Name: Margaret Cross
Location of Study: St. Petersburg, Russia
Program of Study: Arizona in Russia
A brief personal bio:
Hello! I am just finishing up my last few days as a Notre Dame First Year student. I’ve had so much fun and learned so much in the last nine months and one of the best parts of my time at ND thus far has been finding and joining the Russian Department. It is my firm belief that nowhere else on campus will you find such kind and knowledgeable faculty and students, nor a more interesting subject!
Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:
Although I am a student in the Mendoza College of Business, I want to add a Russian studies major of some kind whether the actual language major, REES, or the International Economics major. This will make my remaining three years a little cramped, so the SLA grant will make it easy for me to accomplish a second major. I have become more and more excited about majoring in Russian, since Russia has burst back onto the international stage since I applied for this grant. Economically, Russia is an important company for international businesses, since it is a huge market for western goods, as well as a major oil producer.
What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:
Russian is a notoriously difficult language, and after a year of drilling grammar, I cannot wait to get real practice in an immersion experience! This will really reinforce what I have learned so far. Russian culture is very different from that of the West and America, and it takes getting used to. For example, their society does not put as much of an emphasis on customer service as far as politeness, smiles, and thank yous go, and Americans are often disconcerted by the brusqueness of cashiers and vendors in Russia. This month will help me get used to Russians, famously unsmiling in public and with strangers, but equally famous for their warmth and friendliness to those they welcome into their family circles.
My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:
- At the end of the summer, I will be able to communicate in Russian about topics such as my interests, hobbies, academic work, family, etc, with fluency.
- At the end of the summer, I will be at least a semester further in my Russian coursework.
- At the end of the summer, I will have a better grasp of Russian slang and idiom and language use that cannot be easily learned in a classroom setting.
My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:
I intend to spend the next few weeks intensively studying what I have learned so far, particularly conversational topics used in retail transactions, classrooms, in train travel, asking directions, and other topics useful for day to day life. I will be living in a Russian home, probably with a Russian babushka with no knowledge of English. I will immediately need to use my Russian. I want to attend Russian Orthodox services and somehow join a choir. I am also trying to find an orphanage or children’s center that needs volunteers. Finally, I just learned that the Hermitage, one of the most important and largest art museums in the world, is free admission for students! I hope to spend many an hour there!
Reflective Journal Entry 1:
I arrived in St. Petersburg this past Saturday, May 24. The plane finally landed and I made my weary way through customs (and had my first mini-dialogue-in-Russian with the customs officer) and passport security and found the baggage claim…and stood there for half an hour, increasingly panicky, and concluded that my luggage must have gone missing. My first conversations with Russians and first contact with their wonderful bureaucratic system stemmed from this misfortune. I filled out at least ten forms and had to obtain stamps from two different desks to file my lost luggage! However, I got through it all and proceeded to meet my group, but we had to wait a while for other flights, so we went to McDonald’s, where I got another glimpse of how Russia works. There was no discernible line to the cash register; it seemed like everyone just crowded around the counter! Thankfully, our group leader, Keith, knew how to elbow his way to the front to order.
We eventually all crowded into a little bus and set off for our homestays. I was so nervous! After a half hour ride, during which Russia appeared pretty normal and not too different, I was the first to be dropped off. We pulled up to a big block of apartment buildings, most of which were clearly built in Soviet times. I later learned that ours was built in 1970. Inexplicably, there was a bright orange hotel next door, with a huge key painted on the side. My host mother, a tall old lady with brown eyes and a big head of hair was at the door waiting for me. She did not smile very much, so I was a little worried at first, but as I got to know her this past week, I know now that she is really great, and very nice. When we got up to her three room apartment on the seventh floor, she told me all about herself over a rather dry chocolate cake and tea. She was a Russian teacher to foreign students for forty years, and even spent a few years in China! She has been all over Europe and taught students of many nationalities, including Finnish, Spanish, Italian, French, American, Japanese, and many students from within the Soviet Union. She said, probably seven times, “I love my job, so much I love my job, thanks be to God!” She misses teaching very much, and told me in detail that the administration of the school asked her to retire in favor of unemployed young teachers, so, she hosts students so that she can keep teaching a little bit. Every time I said anything, she corrected me and helped me find better ways to express my ideas. She also lectured me at great length about how the young teachers are absolutely no good at teaching Russian! With great pride, she told me that she has been a member of Friendship Force, a peace organization founded by Jimmy Carter, for twenty years and that this has helped her travel all over. She was actually in New Orleans and Atlanta in November and told me that she has many friends in America.
None of this prevented her, beginning with our very first conversation this week, from heartily criticizing America, Obama, capitalism, and the youth of her country. It’s pretty interesting, she forcefully declares that Americans believe absolutely everything their news agencies and Obama tell them, and then turns around and praises Putin to the high heavens! In the mornings, the radio is always playing, and if I had a ruble for every time I heard the word Ukraine (in Russian of course) I could buy myself a samovar! (samovars are the big silver heaters used before electricity for making tea in Russia-they’re pretty expensive) She sits and listens attentively and nods her head vigorously, agreeing with every word…. It seems odd to me that someone so well-traveled, even cosmopolitan, (she tells me she has more foreign than Russian friends) could conform to the current Russian political scene so thoroughly!
