Spring in St. Petersburg 2018

David Bushhouse
Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University 2018

 

I fly home from St. Petersburg today! And while I have really missed America—the English language, the following of traffic laws, the common courtesy of wearing deodorant—I thought I would write about how America is unavoidable while abroad. While most Americans have never thought of traveling to Russia, many American brands have; from food to movies to clothing, American products are unavoidable in Russia.

 

American fast food dominates every food court and touristy street corner of downtown St. Petersburg.

 

 

There are plenty of Russian chains as well, but I thought it would be neat for you all to see what American logos look like in Russian; no matter how many times I see a familiar logo in Cyrillic, it always strikes me as a little odd.

Even if you have not learned the Cyrillic script, I bet you can guess which restaurant is in each picture.

 

 

 

 

One interesting fact: most fast food chains in Russia sell beer. Here you can see banner advert in a Burger King advertising a “besplatna vtopoy pivo,” a “free second beer.” At first I was taken aback whenever I, walking through a mall food court, would see people eating McDonalds with beers out on the table—something you would never see in America—but now I think I’ve grown accustomed. The Russian attitudes toward drinking, despite stereotypes, are much more accepting of casual drinking and much more critical of binge drinking than those in America.

 

But the influence of American culture on Russian culture goes further than fast food. I often stumble across English words in the strangest of places. For example, there is a thrift store near my apartment in the northwest region of St. Petersburg literally called “sekond khend,” a mere transliteration of “second-hand.” This is just down the street from a large desert-themed shopping center called “Grahnd Kanion,” a mere transliteration of “Grand Canyon.”

 

 

And then there’s movies. Around 4/5 of the movies screened in Russian theaters are from Hollywood—dubbed in Russian—and Russian teenagers are probably more obsessed with the Marvel Universe than American teenagers. Once I was walking down the street with Tanya, a Russian friend of mine, when suddenly she pulled me aside to say “I can’t wait for Deadpool II come out!” At right is a photo of the Russian advertisement she saw on the street.

 

I have had a tremendous time in Russia, and hope to return some day. In my semester I learned an unbelievable amount of language, tried all the traditional Russian foods, and made some unforgettable memories and even more unforgettable friends. If you’re thinking of studying abroad in Russia, and up for an adventure, I would really encourage you to go for it!

Spring in St. Petersburg 2018

David Bushhouse
Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University 2018

Only two weeks of my Russian study-abroad experience remain, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t missing home. I miss my family, my bed, and of course the rolling hills of Central Virginia. I miss the giant oaks and the fresh air and the rural night sky. Like any city, St. Petersburg is far from nature, covered in concrete, and shrouded in smog and light pollution (plenty of regular pollution too!).

Some animals have learned to tough it out in the city. Pigeons and seagulls are ubiquitous, and every night I fall asleep to the sound of stray cats fighting outside of my window. Some brave ducks appear every time a downpour floods a shallow field in the dvor, the central courtyard of the apartment complex. Even so, these slivers of nature are mostly sad: the pigeons are fat from the low nutrient bread diet that babushkas feed them, the seagulls are much the same (only meaner), and the ducks paddle through muddy water full of plastic bags and cigarette butts. At right you can see these ducks trying to eat actual garbage. Still, in my travels I have been surprised and delighted by a couple encounters with nature in St. Petersburg and abroad.

We’ll start abroad. Two weeks ago, I travelled to Helsinki for the weekend, and thoroughly enjoyed exploring the coast of the Finnish Gulf—Finski Zaliv in Russian—while touring the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The granite boulders lying in the cold, clean water led up to patches of stubby grasses and small trees and bushes capable of braving the Finnish winter. A variety of seabirds paddled through the shallows and perched on rocks to preen themselves. I even saw a swan doing a weird neck dance that looked very silly. After months in a big city, that afternoon I felt like weeks of heaviness and mundanity had been lifted. I felt refreshed.

Then, just last week, I discovered a park not far from my apartment complex. I live northwest of the city center, in a spalnaya raiyon—which means “sleeping district”—inhabited mostly by commuters and retirees. Sleeping districts make up most of the area of St. Petersburg, and they all look about the same: rows and rows of identical, soul-crushing soviet apartment buildings interspersed with grocery stores, bakeries, and shaverma stands, of course. Don’t get me wrong—after a while the brutalist architecture and industrial wasteland becomes almost charming. Just a few days ago some friends and I noted how an abandoned electrical substation next to the institute where we study, with its massive rusted machinery and otherworldly aura, makes us feel oddly at home whenever we see it.

