Sunday, February 28, 2010

Connor-Day 3

I had wanted to wake up early this morning and explore Vasilievsky Island before breakfast at 8:30am. However, I had chosen to stay up late hanging out with the guys from my group instead. Of course, I’d have liked to see even more of St. Petersburg, but I’m satisfied with the exploring I was able to do. I’d love to return during the summer months, when the days are longer and the streets are more navigable.
As I write these notes, twilight is dimming and the wintry Northern Russia is growing dark. We have about three more hours until we meet our destination, but secretly I wish the bus ride would never end. I enjoy traveling in this manner – my own space and plenty of reading material and sightseeing to keep me occupied.

Perhaps I’m also nervous about beginning service in Vytegra. Unlike my fellow students, I speak no Russian. In the museums, I may be alright, but I’m especially uneasy about interacting with the school-aged children. Unlike in St. Petersburg where I could leave the group and adventure on my own, in provincial Russia I will need to call on the support of my peers more than since we arrived in the country.

We visited a cathedral first built in the early 16th century this afternoon. I feel more artistically inspired than ever in the provinces, however I preferred to stay with the group than commence work on my thesis project. The cathedral was great – it fulfilled a similar expectation that I had of Russia as St. Petersburg did. In coming here, I wanted to see images that I considered Russian – first the Europeon-like splendor of St. Petersburg, followed by the onion shaped domes of Orthodox cathedrals. Although we have an entire week remaining of the program, I already feel like I’ve experienced enough to satisfy me for an entire semester abroad.

The provinces are beautiful. The bridges spanning the wide rivers are quite frightening – totally uneven road make you feel like you’ll sink right through to the water beneath. And they’re high. Like the escalators down to the metro in SP, the bridges seem extra tall, perhaps a thousand meters above the river.

It’s colder here as well. In SP this morning it had started to rain and the ground became even more hazardous. But the area around the monastery, about 4 hours north east of the city was still a winter wonderland. It’s quieter here – something that the book Skunk: A Life prepared me for. It’s peaceful in the snow.

Step 2: Petrograd, the Metropolis of the North

We woke up before we were due, around 8:15. We did our various routines, and had breakfast in the café again (oatmeal, drinkable yogurt, juice, and coffee). We once again boarded our bus with Anatoly once again at the wheel. We also had with us a tour guide for the day. We took a brief break of about five minutes or so in St. Isaac’s square, which is in front of the St. Isaac’s cathedral, which was damaged heavily during the Second World War. Pat-Joseph and I drifted over to a bridge with a pillar that marked the water level for the worst flood in the city’s history (4m I believe the pillar noted). In front of the cathedral there was an equestrian monument of Nicholas I, this Czarist statue survived the Soviet era on the marvel of its design (only two of the horses legs touch the pillar).

Our first stop was the Hermitage Museum complex, which is made up from several interconnected buildings, a palace, an actual museum, and other such royal buildings. The interior of the Hermitage although some of it is undergoing restoration…

I think “wow” just doesn’t cut it... The Hermitage is filled with paintings and statues bearing the origins from all over Europe. It has over three million pieces, making it the largest art museum in the world.
I took many pictures of the paintings that I could; I especially like the religious paintings in the Hermitage.

The paintings had come from all over the powers of Europe of the time: Holland, Italy, England. There was, in fact, a gallery in which we were prohibited from taking pictures in. I believe the reason was that the paintings were lifted from the Soviet occupied Nazi territory (the Nazis probably lifted it from the territory that they took). The Soviet government didn’t admit to having these works of art until after the perestroika, so the exhibition of the paints was slightly controversial.

After the Hermitage, we went back on the bus. One of our next leg-stretcher was at the Cathedral of the Savior of the Spilled blood, which was built by a Czar on the spot of the assassination of the previous Czar, his father. It is supposedly on the exact spot, and stretches slightly out into the canal, as the Czars, blood flowed onto the cobble-stones of the canal wall. I did my first amount of souvenir shopping at some street shops just across the street from the Cathedral. I bought a lacquer box for my youngest sister which had a design painted by artists of a former icon painting school and a music box shaped like the cathedral for Emma-Riley (my young niece I hope she’ll enjoy it when she grows older).

