Growin’ Up in Eight Weeks

In Bruce Springsteen’s 1973 album “Greetings from Asbury Park” (his first with the E Street Band), we listen to Bruce describe the process of growing up and setting roots down in a place in a song aptly titled “Growin’ Up”. After he describes the challenges, in the last verse he sings, “Well, my feet they finally took root in the earth…and I swear I found the key to the universe in the engine of an old parked car”. Perhaps this is symbolic of him finding his niche and learning to be comfortable with his identity. After eight weeks in Russia, I similarly feel that I have found an environment where I can embrace my appreciation of Russian culture and language, and I learned how to tackle new challenges of acculturation.

But now, it is time for me to say goodbye. Eight intense and incredible weeks here have left me with not only language gains and education but also more confidence in my capability to tackle new challenges. Those of you who know me well know that I’ve shared these sentiments of personal growth and confidence, and honestly that might be the most important accomplishment of this summer. In a couple days, I will concentrate more specifically on the language gains and education in my post-program reflection.

Over the course of this summer, there were many new and unfamiliar challenges and unfamiliar challenges in my daily interactions, but one

Main monument to the soliders at Borodino, the site of the bloodiest battle of the 19th century

source of stability was my weekly Catholic Mass. Nestled within a city neighborhood stands a large, red brick Gothic-style cathedral, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. A couple of times I attended the English-French Mass but most of the time, I opted for the Russian Mass. Often I did not understand a lot of what was said, but I picked up responses and could also participate based on the consistency of the Catholic Mass. It was fulfilling when I finally understood some of the Gospel reading.

The status of Catholics in Russia remains complicated, as it is not recognized as one of the core religions of the Russian state. Significant doctrinal differences still stand between Russian Orthodox and Catholic Churches, and reconciliation has been slow. Given the alliance between

The Winter Palace, St. Petersburg

the government and the Russian Orthodox Church, Catholics can sometimes find themselves politically marginalized. For instance, the English-French Catholic community (mostly consisting of African and Southeast Asian immigrants) at the cathedral continues to look for a permanent home, as they were evicted from their previous building and have not been successful in litigation. For now, they have Mass in the crypt of the Cathedral.

As a whole, the Catholic community in Russia is a small one, consisting of probably less than 0.5% of the population. As my host brother-in-law told me, there are two active Catholic churches in Moscow, a city of 12 million people. The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception is the most popular one, originally built by Polish Catholic immigrants at the turn of

The throne room of the Winter Palace, St. Petersburg

the 20th century. My host family are actually descendants of these Polish immigrants and are practicing Catholics. My host mother stated that she, as a Russian Catholic, has not felt excluded by her friends and colleagues who know her Catholic identity. Likewise, my host brother-in-law shared the idea that in a city as big as Moscow, it is easier to practice than it would be in a small city or village. Yes, Catholicism is in the minority, but this vibrant community continues to grow here in Moscow.

Now, time for a short recap of my adventures this past week:

  • St. Petersburg / Lake Ladoga Cruise: Last Sunday evening, I traveled to St. Petersburg on an overnight train and explored the city on Monday
    A fort from 1321 that guards the southern entrance to Lake Ladoga from the Neva River

    before boarding a river cruise to Lake Ladoga. The boat took us up the Neva River to the southern coast of Lake Ladoga, a huge freshwater lake northeast of St. Petersburg that allows for gorgeous views and cool breezes. We stopped at several monasteries and a quarry-turned-park that provided the stone to build structures like St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg. We also had the chance to view rural life in the Russian countryside, a far cry from the glamor of Moscow and Petersburg. The boat returned on Friday morning and after another day of exploring St. Petersburg and the Winter Palace, I returned to Moscow.

  • Borodino: On Monday, I decided to take a day trip to visit Borodino, the site of the famous 1812 battle of the Napoleonic Wars and the
    Fragment of the earthen barricades constructed by Russian artillery at the Battle of Borodino in 1812

    bloodiest battle of the 19th century. Unfortunately, I picked the day to go when the museum itself was closed, but I was able to walk around the territory and see some of the various monuments. The most impressive structure is a huge monument that commemorates all of the soldiers at Borodino, which looks out over the rolling hills of the battlefield. The small towns alongside the monuments belied the area’s historical significance – you would never guess that this place was the site of one of the most famous engagements in Russian military history. I made my return trip interesting by missing my train, asking how to get to the next city for a train, taking a bus there, and then finally catching a commuter train back to Moscow.

