Trip Start Feb 05, 2006
33Trip End Jun 30, 2006
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I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct: and e'en to tell
It were no easy task, how savage wild
That forest, how robust and rough its growth,
Which to remember only, my dismay
Renews, in bitterness not far from death.
Recently I surrounded by such a dark forest, such a hell as Dante describes it in The Inferno. Reading this book left a deeply impressed me.
Thanks to you, family and friends, I gave up being depressed. After all, the sun is shining on Russia and on me.
Life here is not comparable to what I have experienced anywhere in the world before. The government and official institutions, such as universities, ticket counters, tourist agencies, press-centers, police, post-offices ... interfere with my private life constantly.
The university always wants to know where I am. I can't just leave town, because they keep my visa at the foreign office. If I cannot present the visa when the police ask for it, the result can be a penalty or even the cancellation of my stay in Russia.
If I want to leave town, or the country, I have to justify my travel to some university official. It happened to a friend, who wanted to visit his girl-friend in Mexico, that the referred-to university official didn't want to let him go. First the official threatened him to write a letter to his university in Finland. My friend didn't care so much. As this didn't show any effect, the official went on. He questioned him about his family and many other things. What would they say, if he'd just leave for Mexico for such a long time (five weeks)?
Finnish guys are really tough. The university official had no chance. He left to see his girl-friend in Mexico.
However, a not so tough person (i.e. ME) would be held off by such aggressive actions. It's not that it scares me. It's just so much stress. So much ado about nothing.
The predominant atmosphere gives me the feeling that Russian officials are desperate for responsibility. As soon as a person obtains a certain responsibility, he or she feels very important. No way that he will let you pass through his profound examination quickly. It seems like everything here is examined profoundly and very well recorded on paper, of course. This process takes ages and ages. Naturally everything is done according to the rules. However, not everybody knows the rules so well. If you want a quicker processing, you should keep some cash ready in your pockets. The only visible outcome of this over-control is a huge bulk of paper. Nobody can read so much paper anyway. It looks like they record everything on paper to keep themselves busy.
The principle of costumer service seems not to have entered Russia, yet, especially if you don't speak Russian. I often witness scenes in offices, where two service workers are chatting with each other or reading magazines, while a third slowly serves a long queue of costumers.
Since my Russian is more fluent, I have no problems anymore. Maybe I'm already used to the grumpy servants. However, it feels like everybody is treating me in a very friendly way now. Possibly the continuous sunshine has something to do with this. Sometimes the service workers even talk slowly to me, so I can understand them better.
I don't care so much anymore when I have to pay double the price to enter the swimming-pool or when the prices for entering the theater are changing constantly. Of course, Russian students have to pay less than foreign students (which is justified with the fact that Russian people pay taxes in Russia all their life and different discussion). Fortunately I possess a Russian student ID. Maybe I look a bit Russian as well. However, I never have problems getting the price for the Russian students.
Last week I had University exams. I didn't exactly prepare. Life is always very busy here. We have to drink lots of vodka and enjoy the sunshine, so there's really not so much time left for studying. My friend Jana and I entered the room of another professor one day because it was our exam. Of course the professor was late. After she had finally arrived, she resolved to finish some paper-work first, then she called us to her desk. She handed a blank sheet of paper to each of us and told us to write down what we want to talk about during the examination time. Then she left. Jana and I looked at each other in surprise. We had really expected an examination. We worked as a team for fifteen minutes. Finally the professor returned and scanned our syllables. She questioned Jana first. They talked about life and work in the company Jana works for. Hereafter, it was my turn. We did the same. After half an hour both Jana and I left the room with "excellent" grades. We were in a high mood and ate breakfast with our friends in the dorm.
Newly the hot water stopped running in our dorm. It is not that the water that is coming out of the pipe would be too cold in order to wash yourself with it. It's temperature is arctic, freezingly cold. Touching your skin it will leave a red mark, because it is so cold. I solved this problem by wandering down to the second floor every once in a while - the only place where they have hot water until this moment. However, you have to wait in a long line.
