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Travel & Orientation

Wyoming-Saratov Study Abroad Program

Suggestions for Your Study Abroad In Saratov


The following is a compilation of suggestions from alums of the program (1993-2016), spanning twenty-four years of summer exchanges. Inevitably, no matter what, everyone is sure to forget something that they intended to bring, or bring something that they should have forgotten, but as a rule, these are some key things to think about while preparing to travel to Russia. We hope these suggestions from former participants will make the preparation job more successful!


Before we get into specifics, we thought we would mention a few general issues to keep in mind:


1). Pack LIGHT! This is definitely a good idea, though we all know how hard that is to do. If you have a large suitcase, make sure that it is on wheels (not the small, hard-to-maneuver type, but larger, sturdy ones). There will be many times when you will need to carry all your bags at once, so make sure you have some system to do this. Don’t assume that there will always be someone else nearby to help you with your baggage.  If your biggest bag is much larger than 30” h x 18” w x 14” d, there is a good chance you’ll have trouble stowing it anywhere in the train compartment but on your bed!


Also it is a good idea to have a smaller bag (maybe your backpack) that you can take on smaller day trips. For instance, if you go to the dacha or on the boat trip where you won't want your entire huge suitcase, a smaller piece can be most useful.


2). Bring a buffer of money. Although the inflation rate in Russia is more or less predictable these days, many prices are still negotiated.  We suggest a buffer of at least $200 cash beyond your total budget (including souvenir money).

It is possible to get credit card advances in Saratov at ATM machines, which are fairly ubiquitous.  Also, remember that you will be charged a fee for getting credit card advances, which will add to the overall cost somewhat.  It's probably a good safety idea to have both cash and a credit or debit card (don't forget to set your card up with a PIN!), just in case, but it is always simpler if you have cash readily available to exchange for rubles. Do NOT bring traveler's cheques!  They are a monumental hassle to convert to spendable money.  Most banks prefer not to deal with them at all.


3). A few comments on dress... Be aware that Russians generally dress in a less "unisex" fashion than Americans, and a bit less casually than you might be used to here. Obviously, what is trendy or flashy here isn't necessarily so there.


Basically, most Americans are usually quite surprised by the way the people dress in Saratov—and mainly by how the women dress. They dress to the nines! (Just how do they walk around all day in those high heels??)

It's impossible to bring clothes for every occasion, so the most important thing is to bring clothes that are comfortable. It can be very hot in Saratov in the summer. Shorts are okay (but not in every situation), but fairly uncommon there, and sundresses for girls are a good idea, if you like that sort of thing.


It is a good idea for women to have a scarf handy when visiting churches. It's not an absolute must but it is traditional for women to have a head covering when going into a church, and it is essential for the rare visit to an Islamic mosque. In Russian Orthodox churches you’ll fit in better and are less likely to be scolded by an irate babushka if you are wearing a scarf.  Men should plan to wear a shirt, long pants, and shoes or sandals when entering a church.  Be prepared to remove your hat as you enter.


Even though the trip is 6-7 weeks long, you’ll probably only want to bring 2 weeks worth of clothes, or less. Most people in Saratov only have a small number of very nice outfits that they wear outside, so you will fit in better, plus you will want the extra room later for souvenirs. A general fashion note: you can expect to see Russians in very nice attire most of the time when they are out in public. Jeans, shorts, t-shirts (and even backpacks!) will instantly give you away as a foreigner. Women mainly wear dresses in the summer in Saratov. High heels and make-up are not uncommon in the middle of the day. If you want to blend in as much as possible, carry your books in a bag or briefcase-style «портфель», or in a cotton shopping bag (these are quite handy for many things, and are light, foldable, and stowable.


4). You're still a tourist! Although you may be furnished some descriptions and explanations in English of some of the sites along the way (when there happen to be English-speaking tour guides) don't expect it as a general rule. If you're interested in extra explanations of sites, shop for a good travel book that you can pack in a small bag for «экскурсии» (day trips or "excursions"). This includes Moscow and Petersburg. A recommended book of this sort is the Russia/Ukraine edition in the Lonely Planet series.


Yes, you are a tourist, and it is always handy if you have a guide to the places you are going, although a guidebook is not an absolute necessity. In fact, unless you want to attempt to go exploring by yourself or are just very interested in the history of different places, you probably won't use a guidebook often enough for it to be worth hauling 7000 miles.


An important note on traffic and rules of the road: Pedestrians do NOT enjoy the right-of-way in Russia, as here in the USA. When crossing streets it is essential to check carefully for oncoming traffic. Also, watch carefully at intersections with combined tram and auto traffic. The combination of cars and rail vehicles can present a potentially confusing and dangerous mix of obstacles to avoid. When in doubt, follow the natives! They’ve done it successfully all their lives!


