by Tammy Sakry
For two years, a Ramsey woman has given up life in the United States for a Russian adventure.
Katie Burns, 25, has been living and working in St. Petersburg.
Her adventure started as a college student at Luther College, Decorah, Iowa.
She traveled to Russia as part of the American Council of Teachers of Russian (ACTR) program and she studied in Russia during the 2009–2010 school year, Burns said.
Prior to becoming part of the program, Burns studied the Russian language for two years.
Her interest in the Russian language got started when she met foreign exchange student Valeriya Dinershteyn during the 2004–2005 school year at Anoka High School.
While studying in Russia, Burns said she fell in love with St. Petersburg.
“There is something about the city that just pulls you in,” she said.
“It’s exciting living in a big city. The culture is so different.”
After returning to the United States and finishing college in 2010, Burns decided to return to St. Petersburg.
“I wanted to move back and improve my language skills,” she said.
Burns returned to Russia in 2011 as an English teacher.
But as an English teacher, Burns found that it could be difficult to work on her own language skills, she said.
For the first year, Burns taught mainly teenagers and the rule was that she could not speak any Russian with her students.
“(The school administration) was strict,” she said.
It is a challenge communicating with Russian students using only English, which they are just beginning to learn, Burns said.
During the evening, Burns also taught English to other students at a night school/community education program.
But at the end of the school year, Burns was let go.
The school administration decided to keep only the British teachers, she said.
“The Russians consider American English to be dirty and not real English,” Burns said.
For the summer, Burns traveled to language camps in Sweden and Finland to teach.
After returning to Russia and St. Petersburg this fall, Burns was hired as an au pair/English teacher for a 3-year-old boy.
The family is planning to emigrate from Russia to America, she said.
Burns is also working with private students.
“We never thought Katie would be a world traveler but since she went to college, she has been to the Amazon, Austria as well as Russia,” said father, Tim Burns.
It is amazing to see her grow from someone who preferred to stay close to home to living on her own in a foreign, non-English-speaking country, he said.
“It is just amazing to see her grow and travel to so many countries. It’s amazing where she is going,” Tim Burns said.
But when Katie announced her intention of moving to Russia in 2011, Tim was not sure about the plan.
“I thought she was crazy,” he said.
Katie’s plan was to take her Russian friends up on their invitations to stay at their homes until she found a place of her own.
“I have a lot of good connections in Russia,” she said.
Her former host mother was a real estate agent and helped her find an affordable apartment, Katie said.
With a different language and culture, Katie said she loves the challenge.
Going to the grocery store is very different than here, she said.
“Instead of grabbing what you want off the shelves, you have to ask for what you want,” Katie said.
As a self-professed picky eater, Katie made a decision before going to Russia as a student to eat whatever her host family put in front of her, she said.
It was hard because she did not eat onions, fish or cabbage, which are staples of the Russian diet, Katie said.
Now she makes and eats them herself.
“I love borscht (a cabbage/beet-based soup),” Katie said.
But not so much the other Russian favorite, caviar, she said.
It tastes like fish-flavored water, Katie said.
But her host family loved it and served caviar with most meals.
“It was texturally and visually unappealing,” Katie said.
Her time in Russia has also built up her confidence, she said.
Having no car, she has had to learn to handle public transit, including subway, trolley and buses, Katie said.
The hardest thing to deal with is that there is no concept of personal space, she said.
There are times when she is reaching for change for the bus that she had to be careful not to reach into someone else’s pocket by mistake, Katie said.
While she likes to wander St. Petersburg looking at the architecture, including the amazing fountains, brightly colored buildings, onion-domed churches and more than 200 bridges, doing so in the winter can be very dangerous, Katie said.
People have died from ice falling from the buildings, she said.
There are also a lot of homeless people in the city, which has more than 5 million people, and that is hard to see every day, Katie said.
Although she plans to return to Minnesota when she is older, Russia is where she wants to be now, she said.
“St. Petersburg is really addicting (and) the Russian people are very friendly when you get to know them,” Katie said.