7 Lessons in 7 Days: My First Week in Russia

DAY 1:
Finally, I’m in St. Petersburg — the moment I’ve been waiting for! After how many years, I am finally here. However, it’s hard to know what to think after being in a plane for 15 hours. It’s hard to know how to take in all the Cyrillic alphabet that surrounds me as I finally get through customs. Everything is so new and there’s no saying what could happen during these four months. While it is exciting, there is the very real prospect running through my head that someone could come up and start talking to me…in Russian. Not one of those rehearsed conversations that were done in my Russian classes back at home, but an impromptu talk that I could rock or completely not understand. I can’t decide if I’m more nervous or excited as we head out into the city for our first meal. We end up at some restaurant called Marketplace which I would describe as a buffet. Simply choose what you want and they’ll give it to you – easy peasy, right? Well, some parts were easy but I would look at some of the signs and be like “what the heck is that?” I stuck with fruits and what I hoped was some chicken wrap and called it good. I wished I had been a little bit more adventurous but at the time it was all I could muster up.

Lesson #1:
Don’t ever feel like you aren’t supposed to feel nervous or a little overwhelmed — all these feelings are natural and I can guarantee everyone is in the same boat. Do what you can and don’t beat yourself up for what you don’t understand — that’s why we’re here.

DAY 2:
This day was packed with different activities, the main one being grouped up with native Russians who took us around town. I was grouped with Anastasiya who would later become my tutor for the semester. Honestly, I probably understood 70% of what she said, if that. However, the miscommunication was not going to stop us. We somehow bonded over a speed walking contest – something I don’t recommend doing in St. Petersburg because, well, there’s ice. I also had my first experience with public transportation and even I must admit that the metro is very convenient. Later that day, I ended up going with one of the students in our group to the Kazansky Sobor. She actually studied music history and Russian so naturally she knew some really interesting details about the symbolism in icons. Overall, this day was filled with many new experiences and knowledge that I never would have expected.

Lesson #2:
Be open to other people because you never know what you may learn from them.

DAY 3:
Today was the day to meet my host family. I only knew what the email had told me and I was excited to meet them in person. Natasha and her cat Kuzia were as welcoming as any host family could possibly be. In fact, when Natasha came to get me, the first thing she did was kiss me on the cheek and then, realizing that she had on lipstick, wiped my cheek. From the start she has been patient with me, especially when I don’t necessarily understand what she is saying. I swear I had at least four meals that first day I came home with her, and she always makes sure I eat as much as I can possibly handle. Kuzia always serenades me with his variety of inflections and loves to look out the window in my room.

Lesson #3:
Your host family in Russia is exactly that — your family. Remember that they are there for you every step of the way.

Day 4:
First day at the university! However, before we start our classes we must endure the placement test. That’s the thing about coming to study a difficult language like Russian — you have to keep working at it. Just when you think you’ve gotten to a certain point, there’s another set of stairs to climb. It’s takes a special individual to do this kind of program and to have that kind of dedication. Before I knew it the test was over and we were placed in our classes. It has to be noted that each class only has three people — definitely going to be getting a lot of special attention this semester. I thought the hardest part of my day was over but the thing about being in a totally new place is that you never know what could happen. I met Natasha and headed back home but I didn’t realize the difference between a 10 ruble coin and a metro coin. I mean, they’re about the same size and color, if someone wasn’t looking closely they could have mixed them up too. Suddenly a long line of people came behind me and I didn’t understand why my coin wasn’t working until I finally used my eyes and saw I was using the wrong coin the whole time. Natasha and I had a good laugh about that and finally got home without any more difficulties.

Lesson #4:
Expect that you will make a fool of yourself — you’re in a new country with a new language and a new way of life. Keep a good sense of humor and you’ll find ways to laugh at your mistakes rather than beat yourself up for them.

Day 5:
Time to step up to the big leagues – it’s the real first day of classes and I get to go to class on my own without Natasha’s guidance. I got this, right? Apparently not because within the first couple minutes of leaving the apartment I was already lost. I had to stop anyone and everyone and ask for directions to Парк Победы metro station. Everyone was very helpful and willing to give me directions and I miraculously made it to class on time. All the professors I met that day were very interested in all of their students and I could tell they really cared about our progress and would do whatever they could to help us along the way. They were so involved that I even received a phone call from one of the professors when I was coming late from lunch because he was worried I was lost — not a bad assumption considering my lack of direction coming to school earlier in the day.

Lesson #5:
Just because you feel like your Russian isn’t perfect doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it — in times of need or just in random circumstances talk to people and ask questions. I can honestly say I haven’t had one bad experience yet. Most Russians are patient and willing to work with you.

Day 6:
Today is Wednesday which means excursion day! Our group is meeting later during the night to go to a hockey game together, which means I have plenty of time to relax and catch up on homework. The hockey game ended up being a lot of fun — it was easier than I thought to pick up on the cheers and it made me definitely feel like part of the group rather than an outsider looking in. The energy and enthusiasm was contagious and I can honestly say I’m a big CKA (St. Petersburg’s hockey team) fan now!

Lesson #6:
Take advantage of excursion days — sleep in, relax, unwind. Yeah, it’s great to explore the city too but make sure you’re taking care of yourself too. There’s no shame in needing some time to unwind from the hustle and bustle of big Russian city life.

Day 7:
I’ve been here a week – it still hasn’t quite sunk in that I’m in St. Petersburg. It feels like I’ve been here longer but at the same time it feels like I really did just get here. I now know my way to school without getting lost, I feel more comfortable in classes and in general I got into a routine. However, every day has its ups and downs. I had Phonetics class today and I had to admit it got me a little frustrated. I received my placement test I took on Monday during my Grammar class today and there were mistakes I knew I shouldn’t have made. After class I ended up at some really hipster-ish cafe with some of the people in my group and that immediately lightened my day just to be able to chill out with people who were going through the same experience I was.

Lesson #7:
While it’s important to be able to be independent, it’s also important to have a support system when you need it. The people who are in your study abroad group are going through the same thing you are and whether or not you realize it, they probably have experienced all the same feelings you’re going through.

By: Emily Markee

Program: Advanced Russian Language & Area Studies Program (RLASP)

Term: Spring 2015


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