27 July 2009

best last day/final thoughts


On the 10th of July I graduated! We had two classes, and afterwards we had a little ceremony/celebration with our teachers. The only one who couldn't make it was Mikhail, which was definitely disappointing - he was absolutely awesome. His newspaper class was definitely one of my favorites, he kept us entertained and involved. Marina gave a little speech about how wonderful we all are and how we give Kansas a great reputation. (Good, because I don't think Kansas even HAS a reputation in Russia).

After the ceremony I didn't really know what to do with myself after class for the last time. I was totally burnt out on museums, and I just had a few left on my list that I wanted to check out - but I never did, because I just had no desire after seeing soo many. I needed to take a lot more photos with my film camera, so I headed to the Souvenir Fair where I'd been once before. It wasn't a place that I particularly enjoyed - it was full of old tourists who didn't know Russian trying to give the sellers US dollars or Swedish kroner. Luckily for them, all of the sellers spoke English and a few other languages, and would gladly accept foreign currency. I couldn't stop to look at one thing without someone coming up to me and trying to start a conversation in English. "This is definitely not Russia," I thought as I walked through the stalls. "This is a separate little non-country in the middle of St. Petersburg, pretending to be full of Russian culture." I was not pleased. But I thought it might be a great place for interesting photos - markets always are. And amazing things happened.

Looking through the thousands upon thousands of options, a lady approached me and started telling me something in Russian, and immediately realized I wasn't a native speaker. She asked if I was a foreigner, and I told her, "Yes, but I speak both English AND Russian." - sticking up for my lacking, but still existent, language skills. We went on to have a conversation about where I was from, why I was here, what she enjoyed about studying abroad, etc... it was by far my longest and most in-depth Russian conversation I'd had with a native since arriving six weeks ago, and I felt like a total champ.

I wandered further along and ended up stumbling upon a huge corner stall in the back, bursting to the seams with piles of original B&W photography, all by one young artist. He spoke flawless English, which I was thankful for, because as much as I wanted to discuss his photos in Russian, it would have been impossible without all the vocab. Most of his photos were mounted on random book covers and cardboard, some of the borders covered with newspaper or written on along the edges with quotes and thoughts. He literally had thousands stacked, boxed, hung up, under tables, etc. He used a lot of the same images in really different ways, and successfully experimented with double exposure. You could tell he could make a hundred in a day, because some were carelessly put together and there were just SO many, it was ridiculous. Everyone wants a piece of cheap original art (aside from the cliche landscape)- he must make a lot of business at that Souvenir Fair. But the way he did it worked. I knew they were just crappy pieces for tourists, but I sort of loved that about them. I bought two, one which was mounted on a page out of a Russian book 'for good studying', and another which was an unmounted 8x10 print of the Church on the Spilled Blood double-exposed with a telephone wire and LOTS of birds. Sounds cliche, but it's beautiful.

There were two other girls my age looking around at the same time, and they were definitely from Britain. They were just as interested in the photos as I was, and they seemed pretty cool. They were wondering to each other about the post office - I could tell they hadn't been in Russia long. I spoke up and told them there were post offices EVERYwhere, and helped them out with what the sign looked like, etc. We got to talking, and we really meshed - they were traveling to every corner of Europe this summer: Finland, Russia, Estonia, Czech Republic, etc...I couldn't remember the whole list they rattled off. They asked if I wanted to be a part of their project - and they explained that they're creating this "Book of Strangers" filled with interesting people they meet along their way. Of course I wanted to be included! I also took a photo of them, and we exchanged emails. They were full of curiosity, excitement, motivation, and style - they gave me so much inspiration for my future travels, and completely made my day.


