I’ve always been very good at keeping my expectations in check, especially when traveling to a place that is completely new. For Russia, it was a bit harder because in the weeks beforehand, we heard the stories and saw pictures from past trips. Things did work out a bit differently for the 2020 study abroad cohort, but despite the challenging circumstances globally, the trip completely surpassed my expectations. With one notable exception, we were able to see and do everything on our itinerary, along with all of the unplanned experiences that will never be forgotten.
The train ride to St. Petersburg was just under four hours, spent in a luxurious, modern space. It was an ideal time to rest after the hectic pace of Moscow, catch up on journaling, and start to process the feelings and emotions of our journey. But by the time the train pulled into the station, we were more than ready to start the next adventure. We were prepared for the long walk from the train to the hostel with all our luggage, but hearing about it is different from doing it, and we all grumbled a bit. The light drizzle and dark clouds didn’t help, but we were distracted by the sights and people walking by.
For people who have never experienced a hostel, it can be an intimidating word. Is it a hotel? Is it clean? Is it safe? I can say now with experience that the hostels I have stayed in are extremely safe, and most are clean and beautiful. The idea is you are staying with fellow travelers in a new place, and hostels are a safe haven and a way to connect with others. For us in our large group, it was a lot harder to do that. But Soul Kitchen Hostel is a gorgeous, welcoming environment in the midst of the large city of St. Petersburg. The kitchen is stocked with shared essentials if you need to cook. Every morning the coffee is freshly brewed, tea and hot chocolate are available, and there is even delicious apple cake set out for guests to enjoy. Typically, you would choose a room based on the size of your traveling party, and if you were comfortable, pay less to be in a room with other guests. In some hostels there can be over 10 people in a dormitory style in bunk beds. But Soul Kitchen Hostel was like a glamorous, homey hotel. We were able to request roommates, and I stayed in a triple with friends in the study abroad cohort. I was always grateful to return to the hostel each night and relax after the busy days.
The first full day, we were given an extended walking tour of St. Petersburg to orient ourselves and learn the main streets of the city. We were also told landmarks of how to find Soul Kitchen Hostel. In the afternoon, we got to choose between many options, one of which was going back to take a nap. I resisted, though the rain didn’t help my sleepiness, and instead went with a small group to St. Isaac’s Cathedral. We didn’t go inside, however, instead we went up. It was perfect timing, because after the tour I could actually point out all of the landmarks and historical places from the 360 degree walkway at the top of the cathedral. We saw the streets and waterways making up the heart of St. Petersburg from above. Standing in the air, staring down at the city, pretty sure I could have sat down right there and fallen asleep, I realized that I never want to stop traveling. I promised to never stop finding joy in new places, whether they are an hour from my house or across oceans and continents.
The day didn’t end there. We went to Feel Yourself Russian at the Nikolayevsky Palace for a traditional folk singing and dancing show. There were many laughs and jaws dropped in awe at the dancers’ skills. During intermission, we tried caviar, currant pies, and many other treats. Afterwards, I chose to go with a group to New Holland Island, which has a large ice skating rink. Unfortunately, we arrived with less than an hour left until close, so we decided not to spend the money. Instead we split up for dinner, and I had some of the best sushi ever.
It feels like there are about a million more things I did and experienced during those four days in St. Petersburg, so much I could never tell you in a blog post. But what I can tell you is that travel is never disappointing. Even when things go wrong, or your expectations aren’t met, that doesn’t take away from where you are and the opportunities you have. Though the trip ended with the realization that the corona virus situation was worsening, and most of us would be returning to the US much sooner than expected, we didn’t let the news overshadow the joy we found in Russia.