Nicole LaRochelle
2005-06 Outbound to Russia

Hometown: Fernandina Beach, Florida
School: Fernandina Beach High School
Sponsor: Fernandina Beach Rotary Club
Host: Vladivostok-Eco Rotary Club, District 5010, Russia

Septembet 17 Pre-departure Journal

Поздравления! I leave in one week. Yes, you read that correctly. Yes, the date is September 17. Yes, I am leaving in one week. That would be seven days…ha ha ha. “The Ring”. I am leaving on Saturday, September 24, 2005 from JAX airport. From there it will be Atlanta, then L.A. After LAX, it’s buh-bye USA. Next stop is Seoul, Korea. Then…Владивосток…Vladivostok…“Lord of the East”.

Everything is going by so quickly now. My last day of work was Thursday. Every time I go to the grocery store I can’t help but think that in a week, I will be buying my groceries in Russian. Different groceries. Instead of organic skim milk and low calorie organic cereal to go with my breakfast vitamins it might be steaming latkas and breakfast steaks. Instead of jumping into my truck to head off to work, I may be strolling to the bus station for school. My winter coats, boots, socks, scarves, and gloves have been coaxed out of hibernation from the darkest confines of my Florida closet. My long-sleeved thermal shirts are back in business, along with my baggy sweaters.

Every morning now when I head out the door for my run, I wonder if I will be doing the same in a week. Will I be running in the park? The gym? At all?!? As I deflate my exercise ball and pack my resistance bands, it occurs to me: how many crunches does it take to burn off a rich Russian dinner? I shudder at the thought. As I read nutrition labels checking for calories, I begin to doubt that I will have the same luxury overseas. As I eat my last American organic meals I wonder if “organic” even exists in Russia. Perhaps it will be that in a week I don’t care. Maybe I will find myself thrilled to see my butt and chest returning after being kept at bay for an entire summer. Perhaps the added pounds of fat will be key to staying warm this year. Ha ha ha. I hope not.

For the outbounds reading this, you may be thinking, “What? She’s still there?!?”. While many of you have written your “been-here-a-month” journals, I am just packing to leave. As many of you know, I was first assigned to go to Irkutsk, Russia. What caused my delay was the fact that the Irkutsk Rotary Club told us at the last minute that they would be unable to take me because their club was having troubles, resulting in a mad scramble to find a new host city/family/paperwork/etc. In any case, I am now going to Vladivostok…and very happily. This delay has just cemented my desire to go. Now it is time. I have finished my photo albums and have made a list of what I am bringing, just to make the packing easier.

Well, I won’t keep you longer. It won’t be long now until I write my first “real” journal telling you of the joys of my Russian beginning. Until then, I would like to thank everyone who has made this happen for me – on both sides of the globe – and wish all the exchange students “всего наилучшего”, good luck on their exchange years.

До Завтра,

Николя

November 20 Journal

Привет! Well here I am, only about a week away from my two month mark, and preparing for a evening of banya (that’s “баня” for those of you so beautifully versed in Russian literature). I remember during my first week thinking, “Oh…my…gosh…this is going by so slow…and I want to go home!” I was convinced that this was going to be the longest year of my life, but now I am beginning to feel frantic; “Ah! It’s already two months!!! Only seven months to go…NOOO!!!” I am desperate to be fluent in Russian so I can really experience the life here. ::sob:: This place is so crazy…but only in the best sense of the word, of course (“конечно”…my computer automatically corrected my misspelling of this word, and I love it; my home computer corrects my Russianinstead of my English!!!!

My flight to Russia was crazy-long, but along the way I met two other American Rotary Exchange girls and one Exchange girl from Thailand also headed to Russia. That was nice. Looking back, I find it amazing that I did not sleep during my travel…that out of thirty hours of flying and sitting in airports, I did not once have the urge to put down my head for a couple Z’s. When our pilot finally told us that we were approaching the Vladivostok airport, we (us Rotary girls) pressed against the windows trying to catch a view of our new country. As we slowly lost altitude, I remember feeling rather panicked…everyone had told me that Vladivostok was a big city…something you can’t really miss…but all I saw were trees…and more trees…and then a tiny landing strip. My friends laughed as I said that this must be a cruel Rotary joke; there is no Vladivostok! I began to chuckle too when I envisioned Al with his head thrown back in evil laughter. The airport in Vladivostok was unlike any other I had ever seen before; it was tiny. The plane that took us from Seoul to Vladivostok probably only held about one hundred people (meaning: it too was small), and the rest of the planes on the landing strip were either the same size or smaller. Once our aircraft came to a “full and complete” stop, we actually had to climb out of the plane by means of a very treacherous looking metal staircase that was rolled over to our plane. That seems to be standard here; “treacherous staircases”. Most buildings (especially apartment buildings) feature unlit stairwells full of uneven steps…and some steps are missing entirely. Ok, so this is my first piece of advice for whoever wants to come here; watch your step! Also, the manhole covers in the already uneven streets here are very unreliable, and if you are not careful, you can pull a “Keystone Cop” routine and fall right in. Truly “ужас”… “OO-zhas”, “terrible”.

