"I think the most impactful experiences for me were those in which I didn’t just learn about a culture, a tradition, history, politics, or language, but actually encountered them and experienced them outside the classroom."
Although my academic interests were what most pushed me towards study abroad in Russia, some of the experiences that I had outside the classroom were just as valuable and memorable, if not more so. I think the most impactful experiences for me were those in which I didn’t just learn about a culture, a tradition, history, politics, or language, but actually encountered them and experienced them outside the classroom. I had an excellent opportunity to do this when my host mother invited me to join her on a trip to the town where she grew up, located in a rural region of Western Russia.
The trip to the town, called Kalyazin, was long. We left St. Petersburg on the overnight train towards Moscow late in the evening and got off in the small city of Tver’ early the next morning. We then took a bus to Kashin, a town with a population of about 16,000, located along the Volga in a largely agricultural area. From there, we went to Kalyazin. My host mom consistently referred to this entire experience as my “journey into the heart of Russia.” Depending on who you ask, that’s probably true.
I stayed in Kalyazin for eight days, living in the wooden house where my host mother grew up and where her mother grew up. For heat during the chilly April nights we had to heat the wood stove. I quickly learned that my dependence on fire starter would set me back, and would lead my host mother to tell me that I “don’t know how to do anything.” For some reason, this doesn’t sound as harsh in Russian coming from a 70-year-old babushka as it does written in English. I bathed in the traditional Russian bathhouse (banya), which required heating a wood stove and filling a basin with collected rainwater. It was a quintessentially rural Russian experience.
My host mom spent most of the days working in the garden, which she felt the need to maintain for the sake of tradition. She told me that I absolutely had to explore the town and the region, so one day I took the public bus (which does still exist in a town of ten thousand) to the village museum; another day I took a bus to a neighboring town, which also had a museum. On other days, my host mother had a friend of an acquaintance—a man in his mid-70s named Vladimir, who consistently wore a tracksuit—drive me to a number of cities in the province: Rybinsk, Myshkin, Uglich, Rostov, Borisoglebsky, and Pereslavl-Zalessky. Many of these cities are part of the Golden Ring, a region that surrounds Moscow and contains some of the oldest cities and towns in Russia. Few international tourists visit them, which made the experience all the more fascinating.
Planning for my semester in Russia, I had never imagined having an experience like this. It introduced me to a region—its history and traditions—that I would have otherwise never seen. In many ways, as one of my most valuable experiences in the country, it showed me how much learning can take place outside the classroom.