Justine in Russia: Russian Doctor!

March 16, 2018

I had the pleasure of going to the doctor yesterday and it was a..strange experience. I did not get to experience a state-run hospital, but instead I went to one of the international clinics in Saint Petersburg. How did i end up there in the first place? I am always crazy sick and I figured that I should get myself checked out here, especially if I needed an excused absence. I already missed class once and I was worried about my attendance. So I took myself to the doctor. I managed to struggle my way to the bus stop and get myself to MEDEM. The first thing that struck me when I entered the office was that people were required to wear shoe covers before entering the clinic.


I forgot to save a picture of me wearing them, but they are basically shower caps for your shoes.

The second thing that struck me was that how fancy the clinic was. You could easily mistake this building for a hotel.


Reception area of MEDEM, building consists of six floors.

What did not really surprise me was that there was a coat check. Totally normal. Even at the university, there is a (free) coat check station in every building/department. Once I had that sorted through, I went to the front desk where I told them my information. I had scheduled an appointment the night before since they work 24/7. Normal paperwork and waiting time. I was sitting on a sofa for about five minutes before someone escorted me to the doctor’s office. Turns out, she was a translator. All the doctors speak a good amount of English, but they always have a translator there too.

This is when everything starts to get confusing. I met with a general practitioner because I did not think I was suffering from anything major. I thought I had the flu from one of the people in my program. The appointment quickly escalated from them taking my temperature, taking my blood, and then taking me to get a sonogram. I told them I had stomach pains and they took that as a “let’s look at your abdominal organs!”


My “complex ultrasonic examination”.

Everything was normal including my blood, my temperature, internal organs. I received a total of three ultrasounds yesterday and I still do not have no idea why. I learned that the price of a sonogram here is approximately $20 U.S dollars, and this is at one of the most expensive clinics in the city. It really makes you think about health care prices in the states. I spent a total of three hours at the doctor and I learned no new information about my illness. It was certainly a whirlwind experience, especially since the procedure of seeing the doctor is a little weird.

After each meeting with the doctor, you get sent back to the reception and you get sent to the cash desk, where you pay for the services you just received. After you pay, you wait around until the reception workers send another person to bring you to the second doctor…and so on. So it was a lot of running around and walking, which did not really make my mysterious illness any better. Now I know I will not go back to the doctor unless I am totally desperate, but it was in fact a really weird experience….

Until next time! (When I am actually feeling better)

До свидания (goodbye).

Justine G.

Жюстин, usually Джастин, Жастин, or Жустин.

Justine in Russia: Progress

March 14, 2018

Within the next few days, our program is holding our “individual progress meetings”. This does not mean our individual grades in each of our classes, but mid-term updates on our mental health, home stays, and how we have adjusted to life here. As I mentioned in my last post, I can’t believe that it is already March and that this is almost mid-term of our 18-week program. Also, it’s starting to get warmer (25 to 30°F instead of -7°F) and the sun is out almost every single day. When we first arrived to for program, we were told that Saint Petersburg only gets about 60 days of sun a year. I do not really believe that because there were many days where it was sunny…and snowing at the same time!


Sunshine at 8:00 a.m.

The snow is starting to melt and it is above 0°C/32°F most days. It was raining today and you can start seeing a bit of the ground.


Statue near Park Pobedi metro station.


Progress is hard to be measured. I’ve been here for a few weeks and I’ve never really felt so comfortable about a place in my life. I go to school via bus. I take public transportation all the time. Everything is smooth sailing, except the occasional fights on the bus/metro during peak hours. Having an unlimited bus pass makes things a lot easier and encourages me to go out more. Sometimes I do forget that I am home and that rules in New York aren’t the same as in Russia. I noticed that in more crowded/touristy neighborhoods, people jaywalk a lot. However, in more residential areas, people wait for the full 30-90 seconds before crossing even if there are no cars on the road. A few days ago, I was in the southern part of the city for a weekend market and crossed the street diagonally. Apparently, I wasn’t allowed to cross diagonally. A police officer stopped me and told me that I was not allowed to cross the street that way. I was not really panicking, but more confused than anything. (This entire exchange was in Russian). Eventually, he asked for my documents and I handed him my spravka (letter saying I am legally allowed to be in this country, because my multi-entry visa was being processed). He was pretty confused because it’s not really a common document to come across. He ended up asking me if I could wait a minute and he brought me to his partner, who eventually told me to not do it again or else I would get a fine. It was one of those moments where I did not think about adjusting my behaviors for the host environment.