  • Lenin’s Mausoleum: As Lou Holtz once said, “If you have been here, no explanation is necessary. If you haven’t, none will suffice.” That’s all I have for this one.
  • Exploring Moscow / My Favorite Place: Yesterday, I walked all around
    A view of Lake Ladoga from the back of the cruise ship

    Moscow to see everything one last time, and I made my way back to my favorite place – the Большой камменый мост, or simply, the Big Stone Bridge. Some of you might remember that I took a picture from this same bridge last year and this year, and it was here that my love for Russia and Moscow began. I was able to stop by, take another picture of the gorgeous view of the Kremlin, and reflect on the language and personal gains this summer.

  1. I will be flying back to Washington and then to Pittsburgh on Thursday, staying for four days before I return to Notre Dame. I want to thank everyone who has been reading and following my summer adventures, and I hope that you have all learned along with me. I will write a brief closing blog in a couple days, but this will be my last comprehensive post. I have greatly enjoyed sharing my experiences abroad and perhaps my second “growing up” as a result of language immersion. I only hope that I will have the chance to blog live from Russia in the near future.

Everybody’s Got a Hungry Heart…

In his track “Hungry Heart” from his breakthrough 1980 album “The River”, Bruce Springsteen sings of an adventure that takes him away from home but prevents him from returning. As the first verse tells us, “Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowin’, I took a wrong turn and I just can’t go home”. As my time in Moscow quickly winds down, I feel a desire to stay in Moscow and continue to learn and live – the ironic part of this journey is that just as I feel like I am making my biggest strides in using and understanding Russian, it is almost time to leave. But alas, this is only an incentive for me to return to Russia in the near future.

Yesterday, I finished my classes for the summer semester at Moscow International University. A grammar exam, oral exams, and a couple of essays marked the culmination of 7 weeks of coursework. Next week, our group will spend 3-4 days on a cruise around Lake Ladoga, visiting the towns of the scenic Republic of Karelia (a semi-autonomous republic in northwest Russia that has more sovereignty in local matters than other oblasts). We will also have a day before and after the cruise that we will spend in St. Petersburg.

Before I cover some of my adventures from the past 10 or so days, I wanted to share my thoughts about a very important cultural holiday here in Russia – Victory Day (День Победы), celebrated on May 9. Just like V-E Day on May 8, День Победы celebrates the victory of the Allied Coalition against Germany in the Second World War. However, more importantly, this day also commemorates the millions of Soviet soldiers who lost their lives in their Great Patriotic War (Великая отвечественная война). As a result, this day is especially important to all Russians. Every year in Moscow there is a parade featuring surviving veterans and a concert, but in contrast to the celebrations, there are flowers and wreaths presented solemnly at the monuments to the victims of the war – civilians and soldiers alike.

Center aisle of Парк Победы, featuring the central obelisk with St. George on horseback

I had the chance to ask one of my Russian friends about this holiday and journeyed with her to Victory Park (Парк Победы), a gorgeous and solemn display of monuments to the victims of the war amidst green rows of trees. Among the monuments are a memorial synagogue and a sculpture dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust. Another statue features four figures, one from each of the main Allied Powers – Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States. The main statue of the park is a huge, painstakingly detailed obelisk with a sculpture of St. George (the patron saint of Moscow) on horseback.

Perhaps it is this similarity between Russia and the United States – a shared legacy of the wartime service of millions of citizens – that we find the greatest reminder of our common humanity. My friend and I shared our stories of relatives’ service – her great-grandfather fought in the war, while both of my grandfathers served on the Pacific front. She told me that veterans would often come to schools and talk about the war, but like many American veterans they rarely spoke about details. Like many other Russians, Victory Day and its historical significance are incredibly important for her, and she says that it is actually her favorite holiday.

“In the fight against fascism, we were together.” Парк Победы, Moscow

One of my professors at the university also lectured about Victory Day and its significance, especially about the losses that the day represents. Every Russian family at that time sent at least one family member to thewar, and many sent more – sons, brothers, husbands, fathers. My professor actually showed us some letters that her father sent home from the war front, filled with encouraging and affectionate language. Unfortunately, most did not survive, and these huge losses are on a scale unimaginable to Americans. Most of these losses actually come from civilian deaths, thanks to invasion and siege. We still don’t know the official extent of Soviet losses, as declassification of Soviet documents means an ever-changing estimate, but perhaps as many as 11 million soldiers and probably more than 25 million citizens perished during the war. My professor personally relates to these losses, as her youngest brother was sadly killed during the war near Stalingrad.

