starts the process again.

All of these people – the praying babushki, the limbless, stonefaced veterans, the metro merchants – give me mixed feelings. It is outrageous that they have no alternative but to beg – the elderly gave their all to the Soviet Union, but in their old age their country has abandoned them. Those veterans fought wars that they did not chose and paid a steep price – parts of their body, without which they are unlikely to be able to find work after they return home. Again, the government here does little to support those who fought for it. As far as the metro merchants go, I have deep respect for their entrepreneurial spirit; it’s a tough job, and the profits are probably meager, but at least they’re doing what they can to make it. All the same, despite the outrage and shame I feel as I pass beggars, I never give any of them anything. I justify this to myself by saying “I can’t save them all, I’m just a poor student, tomorrow they’ll be hungry again anyway…” Pretty pathetic arguments, I know, but they usually dull my sense of guilt just enough to get me by. But the other day on the metro, I felt true shame.

A young man with a pronounced limp (cerebral palsy?) and an overpowering stutter got on my car to sell band-aids at 10 for 10 rubles. Clearly, anyone buying band-aids from this guy didn’t actually need band-aids (you can get a whole box for 40 rubles), they just wanted to help him out. This wasn’t begging, but it was about as close as you could get. He can’t possibly sell enough band-aids in a day to live on. And yet I still didn’t buy any. I stood there feeling an awful mix of shame and pity, and I didn’t buy any band-aids. I wanted the next stop to come as quickly as possible so I could forget about him. I realize this makes me to some degree a bad person. I want there to be a real solution, one that will take care of the neediest people in this society and give them back their dignity. I just don’t know what that solution is.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A few more pics

I added some more pictures from around town to this album.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Russian Pick-up

Walking home along Red Cadet Street. A cadet with a chirpy tenor voice starts talking to me:

Cadet: You are wearing astonishing perfume. It wafted over me as I approached from behind you. (continues in this vein, I catch something about "masculine" and "aroma.")
Me: . . . (weak smile. I'm confused. What does he mean, masculine aroma? I'm not even wearing perfume.)
Cadet: Oh, and you have a lovely smile too.
Me: . . .
Cadet: What's the deal, don't you know how to speak Russian?
Me: I know how.
Cadet: Oh, wonderful. Hooray! The girl speaks Russian.
Me: . . .
Cadet: Will you be turning here or going straight?
Me: Going straight.
Cadet: Okay then, have a good one.
Me: You too, see ya.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Russian Take on Things

Hey Everyone, apologies for the long silence. As I’m getting more and more comfortable and settled in here, I’m finding it easier to concentrate on homework, working out, etc – which means less time for blogging, since blogging is often a means of putting off doing what needs to be done. Also, not very interesting to blog about the fact that “today I did my homework and went to the gym. That’s what I did yesterday too, and what I will do tomorrow.” Luckily, by the end of the week I managed to have a couple adventures.

Russian Halloween. Russians don’t celebrate Halloween, really. A few bars and restaurants downtown have Halloween parties, but it’s more because it’s exotic and a reason to throw a party than a real tradition. I decided it would be fun to have Nadya and Kira over to carve pumpkins and watch Mr. Vampire – our own mini pumpkin-carving party, like the one I usually attend in Iowa City. But no matter where I looked, I could not find a pumpkin! Well, that’s not completely true – some stores had chunks of pumpkin for sale, but not whole ones; some stores had whole pumpkins, but they were of a different variety, too long and narrow to be appropriate for carving. I finally found some pumpkins of the right shape and roughly the right color at the market, but they were 100 rubles a kilogram! Even the smallest, not-even-carvable pumpkins cost around $8; for one carving-sized pumpkin it probably would have been close to $20. So I gave up on the pumpkin carving idea. Nadya and Kira came over and ate guacamole I’d made and had tea and watched the news (which practically counts as a horror film). My friend Rezo later noted that having tea is a pretty boring way to celebrate a holiday. Have to say I agree, but it was fun to hang out with Nadya and Kira anyway.

Russian Bureaucracy. As students of the Special Department of Philology at Saint Petersburg State University, we are entitled to receive the student discount on transportation. This involves getting a special card with a magnetic strip, which is scanned to ride the metro and simply displayed to ride all surface transportation. For 450 rubles a month, you get 70 metro rides and unlimited bus/trolleybus/tramcar rides – that’s about the cost of 23 rides at full price. Pretty good deal, huh? Enter the bureaucracy. You only have to buy this card once, and then it can be recharged at any metro ticket window. But to get the card, you have to go to a particular office near the Primorskaya metro station in the last four or five business days of the month. Kira and I decided to go get our cards on Friday, the last day of October. After wandering around a bit and asking for directions, we found the office we needed. There were signs everywhere about needing a document from the bank showing that we’d paid for the card there (since they don’t handle money at this office), so we left and walked about ten minutes to the bank. At the bank, it turned out that you first needed to get a different piece of paper from the office, fill it out and bring it with you to the bank. So we walked back to the office, where we discovered that while Kira’s info was in their system, mine was not, although our dean’s office had sent all the students’ information at the same time. That means I’m SOL for November. It almost seems pointless to get a card for December, as I’m planning to travel over winter break and will only be in the city for half a month. I won’t get back to Petersburg till too late in January to pay for a January pass, so the earliest I will have a student transportation card will be February. Sigh. Anyway, I walked with Kira back to the bank, where she paid for her card, and then we walked back to the office again to get the card. The whole process took the better part of 2 hours. At least I got some exercise.

