I grew up knowing that walking under a ladder, breaking a mirror, or having a black cat cross your path were supposed to bring bad luck. While admittedly I might meander around a ladder instead of diving beneath it when given an option, I hardly believed any of those things were true!

Living with my host mother Galya, I’ve encountered a laundry list of new superstitions. It was definitely a surprise, however, when I realized how seriously she took them! For the purpose of entertainment as well as education, here are five solid ways to ward off bad luck, evil spirits, death, etc.–all according to a Russian babushka!

1: Say, “Hello, Sarah!”
If you forget something (say, your cell phone or wallet) and have to return to your house, be sure to greet your reflection. The first time I had to return home for forgotten goods, Galya instructed me to look in the mirror. I had thought I must have have something on my face. I looked in the mirror and then at Galya, confused, then continued my search for my misplaced phone. Galya came over and patiently led me by the arm back to the mirror. “Скажи: привет, Сара!” “Say ‘Hello, Sarah!'” she instructed, sternly, still holding my arm. I looked at Galya, then the mirror, back to Galya, and then, hesitantly, to the mirror: “Привет… Сара?” Contented, Galya let me resume my search.

2: Cold drinks
Indulging in cold drinks will make you sick. When I came down with the flu last semester, I had the misfortune of being spotted with a bottle of water the night before. “You shouldn’t drink that cold water! No wonder you’re sick. Нельзя! Never again,” Galya scolded, concerned. I’ve since read that having cold drinks can in fact be detrimental to your health, but supposedly that’s only if you eat a lot of greasy, fatty foods. It shouldn’t give you the flu, though (she says, stealthily sipping cold water in her room…).

3: Tfu tfu tfu!
Spitting over your shoulder (or, a little more hygienic, just saying “tfu tfu tfu!”) is the equivalent of knocking on wood. Galya and I have had moments when, simultaneously, I knocked on the kitchen table and she went “Tfu tfu tfu”! Hey, no one wants to get jinxed–regardless of their cultural upbringing!

4: Even numbers of flowers
Bringing a bouquet when someone invites you to dinner is a splendid idea, just make sure that there’s either an odd or uncountable number. In Russia, even numbers of flowers are for funerals, and bringing them to someone for any other reason will bring them bad luck. When I gave Galya flowers for Women’s Day, I counted the roses twice!

5: The cold, hard ground
If a girl here sits on concrete, people will be alarmed. They’re just concerned for her health–the cold ground will freeze her ovaries! And don’t even think of getting caught in the house without slippers. If Galya catches me snagging a midnight snack barefoot, she’ll go into a panic and run off to find my slippers so I don’t get sick. When I wanted to lie out and take a nap outside at the dacha, Galya was shell-shocked that I was going to sleep on a towel. She then surprised me by setting up a cot so that I wasn’t on the “cold earth”!

Good luck, and Happy Mother’s Day!


Taking a quick break from “Things To See in Yaroslavl,” I’d like to address an issue that I think a lot of people have faced during their time abroad in Russia. This is the issue of not only being polite in a way that’s understood cross-culturally, but also interpreting (or misinterpreting) well-intended speech and actions directed at you.

If you were to translate certain things you said in Russian directly into English, you could risk sounding pretty rude:

Дай мне ручку.     —     Give me pen.
Закройте дверь.     —     Close door.

Even with a пожалуйста[1] at the end of the phrase and articles successfully added, the intonation that Russian speakers tend to use comes off as quite curt in English. The thing to remember when speaking with Russian speakers is that this is not rude in Russian, so try not to take it that way! If you were to directly translate your English into Russian or to use English intonations in Russian, you would sound silly at best and not understandable at worst. When you’re speaking with Russian classmates and someone says Дай мне ручку, they’re really asking quite nicely Could you pass the pen? When your teacher says Закройте дверь, they’re asking Could you close the door? And most of the time, you will hear a “please” from these two groups!