Sunday I thought I would probably have to sit around all day, since my homestay is pretty far from the city center and I didn’t know anything about the bus system yet, but my host mother called another host mother and another student and I went downtown, since it was the “Day of the City,” always celebrated in late May in honor of the founding of the St. Petersburg by Peter the Great in 1703. There were concerts and parades and such. Mostly I was just so happy to be able to walk around the beautiful Nevsky Prospect area and see a few important sites such as Our Lady of Kazan Cathedral. At one point I noticed one of the churches had Latin writing over the entrance and knowing therefore that it was not likely to be a Russian Orthodox Church, I was overjoyed to discover a beautiful Roman Catholic Church. It was built by Catherine the Great in 1783 for Polish nobles and other Catholic foreigners.
We had read in the newspaper that as part of the festivities for the city, a flash mob was planned on Nevsky Prospect. We thought that might be pretty interesting, so we made our way to the corner they listed. We think the people in charge of the “flash mob” may have misunderstood the idea a little bit…. Instead of people popping out of the crowd and dancing and singing and surprising everyone, an announcer proceeded to announce different children’s ballet groups for twenty straight minutes. Then odd Russian pop music played while they all lined up and performed very simple choreography. It was certainly a mob, but definitely not a flash mob!
I’ve been taking Russian lessons at the Smolny Institute, which was a Russian Orthodox monastery before the revolution built by a Russian-Italian architect named Rastrelli. Russian-Italian seems like a rather strange combination, you might say, but historians classify him as such since he was born in Italy, but raised in Russia. His father was also a major architect and sculptor before him. Apparently, the Smolny Cathedral is the northernmost Baroque-style building. Painted sky blue and white, it’s five domes adorned in gold details stand brightly visible against the sky. I have the privilege of seeing it every single day! It’s very interesting to walk through its halls and imagine monks living and working there. The interiors are very beautiful, but the furniture is appallingly ugly, sometimes I walk through a room with a elegantly vaulted ceiling and arched doorways only to see literally a dorm-style futon up against a wall and several of those terribly ugly long rectangular rugs haphazardly thrown on the floor. The inside of the building indicates how bad Russian winters really are; the walls are literally a foot thick and each room has a set of two doors and double windows to keep the warmth in.
Incidentally, Lenin planned his Bolshevik uprising in the building next door to us. It’s still a government building so we are not allowed to open windows or go on the grass on the one side of our classroom building, since it’s government property.
My classes are going well… I was about to write about my favorite teacher, only to decide on a different favorite teacher and then rethought my decision one more time and finally came to the conclusion that I love each of the teachers, they are all unfailingly enthusiastic, kind, and speak only very rudimentary English, which is great! My conversation/grammar teacher is very good at making us all, well, make conversation I guess! She’s very young and pretty and loves to laugh. We were talking about our families and pets one time and one girl was trying to say she has a dachshund, and so she kept telling our teacher, “I have a sausage dog, you know, he looks like a sausage,” (in Russian of course) and we finally got our idea across to her, to her great amusement! My phonetics teacher is so nice, soft-spoken, and organized and always makes us sing Russian folk songs with karaoke and videos featuring singers in lurid folk costumes with a ton of glittery makeup on. We thought that her job during the school year must certainly be teaching kindergarteners, but when I asked, it turns out she edits a history journal! The lexica teacher is a very fierce-looking older woman who, upon closer acquaintance is very generous and certainly the best teacher of the entire lot. She articulates each sentence and explains each word with confidence that she will be understood, since she has been explaining these words and meanings for decades. Our culture teacher is definitely the most intriguing. He has told us many astounding things in only two lectures on contemporary Russia and the Ukraine! I only refrain from trying to rehash them here in this blog because I’m afraid I will oversimplify and butcher what he told us.
Anyhow, it has been raining for several days straight, and each morning, my host mother asks me, “do you have an umbrella,” and I say no, since I hate carrying them everywhere, and then she responds with, “the weather here is like a capricious woman, take it with you!” She’s always right!
Reflective Journal Entry 2:
Made it over to the Hermitage today. It was just as exciting as people say! It’s so ridiculously grand. I really wonder sometimes why people wanted to live in such places, it doesn’t seem very cozy, nor practical. I suppose those czars had an image to maintain. I was decidedly not in the mood to elbow my way through the crowds, so after perusing the map, looking for the least popular exhibit possible, I hit upon the Siberian and Central Asian Artifacts. It was quite a trek to get there, weaving my way through room after room of dazzling china and enormous paintings and up and down several staircases, but finally I made it and it was so worth it! Not a soul was around, and yet it was super-interesting! The exhibit included the oldest surviving pile carpet in the world, a log-grave, an entire wooden cart, a mummified horse, tons of equestrian paraphernalia, in particular huge horse masks with carved wooden antlers sprouting out of the forehead. There were artifacts from the ancient people known as the Scythians. I cannot imagine what it must be like to feel a connection to an ancient people such as the Scythians the way many Russians do.
