John Paul II, Socialism, and the Soviet Union: Roman Catholicism in Narva by Thomas Denson

First of all, when I get tired, I either shut up and don’t say anything or I go on fairly long rants; there is no middle ground.  Unfortunately, tonight I’m a bit verbose.

Long before we got to Estonia, it was actually while we still thought we were going to Moscow, one of my friends who was also going abroad came up to me to ask me about going to church in Moscow.  I told her that there were a couple Catholic churches in Moscow and that even though I’m not as active in the Church as she is, if she wanted me to I’d show her where the churches were and go to Mass with her.  Then, without much warning, plans changed and we went to Narva.

I arrived in Narva late, having a bit of an issue at Amsterdam requiring me to piddle away twelve hours waiting for the next flight to Tallinn.  A couple of days into the trip, my friend asked me if I knew of any churches around Narva that we could go to.  I had looked around on the internet, and it turned out that of the twelve Catholic parishes in the country, one is in Narva.  This morning, I got up and met my friend at the traffic circle halfway between the dorms and the hotel.  We walked down Pushkin Street toward the outskirts of downtown Narva and turn onto Vabaduse (Freedom) Street until we come across this:

84_bigNot much to look at, right?  Turns out the church that was here in Narva was destroyed during the war and was just never rebuilt.  Instead, they built a chapel on the second floor of the old rectory.  We went to the front door, which was locked.  So we found a side door, went inside and up the stairs.  The chapel was relatively small and plain, but much nicer than one would have thought from looking at the building in which it was located.  There were about twenty wooden benches in two columns down the length of the room, a small altar with a wooden crucifix on the wall behind it, a statue of St. Anthony and one of the Virgin Mary on either side of the altar, and paintings of the stations of the cross along the walls.

When we arrived, there were three бабушки there chattering away who looked at us like we had three heads.  We sat on one of the benches and after a while, a nun came in.  As soon as I saw her, I could tell she was going to come over and talk to us.  She was extremely friendly and asked where we were from.  As soon as we told her we were Americans, she said in Russian, “Oh! Are you two studying at the university?”  At first it took me by surprise that she would guess that right off the bat, but to be honest, besides the university, there isn’t much of a reason for the average American to be in Narva.  After talking to her for a little while, I realized I had seen this nun twice before near the university, once while going home after class and once in the morning going to class, so there was a chance she had recognized us.  She told us that Mass was starting at 11 today, so we left and came back later.

When we returned at 11, the priest had already gone through the beginning of the Mass and was already at the homily, the only five words of which I could understand were Иоанн Павел, социализм, and Советский Союз, though based on those words, I think I got the gist of what he was talking about.  The rest of the Mass went on as it normally does, except in Russian.  Once again, since this was all new vocabulary to me, even though I knew what was said since the words of the Mass are the same in whatever language it is said in, all I could actually understand was the blessing at the end.

It is interesting to see a church like this in a city like Narva.  In most of Eastern Europe, if there is a church in any given city, it is most likely Orthodox.  As would be expected, there are Orthodox churches in Narva, but there is also this small Catholic parish and a Lutheran cathedral.  While everyone always looks in wonder and marvels at the grand architecture of large churches and cathedrals, it is always the smaller churches where it is more interesting to attend services.


Когда Твоя Девушка Нарва by Carlo D’Amato

20 hours of sun and yet it seems that this is the city that always sleeps….

Walking down the streets in even a group of 6 makes me feel like some sort of posse roving the boulevard en force. The streets are largely devoid of cars and groups of people and, if what others have told me is true, it doesn’t seem like a lot has changed here in terms of activity since the 80s. With this void comes vaguely Romantic ideas of the town and the city. The void of activity here is not threatening or sad, like the one encountered among the abandoned buildings of the American South (where one is met with the overwhelming sense of failed enterprise and crushed dreams), but instead is one that communicates a feeling of persistent existence. Moreover, it is the feeling created by a town that is on the precipice of the heart of the Warsaw Pact, a town who is able to embrace Russian language while remaining unapologetically and unflinchingly separate.
Hence, while the language may be shared, the behavior is much more light hearted than their Russian counterparts. Smiles are not uncommon, and attempts at speaking Russian are, barring egregious failures, acknowledged. From my experience, Narvians (Narnians?) have worked with me and my gestures to understand what I’m trying to get at, something that I never experienced in Russia.

Overall, there’s something emotional about this place. Travelling in the countryside made me feel like I was taking a walk in Wordsworth’s ‘Michael’, heaths and meadows nestled around ponds and rocks, that type of thing. In any case, I’m excited to see what this town has to offer, it seems like there’s a lot of potential bubbling under the surface…


