Friday, July 31, 2009



I have 11 more days in Russia, and then I'm heading back by a somewhat complicated and roundabout route.

-Sunday, August 9: Travel to Pulkovo Airport, probably by metro. Depart from St. Petersburg, Russia, at 1:00am on...

-Monday, August 10: Arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport Tel-Aviv, Israel, at about 4:40am. Take the train to Tel-Aviv, get picked up by an awesome Israeli friend (thanks, Pri!), put stuff down, spend the day hanging out in Tel Aviv eating falafel (YES), exploring, chilling and swimming at the beach (YES). Spend the night.

-Tuesday, August 11: Travel day. Train back to Ben-Gurion at about 6am. Depart for New York JFK at 10:40am, and arrive the same day in New York at 3:20pm. Take the airport bus to Penn Station. Then, BoltBus to Boston South Station, departing 6:30pm and arriving at 10:45. From there, someone will pick me up and I'll head over to stay with friends near Tufts!

-Wednesday, August 12: Tufts/Boston. Spend time with friends, but also visit the TOL office and the Study Abroad office to clear things up with my flat-lined computer and with the upcoming year abroad. Also get a haircut.

-Thursday, August 13: Tufts/Boston again. More time with friends. At 10:30pm, my bus departs from South Station--an overnight Greyhound to Washington, DC. The joys of living as a student!

-Friday, August 14: Washington, DC: Arrive at 8:40am. Spend lots of time with family. Wave to Obama.

-Saturday, August 15: Washington, DC: more family time.

-Sunday, August 16: DC: more family time.

-Monday, August 17 (probably not the day before): Fly back to California, arriving before Monday afternoon so as to have as much time as possible with friends before everyone heads back to school.

Then, I'll be in California for about six weeks, relaxing and spending time with friends and family and maybe earning some money, and of course preparing for my year abroad. Road trip to Mexico, anyone? (I'm only half-kidding.)

September 30: Flight from Burbank Airport (Los Angeles), through SFO, to Osaka International Airport, Japan, to start my year abroad on October 1. I'll be studying at Kanazawa University with the Tufts-in-Japan program.

Yow. This is real.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Literally "Pancake!" though it is used to mean "Darn it!" or "Oh, crap!"

I have nine days left, and life here is packed with all sorts of stuff. I have lots of pictures! Unfortunately, I can't expect to be able to upload more pictures until I'm back in California.

Last Sunday was the National Navy Day in Russia, and these sailors were marching down the street at 8am last Friday, in front of the university building along the embankment.

Earlier this week, I had dinner with a couple of new friends--one from Germany, the other from Poland. I think, really, that getting to know new international friends is one of the most fulfilling parts of being abroad.

Scene from the celebration on the strelka (embankment; spit) of Vasilevsky Island on Sunday.

Here's what the stage looked like. It translates to something like "Happy Russian Navy Day!" The flag you can see waving is the symbol of the Soviet navy. The flag of the modern navy is a simple cross that looks very much like the flag of Scotland.

A photo-shoot for a wedding, witnessed from within the krepost' (fortress) at Novgorod, one of the oldest cities in Russia (founded 1150). As one of the other students commented, "I now pronounce you Mullet and Wife."

This is Nastia, one of our tutors here in the program. Really, I wanted to take a picture of this roadside cafe here, but it was less awkward with Nastia posing. Notice the phrasology on the counter.

We saw Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake at the Aleksandrinsky Theatre on Monday. It was only the second ballet I've ever seen, as far as I remember. It was actually not amazing--the orchestra and dancers were often noticably not synchronized. As my host-mother commented, "that orchestra is only there to earn money--better to have seen it at or not seen it at all!" But it was a fun experience.

Mister Muscle.

On the bus to Novgorod: "Want to get out? YELL!"

The fortress (kremlin) at Novgorod.

Scene from the fifth-floor window of our university building.

Sometimes, Russia just doesn't make sense. In fact, it happens a lot, and Russia seems to be known for it. Near Nevsky Prospekt one day a week or two ago, the glass seems to have inexplicably fallen out of the frames in this bus stop. But life goes on around it.

Billboard advertising the upcoming Navy Day. "Glory to the Russian Fleet!"

A scene from last month, as a local takes her bear out for a walk. Actually, she was charging money to have people get their pictures taken while holding the bear.

"I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest." - Sir Winston Churchill

Anyhow, my hair has gotten unruly, as Jeph Jacques would say. I looked into a salon yesterday, but I didn't understand the prices. They had different prices depending on the style, but there were no pictures, and the woman seemed only able to give very basic descriptions of what the styles were, for example "That means bald" or "That means buzzed very short all around" or "That means short here and long here" which I took to be the Mullet. Needless to say, I think I'll wait until I can get one of those $12 haircuts in Harvard Square next month. It'll be worth the extra $8.

Like I said, making friends and getting to know international friends has been perhaps the single more fulfilling part of being abroad so far. My brother said to me, though, that it's impossible to comprehend how the experience of being abroad will affect every part of you. For one thing, though, I've gained great respect for those who are learning new languages and living in a foreign place. Many regions of the world are not so linguistically homogenous as the US, and communication can be a challenge all the time. I have great respect for those who move to a place like America in search of some opportunity, even though they may not speak good English.

