Archive for January, 2012

At the Hermitage (naturally)


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Placement Exam

Even before we got here, the question on everyone’s mind was what to expect from the language placement exam. And the answer (from program coordinators, professors, and students from previous semesters) was always: don’t worry about it. I am not one who responds well to that sort of advice. Apparently, neither are most of my classmates, because most of us stayed up late last night going over grammar and vocabulary.

For future students: don’t worry about it. There are two components to the [ungraded] placement test, a written exam and a conversation with a professor. The written test is fairly basic grammar, but the format is confusing in that none of the instructions are in English. Some activities I remember involved “word groups”—you are given one or two words from a thematic category (articles of clothing, members in a family, weather) and are asked to think of as many related words as you can. There was also a listening section with multiple-choice based on what you were able to understand from audio of, say, a teacher and a student talking about what they did on summer vacation.

You then have a 5-10 minute conversation with one of the language professors, who will assess your speaking skills. If you tend to freeze up in conversation, it might be helpful to write down a few basic things about yourself, your studies, and your family, because their first questions are usually along those lines. If you’re at a more advanced level, they’ll go into more detail.

In the end, it’s best not to worry, because you are ultimately the one who decides what language class you end up in. The placement test simply provides a suggestion and weeds out the total beginners, and after your initial placement you have a week to switch around until you feel comfortable in a given level.

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Brass Monkeys

A peculiarly Russian insight lies in a turn-of-the-century poem in which a baby asks not to be born, “because I am warm enough here.” The cold really is as crazy as they say (even for a hot weather-phobe like myself). Today was completely bright and sunny—there are statistically only 30 such days each year in St. Petersburg—and it was still only between -4 and 5 degrees Fahrenheit. This makes is easier to understand why one of the old words for warmth, “bogat’ia,” was once synonymous with wealth, and why PETA doesn’t have much of a following here. Even a lifelong bunny/ermine/beaver/fox advocate would be hard-pressed not to renege in the face of a cold that can bond contact lenses to the surface of your eyeballs. As cold as January in Boston gets, and enormous fur hat would be considered over-the-top. Not so in St. Petersburg.

nbd, just running out for groceries.

Everyone looks like they’re smoking, and the breath condensation quickly freezes in little beads onto any hair hanging near your face. And it’s definitely a dry cold—the snow is basically a stinging dust (completely unsuitable for snow-craftsmanship), and the weather could best be described in a word as “bitter.” Over the centuries, Russians developed some interesting tactics and inventions to stave off frostbite, the most noticeable of which is state-controlled heating.

Rather than let everyone continue the enormous struggle against the cold individually, the Soviet state took it upon itself to install uniform, centrally-controlled heating systems for both air and water. The system comes on in October, and shuts off in April. In true Soviet style, the heat can’t be adjusted, unless you want to open a window for a bit. As a result, most buildings have sauna-like interiors, and hot water is nearly boiling (my roommate has a first degree burn from the shower because she turned the cold tap off before the hot tap). Layering your clothes is not an option, it’s a necessity.

Another innovation I’d like to import to New England is the towel-warmer. Based on my other experiences in Eastern Europe, I can see how this concept evolved accidentally. Some unfinished pipes were exposed in a bathroom or kitchen, and the hot-water pipes were the perfect thing to quick-dry clothes and towels before actual dryers became prevalent. In many Russian bathrooms, the hot-water pipe is now intentionally extended into an S-coil and left exposed for this specific purpose. Aside from a blatant child-safety violation, WHY DO WE NOT HAVE THIS? Explain, Massachusetts, EXPLAIN.

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First Impressions

After a dizzyingly busy first half-day in St. Petersburg, here are my first general impressions:

  • Documents, documents, documents…the old stereotype of East European bureaucracy hasn’t changed much. It is (rightly) considered dangerous for a student to leave the dormitory without a “spravka,” a packet containing copies of various identification documents, like passport, visa, student identification card, etc., as a police officer can stop you at any time. Policemen are usually just looking for draft dodgers (or, if you’re Asian, potential illegal immigrants from Central Asia), so men are generally stopped more so than women. Anyone without proper documentation can still be arrested, fined, or deported. The embassy likes to tell a story about an American ran across the street from his hotel room without his ID, presumably getting a snack or drink, and ended up in a two-year prison fiasco.
  • There are constantly-spewing smokestacks everywhere—Russia definitely makes the environment its bitch, even more so than what I encountered in Ecuador. In comparison, Georgia might as well be one big nature preserve. You know it’s bad when a common study abroad student pastime is collecting photos of various “scenic pollutions” that systematically violate every US EPA regulation in existence.

