Why I am Nothing.

For a long while now, I’ve been thinking about the concepts of “modesty,” “confidence,” “arrogance” and “pride.” When it looks like things have been going well for you, when you feel like you’ve done a good many incredible things in your life and when you have had some wonderful opportunities, you’re tempted to spend a lot of time talking about these things. You frame these things in the best light and, even if you try to be modest about it, you’re actually pretty proud of your “accomplishments.”

I’ve always grown up being the “smart” one in a large extended family, with now well over 80 cousins. Growing up with this unusual regard  carries with it an unusually large amount responsibility. I made the best grades, had the best prospects, focused on school above all else, and made “knowledge” and the attainment of it one of my chief aims in life. This was expected of me, but, I was equally praised for doing so.

 

I was always a scrawny kid growing up– maybe even still am– but I realized that if I could outsmart the tall brute, I would get the upper hand. Growing up in Philadelphia, I got into plenty of fights because of a big “smart” mouth, most of which ended with me having a bloody face and a bruised up body. I didn’t really quite understand the whole idea of outsmarting rather than blatantly offending and asking for trouble. It took me a good while until I learned better― then again, some of my friends will say I never have.

 

But, for the sake of storyline, I stopped being such a “smart” mouth and rather used my smarts to excel in school, to set myself up for a good college education. After shaping a marketable college application and spending hours upon hours on scholarship applications, I was able to put together a reasonable package to be able to at least cover one year of studies at Wofford College. Every year since, I’ve had to rely on financial aid at Wofford and from other institutions to come through for me. They have.

 

So, there it is. “I” have done a good many things and should feel proud of myself.  In reality, “I” am not as self-dependent as it seems. Every step of the way, there has been a teacher to push me into some summer program, a friend to drop me a hint about an internship, a cousin to shake my worldview a little bit, and a father treating me like a loved son even when what’s best for me may conflict with his own dreams and intentions for my life.

 

In St. Petersburg, I realized my dependence and my fortune more so than ever.

 

I’d met with students that recognized the American dream and American opportunity for what it is: that in America with the right amount of work ethic, a great deal of ambition, a few good opportunities, and a willingness to make sacrifices, anyone has the potential, at least, to be able to achieve any one dream they may have. Of course, a man with two left feet will probably struggle to make it as a professional dancer and a woman with ever burning pockets might have a hard time becoming a good economist, but even still those things are possible under American opportunity.

 

One day, sitting in the Sauna in Moscow, I had a brief conversation with a man from Kazan who also agreed that the kind of things we’re capable of doing in America, many people dream of. I encountered this same sentiment this summer when speaking to young folks from Italy, Spain, France, Norway, and Sweden: conversations on a tour bus, at the beach, in the park, at a hostel, in a bakery. People everywhere do have opportunities. But, not everyone has it as good as an American.

 

I was born with a knack for knowledge, given the materials and the opportunities to exercise and develop my talents, and allowed to excel. Without everything coming into place as it has, I would not be who I am today. Without everything coming into place as it has, I am nothing.

 

Let’s propose that tomorrow I have a terrible accident and my ability to crunch numbers, my ability to process information, and my abilities to memorize things and to synthesize thoughts is gone. I could no longer be proud of my intelligence, because like a vapor of hot air it would have left me. I would in this realm at least be nothing.

 

Intelligence, strength, beauty, charm, cleverness, humor, and any other characteristics ascribable to man (or woman) can one day simply vanish. Like one’s childhood, these things can pass by quickly leaving only distant memories.

 

I have one thing that does give me value, one thing that may never fade. That one thing is a relationship with God. I’m not the best Christian, not even a good Christian. In this realm, as well, I may simply be nothing. But, in the love that lies in a Savior who dies for you― a wretched human being, a liar, a hypocrite, a murder, even if only in thought, an adulterer, a being filled with envy and hate for another’s successes―to justify you before a Just God, I am more than nothing.

 

Without this belief, I really, truly am nothing. Define me by my talents, looks, potential and you can explain me away by good breeding, natural genetic ability, or whatever else.

 

This is why I am nothing. But, then again, this is why I am something.

Posing with the Andrei Roiter Exhibition in the Moscow Museum of Modern Art.

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Weight Gain

I’ve been eating like a horse, like a raving wolf, like a mad bear. My little Pooh Bear belly is coming in quite nicely! I can do the duck lips with it and it jiggles a bit when I walk. Every stride is filled with great oscillatory motion!

