Having spent one of the best weeks of my life in Russia on a sixth form history trip, I had a rather romantic vision of my year in St. Petersburg. I’d envisaged bright, wintry walks along frozen canals, afternoons whiled away sipping thick hot chocolate in cosy cafes and evenings chatting with Vladimir or Natalia in smoky, subterranean bars. In fact, that was how I passed most of my time in Russia, but the first few weeks were quite a departure from what I’d imagined. Like most people, I spent the majority of September in fear of one thing or another: making conversation with my landlady, trying to buy a metro token, working out how to get home after dark. But after a month of being fed chicken kiev and wine for breakfast by my lovely bald babushka, I’d grown accustomed to life in St Petersburg and by end of the year was devastated to leave. No matter how scared you might be now, your time in Russia is bound to make this one of the most fascinating and exciting years of your life.
Perhaps the biggest decision to make about your year abroad is where to live. You’ll probably have the option of a homestay, halls of residence or a private flat. The advantages of a homestay are obvious: there are the language benefits, a chance to see how Russians really live and on-tap insider knowledge of St Petersburg. It’s a very flexible type of accommodation, as you pay monthly and don’t sign a lease. So, for example, if your flat is too far out, it’s very easy to move in with a different family, as I did, or out of the system altogether. Living in someone else’s house isn’t nearly as claustrophobic as you might think, since most hosts are happy to let you do as you please, but it’s not an idea that appeals to everyone. For those who’d like to live amongst russkiis, but want full independence, the общежитие isn’t a bad option. Rooms are rather cramped, and you’ll be sharing with at least one other person, but if this doesn’t put you off, halls provide ample opportunity to make Russian friends. If you know you want to live in your own flat, get in touch with some letting agents before you arrive. Many speak English, so you won’t have to face the mammoth task of negotiating a contract по-русски. The cost is almost the same as living in a homestay and, considering some hosts won’t let you use the kitchen and all will charge you for laundry, renting a flat will generally get you more for your rouble. Ultimately, the type of accommodation you choose depends on what you want from your year abroad. If you’re really unsure, opt for a homestay while you weigh things up.
Unsurprisingly, the standard and style of teaching vary between institutions, but one similarity is that all lessons feel a lot more like school than normal university. You’ll be streamed at the start of term after a short test, which is a lot less scary than it sounds (trust me; I barely knew what the case system was). You’ll then be in the same class for all your subjects, meaning you quickly get comfortable with the others in your group and can get the most out of your lessons. There are a few reading weeks a year, which give you the perfect opportunity to get out of town for a while. A visit to Moscow is obviously obligatory, but Russia is full of historic towns worthy of visiting, like Suzdal’ where you can rent big log cabins at very cheap rates. It’s worth taking a trip purely to experience a Russian overnight train, undoubtedly the most fun mode of transport in existence. Coming from stressful second year into school-style lessons and frequent holidays can sometimes make your year abroad feel a bit like a well-earned break!
Knowing what is on
In such a lively city as Petersburg, there’s little chance you’ll get bored, but if you do, pick up a copy of Aфиша or Time Out. Not only will reading them help your Russian skills, they’ll also give you details of current exhibitions, forthcoming club nights and the latest cafes and restaurants. In Your Pocket is another guide that I found indispensable. Also published monthly as a free magazine, this English-language website is regularly updated with exciting new nightspots and brilliant places to eat. It’s also a good idea to join В Контакте, the Russian equivalent of Facebook. Much more popular in Russia than its western counterpart, you can use it to keep in contact with any Russian friends, to find out about future events and even to watch dubbed-over versions of your favourite films and programmes.
Keep an eye out for:
- Any upcoming holidays. In Russia it seems almost every other day is of great national significance, meaning a day off school and a big parade. The most impressive is Victory Day, celebrated on May 9 each year with a huge military display and a procession down Nevskii prospekt. The religious holidays are also fascinating; don’t miss an Easter service at one of the city’s many cathedrals for a truly Russian experience.
- Wedding photo shoots. Newlyweds pop up everywhere during the summer, from inside the Hermitage to the middle of traffic roaring down Nevskii, and are usually quite a sight to behold. Expect huge pink meringues and props like stuffed birds.
- White Nights. Although term is unlikely to continue into the height of this spectacular period, you’ll certainly notice the beginnings of it. By early June, you can take a midnight stroll down the canals in full daylight. By far the greatest part of the Petersburg year.
- Сырки. The best thing to ever come out of Russia.
Be prepared for:
- Dodgy breakfasts. Some hosts seem to think cold spaghetti and a frankfurter is an acceptable meal at 8am. Don’t be afraid to ask for something more normal: you are paying them, after all!
- Bureaucracy. While it’s not as bad as it once was, it’s still a large part of everyday life in Russia. Leave about an hour for your first few trips to the post office to send or pick up a package, and don’t expect anyone to be sympathetic to your utter bemusement. Take a friend to make the situation funny, rather than frustrating.
- The ice. It might be the cold you’re fearing, but that’s not the hardest part of a Russian winter. As long as your dressed properly, -30 degrees is bearable, yet trying to stay upright on the icy streets is quite a challenge. The graceful Russian ladies somehow manage to navigate the frozen paths in enormously high heels, but the rest of us need shoes with good grip to avoid slipping over. Fleece-lined builders’ boots are perfect and can be found fairly cheaply all over the city. And watch out for the deadly falling icicles!
Top Ten Favourite Finds
- Zoom This lovely, semi-underground café is very popular with students, and sells a great range of food at reasonable prices. Perfect for an after-school bowl of borsch.
- Публика Does the best pizzas in town. Looks pricey, but isn’t; just avoid the bottled beers at all costs.
- Ботаника An incredible vegetarian restaurant off the Fontanka. Serves everything including Italian, Indian and Russian, but all to a high standard. The falafels are lovely, or try the shak-marina for a delicious example of contemporary Russian cuisine:
- Дом Быта A very cool restaurant bar, with ludicrously tasty food and great music. Annoyingly, drink prices are prohibitively expensive, so it’s better for a civilised meal than a big booze-up.
- Doodle Bar This smoky basement bar is tiny, but the staff are incredibly friendly, happily accepting music requests, and occasionally offering free samples of their cocktail experiments.
- Дюны Only open during the summer, this outdoor bar hosts man-made sand dunes, deck chairs and a fantastic mix of music.
- Грибоедов Probably the best club in Petersburg. The lasers and smoke machines add comic value, but this place houses great club nights and the roof terrace is the perfect place to spend a warm summer’s evening.
- Удельный рынок Sadly threatened with closure, this market is Petersburg at its most Russian. Walk past the stalls selling knock-off electrical goods and cheap clothing to the more interesting ones at the back. You’ll find incredible relics from Soviet times, old cameras and watches and the odd undetonated grenade. You’re likely to be the only foreigner around.
- Museum of Political History Housed in a ballerina’s mansion and one-time HQ of the Bolsheviks, this museum is hugely informative and very interesting. Come here to learn all about the Soviet era from its very beginnings and peer out onto the balcony where Lenin gave speeches to crowds of thousands.
- Лэнд The place to visit during any bouts of homesickness, this supermarket in Владимирский пассаж is expat heaven. Sells all the hard-to-find items like peanut butter, proper cheddar and humous. The supermarket in Stockmann is another good option.