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Archive for February, 2012

Odds and Ends

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!                

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Happy Valentine’s Day

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One of the more interesting facets of dorm life in the IMOP building is the “dezhurnaya:” essentially a babushka who serves as your RA. Actually, there are multiple dezhurnayas, and they take shifts each day/night (there are about four of them I’ve seen so far on our floor). Their responsibilities include: enforcing the “quiet hours” (11pm-6 or 7am), making sure students close the common room door so as not to let the draft in from the stairwell, watching soap operas, notifying students if they have mail/packages/a phone call, and looking disgruntled. See this article to get a feel for the opinions of your typical dezhurnaya.

One dezhurnaya in particular likes to lecture us in order to drive home the necessity of seeing to the errors of our ways. These lectures may last anywhere from five to ten minutes depending on the severity of your infraction (noise, running in the hall, drunken revelry, excessive giggling), and any attempt at formulating a response generates an additional minute or two. The problem for most AIFS students, however, is that she does so in Russian. Very rapid Russian. I usually manage to avoid her attention, but any conversations that have occurred between us thus far usually go something like this:

Prospective dorm residents, your best bet is to follow Ginger’s example: stare attentively, yet vacantly. Eventually even the most wrathful dezhurnaya will exhaust herself in the face of your brick wall of incomprehension.

 

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Many of us were curious about what to expect from the cafeteria food here. The IMOP building has two places to eat: the main cafeteria (known here as a canteen) and the somewhat more upscale café, located in an adjacent building.

Compared to American school lunches, the food is surprisingly…not bad at all. There are several options, but they don’t vary much. There are usually three or four meats (the most common being a kind of beef stew, roast chicken legs, and breaded fish) and then a side to go with it, either green beans, red beans, or one of several carbohydrate options (mashed potatoes, rice, pasta—all very buttery). You can then add more sides, like a soup, salad, or some bread. A meal like this is only about 100 rubles.

The only major disappointments are the salads—they come in bowls the size of teacups, and consist of tiny shavings of cabbage, beet, and carrot. Not really a meal in and of itself, like the massive chicken cesars you usually find in American cafeterias. The café is slightly more expensive, but worth it if you have the time between classes to walk over and try something different.

The biggest difference with Russian school lunches (and food in general) when compared to American ones is the level of processing. In the U.S., it is very difficult to make the connection between a chicken patty and an actual chicken, or between nacho “cheez” and a cow’s milk. Russia also uses real butter almost exclusively (I have yet to even see margarine here), whereas in America, margarine derived from vegetable oil is much more affordable as a result of federal corn subsidies. I’m actually tempted to say that the food I eat in the canteen here is healthier than what I ate as a third grader in a pretty decent American public school, but at the end of the day, cafeteria food is cafeteria food, and we will never know for certain.

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Yesterday we heard there was a huge costume party going on at Central Station, a gay club downtown. Without launching into a full sociological discussion on homosexuality in Russia, suffice it to say that opinions here are not as liberal as in America, and unfortunately many people are forced by social convention to remain closeted, and must essentially lead a double life. I have been to gay clubs in the U.S., and was interested to see what the ones here were like—especially on a night intended to be “all-out.” And I am not above dressing up my straight male friend to get in.

But as much as I gelled and bedazzled him, we were deemed insufficiently costumed for admission. I should have known when I saw another entrance reject, tripping balls and wearing nothing but a glow stick, glitter, and leather leggings. But as Central Station is on Dumskaya Street, essentially the nightlife district, there was no shortage of alternatives and we ended up at Bar Fidel (as in, Castro). It had a good atmosphere (not literally; I think my coat may permanently smell like smoke because there was no coatroom), and reminded me of my mom’s descriptions of clubs in the 80s.

I’m going to be honest…Russians are terrible dancers. Russian women pride themselves on their icy, sophisticated appearances, all fox fur and disdain and leather stilettos, but get them on the dance floor and suddenly…it’s middle school homecoming. By which I mean, awkward wiggling with too much elbow, with a default to pogo-dancing on the loud songs and singing along to the few lyrics they understand. But at the same time, they still look like they’re having a great time. In some ways, it was actually preferable to some American clubs, full of palpable sexual frustration and self-consciousness. It was actually refreshing.

