From Russia with Lax

Nick FarmerA good number of Muhlenberg men’s lacrosse players have studied abroad in recent years, but while most of them have gone to Maastricht in the Netherlands, junior Nick Farmer is spending the fall semester in St. Petersburg, Russia. He checked in to give a taste of his experience:

The farthest I’d been from home: the far-off land of Disney World. After a lackluster lunch, enduring my first piecemeal conversation/game of charades with a true Russian “security man” from Brooklyn, and chasing the sun nearly halfway around the world I finally felt the screech of the wheels on the tarmac of Pulkovo a decade later.

Farmer in front of the former czarist Winter Palace (now part of the Hermitage Museum).

Farmer in front of the former czarist Winter Palace (now part of the Hermitage Museum).

As our tin can of a plane trudged to the gate, I sedately looked out the window only to see a white, wolf-like stray casually pacing down the runway. As if I needed assurance, between the dog and Cyrillic print on the Soviet-era hangars, I knew I had landed in St. Petersburg.

As soon as the first passenger stood up, everyone rushed out of their seats; the attendants didn’t even try to stop them (a type of behavior I have now grown accustomed to). The “security man” yanked me out of my seat and thickly gestured me to follow him. Half expecting to be mugged, abducted or worse, in a zombielike state I followed him to the passport line. Here we managed to cut half of the 300+ people patiently standing in line. Ten minutes later I watched him get his passport stamped only to disappear into the crowd of luggage haphazardly tossed around a large room, never to be seen again.

After spending two days in a hotel for “orientation,” I finally met my host mom, Nailya (which I couldn’t pronounce at all). Upon learning that I had only taken six hour-long courses of Russian over the summer, Nailya looked at me in a seemingly disheartened glare. The 15-minute wait for our late taxi was the most awkward experience of my life.

On the way up Московский проспeкт (Moskovsky Prospekt or Avenue) to my home for the next semester, Nailya pointed out a number of statues, administrative buildings, important streets and some of the various canals that are spread across the “Venice of the North.” Way too much information for me to take in, never mind try to understand across our mutual language barrier.

Farmer's school.

Farmer’s school.

After nearly three weeks in St. Petersburg, I can walk down the street without smiling (* see note below), successfully figure out how to get home and even order a cup of coffee in the morning. Living in Russia, even in the most welcoming city in the country, is a daily challenge. If I hadn’t known that every day would be a linguistic mess, I would be having a miserable time. Instead, having locals laugh at me while attempting the most menial of tasks is entertaining and easily used as fuel to continue learning.

Exercising in public seems to be taboo, so I find myself running and working out in an overpriced gym on the bank of the Neva River, which runs through the center of town. Being away from Fall Ball at Muhlenberg, I’ve looked for a lacrosse club in the area to keep my game up. I managed to find one of only two clubs in the entire country and should be practicing with them this upcoming weekend. I can’t see practices going that long, it’s already starting to feel like winter here!

* We asked Nick to explain this “not smiling” business, and here is what he wrote back: “In Russia, there are a few different ways to tell a local from a foreigner (specifically an American) – 1. We speak English. 2. We travel in large groups and loudly speak English. 3. We show emotion in public. Number 3 has been the hardest for me because I sometimes smile at strangers when making eye contact with them on the street in America … or say please and thank you when ordering food etc.  … no one does that here hahaha.”

Global education is an important part of the Muhlenberg experience in a world that is becoming increasingly interdependent. Currently there are between 250 and 300 students studying abroad each year, and 52.4% of Muhlenberg graduates from the Class of 2013 studied abroad.