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The McDermott Scholars Award covers all expenses of a superb four-year academic education at The University of Texas at Dallas, in concert with a diverse array of intensive extracurricular experiences, including internships, travel, and cultural enrichment.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Reporting on a European adventure

The main train station in Helsinki

Let's start off this incredibly long post with a little recap of my last night of soloing in Helsinki and my first 24 hours in St. Petersburg. I decided that successfully complete my first major solo adventure through Europe required at least a small celebration. So I treated myself (and “Frog”, my little green traveling companion) to a nice dinner (when I say nice, I am speaking in relative terms - remember that I am a student traveler). So I consulted my handy-dandy map-o-Helsinki, which also had a bunch of restaurant ads. It turns out there is Western-themed restaurant just down the street from the train station - a little place called “Santa Fe”. According to the ad it had been voted best food in Helsinki for three years running. The menu out front didn't look have bad and the prices were decent, so I figured I'd go for it. It was just the kind of place I needed to relieve my slight case of homesickness. There were a bunch of kitschy knick-knacks all over the walls, and they had old tequila bottles for candlestick holders. It was so much fun! And I seriously had the best meal of my trip so far. I ordered the "avocado grilled chicken salad" - which had every imaginable salad item on it, plus some. And it was probably enough for about two people rather than just a little American girl (even with a Texas appetite). The best part about it, other than the avocadoes, was how spicy the chicken was. It was fabulous! The Dutch guy sitting next to me ordered the same thing and agreed with me.

Frog and I having a delicious lunch of potatoes and "small white fish". The Finns call these fish "muikut", and that's also the word they use instead of cheese when posing for pictures. Yummy.

After the wonderous meal, I headed back and packed my things, then took some time to do everything that I could possibly think of doing on the internet, because this was probably my last chance for free wireless before returning to the US. [It's a good thing I did that too - I have take a bus to get to anywhere with internet access from my dorm. And forget wireless.]

The train to St. Petersburg was a bit of an adventure. The whole trip took about 6 hours, but I think we were only moving for about 4 and a half of those hours. When we got to the border, the train stopped and an announcement was made - "The WCs and restaurant car are closed until we finish border formalities. Please return to your seats. Leaving the train is prohibited with out permission of the customs agents." So we sat there. And sat some more. Finally these burly border guards got to our car, took everyone's passport, and left. And we waited some more. Eventually the Finnish Railways people came back with our passports, all stamped and ready to go, and the train began to move. Then the "portable bank" trolley came by so that we could change our euros into rubles and get our tax refund cheques from our EU purchases. I almost forgot about that! I rummaged around and found my form from my camera purchase in Budapest. The Finnish guy was completely perplexed by this - he had never seen the Hungarian version of the form, and had no idea what the exchange rate of the Hungarian Forint was. I think it was the fact that I was owed a few thousand forints that was throwing him off. He made a few phone calls and eventually came back with about 45 euros changed into rubles.

I'm glad that I did this when I did, because as soon as I got off the train, I was swept away by my Russian driver, who spoke no English and had the single goal of getting me to the dormitory - there was no time for a pit stop or ATM run. I was a bit scared (with good reason, it turns out) when he said something along the lines of "no seatbelt necessary" when I got into the van and discovered that there was no seatbelt. I think that was the scariest part of the entire trip - zooming through the crowded streets of St. Petersburg (home to around 5 million people), going 70 miles an hour down two lane streets with cars parked haphazardly on both sides. But we got there in one piece. He dropped me off in some random office on the sixth floor with a lady who didn't speak English and left before I could even say thank you.

I eventually figured out that the lady needed a deposit to give me my key, but other than that I had no idea what she wanted me to do next. Luckily a Chinese girl came in after me, and she spoke English in addition to Russian, and took me down to the other office where I got my smartcard to get into the building. What luck!

I finally got to my room a bit later, to discover that two of my three roommates speak English pretty well. They are all very nice. A few days later we were joined by another American student – a girl from Chicago. It took me a bit longer to figure out where I was supposed to be the next day and how to get there. Eventually I found a phone card so that I could call home, and I got the cell phone number for my contact here in St. Petersburg, who told me to meet them at the Hermitage at 11 the next morning. But how to get there? I figured I'd get up early and figure it out in the morning, so I went to sleep (I thought it was early, since the sun was still up, but it was about 1.30 at that point).

