Blogs From Abroad

What is day-to-day life like on the ground for our participants? They candidly share their thoughts and experiences about life in Russia as study abroad students in these blog entries.

The Great Boot Search

A traveller can wrack his nerves in an attempt to anticipate and prepare for problems ahead. In this pursuit, it is easy to waste money and time in over-preparation and over-thinking. It may be of benefit to the reader to relate the experience of an acquaintance of mine who did just that. He loved to often tell stories of his troubles with an air of martyrdom and hardship, so I feel I can retell his story with utmost accuracy to, at least his version, since I have heard it numerous times. I tell it from his perspective, and only omit certain monologues of his emotional suffering.

Johnathan certainly put effort into preparing properly for a semester in St. Petersburg, Russia. It was Russia in February after all. The winter that had taught Europe’s strongest armies a lesson in humility was still raging on. He had checked the latitude of St. Petersburg and checked where it fell on Alaska. There were auroras in Alaska so, he wondered, would he see any auroras in St. Petersburg? He packed the warmest parka he had, along with long-johns, sweaters, and wool socks. Johnathan was not only preparing himself for the Russian winter, but winter in general, for it was another beautiful day in sunny Los Angeles. He talked to Russians, but got varying advice. He knew that the Russians were well accustomed to the cold so he assumed they would understate. The only equipment left to find was boots, and since any boots sold in LA seemed too weak to deal with what he expected, so he concluded perhaps Russia was the only place boots good enough for the Russian winter were sold.

It was snowing when I arrived in Washington DC. I am an experienced traveller and was happily reminded of my last time there. All the students first stopped in DC for orientation before going to Russia. I remember that we were standing at the corner of 22nd and M when I overheard someone ask, “Does anyone know where I can buy boots?” A smile came upon my face as I saw Johnathan in his soaked sneakers, searching the faces around him for an answer to his question. That night, as the blizzard came harder upon the city, he went rather blindly down a street toward a commercial area. Most of the boots there were fashion boots, until he came upon one store that sold cold weather boots. He saw many of the same boots that he had seen in LA. The saleswoman recommended a certain pair of waterproof boots that seemed just fine. He walked back in them without socks, since his socks were soaked, and learned that new boots are not forgiving to tender feet. Nonetheless he was happy.

It was snowing lightly when we arrived in St. Petersburg. Johnathan loved the snow. As nice as it is to discover new things, we often get much joy by confirming our preconceived notions. This unfortunately can cause us to not see things that we otherwise might have and to develop an artificial understanding of a new place. He saw many new things in Russia, but on the other hand he had greatly anticipated snow and therefore its dominance comforted him. The first two weeks in Russia brought many changes and surprises. It certainly was cold, but with all of his layers Johnathan felt uncomfortably hot even on the street. The packed metro and the blasting heater in the classroom cooked him in his long-johns. The first two weeks taught him how to comfortably dress in a winter environment, at which point he began to notice that his boots did not seem to be “breaking in.” In fact, they sometimes hurt incredibly at the joints where his toes met his feet. Every time he stepped forward, the boot would crease and that crease seemed to drive right into his joint. He started to clench his teeth from the pain. Some research on the Internet revealed that in principle he had a good model of boot, except the Chinese-made ones consistently hurt feet in the same way. Buying boots under pressure and without research proved to have been a bad idea.

He put on his sneakers and set off to find a good pair of Russian boots. Sennaya Ploshad seemed like a sort of commercial center, but at a little distance from Nevsky Prospekt, where the prices were sure to be highest. Conveniently, most shoe stores seemed to simply identify themselves with the word “shoes.” Men’s winter boots were not too widely available since the season would soon end, but most important was to find any sort of boots that would keep his feet dry and warm. After price checking between a few stores, he decided on a pair. He was a size 12 on the American scale, and figuring out his size on the Russian scale was problematic since he could not fit into the largest pair the store had available. After checking with a few stores, he learned from a conversion chart that he was a size 45 or 46. Store after store he would choose a pair, only to learn that the largest sizes were 42 or 43. Eventually he would ask if they carried that size before even looking at shoes. After 13 or 14 stores, he realized that he would need to look in the pricier and larger venues. The snow that he had admired at first had turned on him. His wool socks soaked in odd places, causing great discomfort with every step. His sneakers would slide on the ice beneath him. His face became a frozen mask on the street, but wet and uncomfortably warm in a store.

A Russian acquaintance of his recommended a shoe store near the Metro station of Dostoevsky and there he found boots that suited him fine. He did not have enough money to buy them and forgot his ATM card at home, so he should have justly suffered another day without them. However, fortunately for him another student was with him at the time and loaned him the wanted rubles.

So that is the story of a student who had, through a false logical cycle, decided that the best way to buy boots for Russia, was to not buy any boots at all. I admit that the story may have little applicability since Johnathan characteristically over-thought himself into similar situations throughout the semester, but his predicaments often served us by reminding us not to fall into his same mistakes. In the end, Johnathan did find comfort in Russia after his initial breaking in.

Posted by Eliot Adams / 07.05.2011