Rosalie Murphy

Journalist

Vera and the Golden Cloaks: A Russian Folkloric Fairy Tale

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Fiction. Written for course “Russian Fairy Tales,” CIEE St. Petersburg, December 2013. Please do not reproduce.

One autumn morning after two weeks of relentless rain, the village seamstress fell quite ill. Coughs rattled her frail frame day and night, night and day, until no tea could calm her throat and no herbs bring sleep. Finally her daughter, Vera, a strong and soft-hearted maiden, could stand it no longer. “My dear brother Ivan, we must save her,” she said. “I think it is possible, if we can only find the potion-maker our grandmother used to visit. Do you remember?”

“Yes,” said Ivan. “He lives in the thrice-ninth land in the thrice-tenth kingdom. He was a tiny man, a meter tall but very fat, with a beard that wrapped around both ankles to keep him warm just like wool boots. I will go to seek him, and will send word in four weeks time.” Then he kissed her, mounted the family’s horse, and departed.

For three weeks no word came from Ivan, but he was a little fool, so Vera worried. She busied herself with weaving a new cloak that could bear the still-pouring rain. She did not realize that, after waiting for many generations in their cellar, the thread of her grandmothers had become so thick and strong. But on the first day of the fifth week Vera took a walk, and her new cloak was so fine that she stayed dry and warm.

She walked without direction, for a long time or a short time, when she came upon a foal stuck dead in the mud. “Come here, little foal, and walk with me; I can keep you dry.” Immediately the mud fell from the foal’s feet and he joined Vera. “Give me a blanket, my fair maiden, and tell me your story.” So she laid her extra bolt of fabric on his back.

Vera did not finish telling her story, for her troubles were many, before they came upon a sparrow clutching her eggs in her wings after her nest had been swept away. “Come here, little sparrow, and walk with me; I can keep you dry.” The sparrow joined them, and Vera made a tiny bird-blanket and satchel for her eggs.

The trio walked further, for minutes or perhaps for days, because all the world was gray; the foal’s legs grew strong and stout and the sparrow’s eggs hatched. Then they came upon a little frog, straining its little frog-legs to stay afloat in a puddle. “Come here, little frog, and walk with me; I can keep you dry,” Vera promised. The frog joined them, and Vera fashioned him a tiny frog-cloak from her bolt.

Just then a snake curled around Vera’s ankle. “Are you Vera, Ivan’s sister?” he asked, gazing up at her with tiny snake-eyes. She nodded. “Ivan was captured on the way to the thrice-ninth land in the thrice-tenth kingdom. A dragon with greedy green eyes guards him day and night. To find him, walk due east from here, and in three days you will reach a valley of caves. Find the coldest one.” And it peeled its snake-tail from Vera’s ankle and slithered away.

Vera sat on a rock and began to cry, pulling her cloak tighter against the rain. When she opened her eyes, the hood glowed, circling her face in gold. “You must go, Vera,” the frog said. “You are clever and your hands are sure; Ivan needs you. I will go care for your mother.” And so the frog turned back. Vera went on, and the gold light repelled rain and even tears from her face.

In three days Vera, the colt and the sparrow-family reached the valley of the caves. Little signposts stood outside each cave, perhaps many thousands of them, but the never-ending storm had washed away their names. “How will we ever find him?” Vera moaned. “And then the potion-maker after? It’s hopeless.”

Just then threads in the littlest sparrow’s little sparrow-cloak began to shine like dim gold. As he fluttered here, they brightened, and there, they dulled. Enthralled, the sparrow traced a route that made her cloak brighter, brighter, brighter still – until finally she fluttered before a cave whose mouth was so cold that her feathers froze solid and she fell promptly to the ground.

Warm inside their cloaks, the group picked up the sparrow, crossed an icy lake, then shattered an icy door and found a warm hallway lit by torches and littered with plundered treasure – a dragon’s home indeed. Vera picked up a rusty shield and sword. Around the fourth corner they very suddenly found Ivan, who sat crying on a rock with hands and feet bound.

“Vera, my dear, you came!” he shouted, standing and hobbling toward her. She pushed him back down. “You fool, do you want the dragon to hear you? Shut up!”

