From mother Russia with love
Hello from St. Petersburg!
Armed with four semesters of Russian, a healthy knowledge of Russian literature, and a laminated map of Saint Petersburg (and little else), I departed the United States on August 24 and arrived the next day in this historic, and quite remarkable, city on the Gulf of Finland. I would be studying with the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), not Colby’s own program in Saint Petersburg.
Russia is a land of contrasts, some of which are immediately apparent from the moment you touch down at the airport. From the taxiway you can see modern Airbus jets belonging to the Russian national carrier, Aeroflot, and embarking passengers, while just yards away skeletons of Soviet aircraft are rusting in the surprisingly humid climate. From the curb outside the terminal, an astonishing number of beautiful, brand-new Mercedes, BMWs and Bentleys glide through traffic bracketed by old, broken down (though amusing to watch) Soviet Ladas, vehicles that are a far cry from what Henry T. Ford envisioned.
The contrasts of Russia continue with the people. On the street, Russians tend not to smile or talk, but only to walk as quickly as they can to their destinations, avoiding eye contact with everybody else. Walk into a store and chances are the clerk will treat you more as an annoyance than a guest; ask him for change and he’ll stare at you in disbelief. This can lead to the belief that the Russians are an icy, unfeeling people.
But step into a Russian apartment and the hosts will roll out the metaphorical red carpet. Huge amounts of delicious food will be placed in front of you, hot tea and fresh cookies available at a moment’s notice, along with smiles and laughs being issued by everybody present. At home in New York, I always help to clear the table after meals, but even now, a month later, my wonderful host family is still a little uneasy with me carrying my dishes to the sink, never mind actually cleaning them. Hospitality is sacred in Russia and puts to shame anything that I have experience in the United States.
Saint Petersburg is a beautiful city in every sense, while remaining a user-friendly one. In full disclosure, I grew up in the shadow of New York City, so I am well accustomed to navigating a large city and mass transit network. Nevertheless, the city is an easy one to get across, even if you do not speak Russian.
It possesses a color palette beyond that of any city that I have ever seen, a color that does not derive from neon signs and lighted boards—such things are actually rare here. The city is awash with a stunning collection of yellow-, pink-, and mint-colored buildings, their multi-colored facades meshing together to form what almost seems to be a fantasy taking shape on an artist's easel. When gazing across the wide Neva River to the far bank, the city looks more like an oil painting than it does an actual physical creation.
There are 71 other students from across the country on my program and we bonded quickly. It’s a wonderful group of people, in many ways reminiscent of Colby, with diverse backgrounds and interests. Having that support network is crucial in any study abroad situation–studying abroad is doubtlessly a stressful experience, but a richly rewarding one.
It goes without saying that being in Russia gives me the opportunity to examine Russian culture under a microscope, but I am learning just as much about America, American culture and myself while being here. For the first time I feel as though I am truly a representative of my country, and such a realization has caused me to be far more conscious with how I portray myself to others. It is fascinating to learn what Russians think of their current socio-economic-political climate and just as fascinating to learn their views on America.
As stated before, studying abroad has (so far, without any expectations of changing) been an incredibly enriching experience, one that I would urge all students at Colby and elsewhere to take advantage of. Simply going for a stroll in the evening after dinner along the river, either alone or with friends, is a memory to treasure. Exploring the neighborhood is a daily adventure with surprises (mostly good) waiting around every corner. It’s been a magnificent ride so far, and I fully expect it continue in that manner.