Reflections on my time in Russia

My time abroad in St. Petersburg is now, I believe, far enough removed that I can properly reflect on it. First, I will touch on my linguistic experience. I have like have made big strides in my abilities with the language, although I have learned that gaining fluency is not something that will happen passively. Before my program, I laid out five goals for my language learning. My first was to be able to hold a conversation on various topics. By and large, I believe I have met that goal, although I still struggle with understanding spoken Russian. My second goal was to understand both perspectives on U.S.-Russian relations. I have definitely met this goal; from meeting Russian locals to visiting the U.S. Consulate, I have greatly improved my knowledge of the countries’ relationship. My third was gaining ability to read Russian literature. I have not yet tested this, but I believe I am capable. My penultimate objective was achieving 2 semesters’ worth of study during my summer; I believe my time was actually more equivalent to something a semester and a half. My final goal was to gain greater insight into the human experience. I firmly believe I accomplished this, seeing another side of the globe and experiencing new perspectives.

Overall, my SLA Grant experience was extremely rewarding. I have learned how to view the world differently. Most importantly, I learned the outsiders’ view on American exceptionalism. That term has many connotations, both negative and positive; this summer has allowed me to more fully see both sides. This is not to say that I was a blind nationalist before, learning to see American evil; rather, I have learned to recognize both the good and the bad in America, what it represents, and where it stands in the world. I would highly recommend the SLA Grant to anyone considering applying. My biggest advice would be for them to think about more than just the language. My biggest regret, mostly due to the cultural divide, is not making true Russian friends. If you are preparing to study abroad, embrace the unusual and the unique, reach out, and immerse in not just culture, but also language.

Going forward, Russian and my time in Russia will play a large role in my life. I decided against skipping a year of Russian and am currently in Intermediate Russian I, where I can solidify my knowledge of Russian grammar. I am tentatively still going to receive a Russian minor, but I may pursue another study abroad next summer and push to receive a major or supplementary major. Beyond the classroom applications, this experience will help my future career goals. I outlined before the summer how I hope to work in international relations, security, or a similar field, likely in the public sector. This experience, in addition to improving my linguistic abilities, has also gained me an international viewpoint others in my field may lack. Most importantly, this experience will stay with me for the rest of my life. It is possible that I will return to Russia, most likely to Moscow, for study next summer, but it is also possible I may never see Russia or have any such experience again. When, in old age, I look back at my time at Notre Dame, there will be many fond memories, but my study abroad through the SLA Grant may stand foremost among them.

An old post

While writing my post-program reflection, I realize that I had accidentally forgotten to publish a post from July 10, initially intended to be my 2nd post. So, I’m posting it here in its original form, as my final “while abroad” post.

4th of July, Russian style

I may be in Russia, but that didn’t mean that the 4th of July wasn’t celebrated! My program consists of around 60 American students, so we wanted to find a way to celebrate that was still cognizant of our environment and location. The holiday fell on a Tuesday, so there was not much of a chance for organized activities. Around ten students, including myself and two Russians, went to an American-style karaoke bar in the city. The bar was about an even split between Americans and Russians, and all the Russians seemed very excited to meet Americans and take part in the foreign celebration.

The remainder of the week was fairly normal, as I have now settled into life in Saint Petersburg. My classes continued, and I am adjusting to the very forward (verging at times on condescending) style of my professor. He is a polyglot: he is a native speaker of Russian and Dutch, learned German and English at a young age, and is also conversational in Spanish and French. As a result, it seems, he has little tolerance for our struggles with what he views as easy parts of the language.

On Sunday the 9th, we celebrated the 4th of July more officially. Our program administrators organized a picnic for all of us students, as well as the program’s Russian volunteers and any local friends we brought along. We went to a park and ate, threw a frisbee, and enjoyed ourselves. There’s a more remarkable part to this story, however: we stumbled into the filming of a movie! We saw dozens of actors, mostly extras, in aristocratic dress gathering and film crews preparing the set. One of us asked one of the actors what the movie was, and apparently it was a movie about Tsar Nicholas II and his family, in honor of the 100-year anniversary of the Russian Revolution. 