But it was too late. The dragon stuck its ugly head around the corner beyond Ivan’s rock and speedily slithered toward Vera, greedy for a bite of her golden cloak. But the wool turned to steel in its mouth and snapped its longest fangs in two. The brave maiden spun around and thrust her sword through each of its green eyes in turn. It shuddered and slinked backward, exhaling puffs of smoke, until it lay still and dead. Vera kicked a pile of gold coins over its scaly claws.

Ivan whooped and, freed by the sparrows, applauded. “What happened to you, little sister? You just slayed a dragon without flinching, and the sparrows say you gave them magic golden cloaks that led you here. Have I been gone so long that you have grown so much?”

Vera smiled and embraced her brother. “I am just as I’ve always been, Ivan.”

Now sparrow-family flew off, promising news of their mother every day. Vera bound the sword and shield around her waist, stitched her last bolt of fabric into another cloak for Ivan, and with the foal (who was now a stout young colt) they trod northward through the forest and the rain. On their third day, when Vera’s mother was still coughing and they were beginning to feel quite lost indeed, Ivan spotted a hut in a clearing. “Little hut, little hut, turn around, travelers need directions!” And the little hut straightened its chicken legs and turned right around.

“Ivan, you fool –” Vera hissed, but she was interrupted.

“Is that Russian blood I smell?” bellowed a voice from inside the hut. Ivan tugged Vera’s sleeve. “It’s Baba Yaga!” he whispered. “Let’s run! We must run!”

But Vera stood firm. “We’re looking for the potion-maker who lives in the thrice-ninth land in the thrice-tenth kingdom,” she called. “Our mother hasn’t stopped coughing for two months now. Please help us, Baba Yaga.”

“You’re children; surely you know that I cook and eat children. Why would I help?”

“Because we’re bright; we just escaped the dragon inside the coldest cave.”

“And what happened to the dragon?”

“I slayed it.”

You slayed it?”

“Yes, Baba Yaga, I did. What’s more, the horse, frog and sparrow-family traveling with me have been dry all this time, because I made them magic cloaks.”

Baba Yaga paused. “Spend one night with me, and in the morning I will give you a fast colt for your journey.”

“But we already have a fast colt, Baba Yaga. We only need directions.”

This upset Baba Yaga; the earth shuddered and thunder clapped. “You’ll stay with me, children, and I will tie your colt up in my shed. In the morning I will consider giving you directions. Or, I will cook you and eat you.” Word of Vera’s magic cloaks and dragon-slaying had reached Baba Yaga through the snakes, and she was curious about the strange maiden.

That night they slept fitfully. Ivan rolled marbles across the dirt floor until he dozed. Vera browsed an atlas that lay beside her hay mattress. Once Vera awoke and found Baba Yaga crouched at her feet, holding her cloak up to her long nose. Finally, at dawn, she shook Ivan awake. “Let’s grab the colt and run before she wakes up.”

“Oh, no, fair maiden, I don’t think so,” Baba Yaga crowed from the next room. “Not before you’ve made me ten yards of that fabric you weave, and maybe not even then.”

“Surely you can make it yourself, Baba Yaga, with all your skill,” Vera called, dragging Ivan to his feet. “Let me set up my loom and I’ll show you.”

She busied herself with the loom while directing Ivan to gather their things, then pointed him toward the door. He stumbled out loudly. “Come in, Baba Yaga!” Vera called, and at the moment Baba Yaga entered the room, Vera left it. She hopped onto the colt behind Ivan.

“Go, go!” she urged. Baba Yaga chased them and nearly caught them, but their cloaks protected them from the rain, while after an hour Baba Yaga’s cloak was so wet and heavy that she had to turn back. The colt galloped so quickly that what might have been three days’ ride northward only took one. He stopped suddenly in front of a ramshackle brick house belching strongly scented smoke through its chimney. Vera shook Ivan as they dismounted. “This is the potion-maker’s house. I found it on Baba Yaga’s map last night. Please don’t talk, Ivan, dear.”

