As I lay in bed, I can feel soft black fur rubbing over my face and tiny claws batting at my hair. I glance at the clock on the nightstand, easy to see by the faint light coming in the bare window. It is just after 6:00 a.m. and the kitten who shares my room with me in my St Petersburg homestay has decided it is time to get up.
I don’t need to be up until 7:00 a.m. and I am not ready to crawl out from under my two layers of thick blankets. I am fighting the urge to pee because I hate the thought of trudging outside through the muddy backyard in the dark to the outhouse to use the toilet.
Eventually I roll out of bed and flip on the small portable heater on the floor next to me. I am afraid to leave it on while I sleep because it looks like it could spontaneously catch fire at any time. I don’t use the heater so much for heat anyway, as I do to dry my clothes after washing them because, while my host family does have a washing machine, they do not have a dryer (which I hear is typical for Russia). For now, the blankets they gave me work fine to keep me warm while sleeping.
A Morning Routine
I pull on my jacket and grab soap, a towel and my headlamp, making sure I have Kleenex in my pocket just in case the toilet paper in the outhouse has run out. I try to walk softly down the short dark hallway, not wanting the old floors to creak. I open two wooden doors back to back and then make a left to go through another door out to the entry way to the house. I am not surprised to see the front door is wide open as usual and I get a chill as the morning breeze blows in. Here the floor slopes so I take care to watch where I am going – this is where the headlamp comes in handy as daylight is just barely coming through.
A turn to the right and through another door and I arrive at what is basically a porch area connecting two separate parts of the house. I head down some steps, past a sleeping dog and through a car port until I reach the dirt path in the backyard that leads to the outhouse.
Coming back to the house, I head through a thick door and up some stairs to find the makeshift sink, which stands next to the washing machine. There is no bathroom and the sink in the kitchen does not work so this serves as a place to wash dishes, wash your face and brush your teeth.
After washing up and returning to my room to put on some makeup (I’m still trying to look somewhat civilized!) and get dressed, I head back to the other pat of the house, past the makeshift sink and up to the kitchen to make myself some oatmeal for breakfast. Sometimes Phillip or Misha hover in the kitchen with me as they get ready to leave for school.
Commuting to the City Center
Shortly after 8:00, I depart for the Lisiy Nos train station. The walk takes about 20 minutes down several tree-lined streets with no sidewalks. I roll up the cuff of my jeans so they don’t get muddied as I walk along the side of the road. I get to the platform and hand over three 10 ruble coins at the ticket window in exchange for my ticket to Staraya Derevnya. I carefully place my small paper ticket in my back pocket as I know the conductor will ask to see it – and because I need it to exit the station on the other end. The train is an old “electrichiski” type train, with wooden benches and little light or heat. My eyes sting from the lingering smoke in the air as I step onto the train – despite the no smoking signs, many men seem to light up anyway at the end of each car as they await their stop.
Twenty-five minutes later I am at the Staraya Derevya train station, where I walk a few meters to the Staraya Derevnya Metro station. I have a “smart card” for the Metro so I don’t have to deal with buying a Metro token and can head straight to the turnstiles. I ride down the escalator to the deepest subway system in the world and wait mere seconds for the next train to pull up. Four stops later, I get off at Sadovaya and follow the crowds to transfer to another line, which takes me one stop further to Nevskiy Prospekt.
Ninety minutes after I leave my house, I arrive at the language school on Inzhenernaya ulitsa for my Russian classes.
Classes run from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., with a ten minute break each hour. My class consists of four other people – Tamara from the Czech Republic, Fabian and Ulrike from Germany and Julia from Austria. We are all level A1+, which I believe means that we know basic grammar and vocabulary and are starting to study the more complex concepts of Russian language, like the imperfective and perfective aspects. Dasha, our instructor, initially comes off tough and demanding but occasionally lets her sense of humor and lighter side show through. I struggle to keep track of new vocabulary and catch up with grammar I haven’t studied in over 10 years, but gradually it starts coming back and my confidence grows each day.
When class ends at 2:00, we all scatter our separate ways. I stay at the school for a couple hours, taking advantage of the free wi-fi connection in the cafeteria. Afterwards, I run some errands, shopping for winter clothes or just browsing through the shops in Gostiny Dvor or along Sadovaya Street. Every day I seem to discover something new. Or I might satisfy a craving for French Fries with a stop at McDonald’s (don’t hold it against me!).
I get on the Metro heading back to Staraya Derevnya by 5:30, which gives me enough time to catch the 6:17 train home. I have to time this carefully because if I miss it, the next train doesn’t leave until 7:12. Arriving home just before 7:00, I never quite know what to expect. I am supposed to be tutoring Sasha, Dasha, Vanya, Phillip and Misha in English, but they don’t show much interest and generally say they are busy when I ask about working on lessons or even reading a book in English together. So instead I simply try to speak English with them as much as possible (although I have to admit, I appreciate the opportunity to try out my Russian). If and when I do speak Russian, I follow with an English translation so they start to learn words and phrases.
When I am not talking with the kids, I work on homework for my Russian class, research plans for my onward travel in Russia or read War & Peace on my Kindle (I am now over 60% of the way finished!).
My host parents often work quite late so the kids seem to fend for themselves when it comes to dinner. At some point, Phillip or Dasha or Vanya will knock on my door and ask me to come upstairs to eat – I never know if that will be at 8:00 p.m. or 11:00 p.m. or sometime in between. Sometimes dinner is boiled chicken and potatoes; sometimes just soup and a salad of tomatoes and cucumbers. Last week, my host mom found gluten free pasta for me so I had that three nights in a row. Every now and then, rather than go upstairs, my host mom will have Vanya and Phillip bring me dinner in my room on a tray with a glass of red wine.
By midnight, I am usually ready to call it a night, set my alarm and snuggle under my two thick layers of blankets, and get ready to do it all over again tomorrow.