I’M BACKKKKKK!

actually, I should have never left. I should have continued these musings throughout my time in Turkey to justly prove its similarities. But alas, it’s in the past, and the real reason I’m back is because I’m BACK IN RUSSIA.

It’s been almost 3 years since my departure from St. Petersburg in June, 2012. While living in Turkey I continuously dreamed of returning, simply for pleasure’s sake and to keep up with old friends. That not having happened, I longed to come back again and experience all these crazy Russian emotions.

Needless to say, here I am.

It’s been an absolutely insane 36 hours. Or make that a full week. After waiting on my visa, which I received last Friday, I was informed I’d be leaving on Tuesday, the itinerary, which I received on Monday, consisted of four different legs and around 36 hours of travel and time change.

And then there’s Michigan winters. Naturally on Tuesday morning, we were greeted by a heavy dose of lake effect snow, which eventually transformed into an ice storm. Although we left significantly early, and my dad is a beastly driver, the check-in attendant was only able to check my bags, but not me. He called the gate, asking them to reopen it for me, but they had already given my seat away. The attendant then sat on the phone for about fifteen minutes, only to ensure me that I could be rebooked at a cost of $2200. Ha. Hahahaha. No way.

Frustrated, I immediately called the Eurasia foundation and was instantly rebooked (rebooking #1). My dad and I made an infamous donut stop and returned to the airport. This time I was fortunate enough to get a different attendant. I also noticed that due to the weather my original flight was still delayed and had still another hour until it’s scheduled departure. My new favorite delta attendant looked over my tickets with curiosity and put me on stand-by for my original, 10:20 AM now 1:00 PM flight.

Upon arriving to the gate, I approach the attendant and state that I’m on stand-by. Last name? Brown. Ah, I’ve been looking for you. And hands me my boarding pass.

An hour later were still on the runway awaiting de-icing. The pilot told us a few corny jokes every half hour, though I’m not sure if us passengers wanted to laugh or punch him: at least many were cordial enough to give him a few chuckles. Around 3:20, still not having landed in Detroit, our flight attendant assures us that we’ll make our 3:45 flight. To the others, well you’ll make it… If you fight, you gotta fight if you really want it. Reassuring. it would have been better had she broken out in song. Of course, upon landing in Detroit, we encounter issues with our carry-ons and are forced to wait an addition (what seemed like hours) five minutes for them to fix the mechanical door and allow us access to our bags, and once that door opens.. it’s a free for all, especially on a extremely delayed flight.

Zipping through Detroit airport is not quite as practical as one would hope, though in perspective of all my plane-mates, I probably had one of the more fortunate commutes. Down two flights of escalators, through a tunnel lit by neon lights, playing odd elevator music, up another two flights of escalators, slightly to the left beyond the cafe awaited my gate. I booked it as fast as could with a roll-on carrier, computer bag, and overweight purse.

My lack of success was evident to me as I was observing the glowing fish out of the corner of my eyes while hustling through the tunnel. But still I tried, and only gave in as I noticed the empty gate and the lack of plane at said gate. The nice attendant, Carmen, rebooked me (rebooking #2), rerouting me this time to Paris, then Moscow, only to arrive in Samara at 1:30 am. I related the news to my contact at SEE, who asks me to rebook again in order to arrive in Samara during the day, as he would prefer someone pick me up. It’s then I learn that the place I’m going, Tolyatti, is another 60 km from the airport. Yes, I agree, I concur.

Back I go to the DELTA help center, where I’m assisted by a wonderful representative who simply adores working for DELTA with accolades flowing from her mouth like a river. I agree with her, not just to suck up (give me what I want ms!), but truly because this was not DELTAs fault, and actually she’s right, DELTA does rock.  Yet, this time, I make my own concrete decision… I’m staying the night. And so, she rebooks me for the same exact flight I was originally supposed to have on Tuesday, but on Wednesday (rebooking #3). She presents to me a hotel voucher and a cute little overnight pouch and wishes me luck as she’s off on her break – she had come in extra early due to the weather.

I overnight at a vouchered hotel resembling a mix between many soviet hotels, or “restoration houses” I’ve stayed at during my travels and old Florida beach motels I recall from my childhood. The hotel was even equipped with an indoor pool, pool tables, a tanning room, and a restaurant with fountains… All placed in a big atrium, overlooked by this awkward platform with airchairs.

Between feeling like I was about to see ‘redrum’ painted on the walls, expecting to encounter a girl riding a tricycle down the hallway, and admiring the crumbs that covered the carpet outside the doors, the rooms were quite well kept and comfortable.

BUT I’m still in Michigan. 

Wednesday I again found myself running through JFK, recovering from yet another late plane, greatly afraid of missing my Moscow flight. However, With plenty of time and copious amounts of leg room I made it to Moscow, and sat casually at Sheremetovo, awaiting my flight to Samara.

At Samara airport, an airport so new the painter dudes were admiring us as we waited for our luggage to pass underneath their scaffold, I was met by Sergei, who was then met by another guy (I don’t remember the link) and we were driven to Tolyatti.  I endured the ride gazing at the wonderful fields we passed along the way, simply attempting to be polite and not doze off (at least I don’t snore).

So what exactly am I doing? Where am I going? These are great questions, though some of the answers will only become apparent through time in the fellowship.

I was chosen to be a fellow through a program called SEE, or the US-Russian Social Expertise Exchange.

Video: SEE Program Overview

Through this program, Russians come to American cities and visit American institutions, including hospitals, schools, and other private and public organizations. Likewise, Americans travel to Russia to do the same. Fellows are both emerging professionals in their fields, such as myself, or advanced practitioners, such as doctors or business owners, UN employees, or civic engagement activists.

The fellowships are then grouped into smaller working groups with more specific foci and agendas: materials they would like to publish, collaboration they would like to encourage, or social projects they hope to create and stabilitize. My working groups is Youth and Education. Others include Rule of Law, Protection of Flora and Founder, and Gender Equity.

The purpose of this fellowship is to exchange information, knowledge, and cultural perceptions; to promote mutual understanding and to realize our differences, as well as our similarities. In my specific sub-group, this exchange takes place through dialogue regarding youth, their involvement in the community, and ways in which youth education can be improved or enhanced, whether that be through technology, or simply cultural literacy.

Throughout the many transactions we are to have, as fellows were required or maintain a blog, frequent social media, and digitally document what we can.

Personally, I also hope to get another in-depth look at the Russian education system, build some connections, and even get some interviews in.

First, and where I currently am, is Tolyatti, a small town to the north east of Samara, located just off the Volga River. So far I’ve learned that Tolyatti is quite an industrial city, home of the famous Russian automobile: Lada.

Sexy.

Tomorrow I will tour a bit of city and head to various museums. I’ll be here for another ten days or so, then I’ll head to the Karelian city of Petrozavodsk in the north.

For now, I’ll enjoy being back in Russia and exploring a Russian city I’ve yet to set foot in.

IMG_0315

The view of Tolyatti from my hotel room.

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