But despite these charms, I was overjoyed when I discovered Sosnovka Park just a few blocks south of my apartment complex. At nearly 750 acres, the park is massive, and most of those acres are covered with birch forest and meandering trails that cut between wider gravel pathways. These trails (one can be seen at right) are perfect for working up a sweat and getting a little muddy. Small ponds sans the garbage dot the eastern border of the park, and in the forest I can hear the chirping of songbirds, the rustle of small rodents and hedgehogs in the dry leaves on the ground, and the drumming of an occasional woodpecker. Make no mistake—it isn’t Eden. Still, it means a lot to find little bits of nature in the middle of the concrete jungle.

Spring in the Czech Republic 2018

Nate Dracon
Charles University 2018

Hello again from Praha!

It’s been almost two months now since I left the states. Everything seems to be going well, and I have finally started to travel to places that are outside the Czech Republic.

St. Patrick’s Day is not a very big holiday in Europe. From what I have seen, the partying and drinking is an American construct. That weekend I decided to visit a friend in Salzburg, Austria. First thing I noticed was how cordial the people were, and more advanced the country was verses the Czech Republic. That being said, everything was much more expensive.

Zach Wiggin, Nate Dracon and Blake Martin

The week after that, Blake Martin and Zach Wiggin came to visit me since they were studying in Dublin, Ireland. For the first time, I went to see Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral. We saw the actual window where the third defenestration of Prague took place, which started the 30 Years War. I was able to show them around the city, and for a day trip, we went to Pilsen. The pride and joy of the Czech Republic is the invention of Pilsner and their award-winning beer, Pilsner Urquell. We toured the town, which like almost all European cities, has a large square with a cathedral in the middle. Pilsen is also home to the third largest synagogue in the world, Great Synagogue. We also toured the city’s massive underground, where people created pubs to avoid drinking laws in the 15th century.

This week is Easter, which is a much bigger deal in central Europe than in America. No, they do not believe in the Easter Bunny, but have much better traditions in my opinion. Prague, being a large city with western influences, does not participate in many of these traditions. Instead, the city sets up large Easter Markets for the weeks leading up to Easter. In villages, people walk around to their neighbors’ houses where the men receive shots, and the women collect chocolate Easter Eggs. Additionally, Easter Whips are created by weaving small twigs together. These whips, are used by men to tap women, to promote fertility during the whole next year.

My parents are coming this weekend, and I am excited to go to Dresden, Germany and Vienna, Austria with them.

Spring in St. Petersburg 2018

David Bushhouse
Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University 2018

Today was the first day I saw grass in Russia. Even though we’re halfway into March and celebrated the official start of spring two weeks ago, the daily temperatures here in St. Petersburg are in still the mid-twenties. Take it from me, everyone in Peter is eager to see when spring will actually arrive!

This spring is special because on Sunday, March 18th, The Russian Presidential Election will be held.

Election adverts are all over the place: bus stops, billboards, shop windows, the YouTube homepage, on the radio, and even text messages that the Russian government sent out to every single Russian cell phone. Just today I saw a flower stand covered with five identical posters advertising the election.

You can see some examples pictured at right. The billboard says Nasha Strana, Nash Prezident, Nash Vybor!, which means “Our Country, Our President, Our Choice!” The bus stop says Vybirayem Prezidenta—Vybirayem Budushee!, which means “We Choose the President—We Choose the Future!”

It may seem odd to Americans that the Russian government spends enormous amounts of money advertising the election, while the candidates hardly advertise at all. The reason we have the opposite arrangement is that Americans and Russians view elections in different ways. In America, everyone obsesses over presidential elections: they consume every news story, fill every personal conversation, and are unavoidably touchy subjects at Thanksgiving dinners. In Russia, things are quite different. Even though the election is just days away, no one is eagerly awaiting election results; everyone knows that Putin is going to win, and most people will not bother to vote.

It’s not the Russians are so disheartened by the Putin regime that they think voting is useless. In fact, most Russians want Putin to win, but the lack of competitive alternative candidates and the massive public support for Putin makes most people think that voting is a waste of time. One professor of mine told our class that “Why would I vote? I know Putin will win, of course, so I will stay at home.”

However, there are also many Russians who will deliberately boycott the elections on Sunday. These are supporters of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader and primary opponent of Vladimir Putin, who has been banned from running for president because of felony charges against him. Navalny supporters insist that the trumped-up charges against Navalny are politically motivated, and that the election is sure to be rigged. These supporters held large protests in over a hundred Russian cities in late January to call for an election boycott; they are also likely to hold reactionary protests after the election.

I will be in Moscow for the election, and am really looking forward to the experience. After that, I will be flying to Tbilisi, Georgia—where daily highs are in the mid-sixties—for my spring break.

Spring in the Czech Republic 2018

Nate Dracon
Charles University 2018

dobrý den from the city of Prague, Czech Republic!

