This post is by Maggie Deptola (Drexel University). During the Fall 2011 semester she participated in the Russian Language Program at the CIEE Study Center in Saint Petersburg.
It’s nearing the halfway mark of my semester inSt. Petersburg, and to get ideas for this blog post I looked back and reade mails I sent to my family and friends the first two weeks I was here. Ithought I’d write about how accurate or inaccurate my first impressions of Russia and the CIEE program were.
“First, she's about 4 feet tall, with dyed blonde hair and painted on eyebrows. I know that sounds weird, but on her it works. She's pretty much the sweetest thing ever, and when I gave her presents from C-SHA (that's how you say USA in Russian), she melted and kept saying oh how wonderful! I got her handpainted salt and pepper shakers, and I kid you not she looked at me and said 'How did you know I like salt and pepper so much?!'.She just chatters away and I kind of understand what she's saying for the most part, only I have nothing to say back to her because my vocabulary is so small.”
This was the first my family heard about Olga Petrovna, my host mother. I liked her within five minutes of meeting her when she helped me move my luggage into my room and told me, “Rest Maggie, you are home now.” It’s true that at first we struggled to understand one another--I hadn’t taken a Russian class for a year before coming here, so it took meawhile to think of things to say, but Olga is a champion pantomime. When words failed us she’d still be able to get her point across. My favorite was when she gave herself two horns and headbutted me to explain that there was beef in mydinner. Living with her and her husband Vadim is definitely my favorite partabout being here, because on the days when I miss home I’m not stuck in a dorm somewhere, but instead have a family to talk to and laugh at weird Russian TV with. Also, she occasionally buys me ice cream or makes me pastries. Win!
“She won't stop feeding me. Yesterday for dinner was potato soup with chicken and dill, and a full plate of potatoes with cubed ham next to it, plus toast. Breakfast was a full bowl of porridge, plus eggs and toast, washed down with my three drink options (water, orange juice, and tea). I'm going to be 300-500 lbs by the end of this, so get ready.”
Alright, so the amount of food I’m given each meal definitely took getting used to. I’ve been living on my own for three years now, and I’m used to making all my own meals. But I’m a lazy college student, so usually cooking does not mean a 3-4 course dinner, but whatever takes the least amount of time. At first, not wanting to be rude, I just ate all of the food. But this wasn’t really the best solution, because I felt really sick after each meal. So then I started leaving things on my plate and asked for smaller portions. It eventually averages out, but some mornings out of the blue I’ll get sandwiches, kasha, 2 eggs, and yogurt and its overwhelming. Don’t be surprised if you feel the need to ask your teachers how to say “I’m full,” “That’s enough please,” and “I can’t possibly eat anymore.”
“On Saturday we toured the Hermitage which was beautiful, but our tour guide spoke only in Russian, I didn't really get a great understanding of what I was looking at. I did, however, attempt to take nice photos of the palace to share.”
I don’t know why I didn’t think that our tours would be in Russian before coming here--it is a language immersion programafter all. But the first few tours are pretty rough. You’re jetlagged, you're trying to remember the meanings of words you know you’ve heard before but it’sjust been such a long time since your last Russian class, etc. It gets better.I am understanding things now that I had never even studied before coming here,and I even answered a question (in Russian!) on the Crime and PunishmentWalking Tour. I felt like a champion.
“Alright, so week one of classes is over, and I have a headache, possibly from trying to understand my teachers, who talk so quickly and mumble as I frantically try to write notes in cyrillic and understand what they're saying at the same time. The thing about cyrillic cursive though...if you aren't properly trained in like..a Russian school how to write it, all the freaking letters look the same, so I end up looking down at my notes and reading something like this: "cluuuwwuu." Oh great, I think that word means 'scribble'. Fab.”
First week of classes was definitely not easy (if you can’t tell but the sarcastic undertones of the above email) and the second week wasn’t either. But eventually you fall into a rhythm, realize that your teachers don’t hate you, and that you’re definitely going to need to buy a better dictionary to survive the semester (I bought mine at a second hand store, it was published in 1963. Oops). I’ll admit that by week three I was wondering why I ever wanted to learn Russian, but I mostly blame that on the fact that we were reviewing prefixed verbs of motion at the time. Grammar and conversation classes are probably the hardest, but they get easier after you review some topics and your vocabulary grows a little. I've got my group members for support as well, and knowing that they're confused with me helps.
Regardless of whether your first impressions are positive or negative, the most important thing I’ve found is to be proactive about your study abroad experience: have a good attitude and try to change negatives into positives. For example, I love my host mom, so I try to talk to her as much as possible, show her pictures and videos of my life back in the states, and I even went to the banya with her (but I’ll probably never go back…that’s a story for another blog post). I was afraid that I was going to gain weight getting stuffed with so much food every day, so I joined a local gym and now I’m learning a whole new set of vocabulary as I bumble my way through group exercise classes (where else would I learn how to say 'Relax your shoulders'?). I may not understand our guided tours word for word, but it’s definitely getting easier. And every time I’m stuck on a homework assignment, I remember that if I were in the US right now, I’d be expected to write ten page papers—not ten sentences!