We ate luch an this lovely little restaurant, I ate the Pelmeni dumplings (a Siberian food). It was fantastic; I should learn later how to cook this. Our next stop was the Peter-Paul Fortress, which was built on an island in the middle of the river Neva, and essentially helped sprout the city. The complex was meant to be a fortress against Sweden, but wasn’t used because a second one was built closer to Sweden.

Because of that, the complex was partially converted into a prison for political prisoners (it held the Decembrists after their failed revolution). We visited another cathedral, which houses the graves of the Romanov Czars, including Peter, Chatherine I, and II. Off to the side, there was the Chapel to St. Catherine the Martyr. This chapel also housed the remains of Czar Nicholas II, the last Czar, and his family.

My camera started to run out of batteries, but I managed to get a picture of the vessel that sounded the start of the Soviet assault on the Winter Palace by cannon.

Bonus Time! Various Pictures of us in the Hermitage and Around St. Peters.
Chelsey, Alina, and Jill

The group contemplating a floor mosiac.

Ethan playing the goof and Joanna checking here picture.

Emily standing in a hallway that was painted to rival the vatican.

Same hallway; Joanna taking Ethan picture, as seen by mirror.

Group listening to guide in the Dutch collection.

Group under the watch of angels.

Political egg-dolls at a street shop outside of the Savior of Stained Blood.

Academy cadets on snow-shoveling duty (or so we joked).

Us in the Cathedral in the Peter-Paul fortress.


I’m actually able to pick up a bit of the Cyrillic alphabet. On the way home from extensive touring, we navigated the Metro system problem-free. I could look at the schedule and pick out our Island’s name – Vasilievsky. It did help knowing that the island is North-West of the heart of the city. ”KoΦe” is personally very important to remember. Of course, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m only beginning learning Cyrillic, and my knowledge of Russian language is abysmal. I totally underestimated the difficulty I’d have getting by in the country. For instance, my jont through the city was free and easy until I wanted to buy a cup of coffee. I simply paged though my guidebook until an employee began speaking to me in English.

Stereotypes Galour

Traveling has always been a love/hate relationship for me. I love to travel, whether it's to another city of state. There's something invigorating about the unknown which presents itself during a travel. At the same time however, traveling always seems to remind me of the warm Texas city of San Antonio that I come from. It makes me quite aware of how different each of us are, hailing from different cities in the US. Being in Russia only heightened this realization because of the stark contrasts of this country which has such a rich cultural history.

Landing in the St. Petersburg airport was simply surreal. We were all exhausted from a long day of traveling and after having so much excitement built up for months prior to our trip, we were all just overwhelemed by finally being in Russia. After retrieving our bags we went through passport control which merely reinforced stereotypes associated with Russian people- that they are quite cold. The woman who handled my documents was stone faced, and only changed her expression to roll her eyes at me and "shoo" me away after she had finished shuffling through my passport and papers. I, in turn, merely smiled at her and waved goodbye, reinforcing the stereotype of Americans- that we all smile too much.

Once we were on the bus which was to take us to the Sports Complex where we were to be staying, the smile which I had given the young Russian woman, remained plastered to my face. Architecturally St. Petersburg is absolutely fascinating and so detailed, even at night when the only things making the buildings visible are the dim lights which line the large streets. On our first night, traveling through the city established by Tsar Peter I, it was easy to see that St. Petersburg had had a great European influence in the setup of the city which has rivers running through it, seperating it into islands. It was almost as if you weren't in Russia, but rather in a much larger, and more pleasant smelling Venice. In fact, our tour guide on the second day in St. petersburg mentioned that many thought that St. Petersburg was not Russian at all, but rather resembled a German man, whereas Moscow resembled a Russian maiden of the country. Touring through the city, it became obvious that her statement was relatively accurate.

Overall, my first impression of Russia and Russians coincided with what I was expecting. The stereotypes that were formed were accurate thus far, and I realized that the stereotypes foreigners have of Americans have some accuracy as well. But nonetheless, we have yet to travel to the small town of Vytegra where I'm sure we will all have a real taste of what and who Russian and Russians really are.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Connor - Day 1

Flying to St. Petersburg was a breeze. I walked to the MLB at U of M, Bryn’s-boyfriend’s-Mom drove us to the airport, and we flew directly from Detroit to Germany to Russia. We flew Lufthansa, a German airline, and it was great. The plane left right on time, we had three meals between the two flights, and I was able to sleep overnight to wake up on German time. Browsing the in-flight magazine was a great chance to appreciate innovative German design (e.g. a wristwatch that displays binary code). The business–class seats were unlike any I had seen before – they fully recline without invading the rear passenger’s space.

