The Christmas market in MoscowValeria Giannaris @valeriagiannaris

The year abroad is a weird thing. I’ve described it variously as stupid, amazing, and exhausting, often in one breath. To say that my time abroad in St Petersburg so far has been a rollercoaster would be an understatement; I barely recognise myself, five months in.

Aptly, this article comes to you from three different versions of myself. Me, on the train on the way back from a weekend in Moscow, when I was three and a half months (give or take) into my stint in Russia, beginning to push the longest amount of time I’d spent away from home. I wasn’t homesick but I was definitely feeling the pressure of not having had any downtime for a while. The second was during a revision of my draft after spending New Year at home; the third on my return to the city once more. Despite the time difference, it’s interesting how little my impressions have changed.

"Even my time here feels disjointed; all of these memories feel almost like they belong to a different person"

Strange disclaimer: so far, I have no nostalgia for those first few months abroad. Absolutely none. This is bizarre if my memories of first and second year are anything to go by, but it is likely in part due to the overwhelming mundanity of my life there. I was the same procrastination-prone individual as I am anywhere, making terrible relationship decisions, going grocery shopping and doing my laundry — just in Russian and with a more interesting backdrop. If you were the unfortunate subject of my harried messages, you’ve probably heard all of my woes. I imagine they’re fairly universal: flat walls too thin to mask sound, meaning your sleep cycle and music tastes intersect interestingly with those of your flatmates; snowshoes that permanently alter the shape of your feet; the achingly awkward three-hour time difference from home.

On returning to college in January to reconnect with friends, I barely scratched the surface of the numerous experiences that form the highlight reel of the last five months. The biggest was undoubtedly Christmas, spent with various Europeans in a remote cottage outside of Murmansk, where the sun wouldn’t go up for another month. From that, snapshots emerge: trekking through hip-deep snow with three icons shoved down my trousers; pulling together a fry-up on Christmas Day with the only other Brit there; snow-diving after being in the banja, the traditional woollen caps itchy on our heads.

"You don’t know yourself—or others around you—until you get into these kinds of situations"

The best part of the year abroad is undoubtedly these spontaneous interactions that could have happened anywhere but take on a strangely particular feeling when they happen somewhere so unfamiliar: creating a fake husband with a friend while dancing, acting like exuberant middle-aged women at a wedding reception (cries of “hold my spritzer, Derek!” could no doubt be heard down Dobrolyubova that night); sharing more bowls of borscht and cheesecake-flavoured cocktails than I can count with the second-greatest Alex in the city; reading ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ in translation aloud to a new, half-Russian German friend as she corrected my pronunciation. Among the less cultural experiences were the moments I cried to this new friend about the Russian edits of the Marauders fanfiction I read—I can’t be proud of everything I did—yet they are what I remember of St Petersburg. Stranger moments too feature as strong memories; seeing a Championship League match in the flesh and attending a virtual funeral over YouTube at 1AM on a Saturday (unrelated events) are strong contenders. I did say this was a rollercoaster.


Mountain View

The year abroad: a lesson in resilience

All of this to say, I have a strangely unsettled sense of this year and how to fit it into my degree. Even my time here feels disjointed; all of these memories feel almost like they belong to a different person, now that we’re on the other side of the New Year. Disappearing to the Arctic Circle for the festive period was the right decision, as was my subsequent break at home; it’s my return to the city that is proving difficult to compute. I can’t help but think back to the MML finalist that warned me, a month or so before the end of my second year, that MML isn’t a proper four-year degree. It’s two normal years followed by a year out in the real world, and then a final academic stint tacked onto the end. This made the final few weeks of second year all the more special, and perhaps I’ll look back on the remixes of my music and that of my current flatmate-cum-roommate—given the thin cardboard walls separating living spaces in our Soviet flat—with similar nostalgia, once we can’t overhear one another’s conversations and don’t have to deal with the resulting cacophony of our simultaneous morning routines.

Though I can’t deny I’m excited to get back to college—the thought of the Fitz café and some more sound-proofing in the rooms is a comforting one—four months in St Petersburg has already been a more varied experience than I ever had before, harder and more fun than it has any right to be. It’s proven to me that there’s life outside of Cambridge, if I was in any doubt. It’s also shown me that you don’t know yourself—or others around you—until you get into these kinds of situations. You may find you’re a completely different person, to the surprise of old friends. Or, who knows? It might just be yourself that you end up surprising.