On Reverse Culture Shock and Readjusting

Home home home! It has been wonderful. I spent two full weeks with family and friends catching up on all the things I’ve missed and just spending time relaxing with them. It’s been marvelous and everything I’ve hoped for. They have been thoughtful, understanding, loving, and supportive of my experience, and I’m truly lucky. But…

I still miss St. Petersburg. A lot. In fact:

25 Things I Already Miss About St. Petersburg

  1. Efficient public transportation (aka: not driving in snow)
  2. Almette Cheese Spread
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  3. Borsch
  4. Let’s just say all Russian food because it was delicious. Mmmmm, all healthy and organic.
  5. Счастье Кафе
  6. Produktis on every corner. (Little grocery stores)
  7. Bread trucks
  8. Hot chocolate that is literally just a melted candy bar. (If you want the American form of Hot Chocolate, ask for Hot Cocoa aka: Какао.)
  9. Boyarskiy shots
  10. Cheap books
  11. Easy access to ZARA stores
  12. Пышки
  13. The city’s beauty (I find I am missing this the most.)
  14. My razgavor professor. She was exceptional.
  15. Marshrutkas
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  16. Easy access to Georgian cuisine
  17. Russian culture – ballets, museums, operas…
  18. Hearing Russian spoken and reading in cyrillic 24/7
  19. Not always understanding what everyone is saying around you. Sometimes, it is nice to be blissfully unaware.
  20. How kind Russian people are. They are far more willing to go out of their way to help someone than Americans are.
  21. Being pale is considered to be attractive and normal over there!
  22. Banyas
  23. How classy people looked. I was amazed at just how sloppy most Americans dress. Sweatpants will never be acceptable in public ever again.
  24. Russian frankness
  25. The wonderful friends that I had to leave behind.

There are, however, many things I appreciate more now that I have returned home, such as: water pressure in the showers, large towels that cover your entire body, drinking tap water and getting water for free in restaurants/bars, not needing to use a converter for everything, high sanitary standards, and an efficient post office/mail delivery service (just for starters). A pet peeve of mine at my host’s, particularly since I grew up in the dairy state of Wisconsin, was that she would leave cheese sitting open in the refrigerator, which caused it to get hard and stale within a day or so.

As a Sconnie, that is just sinful.

But I must warn anyone returning back from a long trip abroad: reverse culture shock is very real. (Heads up, this post is about to get serious. I’m going to be completely honest about everything and I encourage anyone who has experienced reverse culture shock to leave me a message with their thoughts on how they went through it and moved passed it.) There are exceptions, I’m sure, and everyone suffers from it under varying degrees but it exists. And from what I’ve gathered through other friends, reverse cultures shock is even worse than the original. The best explanation I can give is one I read on a fellow tumblr site.

“Why is reverse culture shock worse? Well, unfortunately, I do not have an exact answer for this, but my guess would be something along these lines:  When you go abroad, everything is new and different and exciting.  People understand that this is strange to you.  It’s not like that back home.  You may have been off changing, but you’ll find that the people back home have been living more or less the same life.  And their idea of you, who you are, has remained more or less the same as well.  They’re going to be expecting the you that left so long ago, but you’re not going to fit into that box anymore.”

I’ve read that there are two periods of it: the first was the clear shock stage right after getting off the plane, while the second took place 6-8 months after returning home. I have only experienced the first so far, so I can give my personal account of that.

