(Ed. note: Maggi Sliwinski '07 of East Concord, N.Y., is among more than a dozen HWS students and faculty who headed for Siberia shortly after graduation on May 14. This is the third entry in her “Siberia Journal.”)
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I've almost been in Russia for just over a week now. We arrived in Moscow on the 16th of May and got to see the Kremlin and also St. Basil's Cathedral — the one with the colorful domes.
Our flight from Moscow to Irkutsk was cancelled and we were forced to stay overnight in Moscow in a very strange hotel in the middle of nowhere. It didn't really feel like I was in Russia until we arrived at the airport in Irkutsk. The terminal was basically a wooden barn with the different sections (i.e. arrival, baggage claim) were sectioned off with chicken wire. It was about degrees 40 outside when we arrived.
We met the families we'd be staying with that morning, and most of us headed to our homestays and fell asleep for four hours before classes. I'm in an apartment building with Elena, who works at the university, and her grandmother. We get lots of good food cooked for us; last night we had a flat pancake they called “bellini.”
We've been having language classes everyday in the mornings, some “Siberia Today” classes in the afternoons, and lots of visits to museums. At the Limnological Museum in Listvyanka, we got to see the Nerpa, the only freshwater seals in the world. Our professors tell us that we've learned a lot of Russian for the amount of time we've had, and that we're getting great pronunciation taught to us — our teachers speak only in Russian during class.
Irkutsk is a city of about 600,000 people. Most of the girls and women wear high heels everywhere, and they are well dressed all the time. We Americans stick out like sore thumbs because we're loud, dressed funny, and carrying backpacks around. Many Russians are very quiet; they speak quietly and it's considered rude to be noisy in public.
Yesterday we had a meeting with university students about environmental issues in Irkutsk and Russia, and we got into some good discussions about what they can do to initiate some “green” thinking and acting. There was a German exchange student in the room who said that Russians do a lot of talking but not much acting, and most of the Russians agreed with this, and said that maybe it was due to their upbringing and the former Soviet policies.
The food here was at first a little hard to deal with, lots of fish and mayonaise, and Russians don't distinguish between breakfast and other meals; so, for example, I was served cucumbers, crab and mayo for breakfast the first morning. I've gotten a little more used to it, plus my host seems to be dealing better with my eating habits. We also drink a lot of tea; it comes after every meal and sometimes in between.
This first half of the trip has been lessons in the language and learning about the city, the second half will be more about the environment and nature. I'm looking forward to that because it's more oriented toward what I'm interested in. I hope to send pictures when I return to the states, and probably won't be able to write again until we return home: there is limited access to Internet and little time to write.