Final Post: Thoughts and Goodbye


As I wrap up my time in Alicante, the predominant thought I have is where did all the time go? I have grown to love the experience of living in a country with a second language, as it is a constant puzzle to figure out what people are saying, and constantly keeps me on my toes. I feel that I have grown and developed so much since coming to Spain, both in my language skills and my identity as a global citizen. Although I have only cracked the surface on the amount of cultural experiences that I needed to have in order to consider myself a citizen of Spain, the amount that I was exposed to certain proved to provide a taste of the many subtleties that differentiate Spain.

One of the only things that I would change about my experience is that I would have spoken more in Spanish with the other study abroad participants. Although we tried to speak in Spanish at all times, often times it was easier to convey the message in English, so we relied on the crutch instead of making use of all the resources available to us. That being said, the experience of living with my host mom and constantly speaking Spanish with her made up for a lot of the other time, because there was no other option when conversing with her.

My biggest takeaway from the summer besides the language would be the ability to immerse myself in a situation in which I felt uncomfortable. I went to Spain not knowing anyone or anything about the country, and was able to make it through the difficult situations with relative ease. Even though there were some times when I wished that I would understand the language perfectly, learning new words and the colloquial language was constantly exciting and provided new revelations. I hope to visit Spain again soon.

Las Hogueras

I was fortunate enough to be able to witness the primary holiday of Alicante, which is called Las Hogueras. This day celebrates the feast day of San Juan, or Saint John. Over a million people attended the festivals, and the festivities lasted a full two weeks. During the first week, there were displays of las hogueras, which are giant art displays that cost 100,000 euros to make each. Every neighborhood creates and then displays their own hoguera, which gives the character to the neighborhood. In total, there are over 30 hogueras on display in the city. Every day, firework-like bangs called las mascletas go off in the center of Alicante during the day, which leads to a full day of partying and drinking through out the streets. Then, on the weekend, people head to the beach to make bonfires and jump over them. One of my friends actually got burnt while trying to jump over the fire.

The biggest night of the festival is the night of San Juan, when the hogueras are burned to the ground one at a time. People proceed through the streets until they are all burned, which lasts until 5 or 6 in the morning. Overall, it is a huge festival and there is partying, drinking, and tons of tradition throughout. The night used to be more focused around religion, but as the country became more secular, so did the festival. Now, El Día del San Juan is only the name of a day, which doesn’t bear any religious significance to the largely

non-practicing country. On all levels, the citizens of Alicante see the festival in the same way. Although some know more about the history than others, the intent and cultural practices are what stand out for mostly everyone living there.

I had a lot of fun participating in the largest festival of Alicante, and surely enjoyed learning more about the development and significance behind it.





The Role of Food in Alicante

One of the most significant experiences I have had in Spain is the difference in cuisine and the importance of food. In Alicante, food plays a huge role in ordering the events of daily life, and people take great pride in creating dishes that are to taste. While here, I have participated in many different cuisine experiences, including two different cooking classes. The first was a tapas preparation, where I learned how to make ensalada rusa and tortilla, which is the Spanish omelet. This was very exciting because I learned all about the ingredients and preparation, as well as the rationale for the importance of each of the dishes. When it gets very hot in the summer, cooler dishes are needed that require minimal use of the oven and are lighter to eat. These tapas that we created served exactly that purpose, the ensalada rusa required no cooking whatever, and the tortilla did not take long to create.

More importantly, the second cooking class I took was to make arroz a la banda, which is a very traditional rice dish and a specialty of Alicante. The dish contains a variety of seafood, which reflects the location on the Mediterranean. In addition, the preparation is very specific and related to paella but with a richer paste as a base. Overall, Alicantinos feel a connection with this dish because of the generational connection, and the influence of their own society on its preparation. My host mom has spoken multiple times about food preparation, and always emphasizes the health of the food she makes through the use of olive oil. Food is not just food but an identity for the region and helps the family to come together socially during mealtimes. In addition, since it is not common

for people to invite others to their house, they instead meet up for tapas or drinks, which reinforces the importance of food in the center of Spanish culture.

