Posted in Souvenirs, Study Abroad

Don’t Forget The Passport

Many study abroad programs have just gotten under way. For a number of students, they just received their first and potentially only foreign stamp in their passport, the golden ticket to seeing the world outside one’s own country. I love my old, now expired passport. I love looking back through it. The stamps and visas remind me of the few years I spent enjoying a higher proportion of international travel than the years prior or since.

The passport is proof of my travels. It is a souvenir. It’s a bare bones scrap book, if I were a scrap booker. It is a keepsake. The time span it covers is from my first study abroad experience in 2001 to visiting friends in London in 2008. There are two personal “highlights” – if you will – of the collection. One is a stamp, the other a visa.

The Stamp

Way back on page 20 is a solitary stamp. This blue-green inked rectangle marks some exciting and important firsts for me: first major continental getaway, first overnight train, and first time to Eastern Europe. It was fall 2001 and I was traveling with four other girls. The plan was Prague, a stop in Vienna, and then some would return to the Netherlands, and others, myself included, would make a trip to Munich.

The reason this stamp is so coveted is not just because it denotes these firsts, but because this was the only stamp given in the Czech Republic – to any of us. When we entered the country we didn’t receive a stamp; it happened on our way out. We were on the train passing through the border city of Břeclav on our way to Austria. The patrolman went around our train carriage looking through each of our passports. Mine happened to be the last one he checked, and was, therefore, the lucky recipient of the stamp. I had the only (passport) proof we spent time in the Czech Republic.

The Visa

I have four visas in my passport: one for the Netherlands, two for England, as the first one they put in had the wrong date on it, and one for Russia. This last one I think is pretty awesome, if for nothing else than having my name, or a close equivalent, written in Russian. I didn’t have an easy go at getting that visa. It took me two trips to the embassy in London in 2005. It was only open for a few hours in the morning and the queuing started early.

The first time I went, I just didn’t get there early enough. After standing in line for two hours and getting as close as 20 people between me and the front of the line, I went to class empty handed. The second time I went I arrived earlier. I also got sick, literally, and on the sidewalk. Fortunately, I had met a girl in line who was going on the same trip as me. She was gracious enough to hold my spot while I made my way to the nearest public restroom to clean up. Thank you, Starbucks, for really being on every corner. Though I felt terrible and still nauseous, I rallied as I was determined not to have to get up at 5AM again. And I was rewarded for my efforts and sacrifices by being granted entrance and receiving my visa. In the end, the trip was more than worth the hassle.

I now have a new passport and I have yet to hand it over to an immigration officer of a foreign nation, have them turn to any empty page, and place their stamp on the (overly) decorative paper. I can’t wait to see what stamps fill it up.

Posted in Travel

Cool Times in St. Pete’s: The Way of Rasputin

The weather where I am right now is hot so let’s talk about a cooler place. St. Petersburg, Russia was cool, no downright cold (I wore on a daily basis long underwear, hat, scarf, mittens, and two coats) in March when I traveled there with an assortment of students from universities throughout England. Despite the cold, I was super stoked to even be in Russia. Nothing could bring me down, not even when things got frustrating or didn’t turn out as planned. I recall there being this one 24-hour period when nothing seemed to go right or come easily. (Insert transition to daydream sequence).

Entrance to the State Hermitage

My friend, Diana, whom I had met on the plane to Russia, and I set off after our morning lecture to see the State Hermitage. This place is massive and houses everything – antiquities, arts, crafts, jewelry, and armor to name a few. The line was long was we were happy to finally be admitted. The afternoon prior we tried to make it to the Kunstkammer, where Peter the Great kept his curiosities of science. We arrived just a few minutes after the last ticket time.

Knowing full well there’d be no way to see all of the collections, Diana and I narrowed our list down to a few select categories. On the top of our list was to see the Impressionist collection on the second floor. This sounded easy enough and with map in hand we headed into the depths of the Hermitage.

Diana letting us know that it took forever to find THE stairway to the second floor.

According to the map, the stairway to the second floor was locatable. However, the twists and turns through the collections felt more like a labyrinth with moving hedges. Every time we though we were where needed to be on the map, there were no stairs. We had read that the Impressionist paintings aren’t always open to the public, but we double and triple checked that they were accessible on this day.