The first is when the really obvious differences are going to be confusing and probably bug the crap out of you. I had expected the jet lag struggle (it’s very real), the readjusting to processed foods (I threw up for the first 3-5 days. Spicy foods in particular, until my stomach finally accepted it.), and the peculiar mannerisms from strangers. I was not expecting to find myself growing annoyed with people who were close to me. Friends, family, neighbors… It wasn’t their fault – they hadn’t changed, I had – but there it was. I found myself grinding my teeth when I was constantly interrupted in the middle of a sentence (Americans are notorious for this). I found that I would personally get hurt feelings when friends and family would ask “How was Russia?” but only cared to listen for the first 3-5 minutes before they grew bored with the topic.  To me, it came off so insincere a question that I stopped bothering to answer it with more than a, “Great! Hard to sum it up in just a few sentences.” I’d wait to see if that actually cared to ask more. Some people did. See, in America, questions such as, “How are you?” or “How was ____?” are normally asked as a greeting rather than actually wishing for a long-winded response. I had grown used to the Russian approach to this question, however, which was a you-better-sit-down-because-you’re-going-to-be-here-for-a-while sort of thing. I had forgotten that not everyone wanted to listen to my adventure, and sometimes that was hard to swallow. It was okay, they were entitled to that, but that didn’t mean it didn’t sting a little. Things such as foot/shoe etiquette (which is very different in Russia from America, where feet are considered generally cleanish rather than Untouchables), the appropriateness of kissing friends in greeting, hearing “This is completely unacceptable.” in a Starbucks line, mean-muggging anyone who is whistling indoors, and forgetting the English equivalent for the word I wanted to say would would frustrate me more than I had planned. Stereotypical comments such as, “Are you a communist now?” or “How’s our little Russian spy?” or “God, I hope our country never turns out like that.” – usually meant in good humor – would cause me to roll my eyes and get defensive. There were a lot of things that Americans could learn from Russians, just as there were a lot of things Russians could take note on from Americans. We both have things we could work on, but, in my mind, who were they to judge this other culture when they hadn’t had the experience that I had? What I realized was that there are going to be some common misconceptions about the place you were, so it may be a good idea to prepare short answers to frequently asked questions. This way you won’t be caught off guard when people ask you questions that may sound ignorant (“Does everyone drink vodka for breakfast, lunch, and dinner”) or somewhat offensive. I had read an article before I had left about trying to refrain from saying, “Well, when I lived ______” or “Well, over in ________ …” so as not to come off as “pretentious” or that I was “bragging”, so I tried to keep silent about my experience unless someone asked. Don’t get me wrong, I understand why it could get a little annoying to hear “When I was in Russia…” over and over. I mean, I was only there for four months right? How could I not just snap back into my American life like the flip of a light-switch? But it’s the truth. A lot happens in four months, in both the US and Russia. I found that not sharing my trip, more than anything, was the most frustrating because I couldn’t relate to anything that had gone on in the past few months in the United States. I hadn’t been here. 

As bad as I make it all sound, though, it really wasn’t. It’s more of an internal struggle where you have to watch what you say and think about how you’re going to approach a situation. Social interactions in America differ than in Russia. You have to remember that most people don’t mean to hurt your feelings or annoy you. It’s just happening because social interactions were not like this in your host country. So just recognize it for what it is and work through it. You’ll readjust before you know it.

The second phase that takes place a few months later is something that I’ve only read about. I’ll let you all know if I feel the same way come mid-June. As a fellow blogger wrote,

“This is a much deeper discomfort—the kind you might not be able to put your finger on for a while, a general antsy-ness, a feeling of distance or displacement.  You might find yourself lashing out against your native culture or attempting to recede into your adopted one.  Personally, I remember feelings of otherness, as if I had lost my own culture and my place in it but hadn’t fully integrated into the second.  I had nowhere.  No culture.  That was the worst.”

Let’s face it, it’s hard moving back home to your previous life after having such an adventure abroad. It seems a little anti-climatic after what you’ve just experienced. Basic things such as missing your old routine, FaceTiming friends who are still over there or abroad, accidentally forgetting words from your native language, reading about historical sights and tours that you missed, and feeling lost and out of sorts back home in your native country are normal. I’ve already slipped into using Russian on a day to day basis because I fear that I will forget it all now that I’m not constantly surrounded by my adoptive language. I once read that a second language is like a muscle that you must work constantly or it will atrophy. It’s made me paranoid.

