When I tell people that I studied abroad in St. Petersburg, Russia in the summer of 2016, I am always asked: “What was it like? Was it scary?” Well at first, yes. On the two-hour trip from the airport to my homestay, all of us wondered what the next six weeks had in store for us. I, along with some of the other first-year Russian language students, considered how much Russian we actually knew compared to how much it took to communicate with people, but especially our homestay parents/families.
As it turned out, communicating with my host family was easy, but mostly because I listened to them and they listened to me. And also because we had dictionaries. When my host father, Igor’, greeted me at the door, our interaction was a bit clumsy, mostly because I had just spent twelve hours traveling from Switzerland and was exhausted. After feeding me, he showed and made me practice getting into the apartment. After that, he just sat and talked to me. It was very comforting to be able to listen to him talk about his family and job. When my host mother, Katia, came home, I was introduced to the powerhouse of the family. Katia was my favorite part of the study-abroad experience. She would wake me up every morning with a sweet-toned “Sophia, time for breakfast!” and taught me how to use the coffee machine to make early mornings easier. She came home every day and sat with me while I ate soup, then a main course, talking to me all the time.
Katia and her family made my time in Russia a formative experience. When visiting a place as a tourist, you rarely meet or interact with the people who live there, but through my homestay I was able to gain a small glimpse into what it is like to be Russian. I had two host siblings as well—Nastia and Anton. Anton still lived at home and is the same age as my younger brother. This made it easier for me to ask questions to someone my own age. Twice Nastia and Anton took me out to festivals on the weekend and made me feel welcome into their family.
The first week of our trip was the “Scarlet Sails” festival, during which all graduating high school students celebrate and attend a concert organized for them in front of the Winter Palace. At the same time, a ship with bright scarlet sails floats down the Neva River. The entire city turns out for the event, but public transport stops from midnight to three in the morning. I knew this, but lost track of time while hanging out in the street with a few friends. Subsequently, I was stranded about three miles from my apartment. I ended up staying a few hours (until sunlight!) in another girl’s homestay that was not far from mine and walking home at about five in the morning. The next day Anton asked me where I had been all night and I explained myself to the best of my ability. His simple response was: “You know we have Uber in Russia?” After that I was never stranded late at night again!
St. Petersburg is a vibrant and historical city, and I discovered this through excursions with our William & Mary group and by exploring on my own. Yet my favorite experiences are the moments sitting in the kitchen with Katia while she vented her problems to me or asked me questions about the U.S. On the last day of my stay, I bought her flowers outside of the metro and did not realize how strong they smelled until I put them in a vase in the kitchen. She left them out for the rest of my stay, but I am certain the smell bothered her just as much as it bothered me. A simple gift was all it took to show her how much I cared for what she and her family had provided for me. I am forever grateful to Katia and her family for making my study abroad experience what is was. I would probably still be lost in St. Petersburg without them.