On to the specifics! First, let's mention a few things that you really don't want to leave behind:


a). Water — Russians drink significantly less water than Americans, and it is not normally offered as a courtesy in cafes and restaurants. So, getting a glass of non-fizzing water can sometimes take some real effort. Having a water filter is nice, and will be very useful during certain parts of the summer. Bottled water is, for the most part, easily available, so if you plan ahead it should be not too much trouble to purchase bottled (non-fizzing) water.


b). A good dictionary! Kenneth Katzner's English-Russian, Russian-English Dictionary is a good one, albeit somewhat on the heavy side; a smaller, more portable, dictionary can be good as a substitute. Although it's kind of big and clunky, a good dictionary can be really helpful (and fun!) when you're trying to converse. A small travel-sized English-Russian, Russian-English dictionary for the smaller excursions can be quite handy.


c). Clothes: This is tricky, because each person is different and it's hard to know what you will need for sure. Yes, it's important to pack lightly, but also you will probably have to wash your clothes by hand, and you won't want to do it all that often. On the other hand, you may get tired of wearing the same few things too often. So, a good idea is to bring about two week’s worth of changes of clothes. White clothes will tend to get dirty (you never realize how hard it is to actually get clothes clean until you do it by hand!!)  Again, plan on hand-washing your own clothes while you are there. Some host families may have a washer, but not necessarily all. Coin-op laundries are non-existent – at least, in over twenty years no one in any student group has ever spotted one anywhere in Saratov!


Also include a change of cold-weather clothes, including a pair of jeans and a long-sleeve shirt, a windbreaker/rain coat (preferably one you can fold up); and don't leave home without a reliable pair of walking shoes! You will do a LOT of walking in Russia, so make sure your shoes are sturdy and comfortable. (In the big cities, the walk between metro stops can easily be 15-20 minutes, and sometimes more.)  Sandals are also good to have along as long as they are very comfortable on hot days. Include a hat to shield from the sun (you can buy sunglasses there if you like); swim suit; possibly an extra towel for going to the beach; socks to ward off blisters from walking; a scarf; a separate drawstring bag for dirty clothes.


d). An umbrella is a must since you never know when and if it will rain. Get one that is compact (usually you can find them at Wal-Mart for about $5).


e). A MUST HAVE: Kleenex!! Those small packages are a necessity not only if you catch a cold or have allergies, but also they are invaluable for all sorts of things, especially as a substitute for toilet paper.   In addition to Kleenex, you might want to bring a roll of toilet paper with the cardboard removed since bathrooms in Russia have a tendency to be lacking in this commodity.


f). Medicines: It's a good idea to be prepared for anything but especially bring the medicines you would normally take while at home, e.g., cold medications, cough drops, allergy medication, aspirin, prescription medications, etc. If you ever get sick at home, more than likely you'll at least develop a little sniffle while abroad. It's Murphy's Law.


g). Mosquito repellent: this is a very good idea, though it’s guaranteed that you will get at least a few mosquito bites while in Russia, no matter what you do. There is usually no shortage of mosquitoes at the dacha! You may need mosquito netting, but then again maybe not.  “Cutter’s” is an excellent brand of lotion-type repellent, usually sold in the outdoor or sporting section of most department stores.


h). Products: Basically, you’ll want to bring along anything that you can't substitute. For example, if you need a good sun block, bring it. You'll probably be able to find sun block in Saratov, but finding a specific SPF factor is unpredictable. Also, you need to remember that products come and go in Russia. So while there might be Colgate toothpaste one week, there might not be the next (or ever after!) In general, though, you can always find body soap, laundry detergent and bleach, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste and toothbrushes. But again, they will be of varying quality (compared with the more specialty kinds of items you find in the States) and you certainly won't always recognize the brand!


Here are the products we suggest you bring: Band-Aids, antibiotic crème, anti-itch/bug bite medication, a good anti-diarrhea medicine, a good antacid, a good anti-constipation medicine; an ace bandage which can fit a knee or ankle; tampons/pads, sun block, analgesic for sunburn, aspirin or other like pain reliever, small packs of Kleenex (if you can find a toilet while walking around, chances are it won't have any paper), lip balm.


i). And of course your own personal stuff...


j). Remember that any electrical gadget requires a plug converter. You can buy these converters in most department stores, electronic stores, and some hardware stores, in the U.S. The one that works for most of Europe also works in Russia. Try not to bring gadgets that require voltage conversion. This type of transformer is big and unwieldy. Many shavers and hair dryers operate on either 110/120 or 220/240 current, as long as you have the plug converter. Also, Russian electricity cycles at 50 per second (it’s 60 in America).


