When I told people that I would be studying abroad in Russia, I practically drowned in well-meaning advice from family, friends, and teachers who wanted the experience to be a good one. Some of that advice has proved quite fair, but so far, most of it has been at least a little off. Here’s a quick list of what I’ve been able to observe so far in St. Petersburg.
The advice: Don’t bring any bright clothing, or you’ll be targeted as a foreigner.
Expectation: Everyone in Russia wears dark, drab colors.
Reality: Sure, a lot of people wear dark colors.
Probably the most common bright color I see in apparel is—unsurprisingly—red. But that certainly does not mean that you stick out like a sore thumb if you wear purple or yellow or pink! Plenty of people have been wearing floral skirts, pastel dresses, neon jackets, etc. This lady’s rainbow umbrella didn’t seem to be garnering any strange looks from people around her!
The advice: Constantly keep hold of your belongings, and never travel alone.
Expectation: Everyone is out to rob me and possibly kidnap/harm me.
Reality: It’s always a good idea to be aware of one’s surroundings and know that one’s wallet is secure. But it really puts a damper on a study abroad experience to treat everyone you run into as a potential assailant. I started off trying not to even make eye contact with the people in the dorm who weren’t with my group, but speaking to Russians is one of the best aspects of studying abroad! Non-English speakers in the dorm have been patient and friendly with me, as have vendors at kiosks and stores when they realized I was struggling with the language. And honestly, traveling alone is pretty unavoidable if you’re living in a homestay with a Russian family.
So I think “travel aware” is better advice than “always travel with others.” Acknowledging the time of day, the risk factors, the relative safety of the area you’re in, the valuables you have on your person, and your ability to contact nearby friends and authorities in the event that you do need help, seems like enough precaution to ensure that a young woman who wants to see a museum in the afternoon on a Tuesday does not need to go door-to-door begging her classmates to come along.
The advice: Bring your own snacks, because you might not like Russian food and it will be expensive.
Expectation: Russian food is unpleasant and costly.
Reality: So I understand where people were coming from on this; I am not a fan of beets, mayonnaise, or anything pickled, and a great deal of traditional Russian food involves those things. Plus, with any currency exchange, it can be hard to estimate the differences at first. But as it turns out, I like Russian food, and I’m glad I insisted on trying everything I’ve been offered so far—even my hesitation regarding borsch proved unnecessary. In the supermarkets, food has generally cost the same or less than I pay for it in the States anyway.
So, all in all, I would suggest that potential studiers-abroad and their well-intentioned family and friends keep in mind that while we always keep our own safety and happiness a top priority, the best parts of experiencing another country tend to come with a bit of risk.
We all sign on for culture shock, homesickness, potential loss of property- the usual. But it’s worth it because we meet people who can change our whole perspective on the world, we become immersed in a language that otherwise would have come to us slowly and mechanically, and we see the incredible, strange things that only travelers and risk-takers can see.