My best advice is to plan in advance. Research the heck out of reverse culture shock. It sounds silly, but it helped me to move past it when I recognized what it was. Take lots of pictures and bring back mementos that mean something to you rather than those chintzy, cheap souvenirs that you could find on eBay. Don’t always take photos of buildings or artwork either. Take photos of your walk home from school or work, of your favorite restaurant and foods, of the people that you pass on the street. It will remind you of more than tourist attractions. Make sure to get addresses, phone numbers, emails, VK, and Facebook contact information from all your friends abroad too. Maybe even try to plan a trip to return for a visit, if you have the means! Save up and bring your family/friends with, so that you can share your experience with them. Another great way to share your trip with them, minus the non-stop commentary, is by cooking up some traditional dishes or watching a movie you enjoyed abroad. I know I’m going to attempt making borsch for my family and khatchipurri for my roommate. (Pictures to come on the result.)

At the same time, don’t compare and contrast your home with your host country. Just like your own country can frustrate you at times, your host country isn’t without its problems. Each has their positives and negatives, and it can be easy to forget that once you’ve returned home. It’s okay to miss it, though. Even cry over it. I know I get teary-eyed when I think back to my life in Petersburg, and I haven’t even been gone long. Just try to remember that your responsibilities are now back in your native country. Embrace your study abroad experience, but don’t forget that your life is no longer there and you cannot live in the past. There are many wonderful things going on in your life here, and those are the things you need to focus on. In all reality, life has probably moved on without you being there and not everything will seem familiar. You will have to readapt to the positive and negative changes that occurred, but remember that, despite the sacrifices you made going abroad, it was definitely worth the experience.

Finally, and most importantly, don’t forget to remind your family that they were missed. Because they were. A lot. (Remember Thanksgiving? Yeah. You better shower them with love.) Make sure to ask about their lives and their semester, any new updates you missed while you were gone, and take notice of new furniture of decorations around the house. Your family will appreciate it, trust me. They missed you a lot, so be sure to give them the attention they deserve. If you’re like me, you may want to just block out an entire week or so before going off to see friends. Also, remember that not everyone has the opportunity to study abroad and factor this in to your conversation so that you sound appreciative about your experience, not snooty.

I hope this post didn’t come off as negative. It was merely to caution anyone who is going to go abroad for a while because this is a reality you’ll have to face upon returning. Honestly, my readjustment went great. Jet lag was gone in a week, I was eating Mexican food within five days, and I was falling into my American habits by the time New Years Eve came around. You should have seen my face when I saw my parents’ refrigerators.

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100% accurate

I still have some bad Russian habits I’m trying to break, and some good ones I’m trying to keep. Time is the best cure. You just have to ride it all out until it takes hold.

Know what I found out helps a lot? Starting a blog.

Проживай каждый день будто последний. Наслаждайся каждым мигом, каждой секундой своего существования. Впитывай каждую каплю радости и счастья, улыбок и прикосновений. Занимайся тем, без чего жить не можешь. Люби безоглядно, обнимай крепче стали. Цени прошлое, смотри в настоящее. И будь счастлива. В конце концов ты этого достойна.

“Live each day like the last. Enjoy every moment, every second of its existence. Absorb every drop of joy and happiness, smiles and touches. Tend to those whom you cannot live without . Love recklessly, hug stronger than steel. Appreciate the past, look to the present. And be happy. After all, you deserve it.”

(And just in case this post was a little heavy, here is an image of Putin playing with balloon animals. Yes, you read that right.)

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Well, everyone has a a hobby.

I came, I saw, I banya-ed.

