No doubts, coming to a foreign country all by yourself is exciting, but at some point it might get somewhat lonely. To help the CIEE St. Petersburg students adjust to the hardships of being an exchange student, every semester our center launches Sobesedniki (Russian: "conversation partners"), a language partner program. This program, for many of the students being the very first first encounter with the locals after the arrival, assists in creating close contacts in a new country.
For several years in a row Sobesedniki takes place at a local coffee house, the atmosphere of which creates a warm, cozy mood for the lively chats. Usually, there are several people who come in advance and get an additional chance to know each other better by talking a little bit before the formal start of the event.
As Sobesedniki begins, the staff explains the rules. They are quite simple; the whole format resembles a speed dating event. The participants take their places at the table: Russian students on one side and American students on the other. Every couple has 5 minutes to talk to each other before the American students move on to the next seat. It seems like not much, but the time limit allows the partners to avoid awkward silence and use all of the opportunities to learn about the person sitting across from them. Somewhere in the middle of the round the participants get their drinks, and with a cup of tea or coffee the conversations become even more exciting, loud, and cheerful. Now time runs even faster, and no one usually notices the moment when the rotation is already over. The students, though unwilling to stop the talks, quiet down. At the end of the event participants submit to the organizers a list of those whom they would like to see as their potential buddies for the semester.
All that left now is to find a match for every participant, considering their wishes. Next week everyone will receive the much-awaited letters with the names of those who will be accompanying them on this semester-long adventure in Saint Petersburg. What is more, sometimes Sobesedniki becomes a beginning of life-long friendships across the borders and across the oceans.