This J-Term I traveled to Saint Petersburg, Russia — a trip that, in large part, left me with more questions than answers. I thought before departing for this trip that I would return not only with a variety of new experiences, but also with new understandings about Saint Petersburg and Russia. While to some extent, this is very true, I have also returned with many more questions and the feeling that I can no longer rely on many of my previous ideas about the world. The questions this trip has raised for me concern not only my ideas about the world, but also ideas about myself and about what “home” means. I found that many of my ideas about invisible boundaries between different countries were just that — ideas of a contrived difference.
Ultimately, spending this month in Russia made me realize that many of the ideas we have about other nations or countries or people are quite arbitrary. Many of the people I met in Russia quickly began to feel like family and Saint Petersburg itself became very much like another home. In this way, I could no longer maintain the feeling of distinction and difference that I had originally arrived with. I began to wonder — what truly distinguishes one country from another? What purpose does creating such distinctions serve? How can we see past this world of difference, both to find a shared humanity and to create meaningful connections with people? These are some of the many questions I now pose to myself and hope to reflect on further.
If there is one main takeaway I have had from this trip, however, it has not been these questions. Rather, it has been the fact that being in Saint Petersburg was, for me, not just a learning experience, but also a very personal and emotional experience. Reflecting upon my time in the city, I found that, oddly enough, nothing touched me so deeply as all these otherwise insignificant moments — spending time with our buddies laughing over silly jokes; bonding over a common love of music; doing bad song impressions during karaoke and dancing late nights at clubs; exploring back streets and metros and parks; having lunch in the HSE dining hall and sitting down with a plate of hot food; walking outside in the fresh, cold air and feeling the wind in our faces; enjoying quiet moments over dinner in hotel restaurants; talking about our lives and politics over tea and cards in underground hookah bars; learning new words in Russian and communicating successfully during impromptu trips to Georgian cafes; hearing about Uzbekistan and the other home countries of people who moved to St Petersburg; taking late walks at night and getting ice cream from grocery stores; watching as the pale sun would rise every morning on the walk to school; writing poems in hotel lobbies; feeling free and welcome and at home in a place so far from everything we know; finding that some things, like love, exist everywhere; finding that some things are common, are human.
Yet, in some ways, Saint Petersburg remains a contradiction, an enigma. I can hardly say I know this city, and even less so Russia. Perhaps the only thing I can say then is this– I am so glad to have had this small glimpse into a world that exists outside of what I previously knew.
I am glad to have found that, for a time, this city was also ours.
Enas Jahangir is a junior here at Smith college, working toward a major in Religion and a minor in Middle East Studies. The second of three sisters, Enas was born in Islamabad, Pakistan, and hasn’t been able to stay in one place since then. With a focus on fostering new experiences, she hopes to use art and poetry as a way to connect with others and build community. As a result of her many interests, she likes to describe herself as both lit and literate. She has never taken Physics.by