It's also made me consider the experience of being an ex-pat in general. Last week a new friend of mine, a young robotics engineer from Murmansk (yes, THAT Murmansk!) took me to dinner at a Chinese restaurant, and we talked for over three hours (in English). It was a fantastic experience. I noticed that he would always refer to America as "your country" or English as "your language" and it made me feel somewhat unusual. I had never had occasion to feel such a connection with my homeland, but I suppose it did make me feel more American. Interestingly, though I think the Russian national anthem is a better song than the American anthem, it's nearly as notoriously difficult to sing. Go figure. I may feel more American, but it doesn't mean I love our national song!

Now a couple of short videos:

Square in front of the Hermitage.

The crowd at the Navy Day celebrations.

I haven't said a lot of personal stuff recently, so I'd like to say a few things. First, I seem to have come to terms with Saint-Petersburg. It really is a beautiful city, though it has taken a long time for me to comprehend the differences in culture and so-called "quality of life" here, as well as the language barrier and distance from home. It IS a hard language. I still don't honestly love Russian culture in general, but there are many aspects of the culture that are interesting or amusing or generally good to experience, and it's cool to be able to speak conversational Russian now. I've had many inconveniences, but there's no doubt I'll look back on this experience as being amazing and formative. The dead computer was a big setback and not having much money has also been comparatively difficult, but I'm surviving. I've had a lot on my mind, as always, and as my brother told me, being abroad is a huge roller-coaster ride. It's true. I'm glad that I have gained such perspective on life (, the universe, ) and everything. It's important to remember that there can be only forward motion, and no matter what, it cannot be predicted. I've been learning a lot. With all that being said, the last week here will be very busy but a lot of fun, and then I'm really looking forward to the way home and then being in Los Angeles, and then of course eventually to Japan as well. Life happens, and we do our best to live it according to our feelings. I think I'm growing up a lot.

Благодаря Виталию!

Thanks to Vitaly!

Aboard one of the tall ships at the regatta, a week and a half ago.

It's been over a week now since I last updated, but I'm sitting now blogging from some great luck! A very kind and awesome gentleman who works in the university building where we have class has lent me his computer, so in a glorious cascade of good luck, I am blogging from a computer that looks, feels, and acts like my own--but isn't. Thanks to Vitaly! As for my own computer, after extensive testing, I've concluded that it is 99.99% a failing motherboard, whatever that means specifically, which means I'll have to find a way to get a new computer when I return to California. It's annoying, but it's not the end of the world.

So, there's a ton of stuff I could talk about, but I'll go with some pictures.

Here is a typical dinner scene at my host mother's place. Usually, it so happens that the other student living there and I eat dinner at different times, though last night we ate together. Sveta, my host mother, often stays around and talks to me while I eat, or sometimes puts the radio on (though I understand little of the radio-voice). There's always plenty of food--this particular meal was on Saturday, I believe, and as you can see there's some tea, hot dog sort of thing, potatoes, cucumbers and tomatoes, white table bread, apple-water, and a cookie. Last night we had chicken with rice and potatoes, cucumbers and tomatoes, black bread, and a cookie.

That reminds me--I haven't actually said much about what I do every day! On weekdays I get up sometime around 8 and take a shower (there's hot water now!), then get dressed and go in for breakfast. My host mother always has hot kasha (hot cereal), milk, tea, and some sort of bread thing for me, though sometimes it's cold cereal, and twice she made bliny (Russian pancakes). There's also some kind of sandwich or breakfast lavash roll sort of thing. Fortunately for me, she's a very good cook most of the time even with limited resources, and I've come to really enjoy breakfast. Dressing for the weather can be difficult here because the mornings were often very chilly during the first month, and it often rains unexpectedly, though the past two weeks have been warm. Then I walk to the institute, which takes about 20-25 minutes, and recently I've felt comfortable listening to my iPod while I walk too. Check out the map a few posts back on my blog if you want to see exactly where I go. Class starts at 10. I've been sleeping better lately, though there's still some lingering congestion from the cold I had two weeks ago, and there have been more mosquitoes recently too. Class is two hour and a half sections, then lunch provided by the café at the institute. At lunch, as with everywhere in the institute building, we must speak "only" Russian, and I can tell you that conversing in Russian is already much easier, and it seems easier and easier to communicate in general. After lunch there's an hour to study or go online or whatever (except on Wednesday, when we have an extra class section for Phonetics practice). At that point, depending on what day it is, there's either an excursion somewhere in the city, a theatre class, or a "choir" class (singing Russian songs). After that, I tend to spend a bit of time on the computer, usually doing email and such. Then I go back home, my host mother gives me dinner, and I may nap or try to do homework right away. Of course, every day is different, and I will often walk around with other students in some area of the city in the afternoon, maybe going to a café or something. I always prefer to eat dinner back at my host-home, because, well, it's free and plentiful.

Yes, the bridges go up every night! Actually, I didn't experience the concept of "night" until my third weekend of being here, because it never got darker than twilight. The river is really beautiful when eveything is all lit up. That's the moon, of course, and the Hermitage is on the left behind the bridge.

Anoher scene from the Tall Ships' Races. The words on the mural translate to "Sea of Possibility"--a really excellent idea! I thoroughly loved the regatta, and I visited the ships all four days that the event was going on. Someday I'd love to be on the crew of a tall ship!

Aboard the Седов, the largest ship at the festival. It's a Russian ship, from Murmansk! And it's awesome--check out the wikipedia page (above), and their official website.

These guys are generals, from the Hall of Generals (don't remember what it's actually called) at the Hermitage. Don't they look like they could be talking to each other, like the magical paintings in Harry Potter?

From Дом Книги (House of Books).

