Most folks who know me personally are aware that my Mrs. ain’t from ’round these parts.
In fact, she’s the cause for this post because in the 20 years we’ve been together, I’ve made several pilgrimages to the Old Country, so I thought I would share some thoughts on her hometown in the hopes that more folks will make the effort to visit St. Petersburg, Russia.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Russia,” is probably one of the most common statements we hear when we meet new people, and oddly enough it usually sounds like they actually mean it. So let’s talk about the possibilities and pitfalls for tourists. Feel free to post questions, and I’ll do my best to answer them.
FEAR THE WALKING FED
If you are not an American, thanks for reading my blog, and you can skip to the next section.
Having traveled extensively, I feel qualified to say that if you are an American I can almost guarantee you will take more grief from the US government than you will ANY other government on the planet. This applies to anyone who has gone to/through a country that the Feds have unFriended. I say this up front so you can keep in mind that when you come back into the US you can expect to enjoy a little extra attention.
Do NOT buy caviar (black or red) unless you have a printed copy of the federal regulations showing how much you can bring in on your person as you go through customs.
Make sure you are well within the limits on the amount of alcohol in your bags.
I read recently that Americans are allowed to bring in Cuban cigars now that we have Friended Cuba again, but only if the cigars are purchased in a county other than Cuba. You can buy Cubans in Russia, but again make sure you have a copy of the regs in your pocket.
Do NOT buy antique religious icons. Modern icons are fine, but Russia and the US are both treating the antiques as cultural treasures. The least that will happen is confiscation.
Now that the consumer alerts are over, we can get to the fun stuff.
I’ll put transliterated Russian words and phrases tourists will find handy in the text.
Everything will be phonetic.
St. Petersburg (St. P) is an amazing city. Czar Peter the Great drained a swamp and imported a horde of western European architects to build it. The older parts of the city look like France, Italy, and Germany. Don’t let the movies the Ministry of Truth allow us to see fool you. It is nothing like what you see in the flicks. Think Paris, France and you will have a good idea of what to expect to see.
If you like Venice, St. P is crisscrossed with canals, and the Neva River flows through the middle of it.
Unfortunately, there are no gondolas, and the big muscley guys in the horizontal striped tank tops are probably Spetzsnatz (Special Forces) soldiers on leave. There are some boat tours you can take including river cruises up the Neva River to Lake Ladoga that is larger than many States.
On my first trip I stayed on board a passenger ship that was docked and being used as a hotel. A great bargain if you can find it.
St. P is full of museums and things to visit. Get a good tour book before you go and plan the things you want to see. Once you are there it is possible to hire a private tour guide to help you get around.
During the summer time they experience the “White Nights”. The city is close enough to the arctic circle to get some of the midnight sun. During the White Nights they have sunlight until around midnight, so things are open and people are out until dark.
Take note: The river is active for passenger and cargo ships, and most of the bridges are draw bridges. They go up around midnight, and if you are on the wrong side of town when the bridges go up, you are stuck until just before dawn.
The Metro stations are all over and easy to find. You will have to buy tokens at the booth in the station. Look for a sign “Kacce” (R:casa). It means cashier. You will also see this sign in large stores, but more about shopping later.
The Metro does not go everywhere, so alternates are Trolleybuses (R: Tro-lee-bus) and Trams (R: Tram-vai). Trolleybuses look like typical buses except for the boom extending from the roof to the electrical wires above the road. Trams are streetcars like you see all over. Get on at the stop and pay the nice lady with the satchel.
Taxis are available, but expensive.
Buses (R: auto-bus) and small commuter buses called Mashutki (R: ma-shoot-kee) run between the suburbs and the main Metro stations. Pay the driver of the mashutka or the nice lady on the bus to ride.
Hitchhiking is legal, but not recommended if you don’t speak Russian. You will have to pay for the ride like Uber, so have cash in hand. Face traffic, and extend your hand with your finger pointing at the ground. An interested driver will stop. I really don’t recommend this if you are not with a trusted local.
