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3 posts from May 2012


The Unknown Element

This post is by Gabrielle Cornish (University of Rochester). Spring 2012, Russian Language Program, CIEE Saint Petersburg.

Привет всем!

The past few days, while largely uneventful, have been instrumental in my becoming more and more acclimated to living in Saint Petersburg. I began classes on Tuesday, and they have thus far been both challenging and rewarding; challenging because they are entirely conducted in Russian, and rewarding when I understand much of what is being said. I’m taking two electives: a politics course comparing the USA and Russia, and a culture course. Additionally, I’ve got a wide spread of language classes: grammar, conversation, lexicon, current events, and phonetics. My grammar class, while mostly review thus far, has been the most challenging; while I’m usually fairly solid when it comes to grammar — thanks to a great foundation from my university and my summer program, as well as some outside study on my own — my vocabulary is severely lacking in comparison to other students in my group, students who have studied for much longer than I have. After a brief panic that I wouldn’t be able to keep up, I’ve calmed down and decided that, even if it means I have to work even harder, it’s beneficial to be in a higher group and struggling some than to be in a lower group and less challenged (and I’m grateful to Meri Doubleday, for helping quell my fears and doubts). That’s the funny thing about programs like this — being around students of all different backgrounds and skill levels is both comforting, as being around people with similar interests reaffirms our own, and yet disarming, as they represent another unknown in an already mysterious equation.

But, in a sense, one of the only things of which we can be certain of in life (besides death and taxes) is that there will be encounters with the unknown. My phonetics professor offered some interesting insight the other day when a student asked her why Dostoevsky was her favorite writer, and she responded that it’s because he, more so than any other writer, offers insight into the Russian soul, because Russians always like to think “who am I? Why me?” I thought about her comment as I rode the metro home later that night, watching Russians around me as they crowded into metro cars and escalators, wondering if they were simply trying to figure that out about themselves, as my professor suggested. People watching on the metro — difficult, as it is prudent not to be caught doing so — is extremely interesting. Was the babushka, shoving me out of her way as she stepped off the train, pondering her existence? Or the young boy next to me, with DJ Timati blasting from his headphones, wondering about his place in the world? What did the war veteran, missing both legs and without prosthesis, sliding across the floor of the station, think of his life’s meaning? These, of course, are questions I could not answer — but perhaps, neither could they.

Today, I had a day off from classes — one of my professors was out of town at a conference — so, after meeting with a woman at an educational exchange center about giving a lecture to Russian students about music education in America, I decided to explore the area around the Alexander Nevsky metro station. My main goal, however, was to visit the Tikhvin Cemetery at the Nevsky Monastery, where some of my favorite composers are buried. With a slight twinge from the obvious platitude of it, I walked around the cemetery listening to Tchaikovsky’s Sixth (and final) Symphony, looking for the composer’s gravestone.

Tchaikovsky was, in many ways, a man full of contrasts and unknowns. Though he was trained as a lawyer from the age of twelve, his true passion was music and composition. Despite being having been born, raised, and lived in Russia his entire life, he represented a bridge between the Russian musical stylings of Glinka or Borodin and Europe, preferring a thoroughly western approach to composition and teaching that his Russian contemporaries did not share. Though I’d argue that Rachmaninoff, not Tchaikovsky, more adequately captures the essence of the Russian soul like Dostoevsky does with literature, Tchaikovsky is, perhaps, the Russian composer with the most insight into the unknown element. In closing, I’d like to share my favorite quote by Tchaikovsky, which may be his closest attempt to surmising an answer to the unknown.

“I am made up of contradictions, and I have reached a very mature age without resting upon anything positive, without having calmed my restless spirit either by religion or philosophy. Undoubtedly I should have gone mad but for music. Music is indeed the most beautiful of all Heaven’s gifts to humanity wandering in the darkness. Alone it calms, enlightens, and stills our souls.”

Ну ладно, до свидания,


First Impressions...

This post is by Gabrielle Cornish (University of Rochester). Spring 2012, Russian Language Program, CIEE Saint Petersburg.

