Justine in Russia: My Friend, My Host Mom

June 18, 2018

The hardest part about leaving Russia was not leaving the place itself, but leaving the people. This includes the people in my program, the Russian students I met at the university, and last but not least, my host mom. One of the main reasons I had such a wonderful time in Russia was because of how my host mom treated me.

I remember the first time I met her, I was extremely nervous because I thought I was being rude. However, I really did not have much to say. I only knew about twenty verbs and none of them I could use to describe me. I also had a two month long break from my Russian (only a semester), so I was extremely terrified. I remember sitting in this taxicab with my host mom and she could obviously feel my nerves. She would tell me to look out the window and talk about how beautiful certain streets/monuments were. When we finally got to the apartment, I was really tired and still stressed because I hadn’t spoken many words to her. However, she was extremely kind and accommodating the whole time. Even though I share a room with my grandma at home, sharing a flat with an older person still worried me.

What if I made too much noise after 9pm? What if I came home late too often? I remember over our first dinner, she was speaking 90% of the time and I did not really talk much (only because I really could not understand most of the things she was saying). I managed to pick up a few things about her family, but I forgot a lot of important details. Towards the end of the program, I asked her things like what she used to work as, etc. As she retold me all of this information, it hit me that she did tell me all of this information, but my vocabulary was not big enough for me to understand half the words she was saying.

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In my second week, there was a power out in our apartment complex for about three hours, but we still managed to have dinner in the dark.

 

My host mom always treated me like I was one of her own, not just a student living in her house. Every time she made a meal, it was for us to share and we always talked about our day. She would divide our food in half, but always snuck an extra scoop of rice or extra piece of cutlet. I always felt bad whenever I called home and let her know that I would not be home for dinner, but most of the time I just went home and stuffed myself anyway because I did not have the heart to call her thirty minutes earlier. Every morning, I would tell her when I was leaving and she would either tell me I was overdressed or underdressed or that I forgot to bring an umbrella. She asked me if I was wearing a new shirt or if she has just never seen me wear it before. She asked me about my friends and about my plans everyday. She wanted me to have plans. She was happy whenever I stayed out late because “I am young and I should”. On her birthday, she hosted a dinner party with her friends and I. She was young at heart, even though she had just turned eighty one years old. We lived on a fifth floor walk-up. She walks everywhere and goes skiing every Saturday in winter and early spring. She told me she’s been to Brazil eight times. She has been to many places. She talks about her daughters and her grandchildren.

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The dinner table (that she set up in her bedroom since the kitchen only had room for approximately four people).

Sometimes I came home from school late and she would have left a note for me telling me what she had prepared for me to reheat. I would always wait for her to come home before I went to sleep (once that was around 1:10am, but it was a Saturday). She always supported my decisions and never questioned what I did. When I was sick for that one week in March, I told her I did not want to go back to the doctor anymore and she did not push me to do anything crazy besides sleep. I told her I was going to Kazakhstan and Ukraine for travel week and she told me they were great places to go. I told her I was going to hop on the midnight bus to Helsinki and come back eighteen hours later because I did not want to pay for accommodation. However, all she did was laugh at me and said that she would look forward to seeing me home Sunday morning at 5am (she was asleep when I came back, but woke me up at 9am for breakfast).

I remember when I was packing my stuff up the day before I had to go, she would pass by my room and laugh at my lack of progress. I usually am a fast packer, but knowing this was the end of my study abroad made it a lot harder. I know I will return to Saint Petersburg to visit her, but I would no longer be the person living in that room. I no longer had the keys to her apartment. There would be someone else living there. I know she will let me in and make me tea like she always did. She will yell at me because I would have brought her a souvenir from somewhere (I always brought her back something whenever I left Petersburg). The day I left Petersburg, she was going to fly to Greece that same night. I assume she has returned, but who knows, she could be anywhere right now. I am currently writing a letter to her, but I haven’t finished yet.

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Packing on the day before my flight.

I remember us hugging goodbye as my Uber driver patiently waited for us to say our last words to each other. When I finally got into the car, my street was full of traffic, so my host mom stood by the car for another two minutes. My driver was a kind Uzbek man from Samarkand. He asked my host mom if she wanted to come to the airport too and she smiled and said that I would be alright. When we finally drove away, my driver could obviously tell that I was sad and started asking me questions. He asked whether she was my grandmother and I smiled and told him that she was my host mother. I spent the rest of the ride telling him all about her and how much I looked forward to coming back here (might have shed a few tears along the way).

