A Rough Start in Russia

Lisiy Nos, St. Petersburg, Russia

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.

St. Petersburg homestay, Russia

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.

SAM_1331

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.

 

I declined.

 

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42 thoughts on “A Rough Start in Russia”

  1. If I could send you a virtual hug, I would, because yes, sometimes a hug just makes things better. 🙂

    I gathered from tweets and other messages that there had been some rough times but had no idea it started from the get go. I hope your situation turned into a positive one and that the highs outnumbered the lows and unexpected challenges. Even if that didn’t happen, hopefully you can still come out of it with some positives.
    I have my fingers crossed for you!

    1. Thanks Lindsey!! I did manage to take away some positives and I did make it into the city center enough to know that I absolutely love St. Petersburg itself.

  2. Wow Katie, I am so sorry you had such a rough start! I felt your pain as I read through this and I was saddened by your burdens. Transitioning to another country can be a tough adjustment. To have your expectations shattered and your dreams fall apart difficult to hold up. However, you persevered.

    I think perseverance may be a lesson you learn many times over in your time in Russia. Maybe this was preparing you for what is ahead. And maybe the worst is behind you. However, you made it through and will learn from this and be stronger in the end. Tears flowed early but the joys and happiness will come later. Hang in there!

    1. Thanks Jeremy! It was definitely a learning experience and I definitely has not let it color my feelings about Russia in a negative way. I still saw a lot of great things in St Petersburg and I am super excited for the 2 months I have left here!

      And yes, I do think I am stronger now because of the experience. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, right? 🙂

  3. I really do think in the future you will look back on this and be glad that you stuck it out. It will have made you stronger than you thought you were and you would probably always have wondered “what if?” if you had walked away.

  4. Good for you for rolling with it and finding the good in your situation. That’s the beauty of traveling though – sometimes expectations are meant to be worn away so you can find the gold beneath. It’s a shame though that the organization misrepresented the place you’ll stay.

    1. In fairness, I am not sure it was so much the organization misrepresenting as it was the family not updating their situation with the organization (and the organization not double-checking that things were still the same).

  5. Wow, Katie! What a beginning… I’m glad the hug, the chocolate bar, and all the other encouragements along the way gave you the support you needed to settle in and make decisions you feel good about. I’m enjoying following your time overseas…thanks for sharing the highs and the lows, too 🙂 Best to you!

    1. Thanks Bethany! I think it’s important to share both the ups and the downs – taking a career break or traveling long term can be great (and I am still definitely glad I am doing this!) but it isn’t always going to be sunny – I want to provide a balanced perspective of my experience.

  6. I can’t believe this happened to you! How awful. But yes, I do feel the organization fell down on the job here. This should not have happened. I admire your tenacity. I’m not sure I wouldn’t have taken the easy way out and booked myself into a hostel. Those last 2 lines….wow. That is triumph, my friend. That you could actually turn the situation around and want to stay is very impressive.

    1. Thanks Gray! Believe me, it was a tough, tough decision but in the end I think I would’ve been very disappointed in myself looking back if I hadn’t given it a shot. And while it wasn’t the experience I was expecting, it was still a valuable experience.

  7. Yes, that sounds like a real bait and switch job! The accommodations sucked, but you didn’t come that far just to spend all of your time in the house. I am glad that you gained something positive and useful from the entire experience in the end which is what was supposed to happen anyway.

    1. I did end up getting out quite a bit – I took 2 weeks of language classes in the city, which was great and helped get me into a routine. I also usually went into the city on Sundays and did quite a bit of sightseeing. So I definitely tried to make the most of it.

  8. I don’t know, this company should be exposed for misleading you. You have every right to complain. Too many companies try to lure people into a bad situation. They mislead you and they didn’t take care of you.
    Good for you for making the best of a situation and sticking by your host family, but the Geovisions Conservations Corps is definitely in the wrong here.

    1. Thanks Deb. I really don’t blame Geovisions for this – if anything, it is their partner school in St Petersburg who did not confirm the family’s information, as well as the family for not updating that their situation had changed from what the school had on record.

      My contact at Geovisions was great throughout and was very supportive and in constant contact with me – and I have communicated suggestions to them for the future and they have been very receptive to those.

      If anything, I think this exposes some of the risks of going through large volunteer organizations who just serve as middlemen arranging things. I have a couple other volunteer opps later in my trip that I have arranged directly with local organizations and I have a feeling those will go smoother.