Opinions on Los Toros

            For class, we had to go interview people on social questions to see the contrasting opinions between Spain and the United States. One of the most important cultural issues in Spain is the role of los toros, or the bulls. It is a very controversial issue in Spain because there are strong cultural and historical ties to the killing of bulls in bullfights, as well as the running of the bulls, but many people are against these practices because of animal rights practices. In Catalonia, they have outlawed bullfights, but all other regions, including Alicante, have legal bullfights at least once a year. I witnessed both a bullfight and the running of the bulls, in order to gain a sense of what actually happened at these events before judging them.

After learning more about the toros, I went on the streets and asked people what their opinions were of the bulls. Most of the people were against bullfights to varying degrees, with a few people saying that they did not have an opinion on the issue. There was one older man that said he was in favor and regularly attended. My professor herself was in favor, and said that she had been influenced by her father, who was a huge bull supporter.

It is very hard for me to evaluate the opinion on los toros because I do not have the influence of history in my opinion; I only see the issue as an animal rights one, not one of the identity of Spain. Therefore, I am biased in my analysis of whether it should be allowed or not. Some of my friends that also saw the bulls for the first time were excited by the prospect and were not against the practice, which shows there is still a draw to watching a bullfight beyond just the historical significance.

The English Language

The most surprising thing about Italy was the pervasiveness of the English language. In most restaurants, shops, and the streets of even small cities, the locals speak to tourists in English – some with excitement at the opportunity to practice, and others with grudging distain.

I discovered that as a result, perhaps, Italians are generally excited, impressed, and grateful when an American replies to them in Italian – no matter how poor the pronunciation or syntax.

Perhaps the pervasiveness of English is an aggregate good for commerce, the sharing of ideas, and the creation of a global culture – in which people across the world consume and appreciate the same literature, film, and other media – but sometimes it makes me feel like a downright imposition. The Italians and other Europeans I interacted and conversed with on a daily basis were forced to meet me more than half way when comprehension was lacking on either side.

Most obvious were the embarrassing encounters at stores where the busy clerk, upon seeing that I hadn’t comprehend his blur of Italian slang, laboriously and disdainfully spat: “vould you like a baaag?”

More poignant an example is what transpired when my Italian friend introduced me to his French friend from Erasmus, the European equivalent of study abroad. Eddy (Edoardo) speaks his regional dialect, Italian, passable French, and very good English. Yana speaks her native French, less Italian than I (and that is a meaningful distinction), and English. As a result, most of our conversations – excepting the moments in which Eddy tried to impress and flatter Yana with declarations in French – were in English.

As the native speaker in this scenario, I found myself explaining the idioms, pointing them in the right direction as they searched for the English words to express themselves, and occasionally giving a small grammar lesson. I felt their micro-frustrations when they struggled to get a point across in my vulgar tongue.

I learned that Americans are exceptionally privileged – even compared to the more international British – because their language is spoken globally, yet also sheltered and disconnected. I hope that next time I go to Italy the natives I converse with will only have to meet me a little more than half way linguistically.


Near closing time at my local supermercato, I found myself alone in the checkout line. I have no idea how they do it, but the clerks there usually guess that I am an American and ask in English if I would like a bag. Perhaps it’s my way of dressing, the food I toss in my basket, or the way I carry myself, but they always seem to know. In this instance, whether from fatigue, indifference, or ignorance, the clerk asked me – in Italian – if I would like una busta. I replied excitedly, in Italian, that I would indeed. When it came time for the customary transaction of the credit card for the pen to sign, she noticed that the one she presented to me was out of ink. In frustration, she threw it in the trash and stomped over to the next till – muttering exasperatedly about her long, boring, and tiring day – to find a functional one. As she walked, I said after her, “posso firmare in sangue” “I can sign in blood”. She returned chuckling with the pen, and when I left with my busta, she wished me a good day with a smile on her face.

To have the words immediately available to respond with empathy and effect the timing of comedy is a testament to my small degree of linguistic achievement.