As I sign off for the last time, I can’t say до следующего раза (until next time) anymore. The last thing I said to my host mom was увидимся! (I will see you) and I hope this statement holds true, wherever my life takes me next, to Saint Petersburg, to my favorite pasta bar, to the Central Asian market, to the 24-hour flower shops, to the 181 bus to Smolny, to Russia, to my host mom.

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Людмила.

 

.Увидимся. 


Justine G.

no longer Жюстин, but Жустин (Джастин, on official documents).


Ella in Buenos Aires: Soccer in BA – Round II

May 27, 2018

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Hello!!! This week, my awesome host fam brought me to watch a professional soccer game of one of the “big five” clubs of Argentine futbol. RACING! Racing Club plays in the top division of the Argentina league system.

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Here’s what their logo looks like. I didn’t have a jersey of theirs when I attended the match, but I made sure to wear light blue and white. Everyone there was completely dressed in Racing gear. It was amazing!

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I loved seeing how all the different neighborhoods and areas of greater Buenos Aires made signs and banners with their neighborhood names. Other banners had phrases on them such as “Racing, I love you so much it hurts.” Everyone sang and jumped throughout the whole game. It was such a different culture than that of soccer games in the US.

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Also this past weekend, I played in a co-ed soccer tournament with the soccer organization that I joined here, Buenos Aires Futbol Amigos! It was an insanely fun tournament. Each team played about 6 games, 15 minutes each. I was super tired by the end!

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When my team got eliminated, the team that beat us asked me to join their team to play in the championship since one of their girls got injured! The matches were really competitive but friendly afterwards which I appreciated.

See you next week!

Ella


Justine in Russia: The Final Week

May 22, 2018

I started writing this the beginning of this week, but realized it was much harder for me to put my words together as I waited for days to pass.

The last week was not so stressful for me because I took it as a final week to take in my entire semester here. I admit, I did not really study for my finals nor did I really think about doing so. The saddest part about leaving was that our finals ended, only for us to be forced to leave the country within the next two days.

I spent my last week saying goodbye to my favorite places and visiting all the places I haven’t been to before. We were also blessed with amazing weather. The last three weeks ran from being 65 degrees to 85 degrees. It was blue skies and beautiful sunsets almost all of May.

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Amazing sunsets every single night.

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Flowers were at a bloom at the Botanical Garden.

I did not skip any of my assignments, but I took a lot of my time trying to enjoy my last nights out. I would take walks for over three hours and come home at midnight to get ready for the next day. There was no feeling of dread to go home, but more of a feeling that there was so much left for me to do in Petersburg. However, I knew that I was not going to throw away my entire semester the last week and had to power through. My oral exam for conversation did not go as well as I anticipated, but I have high hopes for my grammar exams.

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I was really happy I found the time to visit the Hermitage one last time.

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I returned to “the beach” to watch the sunset one last time.

I like to say that I grew a lot on this study abroad experience. It is not the matter of improving my language skills or becoming more immersed in the culture, but becoming more aware of myself. I am from New York and I am extremely proud of it. My city is extremely diverse, but I slowly feel less and less welcome here. I’ve had an identity crisis my entire life. I struggle to fit into the mold of being Asian-American, which makes no sense to me. What exactly is American? I also do not fit into being Chinese because I have spent my entire life in the United States. I feel stuck. Being in Petersburg made me feel a little less lost and helped me start to accept myself. No one cares about you in Petersburg. I live unnoticed and I have never been so happy to be unnoticed. I think it is a feeling I have been hoping for, for the past 21 years of my life. I never thought I would be able to find it here, but I did. In a country where I barely speak the language, I found home in myself. I cannot call this place home, nor will I ever be able to, but the past 18 weeks here really made me feel like I was home.

There are people and places that I will forever hold to my heart and there is no doubt that I will return one day. It will not be the same considering that I will not be a student (maybe), but I know I will return. There are places I will never be able to let go and Saint Petersburg is one of them. My host mom is one of them, but I think I will dedicate my last post to her.

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A final goodbye to Smolny Sabor (church right in front of the university).

До следующего раза (until next time)


Justine G.

Жюстин, usually Джастин, Жастин, or Жустин.


Justine in Russia: Victory Day

May 22, 2018

I waited a bit to write this because I do not think it is fair for me to put any of my opinions about this holiday, but I wanted to share my experience with it.