Back in the 90’s when the Soviet Union was collapsing street crime and organized crime were going crazy. Now that they have a stable and effective leader in power street crime is at least as controlled as any major metropolitan area.
Pick pockets are a hazard all over the world, and that is the main street crime I have noticed. Once you get to St.P you will need to change money. Plenty of kiosks around the city will post signs offering their exchange rates. Shop around a bit. This usually the safest place to change money.
These kiosks are their favorite hunting grounds for pickpockets. People in line to change money or people leaving who have just changed the money are the targets of opportunity. Best bet is not to go alone and to keep an eye out. Keep you backpack/purse across your chest, and don’t carry stuff in your pockets that you can’t afford to lose. I normally wear a neck pouch to hold my money and important documents. It offers good protection from pick pockets when worn under your shirt.
Don’t change money with anyone you meet on the street. You will get screwed on the exchange rate and possibly mugged.
As you walk around the city you will see military personnel dressed in camouflage or Navy blue and you will see police. Until recently the police were referred to as Militza (Militia or Army reserve). Within the past 5 years they have changed to police. Please note, they are as nice, polite, and professional as the neighborhood cop in a Norman Rockwell painting, but do NOT get caught doing anything criminal or disruptive. The #SJW folks would learn just how over-accommodating American police are if they tried their crap in Russia. Every Russian city has a building called “The Big House” which is the old KGB headquarters. It is a common saying that “from the roof of the Big House you can see Siberia.” The police are professionals, and they WILL keep the peace. ’nuff said.
If you need law enforcement assistance you can walk up to an officer. Some of them speak English or they can call someone who does. The word for Police sounds the same in Russian and English. If you use “militza” people will know what you mean.
To ask if someone speaks English say: “Gavoreet-ye pa-angleeskee?”
I’ll post a list of common tourist phrases for reference.
“Stop” is commonly used as a command in Russia. The proper Russian word for the action is “Ostanov”, but you will hear “stop”, so pay attention.
St. P has stores/shops (R: magazine) like most cities. You will also find open air markets called a Rynok (R: Ren-nock) that look like flea markets. Sometimes the stores will be inside a building that looks like a reject government building or in a basement. The signage is not consistent and often not very flashy. The larger Metro stations also have kiosks selling souvenirs and sometimes really nice household goods and clothing, so pay attention as you wander around.
If you are in a larger store a shop assistant will be present to show/demonstrate the items to you. There will not be random shelves full of products to browse through. Once you have made your selection, you tell the assistant that you want to purchase it and ask how much it costs (R: Skol-ka no sto-it?). If you do not speak Russian, ask them to write it down and then my most hated phrase “Where is the cashier?” (R: Good-ye casa?). Now you have to hunt down the cashier and pay for the item. Then you take the receipt back to the same assistant who showed you the item, present your receipt, and claim your goody which the nice assistant has probably wrapped up for you just like a movie from the 1950s.
At kiosks and rynoks you are usually dealing with the only person there. You might be able to haggle, but it is not really customary.
EATING & DRINKING
Most Russian cuisine is not very exotic. Root vegetables and cabbage are the most common offerings with fish being more common than beef, pork, or chicken. Don’t confuse simple with untasty. The Soviet Union had about 200 different ethnic groups and so the cuisine has mixed, so you can find food to your taste if you ask a local or shop around.
Example: Georgian (R: Grooz) food is a bit bolder and spicy (aromatic not hot) like Spanish food.
A staple Russian food is the humble turnover called pirogi (R: Peer-oh-gi or Pee-rosh-kee). People sell these on the street and at train stations. The bread wrapper is filled with meat and onoins (R: myassa slookum) or egg and cabbage (R: capoosta syaitsa).
Beer is (R: Pee-va) My favorite Russian beer is Baltika. It is available in the states if you want to preview it.
Water is “R: vo-DAH) Don’t drink the tap water. It is OK for washing and brushing your teeth, but drink bottled water.
Expect sour cream (R: Smetana), ketchup, or mayonnaise to be served with almost anything.
