Before finally sitting down to write a summary of what are becoming the most fascinating days of my life, my host mother made sure I was fully equipped with my Russia starter pack: tapachki (slippers), chai (tea), and layers of clothing. Sure, St. Petersburg’s far north geographical location may be the primary reason that I am constantly reminded to dress warm and comfortably, though I spot reasoning that is far more submerged.
Two weeks into Russia and I still haven’t experienced this concept of “culture shock”. I thought I would be hiding tears or trying to phone my mommy on poor internet connection by now, but instead I am already planning on when I can return to Russia in the future. I will have to credit my upbringing for this smooth transition.
Being born and raised in Bulgaria (not even a decade into post-communism), I can say that I have many moments where I feel more at home in Russia than in America. I’m sure that this sentiment is already getting some eyebrow raises, but believe me. I say that I am feeling very comfortable in Russia because the picture is all too familiar- Soviet style urban planning, conservation of food and household utilities, Cyrillic alphabet adorning shop windows, and gloomy faces that commute on foot or by public transportation.
As a child, I too lived in a small, hallway-sized flat, whose graffiti at the building entrance welcomed me each day. I understand the past Soviet policy of providing mandatory housing for all of its people and the rapid growth of the city at the time, which all lead to the construction of enormous, plain (and today, rundown) housing blocks that may not attract hoodlums on the outside, but are decorated and made cozy in the inside nevertheless. I can relate to the shorter showers and the two differently sized buttons on the toilet when needing to flush. Growing up, I have gotten used to the stoic faces of strangers that are unsatisfied with their meager monthly pensions or are worrisome about the lack of possibilities for their child’s future.
Today, I am grateful to be studying in a city that is rich in history and also plentiful in its fur shop establishments. St. Petersburg was built to be an imperial capital, one of grandeur, as a monument to Russia’s greatness on the European stage. It was Peter the Great’s grand city on the Gulf of Finland, one filled with palaces, cathedrals, museums, parks, canals, and squares. It was his “window to Europe,” and for over 200 years it was Russia’s imperial capital city.
The Russia living essentials (see first paragraph) do not just show you how to prevent a cold, they are inanimate representations of Russia’s very animate past. Since heating is expensive and is turned on at certain dates, the unpredictable forecasts cause feet to get cold (wear tapachki); the water filtration system is not of great quality and all cooking and drinking water must be boiled first (have a cup of tea, darling) and while you are out, make sure to wear layers because here in St. Petersburg, it will rain one moment and shine the next.