I was filled with excitement for our first official port arrival in St. Petersburg mostly because I am 25% Russian and had made a goal to visit the country at some point in my life. My Russian roots come from my maternal grandfather, who unfortunately passed away before I was born. Therefore, I grew up not knowing much about Russian culture and traditions even though it is part of my heritage. It felt like the perfect place to begin the voyage: wandering around the homeland of several of my ancestors.
However, feeling a connection to this country didn’t make me feel any more prepared for the visit. I knew that there would be a language barrier since the Russian language isn’t even remotely close to English, especially since Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet. We were also heavily warned during our pre-port presentations that Russia was NOT the place to mess around and were told to be exceedingly cautious. This made us a little nervous but after we spent some time in the city, we realized that they were really just preparing us for the worst.
In the four days that we were given in St. Petersburg, we only took the metro once! We preferred the cheaper and healthier alternative of traveling by foot. Even though it took longer to walk, we were still able to visit all the places that we wanted to see including: the Hermitage, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, Nevsky Prospekt, the Galleria Mall, and the Vodka Museum. However, one of my favorite experiences was an SAS field program that my friends and I attended. We spent an evening walking through the Erarta Museum after hours. Guided by flashlights and the sound of our tour guide’s voice, we walked through each floor of the museum occasionally stopping to hear interesting descriptions of and stories about the most significant modern art pieces. I was pleasantly surprised by the deeper meanings for each of the pieces and by how much I genuinely enjoyed the event. I was so happy that we decided to go with the SAS group because the museum would not have been the same if we had simply gone during their daily hours of operation.
However, our travels in Russia would not have been complete if we had not observed the many cultural differences between their lifestyle and ours in the US. One example would be their overwhelming military presence. I do not think there was a single occasion when we were exploring the streets of St. Petersburg and did not see some sort of man in uniform at post on a corner, sitting in the park, or standing by a parked military vehicle. These men were rather intimidating as they watched all the groups of people walk by, so we were thankful that we did not witness them in action. Another cultural difference was in the Russian people’s behavior and dress. Most of the Russians that we saw were very well dressed. Women were quite fashionable and almost always sported a pair of high heels, while many men wore suits. It didn’t seem like a casual outfit existed in their wardrobes. However, one of the major differences in their behavior was the fact that no one smiled. My friends and I had a conversation with a local who explained to us that according to their culture, it is considered “silly” and “ridiculous” to smile as often as we do in the US. He even told us that in some cases, smiling at another person can be taken as flirtation, so we really had to watch ourselves and make sure that we weren’t giving out the wrong signal to locals.
In addition to that conversation, we conversed with a few other locals during our time in Russia. One night when ordering drinks at a bar, we were asked by two women where we were from. We were not at all expecting their reaction when we responded with “New York.” They began squealing with excitement, attracting the attention of everyone in the bar as they exclaimed “It is our DREAM to go to New York!” It was fascinating to see how highly they regarded Manhattan, which is somewhere I visit at least once a month while at school. Another conversation occurred when we met a father and his baby while we stopped for a bathroom break in McDonalds. After speaking with him for a while, the father recommended a local bar for us to go to called “The Wild Duck.” We followed his suggestion and walked to the local bar, but were not at all prepared for what we would see there. We walked in and headed towards the back of the bar to find a table where our group could all sit together. But once we turned the corner, we immediately stopped short…there was a REAL LIVE DUCK waddling towards us right there on the bar floor! It was so unexpected that we could not stop laughing about it for the rest of the night. Finally, as we were leaving The Wild Duck, we were confused when a man yelled to us “good luck” in passing. Afraid that he was trying to tell us that the streets were unsafe at night, we asked him why he was wishing us luck on our way home. He explained that that is a common phrase said in farewell and told us that the proper response would be “not at all!”
To say the least, Russia was a learning experience for us. This first port definitely set the tone for the voyage: to be open to others’ cultures and to be aware that there is always something new to discover.