We are here, we are learning on our feet, and we have, in the past week, survived quite a bit. From fashion emergencies, through public transportation adventures, all the way to unreliable weather reports and border patrol, the country that seemed so faraway and off-limits is finally at our fingertips.
There are, of course, tons of details and daily events that I could describe, but I’m writing this post about the experiences we had today. Although they weren’t the epitome of excitement, it was a good reminder that our stay in St. Petersburg is academic in nature, but that academics are a lot more than sitting in a classroom.
This morning started off as usual. Caitlin and I were called to breakfast by our host mom at a quarter to 9, and we shuffled in, half-dressed, to a plate of cheesy-toast, boiled eggs, and, of course, black tea. I know already, even after a week that the taste of black tea will from now until the end of my life remind me of my time in St. Petersburg. We ate fairly quickly, finished getting dressed, and left the house just in time to wait at the bus stop for a full ten minutes before our “reliable” bus number 7 came to pick us up.
We arrived just in time for our Russian language class to begin. By some magical twist of fortune, the eight members of our program are all in the same language class, despite our varied levels of language skills. We have a great deal of fun between our conversation and phonetics classes, helping each other describe to our professors what life in America is like (the dining hall at St. Petersburg State is only open for lunch, and the menu is entirely a la carte, so the block-100 meal plan makes no sense at all), and grappling for Russian words that we thought we knew (unfortunately, Irina didn’t hammer into our heads the difference between “изучать” and “учиться” as hard as she thought she did).
After our hour-long lunch break at the dining hall, we returned to our practically private class-room, in a section of the University called the Labyrinth (of course, they want the international students to feel as lost as possible), to have our first lecture with Jes, William and Mary’s Resident Filmmaker. Jes climbed on board our study abroad program to make our research projects more exciting than a simple ten-page paper, by helping us to create short-subject documentaries about various sites of memory in St. Petersburg. In preparation for such a feat, we made two-minute documentaries back on William and Mary’s campus, but now, in St. Petersburg, we are up against not only the massive city, a significant language barrier, and a five-week time limit.
Thankfully, we have a lot of help accomplishing all that we want to accomplish here in St. Petersburg, and that’s what today’s lecture was about. Aside from the eight students and two professors in the classroom, we had four visitors today; four students from the Journalism faculty of St. Petersburg State University. These four students, our “fixers,” are here to help us navigate the city and establish more significant contacts associated with our sites of memory.
After we nervously introduced ourselves to each other as a group and Jes made some opening remarks, we broke off into our individual groups to discuss the early logistics of our adventures. Suddenly, my research project about the Art Center at Pushkinskaya-10 felt so much more real. Our fixer, Anastasia, is a second year student at the University, and, at 18 years old, seems to want nothing more than to be on the screen as a television journalist, but is also knowledgeable about photography. To put icing on the cake, she also worked as a St. Petersburg tour guide for a year, so she knows not only about the city’s history, but also about the differences between tourists and locals. She gave us a good idea about where we should head with our projects, and we’ve already made plans to go on an outing this Friday to both Caitlin’s site, Mikhail Chemiakin’s Monument to Peter the Great in the Peter and Paul Fortress, and to mine, the Art Center.
“Freedom is Space for the Spirit” seems to capture the aim of my research project with accuracy. No surprise that I found these banners flying at Pushkinskaya-10, when I first visited the site on Sunday.
I feel like we really, as researchers, have arrived in Petersburg with many preconceived notions about the status of our sites. Despite all of our pre-research, the conceptions of these sites of memory are really not accessible through English-language tourist guides. Who would have thought? With the help of our new Russian friends, I think we’ll be able to achieve a new level of understanding of what our site of memory means to St. Petersburg as a diverse community, spanning generations and ideologies. There is so much more for us to learn and do, that five weeks hardly seems like enough. Wish us luck!
This entry was also posted to my personal blog. To read more about my adventures, and other non-assigned blog posts, visit me there!