Studying in Russia, there are a number of things that people from Western cultures often interpret as rude that really are just normal here. Take for example:

  • Instead of asking for you to move aside on the bus, a бабушка[2] will actually move you aside so she can get through to the door. Woops! There goes Granny!
  • People won’t smile without a reason. They’re not scowling at you or angry, it’s just that overt smiles in public when you’re alone reflect a person being stupid, mentally unstable, or foreign. It makes it wonderful when you do get a smile—you know it’s sincere and special.
  • A man will frequently open a door for a woman, carry her bag for her, compliment her looks, etc. He’s not trying to be sexist and he’s probably not trying to run off with your bag—it’s just that old-fashioned chivalry that’s still very alive here.
  • People will comment on your weight. Coming home on a train from Ukraine, a passport control officer commented to me that I’d lost weight since my passport photo was taken—my face was a lot fatter in the picture. I laughed. Thanks, officer!
  • People will ask intimate questions about religion and money. Meeting strangers, I have been asked, “What religion are you?” “How much do you earn?” “How much do your parents earn?” and so on. While I still find it hard to not feel uncomfortable talking about money (that cultural quirk of mine has been drilled in hard), I can appreciate that for them, it’s normal–and they’re just trying to have polite conversation with me!

Invest time during your semester or year abroad to just observe the dynamics of the people around you. How is that person speaking to the other person? How is the other person reacting? Try to step into the shoes of the people you’re living with. Imagine you’re acting out a role in a play and sit on the bus and scowl like the best of them! You’re not changing yourself as an individual, you’re experimenting and experiencing study-abroad to its fullest. But don’t take this as an excuse to try to drink vodka like a Russian. There are some things foreigners should leave to the pros!

One final parting note: it’s also very worth while considering how you come across to the Russians you’re with. Beaming at the woman who collects the tickets on the bus might leave her feeling like you were making fun of her. Not finishing the food that your host mother made–even if it was practically a six-course affair–might leave her feeling like she doesn’t cook well enough for you. Be sensitive to these things. You can start out by being polite to people in the way that you know best, and after some time abroad you may be able to show people in their way that you care.

Still learning,


[1] Thank you

[2] Grandmother or simply elderly woman

The next on the list of “Things to See” in Yaroslavl is my personal favorite: Спасо-Преображенский Монастырь, the Monastery of the Transfiguration of Our Savior. I have now visited this site in fall, winter, and spring–and I’ll do it again in the summer! Located within the kremlin walls, this is another spot where you’ll find a little something for everyone.

For the art lovers: The Icon Museum

The icon museum has hundreds of years of icons in one large room. Art history lovers may find it interesting to wander and compare the styles based on the century or place of origin.

For the history and gore lovers: The History Museum

I’ve found the docents in the art museum particularly helpful! They tend to be elderly babushki who would love to show you around (speaking Russian may help you out if you want to ask them questions, though). There are all sorts of artifacts and interesting information on excavations done in Yaroslavl and Rostov in this museum. One of my favorite parts is looking at the cool weapons and armor! Plus, there are also lots of original paintings recreating scenes in history to help you imagine just what people might have looked like in Yaroslavl long ago, like the one pictured above.

For the animal lovers: Masha the Bear

It’s a BEAR!!!!!

 Okay, so this isn’t Masha–this is just a statue near the monastery (I know, I had you fooled for a second, right?). Masha is an actual, live bear inside the monastery, and for a small fee you can go take a picture with her! Unfortunately, I always seem to arrive during her breaks. I’ll get a picture with the real Masha yet!

For the kids: The Natural History Museum

The natural history museum essentially is made up of taxidermy animals and a more visual experience of excavations. The children flock to this museum!

For the architecture lovers: The Grounds

This photograph was actually taken slightly outside the monastery, and hopefully give you an idea of its size. The Transfiguration of Our Savior Monastery houses some of the oldest buildings in Yaroslavl, so for people with an interest in history, art, and architecture, this is the place to come. You can ask in the history museum which buildings are the oldest!

For the pious: The Transfiguration of Our Savior Church

Спасо-Преображенский собор

Come on a Sunday morning if you would like to take a peek inside, plus get a glimpse of a Russian Orthodox mass. To be respectful, I would recommend that girls cover their hair (though not religious myself, I tend to put whatever scarf I’m wearing over my head when I pop into churches here). Modest clothes for men and women are recommended.

For the jewelry lovers: The Jewel Museum

In my opinion, this is the most beautiful part of the missionary. Unfortunately, no cameras are allowed into the jewel museum, so I can’t give you an example of what’s inside. You’ll just have to find out for yourself (spoiler: expect lots of gold, silver, diamonds, sapphires, rubies, and pretty much anything that sparkles or shines)!

