I’m currently floating in the Kiel Canal, just off the North Sea, en route from Saint Petersburg to Hamburg, on a giant ship. How? I’m studying with Semester at Sea for the next four months. Semester at Sea is a program affiliated with the University of Virginia — it is currently providing 575 students with over 50 courses and 16 destinations. To give an example of the array of programs offered, I’m studying Global Economic Issues, World Religions, US Foreign Policy, International Negotiation, and Painting at Sea, but my roommate is taking psychology, music, astronomy, and theater.

I’m living in the belly of the ship. If you’ve seen the Titanic, I’m down in the very lowest level with Jack. Deck 2 is the smallest deck on the ship, with less than 120 students, so we have a really unique experience. Many of the other students never descend all the way down here, except for disembarkation in shallow ports, so Deck 2 is almost like a little hide-away. Our hallways are adjacent to the crew rooms, so I’m learning the names of the staff, too. In fact, I’ve even learned “thank you” in Filipino (“Salamat”) and that “Manila” is pronounced mayn-eel-ah, not man-il-a.

Deck 2 is small, really small — but my hallway is even smaller. They call it “Narnia” because it’s hard to find and harder to re-find, but easy to stumble upon. There are only 4 rooms on this side of the ship (versus 56 on the other side), so Narnia has 8 awesome residents. We often hang out in our hallway to get WiFi signal (which is the only downside to living in the bottom of the ship).

Of course, with great gifts come great expectations, and apparently this ship expects me to have killer legs. I climb so many stairs, all day, every day. The dining halls are on Decks 5 and 6, my classes are on Deck 6, and the pool deck is on 7. Phew! And I thought DC was bad. One thing’s for sure: I burn significantly more calories than the upper decks.

Speaking of calories, the food on this ship is very, very bland. Every day I eat some combination of potatoes, noodles (often sans sauce), bread rolls, fish (which I don’t eat), very fatty meat, and a dessert. In other words, I don’t eat much. However, my family has given me a hard time about my eating habits for a very long time. I’m particular about my food types, with a preference for breads and chicken, and a disassociation from vegetables and fish. Oh, and I don’t like my food to touch. One thing I’ve learned, however, is that I’m not alone. There are others like me. And I managed to befriend 2 of them! We eat lunch together in a solidarity pack. There is power in numbers, y’all. And there’s power in avoiding the cauliflower and eating rice, instead.

When I’m not eating non-touching food with equally-weird weirdos, I’m usually “working.” I have an onboard job as an alumni and development assistant. I’m not yet sure what my job description is, honestly. I’ll keep you posted. Since I don’t know what work I’m supposed to be doing, I mostly socialize. I have noticed how incredibly friendly the students on board are, especially during the first few days. There’s a type of person that goes on trips like this — predominately extroverted, type-A, outgoing 20 year olds. I’ve met some really amazing people in line for dinner, during the lifeboat drill, and during some random bubble-blowing bon voyage party. The downside to so many extroverts? There are no anti-social queues. Right now, I’m sitting in the corner of the very top deck with headphones on — this is no deterrent. Even facing the ocean, several people have come over to chat. (This, by the way, is my excuse for the delayed blog post. It’s hard to talk and write.)

Life on a ship has plenty of funny moments — and by “funny moments,” I mean you better laugh to keep from crying. On my very first day at sea, I bent over to pick up my student card…and just kept falling. The good news is that the carpet is pretty clean on this ship.

I was in line for lunch the other day, and the guy behind me asks: “Do you know what country that is?” He pointed out the window at a very distant streak of land on the horizon.

“Of course I know,” I said with a smile. “That’s Austria.” If you don’t get the joke, look at a map. (It was actually Denmark). The sad part is that he believed me. Moral of the story? I have a hard time making friends, haha.

So, when I’m not eating, sleeping, socializing, going to class, working, or falling over, I volunteer with a program called Vicarious Voyage. VV is a program for American schools; classrooms partner with a SAS student for the duration of the semester. The student keeps the class informed of his or her travels, sending pictures, country stats, and funny stories along the way. The teacher then uses this content with the curriculum. The benefits? Semester at Sea gets future students, and the teacher gets personable, easily-understood global studies material. I’m looking forward to the program because I have no excuse not to update my blog! So allow me to tell you about my trip to Russia.

Russia was my first destination. I spent 4 days in the country and visited St. Petersburg (called “the door to the West”) and Moscow, the capital. The ship was docked near downtown St. Petersburg — we were able to moor in the river because we’re a small enough ship. This was so convenient, especially for many students who didn’t leave the city. I ended up taking the train to Moscow for a day with 3 friends.