So much has happened in the few days since orientation! Firstly (and, arguably, the most influential) has been my integration into my host family and living situation. This semester, I’ll be living with just a host mother, Emilia Fillipovna (or Emma, as she told me to call her) near the Novocherskaya metro stop. While I was initially skeptical about living with just a “babushka” or pensioner, the experience has been PHENOMENAL thus far, and nothing like I had initially feared. Emma is a retired school teacher who has lived in Saint Petersburg for the past fifty years. She has a son who lives in Estonia and a daughter who lives here in the city with her husband and two children (both of whom I’m excited to meet!). Though Emma only speaks Russian, she’s extremely good at explaining words, concepts, or phrases I don’t know or understand. Additionally, she seems to really have a good grasp of American culture and lifestyle, and has so far been really understanding and accommodating to the concept of being a “host mother” without being overbearing, while simultaneously exposing me to so many elements of Russian culture. My favorite part about her is that she really likes to engage me in conversation about several different types of topics — something that I might normally be too shy to initiate. For example, this evening at dinner, we had a very interesting conversation about the upcoming elections in Russia in comparison to the upcoming elections in the USA, discussing differences in voter attitudes, concentration of power in the government, and how the two political systems are extremely polarized — but in totally different ways. Not only has it been great for building up vocabulary and knowledge of colloquialisms, but it’s been fantastic to get a totally different perspective on things, which have to this point only been presented to me in a textbook, or by word of mouth. A moment of personal excitement — while eating some щи (shi – a soup) for dinner the other day, Emma told me the saying “щи да каша – пища наша,” which translates to “shi and kasha are our food.” I had actually known this thanks to my Russian 102 class, and Emma was quite pleased to know that we learned it (and, likewise, I was quite pleased to have understood it!)

On Saturday, all study abroad students went to the Hermitage — the second largest museum in the world — which used to be the Winter Palace for the Tsar. We went on a tour (which was conducted in Russian — though, fortunately, I understood most of it!) which was AMAZING; I was in awe the whole time. We only spent about two hours there, so I definitely plan on going back for an entire day sometime soon. As a matter of fact, I could spend an entire day simply admiring the building itself (I was quite enamored with the many chandeliers). I’m nowhere near eloquent enough to properly describe the detail, not to mention the fact that I’m still fairly speechless about the whole thing, so you can check out photos I took at this online web album HERE.

On Sunday, I met up with my friend Zack and we went to Petrogradskaya to go teach English and help out at an English conversation hour. The topic for the day was alcoholism, which, though strange at first, provided some interesting insight into how different cultures (including the difference between my native New York and Zack’s native Texas!) shape our reactions to myths, social stigmas and taboos, and how we regard things like alcohol or drugs. Teaching English is definitely something I plan on doing more of — in fact I’m going to a different school tomorrow evening to do it — and I plan on continuing to do it at Petrogradskaya as well. Afterwards, he and I went to Gostiny Dvor, a major shopping center on Nevsky Prospekt, and walked around for some time before running into his friend, another year-long student. The three of us then did some more exploring, going to a combination laundromat/bar to hang out for a while, and then a cafe to grab an early dinner. All in all, it was a really great day — one where I reconnected with an old friend, made a new one, and explored the city.

Today (Monday), we went to Smolny for our placement tests (a written grammar exam and an oral interview) and to get a tour of the school. Though I was nervous about the exams, I ended up doing better than I expected and was placed in the top group! As someone who was an “okay” student of Russian this time last year (the language was not my strongest point as a student…) it was great to see a tangible improvement in my skills. Especially with grammar — I love Russian grammar! It just makes so much sense, and there are so many nuances and different perspectives to it that make it so great to study. My current favorite topic is conjunctions; seriously, I highly recommend buying the Blackwell Russian Grammar Guide and just memorizing the chapter on conjunctions — so cool! After the exam (and a short oral interview) I went with some other students to the most Russian restaurant in town — Pizza Hut. While this may not have been the most culturally intriguing choice, it was still great to sit down and get to know some of the other students (as well as, finally, eat something that didn’t have potatoes or cabbage in it…)

All in all, it’s been an amazing first week here, and I’m excited to see what the next few days bring!




Welcome to Russia!

This post is by Gabrielle Cornish (University of Rochester). Spring 2012, Russian Language Program, CIEE Saint Petersburg.

