I’m currently in Brussels – we left St. Pete’s behind us – an overall uneventful trip via Estonia. But now that’s I’m comfortably at a distance from Russia – here’s some parting observations I didn’t feel good about sharing earlier. Enjoy the read.
Russia – aka St. Petersburg – is exciting, interesting, spooky, uncomfortable, awkward, unfeeling, unsmiling, quiet, clean, oppresive, sad, and worth a visit.
Maybe this is a totally personal perspective, but both the Intrepid Traveller and I agreed that there is something – well – odd about being in Russia. Maybe it’s just us and our memories of the Cold War, of the injustices of Stalin’s regime – but maybe it’s more than just that. In any case – here are things that bothered and/or intrigued me about being in Russia.
Awkward 1 – There are a lot of police and military around. All the time. Everywhere. In cars, in armored vehicles, just walking the streets. Sometimes they sport machine guns, sometimes it’s just hand guns. But it’s a lot. A whole lot.
Awkward 2 – The insignia of the miliary guys are velcro’d to their uniforms. That means they can quickly ditch any indication of who exactly they are. I find that very uncomfortable. We tried to ask about it – but were politely told – none of our business.
Awkward 3 – We saw at least 2 groups of people stopped by the police and/or military and questioned. We were warned to carry photo-copies of our passports around, not the real thing – and to never give our passports to anyone in the police and/or military. We were told by fellow tourists we met outside of Russia that they had been hasseled while in Russia – As members of a visual minority – they were targeted and money demanded to make the issue go away. This is not a good thing if you want tourists to come to your country.
Awkward 4 – MacDonald’s in an airport doesn’t make me forget that buried deep inside are individual booths used to control both incoming and outgoing travelers. We’d seen the booths in a museum on the Cold War in Berlin. Imagine our shock to see that Russia is still using the same booths today. You line up at the border station, divided by passport type. Each booth has a door in, and a door out that closes and opens under the control of the guards. Travellers are requested to enter as individuals (Yes – even kids go in alone). There is a mirror over your head so that the unsmiling border guard can see behind you as well as in front of you. The desk of the guard is high, and protected so that at least I could not see what they were doing while they had my passport. There is plate glass between us – stretching all the way up to the ceiling. When they finish doing whatever they are doing – the door in front opens automatically. There is no – have a nice trip, welcome to Russia – nothing at all is said. Just hard eyes, unsmiling faces, and papers. Yes – it’s spooky, macabre, uncomfortable, spine tingling, and not the way to encourage visitors. I almost turned around to get back on the plane right then.
Awkward 5 – Kids – even little kids – don’t smile. I am 67 years old, 5’4″ high, and a grannie. I smile at kids. In every country I’ve ever visited before Russia – the kids eventually smiled back. Not here. Not once. In other countries – parents have encouraged their kids to speak to me – to practice their English – to wave. Not here. Not once.
Awkward 6 – The metro and buses are silent. People don’t chat, they don’t greet friends, they don’t smile. The corners of their mouths tend to go down – not up. This was really obvious when we rode the metro in Brussels – we immediately were innodated with the sounds of people using the time on the metro to share news, greet each other – whatever. This just didn’t happen in Russia. Even in restuarants and museums things were hushed. I laughed loudly at a funny video segment – and not only shocked the locals – I embarrased the Interpid Traveler. There’s a constraint, a – don’t look at me – I’m not really here – feeling that even as tourists, we were well aware of.
Awkward 7 – We were warned by our host to not drink the water from the tap. That’s not unusual – I’ve been in tons of places where tap water is not entirely safe for our delicate stomachs – but this was awkward in Russia because we would buy water only to see it being used by other people. I don’t mind sharing – but water is heavy! And the supermarket was a distance from the hostel – far enough that for us – carrying the water was an issue. If you are going to use someone else’s water – at least buy some yourself to share too! I had to ask our host to supply us with some water – which he did. But I had to ask. You can understand that this is awkward.
Awkward 8 – Constant security just doesn’t feel safe. There were ‘administors’ whose job it was to sit up all night at the reception desk – keeping us safe. Since we had only a shared bathroom – that meant getting up in the middle of the night and walking past the guard to get to the toilet. He would smile and wave – but while it did feel safer knowing that there was someone between me and whatever – the smile and wave with me in my PJ’s was odd. But that’s not the only example. To get into our hostel – we had to enter one code at the gate, then ring another code at the door to the building. They would have to pick up the phone – then buzz us in. Once in the hall way – they would open the door to the hostel, visually checking to be sure we were who they were expecting. At the MIR hostel – the final inspection was via video – at the two smaller hostels – the administrator had to get up and physically open the door for us. I don’t know about you – but it felt weird to me.
Awkward 9 – There are no thrift stores and no flea markets. So what do Russians do with their old stuff? I’m guessing that the no flea markets has to do with people being able to sell stuff on their own – and unsuperised by the government – free enterprise is bad afterall – but no thrift stores. Really? Maybe they just don’t want me to know about them?
