Saturday, June 26, 2010

Nevski misunderstandings

Russia needs a lot of jobs. Walking around the city, we have seen interesting job creation projects - the ubiquitous museum guides,one for every room of a deserted museum, the armies of people planting gorgeous flower arrangements in parks, or the bus ticket controller whose job could easily be replaced by a machine, but isn't. Mind you, the wages are a mere pittance, but the state still seems to have a special responsibility for employment. However, the private sector is adding into the mini-job category, most strikingly by the tons of flyer-distributers on Nevski prospect. I have a hard time understanding the rationale behind this business idea, there are so many distributers that close to no passer-bys take one. Plus, they don't even have coupons. Pshsh. I have only ever caved out of pure pity - there is a guy dressed up as a giant cupcake, one as a bear and one as a pink bunny - and out of curiosity, like when this business man next to me suddenly pulled out what seemed like a business card and handed it over. Who could've guessed that exactly that one was a flyer for what I think was a drug rehabilitation centre? when I laughed incredulously, he just smiled and handed me a copy of the new testament in Russian. Thanks. So apparently when I walk around town, in comparison to the Russian girls I look like a drug addict in desperate need of help. Interesting. Well, I guess that is still better than my friend's misunderstanding : when she was waiting for the bus on the curb after the opera we went to, apparently she was propositioned to by 10 to 15 guys in cars driving by who all thought she was a prostitute. But then again, she was wearing very high heels even for Russian standards.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The grey areas on the map...

...are grey for a reason. This is what me and Pierre, a friend of mine, discovered one evening-stroll a couple of days ago. We were just walking down Nevski-Prospect like two normal tourists - though obviously we already feel like semi-Russians - and took a right through a small park, when we decided to cross the park and make a large detour back to where we came from. And so we did. Already the park was semi-sketchy, more random trees and patches of grass littered with cigarettes and broken glass (though you can find broken glass anywhere, even in front of my house). Once we exited it though, it seemed as if the happy-and-pretty St. Petersburg was just a huge projection that somebody turned off without telling us. Instead of picturesque buildings stood dilapidated former factories, in which ominously still random parts were spouting some kinds of fumes. Half-finished Soviet buildings still invited people to rent them, as though they were mocking themselves. On one fish factory, nature had taken over and little trees were sprouting from the chimney. While we were making our way along the river to the next area on the map with buildings - for now we had understood that the grey areas didn't mean good things - we walked past two packs of stray dogs that were sleeping (though that black one opened his eyes when we were passing, I'm sure of it) and arrived at a building site exactly at the underground passage of the railroad tracks. We were pretty sure that we weren't allowed over the building site, but had to continue on, so our only option was to climb over the tracks - always careful that no train was arriving from either side - and descend at the other side, walking faster when we realized that the other side had a security guard who most probably was there to prevent passers-by to enter the building site we were exiting. Onwards we went, finally finding areas with advertizement and inhabited buildings again, though the sketchy parts of town were apparently not over yet: when we were walking along this multi-lane semi-highway, a pack of 8 dogs, very straggly and very large, were running right at us. We decided to retreat carefully and cross the street, of course just in case. Once on the other side of the street, this car pulled over and two bulky, bald guys walked straight at us, but then decided to walk by in the last minute. Then we checked the map, crossed the street, and were in pretty Petersburg again! The hologram was working again. And we learned to avoid the grey areas of the map in the future. You know, just in case.

Russia Day

On Saturday, after Victory Day on the 9th of May and St. Petersburg City Day the first weekend of our arrival, we had the honor of witnessing another celebratory day. Really, I am under the impression that the Russians just need occasions to celebrate in the summer, and are very talented in finding them. But anyway. While on St. Petersburg Day the streets were packed with people, waiting even in the rain for parades to walk by and operas involving red giraffes (don't ask) to be performed, and my friend Leona arrived on Victory Day to see military parades strutting about (what greater way to arrive in Russia...), Russia Day only had a couple of half-hearted salespeople with Russia flags (including some featuring Putin and Medvedev though, funnily enough) and little to no celebratory spirit in the streets. Oh, people attended the concert at night, of course, but whether that was just for the concert or to celebrate the birthday of the new Russia is another question.
Why this lethargy? Have people just been overwhelmed in holidays to appreciate the greatest one any more? Or is there another underlying reason? When asking around, we were told that our friends definitely didn't celebrate Russia Day, also called Russian Independence Day. A glance back in history might explain why. "What are we celebrating?", one of them said. "The demise of the Soviet Union? Another failure in our history? And independence - from whom? The Ukraine?" Though obviously with a hint of sarcasm, maybe this one comment was enlightening to explain what happened. Russia Day was introduced to celebrate the new, smaller, but revived Russia. But whereas Victory Day made people excited, because they had something to be proud of and could remember their former glory, Russia Day might make them remember the harder parts of recent history, and awaken nostalgia instead of pride. It is interesting, how the next years will see Russia Day, for that might also show the general feeling in Russia better than any polling.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

First days of school

It is unbelievable that already nearly two weeks have passed of us being in St. Petersburg. While I have gotten used to the occasional drunk on the main shopping street, the Nevski boulevard, as well as the unfathomable Russian frown which is to maintain until you have a good reason to smile, our classes are still somewhat challenging. It's great to learn so much Russian vocab and grammar in just a couple of days, but it's really hard too, especially the part of 'memorize this page-long text with 50 new grammar rules until tomorrow and I'll ask you detailed questions about it!' We are doing an ok job so far, I believe. Well, I don't really have to make assumptions; the Russian teachers are some of the most direct I have ever met. After each round of questions, there comes a round of evaluation, reaching from "Student X has done his/her homework properly, but has troubles expressing it in actual Russian" to "Student Y doesn't understand or know anything at all". In pretty much these words. It's an extremely good motivational tool though; cuz the first time I was told that I made "many, many mistakes in my essay; a lot more than other students", I started working. For realz. You just don't want to be the student that "never understands everything". Believe me. Not with that Russian frown waiting for you.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


It is priceless to have real Russian friends to test things on and to know when you were fooled by your Russian teacher into behaving in a quite ridiculous manner. Yesterday, we went to the Russian Museum of Political History, where you can see Lenin's desk and the balcony from which he held his speeches. After listening to the (Russian) guide for 2 straight hours and getting about as much as we would've probably figured out without guide (but it was hilarious to see how excited he got... And how he called the end of Communism the 'Second Bourgeois Revolution'), we went to walk around one of the smaller recreational islands with our new-found friend Gleb (actually, a friend of mine was set up with him by her host mom. Another funny story for another time). Gleb now tried to speak Russian to us to make us practice, which was super nice of him, but obviously sometimes I didn't understand, so I said 'что-что?', which translates as 'what-what?', but which we were taught to use as 'Excuse me?' if you didn't get what the other person says. Well, Gleb burst out laughing and asked me: 'Did you just say what-what?' So apparently the 'excuse me' sense isn't that well known in Russia itself. And we have been saying what-what?? to all kinds of different people, including customs officers and the officials at our university. I start to understand why we have been treated like morons so much here. Because we sound like them.

P.S. Also, in our unit on home remedies, my Russian teacher swore on hot milk with honey and baking soda as a trusted Russian home remedy. And I tried it. It didn't really work. And Gleb had never heard of it either. So, apparently half of our Russian education is not to be relied on anymore. Uh-oh.