I also wended my way through the Armenian section which included some beautifully illustrated old gospels and many many silver artifacts. These exhibits tired me out entirely, and since the Hermitage is free for students and I’ve got several weeks to go, I decided to leave, well, all of Europe for another day…
Palace Square, outside of the Hermitage, is one of my favorite places. It’s covered in cobblestones and has a huge obelisk in the middle. Two students and I sat on the warm bricks for an entire hour and just watched all the people coming and going and gazed at the magnificent palaces, the golden spire of the Admiralty building and fluffy white clouds, closer and bigger than any I’ve ever seen, maybe since we’re so close to the North Sea. An interesting phenomenon on Palace Square? The skateboarding/rollerblading scene! Every time I’ve been here there are always a bunch of skaters on one side of the square. They sit and play music and just hang out. The best was when we watched a shirtless old grandpa skillfully rollerblading in circles and teaching his little grandson to follow his example!
Today, I went to the National Russian Library, which according to my host mother, is one of the five best libraries in the world. It takes up an entire block and the first portion was built in 1801! I know it takes up an entire block because I walked around the entire building looking for the entrance! When I found it, I had to heave open the tall wooden doors, later I found out I am not the only person to have trouble getting in and out! Every person I saw who went through those doors had to put all their might into pulling them open. Not sure why the librarians put up with the situation…maybe they’re historic?
This little adventure to the library involved me speaking to more adult, grumpy Russians in a single day than ever before! It turned out you cannot even walk into the library without a card, so I had to walk from desk to desk getting approval from different people (grumpy Russians, all), finally I was ushered into a little cubicle, told to sit down, had my photograph taken, and was swiftly issued a green and white library card that looks strangely like my Chicago Public Library card! For free! I feel a little bad, because I had no real academic intentions in coming to the library, I was only there to soak in the atmosphere and maybe try to find the Brothers Karamazov, and they went to all that trouble to help me! I made it past security and into this cavernous building where Lenin, Dostoevsky, and so many other important Russians spent hours and hours! It was, well, rather worn out on the inside, which is not too surprising given the regime it weathered for eighty years! That is one thing I’ve noticed, if it’s a tourist sight, a building is gleaming and perfect, but everything else is just a touch ramshackle….
I decided since I’m in a library, I might as well search for a book, especially since I look distinctly suspicious wandering purposelessly like this! Easier said than done. I looked in vain for the foreign section, and instead happened upon the catalogue rooms. The had an electronic catalogue, but for the first time, I understood the real importance of librarians. There were rooms and rooms and rooms of huge cabinets with tiny drawers, filled with index cards listing the books. As a child of the electronic era, this blew my mind. Of course! How else would anyone be able to locate anything in that labyrinthine building in Lenin’s day, when he studied at one of those spare, ugly, worn out tables. Anyhow, a librarian who had been eyeing me suspiciously for a while finally asked if she could help me with anything. I expressed my desire to find The Brothers Karamazov and so she led me to the desk of a huge bearded, warty Russian with a very deep voice that was nigh-impossible to understand! However, he was able to help me write down a number and section name and pointed out a catalogue computer where I could look more books up. I sat down in the hope of finding some sort of map or guide that would maybe direct me to the English-language section. While I was sitting there, a sprightly old man with few teeth came up and told me he was there to help me. He squinted at my little slip of paper and nodded and set off at a swift pace for another part of the library. On our way through the long halls he asked me where I’m from and was very excited to hear that I hail from Chicago. He actually said, “WOW,” which was pretty funny. We got to some sort of reference desk and he asked the lady there about my book, only to inform me that it was at a different location! I found out then that books from 1955 and onwards were in another library. So I had to leave empty-handed, since I didn’t want to bother those very serious and studious people with my frivolous demands. However! I have a card and it’s renewable. This little adventure has reinforced my determination to master this language. I really want to one day be able to go there with a legitimate research question and sit at those ancient, worn desks!
Reflective Journal Entry 3:
Today, Sunday, (already two weeks since I arrived in Russia!) I saw my first ballet since going to the Nutcracker in first grade! Titled “The Little Humpbacked Pony,” I was not too sure what to expect. It was performed in the New Mariinsky Theater, which is a very square building not in keeping with its surroundings which consist of the enormous and rather chaotic looking Old Mariinsky Theater, and St. Nicholas Cathedral and many picturesque bridges and curving canals. Despite having the cleanest and most beautiful bathrooms I have yet encountered in Russia, the show itself was not something I appreciated too well. Based on a Russian fairy tale for children, it had a very odd and incomprehensible plot line. Let’s just say there was a birthing scene.