Ever since I came here I had problems with my health. My head is aching. My nose is bleeding constantly. I'm coughing like an old man who suffers from lung cancer. My wrists and ankles hurt as well as my back. Since I felt worried, I visited the American Clinic, where a Russian doctor investigated my pulmonary system profoundly. Baidi and I went together. We spent more than two hours there. The doctor (who I can only recommend) explained every detail to me, every number on the computer screen and every aspect of the testing we were doing together. Thanks to him I understand my body functions much better at this moment. He verified that I'm highly allergic. St. Petersburg is one of the worst places to be in as an allergic person. Moreover, he said, that I am predisposed to asthma. Not such good news. He recommended leaving town as soon as possible and starting a therapy.
When I was in Georgia, I went to the hospital as well. Being examined by the Georgian doctor's, I noticed their great subtleness and attention to how I'm actually feeling. I experienced the same attention to detail when the Russian doctor treated me. In Germany most of the doctors don't really pay a lot of attention to you. They examine you quickly and prescribe you some pills. Then they send you out of their office and treat the next person. It is huge machinery. German doctors don't really have a choice, because they get paid very little per patient. Somehow they have to pay the rent for their medoffice, their staff, their tools and machines, and also they want to feed their families. A normal Russian doctor doesn't get paid very well either. It depends on the hospital he or she is working in. Most of them earn some money on the side.
In St. Petersburg a university professor earns about 300 € monthly. Opposed to this, the driver of a regular marschutka (small bus) can earn up to 1500 € in the same time. Naturally the university professors accept bribes and work on the side. If students fail an exam, it is possible to buy the grade; at least this is what I am told. I am also told that it is really difficult to enter the university where I study (FINEC). If you don't pass the exams, however, you can buy a spot for five to ten thousand €. Prices vary according to the major and your (or your parents') connections to the university.
As a matter of course, a lot of diplomas from Russian universities are not highly trusted in the west.
The Russian inner and foreign policy is a mystery as well. Somehow the relations between Russia and Georgia have become very tense recently. Russia doesn't import any Georgian products anymore (wine, Borjomi water, and other things). It is almost impossible for a Georgian citizen to obtain a Russian visa. This is related to Georgia's opening to the west and other issues which shall not be discussed here.
In St. Petersburg and Moscow killings of foreigners occur almost on a daily basis. Whenever I open the newspaper, there are one or two reports of xenophobia. The hate-crimes are mostly aimed towards African and Caucasian people. However, Asian people are attacked as well. The attackers also hit on Russian victims. Most of Russia lies in Asia in fact.
It seems like the police doesn't care too much. Putin enforced a bill that puts heavy penalties on acts of xenophobia. However, the newspapers report that the police don't really carry this legislation out.
So we are all a little bit scared. Don't talk English too loudly when we are walking on the streets. Don't try to look foreign. Those people really have no morals. They even kill girls and children, because of their different looks. It happens right in the city center on the open streets. Somebody carries a gun. A shot. Another African is dead.
It is really tragic. Talking to the local people, I could sense resentment towards foreign people. I have the impression that Russians especially dislike Arab and Caucasian people. This impression is built upon many conversations I led with locals, regardless of their status and level of education.
The city doesn't leave a very international impression after all. Except for the tourists, I seldom hear people talk in other languages on the street, the subway or in the supermarket. There is no continuous concept for attracting foreigners. Some signs are in English and Russian, some are not. Some officials speak perfect English, some don't know a word, or just pretend that they don't.
I am in no position to judge this country and its people. I feel really good here since the sun started to shine. The Russian students (people my age) are very open and eager to integrate me into their social lives. It is not easy to understand their mentality. We live in two different worlds. Nevertheless, I am giving all of myself to explore more and more and more.