It’s so hard to believe I’m down to less than two weeks left in St. Petersburg. (Twelve days, to be exact.)  I must admit, it’s a strange feeling knowing that I will be leaving this beautiful city so soon. I’ve grown used to my daily routine – buying my vanilla and chocolate флейнта at the Буше bread truck, the morning metro commute, walking the halls of the Smolny convent for class, heading to Счастье cafe to do some homework with Ryan, exploring St.P on the weekend – it is going to be strange returning to the States where things are so different. A girl in my program said that one of the strangest experiences upon her return to the U.S. after being abroad was the ability to read and understand everything without having to translate it in your head. While I’m able to read Cyrillic quite easily, just being able to look at a street sign and understand it will come as naturally as breathing back home in America. I’m certain there are a few other things I will have to readjust to after living in the Motherland for four months. Because of this, I’ve decided to compile a list – some borrowed from other websites or tumblrs – of daily sights and activities that I’ve grown accustomed to here that might not be the same back in the U.S.

20 Signs You’ve Been Living in St. Petersburg 

  1. You catch yourself whistling indoors and feel guilty.
  2. You never smile in public when you’re alone.
  3. Cigarette smoke becomes ‘tolerable’.
  4. You know seven people whose favorite novel is The Master and Margarita.
  5.  You develop a liking for beets.
  6. You give a 10% tip only if the waiter has been really exceptional.
  7. Seeing a car mount the curb and cruise by is no big deal.
  8. You know the safest places to get good shaverma.
  9. When these need no explanation:
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  10. When you carry sunglasses, mittens, and an umbrella on you at all times.
  11. You’re no longer surprised when you professor answers his/her cell phone in class.
  12. You wear a wool hat in the sauna.
  13. “Boyarskii shots” and “hatchapouri” become integral parts of your vocabulary.
  14. You immediately recognize these strange foods….and know to avoid them, if possible. (Not a fan of the gelatin meat in particular…)
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  15. You carry toilet paper or tissue paper on you at all times.
  16. You have VKontakte. Because it is better than Facebook in all ways.
  17. You now understand Russian slang.
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  18. Your feet no longer notice that you’ve spent 10-12 hours in heels on cobblestones.
  19. Successfully took a gypsy cab and was not ripped off.
  20. When Улыбка Радуги gives you kopeks.
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I have been putting my spare time to good use, however! This past week I visited more museums and palaces than I think I did the entire first month I was here. First, I had the opportunity to travel and hour south of St. Petersburg to the suburb of Pushkin to see the famous Catherine’s Palace. Not even the clouds and the footpaths that were covered with six inches of ice could diminish the glory of the Great Palace of Царское Село.

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The famous “Amber Room” of Catherine’s Palace.DSC_5004 DSC_5025

This weekend I also had the chance to visit Menshikov’s Palace, which was once the home of the Russian statesman Alexander Menshikov. Despite the allegations of fraud against him, which were brushed under the rug thanks to his close friendship with Peter the Great, Menshikov’s story is that of a peasant who rose to one of the highest positions of power during that time period. This was due to Peter the Great’s decision to have nobility based on merit rather than birthright. While his palace was certainly large and exquisite, it was no where near the extravagance of Peterhof or Yusupov. It was a rather refreshing change to see a more modest palace!

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“modest”

The Kunstkamera Museum (Aka: Peter the Great’s Anthropology and Ethnography Museum) and the Zoological Museum were fascinating! The Zoological Museum housed an actual mummified wooly mammoth calf that had been found in the Yamal region of Siberia, as well as models of almost every living creature that has been discovered so far on this planet. It was massive. 

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Two Minnesotans in their natural habitat. 

The Kunstkamera museum was interesting and…disturbing. Peter the Great was incredibly interested in studying anatomy, something that wasn’t quite popular during that time. The walls of the Kunstkamera were lined with jars of mutated and deformed fetuses that Peter the Great had dissected and observed 300 years ago. After a couple of minutes, I felt a little sick to my stomach…

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And, finally, the last museum I had a chance to visit was the massive Russian State Museum. It was a founded in 1895 by Nicholas II and is the largest depository of Russian fine art in St. Petersburg. I thought it was incredibly interesting to see the progression of art in Russia, starting with icon paintings and working our way up to more contemporary art. I was actually so enthralled with the different paintings that I forgot to take pictures! Here are a few of the ones I snapped on my phone:

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This weekend was also the perfect time to explore the city! It snowed a bit, but the nights were rather clear and I was able to snag a few photos along the Neva river and the Moika embankment.