The past two weeks in Russia have been really wonderful, I love St. Petersburg. I know I have already improved at the very least in cultural competency and have made advances in my confidence in my language skills. For example, the first time I went to a “stolovaya,” which is a soviet-era style cafeteria, when I had to ask for various dishes, I was completely paralyzed and couldn’t bring myself to speak even a word of Russian and merely pointed at what I wanted and relied completely on another student to help me. However, today, when we went to a stolovaya after the ballet, I could confidently get through the entire process with minimal confusion. That is not to say I’m fluent in Russian, but I know how to get my point across and read the labels on the dishes and understand the cashier. It’s a great improvement!
After the ballet we took the metro up to a huge park on a northern island. The Russian concept of a park is…a bit less mown than our concept. To me, parks here look much more like forest preserves, with dirt paths, and wild, occasionally even mangy trees all over and very small ponds and creeks in abundance. Despite the wildness, if you will, parks are everywhere. My apartment building is located past a really big one and I always grumble to myself as I walk through it, “why couldn’t they simply build the apartment building on the closer side of this darn park!” It takes several minutes to cross! And what’s more, only a block further, there’s another park I have to cross on my way to school! When I’m a little late or in a hurry, this abundance of parks seems excessive, however, in most frames of mind, I find them charming… Russians sit amidst the tall grass, their dogs reveling in the open spaces after the confines of their almost certainly tiny apartment. Their children cheerfully climb trees. My favorite sight is an entire row of five Russians sitting on a bench, sometimes in complete silence, sometimes talking excitedly, always smoking. Anyhow, we happened upon several girls our age painting at a riverside, and though they were almost done and ready to go, we joined them and painted a bit ourselves! I’ve seen Russians painting pretty views many times so far and so I have equipped myself to follow their example. Two students and I sat down and, using a whole lot of green and brown, painted the river. It was quite idyllic.
Task-Discussion of Holidays
Today is “the Day of Russia,” which is supposed to be like our Fourth of July celebrating our independence from Great Britain. It also used to be known as Independence Day, but people in charge soon realized that was slightly odd since it was Russia achieving independence…from itself.
One of my professors delivered a lecture entirely in Russian on the subject of Russian holidays. There are a whole lot of them and run the gamut from Day of the Protection of Children to Cosmonaut’s Day to Victory Day. Like American holidays, some of them are simply excuses for a day off, while others are celebrated with unusual vigor and emotion. Perhaps most famous and important of all Russian Government holidays is Victory Day (over the Nazis) and also Day of the Defender of the Fatherland. It’s a lot like our Memorial and Veterans Day but they take it much more seriously. While we do take time off to remember and thank veterans, it usually goes with a barbecue and a pretty generally cheerful parade or two. Russians, on the other hand, honor each veteran of World War II publically and individually, especially now that there are fewer and fewer of them. They also stop to remember the literal millions of men and women that died fighting or starving for the Fatherland. There are parades, bouquets, concerts, and speeches. People travel to cemeteries and leave wreaths on graves of unknown soldiers and relatives alike. St. Petersburg has a particularly strong connection to Victory Day, due to the Leningrad Siege, very few of Leningrad’s original residents remained after the siege. My professor’s family lost seven of its members during WWII and she stressed the importance of this holiday to her and to all Russians. When I talked to my hostess, her reaction was the same; WWII had a dreadful effect on her family. She also talked about how America has only experienced one war on its own soil: the Civil War, while Russia has experienced many devastating wars on its own territory. In fact, in woods to the north of Russia, people are still finding the bodies of Russian soldiers. Russia is still a very military-oriented society. Every boy ages 18-19 is required to spend a year in the military. I’ve seen hundreds of kids, looking very young and vulnerable, trooping around the city. In fact, one morning, we happened to be on the metro at the same time as some sort of troop transport. There were so many soldiers! I’ve never seen so many at once in my life. Not only that, but I’ve noticed that many non-military, bureaucratic offices wear military-type uniforms.
Anyhow, today, Russia Day, is not that big a deal at all! We have the day off of school, but besides that I’ve barely noticed any festivities. In the U.S. on our Independence Day, there is no way to escape knowing that it’s the day the colonists officially cast off the English yoke. Not only is there tons of sales in mattress stores, but absolutely everyone seems to be wearing red, white, and blue and glorying in their ‘merican heritage! The national anthem is a theme song, along with a whole lot of country music. You get the idea. Well, I stepped into a little tea shop and these funny old men were all seated, drinking tea, and playing cards. I happen to be wearing a blue and white horizontally striped shirt which Russians always automatically associate with sailors, so one of the old men asked me if I’m a sailor (there was some amount of confusion, since I thought for a while that he was asking me if I’m a puppet). I finally answered, ‘oh yes, today I am!’ obliquely referring to it being Russia Day, and one of the old men asked, “Today is Russia Day? 12th of June? Oh. I didn’t realize!” I find that lack of interest pretty incredible! But sort of telling. See, the holidays associated with the glory of the Soviet Union and the soviet citizen, i.e. Victory Day, are huge, while the holiday associated with the new era, which used to be viewed with hope for both democracy and enrichment for Russia, but is now linked to what is perceived as Russia’s decline as a world political and economic power, this holiday is dismissed, brushed aside, and nothing more than a day off. I only saw one guy all day decked out in Russia-wear and face paint!