I am also starting to fully understand my host grandmother, but I still need to work on responding to her. I am able to interact more with shopkeepers and food service workers, which I am happy about. Although we all have Russian IDs, sometimes museum workers do not like giving student discounts to visiting students. However, I’m getting better at sounding less confused during my interactions, which helps me get the discount 95% of the time. Here is one of the exhibits I visited this weekend (at the Манеж)




The food scene here is great. I am not exaggerating this simply because I love being here so much, but because it actually is the best food I’ve ever had. I managed to find amazing tacos in the northern most part of the city.


Best tacos ever!

Interestingly enough, I also found the best pho (Vietnamese noodle soup), in the middle of a Central Asia market near my house. There is no real address, but I used 9 photos to guide me to it.


I often think about how I would want to come back to this city after I leave, but I would not know what I would do here career wise. I currently audit a master’s level class (In English) and I really like it, so I can imagine myself enrolling at the university for that program. However, I do have a lot of time to figure this out (especially since I still have 1 year of university left).

До свидания (goodbye).

Justine G.

Жюстин, sometimes Джастин, Жастин, or Жустин.

Justine in Russia: Uzhe Mart!

March 3, 2018

Uzhe Mart = уже март = already March!

I can’t believe I have been here for a month already. I feel like my Russian has not improved THAT much, but I feel like it is also a little hard to be able to measure your level of language based on thinking about what you have learned. One language accomplishment for this week was buying a diabetic-friendly cake (online) and picking it up at the market (communication all in Russian). Also I really wanted to buy a Moomin inspiration quote calendar as a gift, but the plastic was already ripped on the box. So, I asked them if I could get a discount because it was already open. They managed to understand my incoherent mumbling and gave me 30% off!


The calendar I got a discount on. “Всегда горячо приветствуй всех тех, кто входит в твой дом” // Always warmly welcome all those who enter your house.

A weird observation I’ve had here is that people are able to understand you completely when you are basically whispering, but when you’re speaking in a normal/loud tone, they are more likely to be confused or ask you to repeat yourself. I think my main struggle with language here is how quietly Russians speak. I understand almost all interactions I have had with locals, but it’s just that I always need them to repeat it because I could not hear them.

I actually have not done that much here recently, but I did come across a privately owned modern art museum. I liked it so much that I actually bought an annual pass there. A day pass is 500₽ ($8.80), but a youth (under 21) annual pass is only 650₽ ($11.44)! Here are some pictures from my favorite temporary exhibitions.





Earlier this week, CIEE took us to Mikhailovsky Theatre to see the Swan Lake ballet. I actually did not really remember the story of Swan Lake, so I was a little confused for some of it. However, it was a great show and I really enjoyed the choreography and music composed for the show. Unfortunately, I did not take great photos of the theatre, but I plan to go back on my own for another ballet/opera.


Inside Mikhailovsky Theatre, photo taken from the very top row.


At the end of one of the later acts.

Another important thing this week was that my host mom’s birthday was on the 2nd! I only managed to know this because her Wi-fi password was her birthdate and year. Last week, I asked her if her birthday was on the 2nd. She was surprised and asked me how I knew. I was in the middle of looking for the Russian word for “password” in dictionary we keep in the kitchen and said “Internet”. I wasn’t done with my sentence, but she reacted very badly to the word “Internet” (as would I), but then I said Internet password. She laughed and realized that her daughter set her Wi-Fi password as her birthday.

I really wanted to do something for her, so I decided the easiest thing for me to do was buy her a cake. However, she does not really eat a lot of sugar (dietary reasons) and I noticed most of her items are from the people with diabetes section of the supermarket (yes, the section exists here). So I ended up going on the Russian local Internet and managed to hunt down a cake without sugar. When it was the day of her birthday, I showed it to her and she was upset/happy and told me that she could not eat sugar. When I did tell her that the cake was sugarless, she was happy, but still a little mad because she said it must have been so expensive (it was like $15). Later that night, I was aware that she was having a dinner party at her house, but I did know that she implied I would be part of it.


One of the cakes at the dinner party (not the one I bought).

Interestingly enough, all of her friends spoke perfect English (my host mom does not) and told me how much my host mom likes me. One funny thing I found out on her birthday was that from all the years/semesters my host mom have been hosting students, I was the first person to be able to find my way home the first day of school with no issues. Every person ended up getting lost and my host mom had to try to fetch them. I thought this was really funny because everyone my host mom has hosted knows little to no Russian when they first arrived. So I can imagine the manhunt my host mom had to go on, to find someone who did not even know how to read a street sign. The location of the apartment is not confusing, but the doorways and the similarities of the apartment buildings threw everyone off. I had a really interesting time during the three-hour dinner party.