So it was Vera who knocked softly, then more boldly; Vera who thanked the potion-maker – who was indeed a meter tall but very fat, with a beard that wrapped around both ankles to keep him warm just like wool boots, and a squeaky little voice too – for their generous helpings of soup, and who explained their mother’s illness so sadly that mice flocked to the table to mourn with her; and it was Vera for whom the mice stitched a crown from the potion-maker’s flowers, and when they lay it around her head her hair gleamed just like the cloaks, which had made her famous, apparently, even in this faraway land.

“Anything you need is yours, my dear,” the little potion-maker squeaked. “You can sleep here tonight in safety, and in the morning I will prepare just the medicine your mother needs. We have a small carriage; my son and I will come to your village and show you how to care for her.”

Just then the potion-maker’s son, Alyosha, a traveling trader curious upon hearing a maiden’s voice, entered the kitchen and saw Vera, golden-haired and flower-crowned with a sword still hanging from her belt, and instantly fell passionately in love. They drank wine and talked of their many adventures all night while the potion-maker slept and Ivan rolled his marbles. In the morning, he asked for her hand in marriage. Vera happily agreed.

Together Ivan, Vera, the potion-maker, and Alyosha returned to the village. A week later Vera’s mother was well again, and when the women found a rare moment alone together, Vera told her of the fame of the golden cloaks. The rain stopped rather unremarkably while Vera’s mother laughed and laughed and laughed, and when she finished laughing she took her daughter’s hand. “Oh, my dear, my grandmother used to say that all the women in our family can weave those cloaks. The trouble is, they don’t glow on our husbands and sons, only on us and our sisters, and only when we most desperately need them. I had stopped believing it – but I guess none of us risked as much as you did, my brave daughter.”

And so on the morning of her wedding Vera folded up her cloak and lay it gently on the top shelf of a closet, beside the sword that slayed the dragon, for a rainy day. She taught her daughters to weave according to the family legend. The happy family traveled warm and dry to every corner of the thrice-ninth lands, where Vera’s dragon-slaying fame is still subsiding – unless, of course, she fights another one soon.

Stagnation

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I wish I could write a long and glorious post about my second-to-last week in Peter, but unfortunately it hasn’t been the penultimate finale I pictured. I’ve squandered a lot of it in a long bout of homesickness.

Mind you, I’ve lived three thousand miles from the place where I grew up for three years and very seldom been sad about it — yet I’m still over the moon every time my plane touches down in Akron or Cleveland.

There are some study abroad bloggers who would have you believe something about how, “travelers make a home everywhere they go! <3″ Those people are wrong. Sure, you can feel comfortable anywhere pretty quickly. You can learn the layout of your supermarket and find the cutest anticafes and even make some local friends, and that’s a wonderful feeling. But home is the place you retreat to when the day has beaten you. At home, you can curl up with a cup of tea and having a good fucking cry, and no one (even in your native language) will ask you why.

At home, you feel competent. In Russia, and even sometimes in LA, the routines of daily life — commuting, buying shampoo, choosing outfits — can be exhausting. And when I waste all my energy getting ready and getting there, it’s hard to do any actual things very well.

I’ve gained an incredible respect for immigrants who arrive in a country speaking a foreign language. It’s hard. Struggling to make yourself understood in the simplest, shortest transactions is draining, humbling, sometimes insulting. It’s enough to make anyone go quiet.

Peter will feel better, I think, sometime in the future, when hindsight crystallizes already good memories and I’ve spent a few more years speaking Russian. Next time. I know that some lives are different, that some people have lived many places and been “home” in all of them. I am not yet one of those people. I hope to be. Next time.

Notes on rape culture, for those unfamiliar with the term

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In the last three months, two friends of friends have shared painstaking assault stories online. Both (here and here) are heartbreaking at the first read, rage-inducing at the second, and by the third, confusing. Read them once, then continue.

I recently started to send the latter testimonial to my boyfriend with a note thanking him for respecting me. I promptly deleted it, because a woman should never feel the need to thank a man for respecting her. There are far too many women in harmful relationships today, I know, but the failure of those men to respect women does not mean those men who treat women well should be seen as exceptional. There can be no gold stars for respectful men — that should be the lowest possible bar, not the median.

