Return to St. Petersburg

When I last saw Piter, he was buried under four feet of snow, swallowed by what seemed to be an eternal darkness. Today he stands proud, his 310 years of history and beauty glinting and shining in the late-spring sun and the almost-White Nights. For me, Piter is a city of adventure—the fond memories of old adventures, the promise of adventures to come. But, whether you find yourself in the grandest of cities or the plainest of them all, it is inevitably people who define your time there, who give your visit meaning and life. With no lack of beauty, adventure, and wonderful people, this latest visit to St. Petersburg did not disappoint.

As Pia and I boarded the marshrutka from the airport, memories of my semester in Piter came flooding back, as did that familiar sense of wonder and awe. This trip felt like a homecoming to me. And indeed, I did pay a visit to my first Russian home. Though nearly three years have passed, and some landmarks have changed (new Coffee House, a secondhand shop replacing a furniture boutique, and the eerie absence of the Primorskaya dog pack), I easily found my way home. My reunion with my host family was warm and touching. It gave me a sense of stability knowing that, however much my life has changed in the last couple years, this has stayed the same. I can still talk to my babushka, and we can still bond over tea and TV, and she’ll still quiz me on the founding of St. Petersburg, and she still has tapochki for me. Before I left, my host mother commented, “Ты же смелая девушка.” This acknowledgment brought me joy—pride at how far I’ve come, how much I’ve grown in the last three years. For I’m not sure if my host mom remembers, but her last bit of wisdom for me when we last met, her parting advice, was “Надо быть смелее.” Indeed, I’ve been working on being braver (as in more confident, less shy), and it’s nice to know that I’ve had some success.

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In Piter this time of year—during these lazy warm spring days that stretch out into almost-White nights—all you want to do is гулять. Stroll along the rivers and canals, traipse up and down Nevsky Prospect from the Hermitage to Ploshad Vostaniya, wander through Mikhailovsky park and the Summer Garden and Mars field, listen to all the street musicians on 7th Line, go up on the rooftops and enjoy the city from above.

(The roof did actually happen, by the way. Nice Piter tradition. Any adventure that begins with the precursor, “This, of course, is really stupid, but…” is bound to go well)

piter roof

By luck, we were in the city for День Города (City Day)—so it turned out that the date of Piter’s founding was not imprinted on my memory for naught. After a weekend of festivities, there was a huge concert on Palace Square on Sunday evening. I gathered with thousands of others to watch as Russia’s biggest opera stars, accompanied by St. Petersburg’s philharmonic opera, performed a collection of the world’s best opera songs. After a couple hours of stunning opera, there was a dance showcase, followed by a jazz concert. Never in my life did I think I would ever be swing dancing and belting out “It’s a Wonderful World” in front of the Tsar’s Winter Palace!

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It’s a trap!!!: On Saturday night, Pia dragged me to Circus Club for a Trap Party (kidding, I went willingly… though not without a sense of skepticism and anxiety). I had no idea what “trap” is, but Pia said something about hip-hop and dub-step and American style. When we got there, it was a bit of a culture shock for me. People were dressed weird, weird, weird! And by weird, I mean they would look basically normal in the US. Lots of baseball caps. Lots of guys with their pants falling down. And lots and lots of hipsters! I hadn’t seen a single hipster in over 8 months, and I hadn’t realized how much I missed them, but Piter is hipster central, and they all made an appearance at the Trap Party. There was a particularly fascinating Hipster Barkeep to keep me entertained (as in, I was completely absorbed in the Adventures of  Hipster Barkeep: Hipster Barkeep chats up Trap Girl—she’s not interested—and Hipster Barkeep tells Trap Guy to pull his pants up, and Hipster Barkeep does a high-five). Also of note was a bizarre plethora of backpacks. Up to this point, the only backpacks I’d seen in Russia belonged exclusively to foreigners; but for some reason, all the hipsters in the club were wearing fat backpacks. I guess that makes tourists the real hipsters: we liked backpacks before they were cool.

Anyway, the Trap Party was a lot more fun than I expected it to be. Perhaps since everyone was pretending to be American, the atmosphere felt a lot more familiar and comfortable to me than clubs usually do. The music was interesting, the dancing was fun, and we even met some fun people. Even in St. Petersburg, teeming with tourists and students and businessmen and immigrants and all sorts of visitors from abroad, Russians are still fascinated by foreigners, it seems (though when I learned that our new friends were only 18, I sure felt like an old lady!).

It’s hard for me to believe that we spent a whole week in St. Petersburg without setting foot in a single museum or church, but the great outdoors and more-than-great company we found more than made up for it. As I mentioned before, it’s the people you meet that define your adventures, and we met a great deal of the kindest, warmest, most fun-loving people. Without them—our little St. Petersburg family—our time in Piter would not have been nearly as special.

First and foremost, there were our roommates: a 35-year-old engineer from Chelyabinsk who often joined us on our wanderings (even if that meant spending 4 hours shopping for clothes and makeup) and became to us like a dear teddy bear; and a St. Petersburg student living at the hostel sort of long-term who loved to joke and make fun of us but would have been incredibly bored and lonely without us. The hostel staff also seemed to become rather fond of us—sometimes openly and sometimes under the guise of surly indifference infused with passive suggestions that we stay and translate and eat shashlik. The other hostel guests ranged from massive groups of children to reclusive foreigners to a traveling saxophonist and a loquacious and rather batty artist.

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Whether it was cooking and dining together or venturing out on excursions or watching films or keeping each other company while waiting around all day for a certain someone to finally wake up or just talking and joking late into the night, we did everything together, and we grew really close. These people made our time memorable, and in the end, it was surprisingly hard to leave them behind.

But all adventures eventually must come to an end, so soon it was time to say goodbye to Pia and to our St. Petersburg family and return to my Ulan-Ude family. And if you can believe it (because I surely can’t), I only have three weeks remaining here!

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About Arielle

I am a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Ulan-Ude at the Buryat State Agricultural Academy.
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3 Responses to Return to St. Petersburg

  1. Hi Arielle, I am going to be an ETA in Russia next year and I am so happy that I stumbled across your blog! I have read quite a few posts (especially from the beginning of your time) and they have been really encouraging to me in this summer waiting period where so many details are unknown. Do you have any advice on how to best prepare for the ETA during the summer months? I have never officially taught before (just tutored), and I would love to hear any wisdom you might have. Спасибо!

    • Arielle says:

      Hey,congrats! I know it’s pretty confusing at the beginning not having a clue what to expect. The whole experience varies greatly from city to city and university to university, so the best thing you can do is to ask your host contact lots of questions. Just be patient and flexible. In terms of preparation, there’s probably not a whole lot you can do unless you have a clear example of what classes you’ll have, but you can work on introductions and ice-breakers and such. I had never taught before either, but there’s lots of great and helpful ESL material available on the web. Googling ESL lesson ideas has been a lifesaver at times. :)

  2. Thanks Arielle, that’s helpful. I hope your last few weeks in Russia are great!

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