Sitting at home with my dog on my lap watching snow gently fall and blanket the trees and the ground listening to the peaceful hush of silence in the Montana woods, I can hardly believe that roughly a week ago I was in St. Petersburg, Russia. My mind can barely process the fact that a week ago my life consisted of eating macaroni with meat cutlet, riding the metro, and hoping to god that I would be intelligible when trying to buy bread from the supermarket.
People ask me for crazy stories, and I have my highlights prepared. Yeah, that time I took a gypsy cab at 4am home where the only common language denominator was a “little bit of Russian.” Or eating raw fish with onions with my hands. Or pretending to be a glue monster in acting class.
But my Russian experience was so much more than a crazy story. It was frustrating, beautiful, challenging, rewarding, energizing, exciting… (you can keep inserting your own superlatives here). I met friends that I hope are for life. I had some of the wildest and most interesting discussions. I went through periods of intense boredom or, in contrast, also being so overwhelmed I’d leave and go cry quietly to myself.
There’s a lot of things I want to take back with me from my time in Russia. I love the tradition of wearing tapochki (slippers) at home and always have cookies on the table and tea ready to go. I like the idea that before a long journey you sit and meditate. I love how real Russians are—how they smile when they really mean it, say things as they are without sandwiching it in “pleasant platitudes,” and how small talk is almost nonexistent. I love how much people love and honor art and their culture. I admire and respect the strength of the Russian people who have endured so much.
I will admit that on both sides of the spectrum it’s been difficult navigating the difficult, multi-faceted relationship between Russia and America. While in Russia, I was exposed to some very controversial opinions and beliefs that were at times very challenging to hear but I cannot stress enough how much I learned about the power of just objective listening and trying to reach an understanding of where and how these beliefs come to be. Coming back to America, it’s been a challenge to explain what I’ve learned and come to understand about the Russian perspective, but it’s a challenge I rise to because I believe it’s so important to extend my study abroad beyond me and use my perspective to bring deeper understanding.
People ask me if I miss it or if I’m happy to be home, and in a way it’s both. I miss the bustling streets of Peter, and I’m happy to be skiing through the trees of Montana. The other day while shrugging ourselves into gear in the ski locker-room my friend commented that she noticed I was watching my bags very carefully—something I never did before as my small town life consisted mostly of friendly strangers (who probably turn out to be friends-of-friends anyway) returning your wallet if you dropped it.
In a way this seemingly innocent question prompted almost existential thought: Have I become unreasonably fearful? Have I lost trust in the world?
But in a way, I suppose, thinking deeper, travel hasn’t made me more fearful, it’s only made me more confident, more open-minded, and more trusting in my own abilities and capabilities. There is no way that I can describe to someone what it’s truly like to be in a phone store trying to figure out what’s wrong with your SIM card with minimal Russian and a very confused shopkeeper who thinks you’re trying to buy a new phone not fix the old. I trust myself and I trust the world because, yes, in the end my SIM card was, somehow, fixed. I trust myself because at the end of every crazy story there’s a happy ending—I survived, I learned, I gained confidence.
And I think that’s what I miss the most about Russia. I miss the challenge, the unpredictability, the feeling as though my life was a giant improvisation game where I was only given half the rules. I learned about myself that I don’t need to fear immense change because not only can I survive, but I thrive on it. I am happiest when I am experiencing the challenges of somewhere new and different, and I am so thankful to my incredible study abroad experience for giving me the confidence to pursue that happiness wherever in the world it might take me.