Awkward 10 – we were told by the Hostel folks, and it’s implied on the Canadian Consulate website that bringing things to the attention to the Russian Police is not a good idea. Why is this awkward – my wallet was stolen, and the credit card folks – to cover their bums – want to know if I have a police report – and I don’t. Apparently – a phone call telling them to block the cards wasn’t quite good enough. Go figure.
Pro Russia 1 – It’s clean. Really clean. Yes we did see a bum pee into a bush once, but in general, the streets were spotless. One morning we were even up early enough to see them vaccuming the streets. It was a huge vaccum cleaner – it towered over the head of the operator, and it was on wheels. He moved around the cobblestone square – cleaning as he went.
Pro Russia 2 – There’s no dog poop. Anywhere. Ever. Dog’s yes – plenty of them, including a completely charming pair of pugs – but no dog poop. I have no idea where they put it. And despite the huge number of horse drawn carriages – no horse poop either.
Pro Russia 3 – Still on the clean issue – the public garbage cans were always mostly empty. Here in Brussels we’ve seen them overflowing – that was never ever the case in Russia – even in our courtyard the public bins were emptied at least twice a week – and maybe even more often.
Pro Russia 4 – there is a massive coffee cult! Roadside Expresso stands were the norm – my personal issue with them – they only opened in the afternoon – and I won’t drink coffee after lunch – too much caffine for my system. But they sure looked good.
Pro Russia 5 – The food truck is in. They had bakery food trucks, they had cheese food trucks, they had sauage food trucks and food stands. There was at least once food stand a block, and in more popular (aka touristy ) areas – there might be 3 or 4 of them. Surprising to me – given the temperature – the two products most on offer – outside of sausages – were corn on the cob and ice cream. Eventually I had to try an ice cream. It was ok – but Italy needn’t worry.
Pro Russia 6 – Outdoor cafes have blankets! Isn’t that the smartest thing ever. In addition to heaters (less common) – there are blankets available – perfect for enjoying outdoor seating – and staying warm.
Neutral Russia 1 – There were no homeless people to be seen. Now given the weather in winter in St. Petersburg – that might be related – but we were in St. Petersburg during the White Nights, and the weather was outstanding every single day. Surely there must be some homeless folks somewhere. But they sure weren’t visible – something that can not be said about Brussels – or Montreal for that matter.
Neutral Russia 2 – Begging takes a different form. Several times we’d get off the beaten trail enough to see rows of elder women selling tiny bunches of flowers or herbs that they had clearly picked up. It’s not really begging per se – they just were sitting rather lifeless on the curb – in a solid row of about 20 of them. But it was clear that this was how they could earn a few ruples. The Intrepid Traveler says she read that the widows of Veterans were often forced to earn a living this way, since the pensions for soliders were non-existant – but I don’t know for sure. I would have loved to take a photo – but there was something forbidding about them. So – no pictures please.
Neutral Russia 3 – The lines. Ok – it’s a cultural thing – I get it. But I wanted to scream at them – don’t they look at books on queueing theory? It’s nuts. So inefficient, so time wasting, so everywhere!
Neutral Russia 4 – There is a museum guard per room in the museums – and the larger museums using time tracking systems to control who is where when. The guards either walk around or sit – but they are omni-present. And often there are multiple guards – like in front of the Diamond Room. There we counted 4 control points – a ‘guard’ who sat at a guard station, and 3 ladies that were responsible for taking tickets, telling you to sit and wait for your tour to start – and carefully explaining to tourist after tourist that you couldn’t buy tickets there but had to exit the museum in order to get a ticket – and you would have to buy an additional admission ticket to get back in.
Neutral Russia 5 – There are prices for Russians, and prices for non-Russians. It’s not always obvious – but with only a few exceptions, we could tell that prices went up when it became clear we were hardly locals. The few exceptions were extremely welcome however – these were some of our favorite meals and favorite events.
End of the day – Leaving Russia was a relief. Like taking off a heavy back-pack you forgot you were carrying. There was always a feeling that someone was watching, that you were being observed, overheard, criticized, evalutated, measured. It wasn’t always obvious, and we are hardly visible minorities in Russia – but it was still there. I wouldn’t want to be a visible minority in Russia. I felt awkward enough being the loud, boiterous, always smiling person that I am.
I’ve had people read this blog and suggest that I didn’t enjoy my trip to St. Petersburg, or that I wouldn’t go back. And that’s not true. I did enjoy my trip – and I would highly recommend visiting St. Petersburg. The Russians I’ve met re-enacting have all been wonderful fun people – a pleasure to be with. So why are the Russians in St. Petersburg so different. I really can’t answer that question. There were amazingly positive interactions – people helped us with our luggage without question, they got up so we could sit down all the time, and in private they were more than willing to share their stories. It was in public that one could sense the restraint and concern.
Signing off to rest easier – The Soup Lady and her sidekick – the Intrepid Traveler.