Before visiting the Uffizi and the Accademia in Florence, our culture class professor asked us to read an essay by Walter Benjamin titled “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936). It made me consider the notion that viewing art in person is a superior experience than viewing a reproduction. Until reading Benjamin’s essay, I had accepted the former as true with little consideration. I had visited art galleries in America from a young age and been taught to marvel at the presence of something original. More so during my time in Italy than ever in my life, however, I was confronted by art in its original form, if not in its original condition of presentation, and I began to consider why our society values originality and why I had never bothered to consider the questions Benjamin raises. While I don’t, perhaps, understand his underlying commentary on Fascism, Capitalism, and Marxism, I do have these reflections in light of one trip to Florence:

Despite the advent of exact reproducibility, art suffers from a secondhand experience. Whether the casual observer appreciates what Walter Benjamin called the unique condition of its presence in time and space, or they are merely drawn to famous works such as Michelangelo’s David by their rarity and popularity, most people today recognize the value of viewing art in person. The advent of modern technology including reproducibility does, however, provide new and profound ways to experience art.

There are two main reasons for which modern observers journey and pay to see art. One is to appreciate the work’s unique presence in time and space, and the other is to participate in the ritual of observing something rare – and in the modern style, share this experience with others through social media. Though one reason might be seen as more valid or noble than the other, the necessity of a first hand experience and an understanding of the work’s historical and artistic significance underlies both rationales.

The masses that Benjamin references desire “to bring things ‘closer’ spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their bent toward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accepting its reproduction” (Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction). The masses of his time desired to overcome the privileged uniqueness of art by participating in an exciting and new estimation of it, namely photographical reproduction. The masses of the current time, however, are familiar with reproduction to the point of disillusionment; they seek out authenticity because today it is something rare (there are, of course, people of Benjamin’s and the current time who would view the firsthand experience of art as an unnecessary privilege). Anyone with Internet access can see any work of art, but only the privileged few are able to see the same in person. In a culture that values the portrayal of only the grandest moments in one’s life, through social media, viewing The David in Florence is much akin to having court side seats at Wimbledon; it is the rarity that counts more than the content.

In Benjamin’s framework, The David can be thought of as created with explicit exhibition value rather than ritual value. Though David is an important Christian figure from the Old Testament, the statue was not meant to be reverenced, but rather admired as he gazed out over the Florentine skyline (possibly aiming his sling at Siena). Today, the statue has gained something of a ritual value. Tourists stream into the Academia, rush past the Prisoners, and make a lap around The David to photograph him from every angle.

The other main reason for viewing art in person is to appreciate its unique condition of presentation. Benjamin writes that with a mechanical reproduction of art, “the quality of its presence is always depreciated”. “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” (Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction).  Benjamin elaborates that the unique condition of art includes its changes in physical appearance and changes in ownership – both create a “testimony to the history which it has experienced”. Each great work of art has an aura constituted by and exists in the domain of tradition. Michelangelo’s David provides an interesting case because it was originally meant to be displayed atop the Duomo and was subsequently displayed in Palazzo della Signora. Today, its aura has evolved and its placement under a skylight in a well-lit room, flanked by the Prisoner sculptures, has become authentic. For this reason, the same tourists who flock to Florence to see The David are less likely to stop and photograph the replica in Palazzo della Signora.

While the firsthand experience of art is vital, modern technology – including reproduction – offers some viewing benefits. When discussing mechanical reproduction, specifically photography, Benjamin writes, “process reproduction can bring out those aspects of the original that are unattainable to the naked eye yet accessible to the lens”. Later in his discussion of film, Benjamin observes, “the enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject” (Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction). For this reason, art is able to be experienced in new and profound ways with the amplification of technical reproduction.

In the example of The David, a wise professor was able to show me the details of the veins on his right hand and explain the reason for his distinct proportions before I ever set foot in the Academia. Similarly, I saw close up images of David’s hair and learned Michelangelo’s reason for leaving it relatively unfinished; had I seen the statue only in the Academia, I would not have fully appreciated the contrast between David’s detailed sideburns and stony hair – due to his height. While modern technology cannot replace the human experience, its conscientious use can enhance the latter.


Walter Benjamin, translated by Harry Zohn, edited by Hannah Arendt. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Schocken/Random House.

Un Sogno della Puntualità 

On my morning walk from Casa di Alfredo to the Dante Alighieri School, I pass through five unique zones of the city, discernible by my five senses. I observe different activities in various parts of the city by tasting, touching, hearing, smelling, and seeing.