When everyone cleared out, I really wanted to help my host mom with dishes because there were so many, but she refused to let me. Her friends told me that my host mom is very unique and always brimming with energy, so I should just listen to her and let her do everything her way. She ended up staying up until 1:30am-ish doing/reorganizing the dishes, but she told me she preferred to do it herself. I was a little sad seeing her stay up so late, but I know she was really happy from the party and was looking forward to skiing the next day (she goes skiing every Saturday). I honestly cannot believe I have been in her home for a month now and it makes me sad to realize that I only have two and a half months left with her, but I am taking everything day-by-day.

Thanks for reading.

До свидания (goodbye).

Justine G.

Жюстин, sometimes Джастин, Жастин, or Жустин.

Justine in Russia: An Update on Food, Holiday, and Life

February 23, 2018

I occasionally get homesick while at Richmond and a big part of it is due to the lack of Chinese food in the city. I also rely very heavily on public transportation because I cannot drive. Since Richmond’s public transportation system is not so great, I often have to pretty walk from shuttle drop off locations. However, it is almost the end of my third week here and I feel perfectly at home. The public transportation system here is very efficient and I like commuting. I spent all of middle school and high school commuting to school by bus and by subway, so this is the life I am used to. People here also walk extremely fast, which I appreciate a lot, but I also cannot believe they are able to walk that fast on iced over sidewalks.

To give you an idea of how snowed-in and iced-over Saint Petersburg is:


When I left the house this morning, it was 0ºF (-17.7ºC).



But have you ever seen actual snowflakes like these?



The down escalator to the metro (about 3 to 4 full minutes to reach the bottom or top of a station).


I also just received my official student ID from Saint Petersburg State University. This is by far, the best ID (and best picture) I have ever received.



Speaking more about holidays, February 16th was the start of Chinese New Year. Unfortunately, I was not able to find any local events related to Chinese New Year, but my friends invited me out to eat Chinese food. Although, I have not seen many Chinese people in this city (aside from tourists, it’s pretty easy to tell if a person is a tourist), there are so many Chinese restaurants here. Although, quantity does not necessary mean quality, every place I have been to so far has been really good! I am sure there is a big Chinese population here, but I live in a touristy-but-not-really type of neighborhood, so I do not see a lot of people.


Biang-biang mian (flat-hand pulled noodles with chili oil) and Roujiamou (lamb burger)



Different restaurant from the first, but I was happy to find great Chinese dumplings here!


This past Sunday (February 18th) was the end of Maslenitsa (Мaсленица), also known as “Butter Week” (maslo/масло means butter/oil). The holiday is celebrated the week before Lent, so people have this week to enjoy themselves. This holiday is also celebrated to say goodbye to winter and welcome spring. People celebrate the entire week with different activities, including making and eating tons of blini (Russian crepes). The most interesting part of Maslenitsa to me is that blinis are supposed represent the sun, so they are welcoming the sun……by eating it?


My dinner on Maslenitsa (blinis pictured on the plate). Often eaten with jam or sour cream (or both).


Also, at the end of Maslenitsa, they burn a giant straw doll / scarecrow to commemorate the start of spring. Unfortunately, I was not able to stay so late and see the burning myself, but I did buy some dolls before I left.


Some straw dolls / scarecrows (чучелы)


I just talked a lot about food and holidays, but not so much about academics (this is indeed study abroad). Homestay life is really helping me out in speaking and a little in reading/writing (see below).


My host mom and I often leave notes for each other if I leave the house early or she plans to go out before dinner. The note says: “Justine, blinis can be heated on the pan or in the toaster oven. Eat with sour cream (in the fridge)!” – L

At school, what we do in our conversation/grammar classes are a little confusing right now. Because of an odd schedule mix up, the class we thought was grammar was actually conversation, and vice versa. One language class is significantly harder than the other, which makes it weird because we’re all in the same level for both classes. Otherwise, everything is going great in my elective classes. I am also got permission to audit a Master’s level class called International Security Regimes (taught in English) at the university itself and I went to the first lecture this week! The class has about twenty-something students and only about 1/3 to 1/4th of them are Russian. The rest of the students are exchange or international students, which I find really interesting. I took some political science / international studies classes at Richmond and really wanted to continue to pursue it, but I did not have the time. I have not been so good about planning my free time here so far, so this will be one of the things I will be looking forward to every week. I also will be volunteering at a site (all semester), but I will talk more details next time! Thanks for reading.

До свидания (goodbye).

Justine G.