 

So, yes, host mom is doing a stellar job at fattening me up for the brutal Russian winter. Maybe, she’s not my host mom at all but a Baba Yaga in disguise, fattening me up to throw me in the oven and feast on my bones.

 

But, no, that can’t be. She’s much too nice.

 

I’ve said few words to her lately which has been a bit sad. Tuesday night I had choir, so I came home late. Wednesday night was bible study. Thursday night: Swan Lake at the Mikhailovsky Theater. Friday night was choir again and a great night out with friends. Last night, we had a small choral performance and, afterwards, went out with Russian, German, and American friends.

 

I’ve missed out on our philosophical dialogues, but it’s important to make local friends as well.

 

Bible study is a gluttonous feast in this respect. I get too much advice, too much practical and philosophical knowledge. The friendships are much too genuine and the conversation too sincere. I get to learn to shut my mouth, to break my prejudices, to humble my pride.

 

It’s much too good for me.

 

In the same vein, the cultural exposure one has in this city is a greed-growing thing. With one fifteen minute walk on the street, you’ve seen two wonderfully beautiful and exquisite cathedrals, heard an acoustic guitar player, listened to a beggar gypsy woman from Ukraine singing hymns, or seen a storefront wind ensemble behind a pane of glass with outdoor loudspeakers to project the sound.

 

The cafés are art bunkers in their own right. Museums are all around. Advertisements are art, even if they are more westernized than one would like. The daylight falls on the city and winds through the streets making an art of her own.

 

To walk through the Hermitage, one would need several lifetimes. Perhaps, this makes Buddhism or Hinduism particularly appealing to the art lover. Last week, I spent about an hour with the lovely Caroline and the splendid Elaine looking around a special exhibit of works. I fell in love with one particular Oskar Kokoschka painting that had a shifted horizon line, a spattered usage of color with beautiful gray-blues and peach-salmon tones, and a nice sense of playful joy and mystery in the city-riverscape. Each of us walked around and spent some time with a few paintings. Some of them, we looked at together.

 

Art to me here is a Japanese sumo wrestler walking into an American buffet-style Chinese restaurant.

 

Relationships here are a likewise fattening thing. Several weekends ago, Elaine and I became good friends with a 20-something year old guy named Dima who speaks Chinese, French, English, and Russian. Evenings with Dima are always a splendid time. We’ve met his younger roommate Kosta who comes off as holding painfully brainwashed, stereotypical Russian views on life, but is nonetheless a fun person to talk to.

 

Last Friday we met a few Tatar brothers, Marat and Irat, who entertained us at their place with strategic card games, Korean Tea, made with a sort of dual teapot  (one teapot on top of another), and fancy chocolate from Ghana. Elaine was particularly excited about that as she’d spent the greater part of her summer working on an educational reform program in Ghana.

 

The next day, Elaine and I met up with Dima again on Nevsky Prospect and met his friend Alex, a psychologist living in St. Peters, originally from Siberia who gave us all a short tour of monuments in the city:  from the Bronze Horseman to the Egyptian Sphinxes. Afterwards, we went out to McDonalds―you’ve got to do it once, right?―where conversation went from eating bears, to chauvinistic men, to McDonald’s in Hong Kong.

 

This past Friday, Elaine prepared a spaghetti dinner for us at Marat and Irat’s place. There we made new friends, Sasha, a funny, goofy guy that kept making hilarious Lord of the Rings references, “My precious,” and a talkative Marina. Together, we played a game called something like “Goblin’s Gold” where the aim is to either build a path to one of three cards containing a nugget of gold or if you fall under the category of “traitor Gnome” to prevent the group from accomplishing this. It’s a combination of strategy and deception that makes the game very interesting.

 

The night went way late, into almost early morning, with the game Mafia accompanied by the fine beverages of red wine, Coke, and green and black teas.

 

Last night, was equally gluttonous in the sense of relationships. The SPGU (St.Peter’s Gov. University) Choir had a mini concert where we performed Gaudeamus for a large academic ceremony of some sort. Our concert was only about two minutes long, so, a group of us decided to go out for dinner afterwards. There was me and Emma from the states, the medical student Francesca along with the entertaining Nicklas from Germany, Ailen from the Netherlands, and Philippe and Vika from St. Peter’s.