My previous post may have come off with a bit of bitterness, homesickness, and/or resentment. Let me be honest, and tell you that in the last week and a half or two, I was feeling just a little bit of animosity toward the culture. I was lonely. My to-do and to-see lists weren't filled with excitement anymore, but obligation. I had no one to make comments to in art galleries. I couldn't point out beautiful windows, or share the way the light made great shadows in the alleys. Exploring cities on your own can be full of excitement and pleasure - and it was for me, for a good while. But someone to share it with is crucial. I tried to let this blog be a good outlet for my thoughts and observations, which satisfied for a bit. Due to limited internet time, however, it couldn't be all I wanted it to be.

All in all, I survived, and am bettered. I've lived within a culture I've been learning about and studying for two years. It's an experience that has changed some ways I think, and has expanded my knowledge of the world. My itching curiosity to see the rest of it has only been agitated more.

Now to restore the dignity of Russia's culture from my previous post, here are a few redeeming qualities:

FLOWERS: цветы are a huge tradition in Russian culture. You can find a flower stand on every corner on your walk home, and at least three outside every metro station. This is one of my favorite traditions - the most expected gift for any holiday, for male or female, is flowers. A bit more for females, but boys like them too :) Americans have such a muted appreciation for flowers. I think I've only gotten a few bouquets in my entire life - all from my parents, for birthdays, dance recitals, and the like. Russian boys take a single flower to a girl on their first date. If an American boy tried that gesture, in most cases the girl might be a little freaked. I wish flowers were more commonplace here, because on a long metro ride home after a tiring day, it was wonderful to see old women, fathers, boyfriends, girls carrying bouquets home to their loved ones.

MULLETS: Oh wow. They are so popular and so everywhere, I found myself seeing them as attractive... stop me now. On many occasions, even women could pull them off and look chic. The football (soccer) mullet, the Euro mullet, the Dima Bilan mullet, the loooong mullet...men just won't give them up.

CHEAP NECESSITIES: If you want to live a simple, no-frills life, Russia would be the place to do it. All necessities for basic living are incredibly cheap - food, most of the time. Internet connection. Housewares. You'd only get into financial trouble if you want to go shopping for clothes or spend more than one night a week at a restaurant. Better skip the drinks at the bars as well. But to live simply, it's incredibly easy. Props for that.

spent our last evening on our beach with champagne, vodka, and canned gin&tonic. beautiful sky and sea even if the rocky trashy beach was less than perfect - but it was a fabulous way to say goodbye.

03 July 2009

popular habits of Russians I find utterly useless

- walking down the street with your cell phone blasting music... the 2009 version of an 80's boombox on the shoulder - with much less of a statement.

- the use of monkeys, hawks, and grey foxes as tourist traps near sites. Who really wants a photograph with that absolutely depressed, skinny monkey in dirty old kids' clothes? Give him a good home, in a zoo if he needs it, where he's not tied to a pole on Nevsky Prospect.

- 4-inch heels for grocery shopping. You really don't look that good when you have veins popping out of your ankles and you can barely put one foot in front of the other.

- DILL on every single plate of food you could imagine. sure, it has good enough flavor, and we don't use it in America much so it's nice as a change of pace... but really, no, I don't want spoonfuls of the stuff. thanks.

- not having change!!!! At most any small store, restaurant, vendor, or any sort of sales environment, don't try to give them a few dollars more than your total - Russians don't believe in keeping change in the drawer, and will give you the nastiest, meanest look in your life if you try to pass them a R500 for something that was 250. Getting a 1000 out of a bankomat (ATM) ruins my day. Where the hell am I supposed to use that??

02 July 2009

I made the news in Russia.

This is going to be a long post, because yesterday was my best, most magical day in Russia... and it's going to be nearly impossible to top in the next week and a half.

On Wednesdays we're supposed to have only two classes, finishing at 1, but we had two missed classes from June 12 (Russia Day) to make up. So we stayed in class until 3, and I was little weary by the end of it. I had plans to go to the Hermitage again (have only seen bits and pieces of it, I still have a looong way to go) and took a marshrutka almost all the way there without having to deal with the Metro. A marshrutka is like a small bus - it has a designated route but you can get off wherever you like and you can flag it down. They drive fast and dirty and get you where you need to go.

