Colin (47) – United Kingdom, teacher in Austria
I was gripped by the idea of learning Russian in Russia. Full of enthusiasm, I researched all of the study options in St. Petersburg, looking for a learning experience and value for money. Two months later I had booked a three-week course from 20 December 2009 to 10 January 2010 with russianinpetersburg.com. I chose St. Petersburg because I had spent two weeks there learning Russian at Herzen University as part of my undergraduate degree in German and Russian at the University of Bradford, England. That was, however, almost 25 years earlier, and apart from my two-week Russian course I had not looked at Russian since.
After I had confirmed my booking and the fees had been transferred, doubts started to creep in, especially since I had also opted to live with a family. What was I doing, a 47-year-old university lecturer with a life of my own choosing to live with a family? I had no idea whether my Russian would be sufficient for everyday interaction. I had also opted for five individual lessons per day – 75 in total over a period of three weeks: after more than 20 years of teaching and lecturing, I would be sitting on the other side of the desk, and, all of a sudden, I was not sure that I would like that. Let me add, however, that once I got there all my fears were quickly dispelled.
Learning Russian with russianinpetersburg.com proved not only to be good value for money, it turned out to be an excellent way to learn Russian. I cannot emphasize enough how much I enjoyed and profited from attending classes and living with a family. In fact, I am hoping to return for three weeks again in winter 2010/2011.
Administration: I have to admit that I was put off by all the paperwork regarding the visa and the transfer of payments to Russia. In retrospect, my advice to anyone would be, “don’t think about it, just do it.” The head and owner of the school, Bart Leenhouts, who has been living in Russia for ten years and is married to a Russian, is, despite only being in his early thirties, an old hand at dealing with Russian bureaucracy. I just followed all of his instructions and recommendations and did not have a single problem. By the way, he speaks fluent English and he can always be reached by phone or by e-mail. Fortunately, he is easy to talk with and no question is ever too stupid for him to answer, and I have to say that I bombarded him with questions on an almost weekly basis.
Arrival and Transfer: I chose to fly with Rossiya Airlines, which I booked online using a travel exchange site to get the best possible deal. The planes might have been a little older than what I am used to, but both flights were excellent and onboard service was good. I also plucked up the courage to try out my Russian on my flight to St. Petersburg and was able to move to a row of my own at the front of the plane. I have no idea why nobody else did this as the first four rows of tourist class were empty and the rest of the plane was packed. After I had gone through passport control and customs, who surprisingly asked me whether I had any diamonds on me (lots of laughter), I was met by my driver, Alexander, an engineer who works parttime as a driver to supplement his family’s income (a common biography in Russia). While he speaks basic English and is currently learning English, he adapted his Russian to my level. Upon hearing that I had been there before – when the city was called Leningrad – he made a 30-minute detour through the centre to show me how things had changed. By the way, Alexander is communicative, polite and punctual, knows the city like the back of his hand and is a very good driver.
Family: I cannot praise my host family enough. Not only did the parents and two children (aged seven and ten) share their apartment with me, they also made me feel welcome and – despite their busy schedules – went out of their way to interact with me in a very meaningful manner. Most mornings, we would have breakfast together, and every evening they would sit around the dinner table with me for hours conversing in Russian. As a result, my Russian profited immensely, and I also learned a lot about life in the former Soviet Union and Russia, the change from communism to capitalism, Russian music and literature, current affairs etc. We also talked about more mundane things and laughed a lot too. Every evening throughout my stay, I was treated to a different and very tasty Russian dish. I was able to use the living room, had access to the fridge and washing machine, and was able to come and go as I pleased. The apartment was comfortable and spacious, very clean, and situated about 15 minutes by trolleybus/bus from the city centre or 45 minutes on foot, which I did once, enjoying my walk a lot. Travel time to the school was about 40 minutes (by tram and on foot). I found public transportation to be cheap, good and safe, and bus/trolleybus services ran till late. The local infrastructure was also good, with supermarkets, a 24-hour grocery, shops, ATMs and various amenities close to the apartment building.
Language center and Teaching Staff: The language center is situated in a very clean and large apartment used for accommodating students who are not participating in the home-stay programme. While this seemed a little strange at first, it also had its advantages: I quickly got to know lots of people with whom I could share my experiences and exchange information. Despite all the people, the atmosphere was very conducive to learning as everyone I met there was focused on getting as much out of their classes as possible. This is probably another advantage of attending a school that caters to adult learners. The classrooms are fairly small and equipped with whiteboards, TVs and DVD recorders, with free wireless Internet access. My two personal teachers were graduates of Herzen University: Ekaterina had a degree in Russian as a second language and Svetlana had a degree in Russian literature. Although they were only in their mid-twenties, they were both married and had been living independently of their parents for many years (this is a typical biography for young Russians of both sexes). Any qualms I had had about being taught by someone half my age were quickly dispersed as both proved to be excellent and very knowledgeable teachers who approached grammar and Russian culture and language from a refreshingly different perspective than the Russian textbooks written in English and German that I had worked with. I learned a lot from both teachers. The classes were varied – using a variety of materials, such as textbooks, photocopies of materials by the instructors, films and music – and the five hours always seemed to fly by. I was able to purchase the textbooks, DVDs and CDs very cheaply at bookshops and music stores in the city. I have to say that by the third week of five hours of individual classes per day and the daily preparation I was happily exhausted. On the final day of instruction, Svetlana and I therefore decided to leave the classroom and go on a tour of the city, visiting such interesting places as the Pushkin Art Center, where we were even given a private tour of the art gallery, and Dom Kino, the famous art cinema.
Home from Home: I would also advise purchasing a Russian SIM card from the same provider, as telephoning in Russia using your home mobile number is, as I found out, horrendously expensive. While, of course, you need to take all the safety precautions that you would do in any large city, whether that be London, Manchester, or Liverpool etc., I felt very safe wherever I went. And don’t be afraid to ask Russians for help or directions; whenever I did, they were very helpful.
My Russian: Thanks to my stay, my Russian has improved to such an extent that I now have a firm grasp of the grammar as well as a good command of spoken Russian. With the aid of a dictionary, I am now reading by Bulgakov and by Pelevin. I am also able to watch Russian films on DVD, such as Брат, Брат 2 and стиляги, and really like listening to the Russian radio station Эхо Москвы as well as Russian music by such artists as Владимир Высоцкий, Кино, Ленинград, Дельфин and Наутилус Помпилиус. I could not have wished for a better learning experience and highly recommend russianinpetersburg.com, particularly if you are looking for a language school that caters to adult learners!