Russia: it’s almost like a different country

Depending how lucky you get with your layover in Frankfurt, it’s a 14–17-hour trip from SFO to LED (the airport code for St. Petersburg is still based on the city’s Soviet name, Leningrad). So if I go on a bit much about my mid-April trip, maybe I’ve earned it. Anyway, a few things about Petersburg (as the natives call it) that you may not know:

It is customary, if not de rigeur, to take off your outside shoes when you visit someone’s house and switch to a pair of slippers, which any civilized host is expected to supply you. It is even customary when you go to someone’s house to change out of your outside shirt and pants and into, typically, a track suit. Something about the dirtiness of the air or slush outside? Maybe once upon a time. Petersburg certainly doesn’t seem particularly dirty today. In fact, it’s quite beautiful.

Front doors — for instance, from your apartment to the building’s hallway — are all doubled, as are windows. Of course, it’s an understandable accomodation to the butt-cold arctic winters in this largest northernmost city in Europe, and I suppose it works pretty well to conserve their irrepressible steam heat. But it means that, even on a nice spring day, every place you go is too freakin’ hot.

You don’t have to. I mean, maybe 10%, if you’re feeling generous, in a restaurant. Maybe. But it’s not expected. And in cabs or elsewhere, absolutely not. So though the city is very expensive — especially since W. drove our almighty dollar into the toilet (along with everything else) — that saves an assload of dough.

Unless you’re really into sausages and that kind of stuff, Russian food can be a little dull and even — when you get into all the blood-sausage stuff — a little gross. But that assumes you have to eat Russian food. It’s like England. Eat the immigrant/ethnic food, instead, and you’ll have a much better time. In England, of course, it’s Indian. In Russia, it’s stuff from Georgia, Uzbekistan and Armenia, all of which may be a little hard to distinguish, one from the next, because all of it is more or less what we think of as middle eastern(ish) — hummus, shishkebob, dolmas — and delicious.

You can get a better meal, later — much later — in St. Petersburg than in our own food-obsessed St. Francisburg. And you can get a drink all the way up till 6 am. And late restaurants and all-night bars — of all flavors and sizes — are pretty much everywhere. And even at 3 am, there’s plenty of peeps out on the street. And as long as you don’t pick a fight, it’s safe (in fact, it’s especially safe for women — my friend told me that rape is almost nonexistent in Petersburg because the men deeply respect the women. That is, until they marry them. Domestic violence is widespread).

Hold your hand down low to hail a “gypsy” cab, which is likely to just be a guy on his way home from work, rather than a pro. When he stops, you lean in and say, “I’ll give you X rubles to take me to the Hermitage,” and there’s a brief negotiation (everybody seems to know what the price is, approximately), and you jump in the front seat and you’re off. Almost nobody I saw held their hand up high to hail a regular taxi, which are typically twice as expensive. Likewise, there is a private network of minivans that shadows the city bus routes and offers the same destinations, for less. Petersburg also has a subway system. If not quite as opulent as Moscow’s, it’s still nice, with artwork and some chandeliers, not to mention it’s clean and safe and covers much of the city. In short, with its combo of private and public transit, this bustling city of 4.6 million moves its citizens around pretty damn efficiently.

Don’t drink it. Not even the locals do. Apparently, the pipes are so old in this 300-year-old town and were so neglected during the Soviet era, that you never quite know what’s gonna come out. Showers are OK– and I was also brushing my teeth with it (because have you ever tried to brush with bottled water?!?) — but nyet on the imbibing.

They’re a strange looking people.