Finally, after about an hour, we finally found the stairway. And compared to the rest of the building, this stairway looked so inconspicuous, if we weren’t looking so desperately for it, we might have thought it was for employees only. Seeing the Van Gogh and Seurat paintings, among others, and not being forbidden to take pictures of them was definitely worth the search. Plus we got to see parts of the Hermitage that we probably wouldn’t have had the stairway to the elusive second floor been easier to locate.

Dejected me at the closed Dostoevsky Museum.

After the extended tour of the Hermitage, Diana and I hopped on the Metro to visit the namesake of the reason for my wanting to see Russia. Metro Stop Dostoevsky made me fall in love with Russia. And now here I was. Having arrived at Dostoevskaya Metro Station, I felt I was on personal hallowed ground. The Dostoevsky Museum was just a few blocks away. Though I had not, by that time, read one of his books, I had to go. Unfortunately, it was closed and we wouldn’t have time to come back another day. Dejected, we soon returned to the city center.

In honor of our never giving up or letting our missed opportunities get us down we thought we’d check out the Palace and canal area where the infamous holy man Rasputin was allegedly lured, poisoned with no affect, subsequently shot four times, and again after not dying was beaten, wrapped in a carpet, and thrown into the canal where he broke free but eventually drowned.

My impression of Rasputin.

(Return from daydream) Sigh. That was 24-hours of not winning. But we kept going. Regardless, nothing could really get me down. I was in freaking Russia!

Posted in Travel

From Madison to Москва́

I love maps. I love history. I love Europe. Sophomore year in college I found a class that combined all three. The class examined the geographical and historical rise (and sometimes fall) of Europe’s capital cities. It was no surprise that I loved this class, too.

(Author: Ssolbergj and Wadim)

When I signed up, I had no idea that each class would transport me back to being five years old and sitting in my living room watching the screen in awe as my parents showed their friends the slides of their recent trip to London or Germany or somewhere else in Europe. That’s right. A majority of the class was a slide show of Europe’s beautiful capital cities. I was in heaven. I didn’t understand how this was a legitimate course. Better yet, I wanted to have a job where I got to travel all over Europe “in the name of research” and then talk about the places I visited while showing slides to an audience.

As if things couldn’t get any better, the class had a Part II complementary course the following semester. I signed up ASAP. It was during this term that the class went behind the Iron Curtain and into Russia. The professor had gone to visit his son, who had been attending Moscow State University, and he was very eager to share the photos. My interest in Russia hadn’t been sparked yet so I retained little from that particular lecture.

My thoughts were more focused on how I was amazed that Moscow was a place his son wanted to study, I wondered about the difficulty of getting a visa to go there, and how he, my professor, had been able to enter the country as a non-student. I knew little about Russia, but with the wall having come down only eleven years prior, I figured the country wouldn’t be too thrilled with letting Americans in just yet. I really had no idea. Rocky IV was still my only connection to the country. Sadly, I wasn’t interested in finding out more.

Four years later, I was finally interested in finding out more about Russia, and I was in-country to do it. For instance, I didn’t know Moscow had hills. On my first day in town a tour took my group to the top of Sparrow Hills in the southwest part of the city where we could overlook the whole of Moscow. I was trying to find all seven “wedding cake” buildings scattered throughout the city. To my right was a the ski jump built in 1953. In front of me, across the river, was the Luzhniki Stadium, where the open and closing ceremonies to the 1980 summer Olympics were held. To my left were distant views of the Kremlin. Behind me was a building for Moscow State University. As I turned to look at it, I felt I had seen it before. But how? When? Where?

The shot the Professor and I both took.

Then it hit me – the historical geography class! The slide came to my mind. In the slide the professor is taking a picture of his son with this building behind him. I was standing in practically the same area as my professor when he took his picture. I had to snap the same shot, of course.

I hadn’t thought of that course in a really long time. I began to recall my thoughts about Russia I had that day in lecture. I had learned so much since then, having taken such an interest in the history and culture of the country. I had thought at the time that what the professor did in going to Moscow was so special, and there I was in Moscow doing something special, too. I had come a long way from that lecture hall in Madison.