Following Philippe’s lead, we went to a Georgian restaurant where we ordered several dishes and then shared them among the group, pot-luck style. The food was delicious, the atmosphere great, and the conversation amusing: Philippe and Vika teaching me new terms and helping me correct my Russian.

 

One such term was перетумачить.

“Пере” is a Russian prefix used in some instances to signify overdoing something.

“Тумач” is the Russification of the English “too much.”

“Ить” is an often used ending for the infinitive of a Russian verb.

Therefore, this word essentially means “to too much do too much,” but for you to understand that, you’d have to have on top of Russian a working knowledge of the English language. Anyway, I thought it to be a particularly interesting word.

 

We also overheard a rapper use the phrase “вот это тёлка” in reference to a female. The phrase is essentially “That right there is a heifer.” I probably shouldn’t ever use that line. I won’t ever use that line.

 

The night went on as we headed to a brewery with Francesca , Emma, and Philippe after saying our goodbyes to Vika, Nicklas, and Ailen at the metro station. There the conversation continued over some fine local brew. Philippe is a beer aficionado of sorts and has spent a month or so studying in Scotland. For this reason, his English is pretty good, he has an impeccable collection of Scottish hats, and he knows a good bit about beer.

 

Afterwards, we had to say goodbye to Francesca.

 

Fortunately, Philippe decided to join Emma and I on our way to make it to a concert where a friend of ours was playing. Anton, one of our wonderful student directors, is in a band called “Morning Tea with Constables” that has a Brit-Pop-Rock sound sort of like the Arctic Monkeys. The concert was great fun and I got see and interact with many of our CIEE St. Pete’s buddies.

 

Particularly, vivid in my recent memory is being held up above the crowd by Alex and spun in a circle. Equally vivid is when Quentin, I, and others sang along―rather obnoxiously, yes, but in good harmony― to Anton’s songs swaying from side to side.

 

After the concert, I went out to eat at a Irish pub with a few girls from the program: Jess, Elaine, Sasha, Mackenzie, and Emma. There, the girls got cheese fries. I ordered me some Carbonara.

 

When I came home, I ate the dinner that my host mom left out for me.

 

This morning, a massive plate of delicious pancakes appeared downstairs awaiting my arrival in the kitchen.

 

I’ve been doing just a little bit of overeating. But, it’s ok. My pathetic attempt at a beard might just be covering up the formation of my second chin.

 

Either way, I’m a happy camper.

 

A fat, happy, camper.

 

The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood, View from Kazansky Sobor at Dusk

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Why “Study Abroad”?

Some mornings ago, I was running late to class as always. In a hurry, I  gulped down my tea too quickly and caught myself choking. As I spit into the kitchen sink, a moment of clarity smacked me across the face: the past few days, I had been doing it all wrong.

After a few good semesters of college, we’ve all  heard several dozen times about Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs,” Self-Actualization and all that jazz. Study abroad is about “discovering yourself,” “learning new things,” “having novel experiences,” they say.

 

Sure. That’s somewhat true.

 

But, honestly, a selfish study abroad experience is just that―a selfish experience. If I come out of this wiser, more experienced, more cultured and whatever, what does that matter to anyone else?

 

Here’s how I was thinking about this:

 

“I love singing, so, I joined the St. Petersburg State University Choir. We meet Tuesdays and Fridays for three hours intervals from 7:00pm to 10:00pm, but the time flies and I absolutely love it.

One Friday evening a few weeks ago, I went to a community-wide art project inside the Erarta art museum where I got to interact with existing exhibitions and then got to paint my own piece.

I go to a bible study Wednesdays in which I get encouraged, educated and prepared for interactions and situations that I’ll face the rest of the week.”

 

Here’s how I should be thinking about it:

 

“I joined the St. Petersburg State University Choir with my friend Emma. We love it. I sing Bass. Emma sings Soprano. We do meet twice a week for 3 hours each time, but it flies by and we love it.

There’s always good conversation happening on our walk from the metro to the choir building and at the end of our last class we were both serenaded by the vocal and piano talents of an assistant choir director by the name of Alex.

 

Emma is making friends throughout the choir―a true social butterfly. I’m a little bit more laid back, but I’ve had a few exchanges with the boys and we’re generally friendly.

 

One Friday evening a few weeks ago, I, along with an artist friend Caroline, went to a community-wide art project inside the Erarta art museum. Along our walk to the museum the sun began to set creating beautiful lighting along the already beautiful streets. Caroline and I stopped and snapped some photos as we walked. When we got to the museum, the place was bumping, a DJ at the front entrance, people shuffling in from all corners.

