I wanted to wait a couple of weeks before properly deciding that moving to an apartment has completely changed my Fulbright experience. It's been three weeks since I moved, and I feel confident saying that moving to an apartment has completely changed my Fulbright experience.
It helps that my apartment is really nice, even by American standards. By Russian standards I feel like it's extremely luxurious. It's in a lovely part of Pushkin, about a fifteen or twenty minute walk from the Catherine Palace and about a half hour walk or 10 minutes on the bus from the university. It's got a great kitchen and I have been baking all sorts of delicious things. I forgot how much I missed regularly baking. I've also been doing a ton of laundry, because the apartment has a washing machine. I can't express how magical it's been to have clean clothes and towels and sheets all the time. Oh, and not having a curfew anymore goes a long way towards making me feel like a functional adult again.
Living in the dorm last semester taught me a lot of useful things about myself. The most important is that, at the end of the day, I'm an introvert, and no matter how much I might want to change that, I can't. I need to have quiet time when I know I will not have to interact with anyone. Even though I didn't have a roommate in the dorm, I never felt like I could guarantee that I wouldn't have to interact with people (in another language!) on any given day/at any given time. It wasn't for the reason you'd think, that I would have to interact with people in shared spaces. No, it was that the dorm staff had no compunctions about coming in to my space to do stuff (like hang new drapes in my room) without giving me any prior notice. Meanwhile my colleagues at the university find it totally normal to ask me to do work-related things at the last minute, and since the dorm was in the same building as the university I felt like I could never say no to last minute requests unless I actually wasn't home. When someone asks "are you around to do this thing?" it's hard to say "Yes I'm around but I wasn't planning on working today so I'm going to continue watching TV on my laptop instead of helping with this thing you're asking about".
I felt like I couldn't even control something as small as my room when I lived in the dorm, and it sapped me of all my energy. I spent so much time lying in bed trying to hide from the world, but also knowing that it was useless because no matter how much I hid I couldn't be sure I wouldn't be disturbed. Somehow hating being at home made it that much harder to go out. Not going out and living in the same building where I worked made me feel like all I was ever doing in Russia was my job, which has its rewarding moments but overall is rather a mixed bag, and is often quite frustrating.
In my apartment, I feel in control, at least of my living space. I can lock my front door and know that I won't have to talk to anyone if I don't want to. I can cook however much I want, at whatever time I want, wearing whatever I want, and I can leave the dishes for later if I want to. I can change my own lightbulbs and do my own laundry. I can keep all my shower stuff in the bathroom. I can keep my toilet paper in the bathroom (yeah, that was a thing in the dorm, the dorm doesn't provide toilet paper so everyone has their own and brings it to the toilet with them).
Feeling like I'm in control, feeling at peace in my apartment, makes it so much easier to deal with all of the things in the rest of my life here that I have no control over. I may have absolutely no control over my schedule, or whether I can travel, or whether people come to my English club. But at least I have control over the space I live in, and when I leave work I get to leave work and not think about it until I have to go back.
It's made me think a bit about Soviet projects that attempted to merge work and life. My university actually dates from the post-Soviet period, but the idea of having a dormitory that is in the same building as the university seems so Soviet to me. The idea is that you would want to have you work/studies be in the same place as your living space, so that you could eliminate time spent traveling to and from work and really focus all your energy on the work itself. My problem with this idea, based on my experience living in the dorm, is that if you don't love your job, feeling like you're supposed to be putting all of your energy into it feels awful. Even if you don't hate your job, if you don't love it with every fiber of your being, feeling like your whole life is just your job can make you miserable.
I've used my move out of the dorm as an opportunity to start doing more stuff that has nothing to do with my job. I'm not over the negative feelings I had towards my host university prior to moving, and so I'm trying to refocus my energy into spending more time on things that have nothing to do with the university. I found two cool breweries in St. Petersburg that make great craft beer, I'm looking to get involved at Pushkinskaya-10 (the art center I volunteered at when I was studying abroad in St. Petersburg) again, and I'm trying to schedule more social time with friends, both friends from the university and other friends I've made. I might even go to a capoeira class with one of my Russian friends!
I decided to write this post because I wanted to get a little positivity onto this blog after some really dark moments in December and January. My friend & fellow Fulbrighter Vickie visited me in January right before we went to the mid-year conference, while it was hovering around 0˚F and there was no heat in my room. She and I talked a lot about how depressed I was feeling at the time, and she told me that she really hoped that those days between getting back from spending the holidays at home in the U.S. and going to our mid-year conference would be the lowest point during my Fulbright year. Now that my living situation has improved, I'm cautiously optimistic that her hope will prove true, and that my lowest point is behind me. I've had a good sign pointing towards this in the form of at least five different people between my friends & family, both here and back home, telling me since I moved that I seem much, much happier. I am.
Note: Title inspiration here.