Жюстин, not Джастин

Justine in Russia: City-As-School

February 15, 2018

*Title is inspired by a high school in my city that I wish I went to, just because of the name. (City-As-School)

My study abroad program (CIEE) puts a big emphasis on getting us involved in the community and the city as much as possible, through excursions, interest groups, and even our classes. On Sunday, we all went on an excursion to the The State Hermitage Museum. The State Hermitage Museum actually has many buildings/parts, but we only visited part of the Winter Palace that day.

Here are some pictures from the excursion (note: none of these pictures are edited, it is actually that amazing in there)


All taken inside the Winter Palace.



Well, I did not want to post any faces of my peers without their permission, so this photo is edited.


This weekend, I also had the opportunity (and the excuse) to explore the city to my liking without having worry about to calling my host grandmother because she went skiing for half the day (yes, you read that correctly). I took the metro to Petrogradsky District (one of the “islands” in Saint Petersburg) and explored a bit. My first stop was the Saint Petersburg Mosque, which has been the top place on my bucket list for the past five years. The fact that it was snowing that day, made the experience even better. There is something about the snow that makes this city a lot quieter. Places like the Saint Petersburg Mosque and the Winter Palace really make me stop and think about how lucky I am to be able to be studying here. As for the snow, it does not really bother me as much as it does when I am at home.


The exterior of the Saint Petersburg Mosque on Petrogradsky Island.



The Neva River, which is currently iced over and covered in snow.

As for my classes, my electives started this week and I have only been to each of them twice so far, but I am really looking forward to the rest of the semester (as cliché as it sounds). My electives are: Russian Civilization: Popular Stereotypes and Social BehaviorGender and Sexuality in Russia, and Intercultural Communication & Leadership. 

In one way or another, all the classes overlap since they all discuss the culture of this city and country. Even outside of my classes, I feel like I am learning a lot about the culture of this city, when it comes to things like the metro, restaurants, etiquette, body language, etc. This city and country is not as stone-cold as depicted in the media, which I really wish put this country in a more positive light. Even with my extremely limited Russian, I have only had positive interactions with locals and am really feeling at ease with my life here so far.


My host mother, Luda or Lyudmila (Люда or Люмила) preparing tomorrow’s supper.

My understanding of my host mother also increases each and every day because there are words she constantly uses, but I am too shy to ask her to repeat. Also, she notices when I newly understand the meaning of how to use a word and she’s pretty happy with me. I was a little worried about living with just one person, but I actually really enjoy it. She’s really patient and really nice, but sometimes I wish I could help her around the house! She does not let me do dishes and every time I ask her if I can help, she tells me how I am a guest in her home. She says her job is to take care of the home, while my “job” is to study, explore, visit museums, etc. One of these days, I’ll finally do the dishes when she is not home and I’ll talk all about it. However, that wasn’t today, so I will see you next week around the same time.

P.S: for the people who are curious about the weather here….


До скорой встречи (see you soon).

Justine G.

Жюстин, not Джастин




Justine in Russia: Week 1!

February 7, 2018

Hi! It’s been able a week since I arrived in Saint Petersburg.  I’m a little surprised at how much and how little time I’ve spent here so far (makes no sense, but let me elaborate).

My first day in Saint Petersburg was not actually in the city, but instead at a hotel in the outskirts of the city, next to Pulkovo International Airport. CIEE holds orientation at the hotel for the first two days and depending on our housing situations, we all leave the hotel separately. The first days were stressful because the people who chose to live with a host family, were not given any information about them up until the day we arrived. I found out that my host family was just one person named Lyudmila, who was most likely going to be a grandma. I was not afraid of the fact that she was an older woman, but I was afraid of our language barrier considering I only know 1 semester of Russian.



My hotel room (during orientation)


At the end of our two long days of orientation, it was finally time for us to be picked up by our host families. I finally met Lyudmila (she insists I call her Lyuda). I was terrified as I walked out to meet her, but everything turned out to be fine. I found out that she has hosted students with zero knowledge of Russian, which is a bit interesting to me considering she only knows a few words in English (like mushroom, chicken, day, morning). 

So far, we understand each other alright. I would say I understand 80% of her sentences, but occasionally I do have to pull out Yandex Translate (not Google) in order to respond to her. We have breakfast and dinner together every night (all 3 meals on weekends), and I have enjoyed our conversations so far. About 20% of our meals are just us smiling at each other, but it’s okay. I got a bit sad my second night here because I really wish that I am able to talk to her more about her life, but she said it’s completely normal for me to not know much right now. As days go by, I am able to talk to her more since I have language class almost everyday and I am happy with my progress so far.


My bedroom in my host mother’s apartment!

