Thursday, January 18, 2018

Have you heard? There's a rumor in St Petersburg!

Not unless the rumor is that it's one of the world's most gorgeous cities, and that's just not a rumor - it's objective fact!

Hey everyone.
Immense apologies for the fact that it's been months since I wrote anything relevant to my experience on the ground here in Russia!
Of course there are other things to update, but none even remotely begin to measure up to the incredible nature of the experience that was our three-day trip to St. Petersburg.

Challenging and frustrating as other aspects of the direct exchange program between Beloit College and the Russian State University for the Humanities that I participated in may have been, one of it's hands-down most perfect aspects is that every year, my lovely advisor, Beloit Russian professor Donna Oliver, travels to Moscow to meet the students that are currently being hosted here, and accompanies us to St. Petersburg on a trip entirely payed for by our wonderful institution.

The time before and after the trip that Donna spent with us in Moscow itself - staying in our same dorm, no less! - also saw a number of cool experiences. The one that stands out the most in my memory is the dinner that we had with Beloit alumni living in the city. I had assumed for weeks prior that this meant we would be dining with some of the many amazing Russian RSUH students who have been exchange students at Beloit in past years. Instead, we met Kim and Todd, two Beloit alumni who have very similar stories: they came here as exchange students to RSUH in the early 2000s, when the partnership between our two institutions had only been active for a few years, and then wound up moving back, marrying Russians, and are now living long-term in Moscow and raising bilingual and bicultural children. Kim even works at the office of American Councils in Moscow, which is an organization that implements many of the NSLI-Y and CLS programs in Russia, as well as in other countries, and the FLEX program, which is a scholarship that brings young people from the former Soviet Union to the USA as high school exchange students (among which Kate, my first Russian friend who visited me in Moscow a few months ago).
It was really wonderful to meet such kind people to whom I could relate on so many levels of experience, interest, and passion.

The trip to St. Petersburg itself started on the 17th of October, when we set off for the train station to board our Sapsan high-speed train to the Venice of the North. Barring a few minutes of feeling dizzy and nauseous due to dehydration and sitting facing the opposite of the train's direction of movement, I was truly, pleasantly surprised by how comfortable, clean, efficient, and fast the ride was. I often enjoy getting to embark on such long stretches of voyage within a country, such as my bus ride from Bursa to Izmir in Turkey, and the program-chartered bus ride from Reykjavik to the Westfjords in Iceland, as it enables an intimate sight of the terrain, and both literal and figurative natures of the country, so I'm glad I was able to do so here too. The endless stretches of forest burning with the warm colors of mid-fall, broken up by steely streams and clusters of rustic dachas with old Jigulees parked out front did not disappoint.

Right from the beginning, as we left the train station and walked down Nevsky Prospect to a pelmeni restaurant on the way to the hotel, admiring the gentle magenta and violet hues of buildings that looked like they could have been transplanted from a Parisian street, I already knew I was in for something good.

Some highlights:

  • Our final morning in the Church on Spilled Blood, where we were treated to a dazzlingly colorful and all-encompassing splendor of Orthodox iconography;
  • All the delicious Russian and Georgian food that we enjoyed courtesy of Beloit College;
  • The half-day or so we spent in the Winter Palace at the Hermitage, which was full of absolutely beautiful and priceless artifacts from all epochs imaginable of Russian imperial history; 
  • Running into our Italian friend Jessica who lived on Brett and Qiao's floor back at RSUH randomly without planning it, proving the world is truly a cosmically tiny place;
  • Getting to take in the gorgeous sight of the city and the Neva at sunset with the lovely fall foliage to accentuate the pastel sky;
  • Getting to see the final resting place of Catherine the Great and the family of Nicholas II at the Peter and Paul Fortress, whose stories were one of the first forces that drew me to the Russian language;
  • Falling in love with one of the most beautiful cities I've ever seen.

It goes without saying that my time in St. Petersburg was truly beautiful and formative within all the three months of my study abroad experience in Russia. I was able to come full circle and connect with history and culture that had first sparked my interest in the language, which I had nearly forgotten about. I was captivated by the dazzling details and colors of the architecture, and the aesthetics of all the restaurants and museums we visited. I felt much more relaxed in the noticeably slower and more European style of life present in the city compared to the perpetually hectic and fast-paced lifestyle of Moscow. And the city reached a comparable status of favoritism among the places I've fallen as madly in love with as Istanbul, Reykjavik, Rome and San Francisco. 

I could truly see myself staying more long-term in St. Petersburg if I had the chance, and now that I'm in Turku, Finland for my second semester of this junior year abroad of mine, and have the chance to sign up for a number of trips back to St. Petersburg (visa-free to boot), I hope I will have a chance to visit the lovely Venice of the North again soon. 

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