Meet U.S. Department of State sponsored Gilman Scholarship recipient Jose Gomez. Jose served as a Gilman Global Experience Correspondent during summer of 2013 studying abroad in Sarajevo, Bosnia. The Gilman Global Experience allows Gilman Scholarship recipients the opportunity to record videos around academic and cultural themes to share with other students interested in studying or interning abroad in the featured country.
When I was in Russia, I would pass through the Горьковская metro station at least twice each day. The Petersburg metro fascinated me. Watching the crowds rush into and out of the station offered me a constant case study of Russia’s diverse and vibrant culture. Now that I am back in the US, I find myself emerged in sudden spouts of nostalgia over this specific metro station. But I’ve realized that what I really miss is the energy it has come to represent for me after all of those hours of people watching. I miss the buzz of Russian language. I miss the purposeful pace of life.
This past summer marked the first time I’ve lived abroad for an extended period of time and I recognize now that, for this very reason, St. Petersburg will always be attached with a special significance for me. I feel as if I will always miss the city and will hopefully return one day to relive parts of this summer, to once again relish in the beauty of Russia’s “cultural capital.”
Since my return to the US, I’ve spent a lot of my time catching up with friends and attempting to describe my experience abroad. But I don’t think I’ll ever really be able to do the city justice through words. This experience abroad will remain a series of convoluted memories and feelings that I hold for myself. Surely I’ll be able to reminisce with others from my program about the difficulties and absurdities of our Russian summer, but, ultimately, we were each affected by this experience differently and, moreover, in deeply personal ways. I’m encouraging all of my friends to consider studying or working or just living abroad, because I really do believe that the experience inherently alters one’s perspective and perceptions.
I’m glad to be back in the US because it signifies the completion of my journey and the beginning of new opportunities, but, given the chance, I don’t think I could refuse a flight to Petersburg anytime soon.
As the end of my program approaches, I have begun to feel strangely torn between two very extreme feelings. Having lived in Russia for over a month and a half, I feel as if I’ve gotten past the point of homesickness only to be left simply exhausted by the monumental efforts necessary for my everyday life here. I yearn for the comforts of home, in the most literal sense. In my head, there are now two versions of reality. The first is my itinerant life in Russia, which is represented by continuous growth but also volatility and difficulty. The second is what I think of as “normal” — my house, my bed, and my life, in general, in the United States.
The fact that I will soon be reunited with my family and friends who understand me (at both the lingual and spiritual levels) sparks a feeling that is difficult to describe in words. In complete honesty, I’ve found that my largest frustrations with living in Russia were all mental. My inability to express myself fully in the language has lead to the development of a very shallow set of relationships in Russia. Here, with my host parents, other Russian students, and my teachers at the institute, I discuss tourist attractions, food, and shopping. It is these types of topics that I am able to comment on in Russian because, at this point, my language ability restricts me to discussing events. Of course, in English, I have the ability to discuss ideas and perceptions at an entirely different level. I’m a strong believer that true connections and understandings are only developed through a more elevated discourse of this type. Ultimately, my inability to express myself in the language has led me to question my role in Russian society and others’ perceptions of my journey here. At the risk of sounding too superficial, I think there is something very crippling about losing control of your own image. Too suddenly, you fall to the mercy of stereotypes, especially while studying abroad as an American student. Largely due to these feelings, I’m very cognizant of a need to return to some “normalcy.”
On the other hand, I’ve already begun to miss Petersburg. Riding the metro home one night last week, I felt a strong spark of regret as I realized how limited my remaining time in Petersburg would be from that point on. I thought to myself, there’s still so much I have yet to see, or taste, or photograph. But, truthfully, there’s no way I will leave Petersburg without some regrets about how I utilized my time — this is my nature. However, at this point, I’ve already experienced almost two months of metro rides, Russian food, beautifully aimless walking, and mispronunciation. Summer in Petersburg has proven to be an extremely turbulent emotional ride through Russia’s “cultural capital” and I know that, ultimately, I’m better off for having experienced it.
Generally speaking, it seems logical that the Soviet period of Russian history has had the longest lasting effect on the stereotypical American perspective of the current Russian Federation, purely because it represents, for many Americans, the most recent characterization of the region. However, it’s still very interesting to me — especially after witnessing the Petersburg’s grandeur — that Americans don’t seem to characterize the Russian state with allusions to its monarchical past (at least in the same way I often feel France is associated with the Sun King and Versailles, for example). Thus far, I’ve had the opportunity to visit three of Petersburg’s suburban palaces — Peterhof, Pavlovsk, and the Catherine Palace — and, of course, the Hermitage museum which is located in the Winter Palace in the city center. Due to extraordinary restoration efforts following the Second World War, the suburban palaces truly represent, at least in my opinion, both the overwhelming domestic power and international influence of the Russian monarchy. For me, the palaces manage to evoke an entirely awe-inspiring experience coupled with a touch of remorse over the amount of time, resources, and energy that was devoted to their completion and restoration. Discussing this idea recently with a professor of literature at Brown, he commented on the necessity of these palaces — which should really be seen more as monuments — for the Russian national consciousness. Even in my own, personal understanding of their place in Russian society, the palaces seem to serve as a rallying point for people in terms of national pride and culture. Seemingly, at least for the Russians I’ve come to know, these monarchical remnants are a point of pride, in so far as they bring hoards and hoards of tourists from around the world in admiration of what are viewed as “national treasures.”
