Thursday, July 30, 2009

My Russia

the restaurant that was great with the belly dancer
the old lady and the accordion
up on the rooftop!
the best views are from in a boat

My final week in Petersburg was one for the books. It was one for volumes of books. I remember it like it was just last week. Like it was yesterday!

While in Petersburg I was actually a pretty lousy student. I showed up late to class on Monday because I wasn't sure what time it was supposed to start exactly. After that I went to hang out with my host my moms father. We talked and skimmed through a lot of Russian poetry and literature. The walls of his house are covered with beautiful, classical famous works of Russian art. He's very well off financially and if my home stay was with him he would have amplified my learning experience in Petersburg 100-fold. Not saying that my host family wasn't pleasant but he had a really deep interest in learning about me and my life and why I was in Russia. He also has a great system of helping me learn to speak Russian. For Tuesdays events see my Finally Famous post. I got my Ray Bans repaired (50 rubles) and then kind of studied. Wednesday was slightly more interesting. I went to go see my host moms father for the last time. He asked me a series of questions about race, my identity, and my culture. The one question that sticks out in my mind is: "What author defines literature for you?" 5 years ago I would have quickly said Mark Twain or Hemingway. But just then I couldn't really think of who it would be. Later I was told that Langston Hughes would of been an appropriate response but I can't help but feel like I want something more authentic... I can't drop names like Shakespeare, Pushkin, or Achebe so easily. His computer was having problems and when I was there he introduced me to his computer repairman. He was about 4.5 cm shorter than me. I can't remember his name but he was a very simple country village boy (kind of like me) He was a first year student in computer programming at one of the universities in Petersburg. He said he was the first foreigner he'd ever met. We all sat and spoke in Russian. I think I left a pretty good impression on him of Americans.

Let's kick this up a notch.

In studying for my final exam I discovered that I actually do not know that much about the technicalities of the Russian language. Therefore I devised a system in which I used songs and phrases that I knew and I categorized them by how they were classified grammatically. Once again I found myself in the midst of another all nighter. And it was really lame cause I was really sleepy. The strange music from my neighbor haunted my study hours. It flooded my room and it took all the strength I had to restrain myself from banging on their door and TELLING them to turn it off. To cope with this I periodically went outside and walked around. I went to the corner store and bought study snacks and my favorite peach tea on some of these breaks. I was cranky because of my lack of sleep but I had crammed almost an entire summers worth of Russian in just one night... gift and a curse. I don't suggest anyone else ever try it. I got to school and was still cranky but my exam proctor was the older teacher that I really loved and so that made me feel better. The final exam was two parts. The written which I'm pretty sure I just barely passed and the oral which I feel I did really well on. Not going to say flying colors cause I definitely tripped up a few times but I held a good conversation with my teacher and knew I would pass the course after I finished.

Class was over and I was free to go out and do everything I possibly could before it was time to go. My mind was racing. There was a bizillion places and things I wanted to go, do, and see before I could leave. I made a list. And I followed it to the T. Here's what I did: I went to this really strange odd museum, bought souvenirs, and then went on the final boat ride.

This was the most breathtaking amazing boat ride ever. I'll let the photos and video do the talking. It wasn't a touristy boat ride either. Just a nice low key ride around the city with plenty of drinks and relaxation time.

We got off the boat and parted ways with our teacher (the Brown program coordinator) and wanted to continue bonding and celebrating the completion of our finals. The best way to go out is to go out on top. And we took that literally. We spent a long time on the rooftop on one of the houses where a couple of the girls in our group were staying. It was kind of chilly so we brought blankets out as well. I'm absolutely terrified of heights. So I didn't do as much drinking or moving around as the other students did. I just got really comfortable in one spot and enjoyed the best possible view of Petersburg. The sun was setting and the sky was purple and orange. I could see the Church of the Savior on Blood and the tops of other buildings and neon signs in the distance. It was the perfect panoramic view.

Me and Sif had been calling each other back and forth all night. I was so relaxed and settled in my current location that I didn't feel like moving. And I actually didn't want to but everyone else on the rooftop decided they wanted to go. There were about 2 or 3 of us that wanted to spend the night on the rooftop... Anyway, I leave the rooftop at about 1:30 am. I'm calling Sif and trying to locate him. I tell him some of the landmarks I'm around and he says he can find me. I start walking by myself towards Nevsky Prospect and after about 20 minute he sees me.

We start walking. He's slightly drunk. I'm slightly tipsy. And we talk about everything. The summer, life plans, Russia, Zimbabwe, the United States. We really engage each other. I tell him that I'm hungry and we stop to find some beef jerky and for drinks... Russia of course had the drinks but not the jerky... Instead I got some snack that tasted like barbecued cheese stick chips.

We end up going to the club that I went to with Ana the night before she left. I'm going to call that place "The Club of Parting" from now on. I also think it's a beautiful place. There's a garden and pond on the upper level outside and it adds a relaxing Oriental element to the atmosphere.

There club was pretty much dead. There were a lot of guys there so we did guy stuff. I played pinball and then we played a mini-foosball tournament with some Russians. Me and Sif rocked as a team. We won all of our games except the last one but we still had a blast got some free drinks and made some friends in the process. We left the club at about 4:30 am.

This would be the last time that I would see Sif but we really enjoyed ourselves. Of course I'm going to keep in touch with him and I want to send him some computer parts and other gifts from the US. I'm really looking forward to seeing him again.

We parted ways with him paying for my taxi (I negotiated the price and location on my own) and he seemed kind of proud of that. I got back to my house and passed out.

