by Sarah McPhee
It is expected that an international studies graduate student will have studied abroad, but it is also expected that a mother of three children will not disappear to the other side of the globe for three to nine months. When you are a single mother, a REECAS graduate student, and you have never traveled beyond your own continent, you have some important choices to make. This is why the Early Fall Start Sochi Exploration Seminar was an ideal experience for my first trip to Russia.
Everything about international travel was a novelty to me, from the frustrations of going through multiple security lines to the expectation adjustments required when dealing with multiple languages, currencies, and cultures in the airports. Simply getting to Sochi alongside a dear friend in the same program was an amazing adventure. After two six-hour layovers in Los Angeles and Istanbul, two trips through American security, three in-flight films, and four terrible hours of sleep, I was about to fulfill my life-long goal of traveling to Russia.
Of course, my first experience in Russia was frustrating and perplexing. An older Russian man cut me in the passport line and refused to acknowledge that I had been there first, but I was in no position to argue with him. Then, when I went into the booth, the woman checking my passport sent me back into the line and called security. After my friend spoke to her, we were both sent through to speak to the security guard. He was a very imposing wanted to know everything about our trip, all of our contacts, why we were in Sochi. This was the first time in my life that I had ever felt as though I was under suspicion, and in the wee hours of the night, after my first international flight, I was a little shaken.
Finally, he sent us to grab our luggage. Our host was waiting for us, holding an American flag. We groaned to each other because we did not want to call attention to foreignness, but then we smiled, greeted our host, and made our way through the airport. As we exited, my friend, who is an African-American, became a topic of conversation among the local taxi drivers. “She’s practically kavkaz,” one sneered. It was not the first time she would receive stares on the trip, but she assured me that after several study-abroad opportunities in Russia, she had become begrudgingly accustomed to it.
The learning experiences in Sochi were varied and often interesting. We ate a large, traditional Russian breakfast every morning, including sirniki, blini, and kasha, and I am grateful to our hostess who valiantly attempted to accommodate the six vegetarians in our group of thirteen (myself among them). Following breakfast, we spent three hours every morning studying Russian language through history and the nexus between Russian linguistics and culture. Occasionally we met with our Sochi Partners, students studying English at the local university, to gain greater insight into the nuances of colloquial Russian and swap cultural quirks. We were often surprised at how greatly their perspectives differed from ours, especially on politics and history, but we were simultaneously impressed with their knowledge of the English language and American culture.
During the weekdays our professors were completely dedicated to our instruction — they insisted that we needed to accomplish the work of an entire quarter within the three weeks of the seminar. At times we felt restive because our classes were held on a large balcony overlooking the city of Sochi and the spectacular Black Sea, but the field trips on the weekends, the occasional trip into the center of town, and meetings with our Sochi Partners helped alleviate the restlessness. Lessons were not always about bookwork, however. We were fortunate to have our own music instructor visit the hotel to teach us traditional Russian folk songs, which we performed for our Sochi Partners at the end of the seminar. Once, we were able to hold our class on the beach where we were instructed to use our language skills to ask Russians how they felt about aspects of Russian history. I guarantee that you haven’t lived until you have approached vacationing Russians in your swimsuit and asked them how they feel about the legacies of Stalin, Beria or Gorbachev.
On the weekends, and occasionally during the week, we had some incredible excursions. The National Day of Knowledge ceremonies at School No. 9 were fascinating for contrasting American and Russian culture. Across the country, Russians celebrate the first day of school with music, dancing, speeches, flowers for the teachers and, at least that year in Sochi, a history lesson in every classroom. We attended the festivities and were permitted to observe various classrooms in small groups, both on the holiday and on an ordinary class day. We were permitted to film the interactions between teachers and students, students and teachers, teachers and parents, translating, analyzing and reflecting upon our data back at the hotel. Our Sochi Partners offered valuable assistance with this data collected from our fieldwork.
One incredible weekend, we hiked at Rosa Khutor, enjoyed a Russian feast in Krasnaya Polyana during the day, and visited the Olympic Park in the evening. The ambiance of the park was intoxicating as people of all ages photographed, strolled, skated, played and kissed around the spectacular dancing fountain surrounding the Olympic Torch. We were caught up in the atmosphere, spinning and twirling on our way back to the van as music from Tchaikovsky to Michael Jackson filled the cool evening air.
On a different weekend we went on another hike to see a dolmen, an ancient, megalithic portal burial chamber, as well as the natural wonders surrounding the site. When the sun set, were treated to a meal at a local community center where Caucasian dancers were performing highly energetic traditional dances. Finally, near the end of our trip, we toured Maks Media, a local television and radio station, and even made the local news.
As a first experience abroad, my time in Russia was challenging, beautiful, uncomfortable, surprising, sometimes inconvenient, amusing, frustrating and often hilarious. Like most people after they travel abroad for the first time, I am not the same person I was when I left. I was forced to grow, to reexamine my assumptions about concepts such as fairness, correctness and goodness, and to reconcile my new understandings with the old paradigms. At times, I was compelled to reconsider truths about myself and the world that I had “known” for many years. I missed my children madly, and I agonized when the Internet was not reliable or when some small problem at home was beyond my control or assistance. Now that I have been back at home for a few weeks and I have had the opportunity to reflect upon what I sacrificed and gained, my perspective on the experience has grown even deeper. I continue to work on my Russian language. I look forward to returning to Russia, to Sochi in particular, and I am grateful for the opportunity to understand the Russian people and myself more fully.
A huge thank you to H. Stewart Parker, whose generous funding made my study abroad possible.
Sarah is a second-year REECAS MAIS student.