I had a few surprises. First, Russian money (called “Rubles”) is significantly inflated. This means that their currency is worth a lot less than the US dollar — in fact, 33 rubles equals $1. However, what I learn is that inflated money does not mean deflated prices. The value of goods is about the same. On my train ride I paid 350 rubles ($10) for two cups of coffee (of course, I thought the coffee was complimentary because they didn’t ask for money until we arrived in Moscow!). It certainly feels like I’m living the life of luxury when I’m throwing that much cash down, hah! 500 ruble bills are a lot of fun to spend.

Another surprise for me was that no one speaks a second language. I had a very difficult time communicating with the locals, and ended up playing charades half the time. “No, no. I go to train. Not metro, train!” I traveled with three others, and between us, we spoke French, Spanish, German, Arabic, and English — but no Russian. And when we did meet a bilingual Russian, the English was so choppy that we still stuck to charades. I began writing a list of all the funny miscommunications I encountered. It’s funny how two similar words can have such drastic different meanings.

Russia was abuzz with preparation for the upcoming G20! If you’re not familiar with the G20, it’s an international summit meeting representing 20 major economies, including the European Union. I visited both Moscow and St. Petersburg, so I saw signs of the event everywhere. Apparently this is a bit unusual; the G20 is unusually held in one city, mainly for security purposes. In Moscow, I watched the military marching band practice their routine in the Red Square in the pouring rain, and I stumbled past security into the G20 reception hall. It was extravagantly set up with faux plants and curved stairs. It was cool to see, but I was a bit concerned that a 21-year-old student managed to A) get in on accident, B) take pictures of the event, and C) nonchalantly leave. In St. Petersburg, the city was decorated with big banners and our ship was docked right next to a G20 reception dock. During the summit, apparently the cities are closed to most outside traffic for security purposes.

I spent the first, third, and fourth days in St. Petersburg. I visited the Hermitage with my art class; if Versailles and the Louvre had a baby, the Hermitage would be that baby. It has over 3,000,000 paintings and objects. It’s a 1000 room art museum built by Catherine the Great. It’s name literally means “House of the Hermit” because so few people went to visit. Today, however, the Hermitage has an average of 13,000 people every day, and I was just one of many, many people in the hallways. Because there are so many pieces of art in the museum (if you admired each one for 30 seconds, it would take you 3 years to get through it all!), I was very overwhelmed. I’ve attached two pictures of the rooms. Paintings were hung on the walls and painted on the ceilings.

My class also went to St. Isaac’s Church, which is famous for its unique mosaics. Because paintings are more likely to wear away over time, the original murals were replaced with stones. As you can see in the pictures (if you can see the pictures), their mosaic pieces are almost invisible. Walking in was simply awe-inspiring. It’s not used as a church any more (when Russia was the Soviet Union, a lot of religious institutions were closed), so most of the people inside were there to see the art. We spent a good half-hour just sketching the icons and sacred art.

After a full day of class time and art, my friends and I galloped off to the train station to grab some tickets and an overnight train to Moscow. It was supposed to be easy, but MAN. We did something wrong. The four of us arrived 2 hours before our train to get tickets. We typed in our information, selected the same train, and clicked enter. Alexandra’s machine went through, and BAM! She had a ticket. My machine went through, but BAM! I didn’t have a ticket. Marie’s machine outright rejected her credit card, and poor Lillian’s machine ate hers. Solving this issue in Russian is not easy. Trust me: I tried for quite a while.

Then, I kid you not, the heavens parted and an angel arrived. His (earthly) name is Ivan, and he spent the next hour and a half helping us. He took us to not one, not two, not three, but SIX ticket windows. He translated from Russian to English, English to Russian. He got us back Lillian’s credit card, and eventually got us all train tickets. Alexandra was on a different train, but she was only an hour ahead of us.

What a blessing! Moscow became a reality.

Our train was very comfortable. There were two bunk beds and a little table in-between. After we said goodbye to Alexandra and thanked Ivan for his help, Lillian, Marie, and I were soon laughing in the snug comfort of our own little compartment — when suddenly, our door swung open and a 40 year old Russian man stepped in. His eyes got huge and he hesitantly placed his bag on the top bunk. There was a very long, quiet moment, in which he stepped back out of the room and closed the door. Poor guy! I wouldn’t want to bunk with 3 giggling girls either. We didn’t see him for about fifteen minutes. Then, he opened the door wide-eyed, grabbed his bag off the top bunk, and disappeared. I guess he found somewhere else to sleep, or maybe he just jumped off the train.