sheer majesty

  • The 30:1 ruble-to-dollar exchange rate can be a bit overwhelming (this is probably the only time in my life I will ever walk around with five hundred of anything in my wallet). It does, however, mean that it’s basically always Dollar Beer Night in Russia. This being one of the more attractive features to study abroad students here (whereas our counterparts in Western Europe are dropping eight euro a glass), our program coordinators did feel the need to give us a talk about resorting to alcoholism should we find adjustment too difficult.
  • There is also apparently so much of a problem with manhole covers that we were also strongly cautioned about the ones here in St. Petersburg, which have a habit of suddenly shifting or simply falling in. At least Georgia had the courtesy to just not include them at all, so you know right off the bat not to step near the hole.
  • The international student dorms here are surprisingly far more spacious than any dorm room I had at my home university. There, my current double would probably be used as a quad. We are only provided with extreme basics in terms of furnishing, though—as in, the desk is three boards nailed together and the bed is in the typically East European “fainting couch” style (low to the ground, thin built-in mattress pad, no under-bed storage). Our room is the only one in the building blessed with free wifi; everyone else is stuck with one ethernet jack to share between roommates, so as a result our suite is an unofficial internet café.
  • Mr. Clean is called Mr. Proper. I saw a commercial on Rutube. No. Just no.
  • Given the poor track record in terms of environmentalism, Russia does encourage recycling in one way: you have to buy your shopping bags and reuse them. Naturally a few plastic bags are very cheap, but the check-out ladies are not very sympathetic when they have a big line and a bumbling international student shows up without bags at the ready. This is where it’s helpful to divide your clothes into old shopping bags when you pack.
  • The water here is completely unsafe—not even the locals drink it. To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with the water itself. Russia has plenty of clean freshwater sources. Like at my house (where we have a well), the problem is more with the old pipes. By the time it gets to the tap, the water has a pretty strong mineral smell (almost like red clay, if you’ve ever done pottery), and for the first few seconds it may come out a gray or rusty color. Boiling takes care of it, but the students who can afford to usually buy bottled anyway.
  • If you want to get a feel for the atmosphere of St. Petersburg, here is a time-lapse of various cityscapes.

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While satirical maps and atlases have proliferated in the past few years (How Americans See Europe, How People See the World), I consider The Onion’s Our Dumb World superior for its ability to incorporate cultural and historical points of interest, and to use stereotypes to mock both the stereotyper and the stereotypee. I recommend seeing the actual book in its full glory, but the online version of “Russia: Where Russians Are Sent to Die” is still pretty funny.

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Cyrillic Cursive

Russian handwriting is so...Russian

If it wasn’t confusing enough that a backwards N in Cyrillic (и) means the “ee” sound, one must also consider the fact that Cyrillic letters change significantly when you handwrite them in cursive. The backwards N now looks like the cursive U yet signifies “ee.”

But Brown University is here to help, with an awesome animated Russian writing guide!

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Goodbye, chronically sullen Indian boy.

As harsh as I was in a former post about Rosetta Stone Language Learning, I have to say I will miss it when I’m done. Even with all its problems, it is one of very few programs that you can study consistently for long periods of time, working a little each day. Over the last semester, I’ve kind of bonded with the Rosetta Stone “cast”—although there are thousands of images (most of which resemble stock photos from an absurdly tidy American neighborhood), there are only about 100-200 “characters.”

Some individuals are one-time “cameos” (like the hot Mediterranean-looking guy who, unfortunately, only bids “До свидания” with a rakish tip of his hat), but others pop up more or less consistently. Consistently enough that, when I got bored, I would come up with little stories about the dysfunctionalities teeming just below the surface. My favorite was the overbearing Asian mother, standing over her daughters and giving them the third degree about what subjects they’re studying at school this week. Or the skanky young stepmom, trying to get into the stepkids’ good graces by shamelessly buying them chocolate left and right.

Don't worry, desperate single girl. Someday someone will think you're worth a bunch of red flowers, too.

Apparently, Rosetta Stone’s famous Farm Boy ad spawned a truly bizarre official fanfic page on their site. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that Rosetta Stone soon branches out into polyglot soap operas. Because God knows TV series can only get better from here.

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