Arrival in Russia with Miscellaneous Thoughts on Language and Sleep Deprivation

Arriving in Moscow three weeks ago wasn’t quite what I expected.  That’s not to say that I had high expectations about what it would be like, but to come with a dazed, jet lag induced, stupor and headache was not something that I considered for any extended period.  Thus, any excitement, which I might have had otherwise, was muted by the ensuing reality of exhaustion and the confirmation that my ability with the Russian language was nowhere near I’d liked it to be when arriving here.  The first Russian I spoke with was with a border guard.  She asked me if I knew Russian, to which I said yes, and then everything that followed was not really clear.  It’s one thing to speak in class, in a controlled manner, and another to have an actual conversation or, in this case, a line of inquiry.  The questions where completely standard, from what I can gather, “Why are you in Russia?” and something about Germany (layover).  I believe that I slightly mangled my answer to the former, and completely gutted the latter.

Using a foreign language in a non-scripted context will always be a nerve racking experience when starting to learn, especially when one isn’t confident in their ability.  The first time hearing a native speak sounds like all of the words pour out of their mouth at once, and you’re stuck picking them up and making meaning out of them; you may gather some of them, but it seems that there is never enough time.  After a while, you begin to understand what they say, but don’t know how to respond, which is then interpreted as a misunderstanding.  Eventually, one gets through the difficulty, and is thus able to speak with some proficiency.  They say, in orientation and from other stories, that this is a natural process.  Judging the comments and reactions of most of my peers here, they too are either are going through or went through this process.  From my own experience thus far, I would say that I am still going through this process – somewhere in the second stage.

In regards to the jet-lag, it is something that one will always have to deal with when traveling long distances.  Before leaving the United States, I heard two ways of dealing with jet lag, neither of which I found practicable in my own experience.  The first involves slowly adjusting in one’s own time zone, shifting an hour forwards or backwards every certain period of time.  The other is to simply sleep on the way over to one’s destination (assuming an overnight flight, west to east).  Unless one has no personal life or responsibilities, or is otherwise a sociopath, slowly adjusting doesn’t seem practicable; if you can do it, more power to you.  I attempted to sleep on the transatlantic flight over, but I simply couldn’t do so.  No matter if one is capable of doing one, or both, of the prior strategies; the only true way to adjust is through brute force.  It is necessary to force oneself to sleep according to the routine that one will follow when abroad.   So you have to force yourself to stay awake in the middle of the day, even if your internal clock is telling you that it is 2 o’clock in the morning, and then try to find a way to fall asleep at night, when your internal clock is telling you that is two in the afternoon.  Then try to sleep the required eight hours without under or oversleeping.

The first day and night abroad will thus be the more difficult ones.  After getting through security and collecting our baggage, we boarded a bus, which took us to Moscow proper.  When riding the bus, I general feeling that I initially had was that of a lucid, fevered dream – I felt like I dreamed every time I closed my eyes without actually falling asleep, with a head splitting migraine, along with a premonition of impeding vomit thrown in for good measure.  I finally managed to get a nap in, taking care of the migraine and the urge to evacuate United Airline’s “Pasta” (it’s closer to Lasagna).

After dropping off our luggage at the student dormitory (we only started to live with our host families later that week, on Saturday), Jon showed us the basics, getting cash and getting tickets for the famed Moscow Metro.  We then rode down to Станцию Белорусскую, and ate at a Georgian restaurant.  We returned to our dorms at approximately 7:00 PM and I then tried to fall asleep at around 9:50-10:15.  In spite of my exhaustion, it took me a while to fall asleep.  Once asleep I then woke up periodically throughout the following morning, at 1:00, 3:30, 5:00, 7:30, at finally at 10:45, the exact time we had to meet up at the university for the start of our in country orientation.

This does not mean that my first 24 hours in Russia were miserable – far from it, they were very informative and fun.  If you are going abroad for the first time, as I am, prepare yourself for some difficulties, you will encounter them.  However, you must be ready to have your expectations to be subverted and be willing to learn from them.

By: Austen Demsko

Program: Advanced Russian Language and Area Studies Program

Term: Fall 2017


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