As a result, День Победы remains a crucial memorial to the service and sacrifice of millions of Soviet citizens and is also a source of great national pride. Regardless of opinions of the Soviet regime, Russians celebrate this day because nearly every family can relate to its significance. Парк Победы is a beautiful reminder of this national pride and sorrow, inevitably intertwined in the Russian mentality.

On a lighter note, I had the chance this past weekend to visit two old Russian cities: Tula and Vladimir (I didn’t have the chance to visit Sergiev Posad on Sunday). Let’s look at these and other adventures:

Tolstoy’s home at his estate, Ясная Поляна
  • Tula (Тула) and Tolstoy’s Estate (Ясная Поляна): Last Friday, our group traveled via bus to Leo Tolstoy’s residence not far from the old city of Tula. His estate sits quietly among the fields of provincial Russia, about three hours by bus away from Moscow. We toured the scenic property and his home. Afterwards, we stopped in the city of Tula, known for its samovar museum and small Kremlin. The interior of the Kremlin was lined with craft shops and bakeries, and in the center of the territory stands a church and museum.
  • Vladimir (Владимир): On Saturday, some friends and I traveled by train to Vladimir, another ancient city northeast of Moscow. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the city served as the capital of medieval Russia but
    View of historic Vladimir, featuring 850-year old and 900-year old churches in the background and foreground, respectively

    declined in prominence after the Mongol invasion of 1237. In the 14th century, the grand princes moved their court to Moscow. Nonetheless, the town is full of history in its monasteries, churches, monuments, and its old entry gate. At least three churches  date to the 12th century, and the old stone gate that stands in the center of the old town was built in 1166. We walked around the city, ate at several small cafes, and saw how life in the provincial cities differs from the hustle and bustle of Moscow. From the top of the hill and the deck of an observation tower, one can see the rolling hills and fields of the Russian countryside. To date, my day in Vladimir was my favorite of the trip.

  • Speaking: Yesterday I had a really good day of speaking, first with some oral exams in the morning and then later with a Russian friend of mine and her friend. We walked around Парк Победы and then ate at a local cafe, and besides not always hearing the questions I understood how to respond. Furthermore, I was able to more competently talk about some American politics and history – in the past, I’ve tried this but it doesn’t usually go well. However, with some help on some vocab this time, I was able to convey my points and was understood, which I considered quite a personal victory. For sure I’m still making errors, but the major errors are rare and smaller errors are less frequent. I am more satisfied with my speaking ability than ever before, and more importantly I have the confidence to put myself in most everyday situations.
In the foreground is a monument to Prince Vladimir, who Christianized Russia in the 10th century. Behind me is the Assumption Cathedral (Собор Успения Прксвятой Богородицы, 1160), which served as the inspiration for Assumption Cathedral in Moscow.

In short, I’ve had quite a few adventures in this past week – two new cities, many historical sites, and endless reasons to love Russia. I now realize that my personal gamble of spending two months in Russia was well worth the risks. Springsteen also sings in “Hungry Heart” that since “everybody’s got a hungry heart,” you should “lay down your money and…play your card”. Given this sentiment, I would say that for the first time, I truly gambled and played my cards. I took perhaps the biggest risk of my life, and now I am finally reaping the rewards of that decision.

Given that I will be on a cruise in the middle of a lake, I don’t expect to be easily accessible. If I have the service, I will try to keep in contact. Until then, good night from Moscow!

Moscow State of Mind

Billy Joel sang in 1976 that “I know what I’m needin’, and I don’t want to waste more time”, and nearly six weeks into my summer abroad I have a similar sentiment. Instead of New York, however, I’m in a Moscow state of mind, and I want to make the most of my remaining opportunities to progress in Russian. Between classes, homework, and explorations, the past two weeks have been a whirlwind of activity and learning. Nonetheless, life has seemed normal, giving me confidence that I can succeed in most daily tasks. Hearing and understanding spoken Russian in the classroom is easier and no longer exhausting. Next week will be my final week of classes, and I will post an update about my upcoming adventures for the following two weeks.

