Tag Archives: class

Just a typical day

The Smolny Cathedral stands behind our school building.

The Smolny Cathedral stands behind our school building.

In a place where darkness does not come until nearly midnight, the beeping of my watch always wakes me far too early.

As 7:00 flashes on the face of my Timex, I roll over and hastily reset the alarm to 7:10, an improvised snooze button.

7:10 finds me rolling out of bed and plodding across the brown linoleum fake-tiled floors into the shower.

Water pressure is not a concern; Russia does not yet know the dubious pleasure of low flow. Water temperature is another matter. The water cascading out of the showerhead is easily set to scalding (and I do mean scalding, much hotter than any American shower), or freezing—Gulf of Finland cold. A comfortable temperature requires extraordinary finesse, difficult before the morning cup of black caffeine.

And fortunately, that dark boost comes soon enough. Russia lacks a strong black coffee tradition, so my morning drink has become Princess Noori High Grown Black Tea (25 bags for 20 rubles at Paterson, your local surly supermarket). Princess Noori is followed by an equally exotic treat—a banana, bought not from Paterson, where the produce is neither fresh nor appealing, but from the wealthy Russian grocery store, the one with food from everywhere except Russia itself.

When bananas-нет, it’s cheese and crackers for me. Paterson carries one brand of crackers; they come in a pink plastic pouch that loudly proclaims Крекер (Cracker) in bold type across the front. They’re not particularly good and they’re not particularly bad. Wheat Thins they are not.

Food eaten, it’s time to catch the bus to school. The coach bus, with pleasantly upholstered seats and white window shades that do little to block the glare of the morning sun as I try to steal some last minutes of shut eye, leaves at 8:30 each morning. Not 8:31. Not 8:30:05. 8:30.

The ride, a distance of no more than 10 miles, takes at least an hour in the vicious St. Petersburg traffic. The bus rarely makes it out of first gear, particularly in the пропка (propka – traffic jam) trying to cross the Leytenanta Shmidta Bridge.

Fortunately, the route wends along the Neva and through much of the historic city, past St. Isaac’s massive Cathedral, near the Bolshevik’s first battleship, the Aurora (framed now by billboards for beer and mobile phones), ending at the Smolny Cathedral, the centerpiece of the Smolny Institute of Saint Petersburg State University.

Incidentally, the beautiful Carolina blue cathedral is a major attraction (Never thought I’d use beautiful and Carolina blue in the same sentence). Walking to classes, we always pass busloads of camera-touting tourists, snapping photos of the big church, just as I’m used to at the Duke Chapel.

Once inside, we make our way down the wooden hallway to room 109, a narrow, high-ceilinged classroom with a large windows looking out on trees, a road, and beyond that, the Neva River.

Each day in that room, there are two classes taught by two professors. Each—literature, grammar, speaking, film, media, culture (pick two)—is an hour-and-a-half long. The names of the courses don’t really matter. They’re all stuffed with Russian grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation lessons, whatever the title.

Each class tries my ability to sit still and focus, despite the fact that every piece of Russian I pick up is immediately useful, despite the tiny seven-person class, despite the skill of our professors, despite my interest in the material.

1:00 p.m.—the time when words learned in literature get used to buy fast food blini at Teremok—is always welcome when it comes.


Drink, Drank, Drunk

The verb drink is irregular in both English and Russian. In class today, we learned how to conjugate it. We also got a few Russian drinking tips, tailored to an American audience:

  1. Russians drink vodka like Italians drink espresso. Be careful!
  2. Russians drink their vodka straight. And quickly. Be careful!
  3. It’s important to have a big meal before drinking a lot of vodka. Be careful!
  4. If you don’t have time to eat a big meal, at least eat a piece of buttered bread. Be careful!

Alcohol in Russia is a bit more accessible than it is in America. There is a sign at the grocery story saying that it is forbidden to buy cigarettes if you are under 18. There is no such sign for alcohol.

And Russian kids appear to enjoy the relaxed rules. Groups of teenagers, probably no older than 16, gather on sidewalks, drinking from big cans of Nevskoe Ice, smoking and killing time. Public (and underage) drinking is technically illegal, but I haven’t seen the St. Petersburg police give anyone any trouble.

Kids aren’t the only ones who drink in public, though. Grown men often walk in the streets, a cool Baltika 7 (or again, Nevskoe Ice – It’s apparently pretty popular) in hand. Sadly, I haven’t taken part in this Russian tradition—quite frankly, the Militsia, as the leather-jacketed police are called, scare me more than a bit.

But there are plenty of options for drinking beyond the street corner.

Every restaurant, pizza place, fast food joint, and coffee shop has an alcohol selection bigger than some American liquor stores. You can get a cheap shot of Ruski Standard vodka or a several thousand ruble bottle of wine with whatever food happens to be available at your chosen dining establishment.

The alcohol selection at the corner grocery store is even more mind-boggling. There’s a full aisle of hard liquor, another of wine, and another of beer. There is also a locked cabinet for the really expensive stuff, and beer fridges placed strategically throughout the store for those who get thirsty while shopping.