Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Princeton in St Petersburg: How to Kill Time in St. Petersburg (with an axe, of course)

Two weeks now remain in the eight-week marathon of language-learning that is Princeton in St. Petersburg. I can safely say that this is not the best time to ask my opinion of the program. I strongly advise that you wait a couple of weeks, give me a few days of blissful idleness on the beach, and I am sure what I have to say will be completely different. And so about the program itself—the twenty hours of grammar, conversation, and reading class plus the fun and exciting exercises assigned as homework each day—I will hold off on passing any judgments on that component of my study abroad experience at this time.

What follows are the words of a weary, sun-deprived beachgoer longing for the warm, comparatively tropical, climes of her native Long Island. Here in Russia I have been soaked, chilled, pounded with hail, covered in urban grime, and slammed by the doors leading to the metro on a remarkably frequent basis. I have eaten more cabbage in a matter of days than in the rest of my life combined. I have seen wet afternoons and gray expanses of time stretch like saltwater taffy, reaching unheard of lengths.

And what exactly do I do with myself? While perusing my Oxford New Russian Dictionary one evening, I came across the ideal word with which to answer this question--бродить (pronounced bruh-deet). The verb is imperfective, which as all students of Russian know, indicates that the action denoted by the verb is frequent or habitual, with the emphasis on process as opposed to result. Defined as “to wander, roam, stroll; ferment,” бродить really is all about the process—of roaming the city without a definite destination, and seeing all the sights in between the ones marked out in my Lonely Planet guidebook.

As any dedicated flaneur knows, the well-beaten path is a necessary evil. No matter how hard I try, I always end up on Nevsky Prospekt, the main artery of St. Petersburg, or in front of the Hermitage, where the crowds of tourists pouring off of tour buses and cruise ships flock like a miasma of fruit flies over a slice of watermelon. But are all the palaces, museums, picturesque canals, and glittering fountains that make St. Petersburg the tourist destination that it is what I am most fond of in this fantastic city? Of course not. What kind of flaneur would I be if all I cared about was the postcard-perfect sights that abound here?

Perhaps the imposing, aged brick walls of Kresty Prison or the crumbling, classical archway of New Holland Island will be what I remember most vividly from this trip. I rejoice in the antiquated architecture of the backstreets, the sepia-toned alleys, and the dilapidated courtyards, all of which are becoming harder and harder to find in a city where restorations and new construction sites are popping up everywhere. But the hours (and hours and hours) I spend strolling St. Petersburg, camera in hand, are well worth all the blisters, calluses, and worn-out shoes. In any case, it fills the time I would have spent on my laptop. If I had my laptop. Two weeks left.

-Alexandra Hay '12