An American in Moscow

It’s been a few weeks since my last post. Things have gotten quite busy with travel, Rugby, meeting new people, friends visiting, and school work (yes I unfortunately have school work). Two weeks ago, I embarked on a long study tour to Moscow with my Global Economics class.

I had low expectations going into Russia. Given what we hear in the United States about how horrible Russia is, I thought Moscow was going to be rough, backwards, and uninteresting. Boy, was I wrong. Russia might have been one of the most interesting places I’ve been to in my life because of how different yet oddly similar it is to the U.S.

First of all, everything in Moscow was BIG. The streets were wider than Denmark’s streets and there was a lot of traffic. I was surprised by how much it felt like Los Angeles. But, different from L.A., Moscow has an efficient and developed subway system, which

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Moscow Metro (notice how clean it is)
we used as our primary mode of transportation to get to visits. (Fun fact: Moscow’s subway system is also one of the deepest in the world and can act as a bomb shelter if need be.) The subway stations were beautiful and so much cleaner than the New York City subway. However, they required long escalator rides and lots of walking, which made us really tired in the end.

So let’s get straight to it. Was the KGB watching us, the American students, the entire time?

No. Moscow was just like any other city. Everyday life is Moscow is actually pretty okay. Putin is not watching you every second. People go to work during the day, go back home in the evening to spend time with their families, and go out at night on the weekends.

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Putin only goes to work via helicopter. This is his Helipad.
However, that’s not to say there are not BIG problems with corruption in the Russian government. Putin gets A LOT of money and so does his friends, leaving little to the people. There is huge inequality (although if we look at the Gini coefficient statistics, inequality in Russia is the same as in American, which by the way is also BIG). Life outside Moscow, in the countryside which comprises most of Russia, is still quite harsh. Because Russia is so dependent on oil, the country suffers when oil prices dip. Yet, the situation is complicated. Russia is an ethnically diverse country, where certain groups want independence from the country. Many Russians think Putin is a good leader because he is strong and can keep the country unified despite its size.

That’s also what the Russian students said. As part of our programming, along with four other people from my class, I got to go grocery shopping, cook dinner with, and hang out with two Russian college students. We met Adelia and Maria, who study sociology at the Higher School of Economics. We went to Maria’s apartment, boiled frozen pelmeni (traditional Russian dumplings), and of course, had some vodka. It was such an incredibly fun time! I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much in one night.

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Cooking dinner with Russian students
Over pelmeni, I got to hear their thoughts on Russian issues. Adelia said she liked Putin because he was strong and charismatic. On the other hand, she knows that the state television is full of propaganda. It’s hard to distinguish what is real and not. However, on the issue of Ukraine, she expressed that she “doesn’t know why the Ukrainians don’t like Russians, as Crimea was Russia’s property initially.” So, it seems that propaganda and the skewed narrative told by Putin definitely influences how people think. HOWEVER, other than having different perspectives on political issues, I was surprised by just how similar we all were. We’re all just a group of young people who go to school, who like to have some fun, and have dreams of a job with a good future. Why does the world have to be so divided?

We thought we were just going to cook dinner with them, but more surprises! Turns out that Maria is also a pro dancer (her dream is to join a dance company and move to L.A.) Her friend was a contestant in the Miss Moscow Mini pageant and Maria was a backup dancer for her friend’s talent segment. So, after being stuffed with pelmeni, the seven of us squeezed into an Uber, made a pit stop at a Starbucks, and became part of the audience of the Miss Moscow Mini pageant.

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Left: Gigantic Soviet-era monuments are magnificent and found throughout the city | Right: St. Basil’s Cathedral
We also met with other really cool people such as a journalist at TV Rain, which is an independent online television channel that takes a critical stance against the state media. Even though they are independent, possible repercussions from the state still limits what they are able to report. They are now in a small studio, as the state had shut down their large-scale productions as punishment for digging too deep. We even met with the head of the IMF in Russia and heard about his thoughts on the future of the Russian economy. Three big economic topics we heard during our week in Russia are whether Russia can diversify itself away from oil, how corruption impacts public funds, and whether worldwide sanctions really have an effect on the big players.

The United States seems similar to Russia because the U.S. is constantly fighting to be superior and also spins the narrative to favor the American point of view. We only really care about ourselves and Russia does the same. However, I can’t deny that Russia has had a Soviet past, suffers from insane corruption, and is struggling economically. But, even more clearly than before, I see that no matter where we come from, we are all just human beings who want to live a good life. Sometimes we let the big confusing things divide us and forget that we are perhaps not so different after all.

More than ever in this divisive global climate, let’s not forget that the Russian, the Syrian refugee, the Turkish immigrant, the African American woman, and the Asian lady who doesn’t speak English – are all just labels that divide us and let us loose sight of the humanity that we have in common.

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11 Winter Memories from the South Coast of Iceland

Dear Iceland,

Thank you for everything. For the wonderful people, the awe-inspiring landscapes, and the best days of my life. For blessing us with good luck and letting us see the dance of the Northern lights, soak in the brilliance of the Nordic sun, and let loose with a whimsical Icelandic guide. You showed me with your rugged beauty and wild weather just how small humans can be. I felt, I reflected, and I had fun.

You gave me a gratefulness that I have never felt.
You made me inspired as I have never felt.

I don’t know what more to say. Or perhaps, I don’t want to say anything, for fear that what fantastical things that happened will lose their enchantment if put on a page.

Thank you again, and of course, Skál!

11 Winter Memories from the South Coast of Iceland: 

1._Sólheimajökull Glacier

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2. Black Sand Beach

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3. Sunset

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4. Diamond Beach

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5. Glacier Lagoon

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6. North of the Wall, Game of Thrones

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7. Northern Lights

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8. Efstidalur Icelandic Farm & Ice Cream Shop

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9. Hello Icelandic Horse!

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10. Golden Circle: Gulfoss Waterfall & Geothermal Springs

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11. Thingevellir National Park

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Album: Brussels, Belgium

Last weekend, I ate my way through Brussels. Just some highlights from the trip in pictures!

1. La Salon du Chocolat

I happened to be in Brussels during the Belgian chocolate fair. I’ve never had so much (and so good) chocolate in one day.

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Neuhaus chef makes fresh Caprice
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Donuts at La Salon Du Chocolat

2. Comic Strip Strip Center (aka really cool Comic Book Museum)

Belgium is famous for comics. I learned about The Adventures of Tintin and the Smurfs, which were orignally in comic form before it came out on screen!

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3. Moules-frites (mussels and fries) 

I ate the entire pot. It probably had 70 mussels in it.

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4. Boat themed co-working café

Took a rest after all that food.

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Le Pharre Du Kanal café

5. Waffles & Frites

Did you go to Brussels if you didn’t eat waffles and frites? Random waffle off the street but really the best I’ve ever had. Chewy, crispy, caramelly.

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6. The Global Goals

The Global Goals for sustainable development were launched by the UN in 2015. Let’s all keep moving forward to build a better world.

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7. Art Encounters

Just colorful things I encountered while walking the quiet Sunday streets.

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Brussels / February 10-12, 2017.