Thursday, June 30, 2005

From Paris to Petersburg

When I left Paris it was raining. It followed my mood, as saying good bye to loved ones – lets be frank here – hurts like hell. I took Pulkovo Airlines direct to St. Petersburg. Russian airline, Russian airplane, Russian mentality. Pulkovo was running over an hour late, departing and arriving. The plane itself gave one very much the impression that a couple of guys just got together to make an airplane. American airplanes, and most American products for that matter, show very little signs of human construction or involvement. I would be hard-pressed on an American airplane to tell you what exactly a human being did. But on this airplane, you could still see droplets and brushstrokes in the gray paint on the metal tray table. An hour into the flight, the exit door I was sitting next to starting sweating with condensed water pushed in from the outside. When the plane finally did land safely, all the passengers applauded. I asked a Russian girl sitting next to me if this was because it is unusual for Russian pilots to land successfully. I was only half joking.
It was after midnight when I arrived but the sky still had the glow of twilight because of the White Nights. My ride was an old Soviet Lada with no seatbelts and a driver who spoke no English, and grumbled quite loudly in Russian about having to work so late. He took me down long, enormously wide streets, past widely spaced, large drab buildings and across railroad tracks. I had never really thought about the Cold War being a factor when I decided to come to Russia, but once here, I suddenly realized that not too long ago, I wouldn't have been allowed to come here.
I arrived late and retired to my host mother's small, second-story apartment. My room would be the pride of anyone who loved the 1970s. The entire room is dark brown or fake wood with a particularly spectacular photograph of an autumn lake landscape covering the largest wall. Bookshelves filled with impressive-looking works of Russian literature occupy the wall space that isn't taken up with old photographs of people whom I can only assume are Irina's family members. I have a rather large bed and chair, both of which are covered in the same brown upholstery. But for all that gaudy decor, my desk is the only thing I really can't stand. A pane of glass covers thousands of pictures of dogs and other memorabilia. Even when it's clean, I constantly have the impression that it's cluttered.
My host mother, Irina, seems like a good match so far. We mostly stay out of each other's way but when it's time for dinner we find stuff to talk about... well, she does most of the talking so far. She's a great cook too, so that's also good.
I had to wake up at 6 on the morning after I arrived to take a level test at my language school. The school seems very good as it provides many services and has a small cafeteria. I enjoy my classes so far, but I feel like I have to work hard to catch up with my group. There are four students in my group, but two of them don't really take the classes seriously, so my only real classmate is an Austrian woman who knows, I believe, four other Slavic languages, so she picks up Russian pretty quickly. Speaking of which, I really ought to go study.

Friday, June 24, 2005

In the sweltering heat of Lyon, the full moon shines brightly on my problems

Well, this last week has been interesting. I have been putting out fires literally as soon as I walked out of the Lyon airport, back from my brief visit back home for my brother's wedding.

The first was my landlord. I was moving out and I have had nothing but problems from the guy ever since I moved in.

At the end, it was even worse. First, I had to go down to the Treasury to pay a habitation tax that the landlord normally pays. Then I had to let him in my apartment for a "pre-final" check, totally unheard of, to make sure I didn't break anything. At this check, he brought out a list of charges that I owed him, amounting to over 400 euros. After a lot of fighting from me, my boyfriend and the Centre Oregon, we were able to bring that figure down to around 300 euros – but it still hurt.

Because he is such an asshole, however, my boyfriend Rodrigue and I knew that we would have to thoroughly clean my apartment or else he would ding us for something else. The day arrived to move out: I had started packing the night before and continued through the next morning. In despite of insupportable 95 degree heat with high humidity we moved everything across town and spent the entire afternoon cleaning our 18 square meters until it shined.

With the next morning's final check at 8:30, I didn't have a prayer of catching up on the lack of sleep I'd been nursing since I got back. But finally, at 10 a.m., I had what was left of my deposit and that story was over.

From my appointment with my landlord, I went to finish up with my second dilemma.

The day after I got back from the States, I went down to the Visa office to give them my passport and an application for a Russian visa. I had worked for months and paid 25 euros to get the required letter of invitation that my language program normally gives quickly and easily. My being in France apparently complicated things. Anyway, I finally got the letter with one week to spare before my flight and had to apply for an urgent (read: more expensive) visa. At the visa office, however, they said that in order to apply for a visa in France as a foreigner, I had to have a visa in France that lasted for three months after my application for a Russian visa, even if I wasn't coming back. This turned out not to be true for Americans, but put my relocation to Russia in jeopardy for a good week. I got out of the whole deal for a measly $165 euros.

Many other minor problems or tasks came up, but nothing of note. Just all the loose ends to tie up when one moves. All the paperwork to do. All the friends to see whom you might not ever see again. All the experiences that you soon won't have the chance to have.