I have been in the Czech Republic for almost a month now, and the differences between here and the U.S. are striking. Getting over wasn’t a problem, even for
a 6’4 student. I would just say that I am accustomed to never having enough leg
room. We first stopped for two days in London before taking a short flight to
the Czech Republic. The first thing that made me appreciate that I was in a very
foreign place was arriving at the airport and being unable to read anything
since it was all in Czech. From there, it was straight to the dorms, and the
next day I started my Czech language class. I never realized how good I had it
learning Spanish until I took on the Czech language which doesn’t use vowels.
During that two-week, 5 hours a day language class, I was able to use my spare
time to travel the Czech Republic. The first week, I went to Czechy Krumlov and
visited an ancient castle. The second week, I took a two day trip to Monrovia. I
had a great time on this trip as our group was able to visit Brno, have a
private dinner in a wine cellar dating back hundreds of years, and visited The
Battle of Austerlitz Memorial. My study abroad group is comprised of about 40
kids from all over the U.S., and we are all getting along reasonably well.
Classes at Charles University just started so they are pretty uneventful so far,
but there is so much that I have already learned from living in Prague that I
will try to break it up into categories!

History
Being a History major, I was excited to visit a city that has been virtually
untouched for almost 600 years. In fact, my school, Charles University, was founded in the 14th century. I never realized how young America was until I learned about the statues on the Charles Bridge. I was initially disappointed to learn that they are not original since they are made out of sandstone. Therefore, they need to be replaced every 300 years, and I realized that the current
statues might be older than America itself. The fact that the bridge has
replaced its statues multiple times since the 1300s is amazing to me.

Social Interactions
It was hard to imagine how much we take for granted in America until I visited a
country that was communist until the 1980s. Communism affected, and still
effects, the lifestyle and culture of the Czech people. It seems that the Czech
people have real trust issues with one another rooted in their fear of the
communist secret police. No one talks to one another, and no smiles are
exchanged in public. Any common business transactions, such as buying food, is
done with borderline rudeness from my perspective growing up in North and South
Carolina. Same can be said for the interaction between men and women. Prague is
truly a man’s world where women need to be careful about what they say and how
they dress, especially when it is late at night. It has been difficult for many
of the girls in our group to adjust to this since America is a very
forward-thinking compared to an eastern European city when it comes to
interaction between men and women.

Living in Prague
Prague is a beautiful city, just not particularly where I live, which is in a
large dormitory. That being said, I mostly buy my food at the grocery store
except for the burrito place I frequent called Burrito Loco. I have been going
there every day since I got here since it’s close to the gym I joined. I think
that I am their only American “regular”. On Wednesday, they actually smiled at
me and gave me a free brownie, so I must be making progress! My dorm is about a
15-minute commute by metro to city center. I live in an area of the city that
was built by the communist, so it’s just what you might imagine; dark, grey, and
everything looks the same. In fact, it’s so bland that our guide told us that
after the communist left, the city had to paint each building a different color
since kids could not tell the difference between them and would get lost trying
to get home after school.

Food
A great thing about food in the Czech Republic, as compared to the U.S., is that
everything is cheap. I eat three meals a day for under $10 each. Czech
food is good, but there is little variety. It mostly consists of some stew with
meat and dumplings. It is straightforward, and I got tired of it quickly.
Thankfully Prague has excellent international food, and as long as you stay away
from the tourist areas, the food is reasonably priced.

Being in Prague has been a great experience so far, and I look forward to
sharing more in the upcoming months.

Spring in St. Petersburg 2018

David Bushhouse
Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University 2018

I’ve been in St. Petersburg for less than a month, but have quickly noticed that шаверма, shaverma, is the most widespread and popular street-food in the city. In St. Petersburg, Shaverma stands are everywhere: next to every Metro Station, down nearly every alley, and in every clubbing district. Since shaverma stands are open 24 hours, it is the go-to drunk food for St. Petersburg locals, who call it ‘korm,’ which literally translates to “animal feed.” It’s unhealthy, always comes with a stomachache, and, as the locals say, will give you food poisoning every fifth time you eat it. But boy is it good.

Chicken, lamb, and goat is stacked onto a vertical spit and slowly grilled, creating a column of meat that is shaved then into smaller pieces. This method of cooking was originally developed in Ottoman Turkey in the 19th Century and quickly spread to the surrounding region, giving rise to the Turkish doner kebab, the Greek gyro, and the Arabic shawarma. Incidentally, the names of all these dishes reference the rotational grilling method—the most obvious being the Greek gyro (think gyroscope).

In shaverma, the shaved meat is served with tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and a kefir-based sauce (similar to tzatziki) in a large tortilla-like Caucasian flatbread called lavash. Russian shaverma was invented by Central Asian immigrants, and is both greasier and less spicy than its distant Arabic cousin. Shaverma is cheap too! For 150–200 rubles (~3–4 dollars), depending on the stand, you can get a giant meal-sized shaverma that would cost at least 8 dollars stateside.