Russian Planning. In a similar bureaucratic vein, our class schedule this week is all messed up. Tuesday is National Unity Day – a day off. To give everyone a three-day weekend, Monday’s classes were to be moved to Saturday, and then we’d have Sunday-Monday-Tuesday off. But our teachers couldn’t make it on Saturday, so instead we get a four-day weekend this week (right after our week-long break. Great planning, huh?), but we’ll make up those classes next Saturday, meaning next week we get a one-day weekend. Lame-o.

Russian Recital. Last night I went to an author’s reading, Russian (or Soviet?) style. Ludmila Petrushevskaya, author and playwright, absurdist. I have to say, her readings didn’t really inspire me to read any of her works. Her presentation cycled between readings from her books, which I often didn’t understand because of the dialects she used, showing cartoons that she herself had composed and produced, and her singing songs she’d translated from French. There were a lot of young people there who laughed at all the funny places, making me feel stupid for not getting the jokes. The kid next to me kept chuckling to himself, nodding vigorously at what Petrushevskaya said, and even quietly finishing her sentences for her when she paused in the middle of a sentence. Obviously a fan. But he had bad breath. I hate that, when you have to sit next to someone whose bad breath keeps wafting over you for three hours. Anyway. I did like one cartoon she did, in which Tolstoy tries to give his wife’s pince-nez to Chekhov, although I don’t understood why he wanted to do that. And the singing made me impatient. So I can’t say it was the most entertaining way to pass a Saturday evening, but I’m glad I’ve now experienced a творческий вечер (recital).

English-speakers in Russia. On the whole, I tend to avoid other native English-speakers in Russia. If I hear someone speaking English on the street or in the metro, I try to avoid looking like I speak English (I know, how exactly does one do that?). Part of it is that tourist behavior often embarrasses me, whether it’s talking too loudly, eating on the metro, just looking completely lost in general, or other culturally inappropriate behaviors. I know it’s not their fault, and that it’s good that they’ve come to take a look at Russia, but nonetheless I am mortified by the idea that someone might think I’m with them, or see them and think that all Americans act like that. At the recital last night a British man and American woman, students in their 20s, were sitting behind me speaking English. It was driving me batty, but I can’t really explain why. They were talking about fairy tales, their purposes and America’s lack of original fairy tales. I think it’s because no matter how hard I try, I can’t help but listen to English if I hear it – it is so effortless to understand what they’re saying that there’s no way to block it out.

This blog ended up being much more negative than I intended. It is possible that I only consider something in Russia an “adventure” if it has a negative outcome. So to end on a positive note, I worked out for three hours yesterday! Today the sun is shining, and I’m going to go for a walk in the park!

In the Park

I’m sitting on a bench in a wooded park on and island about a mile from my apartment. It’s a rare November day – not a cloud in the sky. It’s pretty chilly – I regret leaving the apartment without a scarf – but the sun warms my face and the wind is calm here – it’s not so bad.

From the river flowing lazily by in front of me come the calls of ducks and seagulls. An excited child shouts, “There are ducks there, Mama! Ducks! Ducks!” In the very far distance I can hear the roar of traffic, but otherwise I could almost forget I’m in the middle of a city of 5 million people.

A three-man rowboat glides silently by, the dip and drip of the oars just barely audible from across the water.

Further in on this island there is an even bigger park, with paths, carnival rides, popcorn and balloons for sale, even paddleboat rentals in the summer. There you’ll encounter cyclists and rollerbladers, grandmothers and young mothers with baby carriages, groups of kids chasing each other around. Three years ago it was 10 rubles to get in. It’s probably 20 rubles now; I haven’t bothered to find out. That park also has loudspeakers all along the paths that blast music constantly – I much prefer the ducks and gulls and the chirps of smaller birds.

The air here is absolutely crisp and fresh. I want to bottle it up to breathe later on my walks to school, where the exhaust of hundreds of idling cars stuck in constant traffic jams renders the air toxic.

A long wooden bridge connects Krestovsky Island, where I am now, with Petrovsky Island, along which I walked to get here. The park across the street (and the river) from my house is on Petrovsky island. By comparison with the Petrograd Side, where I live, or Vasilievsky Island, where I study, these islands are miniscule. I walked almost the whole length of Petrovsky in about 10 minutes along its main (and practically only) road. I didn’t see any cars, just the No. 14 bus. I could have been on some side street in an industrial area of Des Moines.

A man just sat down next to me on this bench, open bottle of beer in hand. He stares at the ground and smokes a cigarette. He makes a phone call to some guy he’s apparently waiting to arrive by vehicle (all of that information came from a single word on my guy’s end of the conversation: «доехал». The ending tells me he was talking to a man, the prefix indicates arrival/ attainment of a goal, and the root signifies travel by vehicle. I love Russian). He speaks quietly. I appreciate that about Russians.

I know that by tomorrow it will probably be cloudy and rainy again. Our consistent +10C weather has started to feel colder, though the temperature itself has remained constant. They keep promising snow, but so fair there’s no delivery. Today I’m just enjoying the weather we’ve got.