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.


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.


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.


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.





Justine G.

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

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.


Amazing sunsets every single night.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.



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.

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.


The Botanic Gardens of Moscow State University – in Moscow


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.


Taking a walk at 10pm in Moscow.


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.


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.


“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.


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.

Justine in Russia: An Ordinary Day

May 2, 2018

Writing about my typical day feels very strange since I have less than three weeks left in my program and I am not looking forward to leaving this city in any way. However, I wanted to run through my typical day. I think I will talk about my Mondays.

08:00am – My host mom wakes me up every morning by knocking on my door and tells me my breakfast is ready. I get up, brush my teeth, wash my face, etc. I sit down with my host mom and she eats breakfast with me 80% of the time. Sometimes, she has the food prepared for me and waits for me to sit down at the table for her to tell me that she is going back to sleep. She interacts with me every morning whether it is for the entire meal or just before she goes back to sleep. My typical breakfast comes from this list

  • блины (Russian thin pancakes)
  • гречка (buckwheat, but generally referred to as каша)
  • мюсли (cereal, oats)
  • сырники (I don’t know how to translate this besides mini-cheese pancakes, generally sweet, but my host mom makes it without sugar and I thought these were potato pancakes for the longest time)

Classic breakfast (сырники со сметаной, cheese pancakes with sour cream). Сметана (sour cream) dominates the kitchen tables of Russian households. People put it on everything! When I say sour cream, it is a little different from the way we have it in the states. It is a less airy and has a different taste to it, too.

08:20am – After breakfast, I get dressed.

sometime between 08:30-08:45am – I leave my apartment. I take the bus to university and it is about a five minute walk from my front door. I always miss the bus by exactly ten seconds, but I am usually able to catch it at the next stop. The nice thing about Russian bus drivers are that, once they see you running after a bus, they will always wait for you. I have had many experiences where a bus driver in New York would see you trip and fall on the way to the bus, but they would still drive away. I am never late to school, but I like getting to school extremely early.


On the bus to school! Usually the bus is jam-packed, so it was strange for me to actually get a seat on the bus that day.

09:00am – Once I get off the 20-30 minute bus ride, I have to walk about 15 minutes to the university. The distance from the bus stop to the university is about 10 minutes, but from the front gate of the university to the actual building where I study is a 5 minute walk.


The entrance to the Political faculty building (where I study).

The weather here has been spectacular the past few weeks. The locals say they have not seen this nice of a spring in their entire lives. Unfortunately, I took this picture the one day it rained last week.


Hallways of the Political faculty building.

Every faculty (department) has it’s own wall colors. The Political faculty is this peach color, but the International Relations faculty is a light blue. This means that every classroom in that hallway belongs to each faculty. It is very easy to get lost in this building because every classroom number resets depending on the hallway. For example, there is a room 114 in the Sociology faculty and there is also a room 114 in the International Relations faculty. The only way to figure out where you are is by the colors of the walls.

10:00am – I get to school around 09:15 every morning, but this is the time my classes actually start. Mondays mean that my first class is Gender and Sexuality in Russia. This is one of my favorite classes. We do not necessarily learn about things chronologically, but we touch on interesting topics like Soviet masculinity, gender bending in the 19th century, women during wartime, how socialism shaped gender order, etc. The class is very evenly divided between lecture and discussion, which I appreciate.

11:30am – Break between classes.

11:40am – Grammar class! A lot of fast-paced verb conjugation or case-agreement speaking.

1:10pm – Lunch! I usually pack my own lunch or I go to the school cafeteria and get a pastry.

1:50pm – Conversation class usually is when we write a dialogue for homework and present it to the class. We also do a lot of monologues during class on different topics depending on what we are learning that day.

3:20pm – Freedom! It is a joke that no matter where you live in the city, it takes a hour to get to our campus. There is only one bus that goes straight to my house, but the bus is always crowded because it is the only bus that goes through the center of the city AND the only bus that goes to the immigration center. Because of this, I always go home the weirdest way I possibly can. I have an unlimited public transportation card (tram, metro, trolleybus, bus), so I always go a different way home. Recently, I’ve been taking the trolleybus to the south side of where I live, and I walk across the canal to get home since it does not take more than ten minutes from there.