This is one of the strangest places I've encountered in Russia or anywhere. It's a café, not far from the university building where we have class, called Miks Cafeteria. The sign in front there literally translates to "enormous sandwich." So I went there with my friend Susan (she shared my love of the tall ships), and the food and general atmosphere of the place on the INSIDE is far and away more bizarre than its outward appearance. The place has a "Route 66" theme, with interior decor like some sort of American diner from a parallel universe. Their sandwiches are unlike any food I've ever heard of before--a weird amalgam of general ideas from American and Russian cuisine, but it's unlike either one. The sandwiches are square flat white things that contain fillings like potato salad or "hamburger." They have names like Russianized English words (Russianized English is hilarious, by the way--you get words like Biznes-Lahnch (business lunch), Gamburger (hamburger), and Parkovat'sa (to park one's car). The menus at non-Russian restaurants are especially great. Anyway, this Miks Cafeteria was really interesting. They also had milkshakes that can only be described with the word... pastel. Like drinking pure cream, with a bit of flavor and sugar. Quite good though.

Here I am at the Artillery Museum on Saturday. It was fascinating, but some aspects of it were terrifying. They had a lot of missiles on display--I can really only explain this with more pictures:

This is the Red Scare. One of the museum's gigantic halls was filled with about two dozen missile carriers, rockets and missiles, and rocket trucks. This is a diagram of one of the missile's trajectory. It's not labeled, but you get the sense that its destination is some American population center. In that room I began to really get a sense for the fear that the Cold War held on the world.

There was also an exhibit about this guy, Kalashnikov. It's called "The Man, The Weapon, The Legend." He invented the AK-47, literally transforming warfare all over the world. There were literally wall-to-wall assault rifles hanging in that exhibit, with certificates from various militaries and organizations such as the National Rifle Association of America, commending him on his work. It was a very, well... humbling, sort of experience. Yet also frightening.

Dostoevsky's grave. We went to a churchyard/monastery thing yesterday and also saw the grave of Tchaikovsky. What really interested me about the place, though, was reading a Latin inscription on another one of the monuments and realizing that I understood almost all of it. Then a Russian woman asked me whether I understood it, and I started to translate the Latin into Russian for her, but she seemed to lose interest very quickly. Still, it was really exciting for me, and I remembered how much I enjoyed studying and translating Latin, and I thought how curious it is that we don't spend any time on translation in the Russian class here, and I miss that. I'm still reading Notes From Underground and really getting a lot out of it.

Scene from July 3rd. This was the Friday before July 4, of course, and the university café staff wanted to give us a special "American Picnic" sort of lunch. It was great!

Finally, a bit of graffiti I saw yesterday. My experience here, as I have said before, has been up and down in many ways, but I feel that I'm starting to settle into it. It's absolutely true that culture shock is inevitable--at least for me, it hit me in a much more textbook way than I realized at the time. There are many thoughts swirling around my head as I do a lot of growing up, but the future in general for me doesn't worry me so much. So like the graffiti says, it's best to think that everything will be alright. I'm learning so much here. As my brother told me a couple of days ago, it's impossible to imagine beforehand how the experience of actually living abroad will affect every part of your being. He's right.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Beautiful Music

I may remember this moment for the rest of my life.

Just ten minutes ago, I witnessed one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, and I knew then what I want to do. Maybe even what I have to do. I mean this in the most profound way. As soon as it happened, I knew, and I came as quickly as I could to this computer because I just had to say something.

Class had finished. I've been feeling very odd, very strange, the past couple of days, with lots of thoughts swirling in my head--wondering about and doubting both past experiences and hypothetical futures, thinking too much about everything. Last night was expecially cinematic and strange, compounded by music and the weather. I walked through the rain last night with my head down, I walked across the bridge, I walked with beautiful music in my ears, music that filled me with terrifying doubt. But that experience was immediately followed by new friends and further curiosities of Russia in a positive way, and I walked home from there feeling simply indescribable.

I walked outside after class and said farewell to the two guys I was with because I saw that the tall ships were beginning to leave, and I wanted to see them one last time. I stood for a moment watching them, and I soon noticed that a larger and larger crowd was growing on the embankment as everyone watched two tugs pulling out the second-largest Russian ship, in order to turn her around to head out to sea. The crowd grew larger as Мир (Mir--meaning Earth, or Peace--the same name as the late Russian space station) came about with her bow toward the sea. I started walking down the bank, and Мир's foghorn blew three long blasts in farewell. Immediately, as Мир picked up speed, dozens and dozens and dozens of other ships anchored all around the river blew their horns in response, answering that majestic farewell in chorus. It was music. Gorgeous, beautiful music. I heard a perfect fifth among those horns that seemed to stretch out to to an eternity of oceans, and every sort of pitch and sound mixed together and there were tears in my eyes. In that moment, there was peace. Мир . I had my camera on me as I usually do, and I caught a video of the moment, but I know it can't fully capture the experience.

I have to go to sea. I don't know what that means--maybe I'll become a marine biologist or something like that, maybe I'll do tall ship education programs for kids, maybe I'll be a Merchant Mariner for a while, maybe I'll be a documentarian or something else. Maybe some combination, maybe not even for very long. Anyhow, I couldn't possibly predict what my lifetime career is going to be--much more likely I'll have more than one. But I know that the most peaceful I ever felt was when I spent three weeks aboard the Tole Mour three years ago, and I know deeply the profound sense of longing that these ships make me feel when I see them. I always doubted that I would actually experience such a moment where things make sense even for the tiniest bit of a second, but there it is. That moment of music on the Neva was one. Such moments are out there.