  9. I could really relate to this Katie. I signed up to be an au pair in Italy after I graduated college. Nothing was as it was “advertised” so to speak. I was told I would have all of these things, a private room, a private bathroom and that I would be teaching English to their daughter. When the family showed me to my room, I saw I was living in a hallway, where they had placed a bed. They had nothing for me to do all day. Basically I think the family was looking for a live-in babysitter, not a teacher. Long story short, I left the job after a few sleepless nights and tears. It ended up being the right decision for me, but I completely feel your pain about thinking you made the wrong decision and worrying you are letting everyone down in the process. Hope things are better now!

    1. Thanks Suzy! Sounds like quite the ordeal – and especially right out of college! I think if I had been in my situation (or your situation) right out of college, I probably would’ve bolted as well. Being older now, I think (hope) I’m more mature and can appreciate the value in sticking out a less than ideal situation. And as I’ll share in upcoming posts, I did find some positives in the whole thing!

  10. I know you’ve moved on from this homestay now, and I hope Russia is treating you a bit better these days!

    I, too, know what a letdown it can be when you arrive somewhere expecting one thing, and then are confronted with something completely different. Though, my situation happened in New Zealand, where at least they speak English. And everything was sorted within a day or so. But it was still a pretty upsetting experience, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone!

    1. Thanks Amanda! It’s funny, despite everything, I really do love Russia – and things are much better the last few days! My hostel in St. Petersburg was awesome and then I treated myself to 2 nights in a hotel in Novgorod before moving on to Moscow!

  11. Katie, I know you’ve moved on at this point… but I just want to say that I’m proud you stuck it out, though I don’t think your readers would ever be disappointed in you for doing whatever you need to do to be happy. Also, chocolate is a miracle drug.

  12. What a “welcome” to Russia. So glad to hear that things are working out better for you now, it sounds like you’ve got a very positive attitude. It’s amazing what hugs and chocolate can do for the spirits.

  13. Yikes! I admire your honesty and strength to stick with it, Katie. Being both gluten-free and a runner isn’t easy when traveling in unfamiliar lands.

    Have you heard of Shauna Ahern, aka Gluten Free Girl? Though not a traveler, you might enjoy her blog. She’s a lovely woman and great writer.

    – Janna

    1. Thanks Janna! The gluten-free hasn’t been too bad – the family I lived with pretty much ate boiled chicken and potatoes, which was easy. 🙂 Unfortunately, I tossed my running shoes after the Tallinn Marathon so my running has been non-existent since I got to Russia. I definitely miss it!

      I have heard of Shauna and I’ve read bits of her blog – it’s great!

  14. Wow, that does sound like a rough start! Glad to hear it got better/you got used to it a little.The home sounds more like a dacha than an actual home… hope you’ve met some more English teachers – always good to have a shoulder to cry on.

  15. Goodness – I really felt for you reading this – what a letdown. Sounds like you handled it in a way that worked out really positively for you. It’s a shame that paperwork mix-ups and lax record-keeping cause major inconveniences all over the world – they happen so often these days that I’m surprised when things actually go smoothly. I always try not to take them personally. Hope your onward travels have been even better!

  16. I’m so proud of you for sticking it out. I’m not sure I could’ve done it. I felt awful for you the whole time, seeing your tweets and FB updates, but I’m glad you made it through such a tough situation.

  17. This post is great. I sometimes feel like I am screwing up when I am unhappy in a new place – its good to know that other people sometimes have “travel doubts.”

  18. I practically cried just reading this! The way you wrote the story was moving. It can be so hard to leave the comforts and routine of your own home, and then to be in this situation… Ugh. When I am in Brazil, I often feel uncomfortable with things like the bed, the temperature, etc., and it gets tiring dealing with that. You seem to be a very strong person, and as the others have said, you will be even stronger because you stuck it out. I hope the family treated you well while you were there.

    1. Awww, thanks. I certainly didn’t intend to move anyone to tears, but I’m glad it touched you.

      I can’t say the family treating me poorly at all – they were always very, very nice – and my host mom was very apologetic about some of the conditions. At the same time, I felt like they were sometimes just indifferent – they didn’t really go out of their way to include me in anything or make me feel super welcome. I just felt in the way at times.

  19. You AMAZE me.. – I remember feeling overwhelmed the first time I went to Germany on my own… now I have to laugh at myself.. You are going to look back at this day – and be so proud for being able to stick it out… xxxx

  20. “Ten days after arriving, I was given the option of switching to another family.
    I declined.”

    Even I got tears in my eyes when reading this….

    Went to St. Petersburg in July 2005, I’m a German Economist in my 50s.

    When I first crossed the Neva bridge at the Hermitage, I thought WOW that is it.

    Still living on Vasilevsky Island / St. Petersburg and regretted not 1 day.

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