Well, today is my second day home. It’s strange. I don’t know how to put into words how much I miss my friends from this semester. Saying goodbye was so difficult. The morning of our departure I took a moment away from last minute packing and walked over to the conch wall. The conch wall is a little stone wall that goes along the edge of the cliff and has many sets of benches that overlook the ocean. It’s where we would go to be alone, thoughtful, or simply appreciate the ocean. It was the place where many deep, authentic conversations occurred, and where students would sit and play the guitar by themselves. Saying goodbye to that spot felt like saying goodbye to the center.
The Conch Wall
Before getting in the truck to head to the airport, we all signed out of the center for the last time, writing our hometowns as our destination, and leaving our time-in slot empty. When I saw that, I broke and my eyes started leaking, which created a chain effect of five other girls also crying and all of us laughing at ourselves.
Our first flight was just to get to Provo, the main island. It’s only 14 minutes in a very small plane. The entire time I stared out the window, watching the water, seeing the Salinas on the island and realizing I wouldn’t go running along them in the mornings to see flamingos anymore. It was so hard to wrap my brain around the fact that we were actually leaving, all of us going home and wouldn’t see each other for a very long time. The entire semester we had all been so present, focused only on what was happening in that moment and enjoying it as much as possible. It felt like it could never end, because none of us wanted to think about the end. We were on different planes to Provo, but all met up in that airport for a final goodbye. I had the first flight with two friends, going to Fort Lauderdale airport for a layover. The goodbye was full of tears and hugs. As much as it hurt to say goodbye to everybody, it was also so amazing to know that in such a brief period, we formed such intense connections and shared amazing experiences that made it so difficult to say goodbye. I think it would’ve been sadder to say goodbye if nobody really cared about it. We knew that we couldn’t have any regrets from the semester; we had done everything we wanted and lived a very intense, authentic lifestyle together. I still cried though, wishing it could last longer. Life just doesn’t work that way though.
When we got to Florida, I was very grateful for having two of my friends still with me. I had a 7-hour layover, and we were together for four of those hours, until both of them took different flights. I spent the rest of the time watching happy Christmas movies to cheer myself up. Landing in Philly airport was… cold. I spent the last 6 months in an eternal summer, where 75 degrees felt chilly. And suddenly it was 30 degrees and my breath made clouds of smoke outside. SO WEIRD! It was really fantastic to see my dad again and have the hour-long ride back home to catch up and tell him all of the fun stories from this semester! Even though it was 2 AM, the first thing I did when I got home was take a long, hot, freshwater shower, for the first time in 3 months. That was amazing, to feel entirely clean before going to bed. I’m going to miss my friends and the time I spent on that Caribbean island so much, but I am excited to see everybody again and hear all of the new adventures! I’m also excited to incorporate everything I learned there, particularly a sustainable lifestyle, into my present and future life. On to the next adventure!
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.
no longer Жюстин, but Жустин (Джастин, on official documents).
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.
I promised to tell you all about Venice, so here we go!
My friends Susy and Tatiana and I flew out of Edinburgh International Airport to Venice Marco Polo Airport on the night of Friday, December 2nd. The craziest thing about that to me was how relatively close Italy is to Scotland. The flight only took about 2 hours and 10 minutes—I’m so used to thinking of Italy as being world away that it hardly seemed possible! I was so excited on the plane ride that I basically danced the whole way there while listening to happy, pump-up music through my headphones (sorry again for that, Susy.) Did I mention that I’ve wanted to go to Venice for basically my whole life?
When we got to the airport, we boarded a waterbus to take us to the city. That’s right, a waterbus. (How cool is that?) It took us about half an hour to get in to the city. It was too dark to see much when we arrived, but I still took pictures anyway because I was just a little excited.
My brain at this point was basically like, “CANALS!! BRIDGES!! AAAAHH!!” Honestly, that feeling did not change that much while I was there, unless I was particularly tired and didnt feel like walking over a bridge.
We checked into our hostel and our very helpful concierge gave us tons of tips about things to see and where to eat in the city. It was 9 PM there by this time and we were starving, so we completed a very essential activity: we went to a pizza place and took my customary pizza selfie.
Venice isn’t really the place you go to get pizza, but it was still good. I loved how there were about a million different options #pizzaselfie #venetianpizzaselfie
The next day was an extremely full one. First, we toured the Doge’s Palace near the Piazza San Marco. It’s where the duke lived and where the seat of government was, and it lies adjacent to the New Prison where criminals were sentenced. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a building quite this grand.
This is one of the largest rooms in all of Europe. There’s real gold on the walls and ceiling and every wall is covered with some enormous work of art.
