TO HAVE CLASSES OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM is the most practical way to learn anything. Learning by living the experience. There is no question that it is the best way to learn a language and culture and meet people different from your everyday environment, not to mention discover things about yourself that you never suspected.
For three days our Study Abroad group toured the sites of the gorgeous European (not Russian-looking) city of St. Petersburg. To me the highlights were the Hermitage (never tired to see it over and over), the boat ride through the rivers and canals, and having to change hydrofoils in the middle of the Finnish Gulf when ours broke down on the way to Peterhof.
We spent a day in the heart of Russia—Moscow—with our Russian-club Charleston friends Sonia and Katya before heading into Central Russia and the city of Saransk, the capitol of Mordovia. Saransk is a provincial town the size of Charleston where we would stay and study for 3 weeks at Mordovian State University.
This year, five guys joined me on the trip, so the girls you see in the pictures are all from Russia. I cannot describe all our fun and interesting talks, walks, excursions, meals together. You needed to be there to appreciate what was meaningful to us. Formal events, like the English club, being interviewed by newspaper journalists, and attending the theater and ballet were as appealing and fascinating as our informal outings, such as the banya (bathhouse), picnics, chats with friendly staff in the dorm, and a nice tea and talk with Dr. Sharonov at his home.
Anya gave us a tour of the museum of World War II. Soloviyova Elena Alexandrovna showed us the university and the Erzya museum, and invited us to her class. Our stay in Saransk was made even more special by two university students, Oksana and Masha, who devoted a lot of their time helping us and being with us. Masha also took us to her home village with its beautiful landscapes and introduced us to her friends and father—the very hospitable Father George who guided us through the old church a day before Trinity Sunday.
Many wonderful Russian students and their friends were always willing to help us and share their good company. We really had fun with them. And we owe a special thanks to Safonkina Olga Sergeevna for organizing our entire stay.
I never saw all five guys looking so happy and smiling endlessly as when, after our tour of the chocolate factory, they unexpectedly encountered a table generously laden with sweets and candy, or when they were playing games with first graders at the local school, Lyseum 31.
Near the end of our trip, when I asked students to write about the largest cultural obstacle they encountered on this trip, and about the nicest thing about their trip, here’s what they said:
It was the language barrier. Not being fluent in Russian made it often difficult to communicate. I thought the biggest obstacle would be a difference in ideologies, but I was pleasantly surprised that, like in the U.S., most students are apathetic. The nicest thing about the trip was, undoubtedly, the people. St. Petersburg was very nice and culturally enlightening, but St. Petersburg did not help me with my homework. I was legitimately surprised by how many people were willing to come forward and help us.
The largest cultural obstacle I experienced was reading people’s facial expressions and tone of voice and interpreting their mood. I found that while people often looked and sounded angry or annoyed they were having a perfectly normal conversation. A tone of voice that would seem rude in the States was perfectly normal and Russians tend to smile far less in daily conversation; but when they do smile it is very genuine. Americans tend to overuse happy expressions and light-hearted tones of voice, especially when they don’t actually mean it. I found Russians to be very genuine people whose intentions I was able to read far more easily than those of my fellow Americans which are often masked by fake smiles or forced politeness.
It was the difference between the local food and the food I’ve gotten used to at home. Having pizza with mayo instead of tomato sauce was somehow different although delicious and tasty at the same time. The nicest thing was how local people were ready to provide a significant input toward my adaptation to a new place. Attention and care was seen from students, ladies who worked at the dorm, and even random people who knew nothing about me but were willing to find more.
The largest cultural obstacle simply was the language barrier. I speak hardly enough Russian to accomplish anything without gestures and sign language. But there is a little too much pizza here, and learning and living a little closer to the local lifestyle was not at all difficult. I think I had an idea of what I should expect, and I didn’t expect anything to be the same. The nicest thing was meeting all kinds of new people with unique lifestyles and different world views.
I really don’t know if there were any real obstacles that I encountered. From day one I loved it here and felt like I fit in right away. If I had to choose something, it may be the lack of hot showers every night. But after the second day of taking a wet cloth and wiping down, in place of a shower, I felt fine and didn’t really miss showers at all. I would say “people” were the nicest things about the trip. While seeing attractions is an amazing thing, the talks and laughs we had with the people here will have the biggest impact on my memories and probably—no, definitely—on my life. There are many faces and stories that I don’t think I will ever forget. Seeing how and where people live, what they eat, what they think of America and what we thought of Russia.