At 8.45, a woman came knocking at the door. "Frank Hannah, Frank Hannah!" Apparently she was delivering a message that I was to wait for a driver to take me to the University at 9.30. Okay. I waited, and was delivered promptly. But there must have been some confusion - I was supposed to be at the Hermitage. I told the University people I would have to come back in the afternoon, as my first class at the museum was starting at 11. Luckily it's only about a 20 minute walk, so I hauled over there and met Elena and the other six people in the program - who are all from the same school, Rhode Island School of Design (except for Gleb – he’s from Cooper Union, in NY, but he came through their school). Hmmm. I guess I'm special. There should be other people from the RSL program in my language classes, but in the art classes, I'm doing my own thing. As if that's any different from my normal place in life.

We had a nice introductory tour of the museum, then found where we can go for our free lunches. :-D. I haven't had a free meal in so long! Then we made it over to the Hermitage Youth Center - our HQ for the program. That's where I am right now - because we get free internet! (They won't let me hook up my laptop though). There we met a few of the other teachers, and I parted ways from the others for the weekend (they were on their way to buy art supplies, and we had free time until Tuesday after that). I managed to find my way home from the museum without any major incidents, though it took a bit of time.

Peterhoff Palace

I have done so much since those first 24 hours in St. Petersburg that it’s hard to believe only a couple of weeks have gone by. It took me awhile to straighten out my schedule, as there was some confusion at the University – they put me in a group language class that was at the same time as my art history classes at the museum. But I am now in an individual class with a nice lady name Elena. Once the art program is over, I will spend another month in an intensive group class. But until then, I’ve got it pretty easy as far as language instruction.

The art classes are ABSOLUTELY AMAZING! So far, we’ve seen some rare lithographs by Manet, the restoration department, the vast storage building . . . the list goes on and on. The sad thing is, I am realizing that I could stay here for a year and still not see all there is to see. St. Petersburg is just to cool.

Since I was constantly moving about for a month before coming to St. Petersburg, it has been nice to unpack and get settled in one place. I’ve even managed to complete a few routine tasks. I was able to buy a Russian SIM card for my cellphone so that I can communicate with my new friends over here. I also had the courage to go get a haircut. I’m glad that mission was a success – especially since the lady cutting it didn’t speak any English. I just told her, “Make me look beautiful” and let her go. I think it worked.

I’ve also had a few very Russian experiences. I went to the banya (bathhouse) with my classmates. It wasn't the tradition "naked-old-ladies-beating-each-other-with-sticks" kind - it was this little place that Nastya found where you can reserve the whole place for a group. It only cost us 200 rubles each (that’s about 8 dollars). Well worth the small price - it was so relaxing! Gleb, Drew, and I were the only ones who did the full submersion in the cold water after the sauna. It was really cold, but felt really nice (especially getting out). And it was a nice little introduction to what awaited me back at the dorm...
I hesitate to mention this, for fear that I might receive an onslaught of "I-told-you-so's". But when I got home from the banya, my roommates informed me that there would be no hot water for the next month. "Why?" I asked. Katya's reply - "Because Russia is a great country." Har har har. Apparently it is not unusual for buildings to shut down the hot water in the summer to "fix the pipes for the winter." I guess it's better that I didn't know about this ahead of time - otherwise I would have been dreading this day. But I'll live - I guess I'll just be going to the banya a bit more often. And Katya told me a story that assures me it could be worse - apparently they recently had a year with NO WATER in Vladivostock (where she's from). Hmmm. Sounds delightful.

A view of St. Petersburg from my bedroom at the dorm. If you'll look at the picture details, this photograph was taken rather late in the evening.

I think I’ll wrap up this update by sharing one of my favorite thing about the city – that has got to be the “White Nights”. Seeing as how the summer solstice was this week, making this weekend the longest of the year, my friends and I decided that it was the perfect Saturday to put our plan into action. Meaning we stayed out all night to experience St. Petersburg "by night." It was gorgeous. Some of you back home have heard me talk about how the sun never really goes down here. What happens is there is about a four-hour sunset followed pretty much immediately by a four-hour sunrise. So basically it's really pretty for about 8 hours - the 8 hours during which I am usually asleep. Which is why I wanted to go exploring at that time. I never get to see the museum and the cathedrals and the bridges at that time of "night." We even got to see the raising and lowering of the palace bridge. They print the schedule for all the bridges, so that people don't get stuck on a different island.

I have about two more months here in St. Petersburg, then I need to prepare for an even larger portion of culture shock – taking the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Irkutsk, where I’ll spend the fall semester. I think I need a warmer coat.

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