5:15pm – This is usually when I get home if I do not have plans for the afternoon.

6:00pm – My host mom and I always eat together at this time, unless she is going out to see a show or hang out with her friends. Her dinners are always different, but always involves a soup and a main course. We always have the soup first and then the main course. Sometimes, we eat a little later or a little earlier because she likes to watch TV at 6:15pm for a specific program. What I appreciate is that even though I am gone for most of the day, we make sure to always talk during our meals. Some meals we talk more than others, but even though I do not have a great grasp of the language, we manage to talk. We always talk about where we went today, what we ate (outside of home), what we plan to do tomorrow, etc. She never lets me do the dishes, but I occasionally do them when she goes out immediately after dinner because she usually comes home late. She never sleeps with dirty dishes in the sink and I don’t want her to do dishes at midnight. I often get a gentle scolding (not really) for doing it, but I don’t mind.

7:00pm-12:00am – ??? This is my confusion period because I usually go into my room and start my work or attempt to do so. When the weather is really nice, I take a walk with a friend. If I am not talking a walk, I’m in my room.. I’ve been trying to make better use of this time after dinner because some museums in Petersburg are open until 9:00pm on certain days of the week. Since I have less than three weeks left, I’ve been trying to strategically plan the days I end earlier since there are a lot of places I still have not been.

12:00am-1:00am – I try to sleep at this time and I usually do, but sometimes my homework is extremely tedious to the point that I did not realize that it is suddenly 2:00am.

anytime after 1:00am – Likely asleep (like right now) 🙂

До следующего раза (until next time)

Justine G.

Жюстин, usually Джастин, Жастин, or Жустин.

Justine in Russia: Fighting Insecurity

April 25, 2018

I am still playing a bit of catch-up with my posts, so I am still talking about things that happened about three weeks ago. After our trip to Moscow, we all had a week of break. I decided to go to Kyiv and Astana (alone) during my break. I think what I have appreciated the most about my experience in Russia (along with Ukraine, and Kazakhstan) is that people are very patient and grateful if you speak even a bit of Russian. I do not really want to talk too much about my travels, but more about what I learned while traveling.

My first stop was Kyiv, Ukraine. Since there are no direct flights from Russia to Ukraine anymore, I had to take a flight with a layover in Minsk, Belarus.

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Flying out from Zhukovsky Airport in Moscow, which only had ten flights operating out of the airport on a Sunday.

I was a bit sad because it’s my dream to go to Minsk, but flying between Russia and Belarus is still considered a domestic flight. I would need a visa to enter Belarus, which is also complicated because I am not in the states right now. Flying through Minsk International Airport was an adventure since I had a one hour layover and I had to literally run through the terminal to our next gate. When I was going through security a second time, the customs woman was asking me questions in English, but I was replying in Russian because I was very stressed about missing my flight. She then asked me whether I spoke Russian and I said not really. She thought it was really funny that I was responding to her in Russian. I made it to our gate in time, but it was a whirlwind experience. Once I landed in Kyiv, I was staying in a hostel where all the staff spoke English. However, I spent the entire trip alone and spent my time outside speaking Russian. Kyiv is a very English friendly city since they get many tourists.


Courtyard of the hostel I was staying in.

Even though I spoke very little (not so great) Russian, people would never switch to English on me and were extremely friendly to me. The only time I used English outside of the hostel was when I forgot Ukrainian alphabet differences while ordering food at a cafe. The Ukrainian and Russian alphabet are very similar, but a few letters are different and I was aware of the differences. However, I forgot them at this very moment.


I ordered black tea, a brownie, and a chicken pesto sandwich. The word for brownie in Ukrainian is “Брауні” and “Брауни” in Russian. These words both read and pronounced as “brownie.”

