Like my first post of “impressions,” today’s edition combines observations of daily life in St. Petersburg that are strange or interesting (and there are very many of these), but not significant enough to really warrant their own post. For me, experiencing another country is not in its famous landmarks or cultural institutions, but in the small idiosyncrasies of its food, shops, streetscapes, and homes.
These details are easy to forget, but when I remember them—the way trashcans in Ecuador have creepy decorative fiberglass heads on top of them, how the gypsies use the Rustaveli fountain in downtown Tbilisi as a swimming pool and laundromat in the summer—I am brought back with much greater clarity than I am when I remember most “points of interest.” Here are some St. Ptersburg memories:
- Sushi is cheap and plentiful in St. Petersburg. Chains like Tokyo City and the oxymoronic Sushi Wok are as ubiquitous as McDonald’s franchises. Two-for-one deals are fairly common, meaning you can get up to twelve rolls for about 250 rubles ($8ish dollars). But this is Russia, so of course there’s a catch: cream cheese. I am trying to imagine the reaction of the first Japanese sushi chef to his Russian apprentice’s suggestion that cream cheese be included. You know, he probably just packed up and went home, leaving the Russians to their own devices. If you want to avoid this awkward surprise, look at the ingredients for each roll and watch out for “Филадельфия” (Philadelphia) or “сыр” (cheese).
- The toilet paper here is colored and scented. From what I understand, ten years ago the only toilet paper in Russia was either newspaper or brown paper towels. I think the hot pink raspberry-scented rolls that dominate the grocery store shelves today are a means of overcompensation.
- As spring approaches and the snow begins to melt, the appearance of my new boots seriously deteriorated from wading through puddles of slush every morning to class. I was pointing this out to my friend in the IMOP lobby, wondering how the Russians kept their shoes so shiny, when another student suggested I “use the boot-cleaner.” I initially imagined an Indian orphan boy in a broom closet somewhere with a brush, but Russia has in fact outdone itself in adapting to the climate—next to the first floor vending machines of the international dorms is a (free) shoe cleaning and polishing machine. Seriously, New England? Step up your game.
- The average Russian grocery store (by which I mean a “supermarket,” not a “produkti,” which is a much smaller, usually locally-owned general store) combines the selection and décor of a 7-11 with the puzzling contents of a Wegman’s. Just as a visiting Russian may be confused by the bewildering variety of breakfast cereals present in a Stop’n’Shop, so American students question the necessity of Russia’s “specialty aisles.” These include: the smoked meat aisle, the mayonnaise aisle, the fish aisle, and the pickled vegetables aisle. There is also usually an aisle dedicated to пельмени (pelmeni), which is a bit more understandable as these dumplings/ravioli are a cheap and convenient national dish.
- As in many East European countries, “gypsy cabs” (chasniki) are a popular way to get around. A gypsy cab is essentially just a regular local guy, probably with a day job, who uses his own personal car as an unregistered taxi when he’s not working. American students and tourists are warned about them, as this is essentially hitchhiking and can be dangerous (you don’t know if the driver even has his license, if he’s sober, if he’s looking to rob you, etc.). I would venture to say that gypsy cabs are as safe as a regular cab, if you know what you’re doing. It is definitely unsafe as a single, foreign girl. The best way to go about it is to travel in a group with at least one male or local Russian present, and be sure to agree on the price before you even get in. Even so, it is not uncommon for a driver to suddenly demand an extra one or two hundred rubles when you arrive at your destination. For reasons of safety and public image, Moscow has outlawed gypsy cabbing, although it still occurs in areas that aren’t well monitored. Which is probably everywhere but the touristy part.
- I am confused by milk in Russia. I’m not sure if it’s that it has fewer preservatives than in the U.S. (likely), that refrigeration is not as consistent here (also likely), or that it has higher fat content (you can’t get anything below 1.5%, and even that tastes suspiciously creamier)—but milk here expires very quickly after you buy it. Unless you had a big family, it wouldn’t be worth buying more than a liter at a time. By day three it starts to turn, regardless of the expiration date. This is bad news for the American who ate milk and cereal for breakfast since the time she could chew solid food. In contrast, the yogurt here is suspiciously cheap, requires no refrigeration, and seems to have an indefinite shelf life. But it comes in pomegranate, which is delicious so I buy it anyway.
- Vodka is obviously a big part of Russian social life. Like cows in India, it’s practically sacred. Also like cows in India, vodka gets preferential treatment and even gets dressed up for special events. Souvenir idea? Eristoff’s “vodka cozy,” a jacket for your favorite bottle! At first I was hesitant, because I thought the little jacket was bonded to the bottle, but it’s actually removable, so you can use it again and again! Collect the whole set!