Once again, I want to start with another survey of an important cultural and political issue – and no, it’s not the Putin-Trump summit. All of you in the United States can debate that as you wish, but I will say nothing about that here. Instead, one of the hottest issues of the summer here in Russia is the introduction of legislation to raise the pension/retirement age. Currently, Russian women are eligible to receive pensions at 55 while men can receive pensions at 60. Under the new plan, through incremental increases in the age requirements, the new age of eligibility will be 63 for women and 65 for men.

For Russians, this news comes as quite a shock and brings important social consequences. Given that multiple generations of families often live together in one house or apartment, families rely on pension income for extra income. Many believe that current salaries are insufficient to support extra years of work, including a Russian friend of mine who was critical of the proposed reforms. When we talked about the issue yesterday evening, she informed me about the basic workings of the pension system – similar to the United States, citizens pay into the system throughout their working lives but through an automatic tax on purchases. She believes that lower pay combined with more years of paying into the system will strain families’ financial resources.

Furthermore, there are the issues of child care and life expectancy. My host mother and host sister both emphasized the impact on families when we discussed the pension reforms, and they could not believe how Americans do not receive their pensions until their mid-60s. Both of them stated the importance of mothers and grandmothers caring for children, who are often the center of family life. With more years of

Cathedral Square, Moscow Kremlin. To the left is Archangel Cathedral, and in the background behind me is the Annunciation Cathedral.

work required before receiving pensions, women will have to spend more time away from home and from children, leaving questions as to how to care for them. Their fears make more sense within the context of a strong dependence on the nuclear family, especially on mothers and grandmothers. Additionally, as we discussed, Americans tend to marry later and start families later these days than Russians.

Finally, life expectancy – especially for men – is lower here than in the United States: according to data from 2017, women can expect to live to about 77, which is similar to figures for American women. However, Russian men have an average life expectancy of only 66.5 years. As a result of the new reforms, some Russians are afraid that they will barely live to see their pensions. All of these factors have created significant opposition to the reforms, exemplified by demonstrations in cities across the country this week. Just as in the United States, Russia faces an issue of how to properly care for aging citizens while managing spending.

Nonetheless, I still want to point out some highlights from the past 10 days and a look at things to come.

  • Moscow Kremlin (Московский кремль): This past weekend, I was finally able to purchase a ticket to explore the churches
    The Tsar’s Cannon, Moscow Kremlin. Constructed in 1586 but never fired a shot. Also, the cannonballs do not fit in the cannon properly.

    and territory of the Moscow Kremlin. Though the weather was not terribly cooperative, I was thrilled to see the interiors of churches such as the Assumption Cathedral (Успенский собор, 1475-79, the site of the coronations of the Russian Tsars), and Archangel Cathedral (Архангельский собор, 1505-08, burial place of Grand Princes and Tsars up to Peter I The Great). The artwork and icons on display in these churches were often several hundred years old, including a famous icon of Christ dating to the early 12th century. Успенский собор is quite possibly the most beautiful church I have ever seen, as the walls are filled with icons and scenes of early Russian history. The Moscow Kremlin is full of history, and before I leave I hope to see the Armoury Museum – the site of hundreds of Tsarist artifacts and priceless treasures.

  • Cosmonaut Museum (Музей космонавтики): For those of you who don’t know, I had a fascination with space in my childhood that still manifests
    “In the name of peace and progress”, Cosmonaut Museum.

    itself in a genuine appreciation of space exploration. As a result, I was excited to have the chance to explore the Cosmonaut Museum in the city, which is the equivalent of our Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Inside were various reconstructions of rockets and the original rocket head used to send the two Soviet dogs, named Strelka and Belka, to space. Interestingly enough, I also thoroughly enjoyed Soviet propaganda posters encouraging space exploration.

  • Conversation and Learning: Most of my past two weeks has been me focusing on learning vocabulary, completing assignments, and practicing speaking. Given everything to do here, the tasks before me have seemed intimidating at times. However, I believe the work is starting to pay off – my host family last week complimented me on the fact that my speaking ability is “much better” from when I first arrived. Additionally, my conversation partner told me that I was understandable and that her corrections were simply some grammatical and technical ones. I still make plenty of mistakes, but total breakdowns in communication by this point are becoming increasingly rare. I want to improve even more in the next three weeks, but I am proud of what I have done so far.