Monday, July 13, 2009


The highlight of the weekend was, without any doubt, the Tall Ships' Races -- an international regatta and festival of sail that is in Saint-Petersburg for four days! Vladimir Putin himself presided over the proceedings yesterday, but the layout of the supposed parade was absolutely ridiculous and the bureaucracy of the layout of the place so bizarre and we walked around for an hour trying to find a place from which we could actually SEE what was going on (even though we were RIGHT there)... Eventually we were unsuccessful in finding the parade, but I'm ecstatic to say that I got the chance to tour at least ten large Class A tall ships! Exploring the tall ships, I think, aside from a few other occasions, has been the best experience I've had in Russia so far.

I now know that when I finish college, I'll want to spend at least a couple of months working on board a tall ship, though I can't see myself making a career out of it. I thought maybe I could do some kind of naturalist work, maybe something like leading kids on Outdoor Ed trips, because I know just hoe much it has meant to me. But I'll worry about that when the time comes, because the next two years of my life are pretty much already predetermined, at least in terms of where I'll be geographically. There is one new development, though, and that is that I'm starting to think about some sort of European experience for the summer immediately following my graduation--possibly including some kind of program in France or something, if I can get financial aid and/or a scholarship for it. But that's a long ways away, and there's a lot of other stuff to deal with first.

Other than that, last night we had a cultural excursion to the Banya, and I have to say it was an amazing experience. We did six rounds - rinse, steam room, sweat, beat yourself (and each other) with the oak (leafy branches - oak because it's manly), rinse, cold pool, rinse, repeat. After the third round we took a break to have snacks and try out the pool table. It was a very manly experience, I have to say. I remarked that during this summer abroad, I seem to be learning a lot about skin exfoliation. Anyhow, my host mother had told me that it is necessary to drink beer after the banya because it's a "Russian tradition," but I was exhausted and I'm broke anyway so I went back and slept. After the banya and a huge meal (as usual), I slept amazingly, though my body still didn't seem interested in getting up with the alarm I had set. But! I got an A on the exam from last week, so things seem to be going fairly well, though I don't feel like my language skills are improving quite so quickly as I thought they would.

Past the halfway point now--19 days of class left. This weekend is our other weekend overnight trip, and this time we're going to Novgorod. Today we went to the Leningrad Blockade Museum, and I have to say it was powerful, though not as much as it would have been had I been able to read all of the stuff in there. Still, the photos of the people within the city during the blockade and the patriotic posters hanging on the walls really gave a sense of what it was like during that time. All this led to a discussion once we got outside about how Americans haven't experienced anything close to that, and how most of our current generation knows so little about war. I hate seeing apathy in people, but I know that I've felt it myself, toward my own country. That changed gradually over time, for several reasons (and it's still gradually changing, I think): growing up and getting older is the obvious explanation, but seeing Obama elected president and having a part in the whole political process started to mean something too. Then, when I went to Israel, I really saw an eye-opening perspective of people who really believe in something, and it made me feel good that I could connect to it. My friend Dean in the IDF was telling me that the army makes you a man "instantly," to which I replied that I could certainly see the appeal in that. Meanwhile, I'm traveling internationally, studying foreign cultures, and almost all of the money to do it comes from other people. How can I reconcile that? Ironically, that's part of what I'm out here to learn. Nothing is so simple, I've discovered, and nor am I. I've spent my life painfully aware of the opportunities I've been given, wanting only to make the most of them. I've started to realize very recently that the way to do that isn't to agonize over what might be good for me, but rather to follow my interests and my heart. They're not mutually exclusive goals, but it's good to begin to feel that I don't have to be ashamed of opportunity. I've been so indecisive so often.

Anyway, I've grown moody now with all this discussion (and maybe it has something to do with the steady rain that's started falling outside), but with my computer still non-operational and the temporary "solution" still not put together (though hopefully soon), I've had little outlet for my thoughts on things. I'd like to put pictures on here, but unfortunately that's still effectively impossible. I think I will call El Al tonight and see what they say.

I'm reading Notes from Underground by Dostoevsky (in translation), and I'm finding it incredibly meaningful. I'll put up some quotes from it in a future post.

Also, in Russia they have Hazelnut M&Ms, and they are delicious.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Another short post

- Exam finished (went well)

- Theatre class is constantly improving, and as the Baron Tuzenbakh I have a drunken scene that's a lot of fun to play (кажется...коньяк!)

- The International Tall Ship Association or something like that is hosting a massive regatta on the Neva here tomorrow, so I'll watch some in the morning when it starts. I love Tall Ships!

- Going to three (hopefully, if we have time) museums tomorrow: the Cruiser Aurora, the Artillery Museum, and the Museum of Railroad Transportation.

- Maybe sushi tonight, but I don't really have any money so it won't be much

- Working on temporary computer "solution" that will involve a short expedition to another computer store as soon as I finish this post

- The banya on sunday (don't forget to purchase your bundle of sticks!) It should be an experience definitely worth writing about.

Thus concludes the first month. No time for insight now, but I'll say I've had a very thoughtful week with various sorts of epiphanies. Also I had a cold pretty much all week, but it's almost better.

Talking on the phone with people back home is really great--though if you're going to call me, it will only work if you call the number I posted on here before! Don't redial the number I call you from; it won't work.