“The Pleasantly Surprising City of Narva” by Jacob Foehr

Would you like to know the first impressions that Narva left on me? Well first off, the city has an uncanny resemblance to Camden, New Jersey, complete with ramshackle apartment buildings and the constant sight of graffiti. When we pulled up to the dormitory I thought for sure that I was being punked. Last summer I stayed at Moscow State University, and I was certain that I would never encounter a dormitory with worse conditions; however, as the bus rolled up to my new home, the broken glass and graffiti, combined with the group’s silent cries of disbelief, was enough to confirm that this dormitory was worse indeed. The lawn was overgrown, the pavement crumbling, and the basketball court unfit for activity of any kind. As I took the long walk to the fifth floor I cursed myself for coming to this God-awful place instead of spending long days at the shore. But upon reaching my room I was pleasantly surprised by what awaited me. I saw freshly painted walls and fresh linens stacked atop my bed. I saw a full kitchen, complete with an oven, refrigerator, microwave, and cabinets and shelves for storage, not to mention the television and armchair. More than impressed I was shocked. How could such an abysmal sight on the outside be so contradictory to the view from within? I soon realized in the following days that this dichotomy is perhaps the most defining characteristic of Narva. For instance, the university is an unimpressive sight from the outside. But but if one is to venture inside, he will soon discover a clean, modern institution with facilities that rival, if not surpass, the conditions of most universities in the United States. Everything is state-of-the-art. The lobby is a welcoming sight with beanbag chairs strewn about. The walls are all glass; the floors all wood, with laser-pointed signs indicating the nature of each room. The building can be no more than a year old. Additionally, the lunch that is provided by the university is first rate. There was not a single person in the group unimpressed by the three-course meal of fruit, soup, and an entrée; and furthermore, there is never an aesthetic detail overlooked. Whether we eat lunch in the café or in the larger basement room which doubles as an art gallery, the excellent host never fails to assemble a picturesque atmosphere or to provide a flawless meal. And the cherry on top? Everyone at the university seems more than happy to provide us with these accommodations. The meal is delivered with a smile and a visible concern for our absolute comfort. It’s truly amazing how my attitude towards this city and this trip has changed within a week. Narva is truly  a diamond in the rough. Now with the utmost optimism I look forward to seven more weeks in Narva, and I am eager to see what other pleasant surprises this country has in store for us. .IMG_4127

Вы говорите по-русски?

The first experience talking to someone unfamiliar often leads to feelings of uneasiness. However, talking to a stranger in his native tongue that you’re only learning is even more difficult. I had the opportunity to speak with a native in Narva, Estonia early on during this trip, and his reaction surprised me.

I attended the festival at Narva Castle, hoping to purchase pink cotton candy, a delicious treat often enjoyed at fun festivities. Here’s my first major attempt to speak Russian on my own:

“Здравствуйте! Один сахарная вата пожалуйста! Извините, пожалуйста. Одна сахарная вата пожалуйста,” I said, correcting the gender of “one.”

The man behind the counter stared at me and smiled. He then responded, “Откуда вы?”

“Я из Америки,” I said, feeling defeated in my first Russian practice because he clearly could tell that I am not from here.

He continued on about how he could tell I was a not a native because I used the term “please” a lot. However, he was very kind, and I felt that I achieved something by speaking to him in Russian on my own. Many language barriers exist, and it’s important to make every attempt possible to practice speaking with the locals in order to improve. It’s been a lot of fun trying already!

Haley S.

Keeping Track of Expenses

Likely many of the readers of this blog are worried, fretful, parents, who are thinking, “How much will my students be going into debt?” both during this trip and after. Worrying about this topic has caused so many problems in so many families. Our American culture in general has a lot of worries about people being able to make ends meet, yet we live in the United States in a relatively affluent society. In fact, the majority of us are students who attend expensive universities and come from privileged backgrounds by American standards.

Here in Narva, the people live on about $11,000 a year on average (rounding up for average income). The incredible thing about studying here, is the cost of coming here and living here for 8 short weeks exceeds the amount most Narva dwellers have to live on for an entire year.

As an alien in this place and keeping track of expenses, its interesting then to think about how we might try to relate to others who are in such a financially different position to us. From children who might not think about money to jaded old babyshkas pushing their grandchildren around the city, we have such a differing set of experiences to share and more importantly to learn from others.

Seeing these people as poor because their city is what remains of a Soviet project would be to miss the whole point of this trip, just as to only worry about money while traveling abroad would be to miss the experience of traveling. Not to worry, the students here are being careful with our money, but we are also here to learn a language that opens us to being able to be steps closer to communicating with these people in their own words. This experience will allow us to learn more than we probably realized possible and hopefully explore things we did not expect to find.

-James Flanagan

White Nights

Welcome to Estonia

Three Pitt Students and a Finnish Photobomber


Since arriving in Narva, we’ve had to quickly grow accustomed to the phenomenon known as “White Nights.” Narva is situated at an extremely northern latitude compared to the continental United States. It in fact sits at the same latitude as Barrow Alaska, if that gives you a better perspective. Being so far north leads to extremely long summer days, 20 hour days to be exact. However, even when the sun officially “sets” the sky remains white.

Narva Night

White Nights in Narva

As intriguing as it may seem, it can pose a sleeping challenge for those of us who are not used to it. While the first few nights were a little rought for those of us who didn’t have blinds, we soon found them at the store. Aside from the intrigue, the white nights also make us feel a little safer when navigating the city and add to its natural beauty. The light offers great views no matter the hour of day!

Watchtower View

Narva Countryside During the Day


-Cameron O’Connell

So here we are in Narva, Estonia

       After missing people and lost luggage one could say it was not the easiest traveling to this city, but let us all think of it as a good omen as one must work for good things, or trials build character, or maybe it was just awful. Personally I like to remember the good stuff, like looking over at an Estonian newspaper and seeing Dilbert. Who knew Estonians liked the comic Dilbert!? Anyways, we can all agree that Russian is not the easiest language to learn, or maybe some don’t, but alas! And so at the first of many Russian spoken breakfasts a small group and I embarked on conversation. Though my speech was littered with too many “umms,” and I kept having to ask for particular words, it was really fun. How enjoyable it is to learn with open people who are willing to say “umm” with you, or give you that elusive word or phrase that could make your day just by hearing and saying it once. I must have learned a hundred things these past few days only to not remember them now. I cannot wait to rediscover them and apply them over and over until I dream in Russian. I wish everyone the best to learn their 100 things and to be ever closer to their goals. 

Virginia Melton