 

We checked our coats into the complimentary museum lockers and went about exploring. We walked through one exhibit that was about flesh and electronic coding where we were given high-quality over-the-head headphones that played smooth hip-hop beats. On the next floor, were well-known artists making real-time pieces and teaching the crowd. On the third floor, Caroline and I stood in line, filled out some forms, and eventually got boards to paint on and paints to use (7 colors of our choosing in an egg carton).

 

We stood in line for a while, so, we got to talk about the different kinds of art we enjoy, personal projects of ours, and ideas for our works that night.

When we found a place to put our boards, I set on working on an image of a Phoenix rising from a body of water with the text “грядёт” (“is coming”) above it.

 

At one point a Russian girl walked up to me and asked “What’s coming?”

I replied, “the end of the world.”

“That’s a bit frightening,” she said.

“It’s not really that frightening,” I consoled, “it’ll be beautiful… with all the colors.”

 

My friend Caroline was working on an interesting piece as well: using the text “летать” (“to fly”), superimposed on geometric squares, superimposed on images of feathers. It was a very interesting piece. The layering effect of it all was very well done.

 

As Caroline and I worked, friends from our study abroad program arrived and began working on pieces of their own.

 

When we both felt finished with our works, we spent some time looking at other folks working around us. There was a group of guys who painted, corporately, a blue sky, green grass, one cloud, and something red in the grass. They were really enjoying the blatant simplicity of the piece.

 

Then, it struck me. What if Caroline and I worked on something together?

We walked up to the booth where we got our boards and I used the smoothest, fumbled Russian I have to convince the girl behind the counter to give us another board to play with. What next ensued was a wonderful time of collaborative painting/marker-ing/art-ing.

 

We began with the ground rules of one mark/stroke per person with the limited materials of markers and paint that we had in front of us: red, green, blue, and some pink.

Steps, bubbles, a Venus Flytrap started to emerge on the board.

Then, we conceded to one type of mark, say a series of circles or swirls.

Images began to get more interesting: A big-nosed man, an intricate pattern.

Then, we added new materials―a tub of washy grey paint.

After which, we made a rule of a 10 second limit where you could do whatever you wanted.

Then, we began to splatter paint, and added colors and put the board on the ground and poured and dripped paint all over it.

 

It turned out to a decent piece: very abstract, but wonderful in its own right. A sort of eyeball on top of many layers of patterns and images staring into a blue/white line, with a thick red line, bleeding above it.

 

The night was well spent with a good new friend.”

 

Bible study, I could spend a separate post on entirely.

 

The point here is the change in outlook.

 

But, quickly, I would be unjustified to not mention pleasant walks and good talks with my friend Morgan,

getting lunch with Elaine and Ramsha in the business center and picnicking in the cold grass in the park,

attending an “awkward” mushroom festival with Dylan, Clark, and Rosie complete with mushroom fries, people posing for pictures with ferrets, raccoons for petting and camels for riding,

hearing an orchestral performance of “Peter and The Wolf” with Jamaica, Caroline, Rosie, and Emma,

and several good conversations on the bus, in the park, and on the metro with my lovely friend Elaine.

 

Study abroad is not about a selfish experience. (It’s not about collecting cocktail-party stories, and it’s not entirely about self-discovery.)

Study abroad is about selflessness. It’s about the people you come into contact with. It’s about selflessness even when you’re spending time on your own in transition on the metro and the street― about keeping your eyes on the people around you, to your unspoken entrance into their world. It’s about losing yourself to your new friends and finding in these relationships something truly worth remembering.

 

That’s just something I’ve been having a hard time with the past few days.

Tavricheskiy Sad, St. Petersburg, Golden Autumn

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Welcome to the Real World

St. Petersburg, Russia is a land of beautiful churches, impeccably dressed women, and all of the comforts a large metropolitan city can provide. But, with these upsides comes a bit of harsh reality

 

Today was the first cold, rainy day we’ve had here. The frequently flooded streets did good work on breaking through what-I-thought were waterproof sneakers. But, this is all superficial.

 

Today my conversation professor mentioned that the increased flow of immigrant workers into the city has also carried in ethnic mafia tensions. She said this in reference to a shooting that happened last night in which at least one person was killed.

This past weekend a few of the folks in the program were sitting in a bar and heard an unusual “Pop” outside. When they heard the sound again and again, they ran for cover. As they left the place, they saw a motionless body in the street and realized that they had been caught in crossfire.