Shaverma stands are often run by Central Asians like Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Kazakhs—the nearest shaverma stand to my dorm, shown in the picture, is run by a Tajik family. In Russia there is a good deal of racial discrimination against Central Asian immigrants, who can often only find work in low-skill sectors of the economy. However, in the same way that Chinese restaurants enabled Chinese families to enter the middle class in the face of racial discrimination in the United States, many Central Asian families in Russia have been able to enter the middle class by opening shaverma stands.

As I mentioned before, Russian shaverma does come with an uncomfortably high risk of food poisoning. In 2016, Moscow city officials threatened to ban the sale of shawarma, and physically removed a few stands, due to the high percentage of stands that failed safety standards. The public backlash against this “Shawarmageddon,” as newspapers called the crackdown, was massive, and shawarma stands in Moscow remain open for business despite the public safety concerns. The truth is that for most Russians shaverma is a guilty-pleasure food, and they simply do not care about the safety concerns; they love shaverma. And, speaking for myself and my fellow exchange students, Americans love shaverma too!

Studying, “Across the Pond” 2017/18

Jamie Agnew
LSE 2017/18

I returned to London on January 2nd, 2018. The London School of Economics’s calendar is quite different from Hampden-Sydney’s as well as other colleges in the United States. You take four classes for the entire year all of which have a final exam in April or May. The only exception to this rule is if you take any Economics classes: they also have a midterm exam in the first week of January. I am not very fond of this setup because, unlike Hampden-Sydney, you enter winter break knowing that you have an exam at the end of break. Nonetheless, my midterm exam was on January 4th, so I returned to London on the 2nd. The exam was quite tough, but I believe I did alright.
Since my exam, I have really tried to focus on school as much as possible. Last semester I traveled around Europe a lot, and it became hard to stay on top of school work. I told myself that I was going to spend the first month or so in London to make sure I get all my ducks in a row for the second semester. I am currently planning several weekend trips in later February, March, and spring break. We have a month off for spring break, which is unheard of in the United States, and I am trying to figure out my plans for that month. I might come home for a week or so, but I am definitely planning on playing golf in Scotland and traveling with a bunch of friends to Greece. Some of my other trips this semester will include Amsterdam, Rome, Barcelona, and Dublin for St. Patrick’s Day.
The study abroad program through the London School of Economics is quite unique because it is a year-long program. Most study abroad programs are a semester, which is great, but I am very happy that mine is a year-long. Not only does it allow me to find a good balance between staying in London versus traveling around Europe so that I am not constantly traveling every weekend, but it also has allowed me to meet so many different people. In the first semester, I traveled around Europe with my buddies and their friends, but they were only here for a semester. This semester, I will travel around with a new set of buddies and friends, which I am really looking forward to. Even in London I have met so many new friends just in the first three weeks because UCL and Kings College have one-semester study abroad programs. Nonetheless, I am having a blast over here, and I can’t wait to see what this semester entails.

“Bon Voyage” 2017

Semester at Sea Experience
First and foremost, I would like to say Thank You for providing me funding that allowed me to participate in the Semester at Sea Program. With the scholarship, I was able to obtain my passport, visas, and travel expenses. Semester at Sea was an extraordinary experience to say the least. Even though I was only in different countries for an average of 4 days, the experience I had is invaluable. From being able to visit the Taj Mahal to hiking the Great Wall and from trying different foods to, most importantly, talking to the local people, I am extremely grateful. Also, I am extremely grateful to explore my roots in Africa; I visited Slave Castles in Ghana and I visited Nelson Mandela’s Jail Cell in South Africa. Even though this was a dark road to travel, it was imperative that I explored all of my history, and these experiences have helped me grow in my own culture. Even though I traveled to 11 different countries, I learned that there are two similarities that are the same in all of them. One is that everything is “Same, Same But Different;” the other I learned from a Trader in Ghana named Stephen who said, “No matter where you go there will be good people and bad people.” These two things taught me that people are one in the same everywhere; however, they just may have different ideals and ways of doing their daily routines. I have learned to be more understanding and try learning other peoples’ ways instead of enforcing my own, and I learned how privileged I am, and I want to give back to everyone.
God Bless

To Whom This May Concern:

I, Mr. Shemar Mandell Blakeney, would like to truly say thank you for providing me funding for the Semester at Sea Program. This program was invaluable, and to be able to participate in it is amazing. By God’s Grace, I was able to attend. Being an African American male from a single parent household, I do not even know how blessed, humble, and privileged I am to have been able to participate in the Semester at Sea program. I am truly grateful and thankful for the scholarship you granted me.

Blessings and Love,
Mr. Shemar Mandell Blakeney