Saturday, February 3, 2018

The rest of my time in Russia

Hey guys!

Let me apologize first and foremost for 1) not having the ability to come up with any more interesting a title than the one you see above, and 2) for taking so long to update.

At this point, I've been in Finland for almost a month exactly, let alone left Russia (that's been nearly two!), but I figured that it would only be fitting to include something on here to conclude a little on the craziness that was my Russian adventure.

In all honesty, as I've not shied away from mentioning a number of times even in my earlier posts about my time in Moscow, that direct exchange program with my college that I did there for just shy of three months was one of the most challenging experiences of my entire life.
I think that there were a number of factors that contributed to this fact - the intense homesickness I felt immediately upon arrival as a result of not having been back to campus for so long, the little down time at home with my family after an adventure challenging and intense in its own right in Azerbaijan, and various other more personal factors; the lack of integration between the international community and local student body which made it difficult to feel fully welcome; the frankly rather horrid conditions of RSUH's dorms; and various other little logistical and cultural hindrances that would constantly remind me of how far away from everything familiar that I hold dear, from home, from family and friends.

In spite of this, overall I would consider my time that I spent in Russia to be a worthwhile endeavor that allowed me to have some pretty fantastic experiences, and meet some incredible people.

Highlights from the two or so months following my return from St. Petersburg might include:

  • Meeting Ksenia, a former RSUH to Beloit exchange student, married to a Beloit alumnus (they're now living together in Moscow and raising bilingual children) at an English practice club for middle schoolers, many of whom were incredibly intelligent and spoke impeccable English
  • My dear friend Lea who I met on my Icelandic immersion program in the Westfjords coming to visit me, which was a crazy and wonderful week of adventuring together through the city, visiting touristy places that even I hadn't seen yet, and sharing so many incredible stories of travel, love, and life 
  • Seeing a show at one of the sister theaters beside the Bolshoi, which was an incredible architectural space and artistic spectacle, wishing my ex-ballerina mother could have come to Moscow herself to enjoy it with me
  • Skating on rinks created over some of the city's immense public parks with my dear international friends and some of their local acquaintances 
  • Forming regular and fixed relationships with various cafes and restaurants in the city that provided comforting spaces to relax, study, and work in, and delicious food and drinks to consume - special shoutout to Frau Brotchen, an adorable and delicious little cafe on the street near the university where I consumed many a cappuccino and tvorozhnoye koltso between classes and came to be very friendly with the kind owner
My time in Russia was full of surprises. One of the most truly unexpected was that, because of the friendships I made with other Italian students that were there with me, my time in Moscow helped me to feel Italian. 
I often struggle to define how exactly I feel, how exactly I identify, when it comes to nationality. On the one hand, I objectively and definitely am more American than anything else, as I have grown up, lived, and been educated in the United States for the majority of my life, and this has greatly shaped and influenced me in becoming who I am today. But at the same time, the Italian culture that I grew up with at home, my annual visits, and my five-month long stint living there in middle school has also is a giant part of who I am, and it's the duality that defines me more than any one place. 
At times, especially in the small town where my mother comes from, people tend to ascribe to campanilismo (literally "belltower-ism) when it comes to defining who is a local, and so the validity of my Italianness as someone who has grown up far away and isn't even fully local by blood can be called into question, which is frustrating. 
But with my Italian friends in Moscow, it was completely different. All of us were far from home, in a place to some extent unfamiliar, and were able to bond with each other over shared traditions and culture, similar upbringings, our ability to speak to each other in our mother tongue, and just feel at home for a moment when we most needed to. They showed me both in literal words and figurative actions many times over that they saw no differences between them and myself in terms of our validity and pride in being Italian. And that has meant more to me and been more of a positive influence in my life and identity than I can ever express. 

Quick shoutout to the international community at large, speaking of friends: to my Italians, to my two fellow Beloiters, and to everyone else from RSUH, particularly the ninth floor crew, lovely souls from every corner of the world, THANK YOU. Thank you guys so much for your laugher, your light, your support, your understanding, and never-ending willingness to explore, to have fun, to learn, and to bond together. Being a part of that group was a silver lining of my entire experience. If it weren't for you guys, I don't know how I could have made it. Be well, take care, and know that no matter where we are in the world, where I have a home, so do you. 

Thank you guys for following along with my crazy adventures. Soon, I'll talk about Italy over the holidays, and next, how it's been going so far in Finland. 

Love to all from snowy Turku. 

The theater

The crew 

A little Pitch Perfect routine with my German friend Angelina :) 

The Red Square looking festive and beautiful 

My Quebecois friend Philippe being cute with a kitten

From the Cosmonaut Museum!

