For my spring semester abroad, I’m studying right in the heart of St. Petersburg, Russia. I’m surrounded by a ton of cute cafes and diverse restaurants, and I’m within walking distance of several popular attractions in the city, such as the Hermitage and the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. However, being in the city center also means that, at times, it can feel a bit too “touristy” and disconnected from traditional Russian culture. Luckily for my fellow SRAS classmates and me, we were able to get outside of the city limits and explore a more conventional side of Russian living.
The Cultural Coordinator for SRAS in St. Petersburg, Sergey, was kind enough to invite all of us out to his home in the small village of Bor. The town sits northeast of St. Petersburg and the commute, which included both a metro and a bus ride, took roughly an hour. Once we stepped off the bus, it was clear that we were in for a memorable day. The neighborhood was quaint, quiet, and surrounded by piles and piles of pristine, fluffy snow. As a Texan who had rarely ever seen snow, I was instantly mesmerized.
Sergey escorted us to his house, where his wife, Irina, was waiting for us. After exchanging brief pleasantries and passing along our gifts of wine and sweets to Irina, we all bundled up and headed outside for our winter activities! We took a small hike out into the surrounding forest, and Sergey, who enjoys skiing and snow trekking, allowed us to use his equipment (skis, ski boots, snow tubes, extra warm socks, and coats). I quickly found out that I do not have a natural talent for skiing, but I did have loads of fun on the snow tube!
Afterwards, we all got to enjoy our very first Russian banya experience! Sergey and Irina own a small banya house right on their property, and Sergey regularly hosts friends and family who want to enjoy some traditional relaxation. The banya was heated by burning firewood (some now have electric heat sources) and you could also add scented oils to the embers to make the heat room more tranquil. The guys in our group used a birch scent, which is typically considered more manly, while us girls used eucalyptus and juniper. In most public banyas, people typically do not wear any clothing, but swimsuits were okay for this session. Sergey also taught us the correct way to beat your back with birch branches. This is an old tradition that might sound daunting, but it doesn’t hurt and it actually serves as a massage and circulation-booster. Typical banya experiences include a jump into cold water after sitting in the heat, but Sergey had a better idea. Once all of us were sweating and ready to cool off, he had us run outside and roll around in the snow, then run right back inside. Needless to say, it was an unforgettable experience!
Sergey treated us to snacks and cold beverages (kvas and mors) while we were in the banya, as well as a delicious dinner of turkey steaks, potatoes, and borscht. After our banya session, we all took quick showers, and then settled in for some tea and sweets. Our eventful day ended with some poorly sang Russian karaoke and nice conversation around a small fire. Sergey and Irina were so gracious in welcoming us into their home and truly gave us all a taste of authentic Russian culture. I couldn’t be more grateful for such an amazing experience.
Sergey and Irina- My fellow SRAS classmates and I thank you sincerely for your warm generosity and hospitality.
True Russian Hospitality
Day Trip to a Russian Dacha from St. Petersburg
Excursion offered (and mostly included in) SRAS St. Petersburg programs for Spring, 2018
Additional costs: 216 RUB for transportation and 400-800 RUB for a gift for the host; ~$11-$18