One last note about Russian holidays: June 1st is celebrated in Russia as the International Day for the Protection of Children. It was pretty cool, on Palace Square, next to the Hermitage, they set up these mini-versions of important monuments such as the Taj Mahal and the Eiffel Tower and had cultural demonstrations from different countries, including belly dancing. It was kind of funny, since when our professor mentioned it, she said, “oh, but of course you know all about this holiday, since its international!” to which we all responded, “um no, we never heard of it before we came to Russia.” She was very surprised!
Today I made it over to the Russian Museum, which exhibits Russian art semi-chronologically, starting with rooms of icons and ending with some very…interesting modern stuff. I found the icons very interesting, particularly what their writers chose as the subjects; they focused on the story of Lazarus, the saints Peter, Paul, Theodore, Lawrence, George, and Nicholas, as well as the Assumption and the Virgin and Child. These themes were repeated over and over. When I thought a little about it, I realized that art of the Roman Catholic Church does the same thing, especially when you restrict it to a particular culture. Catholic artists tend to depict the Annunciation, the Last Supper, the Nativity, etc. I hope to take a class entitled Eastern Churches this fall that will shed some light on why Orthodox artists chose those particular subjects, and whether it relates to their theological ideas and how they differ and align with Catholic theology.
My favorite painting was of Catherine the Great walking in the park! She looks very friendly, homely, and just like any old lady out on a stroll with a little dog. I loved the ordinariness!
After that, we went to the beautiful Old Mariinsky Theater for Pushkin/Tchaikovsky’s opera, the Queen of Spades, which is definitely my favorite outing we’ve gone on so far. You could see where the czar and his family sat! The theater was so unlike the Lyric Opera House in Chicago, it was well-worn and just on the edge of uncomfortable. We were in the second highest balcony in these little booths, each with four chairs and a little door. Is that a box, as in a theater box? I think it is! I suppose the characters in Anna Karenina would have had more expensive seats closer to the ground floor, but I’m not sure! I wonder how expensive tickets were in those times! Ours were only about 20 american dollars. There was a 14 year old girl in the box with us who had standing room only tickets which were even cheaper! I started talking to her in Russian, and to my disappointment, she responded in flawless English. It’s always so discouraging when that happens! I’ll be formulating my thoughts and marshalling my vocabulary and bam, they are already launching into beautiful English. Gosh I wish I could have started learning Russian at the age that these people began our language!
It’s crazy, we only have two weeks left! How did this happen!
Reflective Journal Entry 4:
Today is my mother’s birthday!
I went to the Hermitage again, and while in the Byzantine Art section, made the discovery that the little old ladies that sit in each room to yell at people if they get too close to the displays, are very bored, and love to talk. I asked one of them what the rooms I was in, on the third floor, were used for in czarist times. They were very pretty with arching ceilings and moulding and such. She got very excited and told me about how tutors and nurses for imperial children used to live in them. Her main point, however, was that each new ruler reorganized the palace in a new way and had new ideas about how to use each space. As I moved on through the exhibit, another of the guardian ladies told me to take my coat off and was delighted to hear that I’m an American, and that I’m trying to learn Russian. Most people are happy to hear that I’m an American. Sometimes, people sidle up and ask me a question in Russian, and when I answer, it becomes immediately obvious that I’m quite foreign, and then they’re embarrassed that they couldn’t tell the difference. I guess I have a Russian looking face!
Task-engaging a native speaker about a local food! (my favorite task idea, definitely.)
Just off of Nevsky Prospekt, there is a little shop with red neon lights that proclaim “since 1958.” It sells donuts known (phonetically, obviously) as peeshkee! This word translates not only as ‘donut,’ but also as ‘chubby girl.’ So appropriate. Every time I’ve been there, there has been a huge long line down the street to get inside. Fortunately, the pinch-faced ladies in blue aprons are quick. “How many?” they ask shortly. “Three!” I respond with equal kurtness. (they’re very small donuts, I’ll have you know, so don’t judge me! I’ve seen people walk away blithely with as many as ten…) They hand over a paper plate piled with golden, warm, delicious little donuts covered with powdered sugar and just recently popped out of the soviet-era machinery and a little cup of sugary coffee. Only 12 rubles per donut! That’s about 30 cents! Not only are they cheap and delicious, but they’re also a traditional leningrader food. All in all, a perfect subject for this task!