An interesting thing I realized the past week is that Saint Petersburg has about 5 million residents, but I found the city to be extremely quiet. There are tons of people walking around and tons of cars/buses/trolleybuses going up and down the streets, but there is something extremely peaceful about the city. The only downside to this city so far is that there is so much snow to the point that the sidewalks are completely iced over and I even see locals slipping and falling (I fell only twice so far). My apartment is close to the city center, but far enough for it to be non-touristy.

As for the city, I have not explored much so far, but I did go to The Church of the Savior on Blood. I am not going to try to describe how this place blew me away, so I’ll just provide pictures of it.


Outside the The Church of the Savior on Blood.



The ceilings inside the The Church of the Savior on Blood.


My commute to school is approximately 40 minutes, but I am used to longer commutes since I am from New York City. We actually did not have class the first day of school, but we did have our language placement exams. I actually placed into Intermediate I (equivalent to 201), which I was happy about since I did not really review at all the past 1.5 months of winter break.


I’m sorry, no one told me I would be going to school in a PALACE.

So far, I’m really enjoying this city, but there are still many things I have not done nor have I seen and I am really looking forward to sharing my experiences.

До скорой встречи (see you soon).

Justine G.

Жюстин, not Джастин

Justine in Russia: Where Are You Going?

January 26, 2018

Здравствуйте всем – hello everyone!

My name is Justine and I’m a junior from New York City. I’m majoring in Healthcare Studies and minoring in Russian Studies. I will be studying at Saint Petersburg State University (СПБГУ) in Saint Petersburg, Russia through CIEE (The Council on International Educational Exchange).

I’ve only studied Russian in school for one semester, but have been exposed to Russian culture and language through my peers. I am less than a week away from the start of my program and I really am not sure how I am feeling right now. Currently, I am questioning my Russian language skills and thinking about how I am going to do anything there based on three months of Russian. However, I am still looking forward to my study abroad experience and I hope to share my experiences over the next 18 weeks. 

When I told my friends I was going to study abroad in Russia, most of them thought it was a joke up until my visa arrived. I honestly did not believe I was going to Russia until my visa arrived either. Interestingly enough, two days after I submitted my documents to the visa processing company, I received a phone call asking whether the “Xi” in my name stood for the 11th (XI). Unfortunately, it does not.

photo1_visa (1)

My visa also spells my name differently from the way I normally do in Russian (mid-young-adult crisis coming along soon).

Why study abroad in Russia? Why are you studying Russian?

I don’t really know if I can explain the reasoning behind my decisions without confusing anyone, but I will try to break it down to three points.

1. I was sick of taking Chinese classes.

I grew up speaking Mandarin Chinese and Fujianese Chinese with my family and did not really speak English until elementary school. When elementary school started, I went to Chinese school every Saturday for the next six years. My middle school and high school both required foreign language classes as part of our graduation requirements. There goes another seven years of Chinese class.

At my first university (I forgot to mention I transferred to Richmond sophomore year), I took Chinese my first semester. I have been learning Chinese in school for about thirteen and a half years, and around 70% of the time I did not learn anything new. Almost everything I learned was review and it was extremely boring for me since I wasn’t really learning. I decided to take up Russian because I was really fascinated with Cyrillic script and have always been interested in post-Soviet culture.


The Russian alphabet follows Cyrillic script (used in languages including Belarusian and Kazakh).

2. My mom would not let me travel to Russia alone.

This point is pretty self explanatory and makes a lot of of sense, but there’s more to it. As much as I love my family, family vacations drive me insane, especially since I am the one planning everything and acting as a tour guide for every family member involved.

Also, I was not proposing to go to Russia and travel, I was asking to learn Russian abroad! Why not enroll at a class at the local community college or hire a tutor? BECAUSE this would still be two to three times more expensive than a round trip plane ticket and a month of classes in Russia or Kyrgyzstan. My mother said maybe and then said no after I did weeks of research on different schools and programs. When I told her I was going to study abroad in Russia, she told me she could not stop me at this point. 

3. I will probably never have this kind of opportunity again.

I’m always trying to suggest to my family to travel to Bosnia or Kazakhstan for our vacations, but instead they question my sanity and suggest for us to go to Germany or Spain (I never win). I guess my mind works the same way for study abroad. I am not trying to be pretentious in trying to go to the “quirkiest” place I can find, but I believe I could always just visit Copenhagen or Sydney in ten years and be okay with waiting so long in deciding to travel there.

I still have a few more days to take this all in and prepare for my semester, so I guess for now this is all I have for you.

До скорой встречи (see you soon). 

Justine G.

Жюстин, not Джастин

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