|In the kitchen at our homestay in St Petersburg, Russia|
But first, some background: in my experience, a majority of homestay hosts across Russia are middle-aged widows who host foreigners to make a small income. Apparently a lot of Russian men die relatively young, and that's left a large number of widows who find it hard to make ends meet. Enter the job of homestay host - get some income, meet some foreigners, be less lonely.
I've also stayed with several families, who seemed to be hosting tourists for similar reasons - a little side income, and sometimes introducing their children to foreigners, or having a chance to practice English.
When we stayed with Valentina, a long-term St Petersburg resident who lived just across the bridge from the center of the city, my mother and I ended up sleeping in a converted study on less-than-comfortable sofa beds, but Valentina met us every morning with a cheery cup of tea and Russian-style pancakes for breakfast.
|My mother at the main entrance to our homestay apartment block|
She spoke a little English, and my mother a little Russian, and between them they found out all kinds of facts about each other. Valentina had a male friend who visited a couple of times, although we weren't formally introduced - but my mother did find her excuses to walk out to the kitchen and get a glimpse of him. (I, of course, stayed politely in our room.)
Valentina was particularly pleased when we spent some hours touring round the incredible rooms of the Hermitage. And I was jealous when she explained that she goes there every couple of months, on foot, to enjoy some paintings and see a different part of the gallery. Since I read that it would take several lifetimes to properly look at every item in their collection, even Valentina hasn't seen everything, but she's lucky enough to have seen more than I ever could.
Not every homestay experience I've had has been as fun as staying with Valentina, but none have been terrible, and I'd certainly recommend them. Heaps more exciting than a boring hotel room!