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.