Monday, May 09, 2011

Return to St. Petersburg

I feel like I could burst into tears at any moment. Arriving in St. Petersburg for the second time has been one of the worst experiences of my life.  

The three-hour train ride from Helsinki to St. Pete was okay, but it was all downhill from there. A driver from the university was supposed to pick me up at a friends house where I was keeping my luggage. He finally arrived, but said not a word during the entire 30-minute drive across town.  My efforts to make conversation were met with silence.  

We parked in front of a few high rises and dragged my suitcases over a mud path covered with wooden planks. Walking up to the kiosk adjacent to a ten-foot high barred fence with giant turnstile gate, my driver, who apparently works for the university, silently left me and approached the counter.  He presented some papers and eventually I was let in.  Inside the fenced area are a number of buildings surrounding a grassy quad. I was led into one of them and right inside the door the driver put down my suitcase, handed some papers to the lady at the desk, and shoved a xeroxed copy of a map in my direction as he turned and headed for the door.  I started after him and began to say, "Wait, I don't know where I'm going or even where I am. You have to show me where I live."  He kept walking away from me but flung his left arm out, pointing to the desk -- obviously suggesting that I should direct my inquiries to the women there.  And without a word he was gone.  

My room is the corner right on the bottom floor
-- just to the right of that tree trunk
I stood there looking at the door swung shut behind him for almost thirty seconds, frozen in place.  How much of a heart does it take to show a little compassion for a young woman traveling alone in a foreign country?  Perhaps a word or two of explanation, or maybe having introduced me to the ladies in charge of the dorm would have been more appropriate than his quick getaway. 

The library/administrative building where I was
sent to get an ID card

What happened next is almost astounding.  I was sent to stow my luggage in my new room and then returned to the lobby, at which point I was told to follow a cute little Asian girl to some other building to get my electronic ID card that will let me into my building. I was a little surprised when her face looked just as bewildered as mine while the dorm lady was giving instructions in Russian, and I was even more surprised when I started talking to her and realized she had only arrived 5 days ago herself. They're sending a Chinese exchange student to help me obtain my ID card?

I expected that my experience studying in Russia would differ from my lifestyle in the protective ring of the Consulate and diplomatic circle.  I did not, however, expect my experience to be this different.  I feel like I was living in a superficial Russia before - one filled with nights at the ballet, an apartment downtown, and a comfortable, English-dominated work environment; now I've been thrust into a harsh reality. The student dorm I'm living in appears to have about 10 floors.  I'm on the bottom floor, thankfully.  My room is right across from the showers and toilets, and it has a lovely view right out onto the quad. Perfect for people watching and indoor sunbathing.  The window panes are new and a 4'x2' window swings wide open quite easily.  The view and window are definitely the high points.

I chose the bed on the left by
the window
I walked into a dusty, musty-smelling room with peeling wall paper in an interesting pattern and a desk that appears to be on the brink of collapsing.  The permanent shelving unit in the corner -- not worthy of being called an armoir nor a closet -- has a unit for hanging clothes, but has neither a bar nor hangers. There are five suspicious looking softball-sized holes in the wall and two more the size of golf balls in the ceiling. I found a new-looking minifridge in a little cubby next to the door; it even still has the cardboard and plastic wrapping on the drawers inside. Unfortunately it's not turned on and I haven't yet the vocabulary to ask around. Looking up the necessary words is on my to-do list.

Also on my to-do (soon) list is "buy toilet paper and hand sanitizer."  There are four toilets in the bathroom across the hall, none of which are equipped with toilet paper.  In fact, there aren't even toilet paper holders. Apparently it's BYOTP.** And, in typical Russian fashion, only two of the four have toilet seats.  On the way out of the restrooms this afternoon I ran smack into a guy on his way in....apparently they're co-ed bathrooms (and shower rooms?).  Hand sanitizer is on the list because there were no sinks to be found in the vicinity.
three beds -- one desk -- two chairs

What else can I tell you about these accommodations? Oh yes, the "cafe." I hadn't had much to eat all day, so when I arrived around 5pm and dropped my stuff in my room, I started looking around for dinner.  The cafe adjacent to the lobby of my dorm has "10-22" posted as the hours, and through the glass door I could see a 45-inch HD flat-screen TV mounted on a fuchsia and lime green painted wall blasting Russian MTV, so I decided to give it a try.  