For the shopping lovers: The Gift Shops

There is a collection of gift shops inside the monastery with just about all the souvenirs you could want from Yaroslavl. Next to them is a cafe–naturally complete with beer. Like I said, something for everyone!

If you are interested in visiting the monastery, arrive between 10 AM and 5 PM to see the exhibits. It will cost you 20 rubles (less than 1 USD) to get into the grounds and between 40-50 rubles (less than 2 USD) to see each exhibit. It costs a little more to take pictures. Pay up front at the little red booth, and make sure to show your student ID for a discount! Going on a weekday with a student ID costs me 100 rubles (a little over 3 USD) all together to see all the exhibits and to take pictures.

‘Til next time!


After hosting a few visits to Yaroslavl, I began to realize that there were certain things I really wanted my friends to see before they left–and I want you to see them, too! So, welcome to the kick-off of our little mini-series, “Things to See” in Yaroslavl.

I’d like to start with the Музей “Музыка и время”, the Music and Time Museum, because there’s something in it for everyone! This museum is in a fantastic location–it’s along the banks of the Volga and near a lot of other great sites (and hotels!). In the museum, you can find:

There is, however, a method to the madness. When John Mostoslavsky founded the museum in 1993, he put into it things he personally collected throughout his life, all of which tie into the theme of either music or time. Musical instruments, bells, icons, clocks, records, irons–“Hem hem and how exactly do the irons fit in?” Well, the collection of irons show you the development of iron technology over time!

Our tour guide shows off the bell collection

Clever, right?

When you enter the museum, you are immediately  greeted by the small staff. I have found them to be incredibly friendly, and  they’re willing to give tours in multiple languages! In a whirlwind walk-through, your guide explains the various exhibits and demonstrates how the different instruments work.

After that, you’re given leave to explore the museum for yourself. Photography (as you can see) is permitted. There’s also a great little gift shop where you can find souvenirs for the city of Yaroslavl and for the Music and Time Museum specifically.

See? I brought my dad! Hi, Dad!

One of the reasons that this museum is such a great find is that it’s so incredibly unique. It’s an early Russian private business (you couldn’t have that under the Soviet Union), it’s in what used to be a home, and it has a pretty wild collection of knick-knacks. Neither the collection nor the tour reflect a typical museum experience. It’s definitely a recommended activity for families, too! Also, the museum is only a short walk from the center of town, and is located near the Yaroslavl Art Museum, the History of Yaroslavl Museum, the Spaso-Preobrozhenski Monastery, the Singing Fountains, and a handful of interesting statues and cathedrals. If you have limited time in Yaroslavl, this is definitely a stop to make as you whiz through our sites!

So, how do you get there? The address for this museum is:

Confession: The gramophone wasn't playing

Волжская наб., 33, Ярославль, Россия
(33 Volzhskaya Naberezhnaya, Yaroslavl, Russia)
The opening hours are from 10:00 AM to 7:00 PM. Costs for tickets are 100 rubles (~3 USD) for adults and 60 rubles (~2 USD) for children. And, as with most sites here, there’s a student discount! Just show your student ID when purchasing your tickets.And that concludes our first  episode of “Things to See” in Yaroslavl! I hope that you enjoyed your tour, and that you get to see the Music and Time Museum in person someday.


This week our friend Ben has contributed a guest post about getting a haircut in Irkutsk. Enjoy the great story. Thanks Ben!


The place looked pretty harmless from the outside, just a typical Soviet-era concrete one-story building, only painted pink. Sliding gate on the outside, in case anyone wants to rob…a barbershop. After the first door you had two choices: the “men’s side” or the “women’s side”–somewhat like in prisons, I’d imagine. I entered the small men’s salon where two women were standing giving some old guys cuts. The middle chair was free. After standing and looking at myself dumbly in the central mirror for a couple minutes, one of the ladies standing sighed and called tiredly, “Natasha!” into a side room where I could see one lady texting and the other looking at the calculator in her hand. “What do you want?” Natasha asked me.

In Siberia, there are three cuts: “Simple,” “Canadian,” and “Stylish.” Risking the stylish but not wanting to look like a Gulag prisoner, I said, “The Canadian, but not too short, please.” “Come again?” she answered. “But not too short,” I repeated. No answer. Taking a look at my curly head as if it had committed some crime, she grabbed the largest shears out of the disinfecting liquid, which was probably just water. (I should note that only about 0.1 percent of Russians have curly hair, and they are usually Romanian, Latvian, Jewish or in other ways ostracized or come from another at one time marginalized ethnic group.)

