Maps Point To Russia

It was a brisk February day when I found myself running through a Russian park, making my way through muddy and unfamiliar terrain. Wearing various layers of Under Armour and some battered brown sneakers, I struggled to keep up, constantly glancing down at my compass and map to figure out where I was. All around me, Russians of all ages confidently jogged past, navigating the course with ease. And there I stood in the middle of it all, the only American at an orienteering competition on Yelagin Island, a sprawling woody park in St. Petersburg. In that moment, easily one of the strangest in my study abroad experience, I kept asking myself one question: how on earth did I get here?

At that instant the question had an immediate, literal meaning: I was lost and trying to find my way. But after I found my bearings, finished the course successfully, and reunited with my host family (who had invited me along to this peculiar competition in the first place), I began to reflect on that question in a more existential way. How exactly had I ended up in Russia, of all places?

The thing about study abroad is that no matter how acclimated you become to your surroundings, every once in a while there comes a moment that stops you dead in your tracks, reminding you how far you have come from home. But it is exactly these moments that have been most meaningful to me in Russia, marking my journey here just like the little points on an orienteering map.

When I first arrived, my feeling of disorientation was at its peak. I remember first being introduced to my host family and thinking that my two and a half years of Russian had been for nothing: the language was coming at me way faster than I could process. I latched on to a word here or there to get the general meaning of what my host dad was saying, but I feared that the language barrier would be insurmountable.

But my language skills improved gradually, thanks to my language classes, dinnertime conversations with my host family, and the everyday business of interacting with cashiers and coat-check ladies. By this point in the semester, I sometimes even find myself thinking in Russian. When that happens-perhaps as I am walking by the Winter Palace or admiring a St. Petersburg panorama from one of the city’s bridges-it’s a potent reminder of the progress I’ve made.

At the same time, I have never been more acutely aware of my American-ness. As one of two American students in a Russian-language political history class, I am often singled out by the professor to comment on American politics. Such struggles with the language barrier have been alternately empowering and humbling, and this balance has helped me stay grounded.

Thinking back on the past few months, plenty of other memories arise before me, unique little moments that have shaped my time here. There was my first concert in the Marinsky Theatre Concert Hall, where I got free seats to watch my host dad’s choir sing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. There was a whirlwind weekend trip to Riga, where I biked to the outskirts of the city and met a friendly old Latvian man who took me inside his church, eager to share his faith and culture with two Americans. There was a visit to a museum about the Siege of Leningrad, when I first came to understand the devastating toll that Russians suffered during World War II-a story that is too rarely told in America. And just last night, an impromptu night out turned into an evening of cross-cultural bonding, as a group of Russian football fans joined with our American group, and we all toasted to peace in Ukraine.

I am not sure what these memorable moments have in common-some took place in the world of high culture and carefully guided museum tours, others occurred by chance, around a bar table. But none of them could have happened outside of Russia, and they have all validated my decision to spend a semester here.
With over a month left before I head home, I’m not sure what other Russian adventures await. I still ask myself how I got to this point, and where I’m heading. But rather than worrying about what it all means, I’ve decided to live in the moment and enjoy the time that I have left-and just keep running this crazy race until the very end.


April 27, 2014