After successfully completing the diploma program at the conservatory… (see proof below ^_^ )


…it was time for a break.


Many people in Russian cities have little second homes out in the countryside, close to nature and away from the crowds. My host for the year Nina Nikolaevna was kind enough to invite me to visit her dacha.

We took the metro and this bus out to the suburbs:


The bus driver was very talented… He drove, talked on his bluetooth, checked his phone, negotiated sharp turns AND accepted bus fare from passengers all at the same time…

I was happy to reach the peaceful little community of dachas centered around this gorgeous lake:


The dacha is beautiful, made of wood and built by Nina N and her family. We got water out of the well behind the house:


I spent the days picking berries, eating fresh produce and taking long walks in the countryside:


Making friends with the local version of Grumpy Cat:


And exploring local decor, which included this:


…so your friends can identify which dacha is yours, perhaps?


And so, after an eventful year, it is time to go home!


Remember how in the beginning of the year I said that people thought I was from Finland? Well, I flew home on Finnair, and the flight attendants all tried to speak to me in Finnish, even though they spoke English to other passengers around me. So, even Finnish people think I look Finnish…who knew!

Best part of flying with Finnair was the blueberry juice:


I am sad to leave beautiful St. Petersburg and the Motherland, but it is time to go explore the New World:

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Thank you so much for reading and coming with me on my journey! It has been so nice to share my experiences with all of you!

And with that I say:



White Nights


Now that the wonderful month of June has arrived, we are being reimbursed for all the months of winter darkness! St. Petersburg has very short nights from May to July thanks to its northern location…this wonderful phenomenon is known as “Белые Ночи”, or White Nights. It only truly gets dark around 11pm, and before you know it the sun is back up at 3:30am! As a notoriously annoying morning person, I love it…


The month of May was family time for me! My mom came to visit, and we went to see relatives both in Rostov on the Don and in Moscow. Rostov is a port city about 1000 kilometers south of Moscow (look at me, using the metric system like a real European):

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I loved seeing this old merchant’s home turned swimming pool:


While strolling along the banks of the Don River, we came across this inscription from the metalworks company of the Pastukhov family, my ancestors on my mother’s side!


Moscow was huge and bustling as usual, with endless traffic jams and people always in a hurry! St. Petersburg feels small in comparison. My family took us on a tour dedicated to the famous Russian poet Sergei Yesenin:


Mama and I practiced the fine art of the selfie throughout our trip:


We took a day trip to the Savvino-Storozhevsky Monastery, established in 1407: IMG_2171  IMG_2173

Russians love their tea, and family time usually looks something like this:



Please excuse a quick moment of self-congratulation as I applaud myself and my wonderful boyfriend Steve on successfully navigating 9 months of long-distance! This relationship is brought to you by skype, viber and occasionally snail-mail (it takes a month for a letter to arrive).


The sign above reads “Поцелуев Мост”, the Kissing Bridge. I have been told that it is where members of the navy said goodbye to their loved ones before shipping off on duty.


As you all know, the purpose of my time here is to study music. I take this very seriously, and hereby bring you this installment of The Best Pop Music I Have Heard Here In Russia:

This song is called “You are so handsome with a beard” and features sage advice in the rap lyrics such as “I should party less, go to museums more” and “A man should be able to put together an Ikea table”.

I was at a cafe listening to this next song, and kept hearing the line “Я хочу помыть посуду” which means “I want to wash the dishes”…confused by this unusual theme in a pop song, I looked it up when I got home. It’s actually “ПОБИТЬ посуду”, which is “break dishes”… much less wholesome but much less surprising in a pop song:

And last but not least, I leave you with the Ukrainian group Село и Люди (Selo i Ludi) and their awesome cover of Pretty Woman featuring folk music instruments:


Rejoice! Winter is finally losing its grip on St. Petersburg, as seen in the last, lonely pieces of ice bobbing around in Griboyedova Canal, down the street from my apartment:


In March, to escape from the winter, I took a mini vacation to the tropics (and desert, too) by visiting the local botanical garden for a few hours. It was so warm and humid…and very affordable, as far as tropical vacations go…

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As part of Spring concert festivities, we presented opera scenes at the Small Hall of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. I played the Snow Maiden, a fairytale creature with a frozen heart who wants to live with humans and discover what love truly means (…Little Mermaid, Russian style!).


The concert halls of St. Petersburg are plentiful and gorgeous. Some pictures from another recital at the Vladimrsky Palace: 

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I have been so lucky to work with my teacher, Ms. Kondina, and get to know her amazing students! It is a very talented and supportive group of people. 