Arriving in Frankfurt, I was immediately struck by the pleasant climate – a mere 40 degrees. Although we had a 4-hour layover, we didn’t venture out of the airport. I was able to check my e-mail, as Joanna was nice enough to pay the hefty price for Wi-Fi.

Step 1: Getting to Russia

We lifted off from DTW, at approximately 7:20pm, and landed in Frankfurt between 9am and 10am. Our flight didn’t board until the afternoon. During the interim, I went off on my own to explore the airport. So, smack dap in the middle of the terminal was this café, the Goethe-Café. I sat down at the bar and in under a minute, the bar-maid hands me my order and says something to me in German. I don’t speak German and I thought she was asking me if the beer was mine. No. apparently she was asking me if I wanted it, and answered me in fantastic English when I awkwardly said that I didn’t think that the drink was mine. A cup of coffee and a plate of bratwurst later, I was ready to go. However it was nowhere near time to board the plane. So I returned to our group meeting point and fished out the book that I am supposed to be writing my midterm paper on (Future note: It’s late, but there’s no readily available Wi-Fi or internet like there is in the states).
I read for a bit until it was time to board the smaller plane to get from Frankfurt to the Leningrad (Saint Petersburg's still abbreviated LED, after the Soviet-era name for the city). After we landed we had to go through customs. I was the last one through the migration check point, but only after I stood there for a bit looking confused (until an immigration officer-woman, who was leaving her desk yelled at me to go through). After we got through the check-point we made a brief stop to exchange money to rubles (at approximately 30 rubles to 1 dollar). We were picked up at the airport by a bus (a extended white van with a tall roof) from the Pulkovo, driven by Anatoly (check spelling later). We were driven to the Centr Sporta. This facility is a sports training center with an attached dorm complex for visiting athletes. Some people from the group were planning to go ice skating, but after the wonderful dinner in the café (which was in the sports center) we were just too tuckered out from jetlag to go for it, and we retired to our respective dorm rooms. I roomed with Ethan and Pat-Joseph (another Pat, wow), and for of the girls lived next door (Jill, Emily, Bryn, and Joanna), and two girls lived down stairs (Chelsey and Danielle (Chelsey showed up before we did, as she took a different string of flights to get to Saint Petersburg). I regretfully didn’t have my camera in a convenient bag for the trip, so I have no pictures of this day. We turned in eventually, and I fell asleep trying to push through my midterm book.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Day 1 -- v puti...

(This entry was started in Frankfurt on Feb 26 but not posted because we ran out of minutes at the airport. With no access to the internet for 4 days, it gets to be posted retroactively only today, March 2, 2010).

Guten Tag (almost) aus Deutschland,

Just when I thought I could kick back and enjoy the fruits of my 6-month long program preparation period, I got the full red carpet treatment at Detroit Metro. After paying overweight fees on my carry-on luggage (sic!) (this was the first time anyone ever wanted to weigh my carry-on in my life and I was caught completely unprepared), I also got a full body search, apparently because those scanning gates didn't like a metal fastener on my pants... And those TSA officers definitely try to do their best to treat you like cattle. I have gone through security in a few countries but American TSA ranks at the top of my book for the rudest, meanest and the grumpiest employees. No wonder they are the lowest paid government workers out there!

After a bumpy start, we had a very uneventful and comfortable flight on a brand new airbus, with decent food and service. What a shame I can never sleep on those long transatlantic flights, always arriving completely exhausted. I was amazed and envious to see that Danielle, who sat next to me, could finish her polisci paper during the flight and even post it from Frankfurt, while Jill just slept like a baby.

Everyone in the group seems excited already, despite us being forced to sit and even nap on the floor -- there are few chairs outside of gate lounges here and gate lounges open only 1.5 hours before the flight! I keep wondering what the reason behind that brilliant idea is -- perhaps trying to force travellers spend money in duty free shops and overpriced coffee bars (3 euros for a small cup of tea!)?.

