Whales. Warmth. And Coffee. (What Everyone Needs Sometimes)


a courtyard of the Bobrinsky Palace where my school—Smolny Institute at St. Petersburg State University is located

This past week has been overwhelming, but I survived my first week of actual school (not just Russian language intensive) in St. Petersburg, Russia. In addition to my Russian as a Second Language Classes, I’m also taking two academic classes—a Soviet music history class in English and an acting class in Russian.

To be honest, the past week has been difficult. It’s hard to hang out with your friends from language intensive when you all suddenly have different class schedules. There’s juggling the desire to go out and explore the city vs. studying for your academic classes is difficult. And finally just figuring out how to have independence and still respect my host mother (who I still think is incredible) and her house rules has suddenly become rather challenging.

As a person who constantly struggles with perfectionism and the desire to always exceed expectations of others, it’s been really difficult to let myself have downtime. There is this constant pressure I feel from my program, my peers, and from myself to always be going and always be doing.

And, as my host mother constantly says, “Почему нет?” (Why Not?)

St. Petersburg is, after all, amazing. The art, the culture, the history, the music, the architecture. There’s just so much, and I pinch myself constantly because I am so lucky to be here. I just want to be able experience everything. But I also realized, if I’m not careful—I’m going to burn out.


St Petersburg from the view of the rooftop of the W Hotel

So this week, I made time for some self-care:

Every day on the metro, I listen to music—only songs that leave me excited and give me the confidence to face the day while blocking out the humdrum around me. It’s a slightly embarrassing playlist ranging from Taylor Swift to Rihanna to Beyonce to Mitski (honestly not my usual), but they leave me feeling good about myself and my life. (Also I just *might* be prepping for going out to a karaoke bar?)

After class, I went on a solo trip to the St Petersburg Botanical Gardens which was so nice and so peaceful. It made me a little homesick seeing wild roses and thimble berries—all the plants from home. The rose garden in particular was so beautiful, and it was incredibly meditative to just stop, smell the roses, and feel myself just grounded in my senses. Then, after walking through the gardens, I spent nearly two hours sitting on a bench in the park across from an old tree with long extended branches just begging to be climbed watching elderly couples and mothers with strollers walk up and down the park paths.

a wonderful smelling rose from St Petersburg Botanical Gardens

Today I went to a little café with a friend called Whales, Warmth, and Coffee—a teeny hole-in-the-wall with quirky whale puzzles and a cheerful owner who spoke to us in broken “Runglish” and offered us free ice cream with honey. It was also interesting because this café was in a completely different part of St. Petersburg that definitely had more of a “town” feel rather than city and reminded me a lot of Boston (city of my soul). People were friendly and cheerful, and I even struck up an impromptu conversation with the policeman who scanned my bag before entering the metro.

Thus, I suppose the biggest thing I learned this week is—your study abroad experience is not only what you make it to be but also be what you need it to be. It’s so good to push yourself and end up improvising scenes in a Russian based on spray cans and scary parents or on a random marshrutka hoping that you are not going to end up two hours south in Gatchina on accident. But it’s also good to take a morning to sleep in or stroll in a park or go to a coffee shop in a totally different part of town or just strike up chats with strangers. The unique part about study abroad is that you’re not just a tourist, you’re actually living there.

Make time to let yourself live