In addition to the cafe, there appears to be a place where we
can prepare food.  Unfortunately, no pots/pans/utensils in sight.
There appeared to be a mixture of cold and hot dishes, so I grabbed a mini Greek side-salad (which turned out to be made with the strangest-tasting feta cheese I've ever had) and spotted a dish that looked exactly like fried rice.  "Perfect," I thought, "This will be no problem since the word for rice is "riz" and since this is the only rice dish there will be no chance for misunderstanding."  You can imagine my surprise when my request for rice was answered by the serving lady in a haughty voice: "We don't have rice."  
"Ummm...what's that?" I started to say, pointing at the rice.
The girl in line behind me was kind enough to step in.  "That's plov," she said to me.  And then to the lady: "She'd like plov."  
Maybe it's because I was already in a sad mood and had had enough of Russia's lame excuse for customer service for one day (in fact, in Russia it's more like "customer bullying"), but I couldn't help but think how uncalled-for that lady's reaction was.  There's only one dish with rice in it on the menu -- if someone asks for rice, isn't it pretty obvious? 

The plov was a little greasy, but overall not bad.  And I paid a total of 140 rubles -- about $4.20 for a huge plate of rice and chicken, a side salad, and a bottle of water.  The water alone usually costs 90 rubles ($3.00!) in any restaurant, so I feel like my dorm cafe is definitely a bargain.  

**(For my non-American friends: "BYOB" is a common acronym for "bring your own beer," often used when inviting friends to an informal get-together, picnic, barbecue, etc.  "BYOTP," then, would be "bring your own toilet paper.")


Next day update:
I fell asleep last night at 7pm and didn't even move until 10am this morning.  I think I was subconsciously hiding from the world.  But when I woke up I had a chance to re-evaluate my situation, and decided that I would survive.  I would even be happy. I realized that I do speak a lot of Russian and can find everything I need.  I even started a conversation with some guy in the co-ed bathrooms.
"Our Student Housing: 45 Years"
 When I found wifi this afternoon and called my mom using Skype, I finally had a chance to vent and didn't realize how much I needed to talk to someone. To just let someone know everything I've experienced and that I'm okay.  And it was interesting what came out; her reaction to what I told her helps me realize what I'm really feeling. She helped me realize and remember that no matter how well-traveled one is, it's always a shock to go from the first-world to the near third-world in just a few hours.  Stepping onto the train in Helsinki and out of a beat up, barely running van from the '70s into the public student housing complex, I feel like I've gone back in time about 40 years.  That impression was confirmed this morning when I read a huge banner on the building next to mine: "Celebrating 45 Years of Student Housing."  The before and after pictures of the complex look exactly the same.  Apparently the place has been in operation for 45 years with no renovations.
View of the quad

Regardless, I've decided to be happy.  I started a conversation with some friendly looking people in the cafe I'm currently writing in, and we set a date to have a picnic this weekend in a nearby park, and they invited me to one of their dachas -- summer cottages -- next weekend for a big get together.  Russian customer service may be the worst in the world, but the people I've met in social environments are consistently genuine, kind, and very welcoming. I feel blessed to be healthy and safe!  Today (Monday) was a holiday -- Victory Day (Russia's celebration of their victory over Germany in WWII) -- so tomorrow morning I'll go to register my existence with the local government and then register for classes at the university.  I'm excited for my first day of school!

I must also quickly add a note about Russian administrators' obsession with laminated signs.  There is a sign taped to almost every surface imaginable: doors are a given; bathrooms; showers; information boards; windows; desks; cars; poles; etc. The computer in the office where I got my ID card this morning even had a sign -- in bold, capital letters -- taped to the back of it: "DO NOT STAND IN FRONT OF THE DESK WHERE YOU CAN SEE WHAT'S GOING ON. TAKE A SEAT." It even had an arrow pointing to a chair in front of the desk.  I wasn't quite brazen enough to take a picture of that sign.  But here are some others...
In the kitchen...

Add caption

The "Information" board in my hall.


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