Author Archives: Milou in Russia

About Milou in Russia

Hi! I'm Milou, I'm a senior at Lawrence University, and I'm currently spending the semester studying abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia! I look forward to sharing all my adventures with you here at the Gilman Scholarship Blog!

The End of a Beginning: Returning Home

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Sitting at home with my dog on my lap watching snow gently fall and blanket the trees and the ground listening to the peaceful hush of silence in the Montana woods, I can hardly believe that roughly a week ago I was in St. Petersburg, Russia. My mind can barely process the fact that a week ago my life consisted of eating macaroni with meat cutlet, riding the metro, and hoping to god that I would be intelligible when trying to buy bread from the supermarket.

People ask me for crazy stories, and I have my highlights prepared. Yeah, that time I took a gypsy cab at 4am home where the only common language denominator was a “little bit of Russian.” Or eating raw fish with onions with my hands. Or pretending to be a glue monster in acting class.

But my Russian experience was so much more than a crazy story. It was frustrating, beautiful, challenging, rewarding, energizing, exciting… (you can keep inserting your own superlatives here). I met friends that I hope are for life. I had some of the wildest and most interesting discussions. I went through periods of intense boredom or, in contrast, also being so overwhelmed I’d leave and go cry quietly to myself.

There’s a lot of things I want to take back with me from my time in Russia. I love the tradition of wearing tapochki (slippers) at home and always have cookies on the table and tea ready to go. I like the idea that before a long journey you sit and meditate. I love how real Russians are—how they smile when they really mean it, say things as they are without sandwiching it in “pleasant platitudes,” and how small talk is almost nonexistent. I love how much people love and honor art and their culture. I admire and respect the strength of the Russian people who have endured so much.

I will admit that on both sides of the spectrum it’s been difficult navigating the difficult, multi-faceted relationship between Russia and America. While in Russia, I was exposed to some very controversial opinions and beliefs that were at times very challenging to hear but I cannot stress enough how much I learned about the power of just objective listening and trying to reach an understanding of where and how these beliefs come to be. Coming back to America, it’s been a challenge to explain what I’ve learned and come to understand about the Russian perspective, but it’s a challenge I rise to because I believe it’s so important to extend my study abroad beyond me and use my perspective to bring deeper understanding.

People ask me if I miss it or if I’m happy to be home, and in a way it’s both. I miss the bustling streets of Peter, and I’m happy to be skiing through the trees of Montana. The other day while shrugging ourselves into gear in the ski locker-room my friend commented that she noticed I was watching my bags very carefully—something I never did before as my small town life consisted mostly of friendly strangers (who probably turn out to be friends-of-friends anyway) returning your wallet if you dropped it.

In a way this seemingly innocent question prompted almost existential thought: Have I become unreasonably fearful? Have I lost trust in the world?

But in a way, I suppose, thinking deeper, travel hasn’t made me more fearful, it’s only made me more confident, more open-minded, and more trusting in my own abilities and capabilities. There is no way that I can describe to someone what it’s truly like to be in a phone store trying to figure out what’s wrong with your SIM card with minimal Russian and a very confused shopkeeper who thinks you’re trying to buy a new phone not fix the old. I trust myself and I trust the world because, yes, in the end my SIM card was, somehow, fixed. I trust myself because at the end of every crazy story there’s a happy ending—I survived, I learned, I gained confidence.

And I think that’s what I miss the most about Russia. I miss the challenge, the unpredictability, the feeling as though my life was a giant improvisation game where I was only given half the rules. I learned about myself that I don’t need to fear immense change because not only can I survive, but I thrive on it. I am happiest when I am experiencing the challenges of somewhere new and different, and I am so thankful to my incredible study abroad experience for giving me the confidence to pursue that happiness wherever in the world it might take me.

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A Reflection on My Russian Adventure

 

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When I think back to my first memory of the first-week study abroad, it seems like a distant memory. I took a video of myself recording my first impressions, and the then me that is pictured seems shinier and fresher. It seems silly and cliché to say “oh I was so innocent back then” especially given that it was only four months ago, but there was so much I hadn’t experienced. It was a me who looked upon the world with a renewed sense of childlike awe where everything was “new” and “amazing” and “wow.”. Now I look at the world a little more weather-beaten with less “awe” and more of a feeling of stability. I can survive everyday life in Russia (& I suppose that in itself is its own wow).