However, I was loathe to interrupt the ladies at the counter in their important donut-distributing work. So, I went to a little corner and and ate my little donuts joyfully while considering an alternate plan. I saw a lady, she looked like an immigrant from Central Asia, whose job it is to collect all the plates and cups. It took me a whole donut to work up the courage to talk to her, but at last, she passed and I managed to squeak, “eezveeneeteeya!” (which means excuse me, I’ll switch to an english translation now for the sake of not having to type out so many double ees). “I have a few questions for you! I’m a student and my homework is to talk to someone about a local food!” She was very surprised and bemused, but decided to humor me. I had worked out all my questions ahead of time and asked what kind of oil they fried the donuts in and she replied ‘vegetable.’ I asked how long donuts are in for, and she didn’t really answer but said that the machine is automatic and just spits ‘em out. She accompanied this explanation with a lot of hand motion indicating spinning and some very swift and technical russian that I unfortunately, did not quite understand. Next I asked if they keep preparing the donuts all day or if they’re only made in the morning and she said all day. Finally I asked if she liked peeshkee and she smiled and laughed and said emphatically “Nyet! No!” She asked if I like them and I said “oh da! Yes!” I suppose one must adopt that attitude if one works at this particular donut shop, or one would most certainly turn into a genuine peeshkee, or chubby girl. We are what we eat!
Today, I went to the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, at the end of Old Nevsky Prospekt, which was built to connect Peter the Great’s new developments with the monastery. I think it’s one of my favorite places! It’s very close to where I live, so I walked there. I went in the “Masters of Art” cemetary, where major artists of eighteenth and nineteenth century St. Petersburg were buried, including Tchaikovsky and Dostoevsky! I’ve been reading Anna Karenin and hearing concerts of Tchaikovsky music throughout my time here in Russia, so it’s so cool to see their graves. Some of the tombstones were really beautiful, which is not surprising considering that it’s a cemetary for artists. There was some sort of school group there at the same time as me, and it amazed me how much like a bunch of American eighth graders they all were! Garish t-shirts, loud talking and laughing and running around, all clearly at an awkward stage in life… Anyhow, once they left the cemetery was peaceful and so I sat on a bench and drew a gravestone and felt picturesque. Hopefull I actually was picturesque, but who knows.
Task-engage a native speaker(s) about a cultural or political issue
This one was easy! The Ukraine! It’s all anyone talks about around here. . Now, this issue, for Russians, is more than just cultural or just political, it’s both. It’s a cultural issue because Russians see the Ukrainians as an integral part of their history and culture
My hostess is intensely interested in the crisis in Ukraine. On the very first day I met her, she discoursed on the topic for quite a while, and when the professor in charge of the Russian program called to check on me, he happened to mention it and she argued with him about it for thirty minutes straight! According to her, every Russian has the same level of interest in the subject. I’m not so sure about that, since it’s mostly older people that I’ve heard discussing it. Anyhow, she listens to news radio about it absolutely every single morning and if the announcers spend even a moment on the FIFA world cup she harrumphs. “Football!” and quickly changes the station to find someone talking about the Ukraine elsewhere.
Her opinions are as follows: the Ukraine, like all the rest of the republics once a part of the Soviet Union “fled like rats escaping a sinking ship” hoping to get rich quick with capitalism (evil! money is the curse of the world!). And, Krushchev (that idiot!) gave them Crimea and they took it with them. But Crimea belongs to Russia! “Our Putin (she always calls him that) did the right thing taking it back, besides, Crimea wanted to come back.” She has a distant cousin there and so she uses this to verify her authority. A lot of Russians feel that way; if they have Russian-speaking relatives in the Ukraine, they use that to back up what they say. She believes that the world and the Ukraine especially hate Russia for absolutely no reason at all, and that we all believe the evil lies about Russia that our media propagates. She says Ukrainians are thieves and refuse to pay for all the gas Russia so generously gave them. She also believes Obama to be a hypocrite because, apparently, all the Ukrainians want is a system of provinces with more independence, just like how our states have their own constitutions, etc. (“I’ve been to the U.S., I know all about it,” she’d say) but Obama won’t grant that to them. I think that is the most interesting part about her opinion, and I’d like to learn more about that idea when I get home; whether or not it’s a part of the Russian media machine or a genuine desire for more independence from Kiev and centralization.
One man I talked to said some very interesting things about people in power in Russia, the Ukraine, and all the former Soviet Republics. It related to the newly elected president of the Ukraine. He said, “it’s very interesting, if you wonder how the people in power today got their posts, particularly the oligarchic billionaires, ask who their fathers were; they’re almost always the children of former Communist party bosses.” This is apparently the case with the new president of the Ukraine, the man who has been democratically elected, and whom our U.S. government supports. He’s a hugely rich man, the owner of a popular chocolate company, and coincidentally (according to this professor) he’s the son-in-law of the president ousted during the Ukrainian Orange Revolution 2004…
One final person I talked to about the Ukrainian Crisis is not in fact a Russian, but her opinion was interesting to have: a Finnish lady who lived in the same apartment as me for two weeks says that the Finnish, “are on our side,” as in, they also believe Russia is overstepping its influence, etc. I can only imagine how the Finnish feel at this point! After all, they only achieved their independence from Russia in 1918 or so! What if the Russians start edging towards them, too!
