Monday, April 16, 2012

No place like home

The last couple of weeks have been an interesting experience to say the least, as I managed to completely forget that it was Easter...twice. Easter in Russia is the week after ours, and here it is a strictly religious celebration, so there is by no means the commercial song and dance that we see in England. Out and about on Easter Sunday, there is no real evidence that it is different from any other day. 

The upshot of this is that on several occasions I managed to forget both English and Russian Easters, and, worse, completely forgot to watch the travesty that was the 2012 Boat Race. Luckily, however, I remain completely in tune with British horse racing fixtures and thus coerced an entire corridor of English students into watching the Grand National with me.

I have never been away from home on Grand National day, and most years have spent the day reading up on the horses with my dad, phoning my sisters to discuss odds and waiting for my mum to accidentally pick the outsider based on nice colours and name. Consequently I felt for the first time slightly homesick, and was really grateful to be surrounded by a group of good friends from my hotel. It's possibly the first time that I've considered all the benefits of the accommodation system here.

You can choose one of two different kinds of accommodation through the school. Firstly, Gostinitsa “Na Sadovoi” (literally Hotel on Sadovaya). The hotel is connected to the Benedict School, providing rooms for students at the school during their 4-month stay. Not everyone wants to live here, but of the 60 students on the course this semester, around 15 of us are living here. The rooms are twins, and furnished basically – although each has its own sink, fridge and TV (all the mod cons here). The showers and toilets are shared between an entire corridor, but, like the bedrooms, are cleaned every day. Essentially it's like living in halls, except someone also changes your sheets and towels every week and hoovers your carpet daily. Meanwhile, just down the road, there is an exceptionally cheap laundrette where a delightful lady washes and folds all your clothes, and essentially becomes your second mother. The hotel's kitchen is perhaps the biggest source of frustration as it's on a completely different floor and is perpetually locked – plus it is VERY basic (there are hobs...but no oven), which tends to breed an unhealthy over-reliance on the too-convenient 24-hour pizza place next door to the hotel. Plus if you know you go to bed at 10.30, or you have an issue with personal space, the twin rooms are probably not for you. But for 15000ru (£300) a month, Gostinitsa “Na Sadovoi” is a great place to be – it's a great base for socialising and the perfect place to settle into the city quickly and make loads of course friends. On top of that, the location is amazing, as it's a ten minute walk (at most) from the school and within easy walking distance of the most historic areas and famous monuments of the city.

Russia is a daunting place to move to for the first time, so I've found the atmosphere at the hotel perfect to help me settle in. People who have lived here before, however, might want a bit more of a challenge, in which case a homestay is often the preferred option. In this case between one and four students will be assigned to the home of a Russian host in St Petersburg. This is the ideal situation for people who are looking to speak more Russian outside school – especially those who have already spent a semester in the country. It is about 2000ru more expensive than the hotel, but that includes breakfast, and you can also pay for dinners with your host. The homestays are dotted around the city, and can sometimes be quite far from the school, but are mainly easy to reach. Be warned, however: while 99% of students are placed with people who become a second family for their stay here, 1% have some...interesting...experiences with their hosts. One in particular springs to mind – a friend who moved into the hotel after several run-ins with cockroaches, on the floor, in the kitchen, in her bed. Nevertheless, she is now settling in with a new, and seemingly much better-suited, family. I would also caution against assuming that a homestay is a fast-pass to speaking Russian – you will most likely be staying with several other English students in the flat, and quite often friends have reported back that the host speaks English with them for ease.

There are pros and cons to either option, and either way you will have to put in the effort to speak Russian outside school; however mostly people's opinions of both are positive. Some students with contacts have found private flats for themselves and friends, however if you're looking to find accommodation simply and easily, the Benedict School organises both the hotel and homestay for you.

A quick note on organising everything through the school – coming to Russia for the first time is daunting enough as it is, without having the stress of organising all the admin as well, so having the school sorting everything out is extremely useful. One thing to mention would be the group flights – many of us took the the group flight (and are therefore booked on the home-bound group flight as well), which was a great way to meet people initially and removed all the stress of arriving, getting through customs and finding your accommodation alone. However, it does set you back around £100 more than your average BA return flight, essentially for the bus ride to the hotel (a taxi costs around £30, and the public bus is about £5). Considerably cheaper journeys here include getting a flight to Tallinn or Riga, and taking a coach from there to St Petersburg...although of course that does involve an epic coach journey.

Travel arrangements aside, it seems that in the majority of cases, you can't really go wrong with accommodation out here – and those who have found difficulties have been quickly and easily relocated. Within a week or so, you can be pretty assured that you'll feel completely settled and will have made loads of friends. Within a month or two you'll be close enough to them that they're your second family and loud arguments about British horse-racing are totally acceptable. Now I know I'm completely at home.

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