Finally, I'm planning my Return. At this point, it looks like I might spend only one day in Tel Aviv, then pass through New York, take a bus to Boston and spend two days there, then bus to Washington DC, two days there probably, then a train to Raleigh, NC to visit my grandmother in Chapel Hill, NC. I'll likely be back in LA around August 17.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Nevsky Apple

Super quick post because I'm in an "Apple Store" on Nevsky Prospekt--laptop still not working, and I'm working on a temporary solution but no luck yet. arghhh.

Want to say more but I'm in the store. Maybe tomorrow after the exam.

I've been in Russia for a month?!?


Wednesday, July 8, 2009


That's right--the Lenta I mentioned in the previous post is not simply a superstore, it's quite literally a Hypermarket. Beyond a "super-market" or even a "universal-store" (both also Russian phrases), it's a Hypermarket. Гипермаркет is the Russian, and Hypermarket is exactly what it means. Awesome.

So, I'm well past the halfway point of my whole summer abroad, and I've got a little over four weeks left in Russia. Last night I had an academic epiphany of sorts about what my senior year at Tufts is going to be like, about my major and other activities, and I got really excited for senior year. I'm reading Dostoevsky's "Notes from Underground" now (in English, I suppose I should mention), and it's really getting to me in an incredible way. I suppose that when it was assigned in 12th grade I wasn't ready for it, but now I'm at a point in my life where I am really discovering how much I love reading and literature. It may not be the romantic science-technology focus I always seemed to dream about, but right now it really fits. Plus, it was really nice to think about such positive things and to get so excited for the future, and to see how my college career could come together in such a great way. And then Zach called me from England and we discovered that we're both working on Chekhov's "Three Sisters" in our respective programs, and we had a great conversation. I've been talking to loads of people on the phone, and it's great to be able to keep in touch from Russia, even as I'm just walking to class in the morning!

Unfortunately, my laptop is still not working, and something tells me that this time it's not going to inexplicably get better. I'm fairly sure the motherboard / main logic board is failing, though there is a chance it could be some kind of "simple" firmware corruption. Fortunately it's not the new hard drive, so I won't lose any of the pictures and emails and music I had saved on there and had been working on, but that also vastly limits my ability to take more pictures than my memory card can hold, which I suppose isn't too much of a problem, being more than halfway through and all. Supposing it's the logic board, that'll mean $350-$550 for a new one from eBay, plus a very labor-intensive installation. On the other hand, that's about half the price of the new 13" MacBook Pro, and plus I'd get another free iPod and printer. In any case, it's all annoying because I originally bought that computer to last longer than two years, so I'm not happy.Link

Anyway, about my return, it's sort of starting to come together. I'll spend 1, 2, or 3 nights in Israel (assuming El Al is somewhat cooperative...), fly to New York, and then hop on a plane to Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina, to visit my grandmother (I haven't seen her in almost two years, I think) for two days or so, before flying home to LA. It's very slightly possible, I suppose, that I could stop in Boston for one night first (taking the bus there from NY) and fly to NC from there, so that I could spend an evening with some friends that will be there. Hmm, that's a pretty good idea...

We're going to the Russian Museum tomorrow, and then the Banya (Russian Bath) is on Sunday. Also, the midterm exam (or I guess more accurately, the final for the first month) is on Friday. Still hoping to go see "Up" in a day or two, and then I think next week Harry Potter comes out! yes.

Hope all is well wherever you are reading this blog. My regards to you! More insight later, I suppose.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Quick post

Fourth of July / general weekend was very good, consisting of the following:
- Went to the Hermitage. It was amazing--they say it's the number two art museum in the world after the Louvre in Paris. I will admit, when I got to the Matisse Room, I felt an incredible longing to be in Paris.
- We taught some Russians how to play base(wiffle)ball
- I learned what "good" Russian beer is, and what "redneck" Russian beer is
- Learned that the best hamburgers in Russia are at Carl's Jr.
- Found Baskin-Robbins in Russia to be cheaper and richer than in America but basically the same
- Ate some tasty bliny
- Walked for many, many hours on Saturday, all over the city
- Inevitably, got stuck on "the wrong side" of the river on Saturday night, so walked around more watching the bridges go up until about 4am or so when it became possible to get home. Definitely an experience worth having.
- Discovered Lenta, a Russian super-store that is somewhere between Costco and Wal-Mart. It's a pretty incredible place. I wish I could put up a picture of the t-shirt I bought there.
- Went to an awesomely fun surf-rock show on Friday at Club Griboedov--possibly the most fun I've had dancing at a show next to the Aquabats/Streetlight Manifesto show or the Ladytron/The Faint show.
- Talked to a lot of friends
- Took lots of pictures

There are pictures and videos of everything, but unfortunately, my computer is out of commission again as of this morning. It's incredibly annoying. I'm trying to do what I can, but there's not much I can do about it here. There's an IT guy at the university building sometimes though (and he knows a thing or two about Macs) so I'll solicit his help.

There's more but I have to get off the school computer now because they're locking up.

Address again:

Alexander Michaelson

c/o Smolny College / Bryan Billings
St. Petersburg State University
Lt. Schmidt Embankment 11, Office 416
199034, St. Petersburg, RUSSIA

Friday, July 3, 2009


I'm sitting in McDonalds just checking my email for a bit before I get dinner at host-home and then go out. I just read the following poem, sent to me by my mom. This afternoon I remembered my last night at Tufts two months ago, and now that seems a million miles away because I feel so much more mature and alive and experienced and wise. I feel older. I don't know how to describe it. This is a really hard thing that I'm doing but it's exactly where I need to be right now, and it will lead me to the future, whatever it may be. Things change, but maybe not in the ways you expect them to--and maybe that's alright. There's a kind of comfort in that. I was going to write more, but this is all I want to say right now, because after reading that poem, all of a sudden I feel infinite.*


When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon -- do not fear them:
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you.

Pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many, when,
with such pleasure, with such joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
visit many Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from scholars.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithacas mean.

Constantine P. Cavafy (1911)

* A reference to another book that meant more to me than I know how to express, lent to me last summer, when I needed it most, by the most important peson I've ever known. It was another occasion when I read exactly the right book at exactly the right time.

Obama is following me...

and apparently so is Stephen Fry? What ho, old boy!

Two days before I left LA, Obama was snarling traffic on Wilshire. Then, the one day I was in New York, he was snarling traffic in midtown. Then, when I was in Israel, he came to Egypt and gave that speech about peace in the Middle East and such that everyone seemed to like. Now he's coming to Russia on July 6!
Obama in Russia

Time for Theatre now. Tomorrow we're going to the Hermitage! Afterward, we're having a picnic all together for the 4th of July (they gave us an American Picnic at lunch today too). Something tells me I'll like this 4th of July a lot better than last year when I just sat at home and wallowed, even though I do now recall that I saw Will Smith's "Hancock" with some good friends post-wallow.

May be seeing the new Pixar movie today too. And perhaps a SURF ROCK CONCERT?? Да! Да!

Thanks for all the messages and comments, all! It's great to keep in touch. It's also great to be able to talk on the phone, and for those I've talked to (and those I haven't) it's been wonderful! I'm looking forward to a great weekend. On Sunday evening, we're going to the Banya. hoho! It's a Russian bath-house. Should be an excellent experience!

Lastly, apparently we're in for one of the coldest bouts of weather that this city has seen in a very long time. Coldest in 100 years, someone said, but I think he was being facetious. Still, I'll miss the warm weather we've enjoyed for the past two weeks.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Горячая Вода!

Hot Water!

Finally had a hot shower for the first time in almost three weeks, this morning. So nice!



In class today, we were discussing hypothetical additions to the classroom. I meant to say I'd like to add a "refrigerator filled [...with food]" but I misunderstood the word. Learning a language is all about expressing yourself, right? I had misinterpreted the ice cream ad pictured at right (it's nice to be able to illustrate this), but now that I know the word it's actually even funnier. The ad says:
Adventure with Taste!

For the record, Russian ice cream (Extreme cones included) is really good!

So much to say, as always.

So, things have been up and down the past couple of days, but I'm happy to say that the hot water is finally back, as of today! Tomorrow morning I finally get to take a real hot shower, for the first time in almost three weeks.

There are many echoes of the Soviet past here, in everything from the bureaucracy of everyday life to the way the buildings are constructed. Russia is a harsh place, but the people are basically good as in any other place.

Some more scenes from last weekend:
Selling souvenirs in Izborsk. They had a lot of wood-carved stuff, and it was pretty cool. I didn't buy much, but I did buy a bottle of homemade kvas that was amazingly good the first day and then turned rancid. I got lots of great pictures though!

From Saturday, in Pskov. This picture appears to be very random, but there's something hilarious and very Russian happening here. This scene is a bride and groom in their wedding clothes, and it's POURING rain. (The bride is mostly obscured behind the woman in the foreground--unfortunately, this is the only picture I got.) The happy couple had only moments before this picture was taken released two white doves into the sky, despite the downpour. Some Russians, just as some people in any world culture, just love traditions, and this is one of them. On a nice day around the parks of Saint Petersburg, you'll see similarly dressed couples out for photo-shoots. They're really everywhere!

The spring in Izborsk. On the right is a local resident, and the others are Smolny people (second from the left is one of the tutors, a Russian native)--the other two being students in my class. The water was delicious, but from what I know about backpacking, I was wary about drinking very much of it without treatment. I haven't heard of anyone who drank it getting sick though, and the locals use it for everything.

So I'm thinking about getting a haircut. It's getting a bit long.
A quick word about Russian hairstyles. Check out the dude on the left of this photo from ГОГОЛЬFEST. Yeah, that's right. The dominant hip style for young Russian men seems to be the mullet (yes, really), but this guy seems to be taking it to a whole new level. I thought briefly today about the idea of going much shorter with my hair, but the last time I did that was in second grade and it was awful. My hair doesn't do anything interesting except poof. When it's really long it gets slightly wavy and if it's at all short (or just randomly at other times) it gets poofy.

Regarding my return to America, it's looking more and more like I will return several days earlier than planned, for various reasons including the fact that the trip to Eilat will no longer work out. However, I'd still like to spend two or three days in Israel while I'll have the opportunity, so I'm investigating that possibility. Then I'll fly to New York, and probably straight on to LA sometime around the 14th or so, unless I make some sort of stop in Washington DC or perhaps Chapel Hill NC to see family that I would otherwise not see for quite a long time (and don't see often anyhow).

With all that being said, let me know if you want anything in particular from Russia or from Israel!

Now I'm going to get more personal here.

I finished reading Salinger's Catcher in the Rye for the first time earlier this evening, and I have to say it couldn't have come at a better time. Most American students seem to read it sometime around the tenth grade, but it was never required for any class I was in.

A quick word about literature and required reading:
No matter how accellerated the academic program or how mature the student, you can't expect young people to be ready to have a mature interpretation of a work of literature if they can't relate to the experiences in it. With that being said, however, there is undoubtedly great value in reading for everyone. Furthermore, the experience of reading literature will be quite different for the twelve year old book nut, for the searching young adult, for the middle-aged person, or for much older people. Your own experience has a lot to do with what a work of art or literature means to you.

I'm happy to say that being here not only makes me rediscover the joy of connections with people, but also with academia and literature.

And now for some Holden Caulfield:
"Lawyers are all right I guess--but it doesn't appeal to me," I said. "I mean they're all right if they go around saving innocent guys' lives all the time, and like that, but you don't do that kind of stuff if you're a lawyer. All you do is make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martinis and look like a hot-shot. And besides. Even if you did go around saving guys' lives and all, how would you know if you did it because you really wanted to save guys' lives, or because what you really wanted to do was be a terrific lawyer, with everybody slapping you on the back and congratulating you in court when the goddam trial was over, the reporters and everybody, the way it is in the dirty movies? How would you know you weren't being a phony? The trouble is, you wouldn't."
Now here's the thing. A year ago, perhaps, I would have quite agreed with Holden. Now, however, I'm not worried so much by such questions. I don't think this is the kind of thing you can ever "explain" to someone--it's something that people just have to work out. It's very meaningful to me personally to look at this quote and see the grasp for maturity in it, and to realize that my perspective on it now is utterly unlike anything I could have conceived when I thought similarly.

Toward the end of the novel, Holden has a conversation with one Mr. Antolini, a former teacher of his.
"The fall I think you're heading for--it's a special kind of fall, a horrible kind. The man falling isn't permitted to feel or hear himself hit bottom. He just keeps falling and falling. The whole arrangement's designed for men who, at some time or other in their lives, were looking for something their own environment couldn't supply them with. Or they thought their own environment couldn't supply them with. So they gave up looking. They gave it up before they ever really got started."
Now here's another thing. I have had very similar thoughts in my head in the past few months. It's terrifying to think that you might never be in the right place and to keep your eyes so wide open with looking around that you can hardly see and you end up tripping over yourself because you can't see the ground. I'll return to this subject in a bit. Antolini continues:
"Once you get past all the Mr. Vinsons, you're going to start getting closer and closer--that is, if you want to, and if you look for it and wait for it--to the kind of information that will be very, very dear to your heart. Among other things, you'll find that you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You're by no means alone on that score, you'll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You'll learn from them--if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It's a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn't education. It's history. It's poetry."
This is one of the most powerfully comforting and encouraging things I've read in a long time, and it reminded me of how great literature can be. It was pouring rain out when I read it, and I read it again because it was just so meaningful to me. The truth is, I'm not half so troubled now as I was a year ago, though I certainly do have my troubles.
"Something else an academic education will do for you. If you go along with it any considerable distance, it'll begin to give you an idea what size mind you have. What it'll fit, maybe, and what it won't. After a while, you'll have an idea what kind of thoughts your particular size mind should be wearing. For one thing, it may save you an extraordinary amount of time trying on ideas that don't suit you, aren't becoming to you. You'll begin to know your true measurements and dress your mind accordingly."

And maybe that's about where I am now.

Now here for something different. This is a poem my dad sent me in an email last week:

INTO MY OWN, by Robert Frost

One of my wishes is that those dark trees,
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze,
Were not, as 'twere, the merest mask of gloom
But stretched away until the edge of doom.

I should not be withheld but that some day
Into their vastness I should steal away,
Fearless of ever finding open land,
Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand.

I do not see why I should e'er turn back,
Or those should not set forth upon my track
To overtake me, who should miss me here
And long to know if still I hold them dear.

They would not find me changed from him they knew--
Only more sure of all I thought was true.

Robert Frost, what a romantic you are. I get that, though. However, what most intrigues me is that last stanza and the couplet at the end. It makes me wonder about whether I'm changing while abroad. I think a lot, and really, I'm not sure I agree with that last bit of the poem. It's true, these lines of Frost are quite idealistic, but what a curious thing to contrast at the end the idea of remaining the same (yet more so) with the idea of total independence. People have a way of always wishing they were elsewhere, as Salinger pointed out, and I'm certainly no stranger to that feeling. However, being abroad (it's been almost five weeks now, and I'm nearly halfway through my summer abroad) as long as I have now, I've come to realize how important to me are the connections I have back home and the people who have been close to me. So it's true, I am learning to be more sure of all the things I tried so hesitantly to hold on to in the past, and that's a very good thing.

To close, I was never ready to go to college. Two years ago, I was graduating from high school in a ridiculous ceremony at Disney Hall in Downtown Los Angeles, but I was happy to see everyone all together, including my grandmother and grandfather and my cousin and my immediate family. I wasn't thrilled to be going to Tufts, but I was getting more excited for it, and I was really really looking forward to spending a week in Australia in July. Looking back on that time, I had so very much less experience with life, and I was so much more unsure as a person. As much as I probably think too much now, I REALLY thought too much then. When I got to college, I really couldn't deal with the parties, the drinking, the culture, the academia, the people--anything, really. But as a good friend told me, maybe that's what college is for--learning how to be ready for college. There's an interesting way to think about it.

I know that I should be living in the moment here and making the most of the incredible place where I am, but part of that whole process is realizing just how important those connections are to me.

I'm looking to the future, to August 2010 when I return to Tufts, and I'm wondering excitedly what sort of person I'll be. I'll be a lot more mature, I know, and much better able to handle myself as a person. I'm already doing better academically, and though it's still hard sometimes, I'm certain that I'm where I need to be. I always knew that I needed to go abroad--I've known it since I was in high school, or maybe even earlier. It's hard, but I'm doing what I need to do, and if I hadn't gone, I wouldn't have been on the right track to learn how to be happy. When I return to Tufts, I can't wait to see what it will feel like to finally be there and be ready for it. I can't wait to give it a try. I can't wait to see everyone, and to get interested in academics.

Japan is also going to be great. I'll be a lot more in control of my personal space there, and I'm also more interested in Japanese culture. That language might be even HARDER than Russian though. I never actually believed anyone when they told me that Russian is hard. Hah. HAH. Yes, YES, Russian is hard!!

I'm nearly halfway through my summer abroad, and it's proving to be what it needs ot be. Onward and forward.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Россия: Какая Страна!

Russia: What a country!

On Friday, going to see Transformers 2. The fact that it was in Russian probably made it a lot better, because I couldn't understand the heavily affected voices of the evil bad-guy robots at all, and all of their lines were unnecessary history of the robot war anyhow. Plus, the bad parts of annoying stereotypes and stupid dialogue were almost nullified!

A quick word about the title of this post:
Russia has a peculiar way of being very inadvertently funny to foreigners. (What a country!) Examples happen all the time here, but they're very insignificant on their own. More to come on this subject, I think, later.

Still so much to say--I want to talk more about Pskov, my impressions of the excursions, and also especially the very enjoyable night out at a bar/music club there (and the people I met there), but as always, time is short. The excursion to the Dostoevsky Museum yesterday was very short, actually, and I'll admit that because the guides are always difficult to understand and I have unfortunately not really read any Dostoevsky significantly, it was a bit boring. Actually, it reminded me of the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam (and also perhaps a bit of the Rembrandt House).

Here's a short video of the tour of a Russian Orthodox monastery near Pskov, so you can see a bit of what it was actually like for us. At the monastery I bought a CD (it was about $4) of the monks that live and work there chanting. I'll listen to it tonight!

I also want to talk a little bit of personal history, such as my feelings on going to college in the first place, rewinding (remember VCRs?) to about exactly two years ago, which I think directly relates to me going abroad, about who I am and where I am in life right now. Unfortunately, that will have to wait until next time. It's a topic that is very close to me.

More dreaming--it's fuzzy, but I remember some new theatre production happening at my high school, and I'm a senior there when this happens. The important thing about the production is that it's contemporary, and that's apparently a very big deal.
Also some other adventure in a dream. Don't remember any details.

I received some information yesterday concerning my travel arrangements to Japan, and for a brief period of time I thought I might be in Boston for a bit at the end of September, but now again that arrangement appears unfeasible. Although it would be a bit awkward to bum around Tufts, I'll miss seeing Tufts friends for another whole year. Doesn't seem like it's going to make any monetary sense for me to go to Boston, though I thought that it would with the stipend for Japan. Hm.

Still thinking about and working on what to do with returning to America in August. I'm returning to Israel on the 10th of August, and I would be really excited, but I have a few problems:

I had been scheduled to return to America that same day, but when I left Israel two weeks ago I was so thrilled with being there that I immediately extended my trip further, all the way until 1am on Tuesday the 18th. So here's the problem--I have no plans to stay anywhere or do anything during that time, except for what I discussed with one new friend there about me staying at his place in Eilat from Friday until Sunday or perhaps Monday (by this plan, I would need to arrive at the airport on Monday evening [the 17th] just after dinner to get on that flight). But that leaves me with nothing from the 10th until the 14th (during that time, I had thought it would be great to go to Bulgaria and hang out with George, another friend, but that's yet another $600 I don't have). Furthermore, I'm not even sure I have enough money to last me almost six more weeks in Russia, let alone another week in Israel (where things cost more, and I'd have to spend more to support myself too). But there's even more to it than that--I'll have large heavy bags with me, and after 10 weeks abroad I'll be anxious to return home, especially since I have friends back home who will be going back to their colleges all over America very soon afterward.

Anyway, I'm not sure what to do. I'm not confident that I'd be able to convince El Al to let me change my flight again for anything less than $100, even though this would be the third time changing it. Bah, I should have waited. I'd love to see some more of Israel, but this is eight whole days and basically it's pretty inconvenient for various reasons. Supposing, then, that I were to change my flight to leave on perhaps the 13th or 14th, that might work too, but even so, I know that's during the week and many of the Israelis I know will be busy. And what would I do with my bags?

On a random note, whenever I have a couple of minutes I read Questionable Content. I don't have much time to read it here, but I'm about a third of the way through the whole thing, going from number one. It's very well done, and it's a fascinating arc to follow (as well as following the author himself in his comments on each strip). Honestly speaking, I feel that I relate to many of the characters, especially Marten, though no one exactly of course.

THE FOLLOWING is MY ADDRESS here in Russia! I should have posted it sooner, but here it is. Fortunately, as long as you're just sending a letter or postcard or something (I wouldn't recommend sending me a parcel/package), it shouldn't take more than a week or two to get here. So, as long as you send something within the next two and a half weeks, I'll be able to get mail from you! That's really good, since I'm told that to send things internationally FROM Russia is, well, unreliable at best. I'm told six weeks is an average time for mail.

Alexander Michaelson
c/o Smolny College / Bryan Billings
St. Petersburg State University
Lt. Schmidt Embankment 11, Office 416
199034, St. Petersburg, RUSSIA

As a reminder, commenting is now open to anyone.