Just to be clear, I have never ever felt threatened or unsafe due to the fact that I’m an american and how that relates to this situation. No one has yelled at me or seen me as personally responsible for U.S. foreign policy or even as simply as a representative of An Enemy, which is what many people stateside led me to believe would happen. All the conversations I’ve had were perfectly civil and interesting. However, there was a whole lot of negativity regarding the U.S. which while disappointing, was not unexpected.
What a perfect segway into another SLA Task! Talk to three people you know pretty well, of different ages, about what they think about the United States. Next Week!
Finally, a quick word about how wonderful my hostess can be! I got home after a long day this week and all I felt like doing was to drink tea and read. She immediately launched into full-babushka mode. I asked to sit on the little balcony and really would have been fine with just a book, but she set out a little table with a tea tray with bread and cheese and tea biscuits and got me a rug for my feet, a pillow for the chair, and a blanket. And it was all so unselfconsciously done, she wasn’t try to make me like her or to impress me or to please herself with how nice she was being. She simply wanted me to be as completely comfortable as was in her power to do. It was remarkable! She would come tap on the window every ten minutes or so to ask if I was cold or needed more tea or cookies. And so, I sat perfectly happy munching and sipping and reading and looking out over the courtyard where a bunch of Russian kids were playing soccer. And to think I have but a week left.
Reflective Journal Entry 5:
I spoke with my 28 year old Russian teacher about her opinions of the United States today. She first clarified by saying that she is ‘a patriot.’ I suppose this means that she is unusually pro-Russia for someone her age. That’s not very surprising though, given that she chose teaching the Russian language as her profession! She began by saying that she liked all the American students she’s ever taught. She finds them enthusiastic, happy, good students. She enjoys teaching them, and has never had a problem personally with her students. However, she finds the behavior of the U.S. government aggressive, brash, and unsettling. Her particular phrase was “they always want to be the most important in the room, they always want to talk the loudest, they always have to be number one.” She thinks their interference in the Ukraine is unacceptable. I asked her what she thinks about American culture. Her response was very interesting; she said something like, “Oh I can’t judge American culture, it’s a melting pot, I don’t know about their national costume or folk songs or anything, since they’re all different.” Isn’t that kind of funny? For her, a Russian, the word “culture” means folk customs and practices! I clarified my statement and said I was talking about movies, music, clothing, etc, since that is something that Russian statesmen decry. She said that she thinks Russians should make better and more movies of their own, but she said that ‘american-style’ is a fact of life now, so there is no use struggling against it.
My hostess’s opinions are very similar. As I’ve mentioned, she has been to the United States several times, and speaks highly of her American friends there. However, her opinion about our statesmenship is something like this; “it’s like my next door neighbor brought a suitcase into my apartment, picked out a room and started to live there and tell me how to live, too!” She complains all the time about how the United States is always telling everyone what to do. Sometimes quite violently. “WHY? WHY are you everywhere?” she’ll ask me. Sometimes it’s pretty hard not to get offended at her tone of voice and accusatory gestures.
Finally, evidence of how real, young, my-age-or-younger Russians think of us is evident in how many young men and women I see wearing t-shirts emblazoned in Chicago Bulls or New York Yankees logoes, or Los Angeles or California Republic t-shirts. I rarely see a t-shirt with a slogan in cyrrillic. They’re almost exclusively in English. They listen to Macklemore and Rihanna and Eminem. In fact, one of my assignments in Russian class was use your new vocabulary to “plan a dinner for Beyonce!” Not even kidding! The Russian youth, to their elders dismay, love American style everything. It’s evident in the fact that the war drama called Stalingrad dedicated to victims of the seige there, and the most ambitious Russian movie ever made, was still completely annihilated in the box office by the latest Hobbit movie. I talked to a young man on a bus who was wearing a Chicago Bulls baseball cap, and told him I live in Chicago (I didn’t mention the fact that I probably could not name a single player on the entire team) but the delight on his face when I told him was pretty funny. Once I talked to a tourist from Ekaterinburg, across the Ural mountains, and he was beyond excited to meet an american. He told me I’m the first American he’d ever talked to at length. He and I took turns speaking in Russian, then in English, then in Russian, so we could both get practice. In my humble opinion, the youth seem to be admirers and imitators of America.
Anyhow, it’s my last week here! How?!? It’s crazy!