I think I set impossible goals for myself at first. I wanted to visit every corner of Russia. I wanted to go to every museum, every estate, see every concert, hang out with only Russians… I wanted to be fluent in Russian when I finished. So I guess if I think about my goals in that large sense, no I didn’t really accomplish all of them as in I didn’t do everything but I did do a lot.

In Russian, I might not know a lot of words + still make stupid grammar mistakes but I can still have meaningful conversations about things that are important to me. Travel-wise, I’ve happily strolled through the grounds of almost every suburb of St. Petersburg—Gatchina, Pavlovsk, Kronshtadt, Pushkin… In Russia, I’ve also been to Moscow, Pskov, and Vyborg. Outside of Russia, I’ve been lucky enough to have been able to visit Estonia, Ukraine, and Hungary (with a tiny stop in Latvia). I’ve been to so many awe-inspiring concerts. I’ve seen works of art that have taken my breath away. Even though I didn’t hang out with only Russians, I still made friends in Russian and even tried dating.

I might not have accomplished everything (probably not even possible) but I still feel proud when I list everything and realize that yes, I’m very happy and satisfied with my Russian experience.

Personally, the biggest way I’ve changed personally is that I’ve become more comfortable being myself and making mistakes. From the very first day when I almost got shafted by a taxi cab driver in Moscow after making a wrong turn coming out to improvising being a glue monster in acting class to making a fool of myself in everyday encounters when I don’t know the words, I’ve made more mistakes than I can count. I think every mistake has strengthened me a lot as a person. I have confidence in myself to know that I can survive a very embarrassing experience and come out and still be me.

I’m a firm believer that 50% of language fluency is confidence and flexibility. I think it’s easy to get down on yourself for your stupid mistakes or in a classroom setting to feel like you’re behind your peers, but the classroom is such an isolated environment. In the real world, it is highly likely that your phone will break and you’ll have to go explain yourself and what happened to the phone store. This isn’t something you can study for. You’ll likely not have all the words you need. Things are unpredictable, but I’ve found it very exciting and reaffirming to find out that yes, I do know more than I think I do and I can make my ideas intelligible. I just have to believe in myself and not be afraid of experimenting.

Thus, in conclusion, my Russia experience has been a wild ride of missed bus stops, beautiful concerts, being confused like crazy, and pushing myself out of my shell. As a person, I don’t think I’ve become anything new. I’ve been exposed to new ideas and new ways of thinking, but I am still me and every experience helps me to become myself even more.

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Navigating US-Russia Relations on a Personal Level

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I think one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced in my study abroad experience is making friends with students of my own age. Russian college students my age are usually pretty shy at first, and you definitely have to approach them first. This can be absolutely terrifying if you’re feeling slightly intimidated and already concerned about your language abilities. Then there’s the added factor that Russian is a live language, and unlike our understanding professors, in the non-classroom setting, people speak quickly, conversationally, and often with rather unclear articulation. Russian intonation is also difficult because it’s very direct and strong. To my American ears, Russian intonation can sound aggressive or forceful because of the strong accented emphases (intonation Pattern #2!) when actually it could just be someone being emphatic and expressive.

 

Another thing I’ve noticed is that Russians are very direct. Americans seem to speak with a lot of “padding” and “cushioning.” I remember learning early on in maybe elementary school about the sandwich technique—say something nice, something critical, something nice. Here in Russia, there is no sandwich. People will tell you upfront and publicly that you’re acting sketch, missed the point, or your paper is subpar or that you shouldn’t use an elevator if you’re not old. Grades and commentary are also published publicly. There’s no “politically correct” culture.