April brought an impromptu Eastman reunion as two of my awesome college friends came to visit! Dana, Marielle and I went to the midnight Pascha (Easter) service on April 11th at the Nikolsky Cathedral. It was so crowded, so festive, and the deacons there have such LOUD voices! Having them yelling “Христос Воскресе” (“Christ is Risen”) in your ear definitely helped with staying awake in the late hours…

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My honorary Russian ladies: 

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Traditional Easter bread (Kulich) at 4am after the service! They were sold in most grocery stores a few weeks before Pascha: 



Dana and I took the opportunity to do a lot of touristy things I have been putting off! We discovered that our two favorite activities were visiting palaces and eating (of course). Here are snippets of our adventures:

Boat tour!


Savior on the Blood Cathedral, just as gorgeous on the inside as on the outside: 

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Peter and Paul Fortress and St. Isaac’s Cathedral: 

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Watching my favorite Prokofiev opera, “Betrothal in a Monastery” at the Mariinsky Theater, and Giselle at the Mihailovsky Theater: 


Tsarskoye Selo (Tsar’s Village), Smolny Cathedral, Cathedral in the center of Pushkin: 

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Fanciness in the Tsarskoye Selo Palace: 

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To offset the fanciness of the palace, we had beer at Burger King. Keeping it classy: 

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The Eliseev Brothers shop is one of my favorite dessert places in St. Petersburg, with amazingly crafted marzipan and other goodies: 

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I had an incredible chocolate cake there, and decided to document it from the beginning all the way through to the sadness of it being over: 



One of the most interesting dishes I had was beets with pear, parsley and tiny candied pine cones! Crazy: 


Pirogi, of course: 

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I do my grocery shopping at a little store across the street called Dixie (Дикси). For the longest time, I was taken aback at how certain meats and dairy products were still sold past the expiration date! But lo and behold, I finally realized that the date they stamp is the date PACKAGED (“сортировки”), not expired! It only took me 7 months:

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22nd April 2015 🙂 Fresh and delicious!

Another awesome thing about Russia: you can buy contact lenses from a vending machine at the mall! This seems to match with being able to buy antibiotics and basically any medicine you want over the counter at the pharmacies here…


….that’s all, folks! See you next month!




February is definitely the most beautiful time of year in St. Petersburg. 

…just kidding. It’s pretty cold and slushy. However, it does have a charm of its own! Here are some shots of winter: 

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Sometimes people take walks on the frozen river… so do ducks. 

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My host Nina Nikolaevna’s birthday was in February, so we had a nice celebration: 

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February also brought “Maslenitsa,” the time before lent when everyone fattens up on blini (traditional Russian crepes). Here is my friend Andrei enjoying a plateful: 

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If the saying “you are what you eat” is true, I am definitely part cabbage by now. I have fully embraced cooking with it and make “Щи” (“Schi”) and “Борщ” (“Borscht”) regularly. If cabbage is not the national vegetable of Russia, it should be. 

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The great Russian literary genius Aleksandr Pushkin died on February 10th, 1837, in St. Petersburg, after being wounded in a duel. The apartment where he died was turned into a museum, and every year there is a day-long series of activities and events to mark the anniversary of his passing. My voice studio presented a program of art songs and arias based on texts of Pushkin, and we sang to a completely full concert hall! I also stayed and listened to a poetry reading held in front of Pushkin’s statue. 



I sang the role of Amor in Gluck’s “Orfeo” this past weekend at the conservatory Theater of Opera and Ballet: 

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Apparently, mythological gods of love like to take selfies, too: 

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Short post this time…but hey, February is a short month!

See you next time!


Fotina Leaves the Motherland! …temporarily.


The last week in January I went to a mid-year conference in Moscow and met the rest of the Fulbrighters spending their year in Russia! It was great to finally meet in person the people who, until now, had been living in my inbox. It was interesting to hear about everyone’s projects…a few examples: studying sea creatures in Lake Baikal, collecting oral histories of Protestant women in Siberia, researching the relationship between the Soviet Union and UNESCO, exploring the Jewish Soviet dissident movement in St. Petersburg, dissertation research on the theme of enthusiasm in early Soviet literature, researching soil and climate in Russia’s southern regions. So much variety!



During my winter break (the conservatory’s vacation is the first week in February–go figure!) I traveled to Albania. My childhood best friend, Ana, lives there, and it was high time for us to have a reunion after several years of not seeing each other! Ana lives in the capital city of Tirana with her husband and adorable two-year-old son. 

On the flight, and even at customs, people asked me why I was headed to Tirana in February, since it is the “cold” season. I had to laugh, because compared to Mother Russia, 50 degrees fahrenheit was a balmy paradise. 

