First Weeks


At the passport checkpoint, the customs officer spent a considerable amount of time checking out my photo at all angles. I suppose having blonde hair, big glasses and 7 years since the passport photo make an understandable difference. Plus I’m pretty sure I forgot to brush my hair on passport-photo-taking day back in 2007.

Here is a dramatized version of our exchange:

Officer: Is this you?

Me:…yes… (visions of being sent back to the USA)

Officer: Take off your glasses.

Me: *takes them off*

Officer: Smile.

Me: *awkward, worried smile*

Officer: Hmmmm. Please show me another form of identification.

Eventually, I was allowed into the country. This was the first thing I saw when I walked out of customs:


It’s like I never left! I was met at the airport by a wonderful friend of a friend, Zhenya, who immediately took it upon himself to lug my enormous suitcase. We had to buy an extra bus ticket for my luggage.

We took the scenic route and I was able to get my first glimpses of the city. It’s beautiful to see the historic buildings, the bustle of people and the babushkas lining the streets selling various produce from their dachi (dacha=country house outside the city—many people have them to escape city life). Not really related to anything, but while I was on the bus I saw a man walking down the crowded street with a quiver full of arrows and a bow in his hand….not in a carrying case or anything, just out in the open. Russian Robin Hood, да? Not sure why this made such an impression, but I’m just trying to picture someone doing that, say, in the crowded streets of NYC.

Nina Nikolaevna, my host for the year, gave me such a warm welcome, including a wonderful meal of Russian borscht and sour cream. I have a room to myself, with a fold-out bed, and even a piano! The neighbors may not yet realize that they are in for a full year of free, unsolicited opera entertainment.


The first hurdle upon waking up from a jetlagged sleep was taking care of enrollment at the Rimsky-Korsakov State Conservatory, where I will be enrolled in a post-graduate diploma program for the year:


 I skipped around to various offices to take care of my visa, application forms, choosing classes, etc. The system is very different to sign up for classes…in fact, I am not clear that there is a system at all? My enrollment process consisted of an extended conversation with a foreign student office representative. We talked about what I needed from the program…then she would make a phone call to a professor…then we would talk some more…more phone calls to the powers that be, and voila, my class load materialized:

Voice Lessons

Russian Art Song Study

History of Russian Vocal Music

Opera Class

Coaching with concertmaster (concertmaster=collaborative pianist/coach)

I am thankful to Elena Andreevna of the foreign student office…without her, I would still be figuring out my schedule three weeks later. All of my classes relate specifically to the study of Russian vocal literature. Get ready, America, I am bringing it all over to you!

Most of my classes, except for opera class, are private instruction. The average number of voice lessons students receive a week is 3, compared to 1 in American conservatories (and the students here even complain that 3 is not enough!). I think there are plusses and minuses to both systems: the American system encourages independent work and development, but at the same time, there is a lot to be said for having your teacher whip you into shape several times a week. We are also allowed to sit in on other student’s lessons, so I am using that as an opportunity to learn Russian repertoire for various kinds of voices.

The schedule at the conservatory does not really get started until 11am, and can go late into the evening. As someone who used to get up to go to the gym at 5:45am, before work, this feels like perpetual vacation.

The students I have met so far have been very welcoming and curious about me, where I am from, what I am doing here. Several people have asked if I am from Finland, because they notice that although I am fluent in Russian I speak a little differently (and also maybe it’s the blonde hair). I can fake the inflection pretty well now that I’ve been here for a while, but vocabulary and word order give me away!


Paying for tuition at the bank turned out to be a fun little dance. For some reason or another, my debit card did not work to pay the bill, and the cashier at the bank shrugged and suggested that I take out the money in cash and pay for it that way. Now, the ATM’s have a maximum amount that you can take out, and I calculated that to pay the full amount, I would have to make 20 separate withdrawals.

So there I was, for about half an hour, taking copious amounts of cash out of this ATM machine, stuffing it in my pocket, re-swiping my card, looking around nervously…rinse and repeat. Finally I came up to the cash register with a huge wad of cash and made the payment. I made a new friend out of it, Ivan the Sberbank door attendant. After observing my activities for a while, he began to direct the impatient customers in line behind me to the next ATM…. “Please, she will be here for a long time, use the bancomat around the corner…” He chuckles at me now whenever I come into the bank. I am pretty sure he is still telling the story about the crazy American girl who tried to empty the ATM.


I have started to explore the city a little bit, walking around and taking a boat tour. It’s so gorgeous, and the weather has behaved remarkably well. I have been told that September can be rainy and unpleasant, but we have had sunny skies and temperature in the 60s. And by that of course I mean 15-20s, celsius. 

Peter and Paul Church Coastme


In other news, here is the first Russian meal I have made from scratch, the famous Salat Olivier:


I am eating a lot of potatoes, sour cream, and salads dressed with mayonnaise, and still losing weight. Russia is a magical place. I have also had my first experience with Russian fast food at a place called “Теремок.” I had a “блин” (Blini are Russian crepes—very traditional) and mushroom soup:

 Fast Food 

Here is an ad for Teremok:


Translation: “CAUTION! Our food is very tasty!” Excellent work, advertising team! It made me stop by and try it. 


I am so lucky to have this opportunity to spend so much time here and immerse myself not only in Russian music, but also the culture, the atmosphere and the history. Occasionally, just walking down the street, I find myself grinning because I still can’t believe it’s real! Then I notice people staring and try to tone it down…