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Russia Is Excellent

by Isabel Meigs

All is well here on Zheleznovodskaya Street. The giant rectangular hole in the driveway has been partially filled in, and someone ripped down the caution tape, making leaving the apartment easier. There was a beet and potato salad for dinner tonight, and my printmaking professor was wearing his t-shirt with the erotic embroidery again today. He even showed us the book the original image is from – it’s called “sex in the life of men.” The temperature is fluctuating around 0 °C, and the sky is producing a mix of snow and rain.

I don’t know what I can say that won’t be either playing into stereotypes of Russia or purposefully trying to disillusion you of whatever ideas you have of this massive frozen country.

I suppose I should start by saying that Russia is excellent. St. Petersburg is a beautiful, interesting city filled with kind, interesting people who really don’t smile very often. I love what I’ve seen of the countryside around the city, and even the food has its moments (borsch, all the dairy products). There are a lot of smokestacks, but you really come to appreciate their own particular aesthetic appeal.

Most things are surprisingly just the same here: public transit workers are rarely in a good mood, everyone my own age is way hipper than me, and the coffee is all overpriced. The only real surprises have been that the seagulls are very small and cute (not quite so haggard as American seagulls), my nails have grown much stronger (possibly from heavy metal in the drinking water), and the babies all wear hats. Perhaps the most surprising thing for me was that there are a lot of elderly women wearing headscarves and they are called “babushkas” in regular vernacular.

What I do in Russia – mostly, I go to class. I take about 12 hours of Russian language classes a week, in addition to a printmaking class and a literature class. Other than that, I tutor little kids in English, and I ride around on aboveground transport. I don’t have Internet in my room, so I read a lot of turn-of-the-century Americana.

I sit in the kitchen and listen to my host mother deliver speeches. One time, right before I went to Kiev for a week, she explained the state of Ukrainian-Russian political tensions with an extended metaphor about the global distribution of honey. I only caught about half of it, but I think I understood that Russia only has enough honey for itself.

Right, the political situation – the first anti-American sentiments I’ve heard were from an old man at the bus stop the other day. He told me that everyone in Russia is good, while there are definitely evil people in America. I also met a Bulgarian man who told me, since he’s not ethnically Russian, he can say that he thinks Obama is a “strong president.”

I’ve been here for almost six months, but I only have a month and a half left. I haven’t been to every single museum yet, and I probably won’t make it to all of them, a regret I’m sure will haunt me for the rest of my life. However, I have spent a lot of time admiring all the birch trees and drinking kefir, so my time has not been completely wasted.

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