Anyway, we were greeted by two female police officers (female Russian police officers really are a sight to behold; they almost always display cleavage, and wear rather “dominatrix” looking stilettos) who directed us into a small bus. Now, here comes the truly mysterious part…once all the passengers were mashed safely into the vehicle, the driver pulled the tightest U-turn the bus’ turning-radius would allow, then stopped and told us to get off. When I looked around, I could not keep myself from bursting out in laughter…we were in nearly the exact same spot we had been picked up in the first place!!! We trooped a few meters to the steps of the airport…hauled our carry-ons up the stairs, and massed inside a kind of holding room. I was one of the last to enter, and (all kidding and sarcasm aside) when I saw the most dangerous looking of the female police officers bring a heavy metal chain between the door-handles and padlock them shut, I broke out into a cold sweat and nearly passed out. All the scary taunts and jokes my “friends” had kindly told me about Russia sprang to mind…and I suddenly remembered all the movies I had ever seen about inhospitable, militant, mafia-filled Russia. Perhaps it was my sleep deprived-mind playing tricks on me, but every time one of the police officers brought a walkie-talkie to their mouth, I prepared myself for an onslaught of black-clad assassins. Now however, I credit this fright to lack of sleep because – while this is definitely not Kansas anymore – the people here are very friendly and I feel as safe here as I would back home…in some ways even safer.

While the wait was horribly long, the Rotary girls and I struck up conversation with a couple really friendly Russian boys who had sat near us on the plane. Looking back, I can’t remember what we talked about, but I remember feeling stoked at talking to a cool-looking Russian guy…in Russia (I was still in awe that I was finally here!)…and thinking to myself that it would only be a matter of months before I would be having conversations like this entirely in Russian with some shady character in a smoky corner of a dark café in the most dangerously romantic part of the city. My own Russian Casablanca.

When I wasn’t engaged with my companions, I let my eyes roam about the room. Several police officers were strategically placed about the room, scowling ominously…and there was a plasma screen TV suspended from the wall above our heads showing…a fashion show? I think my mouth dropped open as I watched…I had never expected to be watching a Karl Lagerfeld show in a tiny Russian airport, crowded into a holding room with a bunch of Korean businessmen! The channel, I later learned, is FashionTV (channel 31 on my downstairs TV thanks to Sputnik…that dearly beloved piece of Soviet machinery), and now I watch in on a daily basis. It’s really great. While many Americans wonder how they will survive in Russia without McDonalds (I’m personally doing just fine, thanks!), I begin to shudder at the thought of being ripped from FashionTV. You think I am joking? Well, you better stop laughing, because I am quite serious. Just think; 24/7, seven days a week…always…endless fashion shows, backstage footage of hair and makeup, model interviews, designer interviews, short documentaries on the current work of the most coveted photographers. I am sure the magnificence of such a concept has left in a state of speechless awe. Never fear, this is normal; I went through the same thing myself when I was first exposed.

Oh yes, now it’s time to bust a myth or two. Myth number one: Russians are desperately poor; there is little food to buy here, little clothing, really little goods at all, and everything here is very cheap and any American who plans on visiting poor little Russia should bring lots of American novelties (especially jeans) to delight the quaint natives with their big fur hats. Before expounding this myth, I must admit that the previous statement was a compilation of real concerns many of my fellow Americans had when they discovered where I must “unfortunately” go. Ok, now let’s examine this beast; first of all while I would say that the Russian middle class isn’t as affluent as the American middle class (which is quite famous for being the wealthiest in the world anyway), I have not met a single person who suffers from their income. All my friends here are about as happy as my other international friends, and they don’t seem to want for anything, and while there is poverty here, I ask those concerned to also look in their own country and be sure that there are no dark corners of their homeland. There is TONS of food here and quite a selection (I didn’t know that apricot juice even existed until I fell in love with it here), with much of the influence being Asian…find Владивосток (pronounced, “vladi-vos-TOK”) on a map and you will understand why. There are also just a lot of things in general to buy, and I have found myself hard-pressed to save my money. Everyday, I am tempted by the popular stilettos, boots, lingerie, music, cafés, jeans, and high fashion that runs rampant here. I implore those who want to come here as an exchange student (or as anything else) to not feel they must “stock up” in the old U.S. of A. before coming here; most of the clothes you would assume would be popular here simply aren’t, and there is really no way to understand Russian trends unless you shop here yourself. Some things are cheaper here, like bus fares and sometimes coffee, but generally you pay the same here as you would in America. However, I have noticed that you can be totally duped on quality if you aren’t careful. Russians are shrewd business people and like to get money any way they can (I am sure you have heard how foreigners are often royally ripped off if a shopkeeper detects an accent or an attitude of “I have no idea what I’m doing”). Actually however, I have seen some very bad quality things at places like the United Colors of Benetton boutique here down by the bay; while you might pay even more here for the same Benetton product you could find in the US, the quality is almost always not there. I think the Russian owners just realized that the customers here think they are wonderfully wasting their money on chic European clothes, when there are really only wasting their money on things that look nice on a first glance, and whose quality could actually be outmatched my Wal-Mart. Yes I said it, Wal-Mart. The oft-mocked tycoon of the American shopping industry can actually boast of being above United Colors of Benetton. Shocking, I know…but only in Russia. As I said, this is a crazy place.