Rape culture is the term ascribed to a world in which male-dominated, barely-if-at-all-consensual sex is normalized.

Rape culture is real because I have never felt 100% safe outside after dark — not in Russia, not in Los Angeles, not even in my Ohio hometown, where I did less after-dark walking than I have anywhere since. Last month I spent an evening playing board games and drinking hot chocolate with a marvelous group, and when we left around midnight, a male friend said he’d walk me home. It was not a question. “You don’t have to do that,” I replied, mostly out of decorum. “No, I will,” he replied. If he hadn’t offered, I would have asked him anyway. I felt safer, because on every continent, men mean protection. 

Now, let me be clear: I should not need protecting. I am financially independent, comfortable alone, delighted to report about places I’ve never been, public transit-savvy and still a good driver. I lived in Russia for half a year . I’ve cooked for myself since I was thirteen. I only order drinks at the bar, preferably from female bartenders, and watch every swivel of the preparing wrist. I’m the friend in charge of buying tickets for the weekend trip to Tallinn. I’m in a happy, healthy relationship. While these things are not relevant, since no woman is ever “deserving” or “asking for it,” no matter how closely she watches her drinks or who she dates or who manages her bank account, I point this out to suggest that I too have been catcalled, groped and followed. I am anything but immune. And while I know that 90 percent of rapes are committed by acquaintances, I still carry my keys between my middle and ring fingers to deliver that knockout punch, because tonight might be the night my number comes up. Instead of knowing that I’m not a survivor of assault, I find myself thinking, “I’m not a survivor, yet.

Rape culture is real because I remember feeling like my first kiss counted as some sweeping act of consent, license to my whole body. I was taught that if my shorts crossed a certain threshold or I consented to a simple kiss, men would always, always, always want more, and it was my job to police them. If men learn that they inherently press their advantage, they’re given license to do so and can chalk it up to hormones. Unacceptable. Pressing your advantage is assault.

Rape culture is real because my male classmates both taught in puberty about masturbating; friends and I bought Cosmopolitan at Wal-Mart to learn about our bodies. Men learned to master and control sexuality. We learned to stuff it under our mattresses. Unacceptable. Sex that shames one of its participants, or allows her no control because she doesn’t know how, is unhealthy at best and assault at worst.

Rape culture is real because my friend got groped on the metro today and the man will never think twice about it. It’s real because one woman in India is raped every 20 minutes, and so my dad cannot be excited for my reporting trip there in March. Unfortunately, I have a one in five chance of being a victim here at home. Rape culture is real because rape is a weapon of war — in 2011, 48 women were raped in the Congo every hour. That’s one every 75 seconds. All over the world, men need to prove their dominance over us. This is unacceptable.

Interesting note: When I tried to publish this post, WordPress chided me for using so much passive voice. “Is raped.” “Were raped.” We must talk about this actively, because rape doesn’t just happen without a subject. In India, men (sure, maybe women on occasion, but almost always men) rape women (and occasionally men, but almost always women) every 20 minutes. There is a one in five chance that a man will rape me in the U.S. Men rape 48 women every hour in the Congo. Changing the way we talk, indeed.

What makes rape culture real for you? How do you fight back?

Define: Anticafes

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What is an anticafe? Anticafes are marvelous little nooks, some large, some small, where guests pay by the minute to simply be present. Tea, cookies, and sometimes instant oatmeal are complimentary, as are chair and table space (if it’s available) and wifi. You arrive, give the hosts your name, prepare a pot of tea, and (in my case today) pull out your computer for as many hours of working as you need. Today’s anticafe is enormous, one big loft with nooks created from bookshelves and chairs arranged in circles. There’s even a “Freedom Store” in one corner, constructed from open two-by-fours and selling secondhand clothing, watches and dishes. I’m sitting under a wood-beam loft in an armchair with a copy of the Mona Lisa beside me.

Where are anticafes? Anywhere. Zieferburg, today’s, is on the third story of a mall beside a photo studio and a wedding store. Zieferblot, its sister, is on the top floor of an office building, in a hollowed-out apartment; Radiola, another favorite, is in the courtyard of a living complex between a lingere store and a recording studio. The most unique is at the top of a seven-story residential building (no elevator) and choc-full of board games.

