For most tourists, the sights of St. Petersburg are limited to a vacation. But IU-Bloomington graduate Ingrid Nelson wanted more. She initially came to Russia for a study abroad program. Nelson loved that experience so much, she told her parents that was not enough.
"When I said, I'm moving to Russia, they were like excuse me? You're what? Are you sure? Do you have to?" said Nelson.
Nelson moved to St. Petersburg in 2012 to teach English and fell in love with the city.
"It's so beautiful. The architecture is beautiful. The literature is beautiful. The language is rich and beautiful and interesting," said Nelson. "I'm never bored here. Every day there is a new challenge. Every day there is a new adventure. And, I just love it," said Nelson.
"There's just something in me that loves it. It's fascinating. It's mysterious. It's really old, ancient culture. And, it's really interesting every day," said Nelson.
We chatted outside Russia's world famous Hermitage museum.
The former state residence of the Russian emperors is familiar ground to this Hoosier.
"There's over 3 million pieces in the Hermitage which is really cool. It's a collection from all over the world. And, it was mostly collected from Catherine the Great. She decided she wasn't going to travel. She was going to bring the world to her," said Nelson. "I'm amazed at how beautiful the architecture is. It's overpowering. It's physically really large. It's also really intricate and beautiful. There are these giant columns. The ceilings are all painted."
Nelson says St. Petersburg is magical at night and during the day.
"Living in Indiana, we have natural light patterns. But here, in the winter it's super dark and in the summer, it's super light. It's a land of extremes," said Nelson. "A big part of what makes it beautiful is the canals and the rivers.
"You can walk in any part of the city, down a canal or down a street and there's history everywhere. It's a very historic place but it's also incredibly gorgeous to see. You're on the embankment and you look over the bridge or a beautiful river and all these historic buildings," said Nelson.
Nelson says there are many students from IU who study abroad in Russia. During our two week trip, we interviewed many Russians who spoke no English. We needed someone to translate hours of interviews. Faculty and students at the IU Bloomington Russian and East European Institute provided the "voices" for many of the Russians we met.
It is that kind of support from the Bloomington campus that Nelson receives thousands of miles away.
"They're interested in Russia. I'm interested in Russia. We share that," said Nelson. "They prepare their students so well to be here, so when you meet up with other Hoosiers in Russia, they're kind of where you are in terms of passion and knowledge which is very cool."
Nelson says her experience on the IU Bloomington campus prepared her well for life in Russia.
"IU's a really big school. You learn how to be independent there. There's support when you need it. But, you also learn to deal with things on your own. In Russia, it's the same. You really need to be independent and to take care of yourself. Had I gone to a smaller school, where I was less independent, I really would have learned to take care of myself. And, that really put me in good stead here," said Nelson.
Nelson says the biggest challenges of living in Russia are the language barrier and different cultural values.
"I have really not met anyone with aggression toward Americans really at all. However, I try to conduct myself in a way that's not particularly obnoxious to Russians. I don't go around and say Americans are so great and Russians are so stupid. I'm respectful to their culture. And when you're respectful to them, they'll be respectful to you," said Nelson.
"(Russians) are incredibly smart. Their language is difficult to speak. It's difficult to understand. They study a lot in school. They go to school six days a week after they're in fifth grade. They're really smart and they're not afraid to work," said Nelson. "But some things don't make sense to me. For example, when you go to a restaurant and try to pay, they won't accept your money because the bill is too large. I'm trying to pay for something that you did for me and you are angry at me because I don't have exact change for you. I don't understand things like that," said Nelson.
"I really do love Russia. I really do love the Russians quite a lot. I find something in them that we lack in western culture, a real appreciation and a love for not only beauty," said Nelson.
"They're very fatalistic and sometimes, that's a good thing. Sometimes you need to say, this is how things are. So, I really find in them - a Russian will say there are times when you need to stop talking and look out across the embankment across the river. And, I love that. I think that's really cool. I think western culture can sometimes forget about that kind of ourselves. That kind of humanity. Russians don't," said Nelson.
"What's interesting is how people who are so smart and so hardworking, still have trouble interacting with western culture, with western ideas of economics. I don't understand why that happens because I don't see why it should," said Nelson.
The IU grad admits she came to Russia with stereotypes that changed.
"I thought Russians were really rude people. That they were harsh and rude and cold people. In some ways, that's true. If you don't know someone on the street, they can be incredibly blunt and they can brush off people around them. However, when you are friends with a Russian, their depth of caring about you is really amazing," said Nelson.
"They really love their friends. They will do anything for their friends in a way, that I'm not sure American culture would. Even if you get to know someone," said Nelson.
"I work near a metro stop and I go three times a week. I tutor an 11-year-old girl. I go very often. I always buy a bottle of water and a Twix (candy) bar on my way to her class. There's a little kiosk near the metro. And, I go to the same one three times a week. After a few weeks, I notice it's the same woman. She always asks me, do you want the small Twix or the large. I always want the large because I love candy. So, eventually she made conversation with me. You always want the large Twix. She's so nice and friendly. It took breaking down the initial wall someone I don't know. Once she got to know me, now we all make conversation. She's really nice. You've got to get past that initial wall," said Nelson.
The sights most tourists only get a glimpse of are now the spectacular daily reminders of a new life for a young woman schooled in Indiana.
The IU students who study abroad in St Petersburg live with a Russian host family. They visit museums, learn how to cook Russian food and attend the ballet. They have field trips to Moscow and Ukraine.