During my seven month stay in St. Petersburg, I opted to live in a homestay with a Russian host family. I initially had images of a small apartment with carpets on the walls and lace pillow covers, Russian children biting my ankles, and a warm and loving grandmother (babushka) to dote on me and stuff me full of blini and borsch. This was not to be the case. I think there are certain factors that make this “ideal” scenario difficult to achieve. First, most Russian apartments are very small, and most don’t have an empty private room at the ready just waiting to invite a strange foreigner into their lives. Second, many Russians live together in extended families, often with grandmothers, children, and grandchildren together, which means homes are often already stuffed to the brim. Third, many Russians who live in big cities, including single babushki – already have active lives and are just not jumping to take strangers into their homes – especially a stranger who might need a bit of babysitting in a strange new city.
So, let me describe my host-mother, Anna.* She’s short and slim, a platinum blonde bob, Barbie pink fingernails, and a smile that needs a bit of coaxing. When I first arrived, she was cordial and helpful, but gave me my space to unpack and settle in. We arranged a time for dinner, she handed me a pair of tapachki (house slippers), and closed the door. Anna lives alone, and she immediately told me that she wasn’t a very good cook – already my fantasy was crumbling. The meals we shared were certainly better than anything I could have made on my own, but very repetitive and not very traditional. Her favorite dishes were spaghetti, a potato-squash soufflé, and white fish. Our apartment was a converted Soviet kommunalka – four rooms, a kitchen, and two bathrooms (one full and one half-bath) based off of a long hallway, without any kind of communal space other than the kitchen. One room was mine, one was hers, one was a guest room, and one was for storage and smoking. This layout made it difficult to socialize. Faced with these difficulties, I was initially worried that I would regret having decided to go the host-family route, but by the end of my stay I couldn’t have seen myself living any other way.
My fears that Anna wouldn’t be “traditionally Russian” enough proved unfounded. I met many of her friends, and her daughter and son-in-law whom I saw frequently. When friends were over, Anna often prepared big banquet spreads of zakuski (appetizers/snacks). Once, when friends were visiting from France, we put on the radio and danced together around the kitchen! She was so helpful and understanding as I learned what, to her, must have seemed the most basic household tasks: how to hang clothes to dry (above the radiator), how to dispose of food without a sink garbage disposal (in the toilet), how to cook on a gas stove, and much more. I introduced her to some new things as well- cereal and milk for breakfast, National Public Radio (she did not speak English, but enjoyed hearing me relay an American perspective on current events), and the great work that my non-governmental internship organization does (read more on that here!).
There was definitely a learning curve living in a Soviet era apartment, even though mine had been recently renovated. Communication between floors is easily done through banging on the metal pipes that run through the building- the only real message you can send is “be quiet”, but it works! The outer gate to the courtyard should be pulled behind you to make sure no one without keys gets in. It’s perfectly acceptable to feed the adorable kittens that live in the yard, but if you talk to them in baby voices the owner of the tailor below your building might come out and yell at you for being crazy. Don’t expect to be able to control the temperature in the apartment much- heat is constant during the winter and begins and ends on the decision of the city government, there is no air conditioning. I made lots of “mistakes” while adjusting to my new life, but now I feel like an old pro!
I honestly loved living in a homestay. I spoke exponentially more Russian than the students that lived in dorms, I made friends with many Russians (mostly in their 60s, but it still counts!), I had my own place to retreat to at the end of the day, a large, comfortable room, and a clean kitchen and bathroom to enjoy. Having another location away from the university and dorms also gave me the opportunity to explore another part of the city, and I was able to have a place all my own outside of the American university circle.
While your homestay experience may not match your expectations on the surface, I cannot recommend this option highly enough. Studying abroad is an opportunity to escape the dorm life and typical stateside university culture, it’s an opportunity to experience something above and beyond what most of your peers will, it’s a chance to become a part of a new community and culture- living in a homestay will help you take advantage of this opportunity to the fullest.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved