Sunday, September 23, 2012

My First Week in Vladivostok

The Traveling Part
I am happy to report that the flights from Phoenix to JFK, JFK to Moscow, and Moscow to Vladivostok were rather uneventful, and the only thing that really threw me for a loop was the fact that we had to recheck our bags and go through security again at each stop.   Thankfully, though our layovers were long enough so that we had enough time, and my bag did not get lost.
On the way to Moscow I sat next to a nice guy from America who was going to Moscow just for a short vacation. He didn’t know a single word of Russian (I tried to teach him a few useful ones), but he seemed perfectly content with that. Than on the flight to Vlad, I sat next to a woman who had lived in Vlad all of her life and was returning from visiting her daughter in Moscow. She was very nice, and patiently let me butcher her native language so that she could answer all of my questions in her own somewhat broken English. We ate our Russian plane meals together and talked about everything form cool places in Vladivostok that she thought I would like to how the school system works.

The Getting to the University Part
At the airport we eventually met two very nice girls who are also students at Vladivostok State University of Economics and Services (VSUES), and we all piled into a very European looking van and headed off to the university. One of the first things that struck me was that, unlike the rest of Europe, people still drive on the right side of the road here. But more interesting is that there is a mixture of both European cars- with the driver seat on the right- and American/Japanese cars- with the driver seat on the left. The roads also usually lack lane lines, and cars just haphazardly weave in and out of traffic. Our driver, though, was very skilled and got us safely to VSUES, and we hauled our stuff up several flights of stairs into our rooms. 

The Moving In Part
Because the university here is broken up into so many different departments, not everyone starts school one the same day. So, when we arrived on Sunday no one had yet to move into my suite. I will eventually post some photos of the room, but it’s pretty small, our beds are permanently bunked, and there is a small fridge in every room. Most of the suites have its own toilet and shower room (my does at least), and I think at most six people ever share them at once. Everything went rather smoothly with quickly organizing the room, but Ithaca and I did run into our first hurdle when we had to make our beds. The international affairs people and our equivalent of an RA had asked us if we needed help making our beds, but we assured them it would be fine- because, I mean, we know how to make a bed. But of course, once we finally decided to make them, we realize we had a weird sheet with a hole in it (which turned out of be a duvet cover), a normal top sheet, a blanket, and a comforter. Confused, I of course decided to make things much too complicated and instead of covering our comforter, stuffed our mattress rolls into the duvet cover, which was no easy task. 

The Tour of the School Part
So keeping in mind that it was Sunday when we arrived, one of the students gathered us up and took us on a little tour. But because school hadn’t started for anyone yet and so many things are just closed on Sunday in Russia, our tour consisted of a lot of “usually you can go through this door to get to…” and “oh we will see that some other time since it is closed today.” We did experience a bit of the maze that is VSUES, however. It almost seems impossible, but to get anywhere on campus you literally NEVER have to walk outside. The school even has its own small collection of vendors and shops where you can buy anything from a tan to a winter coat, which you can get to by walking through a strange white door below the cafeteria. We joke that it’s easier for one of the students living with a family in the center of town to navigate their way to school, than for anyone to find their way to class. 

The First Class Part
So on Monday we were led to this room somewhere in the university at about 9:15 in the morning. For the longest time I really had no idea what we were doing there and nobody came into the room to tell us what was happening. Then someone informed us that we were going to take our placement test and that someone would be in shortly to administer it to us. But of course shortly turned into at least 20 minutes of anxious waiting. Eventually, we took the exam and were sectioned into groups and given schedules for the week. 

The Figuring Out Where Ithaca and I Belong Part
Let's just say, after classes on Tuesday and Wednesday, Ithaca and I both felt as if a very fast Russian train had just rammed into us. Things were going very fast, everyone else in our group had better Russian than us, and we couldn't even understand half of the words they were using to define other words that we didn't know. We thankfully met with one of the international department people and she quickly switched our whole schedule around so that we could be in a bit of an easier group. Now, with Thursday and Friday classes under our belts, I think our spirits are much higher and we're actually learning, instead of quickly drowning. 

The Random Adventures Part
 So other interesting things that have happened since being here have involved random excursions to the city and beyond. Our first taste of Vladivostok was led by the international department- Elena and Lena. We drove and walked around different parts of the city and even drove all the way across what is now the longest suspension bridge in the world to Russky Island and saw where they had built the huge APEC conference hall.
Thursday, Ithaca and I met up with one of the other American students, Danielle, and her roommate Aliona, and we went to the Chinese market. It took about an hour to get there on bus, but it was very worth it. There are a lot of cheap things that can be haggled down if your Russian is good enough, and there's an inside mall, as well as an outside area covered by a tarp. After walking around there for a while, we went to a nearby pizza place, which wasn't too bad, and then made our way make to the dorms.
The next night we climbed up to a higher point behind the university- Eagle's Nest' and looked at the skyline of the city, which was very beautiful. We had one random Russian guy with us who simply wanted to lead us around because he was excited by the fact that we were American, and our other Russian friend Dima who speaks pretty good English.
Yesterday, we spent the morning in the city, ate some really good bliny and we rode a Farris Wheel on the main pier in the city, and then took a long long LONG bus ride to a popular beach outside of Vladivostok. We certainly experience a normal Russian bus ride- crowed and hot and bumpy and LONG. The beach was very much worth it however, and Ithaca, Miles, Micah (two other Americans) and I all swam some and then we built a little fort while soaking up the sun. Yes, the sun. We timed it well, though, as the weather is soon going to get colder and colder. 

And Lastly, the Roommate Part
I do officially have a roommate whose name is Katya. So far we have not really been in the room at the same time so we haven't talked much, but she seems very nice. She has already offered to let me borrow her hair dryer, and even though she speaks super fast, I really think I catch most of what she's saying. I think as time goes on it'll be really great to have her around. And as far as the suite mates go...still haven't really met them, but I think I'll just go over there when most of them are in the room and make a fool of myself soon. 


Thursday, September 13, 2012

It's Finally Happening

Tomorrow, a high school sophomore version of myself will be doing a little dance as I board one of many planes that will eventually take me to Russia. Fulfilling the most random, and until now improbable, dream I've had thus far, I am finding it hard to really feel any one thing. After the longest summer break, filled with a million explanations about what to expect when we set foot in Vladivostok, I'm excited to actually realize the degree to which I know nothing about what I've gotten myself into.

While I'm flying across the world, please enjoy an interesting article (Russia's Bridge to Nowhere) about the latest APEC meeting in Vladivostok, which was instrumental in delaying our journey a couple of weeks and changing a slew of other things. Reading this article makes me realize how much I have to learn.