Last weekend (yeah, I know, it took me a while to sit down and write) I was invited to visit my friend Oksana's family in Kingisepp. Kingisepp is a small town to the south west of St. Petersburg. It's not very far away, only about two hours by bus. It's a historic town, but not a site of much historical tourism, because the historic fortress (крепость) in Kingisepp was destroyed hundreds of years ago, and what used to be the fortress walls are now just strikingly shaped hills in an attractive park.
In fact, I would say that the town is mostly attractive parks. This was a big plus last weekend, as it was right before the current cold snap (it is literally freezing - 34 degrees F) and sunny: in other words, perfect for seeing autumn leaves. In Russian they call the time when the leaves are changing color золотая осень (lit. golden autumn) because all the trees are turning gold. Everyone says that Pushkin has a particularly good golden autumn, but it's been difficult to tell, because it's cloudy all the time and that makes everything look more dismal than it would otherwise. Not so last weekend in Kingisepp - the sky was clear, the sun illuminating the golden leaves on the trees, which in turn contrasted with the bright blue sky.
Oksana's parents grow a lot of their own food, and so almost everything I ate was delicious. Home-grown grapes, home-grown tomatoes and cucumbers, home-grown apples, borshch made from home-grown beets. Oksana's mother also made сырники, one of my favorite Russian foods (they're essentially sweet-cheese fritters) - it was a real treat.
As usual I was peppered with questions all weekend about the differences between Russia and America. People keep asking me to "describe Americans" or "describe the difference between Russians and Americans", and the more I think about that task, the less I have to say. Americans are so different. I can think of huge variety even within the narrow world of my friends; there are in turn chasms of variety between that world and the rest of America. That's something that I think is good about America: people are so varied. But it also makes me uncomfortable every time a Russian wants me to explain Americans to them. I've been trying to explain that I don't think it's my place to explain Americans. I can explain myself, and speak to my own personal experience, but I would not want any Russian I speak with to assume that all Americans are just like me, or that all American culture is exactly as I perceive it. One of Oksana's friends from high school kept asking me about differences between Americans and Russians, and about my opinions on particular American things, and I kept not really having opinions or having examples for her, and she kept assuming that the reason I didn't have more to say was because I was having trouble speaking Russian. I wasn't. I just didn't have the kinds of strong judgmental views on all people that she seemed to think I ought to have had.
Overall, though, I would say I had a better time in Kingisepp than I have had anywhere else here so far. It was just so peaceful, so idyllic. Oksana's house is next to a beautiful river, the Luga, and there is a little footbridge that goes over the river. She said that in the summer you can swim in the river and it's quite pleasant. People were fishing on the bridge when we went to walk Oksana's dog.
Oh right - this dog was also a significant reason why I had such a nice time in Kingisepp. His name is Ritchie and I took way too many pictures of him (some of which will be forthcoming). He was full of energy and love and it was so nice to cuddle with a cute dog. Scenery, good food, a cute dog, and a more comfortable bed than the one I've been sleeping on in my dormitory.
I continue to be impressed with Russian hospitality. People are extremely hospitable. That was evident my second night in Pushkin when some students (including Oksana) who I had only just met that day fed me a full dinner when I was having a difficult time getting settled. It was also evident in the huge amount of food Oksana's parents sent me home with. Apple juice (homemade, of course), apples, homemade jam, homemade pickled peppers, a squash, tomatoes, onions, and carrots. I was offered more (beets, cucumbers, other home-canned goods), but couldn't think what I would do with all of it during the week and so declined some of my potential spoils. But I must say, I am extremely grateful for the food I did take back with me - the squash and carrots were turned into lovely vegetable pancakes, and the jam went very well on some American-style buttermilk pancakes I made for Oksana and another friend, Natasha, to thank them for all the times they've fed me in the past three weeks.