Я в России! I’m in Russia! After a long and tiring flight – from Elmira to Philadelphia, Philadelphia to Frankfurt, and, finally, Frankfurt to Saint Petersburg – I’ve finally arrived in Russia and started to experience life in Saint Petersburg. Upon landing at the Pulkovo Airport, I (along with about twenty other CIEE Russia students who had taken the flight with me) was greeted by CIEE staff members and ushered onto a bus, which then took us to Park Inn, a hotel on Moskovskaya Prospekt – one of the longest streets in Saint Petersburg. Once at the hotel, I started to meet many other members of my program, as well as experience some of the Russian lifestyle firsthand – the foremost of which was a lack of smoke-free areas in the hotel (the air in the lobby was rather permeated with cigarette smoke). After a quick nap and shower, one of my close friends from school, Zack, who’s a yearlong student here, knocked on my door; it was so great to see him after almost seven months! That night, he, my roommate, and I went to a small convenience store nearby to buy water (you cannot drink the tap water in Russia). After almost getting hit by a car, we made it to the store and found several choices of water, as well as other Russian foods, beverages, and alcohol. It was my first experience outside of the CIEE “bubble,” and in public in Petersburg. After getting yelled at by the cashier for using a 500-ruble bill to pay for 60 rubles worth of goods (they are actually kind of ridiculous about using exact change (or as close to it as possible) here in Russia…) we returned to the hotel to sleep.

The next day, we had a two-hour orientation session in the hotel, where we learned various safety things – such as how to talk to the militsia if they ask us for documentation, how not to get pick-pocketed, and how to put on a “metro face” (a mixture between a scowl and being tired) to blend in on a crowded metro or ward off unwanted male suitors. After lunch, we went on a long bus tour of Petersburg, where our tour guide, Yulia, told us about many of the sights, museums, and history of the city. The architecture is BEAUTIFUL in Petersburg – all of the cathedrals, palaces, squares, and statues are so gorgeous and interesting, I hope I can see as many as possible before I leave! We stopped at a few places to get out and take pictures, but the weather was extremely cold – about 1 degree Fahrenheit – so we didn’t stay outside long. Though not the most aesthetically pleasing, the highlight of the bus tour for me was seeing the building where Tchaikovksy died, as well as a large Rimsky-Korsakov statue. Additionally, we stopped at Smolny, the political science school at Saint Petersburg State University, where we’ll study this semester. The school is GORGEOUS, and I can’t believe we get to study in such a beautiful building (it was built, originally, as a convent, but ended up being used as a school for noble girls before being the political science school).

On Friday, we had a longer orientation session, this time covering health, academics, and cultural differences in preparation for our homestay (which began that night). The cultural discussion was the most interesting of the three, as there are many differences between Russian and American culture, which many may, at first glance, find jarring and off-putting. Perhaps the most intriguing part was the discussion of the word “friend” in Russian. While in English, we choose to qualify “friend” with other words (ie. “My best friend,” or “my friend from work,” etc.) Russians have several words to describe different levels of friendship, constructing a seemingly more genuine lexicon than we’re limited to in America.

That night, we all loaded onto different buses to go get dropped off at our host families, and the atmosphere was both anxious and excited, as we all waited nervously to meet our hosts for the coming semester. After three chilly hours darting through Russian traffic (which, might I add, is absolutely horrifying – I’m still amazed we didn’t get into an accident, as there seem to be very few rules for driving here) we finally got to my stop – on Talinskaya Ulitsa – and I met my host mother. My host mother was extremely warm and welcoming right from the beginning; I had been worried that, since I only had a host mother, a pensioner, she might be a bit old fashioned, like the “mean babushkas” on the metro they had warned us about during orientation. She doesn’t speak any English, which was scary at first, but I’ve found that I can understand almost all of what she says, and she can usually explain to me what I can’t. She was very helpful in explaining things in the apartment, and she has been very engaging and kind to me. Though she asked a few questions that we may consider taboo in America, such as what my religion was, how much money my parents made, if I had a boyfriend, as well as a rather long discussion about my parents’ divorce, it was really great to talk to her and I feel very lucky that she is my “domahazyaika.” She even gave me a big hug and kissed me on the cheek after I gave her a few small gifts (just some souvenirs from U of R)! My room is nice – not huge, but not too small – about the size of my sophomore year dorm room, and the bed is comfortable – albeit a bit too short for me. Tomorrow she is teaching me how to use the metro system (I can’t wait to try out my metro face!) and taking me to the Hermitage, where I’ll meet up with the other study abroad students for a tour – I can’t wait to see it! Overall, it’s been an amazing, nervewracking, and exhausting first few days in Russia, and I’m excited to see more of Petersburg and meet new people!