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First week in St. Petersburg

by Anna Dunlavey

Last Updated on July 8, 2013 by

I’ve been away for a week now, although not all of it has been spent in Russia. But since this first week has been crazy and busy and scary and exciting and overwhelming and amazing, I’m only sitting down to write this post just now. It’s going to be a long one, but a fun one, so bear with me!

I’ll go back to Thursday, June 20th to start. That’s when the group of St. Petersburg students met up in London, a good halfway point in our travel. We arrived at different points in the day, but since I was among the group of earlier arrivals, we went out to explore London together. We wandered down Oxford Street, made it to Picadilly Circus, walked through St. James’ garden to what we thought was the back of Buckingham Palace but was actually the Horse Guards Parade, got a little lost, and eventually made it back to the hotel.

The next day started out with a more formal tour of the major London sites, such as Parliament, Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, and Buckingham Palace, for real this time. We had the rest of the day to ourselves, so I broke off with a smaller group to see the Churchill War Rooms (17 pounds, but worth it), and the Westminster Abbey Evensong. (Free, but get there early. It’s absolutely beautiful.)

Saturday, we had to endure a rough 4:30 am wakeup in order to catch our plane to Russia. We got a little separated at the airport, and the flight kept getting delayed, but eventually everything worked out and we were off to St. Petersburg. For most of the time leading up to our entry in Russia, people told rumors and horror stories of getting through customs in Russia. But in the end, it wasn’t really that bad. I handed over my passport and visa, it was stamped, and I was through.

After grabbing our bags, we met our program director, Kathryn, and her assistant, Matt. Then we started the journey into St. Petersburg, on a wide highway lined with a lot of birch trees that made me feel like I was driving through New England. Only the Cyrillic, as well as the stereotypical Soviet-era architecture of the apartment buildings, tipped me off that it was Russia.

We’re living in IMOP, the international student dorms, at St. Petersburg State Polytechnic University. The dorms are nice—the lounge, where I’m writing from, has wifi, and at the desk is the Djornaya, who kind of serves as an RA. There is a different woman every day, but whoever it is, she is always there to help with problems. This morning, I had to explain that the plastic cover on the overhead light in our kitchen had fallen, and she immediately had not only that taken care of, but another light in the bathroom that I hadn’t even noticed was out.

Sunday was our first real glimpse of the city of St. Petersburg, as the dorms are a bit far away from the city center. We went to see the Aurora cruiser, Peter and Paul Fortress, the Church of the Savoir on Spilled Blood, Smolny Cathedral, and the many bridges over the Neva river. We took a lot of group pictures, one of which was crashed by a bunch of recent graduates getting ready to celebrate. They got out of a party bus and sprayed us with champagne before insisting that we all be in their group photo. We, of course, obliged. How many times do you get an opportunity like that?

Monday was another busy day filled with placement tests, metro rides, exploring Nevsky Prospekt, and even making my first Russian friend, Yuliya, who showed us her favorite café, счастье, which means happiness in Russian. And it really was happiness! The ice cream I ordered was some of the best I’ve ever had.

If you’re wondering why I’m not talking about the academic aspect of this trip, it’s because classes didn’t start until Tuesday. I placed into the Advanced Russian Language class, which is a little bit intimidating, but I think I am going to learn a lot and become much more proficient in the language. First day of class meant things like homework to worry about, so it was a less eventful day, although one of my friends and I went across the street to a café that served Azerbaijani food. We practiced ordering in Russian, and what we got, whether it was what we meant to order or not, was very good.

Yesterday, Wednesday, was the trip I’ve been looking forward too all week, our trip to the Hermitage. Part of the museum is in the Winter Palace, where the tsars of Russia lived, and if it isn’t amazing enough that you’re walking through rooms where royals and nobility have mingled, you’re also surrounded by beautiful and exquisite paintings. Also, the museum is huge. Whatever size you think it is, it’s probably about ten times larger. Maybe five minutes after we were allowed to explore on our own, we got ourselves lost in a cut off section of Egyptian Art. After some searching, we found Van Gogh, Picasso, and a military graduation, which was taking place outside in the palace square. We got to watch that from the window for a little bit, which was very cool too see.

A moment that was a bit unnerving was when we were heading back to the metro. We saw a group of protestors, wearing masks of the face of the leader of the opposition Sergei Mitrokhin, coming our way on the sidewalk. Police were walking next to the protestors, watching them diligently, and more police cars were circling the block. We decided to do the smart thing and cross the street to avoid getting caught up with them. Except, of course they crossed the street too. Luckily, they went in the opposite direction, and we hurried over to the metro without looking back.

So Russia’s been interesting. A lot of the time, I feel the same way about conversations here as I do about witty arguments in the US—I always think of a great way to respond five minutes after it’s over. It’s been tricky and frustrating, but I know that I’ll get the hang of it. Besides, I’ll take the tricky and frustrating parts for the amazing and exciting moments that have come with them.

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