The next item on this receipt is, “сандвіч з куркою і песто”, which is a sandwich with chicken and pesto. The first and last word are both English cognates of the word “sandwich” and “pesto”. In Russian, it would be “сэндвич с курицей и песто.” As you can see, these words are almost the same and only then I realized how confused I must have been because these are just English cognates.

I felt really comfortable with communicating because many places in the world will likely switch to English on you if you are a foreigner and try to poorly speak their language. However, this gave me a bit more of a language experience since Ukrainians were very warm and welcoming when it came to speaking. There were times that souvenir vendors praised me for being “able to understand them”, which felt nice at times since there are moments I do get confused since my vocabulary is still pretty limited. I was staying near a very touristy street and most vendors spoke English, but did not try to do so if I asked questions in Russian. Even museum workers and guards were very warm with me when I asked dumb questions in Russian. One thing I struggled with was that sometimes, people would respond to me in Ukrainian and I would just have to reword my question until I understood one of their answers in Ukrainian. One of my last days in Kyiv, I visited the Kyiv Perchersk Lavra, a Orthodox Christian monastery.


Entrance to the Kyiv Perchersk Lavra.

I had to visit very quickly because I had to return to my hostel and register for classes. On my way out, I asked the security guards in Russian whether a ticket was only valid for one entry or the whole day. I have no idea what he said because he started speaking Ukrainian to me and I could not identify the verbs he was saying. In the middle of this interaction, a tourist asked me a question in English and I helped her out. So, I was still confused and reworded my question into whether I could only enter one time or many times. Even though he heard me speak English and I heard him speak English to the tourist, he was still responding in Ukrainian. However, this time I figured out that I was able to reenter the monastery for the day. Language is all about trial and error!


I stayed in Kyiv for approximately three days and then went my way to Astana, Kazakhstan. Astana was a lot more difficult because most people do not speak a lick of English. However, people were very patient with me and confused when I did not really know much Russian. At the hostel I stayed at in Astana, I befriended a receptionist and he told me I was the only person staying there who was not from a post-Soviet republic. He said that when he first saw me, he just assumed I was Kazakh. So when I did come up to a reception and asked them a question in English, you could see how confused the receptionists were.

I won’t say too much about my travels because this blog post will go on forever, but Astana has been one of my must-visit destinations since I was around sixteen. It was really surreal to be able to go there alone and experience the “post-soviet, architectural-confusion world” (is what I like to call it). There was a mix of very Soviet buildings and new architectural buildings that created a strange juxtaposition of old and new.


Pictured is the Bayterek Tower and the buildings surrounding it.


Imagine arriving on an airplane, where the area around the airport is still 90% dirt roads and going to the city center and seeing this pyramid of a building. This is the Palace of Peace and Reconciliation. It serves as an event venue. When I took a tour of this building, there was a Kazakh(?) boy band rehearsing for their concert later that week.


About 70% of the population in Kazakhstan are Muslim. This is the Khazret Sultan Mosque, which is also the biggest mosque in Central Asia.


Expo 2017 was held in Astana, something the locals were very proud about. This gigantic building was built southwest of the city for Expo and now is a museum of future energy.

I think this trip helped me a lot with getting over some of my insecurity with speaking Russian. I really hate trying to speak English to people and I never try to, but sometimes I feel very stressed to go into some restaurants because I feel like I say any of these food items correctly. Since I came back from my break, I have been a lot more comfortable in attempting to say new words when it comes to ordering food or trying to read off of a page. What I will miss the most about being in this part of the world is that I do not feel like too much of an outsider. I often get asked directions and I usually am just stunned that someone thought that I seemed local enough to answer their question (not just in Saint Petersburg, but this happened in Astana and Kyiv too). People don’t stare here nor have I been verbally attacked like the few times I have been back in the states. I am just a little sad that I am finally getting over my insecurity in language and I have less than four weeks left here.

However, I know I will be back someday.


До следующего раза (until next time)

Justine G.

Жюстин, usually Джастин, Жастин, or Жустин.

Justine in Russia: Midterms and Moscow!

April 13, 2018

Midterms and School Trip to Moscow!

