To all and sunder—I made it! After sweating my kokhony off (use your vivid imaginations) at a non air-conditioned Bard orientation in upstate New York, we got this show on the road.
One transatlantic flight and one semiconscious trip to the hotel later, I finally felt I could say that I had arrived, and set down my bags on the floor of my “business class” hotel room. The motto printed on my welcome sheet in garbled English reads: “We don’t aspire to be the first, but won’t let anyone to be better than we are.”
The business class aesthetic was completed by the fact that the would-be courtyard area of the hotel also served as a Russian Federation military base. My view thus not only includes the tops of many beautiful, 18th-century pastel-colored buildings and the occasional Russian Orthodox church spire, but is dominated by an armored vehicle the size of a small plane. A vehicle no more than eight inches away. Welcome to St. Petersburg!
I thought the worst of the travel requirements to Russia was already out of the way, but I had counted my proverbial chickens far too early. There was yet one more chapter in the never-ending nightmare of international visa applications.
In addition to the two HIV tests stateside, with which I grudgingly complied (I am not a needle person), another one awaited us upon arrival.
In a wise move, the program coordinators struck when we were still in a post-lunch coma/post-arrival shellshock. They led us to the “Euromed: American Style Medicine!” clinic like a group of senseless cattle headed for the slaughterhouse.
HIV test number three unfortunately caused me to revert back to my old ways of dealing with pointy objects: fainting (middle school or earlier, I swear).
Luckily, Russian nurses are not only quick of mind but quick to employ a shockingly powerful backhand or three, as well as an exceedingly generous dose of smelling salts. With help from my savior, clad in starched whites with the hat to match, I survived the bloody ritual and just barely retained consciousness the whole way through.
Stumbling out of the clinic with Botticellian red cheeks (this devushka really knew how to make it sting) and head swirling, I bumbled my way back to the hotel. I also passed my first police questioning along the way, an occurrence that will, I hope, become a rarity as I “go native” over the next few months.
Exhausted from the day’s proceedings, I melted onto my bed after setting my trusty watch alarm for 18:30 (time is expressed on the 24-hour clock), plenty of time for the 19:00 dinner meeting.Naturally, I overslept, and dinner with the group had come and gone. Undeterred, I set out with a fellow oversleeper, Noah, to find some rations and take the banks of the Neva by storm.
How foolish of me to think that I could do something as simple as grab some grub at a grocery store without appearing totally out of place. It should be noted that I barely made it out of the store at all. I did not have exact change, and in St. Petersburg this is a cardinal sin.
It should also be noted that “the customer is always right” is both unheard of and downright laughable here. If the clerk wants to smoke and gossip with her friend on the phone for 15 minutes, you are damn well going to wait for her (and I did). While we’re at it, I also committed cultural coinage faux pas number two by directly handing my rubles to the all-important devushka at the check-out counter, instead of placing it in the little glass dish on the countertop.
Fortunately for me (fortunately because the experience was so traumatizing that I can say with certainty I’ll never repeat my folly), she refused to take the money and only glowered impatiently. She then made indecipherable motions towards the transparent dish, which I had figured for some bizarre magnifying lens intended for the viewing of cigarette packs, based on its perch above their glass case.
After extensive rumination and some Holmesian deduction, I hesitantly dropped the money in its intended location, from which it was picked up, deposited in the register, and my deserved change arduously withdrawn and placed back into the dish. As I left sheepishly, I received a glare that would have put Medusa to shame. Lesson learned.
Luckily we are still in late summer here, and Noah and I were able to make good use of the waning Belye Nochi (White Nights)—being far north in the summer means lots of sun—by munching on pirozhi and strolling around a considerable amount of the Admireltsky Island waterfront until the sun began its languid descent into the Gulf of Finland at about 23:00.
Which left me back where I began, enjoying the comforts of a Russian hotel, punctuating my writing with an occasional glance out the window at the rear wheel of a no-nonsense war vehicle poised gracefully to my left, as only a Russian troop transport can.
With that picture fresh in your minds, I look forward to the coming weeks, to write again when time allows. Bud’te Zdorovy, everyone.
William Howe is a CC senior. He is a political science major.