Plymouth, N.H. Through Russian Eyes

by Sydney Kahl / Apr 08, 2013 / 0 comments

Four visitors from Arkhangelsk, Russia coming for a cultural exchange - one high school teacher, Olga Pravilova, and three of her best students - gave us a fresh appreciation for our Plymouth community. By sharing and comparing perspectives about school life, holiday celebrations, and other impressions from their first visit to the U.S., they helped my family and other students who interacted with them to see our town and country through new eyes. 


Before departing Russia, Olga Googled the town of Plymouth, N.H., and wondered what they would experience in such a rural area. Arkhangelsk is a city of more than 300,000 on the Northern Dvina River near the White Sea in northwestern Russia. It was like the White Sea meeting the White Mountains of N.H.  


The Russian group hadn’t needed to worry about finding things to do; the agenda for their time in Plymouth was packed. The group gave presentations at three surrounding schools. They spent several days attending classes with their host family students and giving presentations in global studies and history classes about their city and culture. The group also visited an environmental science and policy class at the local University (Plymouth State University), where they got to handle an ice core containing data about climate change. They toured the PSU campus and had a lively exchange with university students who showed off their dorm rooms. Faculty member Sam Miller gave the group an orientation to the meteorological facilities. The Russians also went to basketball games and participated in swing dance lessons at the high school. They had an excursion to the Basin and Flume in Franconia Notch, and they drove on to the Mt. Washington Hotel, where they learned about the history of the place (including stories of friendly ghosts), from a young, animated guide (whose lively style impressed Olga). At the Russians’ request we also made time for shopping; they enjoyed the local grocery store’s made in NH gifts - like maple sugar -  to take home.


December turned out to be a good time to showcase our town; as there were holiday parties, concerts, and plays to attend. At the end of the Russians’ stay, they had a chance to experience urban life by spending a day and night in Boston.


Sonia, Mary Ann, Lera, and Sydney in Franconia Notch

Sonia, Mary Ann, Lera, and Sydney in Franconia Notch


Shopping trip

Our guests go on a shopping trip


The timing of their visit prompted us to learn how Russian and US holiday traditions differ. Instead of Santa Claus, Russians have Father Frost who is helped not by elves, but his granddaughter the Snow Maiden. You can recognize Father Frost because his white beard is longer than Santa’s, and Father Frost wears a heel-length fur coat, the traditional valenki (felt boots worn in winter), and he often has a long magical staff. His granddaughter helper, Snegurochka, wears a long silver-blue robe. December 25th is not Christmas for our Russian guests; instead Father Frost brings presents to children in person at New Year’s Eve parties and celebrations. (Of course, this is partly explained by the fact that the tradition of Christmas, along with other Christian celebrations, was banned in the Soviet Union era.) Watch for Snegurochka, the snow maiden, to appear as a mascot for the XXII winter Olympics to be held in Sochi, Russia.


Lera and Sydney at a local performance of “The Nutcracker”

Lera and Sydney at a local performance of “The Nutcracker”


We compared December temperatures in Plymouth and Arkhangelsk, both being located in northern latitudes. Arkhangelsk is at latitude 64o, just 2 degrees from the Arctic Circle, while Plymouth is at 44o. The 20o makes a difference. The record low for Arkhangelsk is –49oC (-56.2oF), and for Plymouth -35oF (-37oC). The exchange students returned to Arkhangelsk to unusually cold temperatures, close to -30 degrees Celsius (-22oF). Because of the extremely cold temperatures, they had no school and were disappointed, as they were eager to share their stories of their first visit to the U.S. with their classmates. 


In addition to contrasting holidays and air temperatures, we also learned about educational differences. In School 21 (the schools all have numbers instead of names), all but the oldest students wear uniforms. The Russians attend school on Saturdays, although their school year is about the same length; they start in September and end in May, with exams in June. There are 4 terms, with vacations in between - one week in November, two weeks in January, one week in the end of March and almost 3 months in summer. Students start school at age 6 or 7 in Russia and finish at age 16 or 17. Lera, Nikita, and Sonia, our three visiting high school students, are all in their last year of school. As the Plymouth students learned, “applying” to college is very different for the students in Russia, where everything is based on exam scores. There are no essays to write or recommendations to send. Higher education used to be covered by the government in Russia, although the number of all-expense paid slots is shrinking each year. Still, even for those who pay, the cost for higher education in the public universities for those who are admitted is much less than for our students attending four year public institutions. Tuition for a year of university in Russia ranges from $2,000 to $4,000.


The Russian exchange students to Plymouth enjoyed getting to know their host families. Olga and Lera stayed with my family. Getting to know the other host families was one of the unanticipated rewards. We all believe in expanding our global awareness. Our guests commented on how we all lived in “detached” houses; they all live in flats in high rise buildings, although many Russians have dachas (small, wooden houses) in the countryside, where they grow vegetables. Growing or buying local food is emphasized more and more in Plymouth these days, but for the Russians, their gardens have been an essential source of food for generations. As Olga explained, having a chance to work the earth and spend time outside seems all the more important when one lives in an apartment most of the year. Our guests also enjoyed and commented about the wildlife in Plymouth - the numerous, bold squirrels in our yard for example, absent from their city, which we of course take for granted.  We hoped a black bear or raccoon would make an appearance during their stay, as they have been known to do.


On their departure, we learned about a unique custom, one we would be wise to adopt. With their coats on, the group sat down in the front hall of our home for a moment of silent reflection. They explained the purpose was to pause before rushing out the door, to collect one’s thoughts before the next adventure, and consider if any personal items have been left behind.


Students and host families after the high school holiday concert

Students and host families after the high school holiday concert


There wasn’t one single event that made the Russians’ visit significant or memorable; it was all the cumulative interactions - including preparing and sharing meals in our homes. Olga even arranged my hair for the high school winter concert. By living with us, the Russians learned firsthand about our customs, beliefs, hobbies, and cuisine - and through photos and stories they shared their culture with us. Now our lives are intertwined. We are continuing our interactions via Facebook and email. We are hoping to plan future visits with students from Plymouth to visit Arkhangelsk and re-connect with our now lifelong friends.





Sydney Kahl is a member of the Youth Travel Blogging Mentorship Program


All photos courtesy and copyright Sydney Kahl