Victory Day also known as День Победы is celebrated on the 9th of May. The day is recognized to celebrate the German surrender of the World War II. The rest of the world celebrates it on 8th of May because of timezone differences. The day also is to commemorate war veterans and family members who died during wartime.

What usually happens on Victory Day is a military parade in the early hours, but I decided to avoid that and took myself to the sea to reflect a little.

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I decided to spend my morning at Primorskaya, where there were some groups of friends and families relaxing on the grass. 

I later decided that I will never have this kind of opportunity to see this parade again, so I decided to go down to the city centre to see the rest of the parade. I got to the city centre around 1:00pm, so the military parade was over.

The second parade of the day involved people bringing pictures of their deceased family members from the war and marching down the main boulevard to pay their respects.

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People marching down the main boulevard with photos of their deceased family members. (not a protest)

What made this experience even more powerful was that we were in Saint Petersburg. Many of the people who died and were being commemorated during this march were people who died during the Siege of Leningrad. The Siege of Leningrad lasted for about 900 days and over 1 million people died from starvation. At one point, I was trying to cross the street to reach the metro station, but I got sucked into the parade crowd. I decided to do the walk for the next thirty minutes, but I felt a bit disrespectful since I wasn’t there to commemorate any of my family members. There was a feeling of unity in this crowd, since there were people from all parts of the former Soviet Union. People were carrying flags from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Georgia, etc. People were chanting about the end of the war and how their family members would forever be remembered.

I eventually ducked out because I had to go home and prepare for my exams the next day, but there were going to be fireworks later that night.

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The entire city was decorated with flags and flags to commemorate the end of the war.

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This pillar is only lit up once a year and it burns for 24 hours on Victory Day.

I have to keep mentioning this, but I know and am fully aware that I am a foreigner. I felt like a bit of a spectator and a bit disrespectful throughout this entire day because I had no connection to this holiday. However, I felt that the entire city was in a complete unity and everyone held the same feelings of respect that day. We gathered with the rest of the city and waited for the fireworks to start.

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I was a little too excited to see people with a Turkmen flag.

No doubt, these were the loudest fireworks I have ever heard in my entire life. I started screaming when they began, but the sky was clear and it was nerve-wracking, yet peaceful.

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I wish I could say more than “it was an interesting experience”, but I really have no right to give anymore input especially as a foreigner. I do not know their culture or their feelings towards the holiday, so all I can do is observe.

До следующего раза (until next time)


Justine G.

Жюстин, usually Джастин, Жастин, or Жустин.


Ella in Buenos Aires: Mendozzz

May 18, 2018

So I have officially been here for a full three months. It is crazy to think that I only have two months left in Argentina! The time has really flown by. Apologies for the two travel posts in a row, but my friends and I are trying to see everything before we leave!

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This past weekend, my two friends and I went to Mendoza, Argentina! It was such a nice break from the recently rainy Buenos Aires; we had warm sunny days the whole time we were there! I really loved walking around and exploring the city, as well as doing the little excursions we had planned.

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The first place we went in Mendoza was the Reserva Natural Divisadero Largo which was a mini nature reserve with a bunch of cool hikes. It was only a 15min taxi ride outside of the city!

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We chose to hike the longest trail which took us about an hour but gave us such amazing views. Many of the mountains surrounding us were a deep red color, it reminded me of Arizona in the US.

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Another activity we did while we were there was biking around to each of the bodegas in an area called Maipu. The little bodegas were adorable and had huge vineyards. The views while we were biking were incredible, since we could see the Andes mountains along the horizon throughout the whole ride.

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Our last activity while in Mendoza was horseback riding! We went to a little estancia at the foot of the Andes and rode horses and had dinner with the owners as well as a bunch of other travelers!

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My horse was named Gringa, which I thought was fitting!! She loved running, which stressed me out a bit since I was holding my camera and trying to take pictures while riding.

Chau for now!

Ella


Justine in Russia: Leisure Time

May 11, 2018

I wanted to talk about how people are quick to assume that Russia is extremely archaic and still lacks things that the rest of the world (or the U.S.) has. Friends back home always are in awe when I talk about eating somewhere or at a local event. Even after all the pictures and stories, there is still a belief that Russia is just full of snow and vodka. People believe there is an absence of events or anything fun in this country. I acknowledge that I am in Saint Petersburg, but I am speaking from the idea that people can’t seem to wrap their head around the fact that a city like Petersburg or Moscow actually has things going on.