Saint Petersburg has seen fantastic weather all week, and yesterday was no exception. I was perfectly comfortable in my go-to jeans, t-shirt and cardigan - and of course my life-saving shoes from Ecco. My feet would be an absolute wreck without them, thanks to my impractical packing. Anyway, I walked along the Neva toward the Hermitage, and passed the Marble Palace, an extension of the Russian Museum. I had been wanting to see the new exhibit "Art for Art", which I didn't realize wasn't in the main building. So I scrapped my Hermitage plans and went for the Marble Palace instead - first great choice of the day. With my student ID I got in for $1.

I was absolutely amazed with this collection - all contemporary Russian artists (with a few Lichtensteins, Picassos, and Warhols thrown in for good measure) whose art dealt with the simple idea of art itself. I only got a couple of good pictures before a docent informed me I needed a photo ticket, so unfortunately I didn't get as many as I would have liked.

Sometimes the English translations are more entertaining than the exhibit itself - but this one sums it up pretty well.

I did manage to get a snap of this Warhol/Basquiat piece from my purse...very sneaky. It's only about 3/4 of the whole thing, but you get the idea. My mind was a little blown.

As I was wandering through this exhibit, I wondered why it was so quiet. Maybe Wednesdays aren't a popular museum day? Maybe the rest of the art-goers were more interested in the collections at the Hermitage? Wrong. One floor down, through a door that was closed when I had passed it previously, a new exhibit had just opened. I accidentally attended my second art opening in Saint Petersburg. A-Sun Wu is an artist from Taiwan who spent a lot of time living with tribes in Africa, learning from their way of life to create an entirely new style of African tribal motifs mixed with contemporary Asian art. It must have been a big-deal opening, because there were multiple news cameras, countless journalists and photographers, and a humble, smiling Asian man - A-Sun Wu himself.

I hung around until most people left, finding more rooms in the museum and finally stopping to read a history of the palace. One of the last photo-journalists to leave came up to me and asked if he could take a few photos of me with the art - and for a good 30 seconds or so he didn't realize I was a foreigner! He didn't speak much English, but I managed to tell him that I was studying Russian at Smolny - and after he learned that I'm sure he understood why the only words tumbling out of my mouth were a mumbling mess. However, he took a good 10 or so photographs, I understood what he asked me to do, he took my e-mail address and gave me the website that they would be used on. I got the impression that he was a photographer for the equivalent of the Associated Press - he said they would choose certain photos that would then go to different newspapers and websites that were covering news from the opening.

check out my Russian debut:


After my head was soaked in great art, I still had about an hour and a half to make it to The Idiot where we were meeting for a group dinner. (nothing like an expensive restaurant paid for by KU :) ) I decided to walk to the neighborhood and find a nice spot to sit, relax, and write.

Lo and behold, there was an art gallery across the street from the restaurant, and I decided to give it a try. They were closing in 45 minutes, and I had to buzz the door to get in. They had already turned the lights out, but a lady turned them on for me, told me to pick up a guide to the art (there weren't labels on the walls) and let me to wander through the two-roomed gallery. She seemed really glad to have a visitor. I found a couple paintings I enjoyed, but most of them didn't really grab me.

When I was about to leave, the same lady came back out and asked what my impressions were. I didn't understand her question, and told her that I was still studying Russian. She spoke very good English, and we talked a little about learning languages, and she decided it would be best to converse with me in English. I agreed. I told her which painting was my favorite, just to make small talk, and she told me all about it and it's painter. She then proceeded to take me on an informal tour of the whole gallery (around 50 paintings) explaining bits and pieces about the artists, the works, etc. Many of them started to make more sense and look better to me, after she talked so knowledgeably about them all. After a good 40ish minutes of discussing the art with her, another visitor came in and it was time for me to get to The Idiot.

