It has always surprised me how much faster time flies when you step back from your everyday routine, leave your comfort zone or, even more radically, turn your life in a new direction, drastically changing it from what it had been like before. It has almost been half a year since I took off from St Petersburg and land six hours later in Edinburgh with St Andrews as my final destination. Although it was unusually courageous of me, I’ve never felt the slightest bit of regret ever since. Did St Andrews live up to my expectations? I cannot say. It was pretty much of a spontaneous, last minute decision so it didn’t have a chance to develop into a well-planned fulfilment of a long lasting pursuit of education abroad that is so deeply rooted in the heads of my Russian peers. So a blank room in halls remained in my mind with almost no expectations until I actually made it here. How great my excitement was then! Being free from the stiff framework of expectations I was a part of and the chance to fully enjoy a deep cultural difference lay in wait, several thousands of miles away from my home. Despite the general sense of overwhelming novelty, there was a couple of things that appeared to be pretty shocking.
You may often hear from Russians that people abroad are ‘surprisingly helpful’ or ‘always polite’ and the most common one that ‘they’re always smiling to strangers’. Although I consider myself patriotic and a great fan of my country I was not an exception to this disappointing rule. The first two or three weeks, which I think is quite a long time in this context, I couldn’t get rid of the similar thoughts. It was only approaching the mid semester when I finally got used to smile back without hearing that annoying voice in my head forcing me to turn over all the names I could possibly know and to remember where on earth I might have met this person. After the Christmas break, though, I managed to tackle a second wave of discomfort in smiling relatively quickly, just a couple of days and I was back into the St Andrean atmosphere.
Another thing that drew my attention was constant road works. It seems like the last thing that would catch one’s eye when being exposed to a totally and utterly different culture where there is a whole bunch of peculiarities far more worthy of noticing. But still, road works. Why would a small town need such a great deal of road works? Streets do not deserve to be dug up and down just because of a one miserable pit. Such a trifle has never bothered authorities in Russia, even though turning into a pain in the neck for the rest of the population ages ago. I am pretty sure that many of you have heard about the phenomenon of Russian roads: the term ‘road’ is often referred just to the place we are going to drive through, no matter if it even has asphalt or not. I am not being mean to my country now, most likely it just does not want to lose the attribute it is most famous for. And the matter is not as much about the road works themselves as about the attitude.
Enough for the differences though. It still seems to me that the weather is the sole common feature, except for the divine part of the name that unites St Andrews and St Petersburg. After being thrown into another world with its own habits and traditions so strikingly distinct from my native ones, weather was kind of a relief. My wardrobe, full of raincoats and jackets, almost entirely travelled with me without suffering any significant changes. In St Petersburg an umbrella appears to remain a fashionable accessory throughout all four seasons. It didn’t lose much of its status after moving here and still occupies its rightful place in my bag along with books and other stationery invariably ready for some unexpected dramatic climate changes as it always did.
Anyway, the main difference is probably in the emotions that the place evokes. It might sound too subjective, but after having walked along the beach a couple of days ago I managed to generate a principle that changes the mood and inner state when I’m here and back home: St Petersburg gives me inspiration to think, meditate and dream while St Andrews encourages me to act and make those dreams a reality, which makes this period of my life such an unforgettable experience that I can live in these two cities, so obviously distinct and yet so perfectly complimenting each other.