This is a view within the famous Bridge of Sighs, where criminals got a last look at the outside world before being imprisoned in the New Prison.
Next, we went on a gondola ride! We didn’t get a fancy one with a singing gondolier, although we did pass by a few that had those, but it was a fun way to see the city. A note on traveling to Venice in the winter, though: it really does get chilly. Over the course of the trip, we steadily put on more and more layers—I think in the beginning I was trying to convince myself that it was warmer than it actually was. The damp chill won out over my wishful thinking in the end.
Venice by gondola #bucketlist
After grabbing some lunch, we spent the rest of the day just walking around the city. Venice makes you want to take pictures about every two seconds. Everywhere you look, there’s another bridge and another canal, and from the bridge you can see more bridges and buildings and sometimes some gondolas. It’s exceedingly picturesque and a simply lovely place to walk around. The city is so small that we were able to cover most of it in one afternoon. We also got gelato, which was absolutely delicious.
Here’s a view from the Rialto Bridge, the most important bridge in Venice.
That evening, we returned to the Piazza San Marco to see it at dusk and to go inside Saint Mark’s Basilica. The basilica is stunning, inside and out, and the inside is covered with mosaics and gold.
The piazza is enchanting at night.
To finish the evening, we went to a famous bookstore called Aqua Alta and then ate some amazing Italian food. I think the spaghetti with ragu I had that night has ruined me at least a little bit for regular spaghetti for the rest of my life.
Sad that I can’t enjoy spaghetti quite the same way again, but ecstatic to be in Venice!
For our second and final full day in Venice, we bought waterbus passes for the day and took trips to several islands around the main city. First, we took the waterbus down the Grand Canal to a beautiful church called the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. After walking around that church with its works by Titian on the walls, took the bus to the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore in order to see the church and get a view of the city from the campanile (or tower). We hoped to attend a Gregorian chant at this church, but since they weren’t having one that day, we simply sat outside one of the smaller chapels and listened to the Italian Mass for a little while. Even though I do not know Italian, it felt very special to me to hear the priests singing and people worshiping God in a different language.
The view from the campanile was spectacular!
After grabbing some lunch, we went on a longer trip to the North of the main city to visit the islands of Murano and Burano. You may have heard of Murano glass before; that’s where that comes from. We went to a glass-blowing demonstration there, and it was stunning. The artisan made a glass vase and a glass horse in a matter of minutes with incredible dexterity.
They are very proud of their beautiful glass-making on Murano. I took this picture as we walked around the island a little more before heading to our next stop.
We then headed to Burano. This island is famous for two things: its lace and its colorful buildings. It was a truly beautiful place! I bought a scarf with hand-embroidered flowers on it to remember this gorgeous island by.
You can see a few of the colorful facades in this picture! I was just excited to take a picture with this giant piece of pizza, because #pizzaisbae
After that, we rose back into the main city, had another spectacular Italian pasta meal that ruined me for life, and that was the end of the night. It was so interesting on this day to see how public transportation in Venice really is about the same as anywhere else—they just use a boat instead of an automobile. You scan your bus pass to board the waterbus, there are seats to sit on as well as standing room, and there are speed limits just like on a regular road.
We didn’t have time to do very much the next day before heading to the airport, buuuuut I did stage a mini photo shoot near our hostel.
When you buy a Venetian carnival mask in Venice, you gotta take some cool pictures with it, even if some people laugh at you. There were actual Italians waling by and laughing as we took these.
I also took a few more city photos before we headed out—this was the view right outside our hostel each morning.
One other significant thing happened on our trip. Because I apparently don’t know much about European geography, I did not realize that you can see the Alps from Venice. I was very excited by this because I really love mountains. My family roots are in the Appalachian Mountains, which are some of the only mountains I’ve ever seen. On the plane ride home, we flew right over the Alps. I can hardly describe what that experience was like for me. I had never seen mountains that large before. They were enormous, snow-capped, craggy, awesome; they seemed full of mystery and wonder. After flying over the Alps, I am more determined than ever to return to Europe. I have to see those mountains up close!
I could not believe how beautiful the Alps were (on the left). However, I was also so happy to see the lovely Scottish hills again (on the right).
So, that was my trip! Venice is beautiful and I’m so happy that I got to travel there with Tatiana and Susy. It was colder and not as sunny as we expected—ironically, it was sunnier in Scotland when we got back than it ever was during our trip to Venice—but that city seems to be gorgeous under any weather conditions. If you study abroad in Europe, trips like this are within your reach! I wasn’t even expecting to take this trip and fulfill this dream of mine, but I’m incredibly thankful that I was able to do so. Studying abroad can open doors to more places than you might expect.
I will give you some more recent updates about the end of my semester and finals in my next post. Till next time!