 

Also, no one is interested in small talk. Given the tense relationship between America and Russia, I was nervous about navigating the difference of views, but there was definitely no hiding. From the very first night of staying with my host mom, I was asked about how I felt about Putin, Trump, Ukraine, homosexuality, and Jewish people…and the very first academic class I walked into I was asked by the professor about my personal view of communism and the Revolution of 1917. Mouths dropped literally open as my American friends and I stared at each other in disbelief. I also noticed in casual conversation with cashiers or even talking to my own peers, people are also not afraid to ask you about how much your parents make or how expensive your clothes are or other questions that would otherwise seem very rude (like I don’t even know the answers for these questions from all my American friends back home).

 

It can be very disconcerting at first to skip the “how’s the weather stage” and jump right into sociopolitical views and money but in a way, I’ve enjoyed being able to speak about real things. St. Petersburg, Russia is a highly cultured place. Everyone goes often to the theater, ballet, opera, or Philharmonic. People know their art, their books, their poems, and their history, and it’s just absolutely fascinating to get into a debate with someone over Brother’s Karamazov or the suprematist art movement and Malevich’s Black Square. I can hum Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and someone else will be able to recognize it and hum with me.

 

For me, so far the best way I’ve found to navigate controversial conversations or classes is to just listen and always ask why someone thinks the way they do and what happened in their lives or what they were exposed to that have helped them form their opinions. People are just people, and everyone’s opinions come from somewhere. I’ve been awakened to the power of the objective, respectful listening and asking questions. Once I quiet myself and let go of whatever righteous or defensive feelings I might have, I’ve realized there’s much I can learn simply by being exposed to these ideas and to completely opposite, different viewpoints.

 

I think it’s in these moments that I realize just how powerful study abroad is, and how happy I am with my decision to go to a more “off-the-beaten” country.

 

For one, in terms of language immersion, it’s been incredible.  While it’s not totally remote and you still can find English, it’s really not that dominant compared to like when I visited Tallinn, Estonia or Budapest, Hungary and signs were in English and pretty much everyone spoke perfect English. In my everyday interactions such as buying food from the grocery store or buying my bus tickets, I’ve been forced to use Russian and even though it can be embarrassing or awkward, every situation has made me improve.

 

For another, I have never been so challenged and thought so much about what I believe and where I come from. My Soviet music history class shows the perspective of the Russians during the Cold War. My Russian host mother provides the Russian perspective on current events. My Russian peers challenge my beliefs and my behavior as an American. And I can’t help but think as I approach the end about just how good it’s been for me. The idea of history as a prize being written by the victors has never been quite so tangible as now. The idea that there are no absolutes. That there’s always another side….

 

Of course, this doesn’t mean that I’ve changed my own beliefs or behavior. I am an American citizen—a product of my upbringing in rural Montana and my liberal arts education, but I am just a little bit more aware about what’s out there in the world and the myriad of ideas and beliefs that exist. It’s like my ideas have gone from 180 to 360. There’s an entire 3-D sphere of perspectives and it’s been an exciting challenge to expand my ideas of who I am, what I believe in, and how I want to shape the world.

 

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A Few of My Favorite Places

22552945_1986770504894385_253590365397843968_nSt. Petersburg is a city where it’s impossible to just sit at home and do nothing. There is always something interesting going on or an interesting place to be. The city itself is very walkable and anything under 2km (about 1.2 miles) is considered walking distance so bring good walking shoes! There’s also a fair chance that whenever you go out it will probably rain so an umbrella is in handy, and also don’t forget cash. A lot of places here don’t use card, and the satisfied feeling of the cashier when you pay in exact change will erase any previous discomfort over the inevitable language problems that just occurred.

With so many favorite spots, it’s hard to narrow everything down but here are some of my most favorite places (as in I’ve been back many, many times) should you ever find yourself in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Cup in Cup 20 Dekabristov Ulitsa

My friend showed me this coffee shop, and I instantly fell in love. The vibe is young, Western, and hip but not in a bad way—kind of falling toward the more urban/earthier side of hipster. The music is of the American alternative variety where you can hear Big Thief or Bon Iver (I’m still waiting for them to play some Russian indie music). The amazing thing about cafes and restaurants here is that there isn’t a sense of turnover like in the US and you can literally sit somewhere for hours nursing a cup of tea and staring at the falling rain from out the window. My favorite here is the apple pie (which is served with a scoop of ice cream!) and the mate tea (of which they give you an entire pot!)—all of which costs less than $4 which is perfect for the student budget.