On the whole Russians are just like everyone else. I have found them to be generally polite, helpful, and very patient with the poor quality of my spoken Russian. Many of the younger generations speak English to some degree.
Unlike the West they are pretty much unfiltered, so political correctness does not exist. Under the current sanctions, Amerika is very unpopular. When asked where I’m from, I say “Texas”. I have yet to run into anybody who hates Texas except for the Left Coast Liberals in the good ol’ US of A.
Something for the single guys to keep in mind. The Russian education system is very good. They have solid discipline and high expectations for the students You won’t meet stupid or poorly educated people regardless of their occupation. That gorgeous girl you are staring at probably knows more about your country, your country’s literature, and history than you do. She may look like a fashion model, but she’s not going to be an airhead. Don’t show up to a battle of wits unarmed.
Russians are also very patriotic and nationalistic. Nobody is going to be impressed that you are a westerner, especially an American. Before the wall came down in the 90’s Russians had something of a romantic view of the west and especially America because we sent them a lot of food and war materiel in the 1940’s.
Once the wall came down and they got a good look at the other side, they stopped being impressed. They now have credit cards, and more consumer goods than anyone cares to own. McDonalds and Pizza Hut are all over. They even have their equivalent of Sam’s Club/Costco.
Be polite and friendly, and you will meet a lot of great people. For the lonely hearts out there considering importing a wife, I’ll write a separate post if there is enough interest.
BEING A TOURIST
You almost certainly WILL need a visa for your visit to Russia. They are not particularly hard to get. Just Google the local Embassy of the Russian Federation to get the rules. You will need an “invitation” for your visa application. This invitation is filed by your hotel or the person you will be staying with. The downside is you have to have made all of your travel arrangements well in advance to insure you can get your visa in time.
VISITING RUSSIANS AT HOME
If you are lucky you might get invited to someone’s home. Here’s some tips to avoid making a bad impression.
Russians are probably the cleanest people I have ever encountered. The Germans and the Japanese have the rep for fastidiousness, but the Russians are right at the top of the pile as germophobes.
Most Russians do not wear shoes at home. Each apartment or house has a designated “mud room” with linoleum on the floor. When you enter the house it is customary to take off your street shoes and put on the carpet slippers you carry in your knapsack for just such occasions. Yes, guests bring their own slippers or flip-flops to wear in other people’s homes.
Wash your hands frequently. It is not out of line when coming to someone’s home to ask where you can wash your hands after changing your shoes. It took me years to get used to this, but Russians do this automatically, and you will score big points with the lady of the house because she spent a lot of time and effort sterilizing the house before you arrived and will spend the same amount of time re-sterilizing things after you are gone.
This is not about you personally. You were outside, so your clothes were “dirty”. Yes, this means Russians routinely change clothes right after they change shoes and wash their hands when coming in from the street.
Expect to be fed when you visit. It may only be snacks, but you will be offered food, and tea (R: Chai), coffee, and or an adult beverage. Russians will sit around the table ENDLESSLY talking, eating, drinking, maybe even signing. Nobody of any class will have the TV on when they have guests unless it is the holiday season and the TV program is seasonal music. Forget watching sports as part of a social gathering unless it is just a bunch of guys hanging out. Even then conversation tops TV as a pastime.
A hostess gift is still customary when visiting. A bouquet of flowers, bottle of wine or vodka, or a “tort” are normal hostess gifts. Torts come in many flavors and styles, but most of the ones I have tasted are like a giant waffle cookie covered in dark chocolate. Some can be very elaborate. These torts travel pretty well in carry-on bags, and I usually bring several home to share out with my friends.
On the chance that you are invited to a restaurant by a local, it is not like America where you are in and out in an hour. Expect to sit and eat, drink, and talk for some time. Nobody will be in a rush to finish up.
With all of the propaganda in the western media, people are discouraged from traveling to Russia. This is a missed opportunity. The country is beautiful and the people are great. Take the chance and have a great time.
Apologies for the long post. I didn’t realize how much I had to say on the topic.
Please let me know if you enjoyed it.