When we arrived in Moscow, the first thing we did was seek out Wi-Fi. We found a little café off the Red Square, and we spent a long hour emailing home, eating Russian breakfast, and sipping coffee. When you spent the night sleeping on a train, it takes a little while to get your gears in motion. However, we eventually hauled our butts up and painted the town red. Not communist red, but red nonetheless. We went to St. Basil’s church, the Kremlin, and the Armory. St. Basil’s the one of the icons of Russia; I’m sure you’ve seen pictures of it before. Honestly, the first thing I thought when I saw it was, “Wow, that looks like Small World!” The church is surprisingly short, but its paint is very vibrant. It is situated in stark contrast to the Kremlin, its neighbor. The Kremlin is a massive red-walled building, home to Putin and Russian federal government. (If my pictures go through, I attached a picture below of the Kremlin solider memorial.) It’s more of a complex than a building, and it covers several acres. There were armed guards and tourists all over. Attached to the Kremlin is the armory. Apparently the only comparable place is the Tower of London, where the Queen’s jewels are on display. I saw every shape and size of Russian silver and gold. There were even carriages from the 1700s and royal robes from the 1300s. I saw so many gilded bibles and Russian Orthodox crosses. I couldn’t take pictures, however. Usually, “No Pictures” is a challenge, not a deterrent. However, I was afraid to break the rules because the Russian soldiers were a little grumpy. Who knows? Maybe they would send me to the gulags in Siberia.

The trip home was a different type of challenging. Instead of oral Russian, I struggled with written Russian. We knew what St. Petersburg looked like in Cyrillic — unfortunately, our tickets did not say St. Petersburg. Despite not knowing where we were going, we boarded our overnight sleeper train (we had nowhere else to go at 1am, and we had no backup plan), praying we would get to St. Petersburg. “Well,” I told the girls. “This might turn out to be an expensive taxi ride.”

On top of this uncertainty, we boarded to find that 3rd Class is 3rd Class. Before me, 60 bunk beds lay open in a massive train compartment, all of which were being quickly filled by Russians. My friends and I made our way to the top bunks we had reserved — and we discovered that sitting up is a privilege, not a right. It was hysterical. We were a fit of giggles as we stuffed our bags into the small storage bins above our heads, balancing on the narrow cots and hoping not to fall to the floor on the shaking train. I often joke that I take the cheapest plane tickets possible. I can now earnestly say that I have taken the cheapest train tickets possible.

We slept like complete babies until we were awaken by tugging on our blankets. The cabin steward, who spoke no English, was trying to tell us to strip our own beds (remember how I said we were in 3rd Class?), but my best guess? I thought she was telling us about a small dragon that was growing wings while roaring madly on Alcatraz. Let’s just say I prefer Pictionary to charades.

Anyway, a fellow train passenger soon showed us the ropes, and we were stripping our own beds, shaking out our pillows, and swinging from the top bunks like Tarzan. In fact, we made him and his wife laugh, so they treated us to a good-morning coffee and breakfast bar.

In the end, we did make it to St. Petersburg. Our train’s final destination was a city outside of St. Petersburg, but we disembarked at the main train station without issue. We even took the Metro! — which, though petrifying, was highly empowering. I’ve been working on my Russian swagger to better blend in.

That evening I went to the Russian ballet with my friend Molly. We dressed to the nines and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. We were lucky enough to see Swan Lake, Russia’s claim-to-fame in the ballet scene. And we learned that the ending was never actually written! Each ballet director chooses whether he wants to end the performance as a happy ending or a tragedy. Fortunately for us, we got the happily ever after. Although we couldn’t afford the champagne, the Russian ballet was certainly a highlight of my time in Russia.

My final day in St. Petersburg was dedicated to a trip to Catherine the Great’s Summer Palace and the Peterhof Gardens. I wish I knew Russian history a bit better (I haven’t memorized Romanov genealogy yet), but the tour put a frame on the Russian communist revolution. When I was walking past all the gold and gilt and filigree, I finally understood how an entire country could violently revolt against its monarchy. There was a lot of gold hanging uselessly on those walls, especially considering the number of people who could have used it to survive.

Tomorrow brings a new adventure. We’re arriving in Hamburg, Germany, for 4 days. I’ll be sure to keep you posted on any stories I concoct, and hopefully I’ll write a bit on our Zmak Family vacation to Germany 2 weeks ago.

Much love,

Ps. I couldn’t update from the ship, so these photos don’t make much sense with what I wrote about! Sorry!










2 thoughts on “Russia

  1. I read your blog, both laughing and gasping, to Papa as we drank our morning coffee. We so enjoyed your adventures in Russia but decided we best pray harder for your safety. Sound like a sailing trip we would enjoy minus the homework. Keep us post our darling. Hugs and kisses, Grammy and Papa

  2. Hi Em, You are moving around pretty fast on your midnight express runs and now you are back from Russia to Germany where you should be more comfortable after your recent trip with your folks. Great BLOG and pictures came out good too! I sat here having my morning coffee and reading it before I head out to the DMV – still trying to get my car registration and plates (after 4 months of negotiating I am giving up and going to see them with an appointment time to hopefully get it resolved). Have a continuing adventuresome trip and stay SAFE ! Love Gpa Z

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