One evening about a week ago, for an hour and half or so a dead body laid in the metro station that I take to school every day. The evening crowd simply passed around the body until someone decided to inform police of the issue and the corpse was cleaned up. I hadn’t seen it myself as I’d left for home later in the evening, but several folks from the program noticed the body.

 

So, dear friends, family, and Wofford study abroad personnel, this is not all meant to scare you. St. Petersburg is a wonderful and relatively safe city, but, being a city, it is a real city, not a magical wonderland. The illustrative former paragraphs allow me now to speak briefly on the subject of death.

 

“Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”

John 12:24 (KJV)

 

Once a simple seed falls into the ground and dies, it can sprout, it can grow and it can flourish into new life. In this city, surrounded by what may seem to be and what is truly death, there is and will be the flourishing of new life.

 

Daily, I am making new friends and having edifying conversations―talks on childhood, values, and faith. Those early neural roots on how to get about in the city and how to speak grammatically and situationally correct Russian are growing branches and becoming stronger. My love for my host parents grows deeper along with my appreciation of their genuine care―my mom leaves me letters in the morning about taking care to dress for the weather and this entire past weekend, as I was feeling somewhat under the weather, she prepared all sorts of home remedies for me to try.

 

This foreign land is growing more and more familiar.

 

It’s not magical, the sharp corners aren’t bubble wrapped, and the warning signs are harder to read, but it’s all the better for it. It’s all the “fuller” for it.

Smolny Cathedral: right in front of St. Petersburg State University Political Faculty, where I take my classes.

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First few days in Russia.

              ” Subway station fairy tales

                warmed wind within the tunnels

                snaking steel dragons

                coming forth to carry

                unsuspecting passengers

                home “

It’s been hard. It’s going to be a difficult three and a half months, but… I’m ready.

I have had wonderful, incredible, and beautiful experiences already. Last week, as I sat in wet sauna room with my two-day-hotel-room roommate Mark, we were joined by a chef from India who had been flown into St. Peter’s to prepare the meals for the G20 conference. He was decently interesting, but just the exoticism of the interaction is worth the story. The night before, Mark and I decided that we would both get up and use the five-star orientation hotel’s gym facilities so as to start study abroad St. Petersburg on the right foot. With the latent effects of jetlag, we ended up staying awake fairly late into the night speaking about Metal music, religion, and intellectual self-righteousness. We both got up in time the next morning to work out and sit in the saunas (dry and wet) before heading to breakfast and our first day of orientation.

Fast forward a tour of the city, an OPI (Oral Proficiency Interview), meeting my host parents for the first time, the first few days of Russian grammar and conversation classes, a weekend trip to see the beautiful Russian country-side and the towns of Novgorod and Staraya Russa, a conversation here and there, an interaction with a local, learning the intricacies of Metro-culture, and a unfamiliar phrase internalized and you’ll find me here―where I sit now.

I have in the past week and a half also managed to make new friends and then make new, new friends, have taken many pictures, have had good hearty mornings and good calming nights, have maybe, sort of, actually, really, made authentic Russian friends, have gotten lost, have found my way, have learned how to open the door to my home-stay with one try, and have overeaten many times mounds of good Russian food.

Why then did I start this post by telling you that this is going to be “difficult”?

I have learned that joy is only as good as the sorrow that it comes with. The friendships I have made, I may lose. The comforts that I find now, I am sure, will not always be. Life has always been a struggle and even with the wonderful opportunity that I have before me many obstacles, rather, experiences and novel situations lie before me.

I pray that I am able to appreciate the beauty of every moment for what it’s worth and nothing less.

I pray that I am able to have a handful of genuine relationships.

I pray that I can be an honest and good representative of my family, my nation, myself and my God through my interactions and conversations in this new society.

If this were easy, then I’d be doing it wrong. But, Russian Pessimism has not completely covered the corners of my mind nor the crevasses of my heart.

Here again is the poem from the beginning:

              Subway station fairy tales

                warmed wind within the tunnels

                snaking steel dragons

                coming forth to carry

                unsuspecting passengers

                home “

I cannot know where exactly this adventure will lead me. Home, of course, is not as simple a concept as it seems.

Nonetheless, I am unafraid.

“The Winter Coming.” (A creek running through Staraya Russa, not far from where Dostoyevsky lived.)

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