After a dizzyingly busy first half-day in St. Petersburg, here are my first general impressions:
- Documents, documents, documents…the old stereotype of East European bureaucracy hasn’t changed much. It is (rightly) considered dangerous for a student to leave the dormitory without a “spravka,” a packet containing copies of various identification documents, like passport, visa, student identification card, etc., as a police officer can stop you at any time. Policemen are usually just looking for draft dodgers (or, if you’re Asian, potential illegal immigrants from Central Asia), so men are generally stopped more so than women. Anyone without proper documentation can still be arrested, fined, or deported. The embassy likes to tell a story about an American ran across the street from his hotel room without his ID, presumably getting a snack or drink, and ended up in a two-year prison fiasco.
- There are constantly-spewing smokestacks everywhere—Russia definitely makes the environment its bitch, even more so than what I encountered in Ecuador. In comparison, Georgia might as well be one big nature preserve. You know it’s bad when a common study abroad student pastime is collecting photos of various “scenic pollutions” that systematically violate every US EPA regulation in existence.
- The 30:1 ruble-to-dollar exchange rate can be a bit overwhelming (this is probably the only time in my life I will ever walk around with five hundred of anything in my wallet). It does, however, mean that it’s basically always Dollar Beer Night in Russia. This being one of the more attractive features to study abroad students here (whereas our counterparts in Western Europe are dropping eight euro a glass), our program coordinators did feel the need to give us a talk about resorting to alcoholism should we find adjustment too difficult.
- There is also apparently so much of a problem with manhole covers that we were also strongly cautioned about the ones here in St. Petersburg, which have a habit of suddenly shifting or simply falling in. At least Georgia had the courtesy to just not include them at all, so you know right off the bat not to step near the hole.
- The international student dorms here are surprisingly far more spacious than any dorm room I had at my home university. There, my current double would probably be used as a quad. We are only provided with extreme basics in terms of furnishing, though—as in, the desk is three boards nailed together and the bed is in the typically East European “fainting couch” style (low to the ground, thin built-in mattress pad, no under-bed storage). Our room is the only one in the building blessed with free wifi; everyone else is stuck with one ethernet jack to share between roommates, so as a result our suite is an unofficial internet café.
- Mr. Clean is called Mr. Proper. I saw a commercial on Rutube. No. Just no.
- Given the poor track record in terms of environmentalism, Russia does encourage recycling in one way: you have to buy your shopping bags and reuse them. Naturally a few plastic bags are very cheap, but the check-out ladies are not very sympathetic when they have a big line and a bumbling international student shows up without bags at the ready. This is where it’s helpful to divide your clothes into old shopping bags when you pack.
- The water here is completely unsafe—not even the locals drink it. To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with the water itself. Russia has plenty of clean freshwater sources. Like at my house (where we have a well), the problem is more with the old pipes. By the time it gets to the tap, the water has a pretty strong mineral smell (almost like red clay, if you’ve ever done pottery), and for the first few seconds it may come out a gray or rusty color. Boiling takes care of it, but the students who can afford to usually buy bottled anyway.
- If you want to get a feel for the atmosphere of St. Petersburg, here is a time-lapse of various cityscapes.