k). School: Bring a smaller bag (a cotton canvas bag like the ones they sell at grocery stores can be good) or a light backpack for school and for sightseeing trips, such as during the ship trip. (Backpacks are still relatively rare, so if you are interested in the “blending-in factor,” go with the canvas bag). In it, we suggest you keep a few band-aids, Kleenex, a water bottle. You can find pads or books of paper for school there (although you may want some paper sooner). You can also find pens, but they tend to last anywhere from 30 seconds to an hour. We suggest you bring your own pens, for reliability sake.


l). Other suggested items: bungee chord-type clothesline with hooks on each end. (This can be a real help, especially for the boat. You can buy them at outdoor sports or camping stores like REI.) Mosquito repellent and/or mosquito netting (You may need the netting for your room.) Swiss Army knife; money belt—to carry your passport, plane tickets and cash while traveling; mp3 player; a few books in English (you'll have plenty of stretches of time on your hands when you can't listen to another word in Russian!); guide book; camera—the lighter the better; your own photos of family, friends, community—Russians will be quite interested in these; breakfast bars/granola bars that won't melt—these can be a real help when you're on long walks or on the train (where there's mainly tea); a good can opener/bottle opener; a flashlight; playing cards; multivitamins; a pocket calculator can be helpful for money conversions.


m). Gifts:

This is important. Russians are very generous, and it is especially nice to have gifts for your teachers. At the end of your stay in Saratov you will have a “graduation/farewell” party where all the students, teachers and other folks from the school get together and have dinner, exchange gifts, and say some appropriate final words. It can be expensive to get gifts for everyone, but even the smallest thing is appreciated. So, prepare a number of gifts for your family and your main teacher. Examples might be t-shirts from your university or hometown, a book that is about where you are from. Anything that has “local color” makes a nice gift. Basically, the best gifts are not the most extravagant, but those that will remind your Russian friends of you after your departure. For more casual acquaintances, little souvenir-type things are nice, for example, postcards, bumper stickers, pens, shot glasses, etc., that are representative of where you are from.


Miscellaneous Suggestions:


Think of a way to carry your money with you. Some people on the trip have used money belts, which work fairly well. Don’t rely exclusively on something like a purse because you may not always want to take it with you, especially where there might be security concerns. A Velcro pouch that you can hang around your neck and conceal under your shirt is also a good option.


It is best to not attract attention to yourself, but this is a hint for whenever you are traveling anywhere, even in big cities in the USA. Overall, it will probably be relatively obvious that you are an American, or at least a foreigner. Some things that might tip off the natives: being friendly to strangers on the streets, smiling at just about everyone you see, taking pictures of metro signs and city streets. Russians are not as open initially as small-town Americans are, at least not to strangers (and this is a combination of big city vs. small town and different cultures).


Also, Russians tend to have less personal space than we do. You will definitely experience this when you ride the public transportation and chances are you will feel like a sardine more than once in a crowded bus or trolley during your stay in Russia. And yes, some people’s personal hygiene is not exactly what we are used to, but it will probably be hot enough that you won't exactly smell like a rose yourself all the time.


PHONE HOME


Make prior arrangements with family and friends for international calling.


1). What is the best way to make long distance phone calls from Russia?


        Calling from Russia can be difficult since the (landline) phone system is a bit archaic and experiences heavy use most of the day and early evening.  Sometimes, even calling from one part of a Russian city to another can be impossible due to overloaded lines. So, try to have your friends and family call you there since that usually works more reliably, especially if they call in the later evening (Saratov time), or early morning. Saratov is 7 hours ahead of EST, 9 hours ahead of MST. To dial from the U.S.: 011-7-845-2 plus the six-digit Saratov number. (Collect calls from Saratov to the U.S. are extremely expensive. And those calls won't cover the stretch from Saratov to Moscow, which must be made to reach the international operators. This portion of the charges will be assessed to your host family's telephone bill. (The student should conscientiously cover all such phone charges assessed to the host family). So, you can see that it's just simpler to have friends and family call you there!  Overall, the simplest way to arrange for making calls is to do it in advance by email.  (Email will be easily accessible in Saratov once everyone becomes familiarized with the 'lay of land'.)


2). Will phone cards work in Russia?


        Don't rely on phone cards in Russia. Some phones (mainly in Moscow and Petersburg) only accept the local cards used to call around town. As of summer 2016 there were virtually no street phones in Saratov that took calling cards.  Street phones are capricious at best, and usually out of order, but that's another story...


