Sunday, September 17, 2017

Добро пожаловать в Россию! - Welcome to Russia!

Всем привет!

Nine days have now passed since I arrived in the so-called "Third Rome," that being Moscow. And it's already a time that I can tell will stick out distinctly and prominently in the course of my life, that has already given plenty of eventful and noteworthy memories.

I left my home in St Louis on the 1st of September, but much like I did when I left for Egypt five years ago as a high school exchange student, I traveled with my dad to his hometown of New Brunswick, New Jersey, and stayed at my grandmother's house for a couple of days, visiting with relatives, spending time with her, and going into New York two days in a row to explore the city and visit my good friend Sikander.

My East Coast visit was fantastic, as I used to go pretty often in my childhood but hadn't been back for a few years, and in particular gained a new appreciation for New York. But the truly Russian part of my journey began on the 7th of this month, when I said goodbye to my dad, and boarded an Uber to JFK to catch my direct Moscow-bound flight.
Unfortunately, my ostensibly toll-dodging driver took me on a route to the airport through Manhattan and Queens, rather than on the highway and over the Verrazano Bridge, that got me to the airport dangerously close to my flight's departure. At first the drive was rather relaxing, but as I began to realize just how close to the departure time we would arrive - forty minutes prior as a best case scenario, mind you - I began to panic. There have been few times in my life that I've felt as powerless and helpless as I did in the back of that Mazda in Queens, squirming in my seat with my anxiety soaring through the roof, thinking that I'd miss my flight for sure. But, lo and behold, we did reach the  airport with forty minutes to spare, and so I rushed through checkin and security as fast as I possibly could, only to find that by some miracle the gate was not even a minute long walk from the place where I exited the security line, the boarding line was super long, and we ended up sitting on the tarmac for forty more minutes before takeoff due to heightened air traffic.
I was rather frustrated, as I was looking forward to spending a few hours at the airport and having that be a time of nice calm introspection, especially seeing as I was about to leave the country for nine months, and even more so because I love flying out of JFK, as it's full of people from everywhere, going everywhere, and embodies everything I love about the dynamic fusion of humanity that is New York City in travel form. But given the circumstances, I was glad not to miss my flight, obviously.

The flight to Moscow was fairly uneventful. I wrote a lot in my journal and also a nice poem. I watched Enchanted in Russian to fulfill my desire to watch a Disney movie in my target language when I saw that the inflight entertainment sadly lacked Moana, and understood little. I slept for a while between meals. I watched a little documentary on the IFE about the Kaliningrad region, Russia's detached little exclave of territory situated along the Baltic. And by that point we were getting close to landing. I was in the dead center of an aisle, so I had to crane my neck from one side of the plane to the other, back and forth, to catch any kind of glimpse of my new city as I descended upon it. At first glance, with lush green patches of deciduous trees and grey high-rises visible in the distance, it didn't look drastically different from landing in some of the cities that I'm familiar with in the American Midwest. But as the wheels touched down, the Russians on board applauded thereafter, and the landing announcement came on, I knew I was in for something different. "Дамы и господар, добро пожаловать в Россию..."

As I waited in line at passport control, and the full extent of my jetlag began to truly set in, I remember thinking about how crazy it was that I was really here, seeing a human and routine side to the terms like "Russia," "Moscow," and "the Kremlin" that we toss around a lot in the States as abstract political monoliths. Now officially in the country, I took a cab with a company recommended to me by one of my Russian professors back home for their set prices. This promptly led to another insane driving experience upon arrival to mirror the one I had while trying to depart. You see, my dear friends, this taxi driver of mine tried to speed through a toll both at the edge of the Sheremetyevo Airport complex, so that he could make it through while the boom barrier was still up for the car ahead of him, and not have to pay. But his plan went somewhat awry, as I was jolted from my jetlag and disbelief-induced stupor by him crashing into the boom barrier so hard that I thought for sure it would break through the windshield. We both turned around to assess the damage, and the boom barrier was broken, bent all the way to one side. And upon seeing that, this man's response was to hurriedly turn around and speed away.

Добро пожаловать в Россию.

The rest of the ride passed comparatively uneventfully, and I met my two Beloiter friends Brett and Qiao in front of the entrance to the Russian State University for the Humanities, relieved to have some kind, familiar faces to guide me through the craziness of this arrival. Having already been in Moscow for a week prior to my arrival, the two of them were a little fresher with their Russian and familiar with the different required post-arrival rituals and procedures, so they shepherded me around to all the places necessary to register for my placement test, get my room assignment, my пропуск (an ID needed to enter the university and one's dorm), and just get situated.

From there, the memories I have of the first day honestly get blurry. I had to check out for a while and take a nap, as I was hopelessly jetlagged and sleep deprived at that point. I spent several hours in Brett and Qiao's room, talking to them, their Italian friend Michele, and some kids from Dickinson College in Virginia, which also has a direct exchange with RSUH like Beloit does, who they introduced me to.

