A week ago today, I arrived in St Petersburg. The journey was relatively straightforward compared with my trip to Perm, as you can fly direct from London in just over three hours. By some strange coincidence, my Oxford tutor was on the same flight as me, so we had a chat about the weather that we could expect to look forward to and where we were respectively planning on staying when we arrived. When I boarded the plane, a Russian man in my row helped me put my bags in the overhead racks and I sat down ready to enjoy a peaceful flight before being informed by a Russian woman that I was in her seat (I needed to be one row back). The Russian man later gave me her coat by accident, so in general she did not approve of me. I blithely swapped my English SIM for my Russian one mid-flight, but was somewhat peturbed upon arrival to find I had no service. My plane had been delayed anyway, and I knew my family would be worried, plus I had friends meeting me on the other side and couldn’t tell them I’d landed. I glared bitterly at the Russians around me who had immediately launched into full social media activist mode and all seemed to be talking to at least three people at once while my phone remained stubbornly blank. I made it through passport control and found my old friend – Stacey, or Nastya – waiting for me. We’ve known each other ever since I first came to Russia, having just started learning the language, in 2010 when my school ran an exchange. Since then, she’s been to stay with us twice and shown my parents and I round St Petersburg too. Her and her family – her grandmother Larissa and mother Alla – kindly invited me to stay with them while I’m here. It’s made settling in much easier than it was in Perm, because the city is relatively familiar and I feel I am with people who know me quite well.
It’s not been too cold here in the last week, although there has been plenty of snow and frost, so keep your fingers crossed that this warmer weather continues! On the way to the flat, we stopped at a Megafon store, Megafon being a Russian phone provider. The man who worked there was as perplexed as me as to why my phone refused to work, and gave us another SIM to try. After arriving at the flat and eating a delicious meal of mushroom soup and beef stew, I attempted to swap the SIMs, but my phone refused even to acknowledge the existence of the second card. I came very close to stabbing myself with the paperclip I was using as a makeshift implement for opening the SIM compartment of my phone, but decided eventually to give up and rely on my English SIM for the time being. I unpacked and settled down, although the family dog is still deeply distrustful of me and took to barking every time I walked to the bathroom or the kitchen (a practice that he has now thankfully more or less stopped, although he still won’t let me touch him). The next day, we navigated the St Petersburg metro, which is very quick and easy with my nearest station only two minutes’ walk from the flat, back to the Megafon shop where I was finally given a working SIM.
I then went to meet my two university ‘buddies’ who have been tasked with helping me settle in and arrange all the practical details of my stay ie. fulfil all the bureaucracy, of which there is a lot. My buddies turned out to be two lovely Uzbeks called Aziz and Gleb, who spoke excellent English and even better Russian. We talked about our respective home countries and what we were doing in Russia, as well as discussing literature and what to expect from the unviersity. I found out that it can get up to 60 degrees celsius in Tashkent in the summer, needless to say my new friends recommended I visit in Spring or Autumn instead. They have also offered to cook me the traditional Uzbek dish, plov. I am studying at the Higher School of Economics here, or at least I assume I will be, as I have yet to receive my timetable even now. We went to the international office where I was able to submit my documents for registration with the migration services, but they had no timetable for me and instead only gave me a contract to read through before signing. Even now, I still haven’t been told when most of my lessons will be, although they said (last week) that I should find out within a week. This is pretty frustrating as they specifically told me to arrive a few days before term started, however, Alla has offered to ring tomorrow and ask what is happening, and I have also sent a few increasingly starchy emails. The next day too, Gleb and I tried to get hold of a university membership card for me so that I could get through the security points at each campus, but this was also impossible despite the fact that we tried two of the three HSE campuses in town. Despite this, the campuses look modern, clean and very well-equipped and I am a particular fan of the Granola Cafe which has fab coffee and a variety of cheesecakes! I spent most of the next couple of days wandering around the town centre, enjoying the bustle of Nevsky Prospekt and the St Petersburg Galeria, which is the main mall, with its huge selection of shops and beautiful Christmas decorations, of which there are still many in the city given that the Russian Christmas was only on the 7th January.
I also joined the gym that Stacey and Alla use, which is wonderful, with a swimming pool, three saunas, a HUGE gym, a beauty salon and free personal trainer service included in your membership. So far I’ve been a couple of times and really enjoyed getting back into the swing of exercise. The sign-up process was a bit complicated because my brain decided to switch off and forgo any knowledge of Russian for a good half an hour, but something must have gone well because I received a shiny card.
On Thursday I had a language test too, to decide which group I should be in for the Russian language course I’d chosen to do alongside my main studies. I don’t mean to brag, but I was very proud when the teacher took one look at my paper and said “ah Hattie speaks Russian fluently”. This is most decidedly untrue, and I told him so, but does bode well, and I am now in the advanced class, which shows that the last few months have counted for something! Another bonus of being here is that it’s more of a hub for other Oxford students than Perm was. Sam, a fellow student of Russian from university back home, is also here and invited Stacey and I out on Friday. We sampled a jazz bar, a dance bar and a couple of clubs before I called a halt at 3am because I knew Stacey had lessons the next day (because I am totally the responsible one…).
I bitterly regretted my antics the next day as the Russians take their drinking very seriously, and prefer very strong shots to weaker, long drinks and it has taken the last couple of days to fully recover. One advantage of having some free time is that it has allowed me to settle in and do some of my Oxford work, which has most recently involved reading a novel about the commercialism of the post-Soviet 90s and the creative benefits of taking psychoactive mushrooms. I can assure you that this sounds a lot more exciting than it is, and my research progresses slowly, maybe because I’m lacking the aforementioned mushrooms (just kidding, Mum!). Hopefully I will end up with something like a working schedule this week, so far I know only that I have language classes on Tuesday and Thursday. Thank you for reading, and I’ll write again next week!