Hi everyone! I am currently writing from Saint Petersburg, but so much has happened that I decided to back track a bit. It’s been a long time since I have written anything, but this is because I have been extremely sick and also caught up with midterms at the same time. I had to makeup seven school days of homework and readings for five classes, including two quizzes. Thankfully, everything including midterms went okay and I am not too behind in all of my classes.

Although, I am picking up Russian grammar and conversation quite alright, I still feel like there is a gigantic gap between my knowledge in grammar versus my knowledge of vocabulary. I feel like I am in a good place in my grammar class, but conversation class is really where I start to lose it a bit. The class moves a little fast for me and I am unable to pick up all the new words thrown at us within one class period.

I was really worried about my Russian Conversation class since it was an oral exam. Whenever I am called on in class, I just feel the entire class come to a screeching halt because I am usually confused. I actually received my mid-semester grade for my Conversation class today and I am hovering around an A-/A, so I am very pleased with that. I think all of our professors acknowledge that we are working really hard for our class and they are patient with us when we are confused during class.

After the whirlwind week of midterms, CIEE took us to our trip to Moscow! When I mean right after, I literally mean 5 hours after our last exams. We traveled in an overnight sleeper train from Saint Petersburg to Moscow. We arrived about 9 hours later and we were ready to start our three-day weekend in Moscow! I have to admit that I never really looked into Moscow in terms of traveling and had no idea what I was going to see there besides the Red Square.


Slippers provided to us on our train to Moscow in our sleeper car. Unfortunately, I forgot to take pictures of the sleeper car itself, but it was a normal setup of two beds on the top and two beds on the bottom.

We first went on bus tour around the city where we stopped by the embankment near the Kremlin. After that, we were taken to Red Square for a lunch break where I was surprised to find out that the fancy shopping mall in Moscow (ГУМ) was located right across Lenin’s Mausoleum on Red Square. The juxtaposition of these two structures instilled a stronger opinion for me regarding Moscow. Here you have a communist revolutionary and directly across from this mausoleum lies a department store selling extremely expensive brands like Dior. One of my professors talked about this when we came back from our trip and called it “Russian inconsistency”. 


Fast picture of Lenin’s Mausoleum because people are not allowed to stop there for a long period of time unless you are lining up to enter it.



Picture of ГУМ at night.


Our second full day of Moscow consisted of a tour of the Kremlin. Unfortunately, I do not have much to say about it besides that I was intrigued by the size of the area. The term “Kremlin” itself actually means fortress. Our four-hour long tour consisted of visits to different buildings including the Dormition Cathedral and the Kremlin Armory Museum. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take photos inside some of these buildings, but it was indeed an interesting place to be.


Outside the Dormition Cathedral at the Kremlin.


I think my favorite part of our Moscow trip was going to the Museum of Cosmonauts. I do not really have a big interest in space, but it felt like nostalgia to me. I have been to the National Air and Space Museum a few times in D.C and I just felt like I was a child again. If Russians view this museum the same way I do for the museum in D.C, I am sure that it brings them the same feeling of nostalgia and pride in their country.



Poster from the Soviet Union that says (at least the way I interpreted it), “For the sake of peace and progress!”


I think going to Moscow was an important and necessary trip for our group because there are many big differences between Saint Petersburg and Moscow. I also understand that it is a little difficult for us to make quick judgments regarding Moscow because we were only there for 2.5 days. As part of our discussion in our Russian Civilization class, we all shared our opinions of Moscow and held almost the same opinions regarding the city. Although we all felt a little more comfortable with speaking English in Moscow, we found more comfort in Saint Petersburg. This is not only because we have been here for longer, but the atmosphere feels a little more welcoming for us. Moscow feels more like a business center with many tall buildings, while Saint Petersburg feels a little older because of the types of buildings we are used to.

I know I definitely want to return to Moscow and take another trip to build a better opinion of the city, but for now I will end with an obligatory picture of Saint Basil’s Cathedral.


До следующего раза (until next time)

Justine G.

Жюстин, usually Джастин, Жастин, or Жустин.


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.

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