Who visits anticafes? You and me, our friends, and people who may or may not become our friends. Today I’m writing; in the past I’ve painted matryoshka dolls, watched a modern dance performance, plunked on a piano and read Dostoyevsky. (A friend even traded her English copy of “Devils” for three free hours here.) Many anticafes host conversation sessions in Russian, English, Spanish and Italian; I’ve led English classes and practiced my Russian with all-too-friendly hosts.

Why would anyone go to one? You can only work for so long in your apartment, you know, and who really wants to pay for the obligatory cup of coffee to sit in an Intelligensia when you’re bound to run out in an hour? All anyone really wants, I think, is a workspace where others are working too, and where we don’t feel like we’re taking space away from other paying customers (ever sat in a Starbucks for five hours? I have, and it’s guilt-ridden). A friend recently asked why anyone would pay to sit somewhere; I said it’s not just “somewhere,” but a place full of friendly people, and when the owners are friendly and willing to accept old furniture instead of payment, I don’t feel any bitterness about parting with 300 rubles.

Well, I’m convinced! How do I find one? I’ve done a lot of reading, and apparently there are none outside Eastern Europe except one in London — there’s not even a Wikipedia page in English. The ones in St. Petersburg are no older than two years. However, if I’m without a job in August, I’d love to open one in LA. Keep an eye out!

Lenin’s Tomb

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Today I saw the body of Vladimir Lenin, weirdly preserved in reddish half-light many meters under Red Square. He’s bald, as you probably knew, and smaller than I expected, with skinny little embalmed fingers (hands laid one delicately above the other, left over right) that I think I’d snap if I shook them. His face is difficult to see — his body is recessed in its red velvet cushion, and tipped slightly backward, leaving his feet a little higher than his head. I’m not sure if the light itself is red or if it’s distorted by that dramatic Soviet backdrop. But, his nose is pointed, his eyes closed; he could easily be napping and, if the mausoleum’s silence is any indicator, he’s easily roused.

Disclaimer: I’m realizing this post is not going to inform you.

I write in present tense because I am — he’s a stunning man in every respect, and eight decades after his death, remains so. I can’t get his head out of my head. I know a few of his words in translation, and I’ve been tossing them around tonight, mostly “any cook should be able to run the country.” Really? I have an awfully hard time believing that, unable to move my eyes from this wild, captivating body. Outside his mausoleum are graves, a long line of them, holding his comrades: Zhdonov, Dzerzhinsky, Kalinin, Brezhnev, Stalin. Stalin, there, in bones and dust, six feet beneath my feet. Stalin, a bouquet of roses drying on the stone below his bust. Stalin, who killed more people than Adolf Hitler. His were the last eyes I saw before Lenin’s. Even carved in stone, his are the heavy-lidded eyes I’m still seeing.

His eyes followed me around the corner into the mausoleum, where a guard eyed me subtly, thoroughly, ravenous for a mistake, I imagined — a stray hand in my pocket or a missed stair as I descended. My eyes never adjusted to the light as I rounded the corner and descended a staircase twice as long as the first, a single guard waiting for me at its foot. He did not gesture me onward; I merely turned right. His eyes did not follow. Stalin’s, though.

Then I entered the tomb, utterly isolated from the bustle of Red Square above, which will host a parade on November 7 commemorating not the Great October Revolution but the defense of Moscow against Hitler in 1941. Darker and entirely silent. The walls, black marble with a red stripe, barely visible in the half-light, which was far redder. Stalin used to lie here, beside Lenin. My steps slowed even more. Before I rounded the first corner of the three-sided path, I halted. I looked. He might wake up. He might remind me, lisping and using an alphabet that had three more letters than the one I use, that I should be able to run his country.

I have to wonder, of course, whether he believed that. Maybe, sure, in the first months of revolution. Maybe even at his death. But I can’t imagine he would if he found himself preserved so entirely unnaturally in a black marble crypt, on that red velvet that looks more like an altar cloth than a burial shroud.

If he woke up. When he wakes up.

