Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The icy cold wind that was blowing while we were loading our luggage onto the bus, fresh (or not so fresh, as the case may be) off the plane to St. Petersburg, seemed very fitting for our welcome to Russia. It was a long trip, but not nearly as bad as I expected. Movies and stereotypes made me apprehensive about the passport and visa check once in Russia, and regardless of the fact that I knew nothing with my documents was out of the ordinary I was still very anxious while waiting for my passport to be handed back to me with the go-ahead. While driving through St. Petersburg at night on the way to where we were staying, it was really exciting to be able to read the signs and, once out on the streets, to be surrounded by nothing but Russian. The city at once felt like an entirely different world than anything I'd ever experienced but at the same time, reminded me of simply a mix between NYC and Philadelphia.

I had many expectations about what the city and the country were going to be like, many of which I realized that I never fully understood before experiencing them in person. While what I have learned in all of my classes about Russia is so far proving to be useful when it comes to understanding what’s going on here, I would compare it to reading a book versus watching the movie version of the same; learning about Russia in class is simply the best attempt to copy what was originally there but can never really do it justice. Seeing it in person changed it from being simple facts that I knew in my brain to something that I could see, feel, and truly understand. A photo can’t convey the sense of power and goal of intimidation on the part of the ruler as can seeing something as beautiful and impressive as the Hermitage Museum in person. Touring the museum was an incredibly overwhelming experience, but in the best way possible. Walking through all of the magnificent rooms, you can feel as much as see the power represented there. So far most Russians we meet are very guarded but will often open up more when interacting with them, but no one smiles at someone passing by on the street like I am so used to, being from the Midwest.

Our first full day, which was spent around St. Petersburg, was a series of surreal experiences. Besides touring the Hermitage, we took a bus tour of the city and got to stop at various landmarks, each more picturesque than the last. In Peter and Paul's Fortress, I got to stand next to the grave of Peter the Great himself, which was made even better by the fact that I got to pet a random cat that happened to be next to it. We also saw the Church on Spilled Blood, which is of course much more beautiful in person, and then got to go to an outdoor market across the street where I successfully haggled with a merchant entirely in Russian. A highlight of the day was the giant slide we went down as a group, which was completely lacking in safety warnings in a way that struck me as very un-American because of our tendency to overprotect everyone/thing. The food is an entire category of experiences by itself; so far, nothing we have had has been anything like American food and nearly all of it is amazing. By only the third day, I already felt like I'd had enough new experiences to fill an entire week and the main part of our trip hadn't even started yet.

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