The Homestay Experience: Living with a Russian Babushka
When I studied in St Petersburg last year, I decided to stay with a host-family, or homestay. I had done the same when I studied in Yaroslavl, so I had an idea of what to expect. Nonetheless, it was still a daunting prospect. I was still apprehensive about a few things; would I get on with my host? What would their food be like? Would we have things in common, what sort of things could we speak about? Would they be distant and aloof? More importantly, would they speak slowly and clearly, or immediately test my limited Russian skills? So many questions and doubts…
That all dissipated as soon as Mila opened her door. Mila was my landlady, моя хозяйка, or, going by the more affectionate term popular among foreign students, моя бабушка.
Мой русский дом
After welcoming me in with open arms, Mila smiled (yes, a Russian actually smiled) and pointed to a pair of slippers lying at the door. «Вот, твои тапочки», she said, “every time you come home, you should wear them”. Russians always take off their shoes when they return home, and often they wear these rubber, croc-like slippers. Yup, aesthetic, and comfy – what more could you want?
After dutifully slipping them on, Mila gave a tour of the flat; my rubber tapochkis awkwardly squelching with each step I took. First was my room, a really nice, sizeable room with mismatched wallpaper and an equally mismatched carpet hanging on the wall. Nice. Next the bathroom with the washing machine which was not allowed to touch. Often in homestays you’re not allowed to operate the washing machines without your host’s supervision. Even if you know how to use it, it is always best to ask first. Same with cooking. I was lucky with Mila in that she allowed me to cook and use the kitchen, but it’s not always the case.
Despite this though, Mila made it clear I was to feel at home. We were swiftly «на ты», so no formalities. Each morning Mila prepared breakfast. She would usually make каша, or porridge, and she would vary this up by either serving oatmeal porridge (овсяная каша) or гречка (buckwheat porridge), served with either milk, jam or butter (sometimes a combination of all three). Каша is probably one of the most popular breakfast foods in Russia. Other than каша, Mila also made her own пелмени, another very quintessential Russian dish.
One of the most touching memories I have of last year actually was when Mila invited my aunt, who was visiting me in St P at the time, round for dinner. Mila pulled out all the stops; she prepared traditional dishes, like борщ, салат оливье and плов, which is a chicken and rice stew. It really was like a family affair, all of us huddled around a tiny table brimming with all these dishes. Mila had also bought советское шампанское, a type of sparkling wine that retains a certain nostalgia for the Soviet Union. Mila, ever a good sport, kept filling our glasses, and even taught my aunt (and me!) how to do a proper toast, Russian style!
«Это – огурец»
This was probably one of the best things about living with a host family; you learn a hell of a lot. You are constantly forced to speak Russian, and you’re always exposed to new words too. The situations in which you learn them too can have a lasting effect. One day Mila had treated herself to a manicure, and at dinner she was eager to show off her new nails. Snapping a strategically poised finger randomly at the slices of cucumber sitting on a side plate, she proudly declared «это – огурец», as if she was teaching me a new word. Although I already knew this word, her ulterior motive for me to notice her manicure was obvious. When I asked about it, she beamed like a little girl and then sprouted on about all the ladies’ gossip she had heard at the салон красоты (a beauty salon). From that conversation I learned new words, but her bizarre, yet endearing manner of starting the conversation has for some reason cemented огурец in my head.
When my year abroad came to an end I was sad to leave. However, when I returned to St P to study with Liden & Denz, I was incredibly lucky to move back in with Mila. Liden & Denz also organise accommodation for their students on request, click here for more information about the various options. Take it from me, though, I wouldn’t change my homestay experience for anything.