Is This Sexist? – Russian History Textbook Edition

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First sentence of this week’s reading:

“In June 1762 a pretty German princess of unusual ability and determination removed her weakling husband from the throne and ruled the Russian Empire as Catherine II.”

Huh.

The Internet will make you crazy

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Do you ever have those nights where four hours pass and you wonder, “What have I accomplished today?” My answer is becoming, more and more often, just “reading the Internet.” Because there’s an infinite number of articles to read. And it will make you crazy.

My night started with an email from the Teach for America recruiter who, presumably, got my name from any of a number of friends who’ve joined the program corps. We talked in September and, like many of this summer’s columnists, I have serious questions about how well TFA serves students (and, as I have no formal teacher training, these are questions I can’t begin to answer). I Googled for roughly two hours, forgetting that my decision-making power is mostly locked up in long walks and first instincts. Reading and then reflecting? Good. Reading and reading and reading and reading? Less good.

In time I moved on, realizing the futility of my clicks. I hadn’t checked LinkedIn in a while, and — look at that! — a request from a journalist I’ve never met and a few classmates I know well. Delighted, I buffed out the tense disagreements in my profile and clicked around the “Jobs” tab for another hour — never mind that it’s October, and I couldn’t begin work until May, and that I just moved to Russia and should probably get some sleep.

So I closed all my windows and turned on some music and began my reading for tomorrow. A sentence broached a relational question I’ve been pondering, and immediately, Google again. Then the black hole that is Huffington Post, HuffPo Women and HuffPo Media. (Am I really delving this deeply into HuffPo, by the way? I’m a pretty vocal anti-aggregator. Sigh.) Then, Slate. Twitter. Forbes. A million WordPresses. And another pair of hours gone.

I’m a little embarrassed by such damning evidence: I expect easy answers. There are few easy answers. I can read a dozen pieces about how to reconcile parties in Congress and, still, there will be no reconciliation; I can comment on any number of theories about why the U.S. keeps hitting the debt ceiling and still, no laws will change. I can seek the opinions of ten strangers about a friend, but none of them know that friend (or me, for that matter) — again, no change. No decision, no progress. Just sitting here like a sponge, soaking up ideas and leaking some inoffensive amalgamation of them all.

I am not particularly interested in all these opinions. What a cop-out, to approach an application or a friend or a pharmacy because a stranger said it worked for her. What a dismissal of my own agency. And in personal matters, I’m not particularly interested in being inoffensive or authoritative or particularly well-read. All these traits are valuable, of course, but what a dismissal of my own conscience — to assume that the best answer is the average of a dozen well-enough-formed opinions rather than the singular product of confident, clear thinking.

No distinctive conclusions, but a resolution not to exceed an hour of clicking around daily.

Words I learned this week

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“Горшок,” which can mean either “bedpan” or “bowl cut”

“Ненавидет,” “to hate,” which is better explained here

“Комок,” which my dictionary translated to “wad”

The difference between “посудомое чная” and “носудомойка,” which is the difference between “industrial dishwasher and “dishwasher at home” – useful, I suppose

“Держат себя в руках,” literally, “holding myself back”

“Бросать денги наветер,” or “spending money like rain”

Университет

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This is a post to let you know, dear reader, that I am, in fact, going to school.

This is my campus:

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The building at front is Smolny Cathedral, and its surrounding campus was supposed to be convent at its 18th-century opening. However, after some royal shuffling, Catherine II decided against baroque architecture (despite its architect’s other projects: the Winter Palace, Peterhof and Pushkin). Eighty years later — ca. 1835 — it was consecrated. Less than a century passed before Soviet authorities closed the building in 1923. It decayed until someone, in 1982, decided it could be a nice concert hall.

In the meantime, Leningrad State University adopted the convent as a satellite campus. Now it hosts Political Science, Sociology and International Relations students from St. Petersburg State University — which includes, of course, me. Lunch in our cafeteria costs, on average, $2.50. Smolny is a 25-minute walk from the nearest metro station; because St. Petersburg is all about transit-oriented development, that means it’s also 15 minutes from a single restaurant, coffee shop or bookstore. My commute is about 2.5 miles; 50 minutes walking, 40 by bus. My Weather widget says this week’s high temperature is 48 degrees F. The city hasn’t turned on central heating yet, and it’s actually colder inside the building than outside in the park.