Gatchina Palace 1 Karasnoarmeyskiy Pr. Gatchina, Russia

Gatchina is a cute little suburb on the outskirts of St. Petersburg that is easily accessible by train or by bus. The palace is incredible—extensive grounds, a nice homage to WW2 and those who died to protect and save the palace from the Nazis (the palace was destroyed and occupied but restoration is currently still in process), beautiful restored rooms and collections, and an underground tunnel! You can see much contrast in the lavish public rooms (throne room, ball room, dining hall etc…) and the small, private family rooms. We also climbed The Signal Tower and were able to get gorgeous views of the entire town and the surrounding woods. My favorite part was the grounds. My friends and I strolled around drinking kvas and eating 30 cent ice cream cones and even rented a small boat that we paddled around the grounds. Would definitely say this is a must-visit place (it’s also not crazy touristy)!

 Yarumen 9 Malaya Morskaya Ulitsa

I think I eat lunch hear at least once a week. It’s a cozy nook located right next to a metro station and a convenient 30 min walk (or 15-minute bus ride) from university where you can get your fix of noodles, curry, or Japanese eggs. Speaking of the eggs—they’re out of this world. I highly recommend the tempura egg don. It’s this rice bowl with sea weed and tempura Japanese eggs. First of all, eggs in Russia for some reason just taste so much better than eggs in the United States. I’m not sure why (my friend and I went on a google adventure once to answer this very question that unfortunately did not lead anywhere), but this combined with the delicious Japanese style boiled eggs and you have a winning combination. Another plus is that the waiters here are so kind and ready to offer an encouraging smile as you limp along in Russian. I’ve gone here so many times too now that they all recognize me.

General Staff Building of the Hermitage 6/8 Dvortsovaya Ploshad

I prefer The General Staff Building of the Hermitage so much more over the actual Hermitage (ok the entire Hermitage is amazing but The General Staff Building feels much more manageable). Here you can find masterpieces by Caspar David Friedrich (AP Euro romanticism anyone?) or my personal favorite Black Square by Malevich or rooms full of Picasso. It’s overwhelming and wonderful to just lose yourself as you wander through floors and floors of contemporary and impressionistic art (+ some late German romanticism in there too). It’s much less crowded than The Winter Palace and the art collection feels like an enlarged version of my favorite floors of the Chicago Art Institute or MOMA. I strongly recommend (plus it’s free admission for students!).

Dixy Any Street Corner in Russia

I usually dislike grocery shopping. It’s overwhelming—the choices, the prices, the measurements…As a slightly obsessive person who likes to thoroughly research and compare everything before finally making a tentative decision, grocery shopping in all its varieties is a nightmare I’d rather avoid. But I love Dixy. It’s so fun to pop in and see all the different flavors of chips you can get (Crab? Lobster? Steak? Paprika?). I also buy my favorite shampoo here (an all natural Siberian brand I’ll have to stock up on to bring back to the United States), and I never pass up an opportunity to buy шпроты or canned sprats that are absolutely delicious on brown bread. My friends and I frequently stop here for dessert as well because there’s this 20 rouble (35 cent) ice cream that is out of this world. Russian ice cream is also just so much better than American. Not sure what it is that makes the difference (need to go on another google adventure) but it’s just much creamier (meaning lactose intolerant me needs 2 lactaid pills instead of 1).

Mariinsky Theater II Teatralnaya Ploshad

Even if you aren’t a big ballet buff (I certainly am not), I think that nothing in the world compares to the feeling of going to a ballet at Mariinsky. I think it’s something in the energy—there is something so innately special about going to a concert (or any show really) where literally everyone is there because they love it and want to experience something special and it’s highly unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in a concert hall before. For example, during the heartbreaking pas de deux of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet when the dancers first fall in love, literally everyone was crying their eyes out and I, too, just couldn’t stop crying. It was so beautiful. It was so heartbreaking. All at once, I just was in love with art. It was magical. It was beautiful. There aren’t enough words to describe just how incredibly cathartic and moving the experience was. Also to add to this, someone once said there isn’t a bad seat in the entire Mariinsky II and whoever said that was true. Whether you’re up in the nosebleeds or paying premium on the first floor, there really isn’t a bad place to be. The hall is stunning on the outside and the inside; the acoustics are such that it feels at once grand and intimate all in one.