Ok, I really must go because my oldest brother finally sniffed out my hiding spot, and from now ‘til bedtime I know I will not have a moment’s peace.

Да потом! “da po-TOM”…until later…

Коль-коль

(my new nickname…learn Russian if you want to know - it’s secret. Ha ha ha)

December 11 Journal

Today I skated on a lake. So cool, no pun intended. Ok, so…maybe a pun was intended, but that digresses from the point of this narrative. Lake skating is very different from the skating I grew up with. Instead of a glassy, flat surface that was “cleaned and evened” by a Zamboni every forty minutes, I found myself bouncing over an uneven, broken up, snow covered, frozen lake. It was awesome, though. I didn’t even know we would be going out today; today is a banya day and we usually take it easy at home, but a little bit after noon, my oldest brother came bounding up the stairs hollering that I should put some warm clothes on because we were leaving.

Like most adventures I have with this family, I was not forewarned or explained until we were already in the car and well on our way. Different from my upbringing, to be sure, but since it seems to work for them, I just go with it. I wore my mom’s skates, which really fit me quite well, although the grommets and lace-holes were a bit rusty so it made tightening the laces very difficult. When I first stepped onto the ice, I realized how much I had forgotten in a nearly seven year sabbatical from the sport. As I wobbled around for at least the first fifteen minutes upon arriving, thoroughly embarrassed at my own incompetence (although I will not attempt to hide how proud of myself I am that I only fell once…and without any blood or broken bones resulting), I had time to observe the various hockey games in progress on different arenas outlined by the shoveled snow (of course, not a female was to be seen on those parts of the ice), children in boots sliding around with their sleds while their skate-clad parents pulled at the ropes, and even a few couples taking a romantic glide. These love-struck skaters were perhaps the most entertaining to watch; the females taking small, unsure steps on the ice, while their male companions heroically held their arms and guided them multiple times around the treacherous lake. When they would tire (although I have reason to suspect that it wasn’t so much “they” as it was “she”), a rest would be commenced with much cuddling and cooing and love-making as only lovers can accomplish. Enough to make one queasy, I should think, if it weren’t for that fact that one would indeed love to be participating in similar activities oneself, with a certain “male companion” left behind on the other side of the world. But this, too, is a digression, and purely hypothetical, of course.

Once I began to acclimate, I found myself once again practicing my turns (leg over leg), backward skating, and lighting-fast 180 degree switchovers, all the while receiving stares from my ice-compatriots. These routines may sound simple, but I remind the indulgent reader that I was completing these maneuvers on rough, uneven, and in a word, dangerous ice. I soon noticed that I was not alone; first it was a couple women-less men executing figure-eights and jumps, but then even several girls joined in. My vanity encourages me to think that I started a, perhaps short-lived, trend….and also suspects that this occasion was not the first or last time. I seem to make the biggest sensation amongst the girls here in Vladivostok. I still haven’t quite figured out why this is, but I think that it has a great deal to do with spunk. In America, I remember it being quite normal for even the most beautiful and attractive girls to go snowboarding, workout at the gym, run for miles without stopping, and be willing to try almost anything new. Here, however, I feel myself being led to believe that it is my duty to wear stilettos and mini-skirts all year-round, daintily keep my legs crossed and lips pouted, and have my heart go all a-flutter when a dashing young (or old and wealthy) Vladivostokian man gives me the eye or insinuating grin. So here I am, the American girl who always felt most comfortable with the rowdy young boys of the town, who would sooner jump into a triathlon than wear pantyhose, who grew up lifting weights and dreaming of an Olympic title…here I am. The cute American girl with the long legs and tight butt (this is not, of course, my opinion, but one that seems to be shared by most of the male population at my university), who laughs freely at jokes, doesn’t cross her legs or wear shpilka (except for that one day…), and who has never yet been caught with lipstick. Such is my reputation here, but I don’t think it is detrimental to my time here…if anything, I think it has won me more (and truer) friends than tottering around in stilettos ever could. I like it. Don’t get me wrong, this all-American girl has been tamed a bit on this Russian frontier; I’m not quite as raucous when I’m happy, I try to at least wear foundation and mascara when I go out in public, I have begun to pay more attention to fashion, and I have just generally “mellowed out” a bit. All the changes I detect in myself are only positive, I think. Not earth-shaking, like some of the changes other exchange students have alluded to, but subtle tweaks to my personality nonetheless. All in all, this “wild wild East” of a town that I call home for now is pretty awesome.