The university is about as big as my U.S. school — 32,000 students (28,000 undergrads, 5,000 grad students; USC has 17,000 and 20,000, respectively) — but most of them study on the original campus on Vasilievsky Island. Peter the Great decreed construction there for his Academy of Sciences, opened 1724. The associated university has been in continuous operation since 1819. There’s a bit of an argument in town, though, about whether we predate Moscow State University as Russia’s oldest: If 1724 is our founding date, then yes; if 1819, no. The Russian state, as it is wont to do, has vacillated, but currently says that yes, Moscow was first.

Famous alums: Dmitry Medvedev, Ivan Pavlov, Ayn Rand, Joseph Brodsky and Vladimir Putin.

My classes: Russian (grammar, conversation and phonetics), Ethnic Studies, Russian Fairy Tales and Russian History.

Number of vocabulary words I need to memorize tonight (I’m behind, but not by much): 182.

Until next time, travelers.

On Бургер Кинг and leaving my tray at the table

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There are a ton of Burger Kings in St. Petersburg — 19, actually, according to the locator on burgerking.ru. I’ve also spied a half-dozen Pizza Huts, a handful of McDonald’ses and even a Carl’s Jr near campus. Why anyone would visit Carl’s Jr. anywhere, especially outside Los Angeles, eludes me. I do try to avoid fast food at home. But, after a few days of heavy, heavy potatoes, soups and breads, I had dinner at Бургер Кинг.

You know how people come back from travels abroad and rave, “Oh, my goodness, have you been to Vienna? Even McDonald’s is, like, gourmet there. The meat is fressssh and the flavor, wow, you haven’t lived until you’ve been to Vienna!” [/end the study abroad student I promise not to be.] Because, I assure you, Russian Burger King is not like that. The menu is the same as the one we frequented after golf practices: Burgers, fries, chicken nuggets, milkshakes. The meat isn’t bad, nor is the lettuce or tomato. The sauce selection, of course, includes sour cream. The fries are just as delicious as I remember. My milkshake is not nearly as good as those I’ve had stateside, but it was cheap — just $5 for the meal.

Now, dear reader, before you climb onto a high horse about American capitalism promoting our unhealthy lifestyle abroad, let me assure you: Russian chains dominate, too. There’s Теремок and Чайнай ложка, which both feature at least 15 varieties of блыны, everyone’s favorite pancake-wrapped-anything. For the record, Теремок is far better; a cold блыны c веченом и сыром turned me off to the latter indefinitely. Again, both charge less than $2 for a very filling crepe.

The reality is that fast food is enormously cheap, while a block of cheese runs about $8, a bag of frozen vegetables, $6, and the cheapest bottle of wine,  $8 (prices vary; these reflect my last продукты stop). What in the U.S. we’d consider proper sit-down restaurants vary enormously. The oddity for me is that, here, these fast-food restaurants — and their sisters, столовы, little buffet-style cafeterias that charge per item — are every bit as “proper,” be they Russian or otherwise. Patrons arrive, order, pay, and carry trays to tables, where they usually sip tea or beer on tap while eating, reading, talking, etc. I don’t know if “to go” is even an option; I’ve never seen it done and, admittedly, don’t know how to ask. Further, for me to carry my tray to the counter is so rude that at least four people corrected me when I began to pick it up. To do so, they explained, would be to deprive employees of their duties.

I thought for a moment about how, when families at my hometown Dairy Queen left trays outside, we grumbled, usually loudly. I thought about how we made $7.30 an hour and it wasn’t enough for Applebee’s after high school football games ($15 dinners, at least). I felt guilty, for a moment, about how lazily we worked for what was, really, a great deal more than most of us — kids, really, with ostensibly no expenses — needed. And how, if a Russian customer arrived, none of us would have the faintest idea how to translate a word like “shake.”

This post does not end with a conclusion, but I’m alive, I’m actively observing, and I promise I’m eating well. Until next time!
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Text: “It’s foam season! Drink free beer!”