I bit my upper lip and turned my face away from the driver as he announced that we had arrived at the house I would call home for the next month. I didn’t want him to see my disappointment, although when I snuck a glance at his face, I could tell he felt bad for me.
I checked my Blackberry and saw that it had been an hour and a half since we left the Baltic Station in St. Petersburg. We crossed a bridge and another bridge and maybe even another bridge. We exited from a highway and followed some train tracks for a while before turning onto a road lined with far more trees than houses. And then we turned. And turned again. And again. And again.
Until we finally arrived at this house.
It looked nothing like the pictures I received a month earlier while I was still in Chicago.
No one told me the family had moved.
And certainly no one told me that they moved into an old wooden house that they were in the process of renovating from top to bottom.
Or that the “new” house was so far outside of St. Petersburg that it doesn’t even show up on a map of the city.
Or that they didn’t have internet like they promised in their letter to me.
Or that the house didn’t have any heat.
Or that the window in my room would have a hole in it, allowing the wind to flow right through and flies and mosquitoes to come and go as they pleased.
Or that the toilet would be an outhouse.
Or that the nearest bus or train station was a 20 minute walk from the house, as well as the only grocery store and absolutely nothing else.
No, this was definitely not what I expected when I signed up to volunteer in Russia as an English tutor and live with a Russian family in St. Petersburg (a city of 6 million people) through Geovisions’ Conversation Corps program.
I arrived near five o’clock in the evening and spent the next six hours trying my absolute hardest not to show my disappointment as I was introduced to a slew of family members and cheerfully given a dinner of tomato and cucumber salad, lukewarm soup and boiled potatoes. But when I was finally alone in my room, shivering under a thick, yet slightly damp blanket, the tears finally started to roll down my cheeks.
The next day, my host mother drove me into the city center so I could meet with representatives from Liden & Denz, Geovisions’ partner school in St. Petersburg, both to sign up for my own Russian classes and to discuss tutoring plans for the family. Not wanting it to seem like I was overreacting, I cautiously voiced my concerns over the living situation to Alena, my main contact with the school, but they seemed to fall on deaf ears. With little sympathy and then, with little direction, she sent me off to the other Liden & Denz location to meet with Victoria, the director of the tutoring program.
Unable to find a working ATM machine to get rubles to buy a token for the Metro, I ended up walking to the second location, arriving nearly two hours later. As soon as I started speaking to Victoria, I broke down. I was exhausted and starving and sick and it was raining and I felt completely alone in this country that I had dreamed of visiting for so long. I couldn’t stop crying.
Luckily, Victoria sympathized with me and tried to reassure me. She also introduced me to two English teachers at the school who quickly sought to help as much as they could, which included jumping on the internet and helping me figure out exactly where I was actually living and how I could get into the city on my own. Better yet, one just gave me a big hug, which I really, really needed at that point.
Sometimes a hug can go a very long way.
Before returning to my host family that evening, I managed to find a working ATM to withdraw rubles and I bought a Russian SIM card so I could make local calls on my Blackberry. I also inhaled an enormous chocolate bar, which of course makes everything just slightly better.
I managed to access the internet on my Kindle (thank god for 3G!) and read a couple dozen messages of support from friends and family, encouraging me to hang in there and look at it as part of the adventure – and something that I will eventually look back on as a good story.
As I tried to fall asleep that second night, though, the tears came back and I struggled with how to handle the situation. A big part of me wanted to just call it quits, to take the easy way out and find a hostel to call home for the next two weeks while I took language classes and then move on to Moscow. And part of me worried about Moscow and what my home would be like there and whether I might want to scrap the whole Conversation Corps program altogether.
This was supposed to be my dream trip, the trip for which I planned and saved for nearly two years. Shouldn’t I be enjoying it, not suffering in uncomfortable accommodations that I wasn’t expecting? Don’t get me wrong, I certainly figured I would experience some rough living conditions during this trip – but I thought those would come later, in the Caucasus and Central Asia. This wasn’t what I signed up for in St. Petersburg.
But on the other hand, wasn’t this part of what it should all be about – exposing myself to new and different situations, learning about how people in other parts of the world live, and stepping out of my comfort zone and testing my patience?
Who would I be disappointing if I called it quits?
Myself? My host family? Geovisions and Liden & Denz? My friends and family and people I don’t even know who read this blog and probably expect more and better from me? All of the above?
I didn’t want to let anyone down by quitting but I also didn’t want to stick with it just to not let other people down.
The biggest question was would I be letting myself down?
I struggled through the next few days and shed a few more tears. But gradually, the lows weren’t quite so low and a few almost-sort-of-highs began to appear.
The oldest daughter brought me to her school, where I observed English classes for a day.
I started language classes in the city center.
My host mother bought me gluten free chocolate chip cookies and cooked gluten free pasta for me.
And I got a new room with a portable space heater and no hole in the window.
Ten days after arriving, I was given the option of switching to another family.