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St. Petersburg, Russia – Arriving in Foreign Territory

Context: In the summer of ’09 after my sophomore year at college I studied abroad for 8 weeks in St. Petersburg, Russia. I frequently wrote updates home (once a week), and this is one of those updates. I am adding this here because this is our travel website and I want it to be a collection of our travels, however, it’s important to know that I wrote these years ago without the intention of them ever being part of a travel website. They are not representative of our future work, but maybe you will enjoy reading them and get a taste of what it can be like to study abroad. Hope you enjoy!

Guys in St. Petersburg Russia

Dan on the right, me to his right - St. Petersburg, Russia


Arriving in St. Petersburg Russia

Monday June 9, 2008
8AM St. Petersburg Time

Monday June 9, 2008
12AM Boston Time

After a long flight, Courtney and I arrived at the Russian airport at around noon on Saturday, their time. Unfortunately, our bags did not. I was not surprised, as we had originally sent them to Helsinki, and then asked that they be sent directly to St. Petersburg, which they said they had done. I figured there had been a mix up, and that they would arrive tomorrow from a later flight. We went through baggage claim, where they made fun of Courtney and I assuming we didn’t understand Russian, and eventually were met by a driver holding a “Nevsky Institute” sign. He knew my name, and would bring both Courtney and I to our respective families. He more or less spoke only Russian, so I communicated with him a bit making small talk on what was a ride of questionable safety (later Courtney told me that the driver was pulled over and given a sobriety test, though in his defense he passed).

The driver took me to the apartment where I was to meet the “hazaika”, woman of the house. I was to be dropped off first, and after this Courtney and I would not have a way of conveniently communicating with each other. Though, before we parted I was able to get the number and address of her host family. Eventually, I said goodbye to the driver, attempting to tip him $5 though he would not accept. I followed the woman who had arrived into an incredibly small elevator. We went up to the fourth floor, and into her apartment. The stairway of the apartment is kind of run down and dirty, so I was worried, but the apartment is very nice. The lady, who speaks only Russian, told me I had my pick of two rooms, that there would be another student arriving, and that since I had arrived first I had first pick. Both rooms were very spacious, comparable to my room at home. In fact, I am pretty sure that they were hers and her son’s, but they had given them up to sleep in other, smaller rooms, so that we would have these. They each have high ceilings, a bed, a desk, windows, and lots of antiques on shelves. I selected one and set up the few items that I had from my carry on. Eventually, the woman and I went out around the city. We are right in the center, near a metro and a lot of stores. There’s a mall with a movie theater, arcade, casino, and lots of clothing stores etc. Aside from that there are lots cafes, restaurants, and other stores. Essentially everything of necessity is here, with the exception of an internet café, which is why it has taken me so long to correspond. We went out about the town for a little bit, but after that she let me go on my own. I walked around, slowly extending my sphere of influence. One of the first things I saw was a sign that said Tourist Center This Way, with an arrow. However, the area around it looked really seedy/dirty, and no one was there. Despite that, I walked towards it, approaching the building, when suddenly an old woman turned to me and yelled “Don’t!” I left on the assumption that the sign was a fake and probably the directions to a man’s house who mugs tourists. I walked around a bit more, mainly observing. There is definitely a look among Russians. The women are dressed up, tight jeans, high heals, make up, etc. The men alternate between crew cuts and mullets.

When crossing the street, I swear people sometimes play a game where they want to see how close they can get to an oncoming car without getting hit. I once saw a car literally part a group of people. I noticed that right next to our apartment is a café with wireless, but it works off a password and I don’t have Russian keys on my keyboard. I am going to try and figure something out though because that would be really convenient.

After not too long I returned home and had dinner, which was soup, rice, and some meat. It was good. I talked with the woman, whose name translates to Love. She is not married (I think divorced, as she said her husband lives alone near here). She has two sons, one of which still lives at home, though he is 30. I have yet to see him. I have seen the other son, who is 33. She was a teacher, though is now retired, and I know she has had students over the summer before. She said that another kid in the program would be arriving tomorrow and he will be living in the other room. I told her a few things about myself and we ate. Unfortunately the gift, which I had thought a lot about, was a crash and burn; I gave her chocolates and she turned out to be a diabetic. Either way, she is very nice, and we understand each other very well most of the time. She speaks slowly. I gave Courtney a call just to check in. She is living with two other girls from the program, one of which I know from my class and the other is from UPenn. The woman with whom she is staying and who answered the phone speaks English. We didn’t talk for long before I went to bed around 10pm, though it is difficult to tell the time because there is not a working clock in the apartment as far as I can see, and the white nights make a more natural way of guessing the time impossible. I woke up at 5AM the next day (remember, subtract 8 hours). I realized that I could still use my cell phone for the time. I laid in bed for a while, studying some Russian, but eventually I got hungry so I went out. She had given me a key the other day and showed me how to use it. In general, I think she is going to let us do our own thing, as she said she had had two sons before and was not going to hold our hand. I expect to be well fed and the like, but we are free to come and go as we please is my point. So I set out the next morning in yesterday’s boxers in order to feed myself (I could have waited for her to give me breakfast but I didn’t feel like it), to exchange money, and to buy a map.