It was so incredible to have these people interested in me, and my interest in art. That's one reason I'm so in love with it - art can cross boundaries that are otherwise impenetrable. It can bring people from different countries, languages and cultures to an understanding of one another that would have been impossible. I feel like such an outsider here when I can't talk with the people I'd like to, and I can't let people know my intentions or thoughts. I'm getting much better at expressing this, but it's still incredibly difficult.

Yesterday was a day that reminded me why I'm here, and why I love to reach outside of my own boundaries.

I found a great spot to hide away and write in this stairwell by the Moika river - I could hear the people passing on the sidewalk above, but I was in my own little peaceful place.

27 June 2009

Белые Ночи

Last night our group took a "White Nights tour", where we were taken to significant parts of town from 11pm-2am. Kerry, our director, is on the left. On the right is Joelle, a woman from France who joined us on our tour and was really fun to talk to. I told her I took French for 2 years a long time ago, and she tried to speak with me in French...thaaat was interesting. In the pink pants and striped shirt is Sara, our roommate from Finland who stayed with us for a month. She left this morning after a long night out, and our new roommate from Switzerland just arrived about an hour ago.

An incredibly fun college-aged girl named Olga led our tour, and also helped me with my Russian - she was great! She gave me her email, and I think we might go out for tea sometime. My camera died halfway through the tour, so some of the cooler pictures are on my disposable red-flash camera. Can't wait to get those developed!

I like the way this one accidentally turned out...

And here's our old & new theme again... stretch Hummers are everywhere, and the Church on Spilled Blood is no exception!

night-time canal, approx. 1-2 am?

from our kitchen window at 3am

this is my city

from the colonnade atop St. Isaac's Cathedral, the best view of St. Petersburg

The trees are in the way, but this is the square where the Bronze Horseman stands, right next to the Neva on the left:


This city is constantly juxtaposed with old and new. The beautiful pieces of the past right next to the booming development industry is a most common sight.

love the wire mesh signs

I'm still mastering the phrase 'would you please take a photo of me', so this is my temporary solution.... :)

24 June 2009

between rests

Getting a little exhausted after all of the constant travelling every day. I've been spending a bit more time taking it easy instead of trying to see each and every street corner. However, a couple nights ago Joel and I went out on the longest night of the year to watch the sun not set.

This was at about 12:30 am.

This is the Peter & Paul Fortress from across the Neva, at the same time.

This entire week has been 70-80 degrees F, cloudless, beautiful. You'd think it would be the perfect time to run around the city as much as possible, but it's actually been even better for finding little nooks to people-watch and rest my feet.

I've fallen in love with the Vasiliostrovskaya metro station, which is the only other one on our island. Right outside is a pedestrian-only street with good cafes and shopping, and a generally chill attitude. It doesn't feel as hectic as Nevsky or the other busy metro stations, and it's a bit more welcoming. I found a cafe with good coffee (!) and perfect outside seating for people-watching. I really believe Russia has some of the most entertaining people for this activity.

I also bought a copy of The Master and Margarita (in English) and spent some time here reading.

across the water

the Gulf of Finland from Peterhof - Peter's summer playground with fountains galore. This is a huge public park now on the other side of the Gulf from St. Petersburg, about 45 minutes away.

The whole place was swarming with tourists, which wasn't ideal. Whenever I'm at a historical residence or place of personal importance to somebody, I always like to wander around it as if I live there. (The Russian Museum was particularly good for that, because there weren't as many people and many of the rooms were still furnished and decorated like it was when it was lived in.) I couldn't picture this place as private grounds though because (besides Nevsky Prospect) it was easily the most crowded place I've been.

I did find a few areas on the edges that were lovely and less occupied, and enjoyed the gorgeous weather.

This is my favorite wall I've found. The color is so rich, and so time worn in the best way possible.

ohh look at those colors. mmm.