After only about a minute of attacking my head, she said angrily, pushing my skull to the left, “hold your head stronger” as if I were a statue that came to life and needed to be put back into my molding. Between bouts of removing enormous chunks of my head, she would zero in on an area as if trying to annihilate all life there. Then came the ears. Most hair-cutters in the free world will delicately snip and buzz around these parts, but Natasha approached my head with the belief that my auditory organs had somehow been placed on the wrong part of my head, or should not be there at all. She sighed and I just about ducked to avoid her lopping off the top half of my right ear. She then brought my head back to with the force of a USSR weight-lifter. It serves to be noted that Russia invented the kettle-bell.

“Straight?” she said. Tempted to say, “Why yes, I am,” I replied, “yes, please,” with reference to my sideburns. She had already begun buzzing. When I looked up to see that I still had bangs hanging down awkwardly at the front, I asked calmly if she could make the cut shorter in the front. “I am not done cutting your hair,” she answered (though with a one-syllable word added here for emphasis. Let’s translated it as “damn it”).

After fulfilling my wish to get rid of those childish bangs all Russian boys under 20 wear, she came to the realization that the shearing was a failure. I could tell from her facial expression hanging in the mirror above me that we would have both been better off had I not even bothered coming in today.

Needless to say, worse 6 dollar haircut ever. This tragedy was reaffirmed by my female track coach, who after asking me what happened, recommended me to a friend of hers, “so that you don’t have to walk around looking like this.” I guess the name is a misnomer then; there aren’t many Canadians in Siberia, but I’m willing to guess that not one of them looks good sporting a Canadian.

International Women’s Day for women in Russia is a cross between Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, and your birthday–if everyone you ran into knew it was your birthday. Going into it, I was a  little unsure of what to expect. There are a lot of cultural differences that make the 8th of March seem a little more socially acceptable in Russia than in the United States (for details on this, see Hillary’s post on Women’s Day and my post on Russian vs. American concepts of womanhood). However, I am happy to say as an American girl, that I have now experienced, appreciated, and adored this holiday!

My day started out with waking up before Galya and, for once, making her breakfast! I attempted to make it a breakfast in bed, but the sizzling eggs and running cat (No, I was not trying to cook the cat. She’s just energetic in the mornings) woke Galya up first. Fortunately, I’d already set the flowers, card, and gift I’d got for Galya the day before out on the kitchen table. We ended up sitting together and having a long, wonderful breakfast. I know Galya liked it because she was praising me with her highest compliments: “You’ll make such a wonderful wife someday! And then mother! And then grandmother! Look at you cooking!” Galya then gave me for my Women’s Day gift a beautiful green banya towel and a hand towel that says “8 March”.

From there, I went to go meet friends in town. We weren’t able to go the the banya as we’d planned (the women who work in the women’s banya naturally had the day off), but we went shopping at a store aptly named “Women’s World” and followed it up with lunch at a nearby cafe. At the cafe, we were presented with complimentary cake and a strong sparkling wine in honor of the holiday. Woohoo!

I went back to my apartment afterward to work with a student who I’m tutoring in English. She surprised me with a beautiful box of chocolates and I  had some California souvenirs ready for her. That was definitely one of my favorite lessons so far. My other students and male friends who I didn’t see that day all sent text and facebook messages wishing me a Happy Women’s Day. Thank you, guys!

That night, as I was on my way to meet friends, a complete stranger came up to me and gave me a flower, saying, “Happy Women’s Day!” I looked at the flower and it’s holder suspiciously and then hesitantly took it. “That’s all!” he said with a smile, and walked off. A Russian man has never surprised me more.

All of this, added to the fact that people were so much readier to smile than usual, made the day wonderful. I had been sad that Valentine’s Day really wasn’t very big here, but now I understand why. This holiday far outshone the American Valentine’s Day, at least in terms of random acts of kindness by friends and strangers alike. Almost everyone I ran into, from the woman collecting tickets on the bus to the people working in stores, wished me a “Happy Women’s Day,” and seemed genuinely pleased to hear the wish reciprocated.

And on that note: Hillary, I’m so with you. Let’s bring this holiday to America. *Hem hem* Nate, you’ll help us out, right?

‘Til next time!