This weekend will be full of excursions and adventure – our group will visit Tolstoy’s estate in Tula tomorrow and Sergiev Posad (a Russian Orthodox monastery) on Sunday. Additionally, some of my friends and I will travel to Vladimir, an ancient Russian city about 100 miles northeast of Moscow, on Saturday. More to come next week regarding those travels and other updates.

If you’re still here, thanks for reading this far and supporting my journey! I love that you take the time to read about Russian culture and every day life. I can only hope that this blog has helped you to understand and appreciate the Moscow State of Mind.


Ohhhh, We’re Halfway There….

….And some days, I’m still Livin’ On a Prayer. Once again, good morning from rainy suburban Moscow! Today marks 4 weeks since I arrived in Russia on a cool, dreary day, meaning that I have nearly reached the halfway point of my journey. The past two weeks have honestly been a bit of a blur, with so much learning in the classroom and sightseeing around the city. I can now sense noticeable improvements in my speaking ability and vocabulary; further details are forthcoming.

Today’s blog will be the first of four or so posts dedicated to cultural or political topics here in Russia and my engagements with native speakers about those topics. Since millions of Americans at home (and abroad too!) celebrated Independence Day, I want to discuss foreign attitudes of Russians about Americans and the United States. Given everything between the United States and Russia recently – elections, Syria, sanctions, Crimea – this post will be nowhere near comprehensive in analyzing various opinions. Instead, this is a chance to look at issues from the viewpoint of Russian students and adults, including my host family.

View of the Moscow Kremlin and the Moscow River from the Big Stone Bridge (Большой камменый мост)

First – and this is a crucial distinction – attitudes about the American government are not the same as attitudes about American citizens. Everyone seems to agree that relations between the two countries are in dire need of improvement. Yet, Russians seem frustrated that the promise of improved relations has not arrived – sanctions are still in place, differences of opinion regarding Syria and Crimea have no easy solution, and generally Russians sense lingering political hostility and distrust from the American government. My host mother, in particular, was particularly critical of current American relations and foreign policy in regards to Russia – she was vocal about her displeasure with sanctions and Crimea. Among many students with whom we conversed in our program’s Russian-American Club, there was a general agreement about the idea / mentality of “us against the world” (especially the Western World) among Russians. Politically, they see themselves as an isolated state, pushed away by Europe and the United States. Many writers have suggested this as part of the reason behind perceived recent Russian aggression; for what it’s worth I believe there is merit behind this theory.

However, these attitudes do not seem to carry over into how Russians view Americans as a whole. Russian students and young adults, in particular, love meeting and interacting with American students and always have a lot of questions about life and politics in the United States. My Russian isn’t necessarily good enough to give complex answers but is sufficient to convey my ideas, and so conversations have been informative and enlightening. Many Russians use the opportunity to practice their English with Americans, which can be slightly frustrating when I’m simultaneously trying to practice my Russian. As a whole, Russians want to see improved relations with the United States and believe that the two nations can be friends and allies. It is important to note here that generally, they believe that the United States needs to show a greater commitment to this process.

“The Annunciation” (Благовещение). Novgorod, 12th century. Now displayed in the Tretyakovsky Gallery in Moscow. This is one of the oldest icons in the entire gallery.

For example, my host mother has hosted American students for years and firmly believes, despite her attitudes about American foreign policy, that interaction can bring about greater understanding. Additionally, one of my Russian friends spoke of дружба (friendship) between the two nations as if a matter of fact. Finally, a middle-aged gentleman who always comes to our Russian-American Club always posts opportunities on Facebook for American students and even started a Facebook group to facilitate interaction between all of us. As an American who has read too much into what divides Russia and the United States, these sentiments allow me to believe that better days are ahead.

Since I haven’t posted in two weeks, I’d like to conclude by giving some of the highlights.