The playlist was hilarious—a truly bizarre mix of Soviet-era rock and American songs from the late 70s through the 90s (think Madonna, Van Halen, Beck, Journey, Blink-182, Bon Jovi, and Chumbawumba). In addition to this, there were strange but delightful forays into other generations and genres, from the comparatively recent “Golddigger” all the way to “Ticket to Ride” and even “Twist and Shout.” We never quite hit Cole Porter, but after they started adding Russian folk songs, I would not have been surprised.

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You Worked Where?

Volunteering (often referred to in the study abroad world as “service-learning”) is one of the best things you can do for yourself as a study abroad student. Working in a local institution allows you to meet new people, practice your language skills, and learn what it is like to work abroad. The only downside is that you don’t get paid, but given the other benefits, I think it all balances out. This is especially true if you can find a way to volunteer in the field in which you hope to build your career.

AIFS does a great job of finding volunteer opportunities. The most common ones are working as an English teaching assistant at a nearby school, and volunteering at the Hermitage Museum (usually as a greeter, or working on various curatorial projects in the back). Students usually want to volunteer in orphanages, but these have strict staffing bureaucracies that make it difficult to arrange. Two students this semester did their own research, and chose to work at a rescue stable and therapeutic horseback riding program.

I chose to volunteer at the Hermitage, an obvious choice given my major in historic preservation and concentration in museum studies. I was ecstatic when I found out that it was so easy for AIFS students to volunteer there—there is a simple application, and then all you need to do is submit a digital passport-style photo so they can make an official volunteer badge. This costs 80 rubles, but it is well worth the feeling of self-satisfaction as you stride confidently through the galleries looking professional.

Study abroad students from other countries, schools, and programs also volunteer. The other Americans are usually graduate students working on obscure dissertations in the humanities, CIEE or Bard program students from the prestigious Smolny Institute, or Mormon missionaries on their two-year mission assignment. It’s a pretty interesting context in which to meet new people.

English-speakers are in demand to serve as greeters. Coats and large bags are not allowed in the Hermitage (you quickly learn to memorize this phrase), and guests who don’t know need to be directed to the coatroom. This job can be somewhat stressful on crowded days, when confused Russians or Japanese tourists ask rapid-fire questions about what tours are available and when. My favorite was the Asian guy who demanded to know how long it would take to see “the whole museum.” A commonly-quoted statistic about the Hermitage is that if you spent one minute looking at each of the 2.8 million paintings and artifacts in collection, it would take you something like nine lifetimes. But this man was insistent that he had to see it all in one day (it was already past noon), even if it meant “just walking quickly through each hall,” thus not really seeing anything at all.

Other Hermitage volunteer jobs include working on projects in the archaeology department (entering data into spreadsheets, and sorting, numbering, and photo-documenting artifacts), or editing and translating museum publications. Later this spring, the Hermitage is hosting a conference on Virtual Archaeology, and I am currently charged with editing the roughly translated abstracts into more professional, academic prose. Overall, I am enjoying my experience (even if it is a pain to get all the way downtown and back—one hour each way), and would strongly recommend it to those interested in art or how Russian cultural institutions operate.

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Our neighborhood, Akademicheskaya, is named after the red-line metro station–which in turn is named after the “academy,” or university campus dominating the area. It is fairly typical for a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, where many universities are located.  The late 19th century Tsars feared the liberal atmosphere of the new universities cropping up left and right, widely considered hotbeds of radical, anti-royalist thought. This fear was justified after Tsar Alexander II feel victim to an assassination plot by young members of the left-wing terrorist group, the “People’s Will.” As a result, university campuses and their hooligan students could only be headquartered a safe distance from downtown. This is kind of inconvenient for today’s students, as a trip to the Hermitage involves a 45-minute commute.

