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Russia and Finland: Comparison of Home Visits in Komarovo and Helsinki

Some Semester at Sea programs give students an opportunity to get away from the hustle and bustle of cities for a different type of cultural experience: a true taste of someone else’s home. An hour outside of St. Petersburg lies the community of Komarovo, where dacha houses (cottages) are sprinkled through the countryside, offering a weekend and summer getaway from the stifling heat of the city proper. Helsinki’s second homes are just the opposite, apartments in old buildings that are used less often than the more sprawling country homes 40km away. In both places, hostesses welcomed lucky students into their homes for an afternoon and evening of local foods and generous amounts of conversation.

Komarovo is located in what used to be Finland… borders between Russia and Finland have been changing location since 1323. However, that’s where the similarities between experiences ended. The traditions of each country were far from each other despite the closeness of their physical location and fact that they used to be part of the same country.

Upon arrival in Komarovo, Russia, we were greeted by Liza, daughter of Katia and Igor, who led a group of eight along a shaded country road past both old and new wooden houses to the plot of land owned by her family. The land, passed on from Liza’s grandmother, Katia’s mother, held two small houses.  The family spends most of their weekends in their country retreat, not just the balmy summer weekends. Holidays and other breaks are spent in what most Americans would consider a cabin, but Liza described it as her home. The friends that Liza has from her childhood are the children of her mother’s friends, who are the children of her grandmother’s friends. Land and homes stay in families, and the generations that have lived in the dachas are all interconnected. No one locks their doors, vegetables are readily shared from gardens and holidays are celebrated with neighbors.

Once all of her visitors had tea, Katia explained the details of the mouthwatering foods around us. Every food offered proved to be just as delicious as it looked, with everyone around the table slowly taking seconds and thirds. Though we were stuffed to the point of bursting, Katia jumped up and declared that we absolutely must have ice cream to stave off the heat of the afternoon, plus the currant jam topping was from her garden. No one refused. As the group hefted themselves out of chairs and traipsed back along the gravel road, thanks were exchanged along with email addresses, and a positive note from our hostess: Russia will be a place you will be able to come back to.

The older, blue house was Liza’s grandmother’s, the new one was built later by Liza’s family with one major difference: insulation.
The front garden near Katia’s mother’s house used to be for growing only what the government deemed necessary, but can now be used to grow whatever one likes.
The table was covered with treats, everything from slightly citrus marshmallows to pirozhki stuffed with ham in one, apples and cinnamon in another. At right, Katia shows off the family photos.
The kitchen and living room of Katia and Igor’s house. The fireplace is key for staying warm on their winter weekends, the hearth decorated with Katia’s mother’s elephant collection.
Katia grabs the concentrated pot of tea from above the hot water spigot, and Kevin McKeon of University of South Florida marvels at the beauty and functionality of the teapot combination.
As all of the delicacies were being explained, Igor was slowly filling every tea cup around the table.
Katia’s china was passed gingerly from hand to hand from Igor to Alexandra Hope, LifeLong Learner, pictured at right admiring Katia’s photos.
Igor listened quietly to the conversations around the table; when it was his turn to share, he talked about his travels to the United States with his job as a geologist.
Katia and Morgan Hoskins of University of Michigan converse about school and careers in the United States and the differences in Russia.
Liza and her darling kitten.
Liza, Igor and Katia bid the bus farewell with warm wishes and hopes for return
Liza, Igor and Katia bid the bus farewell with warm wishes and hopes for return.

Nearly 600 nautical miles and eight days later, the MV Explorer berthed in Helsinki. The laid-back attitudes of the Finns relaxed everyone onboard; students were taking picnics to the beach within sight of the ship, jumping off the pier into the cool Baltic Sea and wandering the downtown fish markets at a slow pace. On the third night in port, nine voyagers embarked on a different dining experience. Split into three groups of no more than four and each group armed a small map with bus directions and an address, the experience was already significantly different than the escape to the countryside outside of St. Petersburg. After stepping off the city bus, our small group of three was met by Maila Klemettinen, a woman who defied what we had been told about the Finnish almost immediately by making small-talk-type introductions as she led us to her city home.

Up four flights of stairs and stepping through a royal blue door, we were led into the entry way and instructed to please remove our shoes before being shown the rest of the apartment. Dinner was accompanied by wonderful conversation among Maila and students Marquette and Melinda about various types of careers, living, traveling and Maila‚Äôs own art career. After dinner, a brief break from the onslaught of food presented itself in a wonderful opportunity: Maila was also hosting an Israeli/German woman in her home, Hagar, who was competing in the Kansainvalinen Mirjam Helin international singing competition. Hagar, a mezzo-soprano opera singer, invited the small group to come to her rehearsal one of Helsinki‚Äôs beautiful music halls, her first chance singing in the hall before the semi-final round. Her company — and private concert of sorts — only enhanced an already amazing experience.

After a culturally and stomach-filling evening, we departed downtown Helsinki at half past eleven, thanking Maila on the way down the stairs and out the door for a truly wonderful meal and the promise of keeping in touch along everyone’s travels.

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Maila led us through the kitchen and out onto the balcony to get a breath of fresh air before hand washing and appetizer making.
Melinda Eatherly of Northcentral University and Marquette Hovan of Ohio University help prepare the first round of the meal: traditional Finnish Karelian pasty, consisting of thin rye crust filled with rice and topped with egg butter and a few pinches of salt. Along with that was a “shaker salad” as Maila called it: peeled cucumbers from her garden shaken with a little bit of salt, dill and a pinch of sugar.
The table set with appetizers. At right, Maila speaks about her home in the countryside where the full bowl of fresh tomatoes came from.
The table set with appetizers. At right, Maila speaks about her home in the countryside, where the full bowl of fresh tomatoes came from.
While we munched on appetizers, potatoes boiled on the small stove to be accompanied by Baltic herring in three varieties: fried, grilled and marinated.
Fresh salad after the main course, as it is traditionally served in Finland to quell one’s appetite for sweets. Maila shows off pictures of her two daughters, framed forever in the triumphant moment of standing up in the crib for the first time.
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The last part of the meal, a porridge type dish blended with currants, and topped with sugar, milk and more currants.
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At the end of the night with full bellies, we enjoyed one final treat: hot tea.
  • Culture

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