As I got off the plane at Pulkovo Airport in St Petersburg, the first thing I noticed (besides the 6ft-deep snow) was the fact that the airport still retained its Soviet name of Leningrad. It was almost as if I’d been transported back to the USSR. We collected our bags and were herded off onto minibuses, with no idea about where we were going to live. The reality of what I’d undertaken suddenly dawned on me and I remember thinking ‘as long as I’m not first off the bus, it’ll be ok’. Sure enough, my name was called first and I was greeted on an icy lane by an old babushka, complete with a stereotypical flowery headscarf and stern expression. And so began my Russian semester abroad.
Living in a homestay is always an interesting experience. Honestly, it’s a bit of a lottery. Some hosts regularly took my friends on day trips and cooked for them, others tried to have as little contact as possible with their lodgers. My experience tended to lean towards the latter, although I did get the occasional chance to practice my Russian and learn a bit about local culture. As a fairly shy person, that suited me well.
Funnily enough, despite the fact that Russia is so different to the UK on so many levels, I found adapting to life there to be surprisingly easy. St Petersburg is fairly liberal and the most European city in the country, not to mention its architecture is modelled on Venice, with all its canals and tall buildings. As it’s so European, you’re never too far from a McDonalds or ‘English Pub’, so if you need your creature comforts, they’re around.
To be honest, my expectations for Russia were fairly low, given that I hadn’t adapted well to life in Germany the year before, and seeing as Russia doesn’t exactly enjoy the best reputation in the media back home. Sure, people don’t smile at everyone they pass and yeah, sometimes the language barrier seemed impossible and incredibly frustrating. But I had some of the best experiences of my life there, from travelling with friends to remote cities to exploring the local theatre scene and experiencing Victory Day (an absolute must if you ever find yourself in Russia on 9th May!). Ultimately, your experience is what you make it and sure, your year or semester abroad might not always be the best time of your life, but isn’t it worth trying something new? Who knows, the country you expect the least from might be the one that surprises you the most.
By Hannah Klimas, Year Abroad Editor