Lea writing one of the dozens of postcards we sent out together, both to her family and friends and mutual friends of ours from our Icelandic program

Frau Brötchen 

Lea and I being tourists :)

Inside the Kremlin walls!

Sunset behind the Duma (Russian parliament)

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. 

Monday, November 20, 2017

Music that is special to me, continued: Soweto Gospel Choir and Rachel Ong

Hey guys!

So a few weeks ago, before I left home for Moscow, I wrote a post about my love for Disney music in other languages, and the bilingual a cappella group Penn Masala, and how this music has guided, inspired, and amplified my passion for learning other languages.

But when I wrote this post, I forgot to include two other musical groups that have had a very similar influential and inspirational role in the formation of these passions of mine - one is the Soweto Gospel Choir, and the other is a girl called Rachel Ong who posts original music of hers on YouTube. And today, I will share with you all some information about the groups, the story of how I first heard and fell in love with their music, and their influential roles in my life since.

When I was twelve years old, right around the time I was beginning to fall heavily in love with foreign languages and cultures, my mother took me to a Soweto Gospel Choir concert when they were performing in Ann Arbor. Their incredible vocal talent and prowess greatly impressed me and made me lose myself in the warm and joyful atmosphere of the event, and their vibrantly colorful traditional costumes, and the beautifully unfamiliar sounds of the Sotho, Zulu, and Tswana hymns they sang entranced me, bringing rhythms and expressions of spiritual fulfillment all the way from Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban. We ended up buying a CD of African Spirit, the album they were performing that night, as it was performed live at the Nelson Mandela Theater in Cape Town. I remember lying in my bed late into the night in the coming weeks, listening to the songs over and over in a worn old walkman, which only closed with the help of a raggedy piece of duct tape, and making the album one of my first iTunes purchases when I received a bright red iPod nano as a Christmas present that year.

The timing of that concert and the effect it had on me was circumstantial, but greatly influential. Through that concert and the love of the group that it gave me, I enriched my musical knowledge with a truly beautiful collection of talented and unique cultural expression. And crucially, it greatly invigorated, catapulted, and accelerated my budding love of languages and cultures beyond those in which I'd grown up, and listening to it now reminds me of that formative time in my life. As such, I feel immense love and gratitude to the Soweto Gospel Choir's members and their music, and to this day I've maintained a great desire to travel to their incredible and diverse country, and hopefully see them perform live again someday.

Our second artist for today is Rachel Ong.

Once, when I was casually searching for videos on YouTube made by AFS students about their experiences, I came across one that was filmed by a Singaporean-Australian AFS exchange student to Japan named Rachel Ong, in which she filmed a collection of interviews with her fellow Australian AFSers in Japan at the airport as they were getting ready to return home at the end of their experience. There was a very beautiful song playing in the background, and I found in the end credits of the video that this song, called "Ano Koro Kimi To," meaning "That Time with You," was actually an original! I ended up watching a great many more of her videos and growing to greatly love a number of her other songs, but because of its sad but poignant lyrics, musical beauty, and the fact that I found it first, "Ano Koro Kimi To" holds a special place in my heart to this day.

Rachel's music has been greatly influential for me in two main aspects: Aside from the simple fact that I like it and listen to it, I started taking guitar lessons at Beloit my freshman year, which I had been wanting to do for quite some time, out of a desire to learn how to play Rachel's songs, and hopefully cover them someday. Secondly, though there are certainly a number of other cultural and historical motivations in addition to this one, the music has motivated and inspired me to start learning Japanese, which I intend to start taking at Beloit once I get back as a senior next year.
It's so strange and wonderful how the slightest and most circumstantial of decisions can bring us to things that we love, and life-changing decisions. I'm thankful for that, at the time, seemingly inconsequential YouTube search, for bringing me to one of my musical inspirations that has strengthened my linguistic passions too.

Thanks for tuning in, everyone. Be well.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Вещи, которые я заметил - Русская версия / Things I've noticed - Russian Edition

Hey guys!
As it's now been a few days since my one-month mark in Russia (which is crazy), for the sake of tradition, here is my post of things I've noticed in my time here so far, as those I've written in Egypt, Turkey, Iceland, and Azerbaijan.

Disclaimer: in this post I claim and aim solely to impart you all with my honest impressions and observations of what I've seen and experienced in the month I've spent living here. Keep in mind that my experiences are informed and affected by the fact that I'm living in and have so far only really seen this country's capital and largest city, and I'm largely surrounded by foreigners in much of my day to day life.

With that out of the way, let's begin!

