despite anything you may have heard, russian food is actually pretty good. we’ve been eating lots of it recently, and though some of it hasnt been extremely exciting (due to dining at mostly cheap eateries), we’ve usually liked what we’ve gotten. the traditional way of eating here is to eat your food in several courses. usually there will be the first course of cold and hot appetizers which usually will have a *ton* of different things. then you get soup. then the main course. then desert. of course, we cant really afford to be ordering a ton of courses for every meal, so we usually havent been getting the full experience. still we’ve made sure to try some soups here and there, some various appetizers, etc.
two soups that we’ve gotten a bunch of times now are mushroom soup and borsch which is a red soup made out of beets. you add a ton of sour cream to them both before eating. i’v always like the mushroom soup, but while growing up i couldnt stand the beet soup. in fact, most of the kids in my family have never liked the stuff. surprisingly though, as i’ve grown up, i’ve really taken a liking to it. the soups that i’ve eaten here are fairly similar to the ones my mom fed me while growing up, but my mom’s soups seem to taste better than the ones i’ve had here. actually, for most of the food that i’ve had both at home and here, usualy the food here hasnt tasted as good as my mom’s.
for the appetizer portion of the meal, salads are really popular. but not salads like back home, these are usually a bunch of vegetables mashed together w/ a bunch of sour cream or mayo or something… more like a potato-salad type of thing. smoked salmon is really popular. there’s these things called pelmeny which are dumplings, kind of similar to raviolis. they can be eaten w/ horseradish or w/ sour cream and are really really good. another russian food that’s really popular here is bliny. these are really similar to crepes, and can be eaten in a million different ways whether stuffing them with meat or cottage cheese or putting jam on them.
one of the biggest problems i have w/ russian food is their obsession w/ dill. they *love* the stuff. they put it on almost everything from soups to fish to meat to pasta… everything!! and i really dont like dill. yet i find it on almost everything i eat. sometimes i’m lucky enough to be able to scrape it off, but often i have to just choke it down. ew! let’s see… what else… oh, people *love* ice cream here. from ice cream parlors, to cafes, to little vendors on the corners, to the markets… ice cream is sold everywhere. everywhere you look there are people scarfing down ice cream cones. heh, actually, this just might be the only thing they like more than dill!! one interesting thing i’ve noticed here is that people love sparkling water. it’s everywhere. sometimes you actually cant even find regular flat water cause it’s all carbonated. it’s funny, last time i came to russia, i *hated* the carbonated water, but i now i’m totally into it. alcohol here is really cheap. and you can drink outside which is nice. no such thing as last call here either! you can buy bottles of vodka for next to nothing and beer is priced quite nicely too!
fast food has gotten abig following here. there are kfcs, pizzahuts, and mcdonalds everywhere. actually, we went into mcdonalds this one day (purely for research purposes of course, not that we wanted any!), and as per mcdonalds policy.. everyone was smiling! it was sooo weird. afte being here in russia for a couple weeks and being used to customer service w/ a glare, i totally felt like i was in the twilight zone or something seeing everyone smiling so much and constantly saying thank you and please.
people here also really like to picnic. you see people in all of the parks chilling on the grass, eating sanwchiches etc, drinking beer. it’s really cool, and caryn and i had a few picnics ourselves. i think people back home should start doing this kind of thing more. we have so many parks too! one funny thing is that people here also use the parks to work on their tan. you see all sorts of people, all ages (and sizes!) laying in the grass with hardly any clothes on. back home, this would only really be acceptable on the beach… i really couldnt see this kind of thing happening in a city park!
the transportation situation in st petersburg is awesome. they have a great metro system that is really quick, efficient, and easy to navigate (only 5 different lines that cross each other just one time). on top of that, there are a ton of busese and trolleys. but even better are these things called route taxis. they are basically huge vans that drive along an established route. you hop on where ever you like, and then when you wanna get off, you just yell out and the driver stops. you dont need to be at a bus stop or anythig, they’ll stop anywhere. these are super convenient and frequent. all of this transport is super cheap! the metro or buses are like 30 cents a ride. route taxis are 50 cents. after being used to paying $3 for a ride on the tokyo metro, this was a nice change!! the other way to get around town is by taking a regular taxi… or an unofficial taxi. this is basically hitchhiking, but you pay for it. you just stand on the roade and stick your arm out. any old random car will pull over and you negotiate a price and get a ride.
the prices here in russia really surprise me. soetimes stuff is crazy cheap. other times it’s crazy expensive. it’s so hard to tell whether this is really a cheap country or not. hotels for instantce are really expensive compared to a lot of places we’ve been. the book lists most budget hotels at like 20 to 25$. but almost every place we’ve gone to has had their prices raised usually *double* by whats in the book!! if you buy groceries, food can be really cheap. also, small cafes are cheap too… but once you start going to real restaurants, prices take a huge leap upward. also, some prices here vary depending on if you are a foreigner or a local. museums, theaters, and other things can cost 10 or 20 times as much if you dont live here. for instance, we were buying tickets for the ballet. the price was 500 roubles for the really good seats(17$)… but then it turns out that the foreigner price was 2900 roubles!! almost a hundred bucks! quite a difference.