Some pictures of Tirana from my first day, near the city center: 

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Part of the University of Tirana:

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To me, Tirana seems like an interesting mix of Italy and Russia. There is the Mediterranean feel that I love so much about Italy, mixed with Soviet-like architecture that came from Albania’s socialist period 1976-1991. Some more snapshots from our walk in the city:

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In one of the city squares there is a statue of Woodrow Wilson, who advocated for Albanian independence in 1919-1920. America is very popular in Albania, and there are even several streets named after US Presidents, including John F. Kennedy:

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The pyramid structure was the former tomb for Enver Hoxha, Albania’s leader from 1944-1985:

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Of course, I find opera anywhere I go: 


There were palm trees everywhere, in case I forgot that I wasn’t in St. Petersburg anymore:

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The beautiful mountain view from Ana’s apartment: 


Vacation means eating anything and everything you want, right?

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We had a pizza party on Super Bowl Sunday…except minus the football, because with the time difference, the game started at midnight. Zzzzzzzzz 🙂

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I enjoyed seeing this fast food joint: 


Albania Fried Chicken, no affiliation with KFC…although the font looks suspiciously similar, yes?

I also tried Tavë Kosi, a traditional Albanian dish made of baked yogurt and lamb: 


Albanian money (1 US Dollar is about 120 Albanian Lek):


We visited the main Orthodox cathedral in the city on Sunday:

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So grateful to spend time with these wonderful people:

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 Selfie comparison: age 16, and now age 26!

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And now, back to St. Petersburg!! 

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A New Year!

I think it’s time for an update, considering I haven’t posted since last year! (har dee har har)


I had the opportunity to travel to Moscow at the beginning of December. The city was all dressed up in preparation for the holidays! The whole city was festive and shining.

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On the left is the biggest Christmas ornament in the world, and when you stand in the middle of it, you make a wish! 


I visited several museums, including the Pushkin museum (far right), the Tretyakov Gallery (the largest collection of Russian fine art in the world, middle), and of course the Red Square and St. Basil’s Cathedral (far left). St. Basil’s was built in the mid 1500s, during the reign of Ivan the Terrible, and it remains one of the most recognizable landmarks in Russia!

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It was so nice to spend time visiting with my extended family on my father’s side. They were so warm and hospitable and took me to the theater no less than three times: an opera, a musical and a play, all within a week! 

Below is a picture of Тетя (Aunt) Lena and me (left), Тетя Lida and I making our wishes in the middle of the huge Christmas bauble (middle), and the wonderful meal that Тетя Lida made to welcome me. 

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Тетя Lida shared photos and family history with me, including this picture:


The little girl in the front with the white hat is my grandmother on my father’s side! 


I sang in a gala concert presented by “Romansiada,” an organization/competition that promotes Russian folk and art song repertoire. We performed with the folk ensemble “Россия” (“Russia”), and it was the first time I performed with instruments like the balalaika, domra, and “гусли” (similar to a dulcimer)! The concert was held in the historic Колонный Зал Дома Союзов (roughly translated “Column Hall of the House of Unions”), a venue that has been used for concerts and state functions since the late 1770s. 

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Here are pictures of the performance, my fabulous teacher Maria Germanovna, and my wonderful family. I was so glad they were able to come see it!

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While I was in Moscow, the ruble fell drastically, with the exchange dipping as low as 86 rubles to the dollar. When I arrived in September, the exchange was 38 rubles per dollar. Prices rose overnight–I walked into the grocery store, and the apples that been 30 RUB/kg the night before were now 60 RUB/kg! This is so difficult for people on a fixed income, pensioners especially. The exchange has stabilized now at around 60 rubles per dollar. 


One of my favorite people came to visit over New Years! Jason and I have been best friends since college:

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It was fun to show him around my new habitat. We climbed St. Isaac’s Cathedral and saw the incredible views:

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The inside of the cathedral is just as spectacular:


Of course I had to take my tenor friend to see an opera at the Mariinsky Theater. We saw The Tale of Tsar Saltan, by Rimsky-Korsakov, which is basically a compilation of the Cinderella story and Swan lake, complete with Russian folk tunes and incredible costumes. 

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We had a lovely New Year’s eve celebration with Nina Nikolaevna (my host for the year), Jason, and my Russian friend Zhenya. Nina Nikolaevna is an incredible cook, and I am trying to learn all her secrets while I am here. Our meal included traditional new year’s food like Salat Olivier, mandarin oranges, cabbage pie and herring under a fur coat (still learning to love this dish!). 

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After midnight, Jason, Zhenya and I went to the Palace Square to see some fireworks. The weather had just turned from rainy to freezing, so the sidewalks were covered in ice. We perfected the hunched-over-penguin-shuffle walk and got there in one piece!

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In Russia, firework regulations are lax to say the least, so on our walk we kept getting surprised by fireworks going off within a few feet of us!