In Petersburg, June is the month of white nights (or as Russians call them “Белые Ночи”). One of the most unexpected transitions I’ve had to make on this trip is figuring out how to comfortably sleep with light seeping through the curtains in my room. And I’m not exaggerating when I claim that, during all of last month, the sun would not set in Petersburg until past midnight. The city’s residents, emerging from what I have heard is a long, bitter winter, could be heard in the streets (of even my very residential neighborhood) well into the night. In my apartment complex, which faces toward a large children’s park in the back, I would hear children playing and screaming up until two in the morning. While the white nights necessitated some flexibility, I feel very lucky to have shared the experience this summer. In my opinion, Petersburg is at it’s most beautiful when the sun is slowly setting over the city’s landscape at the apex of a белая ночь.
“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.”– Cesare Pavese
Sharing weekly schedules for the work and school week has become a tradition at my home-stay since my arrival. So, last week, when I overslept (through about three alarms, I should add), my хойязка was at my door half an hour before I needed to leave for class, calling my name in hopes that I would manage to have some bit of breakfast before running out to catch the first bus toward the institute.
Later that day, after struggling through a few hours of Russian language class half-asleep, I was thinking about what lessons could be gained from that morning’s struggles. In Russia, I’ve found that I need at least 30 percent more sleep each night in order to function at the most basic level, which really just means getting through classes and walking home from the institute. In complete honesty, I was very much a zombie during my first two weeks here. I’ve only now, finally, come to terms with how difficult living abroad can be on your body, your mind and your spirit. Everything about my accommodations here is foreign. In Russia, the food is different, the beds are different, I’m walking everywhere, and I even spend more time in class this summer than I ever have during the school year at Brown. And, on top of all of this, my head is constantly clouded by attempts to communicate only through Russian language.
I’ve slowly discovered the inevitability of reminiscing about family and friends you’ve left behind in the US. After a particularly difficult day, I’ve even returned to my room and wanted nothing more in the world than to return to New Jersey and, very literally, hide in my bedroom. In my opinion, studying abroad is difficult because it combines foreign travel — a taxing endeavor in itself — with schoolwork and language acquisition. My Russian classes at Brown could never compare in difficulty to the language course I am taking in St. Petersburg. This being said, it’s important to add that I can already sense that this summer has been one of the most formative I’ve experienced in my life. It’s true that sometimes I wake up in the morning and regret that I’m not in my own room, miss my family and wish I could see my friends. But I’m also convinced that when I return to my life in Jersey, I’ll be yearning for all that St. Petersburg now represents for me: difficulty and adventure, light and depth, reticence and growth — the various contradictions of my Russian life.
All together, my trip from Jersey’s suburbs to St. Petersburg, Russia amounted to approximately 15 hours of travel. Partially the function of my seemingly perpetual jetlag, my first few days in Petersburg were almost inexpressibly overwhelming. I arrived with over two years of language study and relative confidence in my ability to hold everyday conversations in Russian. I quickly realized, however, that, with Russian, there is a huge difference between understanding language and producing intelligent responses. For example, on my first night, I managed through dinner with my host family using only the most curt, short responses. I was frustrated with my inability to express nuances and connect with my host family — an older couple who have lived in the city their entire lives — at a more profound level.
The next day, I sleepily followed my хозяйка (Russian for host) to the institute where I am now taking my language and literature classes. Speaking quickly in Russian, my хозяйка pointed out how easily Soviet architecture in Petersburg can be differentiated from buildings erected prior to the 1917 revolution.
While I was not able to contribute anything to the conversation, I was quickly drawn into the history and was able to forget my language insecurities until we arrived at the institute. I’ve now realized that following and listening are the most valuable skills you can possess while abroad. Purely through paying attention to my хозяйка’s multiple monologues on the beauty of Petersburg during that first week, I was able to pick up numerous new constructions that I then attempted to store away in the Russian side of my brain. I realize now that, in the U.S., I tend to dominate conversation and constantly seek to share opinions, insight, and ideas.