The first thing I noticed was a drunk man passed out on the staircase. He didn’t even awaken when I walked practically over him. I decided to start slowly and go to a McDonalds (There is one very close). I waited in line, or so I thought, but I was cut by two sly Russians after not too long. So I got in “the right” line, which was small but took forever because people kept arguing with the servers. Eventually, I got to the front, only to find out that they did not take American dollars or any form of credit card. I left in order to find a reliable atm to withdraw money. I went to the metro to ask a lady where there was a bank, but unfortunately, amidst all the directions she gave me, the only thing I understood was “there you will receive money”. Eventually, I found one and took out 10000 rubles (which came out in 10 1000 ruble bills and is the equivalent of about $375), though, conveniently the button to press to return your debit card was near stuck. I did get it back though. I went back to the place of my previous defeat and ordered a McMuffin. I was pretty nervous, even though I could just read what I wanted off the menu, or point to the picture if need be. One thing I noticed is that it can be difficult to understand something if you aren’t aware of the context surrounding it. The woman asked me if I had 1 ruble, which I translated fine but didn’t really understand. Only later did I realize that the bill was 101 rubles and I had given her 1000 and she wanted to make easier change. In that situation, the only thing to do is to look like an idiot and move on. So I did. Next I went to buy a map. I found a stand in the square that looked like it would have a map, so I bought one. Only later did I realize that even though I had asked for a map of the city, she had sold me a map of Russia (which, naturally, I was not able to return). That being useless, I went and bought a better map later.

Finally, before returning home, I walked around the city some more. A man came up to ask me for directions, and I just told him I didn’t speak Russian since I wouldn’t have been able to help him even if I did understand him. When I returned the drunk man had woken up, though he was holding his head in agony. I was told by Love that the airport had called and they had found my bags. They would be bringing them to the house around when the other kid, Daniel, was to be arriving, so I waited for them both. My bags arrived first, so I got those and set up the rest of my room and changed into something more fresh. Then, I went over my new map with Love. As I said before, we are in a nice part of the city, whereas Courtney is farther from the university (5 metro stops away as opposed to my 2, though we are both on the same line), with less surroundings.

Soon, Daniel arrived. He is a sophomore, but has taken a year less of Russian than me, so I help him out communicating with Love when necessary. He is a literature major. Eventually we went out again and I showed him what I knew. We first went to exchange money, though his debit card wasn’t working. We found a machine that would let you insert American dollars and would give you Russian rubles in place. He put in $50, and the machine died on him. It spit out some receipt so he may be able to get his money back, but as of now he has no rubles, dollars, or working cards. After that I bought us both lunch at a place in the square. There we ran into a group of Americans who overheard us speaking English. They had been here for two weeks, and are essentially doing the same thing we are, though not at the Nevsky Institute. One guy gave me his card so I could contact him later if I ever found internet, because they don’t live in the area. They told us to be on our guard and we left. After that, Daniel and I went back to the room where we hung around and did some reading until dinner. It was fairly similar to last night. We ate and talked with Love for a long time. It really is a lot of Russian each day. After about and hour or so I gave Courtney another call. She had gone to the university and bought a working phone, which she will help us out with today. After that, Daniel and I went out briefly to see if we could find wireless, but after not too long it was raining, and I was kind of tired. I went to bed at around 1030pm and woke up at 7am. Class isn’t until 10, so I showered, ate breakfast, and started writing this letter which hopefully I will be able to send from the university later today. I have an introductory meeting at 10am, class until 2 or so (with a break for lunch), and then a tour of the city via autobus. I am interested to see how it is going for everyone else (where they are living, who they are with, etc), but so far so good for Daniel and I.

Want to read more about Dave’s Study Abroad Program in St. Petersburg, Russia?
Letter 1: St. Petersburg, Russia – Arriving in Foreign Territory
Letter 2: St. Petersburg, Russia – Starting Class
Letter 3: St. Petersburg, Russia – The White Nights
Letter 4: St. Petersburg, Russia – Some Things Lost Some Things Gained
Letter 5: St. Petersburg, Russia – New Friendships
Letter 6: St. Petersburg, Russia – Beach For July 4th
Letter 7: St. Petersburg Study, Russia – phhh Piskov
Letter 8: St. Petersburg, Russia – End Of Days

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2 Responses to St. Petersburg, Russia – Arriving in Foreign Territory

  1. You tried paying in foreign currency in another country? Was there some reason you thought you could pay with US Dollars?

    Chris September 12, 2013 at 4:00 AM Reply
    • Well sometimes abroad dollars still work, like cambodia and burma both accept US and international institutions can sometimes change

      Dave and Vicky September 12, 2013 at 5:29 PM Reply

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