  • The World Cup: Russia had an unexpected run during the tournament, but unfortunately Сборная Россия lost to Croatia last night on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals. Nonetheless, it has been incredible to witness the support for the team – after the upset victory against Spain, Moscow celebrated practically all night. I haven’t seen those Belgian fans since that night at the pub, but given Belgium’s success I may still see them.
  • Classes: My academic work continues to be engaging and informative, and I believe I am learning a lot here. Some of the lessons have focused on strengthening the fundamentals, which has honestly been good for reassurance and a more solid understanding of more complex topics. I am picking up on new vocabulary and am starting to use verbs more correctly and accurately – one of the hardest parts of the language. The workload has increased and I’ve had to spend more time in the past couple of weeks in my studies. I still leave myself plenty of time for exploration.
  • Exploration and Historic Sites: There’s too many here to list, but I’ll name some of my favorites – Alexander’s Garden (Александровский сад), the State Tretyakov Gallery of Art
    Memorial to all the cities that saw fighting in the Great Patriotic War (WWII). In the foreground is Leningrad (St. Petersburg).

    (Государственная Третьяковская галерея), the War of 1812 Museum (Музей Отечественной воины 1812 года – The Museum of the Patriotic War of 1812). Александровский сад is a beautiful park that sits right outside the western wall of the Moscow Kremlin, where one can see monuments and statues next to beautiful plants and pines. Notably, the Tomb of the Unknown Solider and the Eternal Flame sit right at the park’s entrance, and further down are monuments to all the Soviet cities that saw fighting during World War II – or, as it is called here, the Great Patriotic War (Великая отечественная война).

  • St. Basil’s Cathedral (Собор Василия Блаженного): St. Basil’s gets its own post because I had the opportunity a couple weeks ago to purchase a ticket to see the museum inside. Gazing at hundreds of years of beautiful icons, mosaics, and the multiple iconostasi – walls of icons in the nave of the main church and chapels – I stepped back in time to an era when Russian Orthodoxy, along with the monarchy, was the center of the Russian world. The Cathedral also gives beautiful views of Red Square, the Kremlin, and the Moscow River. The only disappointment was that my phone ran out of battery while inside – now I have an excuse to return.
  • Speaking: Last but not least, I was proud of myself this past week for some very good days of listening, comprehension, and speaking. For sure, not every moment was glorious – miscommunications and broken speech still mark me as a foreigner. Nonetheless, in the past week, I noticed myself suddenly speaking quicker, more accurately, and more consistently. The glaring errors and breakdowns are less and less, so good days now don’t seem like a fluke. The challenge going forward is to further push myself to speak when I tend to listen. I won’t be near an expert by the summer’s end, but certainly I will be able to communicate in many more situations.

If you’re still here, thank you for your continued interest in my travels and experiences in Moscow. I love hearing from everyone back home, so please reach out through Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, WhatsApp, etc. Hopefully the second half of this journey leads to similar learning, fun, exploration, wonder, improvement, and confidence as the first half!

Coming Out of My Cage…

View of St. Basil’s Cathedral (and a lot of football fans) from Red Square.

…And, as the 2004 hit song by The Killers goes, I’m doing just fine! Though the rest of Mr. Brightside thankfully does not apply here, these first few words describe a gradual but noticeable change in my approach and attitude for the summer. As my second week in Moscow has somehow come to pass, I am excited to explore the city, interact with my host family, and try home-cooked Russian meals. Given my pre-trip fears and the realization that I would be set up for the thing I hate most – failure – I find this an accomplishment.

Of course, the failure in this case, as I soon learned, was not a lack of ability to survive, but rather just repeated and stupid language mistakes that come with immersion in a new culture. I have spent my first couple of weeks trying to listen rather than just talk as much as possible, cognizant of the need to comprehend others’ thoughts. Perhaps my host family thinks I’m really quiet and shy, but I think the process has had benefits. This past week, I was proud that I didn’t ask my host family or other professors to repeat as many of their words and sentences as last week. Furthermore, I can understand main ideas and topics within a Russian history lecture.

In a sense, then, this summer abroad is a chance for me not only to learn Russian, but a personal experience for me to learn how to adapt to new environments, embrace failure, and confidently seek a new tomorrow. I’m proud of what I have done so far, and I look forward to engaging even more with my host family and other Russians.