In addition to purple hair for old ladies, some Russians enjoy resurrecting the 80’s with a pixie cut/mullet combination. My hairdresser, with the best of intentions, included me in this trend…I’m not including the actual photo of myself, because I’m too embarrassed, but this is an approximation of what I felt like:

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Jason, who has never cut hair before, used blunt office scissors to chop off the loose ends, and it was a great improvement…


On Russian Christmas (January 7th, because Russian Orthodox celebrate according to the Julian calendar) I went to the midnight Christmas service at the Kazanski Sobor, the main cathedral of St. Petersburg. The service began at 11pm and went until approximately 2am, with camera crews filming the whole thing and broadcasting on tv. I had to get there early to stake out my spot, there was quite a crowd! 


When I got home, I talked with my family at 5:30am my time, 9:30pm their time. We sent gifts to each other ahead of time, back in November, so we were able to open them together on Skype!


Being far away on Christmas is hard, but thankfully I have found something MUCH more effective than Mickie D’s for when I need a taste of home:


They even spelled my name right on the cup! 


(^Caffeinated Fotina)

Winter is coming!

The canals are now sporting a layer of ice, and even though snowfall has been limited, it definitely feels like winter. The Neva river is not yet completely frozen over, but has jagged sheets of ice flowing along with the current. This morning as I was walking over the Blagoveshensky bridge, I watched a group of birds taking joy rides on the ice with what looked to me to be gleeful smiles.

Sketch of the Blagoveshensky bridge (thank you Google Image):


When the canals and the Neva freeze over completely, I am told that the city authorities will break up the ice to discourage people from walking on it. 

I came across this historic image (1924) of a life-size chess game on Dvortsovaya Ploschad (Palace Square), which is the main central square of the city:


I think about this picture every time I walk past the square…so much history here!


Recently I took a quiz entitled “What is your true age?” on BuzzFeed, and was informed that I am 75 years old. I suspect this outcome has something to do with my love for opera, tea and cats.

To rebel against my results, I decided it was time to go to a rock concert. Here are my friends Andrei, Misha and Masha in the Ledovy Dvorets (Ice Palace) Stadium as we wait for the arrival of the Swedish pop rock duo, Roxette: 


For those of you who don’t know the group, here is one of their more famous songs:

If I took the quiz again, I’m pretty sure my results would go down 20 years at least. So there, Buzzfeed. 


Things are going well at the conservatory. I have even made friends with Mr. Rimsky-Korsakov…


…even though he does not seem impressed. 

One of my favorite places in the conservatory is the library. You aren’t allowed to go browse the stacks yourself; instead, you look through a card catalogue and tell the lady behind the desk what you need and she fetches it. The shelves are packed, dusty, slightly crooked, and utterly charming:


Things are continuing to go well with my teacher, Ms. Kondina. In addition to being a great singer, she is a wonderful person with a healthy supply of anecdotes, laughter, and zest for life:


Anecdotes are an uber-Russian thing, and come up often in conversation..I have found myself doing the same, so I guess I must be adapting to my new habitat 😉 Some of Ms. Kondina’s favorite things to say in lessons:

“Дыхание до пяток!” (Breathe all the way down to your heels!)

“Голос веди ровно, мягко, красиво…в космос!” (Lead the sound evenly, gently, beautifully…into the cosmos!)

“ЗВУК ВПЕРЕД!!” (Lead the sound forward!)


My American friend Frances and her family invited me for a beautiful Thanksgiving meal, which was deliciously prepared by the staff of their hotel. We had a wonderful time, and even though I missed my family, it was a memorable holiday with new friendships made!

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My stomach was pleasantly surprised at the familiar comfort foods…with the addition of parsley, dill, pickled mushrooms and cabbage, of course…because Russia. Turns out they all go well with turkey!


My professor for art song class (“камерное пениe”), Maria Germanovna Ludko, is a whirlwind of an organizer and is always setting up performances for us (she is a National Artist of Russia and a local favorite–she has been performing since age 8! She is the head of the Art Song department at the conservatory and also has a Phd in musicology…you know, no big deal!). In November, we have had a few concerts, as well as community service recitals in a nursing home and in a support center for blind patients.

Maria Germanovna always introduces me as “our стажер (diploma student) from America,” so the audience knows where I am from and is always surprised that I don’t have an accent when I sing! After one of the concerts, a sweet Russian lady came up to me and talked about how political differences seem far away when you meet someone from another country in person, and even further away once you share music. Her comments were so touching to me, and I loved that her thinking was so in line with the Fulbright program and what it stands for. 

Here is a picture taken after a concert in the beautiful town of Pavlovsk, a few kilometers outside of St. Petersburg. Our group included singers from Mongolia, Malta, Germany, America and Russia…quite a bouquet:


(Maria Germanovna is in the gold dress)


In other news, there IS an American-idol-esque show in Russia for opera. It’s called “Bolshaya Opera”, and features superstar judges and aria extravaganzas that include crazy props and microphones and reverb and light shows and everything…

 …..and with that, I say good night and “Пока! До встречи!” (Until we meet again!)