The first couple of days have already presented some pretty great adventures. I've been to the Red Square twice, once with Qiao and an Armenian-Russian friend of his from RSUH named Tigran, where I got to admire the colorful majesty that is St Basil's Cathedral, thinking about how crazy it was to be seeing something I'd seen so many pictures of in my Russian language and culture textbooks right before my eyes. Irakli, the Georgian-Russian vice-rector of RSUH, who studied abroad at Beloit in 1998 when the partnership between our two institutions had only been active for three years, took us out and treated us to dinner to a Central Asian restaurant, and it was delicious. We managed by some miracle to navigate the unfathomable bureaucratic clusterfuck that is obtaining all the necessary documents to extend a Russian student visa in-country with little to no English assistance at any point along the way, and now our passports are in a bizarre no-man's land for a month as our visas get approved by all the necessary parties before being processed. My friend Kate, who was an exchange student in Ann Arbor five years ago, came to visit from St Petersburg, and we got to hang out and have lunch in a beautiful park while she was in town to get a Belgian visa to study abroad in Leuven this semester. Yesterday I went on a truly beautiful and restorative adventure in which Qiao and myself were led by our two friend Liuba and Alisa, who studied at Beloit last semester, with some friends of theirs and other international students from RSUH into the woods on the shores of a reservoir outside of the city by Domodedovo Airport, where we sat by the water, cooked food, played music on a guitar brought by one of their friends, and just reveled in the quiet comfort of the surrounding nature and the present company. And today Qiao, Brett, and I went out with Alisa, Tigran, and our German friend Angelina to Zaryadye Park, which just opened a few days ago, and then for a long walk around the city.

All in all, things are looking up. I have my schedule finalized now - on campus I'm taking grammar, speech practice, literature, and language of mass media, and additionally I'm taking an official Beloit course online called "Moscow in Transitions" with my Russian advisor Donna back home. I had my first day of classes, which passed fairly uneventfully. I'm in class with Brett, Qiao, and Michele, and so far have only had one full day, because our schedule is unbelievably light in comparison to what I'm used to - three days of classes a week, none of which start any earlier than 10 (like can every semester of college just be like this please??). The two professors I've had thus far, Evgeniya for grammar and Maya for speech practice, have both been very kind, patient, and skilled in their teaching.

And overall I'm just finding myself getting increasingly settled in and comfortable in Moscow. It's truly a beautiful city, with an architectural mix that I find alluring - in particular a lot of the low-hung, palatial twentieth century buildings, which are lovely baby blues, pinks, and greens, look magical when the late afternoon light shines on them. I love how the architecture and metro both kind of reflect the city's history - as far as the architecture is concerned, some buildings are very grand, ornate, and colorful, and make entire streets look as though they've been transplanted directly from Western Europe. Others are very imposing, monochromatic, symmetrical, and almost sterile-looking, clearly betraying the city's past as the beating heart of the Soviet Union. And others yet are modern as can be, freshly constructed and with immense glass facades. And the same goes for the metro as well; some carts have digital displays depicting their current position along their route, and glide effortlessly through the elaborate maze of underground tunnels in graceful silence. Others that are clearly a little more aged lack any indication of their whereabouts beyond sticker maps of their routes, and noisily bounce and clatter their way along, reminding me a lot, in fact, of the metro back in Baku.

Even just after a nine-day sojourn, this is proving to be a rewarding and informative experience. But I won't pretend even for a second that it has not come without challenges. Indeed, I was thrown off by how challenging it all was at first. Even for a person like me that's lucky and privileged enough to have experiences where I'm used to traveling and have had chances to live in a variety of different places, many in places very different from the ones I've grown up in, the beginning of this experience truly threw me for a loop. At times I'm kind of hard on myself in that regard, because I expect myself to be able to deal with pretty much anything as a result. But it's not right to think like that, because that completely ignores the diverse and multifaceted elements that go into defining any particular experience and making it unique. I'll be honest in saying that the first four or five days here, I found myself afflicted by strong culture shock, a sudden sense of panic and overwhelming over just how long I'm going to be away from my country and home, and some of the most intense and painful homesickness that I've ever experienced in my life. The object of which in particular was Beloit, as I've not been away this long since I started studying there as a freshman, consider it one of my homes, and very dearly miss a lot of close friends and people on campus, and the community and place as a whole. At times it's been so bad that I've legitimately worried about my mental health, and the pain I've felt has pushed me to the limits of what I thought I could deal with and even made me challenge basic conceptions I thought I had about who I am, and what I do.

But all in all, the important thing is that, particularly within the last few days, I'm steadily on the up and up. I feel increasingly more comfortable in my surroundings, confident in my linguistic gains, and welcomed by the community and friend groups I find myself becoming a part of, all of which work wonders on my mental health and have been healing the pain immensely.

I don't mean to scare anyone with the content of this post, I just want to be real about what I'm feeling and show that things are not always perfect, and that this in no way makes an experience like this any less valid or rewarding. I think in some of my past experiences abroad when I was younger, I bottled up and stifled a lot of the negative emotions I was feeling, because admitting to myself that I was feeling that way made me feel like a failure, and that's bullshit.

Anyway, thank you guys for keeping up with the first installment of my Russian adventures. I will be back soon enough.


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