And thus, here’s a sampling of my favorite places so far in St. Petersburg, Russia! I love it here so much and hope that you all can come here too someday and experience how beautiful it is for yourself!

 

 

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For the Adventure of Being Alive!

“I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love—for your dreams—for the adventure of being alive” – Oriah Mountain Dreamer

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For the adventure of being alive!

As a person, I’m someone who thrives on adventure and change. In my friend group, I’m the one who suggests spontaneous trips to unusual places or signs us all up for lessons from a West-African drumming ensemble. Why live a boring life when you can live an exciting one? Why stick with the familiar when you can experience something new?

And it is this driving curiosity and love of life that drove me to pack my solitary blue suitcase and go study in St. Petersburg, Russia for the fall semester of my senior year.

Upon first arrival, everything was in some shape or form of “Wow!” The pastel colored buildings, the lump of loose coins you receive in change after buying a bottle of water, the intimidatingly beautiful Russian women speed walking long distances in towering stilettos, the stray dogs who wander the city and bark at things… Every moment and every step felt empowering from being able to talk about my day with my host mom to negotiating a cell phone contract in Russian.

Of course there are the demoralizing moments as well like trying to buy theater tickets for a show that you are convinced is in August but is actually in September or when you mix up your words so badly in Russian that the store attendant mutters “иностранцы” (foreigners) and literally just gives up on you. But, I think the embarrassing experiences are also just as empowering as the good ones because they, as a mother might say to an unwilling child, “build character.”

After lying on the floor of my acting class pretending to be a glue monster in front of twenty Russian students or being yelled at by a security guard after accidentally walking in through the exit of the metro, I’m pretty sure my sense of self can survive anything.

There’s still a constant feeling that no matter what you do, you’re probably doing something wrong, which can be paralyzing, but then at the same time—freeing.

Mistakes are ok.

Mistakes are ok.

Mistakes are ok.

This is the mantra my perfectionist self has been muttering to itself throughout college, and I think there is no better and immediate way to realize this statement than through study abroad. One month into my study abroad adventure, I realize that it’s very easy to stay at home, settle into your routine, do what is comfortable, and avoid the uncomfortable. Here, in Russia, often times necessity thrusts you into the uncomfortable. You can’t just go without water or completely avoid public transport, and thus you take a deep breath, gather the few words you know, and try your best.

Talking to my friends who are also in the study abroad group, I think we all are experiencing culture shock similarly but in stride. As one friend said, “all the things I miss are easily rectifiable.” No public trash cans? Re-use and throw away less stuff. Can’t drink the tap water? Head to the store or fill a bottle from home. Feeling overwhelmed by the city? Take the электричка (a train that goes to the suburbs) out of the city and stroll around a park.

Thus, I think those of us who are adjusting best are perhaps the ones who come in with the least amount of expectations. Life just is and you never know what will happen next.

This past week, we celebrated our one month of living here quietly, as in we didn’t even realize one month went by until our host moms pointed it out to us at dinner.

“I feel like I can get around and do what I need to do.”

“I feel like I live here now.”

“I feel like my vocabulary has doubled.”

“I finally have Russian friends.”

These are all things we can say now as we successfully navigate parts of the city without Google Maps or order food with no “surprise” words or requests from the waiters or converse freely with our host parents and 1-month in, hey, I guess that’s pretty good!

There’s still so many things left to do—I still have to go to the Hermitage, buy my balalaika and figure out some folk tunes, learn to cook blini, and hunt for mushrooms at my host mother’s dacha but those things will come. One month in, I have the confidence and the perspective to be able to pursue my goals and experience my upcoming life in Russia to its fullest extent.

Adventure is my spirit, and I look forward to see where the ball rolls next.

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