Yesterday we went to Novgorod, a city founded over a thousand years ago, and once part of great European trade routes. The city has a plethora of churches to visit as well as a large brick stronghold. Merchants and princes built churches to their patron saints, of which there does not seem to be a very long list, St. Nicholas, George, Mary, John the Baptist, etc. They all are in the form of a greek cross, that is, square, they soar high inside, but looked oddly squat from the outside. I later learned that that is because the earth has risen 1-2 meters since their construction! One of my favorite parts of touring these churches is learning about rediscovered secrets found when builders are restoring or remodeling them! In one church, they found graves of important people that had been forgotten and uncovered some frescoes from the original decoration of the church, 1000 years old! It’s so interesting that although these churches have been frequented and in use for up to a millenium, people still manage to forget about different little details.
Gosh, I have scarcely three days left! I have so much souvenir shopping to do! So many favorite little spots to bid farewell to! I’ll definitely be making one more stop at the Hermitage, I’ll wander the canals, particularly in the area near where Dostoevsky lived. His old neighborhood is different from other areas of the city, since the roads are much more winding, or are short and dead end abruptly. Apparently, he found it claustrophobic and rabbit-warren like. I think it’s charming! I don’t have to live there though…
I have to buy a parting gift for my hostess! She’s been so good to me, despite the occasional (constant?) railing against American foreign policy. There is one funny story I have about her that illustrates the way she thinks about modern capitalist living: a few mornings ago, I was cheerfully eating my bread and cheese, but it tasted kinda funny, so I looked at the toast a little more closely and to my dismay, it was moldy. I gurgled in horror and she asked me, “What, what’s wrong?” I struggled to find words, how the heck do you say, “moldy” in Russian? Needless to say, I had no idea. I settled with “Look!” When she saw that she had served me such a disgrace, she was deeply embarrassed and busied about getting me something else to eat. As she set a new plate of toast before me, she said grimly, and apologetically, “In soviet times, it wasn’t like this. In Soviet times, bread was always fresh!” I looked up at her incredulously and quickly ducked my head to keep from laughing out loud. I couldn’t believe she chose the political system under which the bread was baked as a way to explain away my moldy breakfast! But, there ya have it. In soviet times….insert why life was so much better here…..
But really, to her credit, she has been incredible, always teaching me Russian, giving me advice on what to see and do, drawing diagrams of Russian history, making me blini for free. I’m lucky to have been placed with her! (she assures me of that fact pretty often!)
St. Petersburg has been so wonderful, I only hope I can come back one day!
Reflective Journal Entry 6:
Well, I’m back in the United States, to both my sorrow and my joy. It’s great to be back, because I get to show my family all the pictures and rave about things like vatrushka, which is a Russian pastry or about the beautiful Karelia concert hall where I saw a symphony or about how completely rude Russian cashiers can be. But how I miss it! It’s so weird to not always be straining to understand the conversations of people around me, to hear English, to eat vegetables, to not carry an umbrella with me absolutely everywhere!
Thankfully, the weather for my last few days in St. Petersburg improved dramatically. It was warm and sunny! As my hostess said, “It is St Petersburg saying goodbye and telling you to come back next summer!” However it made leaving so much harder! Toward the end of my trip, I was pretty tired of the chilly rain, but whenever the sun shone, I was so sad to leave.
Now that I’ve left, I realize even more clearly how true the poem by Fyoder Tyutchev is:
Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone,
No ordinary yardstick can span her greatness:
She stands alone, unique –
In Russia, one can only believe.”
On one hand, I learned so much! Not just grammar, but about Russian culture, about people, about how to take a plunge and eat something that does not look too appetizing, but turns out great! On the other, I was only on the very very edge of Russia, both figuratively and literally. Living Russia’s “window to the West” advanced my knowledge, but linguistically and culturally, I have so far to go. It’s kind of daunting to imagine the entirety of Russian language, art, theology, politics, stretching out in front of me, in the same way it’s frightening, while living in St Petersburg, to realize that away to the East the expanse of Russian just goes and goes and goes. And goes and goes. And goes. The only thing I can do is continue studying Russia and Russian and Russians, even though I know I will never be able to read every poet, to see every icon, to visit every historical or picturesque site. My time in St. Petersburg has set me off on this (please excuse this terrible cliche, but it’s true) journey of a lifetime! Hopefully I can combine what I learn both this past month, and in the next few years at ND with my career in business. I’d love to maybe study Russian agriculture, especially how it transitioned at the end of the USSR! I learned a tiny bit about it from conversations with a businesswoman who worked in the south of Russia and she only increased my interest in the subject!
I think the most important thing I learned is how Russian is spoken. Constantly hearing phonetic/idiomatic constructions is so valuable! It makes the language come alive! It also made me more conscious of how I speak English and slur and mumble and shorten words, which is pretty interesting.
It is just so incredible, now that I’m back, working at an ice cream store, reading on my porch, driving in terrible Chicago traffic, and any and all mundane activities to think that just weeks ago, I was strolling through the Summer Garden. I am so grateful for this chance I had, to go and really learn Russian. I can only thank the CSLC office, the Nanovic Institute, and all of the donors that make this program possible!
I look forward to using all I learned this coming semester in Russian 201!
Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:
Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:
How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future: