My first semester in Saint Petersburg had many ups and downs. It is an opportunity I will forever be grateful for, but it was honestly a rough semester. Originally, I had not planned on coming home between semesters; however, I decided it was best for my mental health to do so. This was an amazing decision. Being home gave my brain the mental “reset” it needed to prepare for my second semester in Saint Petersburg. I was able to spend lots of quality time with family and friends, which was much-needed after my time in Russia. Sometimes, you need a break — and that’s okay. Homesickness and struggling is to be expected when abroad, so in hindsight I don’t feel bad for going home over Christmas break. When I made the decision to do so, however, I felt like a complete and total failure. Now I am back in Petersburg and doing well, so my time here has obviously not been a failure. Sometimes, it’s all about perspective.
One of the best experiences I have had here in Russia has been going to see Eugene Onegin at the Marinskii Theater here in Saint Petersburg. Eugene Onegin is an over 4-hour long opera by Tchaikovsky based on the novel in verse by Pushkin. The Marinskii Theater is absolutely gorgeous and the opera was beautiful.
One thing I have noticed about living abroad is that small negative experiences affect you far more than they would at home. The first night I was here in Saint Petersburg, one such experience happened. I went to the grocery store next to my apartment to stock my pantry. Everything went well and my Russian was far more functional than I expected it to be. However, when I went to check out, the experience got much worse. In Russia, plastic bags are not free and you have to buy bags to use when buying groceries. This is the same in France and Spain, so I did not expect to have any problems. I picked up the bags I wanted and placed them with my groceries, exchanged niceties with the woman scanning my groceries, and waited. When she got to the bags, she said something in rapid-fire Russian that I did not quite understand. I understood enough to know that there was some sort of problem with the bags, so I got more and placed them on the counter. This did not solve the problem, and she raised her voice angrily and said something about the bags I yet again did not understand. I asked her to repeat herself a bit more slowly and she made a snide comment about stupid foreigners not understanding Russian. Luckily, at this point, one of the store’s security guards had noticed the cashier’s anger and come over to help. I asked her what the problem was and she explained, in slow Russian that I could understand, that I was not allowed to purchase the large plastic bags, as the cashier did not think I had enough groceries to warrant buying 2 large ones. Instead, she explained, I should buy 4 small bags. I was baffled that the cashier would have gotten that upset over something so small, and by the apologetic manner of the security guard, she was also confused by the clerk’s anger. After this experience, it took me a week to go back to that grocery store. Every time since has gone perfectly well, but that first negative interaction really affected me.
Looking back, one of my favorite experiences so far here in Saint Petersburg was being stuck in an elevator. I decided to rent an apartment here instead of staying at the dorms, and I’ve appreciated myself more than I can express for making that decision. I love the independence of living alone in a city as wonderful as Petersburg. One of the many reasons I appreciate having an apartment here is that I have been able to host several верчеринки, small get-togethers, at my apartment. This has allowed me to really get to know other students here. After one of these nights, I was walking my guests out and we took the elevator down. My apartment is on the 18th floor, so stairs are not really an option. The elevator is made for 2-3 people, max, and we fit 5 of us in it. We got down to the second floor when the elevator stopped between the first and second floors. We could open the door a little bit, but not enough to get out. It was sometime between 1 and 2 am, so there was no one in the lobby of my apartment complex. I ended up having to call the Russian equivalent of 911 and the fire department came and got us out of the elevator. The 5 of us were crammed in there for about 45 minutes. We really got to know each other and have had similar gatherings several times since then.
As this semester comes to a close, I am incredibly excited. In two weeks, I will board my flight to France, beginning a year of studying abroad. I will be in France until mid-June with the OU College of Arts and Sciences Leadership Scholars, studying primarily in Clermont-Ferrand. This will be a wonderful opportunity to improve my French and experience the Auvergne region. From there, I will go to Madrid, where I will be doing an intensive language program until late July. My goal is to get a C1 certification in Spanish after the program ends. I will then be back in the US for a few weeks in early August before flying to Russia. I will be spending the 2018-2019 academic year in Saint Petersburg taking Russian Language and Russian Studies courses. By the end of the year, I hope to be at a C1/C2 level of Russian.
One of the classes I took this semester was a new IAS course called Religion in Europe. The course was primarily a history course, but the last 1/4th-ish of the class was focused on contemporary Europe. During this time, we had the opportunity, through OU’s digital humanities program, to create a map pertaining to religion in modern London using ArcGIS. My group focused on mapping Judaism in modern London, and the final product was really interesting. Seeing the modern implications of where Ashkenazi and Sephardim Jews migrated to was really neat. We also looked at the development of Jewish community centers in London, and the thing we were most surprised by is how un-Orthodox most of these centers were, accepting Jews of various backgrounds including secular and LGBT Jews.
This semester, I took the Senior Capstone Seminar on International Terrorism with Dean Cruise for my REES major. I had the opportunity to write a capstone paper for this on the history of terrorism in Russia, which is where I will be living for the next year. This was an incredibly interesting topic to learn about, as I had no knowledge of it before the class. It was particularly interesting to look at the use of state violence in the Soviet Union as a means of countering terrorism and to look at how different Russia’s history of terrorism is from the global norm. It was great to be able to finish my capstone for my REES major as a sophomore, as it will let me focus on my Russian major’s capstone when I return from studying abroad for senior year. Another reason I sincerely enjoyed this class is because it made me a better public speaker. There were numerous occasions on which I had to present to the class, something I have never been great at, and I truly believe I improved significantly.
Another international event I attended this semester was paper presentations by IAS graduate students. While I am not likely going to attend graduate school at OU (or in IAS), it was incredibly interesting to talk to these students and hear about their work. One presentation that particularly stuck out was about gender vs sex in education in East Africa. This was a topic that I knew nothing about, so it was incredibly interesting. Another benefit of attending the event was hearing professors’ critiques and questions for the grad students, as it made me think about how I could improve similar problems in papers I was writing. It was also really helpful to talk to the students about life in grad school, as that is (hopefully) where I will be in a few years.