*** after about 4 hours ****

Although our flight to Pulkovo 2 is delayed by an hour, we still manage to get to Russia dead on the origianally scheduled time which means that the Germans are just being very generous with their flight durations. I am very impressed at how empty and easy the passport control is this time, not a single line anywhere and our luggage is waiting for us. The airport is absolutely empty by 7 p.m. on a Thursday night - this is what global financial crisis does to travel industry, I guess. We don't have any problems with anything and are on the way to the hotel in a nice large minivan shortly afterwards.

All my friends told me how much snow they had this winter in SPb and that it was the largest recorded snowfall since 1893 but I am not prepared for how much snow there is on the sidewalks and roads. Still it's nice to see a wintery sight of the Russian Northern Capital at night(I've been to St. Petersburg only in the summer, spring or fall before). When we get to our hotel/hostel at the Centr Sporta, however, the bus driver cannot get through all the snow and close enough to the entrance we need. Actually he can, be he is afraid that he won't be able to turn around or back out once he is there. So, we have to struggle with our luggage through immense snow banks (compacted and slippery by now) and drag our suitcases for about 100 meters and up four flights of stairs.

Everyone is exhausted, and after eating our dinner half-heartedly at the Shtolletka cafe and figuring out cell phone use for everyone (except for me), everyone settles down in their rooms for the night. Very busy day sightseeing tomorrow but I still have lots of things to do tonight (calls and payments to make, as well as trying to figure out why my phone is still not working).

One great thing is that we are in Russia, the trip, amazingly, has started and it seems that we have a great group of students -- fun, upbeat, curious, enthusiastic and prepared. My biggest fear is to disappoint them somewhere. So, keep your fingers crossed for us!


Just a quick update from the Frankfurt Airport, where it costs 8 euros to get online for an hour. We've got a few hours to kill here before our flight to St. Petersburg. We had a hard time finding a place to camp out. Some of us are doing homework, others eating, practicing our German...whatever it is that people do to pass the time at airports...oh yeah -- duty free!

Lufthansa has been a decent experience so far. The food blows any U.S. carrier out of the water, and the Bailey's to finish off our dinner was a nice touch. The movie/tv selection was entertaining. I watched the indie film, An Education. It left me with mixed feelings...what else is new :) Then I was forced to turn to more serious reading -- Amartya Sen's Development as Freedom for my ICT4D lit review.

We will hopefully check in again from St. Petersburg, where it's 25 degrees F as we speak.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Before your flight, don't forget to check reality

Today began a strike of some 4,000 pilots at Lufthansa—the airline where most of us spring breakers booked our trip—grounding all flights until midnight on Thursday—our day of departure.

To say the least, the news struck me as an inconvenient surprise. To say the most, it seemed as though I had become the victim of an international conspiracy to trap me in the same three claustrophobic cities in Michigan. I mean, come on: this is my first trip abroad, my first opportunity to wield a passport with a shiny new visa stamped inside, and frankly, the most interesting excursion I will have gone on since family vacation at the Wisconsin Dells in '98. And just when I finally get the opportunity to leave the country and taste a little culture, 4,000 German pilots strike me down. Only the airline I'm flying on, only the week that I'm flying.

Okay, maybe I'm being a little dramatic. Lufthansa has already guaranteed to reroute international travelers through other airlines during the strike. UNISEL is already hammering the kinks out for our group's trip. And I was even contacted this weekend by the online booking site I used, ensuring that I would have a seat on some flight some time this Thursday. So what's the big deal?

Basically, it's a much-needed reality check for a novice traveler like me. Because I bought my ticket online in much the same way that I buy—well—everything else online, I expected the process to be foolproof. I pay the money, I go to Russia. But surprise! International travel is subject to the same political and economic pressures as anything else. A labor union in Germany agreed quite naturally that its members deserve job security, and suddenly my $900 plane ticket reverts to so much paper and ink (or so many bytes on a web server, as it were).

All of us will certainly find a way to Petersburg on Thursday, but not because international travel is invincible. It's a fragile system that works only when all parties agree to cooperate, and there is necessarily some risk involved. But notwithstanding labor conditions, weather, and a whole host of other factors, I'll be in a Russia by the end of the week. Woah.