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Moika Embankmentnighttime

Canal Griboedova
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The Hermitage lit up at night. 

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Kunstkamera Museum

It also gave me the perfect opportunity to go and explore inside Спас на крови or “Church on Spilled Blood”, as it is more popularly known. I felt that it would be a huge disappointment to leave Petersburg without having been inside the most well known church! Let me say, it was beautiful. I’ve been in MANY churches while in Russia, but Спас на крови was one of my favorites. The colors were so vibrant, and the holy gates were extravagant but not gaudy.  Take a look for yourself below!

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As I mentioned before, Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays and we were able to celebrate it in style here in Russia. By the end of the night I was stuffed full of turkey, pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes, and a sweet potato souffle! While I certainly missed spending time with my family, this was the next best thing. I’m so thankful that I had such wonderful friends to share a traditional American holiday meal with while abroad. It felt as if we had carved out our own little section of America there at Smolny.

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Alright, you guys have waited long enough if you’ve read all the way to here. I’m sure you’re interested in hearing about the most Russian thing I did this past weekend: the Banya. I’ll be honest – I don’t know if I will be able to properly put into words how strange and awesome the Russian banya is, but I will do my absolute best. First, let me start off by saying that I went with my best girl friend on the program, Ryan, and our wonderful Russian friend, Anya. I felt a little better knowing that there would be no problem with the language barrier. It’s hard enough trying to properly formulate a sentence in Russian. Now add being naked.

And I don’t mean kinda naked. I mean as naked as the day you were born. Yeah, so go with people you’re comfortable with.

Because nothing says friendship quite like strippin’ down and beating each other with branches…

As an American, the blatant nakedness was kind of a shock. Sure we were separated from the males, but most Americans are not that open or comfortable with such exposure, and usually attempt a little decency by wrapping themselves in a towel at all times while walking around. Even at the YMCA everybody would turn toward a wall and keep their eyes down while changing. Well, in Russia, you need to get over that awkwardness ASAP because it only gets stranger/more awesome from there.

So after stripping down and wrapping myself in a gown I swear to God, it was a bedsheet…. we then proceeded to the wet sauna, which was about 130-140 degrees, and the air is so thick with moisture that we were quickly  dripping with sweat and condensation. After about 20 minutes, we left that and immediately jumped into the cold pool, which was about 65 degrees Fahrenheit. It is the most shocking sensation to go from such intense heat to such a cold temperature! My muscles felt all loose and relaxed after the first dip, so we went and laid down alongside of the pool for a couple of minutes before prepping ourselves for the most exciting part of the banya: the birch branches.

Now, I had thought the wet sauna was hot, but I had had no idea what was coming. The most famous part of the banya looks like a little wooden cabin, has a humidity of 60-70%, and temperatures that exceed over 200 degrees Fahrenheit. No, you read that right.

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If Hell had a travel brochure.

Before we could enter the banya, though, we had to put on these funny wool hats to protect our hair from the intense heat. Then, we grabbed our birch branches and climbed up onto the wooden racks. I felt like a slab of meat put over a grill, it was so warm, and I thought my eyes were melting out of their sockets.

With all this going on, it was pretty easy to forget you were buck naked in a room full of old women and your two friends.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the birch branches, but I have to say that it was rather enjoyable. It was a strange stinging sensations, but it wasn’t painful. Let me say that Anya went to town on my back. The birch branches aren’t used to gently brush your friend’s back, no. These leafy bundles, called venik, are used for the purpose of trying to improve blood circulation, intensifying capillary activities, and improving metabolism. Venik leaves release phytoncides – biologically active substance that kills or depresses the growth and development of pathogens – and the essential oils released prevent aging.

So you beat the living hell out of each other. 