1. In spite of this country's massive size, Russian has incredibly minimal dialectal varieties. 
It never ceases to amaze me that countries far smaller than this, like Japan, Norway, Italy, even tiny Slovenia, have immense dialectal diversity, with subtle differences in pronunciation, cadence, and vocabulary discernible even between dialects of towns scarcely ten kilometers apart, and yet the Russian language, spoken in the largest country on the face of the Earth, larger than the entire surface area of Pluto, plus being an additional official language or a widely understood lingua franca in a great many surrounding former USSR countries, has almost no such variation at all. I've come to pick up on a number of potentially contributing factors to this: For one thing, the western third or so of the country is in many ways dominant - it contains the vast majority of the population, all the largest and most influential cities, and, crucially, is overall quite monolingually Russian-speaking. Most of the rest of the country was effectively colonized by a gradual eastward expansion of the Russian Empire, so Russian as a language was usually artificially imposed in these areas and is still spoken alongside local languages (tons of them across the country, in fact). Additionally, the long history of strongly centralized governing bodies that ruled over the gargantuan country for a long time, tsarist dynasties and Soviet Union alike, paved the way for an almost universal register of educational and official use that left little room for the development of distinct dialects.

2. What it lacks in dialectal varieties, however, it makes up for in this aforementioned regional variety.
Having only seen Moscow thus far (and soon St Petersburg!), any commentary of mine on this comes solely from impressions I've gained while doing my own research, or hearing from friends or teachers that have visited such parts of the country. Many of its numerous oblasts, okrugs, and other provincial units of varying autonomy are historical homelands of unique and dynamic national minorities, all with incredibly rich histories and cultures. Much of the Russian Caucasus along the borders with Azerbaijan, encompassing regions such as Tatarstan, Dagestan, Ingushetia, and Chechnya, which are majority-Muslim and generally speak Turkic languages. The Leningrad Oblast and Republic of Karelia, near the border with Finland, are home to numerous speakers of Karelian and other Finnish dialects, with the borders having sinuously shifted back and forth across the region over the centuries. The border region with Mongolia and the -stans of Central Asia are home to such groups as the Tuvans, famed for their skillful throat singing. The perpetually frozen northernmost regions of Siberia are the traditional homelands of the Nenets and Chukchi, with strong cultural ties to the indigenous people of the North American and Greenlandic Arctic. And the Far East even hides the bizarre and fascinating Jewish Autonomous Oblast, one of the only political units in the world possessing Yiddish as an official language.

3. Moscow boasts a surprising quantity of spunky style. 
Though it must be said that as an overgeneralized whole, Russians (at least here in this city) generally tend to put a great deal more of effort and investment in their appearance in public, and look very trendy and fashionable as a result, as this country's metropolis, Moscow still sports a great deal of more eccentric expression. People weave through the crowds of the metros and drift across crosswalks with full heads of bright purple, blue, and green hair, or even in somewhat intimidating full-on punk regalia. On one occasion I even saw a middle aged man with long hair tied back, dressed in a matching white crop top and short shorts, zoom past me on roller skates. It feels almost comforting in a way to see this spunky big city eccentrism which mirrors some of the more outlandish forms of expression that I'm used to seeing on my liberal arts college campus.

4. Little traces of communism are everywhere. 
For the most part, they're not glaringly obvious, aside from the well-known old government headquarters and such. But even twenty-six years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, bits and pieces of its legacy can be found in great number if you look hard enough. Red stars topping towers of older buildings. Hammer and sickle stickers chiseled into the walls of metro stations. Old murals of collective farms and former leaders. Ubiquitous surveillance cameras. It's a fascinating touch of a large and important part of the country's history written into the cityscape.

5. Though not exceedingly diverse by American standards, there still are numerous immigrant communities. 
I'll be straight up when I say that one of my first impressions of Moscow when I got here was that it was very white. As time has gone on, and I've gotten to form a better impression of the city, I've seen that the city, on top of being a very important touristic hub that welcomes guests from all over the world, is also home to a great many immigrants, in particular from the Eastern European and Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union. Many of them find Russia a logical and comfortable destination, given that Russian is usually widely spoken and understood in their countries, diminishing linguistic barriers, and the historical background of political and economic union and cooperation makes things easier from a bureaucratic standpoint. Many of these people, from what I can tell, are not seen as wholly foreign, due to their linguistic abilities and the shared cultural familiarity at play.

6. Stereotypes of unsmiling Russians are not (entirely) true. 
At its most generalized level, this is definitely a generational thing. I've found that, at least here in Moscow, younger Russians are generally a lot more boisterous, outgoing, and smiley, at least in public and when interacting with strangers, compared to their older compatriots. But even in the case of the older ones, it's not that they don't smile; they just seem a little more distant and closed off at first sight. But as you interact more with someone, they open up greatly after a certain level of mutual familiarity is reached. It's happened that people I've interacted with in bureaucratic offices or store settings that seemed a little cold and straight-faced at first, but who turned out to be friendlier, smiled by the end of our interaction, seemingly indicating an unspoken nod of social approval and friendliness. All in all, don't let stereotypes fool you; though perhaps more likely to maintain a poker face at first, especially if older, Russians laugh, smile, joke around, and enjoy themselves like any other group of humans.