First, I wake up in the residential neighborhood outside the city’s north gate. I become aware of nonna and Antonella chatting excitedly in their thick Sienese accents. Outside my window, I hear the other guests conversing in rapid Korean. Already, I am immersed in a foreign sea of sound (for an American, most any European city offers greater diversity than at home. In the Bed and Breakfast alone, I have met people from Japan and Mexico, and at school, I have met people from Australia, England, Switzerland, France, Canada, and Austria). As I walk into the dining room, my nose is all but overwhelmed with the aroma of fresh sausage, espresso, Parmesan, warm milk, Nutella torte, and poorly made Americano coffee. The familiar tastes of nonna’s fresh bruschetta, plums, and salami excite my taste buds and draw from me the last visages of sleep.

I can tell I have left the residential quarter as soon as I step out of the wrought iron gate of Casa di Alfredo. Busses, cars, and Vespas roar up and down the hill traversed by Viale Don Giovanni Minzoni as the drivers honk their horns and make some of the rude gesticulations I have learned about in class. As I timidly stand on the curb waiting for a traversable gap in traffic, I inhale the exhaust from cars and feel the heat from their tail pipes. Alternatively, in situations where I am late for school, I sprint wildly across the congested street as eager tourists in busses and yawning, suited Italians on Vespas alike watch with respective horror and approval. In either case, when I reach Via Camollia, I know immediately I have reached the third stage of my journey.

I pass a shop that sells bikes, one with fresh wild boar in the window, one with overflowing boxes of fruit stacked outside, and one that sells swords, maces, and armor. The proprietor of the tobacco store wearing – what I have observed over the past five weeks to be – his favorite white dress shirt and cargo shorts sits sipping a café across the street from his shop. In this zone, life seems more naturally organized: the pedestrians, Vespas, and few cars weave in between each other in an unregulated but sensible pattern, without silly contrivances like traffic lights and stop signs. A car rolls around a corner then gently inches forward to avoid a woman crossing the intersection – but just barley. Vespas, garbage trucks, street cleaners, and all manner of automobiles and mounted police somehow navigate a street built for less activity. I comprehend snatches of conversation and odd words spoken by the Italians opening their shops or rushing to work while chattering on the phone, and easily recognize the tourists already blindfolded by their maps, weighed down by backpacks, and speaking in their vulgar, grating American English. As I enter Piazza Salimbeni, to my left I hear the jangle of the beggar’s first or last few coins as he twirls them back and forth with his calloused hands and sits on a ledge outside a shop. To my right, I see the newest street art edition: a rather emotive rendition of Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring”.

Suddenly, a shop owner throws a bucket of water into the street that nearly misses my shoes. As she begins to sweep the street clean I realize that I have now begun the fourth more metropolitan segment of my journey. It is almost a surprise, still, that as a truck rumbles behind me waiting to pass a large crowd of pedestrians, I look to the left and above the arches of the Palazzo soars the iconic tower. My calves strain and my shirt becomes damp with sweat as I climb the hill with Accademia Musicale Chigiana on my left. An owl hoots as I recall the baroque theater in the Chigiana in which I heard string quartets from France, Japan, and Italy play a concert the other night.

Finally, walking under the Virgin Mary enthroned next to the street sign above the Trattorias and tourist traps in Pantera territory, I reach the fifth and final leg of my journey. This residential quarter is quiet at all hours of the day and the parked cars and Vespas look almost out of place between the narrow medieval walls. A family sits smoking on their steps and I greet them with a friendly “buona giornata”.

As I approach the School, I think of the heated debate Christophero and I have carried on since the first day of class about the fastest route from Casa di Alfredo to Dante Alighieri. Perhaps my route following Via di Città is longer than his that snakes behind the Duomo. I take my path everyday, however, not because it’s familiar and straightforward, but because it is never exactly the same. The shopkeepers I recognize will always have different expressions and the students and professionals on their way to work (some of whom pass and greet me in the street everyday) will never be dressed in the same way or thinking the same thoughts. The fruit store will never have the same selection of fruit it does today, and the water the shopkeepers use to clean the street in front of their businesses will never run down the street and dry in the same pattern. When one follows the same path everyday, he begins to see Siena as more than a compilation of buildings, museums, and churches, but rather as a living body – of citizens, tourists, and students – constantly growing, changing, and thriving.

Arrivo alla scuola presto e poi, mi sveglio nella Casa di Alfredo.