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After this, we quickly ran back to the cool pool to shock our bodies one more time. It was as if the outside of our bodies had quickly cooled but the insides remained warm. We did this three more times before finally calling it quits. It was hard to believe that we had spent four hours at the banya. I could have spent the whole day there!

My final review? The banya is wonderful. If you ever visit Russia, make sure you go. Leave your discomfort at the door or else you will miss out on an amazing Russian experience. Plus, my skin felt silky smooth and rejuvenated once I left.

If you haven’t gotten tired of reading this post yet, I will leave you with a few other random thoughts and observations before I finish!

* (Another girl on the program did something similar to this, so I decided to give it a go!) Here’s a little attempt at math for you: My daily commute from my apartment to school and back is about 3 hours. This includes the walk to my bus stop, the bus ride I take to the metro, the 5 minute ride purely on the escalator to go more than 200 ft underground, the metro ride itself, back up the escalator, and then either walking to a shuttle bus and riding that to school or taking the trolley and walking from the bus stop. I make this trek four times a week, but we will round it up to five since I’ll include time spent traveling on weekends (although, I probably spend even more time on the weekend, but for simplicity’s sake we will keep it to five). By the end of this trip I will have been in Russia 105 days. Three hours = 180 minutes x 5 days a week x 15 weeks that I am here in Petersburg. Guess what this equals? 13,500 minutes. Guess what that is in days?

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By the time I leave Petersburg I will have spent about 10 days just riding the transportation around the city. It’s no wonder that Russians travel with books in their hands! You can get a lot of reading and work done during that much time!

* Pandora music channel doesn’t exist here. Neither does Netflix. I’m telling you: Get a VKontakte. It will save your life over here.

* A kopek is the worst thing to see in your wallet because it is equal to .03 of a US penny. I didn’t think something so useless could exist, but it does…

* To explain from my list above, shaverma is the shadiest but most delicious food you can find when you’re drunk for cheap in Russia. The problem is that some places aren’t the safest. NEVER eat street food shaverma from the trucks or the little street stands because you’re probably not eating chicken like they’re advertising, and I can almost guarantee that they follow zero health code regulations. ALWAYS buy it from an actual shaverma restaurant. Specifically, the one on the corner of Dumskaya and Lomonosov. It’s magical.

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I kid you not. This is safer than street food.

* English gets harder the longer that I am here. I’m either trying to speak more Russian, or I am around Russians who are not always quite fluent in English. I find myself forgetting how to spell certain things that are not in cyrillic, or floundering to find the correct word for translation. Please forgive any grammatical mistakes I make while writing these. (It’s 1:30am here.) Instead of improving at a second language, I now just feel like I suck at two. Ужасно!

* There is nothing worse than the metro during rush hour.
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* I’ve lost a fair amount of weight in Russia. Yay for defying statistics!

* While I know I’ve mentioned the chivalrous, sometimes verging on misogynistic, men in Russia, I feel I’ve failed to mention the creepy/aggressive ones that will sometimes harass poor young girls.

Them:

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Me:

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So, here is a rather uncomfortable but necessary piece of advice. As creepy as they are, and believe me I know, I cannot stress this enough: Do not engage with them. If a Russian man is harassing you on the street, ignore him.  Put on your coldest, haughtiest Russia face and keep walking.  Do not awknowledge, not even to snear disdainfully at him.  These men are five year olds.  Ignore them and they’ll move on. If you do not, they might follow you home. As much as you might want to, do not smack, flip off, or insult them.  The only thing that might do is make matters escalate, quickly and aggressively. I’m thankful that the one time I couldn’t hold my tongue nothing happened, but it is not a situation you should go on the offensive. Russians don’t fight the same way we do in America. It will hurt, and you will lose.

I hate to leave it on that note, so here is a picture of Jake, myself, and a very kind Russian police officer who rode the marshrutka (a mini shuttle bus) and metro back home with us from Pushkin.

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Anyway, I have to go MC a talent show at a nightclub in Russia now. Leave me a comment to let me know your thoughts!

Люблю,
Кайла