So while I was initially frustrated by my inability to simulate these tendencies in Russian conversation, my experience in Russia became much easier once I realized that, at least for now, listening is more important speaking.
I’ve realized how lucky I am to have all of these new figures in my life guiding me through this language journey. In fact, one of the most positive experiences I’ve had with the language thus far is working with my native, Russian language teacher. In an attempt to simulate the intensity of a full year course, my language class meets for three hours a day, four days a week. The largest difficulty is not necessary the length of the sessions, however. In fact, it’s the size of the course — only three other students are in my level. Luckily, our instructor works really well with us and we are able to keep the classes light though simultaneously productive. So far, we’ve been reading the daily St. Petersburg papers, watching popular movies, and, of course, finding time for grammar review, as well.
While I can’t yet count myself fluent, I’m seeing slow and steady progress in my Russian, while simultaneously experiencing one of the greatest cities of the world. Yes, the first week was tough but I’m slowly regaining confidence and attempting to take advantage of everything Petersburg has to offer.
Traveling should be more that getting from point to point. I find it easy to treat travel as a valuable journey no matter where the destination is. When there are exotic locations, different cultures, and a few obstacles thrown in the mix there’s a quest at hand. Such has been often been the case for me these days.
Traveling on any quest entails exploring as well as being away from home. I have a need to see the world for myself. I fight for the window seat. If there is significant distance between two stops, there’s something significant to see along the way. I know imagining Big Ben coming into view while crossing over Westminster Bridge from the top floor of a double-decker bus is not the same as the first hand experience.
Traveling allows one to experience new surroundings and forces one to reflect on those passed. It has all the ingredients for making new memories and revisiting old ones. My fondest childhood memories are rambling up and down the East coast with my family. It never really mattered where we were going. All really I remember of trips made at the beginning of autumn is starring at the changing colors of the leaves on the side of the road. As I flew over Great Britain for the first time, I saw sheep pastures and golf courses. I’ll always remember the view and rejoice in the felling of wonder that I got from flying over the vast Atlantic and then reaching a new land.
Traveling’s hardships teach lessons of vigilance just as sight seeing imparts history lessons. It typically involves long hours with cramped leg room exhausted being worried about the tales of passports stolen from sleeping rail passengers, the possibility of a car breaking down in the middle of no where, or the swarms of pickpockets waiting for innocent tourist. My family has a habit of writing to check that I am still constantly vigilant of these situations. I’ve learned not to keep my wallet in the back pocket. These worries will never keep me from venturing though so long as I get to occasionally look out at passing cow pastures and eventually arrive at a historically fascinating and mysterious place such as Stonehenge, where I went this weekend. Yes, “Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance.” Maybe, it’s just me, but this harsh description of travel by Cesare Pavese tends to remind me that exploration is a rush. As someone who has always had wanderlust to spare, but few opportunities to go for a while, I am now excited to extend my comfort zones and more than willing to spend time searching for the right tickets, filling out the paperwork, and mapping the best route. I’ve realized that leaving my comfort zone to travel is going to be worth the risk and effort most of the time. I like that the scenic route learned on one trip becomes a comfort zone next time returning or going in the same direction is possible.
Traveling is a means for first hand experience to replace imagination. I have yet to hear of there ever being a shortage of pictures of the Roman Baths, Stonehenge, or Big Ben. Yet, most everyone visiting these sight has a camera in hand. As a tourists I get walk on hallow ground and touch the water from ancient springs. The first hand perspective is a very thrilling personal experience that matters to travelers and motivates us to travel the distance. Saying to yourself Am I really here? Did I make it all this way? Yes! I am seeing this up close with my own eyes! This is awesome! is such a rush. I love being overwhelmed by these thoughts. I arrived in England. The first weekend I went to Cambridge. Then I did London, Bath, and Stonehenge. I want to go still even further in order to feel a sense of progression. So, today I booked a flight to Oslo, Norway with friends I met here. I expect weekends in random cities like Oslo will sustain the thrilling feeling of realizing how far I’ve made it. Maybe I sound crazy. However, I know I cannot be the only one I know who keeps maps just to encourage pondering how I made it to a far away land and where I’ll go next.
Traveling is a choice. Pavese said, “nothing is yours except the essential things: air, sleep, dreams, sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” I think “essential things” includes choice; the decision to travel is yours as well as the decision of what to take with you, so long as it’s a limited amount of baggage though.
Traveling accomplishes goals and results in a sense of awe upon reflecting on the road traveled and reveling in the sense of everything being new and different and special. That’s why I support indulging wanderlust when the opportunity arises. Especially since sometimes the chance and time to are fleeting. One day the trekking up hills sights on the other side is done with and then it’s time to passing stories and luggage along to grandchildren, just as my grandmother did to me just before I left for Europe.