i’ve already mentioned a bit about the difficulties of queueing in russia. first off, usually when you go to place with a bunch of ticket windows, there’s often a mob around each window. it’s hard to tell where each line startes or ends. most people will walk up to the line and start asking everyone as to who the last person in line is. then apparently, you can stay in as many lines as you want. so, you get in a line. you tell the person in front of you that you are behind them. then you go to the next line, and tell that person that you are behind them as well. and so on, and so on. so, you can be simultaneously waiting in like 5 or 6 lines. this makes it nearly impossible to tell which line is the shortest since there might be any number of people in that line that just arent there at the moment. all of this i had no clue about until just yesterday.
russian girls love to dress up. i think it’s practically a law or something. any time of day, any place, every girl you see will be wearing high heels, fancy clothing, and makeup. basically, outfits and stuff that back home are reserved for a night out, here would be used for grocery shopping or lounging in the park. as far as i’ve seen there are *no* girls that wear tennis shoes. the funny thing is though, guys here aren’t held up to these same standards. in fact, they seem to wear whatever the hell they please. so often you’ll see a woman walking down the street, completely decked out in an evening gown, heels, earrings, makeup, the works… and next to her, her boyfriend is wearing dirty jeans and a flannel or t-shirt. so odd!
i’ve already mentioned the white nights a bunch of times, but i just cant get over how crazy it all is. it really is such a head trip. on one hand, i really like it, but on the flip side, i can see how it would slowly drive someone crazy. it’s *always* daytime. walk outside at noon and it’s daytime. walk outside at 5pm and it’s daytime. walk outside at 11:30pm… still daytime. this cant be healthy for you body. i’m constantly confused as to what time it could be. i’m tired when i shouldnt be and awake when i shouldnt be. so weird! i’m so glad i got to see this phenomenon though!!
this city was basically built on a swamp. because of that, there are insane amounts of mosquitos. and these guys are evil. i think they *enjoy* stinging people in the face, cause everynight all i can hear is them buzzing around my head. we put on mosquito spray, but that only keeps them away for an hour tops. then they’re back. they’re vicious i tell ya. i end up having to wake up at night every hour or two to reapply deet. i almost wonder if these bastards are attracted to bugspray. maybe if they smell it, they know a meal is near if they just wait long enough!
during the summer, st petersburg turns off the hot water. they do it section by section, but i think pretty much every part of the city will have its hot water turned off at one time or another for a few weeks to a month! most people in the city dont own hot water heaters (luckily, natasha does) so people have to take *freezing* cold showers for a whole month!
i’ve been hella practicing my russian while i’ve been here. it’s great! actually, i’ve worried a lot about my russian skills getting worse and worse over time. my accent isnt as good as it could be, but mainly, my speech just isnt fluid at all. i have trouble finding the words i need, et etc. i understand everything perfectly, but speaking it is a bit rough. well, luckily, i’ve been getting tons of practice these last few weeks, and my speech has been improving (i think). i’ve been speaking to natasha at home, and also with various waiters, taxi drivers, etc while out and about. language is a really weird thing. after being here for a bit, i almost start thinking in russian.. in fact, sometimes i do think in russian, and i often find myself counting change in russian instead of english. it’s still a struggle for me to say things that are really complex, and i’m a bit shy using my russian (especially on the typically angry/unfriendly customer service people), but for the most part i’m really glad to be trying out my skills. when i get home, i’m totally going to make it a point to speak russian more. i wonder how long i would have to stay here till i had no more issues with my speech? 2 months maybe?
reading on the other hand is another story. i can read perfectly… but SLOW! really really slow. so slow, that it would be basically pointles for me to read an actual book. i actually read a magazine on the train and was able to finish the whole thing, but it definitely took me a while. when caryn and i go out to restaurants, it takes me ages to read the menu to her and usually the waiter has stopped by our table like 3 times to try to take our order by the time i’ve gotten through it all. i am *so* lucky though to be able to read russian though. i really dont know how anyone would get around here without knowing how to read it. there are pretty much no signs in english here. very few russian menus. it also seems like very few people here speak english. i’ve talked to others who have said that they’ve really had a hard time finding things or understanding things here.
one thing that i find funny is that i have no idea what russian expressions are. so when i hear them, they always catch me offguard. one thing that always surprises me is that when you want to get the attention of a waitress or female cashier, you say “dyevushka” which basically means “girl”. could you imagine a waitresses reaction in america if you yelled out “hey girly”??
one thing that i find really interesresting is all these feelings of nostalgia that are brought out by being here. eating russian foods, seeing all the birch trees, speaking the language, etc etc. so many different things, both large and small, all ring a bell in my head and in my heart. it’s really an odd feeling since in so many ways, i’m *so* completely american. i’ve lived in the states for my whole life except for the first three years, my education is american, my friends are american, i surround myself w/ american culture etc etc. yet, there is still some part of me, some very large core part that is very russian. during your childhood, sure you get influenced by school and some friends, but really, most of your influence at that crucial age is from your parents. my parents had me read russian books, they told russian jokes, they fed me russian food, and in a lot of ways raised me with russian values. it’s strange.. in so many ways i look at all the people around me, all of my american friends who mean the world to me, and in a lot of ways i feel somehow fundamentally different from them. yet of course, i’m also very different than people who are completely russian too. and, something i find really funny and a bit bizarre is that my nostalgia… the russian things here that trigger feelings about my childhood etc.. that nostalgia is all for home… aka america! so weird. you would expect russian people who leave russia, to see russian things abroad and be reminded of russia.. instead here, i am *in russia*.. and seeing *russian* things, makes me think of my childhood in america. random!