Not even a traffic jam on the M25 could stop me on Wednesday morning; after winding through a small town called Denham (which I will forever attach with the fear of missing my flight) I ran into the airport and checked my bag in with 10 minutes to go. A hop, skip and a jump through security, purchasing the vital meal deal from Boots on my way, I sat outside my gate without about ten minutes to spare. It just so happened that three other students from Cambridge were on my flight to St. Petersburg, so it was comforting to see some familiar faces. We were met from our flight by Issy’s buddy [SPBU organise a buddy scheme for international students, to help us settle in. Unfortunately, mine was on holiday in Spain when I arrived (!)], and after a slightly awkward car journey we arrived at our accommodation. As with most Russian dormitories, it looked rather…scruffy on the outside. A hulking concrete block, with broken window frames and messy balconies. We were glad to meet a warm reception inside, and we were soon show to our room. Owing to the fact that we arrived at the same time and both spoke English, Issy and I once again became roommates! Our room, however, was quite different from before. It was much older than the one we had in Kazan (which was built in 2013), but more noticeably it carried a distinct smell. We still haven’t decided on an exact comparison, but the closest we can get is ‘frog armpit smell’.
The next morning we set off to our faculties (mine being International Relations). I had bumped into another English girl when we checked in yesterday who was at the same faculty, so we decided to travel together. Setting off into a city without a working phone is quite a scary feeling – it sounded pathetically millennial, but I honestly wondered how people got by without a device to check maps, call taxis and message friends. Whilst our accommodation block was a bit brutalist, our faculty was classically stunning. It is located in a ring of buildings around the Smolny Cathedral, in a bold light blue. The registration process itself was much easier than in Kazan, and they actually explained what the documents meant! Later in the day I finally got my phone set up (worst 24 hours of my life, without a working phone) and met a few other international students on the way. In the evening I surrendered to familiarity and had dinner with the three other Cambridge students in a vegetarian café, which was a tasty and comforting end to a hectic day.
Friday was ‘Faculty Day’, which meant another return to the Big Blue. We attempted to get there on the bus, not realising how long it took. After 50 minutes on the bus, and being only halfway there, we hopped out and into a taxi. Four of us piled into the backseat (one of us, on top of a child’s car seat) and began the second leg of our journey. Despite arriving half an hour late, we were in time for a quick tour of the faculty and got to meet a few more students. Three of us then went to go grab lunch on Nevskii Prospekt (one of the main streets in St.Petersburg) and had a walk around nearby. In St. Petersburg, many of the main tourist sights are located quite close together, so it wasn’t long before we had found the Winter Palace and taken a few steps on the frozen Neva river. In the evening I headed to a mutual friend’s place for some drinks, and exchanged stories of our manic first few days here.
Despite not signing up for all the ‘Fresher’s Week’ style activities for international students, I tagged along with some French friends to attend the ‘St. Petersburg in Literature’ walking tour. Opting for the Russian-language version, our small group of four stormed around key sites, such as the street where the ‘everyman’ Akaky of Gogol’s short story ‘The Overcoat’ lived [fun literature fact lifted from Wikipedia; ‘The name Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin in Russian means Akaky Bashmachkinis the son of Akaky and is similar to “John Johnson”… Moreover, the name sounds strikingly similar to the word “obkakat'” in Russian, which means “to smear with excrement,or kaka, which means “poop”, thereby rendering his name “Poop the son of poop’, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Overcoat ] and the Bronze Horseman sculpture of Pushkin’s epic poem. Our student tour-guide was very informative, and also very speedy, so by the end of our tour we were more than ready to grab lunch. Later that day I had dinner with two English friends who had also studied in Kazan, before heading back to our flat area, where I found a party starting! Having not properly read my messages when I was out at dinner, I didn’t realise that our flat was hosting lots of international students for drinks. It was a fun evening, although I was so knackered that I retired to my room early and was a bit relieved when people finally left around 3 in the morning.
After all good parties, the morning after requires a clear-up. With our French flatmates we cleared away all the junk from the night before (and also the piles of junk belonging to the previous residents). It was nice to create a more pleasant environment and to make the place a little more homely; throwing mouldy oranges, beer bottles and tubs of butter from August 2016 in the bin does unsurprisingly make for a better home. Issy and I then took the long trip into the centre (it takes about 45 minutes at best, on a bus and then the metro) for a late lunch, before heading to a market complex created in a rather run down building – think, the edginess of Camden but in a battered multi-storey building. We explored a few shops and headed to the rooftop for some interesting art installations and great views over Petersburg.
Monday was ‘University Day’, so we grabbed a bus to the Main University Building, which overlooks the Neva River. Monday differed from all our previous days in one main aspect; the sun had finally come out! After living in the eternal cloudy grey of Petersburg, it was amazing to see the city with a blue sky. We gained some essential knowledge at the meetings we attended, with one piece of advice striking me as particularly Russian….
Again, we had lunch with some more new international faces and then went for a classic girly afternoon of shopping and lung X-Rays. (The Lung X-Ray is required to stay in student dorms – in a shopping centre they offer a walk-in service for £5!). Whilst sitting in a café in Nevsky I unfortunately ripped my winter coat, but managed to find a tailor pretty soon (Gogol’s literature is already coming to life…).
And finally, on Tuesday I sat a test for my language lessons and pottered about some more with international students. I’m currently waiting to be assigned a language tandem partner and will meet my buddy later today. This week has been tiring and confusing to say the least, but I think I’m slowly getting to grips with student life here. Russia always manages to keep me on my toes though; yesterday we found a huge bouquet of roses on our doorstep! We think that they belong to our mysterious flatmate, who we have only met once and who doesn’t seem to really live here… After leaving them a day, I decided to save some and now they’re brightening up our kitchen space.