Article by Leo Font (a student of Kalinka Russian Language School, Dublin, Ireland) about his visit of Russia
During 2020 I took a decision that would change my life. We were in hard lockdown because of Covid and I wanted to challenge my mind during those difficult times, so I decided to learn the Russian language. During lockdown, I was finding some peace on my soul listening to the Russian romantic composers (Rachmaninov, Glinka, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev…) and remembering my younger times at the Music Conservatory when I would be playing at the piano their beautiful music and asking myself why only music coming from Russia was able to really touch my soul in a unique way. Little did I know at that time that I would find the answer almost half century later!
I met Irina, my teacher, and we agreed to start having some lessons. Although I’m fluent in 4 languages, beginning the Russian language was difficult, many times frustrating. I had to learn a new alphabet that back then seemed cryptic, start getting used to articulate different sounds and phonetics which were counterintuitive for me (I’m Spanish) and of course I had to rewire my brain to forget everything I knew and learn from scratch a totally different language. But Irina did the magic and thanks to her empathy, patience and talent as teacher, week after week I felt I was improving and I was slowly wiring new connections on my brain and starting to understand and love this beautiful and expressive new language.
But she didn’t just limit herself to becoming the best Russian teacher one can think of, but brought the whole of Russia to me. Thanks to her I started to learn, understand and love Russian culture. I became more and more interested in their traditions, gastronomy, politics, philosophy, literature, way of living… I started to dive deep and read blogs, books, watch videos, movies, listen Russian radio stations. I made Russian friends and I discovered a fascinating universe that made me feel at home.
One year after I started studying, a very powerful idea started to build in my mind. I needed to go to Russia. I needed to feel that land close to me. I wanted to have a fully immersive experience and decided that as soon as Russian borders would open (they were closed because of the pandemic), I would request a visa and travel. What could be better for my language studies than breathing Russian language 24h per day?
But when would I travel? And where? Traveling in the middle of a pandemic could be a real challenge but traveling outside EU when many things are still not harmonised between thee two blocks (by example vaccination certificates or other bureaucratic aspects) could be beyond challenging. What would I find there? The usual western propaganda about Russia brought some concerns about the trip, but I wanted to create my own opinion through my own experience so I prepared everything and with the help of the Russian consulate in Barcelona I got everything ready. I wanted to visit Russia for the first time in winter and I wanted to enjoy one of Russia’s most important celebrations: New Year Celebrations and Orthodox Christmas (7th January). For my first trip and first experience in Russia I wanted to visit a memorable city and I chose St. Petersburg. And there I went. On the 29th of December of 2021 I was flying with Aeroflot from Barcelona to St. Petersburg for 10 days. The dream was becoming true.
What happened during the next days touched my soul forever. St. Petersburg received me with its heart open and in a festive mood with all Christmas lights on and an ambience of happiness and joy. It’s clearly one of the most beautiful cities in Europe with a very interesting mix of architectural styles from Baroque to Neoclassical and of course Soviet! Every street, every corner, every courtyard hides some treasure and it’s easy to spend days just enjoying the pleasure of walking on majestic avenues (Nevsky is unforgettable and it’s a pleasure to walk even if we had freezing -18c and there was so much snow and even ice), there are beautiful monuments and palaces everywhere (Palace Square is one of the most impressive places you can imagine), churches and cathedrals are breath-taking and you will always feel surrounded by warm and welcoming people everywhere.
Yes, this was the first stereotype of many that faded away during those days. Russians are in fact kind and warm. Of course, some social interactions are different to Western Europe, but thanks to Irina I knew well how to interact correctly. I found myself making new friends, having interesting conversations and discovering highly educated and interesting people almost everywhere. Being surrounded by Russian speakers everywhere was a booster for my brain. During the first hours I had some cognitive overload, and I didn’t understand anything. I felt like a Martian! So there was my challenge: From now onwards I had to listen, read and (try to) speak in Russian day and night. Due to the pandemic and because I travelled in winter there were almost no foreigners, and this was my golden opportunity to switch my brain to “All Russian”. But after a couple of days, something clicked on my brain and suddenly, I could start to understand conversations on the cafes or even when waiting at a traffic light to cross the street. I started to be able to quickly read ads and signs on the streets and I was even able to perform normal life activities like shopping groceries or ordering at restaurants or using public transport. At some point I was even understanding jokes from my Russian friends and even telling them jokes too! From a language perspective this was a wonderful experience even if my Russian level is still elementary.
The following days were a gift for my senses. Russian people are very interested in culture and St. Petersburg is a vibrant city when it comes to cultural activities. I enjoyed a beautiful End of Year performance of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker at the Marynskii Theatre (is there a better way to end a year?) and delighted my soul at the Hermitage and Faberge museums where I spent many hours. I visited Dostoyevsky’s home and grave (placed in the same cemetery where Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Glinka and other masters are buried) and visited plenty of contemporary art expositions and even street art. There’s art everywhere, no matter what discipline or style you like.
Coming from a country like Spain where gastronomy is religion, I was very interested in discovering what the gastronomic scene would be in Russia. Again, another stereotype (how do Russians eat?) to forget. In Russia you will eat very well and you will eat anything you want. Of course, I focused on Russian cuisine and enjoyed many of my favourite dishes: Borsch, Schi, Olivier Salad, Shuba, Pelmeni, Kotlety and many others and the jewel of the crown: Caviar. Possibilities are endless and I also had the chance to try among others fusion cuisine, Asian, Georgian, Sushi, Italian and even McDonalds! I’m a winter sport lover and although I could not enjoy this time the ski resorts near St. Petersburg due to time constraints, I brought with me my ice hockey skates and enjoyed many memorable sessions of outdoor ice skating in natural ice rinks across the city. As you may imagine, enjoying ice skating on natural ice while snowing is quite a unique experience. Winter is magic in St. Petersburg and definitely Russians now how to enjoy that season.
The time to come back arrived and unfortunately, I had to leave St. Petersburg and Russia with a heavy heart. These days really touched me and helped me see many things from a different angle and discover a wonderful country. But there’s still much more to discover, this is just the beginning of my journey. Russia, I’m coming back to you soon! The real and true Russia and its people are in many ways a gift for the soul.
Kalinka Russian Language School, Dublin, Ireland
Mob 085 8106793