Weyburn student Ashley Koszman learned a lot and very much enjoyed her 10-month stay in Siberia as an out-bound Rotary exchange student, and would recommend to any student to take part in the program if they possibly can.
She left Canada on Oct. 18 and came back home on July 29, just in time to make an appearance at the Rotary reunion supper event held for the City of Weyburn’s centennial on Thursday evening at the Legion Hall.
In an interview, the 19-year-old Comp graduate shared some of her observations and experiences in the city of Biysk.
Ashley had three host families altogether, and found she related to the first family the best as they had two daughters, aged 12 and 16, with whom she enjoyed spending time. They helped her learn the Russian language and culture (as all the host families and friends at school did).
“I liked my host sisters from the first family the best; it was easy to connect with them. We were always doing something fun like making pizza or going for a walk,” she said.
At first, the language was a definite challenge, chuckling as she noted her host father would call her to supper by rubbing his tummy while saying it was time to eat. By the time she left, Ashley said she was doing well with Russian and could carry on a conversation in that language.
While a graduate from school here, she was placed in the equivalent of Grade 10 in Biysk, as that grade took subjects of the same level as Grade 12 in Weyburn.
Of the subjects she took in school, her favourite was gymnasium, which Ashley noted is optional for students. Most of the girls in her class didn’t take part, except for three others; the others most sat on the bench and watched as the class played volleyball, basketball, track and badminton.
There was a class where English was taught, but it was British-style English, so they sometimes took issue with the way she spoke as it wasn’t the same as what they were being taught. Initially, there was only one student in her class who could speak English, while those who became her friends helped her as she learned how to speak Russian.
One interesting course, she thought, was one called “Safety”, in which they learned what to do in an emergency, or if they found someone lying on the street with a medical problem.
At the end of the year, the school’s version of prom or graduation was a ceremony called “The Last Bell”.
“The girls don’t wear gowns, they wear something that looks like a maid’s outfit, and the boys wore nice suits with a red sash with the words ‘Last Bell’ on them,” explained Ashley.
Over the course of her 10-month stay, Ashley found some cultural differences in things like food, holidays and superstitions that were quite interesting.
One is the holiday known as Ivan Kupala Day, in which people will pull pranks such as throwing water on each other. Historically it is drawn from the story of John (Ivan) the Baptist who baptized by placing people in full immersion under water as they professed the Christian faith; this has devolved into a prank-filled fun festivity.
Ashley also noted on International Women’s Day, girls and women were often given chocolates and/or flowers in appreciation, and she herself received flowers from her host dad.
There is no Christmas as such, she explained, but the celebration at New Year’s sort of includes the Christmas tradition.
“You have to stay up past midnight, have a big meal and give each other presents. We had a real Christmas tree, as we went into the forest to cut it down. It was up for about two weeks,” said Ashley.
When Canada Day arrived on July 1, Ashley related a humourous experience with her host family. Her host mom went out to buy an imported bottle of Canadian maple syrup; initially, Ashley thought she was buying her a bottle of vodka. When presented with the maple syrup, her host mom thought she was supposed to drink it; chuckling at that, she noted she did show her hosts the proper use for the syrup.
The winter there, meanwhile, was brutal compared to what she left behind in Weyburn, especially in December when there was a cold snap with the temperatures ranging from -45 to -56.
“Nobody moved out of their houses on these days. If the temperature goes below -30, it’s not recommended that you go to school,” said Ashley, noting the teachers had to be at the school anyway as some children would still show up.
Another major difference came when there was a heavy snowfall; the city does not clean off any of the streets, as it’s up to the residents to shovel out their driveways and streets as well, and with a smile, Ashley noted she spent time shovelling and helping out her host families.
Food-wise, there were many different dishes she was able to try out and enjoy.
One is called pyrock, a form of pie which starts with cheese and dough; boiled egg is shredded into it, and then cheese and egg is put in on top.
“It was really tasty,” said Ashley, also liking a dish called palmini, which is like a large perogy but with meat inside.
“They have perogies also, but they’re better when they’re home-made,” she said, adding they also had a fish soup, using river fish, with the entire fish cut up and put into the soup.
“They eat a lot of raw fish too. They peel the skin off and eat it raw, and they love raw bacon,” she said, wrinkling up her nose, adding they never cook it.
Another dish she enjoyed was called shuklik, which is sort of shishkabob with a large piece of meat cooked over a fire (they apparently don’t have barbecues), and then there was the Russian version of pizza.
“They have dough and put a layer of mayonnaise on it, then things like cheese and another layer of mayo, they put on meat, and they put sour cream on top,” she said, adding, “It’s not very tasty.”
She noted she later made her hosts pizza “the way it should be made”, and they liked it very much. Other dishes she made for them included apple crisp, mac-and-cheese, and grilled cheese sandwiches.
One cultural oddity that puzzled her was how much stock they put into superstitions.
For example, said Ashley, if you wipe crumbs off a table with your hand, it means the family won’t have money; similarly one does not put their bag (or purse) on the ground, or you will go broke.
While her host family had no TV, there was a lot of western media influence there, which Ashley thinks may have led to a comment from her host father shortly before she left for home: “Please tell people in Canada, Russia is not a bad place. The U.S. makes Russia look like a dangerous place, but it’s really not a bad place,” she said.
Ashley did some travelling while in Russia, once with her host family to the northern part of Mongolia, and then with 18 other Rotary exchange students she visited Moscow for three days, and St. Petersburg for five days.
She didn’t really like Moscow very much, but enjoyed seeing the old European historical buildings in St. Petersburg.
Asked if she would recommend going on a Rotary student exchange program, Ashley enthusiastically said she would highly recommend it; as to whether she would return to Siberia to visit, she noted with a smile she promised her friend she’d be back to visit within a couple of years.
“I’d love to go back to live there, but I think it would be too hard for me,” said Ashley.