I was awakened by my babushka knocking on my door telling me that breakfast was ready (in Russian, FINALLY) and I sprung out of bed. Today was my graduation day. I put on my nicest dress shirt and the slacks that I would normally wear with a full suit. It was too hot for a full suit. It was too hot for that dress shirt. I rolled the sleeves up unbuttoned the top buttons and loosened my tie. Threw on my Yankees hat and hit the door. Added my newly repaired ray bans to my face and let the sunny sun and not couldy at all day add to the perfectness. I got a lot of looks as I headed to the metro station. I did look really nice. And I wasn't wearing cheap, cheasy looking Russian dress clothes either. Funny thing though. Once I'm on the metro a lot of people kind of get that I'm not actually a celebrity or ridiculously rich. If I was either of those things I could afford to have a driver or take a cab everywhere.

this is all happening around noon time. graduation was supposed to start at 12.

I digress. I get to the school and there's champagne and the teachers are there and the headmaster of the school. There is a really touching speech given by the headmaster in Russian easy enough for everyone even the first years to understand. And then we're given our diplomas. I got it and I had never felt so accomplished. We drank champagne and had snacks to celebrate and it turned out to be a great send off from the institute. I ran around and took pictures and said my good byes and then headed back home... for the last time from the Nevsky Institute of Language and Culture.

I get to Sadovaya and there's an old lady playing an according. I dropped 50 rubles into her case (substantial amount compared to the 10 ruble notes and ruble coins and kopeks) She was really nice and played really well.

I spent a lot of the afternoon in my room scrambling to write postcards and then I went and did the gift exchange which took some time. I went straight from buying last minute gifts ect. to the final dinner.

The food was really good but there wasn't as much to eat as I wanted. But the decor and atmosphere was straight out of Arabian Nights. There was a guy that greeted people that looked just like Aladdin. A very sexy, very talented, very graceful belly dancer, and curtains for people to do hooka and really unique architecture... The farthest thing from Russia possible but it was so amazing. This would be the last time I'd see any of the Brown students or my teachers. My teacher (the nice older lady) gave me a postcard with a farewell and telling me how much she enjoyed me in the class. I was touched. It was the perfect send off dinner. I can't wait to eat there again.

When I got home my babushka had borsch prepared for me. For the time we've been living together in these last days we've been speaking only Russian with each other. She only used her outdated Russian-English dictionary this last time to help me write out a recipe for how to make borsch in English/Russian. It was at this point where I felt the tears coming on.

I held them back... But it was at this point when the weight of Russia, Russian, and Russian culture started coming to me and escaping me simultaneously. Things started making sense. Life, language, and culture but it all escaped me as soon as I grasped it. It was almost like an illusion. I was in an oasis of Russian understanding after struggling through the hell hot desert of Russian mistakes and confusion. My night was spent packing slowly and miserably. I went outside every now and then for breaks and at around 3 am it started raining.

It was raining very gently. A gentleness I was suspicious of. Like someone was sprinkling water. The rain kissed my skin. That's the best way I can describe it. It was the strangest rain I've ever encountered. Not like Providence rain at all!

The time came. The taxi cab the institute called was there. I put the bags in the elevator and we walked down. At this point the rain is coming down really hard. I look at the old uncomfortable smelly building that I still don't like. I'd be lying if I say I grew to love it one last time. Loaded the bags up and my babushka kissed me on the lips. Apparently Russians aren't big into hugging. She told me (in Russian) "Because you're leaving Petersburg is crying." my response was (in Russian) "Я тоже" (Me too).

I had left my Russian host family a little letter in my room before I left. I cleaned it up nice and tidy and made sure it was spotless and that I forgot nothing.

The airport was ridiculously easy. Security was not that intense and I probably could have smuggled anything I wanted out of the country.

In retrospect. My last hours in Petersburg. I feel like the weather was crying for me. As corny as that sounds I feel it deep in the depths of my soul now. I didn't shed a tear when I left but on the inside I wanted to stay and do more and see more. I had only scratched the surface and I knew that if I could just stay a little longer I'd find a place to fully grow and develop in Russia.

The Summary (for those just now reading)

Went to Russia (Moscow, Petersburg, and Novogord). Discovered that I was treated more like a celebrity instead of a threat or someone hated. I saw all the beautiful churches and old buildings you read about in the books and see online. I made a lot of friends and learned to speak Russian a lot better. I fell in love with my host family, the city of Petersburg and the country. I had a lot of crazy adventures including nights where I performed at clubs, relaxed with VIP treatment, saw fights, tasted and drank all kinds of authentic delicious cuisine, spoke Russian, met very attractive Russian girls, lived in Europe, and enjoyed the most unique experience of my life that I will never forget... Plus I've got tons of pictures. Browse through them and find something you like.

My Russia (the conclusion)

First I'd like to say that there's a lot that I did not write about on here. I always kept my audience in mind and most what you've read has been pretty safe and not too disturbing. But the truth is I actually experienced some not so perfect moments and saw some not so perfect things while I was in Russia that I didn't write on... So I didn't offend, worry, or scare anyone. I if I ever get the chance to fully publish this I'll include some of the gritty and uncensorded details of my trip.

The world is bigger than the United States. I learned that Russia is a giant crazy mixed up place. It's a country of extremes. There's very little middle ground for anything. There's almost no middle ground actually. You're either this or that.

The struggle of everyday people living in Russia is very authentic. People that can afford to live well are set. But foreign students, peasants, and other everyday people have to make the most of what they have with no exception. I don't think there would ever be any "little left over" to save in a bank or to eat. You work with what you've got and that's it.

I think Petersburg is beautiful. The bridges, the many cathedrals, the huge streets, metro, the canals, everything!

It's difficult for me to sum this up all right here. Especially after writing so much. Looks like everyone is in for at least one more post in which I will try and adequately sum Russia up. So as always friends, family, and everything in between.

Stay Tuned.

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