To save time, here are some local stores and restaurants:

продукти

The produkti is probably the closest eating establishment to IMOP, so it’s a good option if the cafeteria food gets old but it’s too cold to venture very far outside the school building. It looks like a little train wagon practically sitting on the sidewalk slightly to the right of the front door, and sells snacks and some lunches (sandwiches, individual pizzas).

7я семья

The closest grocery store to the IMOP dormitory and classrooms–literally right across the street. It is between the sizes of  идея and the produkti, so very basic. But if you need something simple (laundry soap, snacks, toilet paper, booze), it’s the best place to go.

идея

Idea is a middle ground between running errands at 7я and going full-out grocery shopping, located on the main road next to the McDonald’s. It has more variety than 7я, but I wouldn’t call it a supermarket. I usually just go there if I need one thing specifically, like pasta sauce or orange juice. Make sure you have exact change, as the cashiers here are generally cranky about breaking large bills, running credit cards, or counting out any more than a few coins. Especially that girl with the mole. Stay away from her.

oкей

This is the closest thing you will get to an American-style supermarket in terms of variety. In addition to food, the first row of aisles and the ones on the right are kind of a Wal-Mart-style mix of made-in-china junk and useful household items. It’s a little bit of a walk (5 minutes past the metro station) and always crowded, but well worth it if you need to do serious grocery shopping. If you want variety in your diet, this is the place to go, as it’s really the only grocery store that carries significant quantities of ingredients for foreign cuisines (Indian, Italian, Mexican, Japanese, etc).  Another plus is that you can get a rewards card that is really worth it if you plan on buying groceries regularly. Unfortunately I have yet to discern a pattern as to when they put out the fresh-baked bread, which is so delicious I have been scolded for gnawing on a baguette in the checkout line.

McDonald’s

Everyone’s favorite! Prices here are basically the same as in America (fast food gets slightly more expensive downtown), although a few things on the menu are different. If you want a milkshake, make sure to order a “milk cocktail,” otherwise you will get a fruit smoothie instead.

Akadem-Park

This mall is fairly new, adjacent to McDonald’s and Idea. It has typical mall stores (various clothing chains, mobile providers, sports stores, etc), a movie theater, and a food court. I don’t remember all of the food court restaurants, but as of now it includes a Burger King, Sbarro, KFC, Teremok (Russian fast food, mostly bliny), Kartoshka (Russian fast food, mostly baked potatoes), a sushi “lounge,” and one or two places that seemed confused about what Asian-ish ethnic cuisine they were supposed to be serving. There is also a somewhat overpriced grocery store at the basement level, and a Bushe (Russia’s Panera) right near the entrance.

The Huts

In the plaza right outside the metro station, there are several fast food “huts” and trucks. One is a little mini Teremok, another has various baked goods, and another serves shawarma. This is probably just stray dog meat in a grilled pita, but it is oh so delicious and at about $2.75, who can say no?

Pizza-Bar

This is the go-to student restaurant, located halfway between IMOP and the metro. It’s not American-style pizza (or service) by any means, but it still has a decent atmosphere for just hanging out with friends and is not overpriced. The last time I checked there were no English menus, so it’s helpful to bring a dictionary (or a Russian) with you to help decipher what all the toppings are. The carbonara is an overall favorite.

Beer House

Pretty much right next to Pizza-Bar, Beer House is very convenient for IMOP students. Even so, I have never been there because AIFS students from last semester didn’t recommend it (apparently it’s overpriced, the waitstaff are rude, and fights have been known to break out).

Sushi Wok

The oxymoronic sushi-wok is a bit more of a walk than the other restaurants, but worth it if you just really want sushi without going downtown. You can get an order of sushi (like at Pizza-Bar, it’s helpful to have a way to figure out the ingredients in all the rolls), or a “Wok Box” which is basically fried rice or lo mein with your choice of meat. I’m personally not much of a fan—the service was very slow for such small orders, even if the pricing was ok. The Wok Boxes are also very, very greasy.

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