I thought I had a handle on some of what defined Russian culture before my time abroad in St. Petersburg, yet a few weeks into my trip I realized I knew far more and far less than I’d guessed.

You can study the individual pieces that make up a culture at your home university- its language, history, religion or art. You might obtain a holistic understanding of, for example, the history of the Finnish people, and apply this knowledge to swaths of life in Finland. However, this familiarity can only be one piece of a larger puzzle.

I had read all Russian literature that I could get my hands on for years, worked at unlocking the Russian language since high school, and held a fascination with all eras of Russian history since I can remember. Yet, now finally the experiencing and participating in Russian life for the first time, I’m astounded by just how much takes me by surprise. At first, and still at time, I’m taken aback by how familiar certain oddities are, simple… but largely, I’m amazed that for all the familiarity I find, the entire experience is absolutely and definitely “foreign.”

It’s when this familiarity and foreignness coalesce that the core of the experience that is studying abroad comes forth. Customs on public transportation, the small details of family relationships or perhaps the style and function of advertisements may be uncomfortable or unrecognizable at first, but slowly they piece themselves together with bits of information learned previously or picked up along the way until everything simply starts to makes sense.

A culture cannot easily be defined by one of its aspects, nor can its aspects be easily fit together in the abstract. Living and breathing a culture every day, being flooded by its language, eating its food, speaking to its people and seeing its world allows ties to naturally grow and your city or country to feel not just like a place, but its own cultural ecosystem, and for some, a home.

Only a week into my time abroad I realized how natural every new quirk seemed. They weren’t exotic, off-putting or unexpected, but seemed they’d only be strange if they weren’t there. The nature of morning tea with a home-stay family, the brevity or curtness of phone conversations or the sudden hard-and-fast friendships formed didn’t feel like anything new, but something that should have been there from the moment we touched down in Petersburg.