One of the most important things I’ve realized while living in place I’ve never lived before is how much easier it is to get caught in a regular routine. You memorize your route home, never delineating, and explore the occasional museum or attraction. If you’re someone who likes to wander, you maybe find a few streets every week which are new to you. But along with the educational value, I decided to study abroad to discover the culture, people, and general practices of Russia–which made me decide that leaving Moscow was a necessity.
The Higher School of Economics, the university I am studying at, has a campus in St. Petersburg, which I gladly took a sleeper train to study at for a week. These two cities often draw the most attention from tourists, and rightfully so, but they are so dramatically different. St. Petersburg exudes a spirit of openness and relaxation: large, straight boulevards you can see down for miles, huge parks and squares where people congregate, and street musicians everywhere. It’s a great place to escape a relatively hectic city like Moscow and just chill out. And although St. Petersburg was a fun urban excursion, and a pretty big contrast from Moscow, it isn’t all that Russia has to offer.
The first of my small town adventures came with a cultural exchange program I stumbled upon through a student organization at the university. I spent a weekend in Vyazma, a town in Smolensk Oblast that’s tiny when compared to Moscow. I think that weekend was my favorite so far this summer, and one of the best of my life. Three students and I from all over the world spent most of the weekend with local high school students, boasting various degrees of English ability. They showed us the entirety of the town, helped us in making glass artworks, and indulged in homemade food with us whenever possible. On the second morning, while just trying to play a match of volleyball, I was somehow included in an annual town-wide Olympiad, in which I won a shooting competition (and have the medal to prove it). At night each of us would go home to our own host family, who also spoke various levels of English. I was fortunate enough to have a family which effectively spoke no English, meaning I had an entire night to practice Russian in conversations about Russian society and history. From this trip I made some amazing friends and learned what life is like in rural Russia, which undoubtedly deepened my overall understanding of the country.
In a notably more spontaneous move, I also spent three days camping near Mozhaysk, another small town not far from Moscow. What was originally an attempt to reclaim my annual summer tradition of camping turned into an unbelievable weekend spent making friends. With a friend I made in my trip to Vyazma, I was introduced to about ten other native Russians and had the opportunity to cook traditional Russian barbecue and other camp foods, swim in the most beautiful lake I have ever seen, and even receive astronomy lessons and use a telescope with an actual astrophysicist (this wasn’t planned, I swear). The weekend provided the perfect opportunity to break out of my adjusted urban lifestyle and return to my roots, care-free in a forest with newfound friends.