But all that is done and I turn now towards my summer in Russia. My host family consists of a mother and her daughter who is my age. They both speak French, so if I get stuck, we can still communicate. They live four metro stops from my school where I will be taking 20 hours per week of language classes. In my spare time, I'll meet a couple of friends I already know in Russia and I'm even crazy enough to try walking in for an internship at the English-language St. Petersburg Times. Wish me luck.

I leave from Paris in the afternoon on Sunday and arrive before midnight during a White Night in St. Petersburg when the pearlescent sky never quite darkens. I will have a cell phone number soon after arriving so email me if you'd like it. I don't know how available internet will be, but I will find a way to keep in contact.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Leaving France, heading to Russia

The end of my adventure is in sight. In a few days I'll be home again, surrounded by friends and family and the familiar countryside that I've known for 21 years. I'm trying not to let it depress me too much.

I've had such a wonderful time here. It's been so exciting and I've had very few mishaps along the way. Though I still feel like "l'étrangère," I have become really attached to my life here. I feel very much like I was "meant" to be here, if you'll allow me a little bit of New Age philosophy. Doors were opened to me when I knocked. Opportunities presented themselves at every turn. My life here was like something a novelist would invent.

I started out my year on Quai St. Vincent. My room had a romantic view of the river Sâone and the Old City so I could sit by my window and ponder the differences between my culture and the French one. My host family's apartment itself was a spacious converted monastery dating from the 16th century, providing a good atmosphere for dinners and evening get-togethers.

Though I wasn't looking for love, it quickly found me in the form of a dynamic and intelligent young Gabonese student named Rodrigue. He lived four hours away by train, but our "coup de foudre" proved to be the push he needed to move to Lyon, something he'd been wanting to do anyway. The ensuing relationship (8 months and counting...) would teach me about African culture with an intensity second only to actually living in Africa.

With the blossoming of a love story came the wilting of a welcoming household. My stay at the Araignous' permitted me to ease into my life here and provided me with a little insight into French family life, but the wasted expense on food that wasn't being provided and a family that was rarely there finally outweighed the good. On the last day of November, I walked out of that apartment with the two suitcases I had come with and started a new chapter.

I moved into a studio apartment on Rue de l'epargne ("street of savings," seriously) with a panorama of Lyon. My nearest metro stop is Sans Souci, "No worries," and I can walk to the nearby Boulevard of the United States by taking a left down the Avenue of Europe from the Road of Eternity. If my life really were a novel, people would laugh at how cheesy the choice of placenames was.

I soon after started work at my dream internship at the second-largest regional newspaper in France. The name of my paper, "The Progress," also has a metaphorical effect, certainly much more than other French papers, who have names like "Liberation," "World," or "West-France," would have. 
To this day I have no idea how I got this internship. I frequently ask myself exactly that; usually when I'm about to interview some French person in French and then write my article on it in French. Ça craint. But I tell myself that difficulties I encounter are of the "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger" type. It's the bootcamp of newspaper journalism. From now on, unless I'm in any physical danger, I will always be able to say "this isn't as bad as the time when..." 

For the holidays, my brief stint back in the States was an opportunity to see normally distant extended family. It was also an opportunity to look at the northeastern United States with the eyes of an adult. Would I want to go to Graduate school there? Would I want to work there? Would I want to live there? The next stages in my life demand the answers to these questions and the visit allowed me to explore the idea.

My life back in France was calling, however. My best friend, Kaci, an American I had met on the program, had just broken up with her boyfriend and was in need of emotional support. The details of how she found out that the scoundrel was cheating on her are also so unbelievable as to only be found in a novel, but since they actually happened, you all will just have to guess.

My classes at the ILCF were going so well that I graduated into one of the highest levels for second semester. Luckily, most of my friends from the first semester were there too and many students in the class, including me, were the only one of their nationality, which made for a very interesting cultural mix.

As Spring vacation approached I became restless to leave Lyon, but my plans kept falling through. At the last minute I was invited to Italy with three friends from the Centre Oregon program. The trip was a taste of a voyage within a voyage that I was looking for. It gave me a vacation and some fun times but mostly allowed me to appriciate the stability I have in Lyon.

The life I've lived since has been calm and more or less the experience of living abroad that I was wanting. I've been able to experience a lot here, and I hope you all have enjoyed reading this blog, the novel of my life. But the best novelistic touch came this spring when, while shaking my rugs out the window, I looked down at the ground. Being five floors up, I was sure I was mistaken, but when I went downstairs to look, there they were. A patch of wild Shasta daisies, blooming up right next to my apartment building. I haven't seen them anywhere else in France. Maybe I, too, have made my mark here.

Look for the next exciting edition: Shasta in Russia


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