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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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‚Ä¶ borders between Russia and Finland have been changing location since 1323. However, that‚Äôs 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‚Äôs grandmother, Katia‚Äôs 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‚Äôs friends, who are the children of her grandmother‚Äôs 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.
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.