But for now, let’s recap the highlights:

  • World Cup fans – After a theater performance on Friday evening, some of us went to watch a game at the bar, and some Belgians were having an incredible evening to say the least. Mind you, Belgium wasn’t even playing, but they still sang and cheered and interacted with us. Additionally, Mexico has an incredible following here – a young man played La Bamba on the trumpet in a metro station as others sang along.
  • Food – My host mother has already made some amazing meals that I simply would not have back in the states. For example, at breakfast I had сырники (sirniki), which are like mini-pancakes stuffed with cheese, along with a strawberry and sugar jam. Lunch consisted of a delicious meal of peppers stuffed with meat and rice. The diet here centers around fruits and vegetables, meat, and potatoes, and these meals are quite filling.
  • Classes – The professors are intense and it’s all in Russian, but so far I understand a good bit, and what I don’t understand I am learning. They also make sure that you absolutely master the material before moving on. I’m starting to realize that they know very well what I do not know.
  • Errors – In this program, we have conversation partners who are native Russian speakers, and the idea is to interact weekly with them in order to improve our speaking and listening. So, in perhaps my most egregious error yet, I met my conversation partner outside of the university, and I proceeded to hear and understand absolutely nothing. After a long day of class, compounded by the outside noise, we had to work out introductions in English. Hopefully I get the chance to start over with her this week.
  • Red Square (Красная площадь) – Authorities have been limiting access to Red Square during the
    The wall of the Moscow Kremlin that extends along Red Square. Hidden against the wall but just under the small center tower is Lenin’s mausoleum.

    World Cup, but I was finally able to get onto Red Square this week after multiple previous attempts. Other highlights include the State History Museum (Государственный исторический музей) and seeing St. Basil’s Cathedral (Собор Василия Блаженного). I’m hoping to check out more museums and sights around here.

  • Russian Catholic Mass – Well, this wouldn’t be a Notre Dame blog post if I didn’t throw in some Catholicism. Seriously though, in spite of a small Catholic minority, Moscow has a beautiful cathedral tucked away in a busy neighborhood. Named the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the towering red brick spires stand out among the other buildings. Like so many other churches, the Cathedral was closed during Soviet times, but in the late 1990s the church became active again. Today, the Cathedral has Masses in many different languages. Last week, I attended a joint English-French Mass, but today I went to an afternoon Mass entirely in Russian. As expected, there was much I didn’t understand, but the universality of the Mass seemed apparent to me even here, nearly 5000 miles away from my home parish. I was even able to pick up on a couple phrases and passages.

As I continue to go forward, I’ll post some highlights, some errors for your amusement, and my personal thoughts and interactions. This is a personal journey for me in more ways than language, and I’d like to bring you along with me. For now, good night from Moscow and I’ll post in another week!

Добро пожаловать!

A view of the Moscow Kremlin from a pedestrian bridge

Доброе утро из России! Though it is late in the night back in the United States, here in Moscow the sun is shining high in the sky at 10am. I arrived in Moscow a week ago and moved in with my host family on Tuesday evening, and subsequently had two days of classes at the International University of Moscow (Московский международный университет). Tomorrow, I will start with my first full week of classes, which include lectures in Russian history, economics, grammar, video, and conversation.

My host family has been very nice and accommodating, and despite the language barrier between us, we have managed to communicate effectively so far. Still, the number of times that I have had to ask “Ещё раз?” or say “Я тебя не понимаю” in just a few days has been mind-boggling. I can usually understand them if they speak slower than normal, but at a regular pace it is very difficult for me. Nonetheless, I am learning that this is normal and acceptable. Now, I am working towards starting more conversations without prompting by others.

In spite of the language difficulties, Moscow is absolutely stunning. For the past few days, I have had the chance to explore some different parts of the city. With beautiful churches, historic sites, museums, and numerous cafes and restaurants, Moscow is perhaps one of the most complex and diverse cities in the world. Additionally, it is one of the world’s most populated – in addition to the 12 million people that call Moscow home, about 1.5 more million are here for the World Cup in Russia. I have seen fans from countries across the globe gathering in Moscow together and admiring the sights and sounds of this historic city.

In terms of education, the language program at my host university seems very intense and focused on acquisition. From Monday to Thursday, 9am – 3pm, I am in different classes, all taught in Russian. In our program, there are roughly 25 students, but we are split into smaller groups based on strengths and weaknesses. My group consists of five students, and it seems that the professors will probably target speaking and conversational skills for the next few weeks. Additionally, the whole group of 25 has two lecture courses together – 20th century Russian history, and the Economic and Social Geography of Russia.

For now, I am still adjusting to everyday life in Moscow, and I am sure that despite my best attempts I still stand out as a foreigner. However, I believe that some of my language skills and some of the confidence is improving. I look forward to the challenges of the coming week and will challenge myself to even more immersion and language interaction.