7. For the most part, in spite of its immense size, Moscow is a pretty safe and calm city.
Of course, as with any metropolis, it pays to keep your wits about you in public spaces, particularly when crowded. But in most parts of the city, certainly in the central districts where I live and regularly move around in, serious cases of violent crime are quite rare. There's a park right across the street from my campus, where I've seen people walking their dogs or out with their children, even women jogging alone with headphones on, as late as 11:30 pm without a care. As interesting as it is to live in a city so much larger than any other I've lived in thus far, and as many unique opportunities and possibilities as that brings to my life that I'm thankful for, at times I'm very happy for that quiet and tranquility that I'm lucky enough to have so close to campus, even if I'm in the dead center of a place home to 20 million.

8. Official, efficient bureaucracy is valued. 
I'm not sure how best to word this part to get across my meaning, but this was something that I noticed even in the style of the announcements on my Aeroflot flight from New York, which sounded very, well, official. Having wrestled with the intense bureaucratic process of extending my visa (which, by the way, has now been completed successfully, and I am now no longer in a passport-less limbo land, thankfully), I can say I have witnessed the nature of the bureaucratic ins and outs that go into our presences here as Americans and foreign citizens close hand. Every step with these kinds of things is laid out in detail,  with specific steps and rules that have to be followed, and specific forms to be filled out with specific components to be completed. This meticulous rigidity dictates a great many elements of dealing with official aspects of the country.

9. There is great truth to the domestic stereotype of Moscovites always being in a hurry.  
Probably a stereotype that is applied to many cities of this size. But I think that it is truly a defining aspect of life and movement in this one. When riding the long escalators that descend into the subterranean world that is the metro, it is customary to stand to the right side to make room for people hurriedly gliding down the steps. If you are walking inside the metro tunnels, on sidewalks, or crossing the street, and are moving too slowly for the liking of the people around you, you will get passed. It's kind of a fact of life that people pass you, and that people bump into each other at times. No one really gets peeved about either of those things, they're just kind of things that happen, and then you move on. And the driving is not too insane - I mean, people on the road are quite crazy in their driving, and it's actually quite funny sometimes how people will literally lean against their horns for up to half a minute at a time if blocked by someone going to slow for their liking, mirroring the movements of their pedestrian counterparts. But without fail, even the craziest drivers will stop, or at least drastically slow down, well ahead of time to give any pedestrians passing in their path a wide birth - far more than can be said of the driving skills present in other places I've lived (*cough Azerbaijan cough cough*).

10. Visible history goes back only up to a certain point. 
Although Moscow recently celebrated its "birthday," having been founded in the year 870 (four years, incidentally, before the first Norse settlers arrived in Iceland), most of its buildings and traces of visible history don't go back much further than 1200 or so. This does make sense for a number of reasons, though. Namely the great fire that destroyed up to 75% of the city during the Napoleonic War. Nevertheless, as I've mentioned previously, it's quite beautiful and soothing to see the different historical eras intersecting in the city's architecture.

11. This is by far the city with the best transportation out of any of those I've lived in. 
And it's all thanks to the metro. I've gushed about it endlessly in some of my other posts since I got here, so I'll try not to repeat myself too much. But it's truly remarkable how wide a scope it has. I feel like it's possible to get pretty much anywhere in the city just using the metro, as there are simply so many stations and lines, many of which are conveniently connected to each other, that there is usually a way. The longest I've ever had to travel somewhere on the metro was about forty-five minutes, and that was remarkably good time given the distance. I've never had any need to use any other kind of public transportation just because it works so well (though other options do abound in the form of buses, trolleybuses - which are basically little street trams - taxis, and so on). The metro is like a little world onto itself, a subterranean city within a city, where stations vary from being palatially ornate to sleek and minimalistic, like something out of a modern architecture magazine. Incredibly talented buskers sing and play guitars, or even foreign drums and didgeridoos, by the entrances. Overall, it's just a very interesting, convenient, and beautiful way to get around the city, luckily lacking in many of the aspects that made the public transportation in Baku, for instance, incredibly frustrating and unpleasant.

That's basically all that comes to mind for now! If I think of anything else, I'll come back and add it. I'll try to write again soon for more updates and reflections. Be well for now, everyone!

^A Russian song that has been stuck in my head constantly