Earlier this week, I was in Moscow and visited the Botanical Garden of Moscow State University. I was lucky that the weather was wonderful and the botanical garden was already set up. My friends could not seem to believe that there was actually a botanical park in Moscow or even plants in Moscow. May 1st is Labor Day in Russia, so people do not have work or school. The botanical garden and the space around it was filled with families and children trying to enjoy the nice day out.

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The Botanic Gardens of Moscow State University – in Moscow

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The Botanic Gardens of Moscow State University – in Moscow

The weather has been extremely kind to us this semester. This spring has been one of the sunniest springs in decades. One of the program directors once approached me in the morning and started talking about how he has lived here for all 28 years of his life, but has never seen so much sun. This only makes the outdoors and leisure time even more exciting. My host mom transitioned from going skiing every Saturday to going to her friend’s dacha (country house/cottage, usually about an hour or two from the city) every Saturday. The sun sets at approximately 10pm here, so people are out taking walks at night.

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Taking a walk at 10pm in Moscow.

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Taking a walk around 9pm in Saint Petersburg.

The other day, I went to this part of the city that has a little beach-like area and there were a bunch of people there enjoying themselves. Some people brought their tiny barbecue sets and were making food. Some others were just enjoying the weather.

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The sandy stretch on Vasilyevsky Ostrov. The giant tower in the back is the new eighty-six story center that is being built.

In Moscow, a lot of their new spaces for food, art, shopping, etc. are being build in giant abandoned lots.

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“Xлебозавод” in Moscow. An art space with stores and restaurants. This was once an abandoned lot.

Meanwhile in Petersburg, everything is found in a dvor. A dvor is roughly translated in a merchant yard of some sort. This makes things hard to find, but if you come across a dvor, it usually means that everything in it is really cool and interesting. I remember I was walking somewhere with my friend and we came across this dvor. My favorite Russian clothing brand has a store there and there is also an amazing pasta place in this tiny space.

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My favorite dvor in the city!

One thing I appreciate most about Russian people is that they take advantage of their free time no matter the weather. My host mom always has activities lined up daily. When the weather is not so great, she goes to museums, shows, etc. She still goes skiing every Saturday, but now that the weather is getting nicer she goes north to the country houses. This goes for the general population too. When it’s winter, people go skiing or go to the outskirts of the city to do winter sports. In the spring, people go on walks at all times of the day, go to parks, visit gardens, etc. Staying home all day is not exactly ideal. My professor once said being outside is viewed more as a freedom rather than being home. There is always something to do here and I am not only saying this because the city is big. Sometimes I struggle to find things to do when I am in the states, so I end up doing nothing. I found myself here to be much more productive with spending my free time because there are so many new things always popping up in the city.

Even right now, I am getting ready to go out and go to all the remaining spots in this city since I have only a week left here…however, not even once was I bored with this place! (even when it was 10 degrees out)

До следующего раза (until next time)


Justine G.

Жюстин, usually Джастин, Жастин, or Жустин.


Ella in Buenos Aires: And in Santiago!

May 6, 2018

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I think this last week has been one of the best of my study abroad experience. Last weekend, I took a trip to Santiago, Valparaiso and Viña del Mar, Chile. It was the first time I had really gone somewhere completely solo, but it wasn’t too bad because I was able to visit two of my friends from my hometown that are currently living in Chile. I had such an incredible trip!

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The first place I went was Valparaiso, and this was the view of the sunset from my hostel! It was amazing, I physically couldn’t stop taking photos. I was lucky to be able to find a free walking tour while I was there, so I was really able to explore and get to know the city.

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The next place I went was Viña del Mar, where one of my friends have been living since August. It was such a beautiful city, and I couldn’t believe how beautiful the beaches were there.

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I was so lucky to have a friend that was able to show me around Viña. One of my favorite parts was when I went to watch the sunset on the beach. While the sun was going down, we came across a guy selling chocolate covered strawberries on a stick on the pier where we were sitting. They were so delicious!

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Another great part of my trip was the few days I spent in Santiago. My friend and I went on a hike called Cerro Manquehue where, at the top, you can look out over all of Santiago. I had never seen anything like it!

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It was such a great opportunity to be able to compare two Latin American countries that are so close to each other yet are still so different. Chileans use so much slang and speak so quickly, I could barely understand their Spanish! I really enjoyed discussing with my friends the differences in culture between Chile and Argentina. I feel like many times in the US we group all the nations in Latin America into one category, but they are truly so distinct. My trip to Chile really gave me some perspective and definitely broadened my worldview.

See you next week!

Ella


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