By Robert Collins
Our waitress set down the bill with a slight smirk painted across her sharp face, “Спасибо за ваше посещение. Вот здесь ваш счёт. [Thanks for your visit. Here is your check.].” She had a sort of unhappy look in her eyes, a look that I had seen before while standing in line at the Colorado Department of Motor Vehicles. Her dark hair had small strands of white poking through and even though she was beautiful, her age had begun to creep out from between the wrinkles of frowns past. This woman is responsible for one of my most vivid memories during my semester abroad in Russia.
It was my birthday, and my last day in Moscow. After a full day spent at the Memorial Museum of Cosmonautics we headed to ВДНХ (Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy). The place is a colossal graveyard of Soviet memorials. Nestled between an old Vostok rocket and a Tupolev-154 jet was the small Shashlik-kebab restaurant, merely called: “Shashlik.”
My two American friends and I were famished and freezing, and Shashlik never sounded better. Shashlik is meat on a stick, doctored with sauces, and is usually a pretty cheap lunch — but this time was an exception. My heart dropped as I read the bill: 4,832 rubles, roughly 150 dollars. We did not read on the menu that items would be charged by weight, quantity and “sum,” whatever that meant. Nonetheless, there was nothing that we could do, not only because we were Americans speaking Russian. To attempt to form an intelligent argument against the injustice would take… well, it would take a while, but we also had to catch a train back to St. Petersburg in just two hours.
Even now, I wince at the thought of the experience of emptying out all the rubles from my wallet. We shoved the very last contents of our wallets into the bill booklet bitterly and paid the good lady for our lunch of skewered meat. She knew full well what she was doing: Moscow is, after all, a city run by money, and taking advantage of tourists is a practice exercised even in America. In a way, this was a rite of passage for us Americans. As we walked out of the tiny restaurant, feeling beat down and defeated, my friends and I first cursed the experience but eventually our words disintegrated into laughter. There are always things that can happen when adapting to a new place.
For some reason, this experience didn’t sour me on Moscow or Russia in general. For my time abroad, I decided to go to a country that had fascinated me but also scared me for my entire life. When I told people I was going to Russia, such as my grandpa, they looked at me like I was a madman and asked (always with the same intonation), “Why RU-ssia?” (putting emphasis on the “RU,” as if doing so would allow me to see the blasphemic association the country had always had in their minds). Much of the reason that I chose to go to Russia was because it was different and being there seemed like it would be a challenge. I wanted to change my life.
I always like to tell people who asked me whether I enjoyed my study abroad experience a story that happened one day after a long day of school, not even after a full week of being in the country. I walked down the canal Fontanka towards my host family’s apartment. It was about 5 p.m., and the Russian winter sun was setting.
The most beautiful oranges and reds seeped through the cold city smog as the sun nestled itself down far, far away at the canal’s end. I decided I needed to get some bottled water at a store not too far away. I walked across the canal and headed towards Sennaya Square. It was a store that my host mother, Maria Petrovna, had pointed out to me the day before. It was simple enough; I went in, picked out some items, conversed in Russian with the cashier, paid and then left. As I walked back across the canal, I thought about the last few days. The long hours of orientation, sightseeing and trying to get my bearings straight in a city of 10 million people made my head spin.
Those first few days were punctuated with moments of disbelief in the realization of where I was. I could be walking down the street and then the shock and excitement would hit me like a bus as I read a store sign or heard strangers excitedly chattering. Time and time again, I reminded myself: “I’m in Russia.” And time and time again the thrill of the challenge of living in a new place and adapting to survive would rush back in, and despite the -10 degree Fahrenheit weather, there would be a noticeable spring in my step.
This is a journal entry from my first night with my host family:
“I have never quite experienced anything like what I’ve seen here in the last three days. So many monuments, churches, landmarks, people… nothing could have truly prepared me for all this. My head is spinning in Cyrillic and vocab, none of it seems to make sense even with the three semesters I have taken of Russian language.” (2/4/2012)
And nothing really could have prepared me for this experience: no textbook, novel, assignment or program handbook. There are just some lessons that cannot be learned in a classroom. All these thoughts rushed through my head as I walked back across the bridge to my apartment. While the sun was setting I realized it was the first time since before I started college that I felt perfectly okay with who I was, where I was and what I was doing. College can be a rough time and finding yourself on a campus of 28,000-plus students can often make you feel lost and like nothing but a number. But there on that bridge after buying a bottle of water, I felt a great deal of confidence in what I was doing for the first time in a very long time.
I was investigating this strange, exciting and enormous place that I had only heard about, learning a challenging language and applying it daily and I was doing all this simply because I had wanted to do it. Going to Russia was maybe the first thing in all my life that I had done entirely out of my own motivation. It was the first time that I had ever left everything behind that I had known or loved. When I left, I knew that I never wanted to be the same again. I chose to study abroad to change my world perspective and to challenge myself in a way that never would have been possible in the cozy classroom environment of my home university. My life wasn’t always glamorous in Russia, but for the first time, that was all right and because of that I treasured every moment of it even more.
There were more ordinary moments like watching the sunset on the bridge or when I went to school on the metro: sleepy-eyed passengers spilled out by the hundreds and then shuffled slowly toward the escalators that take five minutes to get above ground.
There were the incredible moments like seeing Red Square for the first time — something I had always only dreamed about from magazine articles or old Soviet newsreels.
There were the absurd moments such as a city-wide scavenger hunt designed by my friend Katya as my birthday present. It ended in the apartment of Kolya Vasin, a man who loved the Beatles so much that he had converted his entire apartment into a museum of Beatles memorabilia in order to ultimately build the “Temple of Peace Love and Music:” a shrine dedicated to the memory of John Lennon.
And, as I’ve already mentioned, there were the miserable moments like run-ins with scary Russian bouncers or getting swindled out of money in the Shashlik joint. These experiences made my time abroad all the more authentic and made my bonds with the friends I made life lasting. The most memorable moments occurred while having the realization that I was “not in Kansas anymore.” I believe that in order to expand a worldly perspective, you must have all the miserable, absurd and brilliant moments. Once your global perspective has expanded, I think it is impossible to go back to the way things were before. Never again will my life be the same, not just because of the things that happened to me, or the places that I went, but rather by the renewed confidence in my own abilities and aspirations.
Every day was a test of my abilities to handle and adapt to unique situations, something Russia is so well known for. So to conclude, I will quote writer/actor Henry Rollins:
“I beg young people to travel. If you don’t have a passport, get one. Take a summer, get a backpack and go to Delhi, go to Saigon, go to Bangkok, go to Kenya. Have your mind blown. Eat interesting food. Dig some interesting people. Have an adventure. Be careful. Come back and you’re going to see your country differently, you’re going to see your president differently, no matter who it is. Music, culture, food, water… And so there are lessons that you can’t get out of a book that are waiting for you at the other end of that flight…”
I encourage everyone to go abroad, get out of their comfort zones, learn new languages and challenge themselves. The more unique the place, the more rewarding it will be. Going abroad will not only change the way you see the world when you immediately return but for years and years to come.
Robert Collins is a senior psychology major and Russian studies major at CU-Boulder. He recently returned from studying abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia. While there, he studied at St. Petersburg State University, worked as an English teacher and lived with a host family. Robert also is a recipient of the Gilman Scholarship which gives students opportunities for international education in non-traditional study abroad locations. Since returning, he has been talking to various student groups and organizations about his experiences abroad and the value of international education. When he is not thinking about Russian school, he often is playing upright bass in a bluegrass band or learning to play Russian songs on his ukulele. He hopes to return to Russia someday soon and ultimately work a job involved with the country or international education.