3). How do I inform friends and family about my Saratov number?


        You’ll be able to use your usual web-based email account on Internet terminals at either Saratov U., or at commercial Internet cafes to contact friends and family. The kindly folks at the International Relations Department of Saratov U. will show you where, when, and how to access university facilities. Usually, this university orientation takes place as part of the first-day activities at Saratov U. Tell your U.S. family you’ll be in touch by email as soon as possible. Email them your phone number and a good time to call you (Saratov is 9 hours ahead of Laramie time), and then wait for the phone to ring! Patience is the key. You’ll find out quickly that life is paced differently in Russia, so try not to impose American ideas about timing on Russian reality.


4). Money, credit cards, traveler's cheques, etc.


        It is possible to use credit cards in Russia for cash advances, and we recommend that you bring a credit or debit card along, just to be safe. In Moscow and Petersburg there are many places that accept credit cards for purchases, but in Saratov the options are somewhat fewer. However, there are now numerous ATM machines all over Saratov (and at least a couple on the Saratov University campus), so definitely do bring a debit card that you can access with a PIN number to make cash withdrawals.


        Traveler's cheques have become increasingly difficult to exchange in Saratov banks (as well as in banks in Moscow and St. Petersburg).  You will most likely encounter slow lines and frustration if you choose to use them.  Many students have reported not being able to exchange them at all.  For this reason, we recommend that you do NOT use traveler's cheques!


        Key cultural item: Russia is still largely a cash-and-carry economy for most people. Personal checking accounts are virtually unknown. Ultimately, you'll need to be able to convert debit/credit cards into hard currency to pay for most items, including payment for outside-of-program expenses such as purchases from local merchants, etc. You may find it simpler and more convenient to bring cash and then convert to rubles as necessary. Any cash that you bring should be in new bills with no marks, tears, or writing. Currency exchange centers are exceedingly wary of counterfeit dollars and sometimes will not accept currency that would be gladly accepted here in the U.S. Getting the recently reissued bills with the new faces and print design would be best, overall (this applies, of course, only to those denominations that have been redesigned), since the currency exchange centers see the older bills as suspicious, and in some cases will turn you away without performing any exchange whatsoever.


Psychological Adjustment


Of all the suggestions, this is the one that seems most obvious, but is the most difficult to master. Adapting to a new culture and set of assumptions comes easily to some, and with difficulty to others. At the beginning of the trip, because you’ll be under stress to deal with the language, learn your way around town, and adapt to a host of new acquaintances and sensations, it’s easy to forget to attend to simple things. Remember to keep yourself well hydrated and well rested. Keep track of your books and personal effects (especially your passport!!) when walking around town or around campus. You’ll tend to be distracted with new sights and sounds so it’s good to regularly center yourself and focus on your immediate surroundings, and on your belongings.


        And here is the most difficult, yet essential, part: Let go of assumptions and expectations about when, how, and on what specific schedule things must or should happen. This may sound somewhat vague, but ultimately the most successful travelers are those who take things as they come, and learn to appreciate the experience on its own terms. As Americans we have come to expect a level of predictability and regularity that practically does not exist outside our country’s borders. You’ll find a much greater degree of unpredictability and apparent randomness in Russia. Accepting this reality is the key. Fighting it is like swimming upstream—you’ll only make yourself tired and it won’t essentially alter anything. The key is to change your perspective and you’ll have a marvelous time filled with unique and unforgettable experiences!

It is not unusual for several generations of a particular extended family to share a single apartment in Russia, and when you are staying with your family in Saratov you will automatically be considered a member of that Russian family. Treat your family with respect by keeping them informed of your whereabouts, when you plan to be out, and when you plan to return. This is purely a matter of courtesy, and safety. As host families they will naturally want to know where their “sons” and “daughters”, “sisters”, and “brothers” are. They will, naturally, be concerned about your well-being and safety, so be aware of this, especially through your actions. If you are living in an apartment without a host family, please respect the rights of fellow residents by keeping a clean and quiet apartment.  Remember to respect the rights of your neighbors, as you would have them respect yours.


And, finally, remember that you are a guest in Russia. You represent not only the other American students, but also America itself. Your actions and behavior, to a substantial degree, reflect on everyone else in the group, and on our society as a whole. Russians (and most citizens of foreign countries) will tend to interpret your behavior as representative of Americans, in general.


Just as your opportunity to study and live in Saratov is a direct consequence of the success and considerate actions of previous exchange students, so too will the potential for future exchange students to take part in this program be dependent on your responsible actions.

Have an amazing trip!


Alumni of Saratov Summer Programs, 1993-2016


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