Life in St. Petersburg

I’m really loving the fact that I get to stay in St. Petersburg for three weeks. It gives me the luxury to get to know the city at a slower pace without the urge to fit everything into a few days. These are my thoughts and observations based on being here for one week.

  1. Despite their dour and grim demeanor, Russians are really kind and helpful. They go out of their way to help you. I can’t tell you the number of times they approached my mother and me out of the blue to help us out as we stood there perplexed by the map.
  2. I love the public transportation system in St. Petersburg. It’s seriously wonderful. The buses, trams, and subway are fast, cheap, and clean. Each ride costs about $1. You rarely need to wait all that long for your ride to arrive. Usually in a city I stick to subways because I know where the trains are going and which stop I need to get off. In St. Petersburg I find buses superior to subways. The buses go to more places and are more convenient. I found this great English-translated online bus navigator that helps me figure out which bus I need to take and where I need to get off.
  3. Because of all the complexity of the bus routes, I’ve developed a strategy of hopping on a bus that looks as if it’ll go where I want it to go and staying on it for as long as it seems like a good idea. When it starts going where I don’t want it to go, I hop off. So far it’s been working like a charm.
  4. There are two types of buses in St. Petersburg: public and the private buses, called marshrutka. Public buses cost only 25 rubles (about 77 cents) and the marshrutkas charge 30 or 35 rubles (about a dollar). Marshrutkas are either mini-buses or small minivans and are marked with a k in front of their number. The marshrutkas can stop anywhere along a route. You hail one by holding your hand out with your palm down. The public buses can only stop at official bus stops, which are marked with an A (for avtobus).
  5. You don’t need exact change to ride a bus. They’ll give you change. In a public bus, there’s a middle-aged lady or a grandma who takes the fare. In a private bus, you pay the driver. If it’s really crowded in the bus and you’re seated in the back, you can pass your money to other customers and they’ll pass the change back to you. This works really well.
  6. Most establishments prefer cash. Establishments that have a high volume of tourists are used to dealing with credit cards and are okay about it. It’s simply easier to keep cash on you to pay.
  7. Russians don’t like giving change. If you pay the exact fare, they’re really happy. Next best is if you gave them cash in such a way that making change is easy. For example, if the price is 160 rubles, rather than giving them two 100-ruble bills, I give them two 100-ruble bills and one 10-ruble coin. This way they can give me a 50-ruble bill for my change. This preference increases exponentially if the price ends in a non-zero number. If something costs 62 rubles and you have a 100-ruble bill, you better have a 2-ruble coin with you. Otherwise you’ll be dealing with a very cross cashier.
  8. For many of the tourist attractions, there is a two-tier pricing system. One price for foreigners and another lower price for Russian citizens (obviously there are discounts for students and children too). The claim is that these places receive money from the government so the citizens get a subsidized price and foreigners are paying the real price. Because I’m here for work, I have a work ID that allows me to get the lower local price. Not all places advertise the local price, so I’ve learned to present my ID and ask for the local fare. Through work I’m also able to get the local fare for my mother (and Ben when he comes later) too.
  9. When eating at a restaurant, don’t expect everyone’s plates to come out at the same time. The dishes will come out intermittently. In the US, I’m used to everyone being served at the same time, or at the very least if someone is served first, then the rest of the table will be served shortly, so we wait until everyone has their plate. Don’t do this. If you’re served first, go ahead and eat. If you wait for everyone to be served, your food will get stone cold.
  10. Russians are comfortable with standing closer together than Americans are. I’ve learned to tolerate people invading “my personal space.”
  11. Don’t leave any space in front of you when waiting in a line. If you do, a grandma will try to cut in.
  12. Russia is one of the few places in the world where I feel lost and helpless. I speak four different languages, so when traveling either I can speak the language, the language spoken is similar enough to one of my four languages that I can figure out what is being said, or the people speak English. None is true here. Relatively speaking, few Russians speak English and I speak no Russian. I learned to smile helpless and apologetically.
  13. There are less variety in fresh fruit and vegetables in the grocery stores than what I’m used to.
  14. Although the grocery stores are much smaller than US ones, in terms of proportion, the Russian grocery stores have the largest section of alcohol. Seriously, one small aisle for fruits and vegetables, but two aisles (half the room) for alcohol.
  15. You can buy beer on tap from some type of convenience store. It looks like you’re buying beer in a soda bottle. I have no idea if it’s a special plastic bottle just for beer that they use, or if you can reuse a soda bottle.
  16. People drink alcohol out on the streets publicly. Because I grew up with open container laws, I find people drinking openly like this fascinating.
  17. Many Russians smoke. I haven’t seen this many smokers since the 80s. Finding smokers in California is rare because of all the public smoking laws. NY has followed suit and there are fewer and fewer smokers in the US. I really hate having to deal with second hand smoke in St. Petersburg.
  18. Eat an apple pie from Stolle Pie Shop. It’s amazing. The apple pie is not an American style one. It looks more like a strudel. The apples were thinly sliced and heavily laced with cinnamon. Not too sweet, it was absolutely delicious. It’s the best thing I’ve eaten in St. Petersburg.
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2 thoughts on “Life in St. Petersburg

  1. Fascinating stuff. I recall reading statistics on the economist on how Russians consume more alcohol than most other nations. However, given the huge lead they possess in Vodka consumption, what sort of variety fills multiple aisles of alcohol in a small store?

    How is the food? Interesting and new? Sad?

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